More Thoughts on Money and Politics

November 7, 2012

I’ve written before on what a disaster the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case has been.  Yesterday’s election, and the campaign leading up to it, again emphasized how that decision has fundamentally changed and degraded the American political process.  While it’s true that in some cases a candidate or ballot measure won in spite of being badly outspent, I don’t think it shows that money has no influence.  To use a sports analogy, if I had gone into the boxing ring against Muhammed Ali when he was in his prime, and he started the fight with one hand tied behind his back, there is little question in my mind that he’d still win easily.  Likewise, when a candidate or ballot measure is so obviously superior, large amounts on money won’t necessarily save the inferior candidate or issue position.

This brings me to another analogy (also from sports) that I think shows clearly why Citizens United was wrongly decided.  We all know that Lance Armstrong was a great athlete.  We also now know that he used steroids to enhance his performance.  Whether he could have won his many championships without using steroids is, at this point, impossible to say.  However, I think virtually everyone would agree that for him to use steroids in a situation that gave him an unfair advantage was wrong.

I would suggest that allowing a candidate or political committee to raise, donate, or spend unlimited funds, and especially to allow that to happen without anyone knowing where that money is coming from is like allowing someone to go up to Lance Armstrong as he prepared for a race and inject him with a needle-full of lord knows what kind of drug.  That’s not allowed in sports, and it shouldn’t be allowed in politics.


November 2012 Election Comments

October 4, 2012

OK.  I got my sample ballot & voter information booklet in the mail, and I’m sure the absentee ballots are going out shortly, so it looks like it’s time to give my usual rundown of candidates and issues.  as usual, I give my standard disclosures and disclaimers.  [Hey, what do you expect, I'm a lawyer!]  These are obviously just my own personal opinions, and while I have read through candidate statements and ballot arguments (and in some cases, the text of the measure as well), and have talked to some of the candidates personally, I don’t claim to be an expert on evaluating candidates or ballot measures.  Well, I guess I can claim some expertise on the latter, having helped to write a few local measures.  That having been said, HERE WE GO!

President

Obviously, the two major choices are Romney and Obama.  Between those two, for me Obama is the obvious choice.  I’m not anywhere close to entirely happy with Obama and how he’s run the country the past four years.  Our foreign policy is still far too militaristic (although lightyears ahead of where it was under George W), Obamacare is a sorry substitute for the single-payer healthcare we ought to have, and, as Paul Krugman has said innumerable times, Obama’s economic policy is anemic compared to what’s needed to pull us out of our current doldrums.  [However, he does have the excuse that with the Republican majority in the house, nothing can be done in the legislative arena.]  BTW, see my separate post critiquing Obama’s performance in the first debate.

All that having been said,  I think that, DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU LIVE, you should take a serious look at some of the third party candidates.  With that, I will once again recite  Ivins’ Rule, named for Molly Ivins, the late Texas [don't hold that against her] political commentator.  The basic rule is, regardless of what your state or locality allows, don’t vote early unless you absolutely have to.  Wait until, at the earliest, a week before election day, and then look at what the polling results are FOR YOUR STATE.  Because we have the electoral college system, each state is its own election [exception -- in Maine, each congressional district is its own election].  Regardless of what’s happening in the national polls, what really matters is who wins a plurality of the vote in each individual state.  Except for Maine, that candidate get ALL that state’s electoral votes for president.

So, now let’s get back to Ivins’ Rule.  When you look at your state’s polling result, the crucial question is whether the difference between Romney’s and Obama’s polling results in greater than five percent.  If either of the two is ahead by more than five percent, then barring a nuclear war or something equally calamitous, the election in your state is essentially over.  That means you can vote for whomever you want, because it won’t make any difference.  If, however the difference is less than 5%, you better choose between Obama and Romney, or you may be kicking yourself for the next  for years.  Luckily, here in California Obama’s lead is unassailable.  (I think it’s  currently over 20% statewide.)

So, if you’re lucky enough to have the luxury of voting for a minor party candidate, my suggestion would be to look seriously at Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.  I say that not just because I’m registered as green.  From what I’ve seen of her, she’s just as smart as either of the major party candidates (she’s a Massachusetts physician), and her platform makes enormous sense — cut the defense budget, enact single-payer healthcare, promote a justice system that, as Jesse Jackson famously said, puts our money at the front end, rather than the back end – i.e., promotes restorative justice, puts the U.S. squarely at the forefront in trying to reverse climate change and promote sustainable care for our ailing planet, etc.  Of coure there’s no way she’ll get elected, but just think.  If she got 5% of the vote nationwide, even if she didn’t win a single electoral vote, wouldn’t that make a statement that there’s a significant number of people who think as she does?  Who knows, maybe a few Democrats might even start paying attention in a real way.

