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Governor Puts Agenda on the Ballot

Three special-election initiatives would wrest power from legislators and public employee unions. The political battle will be costly, with a deal unlikely.

June 14, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — His ultimatums rebuffed by lawmakers, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday ordered a Nov. 8 special election that could trim the power of California's Legislature and dampen the influence of the public employee unions that help finance its Democratic majority.

Along with Schwarzenegger's agenda, the ballot is expected to include initiatives that, if approved, would change the way minors obtain abortions, electricity is sold and prescription drug prices are set.

But at its heart are three measures that Schwarzenegger hopes will alter -- in his favor -- the way Sacramento operates. The centerpiece initiative would give him much more power to cut state expenditures, a change he said was essential for California's fiscal health.

"Without reform, we are destined to relive the past all over again: $22-billion deficits, higher car taxes and the threat of bankruptcy," Schwarzenegger said in a 3 1/2 -minute address broadcast from his Capitol office. The speech was bypassed by many television stations consumed by the Michael Jackson acquittal.

Coming a year before he is up for reelection, the speech was a blunt acknowledgment of how much Schwarzenegger's relationships with state lawmakers and many groups have eroded in the 1 1/2 years since he took office.

Other initiatives he endorses would delay teachers from gaining tenure -- a slap at one of Sacramento's most powerful interests -- and stop legislators from designing districts that ease their reelections.

Schwarzenegger had demanded in January that the Legislature act on his proposals, but Democrats dismissed them as partisan power grabs that would not improve the lives of Californians.

"I still hope the Legislature will join me, and we can go to the ballot together with a bipartisan plan," Schwarzenegger said in his speech. "But one way or another, with the people's help, there will be action this year."

The election promises to be an expensive bare-knuckles fight between the two most powerful lobbies in Sacramento: the business interests and Republican activists that have been filling Schwarzenegger's campaign coffers all year, and the unions that are at risk of losing much of their political clout if the governor succeeds.

In anticipation, the California Teachers Assn. raised dues over the weekend to collect $50 million more from members. The state prison guards union has moved to raise its dues as well, hoping to gather $18 million extra. Schwarzenegger and his allies are preparing to spend more than $40 million.

The unions' opposition has been multiplied by an initiative that could crimp their ability to use members' dues for political purposes. The effort to defeat it is expected to draw union support from across the country.

Democratic leaders Monday denounced the election.

"This governor has invested everything in an election about nothing," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). "The governor got elected by espousing a populist agenda. There is nothing here that reforms any aspect of California, that improves quality of life in this state for anybody."

Schwarzenegger characterized the election as a "fantastic bargain" for taxpayers. "For a buck and a quarter per citizen," the governor said, "you can fix a broken system and save the state billions of dollars."

The California secretary of state's office projects that the election will cost taxpayers $45 million, plus $7 million to $10 million for voter pamphlets.

Democrats and others called the election needlessly costly and said Schwarzenegger could easily have waited until the next scheduled election, the June 2006 primary, to put his ideas on the ballot.

Though the governor cannot call off the special election, he and lawmakers have until the end of August to place any compromises they negotiate on the November ballot and urge voters to choose them over the initiatives. That is what they did last year when they hammered out a deal on aid to local government.

But Schwarzenegger's proposals this year ask far more of Democratic legislators and their allies. His proposed budget overhaul -- which Schwarzenegger made clear was his top priority -- would limit the amount by which lawmakers could increase state spending each year and give the governor new authority to slash outlays during the fiscal year if expected revenues didn't materialize.

"It would be a dramatic shift of power from the legislative branch to the governor," said Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, a Sacramento nonprofit organization.

Another Schwarzenegger-backed proposal would give a panel of retired judges the responsibility to determine boundaries of districts for the Legislature and California's congressional delegation. Schwarzenegger tried unsuccessfully in the last election to unseat several Democratic incumbents.

Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican consultant, said a ballot fight was inevitable because "there's no way the Legislature would ever pass any of these things."

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