Should California Slow Down Initiative Constitutional Amendments?

Mike Gatto

Few people in Sacramento care much about broader reform of California's governing process. Fewer still want to pursue improvements in the state's popular initiative process; even the good government organizations avoid the topic like the plague.

Mike Gatto is an exception. A young, little-known assemblyman from Burbank, Gatto has offered a series of thoughtful constitutional amendments that seek to remake the initiative process, and the larger governing process. You can argue with the particulars of these proposals -- I have my problems with many of the provisions -- but you must give Gatto this. He is virtually alone in offering proposals that are big enough to address the state's big structural problems.

Unfortunately, Gatto's efforts have received little attention -- and thus haven't gone anywhere. He's trying again, albeit with a hearing on July 3, when Californians may be thinking about barbecues and fireworks. The subject of the hearing is a thoughtful Gatto constitutional amendment to -- of all things -- make it harder to add amendments to the constitution.

That's a proper focus for bills -- since California's derive from the fact that its constitution is a massive mess, so full of contradictory provisions that it's impossible to follow. (A core problem is that, while the constitution requires a balanced budget, many other provisions of the measure, applied together, make a balanced budget practically impossible).

Gatto's legislation won't reverse this, but it promises to slow us down as we attempt to do more harm. First, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 10 would require that a ballot initiative amending the constitution win 55 percent of the vote -- rather than just 50 percent -- to be enacted. The second would attempt to slow down amendments by putting in place what is known as a geographic distribution requirement. Such rules, used in some other states and countries, require that initiative sponsors -- in the case of Gatto's legislation -- collect a certain number of signatures in different parts of a state or country, instead of in just a few population centers. (An overwhelming majority of California's signatures come from Southern California's urban counties).

On these particulars, your blogger's own view is that Gatto is half right. Requiring more than simply 50 percent approval to change the constitution -- particularly when California elections are such low-turnout affairs -- makes a ton of sense. There are other ways to do the same thing -- perhaps by requiring a constitutional amendment to win a majority in two consecutive elections, rather than just one. This could breathe life and deliberation and thought into the amendment process.

But the distribution requirement of Gatto's legislation, while well-intentioned, is problematic. It would be good to get signatures from all parts of the state. Unfortunately, signature collection does not constitute real deliberation and engagement -- so the benefits of distribution requirements are minor. And the costs can be huge. Complying with distribution requirements can raise the costs of signature gathering campaigns significantly -- in California, the difference could easily run to $1 million or more. That's a problem because the process is already so expensive that only the richest people and interests can use it. This will merely limit access.

Gatto would be wise to think even bigger. Instead of adopting a more costly distribution requirement, why not try to build some sort of deliberative process that would slow down amendments -- by bringing public debate into the process across the state -- without adding to the costs? Citizens' juries could be convened to look at initiatives. Or a council similar to that proposed by the Think Long Committee for California could vet constitutional amendments for the ballot. Or some sort of on-line petition process might be used. There are ways to bring more people into the conversation about constitutional amendments, while reducing costs.

Even this critical note validates Gatto's approach. By offering big approaches and tackling difficult parts of the governing process, the Burbank lawmaker is expanding the conversation, and our thinking, about what reform requires.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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