Archive for 2009

How Wannabe Govs Stand on Constitution Do-Over

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

wigs_41Meg Whitman embraced the call for a constitutional convention by an influential business group Wednesday, while Republican gubernatorial rival Steve Poizner scoffed at the idea as “one more excuse” for Sacramento politicians.

Democratic front-runner Jerry Brown gave the convention call the old paddle-on-the-right, paddle-on-the-left treatment, while S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom gussied up his longtime support for the idea with a brand new branding message. And L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, more focused on licking his wounds from a stinging surrogate election defeat, gave the world’s shortest answer when asked for his take on the constitutional remodel.

One day after California voters (well, about a quarter of them who bothered to participate) delivered a deafening roar of disapproval to Capitol electeds by overwhelmingly rejecting a propositional package of alleged budget reforms, the political atmosphere crackled with the lexicon of political change, as vows to “overhaul” and “restructure” a “failed system” and a “broken government” echoed throughout the state.

In Sacramento, the corporate good government group Bay Area Council formally unveiled their plan to call a constitutional convention for the purpose of revamping state government, the most sweeping proposal put forth on a day that politicians devoted to recalibrating California’s political zeitgeist.

jimwunderman1“If ever there was a tipping point in history, this is it,” Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman told a Sacramento news conference, apparently figuring that if ever there was a day for rhetorical excess, this was it.

Wunderman brought along state senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who said he would carry legislation to try to push the Legislature into convening a convention; if that fails, the council is prepared to mount an initiative campaign to do the job. A check of the groups’ web site yielded who, what, where, when and how details of the convention call, along with this third deck dinger answer to the question of “why”:

“We think it is undeniable that California’s government suffers from drastic dysfunction – our financing system is bankrupt, our prisons overflow, our water system teeters on collapse, our once proud schools are criminally poor, our democracy produces ideologically-extreme legislators that can pass neither budget nor reforms, and we have no recourse in the system to right these wrongs.”

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Amid such grim political prognoses for the Good Ship Golden State, your crack Calbuzz political team (whose members have done more than their share of scrambling for day-after election stories) set out to survey the contenders in the 2010 governor’s race about the con-con idea, which ranks as the most ambitious reform proposal now on the public agenda.

GOP front-runner Meg Whitman, who’s been busy wooing Silicon Valley and other business groups with her CEO-to-the-rescue pitch, was swift and unequivocal in staking out her position:

“I support the concept of a constitutional convention that can update California’s governance structure. I believe it can be a catalyst for reform that helps California move forward,” eMeg said through a campaign flack. (Yo Meg! Have we mentioned that whole interview thing?)

Not so fast, countered Insurance Commissioner Poizner, who spends most of his waking hours bashing and disagreeing with Whitman:

“The state constitution was written over 100 years ago and could be improved in many ways. But the problems facing California have more to do with the mistakes of the last 100 months than the limitations of a 100 year old document,” he said in a written statement. “At this time, Sacramento doesn’t seem able to write a budget, much less a constitution. Focus on a new constitution will sadly be used by the Sacramento crowd as one more excuse they can’t do their jobs . . . My message to Sacramento is simple: do your job and then let’s talk about a new constitution.”

Tom Campbell, the third Republican in the race, sent a late night email to say he “strongly supports” the convention proposal because revisions of a “fundamental nature” are needed. One crucial constitutional change, he said, is to require ballot initiatives that call for new spending to identify the source of money needed to implement them – either a cut in an existing program or a new tax or fee; that claim should then be validated by a neutral third party, like the Legislative Counsel.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jerry Brown, growing more cautious in what some (we are not among them) might describe as his old age, kinda’, sorta’, maybe endorsed a constitutional convention:

“I haven’t seen it but I’m open to the idea,” Brown, who has this quaint, old school thing about taking his own calls, told Calbuzz. “I’d want to see the terms of the call and how they’re going about doing it.

“It’s an idea that ought to be considered, given the crisis and dead end that the state finds itself in,” the general added. “We need some kind of catalyst for change, that’s for sure.”

Newsom, who months ago (when it wasn’t yet fashionable) stated his support for a convention as a preferred pathway for restructuring government, was too busy rolling out a new campaign slogan – “Buck the System” – to give us a fresh quote. As Chronicle whirling dervish Carla Marinucci blogged it:

“The San Francisco mayor has sent out a fundraising letter, talking up the special election, and suggesting it underscores a populist desire for (you guessed it) change you can believe in, California-style. . . . He’s asking support to “Buck the System” — not strong enough to change that “B” to an “F,” we note — and send him some bucks for the campaign coffers.”

