Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California’s liberal groups must use initiatives

The Capitol’s Democrats and their biggest allies – unions, particularly – were riding pretty high after the 2012 elections.

The party had achieved two-thirds legislative supermajorities and with a Democratic governor in place, its leaders and their allies had an ambitious liberal agenda to pursue.

What better time, some thought, to consolidate their control of Capitol politics by crippling the one lawmaking tool left to business and other conservative interests – the ballot initiative?

The state Democratic Party had endorsed making qualifying ballot measures more difficult, 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.”

Democrats introduced a slew of bills to that effect, carefully exempting the techniques that unions and other liberal groups used to qualify their measures.

One, for example, would have required that 10 percent of signatures on initiative petitions to be gathered by unpaid volunteers and prohibited mailed-in signatures from being counted as voluntarily gathered.

None of the punitive initiative “reforms” made it into law, and perhaps the Democratic leaders who promoted them should be grateful.

The 2016 ballot is still a work in progress, but it’s evident that several high-profile measures will be sponsored by unions and other liberal groups that have been frustrated in a Democrat-dominated Capitol.

Foremost are tax measures – extending temporary tax increases that voters approved in 2012 and raising cigarette taxes and possibly property taxes, for example.

The ballot will also likely have at least one measure to increase the minimum wage, and at least one to legalize recreational marijuana use.

What happened to that hegemony that Democrats and liberal groups thought they had achieved in 2012?

The redistricting plan that an independent commission wrote after the 2010 census opened new opportunities for Democrats to make legislative gains in 2012. But many new districts that were Democrat-oriented were also ideologically moderate, and business groups, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, used the also-new “top-two” primary system to help friendly Democrats win those seats.

That syndrome repeated itself in 2014, and the result was a fairly large bloc of moderate Democrats in the Assembly. In conjunction with Gov. Jerry Brown’s mostly centrist attitude, the bloc stymied liberal bills coming over from the Senate this year, such as a big boost in the minimum wage.

Democrats also had lost their supermajorities in 2014, which spelled doom for all tax measures.

That left the initiative process as the only avenue open to Democratic politicians, unions and other liberal groups to pursue their major agendas and is why voters will decide so many of their issues next year.

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