Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why California is Greener Than Thou

In an interview with the Financial Times, Governor Schwarzenegger accused former Governor Sarah Palin on accomplishing little in the way of climate change policy, and instead used the issue as a launching pad for her career. In response, Palin posted the following message to her Facebook account Tuesday night:

Perhaps [Governor Schwarzenegger] will recall that I live in our nation's only Arctic state and that I was among the first governors to create a sub-cabinet to deal specifically with climate change. While I and all Alaskans witness the impacts of changes in weather patterns firsthand, I have repeatedly said that we can't primarily blame man's activities for those changes. And while I did look for practical responses to those changes, what I didn't do was hamstring Alaska's job creators with burdensome regulations so that I could act "greener than thou" when talking to reporters.

A climate change sub-cabinet! How’s that for maverick policymaking?

Before Palin points to California, calling our state, “greener than thou for reporters sake,” let’s see how the Palin administration stacks up to the accomplishments of Governor Schwarzenegger in the area of climate change action:

Statewide Greenhouse Gas Cap:

California: Completed; further work in progress. In 2007, the Governors of five western states established the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative, committing to establish an overall regional goal to reduce GHG emissions within 6 months and to design a regional market-based multi-sector mechanism within 18 months to achieve the regional goal.

Alaska: No activity identified.

Carbon Offset Requirements:

California: Completed; further work in progress. On May 23, 2007, the California Energy Commission (CEC) approved regulations that limit the purchase of electricity from power plants that fail to meet strict GHG emissions standards. These regulations, as part of SB 1368, which became law on August 31, 2006, prohibit the state's publicly owned utilities from entering into long-term financial commitments with plants that exceed 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

Alaska: No activity identified.

Greenhouse Gas Auto Standards:

California: In progress. The proposed auto standard, which the California Air Resources Board approved on September 24, 2004, calls for a reduction of GHG emissions from new vehicles of 22% by 2012 and of 30% by 2016. Nineteen other states have either adopted or pledged to implement California's proposed tailpipe emissions rule.

Alaska: No activity identified.

Climate Change Action Plan:

California: Completed; further work in progress. On April 3, 2006, the California Climate Action Team (at the direction of Governor Schwarzenegger) completed the Climate Change Action Plan, establishing the first-in-the-world comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gases.

Alaska: In progress. On September 14, 2007, Governor Sarah Palin signed Administrative Order No. 238, officially forming the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet.

So Palin is right. We are greener than thou.

We’re greener than just about everyone, in fact. Throughout his terms as Governor, Schwarzenegger has succeeded in bringing world leaders to the table at all levels of government to in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect our natural resources, and build green economies. Under the Schwarzenegger administration, California signed an agreement with Prime Minister Tony Blair to collaborate, as an independent entity, with the UK and other world leaders on climate change initiatives. California also participated in the launch of China’s first greenhouse gas emissions registry earlier this year.

As a lame duck Governor attending one of the most important climate summits of this decade, Schwarzenegger’s got nothing to lose by calling out former-governors-gone-rogue in their failures on this issue. With a 27% approval rating back home, Copenhagen is just about the only place in the world where Schwarzenegger can bask in the riches of political capital.

As for her accusations, the best Palin can do in the way of climate change is turn her finger around.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rahm Pushes Iran Sanctions at Howard Berman Fundraiser in Beverly Hills

On Tuesday, Congressman Howard Berman hosted his bi-annual fundraising gala at the Beverly Hilton, headlined by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel. As the first congressional fundraising event since taking the post of White House Chief of Staff, Emmanuel's support displayed his thanks to Congressman Berman for his steadfast support of the White House on key issues, most notably the Iran Sanctions Act.

Emmanuel's remarks reflected the sense of urgency the White House is placing on the issue of Iran sanctions. The House Foreign Services committee has plans to move forward with the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which seeks to cut supplies of refined petroleum products, specifically gasoline, into Iran as a means of convincing that regime to end its nuclear weapons programs. The special appearance by Emmanuel is a sign of approval from the White House in the committee's attempts to proceed with the sanctions. House Democratic leaders are planning to move forward with the bill before the holiday recess.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

California Sticks it to the Kids

Last week, the University of California Board of Regents voted to increase student tuition by 32 percent to help close the system’s $535 million budget gap. The ensuing publicity surrounding the protests and demonstrations have been some of the most heated since the Vietnam War. As a current student of a private university in Southern California whose epic tuition continues to skyrocket each year, I initially approached the recent change in circumstances of the school to our west with cynicism and doubt. I still find it unfortunate that for those students who do not qualify for Cal Grants and financial aid, or those who do not have enough money to cover the new increases, that this money will come directly from the savings and loans of students and their families.

But as an unaffected party, I must selfishly admit: I’m kind of glad this is happening.

