2016 Election Poised For Initiative Avalanche

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If an avalanche of citizen initiatives morphs the 2016 ballot pamphlet into an encyclopedia-size volume, blame it on California’s growing legion of nonvoters.

November’s record-low turnout means it will be easier than ever to qualify a voter initiative for the ballot, and plenty of groups pushing a cause will probably take advantage.

“This lowers the signature threshold by a significant factor, which means a lot of silly initiatives could find their way to the ballot,” said Steve Maviglio, a veteran Democratic strategist. “That’s fantastic news for political consultants, but maybe not for anyone else.”

In California, the number of signatures required to qualify a measure for the ballot is a percentage of the total votes cast for governor. Since the 42 percent turnout on Nov. 4 meant only about 7.3 million people bothered to take a side in Gov. Jerry Brown’s landslide win over Republican Neel Kashkari, the bar for qualifying ballot measures in 2016 will be at the lowest level in at least 25 years.

The change isn’t a tiny one. Since the last governor’s election in 2010, it has taken 504,760 valid signatures to put a standard initiative on the ballot and 807,615 signatures for a constitutional amendment. Once the November election is certified Friday, those numbers will drop to about 366,000 and 586,000, respectively.

“It could lower the ante to get on the ballot to less than $1 million,” said Aaron McLear, a one-time aide to former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger whose company works on initiative campaigns. “Any group with the wherewithal to qualify an initiative will be looking to 2016.”

Most California initiatives depend on paid gatherers to collect the needed signatures at $1 to $2 each. So it will still be difficult for backers of some of the more unlikely ideas to make the ballot, such as the 2013 proposal that would have replaced Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and almost all other private power companies with a single, state-run utility district.

But for groups with some money, the new, lower signature requirement means a serious discount. And if their cause is going to need a lot of Democratic votes, the presidential election in 2016 will probably be their target.

Voter dynamics

“If a group is interested in an initiative related to taxes, for example, it really makes sense to qualify it for 2016, when the turnout could be 70 percent or higher and the electorate will be looking more like the demographics of California” than it did in last month’s election, which skewed toward older, white voters, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

The low-turnout November election terrified many Democratic and progressive leaders, who saw left-leaning measures on health insurance and medical malpractice beaten badly and a number of Democratic representatives and legislators barely hang on to their seats.

“Voters who come out in low-turnout elections typically want to keep things the same,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, which was behind the health insurance measure, Proposition 45, and the malpractice initiative, Proposition 46. “When less than half the people vote, you can’t pass initiatives when you’re against big money.”

Looking at elections dating back to 1990, Court said, “when the turnout is lower than 57 percent, it’s hard to pass initiatives that make major social changes.”

That’s one reason a wide range of groups are setting their hopes on 2016, where the turnout is expected to be high and the barriers to qualify an initiative lower than they might ever be again.

Along with the lower signature threshold, SB1253 by former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, a measure signed by the governor this year, extends the time allowed to gather signatures for initiatives from the current 150 days to 180 days.

Marijuana, Prop. 30

A 2016 electorate that’s likely to be younger, more ethnic and less conservative than November’s voters could bring out plenty of initiatives designed to appeal to that group.

Organizations that want to legalize the recreational use of marijuana have already said they’ll try to put a measure on the ballot. Groups hoping to extend the Proposition 30 tax increases also will look to go before the voters.

“There are groups that are targeting new taxes on oil production, alcohol, cigarettes and soda,” McLear said. “Lots of interest groups feel that now is the time to go.”

A long-rumored effort to amend Proposition 13 to allow commercial property to be reassessed could find its way to the ballot, along with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s plan to change rules on public employee pensions.

Then there are lawmakers who will have a less expensive alternative if they can’t get their pet programs through the Legislature.

State Sen. Mark Leno, for example, has introduced a bill to raise California’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2017, after similar legislation died in an Assembly committee last year.

Plan B

While the San Francisco Democrat said he was confident the bill would pass next year, he suggested that there’s a Plan B.

“If the Legislature is unable to pass this a second time, it seems quite reasonable that citizens would try to do this with a ballot measure,” Leno said.

With the state’s turnout woes opening a cheaper path to the November 2016 ballot, expect plenty of groups to take advantage of what could be a one-time-only opportunity, Maviglio said.

“Making the ballot doesn’t guarantee the passage of anything,” he said. “But this will lower the entrance fee to the carnival.”

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @jfwildermuth

Heading toward ballot?

Initiatives that could land on the November 2016 ballot:

Proposition 30: Voter-approved increases in the state sales tax and income taxes for the wealthy begin to expire at the end of 2016. Some lawmakers are already arguing that extending them is crucial for California’s budgetary health.

Marijuana: State voters rejected a measure legalizing recreational use in 2010, but since then Colorado, Washington, Oregon and the District of Columbia have taken the plunge. California backers plan to try again.

Proposition 13: The 1978 measure limits tax increases on all property until it is sold. But since commercial properties are sold far less often than residences, new homeowners have been paying a steadily increasing percentage of California’s property tax bills. Some liberal activists have been looking for an opportunity to provide for a split tax roll, with commercial properties but not residences being more regularly reassessed.

Minimum wage: State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, wants the Legislature to raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2017. It’s now $9 an hour and will be increased to $10 in 2016. Similar legislation by Leno died last year, and he says going to voters in 2016 would be an option if it fails again.

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