Tag Archives: George Skelton

Skelton Joins Chorus Pushing for Lowering Vote Thresholds

Sen. Mark Leno’s bill would lower vote requirement for tax increases to 55%

by Brian Leubitz

The lowering of the vote threshold for local taxes has been an early subject of conversation since the Democratic supermajority appeared on the horizon. Sen. Mark Leno’s bill was introduced in early December to do just that.

Today, George Skelton, joins the call to do just that:

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to help inner-city schools at the expense of suburbanites. But there must be a better way to assist the disadvantaged than to trigger class warfare.

And there is. It is to give school districts a better opportunity to raise their own tax revenue.

That could involve reducing the voter threshold needed for levying parcel taxes from two-thirds to 55%. … California needs all types of school reform, including how we generate money for classrooms – without starting an education civil war.

The idea is certainly getting a lot of attention, but it seems anything but certain that Sen. Leno will be able to muster the 2/3 of both houses to get the measure to the ballot. Both Gov. Brown and the legislative leaders are a bit worried about putting anything else on the statewide ballot that smells of tax increase after the success of Prop 30. But, in the end, the measure just evens out taxes with bond measures and allows communities the right to self-govern.

It just seems like common sense to allow communities to choose their own tax rates.

George Skelton Takes Prop 32 to Task, Calls 32 an “insult to voters’ intelligence”

Noted LA Times columnist calls out the phony political reform

by Brian Leubitz

George Skelton has seen most of the smarmier side of California politics. And when he calls something out for being phony, you should at least take notice. However, in the case of Prop 32, he’s gone further:

Even a cursory look at Prop. 32 shows that it’s about a covey of special interests from the right attacking a rival interest on the left, organized labor.

If backers had turned their initiative into an honest debate about curtailing labor muscle – specifically the influence of public employee unions – they would have deserved more serious consideration.

But by deciding to phony it up – crafting what they perceived to be the best marketing pitch based on public opinion surveys – they’ve created a laugher and an insult to the voters’ intelligence.(LA Times)

Of course, this is nothing all that new. What he is saying is the same thing that the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have been saying: this is not real political reform. It is a thin veneer with a whole other set of goals beneath. While Prop 32 would silence working Californians, like teachers, cops, nurses and firefighters, it would only empower the real special interests to spend unlimited and unregulated sums on their own favored politicians and measures.

As Mr. Skelton put it, “Prop. 32 is a self-serving sham.”

Note: Brian Leubitz, the editor of this blog, works for the No on 32 campaign. Please like the campaign on facebook or follow on twitter.

Skelton: Electeds Should Do Their Jobs

There are a multitude of problems with Prop 13.  You won’t have to read this site very long to learn my opinion on that 1978 initiative.  However, one of the long-term consequences of the measure, that perhaps was not really envisioned, has been away from all accountability on behalf of elected leaders.

Republicans simply throw their hands up in the air in public, saying the Democrats control the legislature. Meanwhile, in private, they are making up wish lists of stuff they want.  For their part, the Democrats say that they can’t act because of the supermajority rules.  Now, that might be reduced with the new majority vote budget measure, but when we need to raise revenue, that doesn’t really matter all that much. In the end, everybody has an excuse for why stuff doesn’t happen.  

But, that is really a problematic situation.  And instead of decisive leadership, we get elected officials who defer to the people, because they/we are the only legislative body that doesn’t need a supermajority.  In his column today, George Skelton decries this notion that somehow our elected leaders aren’t up to the task of solving our budget issues.

The governor, with legislative help, has the power to stop the bleeding and the weeping. Too bad he’s trying to abdicate it to voters.

Despite what he says, Brown is big enough for the job and capable of making the hard choices. And that’s what “we the people” expect. (LA Times)

Now, while saying this, he also blames unions for not compromising on the GOP demands and says there are a few “sensible” Republicans willing to bargain for other reforms.  Now, as I mentioned earlier today, that’s not what the budget process is for. It’s not designed to reform CEQA or our greenhouse gas pollution regulations, it should be about the budget.

Fortunately, Skelton brought in legal counsel to explain the sitch, UC-Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky:

“We elect representatives to make the laws,” (Chemerinsky) said. “It should be their responsibility to act in the best interests of the voters. If the voters don’t like what they do, they can be voted out of office.”

“It is unnecessary and undesirable to go to the voters,” added Chemerinsky, who worries particularly about a small turnout in a special election and potentially poor prospects for passage of the tax extension.

“The idea of cutting another $12 billion would be truly devastating to the state of California. And it’s the responsibility of the governor and Legislature to protect us from that.”

