Joel Fox's Secret Money

While I’m on the subject of Jerry Brown’s whining, let me point out that one of his whines is entirely justified: It’s outrageous and beyond the pale that Joel Fox and the campaign against Props 30 and for 32 are polluting the election with an anonymous $11 million laundered through an Arizona “non-profit,” Americans for Responsible Leadership, which lists among its public purposes — you can’t make this stuff up — “educating the public about concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics….”

For years right wingers have been opposing restrictions on campaign contributions. All that’s needed, they told us, is sunshine. Early in the George W. Bush years, when Congress was considering and then passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, conservatives offered as an alternative the bill called DeLay-Doolittle—as I say, you can’t make this stuff up. It called for deregulating campaign finance and leaving only a robust requirement for electronic disclosure of all campaign contributions.

But as Mark Schmitt recently observed, the right wingers didn’t really mean it. They have now turned into full-throated opponents of disclosure as well, a position Joel Fox echoes in his limp defense of secret contributions.

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'Orwellian,' Jerry? Look in the Mirror

Jerry Brown has hit the Prop 30 campaign trail this week, in full whine. With poll numbers like this and this, his bad mood is easy to understand. But is his whining justified?

The governor calls the opponents “Orwellian” for their recent TV ad saying that Prop 30 will raise the tax on gasoline. But the fact of the matter is that the issue is cloudy.

Prop 30’s opponents make a plausible legal argument that the provisions of Brown’s measure, written to be a constitutional amendment, will yield a higher tax on gasoline and diesel because of the way they interact with the contortions the Legislature has gone through in recent years on swapping sales taxes on fuels for fuel excise taxes. The Legislative Analyst disagrees, but that office brings no legal expertise to the table on the issue. This would not be the first time an initiative created unintended effects because of poor drafting. Given the complex tangle of fiscal knots with which California has bound itself in its laws and constitution, differing interpretations of how the law works are inevitable, and hardly the stuff of Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm.

When Brown invoked Orwell, perhaps he was thinking about his own ads for Prop 30. In this television spot, state Controller John Chiang looks into the camera and says, with a straight face, that Prop 30 “means no more school cuts, with strict accountability. Sacramento politicians can’t touch the money….”

None of that is true, of course. Prop 30 temporarily raises taxes and state revenue, thereby reducing the state’s deficit and avoiding the trigger cuts to schools Brown and legislative Democrats enacted to threaten voters. But it doesn’t guarantee that schools won’t be cut more in the future, either when the next recession arrives (as it surely will) or when the tax increase expires, some of it in four years and the rest in seven.

Nor does it put the money off limits to “Sacramento politicians.” The extra revenue created by Prop 30 will free up an equal amount of money that can be budgeted for any purpose. That budgetary flexibility is the great advantage Prop 30 holds over Molly Munger’s Prop 38, which is mostly earmarked only for schools and pre-school. It’s why Brown’s measure has attracted support from health advocates, hospitals, social services providers, prison guards, universities, and the like. The extra revenue protects programs they care about, and that many voters care about too. (Has anybody bothered to tell all those aging baby boomers opposing Prop 30 that they are voting against funding the Medi-Cal program that will pay for their nursing homes?) Giving the people we elect more authority and discretion in raising and spending money is essential to making California governable.

But Brown and his hired liars are afraid to say so. Instead, the Prop 30 campaign puts out ads in which a Sacramento politician tells us untruths about what Sacramento politicians can or can’t do with the money the measure raises. It’s easy to understand why they do that. But understanding why someone might say “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” doesn’t stop it from being Orwellian.

Welcome to the Top-Two Bloodbath

California is now in the middle of the second round of its reformy new two-round general election system.

The first round, what I call the clusterfuck, finished in June. That was when voters tried to sort through long lists of candidates they had often never heard of to narrow down the field to two for the November runoff.

The second round is what I call the bloodbath. It is the moment when some districts will conduct an election between two candidates of the same party.

