Data Surfer

Sites you need to see

As the we head toward California's June Primary, political types will try to guess who will be voting. Perhaps there are clues in the recently released Census report, Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2008: Population Characterisitics. Of course this was a presidential election with special historic significance. Still, there are some interesting stats on registration and voting broken out by such things as race, education, income, age, gender and the like.

In 2008, 63.6 percent of the voting age population voted. That's not much different than the participation in November 2004, but higher than in earlier presidential elections. (The national registration rate fell slightly from 2004 to 2008, 72.1 to 71.0 percent.) Breaking out the data, non-Hispanic Whites and African Americans showed the highest voting rates (66.1 and 64.7 percent). Women voted at a higher rate than men (72.8 to 69.1 percent). People aged 65-74 beat all other age groups (72.4 percent). Married adults voted more than the non-married categories (69.9 percent). Those with advanced college degrees vote at the highest rate of 82.7 percent.

Looked at geographically, we see California voting at almost the national rate (63.4 percent). Minnesota had the highest (75.0 percent) and Hawaii the lowest (51.0 percent).

Last week the Center for Investigative Reporting unveiled an ambitious interactive map linking stories, data and government documents that reveal how state and local agencies have spent (or misspent) U.S. Homeland Security money. Since 2001 the federal government has funneled billions of dollars to states in the form of preparedness grants. CIR has been reporting on the use of such funds in a series of articles and its blog Elevated Risk.

For each state, CIR's map directs you to financial data, official audits and a reporter's concise analysis of problems in the management and accounting of grant money. California, for example, links to a detailed spreadsheet listing specific projects by county and agency. Sacramento City and County have received more than $120 million for a variety of purchases, including radios, bomb vehicles, respirators and hazmat equipment. Also linked to the California page are two state and one federal auditor reports. And there's CIR reporter G.W. Schultz's summary of the most egregious misuse and mismanagement of funds in the state.

Medicare could to be headed for an immediate crisis. According to a story aired today on National Public Radio, Congress has just a few days to stop a planned 21 percent cut in reimbursements to doctors who treat seniors and others covered by the massive program. Such a reduction could cause many physicians to stop accepting Medicare patients, says NPR.

As bad as things are now for the health system, they'll probably get worse as Baby Boomers age into retirement. Just how much will Medicare grow in California, currently home to the largest number of beneficiaries -- 4.5 million enrollees? A new report estimates that the state's elderly ppopulation (65+) will more than double by the year 2030. The RAND study, Medicare Facts and Figures Chartbook, is intended to provide health providers, policymakers and advocates with essential data on California's Medicare recipients. Major findings:

Medicare reimbursement for care delivered to California beneficiaries is higher than the national average -- about $600 more per beneficiary in 2006.

In 2004 and 2005, total annual medical payments per Medicare beneficiary in California averaged $11,326, of which $1,330 (11 percent) came out of the beneficiaries' own pockets.

A large percentage of Medicare beneficiaries suffer from multiple chronic illnesses. In 2005, 79 percent reported having two or more chronic conditions, and 37 percent reported four or more.

MAPLight, the national campaign finance watchdog, yesterday launched a new subsidiary site focused on California state legislators. You can navigate the election data in two ways: by elected official or by interest group.

A clickable map of Assembly and Senate districts takes you directly to your particular representatives' profiles. Take, for example, Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). His donations total $2,718,095. The top interest group giving him money is "attorneys and law firms" ($177,870) followed by "construction unions" ($148,950). His top organizational donor is AT&T ($21,700), followed by the California State Council of Service Employees ($20,600).

By far the most generous of the interest groups are the construction unions which gave a total of $4,668,606. They are followed by attorneys and law firms ($2,839,023) and state and local government employee unions ($2,683,162). All the interest groups are organized in an easy-to-browse hierarchy.

As a sequel to Friday's blog post about, the government watchdog group that tracks national campaign donations by industry, I should mention Follow the Money, the web site that does similar analysis of state candidates. The non-partisan, nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics is the group behind the service. Its goal is to reveal "the influence of campaign money on state-level elections and public policy in all 50 states". As with OpenSecrets, Follow the Money provides an interactive database which allows you to slice donations to candidates and voter initiatives by specific industry categories and sub-categories.

Take for example health insurance. States are responsible for most of the regulation of carriers, so it's not surprising that a lot of campaign funding comes from insurers. According to the National Institute, four of the largest companies (Wellpoint, UnitedHealth Group, Aetna and Humana) distributed $8.7 million in 42 states from 2005-2008. So far in 2010, the health industry in general gave a total of $16.1 million dollars to state candidates, political committees and ballot measures (53.9 percent to Democrats, 43.8 percent to Republicans). In California this year, health businesses have donated a total of $4.2 million (60.5 percent to Democrats, 33.3 percent to Republicans).

With President Obama calling on Wall Street to stop fighting legislation that would reform the financial industry, it's a good time to profile a watch dog site that monitors the influence of the finance sector on Congress., the online service of the Center for Responsive Politics, crunches federal data to break down money spent on lobbying and campaign donations by industry. On the lobbying side, annual spending in the so-called FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate) has risen dramatically in the past ten years. The overall total in 2009 was $463 million compared to $208 million in 1998. The commercial banking sub-category grew from $32.5 million to $50.4 million over the same period.

Campaign contributions are similarly analyzed by industry. So far in this 2010 election cycle, a total of $117 million has been donated from the FIRE sector (individuals and PACS). Democrats got 56 percent, Republicans 44 percent of the cash. Of that, commercial banks gave $8.6 million (46 to 54 percent in favor of Republican lawmakers).

Which members of the 111th Congress received the most money from finance and the banks? John McCain got the most FIRE money ($35.9 million), followed by John Kerry ($19.8 million). Commerical banks gave McCain $2.8 million and Kerry $1.7 million. You can see data for all the other members and sort them by sub-category with the interactive table.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposed 2010-11 budget contains a number of cuts in state spending on education and social services. The non-partisan California Budget Project recently issued a series of fact sheets that estimate the impact of these reductions on local schools and welfare programs (including Healthy Families, CalWORKS, In-Home Supportive Services and senior disability assistance). 

Three new CPB fact sheets calcuate the impact of the proposed $2.7 billion cut in K-12 education spending on counties, county offices of education and individual school districts. Each document estimates the total reduction in funding, as well as the estimated reduction per student. Sacramento County, for example, would lose $67.6 million or $322 per student. Sacramento City Unified School District would lose $12.8 million or $304 per student.

Cell Phone Driving.jpg

You don't have to be a total transportation wonk to find something of interest in the Traffic Safety Legislation Tracking Database, a partnership of the National Council of State Legislatures and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The database is intended to provide up-to-date status on bills and chaptered laws introduced in the 50 states and District of Columbia. It covers 2007 thru 2010 legislation, which you can search by state, topic, keyword, year, status or sponsor.

The broad topic list includes: aggressive, distracted and impaired driving; school bus, motorcycle, bicycle and pedestrian safety; senior and teen drivers; speed limits and other critical issues. With this online database you can quickly see which states have laws prohibiting, say, texting while driving. Or using cell phones. Pretty handy when you're travelling out of state.

Caption: New driver Brandi Eadie, 16, looks down at her cell phone to read a text message as she drives through a rubber-cone course in Seattle on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010 to demonstrate the dangers of phone use while driving. (AP Photo/ Elaine Thompson)

The Bee's Capitol Alert blog reports that the California Chamber has taken a stand against a proposed initiative that would make it easier to pass a budget in the State Assembly. The "Passing the Budget on Time Act of 2010" reduces the required vote from two-thirds to a simple majority and would dock legislator pay if the budget is late. The Chamber concludes that the problem with the state budget isn't that it's often late, but that it's "unbalanced and undisciplined".

Still, one wonders how many states require something larger than simple majority in passing a budget. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, there are just three: Arkansas, Rhode Island and California.

Yesterday, even as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on health care reform, partisans on both sides of the issue continued to squabble mightily over the merits of the legislation. Is the plan a "government takeover of medicine"? Will it reduce the federal deficit? Will the bill destroy the American economy? The din of claims and counter-claims has been going for months, and the average person doesn't not know what to believe.

Fortunately there are credible, impartial fact-checkers who can judge the veracity of political assertions on health care. One is the Pulitizer-prize winning PolitiFact, a site (profiled here last August) that examines dozens of statements by "members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington". PolitiFact then rates the statement with its Truth-O-Meter scale (True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely, False and Pants on Fire).

The web site has analyzed over 250 health-related claims going back to 2007. Recently it published the "Top 5 lies about health care" and "Top 10 facts to know about health care". The articles clearly and concisely explain the most contentious points in the current debate. Worth a look.

Sunshine Week, the annual initiative to bolster open government and freedom of information, is in full swing. It's led by the American Society of News Editors with help from many print, broadcast, and online news outlets, plus libraries, schools, advocacy groups and other interested organizations.

Sunshine Week is an opportunity to evaluate how well government bodies comply with public requests for government documents as stipulated by the federal Freedom of Information Act and (in California) the Public Records Act. The Associated Press, for example, reviewed FOIA reports by 17 U.S. agencies to compare their performance in fiscal 2008 and 2009. AP found the departments providing the entirety of information sought in 162,205 FOIA requests in 2009, as compared to 196,776 requests in 2008. These same agencies denied FOIA requests in their entirety 20,005 times in 2009, compared to 21,057 times the prior year. 

Sunshine Week activists also examined the online availability of essential state public records such as death certificates, financial disclosures, physician disciplinary information, bridge inspections, school performance data, consumer complaints against businesses, etc. They concluded that although more government information is accessible on the Internet, some of the most important information is still offline. Only one state, Texas, provided all 20 categories of information considered in the survey. California provided only 11. 

Speaking of California, The Bee reported on the current status of state and local government compliance with the public records law and found that, increasingly, officials blame budget cuts and furloughs for delays in and denials of PRA requests for information.

Last week the Internal Revenue Service released its annual compendium of statistics on all aspects of federal taxation for FY 2009 (Oct. 2008 to Sept. 2009). The 84-page Data Book "includes information about returns filed, tax collections, enforcement and taxpayer assistance, as well as the IRS budget and workforce". During 2009 the IRS processed 236 million returns and collected $1.9 trillion in taxes (after refunds). Individual income tax payers contributed $854 million to that net total. Business income tax payers contributed $130 million. In 2009 the IRS collected some $214 million in net taxes from California businesses and individuals.

