The LA Times on the May 19 Special Election, Again (Updated)

Faced with polling that shows that voters aren’t buying their last editorial, the Los Angeles Times tries, once again, to convince people to vote yes.

Some voters seem to think that rejecting these measures will send politicians a message. It will. It will tell them that Californians won’t stand for constructive compromise of the sort that Republican state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis sought when they agreed to the deal, and that we’ll grant political points for intransigence but none for actual accomplishment. It will tell them that we are suckers for grandstanding. It will tell them to keep fighting and stay deadlocked.

California must get on a different road, change its political dynamic and perhaps its political structure, but it can do that only if it can move. And to move, voters must pass the ballot measures. There is little point in arguing over the next turn if the discussion takes place in the back seat of a rusted-out hulk.

First off, the entire car metaphor (not quoted), is ridiculous, but for those of you who bothered to follow through to the whole editorial, I’ll play along. The spending cap, prop 1A, is the equivalent of reducing the size of gas tank so we’ll never be able to travel as far while also deciding not to pay for regular maintenance. The car will keep running for a while and will cost less – right until the transmission falls out.

More seriously, passing the ballot propositions won’t actually keep the state running. Prop 1A doesn’t have any effects for 3-4 years. The education funding in Prop 1B is already owed to the schools by the state. Indeed, the California Federation of Teachers has sued the state to get that money. Prop 1c will only help the state if we can find anyone to buy our bonds – a problem we are already having – and with lottery revenues down there isn’t much incentive for potential purchasers. Propositions 1D and 1E just shuffle money around, at the cost of our state’s worst off; and prop 1F has nothing to do with the budget at all.

Even if all of the ballot measures pass, we are still looking at a budget short-fall of $10 billion dollars on May 20th. It would be nice if the LA Times recognized that simple fact. There is no significant up-side to passing these ballot measures, and a considerable cost in future  budget flexibility. Unless, of course, you are a centrism fetishist who cares more about ‘bipartisan compromise’ than actually solving our state’s problems.

Since we’ll still have a budget crisis on May 20, there is no good reason to create a spending cap on May 19. Instead, we need real long-term budget reform, in the form of a return to a simply majority requirement for both the budget and taxes. I agree that the majority vote won’t solve our immediate problem – but neither will Prop 1A. If nothing else, the Times should recognize that if we can afford to put off a majority-vote reform until the present crisis has passed, then surely we can do the same with an ill-conceived and poorly debated spending cap.

Update: The Sacramento Bee has different numbers:

The Republican governor’s Department of Finance has projected a budget gap of $15.4 billion if the May 19 special election ballot measures pass and $21.3 billion if they fail. The state would gain nearly $6 billion in solutions if Propositions 1C, 1D and 1E pass, including $5 billion in 1C’s borrowing against the California Lottery.

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May 19 Special Election: Don’t Listen to the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times came out with its endorsements on the May 19 special election. Unfortunately, their decision-making is a little baffling. With regards to Proposition 1A, they see the problem (one I have called government by algorithm) and then draw a truly strange conclusion:

The reserve fund is closely linked to the spending cap, and that gives us pause, because The Times has long objected to hands-free budgeting — decision-making that removes human thinking from the fiscal planning process. But after several decades’ worth of ballot measures that impose formulas to grab cash for education and other favored programs, California finds itself so far down the robo-budgeting road that it may need a bit more automation just to regain its bearings [emphasis added].

I disagree – strongly. Beyond being anti-democratic (with a small ‘d’), more “robo-budgeting” makes the legislature even less accountable to voters. The only way to restore balance to the budgeting process is to make the legislature more accountable to voters. Currently, for example, the 2/3rds rule prevents true accountability because no single party gets the blame or credit for the debacle. Republicans point to the Democratic majority and say “don’t blame us”, while the reverse is equally true. This cultivates a throw-the-bums-out mentality that makes the entire process more toxic and discourages innovation and true reform. The spending cap will complicate this issue. The Times would be better served by opposing Prop 1A and calling for systematic budget process reform, including both the repeal of outstanding robo-budgeting propositions and the 2/3rds rule.

Additionally, the Times completely ignores the increased power given to the Governor to mandate cuts in lean years – a step that further reduces legislative accountability and further distrupts an already unequal balance of powers in Sacramento.

The Times then moves on to Prop 1B, and draws this conclusion:

It’s ostensibly intended to restore $9.3 billion in funding that public schools and community colleges would get in better economic times under Proposition 98 (the granddaddy of ballot-box budgeting measures, passed in 1988 as an attempt to ensure adequate school funding). But in doing so, it could ratchet up the autopilot spending that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he’s trying to stop. We support better funding for schools, but not by imposing more inflexible formulas [emphasis added].

