State’s Ballot Initiative Process Remade, and Both Parties Agree

After more than a century in California’s political spotlight, the state’s initiative process will be getting a major revise next year. Even more surprising, both Democrats and Republicans in the famously partisan Legislature are happy to see it happen.

While Republicans made up most of the limited opposition when SB1253 made its way through the Legislature, the two GOP leaders, state Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County) and Assembly member Kristin Olsen of Modesto, both voted “aye.”

“It was a bipartisan effort,” said former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, the Democrat who authored the bill. “People like the initiative process but believe it can be improved.”

The measure opens the way for increased collaboration between lawmakers and backers of initiatives by requiring the Legislature to hold a joint public hearing on a proposed initiative as soon as 25 percent of the required signatures are collected. It also calls for the attorney general to open a 30-day public review before approving an initiative for circulation and lets supporters amend the initiative during that time.

“The No. 1 benefit is this allows two sources to work together to solve a problem or make an initiative better,” Steinberg said.

The review period also would give citizens a chance to weigh in on a proposed initiative, suggesting ways to improve the wording, pointing out potential legal problems, and proposing changes the initiative’s backers could accept or reject.

The low bar for a legislative hearing has raised concerns about “ghost initiatives” — measures that backers may never intend to see the ballot and that are designed only to force lawmakers to at least publicly consider an issue.

“That isn’t a bad thing,” Steinberg said. “The alternative too often is an all-or-nothing argument” in the future.

The new law also ensures that those legislative hearings can actually mean something, since it allows backers to withdraw an initiative up to 131 days before the election.

If a compromise can be worked out with the backers of the initiative, right up to that ballot qualification deadline, the measure can be pulled from the ballot.

“Right now, once the signatures are turned in, there’s nothing anyone can do,” Steinberg said.

Room to negotiate

The new law “creates a lot more opportunities to work something out,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California and a pollster who has studied the way voters view the initiative process.

This isn’t the first time legislators have tried to revise and update the initiative process. In 2000, for example, then-Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat, put together a nonpartisan study committee, arguing then that “there is hardly any aspect of daily life for any Californian that is unaffected by voter-approved initiatives.”

The committee met for months and came up with a series of recommendations, most of which went nowhere.

Californians approved the original initiative law, put on the ballot by progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, in 1911, with 76 percent of the vote. Since then, they’ve been leery of any changes that might limit their power to make laws.

“What voters want from initiatives is a check and balance against the Legislature and the power to do what the Legislature won’t do,” Baldassare said.

The people’s voice

Voters take that authority seriously and have used initiatives to break through partisan gridlock in the Legislature and make populist changes lawmakers either opposed or couldn’t agree on.

Since 2008, for example, voters have taken redistricting power from the Legislature and given it to a citizens committee, installed a top-two primary system, allowed the state budget to be approved on a majority vote, changed the rules for term limits and approved the tax increases in 2012’s Prop. 30.

Surveys done by Baldassare and others over the years have found that while voters agree that changes should be made, they are adamant about protecting the initiative process. In a September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 15 percent of the state’s adults wanted to see the governor and the Legislature make all the decisions about spending and taxes, while 81 percent said California voters should make some of those decisions at the ballot box.

So how did the new bill make it through the Legislature? By dumping the controversial issues surrounding initiatives.

Steinberg’s bill doesn’t strip the attorney general of the power to write the title and summary for an initiative, something initiative backers argue is too often a partisan exercise.

Earlier this year, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed unsuccessfully sued Attorney General Kamala Harris, charging that the description of his plan to revise public pension rules was designed to favor Democratic-leaning labor interests opposed to the initiative.

When money talks

Concerns about the power deep-pocketed special interests have in the initiative process also were unaddressed. While some groups have urged that initiatives be required to have a certain number of small donors to qualify for the ballot, all Steinberg’s bill does is add 30 days to the time allowed to gather signatures, which could make it easier for citizen groups to qualify a ballot measure.

The bill was written carefully to avoid issues that could bust the bipartisan agreement, Steinberg admitted.

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill in late September, he was joined by representatives of good-government groups like California Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and California Forward, who all praised the measure as a much-needed start to reform.

“We’re taking an important step to modernize and strengthen direct democracy,” the governor said.

The question now: Will it work?

“We really won’t know until next year,” when groups start preparing ballot measures for the next statewide elections in 2016, Baldassare said. “The question will be to what extent initiative proponents utilize the new rules” and how interested they are in working out compromises short of the ballot box.

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