Squabbles, Or A Full Scale Battle?

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The greatest parlor game in state political circles these days is how the planets will align on the six budget measures to be put before the voters on May 19.

Are we in for a few minor skirmishes that, while heartfelt, are lacking the sufficient cash to knock any of the measures down? Or will enough cash appear on the 'no' side to present a real battle against Governor Schwarzenegger and his allies, who have bet the farm on several of these measures to help stem the flow of budget red ink?

The first formal shot over the bow appears headed to court later this week, after the newly formed No on Proposition 1E campaign filed a lawsuit challenging the measure's ballot summary.

That ballot summary was written by the Legislature, not by the Attorney General -- who writes the official title and summary for most ballot measures.

The No on 1E folks, in a press release this morning, say the summary is full of "happy talk designed to win an election" and does not make clear the level of cash transfers that the measure authorizes from the Proposition 63 mental health tax on millionaires to the state's general fund.

Those temporary cash transfers would amount to at least $450 million in the coming two budget years, according to calculations from the Legislative Analyst's Office. But that info is not part of the short blurb voters will see when they receive their ballot, hence the lawsuit that may be heard later this week in Sacramento Superior Court.

"If you need to cut a half a billion dollars from mental health, then say so," said No on 1E campaign manager Dave Fratello in a written statement. "If you're going to amend a voter initiative that expressly protected the funds it raised from raids like this, say so."

The new 1E battle is but a small preview of how this election campaign may shape up. After all, the six ballot measures are in support of a budget deal that remains unpopular with many groups. And its centerpiece, the state spending limitation inside Proposition 1A, has been panned by folks on both sides of the political spectrum. Futhermore, the campaign faces a particularly tough hurdle: a vote in support of Prop 1A means a longer tax increase, while a vote against the measure would result in a shorter-lived hike.

I asked the governor about that in last Thursday's kickoff news conference for the campaign to pass all six measures.

Schwarzenegger's answer: voters will see that the pros of Prop 1A outweigh any cons. "People will vote yes on stability" for state finances, he said. Many have said that stability has been in short supply when it comes to the state's finances in recent years. "I think that the people know that the state has been suffering because of that," said the governor.

In that same Q&A with reporters, Schwarzenegger was asked directly about one parlor game scenario (which we chatted about in last week's podcast): that someone like Meg Whitman, the personally wealthy GOP gubernatorial hopeful, might spend some of her own money to defeat the ballot measures that are part of a budget deal she's criticized.

The guv's response: "She's a smart woman. I'm sure she will look at this and see it's a terrific package."

Nonetheless, there's a lot of attention right now on other politically powerful players, to see if they might open their checkbooks and fund an opposition campaign. One veteran political consultant I spoke with recently said it probably wouldn't take much money, relatively speaking, to fatally wrap the tax increases around the whole lot of these measures. If that's the case, the next few weeks may be crucial for all sides in this extraordinary budget election.

[update 4:30 p.m. And now, a second lawsuit has been filed challenging the official ballot language... this time, the language that describes the spending limitation, Prop 1A. The lawsuit challenges the omission of the tax increases attached to the deal, and claims the summary of 1A isn't, to borrow a phrase, fair and balanced.]

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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