L.A. Now

Little initiative for change

Capitol Journal

California's century-old ballot initiative system is cherished and cockeyed.

What began as political reform — giving citizens the power of direct democracy — has become a tool of special interests and a plaything for nut jobs.

Voters tend to become confused, gullible and even more cynical.

So here are a couple of suggestions, neither of them new. But their time has come.

—Strip the state attorney general of the power to summarize ballot measures for voters. Give it to someone who's nonpartisan, preferably the universally respected legislative analyst.

—Dramatically increase the fee required for proposing an initiative. It's now only $200. In fact, it has been for 69 years. Jack it up to the cost of the state actually processing initiatives, at least $10,000.

First, the attorney general.

Give the voters a break. It's hard enough to figure out what most of these ballot measures do without the A.G. dishing out hard-core propaganda on official documents.

Under the 1974 Political Reform Act, the attorney general is granted sole authority to prepare the ballot title and summary. State law requires the A.G. to provide an "impartial statement of the purpose of the measure" in language unlikely "to create prejudice for or against" the proposal.

But increasingly over the years, the A.G.'s language too often has been reading like talking points for one side or the other. That's particularly true of hot political issues, especially when Democratic A.G.s seemingly try to protect public employee unions from pension reform.

The latest example got many on the right screaming and even partisans on the left privately squirming.

In her title and summary of a conservative pension proposal, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris somehow felt it necessary to define public employees for voters. They include "teachers, nurses and peace officers," she noted. You know, all the admired people — the ones with their faces in the anti-pension-reform TV ads. No mention of parking meter readers or tax collectors.

She also claimed the proposal "reduces pension benefits for current and future public employees," "eliminates constitutional protections for current and future public employees' vested pension benefits" and "prohibits public retirement systems from providing death or disability benefits to future employees."

Nonsense. I'm not going to spend an entire column going over each point. Harris insists she's writing the unbiased truth. I'll just give the A.G. some benefit of doubt and say her contentions are a very long stretch.

The sponsor of the initiative — California Pension Reform — dropped it, claiming that Harris had rendered the proposal practically impossible to pass. Maybe. But it probably could not have raised the many millions needed for a campaign anyway. There are too many other conservative causes to fund in this election year.

Turns out, as Harris' office pointed out to me, her A.G. predecessor — Gov. Jerry Brown — also penned some pension propaganda in summarizing proposed reforms. This is the same Brown who wrote the 1974 Political Reform Act aimed at cleaning up politics for voters.

Bias in ballot measure summaries began in earnest with Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and picked up steam with Democratic Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, the current state treasurer.

But bad as it has become, the Legislature was even worse — almost comical — until a court intervened. Lawmakers got into the habit of slapping their own biased titles, summaries and labels on ballot measures they originated.

It came to a head over the nearly $10-billion bullet train bond that voters approved in 2008. The ballot label read like a campaign mailer: "Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act: To provide Californians a safe, convenient, affordable and" etc.

That's what voters read on the ballot. The measure passed narrowly.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. sued and won. An appellate court ruled that the Legislature acted illegally in writing the ballot description. It was moot because the measure already had passed. But the Legislature was spanked and presumably won't do it again.

The whole task should be turned over to the Legislative Analyst's Office. It already writes the impartial ballot measure analyses that appear in the official voter guides mailed to California households.

But that won't happen. Democrats won't allow it. The way the GOP is headed, it may never again elect an attorney general.

So let's do this: Increase the initiative filing fee. Keep away the riffraff. Make people think twice before filing a frivolous proposal — or several similar measures to see which one garners the most support.

After all, it costs at least $2 million to hire signature-collectors just to qualify an initiative for the ballot.

A little history: The current $200 fee was set in 1943. It was supposed to cover administrative costs and discourage frivolity. If adjusted for inflation, according to Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, that fee would now be around $2,500.

Initiatives have proliferated in recent decades. In the 1960s, only 47 were submitted to the A.G. Last year alone, there were 102, generating $20,400 in fees.

But the A.G.'s cost for handling them, it estimates, averaged nearly $5,000 each, or $507,370. And that's only until they qualify for the ballot. After that it's another roughly $4,000 a piece.

Add on costs for the legislative analyst and the secretary of state, and it bottoms out to a deeper state deficit every time somebody with a hot idea submits a new initiative.

In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill gradually raising the fee to $2,000. Democrats supported it, Republicans opposed. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it with a gobbledygook message.

Purging propaganda from ballot summaries and requiring reasonable fees wouldn't be cure-alls for the initiative epidemic. But they'd make sense. Therefore there's little chance either will occur.

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