The End of California Progressivism

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

As
he struggled during an interview on KPCC to
defend his fellow Democrats’ recent assaults on California’s initiative
process, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Burbank, Glendale, Silver lake) blurted
out that the conversation with Republican Assemblyman Don Wagner (R – Irvine)
was becoming a "strange segment with a Republican sounding like a Democrat, and
a Democratic representative sounding like a Republican." The insinuation was
that the state’s Republicans have generally dismissed the public’s involvement
at the ballot box, while Democrats have upheld the virtues of initiative and
referendum.

Gatto’s
appraisal is disingenuous, of course: California Democrats have been remarkably consistent over the last several
years in their endeavors to curb participation in the initiative and referendum
system. Several of their current constraining efforts are warmed over ideas
from Democrats past.  I wrote recently on
these pages about
Democratic Senator Ellen Corbett’s attempt to restrict signature gathering to
hourly employees or volunteers – SB 168. 
This was the Democrats’ fourth bite at this apple,
with Corbett’s earlier attempt in 2010 (SB 34) falling to Governor
Schwarzenegger’s pen, then-Senator Debra Bowen’s (now Secretary of State) SB
1047 failing to make it out of committee in 2006, and then-Assemblyman Mark
Leno’s AB 2946 falling to veto that same year.

The
cavalcade of Democratic efforts to either constrain or modify the initiative
and referendum process ranges from how signatures should be collected, to when
the public should be
allowed

to vote on them. 
I’m
not the
first

to wonder whether the Party, which stands to win the hallowed two-thirds
majority in the Legislature after redistricting, is now attempting to squelch
any other possible sources of opposition. But I am chastened with the knowledge
that they’re not the majority, yea super-majority, for nothing.

Still,
I wonder whether the Democrats have – as the kids say – "jumped the
shark
"
on this issue. 

In
the most in-depth, multi-partisan, statewide survey of its kind, the "What’s Next California?" event brought together a statistically
representative group of over 400 Californians during three days in late June to
both learn about and express their opinions on a number of reform proposals –
including the initiative
process
(full
disclosure: I served on the project’s Advisory Committee).  Provided with the same pro/con arguments
propounded in the Capitol, the just-released results should provide Democrats
some reasons to reconsider their current course.

The
unique Deliberative Poll process used in "What’s Next California?" surveyed
attendees before and after their weekend’s worth of learning and discussions on
a variety of reform ideas. Drilling down into the results by party affiliation yields some
interesting findings.  Participants were
asked, "Do you support allowing the Legislature to amend an initiative that has
already been passed, subject to a two-thirds vote?" While 61% of all
participants deemed this "Undesirable" at the start of the process, fully 73%
of the total felt this way after
learning more about the issue. At the party affiliation level this included a
pre/post jump from 68% to 79% for Republicans, 53% to 67% for Democrats, and
65% to 78% for Independents.

Of
the four discussed measures that would have given the Legislature some
influence over the initiative process not a single one received more than a 45%
"Desirable" result prior to the weekend’s discussions, and none earned higher
than 37% afterwards. Republicans and Independents did show the highest levels
of distrust of Legislative involvement, but Democrats followed them closely. 

This
is why, when this same representative group of Californians was asked to
describe their feelings towards most of the state’s governing institutions,
only "Your city/town and county’s government" ranked more favorably than the
initiative/referendum process. And, importantly, pre/post deliberation support
for the initiative system (those saying they were "extremely satisfied" with
it) increased by a larger percentage (16 percentage points) than any other state
governing body surveyed, with, again, Independents and Republicans leading the
way. To compare, participants’ positive views of the State Legislature grew a
meager two percentage points – from 10% to 12%.

Californians
do see room for improvement in the initiative/referendum process, though. Some
of the most popular reform measures across all the issues discussed (including
taxation, representation, state/local relationship) involved providing voters
more information about a proposal’s financial implications and "creating a
formal review process to allow an initiative’s proponents to amend an
initiative following public input." These could be proposals on which Democrats
and Republicans in Sacramento might agree.

At
a couple points in the aforementioned KPCC interview, Assemblyman Gatto argued
that the Party’s reform proposals were attempts to bring the process "closer to
the people." If the "What’s Next California?" results are to be believed, the
Democrats have some work to do in making this case. In the meantime, it appears
that the Republicans are rediscovering their Progressive roots, and the 100th
anniversary of the initiative/referendum in California might be the perfect
time to do it.

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