Reshuffling the fall ballot, courtesy of Prop 25

11:21 AM, Jun 26, 2012   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - It's often said that elections have consequences, and that's an apropos sentiment for those who only now are learning that the new state budget reshuffles the order of November ballot measures -- and does so on a strict party-line vote.

Senate Bill 1039, whose language was released only late Monday evening, could arguably be said to have zero to do with the 2012-2013 state budget.  It doesn't deal with any state services, makes no budget cuts, and is absent of any discussion of policy objectives.

It does, however, do two very important things. The bill says that all constitutional initiatives, whether proposed by the Legislature or by voter-circulated initiative, would now appear near the very top of future California statewide ballots.  And it appropriates a small amount of money -- $1000 -- to elections officials to implement the change.

We'll come back to that last one in a moment.

SB 1039 says that the change, one that comes after generations of different direct democracy rules in California, is needed "to ensure that the voters can carefully weigh the consequences" of constitutional amendments and bond measures.

(Yes, the bill places bond measures at the very top of future ballots... itself an interesting change, but that's left for a future discussion.)

As was reported Monday, SB 1039's practical effect is to push Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary tax increase initiative up to the top of what's shaping up to be a crowded November ballot.  Otherwise, the measure -- whose passage the entire state budget depends -- will find itself in the ninth position on the ballot, very near the end.

Assuming (safely) that the Legislature ratifies the bill, Brown's tax hike will instead be in the pole position... the very top... especially if he and legislators, as expected, push an $11 billion water bondto a 2014 ballot.

This is hardly the first time that Capitol lawmakers have tinkered with state election laws to try and improve the chances of a pet proposal.  Legislators and governors have shortened public review  of ballot documents, exempted their own measures from election measure deadlines, and even written their own ballot titles and summaries (though this last one was recently blocked in court).

But why does SB 1039 include a measly $1000 in cash for a change that doesn't seem like it would cost anything?

That's where Proposition 25 kicks in -- the 2010 initiative that allows a budget to be approved by a simple majority in each legislative house, as long as it doesn't also raise taxes (and this budget technically doesn't, because the taxes would be raised by voters).

SB 1039 only qualifies as a budget-implementing 'trailer' bill because it includes an appropriation, that $1000 that -- as the bill says -- that is "from the General Fund to the Secretary of State to implement the requirements of this act."

Prop 25 opponents warned that if voters approved the initiative, it would turn all sorts of policy changes into budget bills as long as the bills contained a small, placeholder appropriation of cash.  And in this case, that seems to be what's happening.

It's also worth noting that, unless a future Legislature or governor takes action, SB 1039 is a permanent change in state election law.  And while it may suit Democrats just fine in 2012, it could benefit Republicans and others in years to come.  After all, think of the constitutional amendments that voters have enacted in the past -- everything from 1978's landmark Proposition 13 tax rollback to state budget spending limits, a ban on same-sex marriage, and more.

As the saying goes, elections do indeed have consequences.



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