LOS ANGELES -- A showdown is looming in California over a legislative effort to curtail use of the citizens' initiative process for qualifying bond measures on state ballots.
The California Senate last week approved a constitutional amendment that would ban use of initiatives to qualify bond acts and other measures that include long-term debt.
The bill, SCA No. 10, is pending in the Assembly. Some political observers believe the measure stands a good chance of winning the two-thirds majority it needs for passage. The proposed constitutional amendments also would need voter approval.
California's citizens are at the forefront of attempts to qualify bonds by initiative, making a hard-fought battle over the proposal all but certain.
On one side are legislators who contend that further proliferation of bond initiatives will complicate efforts by state leaders to manage bond programs and set spending priorities.
On the other is a coalition of nonprofit public interest and taxpayer groups now lining up to argue that the amendment would unfairly limit the ability of voters to influence state spending plans.
The groups, which include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, also believe in the sanctity of the initiative process as a tool for deciding major public policy issues, such as those affecting property taxes and auto insurance rates.
Traditionally, California's Legislature and governor have been responsible for placing bond measures on the ballot. But in the 1988 and 1990 state elections, citizens bypassed the Legislature to place huge GO bond authorizations on the ballot with petition drives. It was the first time that approach had been used for authorizations since 1914.
Sen. Lucy Killea, D-San Diego, sponsored the amendment seeking to curtail the use of bond initiatives. Ms. Killea has been especially vocal about the need for California to have a much better long-term capital financing plan.
One concern she harbors is that it is difficult to develop capital plans "if you have all these wild cards out there" in the form of bond initiatives, said Dean Misczynski, principal consultant in the Senate Office of Research.
Mr. Misczynski said the bill also has other objectives, including combating what some legislators call the "selling of initiatives." There is concern, for example, about the manner in which some special-interest organizations go about qualifying initiatives, especially if it appears that a group is helping to fund a petition drive simply to have its favored project written into the initiative as a recipient of bond proceeds.
Mr. Misczynski said some legislators also worry about an attitude of "frivolity" toward debt because initiatives that set out to establish one policy -- such as forming timber-cutting rules -- also throw in huge bond authorizations to boot. Last November's ballot included many bond initiatives qualified by voters, but they all failed.
But voters also have approved large bond initiatives, including a $2 billion GO authorization for rail projects last June and a $776 million parklands bond proposal in 1988.
The Planning and Conservation Leaque spearheaded the successful bond initiatives, arguing that they were needed because state leaders had been unresponsive to projects desired by the public.
"We're very strongly opposed" to the amendment, said Jim Knox, transportation and land use director for the league. He said it would limit the public's right to use bond initiatives.
"This [the amendment] is telling the voters that they will no longer be allowed to influence the state's spending priorities," Mr. Knox said.
He denied allegations that the bond initiative qualifying process resembles pork barrel politics, saying instead that the "real agenda" of those who oppose the process is to prevent nonprofit, public interest groups from influencing the agenda for voters.
Mr. Knox said the nonprofits have to form coalitions with other groups to finance initiative campaigns, while private industry -- such as alcohol and timber groups -- can "reach into their own pockets" to try and influence public policy. Groups supporting efforts to preserve open space and wildlife habitats should have as much access to the initiative process as private industry, and bond authorizations are one way to assure that, Mr. Knox said.
Mr. Knox also disagreed with those who contend that bond initiatives disrupt long-term capital planning efforts. Such claims are "just a scare tactic," Mr. Knox said, because bond initiatives represent a small slice of the state's total debt picture.
In any event, the debate over California's initiative process is expected to continue in coming months. Legislators also are considering other bills to overhaul the initiative process, including legislation that would require any initiative creating a new program or expanding an existing one to contain revenue for financing it as well.