Reporting from Sacramento — With heated contests looming for U.S. Senate, governor and other statewide posts, 2010 stands to be a blockbuster year in California politics.
The state could also see a bumper crop of ballot measures.
In recent weeks, nearly 90 proposed initiatives have been in the pipeline, elbowing to become the latest entrants in the state's century-old tradition of direct democracy.
Gay-rights activists, abortion foes, marijuana proponents and government-reform advocates are getting into the act of citizen lawmaking. Insurance companies and consumer groups appear poised to rumble.
There is also the possibility of a high-stakes proposition fight between business and labor interests that some pundits liken to state politics going nuclear.
If historical trends hold, many of the proposals will fail to garner enough support and voter signatures to qualify. But the state remains on track to potentially see dozens of measures on the ballot.
The record of 48 initiatives set in November 1914 -- in the era of Gov. Hiram Johnson, progressive politics and the birth of the ballot measure -- almost certainly is safe. But in a state with a rich tradition of lengthy and complex ballots, "2010 is going to be extraordinary," predicted Kim Alexander, founder of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "Voters are going to be cramming like never before."
So far just three ballot measures are set for the June primary election and only one has qualified for November. But scores more wait in the wings. State election officials have given more than 50 initiatives the green light to hit the streets for signature gathering, and dozens of others await legal approval.
"There used to be a joke that for $200 anyone could write an initiative," said Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman. "Now everyone has."
How else to explain a proposed initiative outlawing divorce, and another addressing Christmas music in schools?
Reflecting recessionary woes, one would-be ballot measure wants to place a hefty tax on the wealthy, while another suggests raising income and property levies for anyone over age 55.
Plenty of measures have yet to attract the needed manpower or financial support. Typically, more than $1 million is needed to collect the necessary signatures -- 433,971 for a statutory change, 694,354 for a constitutional amendment.
Among those still seeking a sugar daddy are several proposals aiming to rap Sacramento on the knuckles. One advocates a part-time Legislature, while another promotes drug and alcohol tests for lawmakers.
Cultural questions remain in vogue. Initiatives are in the works to legalize same-sex marriage, require parental notification for teen abortions and legalize recreational marijuana.
Auto insurer Mercury General already turned in signatures to qualify a measure tweaking Proposition 103, the 1988 voter-approved insurance law. Consumer groups have vowed a counterattack.
But the granddaddy of all looming fights is labor versus business.
If the two deep-pocketed powerhouses of California politics end up backing dueling propositions, "you could have what amounts to World War III," said Doug Heller, executive director of Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog.
So far, no shots have been fired. But the big guns are in place.
Anti-union activists are trying to qualify two initiatives that would do serious damage to organized labor. One would prohibit government payroll deductions for union dues used for politics. Another would overhaul public worker pensions.
Eager to keep business money on the sidelines, unions have turned to a Cold War-era deterrence strategy: Hit us, and we'll hit you back harder.
The unions have initiatives at the ready to repeal $2 billion in corporate tax breaks, raise business property taxes and block corporate political donations.
"Both sides are definitely getting ready for battle," said Thad Kousser, a visiting political science professor at Stanford University. "But if they rattle their sabers enough, it could lead to a truce."
No one wants a truce more than government-reform advocates like Bob Hertzberg.
A former Assembly speaker serving as co-chairman of the good-government group California Forward, Hertzberg in recent weeks has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy, trying to persuade business and labor leaders to pull back the artillery.
California Forward hopes to put two initiatives on the November ballot to revamp the state budget process and shift more power to local government. But its quest for public attention could be squashed if labor and the unions square off.
"We think it's in the best interests of California to stop the noise and focus on the serious issues that affect all of us," Hertzberg said.
Not all advocates of government change agree.
A group pushing for a constitutional convention sees political chaos as a selling point. Voters disgusted by the latest big budget deficits and the prospect of a divisive union-business war, they contend, may prove eager to let a collection of 400 or so everyday citizens revamp the inner workings of California government.
"The power of the idea will rise through all the other static, because it's such an interesting option," said John Grubb, campaign director for Repair California, the convention backer.
Whatever happens, "this is probably the oddest petition season I've ever seen," said Fred Kimball, second-generation owner of a Westlake Village firm that gathers initiative signatures.
"So many things have been filed -- and it's either nothing or everything, either a very mild season or nuclear war," Kimball said. "It just depends on which domino falls."