Can California Voters Make Responsible Policy?

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This November, Californians - in addition to electing or re-electing local, states, and federal office-holders - will be deciding the fate of at least seventeen statewide ballot measures (and countless local/regional ones). These measures address some major policy issues, such as the fate of California's death penalty, adult recreational marijuana use, and pharmaceutical price controls. With so many complex and consequential issues on the ballot, the question lingering overhead is whether Californians are prepared to make such important decisions.

Next week, the Hoover Institution will release its July-August 2016 issue of Eureka. This issue explores responsibility at the polls: 1) are Propositions 51 and 53 fiscally responsible, 2) is Proposition 55 responsible budgeting, 3) is Proposition 57 a responsible step toward criminal justice reform, and 4) are Californians capable of being responsible policymakers in the polling booth?

Proposition 51 & 53: Fiscal Responsibility?: In the June 2016 primary, Californians approved 81% of the local tax and bond measures that appeared on the ballot. And this is even more impressive given that many of these measures had 55% or 2/3rd majority requirements to pass. It would appear that a) Californians are unaware of the fiscal implications of continued increasing of taxation and incurring more long-term debt or b) if they are aware, are unfazed by the long-term fiscal consequences of their actions. Proposition 51 and 53, as argued by State Senator John Moorlach in this issue of Eureka, present an opportunity for Californians to reassert fiscal restraint.

Proposition 55: Responsible Budgeting?: In the November 2012 general election, Californians approved Proposition 30, which temporarily increased personal income taxes on those making more than $250,000 and the state general sales tax. With those taxes set to expire, Proposition 55 would extend the personal income tax increases - in a sense, making a temporary tax not so temporary. While there are many arguments against (and for) Proposition 55, one hits at the core of Sacramento's budgeting process. Given that the state's general fund is already extremely reliant on personal income tax revenue and that these revenues are extremely sensitive to economic ups-and-downs - thanks to the income tax's reliance on wealthy Californians - Proposition 55 doubles-down on California's boom-and-bust budgeting.

Proposition 57: Responsible Criminal Justice Reform?: A sweeping parole reform, championed by Governor Brown, Proposition 57 would empower the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to grant non-violent felons early parole after serving the base sentencing term of one of their offenses. There are two serious issues with the way Proposition 57 is worded, however. There doesn't appear to be any type of oversight over the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's decisions, rendering them both judge and jury. And non-violent isn't defined in the measure, leaving it up to the Department's discretion. While criminal justice needs re-evaluated to ensure our systems are effective and efficient in both deterring crime and also rehabilitating convicted offenders, this reform may yield more problems than it solves.

Can California Voters Make Responsible Policy?: The measures Californians are being asked to decide are complicated and serious policy questions - issues experts take lifetimes to understand. The consequences, both intended and unintended, can be huge. Couple this with the increasing volume of the measures, ballots are becoming quite overwhelming. Then you also add in the fact that voter turnout is declining and electorates are largely uninformed on non-presidential candidates and issues. All of this wouldn't be an issue for California's initiative system if reforming or repealing a policy passed via the ballot was easy. But the system was specifically designed to be inflexible. This raises an important question, should Californians continue to be vested with such enormous public policy decisions? Eliminating the initiative probably isn't the best route - there are important issues that could only be passed by circumventing the Legislature. Also unwise would be allowing the Legislative to easily tamper with passed measures. An option worth exploring, though, is the re-establishment of the indirect initiative, which would alleviate some of the system's inflexibility, while also keeping with direct democracy's intent.

At the end of the day, though, California needs to figure out a way to ensure Californians are confident and capable of knowledgeably weighing judgement on ballot propositions.

For a more in-depth look at these topics, keep your eye out for the July-August 2016 issue of Eureka at to be released on Tuesday, August 30.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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