Schwarzenegger putting focus on referendums

`Let the people decide,' new Calif. governor says

November 27, 2003|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Just days after taking office, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made it clear that he will turn the initiative process into a main arm of his administration.

Even as the new governor keeps the state Legislature in special session and pledges to work closely with its members, he also is setting the stage to go over their heads and govern directly through an extensive series of ballot measures.

Schwarzenegger could be supporting or sponsoring as many as four measures on the March ballot and as many as half a dozen next November.

If he goes forward, the governor will offer a new twist on the notion of modern politics as a "permanent campaign." He also will be embracing direct democracy with a fervor striking even for California, where politics has been dominated by citizens' initiatives for more than a generation.

California governors have long sponsored initiatives to get their way on particular issues. But Schwarzenegger has yet to articulate a major policy that does not involve seeking the approval of voters, especially if lawmakers fail to act.

For the March 2 ballot, Schwarzenegger wants voters to consider as much as $15 billion in budget deficit bonds, a legislative spending limit and possibly an open-government measure. If the Legislature does not repeal the law that allows illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, he has indicated he will back an existing referendum campaign on that issue.

In addition to the measures for the March ballot, measures on open government, education, the budget, regulatory relief for business and workers' compensation reform are among the proposals that could appear on the ballot next November.

Schwarzenegger has indicated that he is less interested in the outcomes of his ballot measures than in allowing the public to determine his government's course.

"Let the people decide," he said, explaining his approach to the state budget and just about everything else. "That's the great thing. ... We want to let the people know: `Here's the situation that we're in, the crisis that we're in. You decide which way you want to go.' And if they vote yes, it would be great. If they vote no, then we have to go take on that challenge" and act through the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger began laying the groundwork for ballot measure campaigns even before he was elected, and his proposals for specific initiatives were made public before he even completed selecting his Cabinet.

Though some see Schwarzenegger's use of the ballot as purely tactical, aides say the governor - in speeches and in private discussions - has expressed a profound personal belief in populism.

That political philosophy also is his legislative strategy. As a centrist Republican with few natural allies in a highly partisan Legislature, he gains some degree of political leverage through government by ballot measure. His message to lawmakers is: Work with Schwarzenegger on his issues, or watch him use his fame and riches to enact his agenda at the ballot box.

The strategy also reflects Schwarzenegger's growing comfort with ballot measures. He built a political resume not by seeking lower office, but by writing and sponsoring Proposition 49, an initiative to set aside money for after-school programs.

That was the template for his gubernatorial campaign, which itself was part of a ballot measure: the recall. Schwarzenegger adopted his Proposition 49 slogan, "Join Arnold," for the gubernatorial race.

What's more, the governor has framed his political career as a natural progression from his work as a bodybuilder and movie star. In his stance on ballot measures, he has struck a pose similar to that of many of his movie characters: He won't let initial defeat - whether by predatory monster or android or terrorists or, in this case, the Legislature - prevent him from completing his mission.

Using ballot measures to govern "turns the day-to-day business of democracy into big events that depend on marketing and large publics," said Martin Kaplan, director of the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of politics and entertainment.

Kaplan said that although Schwarzenegger might have calculated that Sacramento's legislative gridlock is too great, initiatives should be a last resort.

"Maybe he's right" about the Legislature, Kaplan said. "On the other hand, the risks, the tyranny of the majority, the cult of personality. ... The reason that we have representative institutions and the reasons we're willing to put up with them is that those results are less dangerous than constantly going to the people."

Also, some ballot measures can become double-edged swords that impose tax or spending requirements that reduce the flexibility lawmakers have to react to financial crises.

Schwarzenegger's stated strategy dates to the late days of his gubernatorial campaign. Six days before the election, he gave a speech outlining a 10-point plan for his first 100 days in office. He said he would submit at least four of the proposals to voters.

His commitment to direct democracy became more apparent during the transition, as Schwarzenegger asked his political team to stay on.

"We're going to be back in the trenches again; we will be rolling up our sleeves, and I will come back to you for help," Schwarzenegger said at a post-inaugural lunch for 2,000 supporters. "Because there's a lot of things that need to be done. We want to put on the ballot in March, the bond. We want to put workers' compensation on the ballot. All of those kind of reforms we want to put on the ballot."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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