Critics see today’s expected move as a misuse of state’s initiative process
The San Francisco Chronicle
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to call for a special election today on his initiatives to change state government — even as critics charge that by pushing for a November vote, the California governor is warping the process that allows citizens to take issues to the ballot.
Consumer activist Harvey Rosenfield told the Commonwealth Club of California that Schwarzenegger is guilty of “an abuse of executive power” in calling a Nov. 8 special election.
“Never before, to our knowledge, has a sitting governor invoked his constitutional authority to call a special election when the only purpose of the election is the enactment of his own ballot measures,” said Rosenfield, the founder and former president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, who spearheaded Proposition 103 in 1988 to roll back auto insurance rates.
Schwarzenegger, Rosenfield said, “has done more to undermine and corrupt the initiative process than anyone in state history.”
Even former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who backs Schwarzenegger, said California’s initiative system is “becoming a commercial process, not a political process” as special interests spend millions to qualify measures that will help them financially.
While Jones backs the governor’s proposals, he’s worried the initiative process created almost 100 years ago has been hijacked by groups seeking easy, self-serving answers to the difficult problems facing the state.
“There are only two things you can say (in an initiative vote), yes or no, and the process is too complex for yes or no votes,” Jones said.
Jones and Rosenfield spoke Friday at a daylong seminar on political reform sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. Experts on campaign finance, the state budget, redistricting, term limits and other issues attended the conference in an effort to improve the way state government works.
The initiative process was at the top of the list because Schwarzenegger has scheduled a 5 p.m. speech today to announce a statewide special election featuring only initiatives.
Since January, the governor has threatened to go to the ballot if the Democratic-controlled Legislature didn’t agree to his plans to change the way the state budget is produced, public school teachers gain tenure and election districts are shaped. Measures on those issues, backed by the governor, have qualified for the ballot.
Two other initiatives, to restrict union contributions to political campaigns and to require parental notice of a minor’s abortion, also have qualified for the ballot. Three more items, two competing prescription drug measures and a Democratic proposal to re-regulate the power industry, are expected to qualify.
Secretary of State Bruce McPherson last month estimated a special election could cost as much as $80 million, but late last week Schwarzenegger administration officials released a letter from McPherson saying the additional cost to counties, many of which had Nov. 8 elections for local races already scheduled, would be about $45 million.
Rosenfield, in his blistering critique of Schwarzenegger, called the governor’s plan for a special election “a mockery of this tool of democracy,” and called for changes — including legislation that would bar the governor from calling a special election without a majority vote of the Legislature. Future governors should be barred from controlling, coordinating or raising money for campaigns directly related to ballot initiatives, he added.
The special election would be the first called by a governor since 1993, when conservative groups qualified a school voucher issue for the ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Rosenfield’s complaints were echoed by Tracy Westen, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies, who called the special election idea “ridiculous.”
“The governor is doing it because he likes to be in the spotlight,” Westen said. “This lets the governor spend this year raising millions and millions to promote his agenda, and then spend millions and millions more next year” on a re-election campaign during the regular 2006 elections.
Republicans were quick to respond to Rosenfield, calling his complaints unfounded and hypocritical.
“Harvey has no standing to criticize anyone else until — and unless — he discloses the sources of all the contributions to his own organizations,” said Mark Bogetich, a GOP strategist and consultant. He said Rosenfield’s groups have funded and worked on behalf of many initiatives, but “we’re still not sure who’s contributing to Harvey Inc.”
The conference highlighted the dizzying range of viewpoints that fall under the rubric of “government reform” and demonstrated the difficulty of finding a middle ground.
A panel on campaign finance, for example, featured Susan Lerner of the California Clean Money Campaign, which believes in full public financing for political campaigns.
If the state supplies the money for campaigns, “candidates can spend their time talking to voters, not dialing for dollars,” she said.
Joining her was state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, who believes limits on political fund-raising only force politicians to disguise the sources of campaign cash and make it harder for lesser-known candidates to get elected.
“You restrict freedom by campaign finance reform,” he said.
That clash of views is an important part of the Commonwealth Club’s “Voice of Reform” project, which has been running for more than a year, said Gloria Duffy, CEO of the club.
“We’ve had reform efforts going on in the state for decades, but there’s been no effort to bring those reformers together,” she said. “This project has brought reform-minded people together for the first time in 100 years.”
That 100-year focus is no accident. In its early years, the club was one of the leaders in the Progressive Era movement that fought the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the state and led to the 1911 approval of the initiative, the referendum and the recall.
“We need to get a consensus on a few of the needed changes and then decide how to get behind one or two,” Duffy said. “We want to nurture a reform movement.”
Where to watch governor’s speech:
In a speech tonight at 5 p.m., Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to call for a special election.
— The governor’s office will Webcast his speech at http://www.governor.ca.gov.
Click on “Watch Live Webcast!”
— Local TV stations KTVU Channel 2, KRON Channel 4, CBS 5-TV, KGO Channel 7 and KNTV Channel 11 plan to run a live feed during their regularly scheduled 5 p.m. newscasts.
In 1911, California voters approved Proposition 7, which gave citizens the right to take political issues to the ballot.
Issues have included taxes, terms for officeholders, property rights, health care, auto insurance, liquor laws, criminal justice, casino gambling, immigrant rights, school finances and the regulation of sporting events.
Five initiatives circulated in 1912, the first year they were allowed, and four qualified for the ballot, including a measure to ban bookmaking and allow pari-mutuel betting on horses at race tracks..
13 – Proposition 13, the most famous initiative, was approved in 1978 to limit property taxes.
1,283 – Total initiatives circulated (1912-2004).
303 – Total qualified for the ballot (1912-2004).
104 – Total approved by voters.
54 – Most initiatives circulated in one year (1997).
18 – Most initiatives qualified for the ballot in any one year (1988). Second most was 16 (1914).
9 – Most initiatives approved in one year (1988).
$90 million – Most expensive initiative campaign: Proposition 5 Indian gaming measure (1998)..
5 – Measures qualified for the next statewide ballot (expected Nov. 8) —
parental notification of a minor’s abortion; teacher tenure; union political
contributions; budget procedure; and redistricting..
3 – Initiatives awaiting signature verification for the next statewide election.
Sources: Secretary of state’s office, UC Hastings College of Law
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