It is a broken system, and one where nobody takes responsibility.  I don’t know how that changes anything in the short term. But in the long-term can we really continue to have these same anti-democratic fights every year?

Skelton Looks At the Bigger Picture, Or, Hey, That Representative Democracy Ain’t Half Bad

In a state ruled by direct democracy in many ways, George Skelton’s column might be something close to seditious speech:

All that said, “check-ins” with the voters are what regular elections are about. The way our republican system of democracy was set up by the framers of both the U.S. and California constitutions, the people elect representatives to make decisions about spending and taxes.

You didn’t see either the Clinton tax increases or the Bush tax cuts being put to votes of the American people. That occurred at the next elections, when the people voted whether to rehire their representatives.

Only in screwy California, where we have an out-of-control initiative system and a bloated Constitution that Sacramento often stumbles over when it does try to make decisions, do voters perpetually get handed such policy-making power. (LA Times)

Here’s the situation we face. We have a state of 37 million voters.  At most 10 million of them turn out to vote on any regular basis, or less than a third.  Now care to guess how many of these people spent more than 5 minutes researching the issues they are going to vote on?

This is why we moved away from an Athenian-style direct democracy to a representative democracy. Our American founding fathers understood that not every voter had the capacity to take everything into context to make the decisions we expect of our legislators. You could argue that the information age has brought the knowledge necessary closer to the people, but in the end, uninformed voters are making decisions without all of the facts.

Even in a state of 1 million people the system would be impractical, here it’s downright unworkable.  Skelton takes Brown to task for boxing himself into the corner, but really, it was something of an electoral practicality.  He may have won without it, but it sure made it a lot easier.  But, here we are, in a position where Brown is now forced to bring this to the voters instead of just doing his job and making the decisions for the state with the Legislature.

Of course, Skelton goes on to throughly lambaste the Republican caucus for being pretty much worthless and waste of taxpayer money.  (It’s true!)  But the real point here, is that while this is where we are headed in the short term, it is ultimately unsustainable to continue to run of the world’s largest economies by plebiscite.

Co-Pays, The Budget, and New Revenue

In a Broder-esque column over the weekend, George Skelton took a little of this, a little of that, and a little Capitol craziness, and jammed them all together.  If you get beyond his Capitol story time of arm wrestling, you see that there are some very real concerns that are being glossed over.  In a discussion of Medical co-pays, this is very concerning

Maybe the $50 and $100 co-pays are a bit excessive for people living in poverty, officially defined at $10,800 a year for individuals and $14,600 for couples. But some co-pays are warranted. (LAT)

Except, as Anthony Wright later points out. It isn’t just the $5, for which Skelton dramatically underestimates the value of the money to those on MediCal, but the incentives.  If we start requiring these co-pays, it deters people from seeing the doctor early, and encourages them to wait until they can no longer ignore the problem.  This is a perverse incentive.

But Skelton gets to the point of choices. More specifically, that we are making extreme choices simply by sticking with the status quo. If we allow the corporate tax break from 2009 to set in, we are looking at $1.8 billion disappearing. And that makes the MediCal payments look like chump change:

Schwarzenegger had the right idea in January but since then has abandoned it. If things got bleak enough, he said then, the state should postpone roughly $1.8 billion in corporate tax breaks scheduled to begin in July.

Things are certifiably bleak. … {T}hey certainly shouldn’t take effect this July. Some things just make sense, regardless of which party you’re tied to.

We must understand that bumbling along is, in fact, making a choice. Let’s offer Californians a real choice, provide the state the services that we expect and require, and let the chips fall where they may.

Too Bold? How About “Too Absurd”?

At first I thought that the headline writer was confused.  “California tax reform plan much too bold for Capitol,” it said above George Skelton’s column today.  “Too bold” could maybe have more than one meaning.  Surely Skelton wasn’t throwing in with the idea that massively shifting the tax burden to the lowest income levels in society was too good an idea.  But I think that is, in fact, what he’s saying.

“I would sign it immediately” if it were a bill, Schwarzenegger told reporters. “Without any doubt.”

Of course, this is a governor who constantly seeks out things new and bold. And the tax proposal was all of that — much too new and bold for most Capitol denizens, especially those representing special interests.

