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Power To The People: Californians Lead Nation In Use Of Local Initiative

Small Number of Communities Drive Trend

Californians are prolific in their use of citizen proposed initiatives to make major local policy decisions – much more so than residents in the rest of the nation, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). But there’s an important subtext to the California story: The heavy use of local initiatives is not widespread. Rather, it’s solidly concentrated in a few jurisdictions.

In the most complete evaluation of California’s local initiative to date, the analysis draws on previously unexplored data and finds that more than half of all the state’s cities and three-quarters of its counties had at least one citizen ballot measure between 1990 and 2000. During this time, more than 730 local initiatives were circulated for signatures in California. And in the November 2000 election, there were more growth and development related initiatives on local ballots in California than in the rest of the country put together. “California is clearly a leader in local direct democracy, and residents rely extensively on this power to make local policy,” says the report’s author and PPIC research fellow Tracy Gordon.

However, the bulk of the citizen proposed measures occur in only two regions – the San Francisco Bay Area and the South Coast (Los Angeles and San Diego). Indeed, over half of all local initiative activity between 1990 and 2000 took place in these two regions. At the extreme is the city and county of San Francisco, where 54 initiatives were circulated for signatures during the 1990s. In contrast, the average California city circulated approximately one initiative and the average county circulated approximately three, during the same decade, according to the report, The Local Initiative in California.

But proposing more local initiatives doesn’t lead to greater ballot box success: The San Joaquin Valley and the Sierras are most likely to pass initiatives but have relatively low numbers of proposals. And while land use issues are by far the most pursued local initiative topic – 178 were proposed in cities during the 1990s – their passage rate was only 49 percent, versus the 82 percent approval rate enjoyed by the 15 city-level water initiatives during the same decade. Compared to statewide initiatives, local measures are decidedly more successful: Nearly 80 percent of county and 75 percent of city initiatives qualified for the ballot in the 1990s, compared to just 15 percent of statewide measures. Overall, voters passed 42 percent of county, 45 percent of city, and 40 percent of statewide initiatives.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.

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