Archive for 2011

Ho, Ho, Ho: Happy Holidays from Calbuzz

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

We’re off for a spell to chill and Spend More Time With Our Families while, uh, consuming mass quantities of fat-laden fowl, cheap carbs and a wide variety of alcoholic beverages.

As we do, here’s our annual holiday greeting on behalf of our Department of Spiked Eggnog and Cooked Geese, an excerpt from our favorite yuletide poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by the late Calbuzzer Emeritus Dylan Thomas:

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like dumb, number thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

All best wishes for the holiday from Calbuzz. See you in the New Year.

Why the ProPublica Remap Yarn is Nonsense

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

The pseudo investigation by Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson of New York-based ProPublica, purporting to expose “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission,” is misleading at best, dishonest at worst and fatally flawed in any case.

All you really need to know about their over-reaching piece is this: the reporters studiously ignored documented research and statistical evidence they were provided that conflicted or undercut their conclusion — that projected Democratic gains in the state’s House delegation are the result of a secret and nefarious partisan manipulation of the political naïfs on the commission.

In the course of their reporting, Calbuzz has learned, Pierce interviewed Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California, one of the state’s top non-partisan reapportionment experts, who explained to her that the gains forecast for Democrats represent a logical and expected result given a) demographic changes in the last decade and b) the criteria the commission was charged with using.

McGhee even emailed Pierce an advance copy of a 45-page analysis of the commission plan he co-authored with Vladimir Kogan of UC San Diego, which is scheduled to be published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy in a few months next month (their report is here). Among its conclusions: given the gerrymandered districts used for the last decade, “it seems unlikely that it is possible to draw any plan that increases competition among congressional seats without also advantaging the Democrats.”

But when the ProPublica report published Wednesday – claiming that Democratic operatives had “managed to replicate the results of the smoke-filled rooms of old” (yes, they actually wrote that) – there was no mention of the detailed and comprehensive McGhee-Kogan research, nor even a reference to the facts, background and context on which it is based.

“If there was a credible argument on the other side,” of ProPublica’s conclusion, McGhee told us, “I don’t understand why they didn’t include it.”

Here’s a thought: maybe East Coast whiz kids Pierce and Larson didn’t want to clutter up their big splashy shocker with a bunch of what we like to call “actual facts.”

The clunker smell test: Plainly put, their piece is the worst kind of ersatz “investigative” reporting: lots of heavy breathing and over-reaching conclusions drawn from selectively using, twisting or ignoring facts, relying on innuendo and suggestion, and mischaracterizing crucial elements of the story to inferentially allege an impropriety where none exists. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more. Moreover, ProPublica never even called the commission for a comment on its much-ballyhooed “findings.”

In failing the smell test, this clunker promises plenty, but simply doesn’t deliver the goods.

Where should we start? The story lives and dies on this early assertion:

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players.

We asked the ProPublica reporters to provide us the source of that assertion. In an email response Larson replied: “From the text of the referendum and laws.”

Which, alas, say nothing of the sort. The statement in the story, is quite simply, not true. It’s a false premise, the faulty foundation on which the piece is built. The law, as the commission digested it, instructed the panel to (in this order):

1. Draw districts with equal population, based on the U.S. Constitution.

2. Comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, to ensure minority voters have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

3. Draw districts that are contiguous, so that a district should be connected at all points.

4. Respect counties, cities, communities of interest, and neighborhoods, to the extent possible.

5. Draw districts to be compact, where practicable, and applied only after the earlier criteria have been satisfied.

6. Draw districts to nest within each other, where practicable. That is, one Senate district contains two Assembly districts, one Board of Equalization district contains ten Senate districts, and so on.

7. Additionally the Commission may not consider an incumbent or political candidate’s residence in creating a district.

The commission did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Berman vs. Sherman: As we noted back in June, McGhee observed that the commission’s draft maps were quite similar to two 2005 plans, one from the Rose Institute and one from the Institute for Governmental Studies, that were prepared to show how the state could be mapped without gerrymandering.

“They have met their mission,” he said of the commission. “They didn’t consider partisanship and they didn’t consider incumbency.”

If you don’t believe it, just ask senior Democratic U.S. Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, who got tossed into the same L.A. district and are now engaged in a death match. Berman and his brother, Michael, have been central players in Democratic gerrymandering efforts for decades; it’s intriguing to find that the single most visible result of ProPublica’s presumed plot is that Howard got royally screwed.

Let’s be clear: paying no never mind to the effect of their maps on incumbents and potential candidates is NOT the same as refusing to hear the arguments from Republicans, Democrats, Latinos, Asian-Americans, one-eyed-Basques, bran-muffin liberals, gun-rack Libertarians or anyone else who wanted to make the case for their particular “community of interest,” whatever that might be.