During one of the now infamous “sit-in” demonstrations, perhaps the demonized administrative officials should begin by encouraging indignant students to simply pick up a newspaper. Newspapers which show the overcrowding of state prisons, the ever-depleting credit ratings of California bonds, dangerous pension liabilities for state employees, and that special gift that will be passed on to California’s Generation Y: terrifying levels of state debt. The 32% tuition hike at UC campuses is just a preview of what’s to come in the next 40 years for those of us born after 1980.

So perhaps this will be the wake up call we politically active Gen Y’ers have been waiting for. About one in four eligible California voters under the age of thirty voted in the 2006 midterm elections. In 2010, another midterm election year, we’ll be electing a new Governor, Senator, and a host of statewide legislators. There has never been a more crucial time for UC students to make their voices heard.

The tuition hike will drive out many working class families from being able to afford the quality public education that was promised to California. This is a serious problem for current and future students from working and middle class backgrounds. But in the grand scheme of public decisions on who is to carry the state’s debt, this was probably Plan Z.

Some advice to my fellow sufferers of student debt: protests get you nowhere. Civilized civic participation – in large numbers – is the only way the state will take you seriously. Outbursts get you tasered; it’s votes that get your money back. The 26th Amendment was designed for just this purpose – allowing college-aged students to vote their way out of Vietnam. In November 2010, prove to the state that you’re worthy of your already underpriced education and your right to vote at age 18. Tell the state to pick on someone its own size; leave them kids alone.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Can See California From My House!

Love her or hate her: Sarah Palin has re-written the book on female candidacy. During her ten-week campaign spotlight, her candidacy peaked and plunged amid a seemingly relentless throng of dissenters. Her new book, Going Rogue: An American Life, and the resulting media blitz, will – like it or not – be the nagging undertone of the 2010 election in this state.

Palin’s book tour is a blessing for Democrats. Palin has effectively stolen the thunder away from the Republican spin machine and directed the spotlight on questions about her personal prospects. On the national scene, Palin’s melodic pitch seems to be much preferred by the conservative base than the rhythmic banging of heads against the wall of Congress as the healthcare bill faces its destiny. The once bread-and-butter Republican issues in the state, such as pork-filled legislation or the soaring costs of just about everything, are being sucked up by the momentum of a hockey mom gone rogue.

Less than a third of Americans think Palin would make a good president. Yet, during the Palin interview, the Oprah Winfrey show saw its best ratings in over two years. But if Palin truly wanted to make a difference without a title, as she proudly proclaimed in Monday’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, she would have a field day in California.

Candidates Carly Fiorina (Republican candidate for Senate) and Meg Whitman (Republican candidate for Governor) seem unsettled in their stances on Palin. Fiorina, while openly admitting that she hadn’t yet read Palin’s book, came to the defense of the former Vice Presidential candidate during an interview where Fiornia rebuffed the McCain campaign as “sexist.” Meanwhile, Whitman has been dodging Palin questions like the plague.

By endorsing one or both of the two candidates, Palin could help define the women themselves as a steadfast Republicans. Democrats in Boxer’s camp hope that Palin endorses Fiornia rival Chuck DeVore, who has thus far branded himself as the more conservative of the two. For Fiorina, a Palin endorsement solidify her conservative messaging in spite of rival Chuck DeVore’s casting of doubts.

Palin could also be of help to Whitman by solidifying her march against “career politicans,” an axe that was swung in Jerry Brown’s direction earlier this week. Although her poll numbers and finance coffers remain high, a high-profile tour on Whitman’s campaign could be just the shot in the arm she needs.

For both Fiorina and Whitman, Sarah Palin’s endorsement would mean an instantaneous spotlight. It would give Democrats a free pass, and shift the conversation away from the tough decisions to be made in the coming weeks.

But let’s not forget that just four years ago, the public perception of a certain sitting President was similarly low in public opinion polls. Palin will certainly capitalize on history (or herstory, shall we say). So for the sake of the Democrats, keep the Palin momentum alive. Just try not to elect her President.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Puff, Puff, Pass: Another Win for Weed

Former President Jimmy Carter once remarked, “Whatever starts in California, unfortunately has an inclination to spread.” For better or worse, President Carter’s words have rang especially true in recent days as Maine became the fifth state to follow California’s lead in approving the use of medical marijuana. Dozens of other states and municipalities have approved reduced fines or sentencing periods for marijuana related offenses. Political opponents of legalization point to California – most notably Los Angeles County – as proof that regulated cannabis outlets and relaxation of marijuana penalties are bad policies. As the County climbs to the number 5 spot in the state with more than 340,000 marijuana plants uprooted this year, and exponentially more marijuana dispensaries than any other city, I must ask the question that no self-respecting, blue-state twenty-four year old dares ponder: have Californians begun to overindulge?

