Archive for 2011

Death by Twitter: Social Media, the Political Frontier

Friday, June 24th, 2011

After it was revealed, on Sept. 29, 2010, that Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, had summarily fired Nicky Diaz, her housekeeper of nine years, after finding out that she was an illegal immigrant, public opinion polling didn’t immediately show that the revelation had much impact on voters’ intentions.

But a new study – the first of its kind – of the conversation that occurred in more than 480,000 postings in social media like Twitter, blogs and online forums, suggests the matter created an instant, sharply negative shift in opinions about Whitman that polling did not detect until much later.

While negative mentions of Whitman had never risen above about 1,000 in any day, unfavorable comments about her shot up over 5,000 in the two days following Diaz’s press conference with her lawyer, Gloria Allred in which she accused Whitman of treating her “like a piece of garbage.”

“This is a first-time study. It’s by no means scientific,” said pollster Ben Tulchin, who teamed up with Bryan Merica of IDM Communications and Paul Wittenberg of PWSMC Social Media Consulting using the Sysomos MAP application to analyze online conversations, postings, comments and news stories from January 1 through November 2, 2010.

“But when you aggregate 500,000 postings, it come close to representing the wisdom of crowds,” Tulchin added. Let’s underscore that: this was NOT a scientific study. Deciding what is a favorable or unfavorable comment is a subjective judgment, no matter how careful researchers try to be or how precise the Sysomos application is at analyzing words.

Nevertheless, Tulchin and his associates have touched on something important: In the Internet Age, campaigns may well suffer (or benefit) from an almost instantaneous shift in the conversation, based on events over which they have little or not control.

There is no gatekeeper on Twitter, no Grand Poobah of the Internets, no censor over the blogs who can filter or contain what people can say to one another and to the online world. A single spark can start a prairie fire.

Underscoring the power this uncontainable conflagration can unleash is an actual scientific study by the esteemed Public Policy Institute of California that just found, for example, that among registered voters, 55% 93% of liberals, 54% 92% of moderates and 44% 87% of conservatives access the internet. from home.

A previous PPIC study found that 65% of registered voters go online for news sometimes or often.

Taken together, we’re beginning to have data that suggests that what’s being said online – in social media as well as traditional news outlets that are on the internet – is having a profound impact on voters’ opinions about candidates, and perhaps issues as well.

The Tulchin study suggests that monitoring online conversations may well be an early warning system for campaigns that is an important adjunct to public opinion research and campaign advertising.

Lite Gov. Gavin Newsom set out in 2009 to see if he could build a campaign that relied heavily on social media to propel him to the office of governor. It never was a winning strategy for electing a governor. But tell that to the people of Egypt, who organized the peaceful overthrow of the Mubarak regime largely through social media coupled with enormous courage.

Something is happening here and we may not know what it is. Yet.

No Pay, No Peace: Chiang Rising, Boosts Gov

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Controller John Chiang’s decision to block paychecks for members of the Legislature is a ballsy move that hands Gov. Jerry Brown a last-ditch, Indiana Jones-type opportunity to head off a summer-long budget deadlock.

“My office’s careful review of the recently-passed budget found components that were miscalculated, miscounted or unfinished,” said Chiang. “The numbers simply did not add up, and the Legislature will forfeit their pay until a balanced budget is sent to the Governor.”

Brown, whose administration was hoping and praying for Chiang to throttle the Legislature’s pay, reacted completely neutrally, at least on the record. “The Controller has made his determination. We should all work together to pass a solid budget,” Brown said. But behind the scenes, Gandalf and his Hobbits in the Horseshoe were delighted.

While Republican legislators were generally complimentary about Chiang’s decision – which Treasurer Bill Lockyer had urged — their Democratic colleagues were generally miffed.

