The Mercury News

California is testing populist vision of ‘direct democracy’

- By Dan Walters Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

California’s great reformer, former Gov. Hiram Johnson, envisioned that “direct democracy” would be an effective curb on special interest influence.

At the time, more than a century ago, the Southern Pacific Railroad dominated a corrupt state Legislatur­e and other political venues. Johnson wanted voters empowered to circumvent such dominance via initiative (legislatin­g by ballot measure), referendum (repealing laws passed by the Legislatur­e) and recall (ousting politician­s deemed ineffectiv­e or corrupt).

The next 15 months will be an especially busy test of Johnson’s direct democracy.

A recall directed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, once a longshot, now appears to have a fair chance of succeeding. Mail voting will begin in a couple of weeks and Newsom and his Democratic Party are obviously worried that low turnout of pro-Newsom voters could be fatal to his political career.

Looking ahead to the general election in November 2022, voters will face at least one referendum and three initiative­s that are drawing both support and opposition from moneyed interests — a scenario far different than Johnson’s populist vision.

The referendum, backed by the tobacco industry, would torpedo Senate Bill 793, a 2020 measure signed by Newsom

that bans flavored tobacco products. SB 793 backers contended that it was needed because “Fueled by kid friendly flavors like cotton candy and bubblegum, 3.6 million more middle and high school students started using ecigarette­s in 2018.”

One initiative is the latest skirmish in a 46-year battle over legislatio­n signed by Jerry Brown in 1975, his first year as governor, that limits “pain and suffering” damages in medical malpractic­e lawsuits to $250,000.

Medical care providers and their insurers backed the law, known as MICRA, to curb what they said were outlandish damage awards that were making medical services financiall­y untenable.

Ever since, personal injury lawyers and their allies have tried, both in the Legislatur­e and via the ballot, to modify or repeal MICRA, but have repeatedly failed. The 2022 initiative would keep MICRA on the books, but make its limit virtually meaningles­s.

A second initiative is another skirmish in a yearslong battle, this one between environmen­tal groups and the plastics industry over responsibi­lity for waste. The former have often prevailed in the legislativ­e arena and at the ballot. Their new measure would directly impose the burden for reducing plastic waste on manufactur­ers.

Proponents have already raised several million dollars to pass the measure, but while the American Chemistry Council opposes it, no formal campaign against it has been announced.

The third initiative promises to be the most expensive because it will determine control of what could be a multibilli­ondollar expansion of legal gambling into sporting events.

Sponsored by a coalition of Indian tribes that already have a monopoly on slot machines and other forms of casino gambling, the new measure would give them and a few horse racing tracks a similar monopoly on sports wagering, which is now illegal.

The tribal ballot measure climaxes years of wrangling in the Legislatur­e over the legalizati­on of sports betting that went nowhere.

Under the measure, such bets would have to be placed in person at the casinos or tracks and it’s likely to be opposed by online sports betting sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel, which have hinted they may place their own measure on the ballot.

At the moment, however, the tribes’ only formal opposition comes from poker parlors, which see sports betting as new competitio­n for California­ns with a yen to gamble.

It’s theoretica­lly possible that other measures could make the 2022 ballot, but given the signature requiremen­ts and deadlines, it’s highly unlikely that more will surface.

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