Turn SB 50 Into a Ballot Initiative

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)

Too many ideas for laws and constitutional amendments go to the ballot as initiatives directly, without stopping to pause at the legislature, or to get real scrutiny or debate. Sometimes these ideas are trivial, and only matter to a small number of Californians. That’s why I often rail against so many ballot measures—they don’t deserve our attention.

But sometimes an idea comes along that sparks a real debate. And then it gets considered in the legislature, and it is amended. And then, despite broad enough support to pass, the idea is strangled by a minority of the legislature, short-circuiting debate and a vote.

Those are the kinds of ideas that should be turned into ballot initiatives.

And SB 50 is exactly one of those ideas.

The decision by the State Senate Appropriations chair Anthony Portantino (who is my state senator) to stop SB 50 from getting a vote on the senate floor this year was a power move. But it also was foolish, because it’s likely to boomerang against opponents of the idea. Before, pro-housing forces, environmental groups and construction interests behind SB 50 had a strong argument. But now they have the added ammunition of being wronged, and being denied their democratic verdict.

As a result, their idea of overriding local zoning in the service of building housing and increasing density will be bigger than before. Portantino is like Darth Vader when he killed Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars; he made Obi-Wan even more powerful.

Indeed, SB 50 will now run on two tracks. Someone should—and it says here will—turn it into a ballot initiative for 2020. At the same time, the legislation will still be around at Capitol during 2020. The initiative could provide leverage to push the legislation through.

SB 50 isn’t really dead. In fact, it just got stronger.

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