Archive for 2011

Freedom! Fireworks! Happy Birthday Silent Cal!

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

As we celebrate the most American of holidays with made-in-China fireworks, Mexican beer and sausages named after German cities, by way of wishing our readers happy, happy, happy, we publish an updated version of our annual 4th of July message honoring the Calbuzz Pantheon of Not-So-Great Presidents.  Bonus: Complete web junkie holiday guide!

On this, the 235th anniversary of our nation’s breakaway, Calbuzz gives a big shout out to Calvin Coolidge, the only president born on the Fourth of July.

Sure, Cal (July 4, 1872-Jan. 4, 1933) had his share of controversies, what with calling out the militia to smash a police strike in Boston, vetoing anti-Prohibition legislation and that whole usher-in-the-Depression laissez faire government thing.

But how you can dis a guy whose biographer says he “represents the genius of the average,” who was both the first president to deliver a speech on radio and the first to appear in a film with sound, and who also held more press conferences  – 529 – than any president before or since.

All that multi-media stuff belies his reputation as “Silent Cal,” as do historic reports of his pretty good sense of humor.

As the story goes, the satirist and professional smart ass Dorothy Parker once sat next to him at a dinner, and announced, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” To which our guy famously replied: “You lose.”

Parker got back at Coolidge a few years later, though, when a reporter asked for her reaction to the news that he had died: “How can they tell?” she said.

So, as we throw another knockwurst on the barbie, inhaling our 13th or 14th Corona as July 4th blends into the early morning hours of July 5th, we’ll lift a couple for not-so-Silent Cal.

Happy Independence Day from Calbuzz.

A reading list for the Fourth of July (there’s a quiz on Tuesday)

A way-cool guide to knowing your fireworks.

Big bomb squad explosion, for all the towns that cancelled fireworks.

Do you know where your kids are? (Probably the ER).

This year’s national hot dog count: 150 million.

Why we celebrate with hamburgers and hot dogs instead of turtle soup.

Spot the space station high above the fireworks.

How atheists celebrate the Fourth of July. 

Why Flash Fleischman really loves the 4th.

Leave it to bankers to find the buzzkill.

What editors in Provo, Utah consider “fun facts” for the Fourth.

How to protect Sparky, Fluffy and Rex this holiday weekend.

Our Department of Humbug and Misanthropy: Working all day, every day.

Above all else, avoid the roads in Montana (but check out Irina!).

eMeg Returns! Diana Lives! Sarah Shrinks!

Friday, July 1st, 2011

We hear our old pal Meg Whitman has told people privately for months that she would generously extend Jerry Brown the courtesy of keeping quiet about the state’s fiscal mess until there was a budget.

And eMeg – God, how we miss her! – was good to her word. For about 8 seconds.

That’s about how long it took to get herself booked on Fox News to try to tear Governor Gandalf’s face off shortly after  legislative Democrats passed what you like to call your California spending blueprint.

Of course, if you want to nitpick, Whitman’s appearance with the sycophantic Neil Cavuto came on Wednesday night, which technically is, you know, before Thursday, when Brown actually signed the thing.

But hey, given some of the whoppers the Empire of eMeg peddled during her crash-and-burn campaign against Brown, far be it from us to sweat the small stuff.

Among other things she fed lapdog Cavuto, Whitman complained that the soon-to-be-inked Democrats-only budget “is a political budget without a road map to real reform – like we know California really needs.” In one breath, she huffed that “we didn’t go after the size of government,” while in the next she moaned that the budget included about “$10 billion in the cruelest type of cuts.”

True that, Meg: the food’s no good and the portions are too small, too.

Said Brown’s adviser Steve Glazer:  “The original Whitman budget plan was to give a tax break to millionaires and billionaires thereby blowing a new $5 billion hole in the budget. She continues to offer nothing but hollow political platitudes about laying off workers and extreme Republican bromides…She spent $178 million in her campaign so we can safely say that the voters have seen her, heard her, and soundly rejected her brand of negative politics all the time.”

Facts, logic, reason and other accoutrements of reality aside, what was most interesting to us was a) the warp speed record time in which she found a national platform for bashing Brown and b) the neat alignment of this effort with a  series of other recent media and public events, as she’s suddenly started popping her head up routinely, after months of post-election wound-licking.

