Ballot measures often are decided by their title and 100-word summaries, which can have a major influence on voters who have not researched the issues. That is why the attorney general, who is entrusted to draft the titles and summaries, has the ethical responsibility to do so in an accurate, fair and impartial manner.
If only that were the case. Time and again attorneys general have slanted the wording on ballot summaries and titles to please a particular political party or special interest group.
The latest example of such partisan manipulation was by Attorney General Kamala Harris. Her summaries on two pension reform measures slated for the November ballot were so blatantly biased that the sponsor of the measures has ended signature gathering, saying the ballot descriptions made it impossible to raise the $2 million they would need to qualify a measure, and has withdrawn them.
Dan Pellissier, president of California Pension Reform, which presented the ballot initiatives to Harris, called her titles and summaries ugly, partisan and manipulative. He's absolutely right; union opponents of the measure couldn't have been more partisan had they written the summary.
Harris' summary of the measures asserted they would reduce pension benefits for current employees, which is false. One measure proposes a less-generous combined system of 401(k) and defined benefit pensions for future employees, but it does not deprive current employees of a vested benefit, which would be illegal.
Her summary insinuated that judges, but not police, teachers and nurses, would get favorable treatment, which is highly misleading.
She also stated that each proposal "prohibits public retirement systems from providing death or disability benefits to future employees." That is a falsehood. The measures specifically said the provision of such benefits was up to the government agencies involved.
So much for impartiality.
Not only has Harris killed a couple of ballot measures that her political allies in the public employees unions opposed, but she also undermined fellow Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts to reform pensions.
Brown was counting on the threat of voters approving a stringent pension reform measure as leverage to prod reluctant legislators to back his own more moderate reforms.
On the other hand, her summaries of Brown's proposed temporary sales and income tax increases for the November ballot were so flattering they could have been written by the governor, who also wrote slanted summaries when he was attorney general.
There is a simple solution to the ongoing problem of attorneys general writing biased ballot titles and summaries. Give the job to the nonpartisan legislative analyst, who already does provide a fiscal analysis of the measures. Over the years, the Legislative Analyst's Office has had a commendable record of providing accurate, informative and unslanted summaries of the state budget and the likely impact of tax and spending policies.
The legislative analyst should write the titles and summaries of ballot measures. Voters deserve to have a neutral party explain briefly what a ballot measure is about and not be subjected to what amounts to a partisan ad written by the state's attorney general.