Archive for 2012

Field Poll: Term Limits Reform,Tobacco Tax Leading

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

California voters look like they’re about to do the right thing: partially repeal one of the worst “reforms” they’ve ever adopted: term limits for members of the Assembly and State Senate.

Confused by the image of Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith and stirred by cynical anti-government agitators, voters tend to 1) despise professional politicians and 2) romanticize the notion of a “citizen legislature.”

Instead, term limits have weakened leaders’ ability to enforce discipline and make deals, wiped out lawmakers’ institutional memory, delivered power to the permanent lobby and staff, and helped cripple the legislative branch of government. Oh, and they’ve spurred a frenzy in which members of one house are immediately plotting how they’ll raise money and get elected to the other house.

So it comes as good news that the Field Poll finds that there’s at least a chance that voters will approve Prop. 28, which would reduce the total number of years a politician can serve in the state legislature to 12 years from a total of 14, but would permit all 12 years to be served in either the Assembly or State Senate.

According to Field, Prop. 28 leads 50-28% among likely voters and those who’ve already cast ballots, with 22% still undecided. Democrats break 50-25-25%, Republicans lean 50-32-18% and Decline-to-States and others stand at 51-30-19%. Interestingly, moderate are the most supportive at 59-22-19%, compared to liberals at 45-32-23% and conservatives at 46-33-21%. (The LA Times/USC survey reported Wednesday afternoon that Prop. 28 ahead 49-33% among likely voters.)

While it would be better just to eliminate term limits altogether and allow voters to keep representatives they like and get rid of those they don’t like, modifying the system to allow legislators to develop some time (12 years) and wisdom in whichever house they serve in would be better than restricting them to a maximum of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.

This is not a view limited to life-boat shooters and government-loving liberals, as our friend former Assembly Republican Leader Bob Naylor explained back in July 2009.

Smoke this, sweetheart Prop. 29, on the other hand, which would raise taxes on tobacco products and dedicate the funds to cancer research and smoking prevention, is poised to pass – it leads 50-42% with just 8% undecided – but is far from black and white.

(The LA Times/USC survey found a bigger margin for Prop. 29 — 62-33%.)

Everyone’s in favor of cancer research and most people don’t mind slapping more taxes on tobacco. But locking up the estimated $735 million a year the new taxes would generate for a dedicated purpose is just another impediment to developing a state budget that puts general funds into things people want most – like education, public safety, highways, social services and health, state parks, etc.

The reviled tobacco industry is, of course, spending millions to kill Prop 29 and they appear to be having some impact: those who have already voted by mail backed the measure 51-41% but those who plan to vote on June 5 – people seeing anti-Prop 29 TV ads — support the measure 48-43%.

Younger voters, age 18-39, back the measure 66-24%; those age 40-64 support it 49-42%, but those 65 and older oppose it 51-42%. Democrats and DTS voters both back the measure 61-32% but Republicans oppose it 58-32%. Smokers (a diminishing group of voters) oppose the measure 75-17%; former smokers are split, 47% against and 46% in favor; and those who’ve never smoked support it 55-36%.

The Field Poll surveyed 916 registered voters May 21-29, including 606 likely voters in the June primary election. The margin of error for likely voters is +/- 4%. Because the Field Poll refuses to allow Calbuzz to become a paid subscriber, results have been gathered from sources.

How Ravel Can Give the FPPC 21st Century Bite

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Ann Ravel, chair of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, hopes to reinvigorate her agency and make it the nation’s most aggressive public watchdog of campaigns, candidates and consultants, she told Calbuzz in a recent interview.

With the backdrop of the Kinde Durkee scandal making clear the need for greater oversight of politics in California, Ravel said the time is right to revamp the policies, practices and procedures of the FPPC.

“Public trust in government is at an all-time low,” she told us. “Our goal is to make information about who is paying for campaigns available in an immediate, accessible and organized way that is useful for voters in understanding and demystifying the political process.”

Over a celery root, apple, gorgonzola and toasted walnut salad at Barbacco in San Francisco’s Financial District, Ravel discussed a three-part strategy for bringing into the 21st Century an agency that was created by initiative back when Jerry Brown had hair and was governor the first time. Ravel’s challenge:

1. Aggressively pursue cases of money laundering and illicit campaign spending.
2. Create a whiz-bang, state-of-the-art, information-packed web site.
3. Raise funds from private foundations to finance ongoing web site operations.

Fighting internet propaganda: Ravel is smart and ethical. She has no personal or political agendas. She believes democracy is best served by the greatest possible transparency in the political process. And she sees that voters are increasingly turning away from newspapers and getting their information about politics from the internet.

So it burns her backside to know that campaigns are using the intertubes to propagandize without letting internet readers and viewers know where the information is coming from and who’s paying for it. And she’s determined that California’s political watchdog should address a trend that is only going to grow.

Her initial idea, based on her experience at the Federal Trade Commission, was simple but flawed: require any communication on the internet – from a tweet to a treatise – to include a disclosure that it was paid for by a political candidate or committee.

But on further reflection, she recognized that commercial advertising shouldn’t and doesn’t enjoy the same First Amendment protection that political speech does. And even scum-sucking, secretly-paid mouth organs for political causes have a First Amendment right to say or write whatever they want about politics. The only time they can be required to disclose that their communication was paid for is when they use the public airwaves, on TV or radio.

The government, however, does not own or control the internet. You can violate the law on the internet — libel comes to mind. But within wide bounds, you can pretty much say what you want and you can’t be compelled to say something you don’t want to say. You can say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. You’d be wrong, but it’s your right to be wrong.

Propagandizing for a candidate and/or cause or just writing about politics on a web site that accepts ads from candidates and/or causes is no different, in terms of constitutional rights, than writing a pamphlet, a letter to the editor or publishing a newspaper. It’s free speech.

But with ever greater numbers of people relying on the internet for political news, shouldn’t there be some mechanism by which unsuspecting readers and surfers are told that what they’re reading or viewing was bought and paid for by a candidate or cause?

Make candidates disclose it all Yes, Ravel has concluded. And the constitutional way to do it is to require the candidates and committees who are paying people to tweet, propagandize and shill to disclose that they’re making those payments for that purpose.

Monitoring this kind of campaign spending is at least as important as making sure some  bureaucrat in Sacramento discloses her $15 lunch with a lobbyist. But the FPPC forms and disclosure requirements for campaigns are so loose and weak, and the scant information that is there is so difficult to decipher that they’re virtually useless. The Secretary of State’s site has all the data but it’s damn near impenetrable.

What Ravel wants to do – and we heartily endorse the idea – is to sharpen the FPPC’s focus on how money is raised and spent in campaigns and then to make that information widely available to California voters. She has the opportunity to show the rest of the nation how a state watchdog can improve the information voters have when they exercise their franchise.

First, the disclosure forms campaigns fill out need to be much more specific about how money is spent. If a $100,000 payment is made to a campaign consultant who when hires someone to tweet on the candidate’s behalf, the payment to the tweeter needs to be disclosed. New categories for expenditures and new rules about requiring candidates and committees to show the end use of funds need to be crafted and put in place. In addition, more frequent and timely reports must be required.

Meanwhile, the FPPC should develop a state-of-the-art, compelling web site that gleans the most interesting and important information that’s flowing into the state  from these reports. What’s needed is a site as good or better than www.opensecrets.org, the project of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks, digests and highlights important campaign and lobby spending at the federal level. The FPPC doesn’t have to replicate the massive database at the Secretary of State’s site: it just has to mine it and re-present it in a searchable, readable and customizable format, like Open Secrets does with FEC data.

Shine a bright light: With a small staff of researchers, reporters and technology people, the FPPC could keep California voters and media alike informed about the inflow and outflow of campaign and political money – becoming a key information source for people interested in state politics and public policy.

To ensure that the web site is non-partisan and actually does what few elected officials are eager to encourage, Ravel should raise money from private foundations dedicated to transparency and disclosure in politics. The best and cleanest way to do that would be to form a non-profit FPPC Foundation to oversee the fundraising and the web site. At the start, we don’t see why Ravel herself shouldn’t be chair of both the FPPC and the Foundation.

As for the membership of the Foundation’s board, that’s a formula that greater minds can work on, but it likely ought to include appointees from the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state government and perhaps some representation from counties, cities and schools. Once funds have been raised and the web operation set in motion, there really ought to be little for the board to do except keep an eye on things.

If Ravel can put all these pieces together, she will have truly moved the FPPC into the 21st Century and advanced the cause of open democracy and public disclosure in California. Not a bad day’s work.