The Germans on the Bus

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Germans seeking to expand direct democracy face a steep, historical obstacle: the Nazi use of plebiscites has widely discredited direct legislation. But a group of mostly young Germans (many of them with ties to the environmental movement) think the country should have the initiative and referendum all all levels of government.

So, for the last 8 years, they’ve been driving a bus around Germany. They take turns living on the bus, often for months at a time. They visit towns and talk with people about the virtues of direct democracy. They’ve been having success. Use of the direct democracy is now common in German localities. There have been thousands of measures, many of them on the same local development controversies that appear on American ballots. And more and more Gemran states are adopting direct democracy. But no such luck yet at the federal level.

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Think like a philosopher and write like a farmer

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews is currently attending a conference in Switzerland on direct democracy, and is sending special reports on his experiences in Europe and how they contrast with California.

Think like a philosopher and write like a farmer – That’s the motto of the In-House Drafting Committee, one of the most interesting government offices I’ve come across. The committee handles the official translation of all legislation — including initiatives and referenda — in Switzerland. It’s a crucial role in a country with three major national languages — German, French and Italian. They do not have a light hand–they do serious editing for clarity and for constitutionality. The office has an interesting collection of people: historians, political scientists, linguists and two– count ’em, two — theologians. (They’re considered particularly good on questions of ethics, morality and the original meaning of texts).

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The Swiss Initiative Monk

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews is currently attending a conference in Switzerland on direct democracy, and is sending special reports on his experiences in Europe and how they contrast with California.

I spent Tuesday morning at the Kafigturm, the former women’s prison in Bern that has been converted into the leading spot for holding political forums, press conferences and meetings. (It’s a short walk from the headquarters of the government and the Parliament). My reporter friends and I visited with Hans-Urs Wili, a Swiss institution who has been spent the last third of a century (today was the day when he reached exactly one-third, and this man knows how to count) as the Swiss referee in matters of direct democracy. His title is head of the department of political rights at the federal chancellery. As such, he advises lawmakers and citizens alike in matters of referenda and initiatives.

His is the office to which you turn in signatures. Just as Liz Hill, the legislature’s non-partisan analyst in California, was long known as the budget nun, Wili is the Swiss initiative monk.

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Residency and the nature of voting

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I’m visiting Switzerland this week, touring the country with other journalists interested in direct democracy and speaking at a global conference on ballot initiatives and referenda. Here’s a dispatch from the road:

Over a bratwurst lunch Monday in an Alpine mountain pass, Sustenpass, I had an interesting back-and-forth with Bruno Kaufmann, the Swiss-Swedish journalist who is president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe. The subject? Residency and the nature of voting.

Bruno was born Swiss, and remains a citizen. In fact, he’s considered a citizen in two different Swiss municipalities to which he and his family have ties. But Bruno lives with his wife and children in Sweden. He votes in all three places (though he only gets a Swiss federal ballot in one of the two Swiss towns). Shocked? This is perfectly legal, since citizenship here is granted locally, not federally.

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Public Unions Fighting Public Disclosure

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The essence of self-government is the ability to know what your government is doing, who it hires and how it spends its money. But public employee unions have been — shamefully — seeking to prevent the public from learning such information.

Within the last year, state public employee unions sought to block — and then boycott — the Sacramento Bee for publishing the salary data of state workers. There is no more essentially public record than that. Now comes news from San Bernardino that the county is giving unions heads-up about public records requests in an attempt to block them.

Unions there are attacking newspapers that make requests for records on county employees. This is particularly outrageous because public records request from newspapers and the public are often the only way to learn how public employees and their unions behave. Public employee unions are exempt from the federal laws and regulations that require unions representing private sector workers to report on their internal finances to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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Will there be powdered wigs? Thoughts on the Constitutional Convention.

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

California’s elites are talking, and here’s what they’re saying: this governor can’t get things done, the legislature is hopeless, the entire state government is dysfunctional. (OK, just because they’re elites, they’re not wrong. These are Western Elites, not the dreaded Eastern Elites who are being so, so, so unfair to Sarah Palin). The you know what has hit the fan. The only way to fix this is top-to-bottom reform.

So let’s have a constitutional convention.

What does your blogger think? Put the convention in some place nice (Monterey, maybe, or how about Coronado?) and I’m there, live blogging every second. But while I hate to burst bubbles (OK, I enjoy the occasional bubble burst), I wonder if a constitutional convention is a realistic goal, and whether such a gathering might be more trouble than it’s worth.

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Try California, Guys

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Call me a homer, but I think it’s rotten form for major California organizations to have retreats and conferences out of state. It’s particularly bad form if you’re say a union that has just launched a recall of the governor, or a group of Republican legislators holding out on approval of the budget.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., whose leaders have filed a notice of recall against Gov. Schwarzenegger, are holding their convention later this month in Las Vegas. I’m sure they got a good rate and will have a good time. But it’s tone deaf for a high-profile union that is demanding a big pay raise to go to Nevada. Earth to the CCPOA boys: your pay doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes from state tax dollars. State tax dollars are generated from economic activity here in California. Thus, it’s borderline obnoxious to help the Nevada budget while seeking to take money from the California budget. If you want a raise and a new contract, why don’t you swing by Carson City and ask the Nevada legislature for one while you’re at it?

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The Recall Gamble

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I think the governor should embrace the recall proposed by the prison guards union.

Read my reasons in today’s Los Angeles Times here.

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The Doomsday Scenario

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I recently mused on Facebook about which might arrive first: Christmas or a new budget agreement for California, which is already more than two months late. A conservative friend quickly responded with his hope that Christmas would come first.

You might call the Republican legislative strategy in California the Doomsday Scenario. And it’s not a threat. Republicans seem moore than happy to usher in the closing of state government. California will run out of cash within a month. It’s not at all clear that the governor could keep the state open if that happened. But for Republicans, there might be very little to lose.

The party is already terribly unpopular in the state. There’s little hope of any change in that. Nearly all of the Republican legislators are insulated from being kicked out of office in November by a gerrymander. And Republicans have little hope of gaining any new seats from Democrats because of the same gerrymander. Republicans already have thrown their best-known, best-liked politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger, under the bus, all but dismissing him as a Democrat. The California GOP is stuck at the bottom of the pit. So why not blow up the state? There’s nowhere to go but up.

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Prop 2. backers suing to change their own ballot statement

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

In California, supporters of Prop 2, a Humane Society-backed ballot initiative to regulate how farm animals are confined, appear to have made a little bit of legal history. Earlier this month, they essentially sued themselves in an attempt to change their own ballot argument in favor of the measure.

The lawsuit, which is attached below, makes for odd reading. The language of the lawsuit sounds almost apologetic, asking for a "very minor change" (italics not mine) in both the ballot argument and the rebuttal to the "no" side’s argument. Technically, the supporters are suing the Secretary of State, but they’re suing the Secretary of State to change something they themselves wrote. The reason for the filing? To avoid voter confusion, the lawsuit says.

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