Even secretly-organized (gasp!) Congressional partisans.

So the commission never “pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players,” as ProPublica falsely asserts. They “pledged” – because it was the law they had to follow – to remain independent of incumbents and candidates. Which they were.

Un-useful idiots: There were five Democrats, five Republicans (who were over-represented by party registration) and four independents on the commission. They each had their own worldview. Some of them partisan. That was expected and sanctioned. This was, after all, a political process. What they were NOT was an extension of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Sacramento and Washington.

And they weren’t idiots. They knew BOTH parties would try to influence them (which was also OK).

“By nature of the beast, we of the commission always knew that political interests would try to influence the process. That’s why we tried to cast a wide net, given the resources we had to do the job,” Connie Galambos-Malloy, one of four “decline to state” voters on the 14-member commission, told Carla Marinucci of the SF Chronicle.

“It’s really hard to believe the Democrats would have pulled one over on the Commission to this extent because when you look at the maps themselves, Reps. Sherman and Berman — two of the most influential and ranking members of the House — are drawn into the same district,” she said.

In other words, the law never said commissioners shouldn’t listen to the arguments from “political players.” What it said is this: “The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map. Districts shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.” [emphasis ours]

In fact, on its web site, the commission advised: “Speaking up about your community is critical to ensuring district lines are drawn to keep your community whole and grouped with nearby communities with similar interests. This ensures that your voice is heard by your elected leaders in such decisions as to the quality of your child’s school or how high your taxes are.”

Give us Barabba: As Jason Hoppin noted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, in a story recounting how Santa Cruz fought to keep from being divided in two:

“There would be a lineup of people who pretty much were carrying the same message. At that point it raises a question in your mind,” said Capitola resident Vince Barabba, who served on the 14-member commission. “When you hear that, you just take that into consideration.”

If Democrats tried to influence the process, by no means were they the only ones. Everyone from the city of Santa Cruz to Equality California to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund sent representatives to commission meetings.

“And we expected that,’ said Barabba, a Republican former U.S. Census director who strongly supports the way California handled redistricting and feels the story is a disservice to the process. “They were well prepared. They didn’t just go up there yelling and screaming. They had a lot of facts on their side.”

More: in telling the story of how the Democrats operated to influence the commission to create a single San Joaquin County district that would be safe for U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, the ProPublica reporters note: “Republicans moved first, attempting to create a district that would keep San Joaquin County whole and pick up conservative territory to the south.”

So Republicans “moved first” to protect their partisan interests. Hmmm. Mysteriously, that doesn’t seem to have been an issue worth spending much time on for Pierce-Larson.

Inquiring minds want to know: Why not? Maybe because – we’re just thinking out loud here – as with the hot-off-the-presses statistical study they dumped, it didn’t fit their thesis?

Sock puppets in San Joaquin: In the end, the Republicans were outmaneuvered by a sock-puppet group called OneSanJoaquin that worked to do exactly the same thing the GOP was trying to do – but which, sadly for them, wound up helping McNerney when he jumped into the newly created San Joaquin district.

What exactly is the point here? That the Congressional Dems – working through a front group — did a better job of making their case to the commission than the Republicans had?

Actually, as we noted back in August:

Of 173 total incumbents in the Legislature and the House (we refuse to think about the Board of Eek because we never really understood what they do and in any case hope they go away), 75 landed in a district with at least one other incumbent; in most cases – 59 – it’s an incumbent of the same party, while 16 are matched in a district with an incumbent of the other party.

 This is a bigger deal in the House, where 15 Democrats and 8 Republicans ended up in a district with another incumbent. But for legislative seats, many of the same party incumbent pairings include at least one office holder who will be termed out next year; only 10 Assembly members are in a district with a colleague who’s not termed out, and just two senators are in that situation..

Said McGhee at the time:

 “The randomness of this—coupled with the fact that in many, if not most, of these cases, there is an open seat next door that is more comfortable for one of the incumbents—suggests to me that the commissioners really didn’t know where the incumbents were located.”

Shooting the wounded: Marinucci and Hoppin have been joined by John Myers and our old pal Robert Cruickshank over at Calitics in blowing big holes in the ProPublica article:

From the Oracle of Cruickshank’s terrific deconstruction:

ProPublica did not bother to actually to look at California’s demographics or voter choices. They claim that the new maps did not reflect the will of the people. One reason they say this is that supposedly population growth benefited Republicans:

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. “By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost.”

