May 6, 2004 - From the February, 2002 issue


The California initiative was invented so that citizens could directly enact statutes and amend the Constitution. However, in the 90+ years since its development it has evolved into something that only high-priced political interest groups can effectively access. Last year, Speaker Emeritus Robert Hertzberg created a Speaker's Commission to identify ways to return the initiative process to the people . At the unveiling of the Commission's final report at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, David Broder, syndicated writer and author, reviewed the Commission's findings and suggestions. MIR is pleased to excerpt a portion of his remarks as well as those of the Speaker's.

Robert Hertzberg

What's wrong with the initiative process? Given that 360 were circulated in the 1990s, but only 25 were actually adopted, what's wrong with that?

Robert Hertzberg

Speaker Emeritus, Calif. State Assembly

Some of the reason why things don't get passed is that good ideas that are deliberated and on which the homework is done are blocked by the counter-initiatives. Prop. 68, that occurred in 1998 on campaign finance reform, is substantially similar to the campaign finance reform that was adopted in the City of Los Angeles, which is very effective. The best and the brightest people came together and spent a couple of years and ended with unanimous consent on the solution. Those who sought to destroy it simply put on a counter-initiative. We've seen so much of that happen in the process.

Will the proposal to adopt an indirect initiative process fix the problems you've seen with initiatives both in California and elsewhere in the western states?

David Broder

Washington Post Writers Group

I think it would be a substantial improvement because it basically is a screening device to let people examine how an initiative will fit with the laws or the Constitutional provisions that are already on the books, the fiscal consequences and what the tradeoffs are. Even if the Legislature did nothing to the proposition and said to the sponsors, "Put it back on the ballot," you would have still had a process of public education. But there's also the potential for them taking the initiative, improving it and either passing it as a statute or giving it back to the sponsors and saying, "You might want to put it to the voters in this improved fashion."

I think it's a very commendable idea. My only caution about it is that in Washington State, and perhaps others that I'm not familiar with, it has fallen into disuse.

The Commission's report focuses heavily on state initiatives. What differences do you see in the problems and need for reform at the local and county level?

Robert Hertzberg

The thing that concerns me about the local initiative is that they're mostly land use in their nature. And there are NIMBYs that are saying, "Not in my backyard. I don't want to bear my responsibility for social infrastructure. I don't want those kinds of people in my backyard. I want the property values of my home upheld." It's hard for anybody in government to plan in any intelligent way to share the responsibility among us all with respect to this.

A number of initiatives have been extraordinary in that regard. Many of them were overturned on constitutional grounds. From my perspective, we look at devolving power away from the state into regions and how we're going to share our collective responsibilities for all of what we do to live together. That is one of the most difficult aspects that we have to deal with.

What percentage of California voters do you believe are so overwhelmed and confused each time they get to their ballots that they just vote "no," no matter how good the measure is?

Mark Baldassare

Senior Fellow, PPIC

The proportion of Californians who say that they are confused and overwhelmed is pretty high when they receive ballots. One of the concerns I have for the democratic process in California is not just that people might just go down and vote "no" on everything, but they might just feel that they're not up to voting, that in order to fully participate in the process, they just don't have the time to go through all of the ballot measures, state and local, as well as the elected side. That may be one of the reasons that over the past 20 years we've seen our percentage of voters decline very sharply in this state. Many people feel incompetent just looking at the complexity and the number of measures on the ballot.


Is there any way to get initiatives qualified in advance with a Constitutional review, beyond the superficial one we currently get? Is there any hope we could push it further?

Robert Hertzberg

The Commission considered that. But, just like in any political document, there are compromises that are made. That was one of the elements that was included. I want to visit that because I think it's very important, but it's very touchy in terms of touching the integrity of the process. I don't know how to get around it. One of the things I would love to do is not just have a bunch of judges review it, but a whole group of English teachers to make sure that you can read it.

Is there anything we can do to improve the media's provision of information about these initiatives, to get more information out faster, richer? Is there something the State Legislature or federal government can do to require that?

David Broder

The Legislature better damn well not require it. On the major initiatives in the state, there tends to be some focus in the media, particularly on the print side. But when I was working on this subject a few years ago, and I went into the databases to see what had been written about the initiative industry in California, which is a giant business, I was astonished how little press coverage there has been of that industry.

The political scientists know a lot about it and have written a lot about it, but if you simply depended on those of us in the media, you would think that there was some form of immaculate conception that produces these initiatives on the ballot, when in fact it is a highly organized and highly profitable business to get them on the ballot and then attempt to get them passed or defeated.

What is the next step after the Speaker's Commission report? How can its recommendations be adopted?

Robert Hertzberg

I introduced two bills on the last day of session just to get it in the public domain, one was a Constitutional amendment and the other a statute. Those statutory recommendations did start the debate. We will this year spend some time and see if we can move it through the system. And if I wasn't so preoccupied with trying to get an education bond passed on this next ballot, I might try to raise the money to put an initiative to reform the initiative process on the ballot.

Will such a reforming initiative pass? And who, if anybody, would support it?

Mark Baldassare

I think it could pass. I think it's important that because there's so much voter frustration out there about the initiative process right now, there's so much respect for the process, as well as a desire to make it respectable again. The will is there. It's going to be very important for there to be a coalition of people from a variety of sources that provide the basis for consensus to develop, that it's not just the Legislature wanting to pull back on the rights of initiatives. There are a number of people who care about the initiative process that want to make it better.

David Broder

What I don't want to have happen is have this to go on the ballot and not pass. It is the difficult side of the business in which I'm in to compromise often on not getting the full loaf and getting what you want all the time, but basically to pull out those reforms and have a strong chance of passing, and get them and move the process, incrementally move the debate if you will. Fix it as much as we can and build confidence so we can fix it again next time and next time and all stay engaged in the process.



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