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Special Election Ballot Taking Shape

Times Staff Writers

The outline of a possible special election ballot crystallized Tuesday with eight potential initiatives that could shift the balance of power in California’s Capitol. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to call the election he has been considering all year. But his allies said they have submitted petitions to place on the ballot three measures he favors. They would curb state spending, strip legislators of the power to decide the boundaries of their districts and delay tenure for public school teachers.

Along with an initiative that challenges unions’ political might, on which Schwarzenegger has not taken a public position, the measures would chip at the clout and financing of the Democratic Party and the authority of the Legislature -- the one branch of government Democrats have controlled for the last decade.

Tuesday was the unofficial deadline for submitting petitions to elections officials in case the governor were to call a vote for Nov. 8, when some local elections are scheduled. Groups aligned with Democratic lawmakers announced that they had submitted petitions for an initiative that would lower prescription drug prices and for another to re-regulate the state’s energy market.

Passage of either would be a rebuke to Schwarzenegger, who vetoed legislative versions of the measures last year.

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The possibility of a special election has hung over California since January, when the governor outlined his proposals for overhauling state government this year. He said that if lawmakers balked at his ideas, he would take them to voters.

So far, legislative leaders have reached no agreement with the governor on his agenda, and many Democrats are not inclined to compromise with him, saying that his proposals have not generated popular support.

Schwarzenegger’s poll numbers have slid precipitously as he has pushed his plans. “If the governor prevails on most, if not all, of his proposals, this will give him a resurgence of momentum and likely break the back of the Democratic opposition,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “If he loses, after putting all of his prestige on the line, this will cut the legs out from under him. We’re really looking at a crossroads here.”

Elections officials must certify the authenticity and number of signatures on the petitions before the corresponding measures can be placed on a ballot, a process that could take two months or more. Schwarzenegger has until mid-June to call a November election, so there is still time for lawmakers to reach agreements with him. Lawmakers could then place such agreements on the ballot, and the governor and his allies could abandon their three initiatives, asking voters to reject them. Or, he could not call an election and enact everything through legislation.

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Political experts said voter turnout could be especially low in a special election with no candidates on the ballot. And the costs would be high. Already, $40 million has been raised for initiative campaigns.

Unions would work hard to get their members to the polls to defeat a measure that would block them from using dues for political donations unless employees consented in writing; consent would be sought annually. The effort to defeat the initiative probably would draw money from across the country.

The pharmaceutical industry has $6.5 million to combat an initiative that would require them to offer discounts on prescription drugs for low- and moderate-income Californians. Industry officials have said that they will raise “whatever it takes” to defeat the initiative.

The Alliance for a Better California -- a coalition of labor unions, consumer groups and advocates for the elderly formed to combat Schwarzenegger -- announced that it was submitting its petition for the measure Tuesday. “If the governor is insisting on calling a special election, we will use this opportunity to do something real and tangible,” said Dave Low, a state employees union official who is an alliance spokesman.

Meanwhile, Billy Tauzin, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, announced that the industry was filing signatures in favor of its initiative. Backers of the measure, which was devised with Schwarzenegger last year but rejected by Democratic lawmakers, said it would provide discounts of up to 40% for the elderly.

Both supporters and opponents of abortion rights would probably be galvanized by an initiative that social conservatives want to place on the ballot. It would require minors who are seeking abortions to wait until two days after their parents or guardians have been informed by a doctor of the impending procedure.

County officials are complaining about the cost of a special election, which is estimated to total as much as $70 million, with counties picking up most of that sum. The cost would be highest if a vote were scheduled on a day other than Nov. 8, when 61 jurisdictions from counties to water districts are holding a regularly scheduled election. The officials said it would be next to impossible for them to hold another election in subsequent weeks.

Yolo County Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley said Tuesday that she may defy Schwarzenegger and refuse to hold a special election if he calls one, although she acknowledged that a court could force her to comply. Oakley said a Nov. 8 election would cost her county $100,000, and on any other day, about $330,000.

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“The governor has the authority to call the plays. I just want him to pick up the tab for the game,” Oakley said.

Aside from the 2003 recall, California has had only three special elections, according to the secretary of state’s office. One, in 1973, was over a constitutional amendment to limit taxes and spending; the measure failed. Special elections in 1979 and 1993 were dominated by propositions that had been placed on the ballot by the Legislature; each included only one other measure proposed by non-lawmakers.

“Special elections have historically been used for initiatives that the Legislature was too afraid to deal with for reasons of political fallout, but usually they were bipartisan,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

Though a special ballot this year would probably be longer than those of previous special elections -- the last one had seven questions -- it could have been more extensive. Sixty-one other initiative petitions are circulating for signatures, but none appears likely to qualify for a November ballot.

Some were abandoned by supporters. Those include one intended to change the public employee pension system to 401(k)-style accounts. Schwarzenegger had embraced that measure as part of his agenda this year, but gave up on it after police and firefighters and their relatives objected that it was written in a way that would have abolished death and disability benefits for those killed on the job.

The Democrats’ allies scrapped an initiative that would have imposed sales restrictions on car dealers, after a legislative compromise was worked out.

In other cases, initiative proponents decided not to push ahead with measures that they could not qualify in time for a November election. Those included a measure favored by Schwarzenegger that would have created a merit-pay system for teachers, and a union-backed initiative that would have required corporations to get the approval of their shareholders before making political donations. Both could end up on the ballot next year.

In other cases, backers chose to hold out for an election more likely to produce strong voter turnout. That is what union leaders decided to do with one of their top priorities, a measure to raise California’s minimum wage.

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“We’re looking at a giant chessboard and a lot of moves being made on that chessboard with initiatives,” said Joel Fox, head of the Small Business Action Committee.

Fox, who is helping to fund many of the initiatives aimed at the Democrats and their allies, added: “It doesn’t mean that those supporting the particular initiatives don’t believe in them.”

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Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Potential ballot measures

Petitions have been submitted to place eight initiatives on the ballot if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls a special election. Elections officials still must certify the signatures on the petitions.

* Teacher tenure: Would extend from two to five years the time before teachers in public schools could qualify for tenure.

* Spending curbs: Would cap the amount of money that could be spent on government programs and could force automatic cuts if the state budget was not approved on time or fell out of balance during the year.

* Lawmakers’ districts: Would give a panel of retired judges responsibility for determining the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts -- a task now performed by the Legislature. Would order districts redrawn next year.

* Public union dues: Would prohibit public labor unions from using a member’s dues for political contributions unless the member agreed in writing.

* Abortion notification: Would block minors from obtaining abortions until 48 hours after their parents were notified.

* Required prescription drug discounts. Would require drug companies to lower the prices of medicine for Californians earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level, or $38,280 for individuals. Companies that refused would face new barriers to having their drugs prescribed in the state’s Medi-Cal program.

* Voluntary prescription drug discounts: Companies would lower prices for Californians earning up to 300% of the federal poverty level, or $28,710 for individuals. There would be no penalty for companies that didn’t reduce prices. The pharmaceutical industry agreed to this plan in negotiations with Schwarzenegger last year.

* Electricity: Would reverse the last vestiges of California’s failed 1996 electricity deregulation law, putting all power producers under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission and making it illegal for large users to sign new contracts to buy electricity outside the state’s power grid. Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation last year.

Compiled by Times staff writers Evan Halper, Marc Lifsher and Jordan Rau.

Los Angeles Times


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