We’ll come back to the Rose Institute in a moment. But this claim itself is absurd on its face. Most of that population growth came from Latinos – who, as anyone familiar with California politics knows, have little love for Republicans. The reason is obvious: the California GOP is a white man’s party that despises Latinos. So why on earth should Republicans benefit from Latino population growth?

In fact, the notion floated by the Rose Institute that certain parties have a claim on districts is exactly what the commission was intended to challenge.

Of course, the core assumption that California Republicans deserved any new seats is challenged by their collapse in the November 2010 elections.

While Republicans across the country were having a banner night, California Republicans lost every single statewide election (including losing the governor’s race by 13 points despite outspending the Democrats nearly 10 to 1). They also failed to pick up a single seat in either the legislature or Congress, losing one Assembly seat. California voters made explicitly clear in November 2010 that they do not like Republicans. That doesn’t appear to have actually influenced the commission’s deliberations, but it does mean the claim that Republicans had any reasonable expectation of gains is ridiculous.

And as it turns out, the Rose Institute is not a neutral observer, even though they were treated as one by ProPublica. John Burton and the CDP pointed out in their press release about the article that the Rose Institute is Republican-funded and had a score to settle with the commission:

“Sadly, Pro Publica chose to recycle talking points from the Republican-funded Rose Institute without checking with the Democratic Party. The Rose Institute, which was knocked out of the redistricting process earlier this year because of its explicit ties to the Republican Party, tried to make these charges at beginning of the Commission’s deliberations where they were clearly rejected. If the Rose Institute and the Republican Party believed the Democratic Party controlled the independent Commission, one would think they would have challenged all three redistricting plans in court, instead of just one.”

Bottom line: The plain fact is that while Democratic registration has been essentially flat in recent years, Republican registration has fallen into the toilet, and the GOP now represents less than one-third of state voters.

This means that Democrats represent an increasing proportion of the electorate; add to that the fact that decline-to-state independents, the fastest growing bloc of registered voters, also tend to vote Democratic, as we’ve shown previously.

This makes Johnson’s claim that Republicans are entitled to at least their current number of seats, which is the money quote of the Pierce-Larson opus, not only laughable but also intellectually dishonest. Sort of like the whole piece.

Memo to Jerry: Time to Whack Other Tax Proposals

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Electoral history in California tells us that if the ballot is cluttered with overlapping or competing measures, voters throw up their hands and reject them all. It’s an entirely rational response: After electing people to run the government, why should we have to do their job?

Sacramento insiders will go on about the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes and the Republicans’ veto power. They’ll note that voters consistently argue to retain their power at the ballot box. They whine that polling shows people want government services, they just don’t want to pay for them. Yada yada yada.

None of this matters. What matters, as we noted two weeks ago, is that unless Brown can get proponents and backers of other tax measures to stand down and unite behind his proposal for a temporary tax increase, voters will almost certainly vote “No, No, No!”

Which is why this week we asked our Calbuzz Advisory Board of Leading Authorities on Practically Everything: What should Gov. Brown say to the sponsors of other proposed tax measures to convince them to stand down and unite behind his tax measure?

There was no clear consensus, but one thought occurred to several of the panelists. As one Republican put it:

“I’m governor, you’re not. As the people’s elected leader, I ask you to unite behind my plan so we’ll achieve our common goal. If there are too many angels on the head of this pin, we all go down.”

Or as one Democrat framed it: “He should say ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ Either join with me or get out of the way.”

Another Democrat argued “Simple. Just show them the money quote from Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Foundation: ‘If they fail to present a united front, it could benefit us.’ That, and threaten to campaign against all the other measures.”

Whether Gov. Gandalf has the political skill and/or muscle to forge that united front is far from certain. He was unable to get a temporary tax increase through the Legislature or even to get a handful of Republican votes to place a measure on the ballot.

As Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Teachers Federation (which wants to tax millionaires only) told Steve Harmon of the Bay Area News Group: “Our proposal draws a sharp line in the sand politically. . . We’re not trying to poke a finger in anybody’s eye, but if you’re true to your values about who’s been benefiting and not and who should pay their fair share, you have to decide that there is a group of folks who can afford to take on a greater responsibility. . . We don’t feel like we have to back away from engaging in this debate.”

Said one Democrat on the Calbuzz Consultanate panel: “Maybe Brown could quote some arcane bit of Jesuit theology, or spout some esoteric Latin phrase that no one will understand, either. He didn’t have enough influence to stop his own Democratic Party state chair [John Burton] from filing a competing tax initiative, so how much control can he exert over anyone else in the process? With a 42 percent approval rating, and having raised virtually no money his first year in office, Brown’s not exactly a feared figure right now.”

