After more than a century in California’s political spotlight, the state’s initiative process will be getting a major revise next year. Even more surprising, both Democrats and Republicans in the famously partisan Legislature are happy to see it happen. While Republicans made up most of the limited opposition when SB1253 made its way through the Legislature, the two GOP leaders, state Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County) and Assembly member Kristin Olsen of Modesto, both voted “aye.” “It was a bipartisan effort,” said former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, the Democrat who authored the bill. “People like the initiative process but believe it can be improved.” The measure opens the way for increased collaboration between lawmakers and backers of initiatives by requiring the Legislature to hold a joint public hearing on a proposed initiative as soon as 25 percent of the required signatures are collected. It also calls for the attorney general to open a 30-day public review before approving an initiative for circulation and lets supporters amend the initiative during that time. “The No. 1 benefit is this allows two sources to work together to solve a problem or make an initiative better,” Steinberg said.
The review period also would give citizens a chance to weigh in on a proposed initiative, suggesting ways to improve the wording, pointing out potential legal problems, and proposing changes the initiative’s backers could accept or reject.
The low bar for a legislative hearing has raised concerns about “ghost initiatives” — measures that backers may never intend to see the ballot and that are designed only to force lawmakers to at least publicly consider an issue. “That isn’t a bad thing,” Steinberg said. “The alternative too often is an all-or-nothing argument” in the future.
The new law also ensures that those legislative hearings can actually mean something, since it allows backers to withdraw an initiative up to 131 days before the election.