SACRAMENTO – A dozen years ago, I put my wife and kids on a flight from Dayton, Ohio, to John Wayne Airport and then headed out on the road West, driving with my cranky old cat and big furry dog. I’ll never forget that drive, which mirrored the old Route 66, as the great American prairie gave way to the desert Southwest. I fell in love with California about two miles into the state, somewhere around Needles, even though the temperature outside my car hovered around 120 degrees.
In the ensuing years, I’ve see-sawed between love and frustration. I find myself captivated by every corner of this state – from the Imperial Valley to the redwood coast. The frustration comes from my up-close-and-personal coverage of the state’s politics. As a cynic who always keeps H.L. Mencken quotations handy, I expect little of a political process he described as a scam “to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins.”
I don’t expect politics to fix anything, but I would like the state’s politicians to quit making things worse. Yet our legislators’ endless sea of regulations, taxation and control is snuffing out those things that have made California such a magnet for people from all over. There’s more to life than oceans and mountains. The California Dream has always been about freedom and opportunity, the chance for individuals to break the bonds of the old world and create something new. There’s a reason California has been such a home to entrepreneurs and creative misfits.
These days, folks with new ideas are likely to launch them in Nevada or Arizona, even if they spend lots of time at the Capistrano Beach vacation house. Our state has become inhospitable to risk-taking and hostile to freedom. We have become the supreme Nanny State, a place where legislators spend their time thinking up new rules to limit our choices and new ways to take more of our money, even though Californians already are among the most highly taxed Americans.
What does this have to do with Tuesday, Election Day?
Such a day is when people in democratic societies “send messages” to their leaders, or “throw the bums out” or put “reformers” into power. In California, our voters have an unusual amount of power to change the state constitution by voting for various initiatives. Most people I know believe that our state’s political process has veered far off-course. But the primary election is here, and I see little hope for major change. Indeed, the choices in candidates and initiatives seem even less appealing than in previous years, even as the state faces some of its darkest economic times.
Californians threw out the craven technocrat Gray Davis in a historic 2003 recall election and replaced him with a Hollywood outsider who promised to blow up the boxes of government. He is now packing up his boxes after having accomplished virtually nothing. The Democrats are about to elect as their gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, the man arguably most responsible for California’s descent into public-sector union control and traffic congestion through his legalization of government unions as governor in the 1970s and his “small is beautiful” campaign to stop growth. But the Republicans are about to elect a passionless billionaire who has avoided the tough issues and who has no longstanding commitment to policy or even voting. The GOP alternative isn’t any better.
Rather than epitomizing the spirit of 1978’s historic property-tax-limiting Proposition 13, this election’s slate of initiatives mostly epitomizes the way special interests have abused the process. (The exception is this year’s Proposition 13, an unobjectionable tweak that allows property owners to seismically retrofit their buildings without having to have their property taxes reassessed upward.)
The worst initiative is Prop. 14, the “top-two” primary measure. If passed, the Secretary of State’s Office explains, “All voters would receive the same primary election ballot for most state and federal offices. Only the two candidates with the most votes – regardless of political party identification – would advance to the general election ballot.”
This is one of those “gimmick” reforms designed to ensure a specific election outcome. Moderates in the state’s business community don’t like the extremes of left and right that dominate the Legislature. As they argue, the Democratic primary is dominated by liberals, and the Republican primary is dominated by conservatives. Then the winners face off in the general election (along with the representatives of the minor parties) and it almost guarantees a nonmoderate winner.
Critics point to Washington state and Louisiana, which have tried this specific type of open primary system. Neither state has seen a reduction in partisanship. So it might not even work as planned. But even if it does create more moderates – more people like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado – how would that help the state? These types of politicians have been the ones least likely to stand up for principle. Most disturbing, the top-two system would destroy third parties in California, which would no longer be likely to field candidates in the general election. This could reduce debate just as the state needs a livelier political discussion.
Prop. 15 is the gimmick du jour of lefties – a repeal on the ban on public financing of elections. The initiative would provide a test case for the secretary of state election, but the goal is to broaden taxpayer-funded elections, something that would not only harm taxpayers but would make it nearly impossible for outsiders to successfully challenge the establishment choices.
Prop. 16 “Requires two-thirds voter approval before local governments provide electricity service to new customers.” It is sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Rocklin, has it right: “This measure gives you the choice upon whose mercy your future electricity bills will depend: the monopoly of city hall or the monopoly of your utility.”
Prop. 17 is bankrolled by Mercury Insurance and would allow car insurers more flexibility in offering a particular kind of discount – a no-brainer, but one that falls far short of opening up the state’s government-controlled insurance system to real, free-market competition.
Love ’em or hate ’em, these initiatives are mostly self-interested deals. They don’t offer major reform – and none of them get close to touching the fundamental issues that threaten California today. And none of the candidates offers real hope for taking on the vested interests and changing our state.
Despite the budget mess, it’s business as usual in Sacramento. And it’s also business as usual at the voting booth. Most Californians I know love this state as much as I do. They can’t imagine living anywhere else. But at some point enough us are going to have to pick up our pitchforks and change the politics here, or more people will build their future elsewhere.
Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s www.calwatchdog.com journalism center.