Ballot Measure Brain Teasers

November 3, 2010

Here’s a brain teaser for you — try to find a consistent frame of reference that makes sense of all the California ballot measure results from yesterday’s election.  It’s not easy.

Some parts fit together pretty well.  Propositions 22 and 26 are part of a consistent pattern of California voters asking government to keep its hands out of our wallets unless they ask nicely and we say yes.  Prop. 22 keeps state government (meaning the legislature) from taking money away from local jurisdictions to help balance the state budget.  It was sold as protecting local government resources.  As I noted in a previous post, the unmentioned major beneficiary will be redevelopment agencies.  I wonder why the no on 22 campaign didn’t play that up more.  I find it hard to believe, in between their taking money away from other local agencies and being able to exercise eminent domain to take property away from citizens, that voters have a warm spot in their heart for redevelopment agencies. [That’s not to say that they never do anything worthwhile.  To give them their due, for example, Emeryville’s redevelopment agency has had a big hand in transforming that city from truckyards and factories into a retail powerhouse.]  Prop. 26 also makes it harder for the state (or local agencies, for that matter) to collect money in the form of fees.  The complaint was that there were fees being created that were really taxes, and it was a subterfuge to get around Prop. 13 and Prop. 218’s voter approval requirements.  So now most fees will ALSO require a 2/3 popular vote.  The defeat of Prop. 21 also fits with the “keep your hand out of my friggin’ wallet” attitude of California voters.  Interestingly, for both this and Prop. 26, the Bay Area’s attitudes differed from the rest of the state’s.  Here’s a link to the voting map for prop 21 on the Secretary of State’s website:  .  We in the Bay Area are apparently a bit more willing to pay the fare when it comes to government services.

This might all seem consistent, but at the same time voters also adopted Prop. 25, which eliminates the 2/3 majority requirement to pass the state budget.  Thus it’ll now be easier for the legislature to pass a budget, but harder for them to have it survive the laugh test of, “So where are you going to find the revenue to make this budget balance?”  Look for many more applications of smoke and mirrors to produce a “balanced” budget in the future.  Also look for the state budget deficit to continue to grow, since Californians seem to think they can have all the services they want without having to pay for them.

Props 20 and 27, like props 21,22, and 26, but unlike prop 25, also showed voters’ distrust of the legislature.  In 2008, the voters narrowly passed prop 11, taking legislative redistricting out of the (self-interested) hands  of the legislature and putting it into the hands of an independent “citizens’ commission”.  This year, the legislature tried to convince voters that they should reverse the decision.  No such luck.  In fact, the voters turned around and took congressional redistricting out of the legislature’s hands as well.  Perhaps, with the exception of prop 25, the theme might be that the legislature is not to be trusted with doing much of anything right.  Arguably, even prop 25 could be said to reflect that attitude.  i.e., “OK, you don’t seem to be able to handle passing a budget with a 2/3 majority.  We’ll make it easy for you — just get something out with a simple majority; and if you can’t handle that, we’ll take away your pay because you clearly aren’t earning it!”

Then we’ve got two “lifestyle” initiatives.  Prop 19, that would’ve legalized recreational marijuana use, and prop 23, which would have suspended the state’s global warming law. 

On the former, early polls seemed to show voter approval, but two things appeared to turn the tide.  First were a bunch of articles pointing to flaws in the initiative’s language that would result in litigation and unintended consequences.  Second was the U.S. Attorney General’s public announcement that he didn’t care what California did; he was still going to have MJ users, growers, sellers, etc. arrested and thrown in prison under federal narcotics laws.  This could, perhaps, have stirred up a states’ rights oriented state like Alaska or Mississippi to say, “Oh yeah?  We’ll see about that!  See you in court!”  But …  California is not a big states’ rights bastion, and with law enforcement groups up and down the state saying it was a bad idea, the voters apparently had second thoughts.

Prop 23 was a different story.  For one thing, Californians have long liked to think of themselves as being an environmentally conscious group.  After all, we have Yosemite, the redwoods, the sequoias, Lake Tahoe, etc.  We were also one of the first states to block offshore oil drilling after the big Santa Barbara oil spill, and Californians have bought more hybrid vehicles, not only in toto but on a per capita basis, than any other state.  So it only stands to reason that, having passed landmark legislation to try to curb global warming, Californians would not readily turn around and say, “Oops, we made a mistake.  Let’s put that law in the deep freeze for twenty years or so until it gets REALLY hot.”  It also didn’t help that it came out very early (thanks to California’s campaign finance disclosure laws) that almost all the money financing prop 23 was coming from out-of-state oil companies.  Hey, what the heck, they were in Oklahoma or inland areas of Texas.  It wasn’t their coastline that was going to disappear under water as sea levels rose.  Bottom line, Californians decided they didn’t believe the oil companies (who have, of course, tremendous credibility already — almost as good as Enron’s).

