Abel Maldonado: Not A Hero

As mentioned over at Calitics, the California media seems to be fawning over Abel Maldonado for successfully forcing an open primary amendment through the legislature. Without getting into a discussion of whether open primaries are good policy or good for the parties, I instead want to ask whether the process by which the proposal was adopted. First, George Skelton’s laudatory language:

Normally, it might take years for a citizens reform group to place an open primary proposal on a statewide ballot. Sen. Abel Maldonado did it in less than a week.

Actually, the heavy work was done in less than 24 hours.

The brashness, the audacity, the tenacity of this Republican lawmaker from Santa Maria in ramming such a landmark measure through a Legislature that ordinarily wouldn’t have touched it in a blue moon made him the single biggest winner of the budget-tax brawl that finally ended in the Capitol at dawn Thursday.

The state, broke, has been withholding income tax returns because it doesn’t have the money on hand. Infrastructure projects had been halted, and those that had previously been exempted on the grounds of public safety were also about to be shut down. State employees were being ordered to take mandatory furloughs, and tens of thousands were about to be laid off. California has the lowest municipal bond rating in the country. Months of Republican obstructionism had blocked any reasonable budget, and a dubiously legal work-around had been vetoed by the governor. Finally, a budget compromise had been worked out, in secret, with no hearings and few publicly released details, and only one vote in the Senate remained to get it passed. And Abel Maldonado saw an opportunity.

Actually, the heavy work was done in less than 24 hours.

No. The heavy work was on the budget, and had been going on for months while Maldonado complained about the costs associated with relocating the State Controller’s offices. There was no heavy work on the open primary. There were no hearings, no public comment, no testimony by expert lawyers or political scientists, and certainly no discussion of whether this kind of open primary will benefit the populace. Open primaries are an article of faith among some ‘centrists’ and ‘reformers’, so there was no need to have a debate on whether open primaries would drive up the costs of or lead to voter confusion. Washington state has this kind of open primary, but there was no discussion of the results there. Instead, the proposal was rammed through the legislature with nary a debate. Whatever ‘winners’ there may be in this entire debacle, good governance certainly isn’t one of them.

We have a word for people who exploit the fears of others for political gain. Holding hostage the welfare of the poor, the disabled, the young, the elderly, and the ill to advance some dubious electoral change is as morally reprehensible as taking civilians hostage to free a ‘political prisoner’. For 72 hours, Senator Maldonado, you held this state hostage in an attempt to ease your path to reelection, and for that I name you extortionist. And George Skelton, for your praise of his tactics and results, I name you apologist. May both of you be punished as the people of this state see fit.

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The Party of No Solutions

State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass was on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight. The video can be found here (I cannot figure out how to make the MSNBC embed code work on wordpress – advice would be welcome).

Key, Speaker Bass referred to the Republican Party as “The Party of No Votes. The Party of No Solutions.” This should become the Democratic motto in California for the next two years. Assuming that some sort of compromise is finally reached, the inclination will be to let the horror of this budget crisis pass into history. Progressives are going to need to keep Republican obstructionism front-and-center both for the fight against the 2/3rds rule and for the gubernatorial race.

(On the 2/3rds rule, see Robert in Monterrey at Calitics on the history of the rule, and the approach to changing it.)

Overall, I thought that Speaker Bass hit the key points, especially on the recent history of Democratic concessions to spending cuts. However, I found fault  with her on two issues. The first, she made a point that this crisis is a product of the Republican party – referring to recall threats and KFI’s John & Ken specifically. Okay, that is accurate. But in doing so, she appeared to give a kind of clemency to the individual legislators. This is dangerous, especially given Abel Maldonado’s narcissistic attempt to rewrite the constitution to protect his own seat.

Rachel also asked her about the liberal response to those threats, a question that Speaker Bass had to evade, because there has been relatively little liberal or progressive response. I think some of this is structural – liberal outrage is unlikely to sway recalcitrant Republicans, and threatening Democratic legislators for more tax increases and fewer spending cuts is counterproductive in the face of total disaster. However, I also suspect that the problem, among both Democrats and the populace at large, is familiarity. We’re used to budget crises in California. They aren’t news – they’re olds. As such, I believe that most of the state ignored the crisis in the summer of last year, even though in retrospect is was an obvious prelude to the current disaster. We’re so used to storms that we didn’t recognize the hurricane for what it was.

