Cash crunch puts California in the cheap seats in 2012

Capitol Journal

California’s distant spectator seat in the presidential nominating arena is, in part, the result of misplaced spending priorities in Sacramento.

We bought a ticket in the nosebleed section because Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature refused to spend an estimated $100 million for a separate presidential primary early in the nominating process.

Instead, they combined presidential balloting with the regular state primary on June 5, long after the Republican nomination surely will have been nailed down, most likely by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.


That means Republican voters in the nation’s most populous state will probably have no voice in whom the party nominates for president. They can only shout a meaningless cheer or catcall.

“Cost is always a problem,” says state Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who stepped down Wednesday as Senate minority leader. “But sometimes you can be penny wise and pound foolish. It’s hard to put a price on democracy.

“Frankly, I don’t think we’re treating the voters of California the way they ought to be treated.”

Dutton was one of only a few lawmakers who advocated separating the primaries, holding one in early March for presidential nominating and a second in June for legislative and congressional races.

A bill consolidating the primaries in June sailed through the Legislature and was signed by Brown.

“It just made common sense to save $100 million,” says Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale), chairman of the Assembly elections committee.

Sure. Times are tough.

But here’s the hypocrisy: While the Democratic governor balked at spending money so Californians could help select the Republican presidential candidate, he aggressively pushed GOP lawmakers to authorize a $100-million special election so he could ask voters for a tax increase.

Democratic legislators were just fine with that. A special election for state taxes, yes; a separate primary to help select a U.S. president, forget it. Never mind that the governor and Legislature are empowered to raise taxes all by themselves without hand holding by voters.

GOP lawmakers blocked the tax election. But they also have their hypocrisy history.

I didn’t hear a peep from Republicans in 2005 protesting then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spending tens of millions for a special election on his flawed “reform” initiatives that all failed miserably. And they thought a costly special election to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 was great sport.

Dutton argued that if a separate presidential primary wasn’t possible, the national and state contests should be combined in a March election when the White House nominations might still be unsettled.

That way, “California wouldn’t lose its importance,” Dutton says. “We wouldn’t be having presidential candidates come to California simply to raise money with voters not having a voice in who’s going to be nominated.”

Most Republican lawmakers agreed.

“California has been pretty much left out,” Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Linda) told me Tuesday. “That’s why I’m in Iowa.”

When I called on his cell, Logue was at the Dubuque fairgrounds about to give a caucus speech for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an Iowa casualty that night.

“I’d like to see the spotlight turned more on California,” Logue said. But he still adamantly opposes an early separate primary.

“The cost would be astronomical,” asserted the Assembly elections committee vice chairman. “We’ve got a state that has billions of dollars in deficits. We have to be real frugal, especially since we’re laying off cops.

“There’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t have an early primary and consolidate it.”

One problem with an early consolidated primary is that it would mess up the legislative and congressional elections cycle. In presidential election years, state primaries would be held in March. In off years, they could go back to June. Early primaries require earlier campaigning through the holidays. Voters might want to scream at candidates: Go away.

But rotating legislative primary dates wouldn’t bother Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale), vice chairman of the Senate elections committee. “The Legislature changes rules all the time,” he notes with some sarcasm. “How can [lawmakers] cry?”

There was more motivation than money for delaying the presidential primary until June, of course.

Start with the fact that since there is no fight for the Democratic nomination, the majority party could not care less about a presidential primary.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Democrats wanted to make sure the Republican contest wasn’t exciting enough to draw a large GOP turnout that could dominate voting on ballot measures — such as a conservative so-called paycheck protection initiative that would make it harder for unions to collect members’ dues for politics.

That was one reason why Democrats delayed the presidential primary until the Republican fight presumably had fizzled.

It became moot, however, when Democrats later passed legislation permanently placing all initiatives on general election ballots where higher turnouts historically help the party. The paycheck initiatives will be decided in November.

Also, if you’re the Democrats, why allow California Republicans a hot presidential contest to get all enthused and organized about? Keep ‘em in the doldrums.

California tried early primaries for four presidential elections, beginning in 1996. The goal was to exert our rightful clout and force candidates to pay attention to our special issues: water, environment, illegal immigration, getting shortchanged by the feds…

We did rescue Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy by delivering a timely victory that helped keep her afloat for a while in 2008. But mostly our early primaries flopped. Pampered pipsqueaks Iowa and New Hampshire merely leaped far ahead of us.

Still, next time, Sacramento should buy into practicing democracy. And here’s predicting that it will — because Democrats in 2016 will have their own red-hot nominating battle.