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Are Changes to the State Initiative Process on the Horizon?

October 25, 2013
On the heels of an earlier report released Oct. 8, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) held an event yesterday on California’s initiative process.
The panel discussion featured members representative of the three branches of government: Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (legislative), Former California Governor Gray Davis (executive) and Retired California Chief Justice Ronald George (judicial).

PPIC Initiative Reform Survey Finds Overall Positive Outlook
PPIC’s recent survey report polled voter opinion of the state’s initiative process and reform proposals. Overall, the report found that voters have a positive view of the initiative process but would like to see modest reforms. According to results, 72 percent of adults polled believe it is a “good thing a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives” — a sentiment consistent with PPIC poll results from previous surveys.
When asked about reform, participants signaled their willingness for some moderate reforms. Pluralities of voters for years have shown support for increased legislative involvement in the process. PPIC found that 78 percent of likely voters support implementing a time frame for the Legislature and initiative sponsors to confer and seek a compromise solution before placing measure on ballot. But when it comes to allowing the Legislature to amend approved initiatives after a certain number of years, however, likely voter support drops to only 36 percent.   
Non-legislative related reform proposals presented to survey participants received overall high marks.

Of such reform proposals, the PPIC found the following results:
  • 84 percent of likely voters support increasing public disclosure of ballot measure funding sources for both proponents and opponents;
  • 75 percent of likely voters support giving more time to initiative signature gathering qualification efforts if they only use volunteers and not paid gatherers;
  • 69 percent of likely voters support the creation of an independent citizen’s initiative commission charged with evaluating and reviewing measures in a series of public forums prior to ballot placement; and
  • 64 percent of likely voters support allowing voters to renew initiatives after a number of years.
PPIC concluded from its survey results that voters want three things: increased transparency in campaign finances, increased legislative involvement and more public outreach and education to increase participation.
Political Heavyweights Debate the Issues
Several questions were posed to the panel with each offering very distinct viewpoints during the course of the discussion.
When asked about his overall opinion, Gov. Davis said the ballot process was the “rules of the road” when trying to navigate the system. The process in his opinion has improved California governance overall, but can sometimes be more of an issue than solution. He mentioned how the passage of a recent budget related ballot measure (Proposition 25 from 2010) has altered and brought more urgency to the legislative environment when it comes to passing an on time budget.
Chief Justice George stated the process can become convoluted when issues emerge requiring court intervention. He pointed to examples of dueling ballot measures, constitutionality issues, violations of the single-subject rule and how voters don’t always understand that the court’s job is to uphold and protect the voters original will when it overturns proposals. He also spoke to issues related to how voters may not adequately comprehend the massive impact passing certain measures may have on present and future policies.   
Speaker Brown expressed his opposition to the system stating that the process completely disregards the value and involvement of directly elected representatives. His argument centered on how elected representation is at the heart of democracy and by allowing initiatives to negate that allows for the passage of unchecked policies. Speaker Brown argued the process has yielded inconsistent policies and ties the hands of the Legislature by imposing conflicting voting requirements.       
Even though all three expressed differing opinions, there was consensus in terms of reforming the system. They all agree that reforms must be made to ensure constitutionality, sanctity and legislative partnership within the initiative process. It appeared as though the panel agreed with several PPIC reform recommendations such as transparency in financial disclosure, increased voter education and outreach on proposed measures, and moderate legislative involvement and oversight. Although a ballot initiative seeking such reforms is yet to materialize, it’s clear that both voters and political officials both agree that change, however moderate, is of paramount importance.

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