By saying "no" to four initiatives backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California voters have sent a clear message about what they don't want:
• A governor who belittles legislative opponents and threatens to go directly to the voters through special elections if legislators don't do his bidding.
• A state chief executive with power to unilaterally reduce state spending.
• A weakening of labor's political- donation structure.
What is less clear is what California voters do want to solve the problems that the referendums were supposed to fix.
"This has been a very mystifying special election because voters say they don't like the way the state budget is done and the bellicose political environment, but they don't want any of the changes proposed to fix them" says John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan research group. "We've just had the most expensive [initiative] election in state history and not solved anything."
Of the initiatives backed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the proposal to expand the governor's budget powers (Proposition 76), and redraw legislative district lines to create more competitive races (Proposition 77) were seen as the most substantive. They were handily defeated Tuesday by 60 percent or more of the voters. A similar redistricting referendum in Ohio, which would have taken that power away from the state legislature, was defeated even more roundly by 70 percent of voters.
California's Propositions 74 (extending the time before teachers get tenure) and 75 (restricting union dues for political purposes) also lost by smaller margins. Now, Schwarzenegger and his Democratic opponents must return to a political status quo and fix the state's considerable problems in an election year with a chastened chief executive.
"The state has already begun its campaign for governor and it is always hard to govern in that environment," says Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor and political analyst at the University of Southern California (USC). "I am not optimistic in both sides' ability to reach across the aisle and achieve the compromises they need to solve budget problems that they have so far only postponed with short-term fixes."
But several other observers note that key Democrats are not gloating over the complete defeat of Schwarzenegger's reforms. Realizing their own approval ratings have lingered below the governor's, they are rather surmising openly that voters still want action.
"Schwarzenegger has been repudiated but the situation is still tough for those on both sides of the aisle," says Kareem Crayton, professor of politics at USC. "Arnold is going to have to figure out a way to say 'I get the message, I've taken my licks, and am going to try to turn over a new leaf.' Democrats are in a sense back to square one, figuring out how to do the people's business so that voters don't throw their arms up in the air and get any madder at them than they already are."