Legislators are on the look out for ways to reform the initiative process, either for the high-minded purpose of improving the process, or with a goal to limit direct democracy and re-claim the lawmaking function for themselves.

California is not the only state initiatives play a major role in policy making. Oregon often has more initiatives on the ballot than the Golden State so it was no surprise last week when a Senate Committee in Oregon held a hearing on a bill that would give power to the legislature to place a measure on the ballot to counter any initiative that was qualified by voter signatures. Supporters of this maneuver claim that voters would be given a choice on different approaches to the problem the initiative is designed to fix. They also argued that initiatives are often poorly drafted and the legislature and its staff, with experience in drawing up laws, would be able to present a better-constructed law to voters.

Oregon legislators might be more frustrated with the initiative process than their California counterparts. Our neighbor to the north is a record setter when it comes to direct democracy. According to USC’s Initiative and Referendum Institute, Oregon leads the way with the most total number of initiatives in history, the highest average number of initiatives per general election ballot, and the most statewide initiatives on the ballot in a single year – 27 in 1912.

But, if Californians think Oregon will lead the way in initiative reform with this proposal they should think again. The counter initiative already exists in California, and no law is needed to make it so. And, many Californians don’t believe the counter initiative is a good thing.

A number of special interests use the counter initiative to offset an initiative filed by opposing interests. Propositions 78 and 79 in the 2005 special election come to mind, when two sides squared off with different solutions on the prescription drug debate. Voters turned their backs on the measures and both lost.

Sometimes the intent of filing a second initiative is not to offer an alternative but to confuse the voter with the second measure in hopes that both measures go down to defeat. If both measures fail, the status quo remains.

In California, the legislature can always put a measure on the ballot to counter a qualified citizen’s initiative. In fact, the legislature did just that to counter the most famous initiative measure in California history. Legislators opposed to property tax cutting Proposition 13 put Proposition 8 on the ballot. That measure was a much milder property tax reform. The voters defeated Prop 8 and passed Prop 13, overwhelmingly.

If legislators want to express themselves on initiatives, or help clean up an initiative so that the measure works as the author intended, consider re-instating the indirect initiative. Under an indirect initiative, a measure qualified by the voters would be run through the legislature for suggested corrections before it goes to the ballot. The initiative proponent must approve any change proposed by the legislature before the measure is amended to prevent any skullduggery at the hands of legislators. If the proponent objects to a proposed change, the initiative goes on the ballot as originally drafted.

To encourage proponents to use the indirect initiative method and theoretically produce a better-written law for the public’s consideration, lower the number of signatures needed to qualify an indirect initiative for the ballot.

Legislators should understand that the initiative power was designed as an equal power to legislative lawmaking, a way for the voters to express themselves outside the legislative process. Improving the system is always worth considering. Attempting to undermine the process is not.