According to the IRS, math errors skyrocketed in 2008 tax returns. Out of 13.5 million mistakes, 10 million (74.4 percent) were connected with the one-time Recovery Rebate Credit. [Hat tip to The New York Times Economix blog.]

highway2.jpgThere are 305 highway construction projects financed by the federal stimulus currently underway or completed in California. That's according to new data released by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association which estimates these road improvements have supported 35,184 jobs in the state. Their press release breaks down the number and value of the projects by congressional district.

Speaking of highway construction funded by the stimulus (i.e. the Recovery Act), the White House announced yesterday the release of a new online map that pinpoints specific projects across the country. This "Master Recovery Transportation Map" lets you zoom from a national view down to the street level to see road work in your region. The markers are color coded by improvement types (pavement, safety, bridge, etc). Click on a marker for a project description and dollar amount spent.

About a dozen projects are located within the Sacramento metropolitan area. Most of these are in the "Pavement Restoration and Rehabilitation" category.

[April 30, 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the first highway project to be funded solely by the new U.S. stimulus law, near Fairfield Calif. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli.]

The 2010 Census is in full swing and Americans will soon receive their 10-question "short form" in the mail. The Census Bureau is pushing hard for maximum citizen participation in the process. One argument it makes to public is that an accurate count helps determine how the federal government allocates hundreds of billions of dollars in appropriations for things like hospitals, schools, bridges and other infrastucture and services.

But just how much federal money is determined by the decennial census? The Brookings Institution --  through its Counting for Dollars Project -- has attempted to make an "accurate national estimate of census-guided federal funding," breaking it down by function and geography. Analyzing the FY2008 budget, Brookings found that 215 U.S. domestic programs used census data to allocate $446.7 billion, or 31 percent of all federal support. The lion's share of census-guided funding went to state governments for highway projects and low-income programs.

California got $63.6 billion of these 2008 funds, a per-capita expenditure of $1,730. Of that, the Sacramento MSA received $8.3 billion ($3,960 per capita) and Sacramento County got $7.6 billion ($5,441 per capita).

This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he's consider the use of a controversial tactic to bypass Republican opposition and pass a health care bill. The procedural move known as reconciliation would allow the Senate to approve legislation with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed to end a filibister. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was livid at the prospect, calling it "arrogant" and a means to ram through a major bill he says most Americans oppose.

Though controversial, reconciliation has been used several times in the past by both parties in control of Congress since 1974, when the procedure was created. The Brooking Institution offers a concise history of reconciliation which includes a handy list of legislation passed by it. These bills mostly deal with budgets, but some pertain to tax cuts, Medicare, jobs, economic growth, food stamps, college costs and welfare. 

For a good primer on the politics of reconciliation, take a look at today's New York Times "Prescriptions" blog entry. For a longer historical analysis, see The Budget Reconciliation Process: The Senate's "Byrd Rule," published by the Congressional Research Service.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the federal stimulus, aka the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. There's been much political debate on how much the $862 billion bill has helped the economy. At the end of January, about $334 billion had been approved for projects. Of that, $179 billion had actually been spent. (Another $119 billion went to tax cuts.)

The Administration's web site provides detailed state-by-state breakdowns of funds award for federal contracts, grants and loans, as well as funds received and jobs created (as of Dec. 31, 2009). California has been awarded a total of $21.5 billion, of which $7.7 billion has been received. Recipients in the state report the funding of 70,745 jobs. See the Download Center for bulk data on the stimulus you can crunch for yourself.

The journalistic watchdog group ProPublica commemorates the anniversary with two new interactive features. Its Stimulus Speed Chart shows graphically how fast the government is spending money in each of the major agencies. (On average, 30 percent has been spent, 26 percent is in process and 42 percent has yet to be spent.) The Stimulus Investigations Chart is an ongoing list of instances where money has gone to contractors investigated for serious waste, fraud or abuse -- now or in the past. It includes some large corporations in California which got contracts despite pollution violations and alleged fraud (as reported by California Watch).

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released its latest annual estimates of "unauthorized immigrants" living in the nation. This is a snapshot of this population as of January 2009 with data broken down by time period of entry, country of origin, state of residence, age and sex.

DHS believes the number of undocumented immigrants actually fell 11.6 to 10.8 million between 2008 and 2009. (In 2000 there were 8.5 million.) The large majority of these individuals (62 percent) came from Mexico. Many of the undocumented live in California (24 percent), Texas (16 percent) and Florida (7 percent). The population is skewed toward males (58 percent) and adults aged 25 to 44 (61 percent).

On Monday President Obama unveiled his proposed $3.83 trillion budget for fiscal year 2011 which carries a record $1.5 trillion deficit. Putting these numbers in some perspective is not so easy, but there are online resources that can help. Here are a few I've found. I'm sure there are others. Share what you've discovered in the comments below.

  • Budget of the United States Government: Browse Fiscal Year 2011. The full text of pertinent documents collected by the Office of Management and Budget. It includes the President's message, goals for the budget, fiscal summaries for the major U.S. departments, summary tables, and a spreadsheet detailing proposed spending by function.
  • Advanced Search: Budget of the United States Government. The Government Printing Office's full-text search engine for the U.S. Budget and other essential documents (like congressional bills and the Federal Register). This lets you look for specific words and phrases in the budget. You can confine the search to a particular fiscal year, president, agency, branch, etc.
  • Obama's Budget and How It Compares to George Bush's Last One. The Guardian newspaper's handy chart breaking down the 2011 budget by department and showing how much more (or less) the proposed allocations compare to those in the 2009 Bush plan.
  • OMB Historical Tables. These provide "data on budget receipts, outlays, surpluses or deficits, Federal debt, and Federal employment over an extended time period, generally from 1940 or earlier to 2011 or 2015". Inflation adjusted for easy comparisons. Of particular interest are the tables tracking budget surplus/deficits -- and their percentages of GDP -- over many decades.
  • Historical Budget Tables by Department, 1962-2015. Two spreadsheets displaying departmental allocations in terms of dollars and percent of overall spending. This is a quick way to see changing government priorities (say of defense or social welfare) over the long-term.

As a followup to its recent report on political party preferences, the Gallup polling group today released its study of ideology in the U.S. population. It seems counterintuitive, but despite the solid majority of Americans calling themselves Democrats (or leaning Democratic), Gallup found the number of people identifying themselves as politically conservative exceeded self-identified liberals in every one of the 50 states. (The District of Columbia is the only place where liberals outnumber conservatives.) However, it's important to note that most states have substantial percentages of moderates, and that no state has a conservative majority (though Alabama comes close with 49.4 percent).

In California, the ideological breakdown is: 33.1 percent conservative; 25.4 percent liberal; and 37.5 percent moderate.

Although Republicans made some gains in national party affiliation from 2008 to 2009, the United States remained solidly Democratic last year. That's according to a Gallup study which analyzed party preference surveys conducted in all 50 states. Gallup found that in 2008, 52 percent of American adults identified themselves as Democrats or were Democratic-leaning independents. Forty percent in 2008 said they were Republicans or leaned Republican. That 12-point Democratic advantage in 2008 shrank to eight points in 2009 (49 to 41 percent). 

The top three Democratic states in 2009 were the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island (77.9, 56.8 and 56.2 percent, respectively). The top three GOP states were Wyoming, Utah and Idaho (53.8, 51.9 and 49.7 percent).

In 2009 the majority of Californians either identified themselves as Democrats or leaned Democratic, 51.2 to 31.5 percent Republican. Compare that Gallup estimate to the official voter registration stats complied by the Secretary of State's office in May 2009: 44.5 percent registered Democrats versus 31.0 Republican (20.0 declined to state).  

At tonight's State of the Union, President Obama is expected to renew calls for a bipartisan commission to address the problem of ballooning federal deficits. That comes on the heels of the Congressional Budget Office's warning "that if current laws and policies remained unchanged, the federal budget would show a deficit of $1.3 trillion for fiscal year 2010". CBO also projects that -- if current practices stay the same -- annual deficits would hover around $600 billion in the next ten years, dropping to $687 billion in 2020.

But what if the government were to take some significant action to curb the shortfalls, as suggested by various ideological camps? Things like reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan or extending Bush-era tax cuts? What would be the long-term effect on deficits? You can see for yourself with the CBO's interactive chart. Just check the option and see how it changes the deficit picture in the next 10 years. It turns out that freezing discretionary appropriations at 2010 levels would lower the 2020 deficit by the greatest margin (down to $392 billion).

USAjobs.jpgIt's ironic, but just as the President is seeking a spending freeze for some domestic programs, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced a complete revamping of its federal employment web site. The makeover of is intended to simplify and streamline the process of searching for, applying for and tracking government positions. In addition an applicant can build or upload a resume at the site.

The search component couldn't be easier. Just type in a keyword (e.g., accountant) and a city or zip code and hit "search". The subsequent listing shows a job summary, agency and salary. You can refine the search geographically by setting a mile radius around the desired location. In additon to keyword searching, you can also browse jobs by agency or state

Just out of curiosity, I searched for positions within a 50 miles of Sacramento. At this writing there were 142 open positions ranging in pay from $9 an hour (Park Ranger, Bureau of Land Management) to $134,647 a year (Fire & Aviation Director, U.S. Forest Service).

Today the US. Secret Service acknowledged that a third (unnamed) person crashed that infamous White House state dinner in November. We don't yet know the name of this individual, but we do know the names of hundreds of other White House visitors now that the Obama Administration has started posting visitor logs on its web site.

In September, President Obama ordered the voluntary disclosure of visitor records. Each month, the logs from the previous 90-120 days will be posted online in a searchable database. Those listings include everyone who comes to the White House complex for an appointment, tour or other function (exceptions allowed for national security reasons). Last month, the Administration added more than 25,000 visitor records created between Sept. 16-30.

The information in the records is limited: visitor name, date, time, person visited, etc. There's also a "description" of the meeting that's fairly cryptic ("group tour" or "Energy Reform Meeting"). In many records there's no description at all. Still, it's interesting to scan for well-known people in the records. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for example, visited twice -- once to meet with the President and once with economic advisor Lawrence Summers.

As we say goodbye to 2009 and the Oh Oh Decade, it's good to look back at four essential public opinion measures as identified by the Gallup survey organization:

1. Satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Collective satisfaction in the country was high at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency (69 percent). It peaked in Dec. 2001 as the country rallied after the 9/11 attacks (70 percent). It fell steadily throughout the rest of the decade, bouncing up briefly at the start of the Obama presidency, dropping back down to 25 percent at present.

2. Most important problem facing the country. Throughout the 2000s Americans were focused about equally on health care, terrorism, the economy and war. Not surprisingly, concern with the economy shot up in February 2009 to its highest level (86 percent).   

