New Law Brings Big Changes to California's Initiative Process

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A voter scans her ballot in San Francisco on Nov. 6, 2012. (Aarti Shahani/KQED)
A voter scans her ballot in San Francisco on Nov. 6, 2012. (Aarti Shahani/KQED)

Public opinion polls have time and again made two things clear about California's system of allowing citizens to write laws themselves: Voters like the system, in operation now for more than a century, but they also wish it would work better.

On Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to a plan on which many reform groups have pinned their hopes for change.

Brown signed into law what is arguably the most substantive change to California's initiative process in decades, a bill that backers promise will add more transparency and more chances for constructive dialogue to a system that has become dominated by big-money campaigns that leave voters confused and frustrated.

"We're taking an important step to modernize and strengthen direct democracy," said the governor in an emailed statement from his office on Saturday.

The key elements of SB1253, by outgoing Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), are threefold: a new monthlong public review of initiatives in which backers can make changes; a process for legislators and initiative proponents to craft a compromise in the state Capitol and avoid an election altogether; and a new, continually updated online list of top initiative donors.

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Government reform activists, business groups and political activists all joined in to help draft and line up support for SB1253. That may have made Brown's decision relatively easy, an endorsement that stands in contrast to a number of other changes to the initiative process over the past three years that legislators have passed and he's vetoed.

"Too often," said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George in a written statement, "ballot measures are confusing and poorly written and there has been no chance for initiative backers to make even the most routine changes, let alone drive compromise."

The new law's key element -- a chance for initiative backers to tweak or even abandon their effort -- was no doubt drafted with an eye toward recent polls like the one conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California last spring. The PPIC poll found 78 percent of likely voters favored a new mechanism for allowing initiative backers and the Legislature to negotiate; 77 percent favored the creation of a review process to catch potential mistakes or drafting errors. The new law does both.

Of particular interest to many government watchers is the new law's creation of a process by which a political campaign fight over an initiative can be avoided through a legislative process designed to encourage compromise.

In some ways, it harkens back to California's era of the "indirect initiative," a similar process that was rarely used and ultimately abolished by voters in 1966. Skeptics point to that history as proof that this might not change anything, though supporters argue the current era of blockbuster initiatives didn't really begin until 1978, with the passage of the landmark tax rollback Proposition 13.

The new law gives the Legislature a role in examining an initiative after 25 percent of the signatures needed for its qualification have been gathered. That could mean the measure's political backers have weeks, or even months, to prompt lawmakers to take action on their own. And unlike now, where an initiative cannot be pulled back once backers submit voter signatures to elections officials, the new law allows supporters of a proposed proposition to scuttle it at any point before those signatures are fully counted and the measure actually qualifies for the ballot.

"Californians deserve an improved initiative process," said Phillip Ung, director of public affairs for the bipartisan group California Forward. "SB1253 starts us down the road."

There are a number of other changes rolled into the new law, including a simplified but extended fiscal analysis of proposed initiatives. And, as mentioned before, it requires a new effort by the secretary of state to keep the public informed about the identity of an initiative's major donors -- again, a change widely supported by voters (84 percent in 2013's PPIC poll liked this idea).

The real question, of course, is whether these changes will improve California's system of direct democracy that, while cherished by voters, is often manipulated by well-funded interest groups.

One wonders, for example, whether an extended window of opportunity for a truce would have staved off what became Proposition 46 -- this fall's megamillions fight over medical malpractice awards. Legislators couldn't broker a compromise on the issue in Sacramento. Would the political campaign have happened no matter what? And if so, then is it reasonable to assume that the new law actually defuses some political powder kegs ... or not?

Assuming the law takes effect as planned and no other changes are made, one thing's for sure: The maneuvering for what's anticipated on the fall 2016 ballot, and the agenda for 2015 in the statehouse, could be quite interesting.