May 14, 2021

Big Leagues for California Ballot Initiatives

Remember Big Green? Probably less than 1 percent of all Californians do. But I bet many of you remember the 1990 ballot initiative sponsored by environmental activists. The Big Green Initiative (Proposition 128) proposed an aggressive suite of far-reaching regulations and restrictions on several sectors of California’s economy—especially agriculture.

Whether you remember Big Green or not, its rejection by California voters by a nearly two-to-one margin is worth reexamining, because the result came about only after the state’s agriculture industry rallied together to raise money and fan out across hundreds of communities to talk to their fellow Californians about the dangers of this overreaching initiative.

As a very young and very green (pardon the pun) political campaign aide working for a statewide candidate in 1990, I remember the veteran consultants around me predicting Big Green would be rejected due to the potent opposition campaign.

They were right.

It was a major victory for the state’s agriculture industry. And yet it is also true that agriculture raised less than a quarter of the opposition campaign’s war chest. The bulk was contributed by other threatened industry sectors, such as energy producers.

So, why this walk down memory lane?

Last year, California agriculture again came together, dug deep and contributed significantly to the defeat of Proposition 15, the labor union-backed ballot measure that would have removed the property tax increase limitations on commercial property established by the historic Proposition 13 (1978). While Prop. 15 exempted working farm land, it did not protect any improvements on that land or any other commercial agricultural properties, such as processing, cooling and packing facilities, irrigation systems, trees and vines, and more.

It was a very close call. Too close: Prop. 15 was defeated by a slim 4 percent margin.

Two agriculture industry-sponsored committees raised $3.5 million for the fight. The main No on Prop. 15 committee (comprised of commercial property and other business interests) raised about $70 million. We can and should be proud of our collective efforts, especially since it appears every bit was needed to prevail. Nonetheless, we should also be clear-eyed about the reality that in the current era, ballot initiative campaigns are decided with tens of millions being spent by both sides. Should we in agriculture deem it necessary and desirable to take a major policy question directly to the voters, or to ask voters to reject a hostile ballot initiative, $3.5 million will be the opening ante.

The last election has barely faded from view and already discussions are underway about possible 2022 ballot initiatives that would have major impacts—positive and negative—on every agricultural enterprise in the state.

Will our industry step up?

The model first employed in the Big Green fight, and replicated last year, is key, if only the start. Simply put, when California’s agriculture industry truly pulls together—rising above our occasional differences of opinion—we can mount as effective a political campaign as any other industry sector. We saw the possibilities last year, with many associations sharing in the burden of funding a strong effort and working in a climate of trust.

The good people of California agriculture expect their associations to pull together to not only fight against bad public policy, but also to create strategic opportunities to go on offense. And we should not limit ourselves to ballot initiatives; a unified and powerfully resourced industry coalition can and should bring the same focus to contests for elected office.

A foundation has hopefully been set, in no small part thanks to the growing trust and collaboration of the leaders of our agriculture associations. In 16 years as an advocate for this industry, I have never been more encouraged by the strength of our ties across organizations. Very smart, strategic and team-minded people are leading our associations. The time has come for us to join together to get back into the Big Leagues of California politics, as a team.

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A word here about the Copper State.

As Arizona continues to shift from its not-too-distant status as a red state to a purple one, we have seen a predictable increase in the use of ballot initiatives by interest groups on the left. A quick look at the two 2020 initiatives reveals that supporters of the measures—which legalized cannabis and imposed a large income tax increase—contributed far more than what was contributed by opponents of these measures.

Arizona’s agriculture community and the state’s other business interests face emerging political challenges similar to those of their California counterparts, and the need for a unified and tightly coordinated political apparatus should be apparent to all. We will do all we can to make that happen.