Transparency on California’s local ballot measures faces new threat

This story appeared in Calmatters

A voter fills out their ballot while at the Alexander Hamilton Middle School voting center on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

In summary

In 2015 and again in 2017, the California Legislature reformed how tax and bond measures are presented to voters, providing greater transparency on impacts and requiring ballot summaries to be neutral. There’s now a new effort to undo much of those reforms.

During every California election cycle, dozens of ballot measures to raise taxes or issue bonds appear on local ballots.

Long-standing state law requires that the ballot include a statement, no longer than 75 words, summarizing what each measure would do. For many years, sponsors would use their 75 words to extol the virtues of their measures, often concealing their true financial impacts.

In 2015, a Republican assemblyman from Big Bear, Jay Obernolte, carried a bill aimed at making the ballot summaries less slanted and more factual, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed it. Assembly Bill 809 required tax increase measures, including bonds, proposed via initiative to tell voters how much money they would raise (if approved) and how long the new taxes would remain in effect.

Two years later, Obernolte introduced Assembly Bill 195, which extended the disclosure requirement to tax and bond measures proposed by cities, counties, school districts and other local entities. It also added another requirement, that the 75-word explanation of measures be a “true and impartial synopsis” of the proposal “in language that is neither argumentative nor likely to create prejudice for or against the measure.”

The latter was clearly aimed at stopping ballot measure sponsors from using the 75-word summaries to campaign for their passage, and Brown embraced that reform by signing AB 195.

Not surprisingly, local government officials and their allies didn’t like it, fearing that having to explain the financial consequences of their proposals and abstain from language advocating their passage would make voters less likely to vote “yes” in the adjacent boxes. They complained that meeting all of the requirements in 75 words was impossible and found an ally in Scott Wiener, a Democratic state senator from San Francisco.

Just before the Legislature adjourned its 2019 session, Wiener used the so-called gut-and-amend maneuver to propose legislation that would repeal much of what Obernolte, who is now a congressman, had wrought. It would have allowed sponsors of tax and bond measures to skip including financial impacts in the 75-word statements and, instead, essentially allow them to tell voters, “See voter guide for tax rate information.”

While voter guides are useful for engaged voters, it’s fair to say that many, if not most, don’t read them. They instead rely on the ballot language itself when making their decisions. Wiener won legislative approval of Senate Bill 268, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, declaring accurately, “I am concerned that this bill as crafted will reduce transparency for local tax and bond measures.”

We’re now poised to do it all over again because Wiener is back with an almost identical measure, Senate Bill 532, claiming it would “improve voter transparency into the financial implications of ballot measures.”

However, it would have the opposite effect, as Newsom concluded.

Obernolte’s requirements are “well intentioned,” Wiener said in a statement, but “present massive – and at times insurmountable – challenges to transit agencies, school districts, cities, counties, hospitals, libraries, and other public entities that are legally required to rely on ballot measures to raise critical funds, especially for infrastructure projects.”

The 75-word requirements are particularly difficult for complex, multi-tiered tax and bond proposals, Wiener said, leaving “little to no room to explain how the new taxes or bonds will actually be spent to benefit the local community.”

Clearly, Wiener wants to make it easier to pass tax and bond measures by allowing their sponsors to once again use the 75-word summary for advocacy, rather than a “true and impartial synopsis.”

They should make their case in campaigns, not use the ballot itself for propaganda.

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