California’s governing and reform elite are far better at self-congratulation than actual reform.

The pattern appears again in the orgy of self-congratulation after three initiatives were removed from the ballot as the result of negotiations with the legislature at the end of June. The self-congratulation is over the 2014 reform that allowed for such removals up until a deadline for the ballot to be finalized. This change effectively created two more months for negotiations to avert ballot measures; previously, once signatures were turned in on an initiative (usually in late April), an initiative couldn’t be pulled off the ballot.

This change, like many other small-bore political reforms in California, was in and of itself a good idea. More time for talking and negotiation is a good idea. But the problem is that, in California’s governing system, small-bore reform is often out of context, and has unintended consequences.

In this case, this initiative reform is working against the public interest – by creating more room for political extortion.

That’s what happened most plainly in the recent negotiations involving a ballot initiative on local taxation that was pushed by the soda industry. The soda interests have been frustrated by California localities raising taxes on their products, both to produce revenue and reduce consumption of sugary beverages that have ill health effects. To counter these, the soda interests decided to write and circulate a ballot initiative that effectively took all of municipal taxation in California hostage. The initiative would have required a 2/3 vote for all local taxes, making a system for taxation that is difficult to negotiate even more difficult.

This extortion worked, in part because of initiative reform. In the days before the deadline for finalization of the measure, legislative Democrats and the governor decided they couldn’t risk such an initiative passing, for the destruction it could do. So in the time provided by the initiative reform, they negotiated – mostly in secret and always behind closed doors — a compromise that would bar local soda taxes for 12 years.

Of course, it wasn’t just initiative reform that made such extortion possible. Governor Brown and legislative Democrats were themselves to blame for their own initiative change – earlier in this decade, they moved all ballot initiatives to November for specious reasons around narrow political advantage. Instead, what they did was create new pressures on the initiative system, including clogging the November ballot with all initiatives, when initiatives were once split up between different elections and ballots.

This made the soda industry’s blackmail initiative more powerful. With so many measures on the ballot, it would cost even more time and money to defeat the soda initiative. And Democrats have other priorities, including stopping President Trump by electing more Democrats to the House of Representatives. The decline of the mainstream press also makes it harder to let the people know about a destructive initiative.

So the Democrats folded and gave the soda industry what they wanted.

This wasn’t the only bit of extortion, but it was the ugliest. Digital privacy advocates forced the legislature – and its telecommunications and Internet company backers – to pass a digital privacy law rather than face a tougher initiative in November. And lead paint interests backed off an initiative in exchange for a promise to work on legislation for how to pay to clean up such paint. But these were less egregious forms of extortion, where the public interest was not so clear.

The rise of this extortion should remind us, yet again, that conventional wisdom – that small bore reform is preferable politically – is wrong. California’s governing system is so complicated that comprehensive reforms and redesign are needed. Less is not more in reform; less is dangerous.

What should happen next? Drop the self-congratulation and pursue a more comprehensive initiative reform. Keep the greater time for compromise but combine that by giving the legislature more tools to fight back against the extorters. The best such tool would a be to give the legislature the power to put a counter-proposal on the ballot, right next to any initiative, with a simple majority vote. That counter-proposal could offer an alternative to the measure. Or in the face of extortion, the counter proposal could seek to gore the ox of whatever special interest is doing the extortion.

In addition, Brown and the Democrats should fix their own error and spread initiatives out to more than the November ballot. Ideally, ballot initiatives should be voted on separately from candidate campaigns, on a different calendar, perhaps three times a year, so only 2 or 3 initiatives appear on a ballot at once. That would allow for each initiative to be debated and considered. That would make things more difficult for interests that wish to extort.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for reform. The last such initiative reform process was conducted behind closed doors by powerful interests, and did not include the best-informed independent experts on the process.