One hundred years after California adopted the ballot initiative process, legislation to reform it is steadily making its way through the state Legislature. Reform proponents hope they have a new opportunity to change the process with Gov. Jerry Brown, after previous efforts were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A bill that would ban signature gatherers from getting paid per signature is waiting on Brown's desk. Another bill, which would have paid signature gatherers wear a badge to distinguish them from volunteers, passed the state Senate on a party-line vote and was slightly amended in the Assembly.
Yet another bill would require that the top financial backers and opponents of ballot measures be disclosed on the ballot pamphlets voters receive. Senate Democrats also passed that bill over Republican opposition.
"The playing field is different because we have a new governor," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "There’s good reason why lawmakers are having a second go at (these) bills."
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, who wrote the badge bill and funding disclosure bill, said abuse of the initiative system is one of the biggest problems in California governance.
His bills are "baby steps to getting the general public to realize that the initiative process has been hijacked by moneyed interests on the left and right," he said. "It's just transparency."
Opponents say the reform effort is a power grab by Democratic legislators who want to make citizen legislating harder.
"Politicians like power. They like to keep it to themselves. They don't like to share," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
With Democrats in control of the Legislature and now the governor's office, ballot initiatives are the only way to get more conservative legislation passed, Vosburgh said.
Vosburgh argues that more disclosure is unnecessary – and that if initiatives have to disclose top funders on ballot pamphlets, legislators should, too.
He said the ban on paying per signature will just make it more expensive to get initiatives on the ballot. Big special interests, he said, will be able to pay signature gatherers an hourly rate, whereas smaller grassroots groups will be priced out.
"They’re trying to make it harder for plain folks," Vosburgh said.
Special interests can pay to get initiatives on the ballot, but they've actually had a hard time passing them. Of 344 initiatives over the past 100 years, voters rejected two-thirds, Alexander said. It's easier for big money to defeat a proposition than push one through, she said.
A report by the Center for Governmental Studies, a group that supports initiative reform, found that special interests spent more than $1.3 billion on proposition fights from 2000 to 2006. The report concludes:
The rising influence of money in the ballot measure process has the potential to affect election outcomes, exclude entire groups of people from the process, and leave voters skeptical of ballot initiatives as open to manipulation.
Prominently disclosing the moneyed interests that operate behind the scenes would help, Alexander said. Legislators know the interests behind the bills they consider; voters should, too, she said.
"California needs to enter a new era of publicized disclosure," Alexander said. "It’s not enough for disclosure data to be reported and made a matter of public record. The information needs to be pushed out to voters and made accessible to voters at key points in the initiative process."
Special interests still could avoid disclosure, though. Corporations and unions can give to organizations with vague names that don't have to disclose their donors. When those organizations spend money on a ballot initiative, even when that's publicized, the voters are left in the dark.