The latest threats to direct democracy in California
Since 1911, Californians have possessed powerful tools to control indolent or corrupt politicians. The rights of direct democracy — initiative, referendum and recall — are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling in 2023 as they were more than a century ago.
But make no mistake, politicians hate direct democracy and view it as a threat to their political power or, at a minimum, as an intrusion on their legislative responsibilities. It is no surprise, then, when legislators introduce proposals to weaken direct democracy, and this legislative session is no different.
Last month, progressive legislators introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 1 to gut the recall power. Under current law, voters can recall a state officer by majority vote and, in the same election, elect a successor with a plurality of the vote. In addition, the state constitution prohibits a public official who is the subject of a recall election from being a candidate for successor.
In a fundamental change to the Constitution, SCA 1 would leave an office vacant in the event of a successful recall until a replacement is elected in a special election, or if there is insufficient time to hold a special election, the office would remain vacant for the remainder of the term. This deprives voters of knowing who might replace the officer they are recalling and creates a new concern that a public office could remain unfilled with no one to perform the duties of that office.
In addition, under SCA 1 the rules would be different for a gubernatorial recall. If a governor is removed from office in a recall election, the lieutenant governor becomes governor for the remainder of the unexpired term. In a one-party state like California, this renders a recall for governor nearly pointless.
If SCA 1 sounds familiar, it is nearly identical to SCA 3, which was introduced in the last legislative session but, fortunately, did not progress very far. Perhaps the reason the proposal stalled last year is the realization that, as a proposed constitutional amendment, it would have to be approved by a majority of the statewide electorate. Public polling reveals that Californians support direct democracy, including the right to bounce bad politicians.
Another threat to direct democracy is an effort by the municipal bond industry to obscure the true cost of tax hikes and bond measures.
Senate Bill 532, introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, seeks to weaken two existing transparency bills, Assembly Bills 809 and 195 (by then-Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, 2015-2016), sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Taken together these bills state that for all local tax and bond measures, the rate of the tax, its duration and the total amount of money to be raised are disclosed right on the ballot label. While SB 532 continues to include most of this information, for local bonds and tiered special taxes it relegates it off the ballot label and buries it in the separately mailed voter information guide. When confronting special taxes that will be on tax rolls for decades, it is imperative that voters have as much information as possible.
SB 532 is another example of déjà vu all over again as it is nearly identical to Senate Bill 268 from 2019. That bill actually passed through both houses of the California Legislature but, in response to a letter from HJTA, Gov. Newsom vetoed it. Municipalities need to be held accountable, and voters are entitled to have before them the information necessary to make an informed decision on proposed ballot measures that directly affect their pocketbooks. Our hope is that Gov. Newsom’s veto of a nearly identical bill signals to the Legislature that, when it comes to transparency at the ballot box, he stands with HJTA.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.