Citizen Initiatives?

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Might one of the fixes to what ails California's ballot initiative process be a second, and separate, system of ballot measures that makes it easier for grassroots groups and ordinary citizens to compete?

That was one of the more novel, and best received, ideas floated Saturday at a Bay Area gathering of folks from around the world talking about direct democracy. And it was suggested by an unlikely duo.

California's popular but, to many, dysfunctional initiative system was a focus of day one at the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in San Francisco. The event, which runs through midweek, has brought participants from around the nation and world to SF to talk about what works... and what doesn't... when it comes to initiatives and referendums. More than 100 countries have some form of direct democracy, as do 26 states in the U.S.

At a panel discussion Saturday morning, the idea of an 'alternate initiative process' was hatched in comments and discussion by Ted Costa and Peter Schrag. If you know these two particular gentlemen, you also know why finding them in agreement seems so noteworthy. Costa, protege of the late Proposition 13 co-proponent Paul Gann, has written a number of initiatives over his career -- but nothing as successful as the recall measure that, once fully funded, outsted Gray Davis in 2003. Schrag, the longtime columnist for the Sacramento Bee and other news organizations, is one of California's most widely respected observers of the state's direct democracy system... and one of the most vocal critics of everything its initiative process has become.

Not anyone's idea of two peas in a pod.

And yet they both agreed Saturday that the system these days only works for the interest groups that have millions of dollars to gather signatures and mount campaigns. Costa began the brainstorming with a system that would somehow go like this: a second set of rules for any initiative effort that swore off corporate and labor money, refused to use paid signature gatherers, and agreed to truth in advertising. In exchange, such an initiative would need fewer signatures to qualify for the ballot and would have a longer amount of time to circulate petitions to gather them.

"I could support that," chimed in Schrag. The international audience didn't quite get the rare agreement between the two, but others did.

Costa, of course, would go further. He also suggested such campaigns should receive free air time -- something that would likely be tough, if not impossible, to pull off. And in the end, such a modification to California's 99 year old initiative process could only be made through, yes, an initiative.

Still, it's an interesting idea. It was also not the only idea moment of unusual consensus on the California panel. Rick Jacobs, chair of the liberal Courage Campaign, and star GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman both agreed that initiative petitions should be able to be signed electronically online, not just printed out and mailed in. And Stutzman added that the system needs some better way of disclosure at the shopping mall petitioner table of just who's behind the measure.

Fixing California's governance system is a hot topic these days (yes, that's a bit of a promo), and the discussion made it clear that common ground can, in fact, be found in principle. Even so, I don't think you're going to see a Costa-Schrag-Jacobs-Stutzman effort being launched anytime soon... though I'd certainly enjoy writing that story.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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