As Genest told me: “It shouldn’t come as any surprise that lobbyists in Sacramento are in favor of maintaining the status quo unless they are confident that the change will serve their interests. That’s why they’re called ‘special interests.’ “

Nowhere in Skelton’s article does he quote any figures or statistics citing the practical effect of the Parsky Commission’s plans.  He doesn’t mention that, under the plan, taxpayers making over $1 million dollars a year would save $109,000 annually on average, while taxpayers making between $40,000 and $50,000 would save four bucks.  He doesn’t mention that the proposal would result in a net loss of revenue to the state, causing wider budget deficits.  He does manage to mention critiques of the business net receipt tax from the side of business and industry, but offers no critiques from the opposite end, a la Jean Ross’ statement that “You could not say, ‘We’re going to tax child care so we can lower the income tax on millionaires.’ But that’s what this does.”  The fact that the BNRT would hit business payrolls and disproportionately tax companies in the knowledge economy rather than the service economy also doesn’t make it in.  Skelton never mentions that, by taxing all businesses in the state, the BNRT would effectively tax rents.

He just says it’s “too bold.”

The Parsky Commission was practically designed to shift wealth upward.  It should surprise nobody that this is what it ended up doing.  That is bold, but not in the way that Skelton means it, I don’t think.

He does give voice to where Karen Bass may steer the debate:

Bass was holding her tongue, trying not to express disappointment in the commission. When she first proposed its creation, the speaker envisioned the panel proposing something more practical and simple: reducing the sales tax rate and spreading it to currently untaxed services.

She promised a “thorough and objective public review” of the panel’s recommendations.

Good idea, but don’t stop there.

“My biggest message to dysfunctional Sacramento is to get something done,” Parsky says. “If you’ve got a better idea, get it done.”

There’s no question that flattening and broadening the sales tax base is a decent enough idea.  Under the constraints of minority rule, it may be the best one lawmakers can get, and it would prove popular if enacted.  We’ll see if the Parksy Commission report is dumped in favor of that.

Yacht Party Hijackers

George Skelton finds a nut:

The two-thirds rule is not used merely to protect taxpayers from politicians trying to reach deeper into their pockets. It’s used by special interests — mainly big business — to game the system; a tool handy for legislative leverage, or extortion. If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll withhold the votes needed for the two-thirds.

It’s about buying and selling. Last Friday, at the all-night windup of this year’s regular legislative session, Democrats weren’t in a buying mood.

This is what happened, according to Democrats, and Republicans aren’t exactly denying it: The Senate GOP blocked more than 20 bills requiring a two-thirds vote because Democrats wouldn’t cave on three unrelated demands.

This has been true for years if not decades.  The 2/3 rule does not protect tax increases, it’s a tool for the Yacht Party to hijack the process.  In this case, the GOP wanted to create a forced market for Intuit, makers of TurboTax; to increase the corporate tax breaks from the Februrary budget deal, in particular to help Chevron; and to make Roy Ashburn a lead author on a Democratic bill.  See if you can find the word “tax increase” in there.  But because the Democrats didn’t much feel like giving out even more corporate welfare or fattening the pockets of Intuit, the Yacht Party revolted.  And they knocked down 20 bills, including one that would keep domestic violence shelters open throughout the state (which is nothing more than homicide prevention) by shifting available funds, and another to allow the Treasurer more leeway to renegotiate with banks and save the state $850 million dollars.

These and the other bills, again, did not involve tax increases.  They were taken up under urgency requirements (so the policy takes effect immediately) or other factors, like changes to the budget, which necessitate a 2/3 vote.  And the Yacht Party routinely takes advantage of this, mainly out of spite and an attempt to leverage their votes to reward their corporate backers.

Ashburn candidly defends blocking the legislation: “This was an opportunity for Republicans to have some leverage.” Concerning the merits of measures buried in the fallout: “The subject matter of bills at that point was secondary to what the [GOP] caucus had decided to do with them.”

This is a pretty startling admission.  But not one anybody wasn’t aware of before now.

Skelton has deciphered the problem pretty clearly, and Democrats are well-positioned to highlight it and show the disaster of governance ushered in by the onerous 2/3 rules.

Will they?

Skelton: Republicans Are Extortionists

George Skelton, the consummate insider, takes some time out from guarding the palace gates, to take a whack at the extortion coming from the Republicans (and Intuit):

Whatever the beef, there could be wide, unintended damage to noncombatants. The Republican weapon was blatant abuse of the two-thirds majority vote requirement for passage of many bills.

The two-thirds rule is not used merely to protect taxpayers from politicians trying to reach deeper into their pockets. It’s used by special interests — mainly big business — to game the system; a tool handy for legislative leverage, or extortion. If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll withhold the votes needed for the two-thirds. (LA Times 9/17/09)

See, that’s the problem when you give a wide, expansive veto power to a minority.  It’s fundamentally unworkable.  I’ll make an analogy to my patent law days here.  Sometimes a patent holder owns a patent on part of a device or process.  They frequently try to expand the scope and power of that patent by contract and license to block other firms from using or selling something that isn’t covered by the patent.

