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Schwarzenegger set to hold special reform vote

Financial Times | June 12 2005
By Christopher Parkes

Arnold Schwarzenegger is due on Monday to call Californians to the polls in November for a special election that will test voters' desire for change and their faith in the Republican governor.

The electorate will, in effect, be asked to choose between Mr Schwarzenegger's agenda for political and fiscal reform and the status quo maintained mainly by Democrat majorities in the legislature and their powerful union allies.

The ballot sheet will list several initiatives promoted by Mr Schwarzenegger, including a proposal for automatic spending cuts when revenues fall and his plan to end gerrymandering by changing the way electoral districts are drawn.

But the proposition expected to generate the fiercest opposition is one that would require public sector unions to obtain members' permission each year for their dues to be used for political purposes. Although Mr Schwarzenegger has not publicly endorsed the measure, it was prepared by a group closely associated with his election in 2003.

Despite his slumping popularity and warnings of voter fatigue - special elections called out of the usual cycle have produced low turnouts and the state has seen three elections in the past two years - the governor has appeared ready for weeks to fulfil a threat he made in January to put his reforms to the people if the legislature failed to act on them.

He and union opponents have been exchanging shots for months in television advertisements. But Democrat officials have consistently warned that an election on the governor's agenda would cause "nuclear war".

"If the governor's going to take us on and bring us down, he's coming down right along with us," Fabian Nun~ez, assembly speaker, told reporters last week.

The initiatives tackle some of the most politically sensitive issues in the state. Mr Schwarzenegger maintains that budget controls are essential if California is to escape its cycle of deficit spending.

Advertisements promoting his spending cap initiative, known as the "Live Within Our Means Act", have hammered home the claim that Democrats are responsible for disbursing $1.10 for every dollar the state takes in.

Teachers' unions have responded with commercials attacking him for breaking his promises and cutting education spending.

As before, Mr Schwarzenegger is expected to say he will call off the election if the Democrats adopt his reform programme, but his fading popularity - there has been a 20-point drop in his approval rating since January - indicates they may prefer to fight.

A recent poll found more than 60 per cent of voters opposed a special election. But the initiative on union dues for political purposes, which if successful could hobble Democrat campaigns, appears likely to galvanise union members.

Liberal groups have also prepared a proposition for the reinstatement of state government regulation of the electricity industry, while conservative voters will be drawn out by another proposal that would require doctors to notify parents before they perform an abortion on a minor.



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