Among the many wrong-headed changes to the initiative process that are championed as “reform,” the persistent attack by Democrats on the filing fee for initiatives may be the most peculiar.
Loni Hancock and others have been pushing legislation to raise that $200 fee on the basis that it doesn’t cover the cost of legal and fiscal reviews necessary for initiatives. Too many filers just want to get an idea out or get publicity, goes the argument. The Bay Area News Group bought this argument hook-line-sinker recently, in a piece headlined, “Initiative glut taking a toll on state resources.”
And what a toll? An entire $500,000 in 2011 in a state with a combined general and special fund budget of $130 billion.
Those numbers are one sign that those who support this change aren’t interested in reforming the initiative process. They want to strangle it – and one venue that allows an average citizen a way to advance an idea.
The other sign of the intentions is that this bill isn’t accompanied by any serious effort to build a true, public infrastructure to support the initiative process.
Other countries (notably Switzerland and the EU) and states (most notably Oregon) are building those kinds of infrastructure. What sorts of things? Deliberative bodies that spark a real debate over initiatives and can craft official ballot arguments for citizens. Offices and officials that provide citizens with nonpartisan research and assistance in drafting measures. Online signature gathering regimes to lower the costs of gathering. Reimbursement for valid signatures so that initiative sponsors don’t have to bear the huge costs of qualifying measures alone. Public financing regimes so both sides of an initiative have the ability to make their case during the campaign. And longer timelines for the process to promote deliberation and to allow citizens’ groups that don’t have money to participate more fully in the process.
Much of this infrastructure costs public money, of course. But in the grand scheme of things, such measures are cheap. Which is why Californians – at least those who believe in democracy – should be looking for ways to spend more public dollars to make the initiative process more democratic, not looking at ways to add fees that restrict the process to the rich.
Progressive forces elsewhere have supported these kinds of change. But California liberals are so blind in their initiative hatred that they want to strangle the process, not make things more democratic. The hypocrisy of liberals — who, in other contexts, rightly support public financing for campaigns — is breathtaking when it comes to initiatives.
Yes, the California initiative process, which is the most inflexible on planet earth, badly needs reform. And the fundamental reform is making the process more flexible, so that successful initiatives may be amended by legislative bodies and so that initiatives live within budgets and other rules.
Indeed, a more flexible process might well cut down on all the filings – precisely the problem that sponsors of legislation to boost fees claim to be fighting.
Initiative sponsors who realized they couldn’t do a complete end run around the legislature with an initiative might not bother. And those who do file would be less inclined to file multiple measures if the process was flexible enough to accommodate fixes and changes. Right now, one reason sponsors file multiple versions is that they can’t easily make changes to initiatives once the process has begun, so the multiple versions cover all the bases.