One thing that still leaves me scratching my head is that in spite of what appears to be a set of almost Tea Party-like attitudes  about government spending, Californians still elected an entire set of Democratic state office holders.  Like I said at the start of this post, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a consistent frame of reference for California voters.


More on the November ballot

October 1, 2010

My sample ballot came today, which says to me it’s time for me to share my opinions on the ballot measures and candidates.  It is, as it usually is in a statewide November election, a pretty long ballot.  I’m going to start with the ballot measures.  This year, they’re a pretty easy group for me to decide on.  Maybe not so much for you.  For the first time I can remember, I’m 100% in agreement with the positions of the California League of Women Voters, where they’ve taken a position.  You can find their analysis here:  I go beyond the League, however, by sticking my neck out on the other ballot measures as well.

Proposition 19 — Marijuana Legalization —  Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s and 1930s.  Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked either.  All it’s done is provide extra income to drug dealers and made it easier for people to transition from MJ to harder drugs.  I think we’d do far better to legalize, regulate, and tax MJ.  That’s not to say that I think MJ is a great thing.  I know some people who went overboard on MJ and got really messed up; butnothing like what happens with hard drugs, and not as badly as some people I’ve known have gotten messed up on alcohol or cigarettes.  YES

Prop. 20 — Congressional Redistricting Commission — I agree with LWV on this one.  While in principle having congressional redistricting done by an impartial redistricting commission would be a big improvement, we haven’t even seen whether it’ll succeed for the state legislature.  Let’s give the new system a chance to work and see how it does before we jump in with both feet.  (I should at this point disclose that I’m one of the sixty finalists for the redistricting commission, of which fourteen will be chosen.  Consequently, I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering the issue.  It’s not going to be easy, but I am hopeful that the commission will do a good job.)  That having been said, I’m not ready to go “double down” on it yet. — NO

Prop. 21 — State Parks Vehicle License Fee — The League is also neutral on this measure, but I’m giving it a “thumbs up”.   Like the League, I generally don’t like ballot box budgeting.  However, this measure matches new income to an existing need.  that’s very different from, for example Prop 98’s earmarking a set proportion of the state budget for schools or Oakland’s “Kids First II” measure, which locked a percentage of the city’s general fund for child-oriented services.  I think those kind of measures are a big mistake, because they pit one expenditure against another.  However, I have nothing against voting in a special tax to fund a special need.  It seems particularly fitting to use the vehicle license fee, because most people access state parks with their car, and the fee will be tied to allowing free park admission for California registered vehicles. — YES

Prop. 22 — Local Funds Protection — I have mixed feelings about this measure.  Having served on a local agency (the county mosquito abatement district), I’m well aware of the havoc a state “funds transfers” can wreak on local budgets.  However, there’s one budget I wouldn’t mind having havoc wreaked on — redevelopment agencies.  While redevelopment agencies can do some good — Emeryville’s agency being a notable example — they also can do a lot of mischief, and Emeryville has provided just as good examples of that too.  They also take money away from other local agencies, so when they complain about a state takeaway, it’s the pot calling the kettle black.  As I said in an earlier post, I don’t buy it. — NO

Prop. 23 — global warming suspension — If we could actually suspend global warming by a ballot measure, I’d be 100% for it, but this measure is to suspend AB 32, the California legislature’s recently-enacted measure to try to reduce CO2 emissions and limit global warming impacts.  This measure is funded almost entirely by out of state big oil and big coal interests, who want to keep fiddling while the whole world burns (or at least gets way too hot).  If this measure passes, it’ll tell the whole world that Californians can’t see beyond the nose on their face.  I will be extremely embarrassed; almost as badly as when Nixon won 49 out of 50 states in 1972.  At least then I was living in Massachusetts. — NO!NO!NO!

