A chess move by California Capitol leadership last week could undercut a pending ballot measure seeking to restrict new taxes. A similar strategy was used by Republicans in Ohio attempting to restrict abortion rights.
A couple of weeks ago, Ohio voters rejected a constitutional amendment, proposed by Republican legislators, that would have raised the vote requirement for passing constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%.
It was clearly an effort to undermine a pro-abortion amendment on next year’s ballot. The outcome was somewhat surprising in a state that has been dominated by Republicans in recent years. President Joe Biden hailed the rejection, calling it a “blatant attempt to weaken voters’ voices and further erode the freedom of women to make their own health care decisions.”
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself on abortion rights last year and allowed states to have the last word on the legality of pregnancy terminations, the issue has been fought out state-by-state. Pro-abortion rights groups have sought, with some success, to persuade voters in otherwise conservative states to enshrine abortion rights in their constitutions.
Ohio was another battleground state, and the outcome of this month’s special election increased the likelihood that an abortion rights amendment will pass in 2024.
The skirmishing in Ohio also exemplified a trend around the nation: attempting to change the rules governing ballot measures to affect outcomes.
A recent analysis by Ballotpedia, an authoritative source of election data, found that over the past five years there has been a consistent trend of state lawmakers “making it tougher for citizens to propose and approve ballot measures.”
Since 2018, states approved 42 bills or resolutions making it more difficult to qualify and pass ballot measures, with 88% of them happening in Republican-dominated legislatures.
In California, Democrats are doing what Republicans are doing in other states – trying to thwart ballot measures that run counter to the ideology of the dominant party.
Measures to make it more difficult to recall officeholders and impose new barriers to collecting signatures on initiative and referendum petitions are kicking around the Capitol, clearly aimed at making it more difficult for business groups to counter legislation that would impose new regulations or costs.
For example, rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft persuaded voters to exempt them from a law converting their contract drivers into payroll employees; the bail bond industry used the referendum to cancel a law outlawing cash bail; fast food restaurants have qualified a referendum to overturn a new law dealing with wages and working conditions; and the oil industry wants voters to erase a new law on siting of oil wells.
The latest effort by Democrats to rewrite ballot measure rules surfaced last week, a constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult – in effect, impossible – to impose new limits on taxation.
Business and anti-tax groups, led by the California Business Roundtable, have qualified a measure for the 2024 ballot that would raise the voting requirements for local tax increases and require voter approval of new state taxes.
Last week, however, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 13 was revised to require any ballot measures seeking to increase voting requirements beyond a simple majority to meet the same supermajority level themselves. It would, in effect, require next year’s business-sponsored tax limit to itself receive a two-thirds vote to be enacted – probably a fatal blow.
Pointedly, ACA 13’s co-author is Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, indicating it’s a priority for legislative leadership.
The business tax measure wouldn’t be decided by voters until the November ’24 election, but ACA 13 could be placed on the March primary ballot because the Legislature itself controls the election calendar.
It’s exactly what Republicans tried to do in Ohio – something that the president of the United States denounced as a “blatant attempt to weaken voters’ voices.”
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.
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