The old argument about whether the chicken or the egg came first has a political counterpart in California: Did the Legislature lose relevance as a policymaking institution because of the explosion of ballot measures, or did the latter occur because the Legislature had become dysfunctional? The question is debated constantly in academic, journalistic and political circles, and both alternatives are partially correct.

The shift of clout from the Legislature to ballot measure promoters began in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, the landmark property tax limit. It directly stemmed from legislative indolence.

Property taxes were exploding in a period of high inflation and the Legislature tried, but failed, to fashion a reasonable response. That allowed Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann to fill the vacuum with Proposition 13.

In the 35 years since, countless ballot measures have been proposed and dozens have been passed on virtually every political issue, many chipping away at the Legislature's turf.

The initiative process has become a multimillion-dollar industry that enriches lawyers, campaign consultants, signature gatherers and advertising agencies.

It's a lousy way to make policy and should be reformed. Democratic leaders, wielding their newly minted legislative supermajorities, want to change it. But their specific proposals would appear not to be true reform but rather aimed at making it more difficult for their rivals — conservative and business groups — to place measures on the ballot while maintaining the process for themselves and their allies, such as labor unions.

<CS8.7>One "reform" would be to require initiative sponsors to rely on a certain number of small donors and/ or unpaid signature-gatherers. That provision would kneecap wealthy individuals who might sponsor ballot measures.

</CS>It would, for example, have prevented Charles Munger Jr. from pushing much-needed anti-gerrymandering measures that shifted control of legislative and congressional redistricting from a self-serving Legislature to an independent commission.

If Democrats are bent on shifting policy relevance from the ballot back to the Legislature, their better approach would be to do a better job of making public policy for 38 million Californians, rather than pandering to their political pals.

And maybe, in that spirit, they should also reform their own processes.

They could, for instance, embrace a proposed constitutional amendment that would require legislative bills to be in print for 72 hours before any vote and prevent leaders from writing whole new measures in secret and then rushing them through the process before anyone has a chance to react.

Their opposition to that legislative reform makes their call for initiative reform sound very hollow.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.