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SKELTON: Hiram Johnson, where are you?

Hiram Johnson, the revered reformer and father of the California <WC>"<WC1>citizens<WC>"<WC1> initiative, must be either crying or laughing.

Maybe both.

It was 101 years ago that Gov<WC>ernor<WC1> Johnson, a former San Francisco graft prosecutor, teamed with other do-gooder Progressives to create California's system of direct democracy: the initiative, referendum and recall.<WC> <WC1>That allowed citizens to bypass the special interest-controlled state Capitol and exercise power themselves at the ballot box.

Over the last century, 354 initiatives have qualified for the ballot through signature collecting, and 120 have been passed by voters. That's a success rate of only 34<WC> percent<WC1>, so voters do tend to be discerning, or at least unconvinced when confused.

But Johnson's ideal of citizen empowerment to fight the moneyed interests has been turned on its head. More and more over the years, California's initiative system has become a tool of the special interests and a plaything of the mega-rich.

It's almost unfathomable that $372 million was spent to promote or attack the 11 measures on last week's state ballot. That figure comes from MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that crunches numbers from the secretary of state.

To put it in perspective, that amount of money could pay for the annual tuitions of 31,000 undergrad<WC>uates<WC1> at the University of California.

The top 20 donors provided 69<WC> percent<WC1> of all initiative funding, MapLight reported.<WC> <WC1>The most lavish spender was Pasadena civil rights attorney Molly Munger, who poured $44 million into her Proposition 38, which would have raised income taxes mostly to fund schools. Regardless of her largess, Prop<WC>osition <WC1>38 was the biggest loser on the ballot, garnering only 28<WC> percent<WC1> of the vote.

The second-biggest donor was Molly's half brother, Stanford physicist and Republican activist Charles Munger Jr. He spent $37 million on two other losing causes: Prop<WC>osition<WC1> 32 to cripple labor unions and the fight against Gov. Jerry Brown<WC>'<WC1>s Prop<WC>osition<WC1> 30 tax increase.

So the Munger siblings <WC>—<WC1> children of Warren Buffett's investment partner, Charles Munger Sr. <WC>—<WC1> kicked in roughly $80 million between them to play the California initiative game this year.


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