Voters pan Schwarzenegger and his budgetary 'Valley of Doom'

The California governor has backed a package of six budget-reform propositions to save the state from the prospect of $42 billion deficits. But a poll suggests five could fail.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Will California residents reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger latest budget plan?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing yet another moment of truth.

Having barely squeaked through a last-minute budget deal in February to close a $42 billion deficit, he now faces a May 19 special election with six ballot measures intended to fix the state’s dysfunctional budget process for good.

“Never again do we want to find ourselves wandering around in another $42 billion Valley of Doom,” Governor Schwarzenegger reportedly told an audience in San Francisco in March. “A ‘yes’ vote [on the ballot measures] puts our great state back on the path to prosperity.”

But voters will likely reject five of the six measures, according to a California Field Poll released last week. Partly, they're are angry at politicians, and partly they feel they’ve heard the governor’s argument before. Analysts say the package ignores the reform that is most needed: ending the two-thirds majority required to pass a budget bill, which allows tiny cadres of legislators to hold the process hostage.

The measure promises a spending cap and a rainy-day reserve fund. A second provides new school funding. A third allows the state to borrow against future lottery revenue. A fourth and fifth moves tobacco-tax money and health funds to the state’s general fund. A sixth prohibits legislators from giving themselves a raise when the budget is not balanced.

Antitax activist Jon Coupal thought much of this had been sorted out in 2004. Proposition 58 was supposed to check state spending. It passed with 71 percent of the vote, prompting Schwarzenegger to tell NBC’s “Meet the Press”: This “is the first time that our politicians’ credit cards have been torn up and thrown away so they never, ever, can spend more money than the state takes in.”

Since then, the state’s deficits have more than doubled. “The governor’s credibility has been squandered,” says Mr. Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

This time around, Coupal says: “We’ve heard this all before.”

Analysts say voters are confused – and that a sturdy axiom of the initiative process holds true that when they feel that way: Measures usually fail.

“These are complexly written, and the voters are confused because the unions and party affiliations they usually rely on are all over the map,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

The television and radio ads have started en masse, reminding voters that if they don’t approve the measures, the state could lose 24,000 firefighters or lose health workers that could help avert future health emergencies like the H1N1 flu.

Voters are exasperated, says Tony Quinn, editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan political journal. “Voters simply don’t believe the politicians in Sacramento,” he says. “They have their own problems with home foreclosures, 401(k)s, and jobs, and they can’t believe Sacramento can’t fix this themselves without having to raise taxes.”

The Field Poll showed that Proposition 1F – which would bar legislative and statewide constitutional officers from receiving pay raises when the state is running a budget deficit – is the only one of the six with majority support: 71 percent.

“The special election is a referendum on California government," says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. "Voters are tired of government not working.”

The apparent success of Prop. 1F is directed more at legislators – who have an approval rating of 14 percent – than the governor, who has an approval rating of 33 percent, Ms. O'Connor suggests.

“They do not hold the governor responsible,” she says. “I don’t think it does much damage to Arnold going forward. He still may win.”

Others hold that the economy is the culprit, handing California a revenue problem it can’t handle.

“The Terminator is facing the one foe he can’t overcome: arithmetic,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “This vote will decide whether the rest of his tenure is horrible or just miserable.”

If the six measures don’t pass, the state will find itself back where it was in February before its last budget finally got passed, says Mr. Quinn: “The state will face draconian cuts not more talk about taxes.

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