The Proposition Must Be Abolished

The proposition (aka “ballot initiative”) is a horrible way to make law. California has been afflicted with it since the early 20th century, when it was introduced with the Progressive Movement. Since then, the state has become a fractured, unworkable, special-interest-driven disaster. If enough signatures are gathered – and millions of dollars raised to spread propaganda – a proposition is placed on the ballot where it is approved or rejected by voters.

Propositions strike at the heart of what a republic is: smart government. After all, California is modeled after the federal system: It has three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – and a bicameral legislature, made up of the lower-house Assembly and the upper-house Senate. Under this system, the idea is balance of power. The people elect lawmakers to the legislature who in turn make laws. Those laws are then approved, rejected (vetoed), or enforced by the Executive and checked by the Judiciary to determine if the laws are constitutional. Lawmakers are [supposed to be] intelligent and educated individuals who reason with each other and make compromises; through this, we get wise government. If we the people are unhappy with their performance, we can either elect someone else during the next election or recall (impeach on the national level) them. The proposition completely bypasses this checks-and-balances system.

There have been many terrible propositions in California over the century. Some of the worst are Propositions 8, 13 and 140.

Proposition 8, passed by voters in November 2008, banned same-sex marriage. Earlier that year, the California Supreme Court struck down the previous ban on same-sex marriage – Proposition 22 (2000) – and said that homosexual couples had the legal right to wed. Opponents of the decision claimed that the court’s decision would lead to societal breakdown and with nearly $40 million and backing from the Mormon Church and conservative groups, Prop 8 was added to the constitution. This is a classic example of what Thomas Jefferson called “Tyranny of the majority,” where the majority (voters) took away the rights of a minority (same-sex couples). Whether one approves of same-sex relationships or not is not the point; a minority had its rights denied simply because the majority said so.

Proposition 13, passed by voters in 1978, put a limit on the amount of property taxes levied on property owners. At first glance, it sounds like an excellent idea; limit the government’s ability to increase taxes on property. However, after Prop 13, local governments – whose main source of revenue had been property taxes – had to find other ways to generate revenue once money was severely reduced. Thanks to Prop 13, the state is now responsible for supporting local budgets and schools while local governments are left scavenging for funding from sales taxes and fees. Voters were angry at the government for raising taxes and rather than research where their communities get funding, they passed a proposition that essentially crippled them.

Proposition 140, passed by voters in 1990, put term limits on politicians into place. It sounds good in theory: limit assemblypersons to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms. Arguments for Prop 140 included claims that it would eliminate professional politicians, make the legislature more diverse and break special interest networks. Now, we have bitter, partisan lawmakers who don’t work together to make law in a reasoned manner. These days, legislators are too busy trying to bring their own agenda to Sacramento or running their campaigns for their next term or next position. Prior to 1990, it took a couple terms for an assemblyperson or senator to truly understand and grasp their office and its responsibilities. Now, by the time they know what they’re actually doing, they are term-limited out of office. California is complex and experience and reason are desperately needed.

There are many more examples because the proposition itself is a flawed way to make laws. Instead of relying on intelligent lawmakers to design policy, anyone who’s registered to vote can simply make their own laws if they don’t agree with what the government is doing. With this, minority rights are threatened, local governments are crippled and politicians are more partisan than ever. This is why direct democracy is a horrible idea. The proposition must be abolished.


One thought on “The Proposition Must Be Abolished

  1. Re: Prop 13 — In some ways it is worse than you suggest. Prop 13 placed a ceiling — and, worse, a highly uneven one — on the reliance on what is arguably the fairest, most logical, most efficient, most just form of taxation yet devised, the tax on the value of land. I agree that buildings ought not to be taxed, but Prop 13 is a clumsy way to achieve that.

    Land rises in value for reasons which have nothing to do with the activity or inactivity of the owner of the land, and everything to do with the activity and investment of the community. So why do we permit landholders to pocket the value the community creates, particularly if it forces us into taxing wages and sales and buildings which are all the result of productive activity on the part of individuals??

    Were we to tax land value more heavily, we would need to collect less in total taxes in order to net the amount of revenue required: a tax on land value is not passed along to anyone else, snowballing as do taxes which can be passed along.

    Were we to tax land value more heavily, we would have a more stable housing market, without the booms and busts which have proven so ruinous and cruel.

    Were we to tax land value more heavily, we would have denser downtowns, without surface parking lots and with more public transportation. We’d have less sprawl, shorter commutes, less pollution, less dependence on cars and oil.

    Were we to tax land value more heavily, housing would be more affordable for all of us; those who preferred to live closer to their work would be able to afford to do so. (Those who wanted the house in the ‘burbs with the acre and the white picket fence could still have it, but many would not choose it if they had viable alternatives.) People of all ages and stages and at all points on the income spectrum could afford housing suitable to their needs without spending 30%, 40%, 50% of their wages on it AND paying taxes on top of that, because their payment of a tax on land value would replace their other taxes, and those who rented homes would not owe taxes directly; the portion of their rent attributable to location would be passed through by their landlord as payment of his LVT.

    This is a very different way of viewing taxation, and takes some getting used to. But I think that if you reflect on it, and test it against what we do now, or other alternatives, you’ll start to see its value. Google wealthandwant or lvtfan for more on this idea.

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