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Blame Hiram Johnson and his Dad, not the Mungers, for California's Initiative Mess

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Opinion: Family Feud Behind Initiative Woes

Molly Munger

Civil rights attorney Molly Munger has invested millions of dollars in a ballot initiative seeking to raise income taxes to benefit public schools. The measure is competing with a tax initiative sponsored by the governor for voter support.

It's become fashionable to blame those two rich half-siblings -- Charles Munger, Jr., the Republican behind the No on 30 and Yes on 32 campaigns, and Molly Munger, the liberal civil rights lawyer behind the Prop 38 campaign -- for the defects of the state's initiative process.

But the blame lies with a different family.

A century before the Mungers combined to spend more than $50 million (and counting) on 2012 ballot initiatives, there were Gov. Hiram Johnson and his father Grove.

Like the two Mungers, they had different visions of the world. And we're still living with the problems created by their inability to get along.

Gov. Hiram Johnson was the governor who led the push to establish the ballot initiative process, via a 1911 special election. The governor saw himself as a reformer and outsider, cleaning up politics in California.

When Gov. Johnson thought of dirty politics, he knew exactly how they looked: like the sort of politics practiced by his father.

Grove Johnson was a corrupt politician in Sacramento, and a player. He openly opposed his son's election and policies. (One of the few communications between them was a birthday card from father to son, in which Grove reiterated his opposition to his son-the-governor's policies, but congratulated him on his ability to get those policies put into place).

Why did this father-son split matter? Because in putting together the ballot initiative process, the governor's opinion of his father led to him make a big mistake.

In every other state with an initiative process, the legislative body has an important role - along with the power to amend laws that are made by initiative.

But Gov. Johnson didn't want the legislature in California -- which was full of people like his father -- to be able to amend initiatives. So Johnson designed an initiative process that cut the legislature out entirely.

The result: California has the most inflexible initiative process in the world. With the legislature unable to make changes, initiatives are full of errors that can't be changed except for another vote of the people. Those errors, and other unintended consequences of initiatives, linger for years and decades, creating all sorts of problems for policymakers.

So take it easy on the Mungers. They haven't done nearly as much damage as the Johnsons did.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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