See the thing is with patents, when you do that, it’s called an anti-trust violation. It’s against the law.  But with the supermajority in the Legislature, it’s just par for the course.

Sen. Maldonado, quite possibly the loneliest Legislator, shunned by his own party and the Democrats, makes the theoretical argument.

“I was embarrassed,” says Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, the only Republican to cross party lines and vote for the bills. “I said, ‘I’m here to govern.’ They wanted all three things or nothing.

“The two-thirds vote is a good tool when put in the hands of people who are reasonable, pragmatic and open-minded. But partisans use the two-thirds as a tool to hold up the Legislature.

And if wishes were unicorns, then we’d all live in Arnold’s Fantasyland. But back here in the real world, this is how this is going to play out every time.  A minority will wield its minority veto like a club and bash everybody over the head with it until they get their way.  That’s just the way it is.

Palace Sentries Dispatched To Guard The Drawbridge

The establishment in Sacramento has manned the barricades, battened down the hatches and gone on the offensive to prove their own worth.  They sent their best man in the media, George Skelton, out to prove that no, despite your lying eyes, the California Legislature had a real banner year.  After all, they managed to bring suffering to the lives of hundreds of thousands of state residents with consensus and bipartisan elan!

The current Legislature, regardless of Duvall and despite ideological polarization, has had a better year than it’s getting credit for.

Its main accomplishment was keeping the state afloat amid a flood of red ink, created primarily by the toughest economic times since the Great Depression. OK, so it did use some bailing wire and chewing gum! The bills got paid, even if briefly with IOUs.

With great difficulty and pain — at least for Democrats — the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed programs by roughly $30 billion. They also struck a major blow against “auto-pilot” spending by permanently eliminating all automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments, except for K-12 schools. And they summoned enough courage to temporarily increase taxes by $12.5 billion.

In the end, they found a way to restore health insurance for 660,000 low-income kids.

The tax increases hit the more vulnerable elements of society disproportionately, of course.  They actually found that way to restore children’s health insurance by lowering industry taxes and increasing the co-pay and deductible burden on the low-income families themselves, while reducing the covered care.  And anyone who adds cutting $30 billion in programs and eliminating COLA as an accomplishment is a bit of a social deviant.  But there are probably no lengths to which Skelton will go to defend the palace walls from the rabble who think, based on the evidence, that the system is horribly broken.

Steve Maviglio wisely steers clear of the more horrific achievements of this year’s Legislature, and offers a slightly more defensible outlook of the ’09 Legislative session.  Still, there’s a lot unsaid:

Looking back, getting the measures on the May ballot was a significant early success that required 2/3 votes. And toward the end of the session, in addition to the renewable energy bill, Speaker Bass pushed through measures on childrens health and domestic violence that won broad bipartisan support. (The Speaker also got a standing ovation, and she appears to have strengthened her support in Caucus. Compare that to the ouster of the two Republican leaders).

Okay, so the grand water deal didn’t get done. Big deal. Nothing like that has been done for a generation. Perhaps Senate President pro Tem Steinberg set the bar too high when he said he’d get it done. In any case, all parties agree that they got close and can pick up the pieces and get it finished in short order.

So for all those crying for major reforms, put it all into perspective. Sure, improvements could be made, and things could have been better, but this is not reason for drastic action. Far from it.

Of course, the renewable bill is veto bait, as are many of the other major bills pending the Governor’s signature.  And the domestic violence bill didn’t pass the Senate, so, um, that doesn’t count.  The prison bill offered decent parole reforms but stopped well short of a real solution.  Everyone keeps saying the water bill will happen but the two sides remain far apart, and the fact that they’ll have to go into overtime to reconcile it kind of proves the point, no?

But Maviglio tips his hand with the line “this is not reason for drastic action.”  Of course he would say that.  He’s profited well from the status quo.  Anything that messes with it could hurt him professionally, and what’s more, could stop the endless blaming of outside factors to account for stunning failure.

There is no shame in stating that this was a failed legislative session.  Just about everyone in California would agree with you, particularly the ones who are suffering the most from the destruction of social insurance caused by the most heartless cuts.  Simply put, the Great Recession dominated legislative activity, and the conservative veto from various 2/3 requirements restricts the Legislature from fulfilling the expressed will of the people through their votes (NOTE: This does not only come into play with the budget; late last Friday Republicans blocked over 20 bills that required 2/3 votes for one reason or another, probably because they knew they could get away with it).  That’s not something to explain away, it’s actually something to fight, every single day until the problem is rectified.