3. Presidential job approval. Satisfaction with President Bush's performance soared to 90 percent shortly after the 9/11 attacks -- that's the highest rating in Gallup history. Then it dropped steadily to 25 percent near the end of his second term. Barack Obama started in the the mid-60s and dropped to around 50 percent currently. 

4. Congressional job approval. National feeling about federal lawmakers tended to mirror opinion of the president. Congressional approval rating climbed to a post-9/11 high of 84 percent, then fell precipitously to an all-time low of 14 percent in mid-2008.

One of the important uses of the 2010 U.S. Census count is the reapportioning and redistricting of 435 congressional seats in 2011. It's not clear at this point whether California will gain or lose one seat. It's also not clear whether the state's governor and legislators will redraw the congressional district boundaries as they have done in the past. That's because of a proposed voter initiative which would transfer the responsibility to an independent commission -- much as Proposition 11 did for California Assembly and Equalization Board districts.

A new documentary film Gerrymandering, premiering next year, will examine the partisan manipulation of the redistricting process and (the filmakers hope) spark a national debate about its abuses. Gerrymandering will feature interviews with scholars, journalists, reform advocates and politicans (including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis and Pete Wilson). See the YouTube trailer for the movie.

Accompanying the film's web site is The Redistricting Game, an online educational tool that gives players an opportunity to learn the political strategy of boundary-making by letting them draw up districts in a hypothetical state. 

Last friday's student protest at CSUS is the latest in the push back against budget cuts and higher fees at California universities.

Commentators ask rhetorically why the state spends more on prisons than it does on college education. But it that true? In a recent issue brief, the Legislative Analyst's Office attempts to address the question. Considered together, says the LAO, corrections and higher education represent about 20 percent of General Fund spending. Ten years ago higher ed took up about 12.5 percent of the General Fund -- corrections less than eight percent. Today the share of each is about equal. That's due to the fact that the cost per inmate has risen, while college funding has gradually relied more on student fees.

Another sign of the ongoing recession: Preliminary third quarter data showed sharp declines in tax revenue for most states, including California. The Rockefeller Institute of Government says total state collections fell from $134.0 billion in Q3 2008 to $119.7 billion in Q3 2009, about a 11.3 percent drop. Corporate income tax, personal income tax and sales tax revenues decreased 19.4, 11.4 and 8.2 percent, respectively.

Total California revenue didn't drop as much, percentage-wise (8.7). Broken out, corporate income, personal income and sales tax collections dropped 11.3, 16.0 and 1.0 percent, respectively.

The New York Times has produced two health reform infographics that deserve mention. The first summarizes the recent House vote on H.R. 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. In addition to the complete tally of each house member's position, the accompanying map shows the geography of the vote with color-coding of each congressional district in the country. You get a good sense of where the Democrats who voted for and against the bill come from.

The other infographic is a well-illustrated NYT timeline of attempts at health reform legislation in the United States. It begins in 1912 with Theodore Roosevelt promising national health insurance while campaigning for President, and ends with the Oct. 7 House vote. (Presumably the chronology will grow with new developments.) Most of the timeline entries are supplemented with historic Times news clippings.

Misery loves company. So with California facing yet another budget shortfall, it's comforting (if that's the appropriate emotion) to know that several other states are in the same fiscal pickle.

The Pew Center on the States today released a study identifying nine other states whose budgetary and economic troubles have approached California-like dimensions. Pew scored all 50 states by six factors

  • high foreclosure rate
  • increasing unemployment
  • decreasing state revenue
  • relative size of budget deficit
  • legal obstacles to balancing budget (such as a supermajority budget vote threshold)
  • poor money management practices

and concluded that Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin most match our state's fiscal challenges. This is troubling news for the nation recovery as a whole, since together these 10 troubled states account for more than a third of U.S. population and economic output.

Last week the California Assembly Public Safety Committee held a hearing on a bill that allows marijuana to be taxed and sold legally to adults. The Board of Equalization estimates that pot sales could generate a whopping $1.4 billion net annual revenue gain for the state. But that's based on a lot of assumptions--none backed up by hard data.

A more sober analysis of the budgetary impact of legalizing pot was done in 2005 by Jeffrey Miron, a visiting Harvard economics professor. He concluded that lifting the prohibition on marijuana helps government budgets by generating tax revenue and saving money on enforcement. The national bottom line:

The [Harvard] report estimates that legalizing marijuana would save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $5.3 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $2.4 billion would accrue to the federal government.

The report also estimates that marijuana legalization would yield tax revenue of $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like all other goods and $6.2 billion annually if marijuana were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco.

Broken out by state, Miron estimated that California would save $981 million annually in law enforcement costs (including police, judicial and corrections expenditures), plus generate $105.4 million in additional state taxes. (Again these are 2005 projections.)

The Internal Revenue Service on Monday released fresh statistics on electronic filing of federal income tax returns. About 95 million out of 141 million individual returns were transmitted via the Internet in 2009. That's almost a nine point hike in the percent of e-Filers over last year. Since 2000, the proportion has grown from 27.57 percent to 67.18 percent. Some 66 percent of tax refunds in 2009 were received with direct deposit. That's up four percent from 2008.

In California more than 77 percent of individual and corporate income tax returns were filed electronically in 2009. That's a 2.5 percent increase over last year. In addition, almost 45 percent of filers used direct deposit for refunds.

census.jpgThe U.S. Census Bureau is promoting the upcoming decennial survey of the nation with the launch of a new web site. Census2010 is a slick, multimedia resource directly mostly at average Americans to encourage them to fill out the census questionnaire that will be mailed to every residence next year. Part of the web site is intended to address some of the myths and concerns circulating about the survey process. But the overall aim is to remind people of the political, social and economic importance of an accurate count for communities, states and country as a whole.

The 2010 census will depart from prior ones in that the Bureau will distribute only one short survey form with 10 questions. In the past there have been two questionnaires: the so-called "short form," that everyone received, and the "long form," that went to a sampling of households. The long form has been replaced by the annual American Community Survey that asks many of the same questions about income, education, ancestry, marriage status, commuting, etc. The 2010 abbreviated form is restricted to a few basic demographic factors: age, race, gender, children and whether the residence is owned or rented.

Recipients of federal stimulus contracts, grants and loans have begun filing reports on how they are using government funds. These initial reports include the total amount of money received between Feb. 17, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2009, the total amount expended, the number of jobs created or saved, and a description and location of the project. Prime recipients and sub-recipients have filed a total of 112,219 reports, reflecting 8,927 contract awards, 102,901 grants, and 391 loans. 

According to, California received the third largest number of jobs saved/created from federal contracts (2260.05). Detailed information about each contract is available on the government site, but it's difficult to analyze in the aggregate. So the investigative journalism group ProPublica has complied contractor and subcontractor data in two manageable spreadsheets. The categories in these files are somewhat cryptic, but you can browse them by agency and business name, state, city and ZIP code. A cursory look at the Sacramento region shows 31 contract awards totaling some $14.7 million and creating or saving 63.7 jobs.

Yesterday the U.S. Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board announced the revamping of, the government's official reporting site for the federal stimulus program. boasts some impressive interactive maps and charts that help users track spending of $787 billion in stimulus money. The centerpiece is a national map showing the amount of funds announced, available and spent for contracts, grants, loans and entitlements for states and the country as a whole. If you click on a state, you open a new zoomable map showing the location of every recipient of federal funds. Clicking on the pinpoint yields details on that particular contract, loan or grant. This stimulus map is also searchable by specific ZIP code.

Today the Bee reported that the governor wants to raise money for the state's depleted general fund by selling off $2 billion in government-owned properties. If you're curious to know what other properties and leases California posseses, the Department of General Services provides a useful online database of buildings and other facilties. It's searchable by property name, agency name, street, city, county and property type. Once you get a results list, clicking on a property's map icon calls up a MapQuest window showing its location.

In addition to this property database, DGS also displays assets and surplus properties that the state wants to sell.

voting.JPGThe Public Policy Institute of California recently published three new surveys analyzing the characteristics of the state's likely voters. Here are the bullet points:

California Voter and Party Profiles. The number of unaffiliated voters continues to rise. In May it reached 20 percent of the electorate. Those identifying themselves as Democrats accounted for 45 percent, Republicans 31 percent. Of these, a healthy majority in each party said they were liberal (Dem) or conservative (Rep) on budgetary issues, indicating a deep ideological split among partisans.

California Likely Voters. Conservatives have the edge among likely voters. They comprise 38 percent, liberals 32 percent and moderates 30 percent. Likely voters tend to be disproportionately white, affluent, better educated, older and own homes.

Latino Likely Voters in California. Latinos are a growing segment of the state's population. Even though they make up 32 percent of California adults, they comprise only 17 percent of likely voters. Sixty-three percent of Latino likely voters are registered Democrats, but overall a sizable number (37 percent) declare themselves politically conservative.

Last night the California Assembly adjourned without passing a Senate-approved plan to reduce the prison population by 27,300 inmates in the next 10 months and to create a commission to overhaul the state's sentencing laws.

The current number of state prisoners is 167,700. For a long-term look at the growth of the prison system, take a look at the Correction Department's annual Historical Trends report which aggregates data on adult institutions. Each report contains statistics on the total state prison population for a 20-year period, breaking down the numbers by such factors as race/ethnicity, gender and offense category (drugs, property, crimes against persons). The latest publication covers 1987-2007 and the oldest report available online is from 1976-1996. The total adult correctional population grew from 21,088 in 1976 to 171,444 in 2007. That total peaked in 2006 at 172,528.

kennedy.jpgTed Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, has asked Massachusetts legislators to change state law to allow the governor to appoint a temporary replacement in the event of the senator's death. Current law would leave his seat empty for 145-160 days until a special election is held. As a result, Democrats would lose a valuable vote in the Senate during that period.

Kennedy has been a U.S. senator for more than 47 years. That ought to make him the longest serving member of that chamber. But actually he's number three. Robert Byrd passed Strom Thurmond for that honor in June 2006. Here's a handy list of the 25 individuals who have served the longest U.S. Senate terms.

Excuse the ghoulish curiosity, but one wonders how many senators have died in office since the founding of the country. The Political Graveyard's got a complete listing. Recently deceased: Craig Thomas (Wyoming), June 4, 2007; Paul Wellstone (Minnesota), Oct. 25, 2002; and Paul Coverdell (Georgia), July 18, 2000. Incidentally, The Political Graveyard is a large online database of biographical information on over 190,000 politicians, living and dead. (The cemetery is indicated for the dead ones.) 

Death panels, free sex-change surgeries, subsidized abortions -- these are some of the dubious assertions in the heated debate over health care. How does the average person distinquish between fact and fiction in the claims and counter-claims? You could consult official sources, such as the Obama Administration's web site or the Senate Republicans' Health Care Facts. But they have a partisan bias, of course.

