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When California industry takes its beef to the ballot

A pump jack extracts oil at a drilling site next to homes in Signal Hill on June 9, 2021.
Jae C. Hong
A pump jack extracts oil at a drilling site next to homes in Signal Hill on June 9, 2021.

As business interests lose policy battles in the California legislature, they're increasingly resorting to voter ballot measures to try to get their way.

See if you can spot the trend.

  • In 2014, California lawmakers passed a law banning single-use plastic bags. Outraged plastic bag manufacturers gathered the requisite signatures for a referendum, asking voters to strike down the ban in 2016. (The ban survived).
  • In 2018, lawmakers ended cash bail in California. Two years later, the question was on the ballot in a campaign funded by the bail bond industry. (Voters brought cash bail back).
  • In 2020, the Legislature passed a ban on flavored tobacco. Those in the smoking, vaping and chewing business immediately got to work, which is why you’ll find the question on your ballot this November.

Just last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills codifying the state’s aggressive climate change goals. Among them was legislation by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat, that aims to ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

On Monday evening Jerry Reedy, a California Independent Petroleum Association board member, filed a proposed referendum for 2024 with the attorney general’s office.

This follows a similar move by the fast food industry. Last week, Big Burger won a step toward getting a referendum on the 2024 ballot to overturn a law creating a state council regulating wages and working conditions at franchised restaurants.

Powerful interests have always had the power to go directly to voters when they don’t get their way in Sacramento. But as Democratic control over the Legislature has become even more dominant in recent years, aggrieved businesses have adopted a new fondness for the strategy.

Oil and gas producers still have a long way to go before getting the setback law on the ballot. First the attorney general will provide a title and summary for the measure. Then proponents will have to gather more than 623,000 valid signatures from registered voters. Then it goes to the voters.

Getting a majority of California voters to agree with the oil industry might be a tough sell. But a referendum campaign can be its own reward. Once a referendum measure qualifies, the law is suspended until the electorate can weigh in.

The oil and gas industry won’t be able to count on the support of at least two California voters: Gov. Newsom and Sen. Gonzalez.

In a live-streamed interview at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, the governor bemoaned the fact that the bill was already being undercut — and had some sharp words for the more industry-friendly members of his own party.

  • Newsom: “We may be dominated by Democrats, but many of us are wholly owned subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry…They just filed a referendum yesterday — big oil. These guys aren’t going away.”

Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, didn’t reply to my email asking for his response. But the organization’s lobbyist responded on Twitter: “Fact Check: Untrue!”

Gonzalez is also in New York this week, though she said she missed the governor’s comments. But she did call this latest referendum effort and similar campaigns an “abuse” of the process.

  • Gonzalez: “Somebody with money can just come in and completely overturn it and continue to lie and spend money and provide mistruths, and there goes the legislative process.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.