SACRAMENTO — Californians face one of the longest and most complicated ballots in the nine decades since the state invoked direct democracy -- putting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the defensive to protect his political fortune and leaving voters to sort out a patchwork of ideas.
There are 16 propositions before voters this November, including three sets that compete with each other, one rarely used referendum to overturn current law, four that were included by the Legislature and an orphan proposition cut away from its original measure.
It is a ballot compiled by interest groups and angry corporations, Schwarzenegger consultants and the governor himself, local governments and disgruntled lawmakers -- overall, the third-highest number of measures since California instituted initiatives and referendums in 1911, according to statistics from Cal State Los Angeles.
For Schwarzenegger, the ballot will test his powers of persuasion among the electorate, which is notoriously fickle about propositions. Most notably, he has promised to "demolish" a ballot measure that would threaten his authority to sign gambling agreements with Indian tribes. So far, he has taken a position on nine out of the 16 propositions.
The decision to wade into potentially expensive ballot fights is "a bit of a dangerous game" for the governor, said Shaun Bowler, professor at UC Riverside and an expert on initiatives. "His handlers have built up this image of a politician who can bend people to his will. He can just point the voters at a problem and fire at will. There is some danger in that."
California voters have faced unusual ballots before -- including the first-ever statewide recall last October that ousted a sitting governor and featured 135 candidates, and a March 2000 ballot with 20 items for consideration.
And separately, the governor has been successful at pushing his agenda on the ballot. Six months ago, voters approved by large margins a bond measure and spending cap he wanted.
But the ballot California voters will face in less than two months is complicated by both its size and by Schwarzenegger's political maneuvering to secure leverage in the California Legislature and refine his position among the electorate.
His most high-profile maneuvering has been over two gambling initiatives, Propositions 68 and 70, which appear on the ballot in part because of Schwarzenegger's own actions -- even though he is opposing them.
Proposition 68 was the brainchild of California's card clubs and horse tracks, which have long wanted to expand gambling but lacked political support compared to their rivals, Indian tribes.
So for the initiative, they borrowed Schwarzenegger's rhetoric to demand that Indian tribes pay a "fair share" -- defined as 25% -- of their slot machine revenue to the government. If they refuse, the initiative holds, the clubs and tracks would be able to expand their businesses.
The governor never endorsed the measure, but aides have called it a stick that helped persuade some Indian tribes to negotiate new compacts personally with him rather than take their case to the voters. "Our initiative helps him negotiate his deal," George Gorton, one of Schwarzenegger's political consultants, said in April.
Gorton and another political consultant to the governor, Don Sipple, worked for the Proposition 68 campaign earlier this year. But this summer, the governor won a number of new deals with some tribes and found others willing to negotiate. After it became apparent that the governor would oppose the initiative, both consultants left the campaign.
Enter the Agua Caliente Band, which drafted Proposition 70 shortly before the filing deadline last spring. It would give tribes unlimited casino expansion rights in exchange for paying the state 8.84% of their net profit -- a much better deal for casinos than the card club initiative.
Tribal chairman Richard Milanovich said the measure was designed to answer Proposition 68 and Schwarzenegger's comments that tribes should pay their fair share. "The idea of us paying our fair share resonates with the people of California," Milanovich said at the time.
Now, Schwarzenegger considers Proposition 70 -- or more specifically, his opposition to it -- another stick to drive Indian tribes to the negotiating table. He already has signed agreements with nine gambling tribes and said, "We will have very soon many more, and especially after we demolish Proposition 70."
"We will then have pretty much all of them coming to the table," he told reporters in New York after the Republican National Convention.
In the same initiative-as-a-threat scenario, the ballot features two measures protecting city and county coffers from being raided by the state during budget crises.
Proposition 65 was placed on the ballot by local governments as a way to protect their funds from legislative raids -- and it immediately prompted Schwarzenegger to begin negotiations with cities and counties on a compromise to head it off.