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Meaningful Strides Forward on Initiative Reform

Kathay Feng
Executive Director, California Common Cause

I’d like to go on the record and say I agree wholeheartedly with Joe Mathews that SB 1253, the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, certainly does deserve more attention [“Very Small Steps Forward on Ballot Initiative System,” May 20]. To be sure, California’s decades old initiative process is long overdue for reform. Where Joe and I, and the many groups and individuals supporting SB 1253 part ways is in just how quickly we think these reforms can happen. If our goal is real, lasting reform, it will take thoughtful change, implemented over time so as not to shock the system completely. Voters don’t want to feel like a system they value has suddenly been turned on its head. SB 1253 takes an important first step in improving the process by focusing on changes that Californians have prioritized. About 8 in 10 voters indicate that improving the clarity, transparency, and accountability of the initiative process are their greatest priority. SB 1253 will give the voters what they are asked for.

The bill comes out of a year-long collaborative process that was the work of a broad coalition. Over 60 different groups were involved in the process, meetings were held with voters, and bi-partisan and non-partisan polls were used to build a proposal that voters want. The proposals in SB 1253 had the clearest and broadest consensus, including among our authors, and will make immediate improvements to the initiative process.

Here’s how it will work.

By establishing a 30-day public review period at the beginning of the initiative process, the bill will create greater transparency for voters. Additionally, by allowing for earlier deliberation with the legislature and the ability to withdraw an initiative before qualification, the bill will create an opportunity to correct flaws in initiatives before they appear on the ballot, or to withdraw initiatives all together if a compromise with the legislature can be reached.

Legislative hearings are currently an afterthought in the process, typically occurring after initiatives have already qualified when there is no opportunity for meaningful policy discussion between proponents and the legislature. SB 1253 would move legislative hearings earlier in the initiative process, allowing for meaningful debate about initiatives and time to reach a compromise. This would result in clearer initiatives and a simplified ballot for voters. This is no small change.

Additionally, the ability to withdraw an initiative before qualification could potentially allow for much more than a few extra weeks for deliberation with the legislature. The bill establishes that the Secretary of State will issue a notice of qualification 131 days before the November election (approximately early July). Initiatives that submit their signatures well before that deadline will have considerably more time to strike a compromise with the legislature. Furthermore, for those initiatives that fail to qualify for the current ballot and by default are moved to the next election, there may potentially be several years to deliberate.

Finally, it is already a crime to pay a proponent to stop gathering signatures or to fail to turn in signatures. Since SB 1253 creates a new practice of allowing proponents to withdraw after signatures have been submitted, it was necessary to ensure consistency and include this new practice. Most of all, it avoids creating a loophole for legal extortion.

SB 1253 will make important changes to the initiative system that will strengthen the process all while expanding public participation and improving voter information and confidence. The bill takes several important strides forward, creating a platform and foundation for continued reform moving toward a more transparent and streamlined process.

I’d say that’s really no small feat at all.

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