Californians could be faced in November with a proposal to dramatically alter the pension and benefit system for public employees. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has submitted a statewide ballot initiative that would allow government agencies to negotiate changes to current employees’ future retirement benefits, reversing the long-standing principle that once a public employee is hired, his or her retirement benefits cannot be reduced.
Public employee unions are already gearing up for a major fight over Reed’s initiative, which he could put on the ballot as soon as 2014 (or as late as 2016) if he gathers the requisite signatures. No matter the timing, voters will surely be inundated with intense propaganda from both sides. That’s why Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, charged with writing the title and 100-word summary for all ballot measures — including Reed’s pension initiative — should play it straight. Give voters clear, factual information, free of spin.
Last year, Harris took heat for drafting a ballot measure summary — also on a pension reform proposal — that many considered skewed against the initiative’s fiscally conservative proponents. Her summation pushed the limits of interpretation and painted the proposal in the worst light, critics said. She even chose to define public employees as “teachers, nurses and peace officers” — who, according to polls, just happen to be among the most respected of all public employees. She neglected to mention the parking enforcement officers, tax collectors and DMV clerks who would also be affected by pension changes.
The measure’s backers at California Pension Reform could have challenged Harris’ summary in court. Instead, the group dropped the ballot initiative altogether, saying Harris’ “false and misleading title and summary makes it nearly impossible to pass.” There may have been other factors in shelving the proposal, but the flawed ballot title and summary were apparently the nail in the coffin. Reed too is concerned about the title and summary for his pension measure, and he plans to conduct polling on the language when it’s completed by the attorney general this month or early in January.
It shouldn’t be necessary to urge Harris or any California attorney general to be impartial. Under state law, the attorney general is responsible for writing an evenhanded title and summary not “likely to create prejudice.” Yet too often attorneys generals, who are partisan elected officials, insert their own politics into the work.
Harris isn’t the first attorney general to be accused of biased wording on ballot initiatives. Previous attorneys general have produced ballot titles and summaries that smacked of politicking. Former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, for instance, was accused of stacking the cards in favor of Proposition 209 when he omitted the words “affirmative action” in the summary. The point of the proposition was to end preferential treatment of women and minorities by the state government, and polling showed voter support dropped below 50% when it was described as eliminating state affirmative action programs.
When Jerry Brown was attorney general, he raised the ire of conservatives who opposed same-sex marriage when he wrote that Proposition 8 would “eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry” instead of using an earlier summary that said Proposition 8 sought to amend the state Constitution “to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
It’s understandable that voters are skeptical when partisan elected officials often aspiring to higher office are asked to be impartial. Every few years, someone proposes giving the responsibility for the title and summary to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which already does a good job writing dispassionate ballot analyses. Others have called for a panel of citizens or of retired judges to have the final say over ballot language.
When dealing with highly controversial issues like pension reform, both sides will hope for language that helps their case, because the title and 100-word summary may be the only information voters read before casting a ballot. But the attorney general should do her best to give a fair and unbiased assessment. She should leave the politicking to the advocates.