The leader of the state senate, Darrell Steinberg, recently offered a characteristically thoughtful proposal on improving the state’s initiative process.

In a speech at the Sacramento Press Club, Steinberg argued for four changes – each of them modest but each with merit. The real question about the proposals – other than the political difficulties of altering the popular process – is whether they are enough.

Let’s look at all four:

  1. Making initiatives live within the budget. This is the least controversial of the reforms, among the most discussed in the recent past, and most likely to be enacted. Steinberg offered this as an aside near the end of the speech, but it’s crucial. Initiatives should require a funding source for any new funding obligation. Under the current system, there are two budgets – the one the legislature passes, which is always out of balance, and the one that exists after the voters get through, which is even more out of balance.
  2. Creating more flexibility in the process before it goes on the ballot. California has the least flexible process in the world; errors can’t be fixed in an initiative without refilling (and starting over), and qualified measures can’t be pulled off the ballot. Steinberg would attempt to address this by bringing the legislature into the process – which is common in other states and countries. The legislature’s role would still be limited—it would have the power to amend the initiative or replace it with a statute, but only if the initiative sponsor and governor concurred, and only during a particular time period. The state needs more flexibility than that – it should be possible to pull an initiative off the ballot at any time, if there’s a compromise, and the legislature should be able to put a counter-proposal on the ballot next to an initiative. But Steinberg’s proposal is a decent start.
  3. Allow the Legislature with the signature of the Governor to amend or repeal any statutory initiative after 10 years. Every other place on the planet with an initiative process, except California, allows amendments of initiative statutes by the legislative body. This would crack the door open ever so slightly, with a 10-year rule. A two-year rule, or no rule at all would be better. But even getting this change passed will be difficult – opponents, and they will be legion, could portray this as an attack on the will of the people.
  4. Allow the Legislature to place a statutory initiative on the ballot with a majority vote. This could function as a counter-proposal of the sort I just suggested above. That’d be good. But there’s reason to worry. It’s bad enough that voters and interests can use the initiative process to qualify laws that can’t be changed (or under Steinberg’s proposal, couldn’t be changed for 10 years). It’s not necessarily an improvement to make it easier for the legislature to add its own inflexible rules.

There’s also potential for unintended consequences. Since the legislature would likely use this power to alter other initiatives, such a rule would increase the incentive for initiative sponsors to design their measures as constitutional amendments (which still require a two-thirds vote to place on the ballot) to prevent the legislature from altering them. The result: more rooms added on to the Winchester Mystery House that is the California state constitution.

Steinberg acknowledged some of these shortcomings during the speech, repeating the tiresome, inaccurate statement made by all those in power Sacramento that he must bow to so-called political reality. He also threw cold water on wholesale constitutional revision – which is hard politically but is the only way out of a mess as complicated as California’s.

But grading this proposal on a curve – and that’s the only way to grade Sacramento ideas – Steinberg’s proposal deserves good marks. Which is another way of saying: for the most part, it’s probably not going to make things worse.