Is it time to make the initiative process more transparent?

I was just reading an article about the Plastic Bag initiative that recently qualified for the 2016 election. My interest is more than passing, as securing a state-wide ban was a major success while I was at Heal the Bay. It had taken years of work, resulting in a political compromise that was signed into law by Governor Brown last year.

Now it’s on hold after the plastic bag manufacturers put up $3 million – 98% from out-of-state money – to collect the signatures to put it to a vote of the electorate.  The crazy part is that by simply qualifying the initiative the ban is now on hold. By some estimate, every additional year they can sell single-use plastic bags in California generates another $15 million in profit to the manufactures. In other words, for a payment of $3 million they will earn a five-fold return each year. I wish I could get that type of return on my savings account! In fact, the industry will have won handsomely even if they lose in 2016.

I’m not going to rehash the merits of banning plastic bags — that story has been told. And in fact, about half of all Californians live in municipalities that have already banned bags.  But it does again raise the whole question of the initiative process. To me what is most egregious is the misleading way that signatures were gathered. I know because I was asked for mine outside a local Trader Joe. Inside the store the vast majority of people were bringing their re-usable bags, while outside they were being asked whether they could “spare a minute to save jobs.”  I bet most people didn’t know what they were signing or that the person collecting signatures was likely being paid a dollar or more per signature gathered. Or that the jobs issue had been dealt with in the bill that was signed in to law and that it would create new green jobs in California.

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about money in politics as almost limitless amounts slosh around. Much as there’s a desperate need for transparency at the top, I feel it’s past time for transparency in the initiative process. By all means go and collect your signatures. Just make it clear at the point of signing who is behind the initiative and how much the signature gatherer is being paid for you to sign.

A more radical idea is to accept the concept that you can put almost anything on the ballot if you have enough money to spend (or invest as this case shows). As an alternative to the signature gathering process, let’s just have a limited number of slots on each ballot and sell them to the highest bidder. The funds collected could then go to fund voter education programs. Perhaps over time an educated electorate who turned out to vote would slow this craziness.

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch at the conference announcing the Bag Ban.

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