“We are basically being held hostage to vote for the governor’s version of the budget. It’s a perfect opportunity for political grandstanding for the controller and treasurer,” said state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.We’ve done our job and given a balanced budget. The controller and treasurer have approved of them in past. They’ve never had a problem before. We are being treated like children and punished for politics.”

Holy cow, Martha! They’re doing something different in Sacramento!

Chiang “was wrong,” said Assembly Speaker John Perez. “The Controller is, in effect, allowing Legislative Republicans to control the budget process and I believe that’s a very unfortunate outcome that is inconsistent with the intent of Proposition 25,” Perez said. “In the coming days, we will be taking additional budget action informed by the Controller’s analysis, and consistent with the values of the budget we passed last week.”

Beyond its considerable impact on the Capitol, Chaing’s just-say-no to legislative salaries gambit also boosts his personal statewide political cred. In raising his profile among the laundry list of little-known constitutional officers, he’s seized the spotlight in a way that will define him as a guy who isn’t afraid of a tough choice, even if it enrages his own party.

Most importantly, however, the controller has given the governor some new political leverage in his long-running and disciplined effort to get a budget approved before July 1, when a host of temporary tax increases will expire, making Brown’s job of selling higher rates to voters in a fall special election much tougher by an order of magnitude.

By determining that the tricked-and-tarted-up spending plan Democratic lawmakers sent Brown on June 15 is not balanced, Chiang has pushed the snouts of the Legislature’s political pygmies out of the public trough unless and until there’s a real budget. Squeezing them where it hurts will improve the focus of solons from both parties, providing self-interested motivation to return to Brown’s picnic table in the horseshoe, for renewed bargaining on California finances.

According to Chiang:

Nothing in the Constitution or state law gives the State Controller the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy or viability of a budget. The Controller can only determine whether the expected revenues will equal or exceed planned expenditures in the budget, as required by Article 4, Section 12(g) of the Constitution: “. . .the Legislature may not send to the Governor for consideration, nor may the Governor sign into law, a budget bill that would appropriate from the General Fund, for that fiscal year, a total amount that. . .exceeds General Fund revenues for that fiscal year estimated as of the date of the budget bill’s passage. That estimate of General Fund revenues shall be set forth in the budget bill passed by the Legislature.”

While the vetoed budget contains solutions of questionable achievability and some to which I am personally opposed, current law provides no authority for my office to second-guess them in my enforcement of Proposition 25. My job is not to substitute my policy judgment for that of the Legislature and the Governor, rather it is to be the honest-broker of the numbers.

Using this standard, the Controller’s analysis found that the recently-vetoed budget committed the State to $89.75 billion in spending, but only provided $87.9 billion in revenues, leaving an imbalance of $1.85 billion.

The largest problem involved the guaranteed level of education funding under Proposition 98. The June 15 budget underfunded education by more than $1.3 billion. Underfunding is not possible without suspending Proposition 98, which would require a super-majority (2/3) vote of the Legislature.

The budget also counted on $320 million in hospital fees, $103 million in taxes on managed-care plans, and $300 million in vehicle registration charges. However, the Legislature never passed the bills necessary to collect or spend those funds as part of the State budget.

What it all means: As a practical matter, the legislative salary suspension does not change the three basic scenarios Brown faces on the budget, but it does alter the likelihood of which one will occur. Here’s the Calbuzz line on the options:

–Summer deadlock. The most likely outcome of the budget remains the spectre of a Schwarzenegger-like, months-long boring stalemate extending through months of baking heat. Republicans are still under huge pressure from the ideologues who man the barricades of the state GOP’s cuckoo caucus not to compromise in any way on taxes, while bleeding heart Democrats, having already voted for billions of dollars in spending cuts, are likely to dig in against any more, spurred on by their sponsors in the SEIU, CCPOA and CTA.

Chances of happening: 47.5 percent.

