California State Senate President pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has a radical idea to reform the legislature--he wants to make it easier to do his job.
Speaking at the Sacramento Press Club earlier this week, Steinberg talked about his desire to place an initiative on the November 2014 ballot fundamentally changing the way the state handles lawmaking, greatly empowering the legislature--particularly the majority party--in its ability to get controversial measures (such as raising taxes) placed before the voting public.
Steinberg's plan involves lowering the required threshold for the legislature to get an initiative on the ballot from two-thirds to a simple majority. In the context of raising taxes to close the state's gaping budget hole, dropping the super-majority requirement would make the process significantly easier because, while the Democrats hold majorities in both houses of the California legislature, the party lacks the 66 percent of votes necessary to put on initiatives without Republican assistance. The California Republican party's staunchly anti-tax position has made such cooperation virtually out of the question and the state's heavily gerrymandered districts prevent a transition out of this equilibrium in the foreseeable future equally unlikely.
While constitutional amendments would still require a two-thirds vote before going before the people, Steinberg's proposal allows initiatives opposed by the Republican minority to make it to the ballot without having to first go though a costly and laborious signature gathering process.
"How maddening it was way, way back in 2011, to have a new governor and Legislature make $14 billion worth of cuts and then not allow the people the right to vote to extend existing taxes," Steinberg told the Sacramento Bee at the Press Club event. "Needs and priorities change. They change from one decade to the next. California needs flexibility."
"I don't think the minority party should trump the will of the people," said Steinberg to KPCC Public Radio, referring to the California GOP successful blockage of a tax measure proposed by Governor Jerry Brown last year. "And that's what occurs now when you can't even, with a majority vote, place a question before the voters."
Even so, getting controversial issues like tax measures on the ballot may be difficult but it's far from impossible. This November's election features two competing bills looking to increase taxes, one pushed by Brown and another by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger.
Other aspects of Steinberg's plan involve creating an "indirect initiative" process where initiative proponents would be required to submit their bills to amendment by the legislature during the 30-to-60-day period between when the signatures have been submitted but before they are approved, as a part of what Steinberg called a "quality check" for unintended consequences accidentally written into the bills.
He noted the example of a 1996 ethics reform bill that inadvertently repealed a ban on gifts to public officials. Since the text of the law had already been submitted by the time the error was discovered, it was too late to change the wording and the measure was narrowly defeated.
Steinberg also suggested allowing the legislature to repeal or amend an initiative passed by the voters after a decade on the books as long at the move is supported by the sitting governor.
While letting lawmakers tinker with voter-backed initiatives is a relatively common practice in other states around the country, a measure attempting to enact a similar system at the local level was resoundingly rejected by San Francisco voters last November by a two-to-one margin.
Even though each of these ideas would have a huge effect on the way the state is governed, none of them are especially new. The 1996 California Constitutional Review Commission supported legislative amendment or repeal of statutory initiatives after four years on the books, the 1994 Citizen's Commission on Ballot Initiatives came out in favor of pre-certification review of initiatives before going to voters and bemoaning super-majority requirements is virtually Sacramento's official pastime.
The state's electorate empowered the legislature's Democratic majority in 2010 by approving a ballot initiative that allowed them to pass a budget with a simple majority instead of the two-thirds vote that had long turned the annual budget battle into an epic battle of wills with more than its fair share of missed deadlines.
Check out this video of Steinberg's speech in its entirety: