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Ben Boychuk: Initiative reform doesn’t fix the real problem

What’s wrong with California’s initiative and referendum process? Plenty. Voters often have too many questions to decide – mercifully, just six this November – on subjects too arcane or too technical to grasp easily. I’d wager that two-thirds of statewide ballot measures would be unnecessary with a responsible Legislature and a courageous governor.

Instead we have the representatives we deserve and a dysfunctional direct democracy that nobody really likes. Thus we get reforms such as Senate Bill 1253, the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last Saturday.

Authored by outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, the law should give the public and Legislature more time to browbeat proponents of disfavored initiatives and cheer authors of the favored ones by holding hearings early in the signature-gathering process. SB 1253’s supporters call this “creating room for alternatives and compromises.”

The new law provides an option to withdraw an initiative after it has qualified but before the secretary of state has printed the ballots – in case proponents decide they’ve been cudgeled enough.

The law also extends the signature-gathering period from five to six months – more time for a measure’s opponents to mount pre-emptive court challenges.

The “transparency” in the law’s title comes from a new requirement that the secretary of state’s office name each measure’s 10 top donors on its website. Full disclosure is great. Rest assured, campaigns will continue to demonize Big Oil, Big Business, Big Labor and Big Government.

As it happens, I spent last Saturday evening with about 200 students at Duarte High School in Southern California discussing our weird and wonderful initiative process. As much as I worry for the future of the republic, these kids – participants in the Arsalyn Program, which focuses on civic participation and voting – give me hope that everything will work out fine.

On the panel with me was Hinnaneh Qazi of California Common Cause and U-T San Diego columnist Steven Greenhut. Naturally, SB 1253 was a big topic of discussion.

Common Cause was a prominent backer of the new law. Qazi was a good sport, and did her best to parry criticism and make a decent case for the law. It was a bipartisan bill, she said. Bipartisanship is overrated, I replied. Some of the most pernicious laws on the books passed with bipartisan support.

Greenhut pointed out that one of the biggest problems with the initiative process is the way the attorney general’s office has written politically skewed ballot titles and summaries. The new law promises that ballot language will be more objective and studiously nonpartisan, but as long as the attorney general has the responsibility, voters have no real guarantee of neutrality.

Qazi got a big laugh from the students when she quoted from 2012’s Proposition 31 to illustrate just how wretched some ballot language can be. Prop. 31, a product of billionaire Nicholas Berggruen’s Think Long Committee for California, would have put the state on a two-year budget cycle. Nearly two-thirds of voters rejected it, perhaps because they tried to read it.

Think Long and Berggruen were also outspoken supporters of SB 1253. Would Prop. 31 have fared better under the new law? Or are some questions simply too technical, despite mandates to “avoid the use of technical terms whenever possible,” as SB 1253 provides?

These questions aren’t rhetorical. They also apply to the slate of initiatives and referendums on next month’s ballot.

With Proposition 45, voters will decide whether to empower the insurance commissioner to approve health insurance rate hikes. Should a bureaucracy intervene further in an already heavily regulated marketplace? Just because you distrust insurers, should you trust an elected official any more?

Or how about Proposition 46, which asks voters to boost medical malpractice damages, using drug and alcohol testing of doctors as an inducement. What’s fair and just? How do you quantify it? The plaintiffs’ bar has one answer. Doctors have another. In this case, simplified ballot language might conceal more than it reveals.

My personal favorite is Proposition 48, which asks voters statewide to ratify new gambling compacts with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians in Madera County and the Wiyot Tribe on the north coast near Humboldt. Maybe they’re good deals, maybe they aren’t. Unless you’re a local resident, do you really know or care?

If the problem is that initiatives require a degree in law or public administration to parse, as the authors of SB 1253 suggest, then maybe these measures shouldn’t be on the ballot to begin with.

Voters shouldn’t have to sort through the nuances of insurance law, liability or Indian gambling. These are fundamentally questions best left to elected legislators, who can stand or fall on the decisions they make. That’s how a representative republic is supposed to work.