U.S. Senator

Again here, the choice is pretty simple, even simpler because there are no minor party candidates on the ballot.  :(  I don’t particularly like Feinstein.  She’s incredibly wishy-washy on lots of issues, and just plain bad on some, but as with Obama, she’s in a whole different league (or century) from her Republican opponent.  Unless you’re a “tea partier” [and if you are, why are you reading this blog??], you gotta vote for Feinstein.

Note – if you’re not in California, see my discussion of Ivins’ Rule above and act accordingly.

U.S. Representative

Again, given my location in the East Bay, the choice is pretty simple.  Barbara Lee has been on the right side (or perhaps I should say the left side) of just about every issue before Congress.  Her opponent waves her hands around to try to look more reasonable, but we all know that the last reasonable Republicans here in California have already left that disaster of a party.  Unless you want to go back to the gilded age where workers could, if they were lucky, get 10 cents a day for pay, vote for Lee.

If you’re in another district, re-read Ivins’ Rule again.

State Senate

Here’s another place I get to apply Ivins’ Rule.  Loni Hancock has been one of the better senators in the state senate, based on her voting record.  That’s as it should  be, she represents one of the most liberal districts in the state.  She’s going  to win this race overwhelmingly.  Since that’s the case, it’s a place you could show that you’d like some more space on the left of the ballot by voting for the Peace & Freedom Party candidate, Mary McIlroy.

State Assembly

I could just invoke Ivins’ Rule again in urging a vote for the Peace & Freedom Party candidate (Eugene Ruyle), but there’s something more at stake.  I have followed Nancy Skinner since she first ran for the assembly (when I supported her), and have been very disappointed in her performance.  Again, she represents one of the most liberal districts in the state, but she has followed in lockstep whatever the Democratic legislative leadership has told her.  Overall, she’s voted against the party leadership only 0.7% of the time.  By comparison, Hancock, while no eccentric, bucked the party leadership on 1.2% of votes, Leland Yee, from San Francisco (perhaps the only place more liberal than the East Bay), opposed Democratic leaders 2.6% of the time, and Jared Huffman, a liberal stalwart in Marin, voted differently 1.8% of the time.  Maybe Skinner just likes whatever the leadership says.  If so, that’s a disappointment in itself, because the leadership has been, in a number of cases, like its support for the high-speed rail project, just stupid.  Maybe she votes that way to “go along to get along.”  If so, that says nothing any better about her.  We deserve better.

State Ballot Measures

Let me start with a general statement.  California’s initiative and referendum processes are in serious need of reform.  I say that as an attorney who regularly advises local groups on their initiative and referendum battles, and knows the turf pretty well.  Between picayune requirements that make it harder and harder for grassroots campaigns to succeed, and the overwhelming force of a tidal wave of  special interest money that at this point almost totally dominates the statewide ballot measure scene, we’ve got a real mess in California.  Not only that, but because of the nature of California ballot measure law (in the state constitution, no less), if a mistake gets made with a ballot measure, it’s very likely to be permanent, or at least very long-lasting.  I’ve already made it clear in past postings that I think passing Prop. 13 was unwise.  Yes, it did some good and necessary things that the legislature was unwilling to tackle. but its left state and local government in a long-term fiscal disaster.  Likewise for the “Victims Bill of Rights”, “Three Strikes”, and term limits.  The state’s voters aren’t always smart enough to get it right on the first try, but it’s incredibly hard to revise anything the voters have done.  Maybe things enacted by the voters should automatically go back on the ballot in five years, so people get to think about it again, and competing or correcting measures can be put on at that time?

So. Rant finished.  Now on to the specifics:

30 – Jerry Brown’s tax measure – a reluctant yes.  I’m not 100% happy with it, but if it fails, the draconian school cuts are unacceptable.

31- NO!  This initiative, put on the ballot by California Forward, at first glance seems appealing, and it would indeed do some things that would improve how the legislature handles budget issues, like going to a two-year budget cycle.  HOWEVER, it makes radical changes in the relations between state and local government, including allowing local government to exempt itself from various “inconvenient” state laws and regulations, including CEQA, and potentially state labor laws.  This is a really bad idea!  Not only that, but it locks all of its changes into the state constitution, making them extremely hard to change in the future.  [See my rant above.]  A number of members of the initial taskforce pointed out the problems, but California Forward refused to budge.  They subsequently resigned.  (See ballot arguments against.)  Shame on California Forward!!

32 – NO!  A fraudulent attempt to disable labor union political activity while leaving corporate political power basically unchecked.

33- NO.  One insurance company (Mercury) makes a second attempt to tilt the playing field in its direction.

34- YES – the death penalty makes little sense as a deterrent, as public policy, or financially.

