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What is the governor’s big rush to spend $70 million?

When consumers rush to spend their money, not thinking much about whether there’s a cheaper and better alternative, they often awaken a few days later to find they’ve been had.

Which ought to make California voters wonder why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger feels such urgency about calling a special election this fall in an effort to push through his self-styled government reform measures.

There is definitely a cheaper alternative, one that would be just as fast in terms of seeing the Schwarzenegger ideas become law if that’s what voters want. That would be the regularly scheduled primary election, set for June 6, 2006, just seven months later.

There is no possibility of a date between November and June, because no statewide special election can be called within six months of a regularly-scheduled vote.

Election officials now say a November vote - Schwarzenegger’s stated target - would cost about $70 million, putting the price of the governor’s great rush at $10 million a month.

And taxpayers would likely get nothing for this except the chance to see their governor in myriad paid television commercials rather than in the free air time he commands on news programs anytime he likes.

Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, would get to show state legislators he truly does top the Sacramento food chain. He threatened to take his proposals straight to the people via quick ballot initiatives if they didn’t pass all of them by March 1. From the beginning, no one was naive enough to expect the lawmakers to kowtow, so a special election appears certain if Schwarzenegger’s big-money allies can get enough valid petition signatures together by the April 19 cutoff date for scheduling a November vote.

Of course, Schwarzenegger’s ideas would be far from alone on that ballot. Sponsors of more than 75 other proposals have also been authorized to gather signatures, which could lead to traffic jams at stores and shopping centers where petition circulators tend to congregate.

And that could lead to mass confusion this fall.

Schwarzenegger says the rush is because he wants his reapportionment plan to become effective in time for the June primary election.

To do that, new district lines would have to be in place and unhampered by lawsuits before filing for the primary election begins in mid-February of next year. The governor’s plan, formally sponsored by Allen Zaremberg, head of the state Chamber of Commerce, would see legislative leaders choose three retired judges to draw new lines for congressional and legislative districts, on the theory that such a panel would draw lines that lead to more competitive election campaigns.

But how likely is it that Democratic leaders of the Legislature will even pick a panel by mid-February, much less that a plan could actually be in place within less than three months? Even if a plan were drawn so quickly, it would be subject to multiple lawsuits because the fresh demographic data on which district lines are usually based is not available. To have official standing under federal law, that information must come from the federal Census conducted every 10 years, with the next one due in 2010.

Population data and information on racial and ethnic composition from the last Census are obsolete today.

So it’s all but impossible for new districts to be in place in time for next year’s primary, no matter what Schwarzenegger wants.

His plan for automatic spending cuts when legislators can agree on a budget before the legal deadline also doesn’t need a November election date. If passed in June 2006, it could be effective before that year’s June 30 budget deadline date.

The governor also says he feels urgent about his proposals to remake state government employee pensions into something like the 401-k plans popular in private business and his idea of merit pay for teachers.

But there is no evidence either proposal, or even both, could save taxpayers $70 million before June 2006, the amount needed to justify the expense of a special election.

Does anyone doubt Schwarzenegger knows all this? Of course he knows. And he knows that if his proposals appear on the ballot in a June primary where he’s also running for the Republican nomination for a new term as governor, fundraising would be limited to about one-fourth of November levels for the committee his allies are using to push his initiative.

That would give Schwarzenegger far less opportunity to appear on television pushing his ideas. Without him, they might get buried in an onslaught of opposition ads.

Which means Schwarzenegger and his close associates have a lot to gain from a special election, while taxpayers would foot a wholly unnecessary bill.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.