Memo to California Reformers: Breathe and Read Some History

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 the 24 hours after the election, would-be reformers around California have turned on a fire hose of proposals on the media and the public.

Everyone’s selling a solution. Higher taxes. Lower taxes. Tax reform. Spending limits. A lifting of spending programs. Reality-based budgeting. Zero-based budget. Performance-based budgeting. Marijuana-induced budgeting. A new ballot initiative that would require legislators to read the bills before they vote.

And most of all, a California constitutional convention.

Let’s call a time out and breathe. Here’s my own reform proposal for the reformers. Before proposing anything, open up Carey McWilliams 1949 classic, “California: The Great Exception.” You don’t have to read the whole thing, but I’m assigning all of you Chapter 10, entitled “Perilous Remedies for Present Evils.” California has a penchant for the same.

Read more

Why Meg Is Right to Lay Low

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)

Several times a week, I read about how terrible, just terrible it is that Meg Whitman is declining interviews from California reporters, skipping debates, and not behaving like a serious candidate for governor.

Steve Poizner’s campaign has made this almost a daily drumbeat; “If Meg Whitman can’t stand up to questions, how can she stand up for California?” read part of a state from Poizner senior advisor Kevin Spillane last week. And over at Calbuzz, Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts are “fuming” about Meg’s “ducking serious questions from California political writers for months.”

Expect more of the same today, when her GOP rivals — Poizner and Tom Campbell–are scheduled to debate the measures on tomorrow’s special election ballot.

I have a bit of advice for the Meg bashers: Take a deep breath. And get a life.

Read more

The One Endorsement That Could Turn the Entire Special Election Around

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)

All sorts of people and organizations are endorsing measures on next Tuesday’s special election ballot. While Props 1A through 1E appear headed for defeat, the measures seem to be winning the endorsement war, picking up support from most newspapers and elected officials. Both of California’s U.S. senators endorsed Props 1A and 1B this week.

But none of these endorsements seem to be making any difference in the polls. The public isn’t paying particularly close attention to the measures, and no one seems to much care what political leaders think about the measures.

In fact, there’s only one person in the entire whose opinion on ballot measures seems to matter to the public anymore. Who’s that, you ask?

Miss California Carrie Prejean.

Read more

Stop Lying About Prop 1A: It’s Not Long

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)

Criticize Prop 1A if you like, but opponents of the measures (and heck, even some supporters) should stop saying that it’s long. It’s not.

By comparison to other California ballot measures, 1A is short and compact. And the legislative and gubernatorial staffers (not to mention the interest group folks) who drafted 1A have done a much better job of being concise than sponsors of ballot initiatives.

Prop 1A is a little less than 3,000 words. If that seems like a lot, consider this: between 2000 and 2006, 15 of the 46 voter-sponsored initiatives on the ballot were over 5,000 words long, according to a 2008 report from the Center for Governmental Studies. Eight of those 46 initiatives were longer than 10,000 words.

Read more

Governor: Two “May Revise” Budgets Coming Thursday

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)

Governor Schwarzenegger said Monday morning that he will release two revised budget proposals on Thursday to show voters the budget options, depending on whether the May 19 Special Election measures pass or fail.

The governor said one revised budget proposal would show the state spending plan in the event that all six measures pass; the other would show precisely what cuts he will propose if all the measures fail.

He said he was doing this “so that people have a clear understanding” of the situation. Schwarzenegger made this announcement after a meeting with local government officials from around Southern California at the Culver City Senior Center.

UPDATE — Governor’s office clarifies: The official May revise release is May 28. But they are going to release two "summaries" — one if the measures pass, one if they fail — on Thursday.

Read more

Let’s Get the Election Over With So The Real Campaign Can Begin

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)

Most of the time, Yogi Berra is right. It’s not over ‘til it’s over. But when it comes to the May 19 special election in California, folks are behaving like it’s over.

The election campaign has been a small, relatively cheap one. The back-and-forth charges have been fairly civil. Given the condition of the state, one would expect a heated campaign. But the only real heat is being generated by fighting over what happens after the election. Schwarzenegger, Democratic legislative leaders, and their allies are predicting that their opponents, by defeating the special election measures, will be pushing the state over the cliff. The left is accusing the governor and legislative leaders of fear-mongering. The right is blasting at the left for planning tax increases.

Read more

Could Feds take over management of California?

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)

If you haven’t read this week’s report by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, you must. There’s plenty of bad news about the state being low on cash, but that we knew. Here’s what knocked me over:

Federal Assistance Could Come With “Strings Attached.” We believe it is appropriate for the Treasurer to explore the possibility of federal assistance—such as a federal loan guarantee—to address this summer and fall’s grim cash outlook. We caution the Legislature, however, against assuming such federal assistance will be available. By taking prompt actions to reduce the state’s cash flow borrowing need to under $10 billion for 2009–10, policymakers would enhance the ability of the Treasurer and Controller to secure private investment with or without a federal loan guarantee. Moreover, reducing the state’s cash flow borrowing will involve actions that improve the state’s medium– and long–term budgetary outlook. These actions would increase confidence in the bond markets, which are needed to continue providing funds for infrastructure projects that spur economic activity and long–term growth. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we advise the Legislature and other state policymakers to be cautious about accepting any strings that might be attached to federal assistance. Strings attached to recent corporate bailouts—as well as federal loan guarantees provided to New York City during its fiscal crisis three decades ago—have included measures to remove financial and operational autonomy from executives. We recommend that the Legislature agree to no substantial diminishment in the role of California’s elected state leaders. In our opinion, the difficult decisions to balance the state’s budget now are preferable to Californians losing some control over the state’s finances and priorities to federal officials for years to come. (Italics are mine)

Read more

Swine Flu and the 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)

I’m reluctant to raise this topic. So much of the media discussion of swine flu seems intended to scare, not inform. The government’s basic advice — to go about your business, but wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, etc. — seems perfectly reasonable. The state shouldn’t do anything that would add to the fear.

But I wonder about the impact the swine flu might have on turnout in the special election. Schools are closing. Some public events are being delayed. And some people seem to be staying inside out of an abundance of caution. It’s a strange time, then, to ask people to get out and vote. And many polling places are schools, after all.

A lifelong student of California politics — someone much older and wise than me — suggested to me earlier this week that the state needs to take a hard look at postponing the election, particularly if the situation grows more serious. And perhaps, even if it’s only the fear about the flu, and not the flu itself, that grows. Apparently, the state is studying the issue. In response to my question about the special election and the state’s rules for postponing elections in the event of pandemics, earthquakes or other serious problems, Kate Folmar, press secretary to Secretary of State Debra Bowen, emailed:

Read more

Arnold the Lawyer

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 rarely surprised by anything Arnold Schwarzenegger says (I literally wrote the book), but his interview with George Skelton for an LA Times column Monday is an exception. The governor is many things when he talks — over-the-top, funny, irreverent — but he’s rarely lawyerly. But lawyerly he was with Skelton. And he was lawyerly in a way that hurts his credibility and undermines the case for the ballot measures.

Here’s one problem quote: “It’s not fair, really, to say that [1A] raises taxes. I understand that the right spins it that way. But it’s disingenuous.” Yes, technically, Prop 1A doesn’t include a tax increase, but other legislation would extend temporary tax increases for two years if 1A passes. For us non-lawyers, that’s a distinction without a difference.

Here’s another: “We should just simply describe 1A as a measure that will fix the broken budget system once and for all so that you never have to make those severe cuts again. And you never have to go back to the people for tax increases again. That’s it.”

Read more

The End for Bass? Villines?

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)

Three weeks to the special election, and defeat looks likely for Props 1A-1E. The governor and legislators who cut the budget deal that includes the measures have talked in the broadest, scariest terms about what happens if the measures fail – the state could go bankrupt! Or off a cliff! Or it goes bankrupt as it goes off the cliff! (Does the long fall erase the debt?).

But the first casualties of defeat likely would be political, not economic. It’s hard for me to see the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Assembly surviving such a defeat. Both Karen Bass and Mike Villines have put their prestige and credibility on the line in making the deal, and defending it. In doing so, they’ve taken a big political risk, and for a good reason. Without a deal, the state’s cash crunch would have hurt not only the government but also the economy.

Read more