Calif. govs ballot measures rev up opposition

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s road trip last week to gather signatures on three pet ballot measures has raised the likelihood of a special election later this year featuring a series of anti-people initiatives. Labor and community organizations are springing into action in response.

On March 8 a new labor coalition named “Seriously, Saving California” announced it will “fund and fight a vigorous campaign against the governor’s special interest-sponsored ballot initiatives that would harm California’s workers and families, and will push alternative measures to protect California’s health care, education and public safety systems.” Besides the California Labor Federation and the Service Employees International Union, the nearly 2-million-strong coalition includes school administrators, teachers and education workers, nurses, firefighters, corrections officers and other public service workers.

The new coalition’s statement quoted California Professional Firefighters President Lou Paulson: “The governor’s priorities today are completely out of step with what’s important to working families in California.” Paulson urged that funds needed to put on a special election should be used instead for vital public services.

Also this week, California for Democracy said it will use modern communications to flag places where signatures are being gathered on the governor’s initiatives, so volunteers can distribute leaflets urging people not to sign, and opposing the special election and its estimated cost of $50 million to $70 million. California for Democracy is affiliated with the national organization Democracy for America.

Other public workers’ unions are also up in arms. Willie Pelote, political and legislative director for AFSCME California, said in a telephone interview that Schwarzenegger has “joined the very special interests he said he came to Sacramento to clean up.” Pelote called it “irresponsible, un-American, un-Californian” to privatize pensions of state workers, including firefighters and police officers who may be killed or disabled in the line of duty, and to thereby jeopardize the economic security of their families. Spending millions of dollars on a special election is not the way to solve a problem, he said.

Backing Schwarzenegger is Citizens to Save California, headed by top advocates for big business, including state Chamber of Commerce head Allan Zaremberg and Business Roundtable President William Houck. This committee has already sponsored Schwarzenegger campaign appearances and assembled a large crew of paid signature gatherers.

Last week, chiding the California Legislature for failing to act by his March 1 deadline, Schwarzenegger jumped into a military-style Humvee convertible bearing the legend “Reform 1” and rumbled down the road on another of his “made for TV” publicity stunts — this time to gather signatures on three ballot initiatives. At stops including in the Bay Area, he was greeted by loud protests from unionists and other opponents.

Schwarzenegger’s initiatives would force all new state employees, including teachers, to take 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans instead of the present defined-benefit plans, extend to five years the time required for public school teachers to get tenure, and turn redistricting over to retired judges instead of the Legislature.

At least 600,000 valid signatures must be collected by the end of April for an initiative to qualify for a special election in November.

Meanwhile, the governor has suffered some setbacks. On March 4, a Superior Court judge ruled that the state must implement a 1-to-5 nurse-to-patient ratio called for in 1999 legislation, overruling Schwarzenegger’s objections.

Last month public pressure forced the governor to back away from merging many state boards and commissions that oversee workers’ rights, health care standards and other professional standards and licensing.

mbechtel@pww.org