Is California’s direct democracy threatened by blackmail? Perhaps, but it could be worse

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, left, and Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Arcadia, right, celebrate with Alastair Mactaggart, center, after the Legislature approved their data privacy bill on June 28. Mactaggert removed a similar initiative he sponsored from the November ballot.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, left, and Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Arcadia, right, celebrate with Alastair Mactaggart, center, after the Legislature approved their data privacy bill on June 28. Mactaggert removed a similar initiative he sponsored from the November ballot. AP

In 2014, a new law tinkered with California’s initiative process, allowing the Legislature to make deals with proponents, who can then pull their measures even after they qualify for the ballot.

In 2018, that law has had its biggest impact so far – and mostly for the good. After negotiations with legislators, three contentious initiatives headed for the November ballot were withdrawn just before a June 28 deadline.

The law is far from perfect. There can be too much back-room deal-making, and even what critics call extortion. It can give special interests and the wealthy even more power. Yet, this is politics and at least the law sets some ground rules.

Darrell Steinberg – the law’s author as state Senate leader and now Sacramento’s mayor – says it’s working as he expected, encouraging reasonable compromises, putting pressure on legislators to tackle big problems and keeping badly-written and overreaching initiatives off the ballot.

On balance, the law helps to stabilize representative and direct democracy in governing our sprawling republic, and to avoid costly ballot battles that enrich consultants and advertisers but are not the best way to sort out complex policy issues.

Look at what happened with data privacy this session. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a sweeping bill after tense talks between Silicon Valley companies and privacy advocates. Neither side is satisfied, but this compromise is a good first step.

Assembly Bill 375 is less comprehensive than a proposed initiative bankrolled by San Francisco developer Alastair Mactaggart, but it still puts California at the national forefront on consumer privacy. The law allows Californians to ask companies to delete information on them, to find out categories of information they collect and to sue companies for unauthorized breaches of non-encrypted data.

In another case, paint companies pulled their initiative – which would have limited their legal liability for cleaning up lead paint and authorized the state to borrow billions to pay for it – after legislative leaders agreed to seek a solution before the session ends in September. In return, legislators agreed to drop some bills targeting paint companies, which have been ordered by the courts to pay for the cleanup.

Criticism of the new law is most compelling with what happened on soda taxes. After public health advocates failed to overcome industry opposition to a statewide tax, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco passed local ones since 2014.

This year, the industry basically blackmailed the Legislature into banning new local taxes on sugary sodas through 2030 by threatening a ballot measure that would make it much more difficult to raise all local taxes by requiring a two-thirds supermajority for approval.

The moratorium is a sweet deal for soda companies, but the tax initiative could have devastated local governments, including Sacramento, which plans to ask voters for a 1-cent sales tax in November. By avoiding a worse result, Steinberg still counts it as a success.

While there’s a danger that other industries will copy this strategy, soda companies may not win in the end. In the latest initiative maneuver, the California Dental Association and California Medical Association have filed paperwork for a potential 2020 ballot measure for a 2-cent per ounce statewide soda tax.

The revised initiative process also played out on housing. Because legislators whiffed on doing more to address California’s affordable housing crisis and reaching a deal on rent control, there will be a big-dollar campaign on Proposition 10 between housing advocates who want to give cities and counties more leeway to impose rent limits and developers and landlords who want to keep the status quo.

Voters will also decide whether to allow the state to borrow $4 billion to build more affordable housing (Proposition 1), and whether to allow counties to steer revenue from the Proposition 63 millionaire tax for mental health to help the homeless (Proposition 2).

After the dust settled at the state Capitol, the Nov. 6 ballot will have a dozen statewide measures.

Some are pivotal – such as Proposition 6 on whether to repeal the 12-cent gas tax increase and other fees that are generating $5 billion a year to repair California’s crumbling roads. Some are rather narrow – such as Proposition 11 allowing private ambulance services to continue requiring workers to be on call during meal and rest breaks.

And we still ended up with measures that shouldn’t be on the ballot at all.

The highest-profile is Proposition 9, the latest cockamamie scheme from billionaire Tim Draper. He wants to split California into three states, no matter the constitutional, political and financial roadblocks that make this virtually impossible to implement.

There’s also Proposition 7 that could lead to California staying on daylight savings time year-round, despite all the confusion it would cause for the state to be out of step from the rest of America.

And unfortunately voters will again be put in the middle of a labor organizing push. To gain leverage, SEIU-United Health Care Workers West is bankrolling Proposition 8 to limit how much private dialysis clinics can charge.

Direct democracy in California can be messy, and the November election will be no exception. But it could have been worse without the new law to clean it up a little.