Politics, Money Transform Golden State's Citizen Initiative Process
Gov. Hiram Johnson, a leader of the reform-minded Progressive wing of the Republican Party, was the chief proponent of the 1911 law that created citizen initiatives in California.
He saw it as a way to let voters circumvent lawmakers who were corrupt or whose votes were wholly controlled by the powerful railroad interests of the time.
But a 1992 report by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Santa Monica concluded that the initiative process in California now is much more than the "safety valve" that its authors had intended.
"An emerging culture of democracy by initiative is transforming the electorate into a fourth and new branch of state government," the 464-page report concluded.
And, ironically, the signature-gathering and campaign process in the nation's most populous state is so expensive that grassroots groups have little chance of qualifying for the ballot without the help of big-money contributors and special-interest groups.
"If you have enough money, you qualify. If you're grassroots, you don't," said Robert M. Stern, a co-director of the Center for Governmental Studies. "It's the worst way to get something on the ballot, but no one's found a better way."
In 1974, California lawmakers placed expenditure limits on initiative campaigns. The limits were overturned in 1976 as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo ruling on federal campaign-spending restrictions.
State election data show that the organizers of Proposition 209 received more than 50 individual contributions of $10,000 or more, many from industry groups, to help pass the 1996 ballot measure that ended affirmative action in public hiring and education programs.
And, today, millions of dollars are flowing in from out of state on both sides of June's Proposition 226, which would require teachers and other employees to give permission to unions to use their dues for political activities.
With a success rate at the ballot box that has reached as high as 60 percent in some election years, it's worth the investment, some add.
But Davis Campbell, the executive director of the California School Boards Association in Sacramento, said that the initiative process has become "a special-interest hammer."
His group is fighting an initiative that would cap administrative spending by school districts. The measure, Proposition 223, would threaten local control and create new bureaucracies to track spending, he said.
The initiative was sponsored by United Teachers Los Angeles, which hired a consulting firm to help gather signatures, after a similar policy proposal was defeated two years ago in the state legislature.
"We know the legislative process and all of its flaws and inefficiencies," Mr. Campbell added. "But at least it's a place where you can have policy discussions and can have a consensus."
Observers say that there are several ways to improve the current process. They include giving lawmakers a chance to amend and clean up initiatives, capping the number of words in any ballot measure to help clarify it for voters, and minimizing the role of paid signature-gatherers.
Angelo Paparella's Progressive Campaigns consulting firm in Santa Monica helps gather signatures for initiatives. He said that his service, which is not cheap, is necessary because volunteers just don't have the time to do the work, especially in the 150-day time frame required under current law for qualifying a petition.
"No one is paid to put a pen in people's hands and make them sign a petition," he said. "It's fair to say you need money to pass an initiative, but it's not fair to say it's a special-interest tool."