SACRAMENTO — The last time California voters faced a slate of ballot measures crying for "reform," there was a pitched political battle featuring TV ads aplenty and campaigns awash in cash. There were unified labor unions and Democrats pitted against the Hollywood-style marketing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That was November 2005. What a difference 42 months make.
Just weeks from the May 19 special election on six proposals intended to solve the state's budget crisis, a fraction of the money is in play, unions are divided, Democrats are aligned with Schwarzenegger, and the governor -- his approval rating in the dumps -- has avoided the campaign spotlight.
Only the mood of the electorate remains the same. Voters drubbed the Schwarzenegger ballot measures in 2005, and polls suggest they'll do the same this time around.
"The good news is the California Teachers Assn. is on the governor's side this time," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist, referring to the defeat the union dealt Schwarzenegger in 2005. "The bad news is the voters smell a rotten deal."
Some analysts say the election might already be largely decided. Strategists expect a low turnout and say most participants could be "permanent absentee" voters who may have already cast their ballots by mail. Election officials say one in three California voters is registered permanently as absentee, prompting speculation by strategists that up to 70% of ballots will be cast by mail.
Instead of blanketing the state with TV ads, the campaigns have targeted those voters specifically by hitting early and hard with mailers.
"This election will be over well before election day," said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican strategist.
A recent Field Poll showed that four of the measures -- hashed out by Schwarzenegger and lawmakers during the budget deal in February to help close a $42-billion deficit -- are favored by just 40% of likely voters. A fifth measure, Proposition 1C, which would allow the state to borrow $5 billion from a revamped California lottery to help balance the budget, is worse off: Voters oppose it nearly 2 to 1.
The only proposal that appears headed to victory is Proposition 1F, which takes direct aim at statewide officers and legislators by proposing a freeze on their salaries in deficit years.
"The big difference from 2005 is we've had four more years of Gov. Schwarzenegger and four years of less-than-stellar performance by the Legislature," said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist.
Only one of the measures proposes an enduring change in the operation of state government. Proposition 1A would introduce limits on future spending and enlarge the state's rainy-day fund. But it also would extend for up to two years the tax hikes signed by Schwarzenegger in February.
Opponents say lawmakers are dressing up a tax increase as government reform.
"In 2005 the governor, broom in hand, was looking to sweep out the status quo special interests," said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger at FlashReport.com. "Now he's carrying these ballot measures that attempt to solidify the status quo. He's become part of the problem instead of the solution."
Pundits not involved in the race say that, at the very least, the ballot measures -- crafted to assuage foes from the 2005 campaign -- have voters thoroughly befuddled. And such voters usually vote no.
"The governor and legislative leaders were so eager to avoid a repeat of 2005 that they put together a package that sidelined most of the opposition but may have confused most of the voters," said Dan Schnur of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
The teachers union, which vigorously opposed the 2005 measures, this time is pushing hard for Propositions 1A and 1B, which would restore up to $9.3 billion in education funding in the coming decade.
Other powerful labor groups, such as the Service Employees International Union, have balked at mounting a big-spending opposition campaign -- and spent more supporting one of the ballot measures. SEIU has put up $868,000 against Proposition 1A, a fraction of what it spent to oppose the 2005 proposals. The union and one of its chapters have spent $1,050,000 in support of the lottery measure.
Supporters of the measures have raised more than $17 million, but that's roughly a tenth of the total spent in the 2005 campaign.
There's also a big difference in the run-up to election day. Schwarzenegger began touting his proposals at least 10 months before the 2005 election. The campaign this time will stretch barely 10 weeks.
And the tenor of the campaign is far different, said Adam Mendelsohn, a strategist for the "yes" side.
"The 2005 race was basically the governor against the world, whereas this campaign is built around an extremely large coalition," Mendelsohn said. "That campaign was about anger; this one is about the positive steps that can be taken to fix Sacramento -- and the consequences of failure."
State leaders have said that if the propositions don't pass and the economy continues to sag, they could be left with a $14-billion deficit.
"Without these measures," Mendelsohn said, "it's going to mean even more cuts to schools and even more cuts to healthcare."