In summary

A bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would make it more difficult to qualify measures for the ballot, a long-sought goal of Democrats and their allies.

Democrats own virtually every lever of government in California, including the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, 46 of the state’s 53 congressional members, and three-fourths of state legislators.

However, they apparently want more.

For the umpteenth time, the Democrat-controlled Legislature has passed a measure clearly aimed at kneecapping the one remaining political process they don’t dominate — the power to place issues on the ballot via voter signatures on petitions.

Assembly Bill 1451, now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature or veto, would prohibit paying initiative, referendum, or recall petition circulators on a per-signature basis, and require 10% of signatures on an initiative petition to be collected by either unpaid circulators or the employees or members of nonprofit organizations.

Its author, Assemblyman Evan Low, a Campbell Democrat, and other advocates of the bill contend that it’s a good government measure to protect voters from being fooled by unscrupulous signature-gatherers who misrepresent the issues for which they are working.

But everyone familiar with the years-long effort to enact such a law knows that it’s an attack on the use of the ballot by business, politically conservative and/or anti-tax organizations trying to bypass the Legislature and seek voter approval of their proposals or to overturn laws that the Legislature has passed, or recall politicians.

It does not prohibit people from being paid to gather signatures, but they would have to be paid salaries, not on a per-signature basis, thus changing the dynamics of the process.

As former Gov. Jerry Brown said last year in vetoing a virtually identical bill by Low, per-signature is “often the most cost-effective method for collecting the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify a ballot measure.”

As governor, in fact, Brown had used per-signature petition circulators to qualify a couple of initiatives himself, including a hefty increase in state income taxes on the wealthy and the creation of a “rainy day” fund to protect the state budget.

The second major provision of AB 1451 is the requirement that 10% of signatures be collected by unpaid volunteers or the members or employees of a non-profit organization.

It’s a carveout that would help labor unions qualify their own measures for the ballot, which typically seek higher taxes, such as those that may appear on the 2020 ballot.

Since unions are technically non-profit organizations, they could hire as many signature-gatherers as they wish to collect signatures meeting the 10% requirement.

AB 1451 would not erase the initiative process, which was adopted by California in 1911 as a check on the power of a Legislature controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad. But it would, by changing the rules of the game, disadvantage those on the right side of the political balance beam by making the process more expensive, while protecting those on the left side.

As mentioned above, it’s not the first time the game-changing maneuver has been tried.

Brown not only vetoed Low’s previous bill in 2018, but rejected similar measures in 2011 and 2016, and his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, had done the same to bills in 2006 and 2009.

Now Newsom must decide whether to join Brown and Schwarzenegger in rejecting the perennial proposal, or finally give Democratic legislators and their union allies what they’ve yearned to gain for so many years.

It’s noteworthy that Newsom enhanced his own political career by sponsoring initiatives, including those to legalize marijuana and to impose new restrictions on guns and their owners. 

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...