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Dangers of the Ballot Initiative

Written By : Warner Todd Huston
May 11, 2012

At first blush, the idea of having ballot initiatives on election day seems like such a great, democratic idea. Unfortunately, all too often, all they are is a way to enlarge government, chip away at freedom, and cost the taxpayers money without returning the benefits promised. California is the perfect example of these troubles.

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The problem, of course, is not that it’s too much democracy, but that few of these ballot measures are true grassroots uprisings meant to make the lives of Californians better. Instead they are moneyed special interests using their deep pockets to buy the petition process in order to get their own narrow needs favored in Sacramento.

Even as far back as 2004, the L.A. Times had soured on ballot measures. In an editorial scoffing at the whole system, the Times ended saying, “Ballot-box legislating — often swayed by false or misleading advertising — is no way to run a state of 36 million people and such diverse needs.”

That same year in San Jose, for instance, a ballot measure appear that was supposed to go to funding of libraries. The measure was supposed to raise the budget for libraries to $48 million per year but despite that good natured taxpayers approved the budget measure the city ended up cutting the library expenditures down to $32 million annually. This is a typical case where tax hikes approved by voters never ended up going where voters thought they were going to go. This year, new ballot measures meant to correct the library budget deficiency are being proposed but these measures are likely to make matters worse.

In another case, Richmond, California is sponsoring tax measures on the ballot that according to Tim Bittle, an attorney with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, may even be illegal.

All too often these ballot measures foisted on voters are boondoggles. From property tax hikes, surcharges on one thing or another, high-speed rail or stem-cell research, the tax-and-spend lobby is often unscrupulous in what they put in front of the California voter. One such boondoggle that will appear on the ballots is Proposition 29, the California Cancer Research Act, a measure that continues this sorry tradition of fleecing taxpayers for even more wasteful spending.

A new study by former California Director of Finance Michael Genest found that Proposition 29 continues the destructive practice of California government creating a slew of unaccountable bureaucracies that usurp taxpayer dollars while growing more unaccountable to voters. Genest evaluated Proposition 29 in light of past California bureaucracies created at the ballot box–such as high-speed rail, the stem-cell research institute and First 5 — and found striking similarities in the lack of oversight, accountability and conflict of interest rules.

An additional paper by Peter Schaasfma, the former Assistant State Treasurer of California, notes that the lack of oversight of the new agency “is likely to generate significant controversy over expenditures of taxpayer monies.”

Like the boondoggles of years past, Proposition 29 is a bad choice for California taxpayers struggling in the current recession. Voters need to send a clear message this June and defeat this ill-advised spending measure.

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