Lenny Mendonca: Hiram Johnson Would Like This California Era of Reform

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(Photo Credit: Tim Evanson/Flickr)

Last week the Sacramento Bee wrote an editorial expressing concern over the cost of qualifying ballot initiatives in California. This is an expansion of a reply written by CA Fwd co-chair Lenny Mendonca and published in the Bee this past weekend.

It is not impossible to tell how Hiram Johnson would be keeping score on his Progressive Era reforms, and in particular the initiative process. He would clearly see some successes to set beside the shortcomings the Bee editorial board pointed out last week.

For starters, he would count Proposition 11, the citizens redistricting measure from 2008, as a success. Legislative leaders publicly flirted with the idea of putting this constitutional amendment before voters, but never seriously considered handing over to a politically balanced group of citizens the task of drawing their legislative districts. Voters did it for them.

Johnson the anti-partisan reformer also would count Proposition 14, the top-two primary, as a success. That 2010 initiative – which gave all voters the right to vote for all candidates in state elections – has already diminished the inordinate power that partisan extremists had in selecting candidates. Both major parties opposed the measure and surely the Legislature would not have championed that change. Voters did.

By 2008, leaders in both parties had agreed that California’s strictest-in-the-nation term limit law had destabilized the Legislature. But when the legislative leaders crafted the reform they got greedy and grandfathered themselves into the new rules. It lost on the ballot, despite nearly $17 million in special interest money.

In 2012, the citizen initiative Proposition 28 was an identical term limit reform but for two facts – it only applied to future lawmakers and it was sponsored by a broad coalition of interest groups rather than the lawmakers. It passed with 61 percent. Thank you voters and a functioning initiative process.

Have any of those made a difference? Ask the current Assembly Speaker, who told CA Fwd as a freshman that the new rules would change the culture of the capitol, encourage bipartisan agreements, and enable real solutions to real problems. He was right then. It’s happening now.

Look at Proposition 2, the 2014 measure the Legislature passed with near-unanimous support and supported by nearly 70 percent of voters. The “rainy day” fund created by the measure has helped to return fiscal stability to the state–and saved taxpayers an estimated $50 million on its first bond issuance after it passed and the state’s credit rating improved.

Watch the November 2016 ballot for the Legislative Transparency Act – which would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before a final vote in the Assembly and Senate. And the rule change is a constitutional measure that the Legislature refused to put on the ballot. So, thank Johnson for giving citizens the chance to vote on it. We’re pretty sure he’d be voting for it.

We should also give the Legislature some credit. After a lot of groundwork by a large and unusual group of “interest groups” — those with money and those without — lawmakers in 2015 passed the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act.

The new law encourages more engagement between initiative sponsors and lawmakers – with the expectation that occasionally a compromise will emerge in the broader public interest. Mr. Heerwagen’s Voters’ Right to Know proposal is sort of a test case for the process. While the full measure won’t appear on the ballot, the Legislature is now actively considering the provision in the measure that had the broadest support among the constellation of interest groups: modernizing the existing campaign finance computer system.

It is frustrating and annoying that the only way to get enough signatures in the limited amount of time to qualify a citizens’ initiative is to pay signature gathers. The signature gathering oligopoly is ripe for technological disruption just like every other stale, expensive industry. Finding innovative ways to lower the cost for citizens–and not just leaving the process to wealthy interests–would make Johnson smile. After all, the spirit of direct democracy is that it’s for everyone, not just the privileged.

It is true, when it comes to initiatives–just as in candidate races and the bill-making process–money speaks much louder than wisdom or even common sense. But doing away with the initiative process would not solve that problem, it would just limit the venue to one–the Legislature–where money influences decisions and the public does not have a vote. Neither Johnson, nor today’s citizens would let that happen.

Lenny Mendonca is Co-Chair of the California Forward Leadership Council


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