Friday, November 11, 2011




A quick look at this year’s scorecard for ballot initiatives and referenda reveals a surprise result: Qualifying a measure for the California ballot appears to have gotten a lot harder than it used to be.

This means the threat made so often by displeased politicians and other factions -- "Cross me and I'll run an initiative or referendum to change what you’ve done” – has lost a lot of its impact.

For years, these ballot measures – initiatives are new laws, while referenda attempt to repeal bills the Legislature has passed and the governor signed, but which have not yet taken effect – were the easy province of almost anyone with a pet cause and a lot of money.

Initiatives are a lot more common, so much so that many voters simply call every the proposition on the ballot by that name, ignoring the distinction between measures placed there by gathering voter signatures and those proposed by the Legislature.

Almost every interest group conceivable has managed to qualify some sort of measure for the ballot: Tobacco industry companies tried to roll back smoking regulations, insurance companies have repeatedly tried to bamboozle voters into giving them more money, fringe politicians like Lyndon LaRouche have made oddball attempts and others have tried to pass myriad new taxes and regulations.

Most of these efforts fail; the overall passage rate is just under 20 percent for initiatives. Referenda sometimes do better, with the foremost example the overwhelming 1982 repeal of bills aiming to create a Peripheral Canal to bring much more Northern California river water to the Central Valley and Southern California. That result made any talk of doing this into political anathema for decades.

But the failures of initiatives and referenda this year are more striking than ever. For one thing, there have been a record nine referendum drives so far this year, all spurred by Republican legislators, big businesses or other conservatives disgruntled over some laws pushed through by Democrats and signed by a Democratic governor. Those efforts have included a try at repealing a new fire protection fee to be assessed on homeowners in fire-prone brush areas and another targeting a new law requiring schools to teach about the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, as well as people with disabilities. More recent is an attempt to cancel a new law that would put all initiatives into the November general election, which invariably draws more voters than primaries or special elections held at other times.

Referenda now need 504,760 signatures of registered voters in order to qualify for the next statewide ballot (they are not covered by the new only-in-November law for initiatives). The number changes, depending how many people have voted in the last general election.

Referendum sponsors get only 90 days to gather signatures, while initiatives have 150 days to gather voter names once they’re certified.

It’s also more difficult to get corporate financing for referenda than for some initiatives with more commercial implications. An exception was the drive against a law that will soon require Internet retailers to collect sales tax on purchases by Californians. Amazon plunked $5 million into that effort, but thought better of it and pulled the bulk of its cash back a few days later, instead reaching a deal with Gov. Jerry Brown that lets it hold off tax collections for awhile in exchange for setting up several big distribution facilities in California.

The deal will eventually save Amazon money by bringing its warehouses closer to its biggest market. The company previously stayed out of California physically because prior law would have forced it to collect those taxes if it had an actual footprint here.

There’s been some whining from groups that failed to qualify the repeal measures they sought. Example: “The abbreviated timeline and lack of funding made this attempt extremely difficult,” griped the California Family Council, one of two groups behind the bid to eliminate the gay-education law.

Translation: There wasn’t much support for its cause, something most interest groups are loath to admit.

It was the same for the labor and environmental groups trying to qualify an oil severance tax initiative for next November’s election. When it become clear their first attempt to get that levy onto the ballot would fail, they abandoned it in favor of a new drive for a “revised” measure. But the revisions were small.

Maybe all these failures (and there have been some recent successful signature drives, too, with one measure changing term limits and another creating a new cigarette tax to benefit cancer research already set for votes next year) are due to a growing public cynicism about signing petitions.

A recent Field Poll showed about 60 percent of voters believe most proposition elections turn out “the way organized special interest groups want.”

All of which means the oft-heard threats to make end runs around the Legislature or overturn its votes are less credible today than they’ve been in decades.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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