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Roundtable: Initiative Process May Be Changed

Aired 9/2/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

There are several reforms to the process of getting an initiative on the ballot being considered by state legislators. As the legislative session ends, we look at why ths is happening and who's behind the reforms.

The number of state ballot initiatives is becoming an issue in Sacramento, and there are several reforms to the process of getting an initiative on the ballot being considered by state legislators. These include raising the number of signatures required, disclosure of funding sources, or mandating all ballot initiatives be voted on in November general election, and not in June.

Michael Smolens, government and politics editor, San Diego Union Tribune

Alisa Barba, editor, Fronteras Desk, NPR

Katie Orr, Metro reporter, KPBS News

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

At the Roundtable today, Michael Smollens, government and politics editor for the something Union Tribune. Hi Michael. And Alisa barber is head of the fronteras desk.

BARBER: How are you?

CAVANAUGH: And Katie Orr is metro reporter here at KPBS news. Hi Katie.

ORR: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Michael, the number of state ballot initiatives is becoming an issue in Sacramento. Several initiative reforms are being considered by state legislators, including raising the number of signatures required, man dating all ballot initiatives be voted on in the November general election. Is there a problem as you see it with the state initiative process?

SMOLLENS: Well, this isn't the first time people have wanted to tighten things up. This particular effort has a real partisan tone to it. But over the past couple decades, even some good government groups have said we've got to change things because it's too wild out there. The Democrats are pushing this. They believe that the initiative process has been hijacked by special interests. This was develop aid century or more ago to break the locks special interests had on Sacramento. But what they're proposing, some people think, is sort of against -- the initiative process is like mom and apple pie in California. It's part of the culture, part of the lore. And past efforts to try to tweak it have fallen by the wayside. In this case, the political component is that a lot of people view this as an effort to restrict Republicans in their efforts to push things true or pas things. They're at such a minority in the legislature that the Democrats are so-so dominant, many people feel -- they want to put a spending cap on the ballot. These various things are efforts to restrict them. However, Democrats and democratic leaning groups have made good use of the ballot initiative. So it's not a unanimous push by them.

CAVANAUGH: And also, as you make the point, Michael, that the Republicans have used this initiative process as one of the only ways to stale relevant in state politics because they're in the minority. But why do Democrats want to change this process? Do they have as you see it any other reasons besides political?

SMOLLENS: As I said, and beyond the partisan aspect, a lot -- we have had double digit numbers of the ballot measures, sometimes 18. I forget what the record is. It gets overwhelming. And beyond that, there's been a lot of concern about how particularly on fiscal issues, there's the term ballot box budgeting where with prop 98 and the school funding, prop 13, certain things really restrict the legislative -- tie the legislators' hands. And a lot of people believe that's contributed to the budget problems. In the larger sense, people think there needs to be some way to try to reform that. But there's a real question of, A, whether these would do that; B, whether they would achieve the state of purpose of making it more difficult for the special interests, which are the target; and C, whether they would get through, and whether Governor Brown would sign these because he's been a proponent of the open democracy and the initiative process in the past.

CAVANAUGH: A big champion of direct democracy. Alisa, California is the only state in which they can't do anything, overturn or amend anything voted by the people. I'm speaking about the initiatives. What effect does that have on the power of the legislator.

BARBER: I think that arguably this is one of the reason yes we see such paralysis up in Sacramento. These initiatives, they are -- whether your special interest is going to be legalizing cannabis or providing a locked in mandated school funding every year, whatever your special interest is, if you can gather the signatures, you can get it on the ballot, and if your marketing budget is high enough and you get the word out that you can get something passed, a lot of these are poorly written, a lot of them don't stand up to legal tests which cost a great deal money, taxpayer money to, go after these in the legal process as well. So I think the political component is really fascinating, the way Republicans are essentially saying that the Democrats are trying to lock them out of the political process by making it more difficult to pas these initiatives. But I don't think there's a good argument to be made that this kind of direct democracy is really working in California right now.

