Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Ballot measures have become game of hide-the-pea

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Writing California ballot measures has evolved – or degenerated – into a game of hide-the-pea.

The trick is to write a measure that contains the main thing its sponsors want, but encase it in other stuff that, they hope, will sway enough inattentive voters to win approval.

Examples abound, but a classic was the 2010 ballot measure, backed by Democratic politicians and their allies, especially public employee unions, that lowered the legislative vote requirement for state budgets from two-thirds to a simple majority.

The real goal was to take minority Republicans out of the process, and allow majority Democrats to write budgets unfettered – in other words, a power play.

The pitch to voters, however, was that it would eliminate unseemly stalemates on budgets and allow them to be enacted by the constitutional deadline of June 15 each year.

To reinforce that supposed purpose, the measure contained a seemingly harsh penalty on legislators if they missed the deadline – forfeiture of pay during any delay.

The very next budget was a test.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the first version as unbalanced, and Controller John Chiang cut off legislators’ pay. A new budget was hastily enacted, based on what turned out to be a fanciful expectation of $4 billion in additional revenues.

Legislators were incensed and sued Chiang, contending he acted improperly. A Superior Court judge agreed, declaring that the Legislature itself was the only judge of whether it had met the deadline, and an appellate court ratified that ruling.

Bottom line: The penalty portion of the 2010 ballot measure is, essentially, inoperative. Legislators are now free to do whatever they wish on the budget.

Seeking ways to bypass what the voters were told they were enacting is, however, not confined to the budget case.

In 2008, voters narrowly passed a $9.95 billion bond issue for a north-south bullet train, with assurances that the project would meet many specific conditions.

Last year, a Sacramento judge ruled that some of its conditions had not been met. Gov. Brown now wants appellate courts to intervene, contending that since the Legislature appropriated bond money, the conditions have been met.

It could be a ploy to make judges bear the onus for killing the unpopular project. But if Brown is serious, it continues a pattern of voters being told something to win approval of ballot measures, only to have assurances sidestepped later.

Finally, a pending ballot measure would raise the state’s long-standing $250,000 cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases, but that’s obscured by wordy provisions about curbing doctors’ drug abuse and controls on overprescribing drugs – stuff that might be attractive to some voters.

Is it any wonder California voters are so cynical about their politics?