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Campaign for budget measures struggles to appeal to voters

In the final sprint to Tuesday’s election, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has warned day after day of teacher layoffs, fire-station shutdowns and other dire consequences if voters fail to pass budget measures that would produce almost $6 billion to ease California’s fiscal crisis.

Yet Schwarzenegger and his allies have abandoned TV advertising -- the main vehicle for reaching voters statewide -- on the three measures that would generate that money: Propositions 1C, 1D and 1E.

Instead, they are running TV ads solely for Propositions 1A and 1B, measures that would do nothing to slow California’s slide toward insolvency this summer, but in future years could help the budget’s bottom line and Schwarzenegger’s political image.

The contradiction reflects the muddled approach of a campaign that has struggled to find a coherent argument to fit the surly mood of state voters.

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Led by the Republican governor and Democratic leaders of the Legislature, the campaign for six budget measures has lurched from one strategy to another, even as tens of thousands of voters were already mailing in their ballots.

At the same time, the campaign has cast about for credible representatives to market the measures, no small task when polls show that most Californians give the governor and Legislature abysmal ratings on the budget crisis.

With soaring unemployment, plummeting home values, vanishing retirement savings and a state still billions short of a balanced budget even with new tax hikes, voter wariness is no surprise.

“When you get a combination of they don’t trust the messengers, and they don’t trust the message,” said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, “we know what happens.”

From the start, the budget package, Propositions 1A through 1F, has faced an uphill fight. With the glaring exception of 1F, which would deny pay raises to elected officials when the state is running a deficit, voters are leaning toward rejection of the measures, polls show.

The Sacramento leaders opened their campaign by trying to play off voter anger directed at them. The first TV spot featured a man on his front porch saying politicians “got us in quite a mess.” By passing all six ballot measures, the man told viewers, Californians could “hold the politicians accountable and help hold the line on higher taxes.”

Left unsaid was that the politicians in question were the ones running the ad. Schwarzenegger’s name was buried in a blur of fine print. Also unmentioned: Proposition 1A would not just cap state spending, as the ad said, but also extend the state’s recently passed tax hikes for up to two years.

“Voters knew there was more to the story, and there was,” said Steve Smith, a Democratic campaign strategist.

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A leader of the campaign, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), said voters were right to be cynical about the possibility that sponsors of the measures were “tricking them,” even if, in her view, the proposals are worthy. “They always feel they’re being lied to about propositions, so there’s nothing unique about this,” she said in an interview.

In this case, the campaign has stoked public skepticism by omitting from its ads and website crucial facts, such as the $16 billion in tax-hike extensions.

That can backfire, strategists said, with the older and relatively well-informed voters who are most likely to cast ballots in a low-turnout special election like the one next week.

“This is a case where information is not the ‘yes’ side’s friend,” Carrick said. “The more people learn, the less they like it.”

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In the campaign’s final days, Schwarzenegger and his allies have switched strategies, warning of doomsday cuts should voters reject Propositions 1A and also 1B, which would restore education cuts in future years. In one TV spot, a firefighter walks alongside a red fire engine. “Without Props 1A and 1B,” he says, “we have $16 billion in new cuts coming, could lose another 24,000 firefighters and police.”

In fact, that is a roundabout reference to the $16 billion in tax-hike extensions that would not hit for more than a year -- and that have no bearing on any cuts that state leaders might impose if voters refuse to approve the nearly $6 billion tucked into Propositions 1C, 1D and 1E.

Proposition 1C would let the state instantly borrow $5 billion against future lottery revenues, while 1D and 1E would, for the current budget, free up $838 million that voters had previously restricted to children’s and mental health programs, respectively. More money would be shifted from those programs in later years.

“Voters are hypersensitive to exaggerated facts, and that’s why trying to threaten people in 30-second TV commercials is not going to have an effect,” said Democratic pollster Jim Moore.

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Also unmentioned in the ads is that California has laid off almost none of its 238,000 employees as part of the deal that Schwarzenegger and lawmakers struck in February to cut spending, raise taxes and borrow to close a $42-billion budget gap.

Asked why the campaign was no longer sponsoring TV ads promoting 1C, 1D and 1E, Schwarzenegger political advisor Adam Mendelsohn said it was sending out mail promoting the full package.

But Schwarzenegger would reap clear political benefits if voters passed the two measures his campaign is promoting on TV, 1A and 1B: a cap on state spending as a centerpiece of his legacy, along with more money for schools.

In a Field Poll last month, his job approval rating sank to a new low of 33% among registered voters, while the Legislature’s bottomed out at 14%.

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“People are fed up,” said Republican ad consultant Don Sipple. “They expect the political leadership to take care of things and not come back to them all the time.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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