Celebrating 100th Anniversary of California's Initiative Process

In politics, where you stand depends on where you sit.

The motivation behind the latest flap over California's initiative process is as simple as that.

A group of 14 state Senators and seven Assembly members (20 Republicans and one Democrat) introduced a resolution to celebrate the 100th anniversary of California's initiative process, crowing that -- among other virtues -- it "has been successfully utilized, enacting both statutory and constitutional provisions alike, directly reflecting the will of the voters."

Panicked by the specter of Republican legislators' being gutted in this year's post-census redistricting by a Democratic governor and a legislature with massive Democratic majorities, GOP leaders, including then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, "successfully utilized" the initiative process themselves -- Proposition 20, which cut legislators out of the line-drawing and put it into the hands of a "non-political" citizens' commission.

Ironically, when the California Citizens Redistricting Commission unveiled the new district lines this summer, Republicans, along with some Democrats, squealed like stuck pigs.

At first, it may seem surprising that Republican legislators are attempting to circumvent the initiative process at the same time they praise it. But they've read the polls that continually tell us that Californians trust themselves to legislate more than they do state legislators. On the other hand, Republicans got singed royally by the initiative process by pushing redistricting reform, and the celebratory resolution gives them cover to fight a politically impalpable outcome.

In another irony, Republicans are trying to use referenda to undo what they did through the initiative process, by challenging Congressional and state Senate lines.

A recent fundraising appeal sent out by former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republican leaders said, "The state Senate lines drawn by the California Redistricting Commission (remember Prop 20?) virtually guarantee a Democratic super-majority…in 2012. A successful drive to put a referendum on the June 2012 ballot is the best way to prevent this from happening."

And the Democrats?

Few Californians doubt the initiative process has ceased to be a guarantee of "direct democracy," becoming a tool of interest groups frustrated with legislative gridlock, to get their way. It is clearly in need of reform. But what reform?

Democratic legislators are introducing a spate of legislation that could reshape the initiative process, making it more difficult to qualify ballot measures and giving the legislature (read Democrats) more influence over the process.

The most controversial proposal -- some would say the most partisan -- is a bill that would shift all state initiatives to the general election ballot. The general election typically has a higher voter turnout than the primaries; November's turnout also happens to trend more Democratic than the smaller, more conservative primary electorate.

Legislative Democrats can taste the state's shifting demographics -- and its Democratic tilt -- propelling them toward a 2/3 majority in at least one house of the legislature. The current initiative process could continue to threaten their ability to command the policy levers of the state.

Bottom line: Democrats hunger to reshape the initiative process to benefit them, their policy agenda and their constituencies. Marginalized Republicans want to put the brakes on all that. It's a high-stakes political war, and the initiative process is the battlefield.

Happy Birthday, California's initiative process. Or not.

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