The California Supreme Court recently granted review Legislature v. Weber (Hiltachk), Case No. S281977, which challenges what we’ll call Proposition TBD (it doesn’t have a number yet): The “California Two-Thirds Legislative Vote and Voter Approval for New or Increased Taxes Initiative,” an initiative constitutional amendment that is qualified for the November 2024 ballot. Proposition TBD (in sum) would require voter approval for all new state or local taxes. The court now must confront the substantive issues about the measure’s validity, which primarily concern the initiative power’s scope: If Proposition TBD goes so far as to change California’s basic governmental plan or structure, it’s a constitutional revision and beyond the initiative power. Yet this measure has a very specific target (setting state tax policy) that’s well within the initiative’s reach.

The initiative and referendum were designed to empower the voters to set policy—to set policy differently than the legislature would. The initiative and referendum are not rights granted to the people, but powers reserved by them, and courts are obliged to resolve doubts in favor of those powers whenever possible. Direct democracy in California was sparked by dissatisfaction with the legislature and a widespread belief that the people had lost control of the political process. The initiative remedied that by empowering voters to enact laws that their elected public officials had refused or declined to adopt, and gives the voters the final word in a policy dispute (initiatives are proof against legislative amendment unless the voters allow them). Thus, the initiative was aimed directly at the legislature: It enables the voters to override legislative policy choices and permits structural reform of the legislature as warranted.