The November 2016 Ballot Measures – Part 1 – Statewide Measures

October 18, 2016

This is the first of several posts I’m going to do on the November general election.  There’s too much on the ballot to put it all in one, or even two posts.  Just in terms of statewide ballot measures, there are seventeen of them.  That may not be a record, (The most in recent history was 20 in November of 2000) but it’s still a lot to get your arms around.

My starting point in commenting on them will be the recommendation of the Courage Campaign, a generally “Progressive left”membership group in California.  (Membership is defined loosely – no dues or anything, just a willingness to call yourself a member and participate in occasional lobbying efforts and membership poll.)  They polled their members and came up with a set of recommendations on the measures.  I don’t always agree with them, but it’s as good a place to start as any (and probably better than either the official Republican or Democratic Party positions).  In case you’re wondering what other groups’ opinions are, the Courage Campaign has put together a compilation of recommendations.  Here‘s the link to it.

Here goes:

Proposition 51 – $9 billion bond to fix and upgrade CA school facilities — Courage’s position: Neutral.  My position, Oppose.  I have become more and more skeptical of bond measure as I’ve seen more and more of them get twisted out of shape from what the voters are promised.  The state constitution requires that bonds be spent on what the voters approved, but the courts have been notably lax in enforcing those requirements, so I have become much less trusting.  In this case, however, there are other problems as well.  The $9 billion dollars is to be given out on a “first come-first served” basis, which will tend to favor the well-financed and well-organized (i.e., wealthy) districts who can get their applications in quickly.  The measure doesn’t prioritize poorer districts or those with more pressing capital needs (e.g., districts with older, earthquake vulnerable building or with overcrowded facilities).  The measure also take pressure off developers to pay for the schools needed to service big residential projects they build.  They are making the profits; they ought to pay for the public improvements those projects require.
Proposition 52 – Make Hospital Fee Permanent to Pay for Healthcare Services — Courage’s position: Neutral.  My position, Support.  While ideally we ought to have a single-payer system where everyone gets the healthcare they need and we all pay for it collectively through taxes.  (Clinton and Trump both reject single-payer, but what do you expect of candidates raking in donations from the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and private insurance industries.)  Given that we aren’t going to single-payer any time soon, at least this will make sure the neediest people in our society get at least some healthcare.  Yes, hospitals will pass on the fee to their users, but until we go to single payer, it’s probably the best we can do.
Proposition 53 – “Stop Right-Wing Millionaire from Blocking Infrastructure Projects” [Courage Campaign’s description, not mine]. Courage’s position –  Oppose.  My position –  Support. Big public project can bring with them big problems.  Nationally, there was Boston’s “big dig.”  Here in California, we’ve had the new Bay Bridge project and the BART to airport projects (Oakland & SF), all of which have had large cost overruns and questionable results.  (Both BART project have turned out to be big money losers.)  The main thing motivating this measure is Jerry Brown’s twin tunnel “peripheral tunnel” proposal for shipping more water south.  Because Southern California agencies would pick up most of the tab, this wouldn’t require a general obligation bond [which would already have to go on the ballot], but a revenue bond, which currently doesn’t require voter approval.  This measure would require voter approval for such measures if the involve over $2 billion.  Given the Legislature’s (and local agencies’) untrustworthiness,  this  seems to me to be a good idea.  Also, what happens if the revenue doesn’t cover the costs, or if one of the agencies promising to pay goes belly up.  Who do you think will end up picking up the tab?  Us, the California taxpayers.
Proposition 54 – 72-Hour Publication of Bills Prior to Vote — Courage’s position – Neutral.  My position – Support.  Particularly near the end of the legislative session, the Legislature now often resorts to so-called “gut and amend” measures, which take a bill that has already passed one house, removes all of its substance, and quickly replaces it with something entirely different.  Such “end of session” bills are notorious for being approved, with the connivance of the legislative (Democratic) leadership and the Governor, with little opportunity for public scrutiny or comment.  IMHO, this is really bad public policy, and in the past has resulted in some really bad bills.  Yes, this would slow down the legislative process, and might keep some measures from getting enacted, but that, to me, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Proposition 55 – Extend the Tax on the Wealthy to Fund Education and Healthcare — Courage’s position – Support. My position – Support.  This again is a stop-gap measure.  As Bernie Sanders said repeatedly in his campaign, we all benefit from making quality education available to all, and healthcare ought to be a right, not a privilege.  In almost all other developed countries, it is.  Why not here, because moneyed special interests control the legislative process, both in Congress and the Legislature.  This measure isn’t really what we need, but it’s better than the alternative of not having funding at all.