Prop. 24 — Repeal of corporate tax breaks — So, part of the 2008-2009 budget “deal” that the legislature passed was a set of corporate tax breaks that were supposed to stimulate the economy.  Are you feeling particularly stimulated yet?  Neither am I.  If I was going to stimulate California’s economy, I’d do it by keeping teachers, firemen, police, and other public employees from getting laid off.  That means giving government enough money to keep running.  You don’t do that by handing out corporate tax breaks to your friends at the expense of state revenue.  Maybe the Republicans, with a little more than 1/3 of the legislative seats, can extort this kind of crap out of our weak legislative leadership, but we, the voters, don’t need to let it continue. — YES!YES!YES!

Prop. 25 — majority vote on state budget — Speaking of extortion and the state budget, the reason a Republican minority is able to exercise disproportionate control is largely because passing a budget requires a 2/3 vote in both houses.  Aren’t you just a little bit tired of having to wait until October for the state to have a budget, and learning about all the horse trading that happened to get one (often at our expense)?  ENOUGH! — YES!YES!YES!

Prop. 26 — 2/3 vote for all fees — This is another one of those deceptive special interest sponsored ballot measures, like Prop.23 on this ballot and PG&E’s measure on the June ballot.  This one’s sponsored primarily by the tobacco and alcoholic beverage industries, who don’t like having fees placed on their products to help pay for the health damage they cause.  This measure would also protect polluters from fees intended to clean up the damage they cause.  If you don’t mind living in a toilet, go ahead and vote for this measure, because that’s what you’re asking for.  NO!NO!NO!

Prop. 27 – send redistricting back to the legislature — So, How much confidence do you have in California’s legislature?  If you’re like most Californians (including me), the answer is, “Not much!”  This measure would kill the California Citizens’ Redistricting Commission before it even gets fully formed.  All the money spent thus far on getting it set up would be wasted, and instead we’d hand the control back to the legislature so they can re-gerrymander the districts and continue to get themselves re-elected.  How stupid do they think we are?!  [Please don’t answer that question.] NO

My next post will cover the local (Oakland and Alameda County) measures, for those blog readers who live right around here.

First comments on the November Election: Proposition 22

September 11, 2010

Prop. 22 is local government’s latest attempt to tell the state to keep its hands off the local treasury.  In many ways, the ballot measure makes sense, although we need to keep in mind that WE created this mess more than thirty years ago when the voters passed Proposition 13, tying the hands of state and local government to collect the revenue needed for government services.  If you don’t like police layoffs, fire station “brown-outs”, state park closures, furlough days, etc.,  ask yourself if you voted for Prop. 13.  If you did, you’ve got yourself to blame for our current fiscal mess.

Here’s the Sacramento Bee’s explanation of the measure with supporters and opponents, pros and cons:

There’s little question that having the state government digging into local government’s wallet makes it harder and harder for local government to make ends meet.  However, there’s big one piece of local government that would be  protected by Prop. 22 but which, in my opinion, doesn’t deserve protection:  that’s redevelopment agencies.

For one thing, redevelopment agencies, while they’re housed in local government, aren’t really local.  Legally, they’re part of the State of California, and, while they’re often officially run by the city council wearing another hat, they  are often REALLY run by an executive director who has close to total autonomy in how redevelopment funds get used, especially when (as is often the case) the city council doesn’t pay a lot of attention to how the agency gets run, as long as it brings in money.

Another issues with redevelopment agencies objecting to the state taking their money is that it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Under state law, redevelopment agencies are largely funded by what are called “tax increment funds”.  These are increases in property taxes due to increased property value in the redevelopment area.  In theory, the redevelopment agency “primes the pump” by using bond funds to invest in the redevelopment area.  The resulting increased property value, and increased property tax revenue, is then used to pay off the bond, leaving everybody happy.

Sounds good  in theory, but when the redevelopment agency siphons off the property tax increase over the thirty years term of a redevelopment project, the losers are often other local agencies, including cities, schools, and special districts, that would otherwise get that revenue.  Over time, the legislature has tried to ameliorate the situation by requiring redevelopment agencies to include a “pass-through” of funds to local agencies to replace the funds the redevelopment agency took away.  However, the passthroughs are complicated and one often gets the feeling that other local agencies are getting the short end of the stick.

Aside from that, redevelopment agencies have had a mixed record in California and elsewhere.  Their eminent domain powers have led to some shocking abuses, including taking people’s homes and handing them over to private developers who replace them with projects such as glitzy shopping malls that make lots of money for the developer (and the redevelopment agency) but can literally leave former residents (especially tenants) out in the cold.

