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Los Angeles Times
Jan 08, 2005 - 01:00 AM

by Robert Salladay, Times Staff Writer

Scene Set for Ballot Battles;

Schwarzenegger's plan for a special election this fall has scores of interest groups scrambling to put their own agendas before the voters too.
SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to call a special election has produced a potent side effect: Scores of groups are preparing for bitter ideological fights over abortion, illegal immigration, prescription drugs and a host of other contentious subjects.

This normally would be a dormant year for electoral politics. But Schwarzenegger said he wanted voters to decide quickly on his government reforms, meaning an election this fall.

That has sent political consultants, lawyers, fundraisers and lawmakers scurrying to put their own issues before the voters -- only months after voters swallowed a near-record number of initiatives.

"It could be an ugly ballot all over again, when everyone thought they were going to catch their breath," said Fred Main, a prominent business lobbyist in Sacramento.

Social conservatives say they already have collected more than a third of the signatures needed for an initiative requiring parents to be notified when their teenage daughter seeks an abortion. Another initiative being circulated would ban services such as driver's licenses and college tuition grants to illegal immigrants.

Liberals have their own agenda for the ballot. Initiatives are being prepared on securing cheaper prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage and protecting used car buyers from unscrupulous dealers -- all born out of legislation that Schwarzenegger vetoed last year.

These controversial social matters could sit next to whatever the Legislature and Schwarzenegger place on a special ballot this year. When he announced a government reform package Wednesday, the governor said he wanted to place strict limits on state spending, radically transform the public pension system and take away the right of lawmakers to draw their own districts.

"If we here in this chamber don't work together to reform the government," Schwarzenegger told the Legislature in his State of the State address, "the people will rise up and reform it themselves. And I will join them. And I will fight with them."

Schwarzenegger has not ordered a special election, and his reform package and everything else could end up on the June 2006 ballot, depending on how
negotiations with the Legislature go.

If there is a special election, California voters will have faced complicated ballots in 2000, 2002 (twice), 2003 (the gubernatorial recall), 2004 (twice) and 2005. The most likely scenario would have Schwarzenegger calling an election in the spring or early summer, with a special election to be held Nov. 8.

Last November's ballot featured 16 measures and initiatives and the most expensive legislative races in California history. New initiative campaigns could run into the tens of millions of dollars, in addition to the $55 million to $60 million to run the election itself.

At some point, political analysts said, the system begins to strain and voter attention gets diluted at the very moment when they should be paying attention.

"The more frequently you ask people to vote, the more likely it is people will lose their incentive to vote," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "That said, I also think our governor has shown himself to be very effective in motivating people to care about issues that typically voters wouldn't care about."

The governor's office is not particularly worried about a crowded ballot. Voters, after all, agreed with Schwarzenegger on 11 out of 14 propositions that he took stands on last November.

"If there is a cluttered ballot, whether it's a special election or next June [2006], he'll shine a light on the agenda he thinks is most relevant," said Rob Stutzman, communications director for Schwarzenegger.

Some groups nevertheless have been eyeing the November ballot with concern. Prominent Democrats gathered at the Sacramento home of Daniel Zingale, a former top aide to Gov. Gray Davis, after Schwarzenegger's speech Wednesday, worried that they could face a culture war this year.

The group, which made no decisions, included Latino lawmakers, abortion rights advocates and gay rights leaders. Gay rights groups are concerned about an initiative in circulation that would ban the mention of homosexuality in public schools unless a parent gives permission.

"There is much talk about petitions on the street that by any standard are far-right attacks on civil rights," said state Controller Steve Westly, who attended the meeting. "The question is how do Democrats get together and work with a more consistent voice and in a more coordinated way?"

There are two measures being circulated that would require parents to be notified if their daughter seeks an abortion. One of them is being financed by millionaire Howard Ahmanson Jr., a leading backer of conservative causes. They would reopen a public debate that went mostly silent in 1997, when the California Supreme Court stopped a state law requiring parents to give
permission for abortions.

Political observers say California could see the same culture debates that swept through much of the nation during last year's presidential election.

"The social issues are as polarized as ever," said Tracy Price, president of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County. "And as a result of Bush winning the national election and the amount of vitriol you saw out of the ardent left, that is not going to quell anyone's enthusiasm for getting the message out."

Backers of an initiative to bar illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits, including driver's licenses, say they are confident that they will collect enough signatures to make a Nov. 8 special election.

Supporter Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, said the driver's license issue may actually work in tandem with the governor's reform package to spur more voters to go to the polls.

He said people voting on their initiative are angry at the Legislature -- a theme Schwarzenegger would be promoting on the campaign trail as well. "This is an issue that has a high intensity level," Spence said.

Some initiatives being written by liberal Democrats and other critics of the governor could put Schwarzenegger in the position of simultaneously defending his past decisions and promoting his reform agenda this year. For one, the prescription drug initiative would require U.S. pharmaceutical companies to negotiate discounts for all the drugs they sell here. Backers of the measure hope to spotlight Schwarzenegger's veto of Canadian import legislation last year and his new plan, unveiled this week, to induce drug firms to cut costs for the poor.

"The question is whether issues like prescription drug reform drowns out these more archaic measures like redistricting, which is not immediately obvious as to its effect on the state," said Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit group based in Santa Monica.

The ballot could get confusing for voters because the process runs on two tracks. Schwarzenegger wants the Legislature to approve his government reform measures and place them on a special election ballot. He asked lawmakers to finish by early summer, which would give them time enough to prepare for a Nov. 8 election featuring their package.

At the same time, groups allied with Schwarzenegger are preparing ballot initiatives on some of the same issues. If the Legislature fails to approve his reforms, the parallel initiatives could be placed before voters. They have until April 19 to collect the needed signatures of registered voters -- 373,816 for changes in statutes and 598,105 for constitutional changes.

A nonprofit group called Citizens to Save California is being formed to help raise money to push a multi-pronged agenda, said Joel Fox, a political consultant with close ties to Schwarzenegger.

This is a very expensive gambit. It costs as much as $3 million to place an initiative on the ballot, mostly paying people to gather signatures. Most political consultants expect the prices for gathering signatures to skyrocket soon because of the heavy demand.

But political consultants believe donors to Citizens to Save California would be sophisticated enough to know that just the threat of an election would get the job done, and be worth their money. It was used effectively last year in the debates over workers' compensation and local government financing: Lawmakers worked out deals with Schwarzenegger with the threat of initiatives they didn't like looming over them.

For one, Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) has introduced legislation to reform the state's pension system, allowing new state employees to enter a 401(k)-style program by mid-2007.

Richmond says he hopes the Legislature solves the problems, but nevertheless, a parallel ballot initiative with much of the same language is being prepared as well because "if the Legislature is not successful in coming up with a common-sense solution, the problem is still going to exist."




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