Vote-shift bill is a tough one for governor, whatever he decides

Strictly on its merits — devoid of petty politics  — restricting California’s statewide initiative ballot measures to the every-other-year November general election makes much sense.

June primary election voter turnouts are not only much lower than those in November, but the ethnic, geographic and partisan makeup of the primary electorate is strongly influenced by the political dynamics of the moment.

Senate Bill 202, now awaiting a signature or veto from Gov. Jerry Brown, would make that electoral change, but it’s also awash in petty politics and steeped in irony.

The Democratic legislative leaders who pushed SB 202 through the Capitol claim that it’s a much-needed political reform, but it was ginned up in the dead of night as the session ended this month — scarcely a reformist process.

Moreover, it’s the centerpiece of a broad effort by the Democratic Party and its labor union allies to restrict use of the initiative system — an effort being mounted, ironically enough, on the eve of the initiative’s 100th anniversary in October.

They simply don’t like that their almost complete domination of the state’s political policy can be
challenged via initiative.

More specifically, they don’t like that one pending measure that could go before voters next June would limit unions’ ability to extract campaign funds from their members. They believe that forcing the so-called “paycheck protection” measure onto the November ballot would make it easier to defeat.

Another irony: Were Brown to sign the bill, he would be, in effect, overturning a decision he made as secretary of state in 1971 to allow initiative measures to go on the primary ballot, even though the state Constitution says they must go before voters at a general election.

Brown took advantage of his own ruling three years later to place Proposition 9, a political reform measure, on the 1974 primary ballot — a major factor in his successful campaign for governor that year.

The real political kicker in SB 202 is a section that shifts a constitutional amendment approved by the Legislature last year, as part of the deal that finally resolved a budget stalemate, from the 2012 election to 2014. Why?

Democrats never liked the measure, a form of state spending limit that Republicans and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sought, and shifting it to 2014 could lead to its repeal in the Legislature if Democrats can achieve two-thirds margins in both houses next year.

But it also reneges on the 2010 budget deal, and thus sets a dangerous precedent. Brown complains that Republicans are reluctant to make budget deals, but if a deal can be undone after the fact, as SB 202 would do, it would further erode comity in the Capitol and make Republicans even less likely to cooperate.

This is one of Brown’s toughest bill decisions.

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

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