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Archive for 2011



Reform Won’t Cut It; We Need Legislators With Guts

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

By Gary Delsohn
Special to Calbuzz

Some very smart people, many of them friends of mine, have created a cottage industry arguing that California is in desperate need of political reform.

We’ve seen books, opinion page essays, incessant blogging and groups like California Forward offer insightful analyses about the laundry list of structural fixes needed to stop the constant bickering and budget crises that paralyze the Capitol year-in, year-out.

We even have a European billionaire talking about reform who seems to have captivated the media and other good government folks, not for anything he’s done or proposed, but because he’s so rich he likes to fly around the world in his jet and live in posh hotel suites instead of residing in any one place.

Of course, we need a tax code that reflects our 21st Century economy, one that is more broadly based and is not held hostage to the vagaries of Wall Street.

Sure, we need fair, competitive elections and honestly drawn legislative districts.  We need to ditch term limits, or at the very least refine them, so we can again have a legislature with wise old hands.

Everyone knows the state is not well served when self-serving lobbyists and consultants are better informed and more experienced than our legislators.

It would be nice if we could count on legislators to spend no more than the state takes in, but since we cannot, we also need a spending cap like the one already slated for the 2012 ballot.

These will all help future governors and legislators do their jobs more effectively.  Maybe we even need some of the other reforms floating around like pay-as-you-go and two-year budgeting.

But none of these will fix our state.

What California needs more than anything else are elected officials with — to use a polite term — guts and vision.

How about Democrats willing to stand up to the public employee labor unions?  Democrats who will tell their labor donors without equivocation that California can no longer afford overly generous pensions and other lifetime benefits.

We need those same Democrats to tell the unions, “Sure you hate privatizing even the most obscure state service, but that’s too bad.  California is broke. We need to be more efficient and competitive.  If you don’t like it, vote me out of office.  This is about saving our state, not your union.”

We need Republicans with the courage to act as adults about the state’s revenue crisis and not be intimidated by what right-wing radio shows or the Flash Report will say if they do the right thing. Because every Republican in the Legislature who is intellectually honest knows you cannot solve a $25 billion budget shortfall by cuts alone.  Unless, of course, you want to decimate state government.

We need the same Republicans to wake up and realize California’s environment is arguably its most precious asset, so stop scheming to undermine or delay every piece of legislation that seeks to protect and enhance it.

No constitutional convention, initiative or reform love-in will give us any of those kinds of politicians. We need our elected officials to rise to the occasion, show some guts and vision and do what’s best for the state, not what’s best for their political parties or resumes.

The media have an important role to play here, too. It requires more than just parroting what the zealots say under the guise of fair reporting.

When Yvonne Walker, head of SEIU’s Local 100 tells a Sacramento TV reporter after Gov. Brown’s state of the state speech that Gov. Schwarzenegger declared war on state workers because he needed an enemy, which she did, it would be nice if the reporter knew enough or cared enough to push back.

All that was needed was a simple, “But the state’s broke. Social services and programs for the needy are being axed. Taxpayers are paying more. If California is busted, don’t state workers have to expect some cuts, too?”

It’s not difficult to see the outline of a deal that can be struck between Gov. Brown’s quite reasonable proposed budget solution of cuts and taxes and Republicans’ unreasonable no-tax obsession.

Approve the cuts and tax extensions that Brown has proposed, craft lasting pension reform and some honest regulatory relief for business that gets the state’s economy out of the deep freeze. Then have Democrats and Republicans stand together to explain it to voters.

Compared to what we’re watching as people sacrifice their lives to fix broken governments in the rest of the world, this is small potatoes.

And I’m sorry, the need for civil discourse notwithstanding, we should not even be talking about the goofy notion of countering Brown’s proposed tax package with an alternative proposal to cut taxes by the same amount.

I spent seven years at the Capitol — four as a reporter for the Sacramento Bee and three as Gov. Schwarzenegger’s chief speechwriter — and that idea is as lame as it gets.

Brown was right when he said, “Further tax cuts take us further down the road. You got to get real here. Don’t say, ‘I’m going to solve this problem by creating a whole bunch of newer problems.’”  The tax cut idea is childish and counter-productive.

My fondest hope for California is that we continue the reform momentum we have seen the past few years.  But it will never take the place of leaders with backbone who are willing to make the tough, unpopular decisions our current state of affairs require.

Those people need to step up and be heard right now.

Gary Delsohn, a private media consultant, is a former reporter for the Sacramento Bee who served as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief speech writer from 2006 to 2009. He is currently working with Schwarzenegger on a variety of writing projects.