So what’s Our Meg up to?

Her recent behavior, as chronicled by Comrade Carla,  leads veteran eMeg watchers (we name no names) to conclude: a) she’ll have an outsize role as a leading surrogate for presidential wannabe Mitt Romney, her old mentor, and therefore wants to mend fences with the media, the better to stay on message; b) she’s sending a clear signal to any Republican pol in California who might be pondering a 2014 run for governor that she’s got first dibs on the gig if she wants it (not that any major league GOP alternatives spring to mind); c) she’s itching for a rematch against Krusty.

Let us recall that, long before she jumped into politics, Meg was a hyper-competitive sort – on the tennis court, in the pool and in the board room, for starters — so it’s only natural she’d want another shot at the champ, a chance to boost her Return On Investment on the $180 million she threw at the job the first time, with nada to show for it.

And, in the event Krusty packs it in after one term, her odds would even be better against whichever member of the Newsom/Harris/Chiang junior class the Democrats settle on.

All that said, it makes us very, very, very sad that she seems so intent on denying Calbuzz the dream heavyweight battle we keep trying to promote – eMeg vs. Difi for the Senate next year.

C’mon Meg, you can do it; after all as you said yourself recently:

I actually think I am very warm, friendly, fun, easy to be around. And I think most people actually, who came to my events, actually were quite persuaded. I think actually people did in fact quite like me when they met me in person.

All this and modesty, too!

P.S. eMeg’s new career as presidential attack dog gets off to a rough start.

P.P.S. Meg is still working with Jeff Randle and Mitch Zak who seem to be functioning as PR guys along with their new hire, former newsman Kevin Riggs, who rumor has it, prepped Meg for her new encounters with reporters. Which could lead one to conclude that Meg’s Mission in this re-surfacing has less to do with sharing her thoughts on the budget and more to do with changing the subject about her so that when she DOES step out there for Romney, she’s not the story. Better to prove she’s appointment-worthy by a President Romney.

That’s Mr. Dickhead to you: Of all the national pundit types we’ve encountered over the years, we can’t think of one who’s a bigger dick than TV windbag Mark Halperin.

In a business where smugness, self-importance and arrogance are just table stakes, Halperin is sui generis, a Beltway phony of the highest order, whose imbecility and lack of insight come fully equipped with an uncommon meanness of spirit and overbearing contempt for ordinary people.

So his suspension by MSNBC, for calling President Obama a “dick” during a live broadcast, drew an ironic standing ovation throughout the newsroom and far-flung bureaus of the Calbuzz empire. And we confess we spent far too many hours Thursday searching for the best-in-class schadenfreude commentary from those members of the responsible online community who share our view. We finally settled on Jason Linkins as the hands-down winner:

There’s no doubt that he’s long been permitted to suck steadily from the udder of conventional wisdom and expectorate the backwash all over the media landscape. And there’s never been any consequences meted out for all those times he’s been hysterically bad at his job. It matters to no one in the media that he is a misogynist hypocrite, a Matt Drudge tongue-bather — or that the clearest evidence of his bankruptcy is the fact that ABC’s “The Note” was never better than when Halperin took his obsequious, insidery wink-nudgery elsewhere.

Sic semper tyrannis.

Add Halperin: Michelle Goldberg is now up with a good take.

You read it here first: As we suggested in our wrap-up of the first Republican presidential debate, the sudden emergence of teabag tootsie, Christian cuckoo, ersatz Marie Antoinette Wisconsin Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann as what passes for a serious contender is making Sarah Palin an increasingly irrelevant sideshow.

Bachmann not only takes up the same political space as Palin, but does so while actually participating in the campaign process and even – imagine! – communicating her alleged thoughts in places other than Facebook, Twitter and Fox News.

Any doubt that Palin’s worn out her welcome, and become the political equivalent of the fire-twirling circus lady you raptly watch in case she sets her hair aflame, was put to rest by Politico, that bastion of neo-conventional wisdom, whose reporter tracked down Republican activists who used to think Palin was running, then thought she wasn’t and now don’t care anymore:

“Trying to figure out Sarah Palin reminds me of the ancient practice of extispicy, divination by examining entrails for meaning,” said former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen.

