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Special Interests : Are Citizens Losing the Initiative?

Times Staff Writer

As the Nov. 8 election nears, Carol Federighi will lock herself in her Lafayette home for several days to begin the numbing task of poring over stacks of dry legal material. As California president of the League of Women Voters, Federighi will draw on an exhaustive 120-page analysis put together by her staff to help her bone up on the jumble of initiatives facing California voters in the election. For now at least, she is as bewildered as anyone.

“I’ve read a fair amount but I still haven’t sorted it out in my own mind,” complained Federighi, who has taught league-sponsored ballot seminars for nearly two decades. “There is no question that with 29 measures on the ballot, the public in general is bound to be totally confused. I don’t think this contributes to good government or informed decision-making.”

The number of measures on the November ballot does not break the record; there were 30 in 1914. But this year’s list contains some of the most complex issues ever submitted to the electorate.

Wordy Document

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The text of just one of five insurance-related initiatives takes up 13 single-spaced pages of eye-straining miniature type. And the official ballot pamphlet being distributed by the secretary of state runs 159 pages. That is a record.

“Voters are going to be completely overwhelmed,” predicted Judith Bell of Consumers Union, which is involved in the campaigns of two of the rival insurance measures.

Experts say this year’s ballot reflects a trend in which voters are increasingly being called on to decide long lists of perplexing questions that the Legislature has been unable or unwilling to resolve. And the decisions are being made in a media-charged atmosphere that usually reduces debate to 30-second television spots and slick, often misleading slogans.

Seems to Have Slipped Away

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It is not just the number of initiatives nor their complexity that is prompting concern. It is that the system seems to have slipped away from the citizens it was invented to serve into the hands of the very kind of wealthy special interests it was meant to contain.

Merely qualifying a measure for the ballot can cost as much as $700,000 and consume more time than most citizen groups can muster. Taking their place is a whole new industry of consultants, professional petition circulators, pollsters and media gurus who have been lured away from traditional campaigns by special interests willing to spend whatever it takes to promote or fend off these measures.

Even lawmakers, who tend to be the harshest critics of the initiative, are jumping in with both feet, convinced that widespread identification with a popular cause will bolster their political careers. The public, as a result, is being shut out, and the romantic notion of the “citizen lawmaker” is fast becoming just another California myth.

That has left some experts wondering whether California’s 77-year-old initiative process, championed by reform-minded Gov. Hiram Johnson “to make every man his own Legislature,” is in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

“Once you open up the process, you can’t then limit who is going to use it,” said Carol Hess, who publishes a national directory of political consultants.

Said Federighi: “The reformers really saw the initiative as a way for the citizens to get involved in the process and to give them a voice when legislators didn’t truly represent them. What we’re seeing today is the initiative is not used just by the people. It’s become big business.”

The decisions of California voters can have a snowball effect among the 23 states that have the initiative process in some form.

“National interest groups understand what happens in California is almost certain to go to other states,” said David Magleby, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and an acknowledged expert on the subject. “That is why they are willing to basically write blank checks, spend what it takes.”

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The insurance industry alone is committed to spending roughly $43 million to promote its no-fault plan and defeat three rival measures in November. That is a strong lure to campaign professionals looking for greener pastures.

Gives Up Candidates

“When you see the insurance industry is ready to spend more than $40 million, there’s good money to be made,” said Kelly Kimball, owner of Northridge-based Kimball Petition Management, one of two national firms that specialize in qualifying ballot measures.

Richard Woodward, a leading California political consultant, stopped managing candidates eight years ago to run initiative campaigns full time and has never been sorry. “You don’t have the candidate, you don’t have the spouse and their personal problems that may or may not exist,” Woodward said. “In initiatives, advertising and free media become the candidate. . . . Obviously, that’s appealing.”

To get their message to voters, these campaign professionals all too often rely on media images that tend to obfuscate the issues. Even relatively straightforward measures can become muddled as the consultants search for simple slogans that will stick in the minds of voters.

The tobacco industry, spending $10 million to defeat a ballot initiative that would raise cigarette taxes and finance medical research, reduced its campaign to this one-line catch phrase: “It’s the first initiative which actually creates crime.” Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp branded as “utter nonsense” the industry’s contention that higher tobacco taxes called for in Proposition 99 would encourage cigarette smuggling by organized crime.

But the ads apparently have had the intended effect. A recent survey by the independent California Poll conducted after the tobacco industry began its media blitz showed support for the initiative had dropped from 75% to 58%.

“The way the game is played is to hire a consultant and decide what will be the handle, the short description that we want voters to think of when they think of the proposition,” said Brigham Young’s Magleby. “And that may bear little resemblance to what the proposition actually will do. These advertising campaigns are far more targeted to folks’ emotions than rational, reasonable thinking.”

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Many potential initiative sponsors never have to worry about these misleading campaigns, however, since the cost of merely qualifying a measure for the statewide ballot has priced out all but the wealthiest individuals and most moderate-size organizations.

To get their propositions to the ballot, initiative sponsors are required by state law to obtain valid voter signatures amounting to 5% of the votes cast for governor in the last general election. For proposed constitutional amendments, the total rises to 8%.

In 1912, the year after the initiative process became law in California, gathering the required 30,000 signatures was a manageable task. Today, sponsors must collect at least 372,000 valid signatures for an initiative statute and 595,000 for a constitutional amendment, all within 150 days. And because a large percentage of the signatures are usually tossed out as invalid, sponsors are advised to turn in nearly twice the required number.

“The population grew so fast . . . that the number of signatures to get on the ballot doubled and then tripled every 10 years,” said David Schmidt, who runs the Initiative Resource Center in Berkeley, publisher of a nationwide initiative newsletter. “By that time, the political groups that once used the initiative process found they couldn’t do it any more. It was just too huge of an operation.”

In the early years, upwards of 70% of proposed initiatives reached the ballot. Lately, the success rate has fallen to 10% or less. But the rate of failure is offset by the numbers of moneyed special interests willing to pay whatever is necessary to get their measures before voters.

The few firms equipped to handle the time-consuming job of qualifying ballot initiatives charge sponsors anywhere from 65 cents to 75 cents per signature. That can mean a total price tag of $700,000.

Up to 10,000 workers, armed with clipboards and only an elementary understanding of the issues, are dispatched by these companies to shopping centers, race tracks or “wherever people tend to gather most and move the slowest,” one official said. Because they are paid by the signature, many of them will carry several petitions at a time, sometimes even petitions from rival groups sponsoring conflicting measures.

Tactics Described

“They’ll collar someone on the street and ask if they favor the trial lawyers. If not, they’ll say, ‘Then here, I’ve got this stuff from the insurance industry,’ ” the company official said.

This relatively new industry has become so crucial to the process that on at least one recent occasion the two largest signature-gathering firms were placed under contract by special interests to ensure that they would not be available to work for rival interests.

The few organizations that can still rally large numbers of volunteers on their own have had to use unorthodox tactics on occasion to qualify their measures.

A coalition of the state’s largest environmental groups, concerned about qualifying a $776-million parks bond measure for the ballot in June, resorted to promising local affiliates that their pet projects would be included only if they would pledge to gather a specified number of signatures. The controversial strategy was dubbed “park-barreling,” but it worked and the initiative was overwhelmingly approved by voters.

For most citizen-based groups, such tactics are impractical. Without the money to hire professionals, they are left with few realistic alternatives.

“It’s very difficult now to get a group of volunteers together to do anything,” said Joyce Koupel, who, with her late husband, Ed, was responsible for qualifying several major initiatives in the 1970s. “People are at work earning money to eat and many women had to go back to work in the late ‘70s. So almost the entire volunteer community was gutted.”

The November ballot tells the story.

Of the 29 measures facing voters, 17 got there by way of the Legislature, either as bond issues--allowing the state to avoid raising taxes even while borrowing billions of dollars--or as amendments to the state Constitution. Both types are required to be submitted to voters.

Of the remaining 12 initiatives, three were sponsored by insurance companies, two by labor unions and one by trial lawyers. Officeholders were responsible for three measures, but also had prominent roles in four of the other initiatives. Only two initiatives got on the ballot primarily through the efforts of broad-based citizen groups.

That is a considerably different development from what Hiram Johnson and the progressives of his era had envisioned when they proposed the initiative amid the widespread perception of the day that the California Legislature was controlled by giant economic interests, particularly the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. The initiative was adopted by a 3-1 ratio at a special election in 1911, with Johnson and his supporters predicting that it would put government back into the hands of the people.

But conditions changed. Today, the Legislature is once again influenced by warring special interests that often battle each other to a standstill, leaving many politically volatile issues unresolved. The result is these interests, whose power was supposed to be curbed by the initiative, are instead turning to the initiative in ever increasing numbers.

