Unable to fend off recall, state leaders sneakily changing rules.
California’s Democrats control just about everything in the state. They own every statewide constitutional office and have supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. Heck, a news report this week revealed that Republicans have a majority of voters in only 14 of the state’s 482 cities. In other words, the majority party can pretty much do as it pleases wherever it chooses.
Yet the usually hapless Republican opposition has managed to inspire enough fear in the majority party that Democrats have resorted to the kind of cheating one would expect in some third-world backwater.
As this column has explained, one of the state’s savviest GOP officials, former San Diego councilman Carl DeMaio, is leading a recall campaign against a Democratic senator, Josh Newman, who represents a GOP-leaning district in Orange and Los Angeles counties. The recall has legs because Newman cast a deciding vote on a massive increase in the gasoline tax and the state’s vehicle-license fees — something that will cost many Californians hundreds of dollars a year. (The roads here need help, but state leaders are too busy spending money on other priorities.)
Recall advocates seem likely to succeed at picking off this freshman senator, given widespread anger — even among many Democrats — at the tax hike. Losing Newman will mean that Democrats lose their legislative supermajority. In California, supermajorities are needed to pass every manner of tax increase. Furthermore, DeMaio and company have plans to use the latest tax hike to target other vulnerable legislators in other districts.
So far, we’ve seen the expected pushback — a particularly ugly hit mailer by Newman backers, and a tsunami of support from the majority party and from liberal interest groups. That’s politics as usual, but the latest gambit is particularly outrageous: Legislative leaders are pushing through a bill that would change the rules of the game for recall elections to assure that Newman can survive this challenge.
“The proposed changes, which became public Monday morning, would add months to the existing timeline of certifying a recall election for the ballot,” according to a Sacramento Bee report. “The measure would virtually assure that any recall election would be held at the regularly scheduled June 5, 2018 legislative primary election.”
DeMaio and company are playing by existing rules, which would require the governor to schedule a recall election 60 to 80 days after the secretary of state certifies the number of signatures. They want to strike while the iron — or at least voter anger — is still red hot. They’re planning to hold the election shortly after gas prices go into effect. It’s a great strategy, especially given the large number of signatures recall backers already have submitted for verification.
But few expected Democrats to resort to this strategy. Senate Bill 96 and Assembly Bill 112 have been rammed through the Legislature as trailer bills — last-minute technical measures that are supposed to be reserved for budget issues. It’s a way for them to pass bills without the normal hearing process and legislative vetting.
For instance, the current analysis of S.B. 96 says that “this bill expresses the intent of the Legislature to enact statutory changes relating to the Budget Act of 2017.” But that language has been stripped out and the new, controversial non-budget-related language is inserted.
The bills will delay the signature-gathering process long enough to allow the governor to consolidate the recall election on the June primary ballot. That will give time for voter anger to smolder, and primary elections draw a much larger turnout. In this state, that means that far more Democrats will turn out, and the likelihood of the recall succeeding would be much slimmer.
Here’s the Bee again: “It would give voters who signed the petitions up to 30 days to withdraw their signatures, with county election officials reporting withdrawn signatures every 10 days. If there were still enough signatures to qualify the measure, the Department of Finance would have to issue a cost estimate for the election. Then the Joint Legislative Budget Committee would have 30 days to review and comment on the department’s cost estimate.”
The justifications for this rules-rigging are almost as outrageous as the legislation itself. Legislative leaders are upset that recall supporters tie the recall to a possible rollback in the gas-tax hike. Since when do legislators scuttle a long-established democratic process simply because they might not like the argument the other side may be using?
The idea that voters are being misled and need a chance to withdraw their signatures is condescending. I’d have more respect for the state’s majority party if its officials simply dispensed with these arguments and admitted that they simply are flexing their political muscle.
By the way, it’s a legitimate goal of the recall to get rid of Newman as a way to build political pressure for the Legislature to overturn the gas tax hike. One of the key reasons for recalling Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 was his support for a tripling of the vehicle-license fee. One of the first acts of his replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a rollback of the fee hike.
“Recalls are designed to be extraordinary events in response to extraordinary circumstances — and it’s in the public’s overwhelming interest to ensure the security, integrity and legitimacy of the qualification process,” said a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, to a Los Angeles Times reporter. So now the official argument is that they don’t like the reason for the recall. And they’re doing this for the public’s interest, of course. DeMaio has threatened legal action, but this whole thing could further delay the election.
This isn’t the first time the state’s Democrats have rigged the rules for crass political purposes. Another Bee article noted that this has become rather common. For instance, it noted that in 2011 they passed a law requiring all voter-backed initiatives (as opposed to the ones put on the ballot by legislators) to appear on the November general-election ballot given that conservative-oriented initiatives have a tougher time on these high-turnout dates.
They also passed in 2012 a bill changing the order in which initiatives appear on the ballot with the obvious goal of making it more likely for the governor’s tax increase to appear first — and thus be more likely to get a “yes” vote.
And I wrote for the Spectator last week about the Assembly speaker’s decision to, apparently, just ignore the clear intent of a recently passed voter initiative that requires a 72-hour notice before a vote on all final versions of every bill. That good-government measure was supposed to stop the Legislature from sneaking through gut-and-amend bills without giving legislators, the media, and the public an opportunity to see what’s in them. The Assembly offered an alternative reading of the measure as a transparent way to get around it.
Meanwhile, I also wrote for the Spectator about how Democratic legislators are rewriting some county redistricting rules as a brazen way to flip some Republican supervisorial districts to the Democrats — something so heavy-handed that even Democratic officials in Los Angeles County objected.
Perhaps, this is what one can expect in a one-party state, but it certainly makes a mockery of the notion of democracy. But the latest ploy is particularly disturbing. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the anti-recall measure, we can at least dispense with the niceties. At that point, it will be official and California will join the ranks of banana republics.
Josh Newman for California State Senate 2016