“I’ve become convinced that there is no grand strategy behind Palin’s activity,” Cullen added. “There is no rhyme. There is no reason. The only common theme to her schedule of activities, statements and appearances is her seemingly unending ability to attract media coverage.”

Or not.

Nice hat! Our Department of Innovative News Design, Online Layout and Heavily Altered Images is seriously distressed at the brickbats being hurled at Newsweek diva editrix Tina Brown for ginning up a phony cover image of the late Princess Diana, as she would look today if she weren’t, um, seriously dead.

In the pantheon of media people we can’t stand, Brown ranks right up there with Halperin, but as high-minded journalists who may have used Photoshop once or twice ourselves, we found her cover kind of cool, and all the high-minded moralizing about by self-appointed media critics (is there any other kind?) kind of silly.

Calbuzz: Where bad taste costs no more.

How Jerry the Wizard Conjured a ‘Balanced’ Budget

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

There was only one thing wrong with Senate Budget Committee Vice-Chairman Bob Huff’s analysis of how Gov. Jerry Brown produced a “balanced” budget by magically assuming an extra $4 billion in revenues. Said Huff, a Republican from Diamond Bar: “That’s a wand that Harry Potter would be proud to wield.”

As every Calbuzzer knows, Huff got the wrong wizard.

This was sorcery of a much higher order than a mere Hogwart could conjure. No, this was a job for a genuine Ainur, one possessed of the greatest otherworldly powers – a wily wise man who understood the theological and cosmological weaknesses of his adversaries.

Or, as Gov. Gandalf Himself described trying to bargain with the Republicans: “I thought we were getting close, but as I look back on it, there is an almost religious reluctance to ever deal with the state budget in a way that requires new revenues.”

And so Brown, after some heavy séance sessions and pot stirring with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Pérez, cooked up exactly what he said he would not: the all-gimmicks “balanced” budget that could be approved by Democrats alone and signed by him.

Abracadabra, baby.

As detail man Kevin Yamamura of the SacBee outlined it (and from which we steal), the Magic Budget maintains $150 million cuts each to University of California, California State University*, $150 million cut to state courts, $200 million in Amazon online tax enforcement, $2.8 billion in deferrals to K-12 schools and community colleges, $300 million from $12 per vehicle increase in DMV registration fee, $50 million from fire fee for rural homeowners, $1.7 billion from redevelopment agencies and higher tax receipts worth $1.2 billion from May and June.

Brown tossed out some of the items from the Steinberg-Perez budget that he voted last week, to wit: $1.2 billion from selling state buildings, $900 million from raising a quarter-cent local sales tax, $1 billion from First 5 commissions, $500 million cut in local law enforcement grants, $540 million deferral to University of California and $700 million in federal funds for Medi-Cal errors.

The truly fancy wand-waving came by way of adding: $4 billion in higher projected revenues in 2011-12; a 1.06 percentage point sales tax swap that redirects money to local governments for Brown’s “realignment” plan;  moving about $1 billion in child care programs outside of Proposition 98 protection, lowering the guarantee and cutting $71 million cut in Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement (which AG Kamala Harris is not happy about, btw).

What makes the whole thing work however is the big honking assumption of $4 billion in additional revenues that simply weren’t assumed about five minutes ago. We asked Brown spokesman Gil Duran how that could be and he referred us to the Finance Department – kinda like Richard Nixon saying, “Hey, you want to know about invading Cambodia, talk to the Defense Department.”

His best argument – “trigger” cuts are built into the budget that would go into effect if revenues don’t meet projections. Brown called these prospective cuts “serious.”

According to Brown adviser Steve Glazer, the projection of additional revenues was based on $1.2 billion in unexpected tax income collected in May and June. But if revenues don’t meet projections by January, prisons and the University of California and California State University systems would each lose another $100 million. Programs for the sick, disabled and poor would be cut by twice that amount. Moreover, K-12 schools could face a $1.5-billion cut and be forced to shorten the school year by up to seven days.

Once conditional budget cuts are approved, the Legislature could restore the funding later of course. But according to Glazer, those restorations would be subject to a veto by the governor. Moreover, according to H.D. Palmer of the Department of Finance (he called us to be “helpful” after we spoke to Duran and Glazer), DoF’s projections were finalized after they began seeing June tax receipts that were looking better.

