Paul Jacob

Joe Mathews, co-author of California Crack-Up, argues that Californians should look to the system working effectively right now in Switzerland, where citizen initiatives and referendums do not compete for attention on the same ballot as candidates for public office. Instead, the Swiss vote four times a year in separate elections featuring only ballot measures. This, as Mathews points out, keeps the number of issues to a minimum, allowing greater public concentration per measure. Mathews also advocates the use of mail-balloting and new technology to hold down the costs of holding more elections.

But, of course, Mathews is looking for effective and fair public policy, not to placate his special-interest backers or rig elections by manipulating the electorate.

So who’s behind SB 202?

“A coalition of public employee unions,” writes Dan Walters, the Sacramento Bee’s longtime legislative watcher, “is reportedly pressing Democrats to make the change in hopes of thwarting a pending initiative that would bar unions from collecting political funds through members’ paycheck deductions.” The unions want legislators to gerrymander the election process, picking the electorate they believe most likely to defeat ballot measures they oppose.

The state’s legislative majority appears to be marching to the unions’ tune.

Note that while Sen. Hancock says ballot measures should be voted on only in November, that’s not what her bill mandates: Only measures petitioned onto the ballot by citizens get that time slot. The bill does not effect the measures referred to the ballot by legislators — which just happen to comprise the majority of all ballot measures.

SB 202 also pushes off a vote on a constitutional amendment, ACA 4, which was part of the 2010 budget deal agreed to — and now broken by — Democrats. The amendment creates a state “rainy day” fund. Public employee unions and Democrats in the legislature don’t support the idea. How better to prevent it from passing in 2012 than not voting on it in 2012? Through this legislation, ACA 4 is now slated for the November 2014 budget.

Let’s hope it doesn’t rain before 2014.

There are only two ways to prevent this bill from becoming California law: Governor Jerry Brown can veto it, or citizens can collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to put SB 202 to a referendum.

Brown may be a Democrat, but he has shown such an independent streak in vetoing bad bills that the Cato Institute’s David Boaz dubbed him, “Governor Veto.” The governor has also been a stalwart defender of the citizen initiative, vetoing two previous bills aimed at blocking initiative use and earning him last month’s Lilburne Award from my organization, the Citizens in Charge Foundation.

A referendum petition could also block SB 202 from taking effect until put to a vote of the people, keeping various measures, including those anathema to the unions, on next year&146;s June ballot. But such a referendum campaign would have to gather more than 500,000 valid voter signatures in the next few months.

The political process that passed Sen. Hancock’s last-minute bill is not “good government,” but a bald-faced attack on good government. Let’s hope Governor Brown vetoes the bill, or that citizens do so themselves . . . in the best tradition of California’s century-old process of initiative and referendum.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.