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Posts Tagged ‘lobby interests’



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.

Obama Pantsed, Lobby Exposed, Calbuzz Menaced

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

With a cast of thousands, it’s hard to decide exactly who’s the biggest loser in the sad and sorry saga of Shirley Sherrod.

For those who’ve been resting on Uranus the last few days, she’s the Department of Agriculture staffer who got briefly fired when the Obama Administration panicked after the vicious right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart posted a doctored video clip from a speech she gave to the NAACP.

In the cut up tape, she appeared to say she had given favored treatment to black farmers over whites; in fact, the point of her speech was to describe how an experience many years ago helped her  overcome her own bias and conclude that class, not race, is America’s crucial social marker.

Before that fact became abundantly clear, however, the Breitbart-to-Drudge-to-Fox-to-conservative blogosphere echo chamber succeeded, not only in stampeding most of the MSM into reporting on the phony tape as legitimate but also in intimidating the NAACP and Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture into falsely denouncing Sherrod.  As Calbuzzer Betty Medsger put it Thursday in a post-mortem email:

It’s about the gale force dangerous stupidity and injustice that can result when the mindless news judgment often caused by the 24-hour news cycle is mixed with the tendency of confidence-lacking liberals to fear extreme conservatives to the point of instantly asking how high they should jump.

Our vote for the biggest dumbo in the incident is Jim Messina, the White House deputy chief of staff who was dispensing high fives and attaboys at the staff meeting the morning after the firing, for the fine job of political rapid response they all performed in cynically tossing Sherrod under the bus.

The net effect of the actions of the self-infatuated political geniuses in the White House was a) to add even more weight to the increasingly inescapable conclusion that it’s amateur night on Team Barack and b) to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory by stomping all over the Administration’s story about passing financial reform legislation, the best news they’d had in weeks.

The best commentary churned out about the whole mess that we read came from Young Turk Cenk Uygur, who quite correctly compared Obama to the school kid who gives up his lunch money to the bully, and gets his pants tossed on top of the school bus in the bargain:

As we can all see now, when Fox says jump, the Obama administration asks how high? (Then jumps one inch less and considers it a progressive victory). Is there anyone Obama won’t fire or throw under the bus if Fox asks him to? What if they ask Obama to fire himself? Would he do it? Or would he just fire Biden and say he met them halfway?…

In Washington, Fox News is very important and you get judged by how quickly you handle the media maelstroms they create. That’s viewed as a barometer of how well you handle “bad news cycles.” So, the rest of the Washington press corps judges you by how quickly you drop to your knees to end the “bad news cycle.” Congratulations Obama administration, you’re now professionals!…

The only real damage that Fox can do is if they spread their poison to other news stations. That is why it’s so imperative to label them what they are — a conservative propaganda station (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They’re just not news. And they couldn’t have proved it any better than they did in this case. And what did the Obama administration do with this golden opportunity? They turned it into a massive loss. Who is fucking retarded now?

Here’s a transcript of what Sherrod actually said in her speech, courtesy of Joan Walsh at Slate.

The envelope please: Mega kudos to Karen de Sa of the Mercury News for a superb investigative series demonstrating and measuring the extent to which Sacramento lobbyists have been the biggest beneficiaries of term limits.

Methodically deconstructing the legislative session, de Sa disclosed that over one-third of the bills introduced in the Capitol originate with special interests and presented case-study reporting on how rookie lawmakers get sucked into the cycle of serving the whims of the Third House, then get rewarded with campaign contributions for their trouble.

It’s been an article of faith among pundits (we name no names) that with the 1990 term limits initiative, the lobbying corps supplanted the Legislature as the keeper of expertise and institutional knowledge at the Capitol. Now de Sa has firmly established the notion as fact.

Amid the constant stream of here-today-gone-tomorrow lawmakers obsessed with reaching for the next step of the political ladder, it’s easy to forget bygone days when when legislators  were around long enough – John Vasconcellos on the budget, Gary Hart on education and Peter Behr on the environment come to mind – to master the substance, complexities and nuances of public policy and how to pass it.

Complete with main bars, side bars, data bases and old school, got-the-reporter’s-back editorials, the entire Mercury News series can be accessed here.

Swimming with the sharks: No truth to the rumor being peddled by Flash Fleischman that eMeg finally agreed to meet Calbuzz for dinner if we agreed to swim out to her yacht.

Part-time Leg Would Steal Power from People

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

stevemaviglioBy Steve Maviglio
Special to Calbuzz

Legislature bashing has become California’s new official blood sport. From Gov.  Schwarzenegger’s “girlie men” comments at the 2004 Republican Convention to Democratic Treasurer Bill Lockyer’s October tongue-lashing, lawmakers have been weathering a constant stream of criticism, some of it well deserved. The result has been historic low approval ratings, according to the most recent Field Poll.  It also has spawned a new initiative designed to slash their pay and make them part-time.

