Is California dysfunctional?

Ballot outcomes in the state are often manipulated by special interests.

The New York Times of Sunday, October 11, reported on a speech by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Ronald M. George, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The thrust of his speech was that the referendum process in California has created anarchy and “rendered our state government dysfunctional.” The legislature cannot amend or repeal specific laws without voter approval, rendering both legislature and the executive impotent. State officials may not raise taxes without a two-thirds approval of the electorate. This “places California lawmakers and the state itself in a fiscal straight jacket,” said the Justice.

Justice George indicated that constitutional and legislative action in California is not the end point of “fact-gathering and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures.” He emphasized that ballot outcomes are often manipulated by special interests.

Over the past few years it has become evident that states with voter initiatives incorporated in their constitutions are vulnerable to the effects of lobbying by activist groups. Nowhere is this more evident than the initiatives promoted by HSUS and its surrogates. Following on the wide margin of victory for California Proposition 2, Michigan legislators recently caved in to the threat of a voter ballot on livestock housing and effectively ceded the issue. Perhaps they will look back on their actions in ten years should HSUS further curtail production and even introduce a  ballot banning the raising and slaughter of poultry, cattle and hogs and ultimately the consumption of livestock. After all, slaughter of horses in the U.S. has been effectively banned with consequences which have worsened, not improved welfare for this species.

As a jurist on the Supreme Court bench since 1991 Justice George has considerable experience in resolving legal challenges and issues arising from voter initiatives. He commented on the “displeasure of the voting public when, in the course of performing our constitutional duties as judges, we are compelled to invalidate such a measure.”

Various remedies have been advanced for the undesirable situation in California but this would require significant reform of the State constitution. Recognizing the severe financial constraints which are evidenced by deadlock in the legislature and inability of even a pragmatic and charismatic governor to change the situation, a conference will be convened in Sacramento to consider appropriate changes.

The ironies which can emerge from the current voter initiative system are exemplified in the comment by Justice George that “chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them.”