36th CD: The Jane, Janice, Debra and Marcy Show

Friday, February 11th, 2011

The most interesting thing about the special election race for L.A.’s just-deserted 36th Congressional District seat is that it will be the first high-profile campaign in California to be played out under the new “jungle primary” rules.

Three under-the-radar legislative specials covered by the new, top-two primary system are coming up in the next few weeks, but  none will attract even a hint of the widespread state and national interest already focusing on the contest to replace the departing Representative Jane Harman, a hardliner on Israel and national security issues, and the only Blue Dog in L.A.

The top contenders eying a run to replace her array from center to left to far left, all but ensuring one of those “battle for the soul of the Democratic party” deals, as they position themselves to win one of the two spots in the playoffs, in what is likely to be an all-Democrat run-off.

The coastal district became one of the most gerrymandered in the state in the 2000 reapportionment, when the big chunk of Republican voters in the Palos Verdes peninsula got cut out. Democrats now hold a 45.3 to 27.6% edge in registration, and Obama carried it by 30 points in 2008.

Intriguingly, the top-two primary rules make it possible that a Republican could make it into the run-off; they’d get totally clobbered, of course, but the fact that district lines will soon be redrawn by the new and unpredictable citizens reapportionment commission is yet another wild card factor that offers ambitious GOP wannabes a chance to raise their profiles this time out.

“This will be one of those races where (the candidates) are out every night, and every community dog beach association will have a forum,” said one veteran operative not working in the campaign.

Here’s the Calbuzz early line on the players:

Janice Hahn – The L.A. City Council member was Harman’s guest at last month’s State of the Union address; the fact that she announced her candidacy and had endorsements lined up about 12 seconds after Harman publicly made it known she was leaving, leads to the surmise that she’s the favorite of the imperious departing incumbent. But Hahn isn’t much of a fundraiser, as she proved in her losing primary campaign for lieutenant governor against Gavin “Lt. Starbuck” Newsom. She has all the charisma of a rutabaga, but she’ll be the closest thing to a moderate in the race; more importantly, she’s already put together a veteran campaign team including L.A. consultant John Shallman, pollster John Fairbank and redoubtable media strategist Joe Trippi. The incendiary Garry South, an old friend of Hahn’s who ran her campaign for Lite Gov, is whispering backstage  as an unpaid adviser.

Debra Bowen – The incumbent Secretary of State was a popular Assembly and state Senate representative of much of the district from the early 1990s until she ran and won her current job in 2006. Termed out in 2014 (she has added incentive to go for Congress because her husband works in Washington) she has some key organizational assets: state Democratic chairman John Burton signaled his approval by putting out a statement noting she was “the only candidate” who had notified the party she was running; the netroots/Calitics crowd just loves her (she quickly put up an “Act Blue”  fundraising page) and her strategist is Parke Skelton, a solid pro. Question that she’ll have to answer: Isn’t there something optically askew about a sitting Secretary of State overseeing a special election in which she’s a candidate? Just askin’.

Marcy Winograd – An L.A. teacher and anti-war activist, Winograd challenged Harman in the last two Democratic primaries, winning 41 percent of the vote last year. Her anti-war on terror positions and pro-Palestinian tilt drives many crazy (see: Waxman, Henry) but there’s no denying she’s got a base in the district that makes her a factor in the “top two” system. Winograd recently moved to Santa Monica, about a mile outside the district, which doesn’t really matter much, and so far has played coy about her intentions; she says she wants to ask Bowen some “tough questions” before making up her mind (which we assume will be along the line of, “Do you favor melting down all U.S. military weapons and turning them into windmills?”) but we’ll be surprised if she doesn’t run.

Republicans – For reasons cited above, GOP pols have reason to run for more than just the exercise, and a batch of them are already panting at the prospect. Any Republican would have to be one helluva’ attractive candidate to matter, though, and Mattie Fein, a communications consultant whom Harman smushed last November; Mike Webb, running from that historically great political stepping stone of Redondo Beach city attorney; and (maybe) former Stanford footballer Damon Dunn, last seen wearing a construction helmet at the Republican state convention, for reasons that remain unclear, don’t make the cut.

A final word: Harman has never been one of our favorite people, not least because of her overbearing air of wealthy entitlement, and we can’t help but suspect her think tank deal has been in the works for some time, given that her predecessor announced he was leaving last May. So we agree with Huffpost blogger Richard Grenell that G.I. Jane ought to pay the cost of the damn special election to succeed her. What better way to spend some of Sidney’s zillions?

