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California's initiative system: The gateway to citizen's rights or a process that needs fixing?

June 29, 2011 |  4:26 pm


In recent weeks, The Times' editorial board has been exploring arguments for and against proposed changes to the California initiative process­­, which allows citizens to circumvent the Legislature and get their own measures on the ballot.

On Friday, state Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) spoke with members of the board to discuss six pieces of legislation he’s proposed to fix the process. Gatto said ballot initiatives tie the Legislature’s hands by committing funds to projects lawmakers have no control over -- see the “Three Strikes Law,” for example, a voter initiative that did not name a funding source.

After all of California’s rules, restrictions and fund commitments, there’s just not enough money for legislators to dole out where it’s needed -- voters have already made the decisions for them, but without analyzing the consequences, critics of the current process say. This rigidity is one motivation behind Gatto’s “pay as you go” reform, ACA 6, which would require propositions to name a funding source to pay for its costs when they’re more than $5 million. He hopes changes such as these will reduce “ballot box budgeting,” and the number of poorly thought-out voter initiatives.

Some of the other changes he’s proposed include:

-- Initiatives that would increase the legislative or voter requirement needed to enact future changes would need to pass by that same margin of votes under ACA 9.

The thought behind Gatto's bill is that it should take a supermajority of voters to levy a supermajority requirement on the Legislature or future voters. For example, Proposition 26 passed 2010 with 52.5% of the vote, and requires that some state and local taxes be passed by a two-thirds vote rather than by a simple majority. The proposition would not have passed if Gatto’s amendment had already been adopted, because Prop. 26 got a simple majority of the vote, not the supermajority it would have needed to pass.

-- ACA 10 would allow the Legislature to amend or repeal voter-initiated statutes after they have been in effect for four years.

California statutes voted onto the books through the initiative process can only be amended by another ballot initiative, unless they contain a provision that explicitly says they can be updated by the Legislature. The Political Reform Act of 1974, California’s conflict-of-interest law for public officials, contained this provision, and was most recently amended in 2000. But statutes that lack the same foresight and are, for instance, written based on inflation rates from 20 years ago, could still be on the books. Take Proposition 21 from 2010, which would have levied an annual $18 vehicle license charge to help fund state parks and wildlife. Had it passed, this charge would have been $18 forever, and the money would have always been put toward state parks even if it was desperately needed in another area. The only way to change the law to meet future needs would have been for voters to pass another initiative. Gatto’s proposed legislation would change that to allow legislators to update these laws themselves.

-- AB 65 would require the voter guide to state that any revenue sources created by a ballot initiative will always be allocated to the program for which the funding source was created. Unless it is stated otherwise, the funds cannot be redirected unless the measure is amended by voters.

This would have required that the voter guide for Proposition 21 state that the money generated by the $18 vehicle license charge would “irrevocably and forever be dedicated” to state parks and wildlife programs, because the proposed text did not specify that those funds could go elsewhere.

-- ACA 11 would require constitutional amendments to pass with 55% of the vote, but could be repealed with the requirements that existed when they were passed.

California’s Constitution is one of the longest in the nation, and has become akin to a compilation of “superstatutes,” rather than a guiding document. There aren’t a whole lot of differences between a constitutional amendment and a statute anymore, and they’re nearly equally easy for voters to pass; so, it is argued that the Constitution is amended often and often without sufficient thought. The proposed legislation would make it more difficult to pass amendments, which could help return the Constitution to what it should be: a guiding document rather than a lengthy book of laws. This legislation would have prevented Proposition 26 from passing in 2010 –- it only got 52.5% of the vote, not 55%. On the other hand, Proposition 25, which changed the vote needed to pass a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, would have barely scraped by with 55.1%.

-- ACA 12 would allow the Legislature to hold hearings to propose amendments to initiatives prior to their passage. Any changes proposed by lawmakers would have to be accepted by the initiative’s proponents in order to actually change the initiative going on the ballot.

Hearings such as the ones proposed could have helped to clean up last year’s proposition to legalize marijuana, which many people opposed because they believed it was poorly thought out. Opponents say a bill such as Gatto’s creates a lot of room for mischief and could be misleading to voters, who might end up seeing a different initiative on the ballot than the one they signed to support.

Two weeks ago the board met with consumer activist Harvey Rosenfield and Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., both of whom stand against California initiative reform. They think now is not the time to weaken a citizen-driven process, especially with such a low Legislature approval rate. Voters are smarter than we give them credit for, they said, and can spot special interests when they’re on the ballot.

Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, and Tracy Weston, the center's vice chairman and chief executive, came in to argue for amending the process, like Gatto. Stern and Weston said the initiative process shouldn’t be eliminated, but it should be improved.


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-- Samantha Schaefer

Photo: Voters cast their ballots in voting booths at the Venice United Methodist Church in Venice on June 8, 2010. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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