It now looks like there’s a chance that the decision about whether to pay extortion to the billionaires of the National Basketball Association could be made by the people of Sacramento themselves. Two lawyers representing opponents of the subsidy to the Kings franchise have sent a letter to the city’s leaders asking for a public vote on the question and suggesting that a referendum is likely if the city council does not itself seek voter approval.
A public vote is a good idea. As we pointed out in California Crackup, the referendum is the underused tool in the kit of California direct democracy. Unlike the state’s inflexible initiative, which is used for getting around elected lawmakers and tying their hands, the referendum is about holding a conversation: Our representatives make decisions and through the referendum we voters tell them whether they got it right, or should go back and try again.
The people’s right to pass judgment on legislative action through the referendum is guaranteed in the California constitution and Sacramento’s city charter. “The powers of the initiative, referendum and the recall of elected municipal officers are hereby reserved to the electors of the city,” the charter states, echoing the language of the state constitution. “All ordinances which may be passed by the city council shall be subject to referendum, whenever the use of the initiative or referendum is permitted by state law applicable to cities,” the charter provides. Qualifying a referendum against the issuance of revenue bonds for the arena would require signatures of 10 percent of the number of people voting for governor at the 2010 general election, or about 12,000 people.
If the past is truly prologue, though, expect Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his allies on the council to do everything they can to avoid making voters part of the conversation.
As the lawyers’ letter notes, “Last year, the City Council expressly voted not to allow the residents of Sacramento an opportunity to vote on the prior version of the proposed subsidy,” and put off taking any legislative act that might have triggered a referendum vote. It is the standard tactic of these sports extortion games to use a combination of delay and made-up deadlines to turn subsidy decisions into moments of crisis, where drama reigns and emotion defeats evidence and logic.
Expect Johnson and the friends of the billionaires to tell citizens that there can’t be a public vote because the deadline is too near—even though the deadline is too near because they wanted it that way. Expect them to follow the same path as the city of Santa Clara, which blocked a voter referendum on the subsidy for the new 49er stadium. Sacramento City Attorney Jim Sanchez has already claimed to reporters that the council’s upcoming March 28 vote on a “term sheet” for an arena handout isn’t subject to voter review because it isn’t a “final” act.
But California courts have found that the referendum right applies broadly to all legislative acts by city councils, and state law explicitly recognizes the referendum can be used, for example, to test voter approval of issuing revenue bonds, which would likely be used in any arena subsidy scheme. A time will come, perhaps many of them, when the council will have take a legislative action to make an arena subsidy real, and thereby trigger a referendum opportunity.
As divisive as the sports corporate welfare issue is, any attempt by Sacramento’s leaders to deny the city’s citizens their final say in such a critical decision would be more explosive still. Wouldn’t it be better to have the civic conversation upfront, before voices get raised and lawsuits filed?