Ballot initiatives abused by special interests?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. The California Secretary of State's office says more than 80 initiatives have been approved for signature-gathering or are in the pipeline. This is the only way regular citizens can put their ideas up for a vote.

That's how Proposition 13 was passed, limiting how much property taxes can go up.

"If there's something that's a bad proposal, then voters will react accordingly. If it's a good proposal, why not put that before the voters?" said Jon Coupal, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

But lawmakers say the process is being abused and are holding hearings throughout the state on how to fix it. They claim it has turned into a tool for wealthy special interest groups to advance their agenda.

Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a supporter of the initiative process, laments how many initiatives have dictated state spending, making budget cuts hard.

"No one wants to take away direct democracy in the process. It's just, how does it work as originally intended, which is for the people not special interests," said state Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord).

Most initiatives fail to get the required hundreds of thousands of valid signatures and don't end up on the ballot. Still, that doesn't stop people from trying.

Among the initiatives currently in circulation: Eliminating state income and property taxes for residents 55 years old and up; banning funding of public schools through taxes; and requiring public schools to offer Christmas music.

John Marcotte has gained nationwide attention for his initiative that bans divorce in California, and supporters of reform point to him as the poster child of abusing the initiative process, a charge the grassroots organizer disputes.

"If you look at other ballot initiatives, they're kind of bought and paid for. You pour $2 million into a bank account, and you can get anything on the ballot. I think that's an abuse of power," said Marcotte.

Limiting the number of initiatives on the ballot and making proponents identify the source of funding for their proposals are some of the reforms on the table.

The record number of initiatives ever put before voters in modern times was in 1988 with 29 on one ballot.

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