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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Barons of the Ballot

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As Peter Nicholas reports in The Los Angeles Times, a group of powerful interests has formed an organization called Citizens to Save California in order to push a series of initiatives remarkably similar to the agenda of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The group's formation comes on the heels of the Guv's threat to the California Legislature to pursue his agenda through the initiative process if the Legislature doesn't agree to his demands in this spring's special legislative session.

Hey, what a great idea! Takin' it straight to the people! Arriba democracy!

Well, normally we'd agree, but a couple problems present themselves with the curious confluence of Arnold's populist rhetoric and the agenda of Citizens to Save California:

1) The initiative process in California has no contribution limits, which has allowed a small group of millionaires and billionaires to force their agenda into the kitchen-table discussions and onto the ballots of Californians. These Barons of the Ballot spend a million or two (pocket change) on qualifying a ballot initiative, then throw a few more million (still pocket change) at some political consultants and communications specialists to get the thing packaged and passed.

(An example of this is last year's Prop 71, a millionaire-backed initiative that was sold to the California public as providing $3 billion for stem-cell research, which turned out to be something slightly different.)

Instead of providing an alternative forum to the legislature, the initiative process in California has thus often been turned into the personal fiefdom of the one or two percent of the population who can afford to pay the packaging-masters and tv stations for the high art of political advertising.

2) In response to Schwarzenegger's circumvention of campaign finance laws last year, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) passed a regulation which limited contributions to candidate-controlled ballot committees to the limits on contributions to candidates themselves. Meaning, Arnold's ballot committees were subject to the same $22,300 contribution limits as Arnold-the-candidate's committee.

Citizens to Save California (CSC) is Big Business's hair-splitting, cynical response to the FPPC's regulation. Although the group cannot be legally controlled by Schwarzenegger, CSC board member and self-described former "Chief Policy Consultant" to Schwarzenegger's campaign Joel Fox says:

"we can certainly talk to the governor's office," he said. "We can get a feel of where the governor is going to go. He's the big king on the chessboard. Wherever he moves, a lot of things move with him."


In other words, the FPPC and its petty Arnold-inhibiting regulations can take a flying leap while CSC rakes in money from the million-dollar crowd and consults behind the Guv's closed door about what "message" to use to dupe the people.

In addition to Fox, who has already filed an initiative entitled "An Act to Protect The Governor's Power to Reorganize and Streamline the Executive Branch", the CSC board includes Allan Zaremberg (President of the Arnold-friendly California Chamber of Commerce, sponsor of Arnold-backed initiative "Redistricting Reform: The Voter Empowerment Act") and R. William Houck (President of California Business Roundtable, a front group for CEOs whose Chairman, Richard M. Kovacevich, made $37 million in 2004 as Chairman of Wells Fargo Bank).

I called the contact number for CSC today. The person who picked up said "Nielsen Merksamer", the name of a law/governmental affairs firm (lobbyists) in California. I'm still waiting to hear back from CSC/Nielsen Merksamer about who the remaining two board members are, although my guess, and this is just a guess, is that they aren't in your tax bracket.
The ballot initiative process is as close as it gets to true democracy, and accordingly deserves our protection. As long as the Barons of the Ballot are allowed to use their millions and billions to subject the ballot to their whim, Californians can expect to be forced to the polls once or twice a year to defend their interests against the Barons' political agenda.

**UPDATE**
Peter Nicholas follows up with another story in the LA Times that Democratic lawmakers are considering closing the loophole that allows Gov. Schwarzenegger to appear in ads, fundraise, and advise Citizens to Save California, all without "controlling" it. Check out the article for a quote by Ned about the actions of the Governor and Citizens to Save California being a slap in the face of California's campaign finance laws and the FPPC.

**UPDATE**
John Myers of KQED reports in his weblog Capitol Notes that William Hauck has now also filed an initiative that mirrors part of the Guv's agenda. That makes three for three of the known board members of Citizens to Save California that are parroting Gov. Schwarzenegger's with a ballot initiative filing.

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