Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Pushing for voter input on big issues is brilliant strategy

It’s no secret that the Legislature’s dominant Democrats want to make it more difficult to place initiative measures on the statewide ballot.

They say they just want to reduce ballot clutter and discourage sponsors of kooky measures, but having achieved almost total control of the legislative process, they also don’t want to contend with ballot measures that reflect contrary ideological proclivities.

However, polling has consistently shown that Californians like having the power to vote on big issues.

That preference is an opportunity for sponsors of two proposed 2016 ballot measures that would indirectly affect two big political issues – public employee pensions and the twin water tunnels that would be bored beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Rather that directly attack their targets, the two measures would subject them to public votes, banking on the affection that voters have for making decisions themselves.

Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman, and Chuck Reed, the former mayor of San Jose, are both veterans of local pension battles, and their proposed 2016 ballot measure, the “Voter Empowerment Act of 2016,” would require voter approval for any future increases in pension benefits.

They argue that voters must now approve long-term bonds, so it’s only fair that pension benefits, which once granted cannot be reduced, should have to undergo the same level of approval.

The logic of their concept – what’s good for the fiscal goose should be good for the pension gander – is pretty strong. However, it’s uncertain whether it’s strong enough to withstand a multimillion-dollar assault by public employee unions – assuming the measure gets a fair summary from Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Dean Cortopassi, a wealthy businessman and Delta farmer who’s staunchly opposed to the twin tunnels, has adopted the same tactical approach in his measure.

It would require that any state revenue bond in excess of $2 billion be subjected to a statewide vote, just as general obligation bonds must be approved by voters.

Revenue bonds are backed by a stream of income, such as payments from water districts and their customers, rather than the state’s general revenue, which repays general obligation bonds.

While Cortopassi’s measure targets the tunnels, it would apply to any project financed by revenue bonds. It might, for example, affect the bullet train were the High-Speed Rail Authority, which hopes for federal and private financing, to shift to revenue bonds as a last resort.

It’s assumed the state would issue revenue bonds to pay for tunnel construction, backed by contracts with the downstate water districts. And if successful, Cortopassi’s measure could accomplish what tunnel backers have tried for years to avoid – another up-or-down vote on water diversion.

The Legislature, acting at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown, authorized a “peripheral canal” version of the project in 1980, but it was rejected by a 1982 statewide referendum.

Brown, back in the governorship, is now the tunnels’ chief advocate, arguing once again that they would fix the Delta.

The “voter empowerment” strategy is brilliant, forcing opponents of both measures to convince voters that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote on two highly controversial, very expensive issues.