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December 29, 2013
Editorial: Stop playing fast and loose with ballot language

Kamala_Harris.JPG(Dec. 29 - By the Editorial Board)

Like clockwork, signature gatherers mass outside supermarkets to hawk their petitions, while initiative proponents squawk about the loaded wording in the official titles and summaries given to their propositions.

The wording is supposed to be neutral. But recent attorneys general, who are responsible for titles and summaries, have meddled, knowing many voters make up their minds based on the 100-word summations.

Attorney General Kamala Harris has been especially freewheeling. That needs to stop.

As The Bee's Jon Ortiz wrote in his State Worker column last week, Harris is preparing to release her assessment of San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's initiative to subject public employee pensions to labor negotiations.

Given the power of public employee unions, Harris faces pressure to load her assessment in a way that casts Reed's measure in the worst light. She should resist.

A San Francisco Chronicle report was the latest to chastise Harris wordsmithing, citing her summary of the benefits of a marijuana legalization measure:

"Potential net additional tax revenues in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually ... a portion of which is required to be spent on education, health care, public safety, drug abuse education and treatment, and the regulation of commercial marijuana activities."

At least she didn't say the money would be used to buy pot smokers the munchies of their choice.

Earlier, The Bee's Dan Walters wrote about her view of an initiative backed by plaintiffs' attorney to lift the $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. Harris focused on a poll tested feature popular with voters - requiring drug testing of physicians.

A blatant example occurred last year when Harris described an initiative to roll back public employee pension benefits as affecting police, nurses and teachers. Harris didn't mention workers who might not fare quite as well in focus groups.

In each instance, Harris came down on the side of her patrons, plaintiffs' attorneys and public employee unions.

Republican attorneys general have loaded summaries, too. Given voting trends, there is little chance that a serious Republican will challenge Harris in 2014. That means she will have the opportunity to review many more initiatives.

The Bee's editorial board takes a dim view of most ballot measures. But the attorney general's job is to play it straight. With initiative season upon us again, Harris needs to leave her political biases at the door.



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