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The San Francisco Chronicle
Apr 18, 2005 - 01:00 AM

by John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer

Initiative war could end -- or intensify;

Fate of special election uncertain
Republicans and Democrats are playing a high-stakes game of chicken over a potential special election, and millions of voter signatures are the bargaining chips.

Politicians and their allies are scrambling to find backers for a flock of partisan initiatives that could go before California voters this fall. While the secretary of state has set Tuesday as the deadline for turning in the signatures needed to qualify the measures for a possible Nov. 8 ballot, initiative supporters are looking at May 6 as the absolute cutoff date.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing a package of initiatives on the budget, redistricting and education that will "reform the system and... give our legislators more discipline with the spending," he said at a campaign stop at an Auburn restaurant Thursday.

Democrats have responded with their own initiatives. Some, such as a bill of rights for car buyers, simply reprise bills that were vetoed by the governor last year. Others, including a plan to boost property taxes on commercial property, are aimed directly at the business interests that support Schwarzenegger and his proposed initiative.

But even as parties' clipboard-toting workers stalk voters outside supermarkets and movie theaters, party leaders, joined by representatives of business and labor, are negotiating agreements they hope will make the signatures -- and a special election -- unnecessary.

"People are gathering signatures, but the real question is what is the end game," said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "We're at the point where people either call or fold. There are not many bluffs left."

Both sides are using the initiative drives as sticks they can use to threaten their opponents.

"When you have the signatures, then we can turn them in and get on the ballot," Schwarzenegger explained to voters in Auburn. "Or if we don't do that and negotiate, we have the signatures as kind of a bargaining chip."

On the Democratic side, the Alliance for a Better California announced Thursday that it had enough signatures to qualify a price-cutting prescription drug initiative for the ballot. But the union-backed group won't turn those petitions in right away, preferring to wait and see what the Republicans do.

"The only reason for these initiatives is if (Schwarzenegger) calls a special election," said Gale Kaufman, who is running the union effort. "If he doesn't go ahead, we pull ours."

Others groups are involved in quiet negotiations. The pharmaceutical industry, which hates the union's prescription drug plan, has its own drug plan as a proposed initiative, and has put up more than $2.4 million to back a "paycheck protection" measure that would make it virtually impossible for public employee unions to use their members' dues for political purposes.

That anti-labor measure could quickly disappear if the unions dropped their drug plan, said David Puglia, a spokesman for the pharmaceutical group.

"We're really shooting for a legislative solution," on a drug bill, Puglia said.

With fewer than three weeks until the initiative petitions must be filed, talks also are speeding up between Democratic legislators and the governor.

"They're going on in earnest," said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, D-Los Angeles. "We know there's a gun to our head and the governor knows it could backfire."

The delicate dance could end at any moment. By law, once signatures are turned in to county registrars, the initiative process goes on autopilot and can't be stopped outside a courtroom. If there are enough valid signatures, a measure will be on the ballot in the next statewide election.

"The next couple of weeks will be a big game of chicken," Maviglio said. "Once you turn in the signatures, there's no going back."

While anti-abortion activists turned in more than 1 million signatures last week for a parental notification initiative, it will have little effect on plans for a special election.

"The governor has to signal that he's not going to submit his signatures," said Kaufman, the Democratic political consultant. "The minute any of those other groups turn in their signatures, we submit ours."

Kaufman's group raised the stakes Thursday when they announced they had more than 600,000 signatures for their "Cheaper Prescriptions for Californians" initiative, well more than the 373,816 needed to put the measure on the ballot. They are expected to declare victory for their car buyers' bill of rights early this week and are confident that a measure to re-regulate California power companies also will quickly meet the signature goal.

Two of the governor's measures -- a plan to take reapportionment away from the Legislature and another making it easier for the governor to cut the budget -- are constitutional amendments that require more signatures. Initiatives to change tenure for teachers and require schools to offer merit pay don't need as many signatures.

"We'd like to get 1 million to 1.2 million signatures for the constitutional amendments, although if we file 900,000 we'll probably be all right," said Joel Fox, co-chair of Citizens to Save California, which is raising an estimated $13 million to put the proposals on the ballot.

Although Tuesday is the first deadline set by the secretary of state, ballot sponsors believe they will have more time to turn in petitions, based on is the amount of time it will take to verify signatures.

What happens next depends on the governor, who has until mid-June to decide whether to call a special election for November.

"Most likely, the way it's looking this year, we will go to the ballot this year," Schwarzenegger said in Auburn Thursday.
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E-mail John Wildermuth at jwildermuth@sfchronicle.com




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