Judge Strikes Prop 25's Taxes Reference

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Photo: Getty Images

Everyone involved in asking voters to either approve or reject the November ballot measure making it easier for the Legislature to pass a budget knows one thing: the voters won't make it easier to raise taxes.

And that's why they're duking it out over the title and summary of Proposition 25. This morning, a judge removed a sentence from the title of Prop 25 that says it won't affect the supermajority vote for a tax hike, calling that sentence "misleading."

It was a short, but high stakes, hearing in front of Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette. And while opponents of Prop 25 won this round, backers immediately said they will appeal.

Before Marlette's ruling, the Prop 25 ballot label, prepared by the office of Attorney General Jerry Brown, said the following:

CHANGES LEGISLATIVE VOTE REQUIREMENT TO PASS BUDGET AND BUDGET-RELATED LEGISLATION FROM TWO-THIRDS TO A SIMPLE MAJORITY. RETAINS TWO-THIRDS VOTE REQUIREMENT FOR TAXES. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.

Should the judge's ruling stand, the title will no longer include the sentence that refers to taxes... an omission that could be a serious blow to the PR campaign Prop 25's backers intend to wage.

The lawsuit, filed by California Chamber of Commerce president Allan Zaremberg, contended that because Prop 25 makes no real reference to the supermajority vote for a tax increase (which was passed by voters in 1978's Proposition 13), the official title and summary shouldn't do so, either.

At first in today's hearing, it seemed Judge Marlettte was more focused on finding a better word in the above title than "retain." He told attorneys for both sides that the word "retain" might make a voter believe that voting against Prop 25 would mean the supermajority legislative vote for taxes would be erased. "What else," asked Marlette, "is the meaning of 'retain'?"

But apparently he didn't like any alternate choices, finally ruling that the sentence be removed altogether.

The plaintiffs in the case actually believe Prop 25 would allow a tax hike by a simple majority vote in the Assembly and Senate; GOP attorney Steve Merksamer and the official opposition campaign have been arguing for weeks that Prop 25's focus on making it easier to pass all a budget bill "and other bills providing for appropriations related to the budget" means a tax increase sneaked into one of those measures would escape the two-thirds requirement.

Prop 25's supporters strongly dispute such a notion, and maintain that any such trickery by future legislators would undoubtedly be rejected by the courts. Judge Marlette also seemed to question such a scenario today, though did not make any formal finding as such.

The last time voters considered an initiative to lower the budget vote in the Legislature was 2004's Proposition 56, which would have also lowered the tax threshold. And the tax fight was what seemed to doom Prop 56 -- a key lesson learned by the backers of Prop 25, who at every turn intend to remind voters that they're not interested in making it easier to pass taxes.

Today's ruling "ignored longstanding precedent to defer to the Attorney General on what should be in the title and summary," said Prop 25 proponent Kenneth Burt in a written statement. "We are confident the Court of Appeals will reverse this decision." The issue will need to be resolved soon, as ballot materials need to be printed and sent out to voters in the near future.

It's worth noting that AG Brown's team has now lost two separate rounds in court this week over descriptions of November ballot measures; on Tuesday, a different judge ordered changes in the ballot items for Proposition 23, which would suspend the state's climate change law.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • http://N/A Dennis/ Roberta Bailey

    If this should be passed that would be the last straw for us. We are presently scratching for a living now. Our only income is Med-care and that wii cause us to sell out and leave California. It would be devistating for us. We have not had a cost of living these last two years and it looks like this year may be the third year. Thank you for the info.