The Blog

The Fight in California

Edwards? Kerry? Whatever. The real action in the Golden State is Arnold and three important ballot initiatives.

11:00 PM, Mar 1, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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JUST AS LEAP DAY occurs once every four years, there's the quadrennial tradition of California having little--if any--say in the presidential nominating process.

This year, the situation has been especially hard on the Left Coast's fragile psyche. John Kerry and John Edwards have spent all of two days each in the Golden State since the Wisconsin primary--it might have been less if CNN and the Los Angeles Times had not sponsored a debate last Thursday. Neither Democrat is advertising on television. After all, why bother blowing $5 million a week on ads when Kerry has a 41-point lead, according to last week's Field poll?

On the eve of the vote in this delegate-rich state, Californians saw more of Gray Davis in prime time than either of the men who want to replace President Bush. Call it California kismet: an actor became governor; the ex-governor is now an actor (with a cameo on the CBS sitcom "Yes, Dear" last night).

Then again, why complain when Californians can rely on their Governator for another campaign road show that puts the presidential contenders to shame?

JUST AS HE DID in the closing days of recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger spent the closing days of the primary on a bus, campaigning from north to south for Propositions 57 and 58 (a $15 billion deficit bond and a balanced limit requirement). Last night he made a final pitch on "The Tonight Show," the site of his surprise campaign announcement last August.

Granted, it's not as epic a production as the recall, when Arnold needed four buses to handle the media circus. This go-round, with less novelty and fewer hangers-on, the caravan was a single red "Road to Recovery" coach. With statesmanship comes a more serious demeanor. Last fall, candidate Arnold jammed to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"--even to the point of inviting rocker Dee Snider to the steps of the state Capitol. This weekend, Governor Arnold treated his crowd to U2's mellower "Beautiful Day."

Which might be appropriate come Wednesday, since Schwarzenegger seems headed to victory. But just in case there's any doubt, Team Arnold has pulled out all the stops to ensure 57 and 58's passage: round-the-clock TV ads; 2 million pieces of mail and an absentee ballot program; and 300,000 taped phone calls from the governor and his bipartisan allies. Plus, coming out of the bullpen: Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It's the latest trend in California politics--calling on the highly trusted Feinstein in the 9th inning of the campaign. She tried to earn a save for Davis in recall. This time, she's featured in TV spots telling Californians she's read the details of Props. 57 and 58 and they make sense to her--a little Mariano Rivera mixed with a little Mary Worth. (But definitely not Mary Carey.)

SCHWARZENEGGER did one other thing to help his cause: He avoided a fight with any deep-pocketed special interest that could spend millions to sink his initiatives. In fact, if it's a fight you seek on the California ballot, you have to look one number lower on the initiative slate--to Proposition 56, the Budget Accountability Act.

If approved tomorrow, Prop. 56 would end the current two-thirds requirement in California's legislature for enacting a budget or approving a tax increase. Instead, the new threshold would be a 55 percent "supermajority." The current budget requirement has been in effect since a voter-backed measure was passed in 1933. The tax requirement was part of 1978's Proposition 13, California's famous property tax restriction.

The fight for Prop. 56 is a battle of California heavyweights.

ON THE "YES" SIDE: labor unions, the California Teachers Association, and the Service Employees International Union, which by itself reportedly has anted up more than $9 million. On the "no" side: taxpayers groups, the California Chamber of Commerce, and California businesses who'd be the first to lose if the legislature starts raising taxes (chiefly, beer, wine and liquor producers, the targets of "sin" taxes).

Realizing that a simple "let us make it easier to raise taxes" message is a loser, even in California, the pro-56 campaign has come up with a clever media strategy that turns reality inside out.

Spin number one: In order to do a favor for Democratic lawmakers, convince the public that you have no friends in the legislature. Thus one of the pro-56 TV ads demeans the institution by showing would-be politicians having a food fight in what's meant to be the legislative chambers.

Spin number two: Demonize the opposition as tools of the right. Here's the text from another "yes" ad: "Who's paying for the ads against Prop. 56? Special interests like the tobacco industry, oil companies and the insurance industry. Why? Because their lobbyists like the way the legislature operates . . ."

Spin number three: Avoid the tax issue by convincing voters that this is about punishing Sacramento. Thus the initiative has been sexed up with plenty of tough talk: the governor and the legislature permanently lose salary and expenses for each day the budget is late (lawmakers have missed the June 15 constitutional budget deadline 21 of the last 25 years); the legislature has to stay in session until a budget is passed; 25 percent of certain state revenue increases must be deposited in a reserve fund, which cannot be used to increase spending.

WHAT HAPPENS if voters buy the spin? First, there's new math in Sacramento. At present, Democrats need six Republican votes in the Assembly and only two in the Senate to raise taxes. But lower the two-thirds requirement to 55 percent, and the Democrats can raise taxes on a straight party-line vote--even worse, with enough spare votes to free members in competitive districts to cover themselves.

Indeed, it wouldn't be a question of whether or not to challenge Schwarzenegger to raise taxes, but simply which plan to put forward. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who opposes the "Schwarz-initiatives," has said that should Props. 57 and 58 fail, the legislature should go with his contingency plan, a quarter-cent raise of the sales tax, and higher personal income taxes on high-wage earners for a three-year period to cover the current debt.

Or the Democrats could again try what they attempted during last year's budget debate: high taxes for the wealthy, a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax, and new taxes on gasoline, alcohol, and forest products.

Or they could go for something along the lines of what Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante proposed during recall: an $8 billion tax hike directed at the wealthy, business owners, commercial property, and cigarette and alcohol users.

But after the votes are counted, that just might amount to little more than California dreaming. The most recent Field poll has Prop. 56 trailing, 33 percent to 51 percent (it enjoyed 37 percent support in January). The soft showing may be due to the "no" campaign's relentless message that 56's passage will pave the way to higher taxes.

There may be another factor at work. The most recent Los Angeles Times survey gives the Governator a whopping 65 percent job approval rating. The legislature, drafting behind the optimism of the newly elected governor, received a 32 percent approval rating--up from 24 percent last August. Californians might not be in the same foul mood they were the last time they went to the polls.

This means that Proposition 56, which is betting heavily on fall's anti-Sacramento sentiment, might be terminated. Making it a most super Tuesday for Californians who don't like higher taxes.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.