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Calif. legislators to fast-track retail theft crackdown bills as tradeoff for tough-on-crime initiative

Legislative leaders are moving forward with a hard-ball approach that would make voters choose between the two efforts — and could splinter support for the ballot measure

California Legislature

An exterior of the State Capitol is shown in Sacramento, Calif. on Friday Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

Terry Chea/AP

By Anabel Sosa
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Legislative leaders plan to fast-track bills to crack down on retail theft in California and are using the package of reforms to pressure supporters of a proposed tough-on-crime initiative headed for the November ballot to abandon that effort.

In a closed-door discussion this week, representatives for Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D- Hollister) met with the leaders behind the Californians for Safer Communities Coalition, the group led by local district attorneys that has spent the last six months campaigning for voter support to reform Proposition 47, which voters passed in 2014.

Two people with knowledge of the meeting said legislative leaders are moving forward with a hard-ball approach that would make voters choose between the two efforts — and could splinter support for the ballot measure.

Unless the ballot measure is withdrawn, the Democratic leadership plans to add an “inoperability clause” to its legislation that would revoke the new laws if voters pass the statewide proposition in November, according to the sources and a letter Republicans sent to legislative leaders.

The Republican lawmakers in the letter condemned those changes, saying they would “do grave damage” to the bipartisan progress made on retail theft. Lawmakers are advancing a bipartisan 12-bill legislative package that would address the issues of retail theft and focus on protecting the safety of workers and store owners, without harsher penalties for some offenders.

The proposed ballot initiative takes a different approach that would revise Proposition 47 to make possession of fentanyl into a felony, and repeat offenders who steal for the third time — regardless of the value of the product stolen — could serve up to three years in state prison. A spokesperson for the ballot measure campaign declined to comment about the meeting.

“The Speaker has done more in eight months than anyone has done in eight years to push the conversation forward and I think everyone in the room acknowledges that,” said Daniel Conway, vice president of government relations for the California Grocers Assn., who was present during the discussions this week. “And that is why there is a bona fide effort to see what can be done.”

Both the proposed legislation and ballot measure focus on the need to address retail theft. But over the last several months, disagreements have been mounting over the best path forward. Gov. Gavin Newsom made it clear that he does not want proposed reforms to Proposition 47 on the November ballot, saying effective changes can be made through the legislative process instead. But law enforcement groups and conservative prosecutors say the only way to enact substantive changes is by bringing it back to the voters.

California voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014 to reclassify some felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors and to raise, from $400 to $950, the amount for which theft can be prosecuted as a felony.

The political jockeying and the change leaders plan to make to the legislation could potentially lead to splintering within the ballot measure coalition, which has had the backing of law enforcement groups and funding from major retailers.

The Grocer’s Assn., which represents over 6,000 food stores and grocery suppliers, is still supportive of both the ballot measure and legislation.

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Assn., told The Times that she supports the legislative package and thinks it does more for retailers than the ballot initiative. But she is frustrated at the politics being played on all sides.

“I am just trying to provide resources to retailers and law enforcement to keep our customers safe,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know whether the proponents of the initiative are going to budge. My fear is we lose all of these things in the package if they move forward to initiative. That would be detrimental.”

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