Initiative reform needed in California

Willie Brown, the legendary Assembly speaker and former San Francisco mayor, says he has never voted for a ballot initiative.

“Not one,” he asserts emphatically without hesitation.

“I’ve always, without question, been opposed to the initiative process. Period,” he told an initiative reform conference in Sacramento last week.

George Skelton column: Because of errors made during the production process, a headline at the top of George Skelton’s column in the Oct. 28 Section A misspelled Capitol Journal as Capital Journal. In addition, the word “years” was dropped from a sentence in the column. The complete paragraph, which included a reference to former California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, should have read as follows: California’s bloated Constitution, George noted, has been amended more than 500 times since its adoption in 1879. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution —adopted roughly 90 years earlier -- has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights.

Public policy should not be decided by the public in the voting booth, he said. It should be the province of elected officials in the state Capitol. “Democracy,” he continued, “requires reasonable debate among people who have been designated as representatives” and are “usually well informed.”

Devious initiative campaigns, he asserted, too often result in voter decisions that are “inconsistent with good and quality judgment.”

He added: “I clearly understand that I am in a distinct minority. People in this state are out to lunch” in their love of the initiative system.


Brown, an assemblyman for 30 years, including a record 14-plus as speaker, always has been outspoken. And you can see why one initiative he particularly detests — imposing term limits in 1990 — was largely, in voters’ minds, about booting him out of the Capitol.

“The voters screwed themselves royally when they did term limits,” Brown said, citing the subsequent loss of policy expertise and legislating experience.

No argument about that here. Fortunately, voters in the last election approved an initiative that softened term limits for new lawmakers.

But another panelist at the conference was an ex-politician with even greater reason than Brown to be bitter about this state’s 102-year-old system of direct democracy. Former Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by voters 10 years ago.

Davis, nevertheless, is a fan of California’s initiative, referendum and recall — or at least graciously professes to be.

“If you don’t like the people’s ability to make laws, to change laws and to kick you out of office, then you should find another line of work,” he said, prompting laughter.

A third panelist clearly has given a lot of thought to the initiative system and is critical. He’s former California Chief Justice Ronald M. George.

California’s bloated Constitution, George noted, has been amended more than 500 times since its adoption in 1879. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution — adopted roughly 90 years earlier — has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights.

“So something is wrong” in California, George said.

Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of the Public Policy Institute of California, convened the conference because recent voter surveys, he reported, have found a “strong consensus” for changing the initiative system. But there’s also “broad support,” he added, for the notion of retaining direct democracy.

Voters in recent years have been on a reform kick, he observed. They’ve ended the Legislature’s self-serving gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts, adopted an open primary system, reduced the legislative vote requirement for passing a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, and eased the term limits.

Note: The open primary did not result from a citizen initiative. It was placed on the ballot by the Democratic Legislature in exchange for vital support from then-Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) for a tax increase. Most lawmakers opposed the open primary, but miscalculated that it would lose at the ballot box.

Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking to a liberal think tank in Washington last week, said that in California “the people themselves, through the initiative, actually broke a decade of dysfunction and laid the foundation for a government that works.”

In that mood, voters may be ripe now for initiative reforms, Baldassare said.

Let’s hope. Originally, the system was created to counter special-interest control of Sacramento. In recent decades, however, it has become a tool of moneyed special interests when they fail to get their way in the Capitol.

Moreover, Willie Brown pointed out, the initiative system has become “a cottage industry for some consultants to make money. It has nothing to do with unrest among the voters.”

He particularly decried pay-to-play bond promoters. They’ll create a water or parks bond and finance the initiative by offering to load up the measure with pet pork in exchange for hefty campaign contributions. If that were done with a bill in the Legislature, Brown said, it would be “an indictable offense.”

Maybe. But pork is traded for votes in the Legislature.

Baldassare suggested, as many others have, that the Legislature be offered a role in the initiative process. Bring back the “indirect initiative” that existed until it was scuttled about 50 years ago. Under that process, the Legislature could tweak an initiative, with the sponsors’ approval, before it went on the ballot. That might correct defects and avoid later court challenges.

He also proposed that if volunteers — rather than paid professionals — collect signatures to place a measure on the ballot, they be given extra time.

And he said there should be better disclosure of who’s footing the bill for and against ballot measures. No question.

But there’s no substitute for aggressive enforcement of the rules. One role model: Ann Ravel, then-chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, who led an investigation of 2012 initiative money laundering. Last week, she imposed a record $16 million in penalties on the secretive culprits.

“Dark money is a nationwide issue,” said Ravel, who was named by President Obama to the Federal Elections Commission and took her seat Friday.

Meanwhile, California is burdened with a popular but flawed initiative system. The consensus — with the exception of Willie Brown — is to mend it, not end it.