One inconvenient truth Newsom’s letter ignores, however, is that he actually supported Prop. 1A, the centerpiece of the disgraced quintet of measures on the special election ballot. Before launching his latest brave crusade to Stand Up to Da’ Man, in fact, Newsom told a roomful of bloggers at the Democratic convention that he had decided to back 1A because he “had to be responsible” in considering how failure of Arnold’s pet measure would impact city budgets.

(Now that he’s Bucking the System, does that mean Prince Gavin was actually being irresponsible in supporting 1A, or was his endorsement just his own special brand of insouciant, irresponsible responsibility? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Which leads us, finally, to Tony V, who may or may not run for governor – but who, if he does, better shape up his L.A. political base, which opened a can of whupass on his man in the city attorney’s race Tuesday, ignoring the mayor’s foursquare support of City Councilman Jack Weiss in favor of outsider attorney Carmen Trutanich.

When we checked in with the mayor’s office to ask if Villaraigosa supports the constitutional convention call, spokesman Matt Szabo offered the most trenchant comment of the day: “Yes.”

Arnold Loses Key Enviro Support on Offshore Oil Plan

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

oilrigGov. Arnold’s bid to resurrect a disputed offshore oil drilling plan suffered a political setback Wednesday when the top lawyer for a key environmental group informed him they could not back his proposal.

While the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center still believes the controversial Tranquillon Ridge offshore drilling plan should go forward, it cannot support Schwarzenegger’s effort to undo a State Lands Commission vote against the project earlier this year, attorney Linda Krop said in a letter to the governor’s point man on the proposal.

“This is a difficult dilemma, but we simply cannot endorse this process,” Krop wrote to Tom Sheehy, deputy director of the Department of Finance.

The governor’s bid to undo through legislation the State Lands Commission vote against the complex lease arrangement with PXP oil “establishes a precedent whereby a majority vote on the SLC can be overruled by the minority,” Krop’s letter said.

Schwarzenegger is hoping to get $1.8 billion in royalties from the PXP oil company for the 13-year lease, which would be granted in exchange for a host of environmental concessions, including the company’s promise to shut down permanently its offshore drilling operations in nearby federal waters in 2022.

Calbuzz previously reported details and background on the offshore controversy here.

What Now, California?

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

brokengovernment1The skunking of all five special election budget measures backed by Governor Arnold and the Can’t Shoot Straight Legislature was a clear signal that voters are way beyond fed up with half-measures, marginal fixes and smoke and mirrors in Sacramento.

Like a winless team trotting out a five-lateral trick play in the final seconds of the last game of the season, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature tried to pull a fast one, hoping to avoid facing the hard reality that it’s time for fundamental political change in California.

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

Executives of the council today are scheduled to roll out the most serious call for sweeping political reform in California since Hiram Johnson – an ambitious plan for an historic constitutional convention to overhaul the fiscal, management and electoral structures and operations of a government that spends $144 billion a year, chronically fails to pass a budget and has plunged the state into a thick muck of debt it will take decades to clean up.

With recession sapping the economic strength of the state, and voters holding record-low opinions of their state leaders, the time is ripe for this kind of quantum change. In parallel with the Bay Area Council, the good government group California Forward has launched its own agenda of political reform, while partisans and policy wonks alike prepare to fight for initiatives on reforms like open primary elections and dumping the two-thirds requirements for passing budgets and taxes.

California’s challenge is deceptively simple to envision but horrifically complex to accomplish: restoring democracy where institutional chaos now reigns.

Since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, when Sacramento took on the task of managing the impact of property tax cuts in cities, counties and special districts across the state, the on-the-fly reorganization of political and financial relations between the Capitol and its provinces, coupled with a decades-long binge of budgeting by ballot box, has steadily evolved into a Byzantine patchwork of stunted and often self-canceling imperatives and ideologies.

By now, democracy — in the sense of a government by, of and for the people — has become so completely distorted, perverted and corrupted in California that tinkering, however well-intentioned, is not enough. It’s not about “blowing up boxes,” as Arnold famously, and demagogically, promised to do. It’s about dismantling and rebuilding democratic government based on three key values: accountability, trust and modern, measurable performance of the people and programs funded by taxpayers.

None of this is entirely new, of course. As with most things about California, the writer Carey McWilliams got it right — in 1949 — when he offered this assessment in “California: The Great Exception.”

“California, the giant adolescent, has been outgrowing its governmental clothes now, for a hundred years. The first state constitution was itself an improvisation; and from that time to the present, governmental services have lagged far behind population growth. Other states have gone through this phase too, but California has never emerged from it. It is this fact which underlies the notorious lack of social and political equilibrium in California.”

But in the past 60 years, things have gotten worse. The system today is constricted, subverted and hamstrung by special-interest ballot propositions, two-thirds vote requirements, gerrymandering, term limits and raging rivers of free-flowing political cash. The governor and Legislature have been circumscribed and neutered.

California Forward, a civic improvement coalition created by California Common Cause, Center for Governmental Studies, New California Network and The Commonwealth Club of California’s Voices of Reform Project, is advocating short-term fixes for the budget and is considering long-term reforms as well.

Short term, they’re pushing for managing the spikes in state revenues, a pay-as-you-go requirement, results-based budgeting, a two-year budget and other reforms. As a bipartisan group, they have not yet been able to agree on whether to push to reduce the two-thirds requirement for passing the budget and/or raising revenues.

But California Forward co-chairman Bob Hertzberg, a former Democratic Speaker of the Assembly, personally believes the most important reform would be to return power to local governments – where accountability is most immediate — and give them the power to raise funds by majority vote.

“The key to restoring democracy in California is bringing government closer to the people,” he said. “People should be getting what they’re paying for and paying for what they want.”

The scale at which state government is trying to operate – by funding education, health care, public safety and the like for 38 million people – is simply too large. The unintended consequences of Proposition 13 – which shifted money and power to Sacramento – must be undone, he argues.

Specific solutions aside for now, fixing the fetid mess in Sacramento will require the commitment, not just of politicians who see the writing on the wall, but also of the mainstream media, which has nurtured widespread ignorance about the business of state politics and government by systematically ignoring it: Not a single TV station from a major California city has a bureau there.*

Most of all, it will require the involvement of taxpaying citizens, who must bear responsibility for choices that have yielded harmful, if unintended, political consequences.

“We need a citizen-induced fix,” as Wunderman puts it: “California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future.”

*CORRECTION: Nannette Miranda is the Capitol Correspondent for the ABC network-owned TV stations in California: KABC-TV Los Angeles, KGO-TV San Francisco, and KFSN-TV Fresno. She is technically and contractually a KABC-TV Los Angeles reporter. Calbuzz regrets the error.

Election Update: Sweeney Holds Lead in Calbuzz Poll

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Jim Sweeney, veteran editorial writer for the Sonoma County Press-Democrat, held a solid lead in the Calbuzz Special Election Pool tonight, with about 50 percent of the vote counted.

It was a humiliating night for Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature, who saw their quintet of budget fix propositions resoundingly voted down across the state.

But it looked like a good night for Sweeney, the only player whose pool entry matched the early vote order for the five props:

Prop 1C

But with Props. 1E and 1A less than a percentage point apart, it was still too close to call the pool, at least for a Calbuzzer who edited an early edition story electing Tom Bradley the first black governor of California in 1982. Still, Sweeney strengthened his front-runner position by also running strong on Prop. 1F, where he had predicted a 75.7 percent “yes” vote, only four-tenths of a percent lower than the actual vote at this hour.

We’ll post our analysis of the actual election at 12:01 a.m.

Early Returns Show Key Trends in Calbuzz Pool

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

As excitement over Tuesday’s special election neared fever pitch, the Calbuzz Department of Survey Research reported that more than 40 percent of those entering the site’s Plenty of Free Parking Election Night Pool predicted Prop. B would score the strongest among five budget measures on the ballot.

In response to Question #1, which asked entrants to rank the order of finish of the five budget props, Calbuzzers offered 15 different combinations, with only three sequences winning support from at least two entrants. The most popular sequence, submitted by 25 per cent of those entering was:

Prop B
Prop A
Prop D
Prop E
Prop C

On Question #2, which asked the final percentage vote on Prop. F, aimed at denying pay raises to state officials in years of deficit, predictions ranged from 22 percent to 83 percent, with a large majority of Calbuzzers saying the measure would win somewhere between 63 and 79 percent.

As for the tiebreaker, predicting voter turnout for the election, entries ranged from 15 percent to 42 percent.

The margin of error is zero. More later.