Speaking of progressive response, Calitics has been urging people to call Abel Maldonado for days.

If you haven’t called him, please call Maldo,916-651-4015, and tell him to end the hostage situation. If you have, call him again, or you can also call his local offices. And if you are in the district, why not call both offices and send him an email too?

This is especially important given this from the LA Times:

But for others, including Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), it is a matter of listening to the “hard-working middle-class people” he represents.

“Just yesterday alone, we had 400 telephone calls,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, more than 40 to 1, they were saying, ‘Please do not raise our taxes.’ “

Take the time; make a call.

California and the Stimulus

There are a couple of interesting stories on the stimulus package and California today. Starting with this one (h/t Calitics):

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), chaired by Congressman Chris Van Hollen, today announced the DCCC is launching a Putting Families First ad and grassroots campaign in 28 targeted Republican districts.  The ads focus on the Republicans out of step priorities by putting bank bail outs and building schools in Iraq before the needs of the Americans in the struggling economy.

Targeted California Congressmen include:

Representative Dan Lungren                         CA-03
Representative Elton Gallegy                         CA-24
Representative Ken Calvert                            CA-44
Representative Brian Bilbray                         CA-50

I’m especially happy to see Calvert targeted. I campaigned for Bill Hedrick in the past election and was pleasantly surprised to see how well he performed. I don’t expect that the ads will target the Orange County part of the district. I do think, however, that Hedrick will have to work to tighten the gap in Orange County if he wants to be able to win.

Update: This is exactly the kind of action the California Democratic Party should have taken this summer with regards to Republican obstructionism on the budget. It is still what they should be doing now – but this summer it could have yielded dividends in the election. The state party should take note.

Moving on, I don’t often have good things to say about Senator Feinstein, but I’ll give her credit for this (from CQ):

The first amendment scheduled for debate is a proposal from Patty Murray , D‑Wash., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would boost the bill’s highway funding from $27 billion to $40 billion and its transit funding from $8.4 billion to $13.4 billion.

This is a needed amendment. The stimulus package is already weighted too strongly toward tax cuts and too small overall. Infrastructure and transit spending will help put shovels in the ground, and transit spending in particular will help advance us toward a cleaner economy. Personally, I think this stimulus package should be used much more heavily to advance the serious investment we need in clean energy.

Which is part of what makes this so disappointing:

Friends of the Earth tells Streetsblog San Francisco that Senator Barbara Boxer’s staff has confirmed that Boxer and Senator Inhofe will present an amendment to the federal Stimulus Plan for $50 billion in additional funding for highways, bringing the total to $80 billion, exactly the figure Inhofe demanded last week in a letter to the Committee for Environment and Public Works.

I’m all in favor of more infrastructure spending, and this post doesn’t indicate what the spending will be used for. There are certainly any number of highway and bridge repairs that are desperately necessary. However, I dislike seeing spending going to car-based transit and not a corresponding amount going to mass transit. Unlike others, I’m not as bothered by the cooperation with Inhofe, no matter how odious I think he is.

Finally, LA Mayor Villarigosa is going to lobby Congress for more mass transit spending for LA.

Villaraigosa wants to ensure Los Angeles remains high on the list for funding for major transportation, green-energy projects and big-ticket items such as the “Subway to Sea” as well as the mayor’s ambitious solar initiative. He also wants federal money to go directly to cities.

This may be a day late and a dollar short. The time to do this would seem to have been a week or two ago when the core of the bill was still being written. That said, I certainly believe more money needs to be spend as aid to state and local governments. Such spending may not necessarily create new jobs, but it can certainly help prevent current jobs from being lost. And when jobs are lost, the quality of government services degrade, just as more people come to rely on those services. It is a dangerous cycle of events.

Finally, one of the major objections to more infrastructure spending, and mass transit spending in particular, is that it wasn’t sufficiently ‘shovel ready’. On that subject I point to this post by Paul Krugman last week, where he argues that stimulus spending should probably continue through 2011. I am all in favor of a broader spending package even if the jobs won’t get underway immediately, especially if the spending is on projects that advance other goals, such as combating climate change. Of course, perhaps that spending should be in a stimulus round two package that can be more carefully assembled in the next couple of months.

Economics and the California Republican Party: Never the Twain Shall Meet

This is a monumentally bad idea.

While many of the funds pegged for California would immediately help children, the poor and commuters, some Republican state lawmakers argue that the state should sock away some of the money for hard times in the future.

