Ballot Initiatives: Phrasing Matters

(Or, A Tale of Two Gas Tax Ballot Measures)

November 16, 2018

Transportation and construction industry advocates are rejoicing that California voters last week rejected a ballot measure that would have repealed a recent gasoline tax increase and transportation funding package enacted in 2017 by the state legislature. But they are also disappointed that Missouri voters rejected their own gas tax increase at the ballot box.

In both cases, much of the credit (or blame) goes to the people who determined the precise phrasing of the titles and short summaries of the measures that actually appeared on the ballot.

Background: California SB1, approved in April 2017, increased state gasoline taxes by 12 cents per gallon, increased state diesel fuel taxes by 20 cents per gallon, and levied new vehicle fees, all to pay for a massive program of increased highway and mass transit spending. Gas tax opponents got the necessary petition signatures to put a proposed new law on the November 2018 ballot as Proposition 6. The ballot proposition would not have actually repealed SB1 outright, but would have suspended its tax increase provisions until they could be ratified in a future election by a majority of voters. Prop 6 would also have required all future increases in taxes “on the sale, storage, use, or consumption of motor vehicle gasoline or diesel fuel, or on the privilege of a resident of California to operate on the public highways a vehicle or trailer coach” to be ratified by voters.

The Missouri legislature, meanwhile, managed to put a 10 cent gasoline tax increase (2.5 cents per gallon increase per year, over four years) before voters last week as Proposition D (full law text here), but the legislature did it in a very confusing way for two reasons:

  1. The gas tax increase was added to a bill granting a tax exemption for Olympic, Paralympic and Special Olympic medals, meaning that both measures had to share the same summary line on the ballot.
  2. Most of the gas tax increase was not, technically, devoted to transportation. Instead, it was devoted to state law enforcement. Fungibly, they are the same thing (right now, state law enforcement is funded out of the existing gas tax, so giving the police a dedicated increase in the tax ipso facto means more money to pay for roads out of the existing tax), but in Missouri, especially in greater St. Louis, police issues are politically complicated (Ferguson, anyone?) and the issue was confusing. A seat-aside for a portion of the money for local roads, and a new state freight bottleneck fund, were also added to the bill by the legislature, but the result was a ugly hodgepodge.

(One member of the Missouri legislature actually filed a lawsuit trying to get Prop D taken off the ballot because it was too mixed and confusing, to no avail.)

Phrasing. Here is how the Missouri Secretary of State put Prop D before the voters on the actual ballot:

The first thing a voter walking into the voting booth would read is: four years of gas tax increase, only for state police (no mention of road funding). Then one reads about Olympic medals. Then a mention of a freight bottleneck fund, but no dollar amounts, and no further explanation. You have to read ahead to the last half of the second paragraph to figure out that any of the money from the tax increase goes to roads.

Confusing, right?

Missouri voters thought so, rejecting Prop D by a margin of 46.4 percent “yes,” 54.6 percent “no.”

Meanwhile, in California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) took pains to phrase the ballot presentation of Prop 6 in as unflattering a light (for Prop 6’s sponsors) as possible:

“Eliminates Certain Road Repair and Transportation Funding” is at the top in big bold all-caps. And the official one-paragraph summary in the short line on the ballot itself is “Repeals a 2017 transportation law’s tax and fee provisions that pay for repairs and improvements to local roads, state highways, and public transportation.”

Proponents of Prop 6 were irate that the words “gas tax” and “repeal” never appeared anywhere on Becerra’s ballot design. They went so far as to mail voters their own official-looking “election ballot correction” that said that the correct title should be “Proposition 6: Gas Tax Repeal Initiative.”

A San Francisco TV station noted that their own poll showed 58 percent in favor of “gas tax repeal” when phrased precisely that way, but that only 41 percent in another poll supported the official ballot title of eliminating road repair and transportation funding.

The final vote on Prop 6 (with some mail-in votes still to be counted) saw it go down to defeat, with 43.6 percent in favor and 54.6 percent opposed.

The lesson here seems to be that one should not take either the Missouri or California results as being too dispositive on how voters feel about the underlying issues. In both cases, modest changes in the way that the issues were presented to the voters might have yielded significantly different results.

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