Gubernatorial Primary Prequel: 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)

What’s the real opponent of the package of budget deal ballot measures in the May special election?

The 2010 governor’s race.

The package is an unsightly, unpleasant group of measures put together by an unpopular governor and an irresponsible legislature that deserves little respect. (And I say that as someone who has been consistently supportive of passing the package). Politically, the package makes an irresistible target for every single person running for governor of California.

Look for those candidates – Republicans and Democrats – to compete with each other in the fury and frequency of their denunciations of the package and the budget deal that spawned it.

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Two Thirds: California Republicans and the Stockholm Syndrome

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, a native New Englander, channeled Paul Revere on this site to warn of the coming invasion of Democrats and others seeking to overturn the state’s requirement of a two-thirds vote in the legislature before a budget may be passed or taxes raised.

I have to laugh whenever I hear Fox and other Republicans and anti-tax activists praise two thirds. Their logic is simply ridiculous. These are the folks who tell us over and over that California has gone to hell, that taxes are too high and that spending is out of control. Then they tell us that if we don’t protect the two-thirds requirement, taxes will be too high and spending will be out of control.

(Yes, you may scratch your head now.)
Which is it, guys?

The reality is that the two-thirds requirement is at the heart of the system that they denounce. Californian legislatures have operated under the two-thirds requirement for budgets since the 1930s and the two-thirds requirement for taxes since Prop 13 passed in 1978. And it is this two-thirds system that has produced the taxes and spending they complain about.

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Needed: A Geekier 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)

This is still the newborn stage of Meg Whitman’s political career. And career transitions are always tough. But I’m disappointed with how she launched her gubernatorial bid.

I don’t have any particularly problem with what she said in interviews with the LA Times and NBC’s Today show. Most of it was boiler plate. I even thought it was a tiny bit brave, for a Republican running in a closed Republican primary, to offer a complex position on gay marriage (she’s against it but for protecting the marriages of those who married lawfully last year – which Republicans should understand as respect for the rule of law – and for adoption by gay couples, a moral imperative in a world with too many parentless or unwanted children).

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If there’s to be a short-term deal…

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 new Republican line – advanced by Steve Poizner among others – is that the legislature should do a short-term budget deal that attempts to resolve the cash crunch. That’s not a good idea. The lack of a real budget plan is at the root of the state’s inability to borrow. But it’s better than nothing. And right now, we’re stuck at nothing.

However. However. However. If there is to be such a deal, Republicans need to swallow their reality pills and realize that they’re not getting out of town without raising taxes. No responsible Democratic leader would let them get away with that. A package would still have to balance spending cuts with an equal amount of tax increases. The gas tax and vehicle license fee increase would almost certainly have to stay in. To make the numbers work, the sales tax might have to be there too. Republicans could claim victory by saying they held off the income tax surcharge, but that’s the only victory they’d have. And they’d have to fight again. If nearly all GOP lawmakers stick to their “We’re Fiddling Against Taxes While Rome Burns” position, a short-term deal is impossible.

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The California Republican Cult

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)

Forget all the talk about whether one Republican will provide the crucial 27th vote in the state senate to pass the massive budget compromise of tax hikes, spending cuts and borrowing. Whether the compromise passes or not, the majority of Republican lawmakers have made their views clear this weekend.

They would rather California fall into the sea than vote for a tax increase.

No one can say they don’t have the courage of their convictions. Their position certainly must be sincere.

It’s also insane.

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The deal is terrible. Pass it now.

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 tax increases don’t make sense. (Sales tax hikes in a bad recession—not smart. And where’s that severance tax?). The spending cuts are huge. And another $11 billion in borrowing. Who’s going to loan us the money? And where’s the economic stimulus the governor talked about.

It’s a terrible deal, one that will hurt the state and its economy.

And the legislature needs to pass it immediately. (Don’t bother reading it, lawmakers. It’ll only upset you).

Why? Because the costs of a horrible deal are lesser than the costs of no deal. The state is simply out of time, short on the cash to pay its bills. Even with this deal, the state will still be short of cash for the foreseeable future. But a deal, any deal that has tax increases and spending cuts, allows California to step away from the abyss and begin to dig out of its hole and restore its credit rating.

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What does the death of the LA Times Local Section mean?

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 only thing surprising about the announcement that the LA Times is killing its local news section is that anyone was surprised. Sam Zell, the owner of the paper’s parent company, Tribune (yes, I know that an employee stock ownership plan is the nominal owner, but the ESOP is a tax dodge and employees have no power whatsoever), and his pirate crew of lieutenants have a near perfect record of making stupid moves. This is just another one.

This is also another case of Zell and team doing the exact opposite of what they said they would do. Zell took over a little more than a year ago – yes, it feels like it’s been longer – saying he wouldn’t cut because newspapers couldn’t cut their way to the future. As soon as he had control, he immediately began cutting. Zell also profanely declared in an infamous meeting in the Times’ now defunct Washington bureau, where I worked as a reporter at the time, that readers didn’t care about national news and that the paper’s future was in local news. (He suggested, insanely, that there was a bigger audience for coverage of the Santa Ana city council than there was for stories on national affairs). So it was only a matter of time before local news was gutted.

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Cowards, Bullies and Bluffs

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)

Hiram Johnson, the famous early 20th century California governor who was elected as a Republican only to ditch the party less than two years later for a new Progressive Party, was fond of saying this: “You can’t make a man a coward by pointing a pistol at his head. You can only prove him a coward.”

Johnson was defending the concept of a recall of elected officials and judges. (President Taft had spoken out against the idea of adding a recall provision to the California constitution, and Johnson had to defend the recall in the successful 1911 campaign to add direct democracy to the state constitution.

I’ve been thinking about Hiram’s comment as California politics melts down into a lava sea of bitter threats. Labor types are threatening to recall or end the political careers of Democrats they don’t like—and demanding criminal investigation of Republican lawmakers engaged in the usual political horse-trading. The Republican party has countered with threats to excommunicate lawmakers who even contemplate voting for tactics. And some talk show hosts (several of whom face declining ratings and relevance in this era) are demanding “heads on sticks” for lawmakers who vote for taxes.

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Cool! Our Own Boston Tea Party!

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)

You don’t want to make the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors mad. You really don’t. The supes have incredible power–they’re both the legislative and executive branch of government for a county of more than 10 million people. And there are only five of them. Do the math. Yep, those are districts of two million people each. That’s power that puts a mere congressman or state senator to shame. An incumbent supe loses a seat about as often as Halley’s Comet swings by the earth.

But oh, you state government. You’ve gone and done it. You’ve made the supes mad. And now you’re going to pay. Well, more precisely, you’re not going to get paid. Maybe. The county supes are so disgusted at the state government’s fiscal mess — and the legislature and governor’s delay in solving it — that they’re threatening to withhold tax payments to the state. It’s only fair–the state is refusing to pay its bills, and the delays already have cost the county more than $100 million.

Is it legal for the county to withhold payments, you ask? No. Is it practical? Probably not, since most taxes are collected by the state directly. But property tax receipts go through the county. Can they do it? Of course they can. Who’s going to stop them? The state of California? Ha! What’s Arnold gonna do–send the National Guard into the Hall of Administration?

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Selling Public Bonds Privately

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)

BURLINGAME — Here’s a sliver of good news in the California fiscal
mess: Although the treasurer’s office has said the state is not selling
any new bonds given the cash crunch and $42 billion deficit, some state
agencies and other government entities may be able to sell bonds anyway.

How?

Privately.

Call it do-it-yourself bond sales. I got the 411 on this Thursday night
at the meeting of the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee, the
board that oversees the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine,
the state’s stem cell research agency.

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