Just last month, this column noted that the professional political class harbors great hostility toward the tools of direct democracy — the powers of initiative, referendum and recall. These are effective tools to control an indolent or corrupt legislature.

From the perspective of politicians, direct democracy allows the great unwashed and unsophisticated to deal with matters such as taxation, victims’ rights, insurance and, most importantly, political reform. These are issues over which politicians strongly desire to exercise a legislative monopoly.

The column was written in the context of Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6, a particularly pernicious proposal that would make it much harder for grassroots groups to use direct democracy by requiring a higher vote threshold at the ballot box for changes in the California Constitution proposed by citizens. ACA 6 reflects the epitome of hypocrisy because constitutional amendments proposed from the Legislature would not be subject to the higher standard.

ACA 6 remains a threat, although, as we head into the last week of the Legislative session, we have reason to believe it will die the death it so richly deserves.

In contrast, today’s column concerns another legislative effort to alter the initiative process, Senate Bill 1253. Unlike ACA 6, which was a clear attack on the initiative process, SB 1253 is a mixed bag. Nonetheless, in its final version, it falls woefully short of what is implied by its title: “The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act.”

First, a bit of background.

Last year, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association was asked by other organizations to participate in a process to review the initiative process with a view toward real reform. We ourselves have noted that the current process is not perfect and, while skeptical, agreed to participate. (There is an old saying in politics – you’re either at the table or on the menu).

Spearheading the process was moderate Democrat and former legislator, Robert Hertzberg. Also providing a leadership role was Common Cause, a left of center good government organization. In addition to HJTA representing taxpayers, business interests were represented by both the California Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. Thankfully, it was decided that no elected officials should be part of the working group.

Surprisingly, the early meetings were quite productive – more so than this writer had anticipated. One of the early items agreed on was that proponents of initiatives should retain the right to withdraw an initiative even if had qualified for the ballot. The reason for this is that a qualified initiative has the potential to force the Legislature to actually address an issue in a meaningful way. A pending, but not yet enacted ballot measure, acts as a sword over the head of a disengaged legislative body.

A primary motivation for HJTA’s participation in this reform effort was the widely recognized problem that the Attorney General had abused her authority in the preparation of a ballot measure’s “Title and Summary.” On at least two occasions, one dealing with statewide pension reform and the other dealing with medical malpractice lawsuits (appearing on the November ballot as Prop 46), the AG wrote ballot titles so outrageously one-sided that even left-leaning news outlets were surprised. Writing an objective, impartial ballot title and summary is, in the minds of most thinking Californians, a fiduciary obligation of the Attorney General. Apparently, she does not share that view and prepared ballot language that rewarded two of her favorite special interest groups (and financial backers): public sector labor groups and trial lawyers.

Most of the organizations participating in the working group agreed with HJTA’s proposal to transfer the responsibility of preparing the title and summary to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst. But because the AG and her minions have substantial political muscle, the effort to secure a more non-partisan title and summary process has now died. And adding insult to injury, the AG even objected to language requiring that ballot titles and summaries use “clear and concise” language.

SB 1253 is now a shell of its original self and scarcely worthy of support. It has extended by 30 days the time in which to gather signatures and that helps grassroots groups – a little.

At this point, SB 1253 could be viewed as the weakest of initiative reform or as adding other superfluous processes that should be opposed. The only thing that is certain from our perspective is that SB 1253 is nothing more than a lost opportunity.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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