Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) called for a special November election to resolve questions on how California should set its budgets, promote its teachers and draw its political districts, making good on a threat to state lawmakers to take his issues directly to voters if they did not fall in line.
His announcement Monday raised the stakes in the growing battle between the actor-turned-politician, once lauded for his cross-party appeal, and the Democratic-controlled statehouse. The three initiatives that he has described as essential changes have all been resisted by legislative leaders.
But while the ballot box was a triumphant strategy for Schwarzenegger in his first year in office -- when he persuaded a landslide of voters to support a fiscal recovery plan based on deep cuts and heavy borrowing -- observers said he now could face much greater risks.
The governor's once-soaring popularity ratings have dropped in recent months, and some surveys have shown that, after a steadily increasing number of ballot initiatives in recent years, many voters oppose a special election, which could cost the state $44 million to $80 million, according to various estimates. If his issues lose with voters in the fall, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, "it makes his reelection prospects lower, and will make it harder to deal with the legislature."
Schwarzenegger has not declared whether he will seek reelection in 2006.
His supporters have spent the past several months circulating petitions across the state to qualify his initiatives for the ballot; Monday was the deadline for him to call a special election to put that ballot before voters this year instead of waiting for a regularly scheduled election next spring.
The most hotly debated issue involves a spending cap that would force the state to make automatic cuts if revenue falls below projected income. If approved, it would override a measure voters approved in 2000 that sets minimum funding levels for public schools. In a televised address Monday evening, Schwarzenegger cited the urgency of the state's fiscal problems as his reason for holding an election early.
"How can we just stand around while our debt grows by billions and billions of dollars?" he said.
Schwarzenegger is also championing a measure to have a panel of retired judges, rather than legislators, draw the state's legislative districts. Despite his vigorous campaigning on behalf of several candidates, Republicans failed to increase their numbers in the statehouse, which Schwarzenegger blamed on a legislative map that he said was designed to protect incumbents. A third initiative would extend, from two years to five, the amount of time that teachers would have to work to gain tenure.
In a news conference held after Schwarzenegger's address, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata criticized the governor for pushing forward with his ballot initiatives while paying no attention to education, redistricting and budget proposals offered by legislators.
"This special election is not about the legislature," he said. "It's about the governor wanting to star in another war movie. Only this is a war he alone has started."
Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist, said that by calling a special election, Schwarzenegger probably is "trying to gain momentum going into the election year." He added that the governor in some ways had no choice.
"He said if the legislature doesn't do certain things, he's going to take the issues to a referendum," Steinberg said. "Then he has to follow through."