Last month, three major initiatives were pulled from California’s November ballot after issues raised by the sponsors were addressed in negotiations with the Legislature.
This was made possible by a law passed in 2014. The reform worked as it should on online privacy and lead paint cleanup by replacing the blunt instrument of a ballot initiative with a deliberative process.
But the negotiation on soda taxes revealed a flaw that must be fixed: The abuse of the “citizen’s initiative” by special interests to force legislative action in their favor or face a worse outcome at the polls.
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The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to prohibit local taxes on soft drinks for 12 years in exchange for the sponsors of the initiative – primarily the big soda companies – withdrawing a ballot measure that would have required a two-thirds vote for any fee or taxes by local governments. That compromise came at such a cost that some have called it “extortion.”
To curb such abuse, it may be wise to rethink the timing of legislative hearings on ballot initiatives before the measures qualify. More time could result in considered deliberation to balance interests instead of last-minute negotiations and gaming of the system.
Now, legislative hearings on proposed initiatives take place right up against the deadline for proponents to withdraw initiatives from the ballot. If hearings were held closer to the time a measure appears likely to qualify, more time will be available to consider the merits of the measure. Also, lawmakers would have more time to move alternative legislation through the usual hearing process.
Another helpful change would be a process for legislators to signal whether they would like to negotiate after a measure is filed and reaches 25 percent of the necessary signatures to qualify. Being up front about willingness to engage would send a message to proponents that they will not have the opportunity to leverage the Legislature before they finish collecting signatures. In some cases, legislators may prefer that a measure go to the ballot, as with Proposition 53 in 2016, which failed.
Combined with the 2014 law, these reforms would take us back to the original idea of the “indirect initiative” championed by progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson in 1911. His process allowed proponents who gather signatures equivalent to 5 percent of the last vote to present a petition to the Legislature, which then had 40 days to replace the measure with its own. If the Legislature did not act, the measure would go to the people.
While voters strongly support the initiative process because they want to maintain a check on their elected government, they are also extremely frustrated with long ballots and blame legislators for failing to solve the issues on the ballot.
Improving the future of direct democracy in California so it truly serves the public and not special interests may just mean returning to the past.