Countering Fox On the Counter Proposal

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)

Joel Fox wrongly criticizes one of the few good ideas for reforming the initiative process: legislation in Oregon to permit the legislature to add a counter proposal to each initiative on the ballot.

He seems to think this is a trick to somehow limit the popular will, to sabotage the initiative process, or at least “attempt to undermine” it. Nonsense. To the contrary, the counter proposal is an established, time-tested procedure that strengthens direct democracy. Counter proposals have long been essential features of in Switzerland and other countries that use the initiative and referendum. In fact, the counter proposal gives more choice – and more information – to the people. Here’s hoping that Oregon adopts this legislation – and that California quickly follows suit.

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A $20 Million Campaign

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)

After doing some reporting, that’s my conservative estimate of what the Yes side of the six ballot measures will have to spend before the May 19 special election.

Ordinarily $20 million is enough to run a good campaign. But this is not an ordinary campaign. The first five of the six measures have less than 50 percent support in public polls, and there’s no simple, direct way to sell any of those measures.

Propositions 1A and 1C present particularly formidable challenges, because supporters are contending with considerable public misinformation about both measures. (A significant part of the public thinks that the lottery provides a big chunk of education spending; in point of fact, only 2 percent of funds for schools come from the lottery). Given the high likelihood of defeat, it’s remarkable that the yes side has put together $20 million. It may end up being money wasted.

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The Education Special Election

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)

Few people realize it. But this is California’s Year of Education.

The phrase “year of education” has been somewhat discredited. Gov. Schwarzenegger initially had promised that 2008 would be the “year of education,” following up on 2007 as the “year of health care” and 2005 as “the year of reform.” But the budget turned so sour that he dropped the idea of doing more for education and education funding last year. Politically, that wasn’t a terrible idea. After all, his year of health care didn’t produce the major health care reform he wanted. And 2005? The less said about that, the better.

So what makes this California’s year of education? The special election ballot.

You wouldn’t know that from following the public debate about the election. Props 1A through 1E are being discussed, praised and criticized as if they were fundamentally about the budget. But in this state, half the budget involves education. The effects of passing – or not passing – each of these measures likely will fall harder on education than anything else.

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If You Want to Blame Someone for 6 Special Election Measures, Look In the Mirror

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)

Reading Mayor Riordan’s piece denouncing Gov. Schwarzenegger and the special election ballot measures, my first thought was: they need to decaffeinate the coffee at the Original Pantry in downtown LA (For you NorCal types, that’s the mayor’s greasy spoon on Fig). It’s hard not to think that some of this is personal. Riordan, after all, was gearing up to run for governor in 2003 when Schwarzenegger, without telling the mayor, threw his hat in the ring, and Riordan’s stint as Schwarzenegger’s education secretary didn’t end well.

My second thought was: It’s time for Californians to swallow hard and realize that they deserve these six measures.

Yes, as Riordan points out, the measures shouldn’t please liberals or conservatives or moderates or Greens or Hamas, for that matter. Chief among their flaws is one that Riordan hints at: the new spending in these measures — particularly the educating funding in Prop 1B — won’t kick in until after Schwarzenegger leaves office at the end of 2010. But the budget benefits — givebacks from health programs, new money from lottery securitization — would help him with the budget right way.

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PPIC Poll: Which of the Six?

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 headlines from the new Public Policy Institute of California poll will emphasize that five of the six measures (everything but 1F, the populist blast on legislative pay, which has a huge lead) on the May 19 special election ballot are in a deep trouble. But a look at the PPIC numbers suggests there’s reason to believe that all six could pass.

Propositions 1D and 1E are in the best position of the five troubled measures. They have leads, though neither measure has 50 percent support. That has a good chance of changing when Republicans learn more about the measures. Right now, Republicans oppose measures to take away spending from these programs. Since Republicans tended to oppose the initiatives (Prop 10 and Prop 63) that created these programs, it’s likely that when they learn the history, enough Republicans will support these measures to get them over the line.

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Burton and the Pragmatic Democrats

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)

This squishy centrist has spent so much time writing about the self-destructive, cult-like madness of California’s “heads-on-sticks” Republicans lately that he needed his fix of left-wing cant. So on Monday night, I took a drive over to the Santa Monica library.

