Schwarzenegger's Risky End Run

Time's a-wastin' for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Voted into office in a special election in late 2003, the actor-turned-politician has had one year on the learning curve. With the 2006 campaign season just ahead, he's got about a year left to meet voters' demands that he restore the state to fiscal health.

The Republican's reform plans are as ambitious as his tactics. This week, he started collecting signatures for three ballot measures this fall. The initiatives (teacher merit pay, partial privatization of state pensions, and legislative redistricting) form the bulk of his reform agenda, and are meant to force an entrenched Democratic legislature to act on his plans.

It's not uncommon for elected officials to circumvent political opponents by appealing directly to voters. But even in referendum-delirious California, Schwarzenegger's end run is unprecedented. His tactics pose considerable political - and civic - risk.

If his measures fail, so does his reform. His move is already inviting initiative "pile on" that can overwhelm voters. And while a referendum is a useful tool to break political logjams, taking so much of an agenda to the people undercuts representative government.

But here's where the governor has a valid point. Is California's legislature truly representative? Of the state's 153 congressional and legislative seats up for grabs in 2004, not one changed parties. In power for most of 30-plus years, the Democrats are captive to special interests and their budget busting priorities.

The threat of a ballot initiative last year brought the legislature to a compromise on workers' compensation. The governor's new crusade could do the same. If not, Californians themselves will determine who's right here.

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