28 September 2014
In major victory, Governor Jerry Brown signs Ballot Initiative Transparency Act - supported by the Think Long Committee for California - into law
Bill marks first major changes in four decades to California's century-old initiative process
Sacramento – Addressing concerns about the growing influence of special interests on California’s initiative process and the decline of voter participation, Governor Jerry Brown today signed legislation that strengthens Legislative and public oversight of ballot measures and increases transparency within a century-old process that has been stubbornly resistant to change.
“SB1253 strengthens the integrity of the initiative process, which is uniquely influential in California political life,” said Nicolas Berggruen, Think Long Committee for California chairman. “It introduces transparency of funding while also enabling broader debate and public review so that measures can be modified before they go to the ballot, avoiding unintended consequences. “
SB 1253, the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, was authored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Under the new law the Legislature holds hearings months before ballots go to print, allowing lawmakers and proponents to make changes, corrections and compromises before ballots go to the voters. Initiative backers also gain the ability to correct mistakes before an initiative appears on the ballot, preventing drafting or legal errors that have led to litigation and confusion. And the law pushes the Secretary of State to feature the top funders of proposed initiatives in online ballot materials.
“Together these changes let voters and the Legislature see what the ballot might look like months before the election,” said Robert Hertzberg, former Assembly Speaker and Think Long Committee member. “That lets lawmakers get to work on the policy issues at the heart of the various initiatives, make them public, make compromises, and fix errors, so voters get only clear and effective initiatives on their ballots. These changes are about making better public policy and making initiatives serve their intended purpose.”
“California is not the only state to allow direct voter participation through initiatives. But too often here, ballot measures are confusing and poorly written, and there has been no chance for initiative backers to make even the most routine changes let alone drive compromise,” said Ronald George, former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court and a member of the Think Long Committee. “All of that stands in the way of voter confidence and understanding, and leads to bad policy outcomes.”
The changes in the law reflect what voters want to see. Nearly eight in 10 California voters want to see the Legislature do more to improve initiatives, want review and revision of measures, and support more clarity and information surrounding initiatives – and their support crosses party lines according to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California. But according to PPIC, the last significant reforms to the process date back to 1974.
Other changes in the law: initiative backers can withdraw a measure after petitions and signatures are submitted, but before ballots are printed, simplifying the ballot and helping to avoid unintended consequences; voters can request an email version of the voter guide, reducing costs; and extends the time for signature gathering by a month to allow more grassroots participation.
Initiative reform was a central recommendation in the Think Long Committee’s “Blueprint to Renew California,” released in November 2011. This bipartisan plan to restore the state’s dysfunctional democracy was based on a year of discussions and meetings with key stakeholders in the state, including Governor Brown.
On SB 1253, the Think Long Committee worked for a year with a diverse and bipartisan coalition from across the political spectrum. Other supporters of the legislation include the League of Women Voters of California, California Common Cause, the California Chamber of Commerce, California Business Roundtable, California NAACP, California AARP, California School Employees Assn., California Council of Churches IMPACT, and California Forward, among others.
The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act addresses California voters’ greatest concerns about the initiative process. According to a PPIC survey earlier this year, 83% of Californians agree that initiative wording is too complicated and confusing. 84% favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for both signature gathering and initiative campaigns. And 77% support a review process to help avoid legal problems and drafting errors.
A key strategy in their work to improve policy outcomes, is the Think Long Committee’s work to increase voter and civic participation. Voters greatly value their direct say in the political process via initiatives, Berggruen noted, but they also feel that the integrity of the process has eroded.
“The new law will give voters clear information about who special interests are, what they want, and how much they are spending,” Berggruen said. “At the same time the Legislature and proponents of ballot measures will have avenues for correction and compromise, paving the way for clearer ballots and better policies.”
29 July 2014
In 2010 the Berggruen Institute on Governance founded the Think Long Committee for California, a high-powered group of eminent citizens with broad experience in public affairs, labor, and business.
The name of the group itself implied its main objective: to introduce a depoliticized, non-partisan and long-term agenda as a corrective to the partisan rancor and short-term, special interest political culture that has come to dominate California political life.
After deliberating a year in monthly sessions, the group released its "Blueprint to Renew California" in 2011 - a bipartisan plan to renew California's dysfunctional democracy.
As the work has transitioned from developing solutions to advocating for change the work of the Think Long Committee now falls under a newly formed 501(c)(4).
19 August 2013
by Nathan Gardels
Unless the state modernizes its obsolete tax code, as the Think Long Committee has recommended, California could be right back where it started from with billion dollar annual deficits.
In order to balance the budget, Governor Jerry Brown cut spending over the past two years (the General Fund Budget is down to $97 billion this year from $127 billion when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor). He then also convinced the public to approve a tax increase on the wealthy, with a temporary tax hike on those making over $250,000 per year.
As a result, California is back in fiscal balance -- but totally reliant on income and capital gains taxes on the state's richest citizens. At this point, the top 1 percent pay 50 percent of income taxes in California.
As America as a whole, California included, drifts toward plutocracy and growing inequality, there is certainly a logic in this. But it is unsustainable. Just to start with, the Silicon Valley tech industry -- where so much of the wealth the state depends on is concentrated -- is already starting to slow down. Tax revenues will follow any slump at an accelerated pace.
The only sustainable course for the long term is to broaden the tax base to include a sales tax on services. California has a $2 trillion dollar economy. Half of it is information and services, yet is not taxed. If you buy a donut in a coffee shop, you pay a sales tax. If you buy a legal, financial, accounting or entertainment service, you are not taxed.
A recent report from the California Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) underlines the volatility and fragility of relying on a narrow income tax base to the exclusion of a tax on services. In recent years, state revenue from the sales tax on goods has dropped. That is because consumer purchases of goods have dropped from 53 cents of every dollar to 33 cents. Services today are more expensive and a larger part of a person's budget.
The Think Long Committee recommendation would raise a 1-3 cent sales tax on services (excluding health care) while trimming the income tax on all income categories while maintaining California's progressive tax structure. This would raise $10 billion in new revenues annually for localities, K-12 and higher education for the community colleges, CalState and the University of California.
Governor Brown's tax hike is temporary and will expire during his next term. (Everyone expects him to win the next election). The Think Long Committee will renew its efforts to change the tax code by broadening the base and lowering rates as the Governor's plan winds down.
Below is a report in Bloomberg News that notes the Think Long plan, a column by Dan Walters on the problem with California current tax code, and the LAO report on falling revenues from the sales tax on goods.
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