Commentary by Rusty Pipe: Wealthy Folks Hijacking the Initiative Process for Pet Projects

California’s initiative process is casually used by rich people who like to dabble in politics.  Often the issues they bring forward are worthy and important.  Funding ballot measures so the voters have an opportunity to move an issue or policy forward is a good thing.

But, are the programs/policies/taxes effective?  A good idea does not easily turn into good public policy.  We should always ask if this is the correct way to implement a specific policy?  Is this a good way to fund a program?  

How many people have traveled on our high-speed rail system?  Did that bond proposition for water/streets/housing produce as promised?  Is anyone tracking the results?  Many of the propositions include oversight plans, but maybe we need oversight on the oversight?  

One great example is stem cell research.  California voters passed two propositions supporting the research, but some scientists think that maybe we didn’t need the second proposition in 2020 (Proposition 14) because the situation surrounding stem cell research had changed significantly since the first one (Proposition 71) was passed in 2004. wrote about the propositions in 2020.  “’Unfortunately, Proposition 14 sets a bad example for the use of public money for the advancement of science,’ says Zach Hall, a neurobiologist who led CIRM as its first president between 2005 and 2007. ‘As scientists, everybody always welcomes additional funding,’ says Arlene Chiu, former director of scientific activities at CIRM. “But as a Californian, one wonders if there are better ways to do this.”

The question is not about funding stem cell research.  We should be looking at the details laid out in the text of the proposition and then ask if this is what California needs?  This was a concern among voters who narrowly passed Proposition 14 by 51% of the vote.

This November, California voters will have an opportunity to fund art programs in schools via Proposition 28.  That sounds good, but is it a high priority for our public schools?  Are the details being scrutinized?  Are there other programs that should be prioritized?  Maybe we first need more librarians?  More nurses?  

Currently, there is no opposition to Proposition 28 so no one is asking questions.  Or providing answers.  Mostly, a rich Wall Street guy had an idea and enough money to put the proposition before the voters.  Without opposition, it is likely to pass.  

When the voters are filling out their ballots, very few think about the fact that the only way to change an initiative once it’s passed is by putting another initiative on the ballot and having the voters approve it.  The legislature may not change something that was enacted through the initiative process; only the voters may make changes.

Maybe the wealthy political dabblers should take some time, and money, to review what has been enacted by the voters over the last 50 years.  A comprehensive list and recommended changes could be presented to the state legislature so they can place new propositions on the ballot to enact those changes.  If the legislature places them on the ballot, that would avoid the costly expense of signature collection.  But that sounds like a lot of work for dabblers. 

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