The only thing more dispiriting than last week’s three-hour legislative hearing on four November ballot initiatives was the debate over it.
Dan Walters, Joel Fox and others accused the senate Democrats — and specifically Darrell Steinberg — of censoring the hearing, because he blocked broadcast of the hearing on the California Channel and the Internets.
Steinberg was wrong – as he acknowledged to reporters on Monday. But it should have been hard to be too outraged about blocking broadcasts (on a channel no one watches) of a midweek morning in August that no one was going to see. And no one would have learned much about the measures from the hearing – since review of four complicated initiatives was crammed into a three-hour hearing, leaving little time for anything but brief descriptions you can get in the ballot guide and talking points that you’ll see on TV and campaign websites.
That said, the episode revealed a fundamental problem with the California initiative process – a problem far bigger than the blocking of one meaningless hearing. That problem was most apparent in the initial defense of the blocking decision by Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams, as quoted by Walters.
“It was inappropriate to provide legislative resources to promote the ballot measure campaigns of either side, and in particular to make those public-funded resources easily available for exploitation in political TV commercials. No different than the rules that apply to legislative staff.”
That comment betrays a complete misunderstanding of what the ballot initiative process should be. It is not, as the spokesman’s statement assumed, an electoral and political process from which the government should be separate for reasons of ethics. The initiative process is itself legislative process – which is to say it is first and foremost government and governance.
That’s why the legislature should be doing more on initiatives, not trying to separate them off into one short hearing that doesn’t have meaningful participation from regular citizens. That’s also why, when you turn off the cameras on such a hearing, you’re not censoring a hearing. You are disrupting the legislative process. It’s no different than slamming the doors shut to keep lawmakers out a chamber. Because in the initiative process, citizens literally are lawmakers.
Of course, Steinberg’s spokesman isn’t the only person who doesn’t get this. That fundamental misunderstanding undergirds the entire initiative process. California treats initiatives as if they were part of the political system – putting them on the same ballot as candidate races – instead of as part of the governing system.
Which is precisely the problem. California’s initiative process does real damage because it’s so inflexible and divorced from the legislative process. Initiatives don’t have to live within existing budgets and laws. Lawmakers have no real role in the process. And once voters do something, it’s next to impossible for lawmakers to tweak it or undo it.
You would think lawmakers would understand this instinctively, and work to integrate their work more with the initiative process. But efforts to do just that have gone nowhere. Heck, we can’t even pull off a meaningless hearing on initiatives without gamesmanship, controversy, and apologies.