May 6, 2004 - From the February, 2002 issue

Speaker's Initiative Reform Commission Releases Final Report At Commonwealth Club Event

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.


David Broder

The Commission on the California Initiative Process has done a firstrate job. The proposals are both modest and I think for the most part sensible. I just want to touch on a couple of the particular things that struck me.

The idea of the indirect initiative-where petitioners can take the initiative to the Legislature for hearings and possible action while still reserving the right to directly to the voters with their own draft of the initiative if they're not satisfied with what happens to it during the legislative process-is a sensible and interesting way of bridging the gap between the initiative process and the regular legislative process. It provides for more public hearings and it opens up the opportunity for refining and improving the proposal. That system was used for many years, I understand, in the State of Washington, but now has fallen into disuse there. Washington also does something that this Commission considered, but did not find enough support to recommend, namely requiring fewer signatures for the petition for an indirect initiative than for one that goes straight to the voters.

Dan Evans, the former Governor of Washington, laments that the indirect initiative has fallen out of favor. But I raise that as a kind of a caution because if you have the option for the same number of signatures of going directly to the voters with your proposition or taking it to the Legislature for possible alteration, I would suspect that most of the folks who put up the money and effort to collect those signatures may prefer to take them directly to the voters.

The financial disclosure ideas in this report are excellent. They focus on getting information to people before they are asked to sign petitions to get the initiative onto the ballot. Arizona has another interesting wrinkle on that, which might also be considered here. The top donors to an initiative campaign or the opposition to an initiative are identified by name in the television ads that run on the initiative. Again, a very helpful way of orienting the voters as to who's putting up the money and whose interests may be served and who may be jeopardized there.

Tightening down the single subject requirement is another issue. I'm not a lawyer and I may be way off base with this, but I've come to believe that there's a Catch-22 involved with the single subject rule. It has the advantage of saying to people, "This is specifically what you're being asked to vote on, not a catch-all of several different things." But the more narrowly the subject is defined, the less context voters have for looking at it in the larger scheme of things and the less they're required to think about the tradeoffs that may be implicit in voting for that subject.

In this state you have often approved initiatives to earmark revenues for specific purposes. The more specific that purpose is defined, the more the voters' intent will be carried out. That evades the question of if we're going to spend the money on say transportation, what are we not going to spend the money on. There is a tradeoff involved in this single subject rule.

A couple of comments that I'm required to make in terms of nitpicking-because if you don't nitpick then you're in serious danger of being thrown out of the pundit's guild, and I'm still a member of good standing.

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I said earlier that these proposals strike me as being both modest and sensible. I want to dwell on the modest part of this. Early in the report it says, "California's initiative process provides for a fundamentally different way of law-making. When not subject to the safeguards of the normal legislative process, such as numerous public hearings, expert testimony, independent analysis and legal review, the legislative process usually results in important technical revisions to improve legislative clarity and constitutionality, and usually involves compromise to accommodate various policy and political concerns."

All of those things mentioned in those two sentences represent very important values in our system of representative government. They're the reason we have all of the checks and balances we learned about in school. Those checks and balances are largely absent from the initiative process today and my nitpick would be that I'm afraid many of those things would still be missing even if all these recommendations were enacted. There is still nothing that requires voters to consider the tradeoffs that are involved in a particular initiative. They really don't even have to think about what the public justification is, because as you know, initiative campaigns are normally addressed to the voter in terms of this is why this is a good thing for you as an individual, not why it would be good for the State of California. There's nothing in this that will change that pattern of confusing and deliberately misleading ads.

When I was in Sacramento yesterday, I was told that the tactic that is currently being used by supporters of the initiative to open up the loop hole in the term limit initiative involves calling Republican households and saying, "Vote ‘yes' on this initiative to strengthen term limits and keep Willie Brown from coming back to Sacramento." Another way of saying that is, "Let John Burton have another term", but that's not exactly the message they want to deliver. There's nothing here that keeps the consultants from trying to fool and confuse the voters.

Finally there's nothing in this and may not be anything that's constitutional to do about the expense and the money barrier. I will conclude with a story that I told here last time I was talking about this subject. I had a wonderful experience with a distinguished lawyer in this city, whose firm does a lot of work on initiatives. And I said to him, "If I came in here not as a reporter from the Washington Post, just as a citizen of California, and I've got a good idea that I want to put before my fellow citizens and let them write it into the law, tell me how the conversation would go."

He said to me, "Well the first thing that would happen is I would ask you my million-dollar question." To which I said to him, "What's your million-dollar question?" He said, "Do you have a million dollars?"

If you don't have a million dollars, you're not going to be in this game.

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