An equally important reason for special-interest domination of the ballot, according to some experts, was voter approval of Proposition 13, the landmark property tax reduction measure. Caren Daniels-Meade, chief spokeswoman for Secretary of State March Fong Eu, said the 1978 initiative, which slashed property taxes, turned out to benefit businesses as much as individuals and opened their eyes to how the process could be exploited.

“When they saw things being successful like the Proposition 13s of the world, they realized they didn’t have to just sit there and wait for something to happen,” she said. The special interests discovered another major advantage: Unlike legislation that can be amended and watered down as it runs the gauntlet of the Legislature’s committee system, once an initiative is accepted for circulation, not so much as a comma can be changed.

But that has a flip side. Because these measures escape the kind of review that often reveals mistakes and weaknesses in legislation, even their sponsors are sometimes surprised by the outcome.

A dramatic example of what can go wrong involves the so-called Briggs initiative, the 1978 ballot measure by then-Sen. John Briggs, which was meant to broaden the scope of the state’s capital punishment law. The measure was so poorly written, however, that it took the Supreme Court years to clarify its ambiguities, during which death penalty convictions were repeatedly overturned.

In recent years, it has become clear that most voters are unhappy with the initiative system.

One poll conducted by Common Cause and USC’s Institute of Politics and Government found that 71% of those surveyed, although unwilling to see the system scrapped, were highly critical of the initiative process.

Even its harshest critics acknowledge the initiative does provide a necessary “safety valve” to express voter discontent or to send a clear signal to the Legislature on political hot potatoes. The classic example was the overwhelming passage of the tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978.

But the Common Cause-USC poll found that even those who were unwilling to do away with the initiative process wanted to see significant changes in how it works. A majority favored limits on contributions to initiative campaigns and laws requiring financial sponsors to be listed on all initiative commercials.

Reform efforts, however, have faltered.

The League of Women Voters, after a massive study, sponsored modest legislation that in one instance would have required a review of all initiatives by the secretary of state’s office so that problems could be discovered before the measures reach the ballot. Another League-sponsored bill was intended to bring back the indirect initiative process, abandoned by California voters in 1966, which would give the Legislature a chance to act on proposed initiatives before they go before voters.

Both measures were defeated despite vocal support from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and other legislative leader.

There have been other reform proposals as well, including plans to outlaw paid signature gathering and raise the number of signatures required to qualify a ballot measure. Supporters say such reforms might discourage some legislators and special interests from using the process, but it also would make the initiative even less accessible to the ordinary citizen.

Ultimately, many believe the key to reforming the initiative is to first reform the Legislature.

“The public perception holds that much vital legislation cannot be passed in Sacramento because of partisan politics or the weighty influence of special-interest groups,” Nancy Greenberg, a real estate lobbyist, commented recently in an industry newsletter. “If our elected officials can’t satisfy the public, the initiative process can.”

Others like Schmidt, of the Berkeley-based Initiative Resource Center, say the reformers are selling the voters short. “People are not so gullible that you can put anything on the ballot and it will pass,” he said. “If (an initiative) is detrimental there will be a substantial outcry.”

THE INITIATIVE PROCESS

The initiative was intended to give the ordinary citizen a way around the Legislature. But the road to the ballot can resemble a ride down a pothole-ridden alley. The initiative process works like this:

Would-be authors can write their own measures or get help from the Legislature’s lawyers, if they submit a request signed by at least 25 voters. The final draft goes to the attorney general, along with a $200 deposit that is refundable if the measure qualifies within two years. Just receiving an official ballot title and summary can take up to 40 days. The Legislature then may hold hearings, but may not change the proposal in any way.

A sponsor has 150 days to gather the required number of signatures: 5% of the votes cast in the last general election for governor for ordinary initiatives, or 8% if the measure would amend the state Constitution. That means anywhere from about 370,000 to 595,000 signatures. The official check to determine their validity can take an additional 56 days.

Once all these hurdles have been cleared, the measure officially becomes an initiative and will go before voters at the next statewide election, as long as that is at least 131 days from the date the measure qualified.

Not all measures that appear on the ballot are initiatives. Other types of ballot measures are:

Constitutional amendments passed by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature that are required to go before voters and normally do so at the next general election.

Bond issues, which allow the state to borrow money and repay it over many years without raising taxes, must also be submitted to the electorate. They can be placed on the ballot with a simple majority vote of the Legislature and approval by the governor.


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