Officials say that the increase in seizures can be largely attributed to Mexican drug cartels that have sought a location north of the border, but still in close proximity to their market. Smugglers on a north-south commute find the path of least resistance in Southern California. The notorious “Emerald Triangle” of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties has been a traditional safe haven for recreational and occupational growers alike. But an increased presence from law enforcement entities, especially the California Highway Patrol and area US Border Patrol agencies, have shifted operations to a cultivated and secluded 8-mile stretch of Angeles Crest Highway in North LA County, where about 150,000 plants were recently uncovered and destroyed.

As the number of seizures continues to climb, it undoubtedly spells trouble for many local medical marijuana dispensaries. Almost 1000 such dispensaries have found a home in Los Angeles since 2002. Last month, LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich announced intentions to prosecute any distributor of marijuana that does so for a profit, and warned Los Angeles city dispensaries to prepare for eventual raids. These efforts were widely seen as a tactic to sway City Council members into adopting stricter laws against dispensaries and to ultimately discourage further proliferation throughout the city.

While the city and state attempt to conquer massive fiscal crises, perhaps our precious little resources should be directed elsewhere. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 300,000 Californians possess medically-sanctioned cannabis cards. A 2005 Australian economic study found that in the late 1990s, taxation of alcohol and tobacco consumption in Australia generated approximately $700 per capita. If marijuana were legalized and subject to taxation, the tax collections would increase by roughly $95 per capita, or 14 percent. Here in California, marijuana dispensaries pay between 7-9% in sales tax, depending on the city. If the state were to legalize the distribution and consumption of marijuana and regulate its taxation, the state could bring in $1.3 billion every year, according to the state Board of Equalization.

California Assembly Bill 390 suggests just that. Written and sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, the Bill was introduced in February of 2009 and delayed until early 2010 (according to pro-legalization activists NORML, the Bill is being delayed in order to secure statewide support).

Clearly, any movement in the way of legalization requires a great deal of personal responsibility falling on the shoulders of the stoned. Before Californians can see the billions of tax revenue and marijuana users breathe their smoke-filled sighs of relief, there must be proof that little-to-no harm is being done under current circumstances.

So what can readers of this site do to ensure a pay-day for the state and harmony for stoners? Prove Jimmy Carter wrong, and make the “inclination to spread” a good thing after all.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Back to Basics

On Friday, October 30, in the dressing room of a costume store, I learned from my trusty Blackberry that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was no longer a candidate in the Democratic race for Governor. Despite Newsom’s charm and charisma, policy knowledge, and robust inventory of high-profile supporters, Mayor Newsom found himself behind Attorney General Jerry Brown by 8-to-1 in campaign cash and 20 points in the polls. On Friday, Newsom stated publicly, “With a young family and responsibilities at City Hall, I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to — and should be — done.”

The graveyard of the Newsom campaign is littered with cautionary tales. From the numerous columns, blogs, and “insider reports” that I’ve taken in on the subject, the more I believe that the Newsom campaign’s failure to launch has major implications for the future of political campaigning.

Newsom’s main strategy largely mirrored the ideology of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. Dean, on the advice of strategist Joe Trippi, became legendary for his ability to reach out to young and low-dollar progressive supporters via the communication tools of the internet, and relied heavily on the ability of the progressive, green, and gay movements to contribute financial support.

We all know how that turned out.

Similarly, Newsom invested a large portion of his resources toward a cutting-edge internet campaign, utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere. However, this was no substitute for a grassroots, face-to-face operation that involved real – not virtual – solicitation of support. According to one insider, Newsom would make endless excuses for blowing off scheduled time for fundraising solicitation calls. In an attempt to suppress the frequent attacks of “Political Attention Deficit Disorder,” his campaign staff arranged for an office across the street from City Hall and an endless series of reminders and subtle persuasions in that direction. Insiders report that Newsom, despite the diligent pleas of campaign staff, could not be made to make the phone calls — even in the car during drive time — for a senator’s birthday or a labor leader’s new baby or whatever political urgency needed attention at any given moment.

“I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to – and should be – done.”

So how “should” it be done? The “grassroots fundraising” technique that failed Dean received a major face-lift from the Obama campaign; some even dedicate the victory over Hillary Clinton in the primaries to Obama’s unique ability to take internet campaigning to a new level. But the cautionary tale of the once-was Newsom campaign warns campaigners of the digital age not to forget the basics.

