Union Sponsored AB 857 Calculated to Destroy Initiatives in California

Editor’s Note:  California state ballot initiatives that begin collecting signatures before 12-31-2013 MIGHT be exempt from AB 857, which, if signed by Gov. Brown, will take effect January 1st. But it takes about 60 days to get ballot initiatives approved for circulation. That window is closing, and with it, the hope for anyone who isn’t sponsored by a public employee union to get a reform initiative onto the California ballot. Unions, who sponsored AB 857, have exempted themselves from a key provision in the law, that 10% of any initiative’s signatures are collected by “volunteers.” That hasn’t happened since 1978 (Jarvis-Gann), and probably never will again in a state as large as California. That’s just reality, not an indictment of the initiative process. Supporters of education reform in California, or pension reform, or of course the unthinkable, public sector union reform, should understand the rules are about to change forever.

Some years ago, at a meeting of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities, a controversial suggestion by one of the council members resulted in startled murmurs from the audience. Annoyed by this unsolicited feedback, the council member blurted out, “No comments from the Peanut Gallery.”

For those younger than the baby boom generation, it should probably be mentioned that the “Peanut Gallery” was what the audience of preschoolers was called on the 1950s Howdy Doody TV show. This was a disrespectful and demeaning comment by a public official, and no doubt the perpetrator quickly regretted his honesty because it confirmed what anyone who has spent time around government insiders know: This is precisely how most bureaucrats and elected officials regard the public. Citizens are like children and thus “should be seen and not heard.”

This attitude of superiority and disdain for the public helps explain politicians’ extreme hostility to the initiative process. As I have written before, government insiders find it annoying that average citizens have the option to place measures on the ballot which can run counter to their plans.

It also explains why the Legislature just passed Assembly Bill 857, currently sitting on the Governor’s desk, that is the most direct assault on direct democracy in California in the last 100 years. This attack makes it more difficult for most citizen groups to qualify measures for the ballot. The bill is sponsored by two of the biggest labor organizations in Sacramento, the Labor Federation and the California Professional Firefighters, entities that have long viewed the ballot box as a threat to their interests, especially as it relates to pension reform. One of its key provisions is to impose a requirement that ten percent of the signatures for a statewide measure be collected by non-paid signature gatherers. However, the measure would exempt non-profits including public employee unions.

In any event, this requirement is facially arbitrary. The bill does not articulate the policy justification for the restriction let alone the cutoff of ten percent. The requirement is also very likely to be stricken as unconstitutional.

If that wasn’t bad enough, this bill is nothing short of a lawyer’s dream. A section of the bill allows any elector to file a civil action invalidating signatures if the circulator intentionally misrepresents the legal effect of the petition. But this new right to sue is replete with ambiguities. What is an “intentional misrepresentation” as opposed to normal political discourse? The First Amendment is designed to permit a free exchange of ideas, especially in the political arena. Are those who collect signatures now going to have their free speech rights chilled for fear of saying something that is not technically accurate about a measure?

Moreover, this provision would make it way too easy for an interest group like a labor organization to intentionally sabotage an initiative by claiming that they were told something inaccurate about a proposed ballot measure. If AB 857 passes, the California judicial branch had best brace itself for a flurry of new “he said, she said” lawsuits.

Other provisions of AB 857 are just downright confusing and will do nothing to inform voters such the requirement for different colored paper with different content depending on who is gathering the signature.

AB 857 passed out of the Legislature last week and is now before Governor Brown. We hope he sees this for what it is, a blatant union power play that allows special interests to play politics at the ballot box to the detriment of all Californians who overwhelmingly support direct democracy. AB 857, with its arbitrary thresholds and unfair special interest exemptions, deserves a quick veto.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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