Initiatives and Ballot Propositions

I. Initiatives Introduction

In California, the initiative process has existed since 1911. The initiative process reflects the power of the electorate to propose statutes and amendments to the California Constitution (Cal. Const. Art. II, §8(a)).

Proposed initiatives are submitted to the Attorney General, who prepares a title and summary. If needed, the Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst prepares a joint fiscal analysis of the proposed initiative’s impact on state and local governments.  The Attorney General prepares an official summary.  The Legislature may conduct public hearings on the proposed initiative, but cannot amend it.

Initiative supporters have 150 days from the date of the official summary to gather the required signatures. An initiative must be signed by registered voters, equal to 5 percent for a statute (IS) and 8 percent for a Constitutional amendment (ICA) of the total number of votes cast for all the candidates for Governor in the previous election.  County clerks handle signature validation; the Secretary of State also has some verification duties before it qualifies initiatives for the ballot.

A measure that qualifies is placed on the ballot at the next general election held at least 131 days after it qualifies. The Governor may call a special statewide election for the measure. The total approximate time estimated to place a statewide initiative measure on the ballot is 12 months.

The Secretary of State has a prepared brief summary of the statewide initiative procedures, including preparing and qualifying initiatives.

Generally, any matter that is a proper subject of legislation can become an initiative; however, no initiative addressing more than one subject area may be submitted to the voters or have any effect. (Cal. Const. Art. II, §§8(d) and 12)

An initiative measure approved by a majority vote takes effect the day after the election unless the measure provides otherwise. (Cal. Const. Art. II, §10(a)).

If provisions of two or more measures approved at the same election conflict, those of the measure receiving the highest affirmative vote prevail. (Cal. Const. Art. II, §10(b)).

The Legislature may amend or repeal an initiative statute by another statute that becomes effective only when approved by the electors unless the initiative statute permits amendment or repeal without voter approval. (Cal. Const. Art. II, §10(c))

Each house of the Legislature assigns an initiative measure to its appropriate committee, which holds joint public hearings on the subject of the measure at least 30 days before the election. The Legislature has no authority to alter the initiative measure or prevent it from appearing on the ballot. (Elections Code Section 9034)

Before they are submitted for validation and vole of the electorate, initiatives do not receive the same legislative scrutiny and public debate, with the attendant refinement of terms and provisions, as do bills which are introduced in the Legislature. Many or most initiatives subsequently require implementing and clarifying legislation, some of which is not by design of the initiative drafters. The courts are the primary check on initiatives. State and/or federal courts frequently delay, and partially or fully strike down constitutional and statutory initiative measures approved by California voters. Some examples of Propositions where the courts have intervened or reviewed the measures: Proposition 140, state term limits; Proposition 187, services for immigrants, Proposition 184, Three Strikes, Proposition 208, campaign finance reform, Proposition 209, affirmative action, Proposition 213, uninsured motorists, and Proposition 218, local taxes.

NOTE:  The referendum (RS) process is similar to the initiative process in that it also is the power of the electorate, but it is the approval or rejection of statutes. It is used infrequently. (Cal. Const. Art. II, §9).

II. Initiative impact on the Budget Process in recent history (late 1970s—1990)

During the 1980s, special interest groups to guarantee funding for certain programs, or to place restrictions on the budget process, used the initiative process. A number of these initiatives have had a substantial impact on the budget process. Often, these initiatives interact with other initiatives or existing state laws leading to unintended results.

The most notable initiatives during the late 1970s through the 1980s which have resulted in dramatic impact upon both state and local government operations, and specifically the budget process, include:

  • Proposition 13 (1978), a landmark measure, influenced the way government takes in and disburses tax dollars in California. While it provided needed property tax relief for many homeowners, it also shifted budget responsibility for a number of public services to the State.
  • Proposition 4 (1979) amended the Constitution (Article XIII B) to require governmental entities to annually establish a limit on the appropriation of tax proceeds. The intent of this measure was to limit government spending. Passage of Proposition 13 and 4 reflected the strong sentiment during the late 1970s that government collected excessive taxes and was growing too rapidly. This measure has been subsequently modified by Proposition 98 in November 1988, and by Proposition 111 in June 1990.
  • Proposition 98 (1988), entitled the “California Instructional Improvement Act”, guarantees K-14 schools a minimum funding level to support growth in student population and to keep up with inflation. Under this Constitutional amendment (Article XVI, Section 8), kindergarten through 12th grade school districts and community colleges are guaranteed a share of any increases in state revenues based upon some complex funding calculations. The calculation process is a dynamic process involving recalculations for previous years as well as estimates for the current year. The state’s share of the Proposition’s allocation depends on changes in enrollment, per capita personal income, projections on state tax revenues, and local property taxes. Proposition 98 was amended by Proposition 111 in June 1990.
  • Proposition 99 (1988), the Tobacco Tax and Health Protection Act, raised the cigarette tax, exempted the revenues from the State Appropriations Limit, and earmarked the spending of these new revenues for certain health treatment, resources and education programs.
  • Proposition 111 (1990), entitled “The Traffic Congestion Relief and Spending Limitation Act of 1990”, enacted a statewide traffic congestion relief program and updated the spending limit on state and local government to better reflect the needs of a growing California population. It provided new revenues to be used to reduce traffic congestion by building state highways, local streets and roads, and public mass transit facilities. The measure enacted a 55 percent increase in truck weight fees and a five cent per gallon increase in the fuel tax on August 1, 1990, and an additional one cent on January 1 of each of the next four years. The measure continued to provide that public education and community colleges would receive at least 40 percent of the state General Fund budget, and provided that revenues in excess of the state appropriations limit would be allocated equally between education and the taxpayers. (NOTE: This is a Legislative Constitutional Initiative, per SCA 1, Chapter Resolution 66, Statutes of 1989.)

