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California Legislature Makes a Flurry of Big Changes to November Ballot Measures
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 2 weeks ago on
July 2, 2024

In a whirlwind week, California's November ballot has seen major changes, with several measures dropped and new ones added. (CalMatters/Rahul Lal)

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With California’s votes for president and U.S. senator being foregone conclusions, the state’s political establishment has been gearing up for multimillion-dollar battles over high-stakes ballot measures this year.

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Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

However, seemingly overnight — but really in about one week — the November ballot has undergone a radical makeover.

Several major ballot measures have been dropped, sometimes in favor of legislative compromises. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators have added two large bond issues and a criminal justice measure aimed at undermining a more punitive proposal already on the ballot.

The Ballot Measure Gamesmanship

The common denominator of these maneuvers is that all were negotiated and drafted in utter secrecy and are being implemented at warp speed.

A new legislative proposal dictates the order in which measures appear on the ballot so as to give those favored by Newsom and legislators a better chance of winning. It does so with a parliamentary trick — declaring that the Nov. 5 election is also a special election.

The ballot measure gamesmanship thus continues the tendency of dominant Democrats to operate behind closed doors and reveal their actions only after deals have been cut — a strategy very obviously used for the state budget.

One example is a $10 billion bond issue for construction and modernization of public schools and community colleges. As it surfaced, a coalition of civil rights groups complained that it favors projects in wealthy school districts over those in poorer areas.

“If the state fails to put an equitable bond on the November ballot that fixes these glaring inequities, we will have to consider pursuing legal action on behalf of the students, families and community organizations we represent,” Nicole Gon Ochi, an attorney for  Public Advocates, said in a statement.

Other Bond to Fund Environmental Projects

The other bond issue, also $10 billion, would finance a variety of environmental projects under the rubric of climate change and were omitted from the deficit-ridden state budget. The move continues a troublesome tendency to pile on debt when revenues fall short.

Negotiated legislative deals led sponsors of two initiative measures to drop them, one to repeal the Private Attorney Generals Act that empowers workers to sue their employers for violations of state labor law, and another that would require schools to provide personal finance instruction.

Newsom and other Democrats also persuaded the state Supreme Court to void a measure that would have made it much more difficult to raise state and local taxes.

Meanwhile, after spending millions of dollars to qualify it, the oil industry is dropping a referendum to repeal a law restricting the siting of oil wells near schools and other public places — a tactical win for environmental groups. An industry coalition said that if the referendum had succeeded, the Legislature would have probably just reinstated the law, so the group may move the battle to the courts.

The Battle Over Proposition 47 and Its Revisions

Newsom and legislative leaders had been trying for months to kill a pending ballot initiative that would make major revisions to Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot measure that reduced penalties for a certain crimes. The new initiative, sponsored by prosecutors, was sparked by a surge in drug abuse, retail thefts and other crimes, but Newsom and legislators say it goes too far.

They offered their own anti-crime package as a compromise, but the initiative’s backers rebuffed it. At the last moment, Newsom and legislative leaders ginned up their own measure that would make some changes to Prop. 47, but milder ones than the prosecutors proposed.

It will appear on the ballot as Proposition 2, meaning voters could see it before they get to the rival measure. If Prop. 2 gets more votes, it will cancel out the rival.

These are the games within games.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 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. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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