On more than just local government

Friday, January 06, 2006

Ariel Sharon

I have never been a great fan of his, but he seems to be the only man in Israel that could be trusted to give things to the Palestinians without the potential recriminations of being too liberal. Sort of like Nixon in China.

Who will follow him? If it is Netanyahu, many will die. If it is a liberal, the country may come asunder. Hobson's choice.

Pat Robertson

I have a feeling all the blood doesn't quite go to the brain of this wacko.

Turned out pretty much as expected

At this writing, the Governor is putting the finishing touches on his State of the State message. According to reports, he will include a call for a massive bond issue to “deal with California’s infrastructure problem.” The price tag could be as big as $50 billion. More likely, it will be in the mid-$20 billion range. In either case, it is way too much…and way too little at the same time.

How can that be? The infrastructure needs of California are defined very differently depending on the group questioned about it. To developers, truckers and the motor vehicle lobby, roads and freeways need to be fixed and expanded. To transit advocates and environmentalists, public transportation needs to be beefed up. To water agencies, levees and pipelines need updating. To housing advocates, fixing the shortage of moderately priced units should be the first priority.

It goes on and on. And, at some level, all of them are true. California’s needs are massive. But, a situation that has been ignored for decades, by Governors of both political parties, will not be fixed by putting the State so far into debt that its options for future financing would be jeopardized. That’s because Wall Street, which ultimately sets the price on all this borrowing through the determination of credit worthiness, will not allow California to go that deeply in debt, especially considering the fragility of its revenue sources, without paying prices that would be less of more prudent decisions are made.

Why fragile? During the past three to four years, revenues have been increasing because of three factors. The first is the growth in incomes. An improving economy creates more jobs which add to income tax revenues. The second is sales taxes. Consumer spending numbers have increased and the State is reaping some of the benefit, although more and more is going to online retail, for which state and local tax revenues are minimal or nonexistent.

The final piece of the puzzle is property taxes. With the spurt in home buying, the state has gotten an unanticipated bump in this area. Local governments have also benefited as their small portion of the property tax revenues, and the developer fees associated with new home building, have grown.

As we saw in the early years of this decade, this bubble can burst. In fact, the housing market is already showing signs of dramatic slowdowns, due to high prices and increasing interest rates. The floating of a huge bond puts the State at greater risk of having debt service become a far too large portion of the annual budget, making it more and more difficult to provide the services the people of California demand.

A catchall bond is the easy way out. Making the hard decisions about what should and should not be financed may be hard, but it is the right way to go. The Governor has lost a year of work in this area by believing that the voters would make it easy for him to control the process. The voters told him to stop asking them and for him and the Legislature to do their jobs.

It is time he actually listened to the people.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

OK, I'm going to try once again

Writing a blog is not difficult. Writing it regularly is.

I'm going to try again to see if I can actually keep up with a schdule of blogging. What with a weekly column and a regular job, this is not easy. But, some weeks there are more stories than can fit in one column, so I'll give it another try.

What's the over/under on how many Congresspeople will find it necessary to "spend more time with their families" over the next few weeks? Should be an interesting survey of who has/had "juice" in Congress.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Killing the jobs of toner salespeople

Have you noticed a decline in the number of junk faxes you’ve received over the past few years? Despite the occasional one that comes through, compared to a few years ago, the reduction has been significant.

Now, the California Chamber of Commerce, along with most of the local chambers, is demanding a return to the bad old days. According to them, a bill in the state legislature, SB833 (Bowen), is too restrictive on their abilities to communicate with their members and, therefore, should be defeated. What they don’t tell you is that this bill is merely designed to keep in place the restrictions on unsolicited fax advertising that have been working for two years. So, what’s wrong with the protections we already have?

The history of this legislation is important to understand. Prior to 2003, California had a weaker junk fax law than did the Feds. To remedy this situation, a law was passed in Sacramento mirroring the stronger Federal statute. In a matter of days, the number of those invasions of our privacy diminished.

Now, Washington is planning on weakening the Federal law. Part of this weakening is to require that rather than your having to agree to receive faxes, known as “opting in,” you would be responsible for asking that you aren’t sent unsolicited material, known as “opting out.” SB833 would keep the existing limitation in place in California, with its “opting in” requirement, no matter what happens on the Federal level.

