Susan Shelley: Democrats vs. democracy

Susan Shelley: Democrats vs. democracy

“Hypocrisy,” said a French aristocrat back in the 1600s, “is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

The “tributes” are pouring in from Democratic political leaders in California. They pose as defenders of democracy while they work full-time to destroy it.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders are trying to assassinate three initiatives that the people of California put on the ballot using the powers of direct democracy. They are attacking two initiatives that are set to be on this November’s ballot, and one that was long ago approved by voters and now is being hollowed out.

That initiative is Proposition 218 from 1996. It amended the state constitution to put some limits and controls on property-related fees and charges. For example, public agencies planning a new or increased “assessment,” such as higher rates for water service, have to comply with certain procedures. They must identify the property parcels that will receive a benefit and get an engineer’s report to show that the charges are based on the actual cost of providing the service. The agency also must schedule a public hearing and provide property owners with a 45-day notice that they have the right to protest.

At the public hearing, the protests are counted. If the owners of more than 50% of the affected parcels  submit a protest, the new assessment cannot be implemented.

You’ve probably received these protest forms, but you may have tossed them out because they looked like junk mail. (That’s a design skill that helps to hold down the number of protests that are returned.)

Nonetheless, if the rates are illegal, ratepayers have a couple of months after the rates are implemented to file a lawsuit challenging them.

But now the state Legislature is fast-tracking three new bills that strip away your rights.

One is Assembly Bill 2257, authored by Lori Wilson, D-Suisun City. AB 2257 would make it impossible to sue over illegal water rates, no matter how excessive or wrongly calculated. Wilson’s bill accomplishes this by requiring ratepayers to lodge their specific legal objections to the rates during the 45-day period before the public hearing.

But nothing requires the agencies to make public the detailed reports that support the rate calculations until the 45 days has passed and the hearing begins. This leaves the door wide open for excessive, illegal rate hikes. You may get a crazy-high water bill that does not reflect the cost of providing the service or the proportional benefit to your property, as the law requires. Too bad, says Wilson’s bill. The door to the courthouse is already slammed shut.

Then there’s Assembly Bill 1827, by Diane Papan, D-San Mateo. AB 1827 would allow water agencies to jack up rates based on fictitious metrics. Instead of basing rates on the cost of providing the service, water providers could add factors such as “projected peak water usage” and “maximum potential water use” of parcels. They wouldn’t be required to measure this or prove it.

The third attack on your Prop. 218 rights is Senate Bill 1072, by Steve Padilla, D-Chula Vista. SB 1072 says water agencies that get caught overcharging their customers don’t have to provide refunds. Instead, they would be allowed to issue credits on future water bills. This is unfair to people who have moved or closed their businesses by the time the illegal rates are discovered. It also reduces the opportunity for a class action lawsuit on behalf of all the cheated ratepayers, because without refunds, it’s hard for attorneys to get paid for their work.

It’s likely that all three of these bills violate the state constitution. But how many people will be overcharged before the cases work their way through the courts?

The California courts have lately shown a disturbing willingness to disregard the state constitution when the rights of taxpayers are at issue. In 2017, the California Supreme Court suggested in a case known as California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland that if a tax increase is put on the ballot by a citizens’ initiative, the constitution might not apply. One result has been a flood of “citizens’ initiative” tax increase proposals, sometimes produced in cooperation with local governments, that are said to pass with 50%-plus-one-vote instead of the two-thirds vote that the state constitution requires.

Another result of the Upland decision was an effort to close that and other loopholes with a new initiative, the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act. It is on the November ballot, but it may not be for long, thanks to Sacramento’s hypocritical defenders of democracy. Newsom and the leaders of the Democratic super-majority in the Legislature filed a lawsuit seeking to have the measure removed from the ballot before Californians can pass it. A decision from the state Supreme Court is expected before June 27.

That’s not the only November initiative that Newsom and company are trying to kill. A new initiative aiming to get tougher on crime and hard drugs by changing Proposition 47, the criminal justice reform measure  approved by voters in 2014, has qualified for the ballot. Now the defenders of democracy are looking for a way to trick voters into rejecting it.

Here’s the trick: the Legislature is considering 14 public safety bills and Democratic leaders are trying to force amendments into them that would cause the bills to become “inoperable” if voters approve the Prop. 47 reform initiative. Why? So the ballot title and  summary that Attorney General Rob Bonta writes for the Prop. 47 reform measure can read something like this: “Repeals 14 public safety laws.” In other words, the proposition will sound like the opposite of what it is.

Our powers of direct democracy in California were intended as a check on the power of the governor, legislature and judiciary. The last thing we need is the governor, legislature and judiciary working together to destroy direct democracy.

This is a good time to call your representatives in Sacramento and let them know what you think. Look up their names and contact info at findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.

Write Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley