As someone who participated in the working group on initiative reform package that ended up as Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s SB 1253 signed by Governor Brown over the weekend, I can say the bill is, well, okay as far as it goes. But to invert a title used for a World War II book and movie, A Bridge Too Far which tells the story of the allies trying to go too far with a battle strategy, the initiative reform in my mind came up one bridge short – in other words, it did not go far enough.
The bill lengthens the signature gathering period a month, a plus for grassroots organizations. It allows proposition proponents to pull an initiative if a legislative compromise is reached, an incentive for ballot measure authors to work with the legislature and vice-versa and certainly a step that can save state money and voter aggravation.
The measure also brings the legislature into initiative discussions early. Once proponents collect 25% of the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot the legislature would hold committee hearings on the measure. This, of course, means additional work for committee staff and members and those who count the signatures.
Tim Draper’s unsuccessful Six States initiative, which failed to make the ballot, would have had its day in front of legislative committees (and many media observers, one would assume) under these ground rules.
However, the bill signed by the governor didn’t cross the last, crucial bridge.
Discussed endlessly in the work group was the sensitive issue of writing the title and summary for ballot initiatives. That job resides with the attorney general. Attorney generals of both parties have been criticized over the years for slanting titles and summaries to benefit certain political interests. This should not come as a shock because the attorney general is a partisan officer.
That is why many supported turning over the initiative title and summary authorship to a more neutral party. The idea of removing the job of writing a ballot initiative title and summary from a partisan elected official is one I long supported as I recommended at a conference sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society and League of Women Voters in 2011.
That reform did not make it into SB 1253, a bridge too far for a majority of the working group and Sen. Steinberg but a bridge that should be crossed.