Direct Democracy Delayed

Earlier this week, I mentioned California's high-speed rail project, which would connect the Northern and Southern parts of the state with a 220-MPH bullet train. ...
by | March 9, 2007

Earlier this week, I mentioned California's high-speed rail project, which would connect the Northern and Southern parts of the state with a 220-MPH bullet train. The story behind that proposal says as much about how California's ballot measure process has evolved as it does about passenger rail.

On November 14, 1997, the Press Enterprise of Riverside, California reported the following:

"A newly formed California High Speed Rail Authority has until the end of the year 2000 to get a ballot measure before the voters asking them to pay for a super-fast train between San Diego and San Francisco..."

It didn't happen. The organization decided in late 1999 to spend more time studying the proposal, rather than putting $25 billion in bonds on the 2000 ballot.

In 2002, state legislators voted to put a $10 billion bond on the 2004 ballot to get the project started. Governor Gray Davis signed the bill.

But, by 2004, the mood in the state had changed. Arnold Schwarzenegger was now governor, California was in a fiscal crunch, and the long-delayed study of the proposal reported it would cost as much as $37 billion, although it also projected that it would attract 68 million annual riders by 2020. Legislators voted to push the ballot measure back to 2006.

In the summer of 2006, with a set of other pricey bond measures on their agenda, the legislature and the governor agreed to another two-year delay. Now? Schwarzenegger wants the bullet train vote to be put off indefinitely.

In spite of California's reputation as a bastion of direct democracy, what's been notably absent from this decade-long drama is citizen involvement. Elected officials can't control how Californians vote when something appears on the ballot, but, through their endless discussions of high-speed rail, they've sucked up all the oxygen on the topic, effectively controlling what appears on the ballot and what doesn't.

If California lawmakers are institutionalizing the ballot measure process and making it more manageable, that's probably a good thing. But it's also quite a contrast from the system that enabled Wild West citizen revolts like Proposition 13.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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