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Brown v. Democracy

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With the California Financial Crisis at stake, the impartiality of the California Attorney General has come under scrutiny.

Proponents of the California Democracy Act, a ballot initiative that would restore a majority vote for revenue and budget in the legislature, are asking Jerry Brown, the Attorney General, for a new title and summary. An exhaustive poll has shown that Brown's title and summary changed the meaning and intent of the proposed initiative by one of the largest margins ever seen in a poll.

The poll was conducted by David Binder Research, one of California's most respected polling firms. The poll showed that the actual initiative for majority on revenue and budget is supported by likely California voters by a 73-to-22 percent margin -- a 51 percent lead. But Attorney General Jerry Brown personally wrote the title and summary with wording that shifts that favorable margin to a 38-to-56 percent unfavorable margin -- a 69 percent shift!

The poll was conducted March 6-11, with a random sample of 800 likely voters with a margin of error of ±3.5 percent. The summary appears on www.CaliforniansforDemocracy.com.

If unchanged, Brown's wording, not the actual initiative, would appear on the ballot, leading voters to misinterpret it and vote against it. Brown's wording, if not changed, could kill the initiative, despite overwhelming voter support.

The effect is crucial, since the lack of majority rule in the legislature has made it impossible for the legislature to raise the revenue the state needs to prevent financial meltdown. It is the single biggest factor in the state's budget crisis.

The California Democracy Act is one sentence long.

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.

Its intent is "to bring democracy to the California legislature by ensuring that all legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote. The current 2/3 vote requirement for revenue and budget allows 33.4% of either the Assembly or Senate to block the will of the majority, which violates an essential tenet of democracy." The issue is democracy. And on an initiative, a simple majority can end the 2/3 vote rules.

Attorney General Brown's rewording states:

Changes Legislative Vote Requirement to Pass a Budget or Raise Taxes from Two-Thirds to a Simple Majority. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.

It changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the budget, and to raise taxes from two-thirds to a simple majority. Unknown fiscal impact from lowering the legislative vote requirement for spending and tax increases. In some cases, the content of the annual state budget could change and / or state tax revenues could increase. Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future legislatures.

The Attorney General's wording uses the word "taxes" four times, associated with the words "raise" and "increase." It includes the conservative language "spending and tax increases," usually used to vilify liberals. His title and summary raises voters' fears that their taxes could be raised. It replaces the intent of the initiative to promote democracy via majority vote by a purported but untrue intent to raise taxes on individual voters.

The Binder report notes that taxes in general, as opposed to their taxes, are not a real concern of most voters. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to raising taxes on lower and middle income Californians, as are Republicans. No one in the legislature wants to raise taxes on most voters.

When taxes on the lower and middle income brackets are not at issue, 64 percent of voters support "solving the budget crisis by closing tax loopholes on corporations and charging oil companies an extraction fee without raising taxes on lower and middle income Californians." 55% agree with the statement that "we could raise revenue and balance the budget without raising taxes on lower and middle income Californians." Tax experts, such as Jean Ross of the Californian Budget project and Lenny Goldberg of the California Tax Reform Association agree.

Some moderate and liberal opponents of the Democracy Act believe that the right will attack it as raising taxes nonetheless, and that is no doubt true. Usually such attacks would lower support for an initiative by about 10 percent. The Binder poll took this into account by providing a battery of such attacks and then testing support again. The predicated effect occurred. Support for the original wording dropped from 73-to-22 percent down to 62-to-34 percent, still a 28 percent margin.

In short, the Attorney General's wording raises unrealistic fears in a majority of voters that their taxes might be raised and hides the true democratic intent of the original initiative. That is why proponents of the California Democracy Act are asking for an accurate title and summary from the Attorney General that reflects the democratic intent of the initiative and does not raise unrealistic fears of most voters that their taxes might be raised via the initiative.

Indeed, voters show overwhelming support for such basic democracy. As Binder observes, 71% of voters agree with the statement that "in a democracy, a majority of legislators should be able to pass everyday legislation." And 68% of voters disagree with the statement that "in a democracy, a minority of legislators should be able to block everyday legislation." Percentages this high reflect support from across the political spectrum.

Since everyday legislation requires revenue, a majority vote requirement for both revenue and budget would realize the aspirations of an overwhelming percentage of voters for democracy in their legislature. And it would allow the legislature to pass legislation that would end the budget crisis.

I ask you to write to Attorney General Brownat initiative.coordinator@doj.ca.gov asking him to provide a title and summary of the resubmitted California Democracy Act according to its actual intent as follows: Ensures that all legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote, and ends the ability of a minority of legislators to block the will of the majority on such legislation.

The Attorney General ought not to be acting against the overwhelming yearning for democracy on the part of voters across the political spectrum, as well as their deep desire to end the state's budget crisis.

The author is Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, one of the world's most renowned linguists and one of the country's leading experts on the use of language in politics. He is the author of the California Democracy Act.

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