And, H.D. noted, this isn’t the first time prospective cuts would be used, based on projected revenues: It was done in February 2009, leading to $680 million in cuts to MediCal optional benefits, CalWorks, trial courts and judges, and higher education funding when previously assumed federal stimulus money didn’t materialize in the spring.

Glazer said the newly projected revenue – assuming it comes in – will balance the coming year’s budget. But it won’t address other problems Brown was hoping to solve by negotiating with the Republicans – the structural deficit (about $5 billion, down from $20 billion when Brown took over) and the state’s long-term “wall” of debt of about $35 billion.

Gandalf and the Democrats got some help on Tuesday from Treasurer Bill Lockyer who pronounced the budget “financeable.”  The budget, Lockyer said, “reduces the need for external cash flow borrowing by as much as $2 billion, saving significant borrowing costs. Perhaps more significantly, this budget, for the first time in recent years, honestly and clearly balances revenues and spending.”

Republicans who have been neutered, tried to claim a victory for having prevented Brown and the Democrats from raising taxes. “The simple truth is because of Republicans’ resolve, temporary tax increases will expire this Friday and the average California family will save nearly $1,000 per year,” said GOP Assembly Leader Connie Conway.

But the Reeps clearly failed to use their minority veto power to win pension reforms, regulatory relief for business or a spending cap – all items that had been bargaining chips as long as Brown was seeking their votes to extend taxes and/or place a tax measure on the ballot.

Look now for the Republicans to launch ballot measures seeking drastic changes to California’s pension plans, a hard spending cap and who knows what else they can come up with to distract money and attention from the public employee unions who may seek to alter Proposition 13 as it affects commercial and industrial property or impose an oil severance tax or whack the wealthy or, who knows, maybe even push a measure to allow local jurisdictions to raise taxes by majority vote (Democracy? Gasp!).

Which reminds us that back in March Gandalf told George Skelton of the By God LA Times that if there was no two-thirds vote for extending taxes that he would put up an all-cuts budget, that the Democrats would “put in gimmicks” and that he would veto that and  Then everybody sits there until we run out of money. It’s not going to be a pretty sight. It’s like one-two: No tax, all cuts, gimmicky budget, veto, paralysis.” Said Brown, “It’ll be a war of all against all.”

Or, as Calbuzz likes to say, “Bellum omnium contra omnes.”

Now that they have had their man parts removed, this may be the Republicans’ only play.

And just for the record, earlier this month, we referred to Brown as “a great seer, with nothing up his sleeve.” Who knew Gandalf was hiding $4 billion up there?

* Department of Amplification: After posting this piece, we received a note from Mark Hedlund in Steinberg’s office informing us: “Just a point of clarification — the cuts to UC and CSU actually total $650 million for EACH system. [The] March budget action already cut $500 million from each system, with the extra $150 million added as part of the final budget package. Community colleges also [were] cut by $400 million. None of this includes potential trigger cuts for the three systems if revenue projections fall short.”

Fight Looms Over Prop. 13’s Biggest Scam

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Howard Jarvis_CalBuzzJerry Brown’s not-so-subtle warning that the failure of a budget deal will lead to a liberal-labor initiative attack on Proposition 13’s gaping corporate loophole had two immediate and interrelated impacts:

a) it sanctioned debate about amending the sacred cow tax cut;
b) it made Joel Fox’s head explode.

“I would expect there will be efforts to accelerate the reassessment of commercial property tax,” the governor said in San Francisco last week, comments recorded and duly recounted by the ubiquitous Anthony York.

While Brown characteristically left himself plenty of wiggle room to claim that he wasn’t endorsing such a move – perish the thought! – he sent a clear signal that if corporate types can’t pressure a couple of Grover-bot Republicans to back his budget play, they can expect a ballot box assault on the lucrative property tax dodge from which they’ve benefited since Howard Jarvis shot a moon.

It’s a safe bet that most voters don’t truly understand, or even know about, the full extent to which corporations and other commercial property owners for three decades have systematically shifted California’s property tax burden onto residential homeowners – and away from themselves.

