This ballot initiative season is full of headaches. And we've left a potential cure in the box.
First, the headaches.
Majorities of Californians want to raise revenues to protect schools and other programs, but it's unclear if they will be able to do so.
Three competing tax-hike initiatives have created a mess, and are likely to cancel each other out.
The sponsors of each, who should be political allies, were competing against each other and spending millions of dollars. And even when two of the initiative sponsors reached a compromise recently, it was unclear whether they had enough time to get a measure on the ballot.
If only there was some kind of government body that could have independently studied all three measures, and explained which of the three made the most sense. And instead of a costly scramble to get things on the ballot, what if there were some kind of body that could put measures on the ballot, without all the turmoil and cash?
There isn't, but just such a body was recently proposed.
An entity with the power to review initiatives -- and put them on the ballot directly -- was proposed late last fall by the Think Long Committee for California, the group of big California names convened by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. The proposal -- and much of the Think Long Committee recommendations -- got little serious scrutiny and attention, in part because the committee declined to turn its tax recommendations into its own tax initiative for the 2012 ballot. (And if you don't have a tax initiative on the 2012 ballot, the media who cover California politics have no interest in you right now).
Think Long's idea was to have a Citizens Council for Government Accountability-- your blogger dubbed it the Jedi Council -- that would be able to do long-term planning and would have considerable powers, including the power to put measures on the ballot.
Such a council would have advantages and disadvantages -- but think how useful this might have been in the current multiiple-tax-initiative mess.
Sponsors of all three initiatives would have sought the approval of the committee, in hopes of having the committee put its measure on the ballot -- an endorsement that would save millions in qualification costs. This would have been an occasion for a real public debate and deeper scrutiny of the details of each measure. The committee also would have been in position to forge its own compromise from pieces of the measure. That's a committee with real value.
However, there is one worry. Think Long proposed that the governor pick 9 of the 13 members of the council. So in this situation, the council would have suffered from suspicions that it would be more inclined to favor the governor's initiative over the other two. This suggests that if someone would ever to act on Think Long's idea, the governor probably shouldn't have such a heavy hand in appointing such a committee.
In any case, the situation -- and the Think Long proposal -- are a reminder that California shouldn't have to be at the mercy of signature gathering timelines and costs. There ought to be other paths to the ballot.