EDITORIAL: Harris must play it straight

FresnoDecember 28, 2013 

California Attorney General Kamala Harris must not favor her supporters when it comes to writing state ballot initiatives.


Like clockwork, signature gatherers mass outside supermarkets to hawk their petitions, while initiative proponents squawk about the loaded wording in the official titles and summaries given to their propositions.

The wording is supposed to be neutral. But recent attorneys general, who are responsible for titles and summaries, have a hard time not meddling, knowing that many voters make up their minds based on the 100-word summations.

Attorney General Kamala Harris has been especially freewheeling with her characterization of ballot measures. That needs to stop.

As The Sacramento Bee's Jon Ortiz wrote in his State Worker column last week, the issue is coming to the fore as Harris prepares to release her assessment of San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's initiative to subject public employee pensions to labor negotiations.

Given the power of public employee unions, and their clout in Democratic politics, Harris will face pressure to load her assessment in a way that casts Reed's measure in the worst light. She should resist.

A San Francisco Chronicle report was the latest to chastise Harris, last week citing the generosity of her summary of the benefits of a marijuana legalization measure:

"Potential net additional tax revenues in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually … a portion of which is required to be spent on education, health care, public safety, drug abuse education and treatment, and the regulation of commercial marijuana activities."

At least she didn't say the low hundreds of millions of dollars would be used to buy every pot smoker the munchies of his or her choice.

Earlier this year, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters wrote about her view of an initiative backed by plaintiffs' attorneys to lift the $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. Harris, whose supporters include plaintiffs' lawyers, focused on a poll-tested feature popular with voters — requiring drug testing of physicians.

The most blatant example came last year when Harris described an initiative to roll back public employee pension benefits as affecting police, nurses and teachers, among the most popular public servants. Harris didn't mention workers who might not fare quite as well in focus groups.

In each instance, Harris came down on the side of her patrons, including plaintiff's attorneys and public employee unions.

Republican attorneys general have loaded their summaries, too. But Californians have elected three Democrats in succession as attorney general. There is little chance that a serious Republican will challenge Harris in 2014. That means she will have the opportunity to review many more initiatives.

The Bee's editorial board takes a dim view of many ballot measures and the political hucksters who foist them on the electorate.

But the attorney general's job is to play it straight, and provide a reasonable title and summary of measures heading into circulation for signature gathering. With initiative season upon us again, Harris needs to leave her political biases at the door.


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