And yet this is precisely what proposition 1A does! Honestly, their reasoning is not internally consistent. Instead, I suspect they honestly oppose robo-budgeting, but want to appear to be part of the “responsible center” – hence their endorsement of proposition 1A.

The rest of the editorial is more-or-less what you would expect, and, honestly, I don’t care all that much about the remaining propositions. However, on Prop 1C, they make another inconsistent argument. Namely, that it will raise revenue without raising taxes. What it will actually do it raise revenue now at the cost of decreased revenue in the future. Fewer cuts or tax increases now at the cost of cuts or tax increases in the future. This is, of course, exactly what the state does when it borrows, but given declining lottery revenues due to the economy, I’m not so certain we’ll be able to sell its future revenues for nearly as much as the governor things we can. This is not a wise or responsible path.

For a more complete discussion of my opinions on the ballot measures, see this post here. Also take a look at the Calitics endorsements (hint: we more-or-less agree) and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, who have a very good discussion.

LA Times Opinion Round-Up

Today is Los Angeles Times intensive.

On high-speed rail. The Times appears to misunderstand the concept by complaining that the current federal funding for high-speed rail is debt financed, as part of the stimulus bill. Debt-financing is half the point. On the other hand, their point about gas taxes being insufficient for current infrastructure is valid, and is why I’ve previously discussed the need for mileage taxes, allowing gas taxes to be shifted toward clean energy investment and climate change mitigation. Of course, that the Secretary of Transportation was talking about mileage taxes over a month ago goes unremarked upon.

On torture. The Times nails the description of the memos, “Orwellian horrors”, and rightly calls for Obama to close a loophole suggesting that the CIA might not be bound by the Army Field Manual. However, I fail to see how that could possibly be seen as being “in the same spirit” as announcing CIA operatives wouldn’t be subject to war crimes prosecutions. And, of course, how the Times could endorse that announcement after reading the memos is baffling. But the Times has been weak on the prosecution issue all along. In a classic example, in a point-counterpoint discussion of prosecutions, both sides argued against prosecutions. Good job picking a diversity of opinions.

Tim Rutten on a truth commission. While I agree that a full report on whether actionable intelligence was gained from torture is necessary, we also need to determine the full scope of law breaking and what, if any, sanction is received from Congressional leadership. More importantly, we already know that torture didn’t work on Abu Zubaida – apparently Rutten missed that article. Of course, torture’s unreliability as an interrogation technique has been known for almost 400 years in the West as that appears to have been missed by almost everyone over the past eight years.

As an aside, Rutten’s ongoing opposition to prosecutions (he once referred to the decision to torture as a “policy difference”) should give the lie to his claim of being a civil libertarian. That, or he is too cowardly to stand far enough outside of the mainstream media to call for them.

Department of “Huh?”: LA Times 9th Circuit Reporting

I don’t particularly understand what prompted this article in the LA Times on the 9th Circuit.

If I were a suspicious conservative, I might suspect that it was an attempt by the liberal media to rally the troops in preparation for confirmation battles. However, I don’t see this as being particularly effective in that regard (and if the goal was to arrest the conservative trend, then the article was needed years ago to rally opposition to Bush appointments.)

Frankly, given the current and future openings on the court, it seems strange to describe the court at ‘trending conservative’ – that trend is very likely to be reversed in the relatively short term. Especially if the court is expanded, as it should be, to reflect its increased work-load, allowing Obama to appoint a full quarter of the judges.

More importantly, though, the article is all over the place. It discusses dissents from denial of rehearing en banc. It mentions briefly and in passing Bybee’s role in authorizing torture, but has no comment. It uncritically accepts conservative arguments that the traditionally liberal bent of the court is encouraging forum shopping, as if forum shopping wasn’t a major component of the justice system in general and as if there isn’t similar forum shopping in, say, the 4th Circuit.

I don’t really see how this kind of poorly explained judicial reporting sufficiently informs the public to participate in debates over judicial reform and judicial appointments.

Addendum: Credit where credit is due, they do refer to Bybee as authorizing “torture” instead of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It is good to see the media using the word torture in a straight reporting piece.

Published in: on April 19, 2009 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Reality Disconnect: Los Angeles Times Edition

In a bizarre editorial yesterday, the Los Angeles Times evaluated the arguments for and against the United States joining the International Criminal Court. Unfortunately, the arguments seemed grounded in a different reality.

