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Unions and environmentalists push for California referendum reform


California’s influential labor unions, government watchdogs and environmental advocates repeatedly accuse corporations of lying to voters in campaigns to overturn state laws and thwart the progressive Democratic agenda at the state Capitol.

Now they plan to do something about it.

Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) is introducing a bill this week to reform state election law by making it more difficult for campaigns to mislead voters when circulating petitions to qualify a state referendum. The bill marks the latest showdown in a proxy war between workers and business at the state Capitol and could become one of the most high-profile political fights in California this year.

“It is a very old process, and over time its original intent and usefulness has been subverted by a set of small, disgruntled, well-funded, and powerful interests that often undermine the collective will of the people of California,” Bryan said. .

Assembly Bill 421 it would establish new government oversight of signature collection, require more transparency about the groups that fund referendum campaigns, and mandate that at least 10% of petition signatures must be obtained by unpaid volunteers. The sweeping legislation would apply the new rules to referendums and extend to initiative campaigns seeking to repeal or amend a state statute within two years of the law taking effect.

The California Service Employees International Union and other proponents of the bill say it is necessary to realign California’s referendum system with its founding goal of 1911: to provide a mechanism through direct democracy for voters to counter influence. that corporations have over state government.

Today, unions and progressive advocacy groups wield more influence over lawmakers than they did a century ago, and businesses often struggle to protect their interests on the state Capitol.

Proponents of the legislation say that, over time, the referendum system has become less of a tool for the people of California to control their Legislature, and instead an opportunity for wealthy businesses to stop and overturn laws. passed by a large majority of Democrats to address poverty, protect public health and benefit the environment.

In recent years, companies that make cigarettes, manufacture plastics and operate bonding firms have launched multimillion-dollar campaigns to gather petition signatures to qualify referendums from voters who challenged laws that harm their business model.

The California Chamber of Commerce has rejected the need for referendum reform, arguing that businesses rarely campaign against the laws. The chamber has compared the half dozen referendums that qualified for the ballot over the past decade with the thousands of laws enacted by the California Legislature and Governor during that same time period.

Yet the strategy has already stalled two major progressive laws this year until a November 2024 vote.

In January, the secretary of state announced that fast-food companies had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on a California law aimed at raising wages for restaurant workers. Last month, oil companies qualified for a vote on their effort to strike down an environmental safety law that would ban new drilling projects near homes and schools.

The oil setbacks legislation passed in 2022 after years of grassroots organizing and several failed attempts in the Legislature. Almost immediately, the industry began trying to mislead voters about the law and turn them against a policy that would protect the health of disadvantaged communities, said Melissa Romero of California Environmental Voters.

“This is a truly disgusting abuse of power, and it is an example of one of the ways that corporations currently act as if they are above the law just by nature of having enough money to do whatever they want,” Romero said. . “And the voters are sick of it.”

To ask voters to repeal a law on the next statewide ballot, proponents of a referendum must obtain the signatures of 5% of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election. Political campaigns often hire companies to circulate petitions and pay people per signature collected. Many signature collectors travel from other states.

A key provision of AB 421 would require unpaid volunteers to gather at least 10% of the signatures needed to qualify a referendum on the ballot.

“A fundamental part of participatory democracy is having people who really care instead of people who are paid to collect signatures at the expense of truly articulating what the measure is,” Bryan said.

The bill would also require paid signature collectors to register with the California Secretary of State and disclose the ballot measure petitions they intend to present to voters, the proponents said.

Each signature collector would receive a unique identification number that would be included on their individual petitions. The bill would make them wear a badge displaying their number, name and photo, making it easier for voters to identify those misrepresenting petitions.

The secretary of state would also administer a mandatory training program for paid signature collectors that includes education on prohibited activities.

“Dissatisfaction with paid signature collectors is as old as direct democracy itself,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

Kousser said states have tried to ban and regulate paid signature collectors since 1913, but the courts have protected the process. He referenced a 1988 US Supreme Court decision that found the circulation of petitions to be “central political discourse” and called the collection of paid signatures “the most effective, fundamental, and perhaps inexpensive means of achieving direct and individual communication with voters”. ”

Many states have added their own regulations to the process, such as California, which allows people to ask if a signature collector is paid. He said he hasn’t seen states try to force volunteers to collect a portion of the signatures.

Another common complaint is that signature collectors misrepresent the groups’ funding campaigns. To offset those concerns, the legislation would require the petition to list the top three campaign contributors on the front page along with the title of the attorney general and the summary of the measure. Signatories will need to initial a statement saying they have reviewed major funders.

Advocates anticipate opposition from oil companies and other moneyed business interests in the state Capitol. Although the legislation would alter the referendum process, they say the proposal would not need to go before voters because it does not change the state Constitution.

“We’re going to have some pretty big opposition, but I’m hopeful that the Legislature agrees with us that it’s time to take our democracy back,” said Tia Orr, executive director of SEIU California.

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