Election Day returned to California for the 12th time in just seven years Tuesday with voters focused on a complex slate of budget measures intended to fill a widening state deficit.
The special election called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers in February also contains a pair of bonus races — one to fill the Southern California congressional seat vacated by U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and another to fill the seat in a Los Angeles-area state Senate district.
Early turnout was light at many polling places as had been expected for the election, coming just six months after a presidential contest that swelled voter rolls. Voters who have been paying attention have told pollsters they are likely to reject propositions assembled by the governor and lawmakers as they sought to close what had been a $42 billion deficit over two years.
Banker La Veria Baker, 42, said at a Los Angeles polling place that she was voting against all the measures except Proposition 1F, which would freeze the pay of lawmakers and elected officials during deficit years. Baker wants to see the budget balanced through cuts rather than higher taxes or borrowing from future state revenue.
Larry Irwin, 74, also voted in favor of Proposition 1F and rejected all the other measures.
"I think we need to stop borrowing from the future," said Irwin, vice president of a textile distribution company. "We keep going into debt and not doing anything about it."
Polls showed Proposition 1F was the only one of the six measures that appeared to have enough support to pass.
The deficit has re-emerged despite that budget agreement and is projected to hit $15.4 billion in the fiscal year that begins in July. And that's if voters approve the ballot measures.
If they don't, the deficit will grow to $21.3 billion, according to a proposal released last week by the governor's office.
That choice between bad options, confusion over what the propositions would do and voter frustration with politicians — not to mention election fatigue — have set the stage for a potential landslide against the measures.
Voters are trying to decide on a mixture of reforms, higher taxes, borrowing and funding shifts that will determine the severity of the coming year's budget cuts.
The most contentious measure, Proposition 1A, would create a state spending cap and rainy day fund, which Schwarzenegger has promoted as necessary to smooth out California's budget cycles in the years ahead. But the measure also would extend income, sales and vehicle tax increases enacted earlier this year by one or two years, a provision that has stirred opposition from conservative groups.
Proposition 1B would restore more than $9 billion to schools.
To help fill the projected state deficit, Proposition 1C would authorize the state to borrow $5 billion and pay it back, with interest, from future lottery revenue. Two other measures would shift hundreds of millions from children's and mental health programs to the state's general fund.
Local election officials say they the sense that California voters are simply burned out, especially after three statewide elections in 2008.
Gone are last November's endless supply of volunteers helping election officials get out the vote, said Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin. Not that they would be needed for an election in which perhaps a third of California's 17.1 million registered voters are expected to turn out.
"We've tried to get creative," said Pellerin, who is vice president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. "We're on Twitter. I'm doing e-mail blasts."
Despite generating apathy among many Californians and animosity among others, the special election will have immediate consequences no matter what happens.
If voters approve the propositions, spending cuts will be less severe but taxes will be raised by $16 billion. If voters reject them, lawmakers will have to convene immediately and consider a range of cost-cutting options that could include shortening the school year by seven days, laying off thousands of state employees and eliminating health care services for tens of thousands of low-income children.