Just days before his official withdrawal from the race, Newsom stated, “If the entire campaign is just who raises more money, than we shouldn’t do anything except just sit on the phone and dial for dollars.” The moral of the story here is that although the tools of the internet allow for large-scale involvement of a wider audience, there is no substitute for the face-to-face, voice-to-voice interaction between candidate and voter that has epitomized the spirit of successful and inspirational campaigns of days past.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Exit Stage Right for Schwarzenegger

Often times, the public views lame-duck executives with a good deal of skepticism and brusqueness. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is no exception. With a 27% approval rating to boot, some political pundits are already beginning to speak of the Schwarzenegger administration as if it were already over. This blog posting will explore whether the Governator’s ability to be effective in this state has truly eroded, and what he can do to make a lasting legacy a reality in coming terms.

One of the least popular governors in California’s history, Schwarzenegger has had a rough time making friends. His relationships with the majority party Democrats have been blighted from their inception, and his ability to construct meaningful connections with Republicans is becoming worse by the day. He is under constant attack from PACs and special interests on both sides of the aisle. The governor’s power to pass important legislation is compromised by a dislike and distrust of the administration by stakeholders across the state.

With 14 months left in his term, prospects are grim for Schwarzenegger’s political capital, but his ability to improve his image and leave a meaningful mark on California history is all but lost. The Governor has no shortage of opportunities to make lasting changes in his policy agenda, especially in areas such as public infrastructure, prison reform, the environment and education. Politically, his naturalized citizen status presents no threat to other state legislators seeking an eventual Presidential bid. There is no reason why Schwarzenegger should accept the classic implications that lame duck status means relinquishing all power in the months prior to the official transition of power.

Known for his commitment to investing in public infrastructure, a bipartisan consensus on the massive investment in the state’s water supply infrastructure would be among the most substantial feathers in Schwarzenegger’s cap. Schwarzenegger says that his office and the legislature are on the cusp of approving a historic water deal that would ensure the state's water supply into the next century while both restoring and preserving the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Two-thirds majorities will be needed in both houses of the Legislature to place bond measures on the ballot to finance the plan. A water deal would also erase some of the bitterness over this year's budget battles and lay the groundwork for more bipartisan work next year. But if the water deal falls apart, it could be the exact writing on the wall that suggests rocky waters for the legislative year in 2010.

Schwarzenegger has also made significant inroads in reaching a consensus in the area of prison reform. Although a bill that was supported by both Schwarzenegger and the State Senate was ultimately rejected by the house, Schwarzenegger is still trying to meet a court order to reduce the state's prison population, and this is an issue which will require him to meet the opposition halfway.

With the state budget still in disarray, and his tendency to spend time with his family in Santa Monica, many in the Capitol are speculating that the governor will lose interest in the job and let his priorities drift. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, is convinced her boss will remain committed until the end. Kennedy speculates, "He's the only politician I would ever consider staying for until the very end," Kennedy told me last week. "He's genetically incapable of slowing down."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Midterm Review

Since I was young, October has conjured up memories of Halloween, the World Series, and the respective births of my dear sister and mother (whose October 9th and 11th birthdays, I have just learned, sandwich Gavin Newsom’s 42nd birthday on October 10th).

Alas, now enduring my second-year foray in the wildly exciting world of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, mid-October means one thing to me: midterms loom large. Since there have been many new developments in California state politics over the past week, I would be remiss not to cover these items in this blog. In the spirit of reviewing the work of this fall semester, this post will be dedicated to re-examining the topics of previous postings and providing new updates on issues past.

Endorsements: After weeks of build-up and speculation, on October 5, former President Clinton joined Gavin Newsom in Los Angeles at a series of highly anticipated campaign events. Clinton began his Los Angeles tour at an appearance at a closed-to-the-press, Newsom-for-governor fundraiser at the Biltmore Hotel. The pair then toured the LEED-certified Science and Technology Building at Los Angeles City College, and then spoke to a few dozen students, faculty and trustees in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. At the press event, Clinton spoke about the green economy, health care policy and the number of foreclosures in California – but his remarks said little about the Mayor’s bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, and reflected more about his own support for energy efficiency than his support for the gubernatorial candidate. The closest he came was when he said Newsom doesn’t “just talk it, he walks the walk” on energy and environmental issues.

Although there were more than a dozen reporters on hand, neither Clinton nor Newsom took questions after the hour-long event. According to one report, the mood was surprisingly sedated. There was little reaction from the audience, except for brief applause when Newsom mentioned San Francisco’s universal health care plan.

Newsom advisors hope that Clinton's high standing among Democrats will play well with primary voters who are more familiar with Brown, a former Governor and Oakland Mayor who is now the State Attorney General. It is, after all, highly unusual for a former President to throw his weight behind a primary candidate in a gubernatorial race. Dan Schnur, Director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, noted to City News Service that with the possible exception of President Barack Obama, "there's no more valuable endorsement in Democratic politics than Bill Clinton." However, given the low amounts of energy and excitement seen at the LA campaign stops, many begin to question Clinton’s real impact.

