American Federalism Pol 319 State & Local Essay

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American Federalism

POL 319 State & Local Governments

Brian Kimminau

Democracy in America has evolved from the concept of federalism allowing citizens at all levels to develop their own governance system. Since the founding of the United States in 1776 different governmental structures both on the state and local level developed. My paper takes a closer look at three different faces of state and local government in the United States of today: Direct Democracy Government, Police Jury Government and Mayor-Council Government. While California and Louisiana are showcase examples for the Direct Democracy and Policy Jury Government system, New York City stands exemplary for a strong Mayor Council governmental system. The goal of the paper is to point out the distinctive features of the three models, their historic background, and various impacts for citizens in the three geographic surroundings.

Case Study # 1 -- Examination of Direct Democracy in California

What distinguishes the Californian government system from other state governments? California is one of 24 states in the U.S. considered to have "direct democracy" (The Economist (20 April 2011) both statewide and in every local jurisdiction. Direct democracy is the opportunity for the total citizenry to determine issues on the basis of voting for or against measures (Elazar, D.J., p. 1). Contrary to 26 other states that have no direct democracy institutions California in 1911 placed "Direct Initiative" and "Popular Referendum" under their Constitution. None of these forms of direct democracy exists in the U.S. Federal Constitution. The direct initiative process allows ordinary citizens to propose laws and constitutional amendments by collecting a predetermined number of signatures from fellow citizens on a petition. When the requisite signatures are collected, the measure is placed on the ballot and becomes law if more votes are cast in favor of than against it (Matsusaka, J.G. (2010), p. 1). The state legislator has no role in the process. Popular referendum is when people have the power to refer, through a petition, specific legislation that was enacted by their legislature for the people to either accept or reject (What is Initiative and Referendum, p. 1). Among the 24 states with direct democracy structures California is one of the 19 states permitting direct initiatives with low legislative insulation and high initiative use (Lewis, D.C. (2011, pp. 8, 13). No other of the 24 states uses he popular initiative and referendum as aggressively as California (Kesler, C.R. (15 October 1998). In California, most signature collectors for ballot initiatives are circulated by individuals whom are paid for collecting signatures often via a bounty per signature. Some other states with a direct democracy government, such as for example, Oregon have instituted a ban against petition collectors getting paid by the signature in 2002 in order to reduce the danger of deception (see Initiative, Referendum, and Recall: "Direct Democracy," p. 2). Deviating from some states allowing unlimited time to gather signatures for initiatives, California allows 150 days giving circulators very limited time (The Economist (20 April 2011). It is easier in California than in most of the 24 other U.S. states with a direct democracy government system to change the Constitution. To get one on the ballot, you have to gather signatures on petitions -- the number required is 8% of the votes cast for all candidates in the last gubernatorial race. It's a little higher hurdle than getting a regular statute on the ballot by initiative (that requires fewer signatures, 5% of the votes cast for all candidates in the last gubernatorial election). In comparison, many others states that allow lawmaking by ballot do not allow use of the initiative for constitutional amendments. Nevada for example allows it but requires a majority vote at two elections (see Lascher, E.L., Feeney, F.F. & Hodson, T. (4 February 2009), p. 1). Additionally, initiatives can be qualified by vote of the state legislature and be put to the people for a general election (Dunzweiler, K.J. (2001), p. 9). Once a proposed amendment is on the ballot, it requires only a mere majority -- 50% plus one of those voting -- to change even the most sacred provisions in the state's core document. That's the way it works even if the ballot is crowded with items and many choose not to vote on the initiative amendment. More important, it's the case even if the vote is cast in a primary or other off-year election, when the fewest people come to the polls (Lascher, E.L., Feeney, F.F. & Hodson, T. (4 February 2009), p. 1).

Why is different from other state governments? Direct democracy government was instituted in California early in the 20th century by the Progressive Party as a means to supplement -- and sometimes circumvent -- the legislature with its time-consumes processes of deliberation and compromise (Lascher, Edward L., Feeney, Floyd F. & Hodson, Tim (4 February 2009). The goal was to "restore absolute sovereignty to the people" not by breaking the legislative gridlock up but by bypassing it through the initiative process (Kesler, C.R. (15 October 1998, p. 1, 2).

How does the Californian system of direct democracy affect the performance of government in providing services? The assignment of governmental responsibilities between the state and various local governments, particularly counties, is fragmented and confused. The absence of clearly assigned responsibilities for operating and financing government services has weakened the accountability of government officials to the public. Functions that are clearly state (e.g., higher education) or clearly local (e.g., library services) are not the problem. Rather, functions shared by state and local government produce the most confusion. Counties play a dual role: they are considered local government for providing municipal services outside of cities, and they are treated as agents of the state for state purposes. Often, a county must use the local tax base intended to support local services to fund programs over which the county has little programmatic or operational control. Finding the right mix of program responsibilities and financing for shared programs must be a high priority for the legislature and the governor (California Constitution Revision Commission: Executive Summary Final Report and Recommendations to the Governor and the Legislature (1996, p. 14).

Does the legislator or the governor have more power in California based on your analysis?

The governor has more power than the legislative. The reason is to be seen in the fact that in the last three decades California's direct democracy government has nearly paralyzed the state's legislature (see Cohen, A. (15 July 2011), pp. 1, 2).

How is the provision of funds to local and state efforts affected or optimized by direct democracy? Local and state groups interested in fiscal policy, e.g., receiving funds have been particularly quick to seek initiative amendments to the Californian Constitution. The result is that the Constitution is loaded with rules and limits governing money matters that cannot be easily changed. A distinctive feature of California's initiative process is that adopted measures cannot be modified by the legislature. They can be changed only by the voters themselves (Matsusaka ibid, p. 1, 2). Lasher, Feeney and Hodson (4 February, 2009) consider some of these added provisions as doubtlessly "useful and appropriate," but alluding to an evaluation of the Constitutional Revision Commission in 1996 ("California Constitution Revision Commission: Executive Summary Final Report and Recommendations to the Governor and the Legislature") suggest that the overall effect is "to enshrine the status quo and reduce accountability.

What are the advantages of direct democracy for Californian citizens? What are the disadvantages? The advantage of democracy is that it increases the power of citizens to take on the legislative process. While direct democracy sounds good in practice, there are also several disadvantages connected with it. First, direct democracy inundates voters with an excessive number of choices, paid signature collecting, the excessive use of special interest groups of the initiative process, and the concern that voters are not qualified to govern. Second, most signature collectors for ballot initiatives are circulated by individuals whom are paid for collecting signatures often via a bounty per signature. This opens the door to deception. There is at least anecdotal evidence that some petition collectors lie (see Initiative, Referendum, and Recall: "Direct Democracy," p. 1). There is also criticism that the initiative process is dominated by special interests (Initiative, Referendum, and Recall: "Direct Democracy," p. 2). As regards the casual way in which the Californian Constitution can be altered at present has led to the result, that -- not surprisingly -- the Californian Constitution is a "bloated mishmash" by comparison with the hard-to-amend federal document. Instead of a transparent constitution that people can understand and use, California has "obfuscation, clutter and dysfunction as Lascher, Feeney and Hodson (4 February 2009, p. 2) state. Ten times the length of the U.S. Constitution, California's Constitution has been amended about 500 times by referendum and about 40 times by initiatives since its adoption in 1879. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times in 210 years. The amendments to California's Constitution have specified such…[continue]

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