Time For California to Get Serious About… Well… Time

Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature lose an hour of negotiating time this weekend, when clocks "spring forward" and Daylight Savings time begins. This change in time should bring some badly needed reflection about the need for a change in how the state manages its time.

Election time specifically.

The current budget debate reveals the problem. California has a very traditional election calendar -- two statewide elections, a primary and a general -- every other years. So there are no elections scheduled this year, though Brown, as governor, has the power to call a special election. And he wants to call one for June 7, before the new budget year begins, to let California voters weigh in on whether they want to extend temporary tax increases from 2009 for another five years. But Brown can't put his tax measure on the ballot himself -- he needs the legislatuer to go along.

The California constitution and the election code have all kinds of rules that govern time and elections. Certain ballots must be printed a certain number of days before an election. Ballot measures must be ready a certain number of days before a vote. Etc. etc. You'll hear more speculation -- and argument, since there's give in some of the rules and timetables -- about how soon Brown and the legislature need to reach agreement to call an election for a particular June date.

But the drama about election time is unnecessary -- and could be avoided entirely if California had an election calendar that reflected its political reality. This state has an initiative process so inflexible that voters have locked up almost every major fiscal matter in the constitution or in initiative-created law. Since laws adopted by initiative and the constitution itself can only be changed by voters, any serious change in the budget legally or politically requires voter action.

The budget is negotiated at least once a year, every year. But with elections only every other year, constant special elections ensue. Such hastily planned elections tend to be costlier than they would be if they were approved years in advance.

The solution is to have the state set aside three or four dates every year -- probably once a quarter -- as a possible election date for any ballot measures put on by the legislature or by voters. This would allow lawmakers and governors to get public approval of their fiscal ideas promptly. It also would provide a way to break up the long list of ballot measures that confront us at regularly scheduled elections. Instead, voters every three months might see one or two measures that they would have more time and space to consider individually.

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