In the latest edition of the CAFwd Radio Show, we discuss how California’s version of direct democracy recently turned 100, and many say the initiative process – born out of frustration with a do-nothing legislature in 1911 – needs a shot in the arm to ensure it remains a tool for the people.
“In 1911, the initiative was a way to empower Californians to hold their government and wealthy special interest influence in Sacramento accountable,” said Michelle Romero, democracy program manager at the Greenlining Institute and co-author of a recent study on the initiative process in California.
Tracy Westen, former CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies and professor of communications law at USC, describes what it has become now:
“Large commercial interests such ascorporations, labor unions, trade associations have realized that many times it’s easier for them to circulate and pass a ballot measure than to go through the state legislature.”
This has led to the professionalization of the process.
“Companies who will do everything from soup to nuts — draft your initiative for you, find a signature circulator, draft the media messages, handle the advertising — it’s almost one-stop shopping,” Westen said.
So then how do California citizens propose we get rid of the bathwater without ditching the baby that was born with the best of intentions?
The Greenlining Institute survey found that 85% of Californians want more transparency, especially when it comes to who’s funding the campaign. The biggest frustrations come during signature gathering.
“Sometimes they don’t even know what they’re pedaling,” said Romero. “That can be very disempowering, especially when you know there’s money behind it, but you don’t know how to put your finger on it.”
But, even though Californians know it’s flawed, they are skeptical.
“Their loyalty to the initiative process is so strong…they’re very suspicious of any proposed reform and very reluctant to tamper with it, because they’re not sure what the consequences will be,” said Westen.
In addition, the US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of paid signature gathering and unlimited financial contributions, which makes reforms difficult.
Fred Silva, senior fiscal policy advisor for California Forward, said reforms dealing with fiscal transparency are important, but people can get some information, if they “go find it.”
“If you want to know what a ballot measure is, how it works, what it does, what its effects are, it doesn’t take much of an internet search to find that information.”
Meanwhile, the need for reform remains strong.
“We’re probably asking people in 2012 to vote on a whole bunch of things dealing with taxes, education, water bonds, term limits for legislators — not everybody can be an expert on all these complex issues,” said Romero.
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Gina Baleria is the Communications Manager for California Forward.