To the Referendum!

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Getty/Kevork Djansezian

The initiative may the most popular form of direct democracy in California, but 2012 has the potential for the spotlight to be recast on one of the lesser known of the powers created a century ago: the referendum.

This morning, a referendum was filed to overturn a firefighting fee enacted in the new state budget. By year's end, it could be one of at least four referendum proposals, asking voters to overturn the status quo.

The new entrant is a referendum to oveturn ABx29, the budget implementation ("trailer") bill to assess a new $150 annual fee on rural property owners that would offset the state's firefighting costs in those areas. It was filed by state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Fair Oaks) and, once vetted by the state attorney general's staff, would require 504,760 valid signatures within 90 days.

The action isn't entirely unexpected; as I reported during the end of the budget debate, the fee was being eyed by anti-tax groups as a violation of the fee vs. tax separation in state law. It's now the second proposed referendum on the budget enacted by the Legislature's majority Democrats and signed by Governor Jerry Brown; two weeks ago, a coalition led by online retail powerhouse Amazon filed a referendum (PDF) to overturn the budget law that mandates sales tax collection by Internet retailers. The nascent campaign proposal has reportedly already attracted a host of top name political consultants and experts.

(It should be noted that, in addition to these two campaign efforts to undo the budget deal, there's also the legal fight over redevelopment agencies... and other potential legal challenges to come. It's going to be a long summer for the newly enacted 2011-12 budget.)

Also possibly headed to the ballot in 2012, assuming signatures can be gathered in time: a referendum measure on SB 48, the law written by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) to require school textbooks to include the contributions of gay and lesbian Californians throughout history.

If that wasn't enough, there's almost certain to be a referendum effort to thwart the not-yet-certified political maps drawn by the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The referendum, as said earlier, is nowhere near as popular in California as is the initiative. The secretary of state's office tweeted today that only 19 such measures have been approved by voters since the inception of the state's direct democracy system in 1911-1912. In the last decade, we've only seen five referendum measures -- which really were more like two campaigns: the 2004 successful effort to overturn a "pay or play" health care plan signed into law right before the 2003 recall, and the 2008 unsuccessful effort to invalidate four renegotiated Indian casino compacts.

Some reform advocates, led by journalist Joe Mathews, have argued that the referendum -- which asks the voters to either ratify (a yes vote) or nullify (a no vote) legislative action -- should be used more often... as a check on political power, versus the initiative's creation of new laws and regulations.

2012 may be the year where those reformers get their wish.

Update: In a phone interview, Sen. Gaines says he's working on the firefighting fee referendum with the California Republican Party. Meantime, yet another referendum on the state budget deal was filed late Wednesday afternoon: a challenge to the law that allows redevelopment agencies to stay in business as long as they earmark some of their existing property tax dollars to schools and local services. Mind you, the backers of that referendum are critics of redevelopment... and want RDAs to vanish, not be allowed to stay in business.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
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    Changes are something that I tend to welcome for the simple reason that we need them or we are going to get bored. Simple as that. So I welcome every referendum cause I have a choice to say no or yes and thats what democracy is all about.