The main problem with the proposed Federal law (S 714 by Sen. Smith, R- Oregon) is that they want to make it so that any organization can fax anyone with whom they have even the most tenuous of a “business relationship.” This means that anyone to whom you have passed a business card, for example, can place you on their fax list and you, then, have to request removal from it. In reality, since there is no enforceable requirement in this law that the “business relationship” be proven, bulk fax companies like Fax.com can send you an unsolicited missive and, if you don’t respond to cancel, your fax number is now fair game for their use.

This is what the Chambers want to have happen. Why? Sadly, one main reason for the hue and cry from them is, to put it simply, laziness. They do not wish to be bothered to have to ask their members to agree to receive faxes, such as newsletters, from them. When you consider that your privacy will be lost because they don’t want to just ask their members for permission to fax them, you start to wonder whether these organizations have forgotten that they are consumers, too.

The California Chamber calls any bill that regulates business practices as “job killers.” Our local chambers, with the notable exception of Carson, walk mindlessly in lockstep, not seeming to understand that their members would perhaps like to have their own fax machines freed up from unsolicited use.

So, Chambers, whose job is going to be killed by this? All we can think of is the person who sells toner to the many individuals who will inconvenienced by your policies.

I’m not worried about them. I just want to keep my fax machine to myself.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wastes of government funds

Within three hours of each other Monday afternoon, two glaring examples were evident everyone to see of how managing the cost of government activities is never the highest priority among public officials. There was the end of the Michael Jackson trial followed by the announcement by Governor Schwarzenegger of a November special election so that some decisions that will do nothing to reduce the state’s budget deficit, and that could easily have waited until next June’s scheduled primary, can be decided at a cost of $80 million.

I have no idea whether Michael Jackson was guilty or not. It is clear that he is wacko, but perhaps he can’t be proven to be THAT kind of wacko. However, the fact that not a single guilty verdict was gained, even on the least of the counts regarding offering liquor to a minor, indicates how much of a waste of the public money was involved in mounting this case. The District Attorney, it seems, has fallen into the Gil Garcetti trap of trying to nail a celebrity with enough money to buy “justice.” Hopefully, Mr. Sneddon will suffer the same response from the voters of his county as Mr. Garcetti and be tossed from office.

As for the special election, the Governor feels that he must deal with these “serious” issues that will be offered to the voters. This despite the fact that one of the key items to be voted on, redistricting, cannot be accomplished in the time frame set by the initiative and that others, such as nurse staffing, teacher sanctions and firefighter benefit reductions are consistently opposed by a majority of California voters. Nevertheless, the Governor has decided that $80 million needs to be spent on an election that could have been held for nothing just 8 months later.

For both these public officials, the public’s money seems to be viewed as their own personal expense account when it enhances their self-aggrandizement. For Mr. Sneddon, a victory would have meant statewide publicity that could have lead to thoughts of higher office. For the Governor, this special election is a large scale public opinion poll that could provide the impetus he needs to recover the support he has lost since the Recall election. We don’t need to spend our scarce resources this way.

June is the month to remind you of the dire fiscal condition of our local governments, cities, counties, school districts and special districts. We need all the resources we can get to be working for us, not for the politicians who have control of the purse strings. By the end of this month, you will hear much about the cutting of services these local governments have been forced to undertake. Every million dollars spent in these crackpot endeavors is a million less for something that we need.

The only way to stop them is to, loudly and convincingly, repudiate them. A sound beating will, hopefully, be an object lesson to any spending-crazed politicians who follow. Then, maybe, we can get down to the real work of government…providing services to the people who entrust them with their money.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Whose budget is it anyway?

We have been inundated in recent weeks with a commercial paid for from the over $70 million in campaign contributions raised by Gov. Schwarzenegger castigating the California Legislature for spending $1.10 for every $1.00 raised. He conveniently doesn’t mention that the signature on that document is his.

As we enter the budget season in Sacramento, the bs factor rises to epic proportions. Everyone tries to blame everyone else for a situation that has been a problem not just for the last few years, but for the last few decades. Specifically, since 1978, the initiative process has little by little eroded the power of both the Governor and the Legislature to control spending. That’s because every special interest has carved out its own gravy train of funding and some, such as then Citizen Schwarzenegger’s after school program initiative, which passed more than four years ago, will kick in as the budget situation improves.

