The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. won a legal fight Tuesday against California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown over the exact wording of an initiative proposal that will appear on the November ballot. The Jarvis victory: One word in the description of Proposition 23 was replaced by a Sacramento judge with three different words, and an "s" was removed to make the word "laws" singular rather than plural.
Nitpicky? Maybe. But words do matter, especially on ballot descriptions, because for many voters these short summaries represent all they know about an initiative. And Brown's original wording did indeed seem misleading, raising questions about the partisan production of ballot language.
Proposition 23 would stall California's groundbreaking effort to reduce its climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions until the state's economy improves. Specifically, it would suspend AB 32, which calls for sweeping caps on pollution from factories, power plants and other sources, until the state's unemployment rate remains at 5.5% or lower for at least a year.
Brown's original language on the ballot label said the initiative required "major polluters" to report and reduce emissions, but Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ruled — rightly, we think — that the term was pejorative. It has been replaced with "major sources of emissions." Also, where the original wording said the initiative would suspend "air pollution control laws," Frawley went with the singular "air pollution control law (AB 32)." That's appropriate too, because the original made it sound as if the measure would forestall any number of regulations aimed at air pollution in addition to AB 32, which it wouldn't.
Brown says he won't appeal the ruling, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that the attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, a supporter of carbon limits, let his partisan views influence his choice of ballot language. That's why Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Marysville) says he plans to introduce a bill next year that would shift the job of writing ballot descriptions from the attorney general's office, run by a partisan elected official, to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. That would be worth a look, given that the state analyst's objectivity is widely considered beyond reproach, but we're afraid it wouldn't end this kind of dispute. On Monday, backers of Proposition 22 sued the Legislative Analyst's Office over its description of the financial impact of the measure, which is aimed at stopping Sacramento's raids on municipal revenues.
Coming up with neutral language is hard — which newspapers well know, as they're frequently accused of partisan bias in their news stories. Still, we'd expect the lawyers in Brown's office to be a little bit better at it.