Super Committee for California's Initiative Process

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Getty/Max Whittaker

Frustrated by the tendency of elected officials to kowtow to political pressure and the unchecked power of interest groups to write their own laws that never get revisited, California's latest governance reform effort proposes a new third way: a citizens panel empowered to place any measures on the statewide ballot that it wants -- even ones that slay sacred cows on the left and the right.

The plan is included in the 98-page report released Monday by the Think Long Committee, a pet project of billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen that proposes a number of government fixes. Most of the early headlines were the group's advocacy of big-time changes to California's tax system, a proposal that certainly bears some resemblance to a heralded 2009 effort that hinged on a broader goods-and-services taxation.

But the 'Think Long' group's most far-reaching idea, at least when it comes to altering California's actual governance system, is the bipartisan group's suggestion of a "Citizens Council for Government Accountability." The name may be a bit vague, but the new entity's power would be crystal clear: it would be able to place its own proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot, without input from the Legislature or circulating the proposal for voter signatures. As such, the proposal offers a brand new tool in California's 100-year old system of direct democracy.

"The Think Long Committee believes it is not enough for elected political figures to pledge they will pursue good governance," says the group's proposal (easiest to read via Scribd) for the citizens council.

So how would the state's permanent super committee work? The proposal calls for the citizens council to have 13 members, and to have power to place both statutory and constitutional measures on the statewide ballot. Statutory proposals would require the vote of seven members of the panel -- a simple majority -- to get on a statewide ballot; constitutional amendments would require the approval of a supermajority of at least nine members.

If it sounds like this citizen's council is outside of the traditional three branches of government -- executive, legislative, judicial -- you're right.

"It would not fit neatly into one branch or another," says former California Supreme Court chief justice Ron George, a member of the 'Think Long' group and its leading advocate for the creation of the citizen's panel.

George says there is precedent in California for such an outside but powerful entity, pointing to the California Coastal Commission as another institution that really doesn't answer to any of the three main branches.

Democrat Bob Hertzberg,a former speaker of the Assembly and 'Think Long' member, said on KQED's Forum program this morning that the panel would help resolve a key problem for groups like the one he co-chairs, California Forward: how to get governance reform proposals on the ballot. The Legislature seems to have little appetite for such ideas, and the traditional initiative route -- circulating petitions for signatures -- can cost upwards of $3 million, and good government types don't usually have that kind of cash.

(Notable exception: the 'Think Long' effort, which is sitting on a promised bankroll of $20 million from its billionaire founder.)

No doubt your dreams or fears of what this citizens council would place on future statewide ballots depends on your politics. A change, or repeal, of Proposition 13? The creation of a part-time Legislature? Repeal of legislative term limits? A constitutional convention? The ideas seem to be limitless, especially given that so many big proposals never go anywhere under the current system. The commission would also have subpoena power, and is described in the new proposal as a "watchdog" group... all of which could make for some interesting showdowns with elected officials and state or local agencies.

In an interview, former chief justice George pointed out another power of the citizens panel: evaluating initiatives that qualify for the ballot through the work of interest groups, with the panel having the power to then put its own analysis of the proposal in the statewide voters guide.

"There would be a more objective, non-special interests viewpoint put before the voters to help them go through this whole quagmire of so many competing and complex initiative proposals," said George.

The 'Think Long' final report describes the mandate of the citizens panel this way:

The Council would be empowered to develop and place initiative proposals directly on the ballot. This would assist the residents of California in developing a more active voice regarding the long term future direction of the state, rather than be faced, as is currently true, with only disconnected single-issue or special interest choices. The Council would also work with elected officials, receiving and monitoring information, and proposing legislation.

The citizens panel's power to put measures on the statewide ballot seems virtually impregnable. But former chief justice Ron George says it would still have to operate in some of the same ways as voter-circulated initiatives. Measures would be confined to general election ballots, per the proposal and SB 202; they would probably not be measures that a governor could call a special election for voters to consider; and they would be held, says the former top jurist, to the 'single subject rule' of initiatives.

But again, the 'Think Long' blueprint offers no way in which elected officials could derail a panel ballot measure. That gives them a lot of power.

Berggruen Photo: Getty/Johannes Eisele

A couple of questions also come to mind about the composition of the super-initiative-committee. For starters, who would serve? The 'Think Long' proposal says the panel's 13 members could serve no more than two six-year terms. Nine of its members would be chosen by the governor, with two of the gubernatorial picks reserved for those who are independents or registered with a minor political party. The final four members of the panel would be appointed by legislative leaders, with an even split of Republicans and Democrats regardless of which party controls the Legislature's two houses.

Then there's the question of whether the panel would be Average Joes or savvy insiders. The 'Think Long' proposal mentions no exclusions on who could serve. It's also clear that a governor and legislative leaders of the same party could appoint a single party supermajority (though staggered terms might mute this) -- thus, an entity conceived by its creators as "non-partisan" could easily slip into partisan mode, sidestepping the kind of minority party blockades that appear in the Legislature when it comes to putting proposals on the ballot. Keep in mind that Governor Jerry Brown's entire budget plan this year relied on supermajority legislative support for measures to be placed on a statewide ballot -- something that, as he found, is almost impossible to pull off.

And that's where the idea diverges from the only other independent quasi-governmental panel that now exists, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. That panel has members chosen through a process designed to be relatively apolitical, with only a small amount of input from the state's political leaders. And it has what appears to be a more robust push for political diversity, especially when it comes to any final decisions. Then again, that process has also been dinged by some pundits.

And as journalist and reform thinker Joe Mathews pointed out in a conversation this afternoon, there's no such thing as a truly "apolitical" commission, and at least the 'Think Long' proposal acknowledges that.

Even so, it seems safe to say that no independent panel of appointees would ever have as much power -- in policy and political circles -- as would the "Citizens Council for Government Accountability." And its very existence -- if Berggruen and his group can actually get voters to go along with the idea in next November's election -- would be a quantifiable sign of just how dysfunctional the status quo in California has become.

Update 4:35 p.m. Trying to file both online and radio versions of this story, I left out a great quote from Joe Mathews on the proposal -- one on his concern that perhaps the other branches of government could be reformed without creating something brand new.

"This is a perfect kind of reform if you’re the kind of Californian who has given up on the legislative process, and wants a sort of, a kind of council of elders," he said. "I mean, this is essentially a Jedi Council for California that they've proposed."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • sc0rch

    Greeeeaaaat…. just what we need.  I listened to Forum this morning.  A bunch of rich people who just all magically came to the consensus that touching Prop 13’s treatment of commercial property was non-viable.  Gimme a break.

    Take a look at @OccupySF, @OccupyOakland, @OccupyDavis, … and tell me that oligarchs are where we’re looking for answers.

  • David Ciani

    One aspect of this proposal (and many “committee” type plans) is the way that they choose the committee members based upon political party affiliation. It seems that many people see American politics as battle between two political parties and set up committees such as this one (and the current congressional SuperCommittee) with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. While this is expedient for the status quo, it isn’t representative of the population (especially in California) nor does it produce the change that we need.

    This proposal at least recognizes this and provides for 2 non-major/nonpartisan representatives but  that isn’t enough. The make up of such a committee should reflect the politica affiliations of the electorate. As of last count (Feb 2011) California is about 44% Democrats, 31% Republicans, 5% Minor Parties, and 20% “No Party Preference” [Disclosure: I am part of that last group]. If I could make one change to this proposal it would be to allocate the seats based upon voter registration data (on a rolling basis to take in to account changes in the electorate). Today that would be (for a 13 member committee): 5 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 3 Minor/No Party.

  • Lane Myers

    I must admit, I’m intrigued but not sold.  The possibility of providing some hope to the political process sounds very appealing.  But if this panel can be bought and controlled like our existing politicians, then we’re in the same boat as we started.  Too good to be true?

  • Ash Roughani

    At some point we need to realize that rules can’t be a substitute for leadership.  By definition, the proposal creates another layer of government that’s detached from the people.  They could have just as easily chosen a selection process akin to the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

    If we’re so concerned about government not being close enough to the people, this moves us in the opposite direction.  Similarly, it doesn’t address the crisis of ignorance among voters. I’d much rather prefer an authentic movement of moderates who decide to build a party from the bottom-up.  This is very much top-down.  Having said that, it’s still one of the best ideas we’ve seen in a while and certainly one that’s within reach.

    But let’s not forget that the Tea Party and Occupy movements have arisen because of the perception that elites are making all of the decisions for us.

  • Lane Myers

    I do agree.  I guess I have a (sadly) lower belief that leadership can improve, or at least the current drive and anger that the movements are fostering will hold until election 2012.  Unless you tie the goal to a politicians pay, there’s little hope of completion.

    I have even less hope that voter education will improve.  Not to sound arrogant, it seems that the current media bandwagon is too powerful and too easily sways the majority of voters.

    I should probably keep my pessimistic and hopeless thoughts to myself! 

  • Ash Roughani

    To the specific issue of voter education, it definitely won’t improve if all we have are two political parties who continue to recite their talking points throughout the media and in virtual echo chambers. A third party, on the other hand, could restore public trust by clearly articulating the tradeoffs of one policy choice versus another and identify where the common ground lies. There’s no electoral incentive for either major political party to acknowledge where they agree with “the other side” in a two-party system. And, consequently there’s no moderator to say, “The Reps are right about X, the Dems are right about Y, and ultimately X/Y/Z is what’s best for California.” That would all change if they had to compete with a moderate third party. In the end, it’s about trust.

  • Patrick Atwater

    Ah John I hope your “Super Committee” label doesn’t stick for Think Long’s Proposal doesn’t stick!  After the recent fiasco in Washington I fear the name may be the kiss of death.  And this intriguing proposal definitely deserves consideration

  • Anonymous

    The ability for this group to place measures on the ballot is “Star Chamber”-like, distancing the public from participation in what is meant to be a public process. Having said that, Oregon has employed a “Citizens Initiative Review” process where a randomly selected “jury” of Oregonians deliberates over a proposed initiative and places a “Citizen’s Statement” on the ballot package along with their up/down vote on it. Somewhat complementary to the LAO statement, this provides another filter to proposed initiatives.

  • Anonymous

    I’m wary of moneyed elites pushing their “reform” agendas. Does wealth bestow moral authority to go along with the financial power they are attempting to exert over the lives of the citizens of this state? Who does and who should the government represent and how can that best happen? 

  • Vincent Jorgensen

    Ah, Plato, your perfect hegemony is finally here. Throw in a consort of prostitutes and a legislative proscription banning marriage, and we have The Republic. How many fewer of our liberties can we hand over to the least number of representatives?