Judges Review Language Of State Ballot Measures

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A teachers union’s effort to change wording in Prop. 14, which would allow open primaries, was largely rejected. Measures on car insurance and public financing got only minimal adjustments.

Two Sacramento judges Friday ordered changes in the wording of ballot measures that would move California to an open primary system, change car insurance rate structures and charge lobbyists to fund campaigns for secretary of state candidates.

The changes resolved disputes over what is supposed to be neutral wording of the titles and summaries of the measures as well as the text of arguments to be published in the voter’s manual for the June 8 election. Monday is the deadline for getting the final versions to the printer.

On Proposition 14, the open primary measure, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other supporters said they beat back an effort by union officials and lawmakers to undermine the proposal that would allow Californians to vote in state primaries regardless of candidates’ or voters’ party affiliations.

The measure also would advance the top two vote-getters in each contest instead of the winner from each party. It would not apply to presidential elections.

Legislators grudgingly put the measure on the ballot as part of a budget deal last year. They had directed their attorneys not to fight the challenge by the California School Employees Assn., a major donor to many Democrats, to strip statements that the measure would encourage more voter participation and "reform" the election process.

The governor and state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) intervened to stave off the changes. Superior Court Judge Allen Sumner ruled Friday that voters should see the measure very much as it was originally written. Sumner made minor changes to the wording regarding potential costs related to an open primary and made clear that voters would not have to state a party preference.

"I’m glad this sneaky attempt to derail the open primary failed," Maldonado said.

Leaders of the Democrat-controlled Legislature said their attempt at a settlement was merely intended to fix flawed ballot language in danger of being stricken by a higher court.

"We’re pleased with the process and the clarity it provided," said Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles).

Sumner also resolved disputes over the wording of Proposition 17. Backers of the measure, which would allow insurers to offer a continuous-coverage discount to new customers, were fighting even the official description written by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown’s office.

Supporters of the measure, which was proposed by and is being bankrolled by Mercury Insurance, wanted to strike the phrase added by Brown that the measure "will allow insurance companies to increase the cost of insurance to drivers who do not have a history of continuous insurance coverage."

"All Proposition 17 does is allow people to take it with them when they move to a new insurance company and get the lower rate," argued Richard Martland, an attorney for the supporters.

But Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield said the measure is a thinly disguised attempt by Mercury to be allowed to charge higher rates for those it doesn’t want to insure. Rosenfield’s attorney, Fredric Woocher, said the proposition is being misleadingly cast as an opportunity for drivers to retain their loyalty discounts even if they switch insurers.

"You can’t take it with you," Woocher said. "You are taking away the one thing that makes persistency persistent. It would be like taking a good student discount and extending it to people who fail."

Sumner declined to change the official wording of the ballot summary and rejected most calls to alter the arguments. Such "political speech" is protected by the 1st Amendment, the judge said. He revised only the wording on the possible effects for some military personnel and a potential maximum surcharge.

In the challenge to Proposition 15, which would change the financing for future secretary of state races, Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette’s changes met with supporters’ approval, said campaign chairman Trent Lange.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which opposes the measure, had filed a lawsuit arguing that the ballot summary and title were inaccurate. The group wanted the title changed from "California Fair Elections Act" to "Public Financing of Campaigns."

The judge rejected the proposed change, though he did add a line indicating that the measure repeals the state’s existing ban on public funding of campaigns.

Contact the author at: [email protected]

Times staff writers Evan Halper and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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