I was trying to be positive about SB 1253 when I wrote in this space that its provisions represented some very small, but noteworthy progress, in addressing a totally broke initiative process.
But in writing the post, I was worried – specifically that the good government groups backing SB 1253 would short-circuit real initiative reform – which requires integrating a separate process with the rest of California governance. My fear is that they would argue that the legislation’s minor changes (a little more info, a little bit more time for gathering signatures, a little bit of space for deliberation) represented a profound initiative reform, thus making further action less urgent.
Unfortunately, my worry was confirmed – and then some – by a response to my post from Kathay Feng of Common Cause.
Just as I feared, Feng argued that SB 1253 is meaningful initiative reform. That’s not only substantively wrong – since the legislation doesn’t address the inflexibility in the process – but it’s also likely to damage efforts at real reform. If the bill becomes law, good government groups will be able to say they did initiative reform, and move onto other things. Too cynical, you say? This is what many electoral reform advocates did in embracing redistricting and top-two; now they refuse to fix either, much less take steps toward the type of electoral reforms that have proven records of boosting engagement and political participation.
Feng’s post was also misleading in other ways. The post argued that I’m too impatient for reform, and that we need to tread slowly. That’s nonsense. I know very well that any major change takes time, years, even decades. But major change also requires actually pursuing major change — in ways that define the problem for the public. What we’re seeing with this legislation is an avoidance of anything that conflicts with current public opinion on the process; that’s wrongheaded because you can’t win without changing public opinion. I understand how afraid people are of losing, but big change in California comes from losing big–in ways that change conversation and public opinion.
I’m also tempted to ask Feng: how long does one have to wait to get started? Initiative reform has been talked about seriously my entire adult life – 20 years. I’ve been hearing personally about initiative reform plans by good government groups since 2008 – six years ago. Nothing has happened.
Here’s how long ago that was: In 2008, the European Union did not have an initiative process. Since then, Europe wrote and approved a treaty that included an EU-wide initiative process, established the rules and infrastructure for that initiative process, started qualifying initiatives, reformed that process after initial problems, and restarted the initiative process. And that’s Europe – a big, diverse place more than 15 times larger than California, with many different countries and a well-earned reputation for moving slowly.
If we’re slower than Europe, we’re too slow.
I also found Feng’s post misleading in describing SB 1253 as the product 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.”
She called this process the “foundation for continued reform.”
The way that’s written, it sounds like it was a public process. It was not. It was a closed-door process, not open to the public or to the press. Records of the process have not been released.
If this is the “foundation” of reform of the people’s process, why can’t the public see it?
It’s time to release the records and make all future deliberative effort on initiatives public. And it’s well past time to get to work on real initiative reform.