Sen. Scott Wiener’s second attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of tax-weary voters

Anyone who has ever voted in a California election knows how difficult it is to sort out the many local and state measures that appear on the ballot. Now, newly proposed legislation would make it even more difficult.

Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 532 would undo the transparency requirements for tax and bond measures that were written into state law in 2015 and 2017. Assembly Bills 809 and 195, authored by now-Congressman Jay Obernolte, required proponents of local bonds and other tax measures to disclose the rate, duration and amount of money proposed to be raised, and to disclose this information right on the ballot itself, in the description next to the boxes or circles that voters mark with their choice.

State law already required a description of a measure, no longer than 75 words, to be printed on the ballot. But prior to 2015, the description did not have to disclose the precise details of a measure’s cost to taxpayers. So local government entities or initiative proponents could write 75 words of puffery to persuade voters to approve the measures.

SB 532 would remove the requirement for the rate, duration and amount of a tax hike or bond to be disclosed on the ballot. Instead, voters would be directed to the separately mailed voter information guide to find the details.

Voters would first have to find the voter information guide, which is mailed separately from the ballots, often weeks later. The state, counties and cities each mail their own voter information guides. For voters who receive stacks of election-related mail, finding the right booklet and locating the description of each measure can be like doing a jigsaw puzzle inside a haystack while searching for a needle.

It’s very likely that millions of California voters cast their ballots without ever reading those voter information guides, and instead spend a few extra minutes in the voting booth reading the measures on the ballot for the first time. Because of AB 809, which applied to initiative measures, and AB 195, which applied to tax and bond measures proposed by government bodies, voters have been able to see the cost of these measures at the time they’re voting on them. This just makes sense.

Of course, when it comes to government finance, many people are less interested in making sense than in making it easier to raise taxes, and they oppose greater transparency. For example, a group called California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which advocates for greater resources to build school facilities, criticized Obernolte’s legislation for “making it more difficult for some schools to pass local bonds or place them on the ballot.” Sen. Wiener’s SB 532, the organization’s legislative advocate reported, would address these “negative effects.”

SB 532 would also remove a requirement that the 75-word descriptions of ballot measures be “true and impartial.” So instead of seeing the facts about the cost of tax or bond measures, voters would see persuasive language massaged to a rosy glow by slick pollsters.

This is Sen. Wiener’s second attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of tax-weary voters. In 2019, he proposed a similar bill, SB 268, which made it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. But Newsom vetoed it, saying it would “reduce transparency.”

That’s still accurate. The Legislature should reject SB 532.