Governor retools message in campaign’s closing days

While the paid advertising campaign to pass the measures on the May 19 ballot features firefighters and teachers, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is leading the earned media effort, drawing press coverage at a series of events round the state focusing on the state’s desperate budget situation.

This time, it is Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor focusing attention on the state budget as Arnold Schwarzenegger the salesman leaves the May 19 sales job to the people Californians still admire – teachers and firefighters.

The governor’s low approval ratings have forced him to stay out of campaign commercials for the ballot measures thus far. But the campaign now seems to have found a formula that makes sense and a refined campaign message in the closing days of this campaign.

While teachers and firefighters are again pushed to the fore, California Budget Reform Now, the Schwarzenegger-backed committee leading the Yes campaign, has overhauled its campaign message. Instead of asking voters to vote Yes on Props. 1A-1F, new commercials only ask voters to vote yes on Propositions 1A and 1B.

The irony is that while the focus of the messaging moves to Propositions 1A and 1B – the measures that introduce structural changes to state government and cost the state billions in school funding — the campaign and Gov. Schwarzenegger are focusing on the immediate budget problem as the reason why a yes vote is needed.

The campaign has, in essence, changed its rationale for the election. The early message of structural reform and spending restraint – a message which is more attractive to more conservative voters – has been replaced with a message of dire fiscal woes if voters fail to go along with the program.

This week, the governor threatened cuts to state fire services and local governments if the measures are not approved. Opponents of the propositions called the governor’s new message a desperate campaign ploy.

“Two weeks ago its all about budget reform and this week it’s all about blood in the street,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has led the conservative opposition to the measures.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s campaign committee, Julie Soderlund, said the message shift reflects new “coordination” between the governor’s team, the California Teachers Association and the Yes on 1C committee. Yes on 1C has raised about $2 million to help push the lottery borrowing measure – money that has come from gaming technology company GTECH and the Service Employees International Union, which has opposed Proposition 1A.

But that new alliance was not evident in the comments of Yes on 1C spokesman Roger Salazar. “Our message is focused on lottery modernization and how to get the state $5 billion in revenue without raising taxes on working families,” Salazar said.

The reality has much more to do with polling than newfound political alliances. The governor’s team has jettisoned the proposals that polls have . The team also hopes that a new message and a new focus may eventually carry some, if not all, of the ballot package over the finish line.

Coupal pointed out the irony in the campaign message shift at a time when the commercials have focused on Propositions 1A and 1B. “If the message is that we need the revenue now, you jettison Propsition 1A and 1B and say, ‘We need C, D and E.’ Those are the ones that bring money in right away.”

Propositions 1C, 1D and 1E could bring as much as $6 billion in revenues to the state next year by allowing about $5 billion in borrowing against future lottery revenues, and reallocate an additional $1 billion in money currently earmarked for early childhood development and mental health programs.

The new campaign commercials with the Yes on 1A and 1B message focus on “$16 billion” in new cuts that the state would face should those two measures not pass. That figure is a reference to $16 billion in tax revenues that the state would lose if Proposition 1A doesn’t pass. But the state would not begin to lose that money until the 2010-11 budget year.

As part of the deal for Proposition 1A, Democrats traded new limits on state spending for three years of tax revenues. If voters reject 1A, the budget spending restraints do not go into effect, and the tax increases signed into law this winter would end after the 2009-10 fiscal year. If 1A is passed, legislators would face a new formula for limiting state spending, in exchange for three additional years of those tax revenues.

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