By Associate Clinical Professor Jessica Levinson
Suit up. It is almost time for another election in California. We all know what that means: more ballot initiatives. (Insert sighs, grumbles and other sounds of disappointment here).
In June we will be asked to vote on a proposed cigarette tax. Opponents of the measure -- big tobacco companies, including Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco -- have raised almost $15 million to defeat the measure. But if you're looking for ads from them, it will be much easier for you to look for the committee they have funded, Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending. (Note to California legislators, time to improve disclosure and transparency for ballot measure spending).
Proponents of the measure have raised almost $3.2 million. The committee receiving those funds is called Californians for a Cure.
These costly electoral campaigns hardly capture the public's imagination. If anything, they perpetuate the feeling that our government doesn't function well and instead every election we must endure endless battles over the fate of ballot initiatives. For the many who may not differentiate between legislatively-initiated ballot measures and citizen-initiated ballot measures, it just feels like another expensive political campaign.
Here is an idea that will never happen. Let's treat these ballot initiative campaigns like lawsuits. Instead of duking it out and either failing to pass an initiative only to bring it back in the next election, or passing an initiative which will end up being litigated well past the next election, let's try settling. In the case of the cigarette tax, both sides would donate the amount they are prepared to spend supporting or opposing the initiative to the end goal of the initiative. Of course this won't always work (or let's be honest, mostly it won't even be feasible). But in this particular case, this would mean $18 million for cancer research 3 months before the election. There is no doubt that number will rise.
The real solution is a simpler one, but also unlikely to succeed: We should severely limit the initiative process. It is difficult to say that with the importance of cancer research, but in a representative democracy this law should be passed through the legislative process (Why? A third of ballot props are so badly written that they end up in litigation, some initiatives fund particular groups instead of a wide array of industry interests and initiatives further retrain our legislators from easily balancing the budget.) If our representatives are not up to the task, we should toss them out, not try to do their jobs for them, and in the process make their jobs increasingly difficult.
Jessica A. Levinson is a visiting associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School. She studies governance issues, including campaign finance, ethics, ballot initiatives, redistricting, term limits, and state budgets.
[This post also appeared on kcet.org.]