Special Election 2009: What Else?

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[see update after this posting...--JM]

Now that we all know a special statewide election is in store for next year, a quick discussion seems in order to consider when it would be held, and what would the voters be asked to consider?

One thing seems clear: Governor Schwarzenegger wants more on that ballot than what the Legislature sent him on Friday.

In that day's budget news conference, I asked Schwarzenegger about a special election for voters to ratify three parts of the budget deal: the now larger rainy day fund (modifying 2004's Proposition 58) , a lottery bond, and a change to the governor's 2002 pet initiative, Proposition 49.

"Yes," he said, "we will be calling a special election."

But when? One logical date discussed in Capitol circles would be March 3. But Schwarzenegger didn't seem to jazzed on that date.

"I think March is probably too early, so it could be June," he said.

So he's eyeing June 2 for a statewide election... but why?

The notion that March is "too early" suggests that the governor wants more on the ballot than just the three budget issues listed above. The most likely other candidate is a water bond, the subject of lots of discussion over the past few months but very little consensus. Schwarzenegger and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein put their names on what they called a compromise proposal this summer, hoping to spark agreement on a new plan to deal with California's water woes. But the legislative session ended with no deal.

If such a water bond were to be placed on a March special election ballot, state election law says the Legislature has only until late October to do so. Such deadlines have been stretched before, but there's a larger problem: the Legislature has adjourned, and is unlikely to return before the November elections, when many members will be termed out.

The real question facing Schwarzenegger in the coming days and weeks is this: is it worth the gamble of delaying the budget measures in order to try and strike a water bond deal?

After all, should voters reject any or all three budget measures, the 2009-2010 budget negotiations will get worse almost overnight, mainly because the $5 billion lottery bond is being counted on for next year. A March special election would leave lawmakers some time to come up with a Plan B. But defeat of the lottery bond in June could be really tough -- after all, the new fiscal year begins just 28 days later.

That kind of calculus is in addition to what will no doubt be a debate over the cost to hold a special election. Consolidating a statewide special ballot with local elections makes things cheaper. There are local elections scheduled on both dates in some parts of California, but it's unclear which option would be cheaper.

A stand-alone special election, such as the 2005 Schwarzenegger debacle, is the most costly option.

And finally... how many voter-circulated initiatives might appear on a special election ballot? After all, the law simply states that once an initiative qualifies, it's placed on the next statewide ballot. Strategists always assume they know when that will be, but as we saw in 2005, some initiatives all ready for a vote can get thrust forward... ahead of schedule, into elections where voter turnout predictions may differ from original plans, thus complicating the campaign. You can bet there are politicos who will either want to be on that ballot with their own proposals... or will hold off on signature gathering efforts, because they don't want to be on that ballot.

A disclaimer that this is all just speculation at this point. For now, everyone's merely happy... and exhausted... to be finished with the 2008 budget saga. But the timing, and content, of the 2009 special election is just on the horizon.

Update: That pesky thing known as the California Constitution always gets in the way. An astute political insider reminds me, quite correctly, that Article XVI Section 1 of said document states that bond measures are to be submitted to voters "at a general election or at a direct primary." Translation: a water bond wouldn't be eligible for a special election.

Of course, that begs the same question about the $5 billion lottery bond, right? Au contraire. While the lottery plan is a borrowing mechanism in just about every way, it's technically a securitization of future lottery revenues... thus not a bond... thus, it would seem, exempt from the constitutional check on bond measures stated above.

By the way, same insider suggests the Legislature is in the driver's seat for calling this election, not the governor. Which begs the question: why didn't the Legislature address that issue before adjourning? The lack of action before packing their bags and leaving Sacramento for the election season only further lessens the likelihood of a March statewide special election.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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