Democrats Gear Up for Ballot Battles

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

The Democratic supermajority in the Legislature has California Republicans playing “Can you top this?” when they talk about what can happen next.

Pay hikes for state workers? Single-payer health insurance? Labor studies programs in every state college and university? A total end to hunting, including a ban on mousetraps? Nancy Pelosi replacing Minerva on the state seal?

But Republicans biggest worry should be that Democrats will be able to bring California voters along for the ride.

For years, GOP legislators have been able to block Democratic efforts to put tax measures and various constitutional amendments on the ballot, arguing that it’s their God-given duty to protect Californians from having their pockets picked by government.

But what if voters don’t want to be protected? In a state that’s becoming deeper blue with every election, maybe there’s a majority out there for the type of changes Democrats have been lobbying for.

That’s a prospect that could ruin the sleep of California conservatives.

Last year, for example, legislative Republicans blocked Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to put a tax hike on the ballot, saying they were representing the will of the voters by fighting any attempt to boost taxes. Brown argued that all he wanted was a statewide vote, but the GOP brushed that argument aside, arguing that they knew what voters really wanted.

So Brown and his allies put together an initiative effort, gathered the needed signatures and placed Prop. 30 on the November ballot. And when that anti-tax majority GOP leaders and conservative activists have long claimed to represent didn’t show up on election day, Brown and the Democrats got their tax hike.

There were plenty of people watching and learning.

State Sen. Mark Leno, for example, wants to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow school districts to pass a parcel tax with 55 percent of the vote, instead of the two-thirds now required under Prop. 13. And since that measure can be placed on the ballot without a vote from anyone who doesn’t have a “D” after his or her name, it’s likely coming soon to a polling place near you.

It’s a big deal for schools. Before 2001, fewer than 60 percent of school bonds were approved in the state. But in November 2000, votes passed Prop. 39, which also cut the two-thirds requirement for bonds down to 55 percent. Since then, the approval rate has jumped to better than 80 percent.

Leno undoubtedly will talk about “fairness,” “the will of majority” and how “it’s for the kids,” all standard arguments in this type of a vote. But in a state where Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent, Leno might be backing a winning horse.

Sure, with a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, Democrats theoretically can pass any tax hike they want without all the muss and fuss of going to the voters. But everyone’s hands stay so much cleaner if legislators can just say, “Let the people decide,” especially if they’re convinced they know just how those people will decide.

And since Brown ran on a pledge to not raise taxes without a statewide vote, Democrats looking to the ballot for political cover also can avoid an embarrassing and ever-so-public spat with a popular governor from their own party.

There are any number of constitutional amendments, special taxes and other donor- and supporter-friendly measures Democrats now can place directly on the ballot, saving backers of things like an oil severance fee or a “nickel a drink” tax on alcohol the time, effort and millions of dollars it costs to collect the signatures to get an initiative on the ballot.

Will those types of measures pass? Maybe not. But voters showed last month that they are increasingly willing to support Democrats across the state, so it’s not too big a stretch for them to also back the issues those Democrats endorse.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.