CALmatters is an independent public interest journalism venture covering California state politics and government.
February 11, 2018 (Sacramento) - Direct democracy can be an exhausting business.
This year civically engaged Californians will be expected to have informed opinions about affordable housing and park funding, how best to divvy up cap-and-trade money, how to spend the state’s new gas tax money, and when new voter-approved laws ought to be enacted.
And those are just the measures on the ballot so far.
Joining those five—all of which come referred from the Legislature and most of which are destined for the June ballot—are the citizen-backed proposals, which must compete for spots on the November ballot. More than 40 have already been cleared to be passed around the state gathering signatures, while another dozen await the go-ahead from the state attorney general.
What’s on the menu this year? It’s still too soon to say for sure, but here are some major themes and a few examples of what you can expect to see:
California pioneered fiscal populism with voter-approved constitutional amendments like Prop. 13. So it wouldn’t be a California election without at least a few voter-backed proposals that take a blow torch to the state tax code.
- Lower Taxes:
Last year, the Democrats kicked off the legislative session by passing a $5 billion-plus transportation plan, funded with new fuel and vehicle fees. There’s a reason they chose to raise the gas tax as far from election day as possible.
Now two initiatives have been proposed in response: One, backed by San Diego Republican Carl DeMaio, would require voter approval for this and all future fuel and vehicle tax hikes. The second, supported by Republican gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, would simply repeal the fuel and vehicle fees. The DeMaio initiative has made more progress so far, but either way, the California GOP’s political good fortune in 2018 may rest on anti-gas tax fervor.
In the meantime, it’s an election year so expect another fight about property taxes. Prop. 13, California’s original tax revolt initiative, caps the rate that property taxes can increase on a particular homeowner from one year to the next. The longer a homeowner stays in an appreciating house, the stronger the incentive to stay put and keep your low taxes, even if downsizing or relocating might be more practical. The California Association of Realtors has proposed a solution: change the California Constitution to allow older or disabled homeowners to take a portion of their lowered property tax base with them when they move.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for the father of Prop. 13, has proposed a simpler way to lower taxes: give qualifying homeowners and renters a $500 tax credit.
- Higher Taxes:
While the Realtors push for an expansion for Prop. 13, a growing coalition of progressives will soon be campaigning for a partial rollback. This proposed initiative would strip the benefits of lower property taxes from certain industrial and commercial properties and use the additional revenue to fund schools.
The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers has proposed a more straightforward source of revenue: hike taxes on millionaires by 1 percent and channel the money to hospitals serving low income Californians.
For those who believe our politics are dysfunctional, and compromised beyond repair, these initiatives propose a new start for California.
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox has a vision to blow up the Legislature. That is, he wants to increase the number of legislators from its current 120 to roughly 12,000 with each lawmaker representing 5,000 to 10,000 Californians. Cox, who has already submitted the required number of signatures for the measure, believes the “neighborhood legislature” would make representatives more accountable and less beholden to outside campaign cash. Still, this small army of lawmakers would vote for 80 assembly members and 40 state senators to send to Sacramento, thus obviating the need to convert the state capitol building into a football stadium.
Or if 12,000 subdivisions of the state is too many, how about three? Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who unsuccessfully campaigned in 2014 to split California in six, is now pushing for a more modest three-state solution. Under the proposal, the state would be divided into Northern California, California, and Southern California.
The 2018 election is rapidly approaching, but many California progressives are still recovering from 2016. Thus, two nascent initiatives that would push the state toward a clean break from the other 49 states. One proposal would call for a Constitutional Convention where California would submit a legal pathway to possible independence. The other, a constitutional amendment backed by Bush-era anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, would declare the state’s intent to become an “autonomous nation.” It is unclear how likely it is that either measure will make it onto the ballot.
This is where lawmakers and interest groups come to the voter, hat in hand, asking permission to borrow a bit of extra money. Voters decide whether the new investment is worth the extra debt—though historically, voters have seen more benefit than cost. Since 1986, Californians have approved $9 in fresh borrowing for every $10 requested of them.
- New money for green things:
Last fall, lawmakers passed a bill to put a $4 billion borrowing plan on the ballot. If approved, the borrowed money will fund a variety of natural resource projects: building new parks in low income neighborhoods, remediating soil and wetlands around the Salton Sea, revamping aging dams and levees, and funding grants to adapt to climate change. Voters will review the plan in June.
Conservation groups are gathering signatures for a $8.9 billion initiative exclusively to improve and expand water infrastructure—from drinking water to flood management to ecosystem restoration.
- New money for housing:
Remember the package of housing bills the Legislature narrowly passed at the end of last session? One major component was a $4 billion bond measure placed by the Legislature on the November ballot. Roughly $3 billion would be slated for new affordable housing construction and $1 billion for below-market home loans for veterans.
