When Will We Finally Take Title and Summary Away from Attorneys General?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

It’s become a dishonorable California tradition: state attorneys general draft titles and summaries for ballot initiatives that don’t pass the laugh test. 

Our current A.G., Xavier Becerra, is getting justified criticism for his summary of the split roll initiative. That measure should be properly explained as lifting the Prop 13 limits on reassessments of commercial property, but was described by the A.G. as, “Increases funding for public schools, community colleges and local government services by changing tax assessment of commercial and industrial property.” 

Becerra surely will defend that as accurate—or at least close enough for government work. But being able to defend a title legally is not the point when it comes to ballot initiatives. The process requires public confidence, and that requires that measures be described fairly, so as not to favor one side or the other. That’s because a legitimate democracy requires the support of the losers. 

After decades of dealing with this problem, it’s time for a change. No elected official should be involved in writing those title and summaries. The process should be given to citizens themselves. 

Ideally, a citizens commission of Californians, chosen more or less at random, with the goal of getting a representative body, would hear testimony on each measure—in public—and then assign it a title and summary. The goal would be to get plain language here—and make sure the citizen’s initiative remains a citizen’s process.

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