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Competing Measures Add to Complexity of State Ballot

Times Staff Writers

Californians face one of the longest and most complicated ballots in the nine decades since the state invoked direct democracy -- putting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the defensive to protect his political fortune and leaving voters to sort out a patchwork of ideas.

There are 16 propositions before voters this November, including three sets that compete with each other, one rarely used referendum to overturn current law, four that were included by the Legislature and an orphan proposition cut away from its original measure.

It is a ballot compiled by interest groups and angry corporations, Schwarzenegger consultants and the governor himself, local governments and disgruntled lawmakers -- overall, the third-highest number of measures since California instituted initiatives and referendums in 1911, according to statistics from Cal State Los Angeles.

For Schwarzenegger, the ballot will test his powers of persuasion among the electorate, which is notoriously fickle about propositions. Most notably, he has promised to “demolish” a ballot measure that would threaten his authority to sign gambling agreements with Indian tribes. So far, he has taken a position on nine out of the 16 propositions.

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The decision to wade into potentially expensive ballot fights is “a bit of a dangerous game” for the governor, said Shaun Bowler, professor at UC Riverside and an expert on initiatives. “His handlers have built up this image of a politician who can bend people to his will. He can just point the voters at a problem and fire at will. There is some danger in that.”

California voters have faced unusual ballots before -- including the first-ever statewide recall last October that ousted a sitting governor and featured 135 candidates, and a March 2000 ballot with 20 items for consideration.

And separately, the governor has been successful at pushing his agenda on the ballot. Six months ago, voters approved by large margins a bond measure and spending cap he wanted.

But the ballot California voters will face in less than two months is complicated by both its size and by Schwarzenegger’s political maneuvering to secure leverage in the California Legislature and refine his position among the electorate.

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His most high-profile maneuvering has been over two gambling initiatives, Propositions 68 and 70, which appear on the ballot in part because of Schwarzenegger’s own actions -- even though he is opposing them.

Proposition 68 was the brainchild of California’s card clubs and horse tracks, which have long wanted to expand gambling but lacked political support compared to their rivals, Indian tribes.

So for the initiative, they borrowed Schwarzenegger’s rhetoric to demand that Indian tribes pay a “fair share” -- defined as 25% -- of their slot machine revenue to the government. If they refuse, the initiative holds, the clubs and tracks would be able to expand their businesses.

The governor never endorsed the measure, but aides have called it a stick that helped persuade some Indian tribes to negotiate new compacts personally with him rather than take their case to the voters. “Our initiative helps him negotiate his deal,” George Gorton, one of Schwarzenegger’s political consultants, said in April.

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Gorton and another political consultant to the governor, Don Sipple, worked for the Proposition 68 campaign earlier this year. But this summer, the governor won a number of new deals with some tribes and found others willing to negotiate. After it became apparent that the governor would oppose the initiative, both consultants left the campaign.

Enter the Agua Caliente Band, which drafted Proposition 70 shortly before the filing deadline last spring. It would give tribes unlimited casino expansion rights in exchange for paying the state 8.84% of their net profit -- a much better deal for casinos than the card club initiative.

Tribal chairman Richard Milanovich said the measure was designed to answer Proposition 68 and Schwarzenegger’s comments that tribes should pay their fair share. “The idea of us paying our fair share resonates with the people of California,” Milanovich said at the time.

Now, Schwarzenegger considers Proposition 70 -- or more specifically, his opposition to it -- another stick to drive Indian tribes to the negotiating table. He already has signed agreements with nine gambling tribes and said, “We will have very soon many more, and especially after we demolish Proposition 70.”

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“We will then have pretty much all of them coming to the table,” he told reporters in New York after the Republican National Convention.

In the same initiative-as-a-threat scenario, the ballot features two measures protecting city and county coffers from being raided by the state during budget crises.

Proposition 65 was placed on the ballot by local governments as a way to protect their funds from legislative raids -- and it immediately prompted Schwarzenegger to begin negotiations with cities and counties on a compromise to head it off.

A final compromise was reached in July. Local governments agreed to another, last-minute ballot measure with Schwarzenegger and lawmakers during protracted budget negotiations. Schwarzenegger is expected to campaign for the compromise, Proposition 1A, along with local governments. But now, because there are two competing measures, Proposition 1A must not only win a majority but out-poll the abandoned Proposition 65.

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In an even more confusing scenario, voters also face two competing measures about the future of the ballot itself. Proposition 62 would install an “open” primary, in which the top two voter-getters regardless of party affiliation would face a runoff in November. Proposition 60 would keep in place the current partisan elections.

The partisan measure was rushed onto the ballot by the Legislature in a matter of days because lawmakers feared that the competing initiative would sabotage the rights of parties to pick candidates. There was little debate on the legislation placing the item on the ballot, and it did not require a signature by Schwarzenegger.

To make it more palatable to voters, Proposition 60 included a provision regarding the sale of surplus state property. The state Supreme Court subsequently split the measure, because propositions are supposed to concern a single subject. Thus: Proposition 60A, on the seemingly innocuous issue of surplus state property.

Another item on the ballot asks voters to endorse current law approved during the final days of Gov. Gray Davis’ administration -- requiring employers to pay for health insurance for the working poor. Proposition 72 is fiercely opposed by businesses, including large-scale chain restaurants that are pumping in money to defeat it.

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Another initiative -- Proposition 63, which raises taxes on the wealthy to pay for mental health services -- asks voters to do something the Legislature refused to address, according to its author, Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Steinberg has complained about so-called “ballot-box budgeting,” but now he’s doing the same thing, explaining: “We had to ask whether over time the Legislature or any governor would make mental health a top-tier priority, and we concluded it was not likely to happen.”

