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California Politics: A mountain of 2022 ballot propositions

A person puts a piece paper into a box.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The official deadline for getting a statewide initiative in front of voters next November isn’t until early summer, which means there’s only so much accuracy in any early predictions of what will be on the ballot.

Even so, there’s a growing sense that the ballot could be a long one, within striking distance of the 17 propositions that California voters considered in November 2016. And the measures that do qualify could spark massive campaign spending.

Getting something on the ballot isn’t easy, at least for groups without the money to hire paid petition circulators. A sufficient number of voter signatures must be turned in to county elections offices in time for the verification process to end by June 30. The official advice issued by Secretary of State Shirley Weber is that campaigns should submit signatures to the counties by late April.

Twenty-one initiatives are already in circulation and an additional 19 await a formal title and summary to be drafted by the office of state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. Four measures have already earned a spot on the Nov. 8 ballot.

But even if half of all of this year’s pending proposals fizzle, the ballot will be extensive. And the list includes some fascinating proposals. Here’s an early look at some of what voters could face and the politically powerful players behind those efforts.

Who has the cash?

The most recent measures to qualify for the ballot did so after supporters spent $3 million to $4 million on signature-gathering operations. But those were the early birds and the costs are likely to go up, especially for any last-minute efforts.

Well-funded campaigns can easily pull that off. Case in point: Tobacco companies spent more than $13 million to qualify their referendum to overturn a 2020 state law banning the sale of flavored tobacco products — costs driven, in part, by the fact that a referendum has only half as long to qualify for the ballot as an initiative.

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The newest effort could be one of those that spend a lot. On Thursday, progressive business investor Joe Sanberg said he will file an initiative to raise California’s minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2025, with small businesses getting an extra year to comply. Sanberg pledged to spend some of his own millions to gather the signatures.

Expect a well-funded effort too in the looming battle over whether to legalize sports betting in the state. A still fluid political playing field of Native American tribal gaming interests, card clubs and online betting companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings are all likely to be involved.

From there, examining political fights of the past suggests big money could also be spent on two do-over efforts: a proposal to increase the state’s cap on medical malpractice awards, after a similar effort came up short in 2014, and what appears to be the third try in four years by healthcare unions to revamp the rules governing kidney dialysis clinics.

Who else has money? Don’t count out Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose 2018 effort to split California into separate states was removed from the ballot by the California Supreme Court. This time, Draper has proposed abolishing public employee unions — an effort that, if it qualifies, would surely be met with a well-funded opposition campaign by organized labor. (For some context, it’s worth noting that public-sector labor groups spent some $65 million in 2012 in persuading voters to reject a proposition that sought to constrain their ability to collect membership dues.)

Business groups also have deep pockets and may go all in on a proposed ballot measure to repeal California’s law that allows workers to file lawsuits seeking both unpaid wages and a portion of penalties paid for violating the law. Backed by the California Chamber of Commerce and others, the proposal promises to strengthen the state labor commissioner’s power to combat wage theft while possibly limiting the number of cases that end up in court.

Lower taxes and higher tax hurdles

Several proposed ballot measures focus on government revenues — how much should be collected and how the cash is used.

This includes an effort by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. that would ask voters to revise Proposition 19, a 2020 property tax break aimed at older homeowners while also limiting the instances in which inherited property doesn’t trigger a higher tax bill. The group’s initiative would significantly expand the low-tax opportunities to pass property from one generation to the next.

New taxation limits would be imposed under a different ballot plan, one that would make local tax increases harder to pass while stripping the Legislature of its power to raise state taxes without voters’ consent.

Taxes would be increased under a proposed 10-year tax increase on Californians with annual incomes above $5 million, using the money to fund pandemic detection, prevention and mitigation efforts.

And existing tax dollars — 2% of annual state general fund revenues — would be set aside to boost California’s water supplies to an additional 5 million acre-feet of water under a proposal filed by influential rural and agricultural groups. A nonpartisan fiscal analysis estimates the water supply proposal could divert as much as $100 billion over its lifetime.

Earmarking of existing tax dollars is also the goal of a ballot measure designed to combat climate change with more spending on electric vehicle infrastructure and wildfire prevention.

From the headlines to the ballot box

A raft of hot-button issues could also make their way to California voters, touching on some of the state’s most vexing problems and some of its most intense debates.

Led by Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, a group of local officials submitted an initiative to block recent legislative efforts to ease the state’s housing crisis. Their proposal would amend the California Constitution to leave a number of zoning and development decisions to local governments, a big change following legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September that gave the state a new role in zoning decisions.

Less clear is who, if anyone, will step up to champion a ballot measure filed just before Thanksgiving seeking to strengthen the prosecution and punishment for retail theft and similar property crimes — a hot issue across California this fall with complaints from chain stores and luxury retail shops alike.

The official proponent, Tom Hiltachk, is a prominent Republican campaign attorney. He didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on who he’s representing in the effort. The topic, though, seems custom-made for the 2022 election season. Newsom, who will be seeking a second four-year term, was asked Wednesday by reporters to respond to the spree of retail thefts. He insisted the incidents were not the result of a widely debated criminal justice measure from 2014, Proposition 47.

Other criminal justice measures are also vying for a spot on the ballot, including an effort to redirect money no longer needed to pay for a shrinking prison population and a grass-roots effort to enact additional policing reforms in California.

Conservative activists are behind two separate proposals to allow parents to use state tax dollars to pay for private and parochial school tuition, with one of the proposed initiatives backed by Richard Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence and ambassador to Germany under former President Trump.

Meanwhile, former Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Austin Beutner has submitted an initiative to create dedicated funding for arts and music programs in public schools.

Voting and ... ballot measures?

Finally, two well-known California Republicans are seeking changes in election-related processes.

Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio has submitted a proposed initiative requiring the state to issue ID cards for voters. And then there’s the issue of how ballot measures are filed and prepared for voters: former state Senate Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee has filed an initiative to strip the attorney general of the job to write an official title and summary for measures.

Blakeslee’s effort comes after years of complaints, mostly that attorneys general have often overseen politically motivated descriptions of propositions, a criticism lobbed against almost every Democrat who has held the office. His plan would hand the duties over to the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, which already drafts the fiscal analyses of initiatives.

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California politics lightning round

— The California Supreme Court has been asked to fire the state independent redistricting commission’s legal advisors and force disclosure of private meetings and research into race-based voting patterns, under a legal challenge made Tuesday by a group of GOP voters.

— The failure of California’s “Rigs to Reefs” program, an effort to transform oil platforms into underwater artificial reefs, stands as a cautionary tale about state government efforts in the wake of thousands of gallons of crude washing ashore in Orange County in October.

— After investigating its own COVID-19 testing lab for much of the year, the California Department of Public Health closed its case without issuing sanctions as the state released a long-overdue report that downplayed widespread issues identified during inspections at the Valencia Branch Laboratory.

— A campaign finance investigation against a top official at California’s political watchdog agency sat in limbo and hidden from public view for months, raising questions about whether the government organization holds its own members to the same standard as candidates and campaigns.

— Amid deep frustration over widespread, visible homelessness, Los Angeles voters want the government to act faster and focus on shelter for people living in the streets, even if those efforts are temporary and fall short of permanent housing, a new poll of county voters shows.

— The poll also found a majority of L.A. County voters back two new state laws designed to spur housing construction.

— The last pending civil lawsuit seeking to stop the California high-speed rail project hit a wall Tuesday when a state appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling that the project did not violate the California Constitution.

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