Touted Initiative ‘Reforms' Would Mostly Reduce Access

The Ventura County Star political columnist Timm Herdt, who is widely read inside and outside of Sacramento, writes today about the need for reform of the initiative process. He's right about the need for reform, but he touts legislation that would limit access to the process without fixing what ails the system.

Herdt particularly likes measures that make the already onerous and expensive task of qualifying measures for the ballot even more onerous and costly. The worst of these is a measure that would bar paying signature gatherers per-signature, as is the standard practice in California and in most U.S. states Instead, petition circulators would be paid by the hour. In practice, this would add to the cost of qualifying -- and probably price all but the richest people and interests out of the initiative game.

This is backwards. The process needs to be opened up and made more accessible; one way to do this would be legislation legalizing -- and setting standards for -- on-line gathering of signatures. The European Union is in the process of putting in place such a regime, but California is not following suit -- in large part because the wealthy interests that back the politicians offering the signature gatherer legislation like having the process all to themselves.

But making the process more accessible is only a small part of what reform would look like. What's most necessary is to change the impact and power of the process itself. Right now, California has the world's most inflexible initiative process -- we're the only place where, once the people enact a statute by initiative, it can only be undone by another vote of the people. Real reform requires integrating the initiative process with the existing system of initiatives and budget. Herdt does mention one reform -- Senate Constitutional Amendment 4 -- that would take a small step in that direction, by requiring initiatives to find a source of funding.

But Herdt totally ignores a package of reforms from Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Burbank Democrat, that seeks to integrate the process. That package, more than anything else that's been offered, would make the initiative process more accountable and more citizen-centered. Unfortunately, much of the legislation being discussed in Sacramento, and in the press, would make a rotten process even worse.

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