We’ve all gotten past the Great Top-Two Lockout Freakout over the possibility Democrats could lose some otherwise winnable House races in California by failing to make the general election ballot under the state’s peculiar election system which gives the two leading primary finishers, regardless of party, a ticket to November. So the Golden State remains a field of dreams for Democrats hoping to retake the House, with six GOP-held districts being eminently competitive.
That and California’s inherent importance as the nation’s largest state makes everything affecting general election dynamics there nationally significant. And as always, California will have a host of high-profile ballot initiatives affecting turnout, the money available for election campaigns, and the general political atmosphere.
Twelve initiatives have now been certified by the secretary of State for the general election this year. Here’s a quick rundown on what they involve and why they might matter:
The Big One: the GOP’s Gas Tax-Repeal Crusade
The California GOP has invested heavily in an initiative to repeal a 2017 gas tax increase enacted by the Democratic-controlled state legislature. The increase has been unpopular, but more importantly, Republicans believe it’s the kind of issue that will drive their own voters to the polls in righteous indignation toward the tax-and-spend Democrats who hate cars and suburbs and everything else that makes life worth living.
The tax increase was aimed at addressing an incredibly long backlog of road and bridge repairs, and coincidentally or not, it’s hard to find anywhere in California where you cannot hear the roar of earth-movers or smell the pungent odor of asphalt as state and local transportation agencies deploy the new money in a frenzy of activity.
Now that they’ve succeeded in getting a repeal onto the ballot, it’s unclear how much more Republicans will spend on actually passing it and abruptly stopping the ’dozers the day after the election. The various interests benefiting from the road repairs can be expected to spend some dough to keep the asphalt flowing, and outgoing governor Jerry Brown is likely to devote some of his own fundraising prowess to defending this part of his legacy, which is money that could more directly benefit Democratic candidates. In any event, the sheer magnitude of the issues involved guarantees this ballot initiative a prominent position in the run-up to the general election.
Landlords and Tenants
Two different initiatives involving California’s expensive real estate markets could get nearly as much attention as the gas tax repeal. One would repeal a state legislative restriction on the power of local governments to institute or expand rent control programs, and will mobilize both anxious landlords and hopeful advocates for low-income tenants.
The other would let homeowners older than 55 step up into more expensive properties without assuming the full burden of higher property tax assessments (an expansion of California’s famous Prop 13 limits on property taxes that have so hamstrung local governments over the years). That will mostly benefit, and thus politically excite, wealthier seniors, though its proponents will of course argue that it will unfreeze housing markets and benefit people up and down the income ladder. Local government advocates could mount a visible effort to defeat it.
There are also two additional ballot initiatives set up by the legislature authorizing housing-related bond sales: one for affordable housing construction and another to help house California’s large and politically controversial homeless population.
Two additional initiatives should appeal to environmentally conscious voters who tend to lean Democratic, particularly in coastal areas. One would authorize bonds for a variety of water-related conservation and fish habitat projects, while the other would ban the sale of eggs from caged chickens.
A fourth bond-sale authorization would make money available for low-income children’s hospitals, not a cause anyone is going to publicly oppose. There is a chance, of course, that the sheer number of borrowing and spending projects on the ballot could spur a backlash, but it is not the sort of thing that will get even the grumpiest voters to get out of the armchair and mail in that ballot (a record high percentage of California ballots will likely be cast by mail this November).
Similarly, a ninth ballot initiative would cap charges to patients at outpatient dialysis centers, and a tenth would give private ambulance employees better training and working conditions.
An 11h California ballot initiative that is guaranteed to get a lot of attention is Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper’s latest bid to bust up the state itself. It would create three states, roughly equal in population (though not in wealth):
North California, which would run from San Jose up to the Oregon border and include Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay;
South California, including most of the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, San Diego, and Orange County; and
California, covering the Central Coast from Monterey to Los Angeles.
At this point, the Three Californias initiative is more a conversation item than a threat; polling has indicated very little popular support for the idea. If Draper empties his bank account to promote it, however, things could get more serious, and a vast array of interests threatened by the dismantling of the state could counterpunch heavily.
A final initiative is so hypothetical (it would require action by Congress to give states the option it authorizes) as to be nearly meaningless, but its potential impact on daily life is so basic that it could get people beating on each other with big sticks. It would give the legislature the power to make daylight savings time a 365-day proposition and abolish the twice-a-year ritual of changing clocks. Like the Three Californias initiative, if it becomes a topic of daily conversation, it will come out of the psychic hide of candidates seeking attention.
As always in California, you can expect the unexpected.