- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Consider the drug wars. The Consumers Union made noises about a statewide drug-discount program that the nation’s top pharmaceutical companies didn’t like. So the companies pre-empted, gathering signatures to qualify their own corporate proposition, Do-Gooder Lite (Discounts on Prescription Drugs). If this measure gets more votes than the Real Thing consumerist proposition (Prescription Drug Discounts), the drug companies win. They so believe in their massive spending advantage that they are playing it safe with their $90-million formula campaign.

But what if their sponsorship becomes an issue? Polls show the drug company’s alternative proposition could lose if voters are told who’s behind it and would lose if voters think they’ve been tricked. It’s reminiscent of a recent California campaign, when Las Vegas casinos opposed an Indian gaming proposition. The Indian gaming initiative was going down, until opponents were impeached with their Vegas connection. Imagine, instead, if their ads had been upfront, “We’re Las Vegas casinos who fear competition. We oppose casinos throughout California for selfish reasons. But here’s what you should know.”

Ironically, the drug companies can win even if they lose. That’s because it’s easier to get a no vote. So, if the electorate is confused by the two propositions, voters in doubt might then reject both “drug discount” propositions, including the onerous measure that drug companies all along wanted to defeat.

These two ballot propositions, barely covered in the national press, are a consequence of the special election called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his ballot propositions. But they may have insurmountable problems. That’s because his special election fails the burden of proof imposed by an increasingly skeptical electorate. That is, what is the urgency of a special election?

Consider the axioms proven repeatedly in more than a generation of initiative battles. Ballot measures are framed early. People are more likely to vote no than yes. Money cannot overcome credibility problems. Major late shifts among voters are rare and more likely when voters move from yes to no, not the other way around.

Here, then, is a summary of reality:

Proposition 74/public school teachers. The governor wants to make it harder for a public school teacher to get tenure and easier to fire an incompetent teacher. Yet, these reasonable public-policy proposals could well be defeated. The unions muddy the waters by arguing that a moody principal could fire a teacher without cause. (Remember, it’s easier to get a no vote than a yes vote.) Also, the governor had negotiated Hollywood-style with the teachers union, so the union spent $15 million earlier this year to portray him as someone who doesn’t keep his word. It’s his credibility, stupid.

Proposition 75/public-employee union dues. The so-called paycheck protection for government union members has the best chance, but its bloated lead in polls crumbles with this argument: It’s a one-sided scheme, because corporations, including government contractors, can give to politics without shareholder approval. A differently drafted measure could have been bullet-proof. Impulsive Republicans hoped that fighting this measure would rob the unions of resources to oppose the governor’s favored propositions. Instead, the unions slate against all four measures, hoping the other three bring this one down.

Proposition 76/state spending and school-funding limits. This is a reasonable measure to control state spending. But Mr. Schwarzenegger could have passed a better spending-control measure during his political honeymoon and put the issue behind him. Instead, without spending reform, he borrowed $15 billion last year. Now, he’s not that popular, and this proposition is seen as a power grab and part of his continued plot to reduce public education spending. Ironically, Mr. Schwarzenegger has increased public school spending. But his handlers told him to wimp out with staged public events for the last year, and he became a caricature. Unlike Gov. Ronald Reagan, he never came out fighting.

Proposition 77/reapportionment. When Mr. Schwarzenegger was popular last year, he did spend big bucks to win legislative seats. District lines were indeed the main obstacle for Republicans. But the reasons Republicans failed to gain even a single legislative seat were marginal candidates and inept campaigns. But why not blame his losses entirely on the need for reapportionment? This measure replicates a losing Republican reapportionment proposition two decades ago that also proposed retired judges drawing lines. Even if it passed, it could not affect 2006 in time.

The governor’s ad campaign ends with a woman saying Sacramento is screwed-up. She’s right.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist.

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