Defending direct democracy, defending taxpayers
The powers of direct democracy — initiative, referendum and recall — are powerful tools to control slow-moving or corrupt politicians. These powers are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling in 2019 as they were in 1911 when Gov. Hiram Johnson, seeking to suppress the absolute control the railroads had over the state Capitol, pushed to give ordinary citizens a “legislative battering ram” — using the language of the Supreme Court — to address issues that for whatever reason the Legislature refuses to address.
Political elites hate the initiative process. From their perspective it allows the great unwashed and unsophisticated to deal with matters such as taxation, victims’ rights, insurance and most importantly political reform. These are issues over which politicians strongly desire to exercise a legislative monopoly.
Like any political process, however, direct democracy can be abused. Some matters are indeed complicated and not well suited to a sound-bite campaign. Also, special interests with a lot of money can overwhelm the airwaves with TV and radio ads to convince a majority of voters (especially in a low-turnout election) to pass something they might later regret. Nonetheless, for taxpayers, direct democracy remains one of the few tools we have to protect ourselves.
Landmark initiative measures such as Propositions 13 and 218 have given taxpayers the kind of protection against greedy government entities that we would never have obtained but for rights granted through direct democracy. But taxpayers must do more than propose initiatives and convince voters to enact them. We must also defend them in court against never-ending assaults. For years, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has maintained a potent litigation capacity with three full-time lawyers and access to dozens more willing to defend not just taxpayer-sponsored initiatives but the very power of direct democracy itself.
And so it is that HJTA finds itself back before the California Supreme Court on an important direct democracy case. The high court just granted review in a case where Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association represents the taxpayers. In Wilde v. City of Dunsmuir, the court must decide whether local voters, using their referendum power, can force a water rate increase onto the ballot for their approval or rejection.
California is one of 23 states whose constitution grants voters the power to referend statutes and ordinances. A referendum is a proposal to repeal a law that was enacted by the Legislature, a city council or a county board of supervisors before it goes into effect. It is placed on the ballot by a citizen petition.
Ratepayers in the city of Dunsmuir collected enough signatures on a petition to qualify a referendum to approve or reject a water rate increase. The city refused to place the referendum on the ballot, arguing that the referendum power does not apply to taxes and that water rates are a form of taxation. It also asserted that Proposition 218, which reinforced the voters’ right to repeal or reduce fees using the initiative power, somehow implied an exclusion of the referendum power as a means of affecting fees.
Not surprisingly, the lower court rejected these arguments and ruled in favor of taxpayers, ordering the city to call an election on the ratepayers’ referendum. Now that the case is before California’s highest court, HJTA is hopeful that the ultimate decision stays consistent with established precedent recognizing that the powers of direct democracy are a “precious right.”
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association