Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Voter Initiatives: Reforming the Ultimate Reform

• August 27, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Efforts to reform California’s governing system often focus on one or two ideas that can be turned into ballot initiatives. Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen’s Think Long Committee was different. Members agreed on a broader approach – offering a series of integrated proposals in seven major areas with the goal of designing a new governing system. Here are highlights of those recommendations, and how they reached them, on reining in the state’s public initiative process.

Initiatives Icon

THE ISSUE: California’s initiative process, devised to give power to the people, is now exclusively the province of wealthy people and money interests. And it is inflexible; laws made by initiative can’t be changed except by another vote of the people. Initiatives have limited the ability of elected officials to govern, and made the budget particularly difficult to balance.

THE BACKSTORY: California’s community of good government reformers mostly has steered clear of reforming the process, because reformers don’t want to limit a process they want to use for other reforms. But Nicolas Berggruen and the Think Long Committee were determined to tackle the subject.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

California Issue

What is Think Long thinking?
The Think Long Committee developed specific recommendations for improving California’s governance. Joe Mathews offers an in-depth look at seven specific areas afflicting the state, and what the reform organization proposed as remedies. The other six areas are:
Taxes
State Budget Deficit
Jobs
Citizens’ Council
Education
Local Government
[/class]

The committee took up the subject during a meeting at the Irvine Foundation offices in San Francisco. They examined initiative reform ideas from the League of Women Voters, a now defunct Los Angeles institute called the Center for Governmental Studies, former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, and from the writer of this article.

George was in his final months in office when the committee first met, and celebrated his retirement from the bench with a long trip to Antarctica. But he was outspoken on the state’s need to reform its initiative process, and was summoned by the committee to answer questions about the subject. That went so well—the committee largely adopted George’s prescriptions—that he was invited to join the group. He found he loved being able to freely consider what was wrong in California. Now that he was no longer a sitting judge, he liked to say, he was no longer a second-class citizen.

George had been critical of the initiative process in a high-profile speech and legal article during his final years in office. He had been particularly concerned with the inflexibility of initiatives; he noted that as chief justice he had written the opinion striking down a thoughtful effort by the legislature to clarify California’s medical marijuana law because the clarification would alter an initiative.

THE PROPOSAL: George emphasized integrating the initiative process with the rest of governance. He saw the citizens’ council piece of the Think Long proposal as part of the solution. Why not give that council, in addition to its long-term planning and governance duties, the power to evaluate initiatives and to produce its own initiatives for the ballot? People with an idea would not have to raise millions to qualify a measure if they could convince the council.

The Think Long recommendations also mixed transparency with new limits on the process. The committee called for identifying the top five contributors of $50,000 or more in an initiative campaign in the ballot pamphlet, among other disclosures. Think Long argued for increasing the number of signatures to qualify a measure, which would make it harder, while also providing initiative sponsors more time to qualify—365 days instead of 150—which would make qualification easier for groups with less money.

Think Long also proposed permitting the Legislature to fix errors in initiatives, in consultation with initiative sponsors, before measures go on the ballot. And most profoundly, the committee declared itself “generally supportive” of a constitutional amendment permitting the legislature to amend laws passed by initiative, if they are consistent with the purposes of the measure.

Implementation of such changes would not be easy, since the process is popular with the public. During one meeting, George was asked how his initiative reform plans could be put into effect. His answer: “I hate to say it, but only through another initiative.”

Joe Mathews
Joe Mathews is a fellow at Arizona State University's Center for Social Cohesion, California editor of Zócalo Public Square, and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and Fox and Hounds Daily.

More From Joe Mathews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



November 19 • 6:00 AM

Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.