Good Government or Political Power Play?

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Getty/David McNew

After a debate on everything from fixing direct democracy to allegations of welshing on a deal, the Legislature approved legislation on its final day that strips June statewide ballots of initiative measures and -- in an unrelated move -- delays a pending ballot measure to beef up the state's rainy day fund.

The measure, if signed into law, would have major political ramifications... most notably, for several Republican-backed measures now expecting a shot at the June 2012 primary election.

The legislation was one of the final entrants into the 2011 legislative session; in fact, its language wasn't made public until Friday morning. But its existence was rumored as far back as two weeks ago, and sure enough it was hurried quickly through a policy committee and onto the floor before the final gavel fell.

SB 202, though, includes a provision not expected in all of that chatter... one that dominated the Assembly floor debate: it pushes a legislative constitutional amendment for a more robust budget rainy day fund from next June's ballot to the November 2014 ballot. That's more than four years after the measure was approved by the Legislature as part of the 2010 budget deal.

Most Democrats argued that the delay of ACA 4, itself a redux of 2009's Proposition 1A minus the latter's tax extensions, is necessary given the budget's lean status.

"At a time of fragile economic recovery, it makes no sense to take money out of the general fund and put it in a rainy day fund," said state Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), who carried the bill, in an impromptu committee hearing.

But someone apparently forgot to tell Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-LA) about the bill's delay of ACA 4. Gatto was a freshman Democrat when he authored that measure last year, and was none too pleased about what was now happening.

"This is a town where your word is your bond," said Gatto. "I'm old fashioned, and when you make a commitment, you're supposed to keep it."

Gatto seemed to more and more angry as he rose to the defense of the rainy day fund proposal. "It is the most common sense reform that could possibly happen," he said, his voice rising. "Is there anybody in this room without a plan for retirement? Well, the state of California doesn't have one, folks."

While SB 202 specifically lops ACA 4 off of the June ballot, it does not touch two initiatives which qualified for that ballot long ago: a 2009 measure that modifies legislative term limits (PDF), and a cigarette tax increased earmarked for cancer research (PDF).

But the main question surrounding SB 202 is whether its intent is to improve California's overall direct democracy process... or diminish the future prospects of specific ballot measures abhorred by Democrats and their political backers. That theory relies on the fact that the November 2012 ballot, featuring the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama, will attract millions of California Democrats to the polls -- Dems who don't have the same motivation to cast a vote in June. Conversely, Republican voters would be inclined to turn out in a disproportionately large number in the June primary, which features a contested (maybe, at that point) GOP presidential race.

In other words, Democrats would like to weaken the chances of certain ballot measures by getting them away from June's GOP-dominated electorate. Most concerning to Democrats and their allies in organized labor: a measure in circulation (PDF) to limit union political dollars by prohibiting union payroll-deducted dues to being used for political purposes. The measure includes corporate payroll deductions, too, but those are (if they even exist) far outweighed by the union dollars.

The campaign for the initiative has raised more than $1.2 million so far... a good start for gathering signatures in time to qualify for the June statewide ballot. The campaign could force public employee labor unions to spend millions of dollars to beat the measure back, as they did on similar 'paycheck protection' measures in 1998 and 2005.

Also ostensibly pushed back if SB 202 becomes law: the referendum measures to overturn the new redistricting maps for the state Senate and Congress. Both face daunting fundraising hurdles; but should they clear them, a November electorate may be more inclined to accept the maps drawn by the state's citizens commission.

Government reform backers have often said that initiatives should be on general election ballots, where the largest slice of the voting population can weigh in on important issues. And legislators today said the law has always said initiatives were to be on general election ballot, with Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Mountain View) calling the current system an "administrative error" allowed by elections officials for years.

Of course, someone could always challenge SB 202 if it's signed into law -- in the courts or, yes, by referendum.

The bill passed the state Senate just before 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning, one of the very last acts of the 2011 legislative session. Now it's up to Governor Jerry Brown as to whether the state's elections are reshaped. And Republicans, angry over the majority party action, won't hesitate to remind the governor of his own record; during debate early Saturday morning, they charged that Brown -- as secretary of state in 1971 -- opined that initiative measures were just fine for June elections.

This posting was amended from earlier Friday to reflect final legislative passage in the Senate. --JM

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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.
  • Patwater

    Do you know where the Gatto clip is available online? Would prefer not to dig through the Cal Channel archives… Thanks!

  • John Myers

    Nope, I think Cal Channel is it. I have audio, but unable to post it tonight.