Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

March 14, 2012
Assembly panel blocks expansion of court computer system

An Assembly budget subcommittee voted unanimously Wednesday to block expansion of a statewide court case management system that has become the focal point of a months-long political war between the state's judicial leadership and some rebel judges.

The latter -- backed by the politically powerful Service Employees International Union -- have complained that millions of dollars are being wasted on the computer system while local courts are being compelled to curtail their operations and lay off employees as state financing of courts is reduced.

The budget subcommittee's action bolsters the Assembly's position in a conflict with the state Senate over court management. The Assembly has passed legislation, Assembly Bill 1208, that the rebel Alliance of California Judges sponsored to give local judges more power over distribution of operational funds.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the state Judicial Council and heads the Administrative Office of the Courts, has publicly complained that the legislation violates judicial independence, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has declared that the bill will be held in his house without a vote.

Steinberg, however, is under pressure from the SEIU, which represents court employees facing layoffs and is a major source of campaign money for Democrats. Wednesday's action makes the computer system financing a potential bargaining chip in the inter-Capitol maneuvering over the legislation.

The subcommittee's action came after the Legislature's budget analyst and the state auditor delivered reports that strengthened the critics' positions.

So far, legislators were told, the Administrative Office of the Courts has spent $556.5 million on the system but it's been deployed in only a few counties. Even so, Auditor Elaine Howle pointed out, the AOC certified that the system is complete, thereby triggering a limited warranty period from the contractor that could leave the state holding the financial bag if problems crop up later.

Judges themselves are divided over the efficacy of the system, some professing that it lightens their workloads, while others saying it is unusable. In recent weeks, the chief justice and her allies have backed off their previous intent to install it in every county and indicated that they'd give local judges more leeway.

March 14, 2012
Senate leader Steinberg 'happy and relieved' over ballot deal

darrell_steinberg_3_14_2012.JPGSenate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg celebrated a deal Wednesday between Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Federation of Teachers to place a compromise tax initiative on the November ballot.

"We were headed for a real collision course," said Steinberg, meeting with reporters in his office. "If this were a game, this would all be pretty interesting, the machinations. But this is not a game."

The new deal, which Brown is expected to announce shortly, would raise the statewide sales tax by a quarter-cent rather than half-cent per every dollar of purchase. It would retain the governor's three higher tax brackets starting at one percentage point more for single filers making at least $250,000.

But under the new deal, the last two tax brackets would increase at a steeper pace. Single earners would pay two percentage points more on income between $300,000 and $500,000 (income amounts doubled for joint filers), whereas the governor originally proposed a 1.5 percentage point increase.

Singles earning at least $500,000 and couples earning at least $1 million would see their top bracket increase by 3 percentage points rather than the two percentage points Brown originally wanted.

The income tax hike on the rich would also last longer than Brown's proposal, going for seven years instead of five, starting retroactively on Jan. 1, 2012. The sales tax hike would still start Jan. 1, 2013 and expire at the end of 2016.

Steinberg estimated that the new plan would generate about $2 billion more through June 2013, or nearly $9 billion total. But those figures are based on more optimistic Department of Finance projections. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office believes Finance's forecast is too rosy when it comes to wealthy earners whose tax rates would be higher under the new compromise.

PHOTO CREDIT: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, March 14, 2012. Photo taken by Kevin Yamamura.

March 14, 2012
California gets 'D minus' in government spending transparency

Gov. Jerry Brown's decision to shut down a state-run "transparency" website has caused California to slip in an annual ranking based on access to government spending data.

California, one of eight states to receive the ranking's second-lowest grade of "D minus," saw its score drop 13 points from last year, according to the California Public Interest Research Group's third annual report on government spending transparency.

The report cites that the shutdown of the "Reporting Transparency in Government" website is a major force behind the change, saying the move left "state spending information scattered across multiple agencies' websites." Brown's administration replaced the site, which was launched by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with links to other state websites where the same information could be found last year, along with a note saying the Democratic governor "is committed to keeping state government open and transparent while eliminating inefficiencies and unnecessary costs."

"As home to the tech industry, it's disappointing and embarrassing that California is not only lagging behind, but actively moving in the wrong direction when it comes to keeping pace with current online transparency standards," CALPIRG Legislative Director Pedro Morillas said in a statement.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup defended the move, saying the website "was poorly maintained, underutilized and had not been regularly updated by the previous administration."

"All information previously posted on the site continues to be available to the public," he wrote in an email. "We remain committed to transparency, while also working to eliminate redundancies, make government more efficient and save taxpayer dollars."

Not all groups give the state's online efforts such low marks. As The State Worker reported this week, the nonprofit Sunshine Review recently honored the state's website with an award and an "A-" grade.

Click here to read the full report.

Jerry Brown shuts down government transparency website

Editor's note: This post was updated with a statement from Brown spokesman Evan Westrup.

March 14, 2012
Prominent California lobbyist Rod Blonien found dead at home

Rod Blonien, a Capitol fixture for years as Deukmejian administration official and later as a major lobbyist for gambling and horse racing interests, was found dead in his home Tuesday, the apparent victim of a heart attack. He was 65.

Angela Schiele, a long-time associate in Blonien's lobbying firm, said Blonien's son, Jarhett, found him in a chair at his home after he failed to come to his office near the Capitol. His wife, Noreen, was out of town on business at the time.

Blonien worked for former Gov. George Deukmejian at the Department of Justice and then segued into a prominent role in Deukmejian's gubernatorial administration before setting up his lobbying practice in 1987.

