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Home > News > News Articles > 2015 > January > Significant Changes Made to Ballot Initiative Process
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Significant Changes Made to Ballot Initiative Process

January 23, 2015
Reforming the state’s initiative process has long been a hot discussion topic in Sacramento. SB 1253, authored by former Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014, enacts several changes to the system.
These changes include increased transparency of ballot measure campaign contributions, increased access and more voter-friendly explanations of ballot measures, legislative review modifications, and an avenue to identify flaws or errors in proposed initiative language.

Prior to the passage of SB 1253, the most recent major change to the process was made in 2011 when the Governor signed SB 202 (Pavley, Statues of 2011, Chapter 558). That law provides for initiative measures to only appear on statewide general election ballots.
The most fundamental change of SB 1253 is the earlier legislative review. Under the prior system, the Legislature could not hold initiative measure committee hearings until the measure had qualified for the election ballot. Upon qualification, the Legislature was required to hold joint public hearings on the proposed measure before it was voted on during the election.
SB 1253 changed this process significantly. Under SB 1253, once a proposed measure garners 25 percent of the required number of signatures for qualification, the Secretary of State (SOS) will send the proposal to the Legislature to begin the committee hearing process. Similar to the previous system, the Legislature is still required to hold joint committee hearings on the measure. However, the Legislature must now hold these hearings no later than 131 days prior to the date of the election the measure is set to be voted on. This change no longer allows the Legislature to wait until right before an election to hold a hearing — possibly giving measure proponents/opponents more time to sway public opinion based on the outcome of the legislative hearings.
Ballot measure efforts have started ramping up with the 2016 general and presidential election on the horizon. Measures have been or will be introduced ranging from legalizing recreational marijuana to overturning the recent statewide plastic bag ban. The reforms of SB 1253, and its impacts on voter behavior, remain unclear and will undoubtedly be carefully monitored as the 2016 election season comes closer.
SB 1253’s Major Components:
  1. Requires the Attorney General (AG) to initiate a 30-day public review and comment period upon receiving a request for a ballot measure title and summary from proponents. The comment period will allow for public opinion input and provide an opportunity to identify errors such as typos and/or legal discrepancies. 
    1. Comments submitted become public record and are sent to initiative proponents. 
    2. Proponents may submit amendments to the proposed initiative as long as they are “reasonably germane to the theme” of the original measure up to five days after the conclusion of the public comment period.
    3. Comments may be submitted online or mailed to the AG’s office.  
  2. Requires the Department of Finance (DOF) and Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) to conduct a fiscal impact analysis upon receipt of title and summary request by the AG. SB 1253 extends the analysis period from 25 to 50 days in order to provide additional time for a more accurate fiscal estimate. 
  3. Increases from 150 to 180 days the time period initiative proponents may gather signatures from official title and summary receipt date.
    1. Signature petitions are also required to state that voters may ask if a signature gatherer is being paid to collect signatures or a volunteer.  
  4. Changes the signature verification process conducted by local election officials.
    1. Signature verification is triggered when a statistical sampling of petition signatures is within 95 to 110 percent of the required number of signatures needed for a ballot measure to qualify.
    2. When an order of signature verification is triggered by the SOS, local election officials begin the process of verifying voter signatures according to a specific formula and requirements.
    3. SB 1253 requires the SOS to terminate local signature verification efforts upon receiving one or more certified petitions that meet the required number of valid voter signatures. The purpose of this provision is to save local election officials time and money by halting the verification process once a measure is deemed qualified, rather than having local election officials verify all petition signatures. 
  5. Requires the SOS to send proposed initiatives to the Legislature for public committee hearings and review once 25 percent of required signatures for qualification have been received.
    1. Measure proponents would be required to declare under penalty of perjury that they have collected 25 percent of required voter signatures.
    2. The Legislature’s earlier access to proposed ballot measures may impact public perception of a measure depending on the amount of legislative attention it receives. For example, the Legislature may have the ability to paint a rosier picture of a measure by holding hearings at which committee members are supportive of a measure, or foster negative public perception should committee members oppose a measure.  
    3. Of note: Related bill SB 844 (Pavley, Statutes of 2014, Chapter 920) requires that the total number of votes cast for and against a measure in both the Senate and Assembly be listed on the voter information pamphlet as if the measure were passed by the Legislature. 
  6. Requires that the SOS establish a one-stop website where voters may find additional information about qualified ballot measures. The website is required to list the following information:
    1. Ballot measure summary;
    2. Top 10 financial contributors supporting and opposing the ballot measure;
    3. Each committee formed primarily to support or oppose the ballot measure and how to access information about the sources of financial contributions to the committee; and
    4. Once a committee receives at least $1 million in contributions, the SOS will provide access to online information about the committee’s top 10 financial contributors.  
  7. Allows ballot measure proponents to withdraw a measure before it qualifies.
  8. Makes it a crime for ballot measure proponents to withdraw a measure in exchange for money or “thing of value.” Violators may be punished by a fine not exceeding $5,000 or by specified jail time.

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