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This time, an initiative titling complaint is dead right

At least once in every two-year election cycle, some interest group complains loudly that the state attorney general has fatally handicapped it by putting a misleading title on a proposed ballot initiative before petition carriers even start gathering signatures.

Usually, those complaints are dead wrong, little more than whining by persons or corporations with a large stake in the success or failure of a particular measure.

But this year is an exception. The single major complaint over the way state Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office has labeled nascent initiatives is dead right. That’s true even though one judge ruled the title OK while considering that “I may well have written this ballot title and summary differently.” That decision is now under appeal.

The complaint is about the title of a measure Brown called “Limits on Legislators’ Terms in Office.” The description printed on every copy of the petition carried into shopping malls and big-box stores begins by stating that it “reduces the total amount of time a person may serve in the state Legislature from 14 years to 12 years.”

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This description may be correct for future generations of lawmakers, who would get even less time in Sacramento than today’s legislators if this makes the ballot and then passes in the Feb. 5 primary election. Current lawmakers can serve six years in the state Assembly and eight in the state Senate under terms of the 1990 Proposition 140.

But today’s proposed initiative actually would extend the time 18 current members of the Legislature can serve in their current jobs, including the Democratic leaders of both houses.

Both Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles and state Senate President Don Perata of Oakland will be termed out after next year under today’s law. But if voters pass the proposed changes in this measure next February, Nunez gets another six years in the Assembly and can become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown’s tenure in the 1980s and ‘90s, while Perata can have four more years in the Senate.

The legislative leaders insisted on these conditions before they’d agree to switch the presidential primary election to Feb. 5. That date gives them plenty of time to file for reelection if the measure passes.

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But these realities of the proposed initiative are spelled out only vaguely in the summary provided by Brown. “Provides a transition period to allow current members to serve a total of 12 consecutive years in the house in which they are currently serving, regardless of any prior service in another house,” it says.

What casual shopper asked to sign the petition will read that far? How many will understand that this language could give Perata a total of 20 years as a legislator, rather than the 14 allowed now?

That’s why U.S. Term Limits, an advocacy group that’s pushed term limits for state and federal officeholders since the early 1980s, filed suit to change the petition description, charging Jerry Brown wrote an “intentionally inaccurate and misleading” summary suggesting the measure would make term limits tougher when it actually eases them for almost one sixth of the Legislature.

U.S. Term Limits wants the wording altered to say the measure “changes” current limits rather than reducing them. And instead of saying there would be a “transitional period,” the group wants the summary to say there would be “an exception” for current officeholders.

Brown’s office denies any favoritism, with press secretary David Kravets saying “The title and summary … accurately reflect the ballot proposition.”

But any casual reader can see the language desired by U.S. Term Limits appears to describe the measure far more accurately than Brown’s.

The fact is that the entire effort to alter term limits 18 years after they were established is purely audacious opportunism on the part of Nunez, Perata and a few other lawmakers. They likely would have had little interest in the switch to Feb. 5 had they not figured a way to benefit from it.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays along, not opposing the measure as part of his “post-partisanship” amity with lawmakers of both parties.

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But for sure, this is one time that an interest group has a legitimate beef about a ballot description. For this measure and its official description were misleading - and intended that way - from the get-go.

Elias is author of the bestselling book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” His email address is tdelias@aol.com.