Efforts by Republicans to repeal California’s new gas taxes may be ill-considered, but they deserve a fair chance at persuading voters.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, however, is emulating the tendencies of his most recent predecessors, such as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, by distorting the language of a repeal ballot measure.
The initiative is the handiwork of Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen, who fancies himself a candidate for governor next year. It’s also backed, at least in concept, by the state Republican Party, whose leaders see it as a way of motivating their voters next year.
A recent survey by the USC/Los Angeles Times poll found that at the moment, more than half of California’s voters would opt to repeal the taxes if given the opportunity, and that has advocates of the $5-plus billion a year transportation financing package a little worried.
Their concerns may be well-justified, but Becerra is not well-justified in trying to strangle Allen’s measure by distorting its purpose in the official title his office wrote on petitions that Allen and his allies would circulate to qualify it.
Becerra’s title doesn’t even directly refer to the taxes and fees in the package, but rather says it would “repeal revenues” and “eliminates recently enacted road repair and transportation funding.”
That’s blatantly misleading, as Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley declared when Allen challenged Becerra’s wording. Frawley said it “obscures the chief purpose of the initiative: repeal of the recently enacted taxes and fees.”
Frawley ordered Becerra’s office to write a new title that makes the proposed measure’s purposes clear to would-be petition signers, but instead of complying, the attorney general appealed, claiming that Frawley overstepped.
Last Friday, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento overturned Frawley, noting that state law gives the attorney general “considerable latitude” in writing ballot titles and declaring that his words are neutral enough. Allen’s attorney said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court
Even were Allen to win on the petition title, Becerra could take another shot at the measure by drafting the official ballot language describing its provisions.
In theory, attorneys general are supposed to draft neutral language about ballot measures but Becerra and his recent predecessors, all Democrats, have taken to interjecting themselves in the underlying issues by making liberal proposals, such as raising taxes, more attractive, and conservative ones less appealing.
Sometimes the courts have let the slanted language skate by and sometimes they haven’t, but it should not have to be litigated.
Becerra was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the chief proponent of the transportation package – one that he doubtless considers to be a legacy achievement. Becerra may feel obligated to support Brown’s effort, or he may just like the idea of raising taxes for transportation.
Both positions are perfectly legitimate, but writing the title of a ballot measure on taxes without mentioning taxes is not the place to express them.
This syndrome has gone on too long and needs to be curbed before the blatant politicization of what should be a neutral ministerial duty becomes ingrained.
If attorneys general can’t resist temptation to meddle, then the duty should be taken out of their hands and given to someone else who will be neutral.
The obvious alternative choice would be the Legislative Analyst’s Office. For decades, the LAO has written financial analyses of ballot measures that are presented to voters and their objectivity has never been questioned.
Allowing the current practice to continue is just as damaging to the electoral system as ballot box stuffing or denying voters the right to vote.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/articles/author/dan-walters. Dan Walters: firstname.lastname@example.org