Tuesday, August 19, 2014
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Lawmakers Don’t Think Rules Apply to Them
By JON COUPAL
No one would dispute that California’s diversity extends to the wide political gulf between conservative Californians and those who see themselves as liberal. From strong Tea Party interests in the more rural areas to the “Occupiers” in San Francisco, the balkanization of our body politic is well recognized. But there should be, if there isn’t already, a consensus that the rules that apply to voting and the electoral process should not be manipulated for political gain.
Regrettably, for the second time in 3 years, in response to a suit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the courts have had to intervene for just such an attempt.
In a transparent effort to manipulate voter turnout, the majority in the Legislature approved for the ballot an advisory measure that, if passed, would have asked Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of groups and organizations to participate in political activity. (This issue has become a cause celebre for some on the far left who believe that corporations should be prohibited from exercising political speech.) But the California Supreme Court agreed with Jarvis that the measure raised a significant issue as to whether it was a legitimate exercise of legislative power and therefore directed the California Secretary of State to refrain from placing what would have been Proposition 49 on the November ballot.
The issue was not what the measure would have asked for, but rather does the Legislature have the constitutional authority to place a purely advisory measure on the ballot. Former Gov. Pete Wilson, writing in support of the Jarvis position, said that he objected to legislators’ attempt to expand their powers and that the advisory question which would have been Proposition 49, “…is not legislative in character and does not fit within any of the categories of legislation permitted by the California Constitution to be placed upon the ballot.”
In ruling against lawmakers, the justices quoted from a 20-year-old ruling in which another advisory measure was removed from the ballot, “The presence of an invalid measure on the ballot steals attention, time and money from numerous propositions on the ballot.” The Court agreed that it would confuse some voters and frustrate others.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court acted quickly enough to prevent this substantively meaningless measure from distracting from the legitimate issues that will be considered in the November election. While the Court did ask for further briefing and the final decision won’t be rendered for at least several months, most court observers believe that the proposal will not stand up under even greater judicial scrutiny.
The ruling last week reminded us of another instance where HJTA intervention was warranted to protect the integrity of the ballot box. In 2011, HJTA prevailed over the Legislature after lawmakers had attempted to manipulate the outcome of a bond proposal that appeared on the ballot in 2008.
At issue in the legal action was the High Speed Train Bond Act of 2008, a measure sponsored and placed on the ballot by the Legislature. Rather than complying with the voter-prescribed process of having the Attorney General prepare the ballot label, title and official summary, the Legislature hijacked the process and dictated the language that would appear in the ballot pamphlet. HJTA alleged that the material was little more than a sales job on behalf of the bond.
While the Court of Appeal agreed with HJTA on the merits, it was somewhat of a hollow victory in that the decision came down more than two years after the bond had been approved by 52.7 percent of voters, voters who were subjected to the Legislature’s propaganda under the guise of impartial analysis. (Polling today confirms that, had Californians been told the truth about High Speed Rail, it is extremely unlikely the measure would have passed).
In both these actions, HJTA performed a valuable public service on behalf of all Californians who believe in protecting the electoral process from powerful interests seeking to obtain an unfair advantage at the ballot box. We hope that these precedent-setting legal actions will deter future abuses by overreaching lawmakers.
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