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California will better protect residents’ online privacy after a last-minute deal that satisfied the backers of a ballot initiative to do the same thing. This was a win for new rules that give lawmakers time to negotiate with initiative sponsors … at least the ones with lots of cash.

Legislation almost always is preferable to policy decisions made at the ballot box. Lawmakers can amend and update their work if there are unintended consequences, for example. They usually hesitate to change what the voters have wrought by initiative — if a ballot measure even offers that option.

And laws written by lawmakers tend to be cleaner in the first place. Citizen activism is valuable, but sometimes passion leads to ballot language that isn’t as thoroughly vetted as it should be. And, given the high cost of getting a measure on the ballot, the initiative process is dominated by deep-pocketed interests looking to write their own laws.

Alastair Mactaggart, who earned a fortune in Bay Area real estate, drafted the online privacy initiative after a conversation with a tech company engineer left him worried about his own privacy. He gathered enough signatures to get on the November ballot for what was shaping up as a very costly political battle until state legislators passed on the last possible day, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, a privacy bill that satisfied his concerns.

In doing so, they avoided that big-money campaign and dodged any potential headaches with a hard-to-amend, voter-mandated law.

The privacy bill will allow people to learn what information websites collect about them and what those sites do with that information. People also will be able to opt out of having their data sold. Call it California’s version of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that resulted in privacy statements flooding email inboxes a few weeks ago.

Such digital empowerment is welcome when the federal government steadfastly refuses to side with consumers online.

Tech companies were ready to spend heavily in opposition. As part of the compromise, the new law won’t take effect for a year, allowing time to review its provisions and discuss any necessary changes.

The compromise legislation isn’t quite as strong as the initiative it pre-empted, but it calmed the waters. If lawmakers try to undercut it too much, a ballot measure could return.

Yet this issue didn’t sneak up on the Legislature. They could have and should have been working on it already, but it took a lot of money, a ballot measure and a looming deadline to prod them into action.

June 28 was the last day for initiatives to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot. Once an initiative is on the ballot, it can’t be removed or changed. However, a state law enacted in 2014 allows sponsors to withdraw their initiatives if legislators agree to take action instead.

The 2014 law also directs the Legislature to hold hearings as soon as any proposed initiative gets 25 percent of the required signatures. The idea is to avoid costly ballot fights and poorly worded laws, but Mactaggart didn’t a prompt hearing — and neither did the sponsors of two more problematic measures that also were pulled from the ballot at the last minute.

One of those, sponsored by the soft drink industry, would have made it extremely difficult to pass any local tax. It was dropped in return for legislative approval of a 12-year-ban on new taxes on sodas and sugary drinks — the industry’s real objective. Lawmakers also promised to continue working on legislation that could let lead paint companies off the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in civil judgments, and paint makers withdrew a proposal that would have shifted the cost onto the public.

The initiative system was originally meant to be a tool to empower Californians to band together to act as a check on government. Has it become a tool that powerful, moneyed interests use to scare the Legislature into doing their bidding?

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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