Is the blizzard of initiatives drowning out public’s voice?
The San Francisco Chronicle
It was supposed to be a sleepy off-year for California politics. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who knows something about crowd-pleasing dramas — has rewritten the script, suggesting a 2005 special election that is threatening to become one of the most expensive political demolition derbies California has ever seen.
And a host of competing consultants, pollsters, signature-gatherers and activists busily preparing more than 60 potential initiatives for the ballot are thanking him — all the way to the bank.
The record-setting number of petitions on the streets and campaigns in the works is a far cry from the idealistic call for a “people’s voice” that fueled early initiative politics.
Rather, it shows trends “that have been in place, and have been headed toward collision, for 30 years,” said Jim Shultz, author of “The Initiative Cookbook.” From Jerry Brown to George Deukmejian to Pete Wilson, Shultz noted, governors facing budget problems, skyrocketing taxes or failing schools — and a recalcitrant Legislature — have increasingly seized on the initiative process to dig out of trouble.
The result: “You have the state’s chief political leader using the process to work his policy agenda — and the unbelievable opportunity for special interests to control public policy,” he said.
Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, is not surprised.
“People who advised Arnold Schwarzenegger to call a special election are the same people who will walk away with millions in fees,” he said. “It’s not exactly unbiased advice.”
The governor may not have been joking when he said that just the possibility of a November special election has “created a whole industry in California. …Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on television. … It stimulates our economy. All this creates jobs.”
More than five dozen different initiatives are ready to go on the streets for signature-gathering — proposals ranging from boosting property taxes for business owners to increasing the minimum wage, from banning sex education in the schools to requiring parental notification for a minor’s abortion.
That doesn’t include Schwarzenegger’s efforts to “restore true democracy to our elections” with his plans to the way California draws its legislative boundaries, pays its teachers, provides pension benefits and designs its budget.
But voters struggling to understand the tangled list of complicated ballot measures may see the initiatives less as “the people’s revolution” and more like “too damned much democracy,” said Mervyn Field, a veteran California pollster.
The Republican governor has threatened to call a special election for November if he and the Democratic-dominated Legislature can’t cut a deal on these issues. He has until June to decide. A special statewide election could cost an estimated $60 million for everything from printing and mailing voter guides to setting up polling places on election day.
Still, if not in November, the measures now in circulation could qualify and end up on an even larger statewide ballot in 2006.
The multimillion-dollar price tag for the prospective campaign has even veteran Sacramento insiders searching for words to describe the capital drama.
“It’s the battle for Middle Earth,” said Beth Miller Malek, a partner in Wilson-Miller Communications Inc., a public-affairs consulting firm that’s leading the charge for Californians to Stop Higher Taxes. The business-led effort is poised and ready to “push back hard” against at least nine initiatives — many backed by unions and Democratic interests — aimed at increasing
corporate taxes, Malek said.
“It’s the apocalypse of direct democracy,” said Lewis Uhler of the National Tax-Limitation Committee, who is backing an initiative that would require public employees to give written consent before their union dues can be used for political purposes.
“(It’s) a fund-raising bonanza fire, a political rampage fire,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco.
No wonder, Shultz said, the word among special interests is “if you can write a check for $1 million, you can put anything you want before one of the largest electorates in the world.”
Money may flow even faster in the coming months after a state Superior Court judge on Friday wiped out a regulation aimed at limiting contributions to initiative campaigns run by a statewide officeholder such as the governor.
Joel Fox, a former Schwarzenegger consultant who is now a leader of Citizens to Save California, acknowledges the high stakes.
“The issues on this ballot will reverberate around the country,” he said. “People who have an interest will come to the state to play.”
That means money flooding in from big-dollar donors and flowing out to the consultants, signature-gathering specialists, pollsters, advertising companies and others who have a huge stake in modern, costly campaigns.
One looming clash surrounds the effort to qualify a measure that bans union dues from being used for political purposes without the written consent of members.
Unions from across the country spent more than $17 million to defeat a similar plan in 1998 — and would furiously pump millions more into a new battle if the initiative makes it to the ballot.
So supporters hope, in part, to again tie up the funding of Democratic-leaning unions — which will have less with which to battle the governor’s initiatives or support Democratic causes. That’s why Schwarzenegger reportedly is looking at endorsing either Uhler’s effort — or a tougher measure not yet ready for circulation.
“Why would anyone think this is leadership, and this is good government?” said Gale Kaufman, a veteran Sacramento campaign consultant for groups opposing Schwarzenegger.