Many speculate that Clinton’s endorsement of Newsom had more to do with the former President seeking revenge on Jerry Brown, his rival in the 1992 Presidential elections. In an attempt to rebuff the critics, both Clinton and Newsom showed restraint toward their mutual adversary at the LA events. However, little subtleties – such as the fact that neither Clinton nor Newsom took questions at the end of the events – showed that both may be unprepared to address such criticism.

Initiative Reform - In a speech prepared for his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, California Chief Justice Ronald M. George scathingly criticized the State’s reliance on the referendum process, arguing that it has “rendered our state government dysfunctional.”

In a rare public censure of state government and policies delivered by a sitting judge, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court used the occasion of his induction to criticize the initiative process and call for reform. George, a moderate Republican, has been critical of the initiative process in the past, but his remarks to the national group indicated a sense of urgency as well as the state’s willingness to begin real conversations about reform.

George’s speech represented an outcry by the State’s judicial branch trying only to perform their obligations to the legal system. He said the court’s hands were tied by precedent and California laws that gave voters wide freedom to amend the state constitution. At the time, opponents of same-sex marriage were threatening to oust justices at the ballot if they voted to overturn Proposition 8.

George noted that in November, voters passed initiatives to regulate the confinement of fowl in coops and passed Proposition 8, which overturned part of a California Supreme Court ruling that gave gays and lesbians the right to marry. “Chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them,” George said.

According to George, much of the California Constitution and many state laws “have been brought about not by legislative fact-gathering and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special interests,” George observed. The Chief Justice did not suggest a specific measure to be taken in coming months as legislators and other stakeholders decide the fate of a state Constitutional Convention. George speculated, “At a minimum, in order to avoid such a loss, Californians may need to consider some fundamental reform of the voter initiative process.”

Boxer’s prospects: According to a new Field Poll, Barbara Boxer remains comfortably ahead of Republican rivals Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore. According to the poll released today on voter preferences in the 2010 Senate race, Boxer leads Fiorina, who still has yet to declare her candidacy, 49 to 35 percent. Boxer is also well preferred to the other serious Republican contender, state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine. Boxer leads DeVore 50 to 33 percent. Among Republican primary voters, Fiorina was preferred by 21 percent (down from 31 percent in a March Field Poll), to DeVore's 20 percent. Fifty-nine percent of GOP voters were undecided.

Boxer’s current lead could be the result of many factors. First, both Fiorina and DeVore have yet to brand themselves with broad statewide name recognition. Once the two become better known, their numbers should improve. Secondly, Fiorina has not enjoyed a high level of positive public perception. The netroots have begun making fun of Fiorina’s campaign website's simplicity, by releasing this video titled, "Worst Political Website Ever." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also recently released a web video targeting Fiorina's record. Since Fiorina is currently undergoing a medical procedure, she has been making fewer appearances than earlier in the year when she made campaign stops with John McCain.

However, Boxer was viewed unfavorably by 70 percent of the Republicans in the survey of 1,005 registered voters between Sept. 18 and Oct. 6, showing that the three-term Senator does not have an easy path to re-election. The support of barely half the voters "is not great" for an incumbent, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said.

Known for her outspoken nature on liberal issues as well as her electoral resiliency, Boxer has never enjoyed the type of electoral cushion common to other incumbents. Boxer’s future numbers will be largely impacted by her ability to pass her climate change legislation through committee, and also the formal announcements of her Republican rivals. "Should Carly decide to run, you'll see these numbers change dramatically," said Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for Fiorina.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Doing Good, and Doing Well

On Wednesday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) unveiled ambitious legislation to drive down the nation's use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. With the help of Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Senator Boxer used her stature as the Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee to release the long-awaited Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. An even more aggressive version of the historic American Clean Energy and Security Act that was passed by the House in June, this legislation proposes a cap-and-trade system that would place strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions from large polluters such as factories and power plants while rewarding the most efficient companies.

Boxer’s groundbreaking legislation holds important implications for stakeholders far and wide. This post will explore what this bill means for Boxer, California, and the future of climate-change legislation.

Surrounded by placard-waving environmentalists and supportive Democratic Senators, Boxer, alongside Kerry, introduced the bill at a campaign-style rally on the Capitol grounds on Wednesday. As expected, the value of the photo-op was diminished by the signs of the legislation’s stormy waters ahead: no Republican Senators were present.