–A deal with Republicans. Brown advisers seem truly to believe that they can still convince at least four Republicans, who perhaps will soon find themselves in new districts that are less GOP-tilted than the current ones, to vote for his plan for a special election on taxes, in exchange for cobbling together a deal that links the revenue line with other ballot measures to reform public employee pensions and slap a cap on state spending.

Chances of happening: 30.75 percent.

–A more-cuts budget: Legislative Democrats are still peeved at Brown by flinging their dog-ass budget back at them, less than 24 hours after they performed an end zone dance congratulating themselves on passing it. Still, there’s room for the governor to negotiate with them by accepting some key parts of their plan – delaying $3 billion in payments to schools, for example – while finding ways to backfill other cockamamie elements, like the silly notion of raising more than $1 billion by staging a garage sale to sell off state property.

Chances of happening:  21.75 percent

Before Chiang called out the Democrats for their ersatz “balanced budget,“  we would have put the odds of deadlock at over 80 percent. Now, however, the low-key controller has slipped Brown a huge bargaining chip in budget talks, while establishing himself as a Man of Respect among the cognoscenti (if his gambit doesn’t get whacked in court).

Carpe diem, Mr. Controller.

P.S.: We’ll be surprised if Speaker Perez and Senate President Darrell Steinberg don’t challenge Chiang’s decision in court. It’s not at all clear that Chiang has the authority to declare unbalanced a budget that the Legislature says is balanced. But what will members of the Legislature say — Republicans and Democrats alike — when our colleagues in Sacramento ask them whether they’ll take the pay? Surely, all those GOP members who support the decision would refuse to accept tainted paychecks, right?

Yes, he has no bananas: The estimable Mark Paul, noting that Chiang himself says nothing in law or the state Constitution gives the controller the authority to judge whether a budget is balanced, writes:

Just when you think California governance can’t get more bizarre, Controller John Chiang, using constitutional authority he admits he doesn’t have, has decided to withhold pay from legislators for having passed a gimmicky budget, which is the only kind of budget that California’s current constitutional and political balance permits them to pass.

Calbuzz Classic: Why California Doesn’t Work

Monday, June 20th, 2011

It was two years ago this week that we published our first meta-analysis about how California politics and governance got so screwed up.  A few things have changed for the better since then: voters approved the new jungle primary system, which might improve the quality of the Grover-bot ideologues who keep showing up in Sacramento, and the state’s new redistricting commission appears to have added more than a dozen new competitive districts to the political terrain.

But the big beacon of hope from back then, a proposed constitutional convention that would allow Californians to redesign government from scratch, turned into a major flop, and all the big talk from California Forward reformers proved to be a case study of the elephant giving birth to the mouse. Bottom line: the current partisan stand-off over spending in Sacramento sadly, doesn’t look all the different under Jerry Brown than under the disgraced and discredited Arnold Schwarzscandal. Here’s why.

A few hours after California voters approved his Proposition 13 tax-cut measure on June 6, 1978, a bibulous and exultant Howard Jarvis dropped his pants for the benefit of a few reporters gathered in his suite at the L.A. Biltmore.

A reporter had asked Jarvis why he was limping, so his ostensible reason was to show a large, ugly bruise, which he’d suffered in a fall a few days before, on his ample, boxer-clad behind.

The surprise gesture, however, also afforded the earthy and profane Jarvis a chance to display his contempt for the press and, by extension, the political class that had mocked him and opposed his cherished measure.

Thirty years later, the ghost of Jarvis and his legacy initiative still aim antipathy, scorn and disdain at California’s government and its leaders.

Proposition 13 was the first, and most far-reaching, in a cascade of political decisions over the last three decades that have shaped the thoroughly dysfunctional structure of governance in the state.

Simply put, California today is ungovernable.

As state and local officials struggle to weather a fiscal crisis that threatens to drive California into insolvency, they wield power with the damaged machinery of a patchwork government system that lacks accountability, encourages stalemate and drifts but cannot be steered.

