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Solimar Research

Let the Sun Set on Ballot Measures

Josh Stephens on
Jun 12, 2015

Allow me to laud something about California's state and local ballot initiative system. No, really. 

Voting schemes for electing human beings to office are inevitably flawed. Whether a jurisdiction uses party primaries, open primaries, ranked choices, multiple votes, pluralities, majorities, voice votes, or anything else, no system can capture the true passions and preferences of all voters as they relate to all candidates. 

The ballot initiative system cuts through these ambiguities by posing a binary choice: yes or no. However ill-conceived, ill-timed, poorly written, and disingenuously promoted (or opposed) a measure may be, at least the vote itself is clear and internally valid. 

Ballot measures could, though, take at least one cue from their human counterparts: impermanence. 

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A few weeks ago I tossed off a blog about Los Angeles' housing crisis. And I mean tossed off I wrote it on a fleeting notion fueled as much by frustration as by scholarship. Clearly other people share my frustration, because it went seriously viral. It went so viral that it even reached one of the original backers of a ballot measure that I mentioned. 

Passed in 1986, Proposition U was designed, as I wrote, to limit commercial development on Los Angeles' major corridors. It passed on an insane 2-1 margin, which I characterized as a symbol of Los Angeles' slow-growth movement and a precursor to today's housing crisis. (This wasn't news. Others, including CP&DR publisher Bill Fulton, have levied similar criticisms at Prop. U.) The backer of Prop. U took mild umbrage insisted that, 29 years ago, Prop. U was crafted specifically so that it does not constrain development or preservation of housing. 

I don't doubt the earnestness or the wisdom of the authors' approach. As such, my criticism may have been unfair at least in the context of 1986. The trouble, of course, is that what may have been entirely reasonable in 1986 may not be reasonable in 2015. Legislators, voters, activists, planners, planning philosophies, political alliances, and issues have changed. So have the density, function, infrastructure, economic base, ethnic makeup, and total population of Los Angeles. Try as they might to have predicted Los Angeles' needs one-and-a-half generations into the future, Prop. U's supporters were living in a different world. 

Naturally, we can only legislate based on what we know and what we can reasonably predict. The ballot initiative process ignores this truism. From Prop. U to Prop. 20 (precursor to the Coastal Act) to Prop. 99 (eminent domain), to, yes, Prop. 13, many of the state's and localities' measures are structured to remain in effect until the end of time. If Los Angeles sticks around half has long as Rome has, a land-use measure passed today could remain in play in the 35th century.  

I'm not a fan of term limits, and I'm sometimes disappointed to see elected officials retire (notwithstanding the immortality of Jerry Brown). But, at the very least, even the most popular elected officials have to submit themselves to re-approval every four years. Ballot measures need a similar temporal safeguard. 

I don't have an ideal structure for what I'm thinking of. We obviously don't want to create chaos by yanking laws away unceremoniously. But we have plenty of options.

It could be a sunset clause. It could be a mandatory re-vote at a certain juncture. It could be a failsafe, overturned only by a supermajority. Who knows. The point is that no law should ever elude reasonable scrutiny, and no law should presume to remain relevant decades into the future purely because of its own inertia. Supporters of an original ballot measure may need opportunities to gracefully update or even disavow those laws as circumstances change. 

While we're at it, so do conventional laws could benefit from the same. Imagine, for instance, how much progress California might make if the California Environmental Quality Act had to be affirmatively revised and renewed? 

(Naturally, concerned citizens can mount campaigns to repeal ballot measures that they don't like. But the money, effort, and political will for that kind of thing makes it effectively infeasible.)

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I hardly think Prop. U is the cause of all of Los Angeles' troubles, just as I don't think Prop. 13 is the cause of all of California's troubles. Maybe even I would have voted for Prop. U in 1986. We were building some pretty hideous stuff back then; maybe some of it needed to be cut down. Our traffic wasn't nearly as bad, our rents weren't nearly as high (in real dollars), and planners didn't have many alternatives to our auto-oriented mix of residential neighborhoods and commercial strips. 

Today, infill development, mixed-use buildings, walkability, transit-oriented development, environmental stewardship, transit use, design guidelines, and all the other trappings of smart growth are at play in Los Angeles. We need more development on commercial strips, because we need a better balance between jobs and housing, and we need more amenities that residents can walk to. We need opportunities to build a few levels of commercial space and then layer on a few levels of residential space. Whether development on boulevards is commercial or residential, we surely need to wean ourselves from single-story buildings, some of which are surrounded by surface parking, on our most valuable, important corridors. We need to accommodate 3.9 million people, not 3.2 million. 

These are the goals that Los Angeles' planners are pursuing. Are they compatible with Prop. U? I hope so. If they are not, there should be a reasonable system by which the city can unburden itself. 

If that were to happen, I, for one, think L.A. boulevards would turn out OK. They include Wilshire, Ventura, Western, and, yes, Sunset.