Political Notebook

Dan Walters: California again plays the game of ballot measures

More than a hundred potential measures have been filed with the attorney general’s office for the 2016 ballot.

Four have already qualified, but others float in the ether, some waiting for official titles from the attorney general, others cleared for signature gathering, and one awaiting signature verification.

It’s likely that 12 to 20 will actually face the judgment of voters a year hence after tens of millions of dollars have been spent for and against them.

This stage of the ballot game is played behind closed doors. Those who have submitted multiple measures must decide which, if any, they will actually pursue, and sponsors of competing measures decide whether to go to war or compromise.

One of the game’s tricks is the “poison pill” – a measure that is not necessarily intended to appear on the ballot, but aimed at persuading others to alter their intentions.

A couple of current examples:

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a ban on disposable plastic bags that grocers and other retailers use. It was a hard-fought political battle, pitting the plastic bag makers against environmentalists and, ultimately, the grocery industry.

Among other things, the bill included a 10-cent fee that the grocers could charge customers for an acceptable bag.

Bag makers launched a referendum to overturn the ban, and it’s already qualified for the ballot. But they also filed another measure, called the Environmental Fee Protection Act, that would, if approved by voters, require the millions of bag fee dollars to be spent on environmental programs, rather than retained by the grocers.

It’s a warning to grocers not to spend big money to fight the repeal referendum, it could split the grocer-environmental alliance, and it might create enough confusion among voters to make the referendum a winner.

Three years ago, at Gov. Jerry Brown’s behest, voters approved temporary increases in sales taxes on everyone and income taxes on high-income Californians to close a state budget deficit and increase school aid.

Two competing measures would extend the taxes, one sponsored by the California Teachers Association, the other by hospitals and their unions.

With deep-pocketed sponsors, both could appear on the ballot, but there are negotiations underway on a compromise that would benefit both schools and health care providers. The talks began after the CTA’s lawyers filed three warning measures cribbed from hospital unions’ past proposals.

One, the Fair Health Pricing Act of 2016, would require hospitals not to charge patients more than the cost of services plus 25 percent. The Charity Care Act, meanwhile, would threaten hospitals with loss of their nonprofit status if they didn’t meet higher standards of providing no- or low-cost care. The Charitable Hospital Executive Compensation Act of 2016 would limit hospitals’ executive salaries.

Eventually, the dozen-plus measures that will actually appear on the ballot will emerge, but not before their detailed provisions are hammered out during the private jousting now underway.

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