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Legislators to consider reform proposals that could help repair California

by Greg Lucas, published

Dogged by woefully low voter approval, lawmakers in the Democratic majority Legislature are preparing to embrace “reform” – changes they say will improve California’s political structure.  Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, is expected to hold a press conference today to announce a series of hearings examining various changes proposed by California Forward and other groups that they say repairs a broken political system.

Among the suggestions is majority vote approval for a budget, requiring new programs or tax breaks to identify revenue to pay for them, and making it easier for cities, counties and school districts to raise taxes.  “The status quo isn’t working and it hasn’t been working for a long time,” said Ryan Rauzon, a spokesman for California Forward. “It’s not the driver, it’s the car and what’s going on under the hood.”

It’s unclear what – if anything – proposed by California Forward will be approved by the Legislature. Whatever is approved, though, would likely require voter approval.  California Forward, funded by several large foundations, had intended to place its omnibus package of changes on the ballot in November but has struggled to find enough money to collect the nearly 700,000 valid signatures needed to qualify.  Having lawmakers debate their proposal generates public interest and, potentially, places at least some elements of the plan on the ballot.

New Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Los Angeles Democrat, said during his swearing in that he wishes to present his caucus with California Forward’s suggestions. In particular, he favors a majority vote on budget, which, like tax increases, currently requires a two-thirds super majority.  "We're the only state that has a supermajority requirement and gives the governor line-item authority to veto. It makes it so nobody knows who's responsible, nobody knows who's accountable," Perez said on March 3 as quoted in the Sacramento Bee.   "You have a majority party who's leveraged by a minority party to get things in the budget to get a handful of votes, but nobody knows who's accountable for the overall package."

A two-thirds vote is required to place an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot. That means a handful of Republicans will need to vote in favor of any “reform” package.  But Republicans say they won’t support lowering the approval vote for the budget.  “Lowering the two-thirds threshold is a non-starter for us,” said Sen. Tony Strickland, a Thousand Oaks Republican and member of the Senate Select Committee on improving State Government. “Most people want to see a compromise. Most people want to see Democrats and Republicans work together.”  Strickland said that Senate Republicans do favor changing from a one-year to a two-year budget – one of California Forward’s proposals. It’s unclear whether members of the lower house share that support, Strickland said.

Lawmakers also hope that appearing to repair California’s political system will burnish their tarnished image.  A January Public Policy institute of California poll found 17 percent of voters approved of the job performance of the Legislature.

Lawmakers themselves have introduced nearly one dozen constitutional amendments, mainly designed to better control the initiative process.  One measure, SCA 14, being considered for support by the Improving State Government committee would require any initiative placed on the ballot to identify a revenue source to pay for the costs the ballot measure would create.

“We can’t keep operating under the mindset that these initiatives don’t cost anything because the General Fund will pay for it,” said Sen. Denise Ducheny, a San Diego Democrat who chairs the upper house’s budget committee.  “First of all that isn’t free. And, second, there’s a $20 billion budget shortfall.”

Rauzon said the idea of “pay-as-you-go” was one of the key principles behind California’s Forward’s proposals. Ducheny has a companion constitutional amendment, SCA 10, which requires initiatives, be sent to the Legislature 176 days before the election the measure would be voted on. Lawmakers would then have 30 days in which to offer an amended version of the initiative.  If the proponents agree to the changes, the revised initiative would go on the ballot. If they don’t, the original version would appear on the ballot accompanied by information noting the Legislature’s proposed changes.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, an Antioch Democrat and chair of the Senate Improving State Government committee, has a constitutional amendment that would restore California’s indirect initiative process. The process was eliminated by a 1966 constitutional amendment, which, among other things, also created California’s full-time Legislature.  Under DeSaulnier’s proposal, SCA 16, initiative proponents could elect to bring their proposal to the Legislature. Doing so would require them to collect one-third of the signatures they would need to independently qualify the measure for the ballot.  The Legislature would suggest changes, which could be adopted or rejected by proponents. If rejected, proponents would be forced to collect the full complement of signatures.

“We’re trying to make the initiative system work better for average Californians,” DeSaulnier said. There would be a transparent process – public hearings and if (the proponents) don’t like what we come up with, they go get the rest of their signatures.”  Strickland said he was supportive of DeSaulnier’s idea, in concept – so long as it is voluntary.  “If voluntary for the proponents I’d be open to it. Mandatory I’d be totally against it because part of the reason for the initiative process (Gov.) Hiram Johnson put forward is to give people the ability to go around the Legislature.

In support of his constitutional amendment, DeSaulnier notes that from 1879 through the mid 1990’s, California led the nation with the highest number of proposed changes to its constitution – already one of the longest in the world – with 812 and second in the number of adopted changes with 485.  This DeSaulnier said, has turned the state constitution into a piecemeal “Winchester Mystery House.”

Another constitutional amendment by DeSaulnier would limit any spending program created by an initiative to stay on the books for only 15 years. Under the proposal, SCA 19, lawmakers could assess the program and continue for up to an additional 15 years.   “We looked at other states. That seemed a reasonable timeframe,” DeSaulnier said.

In the Assembly, former GOP leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo has introduced a constitutional amendment, ACA 3, which would require any initiative issuing more than $1 billion in general obligation bonds to identify new taxes or fees to cover the debt service.

None of the legislatively introduced “reform” measures have passed out of their original house. It’s unknown when – or if – they will.  “There’s a lot of reform stuff floating around. We need to see what’s out there before we vote although it would be good to take (my bills) up soon,” Ducheny said. 

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