Feud erupts over language of California gas tax measure

Feud erupts over language of California gas tax measure


SANTA ANA, Calif. — After Los Angeles County residents got an automated phone call reporting a mistake was on their November ballot, county officials issued an alert to voters that there was no such error.

The calls — and a mailer dubbed a ballot “correction” — were part of an advertising blitz by Proposition 6 supporters trying to drive home a message to voters to overcome what they see as a misleading title and summary on the ballot initiative.

Proposition 6 would repeal an increase in fuel taxes and vehicle fees that is slated to fund $5 billion in transportation projects a year.

Its title on the ballot begins with: “Eliminates certain road repair and transportation funding.” Proponents say that doesn’t convey quickly enough its mission, which is why they titled it a “Gas Tax Repeal Initiative” in large letters on their mailer.

The feud over messaging comes just weeks before the election, though complaints about ballot language are hardly new. Since elected officials craft the title and summary that voters read on the ballot, Republicans frequently contend they are at a disadvantage since California’s Legislature and government offices — including those tasked with drafting and publishing ballot language — are solidly in Democrats’ hands.

“We very often have these fights,” said Thad Kousser, chairman of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “(The proponents) wanted it to only talk about what voters would get, not what voters would lose, and so they are well within their rights to make this their central campaign message.”

Proponents can challenge ballot language in the courts but didn’t for Proposition 6, a constitutional amendment that also seeks to require voter approval for future fuel tax hikes.

Instead, supporters have focused their efforts on branding the measure as a repeal of a gasoline tax hike they say is making California too expensive.

“We know when voters know ‘Yes on Prop 6’ is the gas tax repeal, they are more likely to support it,” said Dave McCulloch, a spokesman for proponents. “Lawyers are expensive, and we feel money is best used by educating voters.”

Opponents, who argue the tax revenues are critical to upgrading the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, have called the advertising deceptive. They said they also would have preferred messaging more favourable to their cause and that proponents had the chance to mount a court challenge and didn’t.

“We find it disgraceful and deceptive that they would emulate an official voter guide with fake mailers,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the campaign against Proposition 6. “If we were writing the title and summary, we would call it, ‘The attack on roads and bridges.”‘ We didn’t get our way either, but we’re not trying to deceive voters.”

Opponents, backed by construction industry groups and unions, are campaigning to show voters how revenues from the 12-cent-per-gallon increase in gasoline excise taxes are translating to road and transit fixes in their neighbourhoods, she said.

The battle over language comes as polling by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California shows the repeal effort trailing. In a mid-October poll, 41 per cent of likely voters said they planned to vote for the initiative, and 48 per cent were opposed. A January poll showed 47 per cent of likely voters favoured repealing the gas tax increase.

McCulloch said the shift shows ballot language matters since earlier polling didn’t include the measure’s official title. Swanson said it showed the campaign against the measure, which took off over the summer, has resonated with voters.

Opponents also have raised $44 million, compared with $5 million raised by supporters.

Keir DuBois, 41, said he received one of the correction-styled mailers in coastal Ventura northwest of Los Angeles. DuBois, who opposes the repeal, said he knew it was an ad but didn’t like getting an official-looking communication that was labeled a “correction” from a political campaign.

“I felt like they were trying to pull one over on people who want to believe voting against every tax is a good thing,” he said.

Brian Greene, who has seen the mailers posted online and wants the tax hike rolled back, said he feels just the opposite.

“It is just getting the conversation started about what the phrasing actually means on the bills we’re voting on,” said the 25-year-old from Los Angeles. “I think the layperson doesn’t understand the government rhetoric. They make it as complicated as possible.”

In this month’s poll, the measure had more support in Orange County and San Diego County, home to Republican former councilman and initiative author Carl DeMaio. Most respondents in the San Francisco Bay Area said they’d vote against it.

In addition to election mailers and calls, Proposition 6 supporters have led a bus tour and put video ads on screens at gas stations that drivers see while filling up. They also held campaign events at gas stations offering discounted fuel.

Mary-Beth Moylan, professor at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Stockton, thinks proponents went too far in mimicking election announcements.

“I don’t have a problem with them putting a mailer out,” said Moylan, who teaches a seminar on initiatives. “It is another thing to say, ‘We’re going to masquerade as an official state actor and tell you that there is a correction to your ballot.’ Adding that level of manipulation to the process, I think, is problematic.”

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