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Initiative reform: Comments on your comments

October 24, 2011 |  4:36 pm

Monday's Times editorial on reforming California's initiative system -- the latest in a series -- spurred some thoughtful comments. Here are some of the most interesting, with some thoughts on the thoughts and comments on the comments.

Good point from areeda: "Many of the problems with laws enacted by initiative also apply to laws enacted by the legislature." Exactly right. It's hardly fair or helpful to cite all the problems with allowing voters to pass their own laws if those very same problems exist in the capitol. People voting without thinking or checking into the consequences of their actions? Lawmakers do that all the time. People too easily swayed by big-moneyed campaigns? Sure it happens -- but does it happen as often as members of the Assembly and Senate are wined and dined by lobbyists? areeda goes directly to the proper issue with initiative reform: Any changes must actually be improvements and not just plays to move around the chess pieces.

Several other readers made the same point in a different way, including edwardskizer, who said politicians don't like the process "because it often allows special interests to go right to the people, thus denying the politicians their bribe money and campaign contributions." While making allowances for some sardonic wit, I have to say that the initiative process is more a friend to any single lawmaker than a foe. It takes away discretion -- and in so doing, it also takes away accountability. For example, an Assembly Democrat could tell his or her constituents, "I'd love to raise property taxes and fund more programs, but I can't, because the people passed Proposition 13. Take it up with them." A Republican senator could say, "Of course we need to get rid of all those environmental regulations, but the people keep adopting more. Take it up with them." The Legislature may not like the competition, but I'm betting they like the political cover.

krvonl says California needs "to keep the legislature out of the initiative process" and not, by implication, get them more involved. After all, members of the Legislature would have changed Proposition 25, which stops their pay when they don't get a budget done on time, and Proposition 11, which makes a citizens commission responsible for redistricting instead of the Legislature itself. No argument here.

But what if the Legislature could hold hearings on a proposed initiative, and then merely suggest changes? The proponent would be free to make those changes if he/she/they agreed they were useful, but could also choose to reject them and send the measure to the ballot just as originally proposed. 

That's the essence of a reform (or a deform, depending on your point of view) that has been floating around for a while and is crystallized in a proposal by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Burbank. People who like it say that it leaves the people free to propose, petition and vote on their own measures, but allows another branch of government to identify kinks, and that could only be a good thing. It folds direct democracy, gently, into a constitutional system of checks and balances. People who don't like it worry that sometime in the hearing phase, special interests will buy off proponents into changing their initiatives -- and perhaps they would, but they can already do that (and besides, isn't it already some special interest or other that is proposing the initiative?).

Some initiative purists worry about a provision in Gatto's bill that would allow the Legislature to put its own version of the measure on the ballot, right next to the one that proponents got the signatures for. Perhaps that would dilute the strength of the original initiative. But that's not any kind of change from the present situation. Lawmakers can, and do, sometimes put up their own quasi-reforms. Go back some 33 years to Proposition 13, and you may remember that the Legislature countered with the milder Proposition 8. Voters rejected it. Or go back to the Three Strikes Law. Lawmakers knew voters would adopt the initiative, so instead of offering voters their own version, they passed Three Strikes directly into law.

This is one of the basic questions of reform: Does a system that  was intended to circumvent the Legislature get better or worse -- or stay the same -- by putting the Legislature right back in the mix?

Read The Times' earlier editorial discussions of initiative reform, help shape new ones with your thoughts and comments, and look for them on the editorial page -- online and in print -- as we write them and roll them out.


A California tuneup

Initiating a fix for California

Dealing with the California initiative system

--Robert Greene

Photo: A votercasts a ballot in 2006. Credit: Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times

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