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California Chaos | The Nation

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California Chaos

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Given California's orgy of initiatives in the past generation and its penchant for populist eruptions, it was probably only a matter of time before the recall booby trap went off. The Davis recall qualified just twenty-five years after the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, the measure that cut local property taxes by nearly 60 percent, capped the rate at 1 percent and started the rush of plebiscites that continues to this day.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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In the years since, Californians have passed scores of initiatives--from a ban on affirmative action and attempts to deny schooling to illegal immigrants to legislative term limits and the legalization of medical marijuana. Collectively, those measures have shifted the center of gravity in policy-making from elected representatives to the initiative process; simultaneously, because each initiative either mandates or prohibits some legislative act, they circumscribe the legislature's discretion and thus its ability to respond, thereby creating still more frustrations among voters and leading to yet more ballot measures.

The orgy of plebiscites has also spawned a thriving industry of campaign consultants, pollsters, media experts and petition circulators, who, at an average of one or two dollars per signature, will get almost anything on the ballot, provided the sponsors have the $1-$2 million it takes. Ted Costa, a longtime antitax activist and a veteran of the Proposition 13 campaign, launched the recall barely three months after Davis's re-election last year. But it was going nowhere until Issa began writing big checks.

But Costa, Issa and their partners were working fertile ground. The poll-driven Davis, who's never had many friends, was always a relentless fundraiser who ran famously negative campaigns, including his successful undoing during last year's GOP primary of Riordan, the candidate thought to be his strongest potential opponent. In effect, Davis picked his opponent and then narrowly beat him. Davis also dallied in the early months of California's energy crisis in 2000-01, when a combination of mismanagement and market manipulation by energy producers drove the state's wholesale electricity prices to obscene levels. He awarded huge pay increases to the state's corrections officers, whose union had contributed lavishly to his campaigns, and he has developed a reputation as a man who is simply inaccessible to groups that don't kick in to his extortionate campaign-funding demands.

Compounding all that was a set of economic and political problems, some of them uniquely California's, some national, over which Davis has only partial control. The most obvious is the state's huge two-year, $38 billion budget deficit, caused in part by the national recession, particularly the sinking high-tech industry; in part by a tax structure that magnifies both gains in good times and the losses in declines; and in part by the sharp increase in healthcare costs and, as in many other states, by the spending increases and tax cuts of the good years.

But California also had, and has, problems uniquely its own, particularly the constitutional provision that requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass a budget (California is one of three states to have such a requirement). Thus while Democrats control both houses as well as the governor's office, the Republican minority has an effective veto over the budget.

In past years Davis was able to peel off a few GOP legislators by offering them some goodies for themselves or their districts. But this year, following the strategy of the ultraconservative Club for Growth--which launched attacks against GOP moderates like Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who resisted the extremes of George Bush's tax cuts--Jim Brulte, the Republican leader in the California Senate, threatened any defector with a primary challenge next spring. Blame for the resulting delay went in large part to Davis.

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