CA initiative reform: Lawmakers ignore the elephant in the room

CA initiative reform: Lawmakers ignore the elephant in the room

ballotThe San Francisco Chronicle recently reported on initiative reforms that take effect today.

After more than a century in California’s political spotlight, the state’s initiative process will be getting a major revise next year. Even more surprising, both Democrats and Republicans in the famously partisan Legislature are happy to see it happen.

While Republicans made up most of the limited opposition when SB1253 made its way through the Legislature, the two GOP leaders, state Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County) and Assembly member Kristin Olsen of Modesto, both voted “aye.”

“It was a bipartisan effort,” said former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, the Democrat who authored the bill. “People like the initiative process but believe it can be improved.”

The measure opens the way for increased collaboration between lawmakers and backers of initiatives by requiring the Legislature to hold a joint public hearing on a proposed initiative as soon as 25 percent of the required signatures are collected. It also calls for the attorney general to open a 30-day public review before approving an initiative for circulation and lets supporters amend the initiative during that time.

A much-bigger problem: Slanted ballot language

These reforms make sense and should lean to cleaner ballot measures.  But if one looks back over the past 15 years, all of the biggest outrages in the initiative process involved another problem that the Legislature declined to try to fix: the extraordinary way that the last three attorneys general — Bill Lockyer, Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris — have slanted ballot language to achieve the outcome that Democratic special interests prefer.

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bid to use a 2005 special election to force through major reforms was hurt badly by Lockyer’s ballot titles and language. Proposition 76 would have created a rainy-day fund and a less chaotic budget process. Lockyer made it sound like an attempt to hurt school kids, titling it “State Spending and School Funding Limits. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.”

In one week alone in 2010, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown had his ballot language thrown out by judges who agreed that Brown wasn’t playing fair on a ballot measure challenging AB 32 and one making it easier to pass a state budget without Republican votes. (He tried to sabotage the first one, Prop. 23, and promote the second one, Prop. 25.)

Kamala Harris has continued this unfortunate tradition. This CalWatchdog post looks at her attempt to help trial lawyers with their misleading 2014 ballot measure.

Lockyer, Brown and Harris all say they don’t draft the language; instead, they depict it as a chore that they leave to their “professional staffs.” But if that were the case, then why have all three AGs opposed reforms transferring ballot-language responsibilities to the FPPC, the LAO or a panel of retired judges?

Because they know being able to compose ballot language on measures digging with the biggest issues of the day gives the California attorney general extraordinary power.

The worst ballot-language abuser of all

bullet.train.trustBut the twist to all this is that the single worst abuser of the privilege of writing ballot descriptions was the Legislature itself. In 2008, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate directly wrote the highly misleading title and summary for Proposition 1A, the measure which provided $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the bullet-train project. Here’s the summary:

SAFE, RELIABLE HIGH-SPEED PASSENGER TRAIN BOND ACT. To provide Californians a safe, convenient, affordable, and reliable alternative to driving and high gas prices; to provide good-paying jobs and improve California’s economy while reducing air pollution, global warming greenhouse gases, and our dependence on foreign oil, shall $9.95 billion in bonds be issued to establish a clean, efficient high-speed train service linking Southern California, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area, with at least 90 percent of bond funds spent for specific projects, with federal and private matching funds required, and all bond funds subject to independent audits?'”

This prompted a Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association lawsuit. That suit led a state appellate court to issue a jaw-dropping decision that forever banned the Legislature from writing ballot language.

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