Californian Direct Democracy Strikes Again

by Josh Barro

California didn’t legalize marijuana (yet), but the state’s voters behaved true to form in their handling of two other ballot measures yesterday. Which is to say, they passed Proposition 26, which will make it more difficult to raise taxes, and Proposition 22, which obligates the state legislature to spend more money on certain things.

California’s permanent budget crisis is legendary: while most states are entering their third tough budget cycle, California hasn’t had a truly balanced budget in a decade. Much of the blame for this lies with the state legislators who write the budget, but I save my greatest disdain for the voters: both because they elect those chuckleheads in the legislature, and because they love to pass ballot measures that make it harder to balance the state’s budget. Last night just continues a thirty-plus year trend of ballot-box votes against taxes and for spending.

Overall, I have mixed views on direct democracy. It has served some states well, such as my home state of Massachusetts. Bay State voters have used the initiative process to impose a well-designed property tax cap, cut the income tax, and end rent control, among other worthy proposals.

But they have also generally resisted the temptation to mandate higher state spending, or to pass the less-responsible tax questions before them, such as a 2002 initiative to repeal the income tax or yesterday’s proposal to cut the sales tax in half. Overall, Massachusetts voters have been good stewards of the state’s public policy and an effective brake on a heavily Democratic legislature.

The problem is not that direct democracy can’t work but that California’s electorate is apparently too stupid to make its own laws. Unfortunately, it is also too stupid to elect a competent legislature. I can see only one solution to this dilemma: put California’s lawmaking in trusteeship, by maintaining ballot initiative but holding California’s elections across the country, in Massachusetts.