Another legislative attack on transparency

Los Angeles Daily News

Jon Coupal & Jay Obernolte, Opinion for Los Angeles Daily News, July 7, 2019

Just two weeks ago, this column exposed the abject lack of transparency in the state budget process. But the way the Legislature enacts its spending plan is just one of many ways Sacramento politicians attack transparency.

In recent years, taxpayer advocacy groups have pushed for greater disclosures in local bond and tax measures. These efforts received bipartisan support as they were simply good government bills. Assembly Bill 809 and AB 195 were authored by Assemblyman Jay Obernolte in 2015 and 2016.  Taken together, these bills require that the tax rate, duration and amount of revenue to be raised by a tax or bond measure must be revealed on the 75-word ballot label, as opposed to being buried deep in the pages of the sample ballot booklet. This places the most critical information about a tax proposal in a place where voters will actually see it.

But tax-and-spend interests, mostly public-sector labor organizations, have never liked transparency and now, with their influence in the legislature greater than ever, seek to keep voters in the dark on local fiscal measures on the ballot. Senate Bill 268 by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would undermine the previous bipartisan legislation to the detriment of voters. SB268 upends the HJTA-backed, common-sense legislation by stating that for local bond measures, as well as certain taxes, the critical information will be moved off the ballot label and into the sample ballot. For such measures, the ballot label would include a statement reading, “See voter guide for information.” That’s more annoying than helpful to voters.

Adding insult to injury, SB268 is being advanced through the infamous “gut-and-amend” process whereby bills are stripped of all content and new language is inserted in order to bypass public and media oversight.

Supporters of SB268 argue that some of the information currently required by the previous bills is too complex, and that this nuanced and technical information is too difficult to explain in a 75-word ballot label. We don’t buy it.

It may be true that an accurate description of the impact on taxpayers from a local bond measure requires thoughtful analysis. Bonds are often sold in series and may not impose the same tax rate every year. In some years, bonds may not be sold at all. For that reason, it is difficult to describe with 100% precision the duration of the bonds or what the rate will be before the bonds are sold.

But that difficulty should not be used as an excuse to deprive voters of a good-faith description of what the bond or tax measure will mean to them. And compliance with existing law certainly hasn’t proved to be a barrier to approval of such measures. According to the California Taxpayers Association, over the last two election cycles that AB 195 has been in place, 327 of the 398 local tax and bond measures placed on the ballot were approved. An 82 percent pass rate certainly does not merit a change that would bury pertinent fiscal information in the voter guide.

Opponents of transparency want to return to the good old days (from their perspective) when the 75-word ballot label was devoted to flowery language regarding what the tax and bond will fund (e.g. “This tax will help kids and save kittens!”). Prior to AB 195 passing, tax rate information was rarely included in the ballot label. Imagine voting for a tax without being able to clearly see its rate or duration. The intent of the label should always be to include the impact for taxpayers and not simply a list of projects in order to be able to secure votes.

The California Legislature is quick to demand transparency in the private sector but is averse to applying the same principal to government. That is wrong. Voters must be informed in a manner that makes sense about what a local bond or tax measure means to their pocketbooks. If local governments cannot explain the nuance of a bond or tax measure in 75 words, the answer is to allow more space.  But the wrong solution is to make it difficult for voters to discern what the proposal means to them. Citizens deserve better.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Jay Obernolte represents the 33rd Assembly district.