Given their druthers, many government officials would prefer to do their business – our business, actually – behind closed doors and provide sanitized, self-serving versions of their actions after the fact.
Journalists and governmental watchdogs struggle constantly to overcome the tendency toward secrecy and obfuscation, sometimes winning and often losing.
Two years ago, in a rare display of support for transparency in governmental finance, the Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown required local governments and school districts to tell voters how proposed bond and tax issues would affect constituents’ tax bills.
That’s common sense and good government, but local officials complained that the new law, Assembly Bill 195, would be too difficult to implement.
More likely, however, they feared that including an estimate of tax consequences in the brief ballot summary would crowd out their pitches for passage and that telling voters that their tax bills would increase might discourage them from approving the measures.
Local Officials Still Don’t Like the Law
Last year, the disdain of local officials for the law manifested itself in a budget “trailer bill” that would suspend the transparency law for two years – thereby exempting hundreds of 2018 bond and tax measures.
The author of AB 195, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, a Big Bear Lake Republican, said the trailer bill was drafted by the Legislature’s Democratic leadership without his knowledge.
For whatever reason, the exemption bill was not taken to a floor vote. Therefore, Obernolte’s disclosure law remained in effect for local tax and bond measures in 2018.
Local officials still don’t like the law and have waged a low-profile drive in the Legislature to get it repealed or watered down and, not surprisingly, a new bill has popped up to fulfill their hopes.
Last week, Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, did a “gut-and-amend” maneuver on one of his bills, Senate Bill 268. The measure, which had dealt with welfare benefits and already had passed the Senate, was stripped of its contents and a new bill was inserted.
It would allow local officials to remove the required information about tax consequences from the ballot summary that voters read before casting their votes and place it, instead, in the voter pamphlet or another separate statement, where it would get much less attention.
SB 268 Is Just What Local Officialdom Wants
Moreover, the bill declares, “Failure to comply with this chapter shall not affect the validity of any bond issue following the sale and delivery of the bonds,” which basically lets local officials entirely off the hook.
SB 268 is just what local officialdom wants – a new law that purports to give voters vital information about tax and bond measures but ensures that the data will be buried in official paperwork and that failure to provide it won’t be penalized.
A Wiener spokesman, however, said the senator’s motive is “to make it clear what they (voters) are voting on,” asserting that the 75-word limit on ballot summaries isn’t enough space to adequately explain tax consequences of ballot measures and thus voters might reject taxes and bonds they otherwise would support. “A 75-word limit confuses voters,” he said.
That rationale parrots what local officials have been saying. One might suspect that Wiener is carrying the bill to placate those officials because they had been angered by his authorship of a highly controversial housing bill. That measure, Senate Bill 50, would have overridden local zoning laws to authorize high-density housing near public transit services but was buried in an avalanche of local government opposition.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.