While I acknowledge the problem created by the state stealing local revenue, I can’t support including redvelopment agencies in those being protected.  Besides, the real culprit here is Proposition 13, and passing Prop. 22 will just continue to “prop” up a failed tax system badly  in need of major overhaul. 

My recommendation?  Vote NO on Prop. 22, but also let your legislators know that you expect to see reform of Prop.13 if they want to remain in office.

Prison Guard Union Muscles into Oakland Mayoral Election

June 28, 2010

If you’re like me, you get bunches of political ads in the mail.  I just got two today: CSC mailer & filing, both from “Coalition for a Safer California,” which is identified as a political committee sponsored “by public safety organizations.  OK, so what kind of public safety organizations?  Well, it couldn’t be police or fire departments, or the CHP, because they’re all governmental organizations and can’t contribute to political campaigns.  Well, maybe it’s a bunch of police and fire chiefs?  Nope.  It’s a couple of police unions and the state prison guards’ union.  In fact, the group’s latest filing shows the biggest single source of their money is the state prison guards’ union ($100,000 in their most recent filing).  Huh??  I didn’t know there were any state prisons in Oakland, or even near Oakland.  There aren’t even any state prisons anywhere in Alameda County.  So what gives??

Well, although the fliers are nominally about proposed layoffs of Oakland police (and factually inaccurate at that), what they’re really about is the November mayoral election, and they target two mayoral candidates, Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan. 

So, why are the prison guards trying to put  the finger on these two Oakland politicians?  The answer isn’t hard to figure out.  The third major candidate in the mayoral election is none other than Don Perata, former President Pro Tem of the state senate, deal-maker extraordinaire, and close ally of the prison guards during past state budget processes.  (It’s one reason the prison guards have gotten such sweet deals on their contracts — to the detriment of the state’s huge deficit.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Oakland Police Officers Association has endorsed Perata’s candidacy (using a public appearance by Oakland’s new police chief [who hasn’t endorsed Perata] as the venue to announce the endorsement).  In the best political “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” tradition, Perata has returned the favor by coming out four-square against any police layoffs.

What Perata’s bold stance doesn’t answer is:  How is he going to balance the city’s budget and address its $30 million deficit, which is projected to balloon to $50 million next year?  Maybe he’ll finance it by selling bonds or push it over for the next mayor to deal with — what he did when he was leading the legislature.

As you may be able to tell, I have not endorsed Perata.

Making Sense of the Primary Election Results

June 9, 2010

Well, the election is over, and the  results are in.  What do they mean?  A lot of things.  Lets start with some big lessons:   

One key lesson is that money still talks; but money, by itself, isn’t always enough.  Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini won their respective contests by landslides, and a large part of the reason is that they buried their opponents with huge personal campaign contributions.  Whitman’s was the more egregious example, even though both she and her major opponent were both multi-millionaires who threw more  of their personal resources into their campaigns than 99.99% of Californians even have.  That didn’t appear to bother Republican voters.  It remains to be seen if such lavish spending of personal resources will alienate independent voters.  (I think one can safely assume that the number of Democrats who’ll vote for a self-proclaimed conservative Republican is vanishingly small.)   

On the other hand, the “spend your opponent to death” strategy didn’t work for either PG&E or Mercury Insurance, both of which tried and failed to buy passage of a corporate-sponsored ballot measure.  In each case, though, they did come close (within five points) to getting their corporate perspective incorporated into California law.  What’s also interesting is the distribution of votes.  In both cases, it was a coalition of voters, primarily in coastal and urban areas, that defeated the measure.  Here, for example, is a link to a map on the Secretary of State’s website showing the county-by-county distribution of votes for Prop. 16:   

I think several factors were at work.  One, urban voters are more sophisticated and less easily taken in by the simplistic arguments used in these corporate campaigns.  They’re also more skeptical of whether their interests are aligned with corporate interests — i.e., “I know what in it for you, the corporate sponsor, but what’s in it for me, the voter and citizen?”  Also important is that the coastal and urban areas tend to be more liberal and accepting of government.  Both PG&E and Mercury aimed part of their campaigns at public distrust of government.  PG&E, in particular, argued that the people can’t trust government with the money needed to run a public power operation.  That met a receptive audience in “Red State” California, but not in California’s even larger “Blue State” population.  I suspect that in a November election, when urban turnout is higher, the result would have been more lopsided against the two measures.   