By design, the legislature is a sitting duck for criticism. It is inherently slow (to protect against rash actions), complicated (constraining power by creating more obstacles than opportunities to pass laws), and representative (ensuring citizens and interests all have a voice).  Two voter-approved initiatives pushed by the right –  term limits and the 2/3 budget approval threshold – have made matters worse by handcuffing the legislature’s ability to get things done.

But does this inaction merit returning California to a part-time legislature and slashing lawmaker pay by at least 50 percent, as the new initiative proposes? What would California’s government and politics be like if it passes? Who would be the winners? And who (besides the Legislature) would be the losers?

The big winner would be the governor. Freed from a pesky legislature that often counters executive power and provides oversight, the governor would drive the public policy agenda without accountability. Under the initiative, the governor would also be able to call unlimited special sessions and dictate their terms, further weakening the legislative branch’s independence.

The state bureaucracy under the governor’s control also would thrive without lawmakers around Sacramento to regularly call agencies on the carpet. There would be no time for hearings on agency regulations –- the ones that allowed felons to become day care workers, the lack of regulations for summer heat protection for farm workers, or sweetheart computer deals negotiated by the administration.

Also benefiting would be Sacramento’s special interests and their army of lobbyists. Under the initiative, lawmakers would serve just 90 days per year. Meanwhile, special interests would be working full-time. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who would have the upper hand on complex policy issues: amateur lawmakers or experienced professional lobbyists for insurance companies, utilities, banks, and unions

Professional staff also would become more powerful. Term limits are already empowering some legislative staffers to be more knowledgeable about lawmaking than lawmakers themselves (see Sunday’s Los Angeles Times profile of Senate staffer Kip Lipper). This initiative would make matters worse, as it does nothing to reduce legislative staff. In fact, it might actually increase it. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Texas, with its part-time legislature, has hundreds more staffers than California.

quentin-tarantino-gun-to-headThe biggest loser, of course, would be the public.

Under the initiative, there would be little time for rank-and-file Californians and the press to weigh in on legislation. The California Constitution requires all bills to have a 30-day review after they’re printed. But under the initiative, the part-time legislature would have only 30 days to convene in January, and then be called back in May for 60 days to conclude their business (including  holding hearings and passing a budget). That would mean thousands of bills would have to be considered in two months, causing a frenzy of rushed review of complex policy. That effectively would shut out public input, leaving only the special interests to do the sausage-making.

The legislature itself also would look far different. California has one of the most diverse group of lawmakers in the nation, representing a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic groups. According to the NCSL, part-time legislatures are disproportionately white, wealthy, and older. After all, what farm, school or business could allow a key employee to leave for three or four months at a time to serve in Sacramento? And who else besides the wealthy could raise and spend the millions in campaign dollars it takes to get elected, knowing it was only a part-time gig with little influence on public policy?

Part-time legislators also would have considerable conflicts of interest. In Texas, for example, the sub-minimum wage paid Texas legislators has resulted in repeated episodes of corruption. Legislators repeatedly have used their office to champion their clients and employers. (This year the Texas legislature was forced to toughen its disclosure requirements after a public outcry.)

Compare that to California. Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies recently noted in an NCSL publication: “We don’t see examples of outright conflicts in California…My feeling is, California legislators have less time to have outside income than obviously the legislators in Texas.”

Rural and small town California also would take a hit. Power would shift from a Legislature elected by 120 different districts to a governor elected by a single statewide electorate.

Case in point: Northern California. Tim Hodson, the Executive Director of the Center for California Studies at CSU Sacramento, pointed out in a California Journal article a few years ago that 1.4 million Californians lived in the 21 counties north of Sacramento. They were represented by four senators and seven Assembly members who had 24 district offices. Those legislative members, he noted, often worked as a block on district issues. But without a full-time legislature, they’d have no advocate in Sacramento; none of the past seven governors have had field offices north of Sacramento, and no statewide elected official has served from the area in the past 50 years.

Most states with part-time legislatures are rural and only six are as limited in their scope as what the proposed California initiative calls for (Montana, the Dakotas, Utah, Wyoming, and my home state of New Hampshire). At the other end of the spectrum, all but one of the top 11 most heavily populated states in the nation have full-time legislatures. Texas is the exception, and there is a strong movement there to make the Lone Star state’s lawmakers full-time.

Here in California, the initiative is Exhibit A for what’s wrong with our state’s initiative process. It’s the brainchild of the right-wing initiative factory propped up by an AstroTurf “citizens group.” Its author is conservative Sacramento lawyer Tom Hiltachk, whose last failed effort was an attempt to divide California’s electoral votes.

Proponents have yet to find a sugar daddy to bankroll their effort. Part of the reason is a PPIC poll that showed only support at a lowly 23 percent (the poll was before the initiative was amended to include the salary cut. Private polling of the new initiative I’ve seen shows only slight approval.)

Despite daily plugs on the right-wing “John and Ken Show,” time is running out for the initiative to qualify for the November 2010 ballot. And despite their frustration with the legislature, Californians appear to be wise enough not to want to turn back the clock.