The arguments against joining the International Criminal Court are rooted in fear that Americans might one day face prosecution and judgment by foreigners in The Hague, and insecurity about our own legal and political systems being strong enough to prevent that from happening. But the ICC has jurisdiction only in cases in which a suspect’s home government is “unwilling or unable” to investigate or try him itself. The court is designed to try genocidal dictators and war criminals from countries in which the rule of law is nonexistent or the courts are in thrall to the regime. The notion that this could apply to the United States is laughable, yet it was the basis of Bush administration objections.

What world is the LA Times Editorial Board living that it is “laughable” that the United States would never be unwilling to prosecute its own war criminals? President Obama and the Congress have repeatedly shown themselves to be staunchly against war crimes prosecutions for former Bush officials. This even as a leaked report from the Red Cross, the official arbiter of the Geneva Conventions, states that 14 detainees were tortured while in CIA custody.

I am strongly in favor of joining the International Criminal Court, and eight years ago I made arguments similar to those presented in the editorial. Unfortunately, the last eight years have changed the reality on the ground. The United States is becoming the kind of outlaw regime that the ICC is designed to target. I now believe that in addition to any and every other reason for joining the ICC, we should do so in the hope that it will force us to respect our own laws and international obligations.

Misleading Budget Reporting from the Los Angeles Times

The LA Times had a ‘news analysis’ piece today on the impact of the budget deal on the middle class. While it got the gist right – Californians are getting screwed – it repeats a great many of the myths about state finances. I was going to discuss it in detail, but instead I’ll point to Robert at Calitics.

I do want to mention three things. On the question of the tax burden in California as opposed to other states. According to this CNN Money graph from 2005, California ranks 20th on taxes as a percent of income. In a February 2009, the Public Policy Institute of California [PDF] showed that on the same metric, California ranked 18th. We are firmly in the middle of the pack. For some reason, the mindset in California is that our tax burden is still well over the national average. This hasn’t been true since the last 1970s, but reporting like this helps to perpetuate the belief.

The second issue pertains to paying for our freeways. I’ve discussed a mileage tax before, and how it should replace the gas tax as the means for paying for transportation infrastructure, with the gas tax being retained for climate change mitigation until a carbon tax is instituted. The article hints at a mileage tax around the edges, but mostly suggests that new construction will take the form of toll roads rather than freeways. This need not and shouldn’t be the case. The debacle of the TCA in Orange County should be evidence enough. There is a good coverage of this issue over at OC Progressive.

Finally, there is the question of the article’s focus on the middle class.

But at a time when taxes are about to rise substantially, the services that have long set this state apart are deteriorating. The latest budget cuts hit public programs prized by California’s middle class particularly hard — in some cases at the expense of preserving a tattered safety net for the poor — following years of what analysts characterize as under-investment.

The entire tenor of the article paints the picture that the middle class is being targeted specifically for both tax increases and budget cuts, in favor of the “tattered safety net”. However, this is misleading in three ways. First, public programs are prized by and benefit all residents of California, not just in the specific (everyone wants afforable higher education for their kids), but also in the abstract (quality education benefits businesses in the state and helps combat crime). Second, see this post at Calitics on the intensely regressive nature of the tax hikes in this budget – it is the poor who are being unfairly targeted, while corporations get a tax cut. Finally, the Democratic proposal for this budget always involved restoring high income tax brackets abolished in the 1990s. It is the governor, and ultimately the Republican obstructionists, who deserve the credit for shifting the burden to the middle and lower classes, both in the form of the income tax increase and in the sales tax increases, which are inherently regressive. Of course, this is seen as a bonus by the Yacht Party. Shame on the Los Angeles Times for getting the isolated facts right, but missing the larger story.

Los Angeles Neighborhoods

The Los Angeles Times has launched a new feature on their website showing the boundaries of all of the various LA neighborhoods, and asked for public comment.

The Los Angeles Times is unveiling the new map of neighborhoods today on its website at www.latimes.com/mappingla. Years in the making, it is designed to be a tool that will allow reporters and editors to be consistent when describing neighborhoods in news stories in a city that sometimes seems to change the names like most people change socks.

[Snip]

Fortunately, those who disagree with the map have a chance to persuade the newspaper’s mapmakers to reconsider. Readers can use the interactive website to redraw any section of the map they feel is incorrect and submit the alteration for editors’ consideration. And editors may be busy.

This is an interesting project. Despite growing up in Southern California, and moving to LA just about three years ago, I still have a pretty poor understanding of where many neighborhoods outside of the Westside are. Equally, the public comments could be a fascinating collection of evidence regarding perceptions of the city specifically, and urban space in general. That said, I cannot help but feel that for a paper that has had to continually cut staff for local reporting over the past several years, this may not be the best use of their efforts.

Published in: on February 24, 2009 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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George Skelton: Almost Right (Updated)

In the LA Times yesterday, George Skelton made three suggestions aimed at preventing future state budget crises. He almost got it right.

Lower the vote requirement for a budget to 55%. That’s still a supermajority, but one that’s practical given California’s increasing diversity of people and interests represented in Sacramento. A budget then would need 44 votes in the Assembly and 22 in the Senate, rather than 54 and 27. Democrats normally could handle that by themselves.

Also drop the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes to 55%, with one caveat: All the new revenue must be used to help balance a status-quo budget — not a penny for spending increases above inflation and population growth.

If they still don’t pass a budget by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, the lollygagging lawmakers forfeit their pay and per diem for every day the spending plan is late. For most, that would be a hard hit. Legislators make $116,208 a year; house leaders get $133,639. Per diem is $173 tax-free each day — even weekends — while the Legislature is in session.

To his credit, he recognizes the unfairness of the third rule to legislators who vote for a budget and aren’t rich. He misses, of course, the unfairness to legislators who don’t vote for a budget for some principled reason, and aren’t rich. I disagree with why Republicans refuse to vote for a tax increase, vehemently. I don’t, however, think that we should essentially extort legislators into passing a budget they disagree with.

I think, instead, that abolishing the 2/3rd rule should be enough to result in budgets passed in a timely manner. I don’t believe that a majority of legislators want the budget delayed every year.

The bigger problem is the spending cap he wants to impose as a condition of changing the 2/3rds rule for taxes. He rightly accounts for population growth in the spending cap – a vital necessity given the projections for the next few decades. However, he misses two other key sources of new spending: 1) popular initiative and 2) disaster relief.

A great deal of the spending in our state is in some way governed or mandated by initiative. Between program mandates and debt service on bonds, it is not practical to believe that binding the legislature’s hands on taxes while allowing the populace free-reign over spending will produce balanced budgets. The populace is not going to approve, by initiative, more money for prisons. However, they will approve toughening sentencing laws to send more people to prison. It is the role of the legislature to make sure that the necessary funds are raised to meet the expenditures mandated by the wishes of the populace. A system that denies the legislature the flexibility to meet those mandates is no more functional that the current system.

The second issue is disaster relief. Beyond the obvious expenditures that would follow a massive earthquake, there are other more prosaic expenditures. Climate change will require both large capital improvements in the form of, say, new water infrastructure. It will also involve smaller, annual expenditures in the form of, for example, wildfire fighting costs. There may be costs associated with global warming over the next 50 years that we cannot even predict. And that is the point. Placing any kind of hard cap on either taxes or expenditures fails to account for unexpected future costs.

In a representative democracy it is necessary to trust your representatives. If the populace doesn’t like the tax rate, or feels that the state is misspending money, then elections are the cure. Forcing the legislature to govern with one hand tied behind its back is asking for prolonged and unpopular budget crises. If the populace doesn’t like how Democrats prepare the budget, then they will stop electing them.

Update: See Robert in Monterey at Calitics reacting to an article in the Monterey Herald. He also makes the point that the rising health care costs of an aging population aren’t reflected in a spending cap based on population growth and inflation.

Additional Gerrymandering Thoughts

After my last post, I had some more thoughts on gerrymandering. The CA-44th is gerrymandered across counties. Most of the district lies in Riverside, with a slight (and new) Democratic registration advantage. That advantage is consumed by the Republican strength in the much smaller Orange County portion. The two are linked by a strip of the Cleveland National Forest.

One of the impacts of this gerrymander was that it was difficult to get Orange County press to cover the election. Ken Calvert is under investigation for a couple of significant ethical breaches, including the use of earmarks to fund development that increases the value of his property holdings. This was covered rather extensively in Riverside, but went largely unremarked in Orange County.

Likewise, the Hedrick campaign attempted to leverage his opposition to both the Foothill-South (CA-241) toll road extension and offshore drilling in Orange County. Neither got real coverage in the local media, this despite heavy coverage of the toll road extension debate itself.

There just isn’t enough of Orange County in the district to attract a lot of coverage from the Register and we’re well removed from Riverside’s papers. The LA Times doesn’t devote much coverage to Orange County as it is, and as best as I can remember and a search can tell me, the race was never mentioned at all, until it was over. As far as small local papers go, in San Clemente, at least, the two town papers didn’t discuss the race at all and one of them couldn’t be bothered to issue a correction when they misreported the Congressional election results by more than 15%.

I can only assume the issue was as significant for Judy Jones’s challenge in the 73rd Assembly District, split as it is between Orange County and Oceanside.

It is difficult enough for challengers to get media coverage. The problem is only compounded when the districts are gerrymandered across markets.

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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