In this system, elected leaders carry responsibility, but not authority, for far-reaching policies about public revenues and resources. That’s not governance — it’s reactive management of a deeply flawed status quo.

Here is a look at six key factors that have made California impossible to govern.

Proposition 13: The fiscal effect of Proposition 13 itself is only part of the damage the initiative did to California. Even worse have been the methods Capitol politicians devised to try to lessen the measure’s financial impact.

After Proposition 13 passed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-dominated Legislature realigned — “tangled” would be more accurate — the relationship between state and local governments by effectively shifting control of remaining property tax revenue to Sacramento.

In a crisis atmosphere, they radically transformed California’s political landscape, taking power and responsibility for health, welfare, schools and other local services away from city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, thereby establishing today’s chaotic maze of overlapping jurisdiction, which defies efforts at accountability.

Budget initiatives: Proposition 13 also ushered in an era of ballot-box budgeting, as fiscal initiatives became a favored special-interest tool to take control of public fund expenditures.

A series of post-13 initiatives — including measures creating the lottery, financing public schools by mathematical formula and earmarking revenues for special programs, from mental health to medical care — established an exquisitely complex state budget calculus that has hamstrung the rational operations of government.

Gerrymandering: The once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps based on the census has created an increasingly partisan and polarized Capitol atmosphere.

Reapportionment has become essentially an incumbent protection effort, as lawmakers craft districts for themselves that are either safely Democratic or safely Republican. In this way, the crucial contests are party primaries, not the general elections. Because primaries draw the most partisan voters, the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats tend to win the nominations that guarantee election in November.

The dynamic locks in ideological polarization in Sacramento, where lawmakers have little motivation to compromise.

Term limits: Despite the claims of backers, the 1990 term-limits initiative did not get rid of career politicians — it simply changed the arc of their careers. Instead of spending decades in the same Assembly or Senate district seat, legislators now begin to position themselves for the next office — or job as a lobbyist — as soon as they arrive in Sacramento.

The up-or-out system rewards short-term, self-interested political thinking more than long-term policy-making in the public interest. Term limits also make lobbyists, not the Legislature, the repository of Capitol policy expertise; that lobbyists are happen to be useful in raising campaign cash adds an overlay of soft corruption to the process.

Boom or bust taxation: Since Proposition 13, state government has become increasingly dependent on volatile sources of revenue — the sales, corporation and progressive personal income taxes — that generate annual shifts in tax collections corresponding closely to the business cycle.

When economic times are good, as during the dot-com and housing bubbles, money pours in and there’s little political incentive — in fact, term limits creates a perverse disincentive — for long-term financial planning.

When revenues contract, the Capitol has rarely made real spending reductions, preferring to wait for the next boom.

The two-thirds vote: California is one of only three states requiring a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget, one of 16 requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes — and the only state to require both.

The budget requirement has been in the Constitution since the New Deal; the tax restriction began with Proposition 13. In the polarized atmosphere of Sacramento, the two-thirds rules effectively hand a veto to the minority party. Under these conditions, stalemate and deadlock on key fiscal issues have become the political norm.

So what can be done about the dysfunction? In the next few weeks, a blue-ribbon commission is set to recommend sweeping changes in the tax system to stabilize revenue collections. Voters last fall approved Proposition 11, which takes away the Legislature’s power to draw its their own districts in favor of an independent commission.

Next year, as they elect a new governor, Californians also will vote on a system of “open primary” elections aimed at aiding moderates, and they also will probably decide on one or more initiatives to dump the two-thirds budget vote requirement.

California Forward, a bipartisan good government group financed by major foundations, is crafting proposals to conform government systems and processes to modern management methods. And the business-oriented Bay Area Council is pushing initiatives for a state constitutional convention, the first since 1879, to wipe the slate clean and build a new, rational structure for state government.

“The seriousness of the problem has reached a crescendo,” said Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council. “The public is making a statement, loud and clear, that they expect action.”