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Cure for the Initiative

No one is suggesting that the process be abolished, but it clearly needs fixing--a task being undertaken by yet another panel.

November 05, 2000

Four commissions have studied California's oft-used, and abused, ballot initiative process over the past decade, with little success in getting any of their reforms enacted. A fifth commission began work last week and we wish it well in its formidable task. It undertakes the job at the behest of state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks).

No one is suggesting that the initiative process be done away with, but it certainly needs fixing. The initiative, created during the Progressive movement early in the 20th century, has been distorted by the increasing dominance of the process by well-heeled special interests seeking to write their own designs into law. Examples from Tuesday's ballot include Proposition 35, sponsored by private engineering and architectural firms, and Proposition 38, the school vouchers measure bankrolled principally by a wealthy Silicon Valley executive. In each case, large public employee unions are major contributors to the opposition campaigns. Even when such measures are worth voting for, they are never as good as they could be without the special interests distorting the process. Through Oct. 21 this year, campaigns for and against the state ballot's five initiatives raised nearly $120 million.

In earlier times, the Progressives used the initiative process as a people's legislative tool to break the railroads' stranglehold on the state Legislature. Today, it's almost impossible for grass-roots groups to raise the millions needed for successful petition drives and subsequent voter campaigns.

The initiative process remains overwhelmingly popular in California, but polls show that voters are not very satisfied with the way it works. The question is how to change it. Some problems are obvious. Ballot descriptions are often convoluted and confusing, and pro and con arguments in the official voter's ballot pamphlet are often misleading if not outright deceptive. Phony committees are created to hide the real sources of financial contributions.

Meanwhile, voters are increasingly indignant that ballot measures approved in elections are struck down by the courts. The major problem for the courts is that many initiatives are sloppily written. Hertzberg's commission should devise some means of screening proposals for obvious legal errors before they go on the ballot.

A more difficult problem is how to counter the special-interest money. A simple spending limit won't work because the courts have declared that an infringement of free speech. Firm new disclosure requirements would at least make it clear to a voter, beginning with the signing of the petition, who's behind the initiative and exactly what the purpose is.

Ironically, if lawmakers refuse to accept a sound, reasoned plan, the only recourse may be to launch an anti-initiative petition campaign to put the question on the ballot for voters to decide.

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