Professor conducts poll on ballot measure language

April 29, 2010 7:49:33 PM PDT
A linguistics professor at UC Berkeley says he has come up with a way to break the annual legislative logjam in Sacramento. There is a game-changing idea that is having trouble getting onto the field.

In his book "Don't Think of an Elephant" George Lakoff talked about the importance of framing political debate and earlier this year, he did that with an eye towards streamlining the state's budget process.

To pass a budget or raise taxes, the California Legislature must have a two-thirds majority. Lakoff's wrote a very simple ballot measure to change that.

"All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote. That's it the whole thing," says Lakoff.

Lakoff says his one-sentence initiative proposal was simple and popular, at least that's what his polling showed.

"We found out that 73 percent were in favor, 22 against," says Lakoff.

Seventy-three percent is a big number. Encouraged, Lakoff sent the proposed initiative to the Democratic California Attorney General Jerry Brown for title and summary, but when it came back the attorney general changed the language.

"The attorney general says, '...changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the budget and to raise taxes from two-thirds to a simple majority," reads Lakoff.

The summary continues, "...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."

Lakoff, a language expert, says note how many times words "taxes" and "increase" appear in the attorney generals version -- at least three.

"And what people hear is 'Raise my taxes.' Now that's phony," says Lakoff.

Lakoff commissioned another poll using the attorney general's language and the 73 percent support dropped to 38 percent with 56 percent opposed.

"That is a 69 percent shift by simply having the attorney general use that language," says Lakoff.

Lakoff withdrew his proposal to rewrite it. Brown says that's democracy.

"And by the way democracy is about exposing the truth and not trying to varnish it over with sweet smelling phrases," says Brown.

Brown says Lakoff tried to hide the intent of his measure, which was to make it easier to raise taxes.

"We're supposed to write a fair, impartial, non-argumentative summary. We did that and I stand fully behind that," says Brown.

Lakoff has re-written his initiative proposal and re-submitted it to the attorney general, but he believes now he'll have to wait until next year to get it on the ballot. Next year won't be an election year. Next year, Brown won't be worried about Republican candidate Meg Whitman beating him up over a ballot measure that would make it easier for the legislature to raise taxes.


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