Steven Maviglio is the executive director of Californians for an Effective Legislature, www.effectivecalifornia.com, Twitter: effectivelegis, Facebook: Citizens for an Effective Legislature.

Why Voters Really, Really Hate the Budget Props

Monday, May 11th, 2009

scream1The question in the new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California that best captures the state’s political zeitgeist is this:

“Would you say the state government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or is it run for the benefit of all the people?”

The response of those surveyed was resounding and universal, regardless of party, gender, age, education, or whether they got a good night’s sleep: By virtually every measure, three out of four Californians believe that in Sacramento, the fix is in. Among likely voters, 76 percent say special interests dominate, the biggest margin since PPIC started breaking out data from this group on this question five years ago.

In other words, when ordinary people think of the Capitol, they see insiders skimming the financial and political cream, while they’re stuck on the outside looking in, noses pressed to the window.

In that atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine a more bone-headed scheme than Propositions 1A-1E that the Capitol’s political elites could have devised to convince voters to support the dead-of-night budget bail-out that Arnold and legislative leaders concocted back in February.

The measures may be -– as Calbuzzer Fred Keeley noted here back in March -– the best bad deal you’ll get. But a man from Mars, or even, say, New Jersey, who suddenly arrived in California and took a look at this special election collection of political detritus would be easily forgiven for thinking it was devised by a gang of alien con men, living in an alternate universe and addicted to speaking in acronyms and obfuscatory legal gibberish jargon.

Most media coverage of the props campaign (including here) has focused on the back and forth about tax increases versus program cuts, and its predictable, tit-for-tat ideological rhetoric. Forget that for a moment — take a step back and just look at these things through the eyes of a normal voter who doesn’t his spend his life poring through The Target Book and getting iPhone RSS feeds from the Leg Analyst’s office. Here’s you what you see:

1. The props were carefully crafted to avoid causing any pain or requiring any sacrifice by Sacramento’s heavyweight special interests.

While the governor’s initiatives would require a working stiff to pay more at the K-Mart checkout stand, at the DMV registration window and at the 7-11 lotto ticket counter, the oil, alcohol and entertainment industries, the mighty California Teachers Association and the Native American casino operators, among others, get a pass: in exchange they’ve ponied up millions to help Arnold pass the props.

Rich details of this dynamic were reported out in a recent piece of terrific investigative work by the indefatigable Shane Goldmacher, published in the Sacramento Bee, here and here.

“The entire architecture of the ballot pact that emerged was heavily shaped by leaders’ desire to please – or at least neutralize – the state’s most powerful political players,” wrote scoop artist Shane.* “Now, some of those very interest groups protected in the budget deal are bankrolling the campaign to ratify it.”

2. The props were written with stultifying complexity, the better to sell them to voters with simple-minded sound bites.

While you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree in physics to understand the May 19 measures, you damned well better know someone who does, and is willing to spend a couple hours walking you through the ballot’s differential equations.

In one of the most telling columns of the campaign, our grizzled friend George Skelton of the L.A. Times recounted how Schwarzenegger called him up to complain because he kept writing that Prop. 1A is complicated:

“It’s already complicated as it is,” the governor says, ’but the more you write about how complicated it is, the more complicated you make the complication.” “Explain it a little bit simpler,” he urges in a phone chat.

Ever a heroic solider in the daily war of words, Skelton performed a mighty yeoman effort to explain the damn thing as simply as possible, but was forced to conclude:

“Sorry, governor, Prop. 1A is complicated. It defies a simple explanation, especially when linked with a tax bill and school funding prop.”

This just in: The CTA, now bombarding the airwaves with Yes-on-1A-and-1B ads, doesn’t want the voters to bother their silly little heads with all those boring complications; so they put a teacher in their new ad to say that defeat of the two props “won’t hurt the politicians, just the students.”

3. The political perspective of the props has far more to do with inside-the-cul-de-Sac tactics and strategy than with the real lives of real people.

Thus, Capitol courtier scribes devote reams of column inches to admiring the inside baseball nuances of the props – e.g. Dan Weintraub on “Anti-tax activists miss the point of Prop. 1A” — than analyzing how the tax increases would affect the millions of Californians who’ve lost their jobs, or expect to, any day now; the little people, it seems, are just too simple to understand the deliciously Machiavellian subtleties of their political masters.

As a policy matter, the potential fall-out from the likely defeat of the major budget props – a state government cash shortage, unpaid vendors, poor and sick people missing benefit checks, cancellation of construction projects, public employee layoffs – will dramatically raise the stakes for coming up with a solution to the budget mess that voters find palatable.

Memo to the Big Five: There’s a lot of anger out there and more political fast talk and financial con games on your part is only going to stoke it. For a tutorial in how to talk about this stuff without insulting people’s intelligence, you might check out this video from the New American Foundation, the non-partisan, non-profit think tank led by former WashPost managing editor Steve Coll.

*Scoopster Shane has been scooped up by the LA Times Capitol bureau — a big blow to the Sac Bee.