in the Adoption of Proposition 31 In the November 8 vote, California voters wisely rejected a Big Tobacco ploy to continue selling harmful flavored products that addict children to nicotine.
The measure was a referendum, which is a procedure permitted by the state constitution to overturn a law passed by the legislature. The direct democracy provision was intended to give citizens the power to repeal bad laws, not to help industry protect its bottom line. But increasingly, corporations are using their millions to try to reverse Sacramento’s progressive policies, raising questions about whether the system is working as it should or is in need of reform.
Even if an attempt to repeal a law fails, it can be a win for the big money interests behind it. For example, companies that make cigarettes and e-cigarettes spent $20 million to put Proposition 31 on the vote, forcing the state to delay the law’s enactment — passed in 2020 — until after this month’s vote move at the voters overwhelmingly confirmed the law. For their $20 million investment, the tobacco companies gained 22 more months to sell their toxic, addictive products and generated an estimated $1.1 billion in revenue from sales of menthol cigarettes alone.
They barely tried to argue with voters and spent just $1.7 million on their campaign. And then, just a day after the election, tobacco giant RJ Reynolds filed a lawsuit against the state Applying for a restraining order – another attempt to prevent the law from going into effect. Between the meager campaign and the lawsuit, it sure looks like the tobacco companies were more interested in delaying the law’s implementation than convincing voters to repeal it.
So a referendum can mean a lucrative business decision for American companies: spend about $22 million for a $1.1 billion return.
Other referendums in recent years have been sponsored by bail bonds companies that Successfully convinced voters in 2020 to overturn a law Prohibit bail and replacing it with a risk-based system, and plastics manufacturers pushing for action in 2016 lift the state ban on single-use plastic bags. (Voters passed the plastic bag bill.)
Other industries have taken note, paying to collect signatures in hopes of qualifying referendums for voting in 2024, which would delay two new laws. Fast food companies are trying to stop a law that could Increase in wages for fast food workersand oil companies are trying to block a Ban on new drilling Projects near homes and schools. Both campaigns have reportedly misled voters about the petitions they are being asked to sign.
The common denominator in all of these campaigns is an industry or large corporation losing money because the legislature acted in the public interest. Corporations are trying to repeal laws that prioritize public health, safety and equity over corporate profits.
It’s a perverse application of a system designed to empower ordinary people against corporate influence in the State Capitol. More than a century ago, progressive reformers pushed for the creation of the initiative (which allowed citizens to propose laws on the ballot) and the referendum (which allowed people to repeal laws), out of frustration that the railroads controlled the legislature . Now corporations seem to have found a new way to get what they want when representative democracy works to help the people.
Lawmakers and advocates of good government should consider whether systemic changes would prevent abuse of the referendum process. First, there has to be a better way to ensure signature collectors are honest when asking people to sign their petitions. reports that Signature collectors lied about the petitions Blocking the fast food and oil drilling laws – labeling them efforts to raise wages and stop drilling when in fact they would do the opposite – is extremely troubling.
Perhaps companies that collect signatures whose workers deceive voters should be banned from doing business in California for a period of time. Or maybe the state should consider licensing signature collection companies to do business here and regularly review complaints against them. Could the state have an enforcement team, just like cities have code enforcement officers who spot-check for honesty in collecting signatures? It is worth considering.
Signature collectors are paid per signature, a practice critics say encourages deception. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown have both vetoed bills that would ban people from paying for each signature collected. Lawmakers should find other ways to reduce the mercenary quality of this practice. For example, the populist intent of the process could perhaps be restored by requiring that some of the signatures be collected from volunteers.
And the voters have to play their part too. Only sign a petition if you have read it and agree with how the law is changing. Learn about the actions on your ballot and vote for your values.
Direct democracy is a hallmark of California politics. It should not be sold to the highest bidder.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-11-15/editorial-corporations-referendum-progressive-california-laws-reform Editorial: Corporations keep trying to throw out progressive California laws. Do we need reforms?