Despite the skepticism of corporate-funded campaigns, however, California voters were not ready to allow public financing of election campaigns.  Prop. 15 failed decisively, although not quite by a landslide.  The vote distribution here is particularly interesting.  Here’s how the map looked:   

County-by-county map of Prop 15 results

County-by-county map of Prop 15 results

Here’s a link to the Secretary of State’s webpage, which allows you to see the actual county-by-county voter totals:   

Most Bay Area counties voted “yes”; but the rest of the state (including LA) voted “no”.  What’s this mean?  The Bay Area counties tend to be the most liberal, with the highest percentage of Democratic registration in the state.  They also tend to have some of  the most highly educated voters.  We’ll have to wait for detailed exit polls for a more precise analysis, but my suspicion is that the rationale for Prop. 15 — that public financing would allow better control on campaign spending and reduce the influence of big money on elections — didn’t get through to the public.   Also, especially in hard economic times, many people were probably averse to allowing government to spend money on financing political campaigns, even if that money would come from taxing lobbyists — certainly not a popular group.  This measure, unlike Props 16 and 17, might have done better in a November general election, with its higher turnout and more liberal electorate.   

Finally, Proposition 14, the open primary measure, won quite handily, although again not by a landslide.  The county-by county vote distribution was less lopsided, however, than for Prop. 15.  Only two counties voted against Prop. 14 — San Francisco and Orange.  (A few other counties: Alameda, LA, Santa Cruz, and — surprisingly — Fresno and Tulare, were close, with the measure winning by margins of less than four percentage points.)  SF and Orange represent, of course, opposite ends of the political spectrum.  What they have in common, however, is the strength of their respective primary political party.  Across the political spectrum, the parties were united in opposing Prop. 14 because it would weaken the parties’ role in elections.  It seems, however, that most Californians don’t consider political parties to be all that important.    

Prop. 14’s biggest impact may be in future budget negotiations.  Not only will it make it harder for “hard-line” candidates to get elected, but party leaders will have less leverage over legislators by threatening to run candidates against them in the primary.  Prop. 14 is likely to be challenged in court, and won’t take effect until at least 2012.  We’ll just have to wait and see if it survives, and if so, whether it changes the current toxic budget dynamic.   

Finally, a couple more comments on the candidate side.  For all the talk about “tea parties” and anti-incumbent fever, incumbents did pretty well, at least in the congressional and legislative primary contests.  Off-hand, I can’t think of a race in which an incumbent was defeated.  [Readers — please point out if I’m wrong here.  I haven’t followed all the races that closely.]  Maybe the mood will be different in November, but for now, it doesn’t seem like incumbents are carrying a big stigma.   

The other race that may be worthy of note is for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  This is nominally a nonpartisan office, although traditionally Democrats have had an edge.  It was basically a three-way race, between two legislators: Tom Torlakson — supported by the teachers’ union, and Gloria Romero — supported by “reformers” who favor charter schools; and Larry Aceves, a retired administrator who tried to chart a middle   course.  The November run-off looks like it’ll be between Torlakson and Aceves.  It seems likely that many of Romero’s supporters will gravitate towards Aceves, who already had a slight edge in the results.  However, one can expect the teachers’ unions to spend heavily on Torlakson’s behalf (and expect corresponding rewards if he wins).  Looking at the results, Torlakson’s strength centered heavily around the Bay Area.  If he’s going to win, he’s going to have to expand his base.  Conversely, Aceves is going to have to gain better name recognition outside of his South Bay base, although his Hispanic roots may help him in many parts of the state.  This election is generally, however, a low-profile race. It’s the legislature and the governor who, by their budget decisions, have the biggest say about whether California public education will improve from its current dismal state.

Thoughts on the Oakland Special Election

June 27, 2009

Yesterday, I got my absentee ballot in the mail.  That might not seem so special, except that here in Oakland, everyone is getting an absentee ballot in the mail.  This is the first time I can recall a mail-ballot-only municipal election.  (There have been, of course, numerous mail-only elections for assessment districts and the like.)  With the high and increasing cost of running elections, it’s probably the wave of the future.  In fact, while there will be no polling places open, the City has called a special election for July 21st.

As to the subject of the election itself, the City Council called this special election as a last-gasp effort to avoid truly draconian cuts in the Oakland city budget.  Even as it is, the City is looking eliminating maintenance for many city parks, cutting back or eliminating a number of city programs, and generally cutting back city services.

