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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Lawmakers are toxic, but voters helped get themselves into this fix

Governor and legislators have poisoned Tuesday's ballot measures, but citizens share the blame.

May 18, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Tuesday's state election has all the rough feel and harsh sounds of a referendum -- a referendum on the performances of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

That's unfortunate, because some very significant public policy is at stake.

But it's also human nature. If you don't like certain people, there's a tendency to view things contrary to their positions. What they support, you oppose.

Never mind that it may be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your angry face.

My e-mail basket is full of missives denouncing the governor and legislators as liars, buffoons, reckless spenders and out-of-touch dilettantes.

They're what's called "toxic" in politics -- poison to whatever they touch, especially ballot measures.

Toxic "may be a bit of an understatement," quips Rick Claussen, a veteran, usually successful, political consultant who has been trying to strategize for the "yes" side in the propositions fight. That's the probable losing side, based on public and private polling.

"They are hellbent on believing the worst," Claussen says of the voters he has analyzed in poll surveys and focus groups. "What comes through is a deep sense of mistrust, skepticism and anger. And that translates into 'Send 'em a message.'

"The message is, 'Until you clean up your act in Sacramento, don't talk to me again.'

"The fact that the politicians put these measures on the ballot made them suspect from the get-go."

Politicians never have been great messengers for ballot props. Teachers, cops and firefighters are much more appealing in TV ads.

But Capitol politicians are especially horrible salesmen this year. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature both are suffering from record-low job approval ratings, according to polls.

One common gripe of the public is that the governor and Legislature aren't doing their jobs. They keep bucking decisions down to the voters.

It's a bum rap, at least in the current case. All six ballot measures got dumped on voters because they insisted on it in previous elections. Not one of the propositions could have been enacted by the governor and Legislature themselves. They all would alter old ballot measures -- mostly citizen and special-interest initiatives -- that require voter approval for major amending.

In focus groups, Claussen says, he hears lines like: "Screw it! I'm not bailing out Sacramento again." The word bailout has become especially loaded because of Washington's bailing out of near-bankrupt corporations.

"The other refrain you hear is, 'I want to let Sacramento know how mad I am. I want to punish the politicians for not doing their job.'

"Voters don't accept any responsibility for having a role in this fiasco. And they clearly do. They don't understand that they've made it difficult for the politicians to do their jobs."

They've made it difficult by passing feel-good "ballot box budgeting" initiatives that lock up tax revenue for certain programs -- K-14 education, early childhood, after-school, mental health -- and prevent the Legislature and governor from prioritizing.

Voters also have sanctioned heavy borrowing: Schwarzenegger's $15-billion bond in 2004 to pay for daily expenses, plus $3 billion for stem cell research and tens of billions for infrastructure projects, including an exotic bullet train.

But the biggest obstacle of all for the Legislature is the inane two-thirds majority vote requirement for passage of virtually any money bill -- spending or taxes. The voters signed off on that gridlock-inducing system. California is the only large state to suffer it.

Another frustrated consultant for the "yes" campaign, who'd talk only if not identified, says, "Voters have come to one basic place: They just think the whole thing is a bunch of crap. They don't buy it, don't care and don't want to be involved."

Claussen adds: "It's very hard to have a rational dialogue with the voters because they're not rational at the moment. It's like, 'Don't bother me with the facts. I've had it. I'm mad.' "

They have reason.

Voters were told by Schwarzenegger in 2004 that his budget "reform" and "economic recovery bond" would fix the state fiscally forever. They only made things worse. Running for reelection, the governor foolishly promised not to raise taxes, then found he really needed to, angering Republicans.

The public perpetually is told, after months-long haggling in Sacramento, that the budget finally has been balanced. Then it soon learns that, oops, the state has fallen back into a deficit hole.

While families recently were fighting layoffs and cutting their budgets, they read that legislative staffers were getting pay raises. The boosts were soon rescinded, but the political damage was irreparable.

And every day there seems to be another local scandal about some fire chief or city executive making off with an obscene pension.

What's really at stake in the election, however, is a needed change of fiscal direction for the state.

Proposition 1A would enact reasonable spending controls -- not strong enough for conservatives, but far too onerous for the liberal spending lobby. The political flaw in 1A is that it would trigger a two-year extension in temporary tax increases.

Props 1C, 1D and 1E would raise nearly $6 billion by amending old "ballot box budgeting" initiatives. If they don't pass, there'll likely be painful cuts in education, public health and local government services -- plus prisoner releases -- that should make even the most right-wing Republican lawmaker wince.

"It's about California's future. It's about California's legacy," Schwarzenegger told reporters last week. "It's not about me. It's not about the legislators or anyone here in Sacramento."

Sorry, governor. It shouldn't be. But it seems that it is.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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