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Gov. Brown's ballot manipulation is sleazy politics

CAPITOL JOURNAL

When Californians passed Prop. 25, they didn't mean to let Democrats use it to give the governor's tax measure top billing on the ballot.

July 15, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Governor Jerry Brown prepares to sign copies of the California Homeowner Bill of Rights on July 11 in San Francisco.
Governor Jerry Brown prepares to sign copies of the California Homeowner… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

SACRAMENTO — This wasn't the deal. Californians thought they were only allowing the Legislature to pass a budget on a majority vote. They wanted to unclog the capitol.

They didn't intend it as a license for Gov. Jerry Brown to rig the election ballot to benefit his tax-increase proposal.

It seems like a non sequitur and unfathomable to link the two: budget passing and ballot rigging.

That takes chutzpah and arrogance.

A state appellate judge will decide whether it's legal.

Many Californians were skeptical anyway in 2010, when they passed Proposition 25 to reduce the legislative vote requirement for a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority.

They really didn't trust the Legislature. What if there was one-party rule in Sacramento — a Democratic governor and the inevitable Democratic Legislature? No party checks and balances. What if?

Well, we just saw.

You may remember how Prop. 25 was sold: California was suffering from budget gridlock. State vendors, healthcare providers and schools were being stiffed because of late budgets. State credit ratings were falling. Only two other states required a two-thirds vote for budget passage. It was a seller's market for votes in the Capitol. Special interests were the brokers.

All true.

Prop. 25 has been a good thing. We've had two consecutive on-time budgets. No more summer-long Capitol squabbling, no more state-issued IOUs.

But recently Prop. 25 was shamefully abused by Democrats at the behest of Brown, who paradoxically rode to power four decades ago on a platform of political reform.

Bear with me, because this makes almost no sense.

Brown's soak-the-rich tax initiative was going to be stuck toward the bottom of the propositions pack in seventh place among 11, where it was in jeopardy of being ignored by voters.

Just as bad, his measure was bunched next to a rival income tax/education funding proposal sponsored by wealthy Pasadena civil-rights attorney Molly Munger. Many voters could become confused and simply reject both.

The solution conjured up by Brown's political strategists: Pass a law moving Brown's proposal to the top.

The new law requires that bond issues and constitutional amendments be listed first on the ballot. There is no state bond measure in November. So Brown's tax, a constitutional amendment, was boosted to the top as Prop. 30.

Munger's proposal is a mere statute. It will be listed near the bottom as Prop. 38.

Normally, reshuffling the November ballot in June would require a two-thirds vote to pass the law as an "urgency" measure. Otherwise, the act wouldn't take effect until January.

Enter Prop. 25. It allows budget-related bills — called budget trailers — to be passed on a majority vote and take effect immediately. To foster the fiction that this ballot rigging was budget related, Democrats inserted a token $1,000 appropriation to fund the scheme.

That's right: They're claiming it will cost $1,000 for some state bureaucrat to move 11 numbers around on a sheet of paper and post it on the secretary of state's website for county elections officials to read.

The bill zipped through the Legislature on a mostly party-line vote. Only one Democrat couldn't stomach it and voted no: Sen. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto.

The supposed rationale for the bill is stated in its text: "Bond measures and constitutional amendments should have priority on the ballot because of the profound and lasting impact these measures can have on our state."

Brown was somewhat candid. He wanted his proposal to get preferential treatment, the governor told reporters, because it "is so important."

But so are other measures on the ballot, including Munger's, a death penalty repeal (Prop. 34) and a proposal to cripple unions' ability to raise political money (Prop. 32).

And, of course, Brown could have avoided the ballot entirely by using his gubernatorial powers, exercising leadership and raising taxes through the Legislature. But he foolishly promised when running for governor to give voters veto power over any tax hike.

Munger filed what seemed to be a halfhearted suit challenging the ballot positioning of Brown's measure. She lost last week and didn't appeal.

But the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., an intervener in the suit, did appeal. A judge gave Secretary of State Debra Bowen and the Legislature until July 30 to justify the ballot reshuffling.

"Unless you're a hard-core partisan, you've got to find this offensive," says Jon Coupal, president of the Jarvis group. "This state is being run like a banana republic."

The appeal contends the ballot bill was not budget related and Democrats misused Prop. 25. Legislative lawyers counter that lawmakers have the unique power to decide for themselves what is budget related.

"That's an assertion based on the divine right of kings," says Republican political analyst Tony Quinn. "It's like Louis XIV: 'I am the state.'"

The 17th century French king also proclaimed — a la Brown and Democrats — "It is legal because I wish it."

But it's bad policy.

First, it unfairly changes the rules in the middle of the game.

Second, if anything, constitutional amendments should be made harder to pass, not easier. California's constitution is way too cluttered.

It's also bad politics — sleazy and smelly. Nothing like packaging a tax increase in a reeky wrapper.

And it's breaking faith with the voters — another example of why they have so little.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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