Spate of Post-Recall Legislation Spurs Backlash Measures Jamming Ballots

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

California is no stranger to initiatives and referenda, but next year could be a whopper.

Some two-dozen measures are in the signature-gathering phase or are soon to be collecting signatures. Most are designed to amend existing law or the state Constitution. But four are referenda aimed at preventing laws passed this year in Sacramento from taking effect, and several aim to reverse laws or policies enacted this year.

More could be on the way. Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that if the Democrat-controlled Legislature refuses to pass his key proposals, he is prepared to place them on the ballot and "let the people decide."

Initiatives have been a part of the California landscape for nearly a century and have become increasingly common over the last 25 years. But they typically address a problem that lawmakers are either unable or unwilling to solve. What makes the March and November 2004 ballots different is that so many are designed to repeal laws just passed in Sacramento.

"The Legislature did a lot of screwball things this year," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, one of the sponsors of a referendum to repeal the domestic partners law. "When you have a governor who doesn't veto these things, that leaves only two other options: invalidate them in the courts or pursue the referendum."

The recall election not only brought these issues into stark relief for voters, it also prompted Democrats to pass many of the targeted measures in the first place.

"The Legislature passed so many measures in anticipation of the recall, figuring they wouldn't have been able to get those measures signed if a Republican became governor," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "Now that the recall has been successful, conservatives and business interests are using the referendum and initiative process as another tool to reverse those measures."

That's certainly the case with the California Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the effort to place a referendum on the just-passed employer health care mandate on the ballot, most likely in November. The chamber is also in the preliminary stages of trying to qualify an initiative to limit the filing of "unfair business practice" lawsuits under Section 17200 of the state Business and Professions code. An attempt to limit these lawsuits in the legislative session was defeated.

"If you look at the two measures we're looking at putting on the ballot, they have one thing in common: an obvious dissatisfaction with the Legislature's actions this year," said chamber spokeswoman Sara Lee.

The Chamber has experience with referenda, having placed a pair on the March 2000 ballot. They were defeated, marking a victory for the Chamber.

(Unlike an initiative, a referendum is an up-or-down vote on a just-passed law. If the referendum passes, the law stays on the books; if it fails, it is repealed. This makes the referendum an effective tool for opponents of the original law, since it is usually easier to run a negative campaign against something.)

Angry voters

But Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Hollywood, whose domestic partnership bill is now the target of a referendum effort, said the large number of measures lining up for next year's ballots is part of a grand strategy from conservative Republicans.

"This is all designed to force Democrats to spend money to defend the gains we have made and to keep us from moving ahead with our agendas," she said. "The referendum on the domestic partners law is a case in point. We will prevail at the ballot box, but not before we have to spend millions of dollars and the better part of a year defending what we already passed."

Goldberg dismissed as "hogwash" the Legislature over-reaching towards a liberal agenda. "Voters are pissed off that they have to pay more taxes on their SUVs and they are angry about the economy and job loss," she said. "It's not about what we in the Legislature did or did not do."

One big factor for the unusually high number of initiatives has been the development of an industry of professional signature gatherers. As long as proponents of an initiative or referendum can put up $1 million or so to fund the signature collection effort, it will most likely qualify for the ballot.

"There's a whole professional class out there now that has really turned this into an industry, not some sort of fluke process," said Bruce Cain, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley.

There are several hot-button issues that probably don't need the help of paid signature gatherers to qualify and are likely to pass once they do. The referendum to repeal SB 60, the law granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, is one; voter anger at Davis' signing of that law is widely regarded as ensuring the success of the recall. Another is the initiative by state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, to repeal the so-called car tax.

The only thing that might prevent voters from approving these measures is action from the Legislature itself to overturn or severely restrict the original laws.

Indeed, Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who authored the drivers' license law, said he favors significant amendments that would require extensive security checks before granting any licenses to illegal immigrants. And Schwarzenegger has vowed to roll back the car tax to the reduced level it was at earlier this year, with or without the Legislature's help.

Meantime, proponents of other longer-term initiative measures figure their timing is good.

"The voters in October expressed in the recall election that systemic political reform is needed," said Debbie Cox, executive director of Californians for an Open Primary.

The so-called open primary initiative, which would reinstate cross-party voting in primary elections, begins signature gathering this week. The initiative is being spearheaded by former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, state Controller Steve Westly and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.

In this same vein, anti-tax advocate Ted Costa, who almost a year ago launched the recall initiative, hopes to ride that success with his new initiative that would take redistricting out of the hands of legislative leaders and leave it up to a panel of retired judges appointed in a bipartisan manner. The ballot language for this initiative has yet to be certified; once that happens, signature gathering can begin.

The question for these and most of the measures now entering the petition-gathering phase is whether the current mood of reform can carry through to next November.

"These initiatives and referenda come and go in waves," said Terri Carbaugh, spokeswoman for the state Secretary of State's office. There was a huge wave in the 1980s, culminating with more than two-dozen initiatives on the November 1988 ballot. But starting with that election and carrying over into the 1990 elections, voters chose to stick with the status quo and rejected most of the initiatives.

Next year, too, is likely to prove to be the crest of an initiative and referendum wave.

"This is really a confluence of events that I don't see repeating itself anytime soon," Cain said. "Once Schwarzenegger gets in there, he will likely veto the more extreme legislation, so opponents then won't have to go to the ballot."

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