California’s system of initiatives, referendums and recalls, which started nearly a century ago as a defiant act of progressivism under the mantra of “people power,” has performed pretty much as one would expect. It’s brought the system to its knees.
Fiscally, propositions have given the people control over as much as 80 percent of the state’s budget, which has made balancing budgets impossible. Legally, propositions have been a boon for the trial lawyers who write them and then fleece any corporation that runs afoul of their arcane, ever-changing provisions. And morally — well, morally, California is doing all right, having remarkably held back propositions to legalize gay marriage and marijuana, even if more voters voted for legal pot than voted for Meg Whitman, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor. Still, most conservatives in the state feel a pro-gay marriage proposition eventually will prevail, and advocates for legal pot say the loss in California was a victory, making the issue mainstream and opening the door for future activism here and in other states.
Last week, news came of two new initiative drives, one statewide and one in San Francisco, that could potentially overshadow all earlier propositions in their negative impacts on life in California. The first is a clever bit of wordsmithing that would force the state’s two nuclear power plants to shut down. The second would ban circumcision in San Francisco.
The anti-nuclear proposition was cleared Wednesday for signature gathering. It would put the state’s nuclear power generation plants under laws that now pertain only to would-be new plants, so they couldn’t operate unless there was a place to dispose of the high-level waste, a place to reprocess spent fuel rods, and capacity at those places — which there isn’t. California’s legislative analyst and director of finance estimate that the proposition, if it were to become law, would be a multibillion-dollar blow to the state’s economy. It also may be unconstitutional and would be certain to face legal challenges if it passed.
America’s lack of storage and reprocessing facilities for high-level nuclear waste is a serious security problem that needs to be addressed. But this proposition’s approach of just shutting down California’s nukes without regard to the economic consequences is not the way to address the problem. That, and the fact that the proposition qualified for the ballot despite obvious legal flaws, shows how badly California’s initiative system needs reform.
San Francisco’s anti-circumcision measure also highlights the need to reconsider California’s love affairs with ballot measures. If it is successful, the mob rule so feared by our founding fathers will have succeeded in stripping a religious minority of their right to participate in an important religious ceremony that has existed for 3,500 years, and San Francisco Jews and others desiring to circumcise their children will have to go elsewhere or face a $1,000 fine. Statistics provided by anti-circumcision advocates show that 70 percent of American males are circumcised — yet by collecting the signatures of a mere ten percent of registered San Francisco voters, they have managed to seize an opportunity to force their radicalism on everyone.
Because propositions and referendums pass or fail based on emotional, not factual, campaigns, expect the anti-snipping faction to shout loudly about the need to stop “genital mutilation,” leaving voters to think that little girls in their liberal city are having their clitorises cut out. And, of course, the media will just eat up male circumcision “victims” who are willing to go on the air to claim, as some have, that the little snip “is responsible for, among other things, the oppression of women, sexual disharmony, deforestation, militarization, the rise and fall of empires and the invasion of foreign land for oil.” Opponents of the measure are left to counter that with boring facts.
Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.