Any student of California government knows that Gov. Hiram Johnson and other reformers created the initiative process more than a hundred years ago with the best of intentions. It would give voters a way to circumvent the Legislature and break the stranglehold that the Southern Pacific Railroad then had on state politics.
It was a romanticized idea of citizen-directed democracy and, for a time, that was the way it worked.
Unfortunately, the process was co-opted years ago by special interests and has become a multimillion-dollar business, allowing any individual or group with the financial means to put its issue before voters. Some are worthy; many are not.
The November election was a perfect example. At least three measures won spots on the ballot and were supported almost solely by multimillionaire backers.
There have been various efforts at reform over the years, but any kind of significant overhaul has never gained traction.
Now, in an ironic twist that Johnson surely could never have envisioned, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is proposing an initiative reform that, in a way, would make it easier for the Legislature to you guessed it circumvent itself. We've come full circle.
The Sacramento Democrat wants to place on the November 2014 ballot a measure that would lower the threshold for lawmakers to place a statutory initiative on the ballot from two-thirds to a simple majority.
Constitutional amendments would still require a two-thirds vote.
Initiative reform is a laudable goal, but what Steinberg proposes, it seems to me, has at least one serious flaw that could produce undesirable consequences.
In the first place, allowing a simple majority to place issues before voters means that if one party dominates both the Senate and Assembly, as the Democrats do now, that party could put anything and everything to a public vote unimpeded by opposition or argument, or threat of gubernatorial vetoes.
Although voters would still have the final say, the result would create a proverbial playground for political mischief. More cluttered ballots surely would follow.
Although a part of Steinberg's plan also calls for better disclosure of funding sources, there also would be nothing to stop a majority party from tapping all its big-money sources, i.e., special interests, in support of the issues the party has put on the ballot.
Special-interest influence would not be diluted by any means.
Secondly, Steinberg's plan would make it even easier for legislators to avoid taking positions on any number of controversial issues by merely passing them along to voters, which they have shown no hesitation to do in the past.
"Let the voters decide" has a nice ring to it, but too often it has resulted in complicated measures being reduced to simplistic slogans and decided by deceptive TV ads.
The partisan gridlock and Republican intransigence that now plagues the Legislature surely will not last forever, and reasoned debate and compromise will again become possible, which is what representative government should be all about.
In a speech to the Sacramento Press Club last spring, the Democratic leader said his proposal grows not only out of a need to rein in an out-of-control initiative process but also from voters' decision in 2010 to allow legislative approval of a state budget with a majority vote, while leaving in place a two-thirds requirement for tax increases.
"How maddening it was way, way back in 2011," said Steinberg, "to have a new governor and Legislature make $14 billion worth of cuts and then not allow the people the right to vote to extend existing taxes."
Republicans blocked a deal to hold a special election on the tax extension. If Steinberg's plan had been in effect then, the Democratic majority could have placed the issue before voters without any support from the GOP.
"I don't think the minority party should trump the will of the people," Steinberg has also said. "And that's what occurs now when you can't, even with a majority vote, place a question before the voters."
The balance of what Steinberg proposes is similar to other past and failed reform efforts allowing legislative review before an initiative goes on the ballot, permitting the Legislature and the governor to amend or repeal any statutory initiative after 10 years to 15 years or automatically put such laws back on the ballot, and requiring a funding source for any ballot measure that calls for an expenditure of state funds.
All in all, it's an interesting political move and not without merit. Something definitely needs to be done about an initiative process run amok. But despite initiative overload in many elections over the past few decades, including this November, voters historically have been averse to tampering with a system that they see as a safety valve for legislative inaction, no matter how well-intentioned.