California Dreamin'

Ernest B. Furgurson

October 14, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

HOMEWOOD, CALIF. — NOT EVERYONE agrees on the merits of California's gifts to the nation, varying as they do from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Jane Fonda and the hippie movement that bloomed in Haight-Ashbury. This fall, second opinions are rising about even the power-to-the-people machinery that has sent so many California political ideas east across the country.

The ballot initiative, by which voters can pass laws when politicians won't, did not originate here. Neither did the referendum, by which voters can reverse laws passed by politicians. But both have flourished here, until the very mention of either process suggests sunshine, smog and the kookiness that Easterners once associated with life under the palms.

Of hundreds of California ballot questions, none has affected the rest of the country as acutely as the famous Proposition 13, approved by voters 12 years ago. In the beginning, it was considered just the daydream of one of the state's night-and-day dreamers, Howard Jarvis.

Mr. Jarvis' campaign theme was ''I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.'' He was mad about taxes. He wanted to amend the state constitution to cut property taxes. He would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise state taxes, and two-thirds of registered voters to raise any local taxes.

Responsible Californians who knew that schools and other necessary services depended on those taxes scoffed at Mr. Jarvis. Later, seeing his property-tax initiative gather popular backing, they campaigned mightily against it. He clobbered them.

The great anti-tax movement of our time was under way. Ronald Reagan brought it to Washington. George Bush rode it to the presidency. As a result, the country is $3 trillion in debt. Some California counties are slipping into bankruptcy. And the populist institution of the ballot initiative is in bad odor, even among some of the Californians who have sponsored such questions in this fall's election.

The cumulative impact of the late Howard Jarvis' daydream is only part of the reason. Many Californians are turned off by the number of ballot questions this year -- cynical of a device meant originally to empower populist idealism.

In Sacramento, some at the Capitol trace this proliferation to the success of the professionally organized drive to approve a state lottery six years ago. Since then, they say, initiatives have been promoted largely by special interests rather than welling up from the grass roots. Gathering signatures to support ballot initiatives has become a full-scale business.

On this fall's long roll of questions, some were sponsored simply to nullify others higher on the list. There are two drug-control propositions, one to be financed by bond issue and one by sales tax. There is a nickel-a-drink alcohol tax and a lower alcohol tax. But to complicate matters, there also is another anti-tax measure, backed by Mr. Jarvis' surviving colleague, Paul Gann.

There is a sweeping environmental proposition called ''Big Green'' and a competing agribusiness proposition called ''Careful,'' which would limit controls on farm chemicals. There is an environmental proposition called ''Forests Forever,'' which would restrict clear-cutting and buy up some old-growth timberlands, and there is a timber industry alternative that its backers call ''New Forestry'' and its opponents call ''Big Stump.''

Earlier, ''Big Green'' advocates looked at polls and said their measure's passage was ''a done deal'' that could be prevented only by a political earthquake. Since then, the timber, agriculture, oil and chemical industries have mobilized. Big money is pouring into broadcast commercials against the proposition.

Conceivably, in each of these cases both of the opposing propositions could be approved; then the one getting the biggest yes vote would prevail.

If ''Big Green'' should be defeated, it would be partly because industry has targeted one of its backers, Tom Hayden, for negative publicity. After his days as a campus radical, Mr. Hayden married Jane Fonda and became a state legislator from Santa Monica. But a more likely reason would be the proposition's breadth, covering a variety of environmental issues voters would rather vote on separately.

Whichever way the ''Big Green'' vote goes, politicians elsewhere are watching it almost as closely as they are the propositions to limit the terms of elected state officials. The reasons for a question's success or failure may be irrelevant; the fact that it happened in California can turn a daydream into a movement, or a counter-movement.

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