Your guide to California policy and politics
BY Ben Christopher September 21, 2022
Presented by Health Net and Association of California Water Agencies

When California industry takes its beef to the ballot

See if you can spot the trend.

  • In 2014, California lawmakers passed a law banning single-use plastic bags. Outraged plastic bag manufacturers gathered the requisite signatures for a referendum, asking voters to strike down the ban in 2016. (The ban survived).
  • In 2018, lawmakers ended cash bail in California. Two years later, the question was on the ballot in a campaign funded by the bail bond industry. (Voters brought cash bail back).
  • In 2020, the Legislature passed a ban on flavored tobacco. Those in the smoking, vaping and chewing business immediately got to work, which is why you’ll find the question on your ballot this November.

Just last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills codifying the state’s aggressive climate change goals. Among them was legislation by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat, that aims to ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

On Monday evening Jerry Reedy, a California Independent Petroleum Association board member, filed a proposed referendum for 2024 with the attorney general’s office.

This follows a similar move by the fast food industry. Last week, Big Burger won a step toward getting a referendum on the 2024 ballot to overturn a law creating a state council regulating wages and working conditions at franchised restaurants. 

Powerful interests have always had the power to go directly to voters when they don’t get their way in Sacramento. But as Democratic control over the Legislature has become even more dominant in recent years, aggrieved businesses have adopted a new fondness for the strategy.

Oil and gas producers still have a long way to go before getting the setback law on the ballot. First the attorney general will provide a title and summary for the measure. Then proponents will have to gather more than 623,000 valid signatures from registered voters. Then it goes to the voters.

Getting a majority of California voters to agree with the oil industry might be a tough sell. But a referendum campaign can be its own reward. Once a referendum measure qualifies, the law is suspended until the electorate can weigh in. 

The oil and gas industry won’t be able to count on the support of at least two California voters: Gov. Newsom and Sen. Gonzalez. 

In a live-streamed interview at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, the governor bemoaned the fact that the bill was already being undercut — and had some sharp words for the more industry-friendly members of his own party.

  • Newsom: “We may be dominated by Democrats, but many of us are wholly owned subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry…They just filed a referendum yesterday — big oil. These guys aren’t going away.”

Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, didn’t reply to my email asking for his response. But the organization’s lobbyist responded on Twitter: “Fact Check: Untrue!”

Gonzalez is also in New York this week, though she said she missed the governor’s comments. But she did call this latest referendum effort and similar campaigns an “abuse” of the process.

  • Gonzalez: “Somebody with money can just come in and completely overturn it and continue to lie and spend money and provide mistruths, and there goes the legislative process.”
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1 Year of the woman, redux

Angelique Ashby, a Sacramento City Council member running for state Senate, speaks at a campaign event in Sacramento on Sept. 10, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Though the 2018 “blue wave” election was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” this year’s midterm elections could present the bigger opportunity for more equal gender representation in the state Capitol. 

That’s according to CalMatters political reporter Sameea Kamal and political reporting intern Ariel Gans, who note a bevy of open and competitive seats could make for a record-setting year

To prove it, they crunched the numbers:

  • There are currently 39 women in the Legislature — a record high.
  • That high water mark — less than a third of the 120 seats — is still pretty low.
  • This year, women are guaranteed to hold at least 25 seats — either because two woman are facing one another or because, as senators who serve staggered four-year terms, they aren’t up for re-election this year.
  • And if every woman who beat their male opponent by more than 5 percentage points in June also wins in November, that brings us to 45 — a banner election, if still 15 seats short of parity.

Not that things are complication-free for women running for office in 2022. 

  • Hayward state Senate candidate Aisha Wahab: “Women know they have a balancing act — being firm and being strong and competent, but also soft and compassionate and sensitive.”

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2 California student debt relief: By the numbers

Students walk across campus at the California State University East Bay campus on Feb. 25, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

3.5 million.

That’s the number of Californians who are eligible for student debt relief under a plan President Joe Biden announced last month, according to estimates put out by the White House on Tuesday.

  • Students making less than $125,000 (or joint-filers earning less than $250,000) could qualify for as much as $10,000 in debt relief. 
  • Those who received a Pell Grant, a federal program for lower-income college students, could see more — as much as $20,000 — of their debt cleared. 

According to the White House estimate, 2.3 million Californians would qualify for that additional level relief — about two-thirds of the total. (State legislative leaders vow to make sure that relief isn’t taxed.) 

All told, about 9% of the state population qualifies for some degree of debt reduction. That’s actually on the low end compared to other states. In Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio — which just so happen to be swing states with competitive Senate races this year — the figure sits at about 14%. 

If California is getting the proportionally short end of the stick, that’s likely because college students here tend to carry less debt overall thanks to the state’s relatively generous financial aid programs and low tuition.

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CalMatters Commentary


Don’t be hasty: Gov. Gavin Newsom should veto a bill to rename Hastings College of the Law and instead call for hearings on Serranus Hastings’ legacy, writes Donald Craig Mitchell, a graduate of Hastings College of the Law and an expert on federal Indian law.

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