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Time to tweak California's clunky initiative system

SB 1253 would tweak California's ballot initiative system for the better

California's initiative system isn't completely broken, but it is a little bent, and some modest, sensible straightening out is in order. A bill adopted by the state Senate and pending in the Assembly would fix some of its most immediate problems.

The changes proposed by SB 1253 mostly have to do with timing. The same proponents would still be able to circulate the same petitions and get the same measures on the ballot. In fact, they would have more time to gather signatures.

Under current law, the Legislature can't block or rewrite citizen initiatives that have qualified for the ballot, and that's a good thing. But lawmakers do conduct required but pointless hearings on those initiatives during which experts, factions and anyone else interested in the proposal can point out drafting flaws or suggest alternatives. Few people attend and few people notice because by the time of the hearings, it's too late to change anything.

The bill would alter that by requiring the Legislature to conduct its hearings much earlier in the process, after the initiative's backer has gathered 25% of the necessary signatures. Drafters would then still be able to fix a few words that could render the measure unenforceable in court or unpalatable at the ballot box — as long as those changes did not alter the measure's intent. Proponents would also be able for the first time to withdraw initiatives once they qualify if better alternatives present themselves.

Lawmakers would gain no power to force changes. Proponents wouldn't have to attend the hearings or heed any critiques. Anyone who offered the proponent money in exchange for changing or withdrawing a measure could be charged with a crime.

Those changes would help avoid the kind of exasperating scenarios that California voters have seen in recent elections. Measures like Proposition 83, the California version of Jessica's Law that became the subject of costly and time-consuming court battles over sloppily drafted sections — after voters passed it overwhelmingly — could be corrected early in the process and take effect without delay.

There would be new requirements imposed on the attorney general to write ballot summaries in plain English, and on the secretary of state to provide understandable and easily accessible explanations of measures, plus information about major donors. These are all improvements that help voters while leaving the state's century-old initiative system intact. The Assembly should not stand in their way.

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