A Tale of Two State Capitals, and Two Initiative Reviews

This week, statewide ballot initiatives in both Oregon and California are coming up for formal public review. But those reviews are very different -- and the differences demonstrate how Oregon is taking initiatives more seriously than California.

On Wednesday morning in Sacramento, a state legislative committee devoted a total of three hours on hearings to cover four complicated ballot initiatives -- including the constitutional amendments Prop 30 (Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary tax and budget measure) and Prop 31 (California Forward Action Fund's technical budget and local government reform measure).

That works out to 45 minutes per measure.

Meanwhile, in the Oregon state capital of Salem, there's another initiative hearing. But this one is being conducted by a panel of 24 citizens, assembled to be representative of the population of Oregon registered voters. And instead of focusing on four measures over just three hours, these citizens are studying one initiative for a week.

This is a process called the Citizens' Initiative Review, which debuted back in 2010. And it provides a very vigorous, serious, detailed look at the guts of the measure.

There is testimony not just from advocates and opponents of each measure, but from other outside experts. The citizens' panel members can ask questions and call witnesses.

And at the end, they produce a synopsis of the initiative's most important points, and arguments pro and con, that become part of the ballot guide that voters receive.

The underlying philosophy is this: ballot initiatives are a serious business. They can have profound consequences for the state. So they need deep, serious scrutiny by citizens.

Oregon is the only state with such a process, though organizers have been talking with people in other states, including California, about setting up something similar.

That makes sense.

California's initiative process is similar to Oregon's, and the initiatives in each state are similarly complex. The initiative being scrutinized here this week, Measure 85, wraps together many of the same issues dominating the California ballot -- taxes, schools and the budget -- into one.

As a Californian who is visiting Salem this week to watch the process, I'm a bit embarassed by the differences between this initiative review and our meager hearing in Sacramento. And I'm reminded that my state has not been taking ballot initiatives as seriously as we should be. 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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