What regular folks do know, however, is that they don’t like the idea when they learn a little about it: while 55 percent of Californians still say Prop. 13 is a good thing, 58 percent in a 2009 PPIC poll said they would favor taxing commercial property at current market rate by using a split roll assessment system.

Just think what they’d say if they knew how outrageous the current scheme actually is.

A must-read report: A little-noticed, but extremely important 2010 study by the California Tax Reform Association provides hard evidence of how much Prop. 13 has benefited those who own and operate commercial property – bank and other office buildings, shopping malls and industrial parks, for example –  at the expense of homeowners.

Sure, the tax group is packed to the rafters with bleeding hearts, but their extremely detailed report on this matter is based squarely on the most neutral, bottom line information available from the Board of Equalization and assessors around the state.

And those numbers show that in 55 of 58 California’s counties, there has been a significant shift in the proportion of local property taxes paid over the past 30+ years, to the substantial detriment of those single family homeowners whom Prop. 13 absolutists just love to demagogue are the biggest beneficiaries of their iconic tax cut:

The data is consistent throughout the state: in virtually every county in the state, the share of the property tax borne by residential property has increased since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, while the share of the property tax borne by non-residential property has decreased.

Some examples: in Contra Costa County, the residential share of the property tax went from 48% to 73%. In Santa Clara County, the residential share went from 50% to 64%, despite massive industrial/commercial growth. In Los Angeles County, it went from 53% to 69%. In Orange County, it went from 59% to 72%.

And there is no counter-shift in any counties at any level of significance. We looked at the data from numerous angles but different approaches only led to marginal changes in the numbers and did not affect the trends. We also looked at whether employment growth—an indication of the commercial/industrial sector—outstripped residential population growth, as it did in many counties, but the burden still shifted away from non-residential property, as it did in San Francisco (56% to 67% despite limited population growth and substantial employment growth).

With regard to the question: how has the burden of the property tax changed in the last 30 years? The answer is: it has shifted markedly away from the commercial sector and towards the residential sector.

How the scams work: The report also discloses some of the legal sleights-of-hand commonly used to avoid triggering the “change of ownership” standard of Prop. 13 that automatically happens whenever some middle class schlub buys a house – but often seems miraculously not to occur when a shopping center gets shopped:

While we have long contended that the law is inapplicable to the complexity of commercial property ownership as well as loophole-ridden, we have made that contention specific: we have found major changes of ownership in major properties which have gone without reassessment.

The ones we examined are predominantly those of private equity buyouts, corporate purchases of companies, and bank mergers which have avoided reassessment.

In particular, what we have found is a tax system which is inconsistently applied in many counties. We believe that there are many properties, particularly the banks and other commercial properties, which should have been reassessed but have not been, and found that some counties have assessed these properties while others have not.

Our legal analysis suggests why this inconsistency occurs: the law is a mess and impossible to enforce. We examined records and cases from the Board of Equalization which demonstrate incredible complexity used to avoid taxes, complexity which should have nothing to do with the assessors’ job, which is to determine property valuation (emphases ours).

All against all: Not surprisingly, the immediate response by Prop. 13 ideologues to Brown’s comments raising the specter of a statewide battle over the split roll issue was to sputter that the end of the world is near.

“A reckless threat against Prop. 13” our friend Fox, for example, thundered about Brown’s oh-so-mild comments.

To be sure, Fox’s concern about short-term sagging real estate values, cratered by the Wall Street greedhead recession, is legitimate, and his question about whether split roll advocates would include apartment houses in any initiative – are they residential or commercial property? – is a shrewd one.

But it speaks volumes that Fox doesn’t bother to acknowledge, let alone seek to counter, the plain facts of how much commercial property owners have benefited from Prop. 13 over the long-term – a 33-year period that has spanned several previous recessions.

If a split roll initiative does end up on the ballot, we look forward to lots of ginned-up scare stories from his corner about evil union bosses driving gramps and grandma from their ancestral homes.

Recklessly throwing around that argument, it must be noted, belies the truth that no one on the left, or anywhere else in the state, has the slightest intention of messing with Prop. 13’s protections of  family homeowners.

Of course, it’s a helluva’ easier to toss out such canards than to defend with a straight face the  sweetheart deal which corporate interests have enjoyed for decades thanks to the Spawn of Jarvis.

But that’s an argument they better get ready to make.