The County Voice

Taking the Initiative: PPIC Poll and Panel Suggest Changes to Process

More and more, Californians are turning to the initiative process to propose and enact sweeping changes to public policy in everything from taxes and school funding to social policies including immigration and gay marriage. As we have seen with Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage, the initiatives do not always stand the test of constitutional scrutiny.  The initiative process can, to some degree, circumvent the delicate balance of powers among the Judicial, Legislative and Executive branches of government. And the initiative process has also become a significant “industry” in California, attracting millions of dollars in campaign contributions and expenditures.  This, and some recent polling, suggests the process is ripe for reform.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently polled Californians about their attitudes toward the initiative process. The results could be described as somewhat contradictory. On one hand, California voters vehemently support the right to self-govern through initiatives, and many believe they are capable of making better public policy decisions than elected officials do. But they also recognize that the process can be subverted and a majority of likely voters supports some reforms to the initiative process.  You can see the full PPIC report here. PPIC President and CEO Mark Baldassare also delivers a succinct summary of the findings in a video message at the same link.

The PPIC also recently held a panel discussion on how to reform the initiative process featuring one representative from each of the branches of Government; former Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown; Former Governor Gray Davis; and former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Ronald George.

In the wide-ranging and highly entertaining discussion — some key themes emerged as likely components of potential efforts to reform the initiative process. Chief among them, more transparency, by requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and leadership. The panel also suggested pre-election review of initiative language by a panel of retired judges, a special commission or possibly the Legislature. They would offer opinions as to the initiative’s constitutionality, potential conflict with existing laws and does the actual language do what proponents intended?

They also discussed possibly placing new requirements on signature-gathering needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot. For example, you could require more signatures, but give more time to collect them, or require fewer signatures, but ban paid signature gathering. Or, possibly allow paid gatherers, but require them to be paid by the hour — not by the signature.

These were just some of the ideas discussed during the panel session. There will almost certainly be more ideas tossed around — but it does seem likely that, although there is great support for the initiative process in general, there will likely be some serious efforts at reforming the process in the near future. What is not yet clear is how this will be accomplished — by an act of the Legislature or perhaps via the initiative process itself!

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