There was a time, at least 40 years ago, when the governor and the Legislature made public policy for California.
Today, however, the Capitol lags behind – way behind – two other arenas of political combat, and if anything is continuing to decline in importance.
As the state’s politics became more polarized in the 1970s, the initiative process – bypassing the Legislature and taking issues directly to voters – reawakened after decades of slumber.
Beginning in 1978 with Proposition 13, California’s iconic property tax limit, the initiative evolved into a primary policymaking method – and a high-dollar industry.
Originally created as a way for ordinary people to counter special-interest influence on politicians, the initiative became a tool for those interests, as well as politicians themselves.
This year is no exception. More than 100 initiatives were initially filed, reflecting not only conflicts over specific issues, but the fact that a record-low voter turnout in 2014 lowered the signature threshold – and therefore the cost of gathering signatures to qualify 2016 measures.
More than 20 are likely to appear on November’s ballot, with crime, marijuana, minimum wages and taxes as major issues.
Meanwhile, however, another political forum has emerged, driving the Capitol even lower in importance – the courtroom.
The number of high-profile lawsuits now pending in various courts is startling, and other big issues appear destined for the legal arena, such as implementation of the state’s school finance overhaul and the twin tunnels water project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In no particular order, state or federal judges are poised to decide:
▪ Whether the bullet train project, approved by voters via a bond issue in 2008, is violating the terms of that measure and therefore cannot use bonds for financing.
▪ Whether the state’s multibillion-dollar fees on carbon emissions are really taxes requiring legislative approval.
▪ Whether the state’s teacher tenure system violates the civil rights of poor and nonwhite students by saddling them with less experienced teachers.
▪ Whether teachers, and other public employees, can be required to pay dues to unions if they disagree with how the money is spent on politics.
▪ Whether communications between Gov. Jerry Brown and the Public Utilities Commission about a controversial nuclear power plant closure case must be released.
▪ Whether the state prison system is still violating inmate rights by forcing them into overcrowded conditions and neglecting their physical and mental health.
▪ Whether Brown is illegally folding his criminal sentencing measure into another pending proposal, thereby bypassing public comment on its ballot title.
This is the latest flap that puts judges in position to make major policy, and if Brown wins, it creates a template for others to further manipulate the initiative process and represents the perfect conjoining of the initiative and judicial arenas.