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Opinion: The time has come to make the initiative process better

A century ago, the ballot initiative process was established in the state of California.  This form of direct democracy gives voters the right to enact legislation through the vote of the people.  Supported by progressives such as Gov. Hiram Johnson, the initiative process was seen as a way to promote social and political reform, particularly to break the Southern Pacific Railroad’s influence on the Legislature.  Though the initiative process was successful in bringing much needed reform to the state, the process, much like the state of California, has evolved over time.  However, it remains a popular tool among voters as a check on the power of the Legislature.

Policies enacted through the initiative process have had a major impact on the lives of Californians and on the operations of our government. Property taxes, campaign finance laws, education funding, crime prevention, term limits, and government functionality, all have been addressed by California voters through initiatives.

As the state has changed in response to these measures, the use of the initiative process has continued to grow.  Since the 1960s, the number of proposed state initiative measures has increased more than 13-fold.  Nonetheless, the initiative process remains popular; a poll conducted earlier this year by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that 75 percent of Californians thought it was a positive thing that voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives.  The same poll, however, also found that 76 percent of Californians thought the initiative process was in need of major (39 percent) or minor (37 percent) changes.  

Ironically, while the initiative process was designed as a tool to curtail the influence of the most dominant special interest at the time, the Southern Pacific Railroad, many voters believe the initiative process itself is now controlled by special interests.  What changes can the state make to improve the initiative process, while ensuring that this important tool remains available to the voters?  

Although it is impossible to prevent special interest groups from participating in the initiative process, by adopting common sense reforms to the initiative process, we can limit the impact of those special interests. As chair of the Assembly Elections & Redistricting Committee, I have supported a number of bills that seek to do just that.  

In recent years, some special interest groups have tried to sneak unpopular initiative proposals past the voters at low-turnout primary elections, figuring that the unrepresentative electorate at those elections would be more likely than Californians as a whole, to support their measures.  This is exactly the wrong approach to making major policy decisions that can have lasting impacts on the state.  Therefore, in order to ensure that decisions on initiative measures are reflective of the entire population of California, I supported SB 202 by Sen. Loni Hancock.  That bill provides that, in the future, initiative and referendum measures no longer will appear on the statewide ballot at primary elections.  Instead, initiatives will appear on the ballot at general elections, where they can be considered by the largest number of California voters.

Providing greater transparency about the financial supporters of initiative measures can help voters make more informed decisions about those measures, and can help minimize the influence of special interests on the initiative process.   Additionally, surveys regularly show that voters want more information about the contributors for and against initiative measures.  That’s why I have supported bills to require information about the financial contributors in support of and in opposition to initiative measures to appear in the state ballot pamphlet.  

Finally, to ensure that special interest groups can’t simply buy their way onto the state ballot, I supported legislation to prohibit signature gathering firms from entering into contracts where, for a certain price, the firms will guarantee that an initiative measure will qualify for the ballot.  None of these proposals are a remedy that will address every concern that Californians have with the initiative process, but these reforms represent real improvements on the century-old process, while ensuring that process remains available to voters.

Now that the initiative process has reached is centennial, we must examine whether this form of direct democracy is functioning as well as it can.  Over the years, dozens of initiative measures have reached the ballot, yet there have been few significant changes to the initiative process. As a member of the California state Legislature and a voter, I support the initiative process, but the Legislature can take important steps to make that process work better for the state and the people.

Assemblyman Paul Fong is the chair of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. Fong, a Democrat from Mountain View, represents the 22nd District.


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