Editorial: California initiatives tempered, not tamed

The San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board

The corporate-backed ballot measures that preoccupied Sacramento lately were hardly the sort of people-powered direct democracy envisioned by Hiram Johnson, the founding father of California’s initiative process. And the frenzied lawmaking that unfolded under a recent revise of Johnson’s reform looked more like something attributable to Hiram Walker, the whiskey distiller accidentally cited by a legislator groping for the early 20th century governor’s name.

Under changes enacted in 2014 to temper ballot measure excesses and encourage compromise legislation, lawmakers scrambled to make deals to withdraw measures from the November ballot by Thursday’s deadline. The results were motley.

By threatening a measure to require a steep two-thirds of voters to approve local taxes, dyspeptic beverage-makers were able to extort a remarkable 12-year moratorium on soda taxes such as those levied by San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. It was a disturbing case of ballot-measure blackmail yielding a steep ransom from the Legislature and governor.

An even more brazen ploy by paint manufacturers shook out very differently after legislators turned the tables on their would-be blackmailers. The companies, facing a Santa Clara County court judgment finding them liable for lead paint hazards, threatened a ballot measure to erase the judgment and replace it with $2 billion in taxpayer-financed borrowing to fix subpar housing. Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and other lawmakers responded with legislation to impose even more obligations on the paint companies. The manufacturers finally backed off, withdrawing the initiative.

Whether the paint makers win concessions later in the legislative session remains to be seen. But the lawmakers who put up a fight may have shown one way to preclude further capitulations like the soda tax ban.