RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

Bee file, 2012. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg seen here at a news conference in November.

California Democrats consider giving lawmakers more say over initiatives

Published: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 - 5:46 pm | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

The November election delivered California Democrats a coveted supermajority for governing the state.

Now the party's leader in the Senate wants to use that political capital to give the Legislature more say in the voter initiatives that make their way to the ballot.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg plans to unveil what he calls "a starting point ... to begin a very serious discussion about initiative reform" this month. Key to his proposal will be increasing lawmakers' involvement in the system.

"The initiative process is important and all efforts should be to strengthen it, but the biggest problem, I believe, is that there is not a real connection between the initiative process and representative government in a way that could make both representative government and the initiative product better," he said.

The idea that the state's 101-year-old direct democracy process needs updating isn't new. The rising cost of initiative campaigns, crowded ballots and legal battles over language have fueled calls for reform.

Shortages of political will and cash have sidelined previous efforts to change the system, through both the Legislature and the initiative process.

Democrats now have the ability, however, to put the changes on the ballot without GOP votes. Providing extra motivation is the struggle they faced to put a tax measure on the November 2012 ballot.

Steinberg's package will likely include an "indirect initiative" proposal, which would let the Legislature amend or enact an initiative proposal with proponents' OK.

Without such an option, Gov. Jerry Brown opted last year to spend heavily to qualify a revision of his tax measure after negotiations with proponents of a competing measure. He circulated new petitions again after a drafting error was discovered.

Steinberg is also considering efforts to lower the vote threshold for state lawmakers to put taxes on the ballot – a move that could guard against a day in the future when Democrats do not have two-thirds control.

Another idea would require greater reliance on small donors or volunteers during the signature-gathering period, a process that can cost millions of dollars.

Democratic leaders last year were irritated by the presence of a competing tax measure on the ballot backed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, who used her own money to pay signature gatherers to qualify her measure.

California offered an indirect initiative route until 1966, when it was repealed. Few proponents took advantage of the system when it existed, in part because of timing issues created by the Legislature's then-biennial calendar.

Supporters say reviving the option would unclutter the ballot, provide public vetting of proposals and ensure that flaws or unintended consequences are worked out before a statewide vote.

Others fear the change would amount to a legislative power grab. Lawmakers have long been critical of aspects of the initiative process, particularly ballot-box budgeting that they say constrains spending.

Ahead of last year's election, Democrats made two moves that bolstered their chances of passing tax increases and defeating a measure affecting union dues. They restricted initiatives to the November election, when more Democrats were likely to turn out, and changed the ballot order to put Brown's tax measure first.

Republican strategist Jennifer Kerns, who has worked on multiple statewide measures, said she's concerned that Steinberg's proposals "are aimed at squelching the voice of the people."

"Given the fact that they've taken the supermajority back, I think they're looking for as many ways to maintain a concentration of power in Sacramento as possible," she said.

Some groups traditionally aligned with Democrats are also wary. Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court, whose group has waged war at the ballot with insurance companies, said the indirect initiative could actually give more power to moneyed interests. He said they might use their influence to get the Legislature to fix flaws opponents otherwise could have exploited during the campaign.

"It's basically like calling your big brother to get you out of a fight," Court said. "This is pandering to interest groups that want to use the ballot measure process as a way of legislating."

Even some longtime advocates of updating the process are skeptical.

Former Center for Governmental Studies President Bob Stern, author of "Democracy by Initiative," contends the indirect initiative would greatly improve the process. But he said a key question is how much Steinberg's final proposal shifts the balance of power to the Legislature.

"Many legislators would want to abolish (the initiative process) if they could do it privately with a private vote," Stern said. "It's very difficult to get initiative reforms through the Legislature that are not hurting the process."

Polling by the Public Policy Institute of California consistently shows that while voters believe there are problems with the process, they'd rather make policy changes themselves than trust those decisions to the Legislature.

"The voters of California really believe that the initiative process is an important check and balance against the governor and Legislature, and they want to have a say in public policy, particularly the big decisions around the budget and long-term spending issues," PPIC President Mark Baldassare said. "But that doesn't mean they think the initiative process is in any way perfect."

The PPIC's surveys show widespread support for changes that would increase disclosure and transparency, but less enthusiasm for an indirect initiative option. Baldassare said any proposals put on the ballot would likely need broad backing to win over voters skeptical of a legislative power grab.

Even with Steinberg's political pull, reaching such a consensus could be difficult. The initiative process is used heavily by both business and labor interests. And high-powered consulting and law firms in Sacramento make large sums off the costly campaigns.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, experienced such opposition firsthand last session, when he introduced a package of constitutional amendments related to the initiative process. Some proposals, such as a requirement that measures that would cost the state money identify a funding source, started with bipartisan support. In the end, even two co-authors failed to vote aye.

"It was just tremendous pressure put on them by some of the people, 'Initiative Inc.', I guess you could call it," Gatto said. "Good government measures, they benefit the people as a whole, but there is no specific special interest that benefits from this."

LEGISLATURE

STEINBERG'S IDEAS FOR INITIATIVE CHANGES

Here are some of the ideas Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is considering to change California's direct-democracy system:

• Allow the Legislature to put statutory initiatives, such as tax measures, on the ballot with a majority vote. Changes to the state constitution would still require a two-thirds vote.

• Allow the Legislature to offer amendments to a proposed initiative or pass its own version of the changes with sign-off from proponents.

• Require ballot measures to sunset or be reapproved after 10 years.

• Require that initiative proponents rely on a certain number of small donors or volunteers to collect the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Torey Van Oot



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