Ballot Initiative Transparency Act heads to governor

Ever since California's Proposition 7 passed in 1911, state residents have had the ability to propose constitutional amendments and changes to state law through "ballot propositions."

By paying a submission fee (currently $200) and collecting signatures from a set percentage of the number of people who last voted for governor — 5 percent for statutes, 8 percent for constitutional amendments — proponents can begin a process to get their proposition on the ballot for a direct public vote.

The ballot initiative process has resulted in several of the most controversial movements in the state — including Proposition 215 in 1996 legalizing medical marijuana and Proposition 8 in 2008 banning same-sex marriage — and it is currently poised to get an overhaul as the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act (SB-1253) authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) makes its way to Gov. Jerry Brown for consideration.

"This important change to our initiative process is not just the result of my work but also the work of a broad coalition, which started with my speech to the Sacramento Press Club in 2012," Steinberg said in a release outlining the measure.

"This bill offers our ballot initiative system greater transparency and greater collaboration, strengthening our democratic tradition for generations to come," he said. "The initiative process is an integral part of California's democracy and it is important that we iron out its flaws and strengthen it."

According to a 2013 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 83 percent of voters found the wording of initiatives to be "too complex and confusing," 75 percent wanted to give initiative backers more time to gather signatures and 77 percent favored adding a process to fix drafting errors.

Steinberg's bill addresses these issues by requiring the secretary of state's office "to post and regularly update the top 10 donors of the committees in support and opposition of an initiative," introducing a 30-day public review period at the beginning of the process; and extending the time for gathering signatures to 180 days (instead of the current limit of 150 days).

"The current initiative process in California leaves little room for review and almost no opportunity for negotiation and compromise with the Legislature," said Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California. "SB 1253 changes the timetable for the initiative process in a way that allows the Legislature to engage with proponents, and find ways to implement legislative solutions."

The bill provides an opportunity "to explore legislative solutions instead of costly and divisive campaigns" by requiring Senate and Assembly committees to hold public hearings once proponents have collected 25 percent of the necessary signatures to place a measure on the ballot, according to a release from Steinberg's office. If the hearings lead to a legislative solution that satisfies the needs addressed by the initiative, backers could then withdraw their proposals at any time before they qualify for the ballot. (Currently, proponents cannot withdraw an initiative once they turn in signatures, even if there are errors in the wording or if the issue has already been resolved.)

SB 1253 is intended to create "clear and voter-friendly explanations of what each initiative would do or would not do, addressing widespread voter concern that initiative wording often is too confusing and complicated. It would (also) make it clear whether a measure imposes or increases taxes or fees, or repeals an existing law," according to a summary at MoneyOutPeopleIn.com.

Lastly, the bill "would establish a process for voters to receive the state ballot pamphlet electronically" and offer people the option to stop receiving it by mail.

Larry Mendonca, co-chair of CA Forward, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, said, "Californians are proud of this state's 100 year tradition of direct democracy, but they also would like it to be more transparent. Voters will now have a system that is more accountable, transparent, and will produce better public policy."

For more information and a PDF fact sheet about the bill, visit http://tinyurl.com/pz35c29.

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