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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

State Bailout Passes Easily; Kerry Finishes Off Edwards

Passage of Props. 57 and 58 gives Schwarzenegger added clout with the Legislature. GOP voters select Bill Jones to face Sen. Barbara Boxer in the fall.

March 03, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won a resounding vote of confidence Tuesday as Californians overwhelmingly passed two ballot measures that are cornerstones of his plan for recovery from the state fiscal crisis.

As Schwarzenegger declared victory on the two measures, Propositions 57 and 58, Republican primary voters elected former Secretary of State Bill Jones as their nominee for the party's eight-month battle to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. The Marin County Democrat is seeking a third term.

Proposition 56, a proposal by labor unions to change the rules for budget votes in the Legislature, lost handily. The vote on Proposition 55, a school bond measure, was too close to call. And in California's Democratic presidential primary, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts was winning in the predicted landslide over Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

The election was California's first since the state eliminated the type of punch-card ballot machines at the center of the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida. The switch to new electronic ballot systems in some areas caused widespread problems in the vote Tuesday, particularly in San Diego and Orange counties. Some voters were unable to cast ballots in San Diego County.

The absence of a tight presidential primary in California had left Schwarzenegger's ballot measures -- and their implications for his future -- the main event in the election.

"I love it when the people go to the polls and flex their muscles and let their voices be heard," Schwarzenegger told a crowd of hundreds who were celebrating his victory at the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica.

Swept into office five months ago in the recall, the GOP governor assembled a broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans and disparate interest groups to back Propositions 57 and 58. Republicans saw the measures as better than raising taxes; Democrats hoped their passage would avert what the governor called "Armageddon" budget cuts.

Schwarzenegger said voters Tuesday gave Sacramento a clear mandate to pursue bipartisan solutions to the state's problems.

"If we work together, we will have their support," he said.

For the governor, approval of the measures enhances his already strong standing with the Legislature. He has threatened to call for a popular vote on matters where lawmakers thwart his will; rejection of the measures could have diminished the potency of that tactic.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson, a fellow Republican and political mentor to Schwarzenegger, called approval of the measures a "great personal victory" for the governor, given early polls showing support for them from barely a third of California voters.

"By his barnstorming, by traveling the state and making a relentless and energetic case for passage, making the arguments and explaining what was at stake in terms people can understand, he's persuaded people to change their minds and pass both of them," Wilson said at the Santa Monica hotel.

Approval of the propositions also carries practical significance for a governor who could seek reelection in 2006.

"The important thing here is he's not thrown into a situation where he has to call for a large tax increase or draconian budget cuts right away," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist. "It gives him a little more breathing room to try to get things straightened out."

Proposition 57 authorizes the state to borrow up to $15 billion to balance the budget. Most of that would refinance previously approved debt under court challenge, but roughly $4 billion is to close new budget gaps, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.

Proposition 58, often described by Schwarzenegger as a device to shred the credit card of politicians unable to control spending, restricts future borrowing to cover deficits. It also requires balanced budgets and a rainy-day reserve. Critics say it is riddled with loopholes.

Schwarzenegger pressed his case for both measures in millions of dollars of television ads that went unanswered by critics, who declined to wage any serious paid effort against the Hollywood-superstar-turned-governor.

Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), the only opponents of note, made faint stabs at the governor's proposals. But they did not advertise on radio or television.

Proposition 56, in contrast, was fiercely contested over the airwaves -- and was defeated. With the jobs of teachers, nurses and other union members at stake in extremely lean budgets, the measure was part of labor's effort to protect them from cuts. By lowering the vote required to pass a budget from two-thirds to 55%, it would have stopped the Legislature's GOP minority from continuing to block tax hikes.

To enhance the measure's appeal, sponsors included a provision -- emphasized in their heavy TV advertising -- that would have docked lawmakers' pay for missing the deadline for passing a budget.

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