Proposition 56 – $2 per pack tobacco tax.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  Opponents of this measure label it a “nanny tax” – government using its tax powers to force us to do “what’s best for us.”  If it’s approved by the voters, this won’t be government telling us what to do; it’ll be us deciding what WE want to do.  I sympathize with people who’ve been sucked into tobacco addiction; and there’s absolutely no question it’s an addiction, just as much as heroin or cocaine; and far more than marijuana.  Problem is, it’s a really harmful addiction, and we, as a society, end up picking up much of the tab for dealing with its harmful results – heart disease, emphysema, cancers of all sort – you name it and whatever harmful medical condition you think of is probably either caused by or worsened by tobacco use.  At least the proceeds of this tax will help somewhat pay for all those costs, as well as help pay for programs to get people to kick the habit.  Big tobacco, of course, opposes this.  I can’t think of a better reason to support it.

Proposition 57 – Reform California’s Broken Parole and Juvenile Trial System [Courage Campaign’s label].  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  You should read up on the details of this measure.  How things are run now is the sad legacy of twenty years of “tough on crime” ballot measures that have left our prisons overflowing  with inmates, destroyed many thousands of people’s lives, and haven’t really worked in terms of reducing crime.  Californians have had a schizophrenic attitude towards crime – on the one hand wanting to “correct” bad behavior and on the other wanting to punish it.  Even with pets, it’s become clear that punishment isn’t a good way to teach behavior.  People are much more intelligent than pets (at least mostly) and all punishment does is build resentment.  Prisons ought to be a last-resort place to put people that we can’t prevent from harming others any other way.  This measure was really forced on us by the federal courts’ acknowledging that  California’s current way of running its prisons – overcrowding them and focusing on punishment – violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.  We’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this measure, but at least we’re there.  Much more needs to be done before our criminal justice system begins to bear any relation to justice and recognize the realities of what we’ve learned about correction in the past hundred years.

Proposition 58 – Repeal the ban on bilingual education.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  We’re finally undoing some of the mischief done by the over-simplistic and ideologically motivated ballot measures of the ’80s and ’90s.  Remember “English Only”?  Supposedly, bilingual education let non-english speakers go through school without learning english, and “immersion” in english would be “tough love.”  It didn’t work.  All it did was further reduce non-english speakers’ motivation for staying in school.  Without bilingual education, many non-english speakers will get no education.  How does that help us as a society?

Proposition 59 – Overturn Citizens United.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  For any of you who may have been asleep for the past few years, “Citizens United” was the name of a U.S. Supreme Court case where the court, by a 5-4 majority, decided that 1) corporations had a right of free speech, and 2) donating money to political campaigns was equivalent to free speech and therefore could not be regulated.  Since then, corporate control of our government has mushroomed even beyond where it was before, with “dark money” political committees able to raise unlimited funds from corporate sources while those contributions were hidden from public disclosure.  Is it any wonder that our two major presidential candidates are both almost totally beholden to Wall Street and other big-money interests?  Unfortunately, this measure does little more than register whether California’s voters are unhappy with the current situation.  It remains to be seen how much California’s congressional delegation will pay to the results.

Proposition 60 – Mandatory Condom Use in Adult Films. Courage’s position – Neutral.  My position – Support.  This has been one of the more controversial measures on the ballot, because it deals with California’s huge porn movie industry.  There are two issues here: 1) should California outlaw unsafe sex in porn movies as a public health measure, and 2) should California stop porn movies from showing, and thereby glamorizing, unsafe sex?  My answer to both questions is yes.  We’ve known for more that 20 years that sex without condoms can spread sexually transmitted disease.  Maybe if people were all totally monogamous, and only had sex with one person – ever – condoms would only be needed for birth control (but isn’t that a good enough reason in itself?), but porn movies more often than not portray casual sex which is exactly where condoms are most needed.  Yes, it’s true we show lots of stupid human behavior in movies.  How about we eliminate one of the stupider ones?

