If Hiram Johnson were keeping score on his Progressive Era reforms – and the citizen initiative, in particular – he would see some successes next to the shortcomings The Sacramento Bee called out in its March 22 editorial “In 2016, Hiram Johnson might finally concede defeat.”
For starters, he would count Proposition 11, the 2008 citizens redistricting measure, as a success. Legislative leaders would never hand over to a politically balanced group of citizens the task of drawing their legislative districts. Voters did.
Johnson, the anti-partisan reformer, also would consider Proposition 14, the top-two primary, a success. That 2010 initiative gave all voters the right to vote for all candidates in state elections. It also diminished the power of partisan extremists in selecting candidates and enforcing pledges by incumbents. The parties and legislative leaders opposed the measure. But voters won.
By 2012, California’s strictest-in-the-nation term limits had drained the Legislature of experience and expertise. Proposition 28, a citizens initiative sponsored by business and labor and other groups, gave voters a chance to increase stability. Voters agreed.
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Have citizen reforms made a difference? As a freshman, the current speaker of the Assembly predicted the new rules would encourage more bipartisan solutions to real problems. He was right.
Take Proposition 2: The 2014 measure passed the Legislature with near unanimous support and was backed by 69 percent of voters. The rainy-day fund helped to return fiscal stability to the state and improve its credit rating – saving taxpayers some $50 million on the next bond issuance.
Watch the November 2016 ballot for the Legislative Transparency Act – which would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before a final vote in the Assembly and Senate. The Legislature refused to put the amendment on the ballot – so thank Johnson for giving citizens the chance to vote on it.
Annoyingly, the only way to get enough signatures in the allotted time is to hire a signature-gathering firm. That oligopoly is ripe for technological disruption just like other stale, expensive industries. Making it easier for citizen groups rather than interest groups to qualify initiatives would make Johnson smile.
For sure, when it comes to initiatives – just as in candidate races and the bill-making process – money speaks louder than wisdom or even common sense. But without the initiative process, money would still sway policy choices in one venue – the Legislature, where voters don’t get to vote. Neither Johnson nor citizens would let that happen.
Lenny Mendonca is the co-chairman of California Forward.