Retail theft back to square one

Jul 3, 2024

By Zack Cefalu, legislative affairs analyst, Jolena Voorhis, legislative affairs lobbyist, and, Brian Hendershot, Cal Cities Advocate managing editor.

Gov. Gavin Newsom scuttled an anti-crime ballot measure last night, a mere two days since it got introduced. Democratic leaders introduced the initiative over the weekend after they failed to convince a group of district attorneys to pull a similar ballot measure.

The Governor cited a lack of time needed to make the necessary changes needed to ensure the measure’s success and a breakdown in negotiations with the district attorneys. Sources for KCRA — which broke the story — rebuffed the comment, citing a lack of support for the measure.  

The ballot measure, designed as a counterweight to the tougher measure championed by county prosecutors, would have toughened penalties for repeat shoplifters and illicit fentanyl dealers. It also would have amended Proposition 47, which lowered drug and theft penalties across the state.

The Governor spent the weekend whipping up votes for the measure. The last-minute strong-arm tactics angered Republicans and splintered the Democratic caucus, causing some to express reservations and concerns about the initiative.

How did we get here?

Negotiations between Democratic leaders and the California District Attorneys Association might be the biggest legislative story of the year. Democratic leaders have bitterly resisted the initiative.

Last month, lawmakers amended a package of retail theft bills to include urgency and inoperative clauses if voters approve the district attorneys’ initiative. The lone exception was a bill by Republican Asm. Juan Alanis, which only included an urgency clause. 

Democratic leaders said the changes were necessary due to conflicts between the bills and the ballot initiative. They also argued that their measures took a more comprehensive approach and would prevent a return to the days of mass incarceration.

Cal Cities had been a strong supporter of the legislative package. However, it moved to a neutral position following these changes.

These amendments did not sit well with some lawmakers either, with many authors voicing discontent over the changes. Some members even threatened to pull their bills from the package.

After the negotiations to pull the district attorney’s initiative broke down last week, the Legislature removed the urgency and inoperative clauses from the bills. Cal Cities then readopted its support position for the bill package.

Almost immediately, rumblings about a rival ballot measure emerged. But it soon became clear that legislative leaders and the Governor did not have the votes to clear the required two-thirds requirement.

The initiative’s backers agreed to gamble on a special election for the initiative — coincidentally the same night as the November election and lowering the approval threshold.

Next steps

The Legislature will break for summer recess tonight and many retail bills are now back to their original state — more or less. Gov. Gavin Newsom has thrown his weight behind the bill package. Legislators could either take up the package of bills today or after the summer recess.

The League of California Cities Board will consider the district attorneys initiative during its quarterly meeting in July, along with a handful of other November ballot measures.