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Misstating Measure H

Editorial

The staff of Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana made an error in telling voters about Measure H. The consequences could be major.

February 16, 2011

Being a responsible voter is a difficult job, especially when one is confronted with a big batch of confusing ballot measures. Conscientious voters read the arguments on both sides in their sample ballots, but those are written by people with vested interests. So the best place to turn is often to the analysis provided by government agencies that employ the experts in these matters and have no ax to grind.

But what if an analysis is wrong? That's what's happened in the case of Measure H, a campaign reform proposal on the March 8 ballot for the city of Los Angeles. The chief purpose of the measure is to ban campaign contributions from contractors who are bidding for the city's business. Another section, though, aims to build up the city's "campaign trust fund," which is used to provide public money to candidates in city elections so that they don't have to take special-interest contributions.

Under existing law, the city must put about $3 million a year into the fund, up to a cap of about $12 million. Measure H would lift the cap, but it also would give the City Council more flexibility on the annual contribution. In times of fiscal emergency — like now — the council could reduce the payment or suspend it altogether.

That's where the staff of Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana made its error. Santana's fiscal analysis, included in the sample ballot, says that if the council decides against putting money into the fund during a bad budget year, it must make up the payment later — by the end of the next fiscal year at the latest. This would mean that even in hard fiscal times, the city might have to pull money from other services to repay the campaign fund.

But the measure doesn't say that. There is a repayment clause in another paragraph, but it only takes effect if the city borrows money from the campaign fund, not if it suspends the annual payment.

The office of the Chief Administrative Officer apparently conflated two paragraphs. And though it involves only a small portion of the measure, the error is significant. A provision intended to give the City Council more flexibility during hard times could be interpreted by voters as locking it into a certain amount of spending, no matter what the circumstances. Conversely, for voters who prefer to see a guaranteed amount go into the fund every year, the analysis gives the false impression that the fund will be protected during hard times. Whichever way people see the matter, they need an accurate analysis to make an informed decision.

Could it be that the staff was given too little time to analyze the raft of measures that the council rushed onto the ballot in November? The answer to how this happened is important. The fiscal analysis misleads voters and could open the outcome of the Measure H vote to legal challenge. The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce is using the incorrect information as one of its arguments against the measure. The administrative office admits the error and is delivering a correction to the council, but little can be done to rectify matters now, except to take the inaccurate information off the Internet — and figure out how to backstop these analyses to prevent future errors.

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