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The special election: Turning California around

Passage of the May 19 ballot measures would give the state room to try a new direction.

May 11, 2009

California is a car hurtling down the wrong highway, its gas gauge on "E." Behind the wheel, multiple drivers grab the gearshift and strain to reach the clutch. From the crowded back seat, some passengers shout directions; others argue over a wrong turn 100 miles back, or complain about road conditions, or demand that they pull over and paint the car a different color. Some insist that they're riding comfortably in a hybrid SUV, although the engine vibrations feel suspiciously like those produced by an old gas-guzzling Pontiac.

Ahead are an off-ramp, a gas station and a sign that warns: "Next services: four years, maybe three if you're lucky. I'd gas up if I were you."

"If we keep going and we don't refuel and you let us drive," some pout from the back seat, "we can make the car burn gas more efficiently."

"If we keep going and we don't refuel and you let us drive," others sulk, "the Auto Club will send someone to help us."

The off-ramp is the May 19 special election, and no one wants to pull over. Polls show that voters are increasingly unhappy with the six budget measures on the ballot, which would extend temporary tax increases, impose a state spending cap, sell the state's future lottery revenue, suspend operations of two special-tax programs and pump their money into the state budget, and impose a disingenuous restriction on politicians' pay raises.

Californians shouldn't have to do their state government's work, but that's just the way it is. Democratic and Republican lawmakers were locked in a partisan, ideological and personal struggle from August 2007 to last February over the current budget, and came close to driving the state off a cliff rather than compromise on program cuts or taxes. They finally reached a deal that got cash flowing and averted default, but it included and depends on this election.

Some voters seem to think that rejecting these measures will send politicians a message. It will. It will tell them that Californians won't stand for constructive compromise of the sort that Republican state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis sought when they agreed to the deal, and that we'll grant political points for intransigence but none for actual accomplishment. It will tell them that we are suckers for grandstanding. It will tell them to keep fighting and stay deadlocked.

California must get on a different road, change its political dynamic and perhaps its political structure, but it can do that only if it can move. And to move, voters must pass the ballot measures. There is little point in arguing over the next turn if the discussion takes place in the back seat of a rusted-out hulk.

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