But those aren’t the only fights ahead: Consumer groups, trial lawyers and drug companies are also gearing up.
Last month, the drug industry created the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America California Initiative Fund and quickly began stuffing it with money.
Drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer each put $1.3 million into the fund to build a war chest that already has more than $7 million. That’s money for an initiative to establish a drug assistance program favored by the governor, but could also be used to fight prescription plans the industry doesn’t like.
“It’s a game of brinksmanship,” Court said. “Everyone is trying to stare the other guy down. It’s an arms race, and the weapons of mass destruction are initiatives aimed at the other guy.”
In modern initiative politics, explained Shultz, “sometimes you’re literally trying to put forward competing public policy to get more votes, sometimes to threaten the other side, sometimes to take the signature-gatherers out of the field and tie them up on something else.”
With money flowing from all sides, California voters are likely to be awash in conflicting information, which pollsters say, can lead to a “no” vote on everything.
“An awful lot of money may be spent to accomplish nothing,” Court said, “except to show that when there’s big money on both sides, the public doesn’t believe anyone.”
With a record 61 initiatives now approved for circulation, petition gatherers across the state will be haunting supermarkets, movie lines and street corners in an effort to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to get those measures on the ballot. Here are a few that voters are likely to see:
Redistricting: Takes responsibility for drawing political boundaries from the Legislature and gives it to a panel of retired judges.
Car buyers’ bill of rights: Allows used-car buyers to return the vehicle to the dealer within three business days, cancel the purchase and receive a full refund.
Public pensions: Bars public agencies, including school districts, from offering a traditional defined-benefit pension plan to new employees.
Union dues: Bans public employee unions from using any dues for political purposes without the signed consent of the workers.
Teacher tenure: Increases the time required for a teacher to become a permanent tenured employee from two years to five years.
Minimum wage: Raises California’s minimum wage from $6.75 per hour to $7.75 per hour.
Indian casinos: Prohibits tribal casinos in urban areas without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
Source: Secretary of state’s office
Who’s who in the ballot battles
Here are some of the people, groups and interests behind the crop of initiatives that could be decided by voters in a special election:
Ted Costa: The feisty head of People’s Advocate — home to the Proposition 13 revolution — is backing a measure calling for the redrawing of legislative boundaries.
Gale Kaufman: The tough-talking consultant — who’s been dubbed the Democratic Party’s “consigliore” — vows to muster unions, teachers, nurses, firefighters and other labor groups to battle Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and big-business initiatives.
Joel Fox: The veteran Republican consultant — former head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — has worked for Schwarzenegger and is on the front lines of Citizens to Save California, the organization pushing Schwarzenegger’s reform agenda.
Allan Zaremberg: The high-powered president and chief executive of the California Chamber of Commerce raised more than $2 million in 2004 for JobsPAC, the lobbying arm of the organization. This time, he’s with Citizens to Save California to push Schwarzenegger’s agenda.
Lewis Uhler: The National Tax-Limitation Committee point man is circulating petitions for paycheck protection, and to repeal Prop. 63 — the so-called “mental health” tax on wealthier Californians — which passed last year.
Willie Brown: The former San Francisco mayor and Democratic state Assembly speaker has been called in by drug industry biggies to broker a peace deal with trial lawyer groups — his old allies.
Arno Political Consultants: Mike Arno leads the charge for Schwarzenegger-driven Citizens to Save California — getting $1-$1.50 per signature, according to most estimates.
Kimball Petition Management: Democrats’ and labor’s key group in the field to gather signatures.
Public Opinion Strategies: Virginia-based group headed by Neil Newhouse is the lead pollster for the GOP and Schwarzenegger’s issues.
David Binder: The veteran San Francisco-based pollster is gauging public opinion for the California Teachers Association.
Californians to Stop Higher Taxes: A coalition of business and taxpayer organizations with backing from the California Chamber of Commerce.
Citizens to Save California: Team effort closely linked to Schwarzenegger’s reform moves plans to raise at least $13 million to qualify four of his initiatives.
Alliance for a Better California: School employees, public workers, firefighters, prison guards and health care workers are among the coalition that has received at least $1.7 million to fight for its own proposals — increased minimum wage and car-buyers’ protection, among others — and to fight against Schwarzenegger.
Citizens for Paycheck Protection: A group sponsored by the drug industry supports efforts to ban unions from using dues for political purposes without membership consent.