Unions and Howard Jarvis Join Forces to Keep Democracy Private

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

(Editor’s Note: UPDATE. The original article reported that Common Cause was part of the pro-SB 594 effort but moved to neutrality. At the request of the author, Common Cause was removed from the article’s title.)

California’s system of direct democracy is a thoroughly private business. Initiatives are written privately. They’re sponsored privately. They’re shaped by private polling. They’re discussed and debated as much in private (the people with money determine the content). The money behind them is raised in private.

But their impact is profoundly public – indirectly through public understanding (or misunderstanding) that results from the campaigns – and in the public policy enacted via ballot measures statutes and constitutional amendments.

Fixing this system requires making the initiative and ballot measure process far more public – integrating it with the public legislative process and with the state budget. The state badly needs a public infrastructure to make the act of drafting, reviewing, circulating and deliberating such measures a thoroughly public process.

But those who hold power in the process want to make it more private.

This private-public divide explains the unusual coalition of interests — California’s labor unions, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Common Cause among them (Common Cause was in favor but has now gone neutral on the bill) — backing a very bad bill, SB 594. Portrayed as reform to keep public money out of the initiative process, SB 594 would make it harder for certain interests and nonprofits to participate in the ballot measure process. That means shutting people not merely out of politics – but out of lawmaking.

Like any Mafia enforcement action, SB 594 seeks to remove a competitor to the legislation’s backers: local governments and their representatives (the League of Cities, the California Association of Counties) who participate in the ballot initiative process, often through non-profit entities. Those governments should participate in the process, since ballot measures involve laws and constitutional amendments that profoundly affect those governments. But the backers of SB 594 have raised questions about whether public money is being used to do this.

In this argument, the backers of 594 show how California politics truly is an upside down universe. Heaven forfend that public resources used to be make public policy! Shouldn’t that be the exclusive province of private interests outside the process? Except of course, public employee unions, who shouldn’t be restricted in any way from participating in the ballot measure process, because their money doesn’t come from the government. And except, of course, corporations, since no one could dream of suggesting that the savings that companies receive via tax breaks and government appropriations would ever be used to play politics and win more such savings.

That’s the logic, or illogic, behind 594: public lawmaking should be reserved to the private sphere and private money. But this bill is worse than that. It’s so vague and confusing that it would raise the cost of getting involved in ballot measures – which is to say it would raise the cost of lawmaking. With more rules limiting the ability of nonprofit entities and people who work for them, there will be more lawyers to pay, more rules – and thus less participation. Many people and organizations, instead of engaging in ballot measures on which they could offer opinions and knowledge, will stay out – out of fear.

The legislation has an exemption of course. The legislation specifically does not prohibit…

providing information to the public about the possible effects
of any bond issuance or other ballot measure on state activities,
operations, or policies, provided that the informational activities
are otherwise authorized by the California Constitution or the
laws of this state, and the information provided constitutes a fair
and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate
in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or
ballot measure.

Well, that’s reassuring. And who decides what’s fair and impartial and a relevant fact?

The government of course.

Which totally makes sense because SB 594 is supposed to be about keeping the government resources out of ballot measures.

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