As Chair of the legislation’s designated committee and lead sponsor of the bill, Boxer will be charged with much of the duty of garnering support throughout the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threw the first pitch by releasing a statement Thursday: “The last thing American families need right now is to be hit with a new energy tax every time they flip on a light switch or fill up their car.” Unable to count on the support of all 60 Democrats, Boxer will need to find friendship from moderate Republicans if this bill is to succeed – a tall order given both Boxer and Kerry’s combined history of progressive causes and ideological approaches. As the target of decades’ worth of GOP campaign funds to unseat her, Boxer faces an uphill battle in acquiring support from Republican colleagues.

Despite hostility from the other side of the aisle, Boxer remains hopeful that she can gain the support she needs from friends on left. “We're gaining ground, but at this point I can't count to 60,” the Senator speculated in an interview with C-SPAN. “But you just do your job and move forward.” The language of the legislation – which according to an aide to Senator Boxer has yet to be finalized – must acknowledge the complexities of the industries from the home states of key Democrats. Democrats from oil-producing, coal-producing and agriculturally centered states will want to keep those constituencies at bay (and at pay) in the 2010 cycle. Boxer wisely left blank the portion allocation credits section of the bill for this purpose – this will not only bribe industry support for her own campaign, but also that of future co-sponsors in a jam to raise money for their own election cycles.

All things considered, this was a smart move for Boxer. A nationwide push toward advances in renewable energy could be a major boon for the burgeoning Green Tech companies headquartered in California (as well as Massachusetts). It certainly does not hurt that this sector attracted the largest share of venture capital in the third quarter. The real test will be whether Boxer can push the bill through committee – she can delegate the rest of the Democrats to Majority Leader Harry Reid, should he throw his support behind the dynamic duo. In the meantime, this bill does good by environment, and well by the campaign.

Good luck, Babs. Way to put yourself out there.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

California’s Prison Crisis: A Spectrum of Re-active and Pro-active Strategies

Of the myriad of issues facing Californians as we coast into the 2010 gubernatorial campaign season, few have as much fiscal and social impact as the state’s prison crisis. Overcrowded and severely strained in resources, California spends more per inmate than most other large states. In 2007, California spent $46,437 per inmate. Compare that expenditure to Texas, who in that same year spent $19,223 per inmate, and houses nearly the same number of inmates that California does.

In an attempt to slash the state’s prison budget, the legislature and the Governor last month passed AB-14, a narrowly passed bill that would reduce the state prison population by a range of 25,000-40,000 inmates. Savings to general fund are estimated to be $524.5 million. Coupled with savings already passed in the budget revision the Legislature enacted in July, supporters say total corrections savings is $1.2 billion.

A hotly debated issue in both houses of the legislature, this discussion has been at the forefront of the campaign trail. Over the past week, the Sacramento Bee looked at the positions that each gubernatorial candidate is taking on the issue of prison overcrowding.

Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Tom Campbell have all expressed support for the idea of reworking prison and parole guidelines to divert more inmates into parole and preventing unnecessary incarceration for some parole violators. To reduce solve these issues, Campbell hopes to develop a “triage of parole violators” and concentrate on more violent offenders in prisons

Choosing his words carefully as to avoid straying from his role as 2010 candidate for Attorney General, Jerry Brown has been somewhat avoidant of this issue. Brown declined to comment on specific reform proposals, saying that as attorney general he has to enforce whatever proposals become law. Brown has, however, been critical in the past of a prison system that he said grew as a result of media-driven fears and profiteering by private corrections companies and prison guards.

Both Brown and rival primary opponent Gavin Newsom agree that the focus of legislation has to be on recidivism, which is currently estimated at a whopping 70 percent in California. Both would like to see increased spending on social services to level off the state’s recidivism rate. Newsom told the Bee, "We're simply not preparing these prisoners for life outside of the system, and the issue of re-entry programs becomes critical. Therein lies our big focus, at least mine."

But will efforts which prevent recidivism be enough to solve the overcrowding problem? The proof is in the pudding. UC-Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon says accountability is what is lacking from tough talk on recidivism strategy. Simon speculates, “When we say that we want government to be tough on crime, we mean that we want prison sentences to be long and the rhetoric to be sharp. But we don’t actually hold government accountable for reducing crime.”

Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner have both expressed their opposition to the bill released last month. Whitman and Poizner have rejected the two main precepts of the bill supported by Schwarzenegger and the legislature, namely the early release of inmates, or the reduction of prison sentences of parole violators. Poizner told the Bee, "You have to be a really bad person to get into state prison. So I'm opposed to releasing people who are dangerous, absolutely opposed. That's no way to balance the budget." Whitman stated, “The most important role government has is public safety. It's very important to be consistent.