Survivors include not only his wife, but four children -- Ryan, Jessica, Molly and Jarhett -- and 11 grandchildren.

A rosary will be recited at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a funeral Mass at the cathedral at 10 a.m. Friday.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to correct Blonien's age. He was 65, not 55. Updated at 12:35 p.m. March 14, 2012.

March 14, 2012
Jerry Brown, teachers finalizing compromise tax initiative today

LS BROWN BUDGET.JPGAfter weeks of battling in public and negotiating behind the scenes, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Federation of Teachers have reached a compromise on a November tax initiative.

The deal would result in a smaller sales tax hike and larger tax increase on the wealthy than the Democratic governor wanted. CFT had been circulating an initiative with no sales tax hike and a two-step increase on earners starting at $1 million.

"This united effort makes victory more likely and will go a long way toward balancing our budget and protecting our schools, universities and public safety," Brown said in a prepared statement Wednesday afternoon.

The new deal would raise the statewide sales tax by a quarter-cent rather than half-cent per every dollar of purchase. It would retain the governor's three higher tax brackets starting at $250,000 for single filers. But the last marginal tax hike - at $500,000 for singles and $1 million for couples - would increase by 3 percentage points rather than Brown's original 2 percentage points.

The income tax hike on the rich would also last longer than Brown's proposal, going for seven years instead of five. The sales tax hike would still expire at the end of 2016.

"Our coalition welcomes the opportunity to join Governor Brown, Senate Pro-tem Steinberg, Speaker Pérez and their allies in crafting this win-win measure," Joshua Pechthalt, President of the California Federation of Teachers and a co-chair of the Millionaire Tax Campaign, said in a statement.

"Our values and principles are clearly reflected in this new initiative that now includes a 50% decrease in the sales tax rate, reduces the burden on working families and ensures a greater contribution from the 1%. These changes will generate $2 Billion in additional vital funding in the next fiscal year, and we are determined to ensure those funds benefit the communities that have been hit hardest by budget cuts and our cash-strapped higher education institutions."

Cutting a deal so late in the signature-gathering season ramps up the pressure on proponents, as well as the costs. The new initiative would be filed in the next couple of days, sources said. The LAO has 45 days to return an analysis to state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who then must write ballot language for petitions.

If the initiative gets fast-tracked, it would land on the streets in early April under the most optimistic timetable. Proponents think they may have four to five weeks to collect a million-plus signatures, a compressed period that would raise the cost per signature.

March 14, 2012
Teach a high school class, date a student -- lose your pension?

Teacher Student Romance.JPE.JPGAngered by a 41-year-old Modesto teacher who moved in with an 18-year-old student, a California lawmaker is crafting legislation that would strip teachers of their retirement benefits in such cases.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen called it appalling that current law provides no consequences for a love relationship between a teacher and high school student, if both are adults.

"My point is, whether you're 18, 17 or 14, the fact remains that a teacher is in a position of authority and influence over that student, and therefore, it is highly inappropriate," said Olsen, R-Modesto.

Olsen's legislation was sparked by news last month that Enochs High School teacher James Hooker had resigned his job and moved in with an 18-year-old student, Jordan Powers, who is now taking classes through independent study.

Hooker and Powers have denied dating when the student was a minor, but police are investigating that possibility.

Olsen's bill, to be introduced as Assembly Bill 1861, would strip a teacher of pension and retiree benefits for having an inappropriate relationship with a student at the same school. The bill may be unveiled early next week, she said.

March 14, 2012
AM Alert: SEIU targets costly court computer system

The battle has been going on for months, as those who work in California's trial courts fight back against budget cuts and criticize - often anonymously - the leadership of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Many of the court employees just happened to be represented by the Service Employees International Union, so they have some clout on their side.

Which may explain why there's a press conference today before Joint Budget Subcommittees On State Administration And Public Safety hold a hearing on the court computer system.

Dan Walters sums up the court fight in his new daily video report.

The SEIU wants the plug pulled on the system, which is intended to connect courts in all 58 counties, but by all accounts is over budget and getting more so.

Workers will make themselves available to the media before the 1:30 p.m. hearing in Room 437 at the Capitol.

Gov. Jerry Brown normally flies on Southwest Airlines' Boeing 737 planes in California, but he's heading to Long Beach today to check out the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. He will tour the plane, give a speech and meet with Boeing engineers.

Attention Candidates: The Sacramento Bee is again publishing a Voter Guide for online and print. The online version will allow readers to enter their home address and see a "ballot" of candidates and initiatives just for their location.

If you're running for office in the June Primary in Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado or Yolo Counties, you're invited to create a profile on our Voter Guide. If you haven't already received an invitation from us through email, please contact Pete Basofin at

March 14, 2012
Dan Walters Daily: Judicial restraint?

Dan Walters looks ahead to today's Assembly schedule and sees more squabbling among California's judges.


Capitol Alert Staff

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers California politics and edits Capitol Alert's mobile Insider Edition. Twitter: @capitolalert

Amy Chance Amy Chance is political editor for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @Amy_Chance

Dan Smith Dan Smith is Capitol bureau chief for The Sacramento Bee.

Christopher Cadelago Christopher Cadelago covers California politics and health care. Twitter: @ccadelago

Micaela Massimino Micaela Massimino edits Capitol Alert.

Laurel Rosenhall Laurel Rosenhall covers the Legislature, the lobbying community and higher education. Twitter: @LaurelRosenhall

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. Twitter: @davidsiders

Dan Walters Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @WaltersBee

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