Two veto referendum campaigns and California executive departments disagree on when referendums suspend fast food workers and oil and gas laws

The campaign Save Local Restaurants filed 1 million signatures for a veto referendum to overturn California Assembly Bill 257 (AB 257), also known as the FAST Act, on Dec. 5, 2022. At least 623,212 signatures must be valid. Counties have until Jan. 25, 2023, to check a random sample of signatures. In California, a veto referendum is a type of citizen-initiated ballot measure that asks voters whether to uphold or repeal a law. There are 23 states with a process for veto referendums.

The FAST Act was designed to establish a fast food council, which would be authorized to increase the minimum wage of fast-food workers to $22 per hour and establish working hours and conditions. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the legislation on Sept. 5.

The FAST Act was set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. The Save Local Restaurants PAC and California Industrial Relations Department disagree on whether the Fast ACT was suspended when the campaign filed signatures on Dec. 5. While both the campaign and state agree the bill would be suspended ahead of the election on Nov. 5, 2024, the campaign says the bill was suspended upon signature submission and the state says the bill wouldn’t be suspended until and unless enough signatures are verified.

Erin Mellon, a spokesperson for Gov. Newsom, said the bill would be enforced on Jan. 1. Mellon said, “Although industry is backing a referendum measure, the secretary of state has not certified that it has enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The state has an obligation to implement this important law unless and until that occurs. We will, of course, abide by any court order.” According to Mellon, the FAST Act would not be suspended until and unless signatures are verified, which could come on Jan. 25.

The Save Local Restaurants PAC stated that AB 257 became “ineffective and unenforceable in its entirety” when signatures were submitted on Dec. 5. Kurt Oneto, a lawyer representing Save Local Restaurants, said that of the 50 veto referendums that have made the ballot since 1912, “not in a single one of those prior instances did the state ever attempt to temporarily enforce the referred statute while the signature review process was underway.”

Katrina Hagen, director of the California Industrial Relations Department, said there is an “absence of clear authority providing that AB 257 is suspended merely upon submission of unverified signatures.”

The Save Local Restaurants PAC filed a lawsuit to prevent the implementation of the FAST Act. Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang placed an injunction on the bill ahead of a hearing on Jan. 13, 2023. Lawyers for the PAC cited the constitutional amendment from 1911, which created the referendum process, as saying “… no such act or section or part of such act shall go into effect until and unless approved by a majority of the qualified electors voting thereon.” This constitutional language was repealed and replaced in 1966, when voters approved Proposition 1A.

The California Constitution now says, “If a referendum petition is filed against a part of a statute, the remainder of the statute shall not be delayed from going into effect.” The lawsuit stated that a logical extension of this requirement is that when referendum petitions are filed against an entire statute, the entire statute is delayed from going into effect, and “referendum petition is filed” refers to filing signatures. The lawsuit cites a 2020 stipulated agreement between Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and petitioners behind a flavored tobacco ban referendum. That agreement said the flavored tobacco ban legislation would not take effect on Jan. 1, 2021, while signatures were being verified.

Besides the veto referendum on the FAST Act, signatures are also being verified for a veto referendum on Senate Bill 1137 (SB 1137), which would prohibit new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals and require companies to monitor leaks and emissions and install alarms. Like the FAST Act, SB 1137 was set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. The California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) is leading the campaign, Stop the Energy Shutdown, for the veto referendum. Rock Zierman, the CEO of CIPA, said the law should be suspended pending signature verification, but that CIPA decided not to sue as the group expects the law to be suspended when signatures are verified on or before Feb. 7.

In California, voters have voted on 50 veto referendums, upholding laws 21 times (42%) and repealing laws 29 times (58%). The most recent veto referendum was on the ballot in Nov. 2022, when voters upheld a bill to ban flavored tobacco products.

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