On more than just local government

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Just get over it. Legalize gambling, already.

Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger agreed to a series of “compacts” with five Indian tribes to enable them to build gambling establishments. While there are some additional requirements covering health and safety as well as an agreement requiring coverage by the State’s workers compensation system, much of the deal is favorable to the tribes, including removing the cap on the number of slot machines a casino can operate.

The biggest winner is the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, who will be able to build a mega-casino in an area the Governor promised would never have one, a highly urbanized area. In fact, this operation in San Pablo, along Interstate 80 east of San Francisco, will have over 5,000 slot machines, more than the MGM Grand in Las Vegas,

The casino would be operated for the tribe by a partnership that includes the Maloof family, owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and the Palms Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Native Americans all, I’m sure.

The deal might even include a new interchange on I-80, but who would pay for it is not exactly clear. According to reports, the State’s expected take should be at least $150 million a year. 25 percent of the casino’s earnings from not just slots but card games is supposed to go to the state, with payments to the city, county and CalTrans (do I smell freeway interchange?) to be deducted from that amount. The remainder would go to the State’s general fund. No one is quite sure how much will make it through that sieve.

So, why is this any different from allowing a city or county to open up a facility in which one can drop coins into slot machines, play cards at a green covered table or even throw some dice? And why should the sovereign nation status of these tribes make this acceptable while it would not be if it were owned and operated by non-Natives?

The hypocrisy is so thick you could slice it.

It is estimated that on one day a year, the day of the Super Bowl, over $1 billion is bet by Californians either at legal sports books in Nevada (a small portion) or through bookies (the large majority). This does not include the office pools, etc., which, while illegal, is so rampant enforcement is impossible.

According to sources, the bookie’s share of the “action” is about 10%. This “fee,” known as the “vigorish,” or “vig,” is their charge for creating the betting marketplace. Were the State to be in this business, their take for ONE DAY would be $100 million. That’s two-thirds of what the State will make in a year from this big new casino.

Yes, I know people have trouble with gambling. They also have trouble with smoking (which we try to manage by taxation and limiting places for use) and drinking (which we try to manage by licensing purchasing and imbibing outlets). The problem is that we are not limiting gambling by not having places to gamble. All we are doing, as we did with booze in the era of Prohibition, is provide a revenue stream for organized crime.

It is time to face the reality of the expansion of Indian casinos. If you build it, or even if you don’t, they will bet. However, if everyone gets the chance to build it, the State will, at least, get its fair share of the action.

And maybe, just maybe, we can reduce all our taxes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Stop those damned anthems

Call me crazy, but I thought the Olympic Games were about individuals achieving great athletic heights. So when Paul Hamm, the guy who got the gold medal in the men's gymnastics all-around, tells NBC that he did this to "make his country proud," it makes me wince.

I've been watching the Olympics since 1960, when they first started televising them. I have been an enormous fan of Bud Greenspan's series of Olympic movies. Most of that coverage, and all of the movies, focused on individaul achievment. Yet, sadly, jingoism has grown exponentially during that time.

The focus of NBC's coverage of medal ceremonies is indicative of the problem. On occasion, such as the Greek gymnast winning on the high bar, we hear another national anthem. Usually, it is the Star Spangled Banner ceremonies only. After all, NBC is looking to keep people watching events that ended hours earlier and whihc most people know the results of.

The Olympics should stop playing anthems and focus their attention on the individual winner, not where they came from.

Paul Hamm didn't win the gold for the US. He won it for himself. (At least he thinks he won it, since some idiot judge screwed up and tarnished the win forever.) Just as May and Walsh won beach volleyball for themselves. Let the Olympics live up to its credo, where individuals from around the world gather to compete and show which person, or team, is, on that particular day, Olympic champion.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Higher crude prices, higher pump prices...maybe

Over the past few weeks, the news has been filled with reports of ever increasing crude oil prices. Yet, despite the fact that a similar increase about a four months ago led to rising pump prices, this one hasn't. I wonder why.

Perhaps, since the Saudi princes couldn't keep the promise they made to the Bush Administration to reduce prices by the time the election rolled around, the oil companies, who owe a great deal to the incumbents for weakening environmental laws, are coming to the rescue.

The profit reports for these companies will not become available until after the election in November, so we won't know completely how much of a conspiracy exists. But don't be surprised if these prices start to rise on November 3 to make up for the "lost revenue" these months have caused.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

So, you think Ahhnold’s thinking of you?

In all the hullabaloo surrounding the negotiations, name calling, posturing and, ultimately, passage of the State budget, some of the details included in that document may have been missed. If so, here’s a little tidbit that may want to make you rethink the question of who is out for whom?

One of the primary sticking points that kept the budget from being approved on time was a demand by Republicans, and supported by Gov. Schwarzenegger, that the sales tax on luxury yachts costing over $400,000 be waived. Why? Because, the supporters of this tax loophole said, the yachting industry would be devastated if people who can afford to spend that much on a boat would have to pay the 8.5% tax everybody else does. Yacht sales, they moaned, would plummet and people would be thrown out of work.

I don’t know about you, but I guess if you have enough money to buy a boat that expensive, you probably wouldn’t even notice the tax, much less be unable to afford it.

But, far worse than that issue alone, at the same time, demands by the Democrats for the continuation of a sales tax rebate program for school teachers who are forced by budget cuts to purchase essential teaching materials for the classroom was rejected during the negotiations with the Governor. Too expensive, they were told.

So now teachers, who already don’t make the kind of money the importance of their job should demand, have to continue to dip into their own pockets for needed materials and pay the sales tax for them, to boot.

So who has their priorities screwed up? Is it the Governor and his minions sucking up to millionaires and billionaires, or the people who thought we should give our harassed teachers a break?

Governor Schwarzenegger has spent a lot of time posturing about being a representative of “the people.” He blathers about how he is out to protect us. Yet, it has been clear from the moment he decided to run for office, and especially since he took the oath, that he is more beholden to his allegedly hated “special interests” than even Gov. Davis was. It is just a different group of interests.

This Governor does not care about you. He cares about the people who have given him thousands of dollars in campaign funds for his various, sometimes harebrained, schemes. He goes around denigrating his opponents with infantile remarks like “girlie men” and expects to be taken seriously as a national political figure.

We have not gotten the Ahhnold we were told to expect when he was elected in the recall last October. I only hope that the voters come to understand the mistake they have made and either correct it when they next have a chance in 2006, or correct him.

But, I wouldn’t hold my breath…unless, of course, I had a few tens of thousands of dollars to throw his way.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Just arguing about the price

Over the past few months, a group of nearly 300 state employees and private sector advisors obtained input from individuals and groups in order to come up with a massive government reorganization plan known as the California Performance Review. This study, released this week, is one of a series that have been conducted over the past few decades in various attempts to make streamline government. Combining measures such as job cuts, reorganizing “the boxes” and reducing the number of boards and commissions, this latest attempt claims that implementing all their proposed changes can save $32 billion over the next five years. We shall see. The accounting is a bit fuzzy.

Meeting in secret, this group claims to have gathered input from a wide range of sources, up to 1800, including academics, state agencies, unions and businesses. But, according to press reports, it seems that only those who “paid to play” by giving money to the various campaigns set up by Governor Schwarzenegger got physical access to the group.

According to one watchdog group, the Governor has called for the “biggest reorganization and dissolution of government in California history, developed behind closed doors and with gag orders on participants whose salaries are paid by taxpayers.”

In addition, there is no indication whether any private sector organization that influenced the conclusions of the committee will be precluded from benefiting from the decision-making process. This preclusion from benefit is a basic element of government procurement law.

As an example, if a company is involved in building the scope of work for a government project, they are precluded from bidding on the project itself. While controversial among vendors, it is a basic protection from a vendor building a scope of work favorable to one particular client, themselves. Some of those companies that provided the “more personal” input that seems to have swayed the committee to its conclusions may very well be in a position to provide the work that, according to the report, should ultimately be “outsourced” to the private sector.

Another interesting aspect of this process, however, is the clear repudiation of the Governor’s claim in the recall election that his wealth will keep him independent of those nasty “special interests” he claimed had taken ownership of Sacramento. Actually, he has turned the soaking of those interests into a science even beyond former Governor Davis, someone often vilified for his focus on fund raising. By these standards, Schwarzenegger makes him look like a piker.

There is no organization of the size of the State of California, be it in the public or private sector, that wouldn’t benefit from regular review and updating of structure and responsibility. However, when dealing with a public sector change of the magnitude being recommended by the California Performance Review, maintaining absolute process openness is essential. In this, likely with the blessing of the Governor’s office, this openness was tossed in the trash.

In fact, it seems, it was sold to the highest bidder.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Doesn't anyone ever get fired around here?

How much does someone in the Bush administration have to screw up before they get fired?

The latest revelation is that the name of the computer geek the Pakistanis picked up was bloviated to the networks so that the President could say to the American voter that something is moving on the terrorism front. The only problem is that the Pakistanis wanted to use the information they had gleaned from the sting to get higher-ups.

With the American chest pounding, these people knew the jig was up and they fled back into whatever woodwork there is in Islamabad and environs. Yikes! As Casey Stengel used to say about the 1962 New York Mets, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Now, who should be fired? The person who had the idiot idea to tell the press? The person who approved this person telling the press? The cretins who hired the people who did such a stupid thing?

And why didn't anybody let the Pakistanis know we were doing this? They must have gotten quite a whiplash when they snapped on CNN that night.

Nobody was fired for 9/11 (unless you consider George Tenet getting out before the police arrived). Nobody was fired for MWD (unless you consider Ahmad Chalabi taking a convenient trip to Iran). Nobody was fired for too few troops to do the job (unless you consider Tommy Franks' timely departure to have a book ghostwritten for him).

At hockey games, my brother and I used to follow the singing of the national anthems with the shout "Hit somebody." George W., "Fire somebody."

Monday, August 02, 2004

I am curious - Orange

Whatever respect I had for Tom Ridge as being focused on creating a truly apolitical Department of Homeland Security was blown away today during his news conference announcing the raising of the threat level in the financial communities of New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC.

Ridge must know that many people believe that the raising of the threat levels in the past have been driven exclusively by the political necessity of the time, whether to deflect the attention public from some Bush administration screw-up or to get a jump on press focus on the Democrats. So why would he, in the middle of his news conference announcement include this passage? "But we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the President’s leadership in the war against terror."

So, is this the beginning of the August push to take center stage from John Kerry? I hope not. But, we have been told that the wolf is at our door many times. Many local governments don't even respond anymore when the alert is sounded.

Tom Ridge used to have some integrity. Too bad, he has proven to be just another flak.