At different times in recent years, Daphne Phung and Chris Kelly traveled to the state Capitol, hoping to get laws passed that would make life harder for criminals. At first blush, that would seem like a political slam dunk.
But both walked out defeated, vowing to take matters into their own hands.
Phung, an accountant and activist, urged lawmakers to create stiffer penalties for those convicted of trafficking in people for sex or labor. Kelly, a politically ambitious former Facebook executive, was pushing for a bill that would require sex offenders to disclose their email addresses and online user names.
"There was massive resistance from certain people in the Legislature," Kelly said. "That surprised the heck out of me because I think these should be no-brainer issues."
So the pair put their ideas together into an initiative that became Proposition 35, one of 11 ballot measures California voters face in November. Like many others, it addresses an issue the state's professional lawmakers could have tackled.
Tax increases, criminal sentencing measures, changes to the state budget process all are ideas that started as bills in the Capitol, but stalled out along the way. They're on the ballot because of California's initiative process, created 101 years ago by Gov. Hiram Johnson, that allows citizens to bypass the professionals and make their own laws.
"It's exactly what Hiram Johnson wanted," said Robert Stern, former president of the recently closed Center for Governmental Studies. "If the Legislature was gridlocked and couldn't vote on something, then people had the chance to vote on it themselves."
Lawmakers did send Gov. Jerry Brown nearly 1,000 bills this year. But there are always issues, Stern said, that politicians will dodge if they can especially those related to criminal justice and taxes. That's the case with several of the initiatives voters face on Nov. 6.
Taxes and budgeting
Four initiatives deal with taxes and budgeting:
Propositions 30 and 38, which propose tax increases, are the result of failed negotiations between Brown and the Legislature. Republican legislators refused to put a tax plan before voters, so Brown launched an initiative that became Proposition 30, while attorney Molly Munger launched one that became Proposition 38.
Proposition 39, which would change the way out-of-state corporations pay taxes, goes after the same tax break that Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to reverse this year. Brown tried to undo it last year, but Republicans balked.
Proposition 31 would change several aspects of the state budget process including implementing performance-based budgeting, an idea that cleared the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Brown.
Three initiatives deal with criminal justice:
Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty, a change that by law must be made by voters. A bill last year would have put the question on the ballot but didn't get much support in the Legislature.
Proposition 36 would change the "three strikes" law so offenders could be sentenced to life in prison only if their third felony is serious or violent. A 2006 bill would have put the same question to voters, but was shot down by the Legislature.
Proposition 35, backed by Phung and Kelly, was born after lawmakers quashed their ideas for new bills. Legislators under pressure to downsize the state's prison population were not interested in taking on measures that could lead to longer sentences.
The bill Kelly pushed to add Internet identifiers to sex offender registries got held up, he said, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the public safety committee.
Ammiano said he didn't like that it applied to all sex offenders, regardless of whether their crime had anything to do with Internet use. He felt it could impinge on free speech for people who participate in online political forums.
"If you want to stop child molesters from using computers to find victims, then you should target that, not everybody. That bill would've been applied to every registered sex offender, regardless of the nature or seriousness of the crime," Ammiano said in an email.
Kelly put $1.6 million into gathering signatures for an initiative.
"There has to be an available method for organizing to happen and people to speak when the Legislature won't act," he said. "I've worked hard and created companies that have become very valuable, and this is part of my giving back to the state."
Because it costs so much to gather the signatures necessary to get an initiative on the ballot, citizen democracy is frequently affiliated with people of means. Munger, the attorney behind the Proposition 38 tax increase, is the daughter of Charles Munger, Warren Buffett's business partner. She has already spent $20 million to support her initiative, which would pour the new revenue into public schools.
Proposition 39, which would increase taxes on out-of-state companies and direct the money to clean-energy projects, is backed by investor Tom Steyer, who has put $21.9 million into it. It's similar to a bill that died on the last night of the legislative session in August.
Tax break targeted
Pérez's AB 1500 went after the same tax break but would have allocated the money for college scholarships. Backers of the initiative had said they would drop their campaign if the bill passed.
"Because it didn't happen in the Legislature, now it's up to the voters. And we're confident they'll see why this is so important," said Proposition 39 spokeswoman Alexa Bluth.
In many cases, Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg said, it's unfair of initiative proponents to criticize the government for inaction.
"Whether you believe the Legislature should go a certain direction on an issue is subjective. So depending on your opinion, you may think the Legislature failed to act reasonably, but if you hold another point of view you're thankful to the Legislature for not going down a certain path," he said.
"You can't say the initiative is always appropriate. It depends upon the issue and where the majority of people stand."
Proposition 31, backed by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, seeks to make several changes to the state budget process. It would create a two-year budget cycle, require performance reviews of all state programs and forbid lawmakers from passing last-minute bills.
Supporters tried to get some of the reforms through the Legislature, but knew that others such as the requirement that bills be in print for at least three days before a vote would never fly with politicians, said Mike Madrid, a campaign spokesman.
"There are a lot of critics of the initiative process, but this is exactly why it exists," he said. "The dysfunction of the Legislature and its inability to handle serious problems have required that citizens of the state help move the state along."
Or at least try. As much as Californians like the freedom to vote on new laws, history shows they have rejected more initiatives than they've passed.
"Depending on your opinion, you may think the Legislature failed to act reasonably, but if you hold another point of view you're thankful to the Legislature for not going down a certain path."
SENATE PRESIDENT PRO TEM DARRELL STEINBERGWHAT THEY SAY
"Because it didn't happen in the Legislature, now it's up to the voters."
Alexa Bluth, spokeswoman for Prop. 39 "The dysfunction of the Legislature and its inability to handle serious problems have required that citizens of the state help move the state along."
Mike Madrid, spokesman for Prop. 31 "That surprised the heck out of me because I think these should be no-brainer issues."
Chris Kelly, who supported a bill to require sex offenders to disclose email addresses