What Whitman and Poizner fail to recognize is that this reform package is actually a positive step toward keeping violent offenders off our streets. The bill ensures the state’s incarceration efforts are concentrated on the violent criminals and ensures that non-violent offenders have more contact with parole officers. California’s infamous “three-strikes law,” which over the years has become a cross to bear for the state’s justice system, will also see reform in the way of changing some petty crimes to misdemeanor level. The law also establishes an independent Sentencing Commission for the state, comprised of the state’s Chief Justice, Public Defender, Secretary of Corrections, sitting and retired appellate and trial judges, as well as eight additional members to be appointed by the Governor. Should either be elected, Whitman and Poizner will have the opportunity to have some real influence in how sentences are defined visa vise their appointees. This lack of faith in political appointees does not bode well for either.

So where should policymakers focus their efforts after 2010? John Hipp, an associate professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, says that most research would suggest a middle ground between the positions of these two candidates. Through research conducted in Sacremento from 2003 to 2006, Hipp found that reports of aggravated assault, robbery and burglary mostly increased in neighborhoods that received parolees. However, crime rates decreased in parolee-receiving neighborhoods with longtime residents and increased more slowly when nonprofit groups and other supportive services were available to parolees. "There's not a blanket statement about parolees and prisons," Hipp said to the Bee. "There's no good way to do it, but by being careful about who you're releasing, you can do it right."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Is All That Glitters, Really Gold?

Newsom endorses Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton endorses Newsom. To the surprise of no one, the former President and his ripening, young protégé will take the state’s fundraising season by storm. As the Godfather of political favors makes his way up and down the coast, we cannot help but wonder: what does it all mean?

The University of Missouri-St. Louis recently published a study entitled Influential or Much Ado about Nothing: An Examination of Statewide Political Endorsements in the 2008 Democratic Caucus/Primary Season. The author argues that the endorsement of a candidate (or lack thereof) bears important implications to a whole host of sources beyond gaining the support of the voters. Ideally, from a candidate’s standpoint, endorsements have a highly substantial impact on campaign contributions, poll support and media coverage – not to mention a contagious effect on additional endorsements.

Now 14 months away from electing a new governor, and Newsom pulls out the big guns; all the while Jerry Brown continues a soul-searching courtship dance under the alias of Jerry Brown for Attorney General. Does this mean Newsom will peak too early? Not exactly. According to survey results from the Annenberg Election Study conducted in 2000, endorsements indeed play a salient role in primary contests. This study indicates that in the early months of a primary election, individual endorsements can and do influence voter choice.

But how much influence can a former President have on local voters? The University of Missouri study speculates, “Elite endorsements are significant predictors of both parties’ primary vote.” While it certainly does not get more elite than Bill Clinton in the minds of many Democratic voters, it may not be the bellwether Newsom was looking for in terms of electoral support. It is true that Clinton is well-known and well-liked in California – particularly in the wake of his role in negotiating the release of two Southern California journalists from North Korea. Not to mention Clinton’s Rolodex of high-dollar Democratic insiders, which many speculate he has been amassing for this exact occasion. But with a woefully short list of prominent state leaders on his roster, how much traction can Newsom expect from the endorsement of the former President?

Since the Democratic field still has yet to be solidified, let us examine the impact of endorsements on the Republican primary races (also not entirely solidified, but further along in gestation than Newsom vs. Brown head-scratcher). Log on to Steve Poizner’s website, and see the whole host of about 100 prominent state leaders in Poizner’s endorsement camp. Meg Whitman takes a different approach, featuring big-ticket Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney on her roster of supporters. While Whitman’s recent dip may have more to do with this week's “playing for field position” in her refusal to debate with fellow Republican primary candidates than it does her endorsement registry, will Poizner’s list of renowned state officials – less “elite” than a Clinton, McCain or Romney – make him the more sustainable candidate?

My guess is no. Big-ticket names get candidates the donations they need in this early primary season. In the midst of a high level of distrust that voters maintain for state officials, it would be hard to believe that State Senators and Assemblymen can improve Poizner’s legitimacy and standing with voters. The University of Missouri study finds significant electoral impact beyond the cash coffers in fundraising season. While his recent rise in the polls this week adds credence to the notion that endorsements can be the shot in the arm needed by a candidate like Newsom, we should be on the look out for how much gusto this charming duo can sustain.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Glass Half Full

Last night, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report entitled Californians and their Government, which published the results of a comprehensive statewide survey. The 37th in this series of PPIC reports, the survey examines the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. In the spirit of its release, today’s posting will investigate how polling data is perceived by the public, and utilized to the benefit or detriment of statewide issue and candidate campaigns.

While organizations such as PPIC claim they are committed to “independent, objective, nonpartisan research,” there have been several instances over the past few weeks of California survey results gone awry. One such occasion included a poll conducted by Daily Kos, a national political website with self-proclaimed liberal tendencies. The website’s polling data indicated that Attorney General Jerry Brown held a nine-point lead over rival primary candidate Gavin Newsome. Moments later, the San Francisco Chronicle posted this information on its political blog and speculated on its “narrowing” gap compared to the 20-point lead Brown held in June. The news then traveled three hours into the future when it was relayed through the Washington Post’s widely read horse-race blog “The Fix.” By close of business, these results had become commonly perceived knowledge around the country.

