Advancing a Free Society

In California: Is the Ballot Stronger than a Political Bullet?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To understand California politics these days, one needs a refresher course in trench warfare circa a century ago.

For four years on the European western front, in the First World War, Allied and German troops stood, sat and soldiered at an impasse. The Germans dug in first, to protect their gains in Belgium and France. The Allied forces soon realized they couldn’t break through, so they too dug trenches from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.

In the end: military stalemate.

Not entirely unlike like the California of 2011, where political stalemate reigns supreme.

In one trench: the Democratic left. They have more troops (control of every elected statewide office; 2.25 million more registered voters) and more firepower (union money) going into battle.

Still, they can’t achieve final victory: breaking through the other side’s fortifications and raising taxes.

That’s because the folks in the other trench, the Republican right, have two deterrents: (1) the ability to block tax increases by denying the Legislature the required two-thirds majority approval; (2) using California’s initiative process (celebrating its 100th anniversary this fall) to prevent tax increases from occurring.

The stalemate has dominated the California landscape for the past eight months. Gov. Jerry Brown tried and failed to draw GOP lawmakers out of their trenches and agree to a budget-and-tax deal. Amazon.com, with the help of a Republican brain-trust, is going to the ballot to overturn an Internet sales tax foisted upon the e-commerce giant by the Democratic powers-that-be (prompting thislegislative ploy to keep Amazon’s referendum from a popular vote).

So what ends the trench warfare in Sacramento?

Two possibilities:

  1. Redistricting. Give the left two-thirds control of both legislative chamber and tax increases become simple party-line votes (assuming there’s a Democratic governor on the signing end of the tax hike). That’s why some California Republicans are – you guessed it – organizing a referendum to overturn the newly redrawn state Senate districts, which more than likely would create that two-thirds advantage. But even if the GOP lose sits challenge, the deadlock would continue for at least another year.
  2. Reschedule Initiatives. Given its druthers, the California right prefers to go to the ballot in primary elections, not general elections – smaller turnout being the chief reason. California’s left thinks it’s found a flanking maneuver: simply ban initiatives from appearing on primary ballots.

Is such a maneuver legal? Yes.

Will it end the deadlock? Not entirely, but it would seriously wound the right.

Will it actually happen? That depends, first, on whether such a bill materializes before the end of Sacramento’s legislative session (Sept. 9).

And, of course, it would require Gov. Brown’s signature? And that, in turn, would require Brown to do some serious backpedaling fromhis own gubernatorial record.

Then again, keep in mind that Jerry Brown literally comes from a different time – the 1970s and ‘80s – when California wasn’t at a political impasse.

Let’s also assume he’s had enough gridlock in his first year to entertain such drastic thought.

With his own party starting down the gun of some troublesome initiatives next year, partisan peer pressure might be enough to convince Brown to deploy this new weapon.

Trench warfare will do that – even if it leaves California’s governor in a no-man’s land of playing politics with existing election laws.