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Molly Munger Unmasks the Impostors

My co-author Joe Mathews has brilliantly skewered all those politicians and journalists who don’t want California voters to compare and contrast Propositions 30 and 38. Their attitude, as he writes, is both “nuts, and profoundly anti-democratic.”

It is also, I would add, self-serving. A robust and honest debate over those two measures threatens to expose the big secret about California’s leaders, media, and voters, a secret that has been sitting in plain sight for anyone willing to see it: as much as they say they care about schools, the reality is that almost everything else is more important to them.

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Prop 31 Crashes and Burns

The California Budget Project, long the gold standard for intellectual honesty and rigor in California policy analysis, has published its overview of Proposition 31 on the November ballot.

The analysis is long and detailed. (How could it be otherwise for a ponderous jumbo-jet of a ballot measure, which weighs in at over 8,000 words, longer than the original U.S. Constitution plus its subsequent 225 years of amendments?) But it’s worth the time. The CPB doesn’t take positions on measures, but as you read, you will feel the damning details add up, like ice glazing the wings, until the plane stalls under the accumulated weight, falls out of the sky, crashes, and burns.

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Will Kyle Palmer Ride Again in San Diego?

“[Kyle] Palmer was nothing if not consistent. He had been the kingmaker of Republican politics in California since the 1930s. Short, cynical, curly haired, bow tied, and pushing sixty in 1950, he was known by friends and enemies alike as Mr. Republican or the Little Governor. When candidates came by… to pay him a visit, it was known as 'going to kiss Kyle’s ring.’ He felt that telling candidates what to do was improper, but he expected them to follow his 'advice.’ Asked what happened when they didn’t, he replied, 'they got into trouble… political trouble.’ Palmer once advised Richard Nixon to smile when he clobbered an opponent—and apparently Nixon took the instruction to heart.”

So writes Greg Mitchell in his fine book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas—Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950. If your hair has not yet turned gray, you have likely guessed Kyle Palmer was a paid political consultant or strategist. Your guess would be only half right. Palmer was indeed paid but his employer was the Los Angeles Times. As political editor there, he wrote articles, columns, and editorials to make or break candidates according to the dictates of the Times’ GOP political agenda.

California has not seen Palmer’s like in journalism for many years, but in San Diego the clock is being turned back.

The paper that used to be the Union-Tribune but that now is brutally called U-T San Diego will be hosting a September 11 invitation-only event to advise Republican candidates how to present themselves to the media and secure the paper’s endorsement. (A spokesman for U-T San Diego told Politico a more sparsely attended event will later be held for Democrats.)

Democrats may be excused wondering whether they have been invited to lunch or to be lunch, because it is clear that Doug Manchester, the developer who bought the declining paper last year (to which he has now added the North County Times), is taking it boldly into the past. He uses its pages to tout his development plans with front-page editorials, bully local officials who don’t support his efforts to grab taxpayer dollars for himself and the local pro football franchise, and trumpet far-right views and candidates. On the U-T website you will find a page, Seeing Red, of right-wing commentary, including a U-T editorial predicting a second Obama term will lead to U.S. abandonment of Israel, Medicare death panels, and removal of “In God We Trust” from coins. A search for a comparable See Blue page yields the following image:

How U-T sees blue

Nonetheless, by the standards of Palmer and the newspapers publishers of the last century, including Joseph Knowland of the Oakland Tribune and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle, Manchester and his rag are still minor league.

Palmer recruited candidates, taught them what positions to take and how to take them, wrote their speeches and radio scripts, and tore down their opponents. The publishers in Oakland and San Francisco were GOP kingmakers in the north state. I was made editorial page editor of the Oakland Tribune shortly after it had passed from the Knowland family to the Gannett chain. During my long march of conducting endorsements interviews of local candidates, old-timers would tease me that I was doing it all wrong. In the Knowland days, they explained to me, the publisher would pick the candidates he wanted to run for each local office. The paper would then forget to cover their rivals. This procedure saddened reporters and editors wishing to do serious journalism but gave them much more time to drown their sorrow at the bar next door.