So far, the governor is opposing the two gambling expansion initiatives, as well as Proposition 66, which would loosen the state’s three-strikes law. He is supporting the local government funding compromise, Proposition 1A, and Proposition 69, which requires DNA samples from convicted felons and people arrested on suspicion of rape and murder. He is opposed to Proposition 65, the orphan local government plan.

He also supports Proposition 59, to allow to the public better access to government records. Schwarzenegger said Friday he would support Proposition 64, to limit lawsuits against businesses for unfair practices, and he is asking people to vote “no” on Proposition 72, the healthcare insurance referendum.

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Politically, Schwarzenegger faces several dilemmas with the ballot. He has repeatedly threatened to take his case “to the people” through the ballot box, but that is not the same as getting involved in proposition fights sponsored by special interests he cannot control. He risks looking like he is installing someone else’s agenda, analysts said.

It is also not clear how much money Schwarzenegger will raise and use before November to influence propositions. He has about $1 million that could be used to respond if Indian tribes go on the air in support of Proposition 70, an advisor said.

Perhaps mindful of the politics involved, Schwarzenegger has yet to take a position on the proposition that may have the highest national profile of the November measures: Proposition 71. It would establish a constitutional right to perform stem-cell research and authorize a bond issue of up to $3 billion to finance research.

The measure has surfaced as an issue in the presidential campaign, with Democratic candidate John F. Kerry criticizing President Bush for limiting the number of stem-cell lines that can be researched. Conservative Republicans oppose stem-cell research because it involves destroying human embryos, and Schwarzenegger risks alienating a key segment of his support if he embraces the measure.

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Schwarzenegger also has not taken a position on Proposition 61, a $750-million bond issue for constructing, expanding and equipping children’s hospitals.

Nor has he taken a position on the Steinberg mental health initiative, even though he has repeatedly said he is against raising taxes. In this case, Schwarzenegger risks coming out on the losing end of what is now a politically popular measure.

“What he really stands for in a highly visible way will be very clear,” said a Schwarzenegger advisor. “You don’t want to spread yourself too thin.”

Whatever his decision, Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, said Schwarzenegger is in a strong position going into the election for a number of reasons, including his popularity and the fact that he is mostly opposing measures on a long ballot.

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“He’s still in a position of strength,” Garrett said. “Voters are going to be looking at 16 initiatives, two on gambling. My expectation is that voters are going to vote ‘no’ on these things when they are faced with so much.”

GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, who is working on the open primary initiative, said that even narrow victories would be good for the governor. But, he said, the confusing ballot may influence the vote.

“There’s a question of how much voter confusion will be a problem, and what impact does one initiative have on another initiative,” Spillane said. “It’s unusual to have so many linked ballot measures, and there’s such a diversity on the ballot, too. The numbers are hard to keep straight.”

Garrett noted that this may be the last election cycle for which Schwarzenegger can raise unlimited contributions for his ballot measure committees. If it survives legal challenge, a new state law will impose a $21,200 limit on individual contributions to ballot measure committees, similar to limits on contributions to gubernatorial candidates. As a result, the governor may not be as powerful in future elections.

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“I think the bottom line on any position he takes on direct democracy is, he has to succeed,” Garrett said.

“Winning will keep him in the game of using direct democracy and initiatives as a threat. The greater his victory, the more significant his threat.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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A crowded ballot

The Nov. 2 general election ballot will lead with the race for president but will include 16 California measures:

Proposition 1A -- Approves a compromise agreement between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and cities and counties to protect local funding.

Proposition 59 -- Guarantees the right of access to state and local government information.

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Proposition 60 -- Enshrines the current system of partisan primaries.

Proposition 60A -- Requires that the proceeds from the sale of surplus state property be used to pay off bonded indebtedness.

Proposition 61 -- Approves a $750-million bond issue for constructing, expanding and equipping children’s hospitals.

Proposition 62 -- Requires that the top two vote-getters in a primary, regardless of party affiliation, face a runoff in November.

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Proposition 63 -- Levies an additional 1% tax on the income of millionaires to finance expanded mental health services.

Proposition 64 -- Limits an individual’s right to sue under unfair business competition laws to situations in which the individual has suffered actual injury or financial loss because of an unfair practice.

Proposition 65 -- Requires voter approval any time the state Legislature wants to reduce funding to cities, counties and special districts.

Proposition 66 -- Amends the three-strikes law to require that a crime be a violent or serious felony in order to qualify as a strike and imposes more severe penalties for sexual crimes against children.

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Proposition 67 -- Adds a 3% surcharge on telephone usage to provide additional money for hospital emergency services and training.

Proposition 68 -- Requires Indian tribes that own casinos to contribute 25% of their slot machine revenue to state and local governments. If they refuse, 11 card rooms and five horse-racing tracks would gain the right to install 30,000 slots and would pay 33%, or roughly $1 billion a year, primarily to local government.

Proposition 69 -- Requires felons to provide a sample of their DNA for storage in a law enforcement database, and authorizes local authorities to take such specimens from individuals arrested on suspicion of rape or murder.

Proposition 70 -- Grants Indian tribes unlimited casino expansion rights on their land. In return, the tribes would pay the state 8.84% of their net profit.

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Proposition 71 -- Establishes a constitutional right to perform stem-cell research. Authorizes a bond issue of up to $3 billion to finance such research.

Proposition 72 -- Endorses a law requiring employers to provide healthcare insurance for uninsured workers.

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Source: California secretary of state

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