New state law seeks to improve ballot initiative process

Measure provides more user-friendly information, opportunities for correcting defects

The power of California voters to enact laws through ballot initiatives was enshrined by voters in the state Constitution in 1911 and a new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 seeks to improve the process while at the same time preserving the century-old initiative right.

The measure, known as the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, is aimed at giving voters more user-friendly information about proposed initiatives and providing more opportunities for correcting defects.

"It's a really good first step in opening more public discussion and trying to align the legislative process and the initiative process more closely," said Sarah Swanbeck, a policy Advocate with California Common Cause in Sacramento.

Common Cause was one of a number of civic groups that worked with former state Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to write the law, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September.

Other groups leading the effort included the League of Women Voters of California, California Forward and the Think Long Committee for California.

Eventually, more than 60 groups joined in supporting the new law, including the California Business Roundtable, California Chamber of Commerce, California NAACP and AARP, Swanbeck said.

"The initiative process is an integral part of California's democracy and it is important that we iron out its flaws and strengthen it," Steinberg said when the law was signed.

One provision of the law provides for a 30-day public comment period on a proposed initiative before the backers begin gathering the signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot.

The comment period is "a good time to get feedback on unintended consequences or wording mistakes" that could be fixed before the proposed initiative is circulated, Swanback said.

Nothing in the law requires the backers to make any changes following the public comment period.

Another provision requires the Legislature to hold hearings on a proposed initiative after 25 percent of the required signatures have been gathered, instead of waiting until the measure has qualified for the ballot.

The hearings must be held at least 131 days before the November general election at which voters would consider the measure. That means the hearings will now be held in the spring, rather than in August or September shortly before the election like they were before, Swanback said.

Proponents are now allowed to withdraw an initiative after signatures are collected but before ballots are printed, up to 131 days

before the election. Previously, an initiative could not be withdrawn after the required signatures were gathered.

The law also requires a "one-stop" source of information about an initiative on the California Secretary of State's website. The information

must include the total financial contributions made to support and oppose the measure and the top 10 donors on each side.

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