Fixing California direct democracy requires fixing government

California lawmakers and civic leaders are debating changes to our state’s direct democracy. But not one of the proposed changes is bold enough to reach the heart of what’s wrong with our system of initiatives, referenda and recalls.

Our direct democracy exists in its own weird world, apart from the rest of California government. When we qualify proposals for the ballot, and vote to approve them, the laws and constitutional amendments we make don’t have to fit within existing agencies, laws, regulations, or practices.

Ballot initiatives can spend money or change taxes in ways that violate existing budgets. Ballot initiatives can establish new restrictions on democratic rule — like new supermajorities  — and impose complex or erroneous formulas on government programs. And once ballot initiatives are approved by voters, they can’t be amended or corrected by lawmakers — unless the initiative’s original text permits it.

Here’s the nice way to describe the problem: our direct democracy is not integrated with the rest of the governing system. The less nice way is: our direct democracy designed to screw everything up.

That screwing-up, in turn, breeds frustration with government — which, in bitter irony, makes Californians want to file more initiatives, which screw up government more.

Our direct democracy feeds on the frustration it fuels.

Now, after the failed recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, California has entered one of those rare moments when proposals are being made to reform our direct democracy, particularly the recall. But none will end the cycle of frustration. Because none of them will integrate direct democracy with the rest of the government.

Still, there is good news: There are many conversations among California movers-and-shakers, some of whom were involved in a thoughtful 2014 reform that created a little more flexibility in the ballot initiative process, about how to instill more public deliberation into our direct democracy.

Some of the most interesting ideas involve incorporating citizens assemblies — randomized, representative groups of regular citizens — into the process. Such bodies might serve as neutral parties helping making our ballot initiatives easier for the average voter to digest. They might review measures to give them titles and official summaries (currently under the purview of the state attorney general, a political partisan), or even decide which initiatives to put on the ballot.

Such reforms would be novel, and might create space for more changes, but they are still too small — because they focus just on changing direct democracy. True integration would mean changing the rest of California’s dysfunctional and complicated government as well.

The most straightforward way to make it happen would be a convention to draft the first new state constitution since 1879. Such a convention is a political longshot. But there are intermediary improvements we could make now.

The easiest would be a rethinking of our election calendar. Let’s remove initiatives and referenda from the too-long November ballots, full of candidate races that divide our attention. We then could give direct democracy a new calendar that fits the work schedule of state government.

There should be at least three days each year dedicated to votes on state ballot measures. One should come during the spring budget season, so the people’s decisions on spending and taxation could be integrated into the state budget. There should be a second vote on ballot measures to enact new laws in September, when the legislative session closes and the governor decides whether to sign new laws. A third vote might take place in December, when lawmakers draft and propose new laws for the following year.

Such a calendar should be reinforced with new rules that require ballot initiatives to live within existing budgets (if they add more spending or reduce taxation, measures must find other revenue sources to balance things out) and to be subject to amendment and correction by legislators, like other statutes. At the same time, we should make it easier for regular Californians to correct the mistakes of legislators — perhaps with a citizens assembly that can review and change legislation before it goes into effect.

And Californians, when voting on measures, must learn to think of themselves more like legislators. One of the many rich people and foundations now self-righteously claiming to be “saving democracy” should offer free training to all of us on how to read a budget and proposed legislation, including ballot initiatives.

Since Californians insist on the power to act as lawmakers, we need to know how laws work.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

Click Here For This Articles Original Source.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *