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Archive for the ‘California Forward’ Category



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.

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.

Where’s Wald…. uh, Political Reform in California?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

By Richie Ross
Special to Calbuzz

Remember the dot com bust?  Lots of people invested lots of money in lots of web stuff that didn’t end up doing much.

Too many of them were selling e-stuff about selling e-stuff.  They didn’t make real stuff.  They didn’t create value.  They were based on processes. And in the end, their over-priced stocks weren’t worth anything.  The dot com bubble burst.

For the last 18 months there’s been lots of breathless chatter about the need to “reform” California government, especially the two-thirds vote requirement.

Leading the charge for reform was Waldo.  You know him. He’s the geeky guy in the red-and-white striped shirt, glasses and knit cap who’s hard to locate.  So where was Waldo?

The signs of Waldo’s reform bubble busting surfaced last year.

First, the Bay Area Council announced that their much-discussed Constitutional Convention wouldn’t address Proposition 13 and its two-thirds vote requirement.

Then on January 14, one of the Bay Area Council’s key corporate sponsors, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced they had qualified their initiative to expand the two-thirds vote requirement to communities seeking to establish or expand a public power alternative to PG&E’s monopoly.

Finally, on February 13, we read that the Constitutional Convention effort had “fizzled.” The Bay Area Council “didn’t have the money” to qualify the initiatives necessary to allow a vote on having a Convention.

PG&E went on to spend $46 million on Proposition 16.  Where was Waldo?

Before rushing to mount a high horse and condemn PG&E, let’s take a moment for introspection.  Was PG&E unique in their insincere association with “good government reform” throughout 2009 followed by a banal display of self-interest?

All through 2009, California Forward competed for the “Waldo Top Reformer” title with the Bay Area Council.

But when it came down to it, they too tried to put together a “reform” which would expand the two-thirds beyond taxes and apply it to fees adopted by the legislature for environmental protection.

Putting aside both their motivation or the merits of whatever they thought they were doing, California Forward put themselves in a position where they were compromised on the two-thirds vote debate… they couldn’t attack Proposition 16 even if they were inclined.

And why did the No on 16 campaign only raise $90,000?

If the campaign against Proposition 16 had a dollar for every speech ever made about the evil of two-thirds, then it would have been able to compete against PG&E.  Thank God the newspapers stepped up their game and did a good job exposing the Proposition 16 scam.  Waldo didn’t.

PG&E is a big political contributor.  They give tons of money.  Lots and lots of that money goes to politicians who give speeches condemning the two-thirds vote.  But outside of three or four elected folks who contributed to the No on 16 campaign, PG&E bought silence.  Yes, even Waldo’s.

It seems that interest groups only oppose the two-thirds vote when it hurts their own stuff, not because of some high-minded majority-rule principle.

If the two-thirds vote violates what people think is right, why wouldn’t people who’ve taken PG&E’s money have donated it to the No on 16 campaign?

In the end, everyone talked more than they cared.  And some talked out of both sides of their mouth.

Next up:  all of those who did nothing will point to Proposition 16’s defeat as proof that the two-thirds vote is unpopular and ought not apply to their “stuff.”  Hmmm.

Waldo the Reformer’s bubble has burst.  Like the dot com bubble, there wasn’t much to it.

Richie Ross’s controversial Calbuzz piece on using the baseball arbitration system to deal with the state budget is looking better and better.

Cal Forward Fee Proposal Meets Our Hawaiian Eye

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

When last we checked on California Forward’s reform proposals we saw them drifting in some Legislative backwater. But friends tell us there may still be breath in some of the proposals and the one Calbuzz thinks is most likely to be a sleeper relates — you guessed it — to whether it takes a majority or two-thirds to approve of fees.

As we noted in our last look at this damn thing, SCA 19, Cal Forward’s omnibus reform bill,  includes a provision that says:

any bill that imposes a fee shall be passed by not less than two-thirds of all Members elected to each of the two houses of the Legislature if revenue from the fee would be used to fund a program, service, or activity that was previously funded by revenue from a tax that is repealed or reduced in the same fiscal year or in a prior fiscal year.”

Jim Mayer and Fred Silva of Cal Forward said this would apply only in some specific and rare cases and would not undercut the Legislature’s ability to raise fees in most cases by majority vote.  We said we thought the measure would affect the Legislature’s power on fees because (quoting us) “every program, service and activity is funded by ‘revenue from a tax,’ and so, any place where the Legislature wanted to subvent tax funds with fee funds would require a two-thirds vote.”

Comes now someone who, unlike Calbuzz, actually understands the budget — Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, who tells us: “The language is so broad that it appears to require a two-thirds vote to impose or increase a fee that goes to any program that receives support from the General Fund.

“That would include CalFire, community college fees, everything that receives even a dime of state general purpose funding, or a dime of revenue from a tax that has been cut at any time in the state’s history.”

Oops. Another reason — along with the elimination of the two-thirds vote on the budget (which we like, BTW) — that Cal Forward’s package of proposals is ready for the fork.

Now this: Check out CBP’s latest, a detailed report on who pays taxes in California, which sh.ould come in handy the next time some candidate starts claiming the state has the highest taxes in the nation

This just in: Our Honolulu Bureau’s Big Waves and Little Drink Umbrellas Desk reports that Aloha State airwaves are crackling with ads from candidates in a May 22 congressional race, which threatens to become the latest special election nightmare for Democrats and the White House.

