Author Mark Paul on what’s wrong with our state’s initiative process
Californians pass initiatives that prevent lawmakers from doing their jobs. Their inability to do much in turn frustrates residents, who then pass more laws that, in turn, frustrate and impede lawmakers. This, says author Mark Paul, is what’s wrong with California. He calls it “the cycle of contempt.” Paul served as deputy treasurer of California and is a former editorial writer and editor for the Sacramento Bee. He co-authored the book “California Crack Up: How reform broke the Golden State and how we can fix it,” and will give a talk in Santa Cruz on Thursday, Nov. 15 titled “Breaking the Cycle of Contempt: How to Fix the Initiative.” GT caught up with Paul the day after the election.
What do you consider the election victories or letdowns in terms of “fixing” California?
Certainly the passage of Proposition 30 is going to help stabilize the budget, at least temporarily. That will provide more revenue for California and will close some of the structural deficits the state has had for nearly a decade. That will prevent another round of really deep cuts, although it will leave in place most of the cuts that were enacted throughout the Great Recession. It’s stopping the bleeding.
Had Proposition 31 passed, could it have begun repairing the broken budgeting system, or would it have made things worse?
I think it was would have made things worse. It’s the kind of incremental reform that we’ve done frequently in California that has had all sorts of unintended consequences. California’s constitution is already upwards of 70,000 words long, which is as long as a 200-page book. Prop. 31 would have added 8,000 more words—more than the entire U.S. Constitution and all of its amendments.
If incremental reform isn’t the way to go, is overall reform possible?
I’m not optimistic that we’ll see, in the short term, the kind of overhaul of the entire system that we need to make in order to avoid getting into the problems we’ve gotten into. Although we now have an opportunity, [because] the Democrats have taken a two-thirds majority of the assembly and senate and it gives them the ability to pass most anything they want. … But the broader opportunity they have is to create a constitutional revision commission, or to ask the voters to call a constitutional convention so we could get to a fundamental reform. We have an opportunity to have a real policy conversation about what a better system would look like.
What is the “cycle of contempt?”
When voters say they don’t approve of the legislature, part of what they are seeing is the consequence of what California’s initiative system has done. Voters have gone through a cycle of contempt where voters have passed laws that don’t allow legislators to do their jobs. Then they complain that the legislature isn’t doing things, so they put even more restrictions on them. It’s reduced the role of legislators to janitors who we elect to sweep up the messes that we, the voters, make.
Would you suggest getting rid of the initiative process altogether?
What needs to be done with the initiative process is thinking about changing the process to make it … more deliberative and more flexible, [and to] give voters more tools to engage and have finer grain choices rather than reducing everything to these big fights. [The initiative] was a tool for fighting, originally, and we’ve integrated it with our politics. Prop. 32 being the best example—a war for power fought through politics in California.
Mark Paul will give the talk “Breaking the Cycle of Contempt: How to Fix the Initiative” at Hoffman’s Bistro & Patisserie, 1102 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15. Reservations are required; for details visit lwvscc.org. Find Mark Paul online at californiacrackup.com.