Palmer, according to Mitchell, was more generous with the unanointed. In the 1950 U.S. Senate campaign between Nixon and Douglas “Palmer’s idea of balanced coverage was reflected in his public explanation that even though his newspaper opposed Helen Douglas 'from time to time, as space allows, news accounts of what she has to say and what she is doing will be published.’”

Many people will have no problem with a form of journalism that returns from professional to partisan—just look at the rise of Fox News. Those in San Diego who want to look at the world through open eyes are lucky to have an online alternative, Voice of San Diego, which has already replaced the self-destructing U-T as that city's most reliable and interesting source of local news and commentary. If you don't want to see the return of Kyle Palmer, you might consider sending some dollars their way.

The Bee Drops the Veil

In a September 9 editorial the Sacramento Bee announced it is abandoning the newspaper’s long support for the death penalty.

“For most of its 162 years as a state, California has had laws on the books authorizing the death penalty. And for nearly all of its 155 years as a newspaper, The Bee has lent its support to those laws and use of capital punishment to deter violence and punish those convicted of the most horrible of crimes,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.

“That changes today. The death penalty in California has become an illusion, and we need to end the fiction.”

You will note the ambiguity of that “we.” Is it the editorial “we?” Or is it “we, the people of California?” The editorial promiscuously mingles the two. A careful reader will conclude it is most likely the latter; a reader who served a long tenure writing editorials for the Bee — someone like, well, me — will understand that the ambiguity is real and (possibly) quite deliberate.

“We need to end the fiction.” Memory can’t provide an exact count of how often that phrase was spoken at the Bee’s editorial board during the nineteen years, from 1985 to 2004, I spent there. But a good approximation would be this: those words or something like them were uttered every time some ballot measure or court decision obligated the paper to speak on the death penalty.

Because the fact of the matter is that the “Bee” that supported the death penalty wasn’t the Bee of the people who wrote in its voice. I think it’s fair to say that at no time while I worked at the Bee would the death penalty have won the support of the majority of the editorial board. Simply put, the Bee that supported the death penalty was the McClatchy family that owned the paper.

Acting as mouthpiece for the deeply held but lightly considered views of newspaper owners is part of the editorial writer’s job description. Those of us who worked for McClatchy were lucky on that score. C.K. McClatchy, the editor who hired me and a prince of a man, liked his views well thought out, and went out of his way to hire people capable of putting such views into his newspapers. The list of things about which he was both adamant and wrong was short and always subject to trimming through the proper application of logic and evidence. Only the death penalty was untouchable. No arguments or logic from editorial board writers could shake its hold.

But that hardly mattered. As the Bee’s editorial makes clear, California has had the death penalty in name only; the state has conducted more statewide elections than executions in the last two decades. It wasn’t a great moral hardship for us to support a policy that rarely occasioned sitting down at the keyboard to say so. And when readers complained that the Bee was unthinkingly liberal in all things, we could point to the paper’s support of the death penalty as evidence that we could be unthinkingly conservative too.

I have no idea how the family’s heart was changed or even if the family cares any more what the papers it owns write on their editorial pages. But I congratulate Stuart Leavenworth and the other members of the current editorial board. Change is hard, but they have ended the fiction.

I ask them to consider only one thing. The next time they sit down to write an editorial to berate the Legislature or Congress for not doing this or that, let them take a moment first to reflect on the Bee’s own experience.

By their own account, it has been blindingly clear forever that the death penalty is expensive, unjust, and ineffective. Yet it has taken the Bee, as an institution, a whole 155 years to figure that out.

If it takes so long for a simple institution, in which a decision rests with a handful of writers and executives, to get a big and emotional issue right, imagine what it takes for a legislative body or government to do the same. If those who have completed a long journey to the light will not appreciate the difficulties others face in moving complex institutions, and if they will not offer respect for their successes, who in our culture of instant gratification will?

A Pension Dialogue

Scribbler: As someone who has written a paper about pensions, you must be tremendously disappointed by the pension bill just passed. As our fellow scribblers at the Los Angeles Times said, “Brown’s plan to stem pension costs is no panacea.”

Curmudgeon: Panaceas are as hard to find as unicorns and Mitt Romney tax returns.

Scribbler: But surely you agree with Dan Walters that the “Pension overhaul plan falls short.”

Curmudgeon: That headline is also going to be on Walters’ column the day after the Second Coming. He will fault Jesus for not having returned hundreds of years ago to spare millions from hellfire and damnation, and he’ll scoff that salvation is just a promise, easily revoked when Yahweh throws one of his Old Testament fits of temper, or needs a contribution from the prison guards.

Scribbler: So you think it’s real reform?

Curmudgeon: What is “real reform?”

Scribbler: Don’t go all Socratic on me. Even under AB 340, most public workers in California will have pensions better than most people in the private sector.

Curmudgeon: True. Public workers will still enjoy more security than the huge numbers of private-sector workers who have totally inadequate retirement plans, or none at all. But as Micah Weinberg and I wrote in our paper, taking away retirement security from public workers doesn’t add to the sum of well-being in society. Envy is not reform, it’s one of the seven deadly sins, best cured by repentance and prayer.

Scribbler: Okay, but you agree that pensions are way too expensive, right?

Curmudgeon: If pension costs are your measure, then the bill certainly counts as reform. It reduces the pension formula for new workers, requires employees to pay half the normal cost of pension contributions, caps the size of pensions, and curbs lots of abuses. That will save a lot of money.

Scribbler: But former legislator Joe Nation, now at Stanford and a pension critic, says that “No one should believe that this is going to have an appreciable impact on the public pension problem.”

Curmudgeon: CalPERS actuaries estimate that AB 340 will save the public between $43 billion and $56 billion over the next 30 years. The present value of that savings is between $12 billion and $15 billion, roughly equivalent to what the state spends each year to run the prisons and support the two university systems, UC and CSU. (If CalPERS’s estimates used the low discount rate that critics like Nation trot out to puff up their estimates of the system’s unfunded liability, the present value of the savings would be much larger.) Hobnobbing with the billionaires in Silicon Valley may have warped Nation’s sense of proportion, but like most folks, I still count saving $12 billion as “an appreciable impact.”

Scribbler: So you do, in fact, think this is real reform. How can you say that when the large pensions promised to current workers haven’t been curtailed?

Curmudgeon: And just how might you go about curtailing those pensions? The courts have been firm in ruling that pensions are a contractual obligation that can’t be retroactively taken away.

Scribbler: Pension hawks like David Crane and Joe Nation say that the law isn’t as clear as it appears and that local governments ought to try to convince the courts that reducing future pension accrual by current workers is permissible because the only alternative is deep cuts to parks, libraries, and public safety.

Curmudgeon: If they want to mount a full frontal attack on the machine gun nest, I wish them all the luck in the world. Just remember, though: Judges have pensions too.

Scribbler: What a cynic. So we just give up now?

Curmudgeon: No, not at all. But we ought to try to think more clearly about the real issue here. It’s not pensions. What matters is total compensation for public employees. The public needs to hire people to teach our children, guard our streets, put out our fires. In return for their work, we pay them with a package of compensation, some of it providing them current income, some of it future income: a wage, a health insurance plan, a pension, employer contributions to Social Security and Medicare, and, in some cases, retiree health benefits. As a taxpayer, I don’t care how public workers want to divide that bundle of compensation between current pay and retirement income. I care about the total cost to the public employer.

Scribbler: What’s your point?

Curmudgeon: The point is, if you understand the real issue, it becomes obvious that there may be more promising strategies than attacking the machine gun nest, with its protective legal bulwarks. We can achieve lower total costs more easily by reducing or containing other parts of the package.

Scribbler: Such as?

Curmudgeon: Nation has suggested that California recoup some of those overly generous pensions with a surtax on the pensions of “double-dippers,” public retirees who collect a pension while they continue to work.

Scribbler: That’s all?

Curmudgeon: For years there has been growing concern among budget wonks about the growing cost of, and unfunded liability for, retiree health benefits. Now we have a real opportunity to act. Retiree health benefits are a relic, first authorized in 1961, before the passage of Medicare. Even after Medicare came into being, its benefit package was incomplete, and workers who retired before Medicare age had no assurance that they would be able to qualify for, or afford, coverage in the individual market. The passage of the Affordable Care Act has changed all that. In 2014 every retiree, early or not, will be able to buy health insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions. Obamacare has solved the problem retiree health care benefits were created to address. We can, in good conscience, eliminate them and harvest for state and local budgets the savings made possible by our historic move to universal health insurance.

Scribbler: Doesn’t that create legal issues, too?

Curmudgeon: For people already retired, yes. But there’s no bar to eliminating retiree health benefits for new workers and those for whom they have not vested, either because of insufficient years of service or contractual language.

Scribbler: That’s your panacea?

Curmudgeon: No, you haven’t been listening. There are no panaceas—never are, never will be. Over the last generation, the combination of a broken governance system and public inattention has allowed the total compensation of public employees—and most particularly that of police, firefighters, and prison guards, which is far out of line with national standards—to soar. It will take years of hard bargaining and sustained attention to the issue to bring that compensation back in line. For example, my calculations suggest that the considerable savings achieved in AB 340 would be totally wiped out by a 7 percent pay increase. If we don’t keep watching, the gains will disappear.

Scribbler: Do you really think that the media, politicians, and public in California are capable of that sustained attention?

Curmudgeon: Hey, how about those Athletics and Giants!

The Shadow Government of Kevin Johnson

In 2008 I ran into Kevin Johnson, the former NBA basketball star, at a restaurant near his condo in midtown Sacramento. I congratulated him on advancing into the runoff in his campaign to oust then-Mayor Heather Fargo. He thanked me, and then asked if I had any advice.

I replied that the most important skill in politics was being able to say “no” to the people funding his campaign. As I spoke, Johnson winced, as if having gas pains. “But they all want something,” he moaned. “Sure they do,” I said. “But remember what the great Jesse Unruh said. ‘If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.’”

In a terrific bit of reporting at Sacramento News & Review, Cosmo Garvin makes clears that my playfully offered advice was not heeded.

As Sacramento’s mayor, Johnson has built a shadow machine of nonprofit front groups funded through large and often undisclosed contributions. Although figures at Sacramento City Hall have long had ties to state government and the Legislature—former mayor Phil Isenberg was a legislative staffer, Fargo was a parks bureaucrat—Johnson is the first to tap so heavily into the assembled hordes of lobbyists, consultants, liars for hire, and fund-raisers who have infested the capital city as a result of the Prop 13 centralization of power in California. In fact, it is hard to know for certain whether Johnson formed what Garvin calls KJ Inc. to advance his political fortunes and whether KJ Inc. has latched on to him as a way to generate fat paydays for themselves.

Whichever may be the case, the strategy has worked. The four years of Johnson’s tenure as mayor has been the worst of times for Sacramento. Its economy is among the worst performing in the nation, public safety is being cut in the face of one of the highest big-city crime rates in the country, foreclosures have been rife, and the city budget, burdened with outsize pay and pensions for cops and firefighters, faces a large structural gap. Yet Johnson has done little to nothing on the housing front and has declined to pursue the full-court press for pension reform such as that pushed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Instead he devoted his attentions to a clownish pursuit of building an arena for the equally clownish NBA Kings franchise. A failure in every respect, he nonetheless had built so formidable a money and institutional machine around him that no serious candidate was willing to challenge him for reelection.

So I’m changing my political advice. To wannabe politicians: Don’t worry about being good, just try to look good.

Yet Another Bad Day for California Haters

That terrible, no-good, rotten, doomed place called California just refuses play its appointed role of conservative whipping boy for all that is wrong with America. The Labor Department is out with a new jobs report and once again California leads the nation, with 25,200 new jobs last month. Over the last year California has added 365,100 jobs, more than the next two states, Texas and New Jersey, combined.

What will the California haters, including Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin make of the news? It will not ruffle them in the least. Once you commit to the politics of fantasy, you can never let facts get in the way.

Reformers Bark Up the Wrong Tree

Joe Mathews, my partner in Crackupery, is going toe-to-toe August 2 in an Olympian debate at the Sacramento Press Club against world champion spinner Dan Schnur. The topic is recent political reform and its effects.

Schnur, a member of that lost tribe known as moderate (dare I say liberal?) Republicans, is a champion of the belief that the rules of the political game need to be changed in California so that the people elected to Legislature are, well, more like him. Okay, that sounds a little crass. It would be oh-so-partisan to rig the rules of the game to favor one particular point of view. So let me be more generous. Reformers believe that California needs political reform to make the Legislature more representative of the views of the people—which would only incidentally result in the election of people more like them.


But that raises a question. Is California state government truly unrepresentative of the voters’ wishes? How does California compare to other states?

The best evidence I’ve found comes from a new paper, “The Democratic Deficit in the States,” by Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips, political scientists at Columbia University.

One task of recent political science research has been to gauge how well state political institutions give citizens what they want. The results have confirmed what most of us suspect from casual observation. State governments don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Governments in states with liberal voters have more liberal policies; governments with conservative voters lean to the right. At least at the basic level of ideological climate, states are democratically responsive.

Lax and Phillips take that research to a deeper level. They look not just at whether the overall trend of state governments’ actions leans in the same direction as average voter ideology. Recognizing that beneath the average lurks a complicated mix of differing views on particular issues, they ask a more difficult question: How often do the particular policies adopted by state governments match the majority voter opinion in the state on that same issue? They compare state government action and majority opinion on 39 specific policy issues across eight different issue areas. And from that data they determine what factors contribute to aligning governments’ decisions with voters’ wishes.

Overall, the news they deliver is less than cheerful. Although state governments are somewhat responsive to voter majorities on particular issues—the bigger the opinion majority on an issue, the more likely state policy will match it—Lax and Phillips found “a rather striking democratic deficit in state policymaking.” Across the nation as a whole, state policies match voter views only 48 percent of the time. “In other words, state governments are on average no more effective in translating opinion majorities into public policy than a simple coin flip,” they write.

At this point, if you are a typical Californian, you are nodding. The approval rating of the Legislature hovers in the low 20s. The last two governors have left office with ratings just as low. Lax and Phillips have just confirmed what we already know, right?

Except for one small thing. According to their data, when it comes to representing, California is Number 1. No other state government does better than California’s at matching policy action to public opinion.

California state policy is congruent with majority opinion 69 percent of the time, well ahead of the national rate. California state government is almost twice as likely as, say, Oregon’s to deliver the policies its voters want. When it fails, it does so moderately. In the cases where California action and opinion don’t match up, policy leans liberal or conservative in almost equal measure, unlike states such as Texas and Florida, which are both less responsive to voter opinion and incongruent mostly to one (the conservative) side.

Why, then, are Californians so unhappy with state government? Part of the explanation may be that they know so little about it, both because they pay notice only when it’s in crisis and because the media cover state government so incompletely and so negatively.

But the larger reason has to do with the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis. Lax and Phillips don’t measure policy congruence on fiscal issues like school spending or tax levels. Yet it is precisely over such issues that state government has foundered in the last decade. Californians’ views on the Legislature and governor have been shaped by budget delays, deep deficits, IOUs, and spending cuts.

And why has state government delivered those unhappy outcomes? It’s not because the people we elected are unrepresentative. It’s because all the super-majoritarian whips and chains in the constitution prevent the majority from doing what the voters send them to Sacramento to do.

If California’s government leads the nation in responsiveness on non-fiscal issues, but gridlocks over money issues because of constitutional constraints, our biggest need isn’t electoral reform. Reformers like Dan Schnur are barking up the wrong tree.


Cops Versus the Schools

In an excellent analysis over at EdSource, Robert Manwaring, a veteran California school policy wonk, asks a deceptively simple question: “If K-12 matters most, why doesn’t state budget reflect this?” Unfortunately, as newspaper folk put it, he buries the lede.

Having been guilty of the same crime here in the past, let me remedy that error for both of us:

California is 47th in school spending because cops, fire fighters, and prison guards have sucked up all the money.

California elected officials say that schools are their highest priority. So do the voters in polls. But that’s not how they act.

And until, as Joe Mathews nicely puts it, “you walk into a police station, and all the cops at the desks are 65,” all that political talk about schools being our highest priority is just hot air.

High-speed rail: A green light for Molly Munger

The morning after the California Senate approved funding for high-speed rail, the Sacramento Bee carried a front-page photo of Senate president Darrell Steinberg giving a double fist pump of victory. As glad as Steinberg appeared to be, though, it’s hard to imagine that Molly Munger, the Pasadena civil rights attorney, wasn’t even happier. By approving high-speed rail, legislative Democrats and Jerry Brown have just given away their best argument against her school-funding measure on the November ballot.

To understand why, you have to get beyond the media’s careless habit of lumping Munger’s proposal with Jerry Brown’s rival budget measure as competing “tax measures.”

Yes, both measures do temporarily raise taxes — Brown’s on everyone, Munger’s on households in the upper half of incomes, both with the heaviest increase put on the very wealthy. But the measures differ sharply in purpose and aspiration.

Brown’s measure is about eating your spinach. It raises taxes temporarily in the hopes of stabilizing the budget at the current austerity levels of state spending. It aims at keeping things from getting worse.

Munger’s measure, on the other hand, injects only a part of the revenue it raises into Sacramento — to help pay down debt and relieve some of the pressure of interest payments on the state budget. Mostly it aims to work a revolution in school funding for the purpose of closing the achievement and opportunity gap that is California’s most pressing challenge.

Munger’s measure would route the new money around state and district bureaucracies, keeping it off the bargaining table, and give it directly to schools, where parents would be given a larger role in deciding how to spend it to benefit their own children. Munger is inviting California, after years of austerity and muddling, to think big.

For months Brown and his union allies have been bashing Munger for irresponsibility. California needed to put first things first, they said. New tax dollars should go to putting the state’s budget house in order, not tackling problems in big and bold ways. Munger’s measure came at the wrong time, they charged, threatening confusion and the defeat of Brown’s more responsible approach.

And now, after the high-speed rail vote, Californians understand they didn’t mean a word of it.

By any reasonable reckoning, the high-speed rail plan approved by the Legislature is not ready for prime time. As both the Legislative Analyst and independent observers have pointed out, the state doesn’t have a clue about how to finance the project. High-speed rail, which will raise greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, will compete for funding with the urban transit projects of greater economic and environmental value that California so badly needs to deal both with congestion and its climate goals. It tells you all you need to know about the viability of the plan that the senators most knowledgeable about high speed rail (and among its biggest boosters for years) voted against it.

But reasonable reckoning did not win out. Nor did Brown’s previous call for “a modicum of stoicism.” What carried the day, at least rhetorically, was the injunction to think big.

“I think what we did today,” Steinberg declaimed, “is going to be seen over many years, and many decades, as a turning point in California, a time when we decided to say ’yes’ to hope, ’yes’ to progress, ’yes’ to the future.”

If California can put aside caution and budget restraint to pursue a big and expensive frill like high-speed rail, can there be any doubt about the message the state’s leaders are implicitly sending when it comes to dealing with schools, the state’s (and voters’) highest priority, and to Munger’s call to revitalize them?

To the future! they are saying. Go, Molly, go.

Richie Ross Spills the Beans on Top Two

It’s not every day you hear a political consultant complain about election rules that stuff money into his pocket. But that’s just what Richie Ross, the veteran Democratic political consultant, did in a recent op-ed criticizing California’s new top-two election system.

The big story of the new system, Ross writes, “is that these latest ’reforms’ resulted in outcomes that don’t change much but cost a lot more.”

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Round 2: What Are We Waiting For?

The June 5 test of California’s reformy new election system, as Joe Mathews points out, didn’t live up to the hype. There’s more to write about it in the future, after all the results come in. But a couple of stray thoughts.

First, let’s settle on a name to call the thing, one that accurately conveys to voters what they are doing.

“Please, do not call it a primary, because it isn’t,” writes Matthew S. Shugart, the UC San Diego political scientist and leading scholar of electoral systems. “In a primary, a political party permits voters to select its candidate for the general election.” But in California’s new system, Big Government now prohibits parties from presenting their nominees to voters in the general election, as they have throughout American history.

So if it’s not a primary, what is it? When I looked at my ballot (image below), one name jumped instantly to mind:



But that name wouldn’t be adopted by the media, for obvious reasons, and Jon Stewart and his Daily Show crew probably hold the trademark.

So we are stuck with something more prosaic. Since the system is a two-round election, with the first round narrowing the field to two candidates to compete in a majority runoff, it makes sense to call the first round the general election, since it is the moment when voters have the most choice, and the second round the runoff. Millions of California voters will be surprised come November to discover that they have only limited party choices—no minor party candidates, and in many legislative and congressional districts, only candidates from one of the major parties. The big choices, they will find, have been made in June, in the low-turnout first round.

Unless the goal of the reformers is narrowing the effective choices of the electorate, it behooves them to campaign for having the first round of California’s system be called the general election, and its date relocated to November, the traditional date for presidential elections, with the runoff to follow soon after.

Since the California system bears some resemblance to the French system of having a majority runoff (although France, being more realistic about the essential role of parties in the life of a democracy, grant them a larger role), it’s instructive to note that France will conduct the runoff in elections for the National Assembly on Sunday, June 17, one week after first round was held.

Not so in California. We will have to wait a crazy 154 days between the June 5 general election first round and the runoff. Voter attention and knowledge about the candidates will wane, and will have to be refreshed with a huge new infusion of campaign cash collected from boodlers, bundlers, and PACs. If the French can figure out how to conduct elections in back-to-back weeks, sparing their democracy a deluge of fund-raising and endless campaigning, why can't we?

How to Fix Prop 29

Proposition 29, the tobacco tax measure on the June 5 ballot, makes for a hard choice. I have no problem with raising tobacco taxes. California needs the revenue, and higher tobacco taxes would save lives by discouraging smoking. But using the new revenue for cancer research makes no sense at all. America already spends billions on that research, and California has higher priorities.

What to do? Here is where the Legislature could help us out, and at the same time show a bit bipartisanship.

Lawmakers may disagree about taxes, but I doubt a single member of the Assembly or the Senate believes that cancer research is a higher priority than funding schools and colleges. After all, what is the sense of funding cancer research in a state where you can't even educate children about science or produce the next generation of scientists?

So let the Legislature put a new measure on the November ballot. Call it the Tobacco Tax Recovery and Education Restoration Act of 2012. Let it provide for shifting all of the tobacco taxes enacted in the three initiatives of the last several decades—Props 88, 10, and 29—to the general fund. Let it state the Legislature’s intent to use the money to restore funding for schools and colleges cut over the last several years.

Such a measure would have several important effects.

First, it would let voters have the choice Prop 29 doesn’t provide: of raising tobacco taxes but sending the money to their most important priority.

Second, it would send a cautionary message to potential sponsors of ballot-box budgeting initiatives. It would tell them that they cannot loot the California revenue base with impunity, that the Legislature will fight back to assure the voters have a choice about how new revenues should be used. That’s a message that should appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike.