Threat of ballot measures often launches Legislature into action

An oft-repeated cliche of political discourse — whose exact origin is unclear — goes something like this: “They didn’t see the light until we turned up the heat.”

Like many cliches, it has a valid core, and the California version is that the Legislature has tended to ignore a difficult issue until someone threatens to take it to the voters via an initiative ballot measure.

That was certainly true when Proposition 13, the progenitor of the modern era of ballot measure activism, qualified for the 1978 ballot.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature just fiddled around with the explosive growth of property taxes, but they didn’t get serious until after Prop. 13 qualified. They cobbled together their own measure on property tax relief, but voters soundly rejected it as they adopted Prop. 13.

Likewise, legislators got serious about bumping up sentences for repeat offenders only after they knew that a “three strikes and you’re out” measure was headed for the 1994 ballot.

Over time, the threat of an initiative has been wielded specifically to gain attention from otherwise uninterested lawmakers.

Arnold Schwarzenegger used it effectively in the first months of his governorship, when his popularity was still high, to bulldoze a very reluctant Legislature into making major changes in the state’s system of compensating workers for work-related injuries and illnesses, despite opposition from unions and their allies.

But it doesn’t always work, as Schwarzenegger learned when he tried to repeat his feat a year later on a package of budget reforms that unions opposed. The Legislature stiffed him, and he failed at the polls.

Local government leaders succeeded when they drafted an initiative to protect their funds from raids by the state.

Schwarzenegger and legislators responded with a less-restrictive alternative that local officials accepted and voters endorsed.

Ironically, when the loopholes in the alternative were later used to stage another budget raid, the local officials reacted with a tighter measure, which was passed last year.

Given that history, one might wonder whether a new initiative measure that would overhaul California’s public pensions could help Brown, now back in the governor’s office, gain legislative approval for his own pension reform package.

Unions may dislike Brown’s proposal, but they utterly despise the pending initiative measure and fear that if it reaches the ballot — by no means certain — recession-stressed voters would embrace it to send a message, not unlike what happened in 1978 vis-a-vis property taxes.

Accepting a substantial version of Brown’s reforms — not just its low-hanging fruit, such as pension spiking — may be the unions’ best weapon against the tougher initiative.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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