Part of this is the City’s own doing (e.g., the failure of the city council to maintain adequate oversight over Mayor Jerry Brown and his city administrator as they spent money the city didn’t really have), but much of it is the result of a “perfect storm” of outside factors.  Those factors include the dismal state of the local, state, and national economy (and associated drop in business tax and sales tax revenue), the precipitous drop in the Oakland real estate market, with consequent drop in property tax  and transfer tax revenue, the cutbacks in state contributions to local programs (hopefully to be partially offset by federal “stimulus” dollars), and, of course, the long-term impacts of Prop. 13.  Added to that is the self-inflicted wound that Oakland voters perpetrated last November by enacting the “Kids First II” measure, Measure OO, which funded non-city kids’ programs at the expense of the city budget.

The four measures on the ballot are the city council’s attempt to reduce the damage from Kids First II and cobble together some additional short-term revenue sources.  If these measures fail, even more drastic budget cuts are lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce.

What are the measures?  Measure C increases the City’s hotel tax from 11% to 14 % to fund cultural and educations institutions (including the Oakland Museum, Oakland Zoo, and Chabot Science Center), as well as the convention & visitors’ bureau, that are currently funded from the general fund.  It requires a 2/3 majority vote to pass.   If it fails, those institutions will probably lose their City funding, and some or all of them may be forced to close down.

Measure D would replace the Kids First II measure (Measure OO).  That measure dedicated a percentage of total city revenue to kids’ programs.  Measure D would change this to a percentage of unrestricted general fund revenues.  This makes far more sense, since restricted funds are locked into their uses and essentially are “untouchable”.  It requires only a majority vote (as did Measure OO).  If Measure D fails, Measure OO would remain in effect and the City would be forced to cut many other services in order to provide the mandated level of funding for (non-city) childrens’ programs.  Measure OO was, to put it bluntly, a stupid and poorly-written measure.  We shot ourselves in the foot by passing it.  We’ll be adding a second bullet hole if we don’t pass Measure D.

Measure F would increase the business tax on medical marijuana sold in the City from $1.20 per $1000 (0.12%) to $18 per $1000 (1.8%).  It’s a whopping increase, but the current tax is miniscule.  (Compare it to the roughly 10% sales tax on general merchandise!)  As a general tax, this would only require majority vote approval.  Taxing medical marijuana may not be the best way in the world to gain revenue (a city tax on cigarettes or alcohol would be far better), but it’s one of the few politically acceptable revenue sources that isn’t pre-empted by state or federal law.  Again, if this goes down to defeat, there will be even more programs cut from the city budget.

Bottom line — If you don’t mind dealing with humongous potholes in the streets, broken streetlamps that don’t get fixed, closed fire stations, and being put on permanent hold when you call 911, by all means vote these measures down.  It’ll be one more step towards reducing government services to the point where government can be “drowned in the bathtub.”

If, on the other hand, you’d like Oakland to be something other than the world’s biggest cesspool, I’d recommend a YES vote on these four measures.

Incidentally, here’s the Oakland League of Women Voters’ recommendations on the ballot measures.  Like me, they recommend a YES vote on all four:

Don’t forget, you do need to mail your ballot in so that it’s received on or before July 21st.  (Unlike a tax return, just a postmark won’t do the trick.)

New poll supports retaining 2/3 majority on the budget, but poll itself is highly suspect.

June 1, 2009

A new poll done by students at U.C. Riverside reports that a majority of Californians still support the requirement that the state budget be passed by a 2/3 majority. The poll also indicates that Californians continue to support “ballot box budgeting” — setting budgetary priorities through the initiative process. However, some crucial details on the polling are missing, raising questions about its validity. In addition, some of the data on the sample of voters used indicates it was highly skewed, again raising questions about whether the results can be trusted.

The poll was based on telephone interviews by UCR students with 276 respondents. That in itself is a relatively low number. Consequently, the poll results have a relatively high degree of uncertainty — plus or minus 5.9%. Nevertheless, Professor David Crow, who taught the class taking the poll, insists that the differences measured were large enough to be significant.

A more troubling problem is that the poll gives no data on the geographic distribution of the respondents. The results of the May special election drive home the heterogeneity among the state’s voters, also demonstrated in the November 2008 general election results. (See earlier posts on those subjects for county-by-county maps.) Consequently, a skewed geographic distribution of respondents would likely result in a skewed set of poll results.