So where do you go for impartial information? One place is PolitiFact, the Pulitizer Prize-winning fact-checking service of the St. Petersburg Times. PoliitFact began in the 2008 presidential election with the mission of examining "statements by members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington." Times reporters and researchers then rate their accuracy on a "Truth-O-Meter:" True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True and False. The most egregiously false statements earn the lowest rating of "Pants on Fire".

PolitiFact ratings are browseable by broad subject. The section on health not only addresses many of the controversial statements made during the current debate on health care legislation, it also covers claims made by presidential contenders during the primaries and post-convention campaigning.

Have suggestions for non-partisan, reality-based, fact-checking on health reform? Share them in the comments below.

The Senate has confirmed Sonja Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court on a 68-31 vote. She got support from all 57 Democrats present -- plus independents Senators Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who usually vote with Democrats. Only nine Republicans voted for her.

Senate confirmation votes are not always so partisan. Some votes are close to unanimous, but others reflect a deeply split Senate. USA Today looks at the votes and the politics of the confirmations of sitting justices. For a longer term view of partisanship in these Senate decisions, take a look at this chart, "Confirmed Supreme Court Nominees by Vote and Party Split in U.S. Senate, 1900-2009," provided by the University of Minnesota. It's pretty easy to see which justices faced the most opposition along party lines. 

The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. Census Bureau plans to count same-sex marriages in the 2010 decennial census. Up to now a same-sex partner that identified him/herself as a husband/wife was counted as an "unmarried partner". The policy change follows a recent legal opinion by Commerce Department lawyers that the Defense of Marriage Act does not prohibit the Bureau from publicly releasing such data.

Yesterday the Bee unveiled a very cool interactive map displaying California public projects funded by federal stimulus money. When you click on a county, you get get a list of individual projects, plus a bar chart showing the distribution (in percent) of the money in broad categories (health, education, water, transportation, housing, energy, etc.). In Sacramento, for example, the bulk of the county's $72.1 million is going to education projects.

The data behind this stimulus map comes from the Governor's recovery web site. The latter has its own interactive map, where you can zoom in to see the location of specific projects scattered around the state. For a national perspective, check out the maps available on the federal stimulus site.

The immediate budget crisis tends to keep most of us from thinking about California's future problems. But at least one group, the Public Policy Institute of California, wants policymakers to remember the state's long-term planning challenges. They've prepared California 2025, a briefing kit summarizing data projections in eight key areas (budget, climate change, economy, education, population, transportation, water and workforce).

On the population front, California is projected to grow to nearly 50 million by 2025. The interior portions of the state will grow faster than coastal ones. The citizenry will continue to diversify with Latinos becoming the largest ethnic group. And the percentage of people over 65 will jump from 11 percent in 2008 to 16 percent in 2025.  

Every year the federal government grants refugee and asylum status to "persons who have been persecuted or who have a well-founded fear of persecution" in their native countries. The legal difference between a "refugee" and an "asylee" is the former requests refuge outside the United States, while the latter requests it after entering this country.

The U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics compiles data on these two groups. Its latest report indicates that 60,108 persons were admitted to the United States as refugees in 2008. The leading countries of origin were Bhutan, Burma and Iraq. The leading countries of origin for the 12,187 asylees were Colombia, China and Haiti. OIS statstics are broken out by age, gender, marital and parent status and state of residence. Almost 16 percent of the 2008 refugees settled in California, followed by Texas with 8.5 percent. Likewise, California is the leading state of residence for the 2008 asylees (34.3 percent), followed by Florida (19.7 percent).

The Treasury Department annouonced today that the U.S. deficit in June was $94.3 billion. That pushed the total deficit for the current fiscal year (beginning on Oct. 1) past a record $1.1 trillion.

The Monthly Treasury Statement is a detailed report on the receipts, outlays and deficit of the U.S. Government. Included on that web page is a chart of monthly deficit figures from Oct. 1980 to the present.

The New York Times has analyzed the federal stimulus money earmarked for some 5,274 transportation projects around the country. The paper concluded that although two-thirds of the nation's people live in cities and surrounding regions (with the worst roads and traffic jams), far less than two-thirds of the stimulus funding is going to metropolitan areas. In fact, the largest 100 MSAs will get less than half of the $26.6 billion allocated for bridges, highways and other transportation projects. is California government's web portal for reporting federal stimulus granted to the state. You can use an interactive map for tracking projects by type (education, energy, water, etc.) or geography (county, city, congressional district, etc.). Click on a "paddle" to see information on a specific project. You can also download data into a spreadsheet for further study. On the transportation front, there are 61 projects in the state totalling $2.6 billion. Without deeper analysis, it's difficult to know how much of the money is going to rural versus urban areas, but on the face of it, it seems more is going to less populated counties.


sotomayor.jpgThe American Bar Association, the main national lawyers group, unanimously rated Sonia Sotomayor as "well-qualified" to serve as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. It falls to the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary to examine the professional qualifications of each choice "to support and encourage the selection of the best-qualified persons for the federal judiciary. It restricts its evaluation to issues bearing on professional qualifications and does not consider a nominee's philosophy or ideology."

The ABA conducts extensive interviews and careful study of opinions to determine it's ratings ("well-qualified," "qualified" and "not qualified"). If you're curious about the scores of other judicial candidates, the ABA web site has rating charts going back to the 101st Congress (1989-90). Of the five sitting Supreme Court Justices whose nominations fall within that period (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas), only Thomas didn't get a "well qualified" rating (he received a "qualified").


As if the state didn't have enough to worry about, the Fitch credit rating company recently downgraded California's general obligation bonds from "A" to "A-". Fitch lowered the rating, citing "the magnitude of the State's financial and institutional challenges and persistent economic and revenue weakening."

Of course, the State Treasurer keeps track of the gyrations in California's credit-worthiness. His web site includes a chart showing changes in bond ratings by Fitch and its competitors, Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's. S&P's ratings go all the way back to 1938. Look here for an explanation of each of the ratings codes.

capitol.JPGWith Minnesota's Al Franken taking a seat in the U.S. Senate, Democrats in that chamber potentially control 60 votes -- the number needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. That majority is comprised of 58 Democrats and two independents, Joseph Leiberman and Bernard Sanders.

The Senate web site provides a handy reference describing the party composition of the Senate for every Congress going back to the first (1789-1791). Each entry has the numerical breakdown, plus notes on any special circumstances (such as members dying or switching parties). 

Here's a question for history buffs: when was the last time one of the parties held at least 60 seats in the Senate? Answer: the 95th Congress (1977-1979) when the Democrats had 61 (with 38 Republicans and one independent, Harry F. Byrd Jr., who voted with the Democratic caucus). 

Incidentally, there's also a page showing the party division in the U.S. House (1789-present).

House Democrats today unveiled a new health care reform plan intended to cover the 50 million people in the country who lack medical insurance. (See the 850-page draft bill here.)

The U.S. Census maintains statistics on the uninsured. The latest data (2006-2007) breaks down estimates by age, race, ethnicity, income, family and employment status. There's also a table showing the number and percentage of the uninsured population by state. Approximately 15.5 percent of Americans are without insurance. In California about 6.7 million people --18.5 percent -- are uninsured. That puts California seventh in a ranking of states. Texas is first with 24.8 percent. Massachusetts is last with 7.9 percent.

The California First Amendment Coalition and, which sued the Legislative Counsel's Office to obtain a comprehensive electronic database of legislative votes, have settled their case with the state. Up to this point, vote data was only available online for individual bills. Now the data is downloadable for whole years. You can access that information here. will use the votes database to create a new government website: California. The site will provide the public with a "Money and Votes" resource that will show the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes. California will aggregate money given to members of the legislature with how each politician votes on every bill -- revealing patterns of money and influence.

If you're a Facebook user, there's a new application that allows you to follow campaign contributions given to your U.S. Senators and Congress member. All you have to do is enter your ZIP code in the FB app and you'll get an updated list of names and amounts of top donors for each politician.  
The creator of this resource is the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks the role of money in politics. CRP's web site contains a robust database of campaign finance information going back to 1997. The data is not only searchable by candidate and donor, but it's also analyzed to show the relative influence of specific industries and interest groups on the recipient.

The Legislative Accounting Ofice today warned that the state may have to borrow $20 billion at the start of the next fiscal year just to pay day-to-day bills. In its latest report, the non-partisan body advises that balancing the budget is the best way the Legislature can shorten the Califonia's cash flow crisis.

The LAO provides some helpful historical data summarizing the state income and spending over many years. They have two Excel spreadsheets with a pivot function that let you filter the information by various parameters. The expense data, running from fiscal 1984-85 to 2009-10, breaks out spending by specific department. You can easier see, for example, that Caltrans' expendidures grew from $2.1 billion in 1984-85 to $10.2 billion in the projected 2009-10 budget. Likewise, the revenue data, running from fiscal 1950-01 to 2009-10, breaks out income derived from specific taxes and fees.


Today the Obama Administration announced its intention to curb the loss of federal revenue to offshore tax havens.  In 2004, says a White House press release, "U.S. multinational corporations paid about $16 billion of U.S. tax on approximately $700 billion of foreign active earnings - an effective U.S. tax rate of about 2.3%". Furthermore, it noted, 83 of the 100 largest U.S. public companies have subsidiaries operating in tax haven countries.

That last figure comes from a Dec. 2008 U.S. General Accounting Office report that also determined that 63 of the 100 largest U.S. publicly- traded federal contractors had tax haven operations. The GAO study lists each corporation in a chart that includes its rank in terms of revenue, the number of its foreign subsidies and the number of its subsidies located in tax havens. Among the companies are some well-known firms: Coca Cola, United Parcel Service, Pfizer, Safeway, Sears, etc.

Incidentally, the Internal Revenue Service provides a good backgrounder on "Abusive Offshore Tax Avoidance Schemes". It's intended to help taxpayers recognize and steer clear of fraudulent offers to shelter funds in foreign locales.

stewart.jpgRepublican Arlen Specter, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, today announced he's becoming a Democrat. He follows in the footsteps of Senators Joe Lieberman and and Jim Jeffords who switched parties while in office. Twenty-one sitting senators have changed their political affiliations since 1890. You can read all about them in brief profiles prepared by the U.S. Senate Historical Office. These spell out the political and ideological factors that prompted each man's decision.

(William Morris Stewart, U.S. Senator from Nevada, 1887-1905.)




Assembly Speaker Karen Bass yesterday canceled pay hikes for more than 120 legislative aides. Bass said she didn't want the raises to distract voters from the necessity of passing Proposition 1A and other fiscal measures in next month's special election.

