These are very uncertain and contentious times in California. The state’s economic and political turmoil has spawned a flood of potentially far-reaching ballot measures for the 2010 elections, ranging from calling a constitutional convention to overturning the ban on same-sex marriages.
Thirty-seven initiatives have already been cleared for signature-gathering and at last count 44 more were awaiting official title language. Not all will make the ballot; many are virtual duplicates of others and some are just shots in the dark with no chance of qualifying. It’s not inconceivable, however, that voters will face a couple of dozen measures with serious political and financial backing next year, harkening back to the 1980s and 1990s, when the initiative trade was thriving.
How many make it to the ballot will depend, in part, on how a series of bluffs and counter-bluffs play themselves out.
As we have seen in the past, warring interest groups often play political chess by filing rival initiatives that are merely sacrificial pawns.
When auto insurer Mercury General filed an initiative to legalize premium discounts to longtime customers, thus changing Proposition 103, a 1988-vintage auto insurance law, sponsor Consumer Watchdog floated a rival measure broadly attacking insurers’ practices. It appears to be a warning that should Mercury proceed, it and other insurers risk losing more than they would gain.
A more complex version of the game pits public employee unions, especially the powerful California Teachers Association, against business groups.
The unions want to strangle two pending measures, one barring public payroll deductions for political activities (a California version of an Idaho law that recently won Supreme Court blessing) and the other overhauling public worker pensions. But the groups sponsoring the two are immune to direct retaliation. So unions and their allies may be attempting to choke off their money by filing measures that would repeal $2 billion in state tax breaks for business enacted last February, virtually prohibit corporate political contributions and sharply raise property taxes on business.
The message appears to be that if major business groups back the campaigns on union political funds or pensions, they would face measures that would cost them many billions of dollars in new taxes and reduce their political clout.
Without multimillion-dollar financing, the union-opposed measures would have little chance of either qualification or voter passage.
Nobody will ever announce how these political chess games turn out. The rival measures will either appear on the ballot or quietly disappear. And even if they do make the ballot, they will either generate serious, well-financed campaigns or will wither and die.
That’s the way the game is played.
Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, http://www.sacbee.com/walters