SAN FRANCISCO – Even in California, the land of direct democracy, the list of major ballot initiatives facing voters this November is staggering: 16 in all.
The initiatives involve significant policy choices and billions of dollars in tax money, and the votes will also test the political clout of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), who owes his own election to a voter recall and has championed ballot measures as a way to sidestep uncooperative legislators.
"Government by initiative is somewhat out of control," said Garry South, a longtime strategist for former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) who is consulting on several initiative campaigns. "It does complicate a governor's ability to govern — there are so many constraints, and so few options."
Many of the propositions conflict with or duplicate each other, almost guaranteeing voter confusion. Almost all risk producing unintended consequences.
Voters will consider several health care measures, from taxing millionaires to pay for mental health programs to requiring employers to cover uninsured workers. Two competing initiatives would change the course of legalized gambling in California; two others would decide whether to establish a nonpartisan, "open" primary or keep the current system.
Perhaps the most audacious is an initiative that would commit $3 billion in state bond money to stem cell research — dwarfing the $25 million a year now spent by the Bush administration.
Schwarzenegger has already staked out positions on many of the issues, and plans to weigh in on all 16 before Election Day — a decision that has surprised some observers.
"My recommendation would be, don't go through the whole list — pick and choose the ones you care about," South said. "Be prepared to say you don't have a dog in that hunt. Conserve your energy."
Some of Schwarzenegger's endorsements so far have been relatively safe — supporting more public access to government records and requiring DNA samples from convicted felons and people accused of rape and murder.
Others have been more controversial. Last week, he announced his opposition to employer-mandated health insurance — politically risky in a state where more than 6 million people lack medical coverage. He has also come out against amending the state's "three strikes" law, so that only violent or serious felonies would require life sentences.
"Schwarzenegger has really stuck his neck out," said John Matsusaka, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. "If he wins, he's in great shape. If he loses, he's burned some of his capital."
Schwarzenegger has applied most of his political muscle to fighting the gambling initiatives — either of which, if passed, could derail agreements he has reached with some of the state's largest Indian tribes as he tries to secure more gaming revenue for the state.
Proposition 70, sponsored by several large tribes not involved in those negotiations, would allow unlimited expansion of Indian gaming in exchange for returning about 8.9 percent of their revenues to the state.
Schwarzenegger has vowed to "demolish" the measure, hoping its defeat will bring the rest of the major tribes back to the bargaining table. His campaign committees will likely spend $10 million to defeat the gambling measures.
If both gambling measures pass, it gets real complicated. If Proposition 70 gets more votes than the other measure — Proposition 68 — then 70's provisions would prevail. But if 68 tops 70, courts would have to reconcile the two.
Schwarzenegger has declined so far to take a position on Proposition 71, the stem cell measure, which backers say could revitalize California's biotechnology industry and put the United States in the forefront of such research once again.
Supporters have raised millions from prominent backers including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. The Roman Catholic Church is morally opposed, and the state Republican Party objects to the price tag, since the $3 billion would cost the state $6 billion to repay.
Schwarzenegger, who is both Republican and Roman Catholic, says he supports stem cell research but has misgivings about saddling the cash-strapped state with even more debt.
Polls taken on a number of the ballot measures indicate Schwarzenegger's endorsement would have little impact on voters, and some analysts say his involvement in so many of them risks diminishing the value of his endorsement.
Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger's word will have more impact than most governors could hope for, says GOP strategist Kevin Spillane.
"Realistically, he will win some and lose some but voters do have a high degree of faith and trust in him," Spillane said. "When push comes to shove, they are going to go with Schwarzenegger."