The brouhaha gets one thinking about legislator compensation and how our state compares to others in the nation. It turns out California lawmakers make the most -- by a large margin. Assembly members earn a base annual salary of $116,208 (plus $173 per diem payment for each day in session), according to a 50-state chart prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York follows behing with a base pay of $79,500 per year.

It should be noted that California legislators don't set their own pay. That responsiblity falls to the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which was created when voters approved Proposition 112 in 1990. The proposed Proposition 1F measure to be voted on May 19 would freeze legislator salaries in years when the state is expected to run a budget deficit.

It's easy for some to be cynical about Earth Day. We set aside one day to focus on the environment, the critics mutter, but how about the rest of the year? Fair point.

So what can we do to help the planet every day? One good source of practical advice for easing our environmental impact is, the federal government's portal to events and information available on U.S. agency web sites. Here you'll find tips for saving energy and water, recycling and disposing of toxics at home and at work. There are also links to volunteer opportunities in your community. Teachers will find a good collection of links on environmental topics, learning activities, classroom games, etc. Kids have their own Earth Day page.

The Environmental Protection Agency also celebrates Earth Day with event information, photos, video, podcasts, consumer tips, historical documents and an environmental timeline. 

Last Thursday the U.S. Justice Department released four Bush-era memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel concerning the use of controversial interrogation techniques. The Obama Adminstration made the documents public with assurances to intelligence officials who followed the legal opinions at the time will not be prosecuted now. 

McClatchy's Washington Bureau posted an in-depth story on the OLC memos accompanied by the full-text of the four memos, plus letters from the current National Intelligence and CIA Directors. Also included is a news illustration explaining exactly how water-boarding is done.

The dog is out of the bag. The Obamas have nominated "Bo," a Portuguese Water Dog, to be First Puppy. But data guys wonder, how popular is the hypoallergenic breed?

Jump to the American Kennel Club website, which provides national dog registration statistics ranked by breed. In a chart of 156 recognized breeds, the PWD comes in at 62nd in popularity. The Labrador Retriever, no suprise, comes in first, followed by the Yorkshire Terrier, German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. The AKC also has top ten rankings for 50 major cities. In Sacramento the dominant breeds are:

1. Labrador Retriever
2. Yorkshire Terrier
3. German Shepherd Dog 
4. Golden Retriever
5. Shih Tzu
6. Bulldog 
7. Dachshund
8. Miniature Pinscher
9. Rottweiler**
10. Cocker Spaniel

* Registration data pulled from Sacramento zip codes as specified by U.S. Postal Service

** Tied with #8


April 9, 2009
Gay marriage scorecard

This week saw new developments in the battle over gay marriage. In Iowa, the state supreme court upheld a lower court's ruling that threw out a law restricting marriage to a man and a woman. In Vermont, lawmakers overrode the Governor's veto, becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marrage through legislative action. That makes four states that currently allow such marriages (the other states being Massachusetts and Connecticut).

With so much activity it's difficult to keep track of all the state laws related to civil unions and marriage. But there is at least one neutral source for up-to-date information: the National Conference of State Legislatures. The NCSL provides a handy chart listing the 50 states under four headings:

1) States with Statutes Defining Marriage Between One Man and One Woman (41)

2) States with Constitutional Language Defining Marriage (30)

3) States Without a Law Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage (5)

4) States that passed a DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) Constitutional Amendment in 2008 (3)

States with civil union, and partial and full spousal rights laws are also listed. 

In another sign of the current economic slump, Reuters reports record use of food stamps, the federal program that helps poor people buy groceries. Latest figures show one in ten -- 32.2 million Americans -- receiving food aid. Between December and January U.S. enrollment increased in 46 of the 50 states.

The food stamp program -- now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- is administered by the Agriculture Department. The USDA web site has a repository of historic statistics on SNAP, including figures on benefits and people and households served. One chart displays annual participation, benefit and cost data back to 1969. In 1969, 2.9 million people received food stamps at a cost of $250 million. In 2008, 28.4 million got the stamps at a cost of $37.7 billion. There are also state breakdowns back to 2003. Currently, about 2.5 million Californians (1.1 million California households) participate in SNAP according to the preliminary January 2009 figures.

Since California taxation is on many people's minds, it's timely that the U.S. Census today released its latest data on state taxes. Total taxes collected by the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) reached $781.8 billion in 2008. That's a 5.1 percent increase over 2007. These figures cover the whole range of state taxation -- from property, sales, and income taxes to the various licenses fees, such as vehicle, alcohol and hunting. There's a spreadsheet breaking out each type of tax for every state. California amassed $117.4 billion in 2008, with the biggest share coming from individual income taxes ($55.7 billion). 

Ranked by per capita taxes collected, California comes out 12th in the nation (see table below). Alaska leads the states by a large margin because of its huge oil severance tax.

State 2008 population     Total state taxes Per capita
U.S. total 304,059,724 $781,787,281,000 $2,571
Alaska 686,293 $8,424,714,000 $12,276
Vermont 621,270 $2,544,163,000 $4,095
Wyoming 532,668 $2,168,016,000 $4,070
Hawaii 1,288,198 $5,147,480,000 $3,996
Connecticut 3,501,252 $13,367,631,000 $3,818
North Dakota 641,481 $2,312,056,000 $3,604
New Jersey 8,682,661 $30,616,510,000 $3,526
Minnesota 5,220,393 $18,320,891,000 $3,509
Massachusetts 6,497,967 $21,836,357,000 $3,360
Delaware 873,092 $2,930,955,000 $3,357
New York 19,490,297 $65,400,355,000 $3,356
California 36,756,666 $117,361,976,000 $3,193


California shoppers will face a 1 percent hike in sales tax next Wednesday. This temporary tax increase is a response to the state's fiscal crisis. It will expire on July 1, 2011 or 2012, depending on whether voters approve Proposition 1A (the Budget Stabilization Act) in the May 19 election.

When the California statewide sales tax began in 1933, the rate was a mere 2.50 percent. Localities got to impose a sales tax of their own starting in 1962. For a historic summary of the state and local tax rates, check out this Board of Equalization chart. On April 1 the basic rate rises to 8.25 percent (consisting of a 7.25 percent state rate, a .75 percent city/county rate and a .25 percent local transportation rate). If that weren't enough, some places are subject to special district sales tax. You can look up the specific total rate for your city here.

The Obama White House has been chastised for not filling key administrative positions, particularly at the U.S. Treasury Department, which is at the center of the economic recovery effort. The fault, apparently, lies in hyper-scrutiny of appointees and a slow Senate confirmation process.

Almost every day the Administration announces more nominations -- which you can read at the White House Briefing Room. But for a really elegant tool to track Obama appointments, consult the Washington Post's Head Count page. It maintains an up-to-date list of the 486 Senate-approved positions, searchable by name, agency and status (open, nominated, withdrawn, confirmed, etc.). Head Count also features an interactive graphic and database for analyzing the timing, demographics and prior political connections of the President's choses. Very cool.  

The federal economic recovery program is the object of intense scrutiny by journalists, taxpayer groups and anyone else concerned with how the federal government is spending $787 billion in stimulus money. But how transparent is the process? The investigative news site, ProPublica, is tracking how well state governments are keeping citizens informed of their use of recovery funds. There's a handy chart with links to each state's stimulus site along with a brief evaluation. Here's what ProPublica thinks of California's online reporting:

California's stimulus site describes the governor's quarterly reporting obligations to Washington, but doesn't offer any additional accountability resources or plans to implement them. Links to state and federal agencies and funding breakdowns by category are available, but there is no information about specific projects.

Indeed, the state's recovery site currently lacks details on programs that will receive stimulus money. But it notes the Governor is required to submit quarterly reports to Congress and the federal granting agency that disclose: 1) How funds will be used; 2) whether funds were used correctly; 3) jobs created/sustained by the funds; and 4) non-federal funding sources used to complete projects. The state promises to post these reports promptly on the web site.

We'll have to see.

Sunshine Week culminated last Friday with a national live webcast to discuss White House efforts to make federal government more transparent and participatory. "Opening Doors: Finding the Keys to Open Government" featured a panel composed of adminstration officials and government accountability experts, who took questions from viewing groups located across the country. You can watch the full recorded event here

During the webcast two groups, and Center for Techology and Democracy reported on the results of their recent survey, "Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents". The report highlighted the ten types of government records respondents cited as most needing to be easy to find and easy to use online. Not surprisingly (considering the economic crisis) number two on the list was "information about the use of TARP and bailout funds". But the top need was "public access to all Congressional Research Service reports". The CRS produces in-depth studies for lawmakers on a variety of topics, ranging from foreign policy to health care. Although paid for by taxpayers, these documents are neither publicized, nor made available on the Internet, as a matter of routine.    

The Sunshine Week survey mentioned in the previous I-Tool posting specifically chides California for not making statements of economic interest electronically accessible to the public. The Fair Political Practices Commission requires state officials to file the annual Form 700 to disclose assets, income sources and business ownerships. The intent is to prevent economic conflicts of interest in their governmental roles. If a public official finds himself in a potential conflict of interest, he may be obligated by state law to disqualify himself "from making or participating in a governmental decision, or using his or her official position to influence or attempt to influence a governmental decision".

So far the FPPC only keeps Form 700 filings in paper. But for the past two years, The Bee has obtained photocopies, scanned them and posted them to the web site. You can examine 2007 and 2008 disclosures filed by Consititutional officeholders, Equalization Board members, senators and Assembly members here.

SWlogo.gifAdvocates of transparent government have collaborated to publicize the important role of freedom of information in a functioning democracy. Sunshine Week (March 15-21) aims to open a dialogue about the public's right to know what its government is doing--and why.

On Sunday The Bee reported on the results of a nationwide study of how accessible state government information is online. The Sunshine Week survey judged each state's commitment to open records by checking the availability of a standard "laundry list" of essential data and documents, such as inspections of child care facilities, school buses, hospitals, nursing homes, school test scores, campaign contributions, etc. Turns out California has a pretty mixed record in access to online public information.

Sunshine Week participants include many organizations (newspapers, broadcasters, advocacy groups) which in one way or another, advance citizen access to government information. Some of the important California groups: 

California First Amendment Coalition (a non-profit, non-partisan education and advocacy organization whose mission "is to protect and promote freedom of expression and the people's right to know").
Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights (a nonprofit organization established to foster open governmental meetings and records, and to assist journalists and others who are blocked in their access to public information).
California Common Cause ("a non-partisan citizen's organization whose goal is to ensure open, honest and accountable government").
California Newspaper Publishers Association (the newspaper trade group which has been an advocate for legislation enhancing the public's access to public meetings and records.)

