Refer Madness 2012

Comments (1)

Getty/David McNew

Whether most voters realize it or not, the vast majority of measures that appear on the ballot in statewide elections ask them to authorize a brand new law. Rarely are voters asked to approve or reject a standing law.

And that's why the current crop of proposed ballot measures is so unusual: so far, five petitions offer voters the chance in 2012 to scrap statutes and other government decisions via a ballot referendum.

On this morning's edition of The California Report, we provided a brief overview of the referendum measures in circulation. We also pondered whether the rules for a referendum should be loosened.

It's clear that the big dog in the referendum measures out there so far (referenda? referendums? Both feel awkward) is the proposal to overturn the law requiring online retailers to collect state sales tax. It's dubbed the 'Amazon tax' and, for now, that seems fair: the Seattle-based behemoth has ponied up $3 million to qualify it for the June 2012 ballot. As a result, hundreds of signature gatherers are now fanned out across the state in an effort to get the necessary 504,760 valid signatures no later than September 27.

The team running the campaign for Amazon declined to comment for this story. But one report this week suggests the referendum is on track to hit the required target, perhaps even ahead of schedule.

And should the measure make it to the ballot (more on that in a moment), it's going to be an expensive campaign. Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association and a leading opponent of Amazon's efforts, estimates it could be a $30 million battle when all is said and done. For all of Amazon's protestations, Dombrowski says he was still surprised the online seller pulled the trigger on a referendum.

"Retailers are usually very thin skinned and don't want to do anything to antagonize customers," he said. "And yet this referendum has the tint of crossing that line."

Dombrowski's comment, of course, is a preview of the possible political campaign: forcing voters to choose between their distaste for taxes (the Amazon argument) or their distaste for deep budget cuts due to lack of revenue (the retailers, et. al. argument).

And that's assuming there actually is a political campaign. Dombrowski says his camp may, assuming Amazon gets the signatures, choose to challenge the constitutionality of a referendum on a budget-related law... an angle that's been bandied about ever since the victory of Proposition 25 last November.

The Amazon measure is the only proposed referendum, so far, that seems to have the cash needed to qualify. Two other budget-related submissions -- one to overturn a rural firefighting fee and another to deny redevelopment agencies the chance to stay in business -- don't appear to yet have any financial heft to gather signatures. Neither does an unrelated referendum to overturn SB 48, a new law requiring school textbooks to acknowledge the historical contributions of gays and lesbians. And... despite promises to the contrary... money remains the real question regarding this week's GOP referendum submitted to overturn the new redistricting map of the state Senate.

The option to "refer a law," as it's called (hence the pun intentional headline), is the lesser used of the ballot proposition siblings created in California in 1911. Initiatives, which offer voters the chance to actually write laws, are the dominant force.

"The Swiss have a saying that a referendum is a conversation, and an initiative is a scream," says journalist and governance reform advocate Joe Mathews. "And we essentially scream all the time in California."

Mathews suggests the referendum is the form of direct democracy that makes the most sense, a check-and-balance on the laws written by the Legislature. "Having a strong referendum process puts a lot of pressure on the Legislature to take its time." says Mathews, "and explain (to the public) what it is that it's doing."

As such, he suggests that two changes to existing law might make the referendum the dominant force in the world of ballot measures: more time to circulate referendum petitions and, perhaps, fewer signatures. As is stands, a referendum gets fewer days to gather signatures than an initiative (90 versus 150) but must, in most cases, have the same number of signatures.

Mathews points out that two initiatives on the November 2010 ballot were, in fact, really referendum measures -- at least in subject: Proposition 23, which sought to suspend/undo California's landmark 2006 climate change law, and Proposition 24, which sought to repeal some of the business tax breaks contained in the 2008-09 budget deal. Often, groups unhappy with laws written by the Legislature conclude that either the initiative is an easier route... or... decide to skip a political campaign, even when popular opinion might be with them, and try to bash a law in court or with pressure on the Legislature to rewrite or repeal it.

In the meantime, the five referenda in circulation face some tough odds. So, too, do the opponents of the measures should any qualify; that's because every political expert seems to agree that the default choice of a confused Californian is to vote 'no' on a ballot measure... which, in the case of a referendum, kills an existing law. That means that the backers of these particular ballot measures start off with an inherent advantage -- unlike backers of an initiative, which have to get the voter to engage and say 'yes.'

RSS Subscribe

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.
  • Reilleyfam

    Loosen it up – great more gridlock and unsustainable govt. At some point, whether it’s a GOP or Dem victory we have to let the govt govern. There has to be some finality to stuff or we will perpetually do and undo everything everyone does. At some point you have to have a cutoff and let winners win.