Legislators love to gripe about how California's wildly popular ballot initiative process ties their hands on the state budget.

But a preliminary analysis from the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies shows that the legislators — not the public — put on the ballot most of the measures requiring additional funding.

"Most of the ballot-box budgeting has come from you," Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based think tank, told the Senate and Assembly Select Committees on Improving State Government during a recent hearing in Oakland.

The new data come as legislators and reform activists explore changes in how California governs itself.

The center found that of the 68 ballot measures requiring additional money that voters approved between 1988 and 2009, 51 originated with the Legislature versus 17 with citizens and groups other than lawmakers.

Ballot measures originate with state and elected officials, but nonlawmakers sponsor ballot initiatives.

The legislative-sponsored ballot measures cost a combined $9.8 billion compared with $2.05 billion for the nonlawmaker measures.

The most expensive legislative-sponsored measure was the $15 billion deficit fix in 2004. The highest price tag among the 17 initiatives that passed was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $500 million annual after-school program in 2002, before he was elected governor.

The statistics do not, however, reflect the indirect cost of initiatives that have had a major fiscal effect on the state's budget.

That list includes Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that limited property tax hikes and imposed a two-thirds voting threshold for tax hikes, and Proposition 98, the 1988 effort that mandated minimum education funding levels.

Railroad roots

Led by Gov. Hiram Johnson, voters in 1911 adopted the initiative to stymie the railroad barons' political hold over state legislators. Initiative proponents may gather the requisite number of signatures to go directly to voters with measures to recall an elected official and to repeal or pass laws.

It caught on.

Only one other state has had more statewide initiatives than California, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Oregon leads with 349 initiatives on the ballot between 1898 and 2009, followed by California with 331.

Proponents laud the initiative as democracy in its purest form, a system in which the voters bypass elected representatives and directly propose and adopt laws.

Critics describe the California initiative as democracy run amok.

They argue that wealthy special interests pepper voters with complex new laws, shroud them in deceptive advertising and forever restrict the use of tax dollars without regard for the state's overall financial picture or full disclosure of the unintended consequences.

As Stern's preliminary data reveals, the Legislature writes the most expensive ballot measures but most proposed reforms would not restrict legislators' access to the ballot.

"My argument is that we should have both kinds of reform, not one or the other," Stern said.

Assemblyman Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, has introduced a bill that would limit to five the number of initiatives on any single statewide ballot.

State Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, sponsored legislation calling for the specific identification of the source of the money for all statewide ballot initiatives.

Other bills would impose sunsets on all initiatives that require additional money, limit or ban the use of paid signature-gatherers, and extend the deadlines for collecting signatures.

DeSaulnier plan

Many of these reforms could be extended to cover legislative-sponsored ballot measures, said State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, co-chairman of the joint reform committee.

But DeSaulnier wants to go another direction, too.

He has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 16, which would qualify initiatives for the ballot with fewer signatures if the proponents first submit the language to the Legislature for review.

If the advocates and the Legislature come to an agreement, the measure goes straight to the ballot. If not, the proponents may gathering the balance of the required signatures and place it on the ballot themselves.

California is the only state with an initiative process that does not permit legislative amendments or repeals.

"In other states, it seems to help generate a more logical, reasoned discussion between the representative government and the proponents of the initiative," DeSaulnier said. "And the initiative proponents could potentially save some money. I don't see a lot of downside and there is a lot of potential for the upside."

The joint committee will hold more governance reform hearings this year in Los Angeles, Fresno, San Diego and Sacramento. DeSaulnier said the panel hopes to produce a legislative package in early 2010.

Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773 or www.ibabuzz.com/politics.

BALLOT BUCKS
Of the 68 ballot measures requiring additional money passed by California voters between 1988 and 2009, 51 originated with the Legislature while 17 were placed on the ballot by nonlawmakers:
  • The most expensive legislative-sponsored measure was the $15 billion deficit fix in 2004.
  • The highest price tag among the 17 citizen initiatives that passed was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $500 million annual after-school program in 2002.
    Source: Center for Governmental Studies