Even more troubling was one set of information that was disclosed — the income distribution of the respondents. The largest single class of respondents — accounting for over a quarter of those who agreed to supply financial data — had incomes of over $100,000 per year. This is far above the state’s median income and indicates that the poll’s sampling was badly skewed.
An earlier pre-election statewide poll had show similar results of support for retaining the 2/3 majority requirement, but it is possible that the new post-election budget cuts could change some voters’ minds. This poll, however, doesn’t appear to give a trustworthy answer to that question.

Here are the poll results:

And here’s a link to a Sacramento Bee blog entry that uncritically accepted the poll’s results. (tsk, tsk!)

Courage Campaign Petition

May 21, 2009

The Courage Campaign — a California progressive Democratic group with a strong on-line presence — is helping to circulate a short-and-sweet petition asking that the budget, and taxes, be approved by a simple majority vote.  Here’s the website for the on-line petition

It’ll be interesting to see whether this initiative goes anywhere.  It obviously runs directly counter to the right wing’s continued drumbeat for making it as hard as possible to fund the state (and local) government.  Thus far, Californians have appeared to like that beat, voting for Prop. 13, Prop. 218, and other ballot measures that have tried to curtail government revenue raising and expenditures.  (On the other hand, Californians have also passed numerous measures that either raised taxes for specific purposes or mandated specific government spending.)

The question is whether the past few years of repeated legislative stalemate over the budget have soured Californians (or at least a majority of them) on continuing to insist on supermajorities to approve government monetary decisions.

A recent Field poll (see my recent post, “California – State of Unreality”) said Californians still wanted to keep the 2/3 vote rule.  Still, in polling, it’s all-important how you ask the question.  I think things will have to get considerably worse to convince Californians to make it easier for government to access the purse.  Given the way things are going, however, that could happen pretty fast!

So Now What??

May 19, 2009

Predictably, California voters have emphatically turned town the compromise crafted between the governor, the Democratic legislative leadership, and a few pragmatic Republican legislators.  So now what?

Well, to begin with, what lessons have been learned?  The big one is — don’t compromise.  The voters don’t want compromise.  They prefer ideological purity.  Republicans voters went along with the Republican leadership that rejected the governor’s compromises because they involved new taxes as well as budget cuts.  Democratic voters voted down the measures because they weren’t willing to accept a budget cap or temporarily shift revenue from specially approved taxes to the general fund.

When the legislature goes back to trying to solve the budget deficit, there’s little doubt it’ll keep these lessons in mind.  That means there will be no compromises — and no budget.  That will put the ball squarely in the governor’s court, and his only option will be to make the kind of draconian cuts he’s been threatening — lay-offs, furloughs, and slashed programs.  Essentially anything that isn’t required by a federal mandate will be slashed.  In addition, the governor will as he has warned, attempt to “borrow” money from local governments.  (It’s not clear to me whether this part of his strategy would require legislative cooperation.  If so, I’d be willing to bet he won’t get it.)

Given that the governor will get little if any help from the legislature on these matters, there are limits to what he can do.  The question is it’ll be enough to forestall defaults on state bonds and lawsuits from state vendors over non-payment of their bills.   I wouldn’t bet on it.  [Maybe the state can’t go bankrupt, but lawsuits from angry vendors and bondholders could result in courts taking almost as much power over state finances as a bankruptcy court would have.]  I think we can look forward to a year in which few businesses will want to do business with the state, and nobody will want to buy state bonds.

Without bond funding, even more programs will have to be cut.  Between that and lay-offs, look for unemployment to rise even more — maybe to levels not seen since the great depression.  This summer doesn’t look to be a good time for the Golden State.

Endorsement Update

May 18, 2009

A few more ballot measure endorsements, for those keeping score. Obviously, the Governor has endorsed all seven ballot measures, as has the state Democratic Party leadership, including AG (and gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown. The Democratic Party itself, however, has taken no position. At its convention last month, while a majority of delegates voted to support some of the measures, no measure reached the 60% threshold for endorsement. The Republican Party, showing no such reluctance, has endorsed a NO vote on all the measures, as have Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poisner. Rival Republican candidate Tom Campbell has taken a more nuanced stance, supporting 1A, 1D, and 1E, but opposing the remainder. California’s two Democratic senators, Boxer and Feinstein, have endorsed all seven measures, although Feinstein qualified her endorsement, calling it a Hobson’s Choice (i.e., a choice offering no good alternative).

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