Time for an initiative to fix the initiative process?
For almost 100 years, Californians themselves have passed this state’s most important laws via the initiative process. Everything from limits on property taxes and insurance rates to regulation of coastal property use and forced posting of notices about possible toxic chemicals in the state’s air and water are the products of initiatives.
So there’s massive popular resistance whenever politicians grumble that the initiative process should go because it usurps their authority to make laws or when political science professors say the system causes more problems than it solves.
But that doesn’t mean there are no problems with the system as it now stands. There are. Principally money.
Too much now goes into ballot initiative campaigns from too few hands, which has tended for the last 15 years or so to make propositions the property of large corporations, which currently have no limits on their initiative spending.
One result is that it’s now possible for almost any special interest to place almost any question on the statewide ballot, if its backers want to spend enough money. With petition circulators often getting between 50 cents and $2 per valid voter signature they gather, their persistence in buttonholing voters with multiple proposed measures outside supermarkets and shopping malls is understandable.
But that doesn’t mean the entire process should be eliminated, as some political science professors have suggested. They contend that a ballot like the one coming up this November, likely to include 10 or more initiatives, is too complex for the voters to handle in a knowledgeable way.
They’re wrong. But the process still could stand some updating. Its essence hasn’t changed at all since the pioneering Progressive Republican Gov. Hiram Johnson pushed it through in 1911. Initiatives – unlike propositions often placed on the ballot by the state Legislature – are still written by proponents, no matter how unskilled they might be. They are then named and summarized by the attorney general and are put to a simple yes-or-no vote if qualifying petitions get enough signatures.
Now, at last, a responsible, reasonable plan for updating the process and fixing some of its biggest problems seems possible. This plan was designed by the non-partisan, nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), whose president, Robert Stern, has helped write several successful initiatives.
The most important thing the CGS plan would do is try to minimize the effect of corporate dollars on the process. Stern does not delude himself with the notion that corporate spending on initiatives can be limited. Courts have repeatedly found this unconstitutional, as spending on a political agenda is considered a form of free speech.
Rather, the CGS plan would limit to $100,000 what any one person or corporation can give to an initiative committee. It would also limit to $10,000 all contributions to initiative committees controlled by politicians. This would reduce the influence of committees with grossly misleading names like the late-1990s Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions, a tobacco industry front that sought to get rid of local anti-smoking laws.
Companies could still spend all they want independently, but they’d then have to identify themselves as the sponsor of ads they run rather than hiding behind misleading or innocuous committee names.
The CGS plan also would extend the time limit for qualifying initiatives. Because many big-box stores now ban carriers of petitions they don’t favor, it’s hard for unfunded grassroots groups to qualify measures for the ballot in the 150 days now allowed. Meanwhile, big money interests can flood streets and parking lots with paid circulators, often spending $2 million or more just to qualify a proposal.
Extend the time to a year, argues Stern, and you’d give groups without much money a far better shot at getting their pet ideas onto the ballot.
Those are just a few of the fixes CGS proposes. Others would include allowing the Legislature to review all initiatives that qualify for the ballot, then suggest changes which could be accepted or not by sponsors. The sponsors would have the choice of proceeding with either their original measure or a revised one.
These changes would still not produce a perfect process. There would still be plenty of special interest money involved and poorly drafted measures would still reach the ballot.
But things would unquestionably be improved.
Chances are none of these changes will ever be made by elected legislators, who often act as agents of the interests that provide their campaign dollars. So the odds are it will take an initiative to fix the initiative process.
And the sooner it happens, the better.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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