Column: Stop playing politics on retail theft crackdown

Woodland Hills, CA-OCTOBER 19, 2022: Razor blades are locked up inside a glass showcase at a CVS store in Woodland Hills. Retail chains are adding more security measures to combat retail theft. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Razor blades are locked inside a glass showcase at a CVS store in Woodland Hills. Retail chains are adding more security measures to combat retail theft. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It’s hardball season in California’s state Capitol, and we’re not talking baseball. At times like this, I think of two all-star political philosophers: Otto von Bismarck and Lily Tomlin.

Bismarck, a 19th century German chancellor, gave us the oft-repeated bromide, and I paraphrase: Laws are like sausages. If you’re squeamish, don’t watch either being made.

Comedian and actress Tomlin used this wonderful truism in a standup skit: “No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.”

Politicians with their cynical machinations perpetually keep one step ahead of our worst expectations.

This is sausage-making time in Sacramento. Major policy decisions are always mixed with political jockeying. But in an election year, cynicism is on steroids.

Here’s one current standout example: Democrats plan to pass a package of needed legislation to stem the splurge of retail thefts, from petty shoplifting to professional smash-and-grab robberies.

The heists aren’t plaguing just big-box complexes and mom-and-pop convenience stores.

“We have people pushing carts out the grocery store full of stuff,” says Daniel Conway, chief lobbyist for the California Grocers Assn. “They’re stealing for personal use.”

But Democrats cynically intend to insert a “poison pill” that would automatically kill their own legislation if a rival tough-on-crime ballot measure is approved by voters in November. To normal people, that must seem bizarre.

The initiative, sponsored by the California District Attorneys Assn. and funded mainly by big-box retailers, qualified for the ballot last week after collecting around 900,000 voter signatures.

Read more: New change coming to retail theft legislation could splinter support for tough-on-crime initiative

Democrats fear the ballot measure so much they’re offering its backers an offer they can’t refuse. At least, that’s the Democrats’ hope. The message: Take what you can get immediately from the legislation — or risk losing it if the ballot measure passes. And save the many millions of dollars that the ballot measure would cost to promote.

Why are Democrats so adamantly opposed to the initiative? Progressive ideologues believe it goes too far and will lead to restocking prisons with people who don’t belong there.

“The initiative brings back massive prison incarceration,” asserts state Senate leader Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg). “We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. California locked up a generation of residents from Black and brown communities throughout the Golden State.

“Shame on us if we roll out the red carpet again on mass incarceration.”

OK, that’s one reason Democrats hate the initiative. But hardly anyone believes it’s the main reason. The party’s dominant fear, it seems, is that the measure would help Republican candidates, especially in a handful of congressional races where control of the U.S. House is at stake.

“Yes, it’s good for Republican candidates,” says state Assembly GOP leader James Gallagher of Yuba City, referring to the initiative. “But it’s good policy, too. It would be good for Democrats who support this initiative as well.”

Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio says the initiative would “move swing voters. People see crime on the rise. Democrats have a reputation for being soft on crime. Republicans see blood in the water. They want to talk about crime. Democrats don’t.”

Read more: Six California House races that could help determine control of Congress

Another reason for Democrats inserting the poison pill is that it would give fellow Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta a license to doctor up the initiative’s official ballot title and summary with a dire warning to voters: If the proposition passes, it will kill the Legislature’s anti-crime reform bills.

But then the ambitious Bonta would risk tarnishing his image by looking like just another hack politician.

Let’s return to the first inning of this political game.

In 2014, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for theft and hard drug possession. One key feature: if stolen goods were worth less than $950, the crime was generally treated as a misdemeanor, meaning a very light jail sentence, if any.

Law enforcement officials and retailers have long sought changes in 47, particularly since smash-and-grab thefts increased during the pandemic. They claim with justification that thieves aren’t paying for their crimes.

But the Legislature did little until the district attorneys and retailers pushed their initiative to roll back much of Proposition 47 by toughening penalties for retail theft and hard drug offenses, including fentanyl possession. The $950 threshold would be eliminated for a third offense so the repeat thief could be charged with a felony. And people with multiple drug convictions would be compelled into treatment.

The Legislature responded with a 14-bill package that was supported by Republicans — until Democrats revealed their poison pill scheme. The legislative package basically gives DAs more opportunities to prosecute and generally pursues the same aim as the initiative, with a softer touch.

Read more: Newsom suggests ways to crack down on property crime without dismantling Proposition 47

Straight-faced Democrats contend the self-destruct amendment —they don’t call it a poison pill — is necessary because of policy “conflicts” between the legislation and the initiative.

Sure, there are conflicts, but none that seemingly couldn’t be resolved in legislative negotiations.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not promised to sign the bills, but there’s little doubt that he would. He wants the initiative off the ballot.

Will the poison pill prompt initiative supporters to scuttle their measure?June 27 is the deadline for finalizing the ballot.

“Some companies that support the initiative are going to reevaluate,” says Rachel Michelin, president and CEO of the California Retailers Assn. “A lot of things are in the bill package that are not in the initiative. These are good bills.”

Gregory Totten, CEO of the California District Attorneys Assn., says his group intends to go ahead with the initiative even if big retailers pull out. “We have lots of other [campaign] donors as well,” he says.

“To fix 47, you have to go back to the voters. Legislators have been very unwilling to do that.”

But maybe that would be the smart thing for Democrats: Place a compromise measure on the ballot that each combative side could embrace. And dump the initiative. A home run.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.