III. Initiatives in the 1990s and beyond

In the 1990s, an average of 70 initiatives was filed every two years, with about 12 qualifying for the ballot. On average, about four get approved and three out of the four are challenged in court.

The following list includes the initiatives that have been passed November 1990 and after (NOTE:  Since the courts may have partially or fully struck down some initiatives, or delayed implementation pending review, this list indicates which initiatives have passed rather than which ones are in effect.)

  • November 1990
    • Proposition 139 (ICA). Permit contracting inmate labor.
    • Proposition 140 (ICA). Limit terms for elected officials.
  • November 1992
    • Proposition 162 (ICA). Grant PERS board sole financial authority over state retirement system.
    • Proposition 163 (ICA). Exempt candy, bottled water, snack food from sales tax.
    • Proposition 164 (IS). Limit terms of state’s Congressional representatives.
  • November 1994
    • Proposition 184 (IS). Require three-time felons to be given sentences from 25 years to life.
    • Proposition 187 (IS). Deny public services to illegal immigrants.
  • March 1996
    • Proposition 198 (IS). Allow all voters in Primary Elections to vote for any candidate without regard to party affiliation.
  • November 1996
    • Proposition 208 (IS). Campaign Contributions and Spending Limits. Restrict Lobbyists.
    • Proposition 209 (ICA). Prohibition against discrimination or preferential treatment by state and other public entities.
    • Proposition 210 (IS). Minimum Wage Increase.
    • Proposition 213 (IS). Limitation on recovery to felons, uninsured motorists, drunk drivers.
    • Proposition 215 (IS). Medical Use of Marijuana.
    • Proposition 218 (ICA). Voter approval for local government property taxes. Limitation on fees assessments, and charges.
  • June 1998
    • Proposition 225 (IS). Limiting Congressional Terms; proposed U.S. Constitutional Amendment.
    • Proposition 227 (IS). English Language in Public Schools.
  • November 1998
    • Proposition 4 (IS). Trapping Practices. Bans use of specified traps and animal poisons.
    • Proposition 5 (IS). Tribal—State gaming compacts. Tribal casinos.
    • Proposition 6 (IS). Criminal Law. Prohibition on slaughter of horses and sale of horse meat for human consumption.
    • Proposition 10 (ICA&S). State and county early childhood development programs. Additional Tobacco Surtax.
  • March 2000
    • Proposition 21 (IS). Juvenile Crime.
    • Proposition 22 (IS). Limit on Marriage.
    • Proposition 29 (RS). Indian Gaming.
  • November 2000
    • Proposition 35 (ICA &S). Public works projects. Use of private contractors for engineering and architectural services.
    • Proposition 36 (IS). Drugs. Probation and treatment programs.
    • Proposition 39 (ICA &S). School Facilities. 55% Local Vote. Bonds, Taxes. Accountability Requirements.
  • November 2002
    • Proposition 49 (IS). Before and After School Programs, State Grants.
    • Proposition 50 (IS). Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Projects, Coastal Wetlands Purchase and Protection, Bonds.

IV. Initiatives and Ballot Propositions

In addition to initiative measures proposed by the electorate, the Legislature regularly places bond, constitutional and legislative initiatives on the ballot—all of these are referred to as Propositions. Recent legislation provides for Proposition numbering to start anew every ten years, beginning with the November 1998 general election. Periodically, there are also proposals to not re-use some of the more significant Proposition numbers, such as Propositions 13 and 98.

The text of initiatives, as well as for all the propositions, is available online for recent elections in the complete Ballot Pamphlets which the Secretary of State maintains on its website. Financial Research has Ballot Pamphlets back to June 1978 and BOS to June 1982.

The Hastings College of the Law has a California Ballot Propositions Database; see Library Collections, CA Ballot Initiative Database. It is a comprehensive, searchable source of information on California ballot propositions from 1911 to the present. The database contains the full text of the propositions, accompanying material contained in the voters’ pamphlets, related legal and legislative history, pass/fail status (with vote count in most cases), Code or Constitution sections affected, and digital images of the voters’ pamphlets.

The Santa Clara University School of Law has an online list of the California Ballot Propositions going back to 1944. The list includes whether the measure passed and the California Constitution or Code sections effected.

Other Ballot Pamphlet information is available from the Legislative Analyst and the California Voter Foundation. The Foundation also provides information on circulating or pending initiatives.

(November 12, 2002) (BOS/APBM/PBM)