LOS ANGELES—It would seem that measures promoting renewable energy and alternative fuels would be shoo-ins here where gas prices are among the nation's highest. Two thirds of Californians polled say they want their state to be a leader in advancing technologies that reduce pollution and combat climate change.
But a pair of ambitious ballot initiatives—Proposition 7 (aka "Big Solar") and Proposition 10 ("Big Natural Gas")—designed to do just that appear to be in trouble because of growing fiscal concerns. Prop 7 would require utilities to procure half of their power from renewable resources by 2025 and Prop 10 calls for a $5-billion bond, with most of the money earmarked for rebates for consumers who purchase natural gas and other fuel-efficient cars.
California finds itself in one of its periodic political meltdowns. The powerful union representing state prison guards is pursuing a recall of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Business and good government groups, saying California's politics are broken, are calling for a constitutional convention. The governor and state legislature reached agreement on a budget for the current fiscal year that was more than two months late. And that budget is full of so many accounting gimmicks and so much borrowing that a deficit of several billion dollars could reappear before Christmas. The state treasurer publicly called it "the most irresponsible budget of the past half century." Privately, supporters of both energy initiatives say that widespread concern about the state's finances and government remains a serious obstacle to their chances of winning in November.
The legislature has record low approval ratings—15 percent in The Field Poll (a California opinion survey) last week, which is lower than Richard Nixon's state ratings when he resigned as president in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the lowest rating for any elected official, group or organization in the history of the Field Poll. And voters are not much happier about the deluge of ballot measures they face each election cycle. Wary of unintended consequences, voters have approved just 30 percent of ballot initiatives offered this decade, the lowest approval rate since the 1950s, according to a recent study by the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Ballot initiatives were first made part of the state constitution in 1911.
"Voters have become more careful consumers when it comes to initiatives," says pollster Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. "They recognize that special interests are a part of the initiative process... and they'll ask the 'yes' side to make the case—not necessarily for the generic idea, but why exactly this measure for this time for this thing."
It doesn't help that the chief backers of Prop 7 (Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling, son of John Sperling who founded the for-profit adult education institution, University of Phoenix) and Prop 10 (Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens) know more about energy than they do about California. Pickens's national profile gives Prop 10 better prospects, but both initiatives face uphill battles, in large part because their campaigns are on the wrong side of four rules of the state's initiative politics.
"Big Money" can't pass a measure, but Big Money can defeat a measure
Sperling and Pickens each have billions of dollars and can spend as much cash as they want. (There are no limits on donations to ballot measure campaigns). Ditto their opponents. But few measures, no matter how financially flush their campaigns, can survive an onslaught of negative advertising. And the “No on 7” campaign, funded by investor-owned utilities and other energy companies, has been flooding the airwaves with so many anti–Prop 7 spots that backers are being painted as the underdogs.