With funds from the federal economic stimulus (aka The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) making their way to the states, policy wonks will be happy to know about a full-text searchable version of the 407-page legislation. Essentially, the bill has been transformed into a text database, which you search by division, title, section, and keyword. With free-text keyword searching, you can use the usual arsenal of research tools, such as Boolean operators (AND, OR and NOT), wildcards, proximity, etc.

This resource is provided by askSam, a software company, whose web site features a interesting collection of searchable political and governmental texts. Notable examples: the Patriot Act; Sarbanes-Oxley legislation; 9/11 Commission Report; Mitchell Report on steroids in basball; Samuel Alito and John Roberts confirmation hearing transcripts; Barack Obama speeches 2002-2009; and State of the Union Addresses from 1790 on.  

President Obama today warned state officials to spend their share of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan (Recovery and Reinvestment Act) as wisely as possible. It's still unclear exactly how much money each state will get. But the Center for American Progress has estimated every state's allocation and compared it to their Gross State Products. CAP's color-coded map divides the states into three groups according to the allocation's percent of GSP (under 3.5 percent, 3.5-4.5 percent and over 4.5 percent). California is in the mddle tier. The estimated state funding levels have also been compared to population. On a per capita basis, California ranks 18th in projected stimulus spending ($1,760.89). The District of Columbia ranks first ($2,598.07).  

The Obama Administration has been criticized for keeping earmarks in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill (despite campaign promises). An earmark is language inserted into an appropriations bill that directs money to a specific project -- often at the request of a Congress member. It has become a symbol of pork-barrel politics at its worst.

The non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense identified 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion in the 2009 omnibus bill. TCS compiled their findings in a handy spreadsheet which you can browse by Congress member, state or city. A quick check for Sacramento reveals 14 requested projects, the most expensive being $7 million for a south city extension to light rail. Here are the other projects:


Amount Description House Member(s) Senate Member(s)
$7,000,000 South Sacramento Light Rail Extension, CA Matsui Boxer; Feinstein
$950,000 Intermodal Terminal Facility and Track Railroad Relocation, Sacramento, CA Matsui; Thompson, Mike Boxer; Feinstein
$500,000 California State DOJ Vision 2015 - Criminal Justice Information Sharing Project Honda  
$500,000 SEARCH, National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics DeLauro; Kennedy, Patrick; Matsui; Rogers, Harold Leahy
$476,000 California Health and Human Services Agency, Sacramento, CA for the cord blood collection program Schiff  
$300,000 California State Department of Justice Merced County California Methamptietamine Strategy (CALMS) Cardoza Boxer
$238,000 Cosumnes River College, Sacramento, CA for the GreenForce center, including outreach and recruitment of students for clean energy training Matsui  
$238,000 Legal Services of Northern California, Inc., Sacramento, CA, to provide free legal consultation for older Califomians   Feinstein
$214,000 Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento, CA for an internet safety program for teenagers, which may include equipment Matsui Boxer
$200,000 California State Department of Justice California Gang Suppression Enforcement Teams Lewis, Jerry; McNerney  
$200,000 Sacramento Police Department Sacramento Youth Gang Intervention/Prevention Program Matsui  
$190,000 Roberts Family Development Center, Sacramento, CA for programs to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, particularly cancer, heart disease, and obesity Matsui  
$150,000 Sacramento County Sheriff In-Car Camera and Information Integration Project Matsui  
$150,000 CA State Dept of Justice, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement Sacramento County Methamphetamine Enforcement Matsui  

President Obama unveiled his 2010 federal budget plan that anticipates a record deficit of $1.75 trillion. To put this in historical context, it's helpful to look at past annual deficits as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product. Such figures are available back to 1930 (see Table 1.2). Not surprisingly, World War II caused the biggest deficits in relation to the overall economy (30.3 percent in 1943).

Today, we're nowhere near that level, but there's growing concern about the size of projected deficits in the coming years. The Brookings Institution just released a report warning that the combination of ailing economy and stimulus spending will balloon the annual deficit up to at least 1$ trillion for the next ten years. That means, according to Brookings, the deficit/GDP ratio will stay between 7-9 percent during that period, the largest ratio since the 40s. 

Congress is working out the final details of a $789 billion plan to jump-start the nation's economy, which is intended to save between 3-4 million jobs. More than 10 percent of those jobs could come to California. The Obama Administration won't predict how much money would go to individual states, but guesses that 90 percent of the new jobs would come out of the private sector.

Stimulus Watch is a non-governmental web site whose mission is "to help the new administration keep its pledge to invest stimulus money smartly, and to hold public officials to account for the taxpayer money they spend." It does this by databasing information about "shovel ready" projects that have been proposed by local governments. These projects are not part of the current recovery legislation, but might be candidates for federal funding once the bill passes. What Stimulus Watch asks of readers is to examine projects that interest them and to vote and/or comment about their value on the site.

You call up local projects by browsing for a particular city/state, federal program or general keyword. The search results include a project description, cost, number of jobs created and the reader votes (up or down). There are currently 30 Sacramento proposals that would generate a total of 8,875 jobs at a total of $2.8 billion. The most popular idea is the $150 million "Folsom dam raise and early release improvements". The least popular proposal is a $500 million affordable housing plan by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

budget.jpgAt the same time the governor and legislative leaders struggle with California's budget shortfall, the federal government wants to assist states with money from the proposed stimulus bill. For an overview of all the states' financial health, the National Conference of State Legislatures recently released its Update on State Budget Gaps: FY 2009 & FY 2010. According to the report, states had to address a cumulative $40 billion gap when preparing their FY 2009 budgets and an additional $47.4 billion that surfaced since the budgets were completed. Now states face a projected FY 2010 shortfall of $84.3 billion--an amount that is likely to grow.

Accompanying the NCSL report are five easy-to-read, color-coded maps that help us compare California's fiscal situation to the rest of the nation. Two maps label the states' FY 2009 and 2010 budget gaps as a percent of each state's general fund. The other three show the projected performance (above, at or below target) of each state's personal income, sales and corporate income tax revenues. In general, California is among the states with the most serious budget problems.

State Controller John Chiang announced on Jan. 16 that expected cash shortages in February will force a delay in issuing personal income tax refunds. This delay will hurt lower income families the most, according to statistics provided by the Franchise Tax Board to The Bee. Here's a spreadsheet ( Sac Bee PIT AGI Tax Year 2007.xls) detailing month-by-month refunds paid out in 2008 for tax year 2007. You can see that most refunds were issued in the first quarter to taxpayers making less than $50,000 (adjusted gross income).

The FTB web site has Annual Reports (going back to 1980) that are filled with data on the state's business and personal income tax collections. These volumes include information on individual refunds. The table below summarizes refund payments for the past seven tax years.

Tax Year Number of Refunds (millions) Total Amount (billions)
2007 10.1 $8.7
2006 10.2 $8.8
2005 9.2 $7.4
2004 9.1 $6.7
2003 9.0 $6.5
2002 8.8 $5.8
2001 9.1 $6.1

obama_wordle_our.gifPropublica, the online journalism site, and the New York Times have both developed "word clouds" for presidential inauguration speeches. What's a word cloud? It's a visual display of the most prominent words found in a text or group of texts. The larger the word or phrase, the more times it occurs in the document(s). Many blogs -- including this one -- provide "tag clouds" to show what tags (topics) are most featured over the life of the blog. 

The New York Times' Inaugural Words, 1789 to the Present is a complete set of word clouds for all 44 presidents. They make it easy to browse from speech to speech, so you can compare the preoccupations of the speakers. For example, "constitution" is the top word in Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, while "war" leads his second.

Propublica goes a step further with an Inaugural Address Quiz. It challenges you to match eleven word clouds to their speakers. Very common words, like "the", are left out in these examples. "We" and "our" are also absent, but because Barack Obama used them so much in his address, Propublica generated a second version of his cloud (see above) to reflect their special significance in his address.   

January 19, 2009
View the MLK FBI files

MLK.jpgOn this Martin Luther King holiday, it's appropriate to recall the controversial surveillance of the civil rights leader by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1960s. From 1963 to his death in 1968, the FBI wiretapped King and conducted a intensive campaign to discredit him. The Bureau amassed a huge amount of material on King and almost 17,000 pages of his file have been made public through the Freedom of Information Act.

The FBI's FOIA website displays only about 200 pages of information -- essentially a 1977 report on the government's surveillance of King and its suspected role in his assassination. (But you can find the complete file in the Internet Archive.) In addition to the King document, the site provides access to surveillance files on many other celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Cesar Chavez, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.

Ever wonder if the FBI has a file on you? Through FOIA, you can request a copy of your file or that of a deceased relative. The FBI's instructions are here. For help composing a FOIA request, try the Get My FBI File and Get Grandpa's FBI File web sites.  


Of course everyone remembers John F. Kennedy's admonition: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." But do know who spoke these other famous inaugural lines?

"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." (Ronald Reagan, 1981)

"I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." (Franklin Roosevelt, 1937)

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the fight as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..." (Abraham Lincoln, 1865)

The Internet has dozens of sites on presidential inauguration history. The American Presidency Project is one source for the complete text of every speech, George Washington to George W. Bush. HotChalk has collected videos of inaugural addresses starting with Franklin Roosevelt

Kevin Johnson has been calling for the strong mayor form of city government for Sacramento. The change must be approved by the voters. You can find links to the charter amendement initiative and other related information here.

Just how many cities have a "mayor-council" system of governance (as opposed to the "council-manager" type)? The International City/County Management Association provides up-to-date statistics broken out by population range. Of the 36 municipalities with between 250,000 and 500,000 residents (Sacramento's population is 476,000), 17 are council-manager and 18 are mayor-council. A total of 3,131 of 6,651 municipalities covered in the survey (with populations of 2,500 or more) have a strong mayor.

Yesterday the Bee reported that due to the historic fiscal shortfall Sacramento city officials are laying off eight workers in the Development Services Department, saving $1 million in the next fiscal year. That brings up the question of just how big is the city's budget and how many people does the city employ? Fortunately, the City of Sacramento website has detailed reports and brief summaries of where revenues come from and how they are spent. The online documents cover fiscal 2003/04 to 2008/09. (Budget and employee figures for the last six years are compiled below.)

A little explanation: The General Fund is Sacramento's principal operating account. It's supported by taxes and fees and usually has no restrictions on its use. The Total Budget includes the General Fund, plus other funding that is earmarked for specific activities like water and sewer service.