Proposition 61 – drug price ceiling in California.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  This measure would cap the price California pays for state-supported drug purchases (e.g., MediCal) to the price paid by the Federal VA, which negotiates prices with drug companies and does a very good job of it.  Short of going to single-payer [strange how that keeps popping up] this is another way to at least get some handle on reining in the explosive increases in prescription drug prices.  Not surprisingly, many mainstream organizations, like the Democratic Party, that get lots of money from the pharmaceutical industry, don’t support this measure.  Also not surprisingly, the Sanders campaign’s successor group, Our Revolution, does.  So do I, for the same reasons.

Proposition 62 – Repeal the Death Penalty.  Courage’s position – Support.  My Position – Support.  Here we go again.For some reason, Californians still seem to believe that the death penalty somehow makes sense.  Nevermind that study after study shows that it has virtually no deterrent effect, and that states and countries that have abolished the death penalties have no higher rate of what California calls capital crimes than states and countries that still execute people.To me, though, the most convincing argument is that juries are not 100% accurate.  We’ve seen over and over cases where someone was convicted and sentenced to death, only to discover years later that they didn’t do the crime they were accused of.  It’s bad enough when they’ve spent years in prison.  What do you do when they’ve already been executed.  Saying, “Oops, we’re sorry,” is so inadequate as to be criminal in itself.  If California wants to call itself a civilized state, it must eliminate the death penalty.  NOW.

Proposition 63 – Increased state controls on guns and ammunition.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  I don’t care what the NRA says.  While guns, by themselves, don’t kill people (at least not usually), people with guns and ammunition do.  As has been pointed out innumerable times, when private citizens have more guns, the amount of gun violence goes up, not down.  In my humble opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court made one of its stupider decisions (other than Citizens United) when it decided the right to bear arms applied to individual private citizens.  Well, since we’re stuck with that (and Citizens United) for the time being, at least this makes private gun ownership a little bit safer for those of us who aren’t NRA fanatics.

Proposition 64 – Legalized Marijuana use.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  OK, so marijuana isn’t a totally harmless drug.  If you’ve been smoking wed, your probably shouldn’t be driving a car, or operating machinery; but it’s no more dangerous than drinking alcohol, and a lot less dangerous (and addictive) than smoking cigarettes.  The prohibition on marijuana use is a hold-over from the days when the state was considered responsible for regulating private morality – along with prohibiting alcohol consumption on the Sabbath and prohibiting public displays of affection.  Folks, this is not Iran, and we don’t need to have the government regulating private morality and creating victimless crimes that get people thrown in prison.

Proposition 65 and 67 – plastic bag fee versus repeal of plastic bag prohibition.  Courage’s position – Oppose 65; Support 67.  My position – Oppose 65; Support 67.  Both these ballot measures are the result of the financial power of the plastic bag industry.  It circulated and qualified a referendum [Prop. 67] of the Legislature’s prohibition on disposable plastic bag use (like in supermarkets) and then qualified its own initiative measure that would allow them but put a fee on them to go into a state fund.  All you need think about is the huge island of plastic, much of it plastic bags, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  You can also think about the thousands of birds and sea creatures who die each year when they mistake plastic bags for sea creatures like jellyfish and choke on them.  also think about how much cleaner beaches and parks have gotten where disposable plastic bags have been eliminated.  We need to greatly reduce our use of plastic. Period.  It’s bad for the environment.  Yes, it’s regulating behavior, but so are many hundreds of laws that nobody complains about.  Regulating objectionable behavior is one thing government does.  Using plastic bags, unlike marijuana, isn’t victimless.  Ask a sea turtle that’s died from one.

