By John Diaz – Editorial Page Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
California’s attorney general is charged with providing a “true and impartial” title and summary for ballot propositions. Once again, the attorney general’s office is being legitimately accused of skewing the language in favor of one side of an issue.
This is not a new complaint for Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Two years ago, he could not find the space in the title or 100-word summary to straight-up tell Californians that Proposition 6 would repeal a 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Instead, his official description emphasized that the measure would eliminate road repair and transportation funding.
He’s at it again.
Advocates of a measure to allow drivers for ride-hailing firms to maintain their independent contractor status (Prop. 22) and opponents of a measure to raise taxes on commercial buildings (Prop. 15) are crying foul over their treatment in the titles and summaries delivered by the attorney general in the past week.
No matter where one comes down on those issues — our editorial board has not taken positions on either, pending our research and meetings with advocates pro and con — Californians should agree that it’s the job of the campaigns, not the attorney general, to make their arguments. The attorney general’s neutrality is especially critical because the title and summary may be the extent of some voters’ exposure to a proposition.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case since at least 1966, when Attorney General Tom Lynch, a Democrat, agreed to remove a reference to the title and summary of Proposition 1A that said it would raise Senate and Assembly salaries as part of its establishment of a full-time Legislature. Lynch was bowing to the concerns of Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh that such disclosure would impair its passage.
In the case of this year’s Proposition 22, the attorney general’s description all but cries out for voters to reject it. The best that can be said of the title is that it is woefully incomplete in stating that it “exempts app-based transportation and delivery companies from providing employee benefits to certain drivers.” Curiously, the attorney general’s Jan. 2 description for signature gathering was more expansive in spelling out the alternate benefits that would be extended to drivers who remained independent contractors.
Organized labor, which heavily finances campaigns for Becerra and other Democrats, is lining up against Prop. 22.
“It does the voters a disservice,” Stacey Wells, a spokeswoman for Yes on 22, said of the revised title and summary. “Voters are smart. They should not be treated as if they are not.”
Wells said the Prop. 22 campaign is “weighing all of our options” on a potential legal challenge to the title and summary. So is the campaign against Prop. 15, which would significantly peel back the tax breaks for commercial property granted by California voters in the revolutionary Prop. 13 of 1978. The ballot title on Prop. 15 begins by stating that it “increases funding sources for public schools, community colleges and local government services.” It would do so, it states, by “changing tax assessment” — not raising taxes — on commercial and industrial property.
“Those types of verbal gymnastics are extraordinary,” said Michael Bustamante of the No on 15 campaign.
I reached out to Becerra’s office for comment on the controversy. A spokeswoman sent me a transcript of our editorial board meeting in which my colleagues and I asked him about the Prop. 6 language. He noted then that “we have our checks and balances in this process” in that those who disagree with a title and summary can challenge them in court. However, the reality is that judges have proved deferential to attorneys general in all but the most egregious cases.
John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor.