In the words of the patron saint of political consultants, there’s a sucker born every minute. In California it’ll cost you a couple of million to reach the suckers. But the consultants aren’t complaining.
For evidence, consider the likely initiative menu for next year’s three — count ’em, three — elections. There’s the initiative, almost certain to make the February presidential primary ballot, that would replace the existing legislative term limits — six years in the Assembly, eight in the Senate — with a system limiting any legislator to a total of 12 years.
Backed by the wording of Attorney General Jerry Brown’s ballot summary, it’s promoted as a reduction from 14 years in the two houses combined to 12. But since incumbents, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who under current law are both termed out in 2008, would be able to run again if the measure passes, it’s both a reduction and an extension.
The backers of California’s term-limits law, enacted in 1990 as Proposition 140, sold it as a return to a government of dedicated citizen legislators who would briefly set aside careers to honorably serve their fellow citizens in Sacramento and then return home.
But now that our incumbent citizen legislators are fiddling with Proposition 140 to extend their own tenure, U.S. Term Limits, the chief opponent of the effort, is calling them a slimy bunch of self-serving pols.
Better yet, a recent Field Poll suggests that the more frustrated voters became last month with the Legislature’s failure to enact a budget — actually, it was only Senate Republicans who blocked it — the more likely those voters were to support the new initiative.
They seemed to believe that by giving Nunez and Perata another few years — a possible six in the Assembly for Nunez, four in the Senate for Perata — they were punishing them. Moral: Pass a stupid law in 1990, and you get slippery fixes in 2008.
Now add Tom Hiltachk’s proposed “Presidential Election Reform Act,” which, instead of allocating all of California’s 55 electoral votes to the candidate who carries the state, as has always been the case, would give one vote to the winner in every congressional district; two would go to the statewide winner.
Hiltachk, a Republican strategist and longtime lawyer for conservative initiative campaigns, sells it in the name of fairness: Why should all those Newport Beach Republicans be voiceless? Our traditional winner-take-all elections, the proponents say, can’t possibly reflect California’s great diversity.
But their argument that their measure would put some of California’s electoral votes in play, thus forcing presidential candidates to pay more attention to California’s interests, is nonsense. Since nearly all of California’s districts are already safe for one party or the other, there’d be no more incentive to campaign here than there is now.
Only Maine and Nebraska have the system Hiltachk proposes, and since 20 to 22 of California’s 53 congressional districts would probably vote for Republicans, Hiltachk’s proposal could well cost Democrats a lot of close presidential elections. Which, of course, is what the measure’s GOP backers are after.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people, not all of them Democrats, are crying foul. And, as expected, opponents are organizing with help from Hollywood producer Steve Bing and some other very deep pockets. Their presence alone raises the prospect of a really expensive campaign that could dampen the fire of Hiltachk’s backers. Alternatively, there’s the option of a countermeasure, say, an initiative to circumvent the antediluvian Electoral College and elect the president by popular vote — plus a poison pill that if passed with more votes than Hiltachk’s would kill it.
The Legislature enacted a bill last year that would have given California’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, provided that states representing an Electoral College majority (270 votes) pass similar legislation. The governor, declaring that California’s votes shouldn’t go to someone Californians hadn’t voted for, vetoed it. But other states are moving in that direction.
The menu may also include two competing eminent-domain measures, a more restrictive one sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Farm Bureau, another by the League of California Cities and state redevelopment agencies.
Both purport to close the door opened by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 allowing the condemnation of private property and its transfer to other private owners — generally large developers — for private uses.
The language of the Jarvis measure is being questioned as blocking construction of major new water projects, another possible instance of dubious initiative drafting. There’s also talk of a legislative compromise that might keep both off the ballot.
Yet even if that compromise is reached, there’s plenty of work for consultants. It was Hiltachk who famously said that anyone who can affirmatively answer the question “Have you got a million dollars?” (now probably $2 million) can get almost anything on the ballot. He knows whereof he speaks.
(Peter Schrag can be reached at pschrag(at)sacbee.com.)