Armed with a clipboard and a smile, they stand on the sidewalk in front of popular stores and public buildings. “Want to support schools?” or “Do you want to end poverty?” they call out to passersby. Those who respond positively are asked to sign a petition to place a measure to accomplish the stated goal on the ballot.
These are signature gathers, usually paid by the interests advancing the initiative they tout. They are not obligated to fully explain who would actually benefit from the passage of measure which, more times than not, is the sponsor of the initiative. And they do not have to volunteer if the initiative would raise taxes. In fact, for tax increase measures, saying that the proposal would hike taxes is likely the last thing they would admit.
However, even if signature gatherers are, at times, misleading, this does not justify further weakening the People’s right to initiative, referendum and recall, as some suggest. As with all matters relating to government, it remains the voter’s responsibility be informed and to ask questions — and questions should be asked before signing a petition in support of a measure that could result in a major change in state law.
The tools of direct democracy are worth preserving. They vest the citizenry with the power to be the legislature of last resort when sitting lawmakers prove to be indolent, incompetent or corrupt and unable to properly carry out the most important business of the public. One has only to look back to 1978. When the Legislature and then Governor Brown refused to act, voters placed on the ballot and approved Proposition 13, an answer to escalating property taxes that were literally forcing many from their homes.
Support for the legislative referendum in our country goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for its inclusion in the Virginia state constitution. Its implementation in California is credited to Governor Hiram Johnson.
Johnson was elected in 1910 on an anti-Southern Pacific Railroad platform at a time when most members of the Legislature where bought and paid for by the railroad. (An ironic historical footnote: Shortly after taking office Johnson paroled notorious Southern Pacific train robber, Chris Evans.)
In a 1911 special election, California voters approved the initiative process which allowed regular folks to be involved in making laws and broke the stranglehold of the railroad had on the Legislature. The politicians, none of whom like to share power, have been disgruntled ever since. Of course, the fact that politicians don’t like the people’s initiative, referendum and recall rights, that are embedded in the state constitution, may be one of the best arguments that these rights must be retained.
However, the key to a vibrant and effective initiative process is an informed public. So if asked to sign a petition, be wary. Read the initiative summary that is required to be printed at the top of the petition form. There are initiatives in circulation right now that would increase income taxes and undermine Proposition 13 protections for taxpayers. If there is a tax increase included, you may still decide to sign, but at least you will know the impact of your decision in a state where we already have the highest income rate, the highest state sales tax and were we rank in the top four in total tax burden. In other words, caveat emptor.