35 – No –  Human trafficking is without question a bad thing.  Whether we’re talking about actual enslavement or just the “normal” pimping and prostitution stuff.  There need to be serious consequences for those who screw over their fellow human beings.  However, this measure seems to play into the general punitive bent of three strikes and other efforts to just, “lock ‘em all up and throw away the key.”  Our prison system is clear evidence that  this approach hasn’t worked and isn’t working.  Again, once something gets passed by the voters, it’s very hard to change.  This is an issue for the legislature to tackle, not the voters.

36 – YES – again, as with the death penalty, three strikes is a punitive, ineffective, and financially damaging measure.  This reform will help.

37 – YES – truth in labeling for genetically-engineered foods.  People should have a knowing choice about supporting Monsanto’s fiddling with the agricultural gene pool.  BTW, the no argument points to the measure’s enforcement against local retailers.  Unfortunately, California has no direct leverage against national food producers, only against businesses operating in California.  Enforcement against retailers is the only leverage we have against national big business.  It’s a big one, though.  If, for example, California retailers wouldn’t carry General Mills foods because they don’t own up to using genetically engineered ingredients, General Mills could lose A LOT of business.  We need to use our market share power to change the market.

38 – NO – The major alternative tax measure.  Too narrowly focused on education funding, and will impact the poor more than the rich.

39 – YES – levels the playing field for internet businesses who siphon off $$ from California without paying taxes.  Time to end the free ride.

40 – YES – For once, here was a ballot measure (redistricting reform) that was needed, and that worked. The redistricting effort was a resounding success.  Say no to Republican sour grapes!

A1 – NO – public funding for the Oakland Zoo – while zoos are a nice family amenity, I am bothered by the Oakland Zoo’s expansionistic policies, and I don’t think they should be feeding at the public trough [so to speak] when the zoo’s governing board has no public accountability for its actions.

B1 – NO!! – INDEFINITE  extension AND increase in county transportation sales tax.  Sales taxes are regressive.  This would give an unaccountable county agency permanent funding with no requirement to come back to the voters – EVER.  Their predecessor (ACTA) had to be sued to block it from spending money on a project the voters hadn’t authorized.  Would eliminate the ONLY real voter accountability this agency now has.

J – Yes – Another bond fund infusion for Oakland schools.  I’m somewhat bothered by adding more bond debt to a school district that just emerged from a major financial crisis.  On the other hand, many Oakland schools are seriously physically deficient.  We really need to change Prop 13 to allow adequate funding for local schools, cities, and counties.  Until then, band-aid measures like this are the best we can do.

Local Candidates

If you live outside of Oakland/Alameda County, you can stop here if you want.  The rest is just for “local yokels”

AC Transit — Chris Peeples is knowledgeable and listens to the community.  I don’t agree with him 100%, but he’s a good choice.

BART Board – Rebecca Saltzman would seem the obvious pro-environment choice, but I’ve been disturbed by some of her statements in support of high-speed rail and BART extensions, which seem to indicate a knee-jerk support for extending transit even where it may not make economic sense and actually be sprawl-inducing.  I like Anthony Pegram’s candidate statement and plan to vote for him.

Oakland District One Council member:

Top three [ranked choice]  — for more detailed information, look at the write-ups in the recently-initiated Rockridge Patch, or view some youtube clips from a candidate forum:

1) Dan Kalb (knowledgeable, intelligent, pro-environment & pro-neighborhood. Lives in Rockridge.)

2) Donald Macleay (local green party member, pro-environment & pro-neighborhood.  Lives in Temescal) – Update (11/3/12) -

3)  No choice.  See below for why I can’t endorse any of the others:

I DON’T like: Len Raphael – confrontational and pro-development (although he does oppose Safeway’s College Ave. project);

Amy Lemley – knee-jerk smart growth (married to smart-growth fanatic who works at NRDC & pushed for BRT on Telegraph).  Her background is not in the broad public policy areas North Oakland needs.  I fear she’s a stalking horse for her husband, and would be too obeisant to Kernighan and Schaaf, both of whom endorse her and both of whom are aggressively pro-development.  She’s refused to take a firm position on the College Ave. Safeway project, just saying that she’d encourage negotiations.

The other candidates:

Don Link’s a nice guy and supportive on Safeway, but I worry he’d be out of his depth.  Focus is mainly on public safety

Richard Reya – his candidate statement reads very well.  He seems to be saying a lot of the right things.  BUT, it turns out that he’s the policy director for California Forward.  If that doesn’t ring a bell, go back and re-read my discussion of Prop. 31.  Sorry, but as policy director, his allowing Prop. 31 to move forward and go on the ballot shows, in my estimation, very bad judgment.  He’s also non-commital on the College Ave. Safeway project.  Not who I want representing me on the City Council!

Craig Brandt is also pushing for more police, but where’s the money going to come from???  As of late, he seems to have dropped out of the race.

