Opinion: Ballot Initiatives – California’s 4th Branch of Government


By Michael Morris

Californians will be voting soon in the Gubernatorial Recall election. Besides the Recall, the California State constitution provides two other mechanisms for voters to directly decide on important policy and governance issues. The first of these is the Ballot Initiative (BI). The BI enables citizens to propose new legislation and pass these proposals into law by a majority popular vote. The other tool, the Referendum allows citizens to approve or reject statutes previously adopted by their elected representatives. A do-over, if you will.

Most of us are familiar with Ballot Initiatives because this mechanism is a favorite in our state, leading them to be referred to as California’s fourth branch of government. Ballot initiatives put the power back into the hands of the people, and make government more responsive to the will of voters. Californians need 10% of registered voters’ signatures in a City to qualify an initiative for the ballot or 5% of registered voters’ signatures for a statewide one.

Perhaps the most famous state-wide ballot initiative was Proposition 13, which passed in 1978 to limit property taxation. This initiative restricted property tax increases to 1% of the assessed value of a property, with a maximum annual increase of 2%. Proposition 13 passed resoundingly with 65% of the vote and resulted in amending the State constitution. It also let our public servants know that taxpayers were unwilling to provide them with a blank check in the form of annual property tax bills that increased in alarming and unpredictable ways.

Recently, we’ve seen passage of local BIs in our neighboring cities: Dana Point, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, mostly dealing with zoning regulations to prevent neighborhood-incompatible or mega-developments without voter approval. Here’s a quick description of these BIs:

  • Newport Beach – Measure S, “Greenlight”. Passed in 2000 with 63% majority. It stipulates that voter approval is required for any major amendment to the Newport Beach General Plan. In 21 years, only three proposed developments have been sent to a vote due to Greenlight. Its triggers for a vote are increased traffic, dwelling units (density) and size (intensity).
  • Costa Mesa – Measure Y. Passed in 2015. Only a single proposed development, One Metro West is likely to be forced to a vote due to Measure Y. This development would add over 1,000 housing units to a 15.23-acre site.
  • Dana Point – Measure H. Passed in 2016 with over 58% of the vote. It restricts the City Council’s discretion with regards to height and parking requirements, but the City chose to issue permits on the day of the vote for the many non-conforming buildings we see today.

California history has shown that ballot initiatives create a more involved and informed citizenry. They also act as a check on the influence of special interests. Laguna Beach residents will have an opportunity soon to act on this popular democratic initiative process.  In order to qualify for the ballot in the November 2022’s general election, Laguna Residents First (LRF) will be collecting voters’ signatures for a Ballot Initiative to give you the right to vote on future mega-commercial developments in Laguna Beach similar to the ones passed in our neighboring cities. In a future column we will detail the terms of the LRF ballot initiative.

Michael, a Laguna Beach homeowner, is a founder and former Treasurer of Laguna Residents First PAC. He previously served a one-year term on the Orange County Grand Jury and as an appointed trustee to the Orange County Vector Control District.

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  1. Great educational column, Mike!
    Those who discount our state’s initiative process (like 420 Billy) are usually not from here anyway, don’t have our native historical perspective, let alone your cerebral acumen.


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