A Lesson in Real World Politics

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

I guess I have to thank Attorney General Xavier Becerra and his office for providing a great example to support a lesson I teach my public policy classes—you must understand and deal with the politics surrounding any attempted policy change. In the case of the new title affixed to the recently filed split roll tax increase initiative, politics was in the mix to help the special interests and public unions advocating for the measure to get a step ahead.

The title placed on the new split roll initiative to raise property taxes on commercial property begins with the statement that “increased funding will go to schools, community colleges and local government services.” In a nearly identical split roll measure that already qualified for the ballot, and presumably would be replaced if the new one by the same advocates qualifies for the November 2020 ballot, the Attorney General’s title started with the fact that taxes would be raised. In other words, with the change, funding dominates the title instead of taxes. A big difference.

Take a look:

Title for the New measure: INCREASES FUNDING FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS, COMMUNITY COLLEGES, AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT SERVICES BY CHANGING TAX ASSESSMENT OF COMMERCIAL AND INDUSTRIAL PROPERTY. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. 

Title for the already qualified measure: REQUIRES CERTAIN COMMERCIAL AND INDUSTRIAL REAL PROPERTY TO BE TAXED BASED ON FAIR-MARKET VALUE. DEDICATES PORTION OF ANY INCREASED REVENUE TO EDUCATION AND LOCAL SERVICES. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.

Ballot initiative titles are often the last thing a voter sees before making a vote. In some cases the title is the only thing some voters rely on before deciding how to vote on an issue.

The two measures—the split roll already qualified for the ballot and the more recently filed version—are almost identical with some minor changes so how do you suppose that drastic change in the title happened?

This is just an educated guess, mind you, but I know an Attorney General or high-level AG staffer will occasionally take meetings with proponents or opponents of proposed initiative measures before the title and summaries are composed. I know that because I was part of such meetings myself when I was championing initiatives a couple of decades ago.

Proponents of initiatives will poll titles and summaries and that probably occurred when the initial title on the first split roll was written. So proponents may have had a few suggestions for a new title to boost their cause—which could also have been survey tested.

The AG is free to take arguments and suggestions or not.

Given the drastic difference of emphasis in the two titles from taxing to funding despite the small changes in the measures, in can be assumed that politics influenced the dramatic change. 

Many times over the years, from a presentation on the initiative process I participated in co-sponsored by the California Supreme Court Historical Society , to numerous columns on this site, I have argued that the title and summary power should be taken from the partisan elected attorney general and turned over to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office in an effort to squeeze some of the politics out of the process.

Now I have a fresh case study of why that is a good idea as well as an example of real world politics to affect policy, not the way students read about policy procedures in textbooks.

Anyway, Mr. Attorney General, thanks for the great classroom lesson.

 

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