Whenever a high-profile citizens initiative appears on the statewide California ballot, voter turnout increases. An immediate example is the gas tax repeal, likely to appear on the November 2018 ballot across California, and likely to increase voter turnout. Another impact from these initiatives is the opportunity it represents for candidates. A classic example of this is the historic Jarvis-Gann property tax reform, an initiative that was passed by California’s voters in 1978. That high-profile initiative became a dominant theme during the 1978 election season, benefiting Republican candidates for the state legislature who made lowering taxes – and supporting the Jarvis-Gann initiative – the centerpiece of their campaign. It worked. In 1978 the Republicans gained two seats in the Senate and seven seats in the Assembly, in what was already a very blue state legislature.
What works in the state works in the cities and the counties. When a local tax reform initiative is on the ballot, it can often become the dominant local issue. Candidates and incumbents are forced to choose sides. Those candidates and incumbents who choose to support tax reform initiatives can make that message their message, and leverage the preexisting publicity surrounding the issue as well as the strength of whatever grassroots organizations are promoting the tax reform.
Alternatively, an embattled local official whose attempts to rein in spending and reduce taxes are resisted by a majority on their city council or county board of supervisors can themselves decide to spearhead an initiative. Again the state provides an example – in 2005, after a year of fruitless efforts to introduce reforms to the state legislature, California governor Schwarzenegger sponsored four citizens initiatives: Prop. 74 – Public School Teachers Tenure, Prop. 75 – Union Dues Political Contributions, Prop. 76 – State Spending Limits, and Prop. 77 – Redistricting. Public sector unions were forced to spend roughly $250 million to defeat these four initiatives. And if California’s republican had legislators provided unified support for those measures, instead of fearing union wrath and keeping their heads down, and if Schwarzenegger had remained committed to these reforms, instead of pivoting to the center-left after he was abandoned by his party, it might have heightened public awareness of the problems he was trying to solve.
The moral of that story: If you are a local elected official, you may emulate Schwarzenegger’s decision to go to the people with an initiative, but first make sure your supposed allies won’t run for cover instead of supporting you.
Whether you decide as a local elected official to embrace an independent citizens initiative, or launch one yourself, here’s how to get it done:
California Elections Code
Division 9: Measures Submitted to Voters, Chapter 3: Municipal Elections
Article 1: Initiative, Sections 9200 – 9226
Note: It is imperative to seek expert legal advice to verify the details of each step in this process.
1 – Draft ballot measure.
2 – Submit notice of intent to circulate for signatures and wording of measure to City Attorney for Title & Summary and approval to circulate for signatures (15 business days – this may vary).
3 – Have a petition for signatures created which meets all state legal requirements.
4 – Check city’s election code to see if there are any additional requirements or restrictions on petitions for local measures.
5 – Publish legal ad within 10 days (this may vary) of receiving Title and Summary which includes notice of intent and wording of measure in a newspaper adjudicated in the city.
6 – Begin gathering signatures either the same day or one day after receiving Title and Summary.
7 – Once the city attorney grants Title & Summary, the council may conduct a fiscal impact report and present the findings at an upcoming council meeting. Typically, the council is by law prohibited from taking a position on the measure.
8 – Proponents have 180 days (this may vary) starting the day after receiving Title & Summary to gather and submit required valid signatures.
9 – For a local tax repeal, the number of valid signatures required is 5% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election in that city. It is advisable to get 30-50% additional signatures since the registrar throws out so many signatures as invalid. The closer you can get to 50% the better, but anything less than an additional 30% is very risky.
10 – The city has 30 business days (this may vary) to then verify the signatures.
11 – If the signatures fail to qualify the measure, the city notifies the proponents and returns the petitions for them to check the validation results.
12 – Proponents have a very short period of time where they can challenge any of the signature results.
13 – If the signatures qualify the measure, the city notifies the proponents and schedules the measure as an agenda item for the next city council meeting.
14 – At the next city council meeting the council has the option to either enact the measure immediately, or schedule the measure for an upcoming election.
SAMPLE REFORMS – THREE EXAMPLES
Local Tax Repeals
The local tax repeals that have been attempted in Sierra Madre, Glendale, and Arcadia were all utility tax repeals. But there is no reason that a citizens initiative could not attempt to repeal other taxes – sales tax, business license tax, gross receipts tax, hotel tax, marijuana tax, parcel tax, soda tax, etc.
For that matter, there is no reason why citizens initiatives have to be restricted to lowering taxes. Citizens initiatives can address some of the primary sources of spending as well. As documented in a California Policy Center analysis published earlier this year, “California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case,” the financial strain caused by pension payments has just begun to be felt by local governments.
For this reason, pension reform is destined to become an even bigger issue in the coming years. Citizens initiatives to reform pensions can be initiated by local activists, or by elected officials working with local activists. They can also be championed by local candidates and incumbents and constitute the primary theme of their campaign. These citizens initiatives can define the issues in a local election, forcing candidates and incumbents to address them – whether it is a tax repeal or a spending reform.
Another crucial reason why citizens initiatives should be a well understood tool for local reformers and local elected officials is because the legal feasibility of pension reform may soon change. As reported in the California Policy Center analysis published in March 2018, “Will the California Supreme Court Reform the ‘California Rule?’ – Latest Update,” the so-called California Rule may be modified. This is the contention, successfully defended so far by government union attorneys, that prohibits reducing pension benefits, even for future work. By this time next year, depending on how the court rules, the California Rule may no longer exist.
But creating the legal ability to reform pensions does not pension reform make. Government unions will resist changing pension benefits with all their power. This is where citizens initiatives, championed by courageous local elected officials, will turn potential for reform into actual reform.
Government Union Reform
Another critical case, this one before the U.S. Supreme Court, may be ruled on within the next few months. It is “Janus vs AFSCME” and depending on the nature of the court’s decision, may have a profound impact on the ability of government unions to collect dues. It is possible, if not likely, that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that unions will have to not only ask permission to collect dues for political activity, but also to collect dues for so-called “agency fees,” which is where most of the dues go. These “agency fees” may be ruled to be “inherently political,” since union negotiated work rules, along with compensation and benefit demands, have an inherently political impact on how public agencies are managed. But government unions are preparing for a Janus ruling that goes against their interests.
For this reason, it may be necessary for local activists, supported or even guided by courageous local elected officials, to place local initiatives on the ballot that enforce the spirit of the Janus ruling. For example, it may be necessary for a local initiative to require unions to collect agency fees from their members via an annual “opt-in” process, since left to their own preferences these unions would make their members engage in a laborious “opt-out” process. There is a profound difference between opting in, where the unions have to come to the members and actively solicit their consent to continue to collect fees, vs. opting out, where the member has to come to the union and request – adhering to a deliberately difficult bureaucratic maze of paperwork and deadlines – to no longer pay their dues, year after year.
Another post-Janus reform that may be helpful might be to prohibit unions from collecting dues via payroll withholding. Why should a local government payroll department be the collection agent for these unions?
There are many possible ways that the Janus ruling may require help from local governments to avoid its intent being entirely circumvented by the government unions. When the Janus ruling is made, and that is imminent, there will be more clarity on what sort of help may be necessary.
Meanwhile, the local citizens initiative is a tool that has not been wielded enough in California. Local elected officials and activists alike should consider it a powerful tool for reform.
Using Citizen’s Initiatives to Repeal Local Taxes – CLEO, April 2018
Resources for California’s Pension Reformers – CLEO, March 2018
After Janus – CPC, November 2017
* * *