CAVANAUGH: When we talked about this earlier in the week, Michael, we heard that as much as people are tired of so many ballot initiative, their confidence in the California legislator poles in the teens. If you say, well, we're going to take away our ability for direct democracy and leave it up to the legislator --

SMOLLENS: Yes, and many of these things would give the legislature more influence. And the legislature in terms of popularity and job ratings at an all-time low, it's inconceivable the people would want them to have more control. A lot of initiatives have these unintended consequences. People think they've got a good, well drafted initiative, then they find out in reality, it doesn't quite work out that way. The governor vetoed a measure not long ago that would have changed how people can pay signature gatherers. Right now, the standard is that you pay per signature, anywhere from 1 to $6, frankly, and a lot of people think that gives an incentive for signature gatherers to lie to get people to sign. And the governor said two things. He said why would we make incentive it is criminal? And secondly, this would require hourly wages, maybe salaries, and could even make it more expensive, and therefore more the province of special money interests than the people. So that was well intentioned by people. But he certainly had a different view of the costs. And who it might ultimately benefit.

BARBER: I just had a thought about the low confidence ratings on the legislature. I think again one could argue, and I'm being very ambit lent here, one could argue that the legislature's hands are so tied by so many of these initiatives and where money has to go, and who they can pass a budget that their very ineffectiveness is at least partly a result of this whole initiative process.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking primarily here about state ballot initiatives. Katie, let's talk about city initiatives from time to time. There are signatures as we know being collected for pension reform initiatives right now. Even the threat of ballot initiatives seems to make changes. Tell us about that.

ORR: We've seen that twice so far this year. The first time was when Walmart wanted to build a store in San Diego, and the City Council passed an ordinance saying that they would have to do -- not just Walmart, but any big box store would have to do an economic impact report before it could be built. So they went out and collected signatures, and the City Council faced with those signatures reversed their decision. They did it again with the medical marijuana ordinances. The city passed restrictions on where these collectives could set up shop, opponents said it was effectively a ban. And so you had a big group come in, collect these signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and again the City Council said forget it. We're not going to do that. And they reversed their position. And excuse in both of these is money. It would cost a lot of money to put these issues on the ballot. Some people have argued in terms of medical marijuana, we're having an election anyway. And it would cost more money to put that on the ballot. But they wouldn't have to hold a special election for that issue. So you've got this question of is the City Council letting itself be overruled by these petition gatherers? I don't know if you can call it grass-roots. Walmart certainly is a massive corporation. But who's really in control here? I think we saw that, yeah, on the local level twice. And now with this pension initiative, just following it via twitter, the laborer unions going back and forthwith the supporters of this pension measure, it looks like it gets ugly out there sometimes. They have confrontations, I know Carl DeMaio sent out an e-mail today saying that he's going to focus all his attention on collecting these signatures because he's such a big backer of it. So I think he has about another month or so to do that.

CAVANAUGH: There's another issue about the state ballot initiatives. Some of the names of these initiatives are very misleading. I remember in the last cycle there was an initiative that was documented as being paid for by big oil companies in Texas, and I forget exactly the same, but it was something like the full employment initiative. It's really supposed to knock down our air pollution laws.

BARBER: Right. And I think to actually vote knowledgeably about these initiatives, and we've all done that, you have to sit down and study that dang booklet. You have to spend hours and read through all of the twisted language. And for instance something that's supported by the gas companies is called the green California act. Or whatever. And everybody is going to go, yeah, I want a green California. But when you read through the fine print, it's something else entirely.

SMOLLENS: I just wanted to add that it's interesting that you mention that, because now it's very clear that special interests are running these things. Even though they have these wonderful I names and stuff. But back earlier when they were first getting involved there was a little bit of, I don't want to say subterfuge, but what they were doing sort of pseudo grass-roots kind of efforts, and the term became Astroturf. To this day, they still try to get that appeal. But backing up for a second am even if all these passed, California is not going to get rid of the initiative process. Of the public likes having that direct touch. And they often get frustrated as I think Alisa was mentioning, as we hit the ballot with so many things and so much studying to do. But nobody really wants to do away with that. Whether it can be tweaked to another satisfaction remains to be seen.

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