Ballot proposal taking big risk

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREPettersson scores another winner, Canucks beat KingsGoing back 15 years, voters have rejected the last five attempts to reform the health care system. Four of those measures embraced populist ideas – regulating HMOs and forcing businesses to offer health insurance. “I don’t think it has a chance,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University and expert in initiative politics, when asked about Schwarzenegger’s ballot-box strategy. “He wants to do something really big and leave a legacy, but it ignores initiative history. The money spent against ballot measures is among the best investment in politics. Add to that the `T’ word – taxes – and the `C’ word – complexity – and things get messy really quickly.” To some, the governor’s refusal to consider more modest reforms – ones that would sidestep the perilous initiative process or at least provoke less of a fight – raise questions about his political judgment. It was only two years ago when a confident Schwarzenegger took a package of reform measures to voters and was soundly defeated. Schwarzenegger, of course, believes if anyone is suited to buck precedent, it’s him. Aside from the 2005 fiasco, he boasts a solid record of ballot box success. With voters growing increasingly anxious about health care and the presidential candidates focusing attention on the issue, the governor believes he has a decent shot. “Gov. Schwarzenegger was not elected to make decisions based on political calculations and special-interest threats,” his spokesman, Adam Mendelsohn, said. “Everyone recognizes it would be a difficult campaign, but it’s a debate Californians are eager to have. People’s frustration with the health care system is at an all-time high.” Frustrated by opposition in the Legislature, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to take his health care plan to “the people” next year in the form of a sweeping ballot measure. But if recent ballot initiative history is any guide, it’s almost certain to fail. Any health care referendum is bound to draw deep-pocketed opposition and be exceedingly complex – two problems that, time and again, have spelled defeat at the ballot box. A review of the 107 initiatives that have appeared on the California ballot since 1998 underscores how daunting a campaign for health care reform would be. Only nine of those measures passed when opponents spent at least $1 million, according to campaign finance records. But in five of those success stories, the initiative’s backers outspent opponents by at least 2 to 1. The remaining measures featured popular, easy-to-digest causes, such as increasing tobacco taxes for child-development programs and requiring that all public school classes be taught in English. Beth Capell, a lobbyist for the consumer group Health Access who’s worked on multiple health care ballot campaigns, said she believes the right initiative could pass. Reformers have learned a lot from those previous campaigns, she said, noting that the last attempt in 2004 failed narrowly. That measure, Proposition 72, would have upheld a mandate on many businesses to provide insurance. “We know a lot more now about how to do this than we did in the ’90s,” Capell said. Schwarzenegger’s gambit would certainly be unique, and it’s impossible to draw a precise parallel from past ballot measures. But history does offer some guide of how long the odds would be. One lesson is that naysayers have a distinct advantage, particularly when they spend even modest sums to sow doubts in voters’ minds. The measures that pass are typically ones with little or no opposition: Of the 61 measures that have been approved over the last decade, 42 had no money going against them, and nine others had less than $1 million in “no” money, according to campaign records. Another is that voters are loathe to raise taxes, even when they target unpopular industries for popular causes. Last year alone, voters snubbed three separate proposals to raise taxes on tobacco companies, oil producers and wealthy people. The measures would have propped up hospital finances, funded research on clean energy, and paid for universal pre-school. Schwarzenegger’s plan includes an industry-supported tax on hospital revenues and a requirement for employers to either provide insurance or pay into a state pool, which opponents consider a tax. Democrats have suggested a cigarette-tax hike, but the governor so far has not embraced it. A third lesson is that simple, populist messages have the best chance of overcoming monied opposition. Complicated initiatives provide openings for opponents to distort or poke holes in them – creating enough confusion that voters choose the safety of a “no” vote and the status quo. The complexity of health care makes it nearly impossible to distill into concise campaign messages, let alone to shield from distortions. One group has already aired radio spots in Sacramento blasting the governor’s plan as a “$12 billion government-run bureaucracy” that would steal money from schools and public safety and force people out of their private insurance. In reality, Schwarzenegger’s plan maintains the role of private insurers, and he insists it will not affect the state general fund. But initiative campaigns are the enemy of nuanced debate. Sacramento political consultant Rick Claussen, who has helped opponents beat back several health care initiatives since the 1990s, said he doubts it would turn out differently next year. The problem with thrusting health care reform upon voters, he said, is that many people fear that change will threaten their own coverage, or cost them money – messages sure to be hammered home by opponents. “Most voters have health care,” he said, “and are happy with what they have.” Which is another daunting challenge: In the face of such easy opposition messages, Schwarzenegger must convince those who already have insurance that his plan is good for them, too, and not just the uninsured. Still, Schwarzenegger didn’t have much choice but to go beyond the Legislature and take it to “the people.” Such a comprehensive plan requires taxes – and that requires Republican support in the Legislature, which isn’t there. Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, has tried to persuade Schwarzenegger to push for more modest reforms, such as helping people with pre-existing conditions obtain coverage or insuring more children. “You can take bite-size steps and really help a lot of people, instead of trying to do it all at once and losing,” Villines said he told the governor, in so many words. Schwarzenegger wanted none of it. “We’ve got to be able to do what no one else has done,” the governor responded, according to Villines. The governor’s ambition – and desire to solve the whole problem, not just part of it – doesn’t easily allow him to scale back his plan. “He thinks big, to his credit,” said McCuan of Sonoma State. “But I don’t think his popularity and ego are enough to get him over this hump.” [email protected] (916) 441-4603160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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