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Era of reform a century ago inspires new proposals for California

Oct 4, 2011

One hundred years ago this month, California’s experiment in direct democracy was born with the introduction of the ballot initiative and referendum process. Now, a century later, Californians are again looking at new ideas to fix what many feel is a broken system in Sacramento. So what might the next 100 years have in store?

If you take a moment to compare California of 2011, to that of 1911, the differences are huge. Back then, the state was home to only 2 million people, and Hollywood, industrial scale agriculture and Silicon Valley simply didn’t exist. But there’s also some striking similarities to the present day, at least politically.

“I think that the state capital is just as much controlled by special interests today as it was one hundred years ago. It may not be one single interest, but the rules of the game have not changed,” says Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation.

“It still takes a lot of money to run for office, the capital is filled with lobbyists, and the legislative docket is filled with bills from lobbying groups and industries. It was true 100 years ago and it’s true today.”

Back then, Sacramento was controlled by the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. California voters responded to the situation by electing a reform minded governor, Hiram Johnson, who led the charge to let citizens take lawmaking into the own hands. The result was the initiative, the referendum and the recall.

In the past ten decades, thousands of initiatives have qualified for the ballot, and while a relatively small number have actually become law, the process remains popular.

“Most Californians think that the initiative process does a better job of making policy tha the governor and the legislature,” says Mark Baldasarre, President and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. In the PPIC’s most recent public opinion poll, released last month, sixty two percent of Californians say they are satisfied with the initiative process. Compare that to the state Legislature, which gets an approval rate of just 26 percent.

If voter dissatisfaction 100 years ago created such a dramatic reform of California’s political system, some suggest the current climate of a never ending budget crisis, powerful special interests, and political gridlock might result in similarly significant changes to the way Sacramento works. In fact, the process might already be underway.

“We’re living now in an era of reform in California, we’ve seen a number of reforms take shape and get approved by the voters in the last few years, including the open primary and redistricting and a simple majority for passing the budget. I think voters think more changes are needed,” said Baldasarre.

So what types of changes might be in store? A lot of them take direct aim at the state legislature, which many view as ineffective. Jim Boren, editorial page editor of the Fresno Bee, is among those advocating for a return to the part-time Legislature that California had until 1966.

“They’re a pretty pampered bunch and they’re out of touch. I think a part-time Legislature would reconnect with the public in a way that would improve governance in California,” says Boren.

“They would work six months a year, and then six months of the year they would be back in their districts, working other jobs, connecting with people and their neighbors, and understanding the laws that they pass and the impact they have in the real world.”

In July, a LA Times / USC poll of California voters found that 65 percent supported the idea of making the Legislature part time. The more recent PPIC poll found support for the idea at just 35 percent however.

But the list of reforms doesn’t stop there. Another idea is taking the State Senate and the Assembly and creating one legislative body, with smaller, presumably more responsive districts.

“[Having] forty members of our state senate, makes it hard to draw districts for a state of almost 40 million people. What about the idea of having 120 members, combining the number in the State Senate with the Assembly? In the context of perhaps other reforms, a single body with smaller districts, might lead to better governance,” says Baldasarre.

Jim Boren agrees. “We don’t need a duplicate system where we have to do everything twice with twice the staff. The idea that we have a House and Senate and Constitution was part of the Great Compromise. We’re only mimicking what was in the federal government. Nebraska has it, and does just fine.”

Other less drastic reforms could also be on the horizon, some even involving previous attempts at fixing Sacramento, like the state’s term limits law. Critics have said the law has caused a lack of institutional memory in the Legislature, strengthened the role of lobbyists and created a never ending quest for higher office.

“What happens is the lobbyists aren’t termed out, the bureaucrats aren’t termed out, but the lawmakers are. So the good ones move on,” says Boren.

According to Baldasare, the limits remain popular. “Most voters are pleased with the fact that we’ve had term limits in place since 1990, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t think there could be changes that might make that process better.”

In the new PPIC poll, six in ten voters supported the concept of changing the current limit of eight years in the State Senate and six in the Assembly, to a total of twelve years in any of the two houses. A initiative to that effect has already qualified for the 2012 ballot.

Even the initiative process itself is not without its problems and potential fixes.

“The problem is we’re making initiative policy in a vacuum, and voters aren’t really being given the full picture, the way the Legislature is when they pass a budget. They’re looking at the whole budget, the whole state and all the programs. Voters are just looking at one proposal at a time,”says Alexander.

She says there are proposals in the Legislature that would help voters weigh the cost of initiatives in advance. Other reform suggestions involve the way measures qualify for the ballot, to reduce the reliance on paid signature gatherers.

“We have a very short qualification period and we haven’t changed that in the 100 years of California’s initiative process. There could be a different approach where we give proponents more time to gather signatures so they don’t have to be so dependent on money.”

Jim Boren says he’d like to see more transparency in the process to determine legal and fiscal problems with initiatives before Californians vote on them. “I’d like to see a system where if an initiative is qualified for the ballot it that has to have Legislative hearings so you could find out the problems in it,” says Boren.

But regardless of the changes that may come to state government in the coming years, one thing is certain, California’s century old initiative process isn’t going anywhere.

As Alexander says, “Californians have a love hate relationship with the initiative process. We love to complain about it but don’t you dare talk about taking it away.”