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Beware Initiative Reform

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Many California leaders and groups want to make this the year for reforming the initiative process. You’d think I’d be one of them. I’ve written two books that dealt in detail with the initiative process. I help run a global forum on direct democracy. I teach a class on the subject. I write about it constantly. Heck, I’ll even be speaking (warning: self-promotion to come) on a panel on initiative reform this Friday, January 25, at the library in Carlsbad.

But I think “initiative reform,” as a concept, is something we shouldn’t do.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t good ideas out there. There are. Darrell Steinberg’s package of proposals makes a ton of sense. Assemblyman Mike Gatto has been advancing the smartest, most ambitious proposals on initiatives in recent years. The Think Long Committee for California has a very well-thought-out batch of proposals, with the hands-down best new idea on the subject (creating a group that could do long-term thinking and put measures directly on the ballot as an alternative to signatures). The Greenlining Institute has been working hard on initiative reforms. The League of Women Voters has been doing an extensive study of the initiative and is preparing to make what could be some thoughtful recommendations. Thinkers like Bob Stern and Thad Kousser have very creative ideas.

So what’s the problem? Put simply: the initiative process can’t be reformed by itself.

The initiative is just one piece of California’s three-headed governance problem. We also have a broken election system, and a broken legislative process, particularly as it relates to fiscal matters. The initiative is part of the election system and is a key factor in the state’s legislative and budgetary problems. So one can’t fix the initiative process without fixing the legislative process and the election system. Initiative reform in isolation doesn’t make sense.

The would-be reformers understand this. And Think Long’s recommendations – and some of the proposals offered by Steinberg and Gatto – reckon with the legislature and the state’s larger constitutional problems as well. But none of the proposals go far enough to reckon with the fundamental problem with the initiative process: It doesn’t fit with the legislative or election systems. There are many different options and ways to integrate the initiative with the rest of governance. But none can be accomplished by treating the initiative alone. The conversation – and the reform – have to be bigger.

My fear is that the narrow talk about “initiative reform” will produce narrow reforms that either don’t change much (by keeping the initiative process as an unaccountable, separate branch of government) or add new rules and regulations to the process that, however well-intentioned, make a broken process even worse.

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