Battle lines drawn

– Shoppers at grocery stores, Starbucks and other high-traffic
areas in South County will soon be getting asked to sign four
separate petitions – each one necessary to get Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s controversial reform proposals on the ballot for a
special fall election.
Gilroy – Shoppers at grocery stores, Starbucks and other high-traffic areas in South County will soon be getting asked to sign four separate petitions – each one necessary to get Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s controversial reform proposals on the ballot for a special fall election.

The governor on Tuesday embarked on a campaign to win popular support on four sweeping constitutional amendments that would put new limits on state spending, cap state pensions, base teacher pay on merit rather than tenure and revise how political districts are drawn.

Political footsoldiers are already fanning out across the state to gather the roughly 600,000 signatures Schwarzenegger will need. At the same time, Democratic political leaders, teachers, unions and others are preparing to vigorously oppose the ballot measures. Both sides are bracing for a major fight.

“I’ve been in politics since ’58,” said Ben Gilmore, a Morgan Hill resident who serves as president of the local chapter of the California Republican Assembly. “This is going to be, easily, the most hard-fought battle of my career in politics. All the bad guys are lined up against the good guys. Winner take all.”

Mark Zappa, whom Gilmore called one of his “protégés,” will coordinate the broader petition drive across South County. Much like the local campaign to recall former Gov. Gray Davis, which Zappa also coordinated, the current effort will include radio advertisements and other media pushes.

And while Zappa’s grass-roots team of 20 volunteers is primarily Republican, he felt the ballot measures appeal to people on all parts of the political spectrum.

“I’ll be seeking help from anyone who believes in reducing the size of government and cutting costs,” Zappa said. “I know a lot of liberals and Greens who agree with the governor’s proposals.”

Schwarzenegger unveiled his proposals during his State of the State Speech in January and asked lawmakers to either endorse his ideas or negotiate alternatives. He said the measures continue the reformist themes of the 2003 recall election that brought him to power and that if the Legislature did not act, he would circulate petitions and qualify each proposal for the ballot himself.

The governor had set a deadline of March 1 for the Legislature to act.

Although Schwarzenegger’s move had been anticipated for weeks, Democratic leaders denied they had dragged their feet on his proposals, saying instead the administration contributed to the delays by withdrawing several of the measures for revisions.

“We had been waiting for the government to clarify his initiatives,” said State Assemblyman Simon Salinas (D-28). He said that the government held a budget committee meeting Wednesday, for instance, where officials testified that the governor’s proposal to cap pension contributions would eliminate death and disability benefits for public safety employees. “That’s the problem when you rush into these things,” Salinas said. “The devil is in the details.”

Democratic legislators have largely come out against the governor’s proposals, especially his plans to reform redistricting, which Salinas has called a “power grab.” The governor’s proposal involves taking away from politicians the power to redraw legislative boundaries and handing it over to an independent panel of former judges.

“As far as the redistricting, it could hurt my party – the Republican Party,” Zappa said. “Not one state-wide office changed hands in the last election. I don’t think that’s good for anybody and I’d like to see that changed.”

Schwarzenegger has also proposed equalizing state spending with revenues, a move that could spell cuts to many government programs.

But Salinas characterized the governor’s budget plan as “one of those things that he wants to put on auto-pilot: across-the-board reductions means we don’t have the ability to prioritize. You’re tying the hands of future legislatures.”

The same holds true for the governor’s plan to shift to a merit-based pay system for teachers, according to Michelle Nelson, president of the Gilroy Teacher’s Association.

“Tying pay to test scores is not a fair way to measure teachers,” she said. “I don’t think it’s realistic. We have teachers in different fields: special ed versus a teacher who teaches an [Advancement Placement] course, a teacher who teaches 30 kids per class and another who teaches 30 all day  – there are too many variables.”

While the California Teacher’s Association mounts a lobbying campaign to block the governor’s proposals, the local school district will do its part through a letter-writing campaign and other measures, according to Nelson.

At its meeting tonight, the Gilroy board of education and three unions representing teachers and paraprofessionals are expected to pass a joint resolution condemning the proposals on pension reform and merit-based pay.

Schwarzenegger has already begun raising an estimated $50 million he said he needs to run his campaign and claims Democrats and their supporters nationally will spend more than $200 million to defeat him.

If a special election is to take place by November, the governor will have about seven weeks to gather all the signatures needed to qualify the measures for a ballot. Gilmore and Zappa were not worried about getting the signatures. In fact, they looked forward to the coming few weeks.

“I think of it as a perfect storm,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got a strong leader who’s decided to stand up and face down the unions, bureaucracy, the politicians, and the special interest groups — all in one battle. If he and the Republicans and their Reagan Democrat supporters fail next November in the special election, he and the Republicans will be irrelevant in the years ahead.”

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