Monday, June 13, 2005

Special Election is On

Governor Schwarzenutbag announced a few minutes ago that, as widely expected, he is calling a special election for November 8, 2005, to accelerate by 7 months the vote on three of his pet initiatives. He is proposing school reform, election reform, and budget reform. In addition, outside groups have put two additional initiatives forward for the November ballot. One would require parental notification when a minor seeks an abortion; the other would restrict political activity by unions.

As reported in today's San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com), the governator's special election plans are opposed by some pretty heavy hitters, consumer activist Harvey Rosenfield of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, and Republican former Secretary of State (and 2004 U.S. Senate candidate) Bill Jones. Rosenfield called the special election "an abuse of executive power," adding, "Never before, to our knowledge, has a sitting governor invoked his constitutional authority to call a special election when the only purpose of the election is the enactment of his own ballot measures. ... [Governor Schwarzenegger] has done more to undermine and corrupt the initiative process than anyone in state history."

Bill Jones, a supporter of Governor Schwarzenegger, decried the pay-to-play nature of the California initiative process, as well as the rigidity of a flat up-or-down vote on the proposals. "The process is too complex for yes or no votes."

I'm not exactly a fan of Harvey Rosenfield; in fact, I think he's fairly high up the list of people who have abused the initiative process. However, I agree with his call to require a majority vote of the Legislature to hold a special election, and most especially to prohibit the governor from controlling, co√∂rdinating, or raising money for campaigns directly related to ballot initiatives. (A major reason for Schwarzenegger's sense of urgency is that campaign finance rules are considerably tighter in an election in which he is also running for office. Since he will probably be running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on 6/6/6, he would be much less able to raise millions of dollars in out-of-state contributions to fund his single-minded vision for Kah-lee-for-nee-yuh. Former Governor Gray Davis, a record-setter in sleazy campaign fund-raising, has been utterly eclipsed by the king of special interest palm-greasing, Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Davis could have raised the kind of money that Ahnold does, he probably would've survived the recall election — hell, he could've paid the Enron-inflated electricity bills out of his personal slush fund.)

Bill Jones also raises some important points. One of Arnold's propositions this time would restructure the entire process of drawing boundaries for state legislators and other offices. Arnold has a strong point, one that resonates with voters because he's absolutely right that the current system of allowing the Legislature to draw its own boundaries is badly broken and serves the people quite poorly. However, there are a number of huge flaws in his reform plan. First of all, he wants to redraw the boundaries in time for the 6/6/6 primary elections, so that the new lines would take full effect in the November 2006 general election. California will have to redraw its electoral boundaries after the 2010 census anyway; what's the big rush? In particular, state senators are elected to four-year terms on a rotating basis, half in each biennial election. Redistricting would require the entire senate to stand for re-election in 2006. That just kicks more lobbyist money into the campaign war chests, and clogs the airwaves with more distorted negative political ads. Beyond that, Arnold proposes to have a commission of three retired judges redraw the lines. I agree that the process should be taken out of the Legislature, but I have serious problems with the replacement plan, especially since the pool of retired state judges tilts much more to the conservative Republican side than the state as a whole. I also feel very strongly that the specifics of the process need careful review and extensive public hearings, not a simple yes or no vote by an electorate that is unlikely to read more than the first paragraph of the ballot summary. Let's not replace gerrymandering with Arnold-mandering.

Governor Schwarzenegger is also correct that our state budget process needs a serious overhaul, but again the devil is in the details. We need an open process with extensive public hearings to carefully balance competing interests, not just an up-or-down vote based on ten-second sound bites. Our state's schools also need major attention, but there, too, the details are important. California's public schools were once the gold standard for the entire nation; they are now a step up only if you're coming from Mississippi.

Ahnold is abusing the process for selfish political motives, to build momentum for his re-election bid in 2006. However, the cigar smoke is clearing away, leaving the voters to see not the powerful action hero they thought they voted for, but a power-hungry puppet of the special interests. All three of his current ballot measures hold an anemic lead in opinion polls; however, the pattern with initiatives is that they tend to start near their peak of support, with the yes votes melting away as people hear more of the details. Reforming things sounds good; the particular plans usually don't fare quite as well. That raises the significant possibility that one, two, or even all three of Ahnold's pet projects could go down in flames, maybe even killing his political future. We should be so lucky.

The California Legislature has sorely lacked leadership on these important issues. The widespread practice of "taking a walk" on controversial votes — being absent, effectively voting no, but yet not being on record with either a yes or no vote — rightly diminishes the legislators in the public's esteem. Unfortunately, we clearly cannot look to the governor's office for leadership, either.