The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday lambastes California Governor Jerry Brown for signing Senate Bill 202, a nasty little law that restricts ballot initiatives to November general election contests while moving a vote on a measure to impose a new state spending cap and establish a "rainy day" fund to 2014. The bill is a gift to the state's powerful public employee unions.
"This month marks the centennial of California's voter initiative process," the editors observe, "and Governor Jerry Brown has commemorated the occasion by signing a law that makes it easier for unions to defeat ballot measures they don't like. Consider it more evidence of Mr. Brown's disappointing return to Sacramento."
[A] more crowded ballot would make it easier to defeat the rare, laudable reform by giving uninformed voters reason simply to vote "no" on everything. That's what I would do, and I pay attention to this stuff.Obviously, Brown could not be so explicit about the rank political reasons for signing SB 202, which incidentally also moves to November 2014 an initiative that would establish a spending limit and create a state "rainy day" fund.Wait a minute. Incidentally? Could it be that the reason for this whole goo-goo sham of strengthening direct democracy was to put off a measure meant to impose some fiscal discipline on the spendthrift Legislature?According to Brown, SB 202 "restores the original understanding of constitutional law that initiatives were to be considered at a general election or at a special election called for critical questions requiring swift resolution by the people." He added, "this was historic practice for more than fifty years."The nods to original intent and tradition are a nice touch, especially since it was Brown - acting in his capacity as secretary of state nearly 40 years ago - who changed the practice. And if it just so happens that Democratic voters turn out in larger numbers to defeat a much-needed fiscal reform in 2014, well, call it serendipity.
My sparring partner at the Bee, Pia Lopez, became irritated with me for bringing the "rainy day" initiative into the discussion. In the comments, she writes:
To me the issue of when to hold initiatives is separate from the issue of whether California should have a "rainy day" fund (yes, it should). The governor and Legislature don't need to shunt that decision off to the people. That's their responsibility. They could -- and should -- pass a rainy day fund on their own! Foisting the minutiae of budget decisions on the people at the ballot box to me is irresponsible....
But this is entirely separate from the question at hand: Should initiatives be on the November ballot?
I agree with Pia on the former point, and I even say as much in the column. Part of the problem with the initiative process is it's far too easy for lawmakers to defer difficult political decisions to voters. But we have a representative form of government precisely because we want elected officials to make the hard decisions.
I disagree, however, that the two questions must be treated separately. The fact is, the policy "reform" is inextricably bound to the craven political calculation. The former provides cover for the latter. As the Journal's editors note: "Democrats are now double-crossing the GOP, though Republicans were foolish to agree to any deal that raised taxes immediately in return for future spending reforms. This should warn Republicans tempted to compromise with Mr. Brown on taxes in return for illusory pension or regulatory reforms."
As often seems to be the case in California, Brown's signature may not be the last word. A referendum petition is circulating to undo SB 202. Organizers need to gather at least 510,000 valid signatures by January 5 to put the question to a vote next November.