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Archive for 2010



Calbuzz Must-Read: Mathews-Paul Reform Opus

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

We finally set aside a few hours to sit down with “California Crackup,” the Joe Mathews-Mark Paul collaboration that closely analyzes the state’s political dysfunction, and it was time well spent: they’ve written a terrific book.

Cataloging the multiple, inter-locking political elements that caused the collapse of governance in California, the two veteran political writers draw these pieces together into a lucid framework that offers not only a clear diagnosis, but also a serious prescription for what ails the not-so-Golden State.

The clarity of their writing and the cogency of their argument put to shame the content of the current campaign for governor.

The contrast between their comprehensive, in-depth and detailed take on the state’s fractured political system with the worn-out platitudes mouthed by Republican nominee Meg Whitman and the vapid avoidances of Democrat Jerry Brown underscores the superficiality and lack of substance in the politics of California in 2010.

The civic moment is defined by more than bad news. What makes this moment seem different – makes it feel like what Californians call “earthquake weather” – is that California seems unable to talk about the crisis in a way that gets to the bottom of things and points to a better day…At the heart of the civic moment is the fear that California lacks even a language, and an understanding, equal to its calamity.

What Mathews and Paul attempt in “California Crackup” is to provide such a language, an effort in which they largely succeed.

Starting with an insightful sketch of early state history that shapes and drives their narrative,  they make all that follows – the corporate abuse of the ballot initiative system, the unintended consequences and anti-democratic impacts of Proposition 13, the dominance of Sacramento by lobbyists and special interests, the over-reaching of public employee unions, for starters – seem like inevitable developments that year after year have steadily sucked all accountability and integrity out of the system.

The whole system must be rethought with an eye to the sheer scale of California, a place grown too large and too various to be successfully governed from the top. Democracy and accountability would be the buzzwords. Windows must be opened so Californians can see in, peer out, and keep an eye on each other. This will require a Great Unwinding of old rules.

By setting forth an inarguable set of facts and a vocabulary for analyzing them, Mathews and Paul produce a potential shared agenda for change in California that seeks to include those provincial stakeholders — voters, consumers and taxpayers – who were long ago abandoned by the Capitol insider culture of corrupt deal making and fix-is-in demagoguery.

Skimming the cream. The three things we found most interesting:

1-Past is prologue: If you don’t have time to read the whole book (c’mon, it’s only about 200 pages) at least pick it up the next time you’re browsing and take a few minutes to read Chapter 2, which presents an intriguing look at the political stumbles, historical accidents and random influences  (California’s first constitution was overwhelmingly approved without being read, as the delegates were determined to go home before lunch) on which our current political structure rests.

First came the hastily scribbled original constitution, drafted at a rogue gathering convened by the military on behalf of a state the U.S. government had failed to recognize. Second were the three decades of failed attempts to put meat on the bones of that first constitution, culminating in the 1878-79 convention, perhaps the greatest civic disaster in the history of a state with a talent for disaster. Third were the sixty years of amendments, more than three hundred of them, nearly all aimed at remedying the consequences, intended and not, of the 1879 disaster. After a break for the Second World War, fourth came the attempt to edit out the worst of those amendments and turn California’s amateur government into a professional one. California is now in its fifth wave, a breaker that took off in the 1970s and still has not crested: a tsunami of ballot initiatives that, in the name of putting the fear of public anger in California’s professional politicians, threatens the whole enterprise.

2-Jerry’s role: Mathews and Paul draw a portrait of the young Governor  Jerry Brown during the crucial years just before, during and after the passage of Prop. 13, when a statewide crisis of homeowners being strangled by ever-escalating property tax bills was met with inaction, if not indifference by pols in Sacramento, which is anything but flattering:

Two things stood in the way of action. One was a governor more interested in big ideas and the grand sweep of technology and history than in the boring details of tax policy or the grunt work of passing legislation. Brown didn’t want to squander the whole surplus on helping homeowners. “The single biggest difficulty we had was the Department of Finance said ‘you can’t commit more than $300 or $400 million to property tax relief,’” remembers State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, then a member of the Assembly. “It was such a small amount that you really couldn’t provide significant enough relief for people to really think it mattered.” Brown had his own priorities – cutting the tax on business inventories and shooting California’s very own communications satellite into space. A large surplus, at a time when New York City was broke, could be held up in his impending reelection campaign as evidence of his tightfistedness (Brown now maintains that he was holding on to the surplus because he anticipated an economic downturn).

3-Solutions. The boyz get into some neck-deep, weed whacking wonkery in the second half of the book, when they offer up a menu of major reform proposals for starting to fix the broken political system.

