Dan Walters

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

So you, a conscientious voter, read the language, the official summary, the economic analysis and the pro and con arguments before voting on a state ballot measure.

You concluded that it would be good for the state and enough of your fellow voters agreed to pass the new law.

Was it an inviolable contract between voters and the politicians and officials who will later implement its provisions?

Or are a ballot measure's promises just general guidelines that officialdom may alter or even ignore?

These are no small questions because California's governance is now largely driven by initiatives and measures placed on the ballot by the governor and the Legislature, with many more coming on next November. Therefore, voters must trust that what they were told will come to pass, and if they don't, the governance system erodes.

Adherence to the letter of ballot measures is the overriding issue in the pending lawsuit that challenges construction of a bullet train system voters authorized with a $9.95 billion bond issue eight years ago.

During a trial this month in Sacramento, attorneys for San Joaquin Valley bullet train opponents contended that as more details of the proposed system emerge, they contradict the bond measure's promises -- such as that the train would run between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes.

State officials offer pro forma responses to that and other issues, but rely mostly on an assumption that the state High-Speed Rail Authority can legally make changes as long as it delivers a system.

Just days after the trial -- and while awaiting a judge's verdict -- the HSRA released a revised business plan that makes major changes, such as shifting the route of the initial operating segment from Southern California to Northern California.

Whether that affects the legal case remains uncertain. And the entire issue may be moot if another pending measure, which would cancel the project altogether and shift its bonds to water supply, succeeds.

Regardless of what happens to the bullet train, the underlying issue of how faithfully officialdom implements ballot measures still lingers, as another measure illustrates.

Two years ago, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces penalties for some relatively minor crimes and, its sponsors promised, use the savings from lower prison costs to enhance mental health, drug treatment, delinquency prevention and trauma recovery services.

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Voters were told that passage could divert several hundred million dollars a year, but the savings calculation was left to Gov. Jerry Brown's budget office, and it estimates the savings at only $29.3 million.

The low number outrages Proposition 47's advocates, and the Legislature's budget adviser, Mac Taylor, this month sharply criticized Brown's methodology and said the savings figure should be "around $100 million higher."

Is Brown fudging, or did Proposition 47's advocates promise more than could be delivered?

The beat goes on.

Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee.

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