Water Bond off Crowded Ballot That Still May Tax Voters’ Patience

Monday, July 09, 2012

In August 2010, a deteriorating economy, bad poll numbers and a worried Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger compelled the Legislature to pull an $11.1 billion water bond measure from the ballot and delay it until November 2012.

Nothing has really changed since then—other than a new worried occupant in the governor’s office—and last week the Legislature voted again to pull the measure, delaying it until 2014. It was also feared that the measure would endanger Governor Jerry Brown’s own $8 billion tax measure, a critical element in his plan to balance the budget and avoid more painful cuts before year’s end.

The bond issue included: $3 billion for water storage projects; $2.25 billion for projects that “support delta sustainability options;” $1.7 billion for watershed and ecosystem protection and restoration; $1.4 billion for “integrated regional water management projects;” $1.25 billion for water recycling and treatment; $1 billion for groundwater cleanup and protection; and $455 million for drought relief and community assistance programs.

That leaves a November ballot still crammed with 11 statewide propositions sure to befuddle an electorate distracted by, among other things, the election of a president.

It is also an electorate that in many ways is becoming less enamored of the whole initiative process.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of ballot propositions in California, and the Field Poll took that opportunity to assess just how voters feel about them. It found that 34 years ago, 83% of voters described the process as a good thing. Only 53% thought so last year.

They may be a bit more jaded because they feel more manipulated. In 1999, voters were evenly divided over whether special interests dictated the outcome of proposition elections; last year they gave the big shots a 60-27 edge.

Voters may feel more manipulated by special interests than they used to, but they still feel they are less controlled than politicians. In 1982, only 42% said the public was more likely than politicians to “consider the broad public interest in making decisions about state government policies and laws.” In 2011, that number climbed to 71%.

And what might explain this puffed up self-image of moral rectitude and political acuity compared to their elected officials?  It’s the internet. Forty-four percent said they get their most important information about propositions online in 2011 compared to just 17% in 2004.  

If the water bond does make it to the 2014 ballot, it will no doubt join another crowded field. But our purveyors of propositions will have to kick their efforts into overdrive if they hope to approach the lofty accomplishments of their forebearers.

In 1914, voters sorted through a record 48 ballot measures, according to the Secretary of State's office, including 17 initiatives placed there through the signature-gathering process. The remainder were put on the ballot by state lawmakers.

And the voters didn’t have the internet to help sort them out.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Legislature Pulls Water Bond Measure off Fall Ballot (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Calif. Voters Face Fall Ballot Crowded with Issues (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Legislature Votes to Bump $11 Billion Water Bond to 2014 Ballot (by Torey Van Oot, Sacramento Bee)

Majorities View Proposition Elections as a Good Thing, but Support Has Ebbed Somewhat over Times (The Field Poll) (pdf)

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