[Snip]

Villines agreed that avoiding costly borrowing would be prudent. But he had other ideas about using federal funds. Any federal money that “we might get should basically be put away into a … rainy-day fund for any potential future deficits if the economy continues to get worse,” he said, “as opposed to any budget factoring now.”

The purpose of the money is to stimulate economic recovery now, not to hoard it for the future. Apparently, statehouse Republicans don’t know the meaning of the word ‘stimulus’. The state Republican party should be disbanded, unless and until they can find people who know what they are talking about.

Finally, let’s look at this reporting:

One silver lining in the state’s deep fiscal crisis is that it has forced Republicans and Democrats to consider policies they had ardently opposed in the past, such as taxes and spending caps, experts say.

Which experts say that? Did you make that up, or are there really people who think that this kind of manic crisis budgeting is a good thing? Spending caps are a dangerously bad idea, as usually proposed. This is especially true if they are unable to account for population growth. New taxes are necessary, but Republicans have only willing to offer them in exchange for a spending cap.

The true silver lining of this crisis is that it may provoke the kind of massive structural reform the budget process needs: the abolition of the 2/3rd requirement for both the budget and taxes and the reconsideration of proposition 13; without both of which, we would not be in a crisis this severe. Unfortunately, it would be better to deal with this issues in the sober light of day, rather in the midst of a meltdown.

Speaking of Stimulus

I wholeheartedly agree with this.

California’s delegation needs to push for General Fund relief in the recovery package, as well as federal guarantees for our municipal bonds, which would frankly jump-start projects faster than anything.  If it’s good enough for the banks, it should be good enough for California.

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 9:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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California’s State of the State

See the full transcript here (h/t Brian Leubitz at Calitics).

It is charming that the Governor’s only big policy suggestion was to withhold pay and per diems from the Legislature and the Governor if a budget isn’t passed by the constitutional deadline. Thank you, Arnold, that is both helpful and insightful.

Of course, he did know where to place the blame:

It is not that California is ungovernable. It’s that for too long we have been split by ideology.

Conan’s sword could not have cleaved our political system in two as cleanly as our own political parties have done.

Over time, ours has become a system where rigid ideology has been rewarded and pragmatic compromise has been punished.

And where has this led?

I think you would agree that in recent years California’s legislature has been engaged in civil war.

Unfortunately, he is partially to blame for this very gridlock. He has consistently chosen not to chastize the obstructionist members of his own party in a manner that would have a meaningful effect on their votes. He blames ‘partisanship’, but not particular partisans. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: cultivating a reputation as a post-partisan centrist without alienating the conservative allies he needs in his own party. Rigid partisanship is rewarded, in part, because he refuses to use his position to punish it.

Furthermore, he misdiagnoses the problem. Legislative Democrats have been nothing but accomodating over the last year, consistently weakening their own proposals in an attempt to draw any movement out of the Republicans, and to no avail. And, when the desperation finally peaked in a barely-legal work-around budget, they watched the Governor attempt to blackmail them into abandoning years worth of environmental and labor regulations.

The state is ungovernable. Between the two-thirds rule, Proposition 13, and our on-going preference for ballot-box legislating, it has become virtually impossible to run the state on sound principles. This is not entirely the fault of the political class – the populace plays an obviously important role in initiative-driven spending mandates. However, it is unrealistic to expect the populace to be able to budget-by-initiative. There is a reason we have a representative rather than direct democracy, and we need to reclaim it.

If the Governor wanted to really prove himself to be a reformer, he would have stood up today and called for the fundamental structural reforms that would have struck at the core of the problem: prohibit paid signature gatherers for initiatives, limit the ability to amend the constitution by initiative, repeal Prop 13 for commercial (and possibly some residential) property, abolish the 2/3rds rule for both budgeting and taxes, and repeal or extend term limits so experienced legislators write the laws rather than lobbyists.

Unfortunately for California, this governor has always cared more for flash than for substance.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Great Moments in Conservative Thought

Devin Nunes, Congressman from the CA 21st, has an interesting proposal today in the Fresno Bee. Among other proposals (automatic tax refunds for budget surpluses and a cap on spending increases), he has two that are particularly striking:

Thus, the first act of the people must be the establishment of a part-time, nonpartisan citizen legislature — a model which has proven effective in states like Texas (part-time) and Nebraska (part-time and nonpartisan).