But the numbers were wrong. Whoops.

Poll results can be addictive, and a great measure of a campaign’s success (or lack thereof). America treats an off-year campaign year like pre-season football; as the “stats” become easier to check, websites and publications find a high degree of public attention given to these horse-race figures, and pounce upon the first whiff of fresh meat.

Even the highly neutral PPIC report was greeted with a cacophony of conflicting headlines. The San Francisco Chronicle analyzed poll results under the headline “Poll: Citizens satisfied with form of state government,” whereas the Los Angeles Times suggested a far more negative outlook of these numbers, reporting “Poll finds Californians don't trust state government.”

In an age of instant access to information, these analyses can have a highly significant impact on public perception of the state of affairs. The misinformation surrounding the Brown-Newsome race could compel both campaigns to sustain major blows to campaign coffers. The PPIC numbers could be interpreted a number of ways, depending on which publication one reads. As newspapers and other reputable sources scramble to stay alive against the more opinionated news blog sites, they may begin to rely on less scientific and reliable – less expensive – data.

Will there be a turning point? Will this lack of consistency change the public conversation and have a real impact on policy? In the mean time, the public should drink their glass half full – or empty – with a few grains of salt.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Winds Of Change

In most states, gubernatorial races (and most political races, for that matter) stand for the same things. This periodic anointment of a new figurehead promises that a) your life will change dramatically after Election Day; b) the other guy is a dirtbag; and c) this is the candidate you’ve been waiting for to make a difference in how that jurisdiction can improve the lives of the voters it serves: tax breaks that never arrive, programs for which you’ll never qualify, and promises of reform of a legislature easily corrupted.

The significance of the upcoming California gubernatorial campaign season, however, cannot be overstated. For a number of reasons (most notably a certain presidential candidate who beat this drum relentlessly, as well as prior candidates for this office who have run in this same spirit), the notion of change has not been at the forefront of the messages we’ve been hearing from the four major candidates. In a desperate attempt to salvage this state from the throws of an administrative catastrophe of epic proportions, the concept of overhauling state constitution has begun to gain serious traction. It has been decades – if not centuries – since a more fundamental conversation has surfaced that puts into play the very foundations of democracy and public accountability in a state so desperate for change. Now that’s change we can believe in.

Mistrust of statewide office is as American as apple pie. But when it comes to California, a new phenomenon has arisen: mistrust of voters. Three gubernatorial candidates have joined an emerging faction of voters and lawmakers alike who complain that voter-mandated spending has created and ultimately worsened the state’s budget troubles. Proponents of initiative reform have estimated that ballot-box spending costs the state about $50 billion annually (a number the Whitman campaign uses with great frequency). Noting that this spending is not necessarily unwarranted, the three candidates have made it a point to reaffirm their support of the theory behind the citizen-imitative concept, but have put forth some logical steps toward reform.

Gavin Newsom has suggested discussion toward a sunset provision for voter mandated spending, so that no initiative could require state spending indefinitely. Newsom’s message has been one of reforming the framework and gaining the opportunity to access changing conditions many years down the road. Democratic rival Jerry Brown has been relatively silent on the general concept of initiative reform, focusing more on his stance of leaving Proposition 13 untouched.

The meat of the debate can be found among Republican primary candidates. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman greased the wheels of the initiative reform debate at a May town hall forum in Tustin when she stated, “In many ways, the proposition process has worn out its usefulness.” Unlike fellow candidates, Whitman has not put forward a direct approach to this position, instead using this stance within her typical campaign fundraising set list.

Like Whitman, Tom Campbell, another Republican primary candidate, favors a constitutional convention to reform the initiative process. Campbell’s contribution toward the conversation of initiative reform is to require proponents of particular propositions to stipulate the taxes they would raise or programs they would cut to pay for their measures. Campbell has also stipulated that a constitutional convention can only take place if it is limited to specific changes which are determined in advance.

Rival candidate, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, has been the most outspoken in the stance against reforming the citizen initiative process. “The people in California make better decisions than the Legislature,” was the retort to Whitman’s town hall comment made by Poizner campaign spokesman Kevin Spillane. Another key Poizner soundbyte: “At this time, Sacramento doesn’t seem able to write a budget, much less a constitution.”

Far and away the most ambitious attempt at reform this state has seen in decades, if ever, the pro-reform gubernatorial candidates should package prospects of a constitutional convention as a ray of hope – the kind of change this state can wrap its hands around.

Take that, “Yes We Can.”