The good government coalition backing SB 1253 argues that the bill represents significant ballot initiative reform – it does not, as I’ve explained here and here previously – by emphasizing the provisions to improve transparency in the measure, which is called the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act.

But even in transparency, this legislation falls short.

Yes, there are a number of minor changes in the name of transparency. The time for collecting signatures is increased, but only by a month, from 150 to 180 days. And there’s a new process to trigger legislative review when a quarter of signatures have been collected. There also are provisions to get the state to provide easily accessible and understandable information about measures and their funding in different formats.

None of these change the game on transparency or the initiative process.

What’s missing? Three big things on transparency.

The measure doesn’t include the most proven method for transparency – a Citizens Initiative Review along the lines of what they have in Oregon, where juries of citizens consider measures. The measure also doesn’t reckon with the failed process of having the attorney general write titles and summaries. Because of the long history of attorneys general tilting these titles politically, these vital descriptions no longer have real credibility. I find myself agreeing with Jon Coupal (and that’s a phrase you won’t often see me write) that this omission alone is a problem for the legislation.

But the legislation’s biggest transparency deficiency is even more basic. It fails to require that voters be told the most important thing about initiatives: whether or not the measures permit amendment by the legislature.

The inflexibility of the California initiative process is what most needs reform. California is the only state where initiative statutes can’t be amended by the legislature, unless the measure provides for such amendment. So, in the absence of real reform to change this fact, it becomes crucial for voters to know whether an initiative’s language permits amendment or not. Is a yes vote on this measure binding so that it can’t be amended, even if problems are found, or if it ends up conflicting with other laws or the state budget? If you don’t know the answer to this question of whether an initiative locks you in to its outcome, you probably shouldn’t be voting on the measure.

And that’s not the only thing we should know about every measure. We also should know whether it includes language – newly fashionable in this cycle – to empower initiative sponsors to defend the measure in federal court. As I’ve explained before, these are problematic provisions, because they essentially write a blank check to the successful initiative sponsor to defend his or her initiative as if he or she was a public official, no matter the financial costs or the impact on other laws or budgets. Voters should know this – and be reminded of it when voting. It’s a huge delegation of power to initiative sponsors with unintended consequences.

If Gov. Brown vetoes this measure, he might be doing the cause of initiative reform a favor. Backers of this legislation could then try again, focusing on more impactful measures. They also should open up their process; SB 1253 is the product of conversations between interest groups that were not open to the press and public. The design of future initiative reforms should be open to the press and public, and use processes that brings out the best ideas and thinking from the public.

This is supposed to be the people’s process, after all. And those who preach transparency should be transparent themselves.