Putting aside the question of whether actually offering actual solutions for problems is a gross violation of the Political Writers’ Code of Chronic Carping, the Mathews-Paul  disquisition on such poli sci matters as proportional representation, unicameral legislatures and instant runoff voting is both refreshing and consequential in its presentation to the reader of two key insights: a) things don’t have to be this way forever – our current system of elections and governance is not only not written in stone, it’s in many ways an exception to best practices elsewhere in the country and the world; b) changing the system in a substantive way requires much bigger ideas than the kind of nibbling-around-the-margins notions offered by California Forward and other small bore reformers.

The state’s current stalemate, while a formidable obstacle, is no more formidable than that faced by those who framed the state’s constitution in the 19th century, or than that confronted by the Progressives a century ago, when they elected a governor in the face of opposition from both parties and the railroad. And the changes we propose are far less radical than the Progressives’ push for direct democracy, which represented a sharp break with American history and its Madisonian system of divided government, checks and balances, and suspicion of government.

The fall of 2011 will mark the centennial of the 1911 special election in which the Progressives remade the state government’s operating system. It is long past time for an update.

Nice work, guys. Calbuzz sez: check it out.

Gandalf Pension Secrets Revealed; Fox Ad Scam II

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

To his credit, Jerry Brown finally followed the advice of Calbuzz and pushed out a batch of info Monday that cleared up most of the confusion and questions about his taxpayer-funded pension.

To his detriment, Gandalf should not have let the matter become a campaign issue in the first place; it did so only because he’s too cheap to hire enough staff to deal with the unstinting demands of running for governor of California in what most of the rest of us recognize as the 21st Century.

Next up: Jerry and Ann organize names and contact info of his supporters on alphabetized, color-coded 3X5 cards arranged on the dining room table.

To recap: At a time when the Democratic candidate for governor has been shattering glass with his howls of outrage about the scandalous salary and pensions being funneled into the pockets of public swindlers officials in the L.A. suburb of Bell, the Orange County Register raised some tough questions about Brown’s own public retirement benefits.

That gave Republican foe Meg Whitman an opening to bash the attorney general as a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrite on pensions, and to suggest that he had something to hide on the issue.

This resulted in Sterling Clifford, Brown’s indefatigable flack, spending much of Monday putting out the fire ignited by the OCR story, providing a squadron of campaign reporters answers to their questions, but only after Brown personally, and belatedly, rang up the state Public Employees Retirement System to inquire, uh, what his benefits, uh, actually are.

More on that later; first, the facts that matter about Krusty the General’s pension:

1-Brown soon will have 25+ years of service – eight as governor, four as secretary of state, four as attorney general, eight as mayor of Oakland and one year as a state Supreme Court law clerk – vested in two different state pension plans – the Legislature Retirement System (LRS) and the aforementioned PERS.

2-Taken together this qualifies him for an annual, combined pension of $78,450, which he would receive if he were to lose the election and retire at the end of 2010; if he wins, he would not receive the pension until after serving as governor, at which point it would be slightly higher to reflect the salary of that job.

3-Brown is not receiving a pension now, although he did receive about $20,000 a year between 1998 and 2006, a period during which he served  two terms as the mayor of Oakland, for which he was paid an additional $115,000 a year in salary.

Brief weed whacker alert: There’s also a whole magilla that’s still being reported out by the Register’s Brian Joseph about some apparent goofy accounting of Brown’s pension at LRS, but frankly that one makes our heads hurt and doesn’t affect the bottom line of what benefits  Krusty has received and will be eligible for in the future.

(As a policy matter, it’s worth noting again that state retirement administrators consider the LRS records to be double-secret super-confidential, no doubt from concern about the sensibilities of the 16 politicians who are the only ones covered by that plan. For the record, Brown on Monday called for the records to be opened up to the public: “If public employees salaries are public record, there is no reason for pensions not to be,” said Clifford).

Alert lifted: As a political matter, the pension controversy is just the latest evidence that Brown’s pastoral, nostalgic ideas about how you run a nationally-watched, high-pressure, high-stakes statewide campaign in the digital age lack, um, a certain sense of urgency.

In a 24/7 news environment, the only thing that’s for sure is that there will be a constant series of brush fires that erupt on the campaign trail which will require immediate attention so they don’t go from being one-day stories to five-day stories, the way the pension kerfuffle did; recall that Brown earlier allowed the story about his former spokesman in the AG’s office taping reporters’ calls to get legs and linger when there was no reason for it.

At some point Brown needs to realize he is not just dealing with the run-of-the-mill energies and demands of a baying pack of political reporters filing daily print and TV stories, while blogging, tweeting, pod and videocasting in their spare time.

