Are Democrats trying to ‘pull one over’ on California voters? It sure looks that way | Opinion

California’s Democratic leaders are seriously overplaying their hand by trying to force a tough-on-crime initiative off the November ballot.

Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas and Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire threatened to put a “kill switch” in some much-needed legislation aimed at curbing retail theft.

Here’s how it would work: If the Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act were to pass in November, then the anti-theft bills would be defunct.

It’s an obvious ploy to induce supporters of the initiative to take it off the ballot, denying voters the opportunity to say yea or nay to the measure. Democratic leaders are so certain of their super majority at the Capitol that they feel emboldened to game the system and then they don’t have the nerve to answer legitimate questions about their behavior.

Right now, Californians need relief from the retail thefts that have been increasing statewide at the expense of merchants and consumers who pay higher prices as a result of losses incurred by businesses. A bipartisan package of 14 bills was supposed to provide that needed relief, but now Democratic leaders are willing to use it as leverage to ensure they get their way.

Here’s what the anti-theft bills would do

Among other measures, the package of bills would:

  • Impose tougher sentences for some types of serious retail crimes.

  • Allow multiple thefts committed by the same person, but in different locations, to be combined to reach the $950 felony threshold.

  • Make it easier to prosecute vehicle break-ins.

  • Expand and make permanent a retail crimes task force.

  • Allow stores to seek restraining orders against customers who steal, vandalize or assault employees.

Lawmakers intend to fast-track most of the bills, which means they would take effect as soon as the governor signs them.

That makes sense.

This doesn’t: Threatening to undo everything if the ballot measure passes.

An effort to ‘fix’ Proposition 47

So what’s in this ballot measure that has some Democrats so worried?

It includes some anti-theft provisions similar to those in the package of bills, but it goes beyond that.

The Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act targets Proposition 47, the 2014 voter-approved initiative intended to keep non-violent, non-serious offenders out of overcrowded prisons.

Here are some of the new measure’s provisions:

  • It creates a new class of crime, the “treatment-mandated felony.” That gives prosecutors the discretion to charge hard drug possession as a felony following two previous drug convictions. Offenders would be given the choice of entering a treatment program or going to jail.

  • Increases penalties for hard drug trafficking, including fentanyl, and sets up a system to warn convicted drug dealers and manufacturers that they could be charged with murder if they continue to sell and someone dies as a result.

  • Increases penalties for the most serious retail thefts.

  • Allows someone with two or more prior theft convictions to be charged with a felony, regardless of the value of property stolen in the most recent offense.

The backlash begins

Opponents of the ballot measure say its passage would undo badly needed criminal justice reform, alleging that California’s prisons would be packed with minor offenders — a disproportionate number of them Black and people of color.

Those are concerns that should be articulated for voters. Instead, Democratic leaders are communicating their distrust of voters by attempting to keep the measure off the ballot.

That could backfire.

In fact, it already has. Some Democratic lawmakers are distancing themselves from the plan to add the sunset clause.

“I am removing my name as co-author immediately from two retail theft bills that will be amended to make them inoperable if voters pass the Proposition 47 reform measure this November. I oppose the amendments to these two bills, and I was not consulted about them,” state Sen. Marie Alvardo-Gil, a Modesto Democrat, wrote on X.

On top of that, supporters of the ballot initiative appear more committed than ever to get their measure before the voters.

They’re accusing Democrats of “trying to pull one over on the voters,” in the words of San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow, who posted a video urging voters to contact their lawmakers to object to the tactic.

Democrats fail to act on concerns about crime

If the measure does get on the ballot — and we expect that it will — this will be a key test of Democratic strength.

It is, by the way, a test that Democrats have brought on themselves by failing to recognize that Californians have serious concerns about crime. They’ve been making this mistake over and over again. It has given life to Republicans who may be in the minority politically, but who are reading voter anxiety over public safety better than the majority party.

No one wants a return to the 1990s when Republican governors and district attorneys thought they could arrest and incarcerate their way out of any problem. But no one needs coercive tactics from Democrats that prevent a new kind of debate on public safety: One that acknowledges the prosecutorial abuses of the past while recognizing that more needs to be done to address crime in California.

California can’t have that conversation unless the Democratic leadership emerges from its partisan bubble.

It’s not too late to reverse course.

Democrats, enough of the coercive tactics. Stop trying to block the Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act from the ballot.

This editorial represents the views of the opinion editorial boards at The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, Merced Sun-Star and The Tribune in San Luis Obispo.