Viewpoints: Celebrate our initiative process by improving its transparency

Viewpoints: Celebrate our initiative process by improving its transparency

By Kim Alexander
Special to The Bee

Published: Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 5E

California’s world-famous initiative process is 100 years old this year, a good time to think about how well that process serves the people of California.

This is the people’s lawmaking arena. But can voters participate in this process in a meaningful way? And for those who do vote, how do we maximize the chances that they make informed choices?

Love it or hate it, there is no doubt that voters value the initiative process and its ability to deliver changes the Legislature would not make because of special interest pressure or lawmakers’ self-interests. California voters have turned to initiatives for term limits, redistricting reform, recycling, cigarette tax increases, and legalizing medical marijuana, to name just a few examples.

But the initiative process is not only for ideas that don’t get a fair shake in the Capitol. It is open to use and often abuse by special-interest groups and wealthy individuals. We’ve seen big corporations, including Pacific Gas and Electric, Mercury General insurance, and now, turn to California’s direct democracy to protect their own corporate interests rather than the broad public interest.

Voters usually defeat initiatives. On average, only one in three put on the ballot has passed in the last 100 years. But it can be a lot of work for voters who want to sort out the details of what to approve and what to turn down.

One of the hardest things for voters to figure out is exactly who sponsors an initiative. Who paid to put it on the ballot? In the Legislature’s lawmaking arena, every bill has an analysis and every analysis lists, at the top, in plain language, who the sponsor of the bill is. It is one of the essential pieces of information relied upon to make legislative decisions.

Voters should have easy access to this same essential information when they make their legislative choices. And that easy access should occur at several points in the initiative process – when a voter is asked to sign a petition, when voters consult the ballot pamphlet, and when they cast their ballots. Making voters hunt for sponsors’ identities on the secretary of state’s website is not good enough.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, wants to make one of these three reforms happen. His Senate Bill 334 requires the ballot pamphlet to identify donors of $50,000 or more for supporting and opposing proposition committees. The bill has the support of Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and there’s a good chance it will get to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature.

California voters support this kind of reform. The Public Policy Institute of California has repeatedly asked Californians whether they want more information about initiative funders. The answer has been a repeated, resounding "Yes" from all quarters. In six polls from 2005 to 2009, 82 to 85 percent of those surveyed said they favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and initiative campaigns.

So why not add this information to the ballot pamphlet? Some argue it’s unfair, that it won’t be an accurate representation of both the pro and con sides because the supporters will have spent early money qualifying the initiative and the opponents may not have raised much money at that point.

That’s true, but this isn’t a public opinion poll. It’s lawmaking. It is far more important that voters know who the sponsors of a proposition are than to know which side in a contest has the most financial support.

There is other information in the ballot pamphlet that voters can use to assess the opposition, like pro and con arguments, campaign contact information and website addresses. SB 334 adds to this, requiring the ballot pamphlet to tell voters where to find more contribution information online.

Why stop with the ballot pamphlet? We should also require initiative petitions to disclose on the petition itself who paid for the printing costs, so that when voters are asked to sign it they would have this information in plain sight.

Posting lists of top donors as of two weeks before Election Day at polling places would give voters easy and timely access to disclosure data and help them make informed choices.

California’s campaign disclosure laws are good, but voters want more. The obvious next step is to publicize disclosure by placing information about who is financing proposition campaigns in plain sight at key points where voters engage with the initiative process – when they sign initiative petitions, when they consult their ballot pamphlets, and when they vote.

This is the people’s lawmaking arena, and it is up to the people to determine the rules by which we wish to legislate. Let’s celebrate the centennial of the initiative process by making rules for the game that put it more firmly in the people’s hands.