Ways to Reform the Initiative Process


The unfolding vaudeville show otherwise known as the 2005 special election campaign has produced something worthwhile at last: inescapable evidence that the state’s initiative process needs to be fixed.

Last week, a judge pulled one of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s showcase initiatives off the ballot because of a procedural snafu. A few days later, a consumer initiative was temporarily knocked off the ballot by an appellate court on grounds that it might have been unconstitutional. (The state Supreme Court restored that initiative Wednesday.)

The irony is that all this confusion could have been averted by reforms in the initiative process that have been on the table for decades.


None of the reforms would eliminate, or even substantially limit, citizens’ access to the ballot. Nor would they, unfortunately, constrain the ability of big business to corrupt ballot-box democracy by spending pornographic quantities of cash. (Note to the pharmaceutical industry: This means you.)

But they would rein in the unintended consequences of many initiatives and eliminate the inefficiencies built into the procedures we have today.

Certainly, reform is urgently needed. At least 65 initiatives are currently circulating for signatures. Many propose crude or self-interested nostrums for complicated problems, raising the specter of a California governed by laws and constitutional amendments written by bozos and billionaires.

As initiatives have proliferated, they also have become more complex. It used to be rare for an initiative to run to more than 1,000 words. Last year’s stem cell initiative, Proposition 71, comprised nearly 11,000, which explains why the public continues to be unpleasantly surprised by what it voted for.

Most key reforms aim to integrate the Legislature in the initiative process. The current system places initiatives and legislative activity on separate tracks. Once a ballot measure looks like it’s going to qualify for the next election, the Legislature bails out on the topic.

That’s a shame, because for all its shortcomings, the Legislature has the ability to air all sides of an issue and all ramifications of a measure by holding public hearings. The Legislature also employs expert bill-drafters, which is important because sloppy drafting is a chronic disease in the initiative world.


The stem cell program, for example, is tied up in court because Proposition 71 was ineptly written. Even the sainted Proposition 13 was such a botch that one critic accused its authors of “drunken drafting.” As a 1992 study by the Center for Governmental Studies noted, Proposition 13’s confusing text “spawned dozens of court cases” and required 16 clarifying ballot measures.

So here’s a roster of the most crucial reforms, drawn largely from proposals appearing in the center’s 1992 analysis and in a paper prepared by Fred Silva of the Public Policy Institute of California for a study in 2000 commissioned by Bob Hertzberg, then the speaker of the Assembly.

1. Require the Legislature to hold hearings on any initiative that qualifies for the ballot. This would provide a level of public information lacking in almost all modern initiative campaigns. The Legislature also would gain a chance to enact its own measures to forestall a ballot campaign. The lawmakers should be encouraged to negotiate changes in a ballot proposal with its sponsors, who could then withdraw the measure if they were satisfied. (They could also submit minor amendments of a sort that might have saved the two initiatives knocked off the special election ballot by the courts last week.)

2. Allow the Legislature to amend any initiative after it’s passed, as long as the amendments uphold the initiative’s intent. This would prevent lawmakers from eviscerating an initiative approved by voters, but would allow them to make any needed refinements.

Such a reform would have allowed the Legislature to amend the stem cell initiative by enacting the conflict-of-interest and public disclosure rules that Proposition 71’s promoters, including Robert Klein, the chairman of the state stem cell institute, continue to resist.

It also would have avoided the fiasco produced by Proposition 10, the 1998 initiative sponsored by film director Rob Reiner to fund preschool programs from a tobacco tax. Proposition 10 established an autonomous bureaucracy of unelected administrators to manage $3 billion in funds. Much of the money was squandered on travel and vanity projects while thousands of children were waiting for their preschool programs to appear.


If nothing else, the Legislature’s right to amend “would have a deterrent effect,” says Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. “If Klein or Reiner knew that anything they did would be subject to amendment, they wouldn’t be so disdainful of the legislative process.”

3. Restrict ballot measures to general elections. This would prevent sponsors from shopping for primary or special election days on which voters predisposed to support their initiatives are likely to turn out in force. Hodson observes that Proposition 13 was carefully timed for the primary ballot in June 1978, when the Democratic primary for governor was a “snoozer” (Jerry Brown was running for reelection), but a hard-fought GOP primary brought conservative Republicans to the polls.

None of these reforms would specifically address the greatest risk of government by initiative: It is becoming a plaything of special interests.

Signature-gathering in California is so costly that only those who can write big checks to professional petitioneers can be sure of qualifying a ballot measure. Sooner or later the field will be limited to celebrities, industry lobbies and the California Chamber of Commerce.

Only by involving our elected lawmakers more will we be able to keep these forces from running our lives. At least these reforms set us on the road to sanity.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at