An attack on good government

Paul Jacob

9/11/2011 12:00:33 AM - Paul Jacob

California State Senator Loni Hancock calls it “good government.”

You decide.

On the last day of California’s legislative session — a paradoxical event combining the horror of horse-trading with the sublime relief that the danger and destruction will all soon be over — a new bill suddenly appeared: Voilà!

Actually, like Dr. Frankenstein, the new bill revived the dead. Insiders call this particular maneuver “gut and stuff.” Senate Bill 202 was dead for the session . . . and then it came roaring back to life with its original language completely stripped out and new language, for a brand new subject, abruptly inserted. Indeed, it took less than 24 hours to resurrect, transform and pass the bill — without a single minority party vote. Public hearings were slapped together with just ten minutes notice, hardly including the public, but boasting a full contingent of the lobbyists who regularly loiter about capitol halls. The Senate hearing on the bill commenced an hour before midnight; it passed during the morning’s wee hours.

So, what did this last minute legislation actually accomplish? Create jobs, perchance?

SB 202 changes when initiatives will be voted on. It removes citizen-initiated measures from next year’s June ballot and places them on the November ballot.

Why? As the bill’s author explained, “Low turnout elections do not represent the needs, priorities and desires of the larger electorate.” Since more folks turn out to vote in November than at any other time, ballot measures should be voted on only in November.

As with most issues, honest people can disagree. Having more voters making the decision is, indeed, a plus. But having all initiative measures on one ballot means voters must decide more issues at one time. Some people believe that this would undercut the amount of attention and deliberation that takes place on each issue before a vote.

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.