The Mercury News
Union-backed bill targets referendums
Legislation would make it harder for industries to seek voter veto on new laws
A bill backed by labor unions and environmental groups would make it harder for industries to subject recently passed legislation to voter approval.
The bill, AB 421 by Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, D-Culver City, would make it more difficult to qualify referendums or similar ballot measures that overturn parts of recently passed legislation by requiring some signature gatherers be unpaid volunteers and requiring that information about who is paying for the petitions be disclosed.
“In recent years, we've seen some of the tools of our democracy subverted from their original intent,” Bryan, who chairs the Assembly Elections Committee, said at a news conference Monday announcing his bill. “Direct democracy is supposed to be the people's check on corruption and bias in our government, but over the years we have seen increasing abuse of the referendum process.”
Joined by union and environmental leaders, Bryan said they are frustrated by industries that successfully qualified referendums on AB 257, passed to set minimum wage and work standards for the fast-food industry, and SB 1137, which would restrict oil and gas drilling near homes, schools and hospitals. Both of those laws are on hold pending the outcomes of the referendums placed on the Nov. 5, 2024, ballot.
At their news conference, they showed what they said were videos of signature gatherers misrepresenting some the petitions they were asking voters to sign. Evelyn Barillas, a fast-food worker who helped campaign for higher wages and joined the conference in support of Bryan's bill, said a signature gatherer almost tricked her into signing a petition for the fast food law referendum by telling her it would raise wages.
“I said no, this is a lie,” Barillas said. “I scratched off my name. Wealthy fast-food corporations tricked voters into putting AB 257 on hold.”
Business advocates Monday argued that it's the unions, who wield great influence over state lawmakers, that are trying to silence the voters' voice with this bill.
Jennifer Barrera, president and CEO of the California Cham
ber of Commerce, said that from 2010 to 2022, labor unions and their allies spent nearly $95 million on signature gathering alone. While thousands of bills have been signed into law over the past 10 years, she said, only seven referendums qualified for the ballot. Nearly 50 initiatives have qualified during that time, many sponsored by labor unions and their allies.
“While we agree with additional transparency measures for signature gathering to ensure voters are well informed, this proposal is clearly meant to limit the public's voice in California's system of direct democracy,” Barrera said. “The data simply does not support their claim that the process, which they have used and benefitted from for years, is being abused.”
Bryan said his bill would apply to referendums, and what he calls “referendum look-alikes,” ballot measures that repeal a part of approved legislation within two years of the initial law being introduced.
It would require at least 10% of signature gatherers be unpaid volunteers, which he said would ensure ballot measures have some grassroots support and aren't just being promoted by professional petitioners who get paid for signatures by large corporations and industries with money to spend.
“They are lying because there's a huge profit motive to lie,” Bryan said. “When they truly believe in something, they don't need to lie.”
Bryan said his bill also would require that the petitions list the proposed measure's top three funders and that paid signature collectors would be assigned an ID number that would also appear on the petition as a record of who gathered the names.
Supporters include the Service Employees International Union of California and California Environmental Voters.
“Giant corporations shouldn't be able to silence our voices by writing big checks to overturn laws driven by communities,” said Veronica Carrizales, vice president of policy and external affairs with California Calls, an alliance of progressive community-based organizations.
Shaun Bowler, dean of the graduate division in the University of CaliforniaRiverside political science department and an expert on ballot measures, questioned the need for such a measure, noting that voters prove pretty savvy even when bombarded with expensive campaign ads.
Tobacco and plastic bag industries tried to overturn state laws prohibiting flavored tobacco last year and single-use plastic shopping bags in 2016. Both attempts failed.
“One thread in there is a standard one, that voters are being fooled by slick campaigns; that's just not the case,” Bowler said. “Can you buy your way to victory? The answer is, no, you can't.”