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Jon Fleischman

Happy Birthday To The Americas, And To California’s Initiative Process!

619 years ago today, the three Spanish ships — the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — weighed anchor off the of coast of what would eventually be called the Bahamas and Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and his expedition became the first westerners to discover the Americas — the new world.  This day is celebrated through all of the Americas with a holidays.  Well, with a few exceptions.  In South Dakota it is Native American Day.  In Hawaii, they use this day to celebrate their discovery by Polynesian explorers.  And, of course, in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, today is indigenous people’s day.

100 years ago today, Californians changed their State Constitution to include several reforms, including the ability for the people to exercise direct democracy in the form of ballot initiatives and the referendum (the ability to take any new law and take it to a vote of the people).  A century ago, these reforms were enacted in response to the domination of state government by a small group of wealthy business interests (most notably the railroad tycoons).

Today, the initiative and referendum continue to be a tool available to fight off a small group of wealthy interests who control the state capitol — only now that group is the state’s pubic employee unions.  These unions are, by far, the most prolific funders of campaigns for state office, and are voracious when it comes to electing politicians — uniformly liberals — who are willing to embrace their core mission — expanding the pay and benefits for their members, and adding new members.  As an ancillary effect of these unions electing left-wingers who will do their bidding in these key areas, these Democrat lawmakers have literally turned the S.S. California hard to port, to the point where we are sailing in a leftward spiral.

Now, of course, liberals like former State Senate President John Burton, now the Chairman of the California Democrat Party, have publicly decried the initiative process since it no longer serves their agenda.  In fact, the initiative process serves as a reminder that while the liberal elite control public policy in Sacrament, California voters are somewhere between the political center and center-right when it comes their comfort zone.

Speaking from personal experience, in 1998 I had the honor of being hired by entrepreneur Ron Unz as Campaign Coordinator for his English for the Children ballot initiative campaign.  This measure, which banned the use of bilingual education in public schools and instead required the use of English immersion (teaching children English, in English – go figure) was of course opposed by the state’s largest public employee union — the California Teachers Association — because of the negative impact it would have on one of their subgroups, the association of bilingual teachers.  Nevertheless under Unz’s expert guidance, the measure passed 61% to 39%.  My favorite recollection of that campaign was how all of the volunteers in our garment-district-located headquarters were Spanish speaking parents who simply wanted their children to become fluent in English, and live the American dream.

Today the initiative process is under active assault.  This year alone the legislation passed a handful of bills designed to make it harder than ever to qualify initiatives for the ballot.  Thankfully the quixotic Jerry Brown vetoed most of them.  That said, Brown last weekend did sign the worst of the bunch — a political motivated measures, SB 202, that bans initiatives from appearing on June ballots going forward.  Despite any rhetoric otherwise, this measure conceived in the final days of the legislative session and passed to the Governor in the dead of night was written by public employee bosses, and will serve their agenda as their are unhappy with the electorate that typically shows up in June elections.

Today group of us will gather at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sacramento (from where I am writing this) to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Initiative Process (and some of us will be toasting the anniversary of the discovery of the Americas).  If you are in the Sacramento Area, come on down and participate in this free day-long event.  The details are here.

In the meantime, when you consider that the Governor just signed legislation to allow people to register to vote online, one has to wonder how long it will be before you can sign an initiative petition online.  When you think about that for a little while, you realize that not only are initiatives and the referring of laws to the people here to stay — we may see a whole lot more of it.  A sign of a state government that is clearly out of the mainstream of public opinion in the Golden State.