Proposition 66 – Make the Death Penalty more “Efficient.”  Courage’s position – Oppose.  My position – Oppose.  As should be evident from my position of Proposition 62, I consider this proposition an embarrassing holdover from the years when Californian’s approach to crime was “lock ’em up” or “kill ’em.”  That approach didn’t work.  Making the death penalty more “efficient” – i.e., quicker to decide and carry out – will only increase the likelihood of mistakes.  I consider this measure little short of barbaric.  Hell, if we want to make the system more “efficient,” how about when someone’s accused of a crime, they’re immediately brought before a judge, who flips a coin.  Heads you’re innocent, tails you’re guilty.  That’s efficient, but it’s sure not justice.

 

Next post will deal with local ballot measures.  Third post will deal with candidate.

 


The Revolution will not be Televised

March 17, 2016

According to the establishment media, Bernie Sanders’ campaign is done, kaput, finito.  There’s nothing left to do but have him pack up his bags and head off to Hillary’s coronation.  To this I say, “Not so fast.”  From the beginning, Bernie has been clear in saying that this is not about a Presidential campaign.  This is about starting a political revolution to take back the United States Government from the billionaires and special interests who now control it.

It goes almost without saying that revolutions are neither fast nor easy.  Those who claim otherwise are either ignorant or liars.  Even the U.S. Revolution, which was short in time-frame as revolutions go, took far longer than from 1776 to 1781, the time in which open declared warfare between the U.S. and Britain was happening.  The Boston Massacre, the first recognized bloodshed of the revolution, was in 1770.  The Townshend Acts, which gave rise to the revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation,” had been put in place two years earlier.

The Chinese Revolution, led by, among others, Mao Zedung and Zhou Enlai, lasted at least from 1934 (the Long March) to eventual military victory in 1949, but the Communist Party of China had actually begun in 1921.  In India, Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, but India did not gain its independence until 1950.  Other countries such as France and England have undergone repeated revolutions, each of which dramatically changed control of the country.

While Bernie may not be envisioning revolutionary troops storming the barricades of Washington DC, he is looking to ignite a mass movement on a scale not seen in this country since the New Deal of the 1930s.  A movement like that, while it may be catalyzed by an individual, will only have staying power if it can expand beyond any one person to become focused on a vision that is being pursued.

In Bernie’s case, that vision involves reversing many years of gradual domination of America’s political process by wealthy individuals and even wealthier corporations.  (One can argue that from its very beginning, the U.S. Government has been dominated by the well-to-do, but the proportion of people with control over the government has been greatly reduced with the rise of mega-corporations and a large billionaire class.)  It also involves reasserting the Rooseveltian ideal that Government exists to protect the interests of the common people, not the wealthy.

The establishment was shocked when Bernie’s campaign actually gained traction and began attracting not only large crowds, but lots and lots of small donations and volunteers, particularly among the youth of the country.  Not since Gene McCarthy’s “children’s crusade” of 1968 had there been such an outpouring of political activity from college campuses (as well as from the “millenials” not in college).  The combination of anger and idealism was something U.S. political parties were not used to.

Now, a combination of a series of primaries in conservative Southern states on “Super Tuesday,” followed by primaries in somewhat less conservative, but still not liberal, Midwestern states, has splashed cold water on those “feeling the Bern.”  The message the establishment news media are sending is, “It’s all over now.  Better give up on Bernie and get behind Hillary.”  If this is truly going to be a political revolution, the answer needs to be a resounding, “No Thanks!”

The Primaries and Caucuses are still important.  First, it’s not yet clear that Bernie can no longer win the nomination.  However, even if that were the case, convention delegates can still influence the party platform.   Even more importantly, it’s not just the presidency that’s at stake in November.  There are Congressional elections as well as elections for state legislatures and local offices.  All of these can be foci for demands that power return to the common people.  Even if Hillary, Trump, or someone else other than Bernie is elected president, a political revolution with staying power could begin to grab the reins of power away from the corporate elite that currently runs things.

The first thing to do, however, is to stop letting the corporate media brainwash us and control our minds.  As local radio newscaster Scoop Nisker  used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”


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.


