The Sun of Inland Empire and San Bernadino
by Blanca Hernandez and Michelle Romero

Just days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 131, known as the California Dream Act, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, filed a referendum to overturn the law. If you’re asked to sign a petition to place this measure on the ballot, you might want to think carefully about its implications before you do.

Starting in 2013, A.B. 131 will extend eligibility for state financial aid programs to undocumented students who meet certain criteria. Under A.B. 131, students who have attended a California high school for three or more years, earned their diploma or equivalent degree, and who meet minimum GPA and household income guidelines can be considered for college financial aid such as Cal Grants and the Board of Governors’ Community College Fee Waiver.

This law’s provisions have been extensively vetted, amended and negotiated during a legislative process that went on for several years. It has received broad public support.

Assemblyman Donnelly seems to have forgotten some important history. In 1911, California voters established the ballot initiative system in response to the undue influence of wealthy special interests in Sacramento, allowing voters to act when government failed to work in the people’s interests. It includes the initiative, which allows voters to directly make laws, the recall, which lets voters remove officeholders, and the referendum, which lets voters repeal laws made by the Legislature.

The referendum is, in essence, a people’s veto. It was designed to be used by voters, not special interests seeking to undermine the legislative process. And it most certainly wasn’t meant to let the losers in every legislative debate re-fight that debate on the ballot. That would mean a ballot 100 pages long, and there would be no point in having a Legislature.

Donnelly is making a mockery of our representative government.

Meanwhile, misinformation runs amuck. Signature gatherers are telling voters that overturning A.B. 131 will “put money back in the taxpayers’ pockets,” a claim that is simply false. The California Dream Act does not take any additional money from taxpayers, nor would overturning it return money to taxpayers. Unfortunately, a lack of oversight of the initiative process makes misinformation commonplace.

What supporters are not telling voters is that A.B. 131 is good for our economy. It will give talented students the education necessary to start their own businesses and be prepared for when their federal immigration status does change. The Public Policy Institute of California projects a deficit of one million college-educated workers in California by 2025 unless the state is able to substantially increase rates of college enrollment and graduation. A.B. 131 will help California fill this gap and remain one of the top economies in the world.

Some may be surprised to learn that most undocumented families do pay taxes. They pay sales tax, property tax and income tax just like citizens.

Ironically, undocumented persons are currently unauthorized to work in the United States, but the IRS continues to issue ITIN – taxpayer identification numbers – so those who do find work or own their own businesses can file taxes.

In the long run, the initiative system needs reform to make sure voters get all the facts. Meanwhile, voters need to pay attention. We must ensure that special interests do not abuse the people’s right to hold government accountable.

Misinformation and misplaced trust in signature-gatherers often mean we do not take the time to read the petitions for ourselves and do our research before signing. Next time you see a signature-gatherer on your neighborhood corner, ask yourself, “Do I really understand what I am signing?”

Blanca Hernandez is Our Democracy program coordinator and Michelle Romero is Our Democracy program manager at The Greenlining Institute, a public policy and research institute headquartered in Berkeley; www.greenlining.org.