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Newsletter: A bumper crop of California ballot measure lawsuits

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For the California voter who doesn’t see the TV ads or (somehow) ignores the avalanche of glossy flyers in the mailbox before election day, the explanations of ballot measures contained in the state voter guide are the last, best chance to understand the proposal and to weigh its merits or drawbacks.

Occasionally, supporters or opponents of a proposition will ask a judge to order revisions to the ballot information. But this year seems one for the record books: Ten separate lawsuits seek changes to the descriptions of a half-dozen of this November’s ballot measures, challenges filed in court last week in Sacramento.

And there’s some urgency, as the ballot language is set to be sent to the state printer on Aug. 10.

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‘Blatantly false’ ... ‘improperly takes sides’

Some of the lawsuits challenge the titles and summaries written by the office of Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. Others demand changes to the formal arguments and rebuttals submitted for ballot measures, the pro and con passages that are often written by well-paid campaign advisors in hopes of pushing an undecided voter one way or the other.

While the judges who will hear these cases will be expected to act fast, there have been prolonged court fights in the past that have delayed the printing of California’s ballot guide.

Four lawsuits have been filed in the fight over Proposition 15, the high-profile effort to remove commercial and industrial properties from the tax protections of 1978’s Proposition 13. Two lawsuits insist the title and summary written by Becerra’s office is misleading or incomplete. Two more lawsuits — one from each side of the campaign — focus on ballot guide arguments concerning how Proposition 15 could affect a small business operating out of a residence and the relative power of the Legislature to take a look at the issue if the measure becomes law.

A similar fight over the voter guide is found in the lawsuit filed by opponents of Proposition 21, a fight to expand rent control in California after a similar measure failed in 2018. They want a judge to revise the supporting argument written by the measure’s backers that all single-family homes would be exempt from rent control.

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But it’s Becerra who is the target of most of this year’s ballot lawsuits, criticized by several groups for titles and summaries written by his office. In a case involving Proposition 20, which seeks limits on prisoners eligible for parole, an official proponent of the measure accuses the attorney general of approving a “blatantly false, highly misleading” ballot description.

On Proposition 22, a proposal aiming to create new employment rules for many of those who work as drivers of app-based companies, supporters suggest Becerra’s decision in May to sue Uber and Lyft over worker classification issues created a conflict. Their lawsuit says the title and summary prepared by his office is “infected with the contagion of bias and hostility radiating from the Attorney General’s [Unfair Competition Law] lawsuit.”

And opponents of Proposition 23, which seeks changes to the operation of kidney dialysis clinics, are suing over Becerra’s description of when a doctor must be present at a clinic.

Proposition 16 vs. Proposition 209: Then and now

The most intriguing lawsuit over a title and summary might be the one filed by Ward Connerly, the Republican activist who wrote the 1996 ban on affirmative action policies — Proposition 209 — that will be stricken from the California Constitution should voters approve Proposition 16 this fall.

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(Supporters of the new ballot measure, to allow race and gender preferences in public college admissions and government contracts, have filed their own lawsuit over the opposition argument Connerly wrote for the voter’s guide.)

Rarely — if ever — do we get the chance to see how the exact same public policy issue is viewed by attorneys general from different political parties and eras. Remember, all Proposition 16 would do is erase Proposition 209.

Here’s the ballot title for the original proposition written by the office of then-Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren: PROHIBITION AGAINST DISCRIMINATION OR PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT BY STATE AND OTHER PUBLIC ENTITIES.

And here’s the one written by Becerra’s team for this fall: ALLOWS DIVERSITY AS A FACTOR IN PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT, EDUCATION, AND CONTRACTING DECISIONS.

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Which one is fair? Both? Neither?

Opponents of Proposition 209 — that is, those who favor the use of some preferences based on race or gender — were ultimately unsuccessful at getting Lungren’s ballot title changed. Connerly, who applauded the position of an appeals court in 1996, is now the one seeking changes. His lawsuit insists Becerra is “leaning on the high-polling buzzword ‘diversity,’" and that the ballot title “improperly takes sides.”

One final note: Becerra was asked about this part of the job during confirmation hearings in 2017 in the wake of a new round of calls for the job of crafting ballot titles to be given to a nonpartisan expert.

“What will you do to ensure that you’re being descriptive and objective, and following the election code, when you write those ballot titles and summaries?” Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton) asked at the time.

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“I know many of you will be reading over my shoulders,” Becerra said in response. “And I understand the importance of a word.”

The story told by workers at California’s unemployment department

The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in more than $55 billion in jobless benefits paid to Californians just since March, a stark reminder of the pandemic’s devastating impact. But things have not always gone smoothly at the state Employment Development Department.

Take it from some of those who work there.

“I feel frustrated,” Samuel Kihagi, a temporary EDD worker, told The Times. “When we have someone who hasn’t had their money for months and they are calling this line, and they get me and all I can do is tell them, ‘Your payment is pending and I can’t do anything for you,’ that to me is kind of pointless.”

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State lawmakers have ramped up their demands for changes at the department, and Gov. Gavin Newsom last week promised a new “strike team” to help alleviate problems that earlier emergency efforts failed to resolve.

“I know I’m part of the problem because I don’t know what I am doing,” Laura Stewart, an employee, said. “I really feel bad for anyone trying to deal with EDD — particularly if they obviously do qualify for unemployment funds. The system is so inefficient on so many levels.”

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National lightning round

— As millions of Americans faced the end of the coronavirus-inspired federal jobless benefit boost, the two political parties remained deadlocked after weekend talks on another round of economic relief.

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— The Republican convention vote to renominate President Trump is set to be conducted in private later this month, without members of the news media present, a Republican official said.

— Supporters of Sen. Kamala Harris are trying to boost her chances of joining Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Trump plans to take action on what he sees as a broad array of national security risks presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party.

— The Supreme Court has allowed the president to defy Congress and continue to spend more than $6 billion diverted from military funds to pay for the construction of a border wall in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California.

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Today’s essential California politics

— State lawmakers are weighing whether to provide a California supplemental jobless benefit with the extra $600 per week provided by the federal government having expired over the weekend.

— Democrats in the Legislature have unveiled a new effort to raise tax rates on taxable income of $1 million and higher, an effort they say would provide billions of dollars to improve K-12 schools and a variety of government services vital to the state’s recovery.

— In one of several closely watched pension cases, the California Supreme Court sided with the state, unanimously upholding a provision of a 2013 state law that prohibited “pension spiking” by county workers.

— Outraged that Minneapolis officers stood by while George Floyd died in police custody, lawmakers are considering a tough law to punish police who fail to intervene when witnessing potential excessive force, including possible criminal charges.

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— Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who was arrested and charged with racketeering last month in an ongoing pay-to-play probe, now faces additional charges including bribery and money laundering.

— Newsom has appealed directly to investor Warren Buffett to support demolishing four hydroelectric dams on a river along the Oregon-California border to save salmon populations that have dwindled to almost nothing.

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