USC student Rachel Distler campaigns against two ballot initiatives last… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Reporting from Sacramento -- Democrats in the Legislature are trying to make it harder for Californians to pass their own laws at the ballot box, saying the state's century-old initiative process has been hijacked by the special interests it was created to fight and has perpetuated Sacramento's financial woes.
In the waning weeks of this year's lawmaking session, legislators will push bills to raise filing fees, place new restrictions on signature gatherers and compel greater public disclosure of campaign contributors.
One measure would allow the Legislature to propose changes that would appear on the ballot alongside an initiative even if its sponsor rejected them. Another would give the Legislature the right to amend or repeal initiatives that pass, after four years have gone by.
Such changes would severely weaken what little leverage Republicans and their allies still have in California after last year's election, which solidified Democratic control of the Capitol.
But Democrats say their efforts have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with moderating "direct democracy" gone wild.
"I don't want to get rid of the initiative process," said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), one of the effort's leaders and author of a proposal to make signature gatherers wear badges showing they are paid to collect names. "I just want it to work better."
Republicans and their supporters are crying foul, saying Democrats just want to maintain the status quo.
"The long-term agenda is to neuter direct democracy in California under the guise of reforming the system," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., sponsor of Proposition 13, the landmark property-tax initiative.
DeSaulnier said most voters don't realize how constrained lawmakers are by the initiative system. In recent decades, Californians have approved costly new laws and government programs but have also made it more difficult for lawmakers to raise taxes to pay for those that pass without funding attached.
The Legislature has cut deeply into some of California's most prized assets — its higher education system, for example — as it has struggled to balance the books without being able to touch money earmarked by voters. California, lawmakers note, is the only state that doesn't allow its Legislature to amend or repeal statutes created by voters.
"We are trying to take on a giant with one hand tied behind our back," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake), who with DeSaulnier is leading the charge to rein in initiatives.
Their prospects are unclear. The most far-reaching bills require Republican votes and are unlikely to get them. Even if they make it through the Legislature, they must be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has championed the initiative process and has been lukewarm to attempts to restrict it.
The lawmakers' move follows years of their party's successful use of the initiative process to create their own pet programs, DeSaulnier acknowledged. Legislative leaders won measures that enshrined funding for mental health providers and enabled Democrats to pass a state budget with a simple majority vote. And Democrats backed Proposition 98, which dedicated roughly 40% of the general fund to public schools.
Initiative experts and good-government groups said that although some of the proposed overhauls could improve governance, they would inevitably harm Republicans, who, while largely on the sidelines in Sacramento, have also enjoyed victories at the ballot box.
GOP efforts helped squash property taxes with Proposition 13, which also imposed on the Legislature a two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases. Republicans persuaded voters to ban bilingual education and affirmative action in public institutions, toughen penalties for violent juvenile offenders and limit class-action lawsuits.
The proposed changes "are basically attempts to … blame the process because you are kind of losing the game," said Shaun Bowler, an initiative expert at UC Riverside.
Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Linda), vice chairman of the lower house elections committee, called the initiative legislation "the height of arrogance." Democrats "own the Legislature," he said, "and they are making it impossible for the people to rise up and say enough is enough."
Stymied in earlier efforts by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democrats hope Brown, who used a political reform initiative as a plank in his first run for governor in 1974, will be more agreeable. But this month, he followed the lead of his predecessor in vetoing legislation that would have outlawed the practice of paying signature gatherers for each name they secure.
In his veto message, Brown wrote that eliminating the incentive would drive up the cost of circulating petitions, favoring wealthy interests. "I am not persuaded that the unintended consequences won't be worse than the abuses the bill aims to prevent," he said.
And Brown plans to use the initiative process next year to ask voters to approve the tax hikes that Republicans blocked in this year's budget fight.
The public appears wary of legislative action.
A June poll conducted by good-government groups found that although voters support bids for more transparency in the initiative process, such as a DeSaulnier bill that would require measures to specify how they would be paid for, they strongly oppose those that would give the Legislature more power.
Only 37% liked the idea of giving lawmakers the authority to amend an initiative after it has passed, even if the measure's proponent agrees.
Marc Klaas, whose daughter's abduction and murder helped fuel the "three-strikes" initiative in 1994, said citizen lawmaking is a critical check on unresponsive legislators.
"The initiative process … exists so the people of California can have the kinds of laws they want," he said.