Newsletter: An early look at California’s ballot measures for 2020


California’s highest-turnout elections are almost always presidential contests, which is why powerful interest groups often believe it’s the best time to mount a statewide ballot measure campaign.

But compared with prior presidential cycles, the list of statewide initiatives with a real shot of being on the 2020 ballot is surprisingly small. And if that’s going to change, time is running out.



Before each election, California elections officials offer guidance on when proposed ballot measures should be submitted for review by the attorney general to ensure enough time for gathering and then verifying voter signatures. That suggested deadline came and went in late August — which means only those with the deepest of pockets can now afford to offer ideas beyond the proposals already in motion.

Twenty-one measures are at some stage of the process for submission to winning a spot on the ballot, but most lack an identified source of support (which usually means cash) for success. Strip away the lesser-knowns, and what’s left for the Nov. 3, 2020, California ballot might be only a half-dozen propositions, outlined below.

Rethinking prisoner parole: A coalition of law enforcement and crime victims groups seeks to undo provisions of Proposition 57, the 2016 overhaul of parole approved by voters and championed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. The groups argue that Brown wrongly labeled many prisoners as “nonviolent” and that the initiative threatens public safety. Their 2020 ballot measure seeks to limit Proposition 57 parole changes while increasing penalties for some thefts and expanding DNA collection for crimes like shoplifting and domestic violence. Their challenge: No reported fundraising since this past summer. They’ve got $2 million in the bank, and Brown, should he choose to defend his 2016 law, still has $14.7 million in a political campaign account.

Yes or no on the abolishing of cash bail: Brown and legislators enacted a sweeping law in 2018 to replace cash bail for criminal defendants with a new risk assessment system administered by California judges. The bail industry sees the law as a threat to its existence and spent $3 million to qualify a statewide referendum, on which the choice will be to vote “yes” to keep the 2018 law or “no” to repeal the law. A poll last week from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, conducted for the Los Angeles Times, shows a tough road ahead for the bail industry but a large number of likely voters who are undecided. Most believe big money will be spent here, as the bail industry empties its wallet and a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates (with some wealthy backers) returns fire.

The property tax fight we’ve expected for decades: It’s hard to overstate the size of the campaign that could be coming over an effort to eliminate most commercial property from the low-tax protections of Proposition 13. Powerful groups on the liberal end of the political spectrum, led by labor unions, want to force businesses to pay property taxes more in line with the property’s actual market value and use the money for schools and government services. Business groups, especially well-funded corporate entities, have already warned the proposal will create a California economic catastrophe. This one will not only be noisy and expensive, it also has the potential to reset the political power structure of the state for years to come.

Rent control round two? It sure looks as though Michael Weinstein, the Los Angeles activist whose AIDS Healthcare Foundation bankrolled a losing rent control effort in 2018, wants to try again. Unsatisfied with legislative efforts to bring down the cost of rent for millions of Californians, Weinstein is collecting signatures on another effort to downsize a 1995 state law that generally places limits on when a local government can place strict caps on rent costs. The 2018 ballot battle cost more than $100 million, and apartment owners have promised to again fight it out with Weinstein and rent control advocates.


More consumer privacy, says San Francisco developer: A do-over, of sorts, also looks likely on the issue of beefing up California’s consumer privacy laws. Last year, developer Alastair Mactaggart used an initiative he qualified for the ballot to convince Brown and the Legislature to instead enact a far-reaching privacy statute. That law takes effect in January, and lawmakers made a few small changes to it this year in Sacramento. But Mactaggart has decided to skip the Legislature in 2020 and go to the ballot — writing a new ballot measure to strengthen consumer control over health and financial data and information regarding children.

The $90-million mystery ballot measure: It’s awfully unusual to know how much money will be spent on a statewide initiative before anyone’s even seen the actual proposal. But that’s the situation with a presumed effort by Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to ensure some kind of “gig economy” bulwark in the face of newly enacted Assembly Bill 5, the hotly contested law limiting the use of independent contractors. Each of the three companies promised $30 million for a 2020 campaign to provide special rules for their drivers. It’s possible this could be a legislative negotiating tactic similar to the one Mactaggart used in 2018. Or it could be a major political fight that not only dovetails with presidential campaign themes but also one that forces labor unions to decide how much to spend in opposition while attempting to win the campaign to revamp Proposition 13.


-- A second whistleblower has come forward in the fast-developing impeachment inquiry against President Trump, and more may be in the offing.

-- Ill-informed accounts peddled by members of Trump’s inner circle threatened to poison U.S.-Ukrainian relations this year and gave cover for suspending military aid, a top advisor to Ukraine’s president said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

-- So what did Joe Biden actually do in Ukraine? Here’s a look.

-- As Trump fights possible impeachment, he has adopted a new argument: what he calls his “absolute right” to ask foreign leaders to help.


-- Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd may not be running for reelection, but his perch on the Intelligence Committee, which is leading the investigation of Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, and his reputation for going his own way make him one of the most keenly watched people in the House.

-- The White House said Sunday that Turkey will soon invade northern Syria, renewing fears of a slaughter of Kurdish fighters allied with the U.S. in a years-long campaign against the Islamic State group.

-- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is playing catch-up with Latinos, not only in increasing her familiarity among the influential group of voters but also in building a campaign apparatus to court them.

-- Supreme Court cases this term will determine the fate of immigrant “Dreamers” and LGBTQ rights in the workplace in the coming term. Here’s what to be looking for.


-- California officials are appealing a federal judge’s order to block a law that would require Trump to release his tax returns for access to the state’s primary election ballot.


-- Three years after California legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, most voters want municipalities to permit pot shops in their communities even though the vast majority of cities have outlawed them, according to a poll conducted for The Times.

-- With fire season on the horizon, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed new laws last week calling for investor-owned utilities to create plans to lessen the effects of outages on customers with sensitive medical needs while notifying an area’s emergency responders, healthcare providers and public safety groups.

-- California became the first state to require major financial reforms in college athletics after Newsom signed into law a measure that allows players to receive endorsement deals, criticized by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. as unconstitutional.

-- California cities and counties will be allowed to establish public banks under a bill signed into law Wednesday, making the state only the second in the nation to allow such institutions.

-- The California Senate has confirmed that an anti-vaccine protester threw a menstrual cup full of human blood onto senators at the state Capitol last month.



Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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