Dan Walters: California politicians play hide-the-pea on ballot measures

09/17/2013 4:45 PM

09/17/2013 10:27 PM

As the ballot measure evolved into California’s primary public policy tool over the last three-plus decades, clever people were paid large sums of money to figure out how to persuade voters. They adopted deception – there’s no other word for it – as a technique.

Measures were written that purported to do one thing while semi-secretly doing another, based on a cynical, although perhaps realistic, assumption that a significant number of voters would ignore details and act on first impulse.

Proposition 25, placed before voters in 2010 by Democratic politicians and their allies, principally unions, was one of many examples.

Its true underlying purpose was to change the legislative vote requirement on state budgets and so-called trailer bills from two-thirds to a simple majority, thus cutting Republicans out of the process. But the wording of the measure implied that its major purpose was to punish the Legislature for missing a June 15 deadline for passing a budget.

The ploy worked, in part because the attorney general’s office more or less went along with the strategy by writing a “title and summary” for the measure that stressed its punitive nature.

The attorney general at the time was Jerry Brown. A couple of years earlier, his office had issued a very slanted title and summary for what became Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage.

The Legislature also plays hide-the-pea with the measures it places on the ballot by writing titles and summaries itself, such as 2009’s Proposition 1A. It purported to be a spending limit but really was aimed at validating some hefty new taxes that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature had enacted.

A new election season is approaching and with it, another effort to fool voters as to the true purpose of a major ballot measure has surfaced.

Wealthy businessman Robert Pack, whose son was killed in an auto collision with a drug-impaired driver, is incensed that a 38-year-old state law limits “pain and suffering” damages in medical malpractice cases to $250,000 – a law signed by Jerry Brown, incidentally.

Personal injury lawyers have been trying for decades to repeal or increase the cap but have been repeatedly rebuffed in the Legislature, including this year. Pack, therefore, is personally sponsoring a 2014 ballot measure that would increase the cap by an inflationary factor.

The title and summary issued by Attorney General Kamala Harris – a longtime political ally of the lawyers – virtually ignore that aspect of the measure and instead stress another provision that would require drug and alcohol testing of doctors.

That language was clearly included to mask the initiative’s true purpose and persuade voters that it would eliminate drug-addled doctors.

It’s just another cynical game of hide-the-pea.

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