At Large Council Member – Sorry, I’m afraid you’re on your own here. I can’t honestly and wholeheartedly recommend any of the choices.  Neither Kaplan nor De la Fuente have been supportive on Safeway.  De la Fuente is a dealmaker in the Perata mold.  He hopes to use the at-large seat as a stepping stone to another mayoral run.  Kaplan is, in many ways, pretty good, but she’s so focused on smart growth that she loses sight of neighborhood values.  She was the only council member to enthusiastically push Bus Rapid Transit on Telegraph despite strong community opposition.  I fear she’d favor major densification around the Rockridge BART in spite of its damaging traffic impacts.  As for the other candidates, none of them is qualified by background or experience, and Carol Tolbert has a gruesome history on North Oakland redevelopment around the Old Merritt College site — can you say corruption??

City attorney – I’m not real keen on Jane Brunner, but I’m also not excited by Barbara Parker.  I worry that she’s got the typical black Oakland establishment (e.g., Geoffrey Pete, Mary King, Bill Patterson) supporting her.  Yet Jane Brunner’s often been too much of a dealmaker.  No recommendation.  (As with judges, I think this really shouldn’t be an elected position.)

School Board – Jody London has, in my opinion, been doing OK.  The schools are in a tough place, and her opponent fought to keep Santa Fe School (in the Golden Gate area of Northwest Oakland)  open when it was an absolute disaster – probably worse than no school at all. Yes, we need to do more to help children in the poorer parts of the city, but that requires money that the district doesn’t have.  (Can you say Prop. 13?)  It also bothers me that Ms. Pecot was endorsed by the teachers union.  One wonders about the quid pro quo that may have been involved.  Teachers need fair pay, but I’ve also seen the teachers union defend poorly performing teachers just because they were active in the union.  Not how I think a school district should be run.


Recommendation for June 2014 California Primary Election

May 28, 2014

I finally have enough time to put down my thoughts on the June primary election ballot.  To start with, I have to say that this is not an impressive crop of candidates.  My personal feeling is that we’re seeing the effects of Citizens United and its progeny.  As special interests continue to pour money into election campaigns, the cost of running for office continues to escalate, and those special interest dollars come at a steep price.  The interests want assurance that their money will be a good investment.  Whatever the interest, be it the Chamber of Commerce or a labor organization, they want to know that the candidate’s vote is “in the bag.”  If a candidate doesn’t feel comfortable pledging themselves to that special interest’s agenda, they’ll get no money, and no money, in most cases, means no campaign.  Hence elections are more and more becoming a battle between special interests, and the public interest gets left in the dust.

So, on to this June’s crop of candidates and ballot measures.

Let’s start with the ballot measures.  I always find a good place to start is the ballot arguments pro and con – not the subject matter, but who’s signing them.  That tells you what special interests have lined up on one side or another, and likely who paid to get the measure put on the ballot, one way or another.  So let’s get started.

Proposition 42Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Bond Act – This would authorize the state to issue $600 Million in General Obligation state bonds to fund “affordable multifamily supportive housing” specifically for veterans.  The bonds would presumably be used to build or rehabilitate multifamily rental housing for vets.  Why vets?  Well, lots of vets suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) as a result of being screwed up by the military. Often, they’re mentally ill and prone to substance abuse.  That usually means they either can’t or are unwilling to hold down a job.  How, then, are they going to pay the rent??  The bond gives preference to “supportive” housing, but that term is left pretty undefined.  Bear in mind that the cost of this program, like that of any general obligation bond, is borne by us, the taxpayers.

The measure is supported basically by veterans’ groups, who obviously have a vested interest is supporting their members.  My feeling about the measure is: 1)  Good try – screwed up people, whether veterans or not, need lots more help than they’re getting; 2) This proposal impresses me as being pretty ineffective at helping those needing help most; 3)  Who it will really help is the building trades unions, which are who probably pushed to get it on the ballot; 4)  Do we really need another poorly thought out bond measure to add to the state’s debt burden?  (I confess I am thinking about the $10 billion we voted in 2008 for high-speed rail, another poorly planned and even more poorly implemented bond measure.  At this point, I trust neither the Legislature not the courts to assure that the bonds we vote for do what they’re proposed to do.)  NO

Proposition 42Public Records. Open Meetings. State Reimbursement to Local Agencies. Legislative Constitutional Amendment.  This measure would amend the state constitution [WARNING - another constitutional amendment!] to protect the public’s right to have local agencies follow the California Public Records act and the Brown Act, BUT, it would also eliminate the requirement that the state reimburse local government for the cost of compliance.

This measure arose out of a fight in last year’s budget, when Governor Brown proposed to allow local government to not enforce the Public Records act or Brown Act.  The reason was because under the constitution, when the state forces local government to comply with a mandate costing money, it generally has to pick up the tab for that compliance.  Brown, wanting to reduce the budget, proposed to drop the mandate for Brown Act & Public Record Act compliance, and reduce the state budget accordingly.  Of course it didn’t hurt (for Brown) that he’s not a big fan of open government anyhow, so if local government dropped compliance, who cares?  Well, a lot of Californians did, and the measure was hastily dropped.

Now, the governor and legislature still want the state not to pay, so this measure shifts the cost to local government.  How will they pay it??  Good question.  With Prop 13, there are fewer and fewer local government funding sources.  What it mainly means is that it will get much more costly to get documents from local government.  Some local courts are already starting to charge $1 a page to copy, or even just download, court documents available on-line.Expect the costs to see agendas, minutes, etc. to skyrocket.

In my humble opinion, this is a bad “solution” to the problem.  It will further guarantee that government will only provide services for the 1%.  NO

Alameda County Measure AA – This would reauthorize a 1/2 cent county sales tax for local healthcare facilities, especially the county hospital system (Highland Hospital etc.)   Highland and the county healthcare system are crucial, especially given the large number of low-income uninsured and Medical patients in the county.  If this measure fails, we’re in serious trouble!  YES

Candidates:

Statewide Offices:

Governor – To my mind, this office, and almost all the statewide offices, highlight the problem we face in getting good, thoughtful, candidates to run for office.  While I like some things Jerry Brown has done as governor, I think he’s autocratic, insensitive to the public, and has got many of his priorities totally screwed up as he seeks to leave a “legacy” in his last term – notably in his high-speed rail and water tunnel projects, both of which will spend huge amounts of public money to not solve the real problems (inadequate state transportation policy and inadequate state water policy.  Both of these projects are largely driven by construction contractors and unions who see huge profits and large number of short-term union construction jobs.  This is a hell of a way to set government policy.

Unfortunately, the alternatives aren’t very attractive.  The Republican candidates all follow the mantra of saying let’s reduce taxes and eliminate all government regulation (and, by the way, make sure everybody can have all the guns they want) and everything will magically get better.  Can you say fantasyland?  The other candidates don’t seem to have realistic programs either.  My recommendation would be to vote for the Green Party candidate – Luis Rodriguez – as a protest.  (It doesn’t really matter who you vote for any more.  With the “top two” primary, Brown and the choice of reactionary Republican – probably Donnelly – will end up facing off in a “choose who is less disgusting to you” November run-off.)

Lieutenant Governor – This office currently makes very little sense.It would probably make sense to have this be an office appointed by the governor for the sole purpose of temporarily acting as interim governor when the governor is unavailable (e.g., out of state).  Again, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for, because in November it’ll be Newson vs. Nehring.  My protest vote choices?  Either Goodman (Green Party) or Korevaar (Independent Democrat)

Secretary of State – This race got a little more interesting when Leland Yee, the favored Democrat, got indicted.  I’m impressed by Cressman’s credentials as having worked on campaign finance issues with Common Cause and his open support to trying to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (although as Secretary of State, he can’t do what he claims and keep corporations from meddling in California politics, at least not without a federal constitutional amendment).  Cressman.

Controller – An obscure office.  One of its main characteristics is the controller is the state’s accountant and, theoretically, conducts audits (although there’s also a state auditor and a joint legislative audit committee.  Mostly, it’s who you sue when you want to sue the Legislature.  Betty Yee, one of two mainstream Democratic candidate, appears well-qualified, but I worry about her heavy set of labor union endorsements. Still, she’d be a far better choice that John Perez, a career Democratic politician. We might do better to have an outsider in this office.  Wells (Green Party)

Treasurer – This is the guy who signs the state’s checks.  He also makes the go-no go decision on issuing bonds and other major day-to-day state financial decisions.  The current controller, John Chiang, wants to move into this office.  If he does, expect status quo and no change.  I can’t recommend the Republican, however (who didn’t even put in a ballot statement).  Brown (Green Party)

Attorney General – The state’s top legal officer.  The AG prosecutes lawsuits (both civil and criminal) on behalf of the state, and conversely defends the state against lawsuits.  The AG also prepares legal opinions that provide guidance on interpreting state laws and writes ballot measure summaries for state ballot measures.  A very important office, but one that, in my humble opinion, has gotten way too political in recent years.  The current AG, Kamala Harris, epitomizes the problem.  She’s basically Jerry Brown’s mouthpiece (as the term was used in old gangster movies to refer to the mob boss’s attorney). I really can’t recommend any of the choices.  WRITE SOMEONE IN AS A PROTEST?

Insurance Commissioner – This is actually quite an important office.  The IC regulates insurance carriers in the state and enforces the requirements of Proposition 103, which dramatically changed California’s insurance laws and made the insurance commissioner an elected office.  The incumbent Dave Jones, appears to have been pretty effective in holding insurance companies to account.  Jones.

Board of Equalization, 2nd District – An obscure but important office.  The Board of Equalization oversees most tax collection (except income tax) and is the appellate board for disputes over income tax.  Sadly, there are only two candidates –  James Theis, a Republican who has no chance in this heavily-Democratic District, and Fiona Ma – a Democratic party hack whose performance in the legislature has been notably lackluster.  NO RECOMMENDATION.

U.S. Representative – The incumbent for the 13th District, Barbara Lee, has been a stalwart liberal, inheriting that mantle from Ron Dellums, on whose staff she served.  She’s been a strong voice against the Democratic Party’s status quo, for example, consistently voting against U.S. military intervention abroad and for reducing the military’s budget.  Lee.

State Assembly – Lots of candidates here.  My personal feeling is that the two “leading” candidates, Thurmond & Echols, are both in the pocket of public employee unions and would be rubber stamps for the Democratic legislative leadership.  (I do not consider either of those to be a positive attribute.)  The two candidates who’ve impressed me are Pamela Price and Sam Kang.  I slightly prefer Kang because he has courageously spoken out about the need to change Prop. 13 to make it fairer.  Kang

Alameda County Schools Superintendent – This office sounds more important than it is.  Most local school districts run their own affairs, but the county superintendent sometimes steps in on occasional issues, like authorizing charter schools, and is responsible for education in the county jails, a potentially important function for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.  Given what the office is about, the two best qualified and most impressive candidates seem to be Jeff Bowser and Naomi Easton.  Of the two, Ms. Easton appears better qualified.  Easton

County Assessor, County Auditor/Clerk-Controller, District Attorney, Sheriff, and Treasurer/Tax Collector – Five important offices; all effectively uncontested.  (For Auditor/Clerk, Ms Kathleen Knox ran, but it turns out she doesn’t even live in the county, and has been indicted for violation of state election law.)  Thomsen, Manning, NO VOTE [D.A.], Ahern, White


What Obama Should’ve Said

October 4, 2012

OK.  So the commentators seem to be saying that Romney won last night’s debate.  I’m not so sure.  If he did, it’s only because Obama didn’t press him hard enough on things like how he’s going to reduce the deficit while making huge increases in military spending and dropping the tax rates on both corporations and high-income individuals.  I know, he says he’ll reduce loopholes and exemptions, but unless he’s talking about eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, state & local taxes deduction, and medical expense deductions [starts to sound like making the alternative minimum tax apply to everyone] it’s hard to see how he’ll get deficit reduction.

My big beef with Obama, though, was when Romney dinged him on his alternative energy program.  Obama just let it slide past, even after Romney poured fuel on the fire [so to speak] by talking about how he thinks the country should be burning more “clean coal’.  Never mind that the very idea of “clean coal” is almost a contradiction in terms (maybe not entirely, in terms of conventional air pollutants, although the technology is not anywhere close to there yet).  What Obama shudda, cudda come back with, though, was a strong defense of moving America’s energy production into the 21st century, rather than back to the 19th.  Oil and gas technology goes back to the dawn of the 20th century, and coal goes back to the 18th century.

In fact, if you think about it, burning coal is shamelessly wasteful.  Here we’ve got an enormous resource of almost pure carbon — the basic source of all organic chemicals, which includes many of the products we depend upon on a daily basis.  Right now, a lot of those compounds are made from petroleum, which we mostly import.  Wouldn’t it make sense to be putting our coal resources into manufacturing the organic compounds we now make from petroleum, and putting research dollars into how to do that efficiently, effectively, and economically, rather than burning it up into CO2 and atmospheric pollutants?

Wouldn’t it also make sense, given that climate change is real [why didn't he challenge Romney on that!?] to push for new and better ways to produce energy, and save the carbon in coal for when we figure out how to use it in efficient forms of energy production like fuel cells (where we can perhaps capture and sequester any GHG products produced?)   Seems to me Obama missed a chance to show Romney up and put himself forward as someone who’s thinking about the future rather than the past.

But, what do I know?  I’m just an “average citizen”, not a spin doctor.


Environmental protection under attack – Again.

August 21, 2012

CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, is California’s most important environmental statute.  It’s a “truth in lending act” for the environment.  It requires government to admit the environmental damage projects cause, AND look at reducing or avoiding that damage.  It also encourages public participation.  However, because CEQA violations invalidate project approvals, it is favorite punching bag for developers, business groups, and recently Governor Brown, who said he never saw a CEQA exemption he didn’t like.

In recent legislative sessions, a pattern has emerged.  As the session winds down, suddenly legislation appears to “reform” CEQA.  In 2008, then-governor Schwarzenegger pushed through a CEQA exemption for twelve Caltrans projects.  The next session, a developer got a CEQA exemption for an enormous Southern California stadium project.  Last session, another stadium got CEQA “streamlining.” Then, at the eleventh hour, the offer was expanded to a group of huge projects the governor (now Jerry Brown) would pick.

As the current legislative session ends, the same pattern is repeating with vengeance.  A coalition of business and development interests is proposing a bill, SB 317, to not just weaken, but eviscerate CEQA.  Pointing to the range of regulatory laws in effect, they argue that CEQA has outlived its usefulness and should be largely replaced by reliance on other environmental and planning laws.  This ignores a number of basic facts:  1) these same forces have, for the past forty years, fought, often successfully, to weaken the laws they claim make CEQA unnecessary; 2) state planning laws often exempt charter cities entirely, and defer to local decision makers, who, influenced by these same special interests, often make decisions at the expense of their own constituents; 3) only CEQA brings the searchlight of public scrutiny on environmental decision-making.  Most other environmental laws involve obscure bureaucrats with little incentive to require rigorous compliance. 

With our continuing economic doldrums, it is tempting to think weakening CEQA will result in more jobs, more economic activity, and a better future.  However, it’s worth remembering that 1) the more than 99% of CEQA projects get though without a hitch; 2) while CEQA lawsuits are rare, even rarer is a project halted or even greatly delayed, and 3) for every good project that might be somewhat delayed, many more unnecessarily environmentally damaging projects are either stopped or (far more often) revised and improved through the CEQA process.

There were good reasons why CEQA was created, and those reasons are still valid.  Before there was CEQA, public and private entities did lots of environmental damage because nobody asked tough questions.  From pesticides, to toxic mines and groundwater contamination, to smog, to the Cypress Structure, the litany of damage to California’s environment, and to society, that happened before CEQA is long.  And who do you suppose ends up bearing the cost for cleaning up those messes?  More often than not, it is the public purse, and taxpayers, who pick up the tab.  While other laws form an ever-more-fragile patchwork (much like our increasingly-frayed social “safety net”), only CEQA requires comprehensive environmental scrutiny, and only CEQA affirmatively involves the public.  If you feel CEQA is still important to protect California’s environment, and your pocketbook, now’s the time to let your legislators know!


So Climate Change Is Real – Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

August 5, 2012

As many commentators have pointed out, this summer’s weather: its far-reaching droughts and heatwaves in the U.S., its devastating floods in Asia, and, of course, the rapid melting of the North Polar icecap, are finally getting some “climate skeptics” to change their tune.  A recent statistical analysis of severe weather events is also making the connection between weather and climate.  Just on a probability basis, without even thinking about climate modeling, the weather events of the past ten to twenty years are so improbable based on the events of the previous forty years that something must have changed, and the only obvious candidate is climate.

This leads inexorably to the next question – what are we going to do about it?  Here, however, something hasn’t changed: human nature.  Sadly, humanity has always had a strong streak of self-interest.  Whether it’s the Roman Empire, European colonial powers, or Wall Street bankers, people, as countries, as interest groups, or as individuals always seem to look at situations focused on what will benefit them.  Climate change has, thus far, been little different.

At the global level, developing countries, particularly China and India, have been unwilling to reduce their CO2 production if it would mean reducing their race to catch up to already-industrialized countries in production of goods.  The developed countries, including Europe and particularly Japan and the U.S., have for their part been unwilling to make changes that might require economic sacrifice, pointing to the already-damaging effects of the global economic slow-down of the past twelve years.

Within the United States, the situation has been little different.  Each region of the country is willing to accept change – so long as it’s aimed at another region.  Coal producing states insist that coal mining must continue.  Oil and gas producers point to their superiority over coal and say coal mining should stop first.  Heavy electricity using states demand that power plants continue to be built to prevent brown-outs and another economic slowdown.

Even when global warming has, on the surface, been taken to heart, a closer examination shows that self-interest still rules.  Here in California, our governor points to high-speed rail as a great benefit in reducing climate change.  Yet even proponents are forced to admit that the real benefits are some twenty to thirty years down the road.  In the shorter term, the project will actually significantly increase CO2 production.  More locally, San Francisco has approved the Parkmerced project, which will tear down 1,500 units of moderate-density, post-World War Two, rent controlled housing and replace them with about six thousand units of higher-density market-rate housing.  Again, the project is touted as reducing CO2 production in the long run – meaning some twenty to thirty years in the future. As with high-speed rail, however, before then the project will actually cause an increase in CO2 production.  Meanwhile, climate scientists have warned that we must reduce CO2 production dramatically within the next ten years or face catastrophic changes that will, by that point, become unavoidable.

Why is there this disconnect?  Among other things, powerful political interests, including labor unions, building contractors, and development interests, have much to gain from new construction projects but would get little benefit from projects like retrofitting existing housing and infrastructure to improve their energy efficiency and reduce CO2 production.  These interests influence our elected political leaders with ever more generous campaign contributions and insistent lobbying.  (Thank you, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United ruling!)  As a result, choices are made based on self interest instead of the broader public interest.

Where does this lead in the long term?  The answer isn’t pretty.  As one joke currently making the rounds put it, we’re left asking two questions:  “Where are we going?” and “Why am I in this handbasket?”


My June ballot election recommendations

May 28, 2012

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting my blog of late – too much work.  However, several people have pointed out to me that there’s an election happening, and at least one or two people like to know my comments and recommendations before they vote.  (That’s not to say they follow my recommendations.  They just like to know them. For all I know, they may turn around and do the exact opposite!

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the June ballot:

Presidential primary — what’s to say?  It’s already decided.  Let’s just move on.  We’ll come back to this
before the November election.

U.S. Senate — Well, this is the first time we’ve had all the candidates on one ballot.  Kinda interesting.  Lots of Republicans, a few Democrats, two Peace and Freedom, and one American Independent and one Libertarian.   I confess to knowing very little about most of the candidates.  I do note that most of the Republicans are businessmen/women.  I guess that kinda figures.  I’m not particularly thrilled with Feinstein, but it probably won’t make much difference; she’ll win by a landslide anyhow.  Just for the heck of it, you might try voting for Marsha Feinland, one of the Peace & Freedom candidates.  I think this is her third or fourth time running against Feinstein, so at least she’s got a bit of experience at being a candidate.

U.S. Representative — In the 13th Congressional District, where I am, there’s no real contest.  Barbara Lee has voted the way I would have on almost every issue, and has been one of the leaders in trying to get us extricated from Afghanistan.  Would that there were more like her.  Speaking of which, if you live in Pete Stark’s district, please vote for him.  He’s been a stalwart supporter of good things like single-payer healthcare and an opponent of military spending for years and years.  Yes, he’s getting older, but his votes still work for me.

For State Senator, Loni Hancock is running unopposed, as is Nancy Skinner for State Assembly.  Loni has been fighting the good fight for many years, so I can’t complain about her being unopposed.  Nancy Skinner, on the other hand has, in my opinion, been much less impressive.  However, since she’s unopposed, your only other option is to leave her space blank.  (A write-in wouldn’t count.)

For County Supervisor, in my district, District Five, there’s again no contest.  Keith Carson is running unopposed.  Being county supervisor in the current economic climate is no fun, so I don’t begrudge Keith his seat.

Finally, we do have one local contested race — Alameda County Superior Court Judge.  This is nonpartisan, and there’s no incumbent, so you’ve basically got three attorneys who want to be a judge.  I don’t know any of the three, and have only their  candidate statements to go on.  Based on that, however, I’d choose Andrew Wiener.  His emphasis on trying to reduce the adversarial atmosphere of the courtroom and promote negotiated settlements is, to my mind, a very worthwhile one.

Last, but certainly not least, there are the ballot measures.  There are two statewide measures, 28 and 29, and one local measure, a $48 per year parcel tax for the community college district.

Proposition 28 would modify the state term limit law by reducing the maximum [lifetime] allowance from 14 years to 12 but allowing those 12 to be served in either house, by the candidate’s preference.  I have never been a fan of term limits.  As a lawyer who deals with state laws, I’ve seen a definite decline in the quality of legislation since term limits were enacted.  What do you expect?  By the time you figure out how to write good laws, you’re termed out.  At least with this proposal, you could spend your years in one house and perhaps learn it better.  YES

Proposition 29 would put a $1 a pack additional state tax on cigarettes.  The No campaign is being funded almost entirely by the tobacco industry.  Now there is an evil empire!  The only [legitimate] thing that can be said against this measure is it may increase the amount of illegally sold cigarettes in the state, and perhaps in that way contribute to organized crime.  However, there’s more than enough money to be made selling other drugs, so I don’t think that’s a big concern.  Other than that, if the higher prices deter a few people from smoking, so much the better.  It is  sad, however, how many poor, uneducated people are smokers.  :-(      YES

Measure B – $48 per year parcel tax to help fund Peralta Community College District.  This community college district has had more than its share of scandals, but whose fault is that?  Ours.  After all, we elect its governing board.  If they don’t do a good job, we ought to run better people for office.  All that having been said, Thanks to the recession and Prop. 13, the District, like all other public educational institutions, is strapped for funds.  The community colleges are especially important because this is about the only place left where working class kids can get an education beyond high school.  (That’s a sad commentary on the state of California’s once glorious higher education system!)  YES.


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