Not so special

It’s expensive, unfortunate and completely unnecessary. But here it comes anyway—a wildly unpopular November 8 special election that nobody had the resolve to stop.

The chief “nobody” is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has paid a high price for this failing. He’s experienced a rather precipitous approval-ratings drop (20 points!) in the last six months, and only 37 percent of Californians give him high marks. The status drop comes in spite of a $5 million spate of TV ads in May that touted Schwarzenegger’s so-called reform efforts.

Instead of standing apart from the fray, eschewing partisan squabbling like the governor said he would, he got caught up in the game. He has shown little willingness to compromise—i.e., govern—and hammered away instead on the need for a special election that very few wanted. Reasonable Californians know the state shouldn’t govern itself from the ballot box based on 30-second ads. The initiative process is good for showing widespread public opinion on key matters, but it is not a substitute for governing.

About the money: After an initial estimate that the special election would cost $80 million for the state to run, officials revised the cost to about $55 million. Well, that’s still $55 million too much. These three measures easily could have waited another six months to go on the regular ballot in June. Schwarzenegger has said the special election is a “fantastic bargain”—it will cost about $1.50 per Californian to enact laws he claims will “fix a broken system.”

But you’d be hallucinating to think his three measures, if passed, would do anything close to that. One would create controls that would limit school spending when tax collection waned, another would create a new process for redistricting, and another would make teachers work five years instead of two before gaining tenure. That’s not exactly revolutionary stuff.

Meanwhile, the $55 million figure constitutes just a fraction of the dollars that will be wasted in November. The campaigns will cost an estimated $200 to $300 million, much of it on direct mail nobody wants to get and obnoxious TV ads nobody wants to endure. The California Teachers Association (CTA) alone is prepared to spend $54 million in this pursuit.

Speaking of the CTA, the ultimate irony in all this has to do with a separate measure also slated for the special election, the so-called paycheck-protection initiative, which would force unions to get permission from members before using their money for political purposes. Passage of this initiative would, of course, threaten the campaign lifeblood of the Democrats. So, they take it very seriously.

There is speculation that the Democrats’ need to beat this paycheck-protection measure and the governor’s recent ratings drop have combined to create a more conciliatory environment in the Legislature, where compromise is finally possible. Indeed, the sparring sides actually may join in supporting an agreed-upon special-election slate.

Then where would we be? Back at the beginning, holding an expensive, unfortunate, unnecessary election that never should have been.