Last January, with his popularity apparently invincible, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced plans for a special election this year to give Californians a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put sense into the state’s budget and reform its political culture.
One of his proposals was to put the state’s expensive public employee pension program under the same reform microscope corporate pensions had been undergoing. He underestimated the response. In San Francisco to give a speech, Schwarzenegger found the hotel surrounded by angry firefighters, nurses and teachers, all denouncing him. Since these groups, generically, are held in high esteem by the public, Schwarzenegger soon pulled pension reform out of his election agenda.
At the same time his vaunted approval ratings began a steady slide until, by summer, they were at George W. Bush levels, that is, in the high 30s and low 40s. They have stayed there stubbornly, but a funny thing happened on the Governator’s road to oblivion: the four ballot measures he is promoting have been pulling ahead.
For months public employee unions, the Democratically controlled legislature and statewide elected officials have railed against the special election. It would cost millions when the state couldn’t afford it. It was a waste of time; all these measures could be on next spring’s regular primary election ballot. The special election should be canceled. And so forth. The state’s news media, enjoying the discord, played the Schwarzenegger-on-the-ropes story day after day. Nevertheless, the governor never wavered (or if he did, it wasn’t in public).
Minus the pension reform proposal, he stuck by his remaining three ballot measures. One, Proposition 74, would extend from two to five years the probationary period teachers must serve before being granted tenure. For weeks this seemed to be the only one of Schwarzenegger’s proposals to be in “yes” territory, and not by much. Proposition 76 would put a limit on the growth of state spending which, if exceeded, would give the governor mid-year power to make budget cuts. Proposition 77 would take redistricting away from the legislature and put it in the hands of a panel of retired judges. A fourth petition initiative, Proposition 75, prohibiting public employee unions from spending dues for political purposes without a member’s permission, has been embraced by Schwarzenegger though it was not part of his original package. The measure, by the way, is shrewdly entitled “Payroll Protection.”
The attack on these measures has been furious. Public employee unions have been pouring millions of their members’ dues dollars into fighting Proposition 75, thus reminding individual members that they have no say in how their money is spent. Union bosses, of course, do not want to lose the power of the purse, which is usually divvied up amongst favored Democrat legislators and candidates. They also fear that if members are given control over how their dues are spent, they will opt out. Washington state provides the example. “Payroll protection” passed there in 1992. Soon after, 90 percent of the state’s public school teachers chose to withhold contributions from their union’s political action committee. In Utah, the figure was 95 percent. Underscoring the desperation of the unions, the California Teachers Association announced last weekend that it had used up its war chest of some $20 million and now wants to make a special assessment to raise more money in the final weeks of the campaign to defeat Proposition 75.
Legislators of both parties, but especially the Democrats, are opposed to Proposition 77 because it threatens their cozy deals for insuring survival. Disgust is growing, as evidenced by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walter’s blast that the legislature is “a brain-dead body.”
Schwarzenegger recently declared himself a candidate for reelection next year (opposed by two men, the state Treasurer and state Controller, neither of whom has a program; only denunciations of the incumbent, a la Washington). This had the effect of firing up Schwarzenegger’s own base at a time when many Democrat and independent Californians were tuning out the relentless sky-is-falling television campaigns of the anti-proposition forces.
The upshot? A SurveyUSA poll now shows all four measures ahead. Proposition 74 (teacher tenure), 55-44; Proposition 75 (payroll protection) , 60-37; Proposition 76 (state spending), 58-36; and Proposition 77 (redistricting), 59-36.
It is too early to declare victory, but the Terminator seems to be on his way to terminating some entrenched forces in the erstwhile Golden State.
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