The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

Panel discusses fixing initiative process

April 21, 2005

John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer

Thursday, April 21, 2005

California voters have made the state's initiative process a virtual fourth branch of government, but even some supporters are wondering if there's such a thing as too much democracy.

"We have to limit the number of initiatives on the ballot,'' said Robert Hertzberg, a former Assembly speaker. "At some point, the door closes.''

Hertzberg was part of a sometimes fractious panel of seven experts who looked Wednesday at the way California has used its Progressive Era initiative law and talked about how -- or whether -- it should be changed.

Complaints about the messiness of a system that has put a record 69 statewide initiatives into circulation since Jan. 1 miss the point entirely, said Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote the 1988 initiative that created the state insurance commissioner.

"If you look at people as having the pre-eminent authority in our democracy, the initiative is a very elegant way to maintain that authority,'' Rosenfield told a San Francisco audience. "It's a way to have a peaceful revolution.''

But how involved are most people when giant drug companies put more than $11 million into their own initiative battles, the California Teachers' Association antes up $2 million to back its ballot interests, and businessman Jerrold Perenchio spends $1.5 million to support Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's initiative effort, other speakers asked.

"The problem is that money is now sufficient credibility for the ballot, '' said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the University of Southern California/Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. "Only with money can a group get an initiative on the ballot. We need to empower grassroots people.''

Money is desperately important when a group needs to pay $1, $2 or more for each of the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot. But cost is no object when it comes to the initiative itself, said Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project.

"It's like having dessert without having to eat your vegetables,'' she said. "You can put $3 billion of stem cell bonds on the budget (in last year's successful Proposition 71) without the voters telling you where that money is coming from.''

The discussion came as groups representing, among others, nurses, unions and anti-tax activists are pursuing costly initiatives for a possible November special election. Schwarzenegger has threatened to call the special election because legislative Democrats haven't agreed to his proposals on teacher tenure, the budget and redistricting, which he now plans to put on the ballot as initiatives.

Initiatives allow groups to circumvent the Legislature by letting people vote on matters that politicians can't or won't deal with. But direct democracy also bypasses many of the typical checks and balances that can keep bad laws from getting approved.

That's simply the nature of the beast, said Ted Costa of People's Advocates, which backs an initiative that would take reapportionment power away from the Legislature.

"An initiative speaks for itself, since it's directly related to public opinion,'' he said. "Public opinion wanted a recall (in 2003), they got a recall. When public opinion arises, you can get good legislation or bad legislation.''

There are ways to make initiatives work better, most panelists agreed. Putting a "sunset clause" into constitutional amendment initiatives, which means they would die after five years unless approved again, would give successful measures a fair public trial and also make special interest groups think twice before putting up the money to sponsor an initiative, said Ross.

Other suggestions included limiting the number of initiatives on any one ballot, tougher financial disclosure rules for initiative backers, allowing the Legislature to vote on an initiative before it goes on the ballot and lower signature limits for all-volunteer citizens initiatives.

But it's easier to suggest changes than to get them passed.

"I found that the only way to reform initiatives was with another initiative,'' said Hertzberg, the former assemblyman. "I could not get political support'' for changing the way initiative are used.

Despite concerns that California's initiative battles now are being dominated by the same special interests they were designed to fight, every poll shows that voters support the idea of having a direct say in how the state is run and will fight to keep that right.

The initiative "is a piece of governance that could operate better,'' said Matthew McCubbins, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "We're just looking at the edges to see how it can be improved.''

Wednesday's discussion was hosted by The Chronicle as part of the Commonwealth Club of California's "Making California Work" editorial board series on state government.

E-mail John Wildermuth at

Link: San Francisco Chronicle

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