Opinion

What’s in a proposition title? Could be everything

Morning rush hour near downtown Los Angeles shows how much gas is used in California each day and how important it is to maintain our roads. Proposition 6 will repeal the tax, passed by the legislature, that will help make that possible.
Morning rush hour near downtown Los Angeles shows how much gas is used in California each day and how important it is to maintain our roads. Proposition 6 will repeal the tax, passed by the legislature, that will help make that possible. AP

California neglected maintenance of its highway and road network for decades. But last year, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown finally enacted a stiff increase in gas taxes and automotive fees to catch up – even though polls indicated most Californians didn’t want to pay more.

Despite its unpopularity, it was the right thing to do. Almost immediately, a campaign was launched by anti-tax conservatives and the Republican Party to repeal the $5-billion-plus package, resulting in Proposition 6 on the November ballot. The GOP hoped it would encourage voters to cast ballots and help the party save a half-dozen vulnerable Republican congressional seats.

Last week, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll indicating that despite the previous opposition, the repeal measure is favored by just 39 percent of likely voters; 52 percent are opposed.

Does that mean Californians have changed their minds? Perhaps not.

The repeal proposal received what can only be described as a hostile official ballot title from Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Instead of describing it as a repeal of gas taxes, the official title is “Eliminates certain road repair and transportation funding. Requires certain fuel taxes and vehicle fees to be approved by the electorate.”

PPIC’s survey team read that title as it polled nearly 1,000 Californians, a cross-section of likely voters statewide.

Though Democrats were less likely than Republicans to vote for Proposition 6, the gap wasn’t all that wide. The slanted title, which didn’t say it was a repeal, probably had something to do with that.

That theory is bolstered by responses to a more generic question. “When asked a more general question about repealing the recent increases, likely voters are divided (50 percent favor, 46 percent oppose),” PPIC said.

When Becerra released the title, repeal proponents sued, and a Superior Court judge declared it was misleading. Judge Timothy Frawley ordered the passage rewritten to state the measure “repeals recently enacted gas and diesel taxes and vehicle registration fees.”

But the state court of appeal overturned Frawley, saying the complete description, which included the taxes to be repealed, was accurate enough.

If PPIC respondents been given a fuller description of Proposition 6, rather than just the brief title, the results would have been different.

Given that, it falls on Proposition 6 backers to make their case. As the PPIC poll surfaced, Prop 6 backers released their first TV ad “to ensure that California voters know a yes vote on Proposition 6 repeals the gas tax.” It describes the tax package as another burden on families that politicians passed “to cover their budget deficit, not fix our roads.”

It could be an effective message. The PPIC poll says support is strongest among lower-income immigrants with children.

However, the opposition is a powerful coalition of business, labor unions and other interest groups. It likely has more money to drive home the point that Prop 6 would deprive California motorists of much-needed roadway repairs. That’s a valid contention, even if it hinges on a misleading ballot title.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: dan@calmatters.org.

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