As the deadline loomed for verifying signatures for his tax initiative, Gov. Jerry Brown called some county officials to check the status. Critics are crying foul.


By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
July 1, 2012

SACRAMENTO — With the fate of his tax initiative hanging in the balance, Gov. Jerry Brown was in a tight spot.

So he called Dave Macdonald, the top elections official in Alameda County, for a conversation about Macdonald’s progress in verifying thousands of petition signatures needed to help move Brown’s measure onto the November state ballot.

The governor’s backers had submitted the documents to California’s county registrars late, and now, in mid-June — only a couple of weeks before the deadline — couldn’t be certain the measure would qualify.

Within a week of Brown’s call, Alameda County — where Brown has a home, was mayor of Oakland and had the second-largest number of signatures outstanding — had finished work on his proposal and sent the results to the secretary of state, who places propositions on the ballot. But the county’s work remained undone on petitions submitted earlier, state records show.

Macdonald insists the governor didn’t ask for, or receive, special treatment. Brown’s office referred queries about the call to Ace Smith, a spokesman for the governor’s tax campaign. Smith said it was merely a “friendly inquiry.”

But the episode highlights what Brown’s critics say is a pattern of the governor and fellow Democrats unfairly manipulating the electoral process.

“It’s quite transparent what they’re doing,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the campaign against the governor’s initiative. “They’re supposed to be solving the state’s problems but instead they’re busy gaming the system.”

The timing of counties’ reports to the state does more than help qualify a measure for the ballot: Proposals appear before voters in the order in which the state certifies them. High placement can improve a proposition’s chances of passing; voters can lose interest as they make their way down a list of complex proposals.

The stakes are high this year for Brown. His measure, which would temporarily raise sales levies and some income taxes, is the linchpin of the budget he signed this week. If passed, the initiative could generate $8 billion over the next year and prevent billions of dollars in education cuts.

Democrats weren’t taking any chances. On Wednesday, among more than a dozen budget bills, lawmakers passed one to place constitutional amendments like Brown’s above other propositions on state ballots. The bill sailed through both houses of the Legislature without a committee hearing or any Republican votes.

It wasn’t the first time the Democrats had used their grip on power in Sacramento to fashion the ballot to their advantage. During Brown’s 18 months in office, they have passed laws that could undermine initiatives they oppose and give a leg up to those they favor.

Last year, Brown signed a bill passed in the final days of the legislative session that banished ballot measures from primary elections, pushing them to the fall instead. The lawmakers said that would mean the greatest number of voters considering proposals affecting state policy, because turnout is highest in general elections.

But the move also averted a June vote on a Republican-backed proposal to limit the use of union dues for political campaigns. At the same time, the Legislature delayed until 2014 a state vote on government spending limits supported by Republicans.

Now, legislative leaders say they hope to postpone an $11-billion water bond proposal long scheduled for November, which would put Brown’s measure before all others on the ballot.

Backers of a November tax measure that competes with Brown’s are crying foul.

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