Which might render impotent, the advice one Republican had for what Brown should say to other tax measure proponents: “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Which is kinda what another Republican consultant told us: “It’s pretty simple.  He should tell them that they’ll all be screwed.  The more tax measures on the ballot the more likely they’ll all go down in flames.  The lack of discipline on the left really speaks to how weak politically the governor is.”

There’s no question that the proliferation of measures that could appear on the ballot stem from a sense among the public that cutbacks have begun to take a toll and a willingness – at least in polling – to raise some taxes for specific purposes, like schools.

Brown’s best argument to the general public may be that his proposal –raising income taxes on individuals who make $250,000 or more and increasing the sales tax by a half-cent, directing $7 billion to schools – is temporary. But that’s not necessarily a selling point to partisan liberals who want to soak the ultra-rich who have continued to prosper during hard times.

“The Department of Finance consistently underestimates revenue increases coming out of a recession,” a Republican on the Calbuzz panel argued. “So that $10 billion deficit could be down to low single digits. Which means the most modest tax increase, if any at all, is the one with the best chance . . . Millionaires are exiting the state in droves already. So any increase needs to be small and temporary.”

This same Republican said he opted for the rational argument instead of advising Brown to tell others: “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. I know what I am doing. Get out of my way.”

One Democrat suggested Brown might try a bit of political jujitsu: “He shouldn’t try to get them to stand down. He should use the other measures to convince potential opponents to support his measure as a reasonable consensus. He should argue that a tax measure will pass, and it can either be his or a much tougher measure, less friendly to business. With more than 65 percent of voters supporting a tax measure, the governor needs to convince the anti-tax crowd that the best move is getting behind him rather than trying to hold back the tide.”

This sounds to us, however, like wishful thinking: The anti-tax crowd is not interested in rational argument and they’re not afraid of asking voters to raise taxes – as long as there are several measures on the ballot to confuse the issue.

No, as another Democrat argued, “History is clear. Multiple ballot measures on the same issue result in big time voter confusion and the ‘NO’ vote wins. The passage of any tax increase measure will be extremely difficult given the potential for deep-pockets opposition. A multiple-choice tax increase ballot will be a disaster no matter how well-intentioned or well-thought out the other tax measures besides Gov. Brown’s are.”

Here are some of the other responses from the Calbuzz Consultanate:


— As a Republican who believes that state government needs to be reformed and restructured before additional tax increases are justified, I don’t have any advice to offer the governor. There is a clear history in California of tax proposals polling favorably at first and then losing on election day. My bet is that this is what occurs again in 2012.

— The governor is going to have to communicate that he’s willing to drive his initiative to success, something he cannot say he’s been successful doing to date on the 2011 budget and pension issues.  Proponents for the competing measures are going to need to see a fully engaged chief executive who’s willing to raise the money, and invest his political capital to get the measure over the finish line, because even then, it’s a tough hill to climb.

— Frankly, I’m not sure what he can say to them.  I think the heavy lifting will have to be done by organized labor on Gov. Brown’s behalf.  I think the various interest groups involved feel so pressed that they have nothing left to lose and will go lemming-like off a cliff before they go back to their constituents and say “it’s not our turn, the other guys have to go first.”

— We can’t get greedy and try to raise too many taxes at once — otherwise we’ll all fail. Plus, if you keep your measure on the ballot, I will have a tough time endorsing it over mine.


—  Unlike the rest of you guys, my initiative was carefully designed to give it the best chance of passing.  If you want a tax increase, the research shows mine can pass, as long as it’s the only one on the ballot.  Besides,  I’ve got labor, the tribes and my other friends with recession-proof pocketbooks lined up to help.  We are ready to spend $50 million or more to pass my initiative.  Some of my friends are planning their own efforts, which could include early negative efforts to define your initiative as a devastating mistake for our state. Your initiative will end up poorly funded, struggling to reach enough voter eyeballs and headed to an embarrassing defeat for you and your members.

— If we don’t fix the budget the cuts will surpass any of benefits of their measures . . . and if they fail, the state will be in a critical state . . . and they will all lose if they all go on the ballot. We need to focus on the measure that will help the budget.

— I made an error in judgment and I’m going to drop mine and get behind the millionaires tax because that’s the one that is fairest and has the best chance of winning. 

— With a spending cap and other confusing issues bound to already clutter the November ballot, if the goal is truly to provide a balanced budget with additional revenue, only one measure on the ballot makes the most sense.  Just because there is polling evidence that the electorate can tolerate a measure that increases taxes, there is absolutely no evidence they will want something that is not temporary (three others) or new funding (Munger.)

