Surprises loom as election debate picks up steam

As Gov. Brown and the Legislature wrangle over letting voters decide the fate of the state’s finances, the outcome of the looming election may depend on how voters react to two other measures that will be on the same ballot as the budget.

Both propositions, one to add a new $1 tax on cigarettes and the other to change lawmakers’ term limits, had been scheduled to go before voters in 2012. The two measures have little to do with the budget – the $1 tax would help finance $850 million in cancer research and the term-limits change would have little direct impact on the state budget.

But if the Legislature approves a special election on the budget to go on the ballot this spring – as Brown wants – both measures will appear alongside his budget plan. And that plan itself, because of its complexity, may be divided into several ballot measures. What was envisioned as a monolithic ballot is likely to have a lot of moving parts.

“That hasn’t been decided yet,” Brown said recently in the Capitol. “Maybe it (the budget) can all be rolled into one measure. The goal, of course, is to make it clear and simple.”
But that may be difficult, given the nature of the budget, the hot-button political debate over taxes and term limits and the question of whether the budget bill will have to be parsed out across the ballot in several pieces.

Could the mix of measures, some overlapping, affect the outcomes on such issues as taxes?

“Yes, especially since we are talking about a special election, because turnout is not going to be high. With a low-turnout election, the mix of other items on the ballot can have a significant influence on who shows up,” said Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College. “For example, the tobacco tax and the move to modify term limits are probably going to turn out the mad-as-hell folks. If you’re a regular listener to John and Ken or Rush Limbaugh, you’ll get up early that morning and go to the polls – unless we have an election by mail.”

If the measures overlap, will voters be confused?

“It depends on how they (the propositions) are worded and how the buttons are pushed,” said Robert Huckfeldt, a political scientist and the director of the UC Center in Sacramento. “On the other hand, it creates opportunities for people to create strategies that really take advantage of the interdependence between the measures.”

On Monday, the tobacco industry established a campaign to fight the tobacco tax.

“It is not surprising we are opposed to additional, targeted taxes on tobacco, and to explore our options we have formed Californians Against Out of Control Taxes and Spending,” said David Sutton a spokesman for Philip Morris based in Richmond, Virginia.

Brown has proposed a mix of more than $25 billion in taxes and cuts – nearly a third of the state’s General Fund – to balance the state’s books over the next 16 months.

The budget special election takes California voters into uncharted territory: Taxes, borrowing and cuts have been approved – or rejected – before, but the June special election is, in effect, a referendum on the entire state spending plan. In raw dollars, voters have approved far more, such as $43 billion in 2006 for infrastructure, highways, levees, schools and more.

But that was a decision to borrow money by selling General Obligation bonds, a far different prospect than extending or raising taxes, or making deep cuts in services.

Placing the two 2012 measures alongside one or more budget proposals could have unintended consequences for one or all. Two other ballot props, an $11.1 billion water bond and another attempt to assure a “rainy day” fund for the state, will remain on the 2012 ballot: they were not moved because language in each one requires a 2012 vote.

A well-financed anti-tax campaign to block the hike on cigarettes, for example, may draw voters to the polls who also oppose taxes in the budget, threatening those contained in Brown’s proposal. The attempt to change California’s 1990 term-limits law, long supported by Republicans, may draw GOP voters to the polls who not only will oppose changing term limits but also the proposed taxes.

“There’s nothing I can do about that. It is what it is,” Brown said. “I leave it to the pundits to speculate on what the impact is. So, I have to take the world as I find it. And there will be some other measures. Whatever that causes by way of weighing it down, that’s just the way it is. We’ll put together the best possible campaign, and hopefully it will pass.”

Statewide special elections typically draw fewer voters than regularly scheduled elections. There have been exceptions – the 2003 special election ousting former Gov. Gray Davis, for example, which drew more than 55 percent of the electorate – but special election turn-out tends to be far lower, such as in 2009, when voters rejected an array of budget-related measures.

“It’s not like a little parcel tax trying to squeak through,” said political strategist Andrew Acosta. “This is a statewide budget debate that by all accounts is the Number One in California. People are going to take it seriously.”

“People,” he added, “are tuned in.”

Brown has positive approval ratings and a dramatic increase of the electorate – 22 percent – think the state is going in the right direction, compared with an October survey when Arnold Schwarzenegger was still governor, according to a PPIC survey last month. Nearly six out of 10 think a budget of extending existing taxes and cuts is a good idea, and a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents think placing the spending plan on the ballot is a sound move.

But opposition remains to new income, sales and vehicle taxes – and it is that opposition that the tobacco-financed opposition is likely to tap.  That the anti-tax message already is being honed for the election is clear: Tobacco interests that have fought levies in the past on cigarettes and cigars are gearing up again for a multimillion-dollar campaign.

The voters’ ultimate decision on Brown’s budget proposals may depend on how effectively he paints the fiscal picture for voters, how graphically he describes the cuts that will take place if taxes aren’t extended.

“He (Brown) hasn’t played the fear card yet,” Pitney said.

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