For many years and in many arenas, California has been a trendsetter for the U.S. From McDonald’s hamburgers to Intel’s microchips, the Golden State has influenced the nation’s culture and economy in countless, sometimes controversial, ways.

Direct Legislation
Politically, California was one of the first states to adopt the concept of “direct legislation” in 1911 when voters approved a state constitutional amendment that created the “initiative, referendum and recall” processes. Over the years, state voters have weighed in on almost 350 propositions and have rejected two-thirds of them. In the recent general election, Proposition 23, dubbed the “California Jobs Initiative” by proponents and the “Dirty Energy Proposition” by opponents, was one of the latest high-profile initiatives to fall short of the mark (61% no on November 2).

Prop 23 would have suspended California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32) – passed in 2006 with promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% over four decades. Although Prop 23’s proponents may have correctly anticipated that job-killing regulations were repulsive to most voters in this election season, their campaign to restrain the AB32 behemoth fell flat.

Perhaps the most obvious detriment to the success of Prop 23 was its list of sponsors (including Koch, Tesoro and Valero). Californians tend to dislike large, out-of-state companies trying to influence elections (even if the influence is demonstrably beneficial to the electorate).

Curiously, the anti-23 campaign pulled in three times as many dollars as the pro-23 side. Many of the largest contributions were from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have already invested heavily into fledgling clean-tech businesses that promise green rewards.

Another fatal flaw in the Pro-23 campaign was its benchmark for determining when the state’s economy was strong enough to accommodate greenhouse gas (GHG) restrictions. The state’s unemployment rate has been in the 12-13% range since August 2009, and Prop 23 would have suspended AB32 until unemployment fell to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.

In principle, such a goal sounds laudable, but the state’s (non-partisan) voter guide included a chart showing California’s unemployment rate failing to meet the Prop 23 full-employment benchmark for approximately 35 out of the past 40 years. As a result, voters saw the initiative as disingenuous.

From this columnist’s perspective, Prop 23 would have fared better if it had been posed as a full-on referendum of AB32 rather than a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing appeasement. Admittedly, a large number of Californians want the state to be a leader in GHG regulation and green energy solutions, but most don’t want to achieve those goals at the expense of mass layoffs and business failures. If voters had learned that AB32 itself was in fact the more extreme example of a ravenous wolf in disguise, Prop 23 might have had a fighting chance.