FY Total Budget* Total FTEs General Fund* GF FTEs
2008/09 $965.6 5,300 $423.9 3,945
2007/08 $972.5 5,274 $431.2 3,932
2006/07 $991.9 5,110 $400.7 3,811
2005/06 $788.0 4,865 $352.0 3,594
2004/05 $710.0 4,310 $329.0 3,395
2003/04 $707.0 4,308 $304.0 3,395
*Millions of dollars

Although Californians approved Prop. 8 in November, the battle over its implementation continues. Last month Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to defend the voter initiative in court and filed a brief calling the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and urging the Supreme Court to invalidate it. Yesterday Prop. 8 supporters argued in a brief arguing that no state judiciary has the authority to strike down a constitutional amendment.

The California Courts web site has aggregated all the documents related to the Prop. 8 legal challenges in one convenient place. Here you'll find court opinions and news releases, plus briefs and letters submitted by both sides.

On Wednesday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released next year's proposed budget 11 days early. (The state Constitution requires governors to submit a budget by Jan. 10 of each year.) You can review his 2009-10 proposal online and also read earlier governor proposals and enacted budgets back to 2000-2001.

If you don't like plowing through much detail, there is a handy table in the California Statistical Abstract that briefly summarizes annual revenues and expenditures as far back as 1929-30. In that first fiscal year, revenues totalled $114.6 million and spending totalled $114.2 million. (Those were the days.) If you want a little more detail, the Abstract provides two other tables that break down revenues and expenditures into broad categories. (These only go back to FY 1993-94, however.) Generally speaking, education is the state's biggest expense (followed by health and human services). On the revenue side, the biggest contributor to the state's coffers is the personal income tax (followed by retail sales and use taxes). 

The turmoil caused by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's defiant pick of Roland Burris to replace Bararck Obama in the U.S. Senate got me to wondering if a complete list of appointed senators exists on the Web. The U.S. Senate itself provides the information. It includes the appointee's party and state, date appointed and the date elected (if he or she ran subsequently).

The list starts in 1913, the year the 17th Amentment to the Constitution established direct election of senators. (Prior to that state legislatures chose them.) The Amendment allows states to empower their governors to fill a vacancy. Most states do, but a few require an immediate special election. In 2003 the Congressional Research Service published an in-depth explanation on how the states handle U.S. House and Senate vacancies.

Here are California's appointed senators:

Thomas M. Storke (D-CA)
Date Appointed: November 9, 1938
Elected: Did not seek election.

William F. Knowland (R-CA)
Date Appointed: August 14, 1945
Elected: Yes, on November 5, 1946.

Thomas H. Kuchel (R-CA)
Date Appointed: January 2, 1953
Elected: Yes, on November 2, 1954.

Pierre Salinger (D-CA)
Date Appointed: August 4, 1964
Elected: No, defeated on November 3, 1964.

John Seymour (R-CA)
Date Appointed: January 3, 1991
Elected: No, defeated on November 3, 1992.

December 19, 2008
State workforce redux

I appreciate the thoughtful comments regarding the recent I-Tool blog entry on the relative size of the state's workforce. Several folks made the valid point that other benchmarks are better than per capita employees for judging public spending. In particular, "Sumba" refered to the Legislative Analyst's discovery that per capita state expenditures grew 30 percent from 1993 to 2007 in inflation-adjusted dollars. You can see that chart in this LAO report.

Just out of curiousity, I compared California's per capita spending in 2007 to other states by combining state finance and population figures from the U.S. Census. Turns out California ranks 13th with state government spending of $6,390 per capita. Alaska ranks first with $13,448. Texas is at the bottom with $3,791.


As someone born and raised in Chicago, I'm both embarrassed and intrigued by the latest case of political corruption in Illinois. I'm not alone -- the whole world seems focused on the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich for trying to sell his U.S. Senate appointment and other slimy misdeeds. 

We take it for granted, but one of the miracles brought by the Internet is the easy availability of primary documents in criminal cases, and the Blagojevich case is no exception. You can call up the 78-page criminal complaint with a click of a mouse (warning: profanity included). It's filled with shocking wiretap quotations, like this gem: "I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain. You hear what I'm saying. And if I don't get what I want and I'm not satisfied with it, then I'll just take the Senate seat myself."

Also available online is the U.S. Attorney's press release, press conference transcript and video announcing the Governor's arrest. If you're really obsessed, you can browse Blagojevich's campaign contributions using the the State of Illinois' campaign disclosure database

With California lawmakers grappling with an $11.2 billion budget shortfall this year, Gov. Schwarzenegger is contemplating layoffs of government workers. It's often charged that the state's bureaucracy is too bloated. And it's true the state workforce increased from 321,860 FTEs in 1992 to 387,168 FTEs in 2007. (With an accompanying rise in the monthly payroll from $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion over the same period.)

But how does that number of workers compare to other states? In relative terms, California in 2008 ranks 47th in the number of state employees per 10,000 population (138). Hawaii tops the list with 602 employees per 10,000 population. While the national average is 176, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Thumbnail image for nixon.JPGOn Tuesday the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration released an additional 198 hours of Nixon White House tapes. These new recordings document conversations held between President Nixon, his staff and others between November and December 1972. (To date, the Archives has made available more than 2,200 hours of tapes with some 1,200 hours still to come.) History junkies can listen to all the new recordings via the Nixon Library web site. There are subject logs to help you navigate the material, but to be honest, they're pretty hard to use.

Much of the news coverage about the Nixon tapes continues to focus on the President's preoccupation with political "enemies". But course Nixon dealt with other matters in the White House. For example, on Oct. 26, 1971 he spoke on the phone with then Gov. Ronald Reagan, who was upset about the United Nations vote to expel Taiwan from the General Assembly. It's interesting that Reagan speaks to Nixon almost as an equal, advising the President to take strong action against the U.N. and to make Taiwan an issue in the next election.

When President Bush leaves office, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will take custody of an unprecedented number of paper and electronic documents generated by his administration. NARA says it's ready to receive the 140  terabytes of information (about 50 times the volume from the Clinton White House), but some groups, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office, have questioned the Archive's readiness to store and catalog the mountain of material.

About 20 terabytes of the Bush records are estimated to be email, but the Administration has been slow to hand over the electronic messages. One national watchdog group, Citizens for Responsiblity and Ethics in Washington (CREW), sued the government for failing to properly store and backup email produced between March 2003 and October 2005, resulting in the potential loss of an estimated 10 million messages. This month a federal judge refused to dismiss the case, allowing CREW to pursue its lawsuit that seeks to force the reclamation of the misplaced email before it becomes irrecoverable.
On the lighter side, check out the National Archive's cool Online Exhibits. These collections include some of the most interesting and important historic documents, photographs, illustrations, audio and video preserved at the Archive. Top of the list is the Charters of Freedom, an electronic exhibit of the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights (complete with high-resolution scans of the documents). I'm also partial to Eyewitness, a multimedia presentation of notable episodes in American history, as seen through the eyes of national leaders and average people. Included are George H.W. Bush's personal account of the last hours of the Nixon Adminstration and Lady Bird Johnson's recollection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

The state Medical Board licenses and regulates some 125,000 doctors and surgeons in California. It's also charged with disclosing facts about physician malpractice and disciplinary action to the public. Is the board doing an adequate job in this regard?

The California Research Bureau doesn't think so. In its recent report, "Physician Misconduct and Public Disclosure Practices at the Medical Board of California," the CRB concludes that state regulators could be doing much more to inform the public. Consumers would greatly benefit, say the authors, by knowing more details of disciplinary actions (citiations, fines and enforcement actions), as well as malpractice payout histories (judgments, arbitration awards and settlements). The CRB recommends that MBC significantly expand the professional profiles contained in its searchable database of licensed physicians.

Thumbnail image for OpenGov.jpg

The U.S. plan to address the crisis in the credit industry is shrouded in too much secrecy. So says a coalition of groups dedicated to transparency in government. 

"Any credible solution to today's economic crisis must address one of the crisis' fundamental causes - corruption and other abuses of power sustained by secrecy. Unfortunately, thus far the government has been slow to let the public know how it is using taxpayer money to help out ailing financial markets," asserts, which opposes provisions in the bailout legislation allowing the Treasury Department to withhold details of the plan. has set up a clearinghouse of information on the effort to bring transparency to the bailout process. The web page includes links to resources, news and the latest actions by the coalition.

Listed among the 74 member organizations are Common Cause, American Library Association, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, American Society of Newspaper Editors, League of Women Voters and Society of Professional Journalists. 

CNNhologram.jpgThe days following a presidential vote is the time for media watchers to critique election night coverage. TV and online news organizations laid out a veritable smorgasbord of cool technology for viewers: live blogging, email alerts, twitter feeds, big board computer displays and even a Star Wars-type hologram. It was all pretty overwhelming.

As a data guy, I want to give kudos to the New York Times -- which may not have had its own Princess Leia -- but did compile a large number of national and state election results into an easy-to-use table and interactive map. (Both of these are still on their web site.) The NYT electoral college chart was simple and elegant. 

Presidential votes were displayed in five columns: states expected to be won easily or narrowly by one or the other candidate, plus battle ground states. At any time during the night, you could see the current state vote tallies, as well as electoral vote projections by about a dozen news outlets. The NYT's interactive map was equally impressive. It allowed the user to zoom in on a state and see each county color-coded red or blue. Put your cursor on a county and up popped the current vote count and percent. That feature let you easily see how well a candidate was doing in the rural and urban areas of a given battle ground state. Nice job. 

What feels like the longest presidential election in history is finally coming to an end. Pundits and journalists anticipate a huge voter turnout. Will it break recent state and national records? We won't know until the official results are tallied. But we can look at previous elections to see what 2008 is up against.

At the national level, participation in presidential elections has dropped steadily since 1960, when 63.1 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot. The low point occurred in 1996 (49.1 percent), but bounced up in 2000 (51.3 percent) and 2004 (55.3 percent). In California, voter turnout generally has fallen since 1960 (68.8 percent), bottoming in 2000 (51.9 percent) with an uptick in 2004 (57 percent).

Stay tuned. is the most robust and web sites for tracking presidential polls I've seen this election season. Like other sites, it looks at all the major state polls and comes up with an aggregate result which best predicts the electoral college outcome. But FiveThirtyEight goes a step further and weighs each poll by its size, currency and the historic track record of the pollster. It also does some fancy statistical analysis to account for outlier polls and to take in consideration past voting patterns for the state. The current projection is 340.2 electoral votes for Barack Obama with him getting 51.5 percent of the popular vote.