He’s also facing about 72 heavily armed press and communications Storm Troopers on the eMeg Death Star, all equipped with real time feeds of his daily, random pronouncements, off-the-cuff punditry and various perorations, not to mention reams of high-quality opposition research worthy of the National Security Agency, each one of whom gets up in the morning thinking about how best to tear his face off.

Brown’s man Clifford is a total pro, a highly talented, street-smart, fast-thinking, multi-tasking veteran operative who’s always got the candidate’s back. But at some point, Krusty really needs to get the poor guy some help. What if he gets whooping cough or something?

We’re just sayin’.

Folo that story: Our scoop on the Small Business Action Committee’s so-called ”issues ad” attacking Brown while not disclosing who’s paying for it was picked up and advanced by Torey Van Oot, who got a copy of the spot, and Carla Marinucci, who disclosed that Whitman gave $10,000 to the group, run by Joel Fox, a couple days before they endorsed her. Just a little more walkin’ around money from Meg.

In case you missed it: Greatest cable news freakout since CNN stopped inviting Orly Taitz to come on and perform logorrhea.

How the FPPC Should (and Shouldn’t) Meddle Online

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Calbuzz is generally not too keen on any regulatory movement, cause or organization, especially not one that’s intent on regulating us. But we have to say there are good reasons to extend – carefully — to the online world some of the disclosure requirements on political campaigns that now apply in the old media world of broadcast and print.

The trick is for California’s Fair Political Practices Commission to use a light touch so as not to kill the baby in the crib. Internet political communications still are in their infancy. You Tube, for example, by which so much of today’s online political messaging is conveyed, wasn’t even created until February 2005 and it didn’t really catch on in the political world until the 2008 cycle.

When the FPPC considers rule-making this fall, the fundamental principle should be this:

Keep the burden of disclosure on the candidates, campaigns and advocates without creating undue burdens on the media through which they choose to communicate. (Especially us.)

We agree with the FPPC report on this issue that:

When a committee or candidate engages in campaigning, the public should know that the communication is being paid for, regardless of the form that communication takes. In the current networked world, political communication by a regulated committee or candidate that occurs over the Internet is the functional equivalent of a broadcast ad, and an email is the functional equivalent of a mailer.

Fortunately, the FPPC and its staff have been cautious, open and deliberate as they approach the issue. They recognize, for example “that it is difficult to regulate a moving target. Innovation is not predictable and could be stifled by moving too quickly and regulating too strictly.”

Who’s paying for what: The FPPC report recognizes that you can’t require the same disclosure for a postage-stamp-sized web ad, a tweet or a Facebook message that you demand in a TV commercial. But you could require that a web ad or even the name of a tweeter or Facebooker  who’s pushing campaign communications should link to a page on which it’s disclosed who is behind the message so that an online reader understands where the message is coming from and who’s paying for it.

As the report noted:

Some paid advertising does not allow adequate room for disclaimers required by current law (e.g., some forms of electronic advertisements, twitter communication, etc.). In those cases, candidates and committees must provide information in ways that are practicable given the limitations of the medium (e.g., on the website that is accessed when one clicks on an ad; on pages providing information about the source of tweets; on appropriate places in social networking sites; through information that pops up when the mouse is rolled over word or phrase).

The Maryland Board of Elections recently passed new electronic media rules to provide just such flexibility. The Maryland regulations provide that if electronic media advertisements are too small (e.g., a micro bar, a button ad, a paid text advertisement that is 200 characters or less in length, or a small paid graphic or picture link) to contain an “authority line,” the ads will comply with the required disclosure of the political committee authorizing the message if the ad allows the viewer to click on the electronic media advertisement and the user is taken to a landing or home page that prominently displays the authority line information.

That makes sense to us.

Sock puppets and web whores: There’s one place where we’re not sure the FPPC goes far enough: requiring online communicators like bloggers to disclose if they are being paid by a campaign or political committee for more than the standard value of their advertising.

The rationale for not requiring disclosure by sock-puppet bloggers is this: 1) the FPPC does not want to dampen robust free speech on the internet and 2) payments to bloggers will be disclosed in the campaign or political committee’s expenditure reports.

We heartily agree with the principle of doing nothing to dampen free speech on the Internet,or anywhere else. But there is a big difference between Steve Poizner placing an ad on Calbuzz at the same rate that ad space is sold to anyone else, compared to Meg Whitman paying $15,000 a month to Green Faucet, the parent of the Red County blog, in order to secure a steady stream of favorable coverage and support masquerading as news coverage.

