The citizen veto and the Kings arena

Lots of ways Sacramento can nix the deal, but none of them are easy

Of course Sacramento citizens ought to vote on the $260 million-plus proposed NBA basketball-arena subsidy. The question is, what sort of vote? And how many votes should they have?

You already know that a group called Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork intends to soon circulate an initiative petition that would require a public vote on this and any future arena schemes.

The proposed initiative reads thus: “The City of Sacramento shall not use or redirect, undertake an obligation to pay, or bond or borrow against monies intended for or from the City General Fund for the development and/or construction of a professional sports arena, without the approval of a simple majority of voters.”

It’s a lot better than the language STOP was shopping around last year. That measure was so broad it would have forced a public vote for just about any project involving any public money for any kind of “sports and entertainment facility.” (See “Full STOP,” SN&R Bites; March 29, 2012.) Of course, the Maloofs blew up last year’s deal, so no harm, no foul.

Bites generally isn’t crazy about the idea of having voters make complex policy decisions at the ballot box. That’s what we hired the city council to do. Does every bit of financial assistance for any professional sports arena, no matter how small, really require a public vote? Why should those subsidies require a public vote, while subsidies to other private enterprise do not? What if you don’t like subsidies to the arts? How about subsidies for mermaid bars? Should we vote on those as well?

The initiative is unwieldy in other ways. If STOP gathers enough signatures, we’ll get to have a vote on whether we should have a vote on sports subsidies. If that vote is successful, then, several months later, we’ll vote on the actual subsidies. Don’t get confused and think you’re voting no on the arena when you’re really voting no on voting. Or vice versa.

There’s a better way. California’s progressive movement gave us the initiative, the referendum and the recall. But the referendum never gets much attention, compared to its pushy cousins.

The referendum would allow citizens, in one step, to scotch this particular arena deal if they feel like it’s a bad one. The beauty of the referendum is that it works as a citizen veto. That way, policy makers make policy, and we can correct them, if necessary.

The referendum would be be more elegant. But perversely, it’s a lot harder to use, notes Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup. “It’s a general problem that California’s system is tipped in favor of the initiative instead of the referendum,” he told Bites.

In his book, he calls California’s initiative system powerful but “inflexible” compared to other modern direct democracies. “It is isn’t very direct. And is surely isn’t democratic.”

(Paul, by the way, is a former Sacramento Bee editorial writer. He calls Sacramento’s arena shakedown, “As direct an extortion as we’ve ever seen by the NBA.” Apparently, Sac Bee editorial writers used to be made of more skeptical stuff.)

Here’s the problem. Both the initiative and the referendum require signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in the city. But an initiative effort is allowed six months for signature gathering, where a referendum is only allowed 30 days to circulate.

The timing for a referendum is made more difficult because signature gatherers can’t start their work until the council officially approves an arena deal. As it moves forward through multiple votes, there may be disagreement about what counts as a final “referendable” action.

“It all makes the referendum nearly impossible to do,” says one of the proponents of the STOP initiative, James Cathcart.

Things are further complicated by the fact that STOP is hoping to get the city to call a special election sometime this year. That requires signatures of 15 percent of registered voters. And the city is now saying that to meet deadlines for a special election, the activists would only have about a month to gather approximately 35,000 signatures. Otherwise, the measure would get kicked back to the June 2014 primary election.

If the initiative effort comes up short, voters have one more shot. California law also allows for a special referendum on the issuance of any revenue bonds—which would likely be involved in the financing of an arena.

Those rules require a number of signatures equal to 10 percent of the last vote for governor. That’s a considerably lower bar, just about 12,000 signatures, though the deadlines would still be tight. If voters nix the bonds, they would effectively stop the project. Lots of ways citizens can veto this arena deal, if they choose. But none of them are easy.