With the Scott Brown special election stunner still top of mind, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s troops are facing the real possibility of losing their long-held grip on the state’s First District seat because of an all-party ballot, which makes the top vote-getter the new representative without a run-off, coupled with an all-politics-is-local internecine brawl between two Hawaii Democrats.

The scenario was set up when longtime Rep. Neil Abercrombie resigned in December to run for governor, to replace outgoing Republican Linda Lingle (who’s having big problems of her own ) amid a California-style budget mess. The Democratic Establishment, in the persons of U.S. Senators Daniels Akaka and Inouye, quickly lined up behind state senator Colleen Hanabusa, a reliable legislative hack who’s now running as a “partner” of President Obama, who won the district in his home state with 70 percent of the vote in 2008.

But Ed Case, a moderate and former Democrat House member, also jumped into the contest, raising the specter that Republican Charles Djou, a Honolulu city councilman, may split the seam and capture the seat amid the D’s feuding. Case is casting himself as an outsider by running against Washington insiders and, Mai Tai sources say, would run likely run stronger against Djou in a one-on-one matchup because of his appeal to independent voters.

But Case broke the play-nice rules of Hawaii politics by challenging Akaka in the 2006 Senate primary and payback is a bitch; the Asian-American Action Fund, strong backers of the two U.S. Senators, has warned off any national Dems of a mind to get behind Case by noting that 60 percent of the voters are of Asian descent, a not-so-subtle shot aimed at helping Hanabusa and dissing the white guy.

Gleeful Republicans meanwhile are nationalizing the race, and uniting behind Djou, a smart and boyish looking moderate with a nice-looking young  family who’s campaigning as a small-government entrepreneurial types. GOP presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have both weighed in on the contest, contributing money to Djou and portraying him as a scourge of “Obamacare, a costly stimulus bill and cap and trade legislation.”

And Mahalo for that.

Keeley: California Forward Not Dead, Still Kicking

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

By Fred Keeley
Special to Calbuzz

I come to praise California Forward, not to bury it.

Actually, I have no real issue with Calbuzz’s micro-reporting on the narrow point of whether or not California Forward’s efforts to have the legislature and governor place a real budget process reform measure on the November ballot, will be successful.

I do have an issue with Calbuzz using that as the measure of California Forward’s overall effectiveness in the broader area of fixing California’s broken tools for governance in the 21st Century.

As many of your readers know, California Forward was founded a couple of years ago with the support of a hand-full of large California foundations who had grown exasperated by the rapid decline of California’s governance capacity.

Whether the issue was and is education, environmental protection, healthy economy, human services, or any of the other major issues facing our state, California seems to have become mostly incapable of making progress.

Obviously, there are exceptions, with the most notable being AB 32, the state’s landmark and comprehensive global climate change statute. For the most part, and regardless of the state’s economic condition, Sacramento has become a place where good ideas seem to go to die.

California Forward, a bi-partisan (or, some would argue, a non-partisan) organization came into existence to deeply examine what is broken in California’s systems of governance, and to build support for thoughtful, best-practices reforms. It has been known from the start that many of the solutions are likely to take a few years to achieve, while some may be able to be adopted more quickly.

In 2008, California Forward joined other “Goo Goos” such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and AARP, to sponsor the statewide ballot measure that took the decadal redistricting of legislative lines out of the hands of legislators, and put it in the hands of an independent commission.

That effort is underway now, and there are those who want to see it succeed, and others who are attempting to smother it in the crib. Regardless, it is one of the reforms that many who look at California’s governance tools believe needs exactly this reform.

For a couple of years, California Forward has worked both inside and outside Sacramento to develop a set of “best practices” reforms of California’s perennially late and “not worth waiting for” budget-making system. The California Forward package includes two-year budgeting, budgeting by objectives, mandatory oversight of the governor’s implementation of the budget by the legislature, and other items used by many, many states that are considered well managed.

The clear 600-pound gorilla in the budget reform room is the majority vote. California Forward is recommending that the existing two-thirds vote to adopt the budget be replaced by a simple majority vote provision in the state constitution. This would put California in the same place as 47 of the 50 states who have just such a provision. This change would NOT change the current requirement to obtain a 2/3rd’s vote to raise taxes.

Other issues on our agenda include term limit reform, initiative reform, and campaign financing. Each will take more time to develop into a broadly-supported reform.

I have read with interest your obituary of Repair California, the folks who wanted to get a Constitutional Convention to the ballot. I have also read your pieces on other budget reform efforts, such as that by Professor Lakoff at the University of California Berkeley.

I hasten to add that I respect both efforts, as it is critically important for as many voices and ideas as possible to be in the mix if ideas to fix California’s broken governance tools.

California Forward is, however, different. We are taking a multi-year, multi-subject approach to solving our vexing governance problems. We are very likely to have to take a few laps around many tracks to get all of this done, but we will get it done. California should accept nothing less.

To accomplish that, California Forward is undertaking an unprecedented civic engagement project. What I like to call the California Conversation. This project, which has been approved by California Forward’s board of directors and is deep into the design stage, is an attempt to have a conversation with literally millions of Californians regarding the state of governance in California, and what can be done to fix it.

This, too, is likely to take time to do it right — and to make changes that will provide lasting improvements.