Skelton and Maviglio may want to tell themselves all is well, but the public knows better, and they’re going to demand major structural change.  Those who think that the Legislature can still be a force for good in the state can get aboard and provide the best ideas to break the supermajority gridlock and get the state moving again.  Or they can defend their narrow interests.  Their defense will fail, and it would be a shame not to see them on the right side of history.

Half A Loaf Is Not Enough On Prison Reform

George Skelton writes about some of the accomplishments on deck in the next week in the Legislature.  Beyond the renewable energy standard, which would be a solid accomplishment, and water, which really is kind of an unknown, Skelton looks at the prison “reform” bill, where he is both right and wrong.

The goal is threefold: to reform a system that has the worst-in-the-nation recidivism rate — 70% — for inmates released from prison. To begin substantially reducing the overcrowded prison population before federal courts do, as they’ve threatened. And to save the $1.2-billion already slashed from the prison budget on paper, but not in reality.

There apparently will be no compromising with Republicans. They’re having no part of it, playing the law-and-order card as they have for decades — advocating long lockups but opposing any tax increases to pay for the bulging prisons […]

One thing that’s needed, he and other reformers contend, is more education, drug rehab and job training for inmates. Another is a better parole system. A scaled-down bill passed by the Assembly on Monday seeks to encourage the former and achieve the latter […]

Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) are trying to restore much of the Senate version, which also included an independent commission to update California’s sentencing structure. But their problem is Assembly Democrats. Some are scared of being portrayed as a crime softie by a future campaign opponent. Steinberg took a shot at them Tuesday.

“It’s time to say, ‘Come on,’ ” the Senate leader told reporters. “We have a law-and-order Republican governor who is willing to sign a comprehensive package with absolutely essential reforms that protects public safety. It’s time to get real […]

Steinberg and Bass may coax more votes from the skittish Democrats.

But if they can’t, the good-time incentives and parole improvements alone would be worth passing. They’d mark substantial progress toward prison reform.

As I’ve said, the current bill is not a prison reform bill, but a parole reform bill.  The education, treatment and job training encouraged is immediately undercut by the Governor’s slashing of those programs as part of the deal.  And the lack of an independent sentencing commission means that we’re likely to see both increased sentencing laws and increases in the prison population continue, and we’ll all be back here in 10-15 years.

That said, parole reform IS a key element.  Changing the situation where 2/3 of the convicts returned to prison get sentences for technical parole violations is urgently needed.  The Phillip Garrido case is an example of how increased case monitoring on the most serious offenders could have benefits for public safety.  But it does not totally stand in for full reform.  The sentencing commission goes hand-in-hand with fixing parole.

Sentencing commission: In other states, a sentencing commission looks at who is being sent to prison and for how long, and what sentences work best to lower reoffense rates. Sentences are based on the severity of the crime and the offender’s prior record. Instead of a system driven by relatively low-level property and drug offenses, prison sentences are focused primarily on violent and career offenders. The result in other states is that fewer offenders go to state prison, but the offenders who do go to prison are serving longer. For lesser crimes, offenders go to county jail.

Skelton only touches on who’s really to blame for our intransigence on prison reform – those allegedly fiscally responsible Republicans who refuse to bear the costs of their policy desires.  They’ve joined the appeal of the federal judge order to reduce the population by 44,000 on the grounds that their beautiful minds tell them there’s no problem in the system:

State Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) said the judges had ignored the state’s recent “huge investment” in spending on inmate healthcare, as well as statistics showing that California spends more on healthcare per prisoner, and has a lower mortality rate among them, than many other states.

“We believe there is constitutional care today,” he said. “We believe there always has been.”

If you want the long form of this lie, read Tom Harman.  Either way, it’s just not true.  Inmates have died, around one a week, before a federal receiver was instituted.  Republicans fought the implementation of investing in prison health care, and the continued presence of infirm prisoners based on draconian sentencing laws like three strikes can account for the increased costs.  Republicans typically call for increased rehabilitation and treatment for offenders while cutting the funding.  It’s a shell game.

However, we are well beyond that at this point.  We have a bill that needs only a majority vote.  And Assembly Democrats are petrified of justifying votes they had no problem with as recently as 2007.  By the way, opponents can go back to those votes too, and make the same mailers.  You either can act like you have the courage of your convictions, or not.  Ultimately, the people will pay the price.