In addition to the commonly-seen color-coded electoral map, FiveThirtyEight has a "Super Tracker" line chart that plots weekly polls to reveal a trend line from January 2008 to the present. That shows the last time John McCain lead in the national polls was Sept. 11. After that, Obama's lead grew to eight percent before dropping to 5.8 today.

If you're interested in U.S. Senate polling, FiveThirtyEight has projections for all the current Senate races. According to its numbers, Democrats will pick up some seats, but their chances of getting the filibuster-proof 60 seats have fallen.

Ever wonder how much of your Congress member's campaign funding comes from outside your district? It might surprise you (it did me) that 92 representatives got at least 90 percent of their funds from sources located outside their districts. And that all 92 representatives got at least 70 percent of donations from outside their states. A new online report and searchable database lets you easily rank U.S. House members by the amount and percentage of campaign money coming from non-constituents (2005-2007). Maps show from where most of the donations come for each member and for the House as a whole. Not unexpectedly, much of the out-of-district funding comes from Washington, D.C. lobbyists.

In California, Pete Stark led his House colleagues, with 99.6 percent of his $737,089 in contributions coming from outside his Bay Area district. Locally, Doris Matsui got 86.2 percent of her money from out-of -district; John Doolittle, 62.1 percent; Mike Thompson, 67.5 percent; Wally Herger, 83.6.

The "Remote Control" database is maintained by MapLight, a non-partisan, non-profit web site that "illuminates the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes." In addition to compiling campaign finances for each representative, MapLight analyzes the donations by interest group (lawyers, doctors, insurance, labor unions, etc.) and lets you check how he/she voted on related legislation.

AD10.jpgThe upcoming election offers citizens a chance to take from state lawmakers the authority to draw up boundaries of their own districts. Prop. 11 would shift the job of redrawing Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization districts from legislators to a citizens commission. The Bee published a helpful graphic explanation of the measure as part of our "Ballot Watch" series.

So, are California's legislative and congressional district boundaries drawn to protect incumbents of both parties? You be the judge. Take a look at detailed district maps provided by the California Voter Foundation. My candidates for most oddly shaped are the 10th congressional and 10th Assembly districts. What are yours?


The Prop. 8 ban on same-sex marriage is certainly not the first California initiative to garner huge national attention. Historically many of our ballot measures -- like the 1978 Prop. 13 cap on property taxes and the 1996 Prop. 209 curb on affirmative action in public institutions -- have made a big impact on politics and policy beyond the state.  

The California initiative process was born in 1911 as the result of a special election called by Gov. Hiram Johnson.  Citizens approved the enabling constitutional amendment by a margin of 168,744 to 52,093 votes. "A History of California Initiatives" is a good study that includes a complete list of ballot measures, plus interesting statistics on their subject matter and success/failure. Did you know, for example, that voters approved only 99 of the 1,187 initiatives titled and circulated between 1912 and 2002?  

The Hastings College of Law at UC Berkeley provides comprehensive, searchable databases of information on California initiatives and propositions from 1911 to 2000. These include full-text of ballot measures and accompanying material such as legislative histories and scans of voter pamphlets. You can search by keyword, year, number and pass/fail status. For the full text of newer initiatives (2004-current) see this Attorney General web page. For the full text of newer propositions (1996-current) see this Secretary of State web page




Election Day is just around the corner and campaign strategists are pouring over maps to figure out how their candidate can win the 270 Electoral College votes needed to take the presidency. There are several web sites, including CNN's and the Washington Post's, where you can play politico, modeling your own outcomes and testing them against post-election reality. The Post is even holding a contest, with a prize going to the reader who most accurately predicts the Electoral College result.

My favorite election mapping site is Like the other interactive sites, it lets you manipulate the electoral vote in each of the states. But it also gives you several options for starting your map, like all Republican, all Democrat, all undecided, and 2004 actual and close election result. The most realistic start view is "2008 Swing States," which is based on a composite of current state polling. If the polls strongly suggest a winner, the state is colored red or blue. But if the composite of polls falls within plus-or-minus five percent, the state is considered "swing." The website will keep track of the total electoral vote as the user changes the swing states from neutral to one of the candidates. As the 2008 campaign draws to a close, polls give more states to Barack Obama and leave fewer contested states. Incidentally, also provides Electoral College maps for presidential races going back to 1789, when the non-partisan George Washington beat the Federalist John Adams. 

And speaking of historical sources, there's a terrific web site for past voting data and maps.  The Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections has information on presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial races, including both primary and general elections. The presidential data goes back to 1789, and for more recent elections, you can view maps broken out by county. Look at the 2000 and 2004 county maps and you can see a general pattern. Democratic candidates tend to win in urban areas, Republicans win rural ones. In California, Democrats do better in the urban coastal counties, Republicans in the rural interior ones.

During this political season presidential candidates have made a lot of claims and assertions that bounce around the media and the Internet.  Whether originating in speeches, interviews, political ads, or viral emails, voters are bombarded with a ton of information that is misleading -- if not plain wrong.  That's where credible fact-checking is so helpful. 

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting surveyed some of the of the prominent political fact-checking websites in a recent article.   She explains that such sites try to quickly analyze the accuracy of statements while they are still hot. 

Take for example,, a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which dissects election advertising and speeches in a blog-like format.  The Sept. 25 entry summarizes "The Whoppers of 2008," a list of "twisted facts, misleading claims and outright falsehoods" promulgated by both the Obama and McCain campaigns.  Among the campaign statements debunked are the oft-repeated charges that Obama favors higher taxes, or that McCain wants to cut Social Security benefits.  

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention The Bee's own "AdWatch" feature which evaluates TV advertising used in state races and ballot initiatives.  Search on the word "adwatch" in the archive to call up the latest installments.

October 19, 2008
California election stats

Register2Vote.jpgTomorrow is the last day Californians can register to vote in the November 4th general election. So, it's an opportune moment to spotlight the wealth of election-related statistics available from the Secretary of State


There are two types of data on the site: voter registration/participation figures and election results. On the registration side, you'll find periodic reports on the number of registered voters and their party preferences. These cover the following geographies: state, county, city, supervisorial district, board of equalization district, state assembly and senate districts, and U.S. congressional district. Each report shows the number of people eligible to vote as well as those actually registered. Certainly political wonks are always interested in tracking party affiliation, but that's been stymied by the increase in independents over time. 


Now for a quiz. Which California county has the biggest percentage of GOP voters (as of Sept. 15)? Placer? Nope. Modoc (50.09 percent) recently surpassed Placer (49.68) as the most Republican county. How about the most Democratic county? San Francisco? Wrong again. It's Alameda (57.21). San Francisco ends up with the most "declined to state" voters (29.03).


After each election the Secretary of State issues the "Statement of Vote," the official published tally of votes in primary and general elections. Election results are available online back to November 1990. (And you can find older data at the Sacramento Public Library.)  In addition to election results for ballot measures and state and national races, the SOV shows voter participation, expressed as the percent of eligible and registered voters who actually voted in that election. So which California county boasts the most eligibles voting in the last presidential election? It's Marin County with 78.37 percent.


The Bee's Phillip Reese recently wrote about the voter regislation status of people displaced by foreclosure. In some states, that could mean the loss of the right to vote (see the New York Times story, "As homes are lost, fears that votes will be, too"). Fortunately, in California the Secretary of State said that foreclosed voters can still vote at their old precincts. In his story, Reese calculated the party affiliation of 2,000 people who lost their home to foreclosure in September (Democrat, 44 percent; Republican, 32 percent; decline to state, 23 percent; other,1 percent).


Again, the deadline for registering to vote in the upcoming presidential election is tomorrow.  If you want to vote, check out these instructions for obtaining and filing the required forms.  

As an addendum to my previous post about online campaign finance databases, I ought to mention a clever election web site maintained by the Huffington PostFundRace 2008 is a "mashup" of federal campaign contribution information with a Google interactive map. 

The FundRace site starts out with a map of the entire nation color-coded with points representing donations to the presidential candidates and their political parties. You can zoom in on states, cities and neighborhoods to get a closeup view of individuals' contributions. The system displays the total amount given in the election cycle, plus the donor's name, address, occupation and employer. Besides browsing for donations by zooming around the interactive map, you can also search by specific name, address, city, zip, occupation or employer.

FundRace 2008 is a dandy way to snoop on your friends' and neighbors' political leanings, but it's not a comprehensive list of their campaign contributions. That's because it relies on information from the Federal Election Commission which only reports donations if an individual gives $200 or more during an election cycle.

FEC.jpgThe November general election is only 19 days away, but it's not too late to review some essential election-related information sources that are readily available on the Internet.

Probably no type of data is more important in investigating candidates and elected officials than campaign contribution records. Money is the trail that links politicians to influential people and special interests. In the past, all researchers had were paper records housed in agency offices. It was a laborious process to copy and add up all the donations from Contributor A to Candidate B.

Fortunately, the digital revolution made campaign finance data accessible to every citizen with an Internet connection. Websites exist that let users search for donations by specific criteria. They also allow downloading of bulk data, so you can massage a large amount of information with your own computer and spreadsheet or database management software.

On the national level, the Federal Election Commission collects campaign finance reports and compiles the figures in a searchable database.  You can view the candidates' filings and search for donations by individual candidate or candidate committee, as well as individual donor or donor committee.  The FEC site also links to the Internal Revenue Service where you can search for or download financial disclosures (forms 8871, 8872 and 990) filed by "527" political organizations. These filings reveal such things as the organization's address, officers, revenues, expenditures and election donations.  

The California Secretary of State maintains a similar campaign finance database for state elections on its Cal-Access website. There you'll find contribution information for elections of Assembly members, state constitutional officers and committees that support or oppose ballot initiatives.  You can search the donations by individual or committee donor/recipient. Cal-Access allows you to download the resulting list of contributions in Microsoft Excel format.

It's rare for municipalities to provide online campaign finance information, but the City of Sacramento does.  With the Public Portal for Campaign Disclosure, you can call up PDF versions of candidate reports.  And you can search a database of contributions by candidate name, committee, donor name, even the donor's occupation and employer. The results can be downloaded as an Excel file.  An impressive system for a city.

About Data Surfer

It's all about information -- statistics, documents and data of all types that help us understand the world, make informed decisions and monitor government. It's about empowering citizens with tools and sources so they can conduct their own investigative research. This blog is a place to discuss information that's available on the Internet. What's relevant, useful, valid and accurate -- and what's not.

We know the Sacramento region is home to knowledgeable people who use online information in their respective fields. We want to hear from you. Please tell us what you think of the data we use in stories and post on The Bee's website. And share tips about online resources you think are valuable to this blog's readers. Post comments on this blog or contact Pete Basofin directly at

June 2010

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