OUR VIEW: Democrats should reform the initiative process

12/12/2012 11:29 PM

12/13/2012 12:12 AM

California's initiative process has aptly been described as an "initiative industrial complex," driven by special interests and buttressed by a business network of signature gatherers, legal services and campaign consulting.

Now is the time to change it, to move direct democracy closer to its intended purpose.

In the just-completed election, shadowy out-of- state groups with misleading names dumped millions in undisclosed donations into initiative campaigns -- such as the $11 million spent by "Americans for Responsible Leadership" on Proposition 32.

Other initiative campaigns were funded essentially by one individual -- whether $48 million from Molly Munger for Proposition 38, $32 million from Tom Steyer for Proposition 39, $16 million from George Joseph for Proposition 33, among others.

Now that the Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature -- and a Democratic governor -- they can show that they are serious about reforming the initiative process to make it work better for Californians.

A good place to start would be a proposal by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who plans to introduce a constitutional amendment in January or February, with the aim of putting it on the 2014 ballot. That provides plenty of time to hash out details in deliberative fashion.

Steinberg presented the elements in his proposal to The Sacramento Bee's editorial board in mid- November. They include:

Better disclosure of funding sources. Donors to groups that spend on initiative campaigns should be required to disclose their contributions -- and principal contributors should be required to be listed by name in the ballot pamphlet, mailings and advertisements.

A broad base of contributions, not just one donor. Steinberg suggests that when an initiative campaign submits petition signatures to the Secretary of State that it also have to show a minimal threshold of financial support -- say, for example, at least 1,000 contributions of $100.

Sunsets for initiatives that create new laws. Since the 1930s, critics have complained that obsolete, inconsistent laws passed by initiative fill up California's law books. Steinberg suggests that laws passed by voters should automatically sunset after 10 to 15 years or automatically go back before voters to reject or affirm.

A "cooling-off" period after signatures are submitted. This would give the Legislature 45 or 60 days to review an initiative after it qualifies. During this period, lawmakers and initiative proponents could negotiate changes with the aim of having a version that's acceptable to the proponents pass the Legislature and be signed into law -- thus, withdrawing the initiative from the ballot. This would help avoid unnecessary cluttering of the ballot with initiatives that have legislative support.

Allowing legislative propositions to be put on the ballot with a majority vote of lawmakers. Currently it takes a two-thirds vote in each house for the Legislature to place an initiative on the ballot. That means a minority can stop a majority from placing a measure on the ballot. In this year's election, Gov. Jerry Brown had to collect signatures for a tax measure -- Proposition 30 -- that a majority of lawmakers supported. That's got to stop.

Requiring initiatives with a substantial budget impact to name a funding source. Steinberg supports this, but realizes it will have to be carefully crafted to avoid gimmicks and sham sources.

The initiative process last year hit its centennial. It is time to update and fix it, and Democrats should use their supermajority to do that.

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