Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California Democrats want to control initiative process

Unquestionably, California’s Democratic Party, which holds every statewide office, dominates the state’s congressional delegation and has supermajorities in both legislative houses, wants to suppress the one political venue it does not already control – the initiative process.

Two years ago, the party’s executive board demanded change, declaring that “the initiative process is being abused by the use of misleading titles and advertisements by unscrupulous signature-gathering companies, hired signature collectors, and concealed sponsors to create laws and programs that benefit a very few people at the expense of the many.”

Since then, Democratic legislators have introduced myriad bills to make it more difficult for conservative or business groups to place measures on the ballot, while leaving the process intact for unions and liberal groups.

The party’s leaders appear to have adopted the tactics on initiatives that they employ on another constitutionally protected right, gun ownership.

Knowing that a frontal assault would be impossible, they want to make qualifying an initiative – or owning a gun – so expensive and difficult, via Byzantine restrictions, that those involved in either pursuit will simply give up.

That’s why 14 gun control bills reached Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk this year, as well as Assembly Bill 857, the Democrats’ latest effort to thwart ballot measures that might discomfit the party and its allies.

Sponsored by the California Labor Federation and other labor groups, and carried by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, AB 857 would require that 10 percent of signatures on an initiative petition be gathered by non-paid volunteers.

The Assembly version of the bill pegged it at 20 percent, but it was dropped to 10 percent in the Senate.

That sounds reasonable, until one reads the bill’s fine print, which essentially exempts unions by counting employees and members of nonprofit organizations (i.e. unions) as volunteer signature-gatherers, and prohibiting mailed-in signatures from being counted as volunteer-gathered names.

It would make gathering signatures by mail or paid gatherers, techniques used by conservative groups, more difficult, while preserving the status quo for unions and their allies.

One of the earlier efforts to bend the initiative process, two years ago, would have made it a crime for any signature-gatherer to be paid by the name. But Brown, who was then planning his own tax increase ballot measure, vetoed it.

“This is a dramatic change to a long-established democratic process in California,” Brown said, adding, “I am not persuaded that the unintended consequences won't be worse than the abuses the bill aims to prevent.”

The initiative process probably needs reform, but bending the system for partisan gain isn’t it.