 — Vaya con dios.

Op-Ed: Three Proposals for the OWS Crowd

Monday, December 19th, 2011

By Richie Ross
Special to Calbuzz

The loud roar of economic populism now reverberating in the U.S. is a kind of political mash up, fusing two similar, but distinct themes: “Tax the Rich” and “Income Inequality.”

The Urban Dictionary defines a “mash up” in two ways: the first is: “To take elements of two or more pre-existing pieces of music and combine them to make a new song.”  The second is: “A cacophony of the senses.”

For as long as I can remember, “Tax the Rich” has been one of the top hits in the legislative/political juke box; unlike that great oldie, the Occupy Movement’s hit single, “Income Inequality” has soared to the top of the charts only in the last several months.

Both “songs” are important public policy discussions. Unfortunately for progressives, however, the mash up of the two in the debate over the economy has become a “cacophony” that detracts from the clarity and power of both.

 Equity is not equality: The political class, both in Washington and Sacramento, is debating tax increases on the richest 1%. Such a policy, while important and necessary, only addresses tax equity to pay for public services – it doesn’t deal with income inequality.

The mainstream media’s focus on legislative wrangling over taxes, combined with the Occupy movement’s inarticulate program for dealing with wealth disparity, means that the income inequality issue has been almost completely lost in the “cacophony.”

Among other things, conflating the tax debate with the inequality discussion minimizes the gross inequities among working people.

The Occupy movement’s “99%” slogan makes a good protest sign. But under the 99% formulation, those just below the top 1% (the next 9%) — who earn between $125,000 and $400,000 per year – share their “plight” with those in the bottom 40% — who earn a maximum of $26,000 per year.

I’m no economist, but while changing income tax rates and brackets addresses tax equity, no matter how progressive the changes, it isn’t going to do much to deal with the far more fundamental problem of income inequality raised by those numbers.

So here are some suggestions for some different political “mash-ups” we should consider playing to deal with the tax and equality issues alike.

Public works: In October, Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote about the $9.1 billion in infrastructure bonds that California voters have approved, that the State Treasurer has sold, and that the General Fund has been paying $630 million a year in interest on… but which aren’t being used.

If one accepts the premise that each $1 billion in infrastructure construction creates 15,000 jobs paying $65,000 per year, we could put 135,000 construction workers back to work.

Work done by the California State Library’s Research Service shows that for every 100,000 jobs created paying $65,000, the state’s General Fund would gain $2.3 billion. The state would collect $800 million in additional income, sales and gas taxes while being relieved of $1.5 billion in demand for social services.

Putting the bonds we’ve approved to work would address income inequality while generating real revenues.  But instead, Sacramento is only debating tax equity.

 Taxes vs. pay hikes: The good people involved in the Think Long project have developed a proposal for taxing the service sector of the economy.  They correctly point out that such taxation would generate billions in new sales tax revenues for the state.

Imposing an 8% sales tax on services is essentially adding an 8% price increase. The majority of the 40% of Californians earning below $26,000 work in the service sector of the economy. If we are going to consider raising prices by 8% on the services that these Californians provide, shouldn’t we at least consider what impact an 8% wage increase would have on both their lives and the state’s General Fund?

A reasonable back-of-the-envelope estimate is that an 8% wage increase for the bottom 40% of taxpayers would generate roughly $500 million in General Fund revenues… and be a step in addressing income inequality.  As wages rise so do General Fund revenues. And rising wages lowers demand for services… doubling the positive impact on the state budget deficit.

Buy California: Think Long also suggests that we lower the sales tax on non-service items.  What would happen if instead of doing that we simply eliminated the sales tax on goods made in California?

We would empower ourselves to decide whether or not we would pay sales tax based on our consumptive decisions.  How long would it take for manufacturers to locate here in order to take advantage of what would be an 8% price advantage over goods manufactured elsewhere?

And what impact would such a policy have on creating jobs that address income inequality?

Bottom line: Maybe a “mash up” of all three of these concepts would give us lyrics that go something like this…

Joe, a heavy equipment operator, is back at work on an infrastructure project… He’s got enough money to rehire Carl his gardener, and pay him the 8% increase… Carl buys a couple of new lawnmowers.  He picks out the model that’s made in California so he doesn’t have to pay sales tax… Martha in L.A. got a job in a small new manufacturing plant assembling lawn mowers… Joe, Carl and Martha are all paying taxes that support their kids’ schools.

While my numbers may not be perfect, I do think it’s mash-up worth discussing.