No matter who wins this year's governor's race, much of the real power in California still will reside with a clique of self-interested insiders who promote initiatives.
If history is a teacher, the ideas they concoct will benefit them and their industries, and will have impact long after the next governor leaves office.
The number of initiatives aimed at this November's ballot is relatively small, maybe nine. The exact number won't be known for a few months, as paid signature gatherers still are plying their trade at shopping centers across the state.
But if any of the initiatives were to win voter approval, they would have far- reaching impact. They deal with marijuana laws, rules governing state budgets, whether California will continue to seek to regulate greenhouse gases, and much more.
It's all a big-money game. That became apparent once more as proponents of initiatives to "reform" California state government stumbled. Even though they had influential supporters, few moneyed interest groups saw any benefit to shelling out the millions needed to place the measures on the ballot.
The ante is $3 million, give or take. That's what it costs to hire petition circulators to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to place measures on the ballot. Actual campaign costs, including buying television ad time, reach into the tens of millions, and sometimes into the hundreds of millions.
California has a rich history of wealthy interests paying good money for ballot measures that benefit them.
Tribes that own casinos spent $24 million to win passage of a 2000 initiative that made clear their casinos were legal.
In 2004, financier Robert Klein sponsored and spent $3 million on the initiative to fund stem cell research. He remains the stem cell commission's chairman.
In 2010, that tradition of self-interest will be upheld.
Marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, who runs what he calls "America's first cannabis college" with branches in Oakland and other cities, spent $1.27 million to qualify his initiative to legalize marijuana in California.
Lee likely won't be part of the initiative scene much beyond the marijuana measure. Others appear year after year, most notably the California Chamber of Commerce and related business interests, and organized labor.
In 2010, Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg is backing a ballot initiative to require the Legislature to approve fees by two-thirds vote, rather than the current simple majority. Business also is contemplating a campaign to repeal landmark legislation requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gases.
The California Teachers Association, the state's biggest teachers union, is paying petition circulators to gather signatures for an initiative that would repeal a tax cut approved by lawmakers last year.
With the help of Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, other unions are funding a petition drive for an initiative that would authorize the Legislature to approve budgets by simple majorities rather than by the current two-thirds majority. Business opponents believe the measure would make it easier for lawmakers to raise fees.
Jerry Brown, the newly announced Democratic candidate for governor, knows the initiative world well. He catapulted to statewide office by promoting a 1974 initiative that created the Political Reform Act. As governor in 1978, Brown tried to beat and then embraced the late Howard Jarvis' property-tax-slashing Proposition 13.
Meg Whitman, the Republican front- runner for governor over Steve Poizner, has called for changes in what she labeled the "referendum" process but also touts the endorsement of a charter member of the initiative promoters' club, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
California Chief Justice Ronald George is an increasingly vocal critic of direct democracy. He told a Stanford Law School audience that initiatives "have rendered our state government dysfunctional, at least in times of severe economic decline."
Californians have a love-hate relationship with the process. They reject two-thirds of all initiatives that make it onto the ballot but support keeping the initiative process in place.
Given that support and the power of initiative promoters, there is little chance of change any time soon. As a result, whoever becomes the next governor will find him- or herself ever more hamstrung by initiative-created law.
THE SACRAMENTO BEE