Is Jerry Discrediting Initiative Reform?

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used the initiative process to pursue his agenda forcefully, he was accused of a dictator-style "power grab."

So what then do we say about Gov. Jerry Brown?

Brown is pursuing his own initiative with a fervor, and lead-pipe style, that makes Schwarzenegger's approach pale in comparison.

Indeed, the governor has made significant changes to the initiative process in service of his political goals -- most notably his desire to pass a temporary tax in service of his budget plans. Together, these changes represent the most significant reform of the initiative process that the state has seen in a generation.

Some of the reforms are improvements to the process. Some aren't. Let's have a look:

1. PIling up initiatives all in November general elections.

This was probably the worst of Brown's ideas. He signed legislation ending votes on initiatives in first-round primary elections. Instead, all initiatives will be piled onto November general election ballots. This means that voters will have to consider more measures in one sitting -- and that means there will be less time for deliberation on each measure.

One of the ironies of this move is that it has caused potential problems for Brown, whose own temporary-tax initiative is scheduled to be on this November's ballot.

2. Speeding up title and summary process.

This wasn't a formal legal change--but an informal precedent. Somehow -- we don't know how -- Brown got Attorney General Kamala Harris to produce a title and summary for his initiative in less than two days. The process had previously taken six weeks. Future initiative sponsors will be able to rely on that precedent in pushing for speedier service. Of course, faster doesn't mean better in such matters.

3. Expedited service -- Verifying signatures well ahead of existing deadlines.

Another precedent: the signatures on Brown's initiative were verified well ahead of time -- in some counties, even before signatures on other measures that had been turned in more than a week ahead of the governor's. It may be useful for future initiative sponsors to know that expedited service is possible.

4. Giving constitutional amendments greater prominence on the ballot.

This week, a key amendment to the initiative process was proposed in the budget, in a way that benefits Brown. The new change, if approved, would place constitutional changes higher up in the list of measures on the ballot -- before statutory changes. It's generally thought that appearing first on the ballot gives a measure a higher chance of passage.

This is actually a good idea. Constitutional amendments should be prominently listed and placed separately from other measures. But making this change now is likely to draw suspicions and maybe even protests from sponsors of measures competing with Brown's. Two other tax measures are statutes -- which means they'll have less prominent ballot placement than Brown's constitutional amendment.

Brown's determination to bend the system to his own interests is noteworthy, and in some sense admirable.

But there are two problems. The first is that his changes are so narrow and self-interested that they may discredit other attempts to fix the process. The second is that they don't amount to the kind of broad initiative reform -- which would involve integrating initiatives with the legislative process and the budget -- that the state desperately needs.

Imagine if Brown worked as doggedly to redesign the initiative process -- and to pursue broader governance reform -- as he does to tilt the initiative rules to his advantage.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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