EDITORIAL: Initiative reform bill creates uneven playing field

Organized labor has every right to promote initiatives. Labor-backed initiatives often resonate with the electorate and occasionally with editorial boards.

But labor doesn't deserve a special edge. For this reason, Gov. Jerry Brown should veto Assembly Bill 857, a loaded piece of legislation that masquerades as initiative reform.

Assembly Member Paul Fong, a Silicon Valley Democrat, said in three press releases that he proposed to "ensure the sanctity of the initiative process" by requiring that unpaid volunteers gather some signatures to qualify statewide ballot measures.

That's a fine concept, and fits nicely into a press release. But crafting an actual law proved tough. At first, Fong proposed that 20% of the signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot be gathered by volunteers. Then he whittled it down to 10%. Then he ran into problems when he tried to define the notion of "volunteer."

The bill says signatures gathered by nonprofit organizations would qualify toward the 10% threshold. Fair enough. But he further amended his bill to say that the 10% requirement could be fulfilled if labor union members gathered the signatures.

Not surprisingly, the California Labor Federation and a firefighters union sponsored Fong's bill.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Common Cause of California, not generally bedfellows, are the leading opponents urging Brown's veto. Both organizations cite provisions in the legislation that would open the way for anyone to sue to enforce AB 857.

People could challenge whether the signatures were gathered in accordance with the provisions. They also could sue claiming promoters misrepresented an initiative. All initiatives are open to interpretation, raising the likelihood that there would be extensive litigation, not something California needs.

Early in the year, Fong's legislation included language requiring that initiative promoters prominently display the identities of donors who had contributed $50,000 or more to their measures. That's information that might have helped inform citizens' decision about whether to sign petitions. But in amendments adopted in the last days of the legislative session, Fong stripped out the disclosure provision, one redeeming aspect of this loaded bill.

Union members have a right to volunteer to gather signatures, as do members of, say, the Sierra Club or the Howard Jarvis group. But AB 857 would create an unlevel playing field, helping groups that had large numbers of "volunteers" at their disposal, and harming groups that didn't.

Initiatives inevitably are one-sided. Most ideas conjured by initiative promoters would be better handled in the legislative process. The system should be overhauled. But changes should not be loaded to favor one side of the political spectrum over the other.