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?”


Political Campaigns, Free Speech, and the Citizens United Decision

November 7, 2010

This November’s election was our first real chance to see the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  The results are ominous for the future of U.S. politics.  Bucketfuls of money poured into political campaigns, both directly and as unregulated “independent expenditures” from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who are no longer required to even disclose where the money is coming from.  As a result, moneyed special interests are exerting an influence unparalleled since the end of the “gilded age” of the 1880s.

The irony is that the Citizens United decision is based on a fundamental misreading of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  That amendment states, very simply, that, “Congress shall make no law respecting … …or abridging the freedom of speech … .”  As with all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights, we now have over two hundred years of Supreme Court jurisprudence interpreting that simple phrase.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions have made a sharp distinction between regulating the content of speech and regulating the “time, place, and manner” of speech.  While the former is subject to “strict scrutiny”, requiring that any regulation be narrowly tailored and necessary to address a clear and present danger to a substantial interest of the state, the latter allows regulation so long as it is even-handed (i.e., content-neutral — applying equally to all speech, regardless of what it’s about).

In Buckley v Valeo, the Nixon-era Court, led by Chief Justice Warren Burger, decided that money was equivalent to free speech — i.e., regulating political contributions or expenditures was the same as regulating political speech.  A moment of thought should show the error that opinion created.  Money does not create political speech, hence regulating how much gets donated or spent doesn’t prohibit speech — it just regulates how loud that speech is. 

Just as a city can prohibit sound trucks from blasting political speech (or any other kind), so it would seem that government ought to have the power to limit how much money gets contributed or spent on political campaigns.  However, the complicating factor is that, in order to be content-neutral, such regulation would have to apply to all kinds of speech; not just political speech.  For example, the FCC could promulgate a regulation limiting how much time any one advertiser could buy for on-air commercials in any particular period of time (say, for example, no more than 1% of the broadcast day).  The post office could similarly limit how many pieces of advertising mail could be mailed in any one period.  However, in order not to invoke strict scrutiny, such regulations would have to apply to all kinds of mailings, not just political advertising.  This could be problematic; but, on the other hand, it could greatly cut down on the amount of junk mail and TV and radio ads Americans have to deal with — something that I suspect would delight most people.

The other option would be to identify a justification for content-specific regulation of speech that would survive strict scrutiny.  In the past, the Supreme Court has sometimes accepted preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption as justification for limiting direct campaign contributions, but not campaign expenditure or contributions to non-candidate-based political committees.  Since the Citizens United decision, however, it’s unclear if that will still work.  The court has repeatedly rejected arguments about trying to maintain a “level playing field” for political candidates.  Evidently, the Court feels that fair play has no place in the American political process.

One wonders, however, whether there’s an argument to be made that when one side can effectively drown out the other side’s voice — the equivalent of blasting away with loudspeakers so that other people can’t even be heard — government has a right to step in to protect the free speech right of those being overwhelmed.  Perhaps there needs to be the equivalent of the Sherman Antitrust Act to protect the free market of ideas from being monopolized by one group’s raw monetary power?


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:  http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/ballot-measures/21/  .  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.


We interrupt this election horserace …

October 24, 2010

With the pre-election brouhaha fast approaching a frenzy, here are a couple of articles that step back a little to look at the bigger picture.  The first, by Robert Reich (it was reprinted in today’s S.F. Chronicle), talks about something I’ve already addressed in this blog — how the wealthy are hijacking the American political system.

http://robertreich.org/post/1344561814

The second, in today’s New York Times, by The Nation contributing editor Ari Berman, talks about what might happen after the election, and how losing some of the Democrats in Congress might not be such a bad thing. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/opinion/24berman.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

