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In a huge victory for organized labor, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Friday restricting California ballot initiatives to November elections, when turnout is higher and more advantageous for Democrats.
The bill, passed by legislative Democrats in the final hours of the legislative session, could help labor unions defeat a pending measure to, in part, make it harder for unions to raise campaign funds from members.
The measure was expected to qualify for the June 2012 ballot, when overall turnout is likely to be far lower than in November, but proportionately higher for Republicans.
"The idea of direct democracy is to involve as many voters as possible," Brown, a Democrat, wrote in a signing message.
Senate Bill 202, signed just days before the 100th anniversary of the initiative process in California, was seen by Republicans an example of extreme partisanship.
In a written statement, Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga called the bill "a blatant power grab by the powerful public employee unions."
Chuck Bell, a GOP attorney, submitted a request for title and summary for a referendum on the bill within hours of Brown's announcement.
But the political implications of the measure may not have resonated outside Sacramento, even among Republicans. According to a recent Field Poll, registered Republicans support the proposed change by a 15-point margin, and 56 percent of voters overall favor it.
After the poll was released, Brown said of Republican lawmakers' opposition, "I think they're a little out of touch with their own members, because obviously the Republicans seem to want that."
The bill is also controversial because it would delay until 2014 a "rainy-day fund" measure approved as part of a budget agreement last year. Republicans characterized the legislation as a take-back by Democrats.
"This is another reason why people cannot trust the governor and why Republicans have no reason to negotiate with the governor and the Democrats," Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a prepared statement. "They don't keep their word."
Brown said the state, in its financial crisis, cannot afford to divert money from programs to a reserve fund.
"There's no question that setting aside reserves for a rainy day is prudent," he said. "But families can't put money into a savings account when they can't pay their bills and neither should the state. This needed reform must wait until we have recovered from the current recession and securely balanced our budget."
Restricting measures to November could dramatically alter the initiative process in California. Though initiatives will be decided by significantly more voters – "a good thing," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles – the number of measures confronting them may become overwhelming.
"When there are too many initiatives on the ballot, they vote 'No' on everything," Stern said. "They get mad."
The bill's author, Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said initiatives involve far-reaching changes and that "as many people as possible should be voting."
Brown allowed ballot initiatives to go on primary ballots four decades ago, when he was secretary of state, and he sponsored a political reform initiative on the ballot in June 1974, the year he first ran for governor.
"It was not until 1970 that initiatives were first placed on a primary ballot and that practice has continued ever since, including twice when I was the secretary of state," he said in a lengthy signing message.
Brown said SB 202 "restores the original understanding of constitutional law that initiatives were to be considered at a general election or at a special election called for critical questions requiring swift resolution by the people."
The bill would not affect two initiatives that have already qualified for the June 2012 ballot, one related to term limits and the other to tobacco taxes.
Wayne Johnson, a Republican strategist, said the measure is not without complications for Democrats.
Without initiatives or a contested presidential primary to turn out Democratic voters, he said, two Republicans running in some "top two" primaries could squeeze out Democrats.
"They may have been too clever by half on this one," he said.