By Daniel Weintraub
Californians have a love-hate relationship with direct democracy.
We love that we have the ability to set the politicians straight, either by getting a jump on them on the next big issue or reversing course when we think they’ve made a big mistake.
But we’re not wild about reading through all those damn initiatives that appear on the ballot every year, or sorting through the claims and counter claims of the interest groups that sponsor and oppose them. And we don’t like the way that big money pays to get most measures on the ballot and then underwrites the campaigns.
Those are among the findings of recent research by the independent Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank which also suggested a few reforms.
Ironically, one of those ideas is to increase the role the Legislature plays in shaping ballot measures. Voters overwhelmingly approve of this idea, even though they relish the opportunity to overrule the politicians. That might seem like a contradiction. But the voters seem to hope that by bringing the Legislature into the game we can get them to do the right thing without the need for an initiative campaign.
One way to do this is to revive the idea of the indirect initiative, in which sponsors of an idea collect a certain number of signatures and then present the proposal to the Legislature. If it passes, the campaign ends there. If the Legislature balks, the measure proceeds to the next ballot.
Another, less ambitious approach would be to simply let the Legislature review ballot measures and suggest changes, perhaps limited to drafting errors or constitutional impairments. The authors could then adopt those changes and move on with their ballot campaign, or reject them.
The second suggested reform is to increase transparency when it comes to the backers of ballot initiatives. Some ideas: identify funders on petitions, in paid advertising and in the official ballot guide.
The third reform is to re-engage citizens in the initiative process. Remember, the idea of the ballot measure was to give citizens more power in the legislative process. But other than the vote, much of that power has been ceded to the same interest groups that lobby the Legislature full time. Now they also lobby the people.
Among the possibilities: giving volunteer-only signature campaigns more time to gather names to qualify a measure for the ballot; asking voters to re-affirm their decisions on ballot measures after the have been law for a few years; and establishing a citizens’ commission to review ballot measures and make recommendations on the ballot.
At a recent forum to discuss the Public Policy Institute’s ideas, former Gov. Gray Davis – a lifetime political insider – conceded that even he was sometimes fooled by ballot measures.
Davis said he voted for one of the more famous initiatives – Proposition 98, which in 1988 amended the state constitution to set aside about 40 percent of the budget for kindergarten through community college education. But at the time, Davis said, he didn’t fully think through the consequences, and how that measure might siphon funding from other things in the budget that he also valued. If that detail escaped him, just imagine how even more complex measures confront less informed voters with issues they don’t understand.
“I do think we need to find a way to make sure the voters understand there is no free lunch,” Davis said. “The budget has X amount of money in it. If you mandate that 42 percent goes here, there’s only 58 percent left for everything else government does….Let’s make sure people understand the choices they are going to be making.”
The problem with all of these ideas is that while they sound good in concept, they can be tricky to implement in practice. Empowering the Legislature to tinker with ballot measures could lead to abuse of that power. Trying to identify the backers of initiative campaigns would likely lead to the creation of more ballot committees with more mom-and-apple pie sounding names. And one person’s “independent commission” to analyze ballot proposals could be another’s “liberal” tool or “right-wing” bias.
The biggest hurdle of all could be that any significant reform might have to pass the ultimate test – going before the voters. And those who favor the status quo would likely launch a confusing, well-funded, and one-sided ballot campaign against it.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org