Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Pending bill would change initiative system – for the better?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

By word and deed, the state’s politically dominant Democrats have demonstrated that they want to substantially alter California’s century-old initiative system that allows voters to legislate directly through the ballot box.

They say they want to improve the system. A few years ago, the Democratic Party’s executive board declared that it’s “being abused … to create laws and programs that benefit a very few people at the expense of the many.”

But the Democrats’ many bills have mostly tried to make it more difficult for their conservative political rivals to place measures on the ballot, while preserving the system for their allies, such as labor unions.

One measure, which would have made it a crime for initiative petition signature-gatherers to be paid by the name, was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who called it “a dramatic change” and added, “I am not persuaded that the unintended consequences won’t be worse than the abuses the bill aims to prevent.”

This year, Democrats took a different path with bills to erase from the law books measures that had been passed by voters but voided by the courts, such as Proposition 187, the 1994 measure to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants.

It’s questionable whether the erasure bill, signed by Brown, is legal, since the state constitution doesn’t provide for legislative repeal of voter-passed measures.

It raises the possibility that were voters to pass a future measure that a governor and legislators don’t like, the governor could refuse to defend it in a subsequent lawsuit (as happened with Proposition 187) and then the Legislature could erase it.

One bill, awaiting Brown’s signature or veto, directly changes the initiative process – carried by the Senate’s outgoing president pro tem, Darrell Steinberg.

Senate Bill 1253 is not fundamental change, but procedural tinkering, such as creating a 30-day period for public review and comment before the attorney general issues a “title and summary” for a proposed measure, and allowing proponents to make changes during that period.

It also requires titles and summaries to be written in clear and concise terms and be objective and nonpartisan – responding to allegations that attorneys general have slanted their summaries. And it would give voters, in their official materials, information about the sponsors and opponents of measures and their financial sources.

Since SB 1253 was carried by Democrat Steinberg and is supported by liberal groups, it’s natural to wonder whether it would, like past “reform” bills, tilt the system against their conservative rivals.

It appears not.

The bill is also supported by the state Chamber of Commerce and drew some Republican votes. And in the main, it would improve, not eviscerate, what has become, unfortunately, the chief process for making public policy.