Brown Works Inside Sac; No Budget Bully Pulpit Yet

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

You might think that Gov. Jerry Brown’s appearance tomorrow evening at a dinner hosted by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce will mark the launch of Krusty’s “outside” campaign for his proposal to put $12 billion in tax and fee extensions on the June ballot. But you’d be wrong.

Although his State of the State address was aimed as much at building broad support for his proposal as it was designed to speak directly to legislators, Team Jerry’s continued emphasis for at least the next few weeks will be on the “inside” game in Sacramento.

“He’s disciplined and focused on things that matter the most,” said his political adviser Steve Glazer. That’s the strategy for now. As another Brown ally put it, “The outside game could push the Republicans into a corner right now.”

So on Tuesday Brown met with Senate and Assembly Democrats. And he’s scheduled to meet with Senate and Assembly Republicans on Wednesday, all the while working on individual and small groups of legislators in hopes of convincing them that it’s in their interest to place his tax and fee measure on the ballot. To do that, he needs agreement from all the Democrats plus two Republicans in the Assembly and three in the Senate.

Thus far, there’s no sign any Republicans want to give him their votes, although some GOP strategists and others have suggested that in exchange for pension reform and perhaps a spending cap of some sort, Brown might wheedle that handful of votes.

One possible scenario, according to a Brown adviser, would be for the governor to continue working the Cul de Sac for a couple more weeks and see what happens when his proposal is brought to a vote in the Legislature. If it fails to pass in the first house where it’s raised, then all hell breaks loose and Republicans in marginal districts get hammered for denying their constituents basic democratic rights.

Predictably, no Republican has yet put forth a formal legislative proposal on pension reform and there’s not a lot of time to consider one if one were forthcoming.

On the other hand, you want pension reform? Just check out Brown’s own campaign web site where he advocates: stopping pension spiking and abuse, renegotiations for a two-tiered system, and end to retroactive benefit enhancements, increased employee contributions, prohibiting pension “holidays,” independent oversight of pension funds, tightening of pension investment standards and a curb on investment placement agents.

All the Republicans have to do is get Brown to agree he will see that legislation seeking all of the above gets introduced and that he’ll fight tooth-and-nail for it and they’d have a pretty good deal to swap for a vote that just gives people a chance to decide if they want to extend some taxes and fees practically nobody is even aware of.

While only about a third of Californians are aware that some taxes and fees notched up a bit a couple of years ago, even fewer have any idea how California is financed or where the money is spent. Worse, according to the most authoritative study known to humankind on the issue of peoples’ knowledge about the California budget, it doesn’t friggin’ matter.

That’s what Eric McGhee at the Public Policy Institute of California demonstrated in “How Much Does the Public Know about the State Budget, and Does It Matter?” published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy. Here’s McGhee’s depressing conclusion:

The real driver of opinion on budget items is politics, not information. Popular programs like K-12 education receive strong support among all groups of voters, and unpopular ones like prisons do not. Within this variation, Republicans and conservatives oppose taxes and spending, while liberals and Democrats are more supportive of both. None of these conclusions is especially surprising, but the contrast with the weak effect of information is important nonetheless.

Overall, the results suggest no easy way out of our current budget impasse. The public might be confused about aspects of the California budget, but they have largely committed themselves to one side or the other in the budget wars. To the extent that they break ranks—for example, Democrats opposing spending or conservatives supporting taxes—it is tied to specific issues in a way that information affects only at the margins. As much as we may hope for it, we cannot educate the public and expect a clear path toward a balanced budget to emerge from the effort.

What this suggests is that a giant teach-in about the California budget is likely to have little effect. As we have argued before, what will matter – should Brown’s proposal make the ballot – is whether the issue is framed as a tax increase or an extension of existing taxes.

How Sacto Is Like Cairo: Why Difi Rivals Are Doomed

Monday, February 7th, 2011

One of the inherent strengths of local news operations, way too rarely exercised (see: newspapers, death of) is the daily opportunity to report how and why big global events matter to readers and viewers on the home front.

Tom Meyer, the blogosphere’s incarnation of  Thomas Nast, ofers a bit of this type of journalistic service with his latest take today, showing how the dramatic events in Egypt are a kind of real time Rorschach test which provide folks all along the political spectrum a chance to indulge in reassuring themselves, and insisting to others, that they’ve been right, right, right all along.

Underscoring the point, Frank Rich, the Pauline Kael of American politics, batted out a stinging indictment of the MSM this week, for its incessant braying of the clichéd claim that the crucial post hoc ergo propter hoc about the Egyptian populist revolt, which people there foolishly think is about their nation’s authoritarianism, economy and political corruption, is the role played in the events by…Twitter.

“Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

“War,” Ambrose Pierce famously said, “is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” But it’s hard to escape the sad conclusion that the corporate organs of the MSM have failed to do much educating about events in the Mideast; those in search of more serious and substantial information could do worse than to check out the live streaming reportage of Al Jazeera’s English coverage.

Thanks to the cowardice of broadcast and cable executives everywhere, this news service currently is all but unavailable anywhere in the country, a state of affairs that the organization is trying to address with its February 10 “Meet-up to demand Al Jazeera on your TV,” an online campaign which,  paradoxically, mirrors the very demands for the free flow of ideas now being sounded in Egypt.

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Difi and the GOP: Since Calbuzz launched, our Department of Mission Statements and Corporate Branding Jive has churned out any number of cheesy memorable slogans in a pitiful attempt to justify our existence to help you, our loyal readers, understand who we are and what we do.

Shooting the Wounded,” of course, reflects the historical role of sofa-bound political writers and editorialists everywhere, while “Burning Our Bridges One at a Time,” reflects our own deep and abiding belief in the solemn constitutional responsibility of the press to hurl brickbats, cheap shots and childish insults wildly and randomly, without regard to race, creed, color, sexual orientation, partisan belief or political persuasion.

Another great ideal in which Our Founders believed deeply is this:  “Politics is the greatest spectator sport of all.”

So it was that we began trying to drum up interest in the 2012 Senate race before the ink was even dry on the statement of vote from the 2010 elections. In furtherance of this goal, we specifically have encouraged Republican gov race loser Meg Whitman to take a crack at venerable Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein next year.

Alas, however, our project has now been dealt a severe blow, with the release of a survey by Public Policy Polling that shows Feinstein crushing Whitman 55-35% in a simulated contest among voters – the same margin she holds over former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who got stomped by Difi’s sister Senator-for-life, Barbara Boxer.

Other matchups: Feinstein over former Congressman Tom Campbell 51-37%; Herself over former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner 52-34%, and  Our Dianne smacking Darrell Issa (R-Car Alarm) by 54-33%, and crunching former Gov. Arnold Schwarzmuscle 59-25%.

(Weed whacking methodology alert) The only consolation for the potential GOP challengers (and for Calbuzz) is that PPP’s survey is an interactive voice response (IVR) poll, commonly known as a robopoll – in which a computer interacts with a respondent (like polls run by Survey USA and Rasmussen). And, heaven help us, Dean Debnam of PPP tells Calbuzz that their sample was taken from voter records (which would be fine if you were doing live calls and asking for that person) but the computer doesn’t know whether it’s interacting with the actual voter from the sample or someone else in the household. Sheesh.

Still, the numbers are of a consistency and magnitude that they’re likely to discourage potential GOP contenders pretty quickly, particularly those pondering the wisdom of tossing $1 billion or so large into a rat hole.

To which Calbuzz says: Take heart eMeg. After spending just shy of $180 million to lose the governor’s race, why not pop for a real survey and find out if you’d have any shot against Queen Mum?

Because. let’s face it, this whole in-between-elections, public policy thing ain’t much except a guaranteed cure for insomnia, and we’d be willing to pay to cover a cage match between you and Difi. We’d even give you a second chance to go to dinner with us.

Reagan Agonistes: Amid the orgy of commentary and political posturing accompanying the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, here’s the half-dozen items atop our recommended reading list:

1-Most intriguing op-ed was penned for the Orange County Register under the byline of the aforementioned Difi . We’re not sure we buy her argument that RR’s greatest strength was his “bipartisanship,” but she’s been going on about the importance of “governing from the center” for four decades, so you’ve at least got to hand it to her for consistency.

2- The most authoritative source on all things Reagan remains the canon of  Lou Cannon, who started covering him as a Sacto correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News.

3-Best quickly assembled, 60-second guide to memorable Reagan quotes is found over at Huffpost.

4-Most interesting observations on what made Reagan a first-rate politician come from Ken Khachigian, who turned in a workmanlike job of first person reporting about the great man’s speechifying tradecraft. (H/T Flashreport).

5-Most stomach-churning self-serving effort to identify with Reagan comes from, who else, Sarah Palin. Sorry, Lady Sled Dog, “we’re on the road to ruin,” is just about as far from his politics as it’s possible to be.

6-Best single quote comes from Richard Reeves, via Joel Fox“Ronald Reagan is still president,” he said, meaning the country is living with a political philosophy set out by Reagan. True, true, true, unfortunately.

Bonus read on Reagan: ThinkProgress has a little gem of a piece that will set conservatives’ hair on fire, including factoids on Reagan’s record as a serial tax-raiser.