A Special Election: More Than Just the Budget

Comments (2)

Getty/Kevork Djansezian

Now that the worst kept secret in politics seems to be semi-officially out -- another special election about the state budget -- keep your eye on one of the wild cards: the campaign won't just be about the budget.

That's because California's election laws say that once an initiative has qualified for the ballot, it will be considered in the next statewide election -- regardless of whether it's a scheduled election or an oh-so-special one.

The Sacramento Bee reported this morning that Governor-elect Jerry Brown has decided to call a June 2011 special election for voters to, once again, ponder the extension of tax increases adopted by lawmakers in February 2009.

Those hikes -- in sales taxes, in personal income taxes, and in vehicle license fees -- are valued at $8.3 billion in the current budget year, according to a November report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Needless to say, few are commenting publicly on the idea. But it's been talked about an awful lot in private chats for weeks; after all, Brown all but blurted out the plan in a September 3 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle:

I'm aiming for a consensus [inside the Capitol] somewhere around March. I think if I can get to March 15, I can call a special election, have a vote, to tee up some key decisions in time for the June 15 [constitutional budget] deadline. And I think that is the only path forward."

Here's where things get interesting.

A June statewide special election would push forward two measures currently scheduled for the February 2012 presidential primary election: a hike in the cigarette tax to pay for cancer research and a proposal to modify legislative term limits.

A third measure on that 2012 ballot, to modify and enlarge the state's "rainy day" reserve fund, is currently set in stone for that election -- as it was placed there by the Legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as part of the October budget deal. Of course, Brown and the new legislators could always move it up to 2011 in an effort to boost the narrative that they'd ostensibly be attempting to create with a 2011 special election: help us fix the budget system.

The two initiative measures, on the other hand, are where the politics for Brown could get dicey. And under California law, they must be considered in the next statewide election.

The cigarette tax, dubbed the California Cancer Research Act, would add an additional $1 tax to every pack of smokes. The resulting revenue, estimated by supporters to be $575 million a year, would be placed in a special trust fund (read: you can't touch it for the budget, pols) for cancer research and anti-tobacco efforts.

Policy goals aside, it's still asking voters to raise taxes. It also could get swirled up into some confusion, with the budget-related tax hikes; might voters think they're actually helping fix the budget by approving the initiative? Or conversely, might they reject the tax because they want it to go to, say, schools (through the budget) and not to cancer research, at least not in these tough times? A spokesperson for the campaign said this morning they remain confident the voters will support the proposal.

A conundrum also seems possible for the other initiative that would get swept up into a 2011 special election: a measure to modify and, in a way, extend legislative term limits. The initiative just missed qualifying for the November ballot, and seeks a do-over to a 2008 version that sunk because of a favorable carve-out exemption for incumbents.

This measure (PDF) restricts future legislators to no more than 12 years service in Sacramento (they can now serve up to 14 years), but would allow all of that service (incumbents are exempt) in one house, either the Assembly or Senate. The change has the support of reform-minded groups who say the jockeying for a new job only leads to less experienced hands in both houses and more campaign fundraising excesses. But the measure will no doubt be fought by strict term limit advocates who dislike the idea that the power of incumbency could, alone, give someone a 12 year gig at the Capitol.

The optics of the term limits debate might also prove problematic. After all, a special election would almost certainly feature Brown and legislative leaders telling everyone to accept tighter fiscal limits. Would seemingly looser term limits be a political non sequitur?

And what about the groups pushing these two measures? Might they shudder to think that the fate of their proposals will get sucked into an intense, and no doubt gloomy, campaign about California's financial ailments?

And gloom is a problem unto itself. After all, the biggest test for the once-and-future governor and legislators -- should they move forward on a special election -- is figuring how to avoid a repeat of the 2009 election smackdown on some of the same issues.

NOTE: This posting has been modified from its original version, which incorrectly stated that the budget reserve measure placed on the ballot by lawmakers would automatically be moved up to 2011. It would not. Thanks to an eagle-eyed (and smarter) Capitol denizen for pointing that out! --JM

RSS Subscribe

About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • http://www.marininstitute.org Michael Scippa

    More taxes on tobacco is low-hanging fruit. But let’s not forget alcohol. An increase in the state alcohol excise tax of .25 cents per drink would yield $3.5 billion for the general fund. There has been no change in California alcohol excise taxes since 1991. Since then inflation has eroded the real value of alcohol tax revenue. Meanwhile state government continues paying for the rising costs of alcohol-related problems, such as healthcare and criminal justice. The time has come for California to raise alcohol taxes to reduce these costs and help close the budget deficit.

  • IHATE LIBS

    Easy decision for me. I’m not going to allow you to extend the tax increases one day! When will it stop? Make the hard decisions and make the needed cuts so you can balance the budget! The only answer for the Dems is to raise taxes. You think I want higher taxes because of your idiotic decisions over the last several years? Deport all illegals so we can save billions from our social and school programs and I will consider a tax extension! The cigarette tax is a joke! Don’t you think the anti-smoking campaign is large enough? My God the hoops you have made the tabaco companies go through. If people don’t know cigarettes are bad for them by now then they are idiots! I think this whole campaign is a waste of time. We have much bigger issues to worry about in California.