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Jerry Brown Sends Birthday Present to the 99% on 100th Anniversary of Ballot Initiative Process

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With a simple signature, California Governor Jerry Brown has struck a blow for populism in the ballot initiative process by signing a new law to clarify that all ballot initiatives be voted on in November, when twice the number of voters show up, rather than in primary elections.

This week Californians celebrate the 100th birthday of our ballot initiative, referendum and recall process, which was given to us by populist Governor Hiram Johnson. Direct democracy was a vital transfer of power to an electorate subjected to the will of railroad barons. Yet there's no question big corporations and the richest .0001 percent of Americans have often hijacked the process for their own purposes. Jerry Brown's gift to the other 99.999% of us will help even the score.

Brown's signature on a new law will ensure that ballot initiatives have to withstand the scrutiny of an electorate that is most reflective of Californians.

Too often, wealthy corporations try to sneak a very reactionary idea by a conservative primary electorate that the vast majority of Californians would never support. As Governor Brown points out in his signing message, 5.7 million people voted in the 2010 primary vs. 10.3 million in the general election. "The idea of direct democracy is to involve as many people as possible," Brown wrote.

For example, two of the worst corporate rip-off initiatives of all time landed on the June 2010 primary ballot. Pacific Gas & Electric and Mercury Insurance both tried to sneak self-serving ballot initiatives by relatively conservative voters. We fought back and helped beat both initiatives, but by very small margins, despite being outspent on Mercury Insurance's Prop 17 16 to 1, and in the case of PG&E's Prop 16, facing odds that were more like 400 to 1.

All consumer groups could do on limited budgets is tell the public who was behind the initiatives, and voters were rightly suspicious. But you cannot always rely on an awakened populace. Governor Brown's signature on Senate Bill 202 assures that Californians will be mostly likely to be awake and aroused when the next special interest ploy comes their way.

And that ploy is just around the corner. Mercury Insurance Chairman George Joseph, the 389th richest man in America, has contributed $8 million for a repeat of Proposition 17 this June. Under the new law, the billionaire will now have to face a November electorate that is even more suspicious of the intent of an insurance company who has been seeking to rollback consumer protections since they passed via ballot measure Proposition 103 in 1988.

A group of ballot initiative warriors are gathering in Sacramento today to celebrate and debate what the last hundred years means for ballot measures and what the next will hold. Among them are my colleague and mentor Harvey Rosenfield, who delivered $62 billion in savings to California drivers under Proposition 103, which he authored in 1988.

Harvey's is the classic David v. Goliath story of the ballot initiative being used as a sling shot to fell a greedy giant. Here is an excerpt from his remarks this morning:

"Insurance companies spent a record $63.8 million against us. Aside from mailing costs, we spent $400,000. We had no paid advertising, just word of mouth. And remember, this was before the internet.

"To the astonishment of the political establishment, Prop 103 passed. It racked up decisive victories in liberal Los Angeles and conservative Orange County -- then often described as Reagan Country. An example of how a really good idea transcends ideology.

"After 103 passed, insurance companies wrote checks for over $1.2 billion in refunds to Californians, averaging $170. According to a 2008 study by the Consumer Federation of America, Proposition 103 has saved California drivers more than $62 billion since its passage in 1988. Data published in 2007 show that between 1989 and 2004, California auto insurance premiums declined by 7%, while rates nationally increased 47%. During that period, California went from 2nd most expensive state for auto liability premiums in the country to 21st. Californians, who paid 52% more than the national average for auto insurance in 1989, paid less than the national average in 2004. Maybe you can appreciate why I believe that government, when made directly accountable, can be a force for good."

Then there's the other side of the ballot initiative coin, of course. That's billionaire George Joseph, who continues each election to try to take back for insurance companies what the public claimed more than two decades ago. His latest scheme, for which an initiative is circulating for signatures, is to charge people more when they buy auto insurance for the years they did not buy it, even if the reason is that they did not own car or lived in a place where they needed mass transit. Harvey is displaying 8,000 $1,000 bills in Sacramento this morning with Joseph's face on it to make the point about how billionaires continue to buy the initiative process, and the need for constant vigilance.

Jerry Brown's gift to the voters today is that they will have to vote on ballot initiatives only once every two years, when they are most attuned to elections.

That's what the California constitution says -- initiatives only on general elections. For 50 years this was the law of the state, and it is again.

Let's hope the change turns back the clock to a time when politics was more about what 99% of the public believed and wanted, than the wishes of Wall Street and the .001%. There's no better barometer of the 99% formula than a ballot measure that puts the questions directly to the most voters. Governor Brown has given the 99.99% an important advantage.

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Jamie Court is president of Consumer Watchdog and author of The Progressive's Guide To Raising Hell.

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