What could possibly be more beneficial to good governance than increasing the influence of lobbyists by making the legislature even less professional? Term limits already have the effect of forcing lawmakers out of office just as they finally get enough experience to legislate. I’m sure they’ll adapt even faster when they’re trying to hold down another job. We have a professional civil service and a professional military, but clearly drafting laws is something people can do in their spare time.

The next proposal is better.

End budget stalemates. If free of tax increases, the governor’s budget should become law when the Legislature has failed to pass its own budget by the constitutional deadline. This reform would end the continual government shutdowns resulting from partisan gridlock.

How deliciously anti-democratic. Of course, it won’t work. This rule, given the two-third rule, would give almost all budgetary authority to the Governor, providing taxes aren’t increased. If the majority and the Governor are from the same party, then the majority can choose not to pass a budget and avoid negotiating with the minority. If the minority and the Governor are from the same party, then the minority can act as it does now. And, of course, what if the Governor vetos every budget passed by the legislature, until the deadline passes?

It fills me with confidence that one of our nation’s congressmen has such a firm grasp of the balance of powers.

(more…)

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 11:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Scattershot Budget Coverage from the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times has been all over the place on its coverage of the budget crisis in California. Consider this editorial from last Friday, which has already been discussed at Calitics.

Our politicians could avert the cash crisis by simply adopting a midyear budget. It would sting — with deep cuts and higher taxes — but it would sting less than the total meltdown we are about to experience.

But no, Democrats, Republicans and the governor are acting like brats on a playground. “They started it!” “Did not!” “Did so!” “We did everything we could.” No, folks, you didn’t.

Compare that position to an editorial “Come Back, GOP” from last August.

If there are $15 billion in program cuts that won’t simply transfer costs to next year’s budget or further into the future, let’s hear about them. If there aren’t, then Republican lawmakers must confront tax increases as a prudent step, just as they must acknowledge that much of the state’s current problem stems from the unwarranted reduction of the vehicle license fee that swept Schwarzenegger into office.

The editorial placed the blame for the budget problem where it belongs – on Republican obstructionism. It misses the structural component entirely, praising the two-thirds rule for preventing tax-happy Democrats from seizing control, while ignoring its enabling effect on the Republicans they chastise.

Unfortunately, in the past four months the Times’ editorial board seems to have lost sight of fundamental issue of Republican obstruction. Over the past year, Democrats have slowly whittled away at their plan. Having started this past summer with a restoration of 1990s income tax rates and the closure of certain corporate tax loop holes, they slowly descended into increasingly steep budget cuts and sales tax increases before eventually ending with accounting tricks and more debt. Legislative Republicans didn’t move at all.

That entire drama is repeating itself now, but with more dire consequences. The most recent Democratic plan, a dubiously legal game of three card monte played with various state fees and taxes, was vetoed by the Governor after Democrats refused to gut labor and environmental protection. The Times, of course, can’t seem to tell the difference between compromise and a stick-up.

That inconsistency is compounded by shoddy reporting. Yesterday, the Times ran this article on the Governor’s budget brinkmanship.

Efforts to bridge California’s budget abyss collapsed last week as talks hit a formidable roadblock — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s demand that long-standing environmental protections be stripped from 10 big highway projects.

The governor’s aides say his plan would give the financially strained state a $1.2-billion economic boost and create 22,000 jobs over the next three years. Environmentalists say the governor is backpedaling from the heavily publicized push to curb global warming that landed him on magazine covers delicately balancing a globe on a beefy finger.

Economic boost from where? Nowhere once in the article does it mention that infrastructure spending in the state has come to a standstill, ending jobs-producing projects that were already underway. Likewise, it completely elides the impending economic damage that will be caused as state programs grind to a standstill and state employees are handed worthless IOUs instead of paychecks.

The story isn’t that the Governor and environmental groups are going head-to-head over environmental regulations – that shouldn’t be surprising. What is news is that the Governor is using the budget crisis to extort Democrats into sacrificing the environment and workers in order to keep the bare minimum of state services functioning. And reporting like this allows the Governor to get away with it, by not putting it in its proper context.

Obviously, reporters don’t have the column inches to elaborate fully in every story. But this story isn’t about environmental policy at all, and suggesting that it is gives the Governor a free pass. If the LA Times wants a mid-year budget passed anytime soon, it needs to stop yelling at legislators and start doing its job. Instead of crazed ranting, it needs to call the Governor and Republican lawmakers what they are: extortionists and road blocks.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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