It is estimated that the legislature has management control of only about 20% of the budget. The remainder is allocated based on formulas that, very often, do not relate at all with the changing financial condition the State find itself in. So, for the Governor to blame the Legislature in this way indicates that he is either lying or doesn’t really understand the history of State government. Either scenario is highly disturbing.

The Governor has also in recent months decided to take on what he calls “special interests.” Included in these groups are nurses and firefighters, two groups that, generally, get high marks for the people they serve. The concerns he has with these groups are different, but they are both aimed at the fact that they have effectively organized as labor groups. The nurses want to make sure that their workloads don’t get in the way of service to the people who need them and the firefighters are concerned that proposals to cut their health and welfare arrangements will leave any widowed spouses without pension benefits.

I don’t understand what the Governor thinks he is going to get out of these fights. The public, as seen in poll after poll, clearly side with the nurses and firefighters. Yet, he plods on toward a special election that will cost California taxpayers at least $70-80 million.

Schwarzenegger has spent and continues to spend, the political capital he gained from the Recall election like a drunken sailor. Driving back from Northern California last week, I saw a billboard with two pictures on it. On the left was a nurse, with the caption “She heals.” On the right was Schwarzenegger, with the caption “He wheels and deals.” Very succinct and very correct.

The chances he had to make reform happen are gone. They have been lost in the creation of an “uberpolitician,” who raises money beyond anything Gray Davis ever did, bounces from issue to issue with no coherence, lands on policy solutions that make no sense, for which he fights until they die due to lack of interest.

Oh, well. The 2006 election is at hand. Maybe that will solve it.

Monday, May 09, 2005

But, I stole it fair and square

San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy resigned last week amid growing concerns about his stewardship of the financial crisis that threatens California’s second largest city. The speed of his departure was certainly assisted by an article in Time Magazine citing Murphy as one of the three worst Mayors in the United States.

The problem is Murphy should never have been in the Mayor’s chair in the first place. Had all the votes been counted in the City’s last municipal election, Donna Frye, a Councilwoman who began a write-in campaign late in the process as the depth of the financial crisis became clearer, would have been properly sworn in. Only an arbitrary decision by the Registrar of Voters (ROV), Sally McPherson, ruled that 5,551 Frye write-in votes that did not have a filled in bubble next to the written name were void. The margin of difference between Frye and Murphy was slightly more than 2,100.

People seem to have this belief that paper ballots are the panacea to accurately count votes. History has shown that it is not, and the Frye case is a perfect example. Paper ballots are far more prone to fraud and error than electronic voting has proven to be. In addition, a situation like Frye’s could not have occurred on an electronic machine because a write-in vote is automatically tallied as such. There is no requirement to do anything other than enter the name.

The bubble fill-in requirement is, in fact, only important to the ROV. That’s because the computer system used to read the pieces of paper (yes, Virginia, it is all tallied by computer) needs a mark to let it know that there is a name in the write-in box. The law, as presently written, does require these bubbles on paper ballots. However, other parts of the law enable the ROV to determine the “intent of the voter” in recount situations. The San Diego ROV and a municipal judge hearing the case ignored that. It is on appeal.

Hopefully, this situation will be clarified upon the passage of SB 1050 (Bowen). This bill, which cleared the State Senate last week, specifies that the bubble is "for the convenience of the elections official counting the ballot and that, if the name of a qualified write-in candidate is written in the blank space provided, failure by a voter to mark the voting space shall not preclude the voter's ballot from being counted if the intent of the voter can be determined.”

Part of the problem with the counting was that boxes of votes kept on popping up at various ROV offices. In King County, a heavy Gregoire area, at least 785 votes are known to have been “mishandled,” with three ballots stuck in counting machines. At least 200 ballots were set aside to research the voter’s status. These were never processed.

Paper is not a perfect solution. In Redondo Beach, which uses the Ink-A-Vote paper system, every pass through the tallying machines gave a different number in the Mayoral race. A hand recount provided yet another number and, with a difference of one vote between two candidates, we still aren’t sure that every vote was actually counted.

There is no more important bulwark of democracy than a fair vote count. It’s time we used all the tools available to make that happen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

What a lovely couple

George and Abdullah will be out looking for tent furniture soon.