In an auditorium there, the new chair of the state Democratic Party, the legislative legend John Burton, was addressing a crowd of Democratic activists. The evening didn’t disappoint (Except perhaps in his failure to use profanity. When Burton was leading the state Senate five years ago and I was a reporter haunting the halls of the Capitol, he rarely failed to say interesting things in language that I couldn’t quote in a family newspaper).

Burton talked dismissively of “business Democrats” and urged the room of liberals to “work in the primary and elect the libs.” He also thundered at one point: “I’m to the left of anyone in this state, including Barbara Lee.” Let’s just say he’s not exactly the Terry McAuliffe of the West.

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Should I Bother to Vote Today?

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 suppose if I were a good citizen, I’d vote today. That’s what you’re supposed to do when there’s an election. I live in the 26th Senate District, with an open seat since Mark Ridley-Thomas moved to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. So we have an election today.

But I wonder if any reasonable person would vote today. After all, haven’t I been a good citizen? Consider: I voted three times last year in statewide elections. I voted just three weeks ago in city elections. And I’ll be voting in less than two months, in the May 19 city and state special elections. If I vote today, I’ll be voting three times in two months. There are stretches when members of the legislature don’t vote as often.

Should voting in the senate race be a priority? I write about California politics for a living, but I can’t say I’m well informed about the race. There’s only one candidate I would recognize if I saw him on the street. Yes, it would take only a few minutes, but I have other priorities today. I’m on deadline on a magazine story. There are several interviews I need to do on other stories. I’ve got a wife and a new baby. Heck, I’ve got to finish this post.

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When you sign, get a receipt

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)

During every cycle of ballot signature qualification in California, there are complaints about signature gatherers and questions about signature fraud. Voters often say they were misled about the nature of what they were signing. Some have claimed circulators duped them into signing a different petition than the one they intended to sign.

I spend time with petition circulators and have found most to be honest, but there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of them. These days, a good validity rate – the rate of signatures obtained that turn out to be good – is 70 percent. That means there’s something disqualifying about 30 percent of signatures. Last year in Arizona, widespread fraud pushed validity rates for some initiative petitions below 50 percent.

Recently, a signature gatherer who posts frequently on my blog about direct democracy offered a simple, elegant way to address some complaints: give voters who sign petitions a receipt. That is, require petition circulators to give voters a carbon copy of the initiative they sign.

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Sabotaging the Move for Marriage Equality

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)

There’s been plenty of praise and attention for the two young students who have filed a ballot initiative that would remove the word marriage from state law and replace it with domestic partnership. In other words, the state would be out of the marriage business. Churches could still bless marriages. But that’s it. The fact that so many liberals have embraced this idea demonstrates how little the left understands about same-sex marriage and marriage itself.

Getting the state out of the marriage business is a truly terrible idea in every way. Worst of all, it will cause great harm to the cause it’s ostensibly supposed to support: marriage equality. In fact, until I read the news coverage showing that the sponsors were sincere, I had suspect that they were secret opponents of same-sex marriage who want to sabotage the effort to repeal Prop 8.

If you’re a liberal who can’t see beyond the facile argument that “the law should be equal, you might not understand how this initiative plays into the hands of same-sex marriage opponents. How’s that? Those opponents are always at pains to try to describe how expanding the right to marry to consenting adult couples is a threat to marriage.

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One Place Where Education Shouldn’t Be The Top Priority

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)

Here’s a fact I learned during the state’s recent (and unfortunately somewhat ongoing budget crisis and cash crunch): When cash runs short, other states pay their bondholders – the people they’ve borrowed money from – back first. But not California.

Here bondholders are second in the priority of payments. Education is first.

Proud? Don’t be. It’d be better for public services, for the state – and perhaps even for education – if we reversed the two priorities.

Why? At a Zocalo Public Square event I moderated last month in Los Angeles, Peter Taylor, managing director in the public finance department at Barclays Capital, explained that California’s priority payments probably hurts our credit rating a little. So we pay a little bit more to borrow for the privilege of putting education first. The extra money we pay to borrow would be better spent on more public services, including education.

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