SACRAMENTO — Exploiting a political tool that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has used with relish, liberal groups and Democratic lawmakers are planning to place on the ballot some long-favored policies and programs that the governor has so far blocked.
Advocates hope the tactic could provide leverage for a series of labor and consumer causes defeated through vetoes and ballot measures this year.
But the approach could also increase the Capitol's partisan rancor, and even Democratic leaders say it could provide voters with a fresh signal that the Legislature is becoming irrelevant.
Possible ballot initiatives under discussion by an assortment of liberal groups and Democrats would seek to increase California's minimum wage, make it easier to buy prescription drugs from Canada and arrange for bulk purchases of prescription drugs at lower prices. All those measures passed the Democratic-led Legislature this year but were vetoed by Schwarzenegger.
Various advocacy groups are also talking about using the ballot to win financing for more affordable housing and children's health programs -- ideas that do well in polls but may be difficult for legislators to incorporate into next year's state budget given California's steep fiscal problems.
"We are considering taking a page out of his playbook and going to the ballot, where I think the people of California will agree with the Democratic Legislature that it's time for relief from skyrocketing drug prices," said Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz). "What we're feeling is, with this governor, this is the only way we're going to get relief."
The next scheduled statewide elections will be in June 2006. But Schwarzenegger's top aides have said he was considering calling a special election next fall on his own proposals to reorganize state bureaucracies and curtail the power of the Legislature.
"There's a general sense that the backlight for the entire year will be the special election," said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Alameda). "So people have begun to talk that, if that's going to be the case, we had better put things on the ballot that our voters care about. If it's going to be a shootout at the OK Corral, we want to be armed."
The approach could turn a special election, to which Schwarzenegger has not yet committed, into a free-for-all.
"If the left sees the special election as a place to pile on their agenda, then conservatives will be right behind them," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a political consultant who has worked for Schwarzenegger and other Republicans. "What's stopping the right from pushing the illegal immigration measure? The special election could start off as an exercise in good government but end up as an exercise in bad government, i.e., partisan warfare."
But even if the measures never come before the electorate, Democrats and activists hope that ramping up ballot campaigns could pressure Schwarzenegger to compromise in the upcoming session on several pieces of legislation that he vetoed this year, including those dealing with prescription drugs.
The governor used the same tactic over the last year. Last December, Democratic lawmakers reluctantly agreed to repeal a law giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. In the spring, legislators struck a deal over changes in the workers' compensation law to stop Schwarzenegger from pressing for a more extensive proposal on the ballot.
In November, business groups aligned with the governor used the ballot to win a number of substantial victories they could not get through the Legislature. Notably, they overturned a 2003 law requiring employers to provide health insurance for their workers and diluted a decades-old California law that permitted a wide range of lawsuits against businesses.
"The past year, the ballot initiatives have been worked against us," said Angie Wei, a lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, which is mulling a minimum-wage ballot measure. "I think, generally, people are seeing how we can use the ballot proactively for some progressive change."
Despite the pro-business victories last month, the November results also offered liberals some hope that the ballot could be an effective forum to battle Schwarzenegger and business groups.
For example, voters in Nevada and Florida, two states that supported Republican President Bush, approved increases in their minimum wages.
In California, voters approved borrowing $750 million to expand children's hospitals and levied a 1% tax on people earning more than $1 million a year to pay for improved psychiatric services. Schwarzenegger had opposed both measures.