Opinion

Dan Walters: Democrats place pointless advisory measure on ballot, but why?

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 17, 2014 

The Legislature’s Democrats voted to place an advisory measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, asking voters whether Congress should pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly controversial ruling removing barriers on corporate contributions in federal campaigns.

This week, Gov. Jerry Brown allowed the measure, Senate Bill 1272, to become law without his signature.

It’s a dicey situation in several respects.

First of all, Brown warned, “I am not inclined to repeat this practice of seeking advisory opinions from the voters,” and lamented that it may “clutter our ballots with nonbinding measures.”

Thus, it was a bit craven for Brown to denounce the practice but allow it.

Secondly, while he decried “the corrupting influence of unchecked money in our democratic institutions,” Brown and other Democrats have not been shy about gobbling up corporate contributions for their political campaigns.

Thus, the legislation is more than a bit hypocritical.

Finally, it’s likely that crass political motives underlie the bill’s supposedly high moral tone.

There’s nothing in the state constitution or other state law giving the Legislature authority to place advisory measures on the ballot, although it did so twice before, in 1933.

An advisory measure dealing with nuclear weaponry appeared on the 1982 ballot via initiative petition. However, when another advisory initiative qualified for the 1984 election, urging Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment, it was voided by the state Supreme Court as an improper exercise.

The initiative process “is not a public opinion poll,” the court declared. “It is a method of enacting legislation, and if the proposed measure does not enact legislation, or if it seeks to compel legislative action which the electorate has no power to compel, it should not be on the ballot.”

Logically – and probably legally – if advisory measures by initiative are improper, then the Legislature should not place them on the ballot, either.

SB 1272 is actually rather pointless, as was the 1984 advisory measure on a balanced budget amendment that the state Supreme Court voided. But viewed through a purely political prism, its real point is evident.

Nov. 4 is likely to be a very-low-turnout election, putting Democrats in danger of losing some legislative and congressional seats.

One reason for the low turnout is that none of the statewide contests or previous ballot measures has emotional impact. But the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision on campaign contributions has liberal activists fired up, and they contend Proposition 49, its official title, will “energize voters” and raise turnout.

Thus, Brown seemingly allowed his party’s political interests to overcome what he says is a bad practice and probably knows is legally dubious.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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