One is just a business transaction in which the web site selling advertising is not a paid mouthpiece for a campaign but instead a free agent on the Internet.

The other is little more than paid campaign communications. Blogs that are subsidized by a political committee – and who have thereby crossed the line into paid advocacy — ought to be required to make that clear to their readers.

Voluntary disclosure is not good enough. There are too many unscrupulous cheats out there and too many web whores. Moreover, it’s nothing for a campaign with big resources to set up a web site that looks like a neutral observer but which is, in reality, just an extension of the campaign.

At the very least, expenditure reports should be modified to specify  “internet communications,” and “online advertising.” Something along the lines in the FPPC report, which calls for:

…requiring that expenditure reports contain more detail of payments for activity on the Internet, including payments to bloggers, so that these payments can be more easily discerned. The brief description on the expenditure report would include the name of the recipient of payment for electronic communication, the purpose of the payment, and the name of website or other similar address where the communication (blog, tweet, Facebook page, etc.) appears.

For now, the report says:

We do not recommend requiring disclosure in blogs at this time because of our concern about stifling this robust and growing source of political discourse. We considered an alternative that would require bloggers compensated by a campaign committee to disclose on their blogs that they have material connections to a campaign. This was based, in part, on a recent Federal Trade Commission guideline requiring bloggers endorsing products to disclose their financial connections to the manufacturers of the product. Requiring disclosure of paid bloggers would also be analogous to Section 84511 of the PRA mandating disclosure of paid spokespersons in ballot measure ads.

We recommend instead that the Commission continue to monitor the development of activity on weblogs and assess whether disclosure through expenditure reports is sufficient to ensure voters know when a blogger is part of a political campaign and when she is acting as an interested citizen expressing her political views. If the Commission determines that the failure to require more disclosure of compensated political bloggers has undermined the right of the public to be informed about the course of political communication, the issue of appropriate regulation should be revisited.

Calbuzz prediction: unless the FPPC requires disclosure, plenty of unethical bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers will fail to tell readers who’s buying their loyalty.

In search of a bright line: There are some other issues still to be fleshed out. For example, who is to be considered “news media” and who is not.

The report says the Political Reform Act’s media exemption (on advocacy) “should be interpreted to include online media sources, whether or not they also participate in print or broadcast media.”

Importantly, however, blogging should not automatically be considered to trigger the media exemption unless the blog meets the standards for being considered part of the media. It is not necessary to expand the media exemption to include uncompensated bloggers who are unaffiliated with campaigns because they are protected by the exemption recommended above for volunteer uncompensated political communication.

This gets really tricky.

Relevant passages in the Political Reform Act define news media as “a regularly published newspaper, magazine or other periodical of general circulation which routinely carries news, articles and commentary of general interest” or “a federally regulated broadcast outlet” or certain kinds of newsletters or regularly published periodicals.

What does that make an online political news site like Calbuzz? Or partisan sites like Calitics or FlashReport? Or an aggregator like Rough & Tumble? All of which have or would gladly accept, advertising from candidates and political committees. What would you call Red County? Or California Majority Report? Do they “meet certain standards for being considered part of the media?” Or are they advocates for causes and candidates?

Click on the “eBay: Don’t Buy It Now” ad on this page and you get taken to California Working Families which tells you the page is “Paid for by California Working Families for Jerry Brown for Governor 2010, a Coalition of Public Employees, Firefighters, and Building Trades Organizations. I.D. # 1324632.  Not authorized by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.” That’s the way it should work.

Likewise, if you click on “It’s Time for a New California” on the FlashReport home page, you get taken to Meg Whitman’s campaign home page which tells you at the bottom “Paid for by Meg Whitman For Governor 2010.” They probably ought to include their FPPC identification, but that’s a quibble.

But if you click on erichogue on Twitter, there’s no way to know that the screeching right-wing tweets from the conservative radio commentator just might be influenced by that $1,000 payment he got in the last reporting period from the Whitman campaign.

So what’s his Hogue News?  He’d like us to believe his site is “news media.” But he’s already proved he’s a for-rent mouth breather. Trouble is, the only people who know are those who’ve followed the arcane news about campaign finance or those who’ve read through Whitman’s expenditure reports and stumbled across the payment to him.

It won’t do for the FPPC to define “news media” in a way that includes only the dead and dying old media, as the current regulations do. But it also won’t do to ignore the fact that some online practitioners feel no compunction to level with the public about their status as paid advocates.

Plenty of free parking: Calbuzz would be happy to participate in further discussions with the FPPC on these issues. And if the FPPC would like to buy an ad on our site, they can find the rate card right here.