Capitol Alert

Democrats push another bill to change California election rules in their favor

Senate Democrats have put forward another bill to boost the political prospects of embattled state Sen. Josh Newman, the target of a well-funded recall effort on the verge of qualifying for the ballot.

The effort to oust Newman, D-Fullerton, began soon after his April 6 vote for a road-funding plan that will raise taxes on gas and diesel fuel and increase vehicle fees by billions of dollars. Newman, who represents an area that has long had Republican representation, won election last fall by just 2,498 votes. Kicking him out would eliminate Democrats’ two-thirds edge in the Senate – and the ability to raise taxes and put constitutional amendments on the ballot without GOP support.

Amendments to a pair of identical measures, Assembly 132 and Senate Bill 117 became public Monday, as lawmakers returned to the Capitol to begin a final four weeks of legislating. The bill is intended to revive Newman-friendly changes to election law days after the 3rd District Court of Appeal put on hold parts of another measure, Senate Bill 96, passed in June because the changes violated the state’s single-subject rule for legislation.

“To eliminate any issue as to whether the changes to recall petition procedures made by Senate Bill 96 are enacted in violation of the single subject rule, it is the intent of the Legislature to repeal those provisions and reenact them in this act, which embraces only the subject of elections,” the measure reads.

Election officials in the three counties covered by the 29th Senate District reported last Friday that recall supporters had filed 66,289 valid voter signatures – more than the 63,593 valid signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has 10 days to certify the count, setting the stage for a special recall election later this year.

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Monday’s legislation, though, would uphold SB 96’s provisions that would add months to the recall qualification timeline. A recall election likely would be consolidated with the June 2018 primary ballot, when higher Democratic turnout would help Newman.

The changes allow voters who sign recall petitions up to 30 days to withdraw their signatures. If there were still enough signatures to qualify the measure, the Department of Finance would have to issue a cost estimate for the election. Then the the Joint Legislative Budget Committee would have 30 days to review and comment on the department’s cost estimate.

The measure also would require all signatures to be counted, one-by-one, instead of a sampling of signatures allowed for other signature-gathering efforts. That would add additional weeks to the certification process.

In addition, Monday’s legislation includes a new requirement that Padilla’s office increase “voter education and community outreach…including but not limited to, direct contact with voters” for elections in 2018.

Padilla spokesman Sam Mahood said Padilla was consulting with attorneys to “determine what his current obligations are under the law and how to appropriately proceed.”

Senate Democrats allege that many people who signed petitions to recall Newman had been mislead into thinking their signature would help overturn the gas taxes.

Jonathan Underland, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, described the bill as “a simple and narrowly-tailored fix to address the court’s technical concern about the single-subject requirement in the original trailer bill.

“It remains in the overwhelming public interest to safeguard the integrity of California’s recall process and to ensure that recall petitions are not being signed under false and fraudulent pretenses – which is what clearly and blatantly occurred in the 29th Senate District,” Underland said in a statement Monday. “This is good public policy that will enhance the security, integrity and transparency of California’s overall recall process going forward and expect it will be passed quickly.”

Republicans, though, have accused Democrats of abusing their power to deprive Newman’s constituents of their recall rights.

“Despite every cynical effort by the Democrats to stall this election, the time has come for Senator Newman to stand before the voters in Senate District 29 and answer for his tax-raising antics,” California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said in a statement Friday. “We call upon the Secretary of State to certify the recall so that voters can finally have their say at the ballot box.”

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 1:20 p.m. Aug. 21, 2017 to include Friday’s statement from Jim Brulte.

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