This is an interesting article because it suggests that the Democrats might profit from something the Republicans did during the Reagan years — doing some ideological “housecleaning”.  It notes that starting in 2005 [IMHO, actually well before then, going back to the Clinton years and the Democratic Leadership Conference] and led by DNC chair Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emmanuel, the Democrats attempted to recruit “competitive” candidates throughout the country, including the “red” states won by GW Bush.  In order to make sure their candidates were competitive, they looked for people who would fit with the red state terrain they’d be campaigning in.  As a result, Congress received an influx of so-called “blue dog” Democrats — Democrats who hewed to a center-right perspective and voted with the Republicans at least as often as with their fellow Democrats.  It was these blue dogs who watered down Obama’s healthcare reform and financial reform packages, who stymied global warming legislation, and who have contributed to having many Obama appointments stuck waiting for Congressional approval.  In short, the blue dogs have become almost as big an obstacle to the Democratic Congressional agenda as the Republicans.  Further, as Democrats, they hold leadership positions, allowing them to be more effective in their opposition than most Republicans.

While the Democrats will undoubtedly lose seats in both the House and Senate this November, a lot of those seats will be blue dog seats.  So, we’ll have Republicans instead of Republicans masquerading as Democrats.  That may not make a lot of difference.  In fact, as Berman points out, it may actually help the Democrats if it allows them to become more unified and pointed in their legislative program.  So, come November 3rd, before you start shouting that the sky has fallen, it may make sense to take a deep breath, wait a few months, and see how the new Congress shakes out.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be the Republicans’ turn to be saddled with some blue dogs?


Follow the Money – the statewide ballot measures

October 20, 2010

Unlike Oakland ballot measures, it’s pretty easy to find out who’s contributed – both for and against – on the statewide ballot measures.  The information must be provided to the Secretary of State and is posted on her website.  However, it’s been made even easier because the California Voter Foundation has compiled a listing of the top five contributors, both pro and con, on each of the nine measures on the November ballot.  You can find that information, along with a lot of other general useful information about each measure, here:

http://www.calvoter.org/voter/elections/2010/general/props/index.html

The information is quite revealing.  Go take a look.


An Oakland Column You Probably won’t like

June 23, 2010

Oakland is a mess; not Oakland the city, although parts of it certainly are messed up, but Oakland’s city government.  Oakland is far from unique in this  respect.  In these days of economic crisis (no, the recession is NOT over yet), and with California’s state government in a self-induced state of paralysis, many California cities are messed up, and Oakland isn’t the worst.  That honor belongs to Vallejo, which is entering its second year of bankruptcy, payback for a spending binge in the ’90s fueled by real estate speculation.   Other Bay Area cities also share Oakland’s plight, notably Richmond and San Francisco.

All these cities are faced with enormous looming budget deficits, and not for the first time.  Unlike the federal government, however, Oakland and its fellow California cities can’t simply print more money to cover their debt.  Nor can they invoke Keynesian economics and say that  running a deficit is OK.  No, there only three ways for Oakland to get out of its predicament:  1)  raise taxes -and/or fees – not a popular option, 2) cut services — also not a popular option, or 3) join Vallejo in bankruptcy and then proceed to rewrite its contracts with city labor unions — again, not popular, especially with said employee unions.

How did Oakland get into this fix and who’s to blame for it?  OK, OK, I know pinning blame on someone won’t solve the problem, but in this case understanding the bad decisions involved is part of keeping them from happening again.  Of course, not all of this problem is  Oakland’s fault.  The state government’s deficit and paralysis have led to it cutting back state contributions to local governments and shifting state responsibilities onto cities and counties.  Even more importantly, cities are highly dependent on revenue from sales and property taxes.  The recession, and its underlying housing bubble collapse, have led to major drops in both these revenue sources.  Unfortunately, in the 1990s, when sales and property tax revenues were booming during the internet bubble, the Oakland city council made a series of (in retrospect) irresponsible contracts with city unions, including notably the police and fire department unions.  Not only did these contracts involve major pay raises and benefit improvements, they committed the city to providing retirement benefits long into the future.   Even more irresponsibly, the city renewed these contracts even after the market collapsed in 2000.

Was this dumb?  Absolutely!!  Then why did it happen?  The answer lies in Oakland politics.  Oakland’s police and fire dept. unions have traditionally been strong political forces.  They share this attribute with the police and fire unions in other cities, notably Richmond and Vallejo [notice a pattern here?].  The police and fire unions endorse candidates for mayor and city council.  They also make major  contributions (both in money and volunteers) to the election campaigns for those offices.  Not surprisingly, the candidates they support often get elected.  Also not surprisingly, once they’re elected, these unions expect, and usually receive “payback”.  We’re not talking  graft here [at least, not that I know of].  This is not about suitcases full of small bills left at dark corners in the dead of night.  The payback happens in the full light of city council meetings and the somewhat dimmer light of labor negotiations and council closed sessions.

If you, as a council candidate, received a major amount of campaign help from the police and fire unions, you’ll have your office door open to their representatives.  You’ll also be thinking (either consciously or unconsciously) “If I cross these guys, they’ll be campaigning for my opponent next election, and I’ll lose. …  I better not cross these guys.”  Even if you weren’t thinking that when their representatives walked in your office door, you’d undoubtedly be thinking it by the time they walked back out.   With the police and fire unions helping to elect many council members (a majority?  I don’t know), it’s no big surprise that the council would approve contracts favorable to these unions.  Were the unions irresponsible to propose contracts that weren’t sustainable in the long-term?  I think so.  Were the council members irresponsible for agreeing to those unsustainable terms?  Well, Duh.  But you know who was the most irresponsible   in this whole process?  Us, the voters of Oakland.  We weren’t paying attention to what the city council was doing, and we weren’t paying attention to how city council election campaigns were being funded.  Where were the crowds of citizens at city council meetings in the 1990s when the police and fire contracts were approved?  Where were the crowds when, even after the bubble collapsed in 2000, the city council renewed those contracts?  (Also, where were the newspapers and reporters who are now lambasting Mayor Dellums  and trying  to pin all the blame on him?  Does he deserve part of the  blame?  Sure; but when he took office, the seeds of the problem had already been sown and were already growing fast.)

Oakland’s voters also have to take ownership of approving two incredibly dumb city ballot measures — Kids First and Kids First II.  Now, of course nobody wants  to vote against helping kids, but these two measures, and especially the second one, committed portions of the city budget to funding children’s services by non-city groups.   These were not bad groups, and  I’m sure that  the money has done good  things, but so do libraries, parks, senior centers, and, yes, police and fire departments. 

The result of all this short-sightedness and, yes, stupidity, is that now the city is in a serious financial bind.  Revenue has dropped and expenses continue to grow.  Perhaps most importantly, under past city contracts, the city is still required to help fund retirement benefits for police and firemen that have already retired, and those benefits  can’t be modified in future contracts.  They’re locked in as “entitlements”.

So, what do  we do now?  Well, if the  voters are willing, the city will have to enact new taxes to cover some of the current deficit and avoid major layoffs of police.  On the union side, they, and  particularly the police, will have to be willing to agree to major give-backs, especially as regards to retirement benefits and how they’re paid for.  Somehow, it’s also going to be necessary to bring the already-retired union workers back to the table to discuss what the city is required to do for them. 

Ultimately, the one threat the city may have available as leverage, one that it would be understandably loath to even talk about (as it were, the “nuclear option”), is declaring bankruptcy, with the prospect that an appointed administrator might be empowered to abrogate contracts and even retirement benefit payments as part of an overall package.  Looking north at Vallejo, it’s pretty clear that its bankruptcy has tarnished that city’s image severely, and it’s still not clear if Vallejo city’s officials are willing to make the tough calls needed on reducing city union employees’ pay and benefits.

In the long run, what may really be needed is something  similar to, but more far-reaching than, the  federal Hatch Act, which limits federal employee’s participation in partisan election campaigns.  Oakland needs to have a measure that says that if you’re getting paid out of city coffers, you can’t be influencing the  electoral process that picks your bosses.  The potential for corruption, malfeasance, and, at the very least, conflict of interest, is far too great.  At the very least, Oakland voters need to be far more careful in thinking about and deciding which candidates for mayor and city council they vote for.  Maybe an endorsement from the city’s unions, and particularly the police union, shouldn’t be looked upon as a plus??


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:   

http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/prop16.htm   

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:  http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/prop15.htm   

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.


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