This is not remotely initiative ‘reform’

Should California’s initiative process be improved? Sure. There are plenty of good ideas worth considering. Financial backers of proposed measures could be identified more quickly and thoroughly. More thorough vetting of proposals might lead to fewer surprises or legal reversals after adoption. Safeguards that guarantee a more neutral approach to the crafting of ballot language make sense.

However, much of what’s going on now in Sacramento under the guise of reforming the initiative process isn’t about fixing a flawed system. It’s about revising a flawed system in a way that insulates lawmakers from voter-mandated change.

One proposed bill would allow the Legislature to amend or repeal winning initiatives four years after their passage. Another bill would allow lawmakers to ask voters to consider changes in initiatives as they are voting on them.

These ideas are depicted as sensible measures to give the state government ways to get relief from excessively onerous or poorly thought-out ballot initiatives. Yet recent history suggests the proposals aren’t driven by a reform impulse but by the frustration felt by state Democratic lawmakers and their allies that California voters disagree with major parts of their agenda – especially their frequent call for higher taxes – and use direct democracy to make that clear.

The claim that a desire for reform is what’s fueling the push for altering the initiative process is further undermined by the latest proposed change: keeping all measures off the primary election ballot, starting next year. The result would often be a general election ballot with 15 to 20 ballot measures for voters to consider; so much for any hopes the legislation would be carefully considered. This can’t remotely be billed as reform.

This is why some supporters of the change openly acknowledge that the idea is driven by the assumption that in 2012, general election voters will be more favorable to the Democratic point of view on ballot measures than primary election voters.

There’s likely to be a great deal at stake in these measures. Epic fights over state spending limits, pension benefits for public employees and allowing union members to keep their dues from being used for political purposes all appear to be in the works. Perhaps Democratic lawmakers think too much is at risk to not try to shape the battle in their favor as much as possible. But please, let’s end the pretense that initiative changes are being pushed for noble purposes.

Instead, in this centennial of California’s adoption of direct democracy, this extreme maneuvering is a reminder of why Gov. Hiram Johnson pushed so hard in 1911 for voters to be given veto power over the Legislature via initiative, referendum and recall.

We hope Gov. Jerry Brown agrees and does his part to stop the multifront power play now unfolding in Sacramento.

Written by
Union-Tribune Editorial Board

midnight, Sept. 4, 2011