Mob Rule In California?

Only in California, where electioneering has become a year-round blood sport, could a governor decide to overhaul the entire management of the state on a single day. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself the product of an extraordinary recall uprising in 2003, plans again to funnel voter discontent in a Nov. 8 special election.

That vote would feature ballot initiatives to give him more power to cut government programs, make it easier to fire teachers for poor performance, and revamp California's gerrymandering so that retired judges -- not politicians -- draw voting boundaries in the nation's largest state.

These proposals have some merit, but the Governator is going directly to the people because he and the California State Legislature couldn't reach the compromise that is the underpinning of American democracy. Instead, this special election -- which also will likely put before voters measures to limit teen abortions without parental consent, restrict the use of union funds in political campaigns, and cut drug prices for the poor -- has all the makings of mob rule with a very expensive twist: An estimated $200 million is likely to be spent on ads in the runup to the vote, figures Schwarzenegger's top fund-raiser, with more than $40 million being raised by the Guv's allies. Drug companies have already raised more than $10 million, teachers are amassing a $50 million war chest, and prison guards are asking members for dues hikes for $18 million more.

Unfortunately, the winning measures in this advertising Super Bowl are likely to be those that generate the most buzz from TV spots -- not the issues that make the most policy sense. To his credit, Schwarzenegger last year got the Democratic-controlled legislature to pass an overhaul of workers' compensation insurance by threatening to go the ballot-initiative route. But this time it looks as if his rush to the voting booth is excessive -- and blatantly political. For example, stripping the Democratic Assembly's power to draw redistricting lines is likely to make it easier for Republicans to win future seats.

To be sure, we're not against participatory democracy. But this isn't ancient Greece, where citizens could gather at the Acropolis and debate public issues of the day. California is a quasi-country of 36 million people, with a gross domestic product roughly the size of Brazil's and a $109 billion state budget. The governmental choices it faces are more complex than most voters can glean in the 30 seconds between scenes in Desperate Housewives.

California's liberal ballot initiative laws, which allow even the most convoluted -- and confusing -- measures to be put directly to voters, mean that well-intentioned citizens can pursue single-issue politics with little regard for long-term consequences. Remember Proposition 13, which in 1978 capped property-tax hikes and immeasurably weakened the quality of public education in the Golden State to this day?

Such painful unintended consequences are exactly what the legislative process is supposed to avoid. It's a contentious and time-consuming journey, but a necessary one. The Founding Fathers knew that when they set up the separation of powers -- an executive branch to manage government, a legislature to make laws, and courts to handle disputes -- to provide checks and balances. Both Democratic legislators' intransigence and Schwarzenegger's end run around them are smart politics but bad government. Mob rule may be fun in the movies, but it has no place in the real world.

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