- Also in the running…
Two more bond measures were submitted last month: One plan would borrow $1.5 billion to fund new buildings and other improvements at children’s hospitals. The other would borrow $2 billion to fund cleanup of mold, asbestos, and lead at homes and schools.
Sometimes legislators need to tie up legislative loose ends or keep promises made to political allies. Here’s the place on your ballot where the sausage gets made.
- Legislative sweeteners:
When Democrats sought to renew the state’s cap-and-trade program last summer, they needed the votes of a few moderate Republicans. Under cap and trade, the state restricts greenhouse gas emissions and auctions off the right to pollute. Democrats offered an assurance to the GOP holdouts by putting a new constitutional amendment on the ballot: Any cap-and-trade auction revenue raised after 2024 would require the approval of two-thirds of both the Assembly and Senate before it could be spent, making Republican involvement more likely. In June, voters will decide what that assurance is worth.
Second, the gas tax. Earlier last year, when Democrats raised the tax on gasoline along with other vehicle fees to pay for road and transit improvements, they also passed a ballot-bound constitutional amendment alongside it. If approved by the voters, it will create a budgetary “lockbox” for the new gas tax money that can be tapped only for transportation projects. Putting this measure on your June ballot was intended to inoculate the transportation bill against future political attack. It didn’t.
- Constitutional tweaks:
Unless otherwise specified, if a ballot measure gets over 50 percent of the vote on election night, it becomes law the following morning. But what if a vote is too close to call? Or called incorrectly only to be changed after absentee ballots are counted? This amendment referred by the Legislature, also up in June, would delay the enactment of new voter-approved laws until five days after the Secretary of State has called the result.
For special interest groups, the California ballot is a second chance. If you failed to convince enough lawmakers to advance your agenda during the legislative session, why not try the voters? At the very least, mounting a credible initiative campaign is a good way to force your political adversaries to the bargaining table.
- Another shot at health reform:
Last year the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers failed to convince lawmakers to pass two bills that would have placed new pricing and staffing requirements on the state’s for-profit dialysis clinics. While the union tries to revive those efforts, they’ve launched a measure that would require clinics to pay payers (namely, health insurance companies) back for any charge more than 115 percent of the statewide average cost of care. Note that this is all happening as the union tries to organize the state’s dialysis clinic technicians.
A bolder health initiative campaign proposes to set up a health care fund exempt from the spending caps and revenue sharing requirements that constrain other areas of the budget. Most budget experts argue that this is a necessary first step before the Legislature can pass a state-run, single-payer health insurance program—an effort that was put on hold in the Assembly last year.
- Another shot at the labor code:
From the other side of the political spectrum, three similar initiative proposals—still in the early signature gathering stage—take aim at the Private Attorneys General Act. Ever since the law was enacted in 2004, giving workers the right to sue their employers on behalf of the state for alleged labor code violations, business interests have argued that it gives too much power to workers and their attorneys to sue over minor infractions. Last year, three bills to weaken the law failed to gain traction. Each circulating initiative would make it more challenging to bring cases and less profitable for the attorneys who bring them.
- Another shot at housing:
For more than two decades, California cities have been barred from passing rent control ordinances—rules that restrict the ability of landlords to raise rents. The state’s ever-increasing cost of living has put pressure on lawmakers to change that. They resisted last year, but 2018 brings fresh opportunities—a new bill in the Legislature and a proposed ballot initiative that would repeal the ban on rent control.
California is often caricatured as the state hogtied with red tape—often applied by voters at the polls. Here are a few possible new ones, along with one regulatory rollback.
- For companies:
In case those 10,000-word Terms and Condition policies don’t offer you the assurance of privacy, this measure would give consumers the right to learn about the kind of personal data a company is gathering about them or selling to third-parties. It would also prevent companies from discriminating against those who ask, either by denying them equal service or charging higher prices.
Another proposed initiative from the Humane Society of the United States would tighten regulations on livestock treatment—requiring farmers to provide a certain amount of floor space for confined cows, pigs, and chickens.
- For workers:
In 2016, the California Supreme Court held that security guards in California cannot be considered on-call when on breaktime. Last year some Democrats in the Assembly unsuccessfully attempted to a pass a law that would guarantee undisturbed rest and meal time for ambulance drivers and technicians too. Now the industry is punching back with a ballot measure that would explicitly exempt them.
Of course, there are more.
To date more than 60 measures have been submitted to the attorney general’s office. Beyond those listed above, they include proposals to loosen felony sentencing guidelines, tighten felony sentencing guidelines, repeal the California’s “sanctuary state” law, tax estates to fund college aid, pay public school teachers more, defund public schools, change the state’s voting rules for primaries, criminalize abortion, and decriminalize magic mushrooms.
Would-be reformers and repealers have until late April to get their signatures in order for the November ballot.