The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

January 31, 2010
Meg Whitman's tax cut idea finds support in an unlikely place
  Meg Whitman on MSNBC.JPG

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman called for a specific tax cut in her latest round of East Coast television appearances--and is finding support in a surprising corner of Sacramento's lobbying corps.

The former eBay chief executive officer, appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe show, called for "targeted tax relief," specifically calling for an end to what she called a "factory tax."

She complained that in California, manufacturers must pay sales tax on the equipment they purchase to make whatever widgets they sell.

"It is a really good reason to go overseas or to a neighborhing states," Whitman said of the sales tax, which is 9.75% and generates more than $1 million annually.

It's no surprise when a Republican wants to cut taxes. But it's a little unusual when Lenny Goldberg and Jean Ross, two leading tax and budget experts from the left in Sacramento, don't reject the concept out of hand.

Goldberg said such a break should not go to utilities or telecommunications companies, but rather to tech companies and other true manufacturers.

Goldberg is a lobbyist whose clients include organized labor, and is head of the California Tax Reform Association. He said Whitman's idea "is not wrong."

Goldberg said such a break makes far more sense than the roughly $2 billion in corporate tax cuts that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature approved last year--and that our Rex Babin captured so perfectly.

"If you're going to give away money to corporations, that is a better way," Goldberg said.

Ross, of the California Budget Project, said the cut would not be a bad idea "if we had an extra $2 billion."

"The question is, 'How do you pay for it?' It is problematic given recent tax breaks," Ross said.

Whitman also criticized California's initiative process, something that will not endear her to the more populist wing of her party. 

Said Whitman:

"The referendum process dates back to 1918, I think. It has its useful purpose but there is no question we have had too many referendums on the ballot and too much spending has been propositioned into process. I think you have got to have a different approach, no question about it."

Minor notes. It was 1911. And most Californians refer to it as the initiative process.

You have to wonder what Schwarzenegger thinks about that, what with all his initiatives.

--Dan Morain 

January 27, 2010
Mail bag: A new take on 'We the people' ...
"A direct attack on democracy."

That's how one letter writer describes the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and unions to contribute directly to campaign coffers of those running for public office.

Last week's decision by the high court, striking down part of a 2002 campaign finance law, spurred Al Franklin of Auburn to conclude in Thursday's Letters to the Editor that our democracy will now be a government "of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation."

Kuo Liang Yu of Carmichael raises the Constitutional issue of free speech: "It does not guarantee the right of expression of corporations, which are not citizens. They are merely legal entities, not beings."
January 27, 2010
Barbara Boxer expects a fight after Massachusetts vote

Barbara Boxer is sounding worried and American Future Fund is feeling its oats.

The Iowa-based nonprofit, with the high-powered Washington consultants, is being credited by the Boston Globe and others with being the first independent campaign committee to jump into the Massachusetts senate race on behalf of the winner, Republican Scott Brown.

But rather than simply bask in its win, the group took out print ads getting into the faces of Democrats, essentially warning that will lose their seats if they continue supporting President Obama's economic policy.

The ad said:


"Liberals are risking their careers by supporting a big government health care plan that the country can't afford, and that polls show the American people don't want. ... Are You Willing to Sacrifice Your Career for Obama?"

The ad likely won't have much impact on Democrats. But as Chris Cilliza wrote in Washington Post's The Fix, Barbara Boxer says: "Every state is now in play."


Sandra Greiner, president of American Future Fund, told The Swarm that she is not sure Boxer is vulnerable. But Greiner, the focus of a column today in The Bee, is particularly concerned about legislation to create a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gases. Boxer is pushing that bill.


"We do have a tremendous interest and concern about cap and trade. If that moves forward, so will I," Greiner said.


Who knows whether American Future Fund will play in California. But if it does, we can expect ads like this and like this.


Greiner said in a phone interview that the group's Internet fund-raising has taken off since word spread of its role in the Massachusetts race. Her group is an upstart, having been created only two years ago. But it has shown an ability to raise money, generating $7.5 million in its first year, 2008, its publicly available tax return shows.


--Dan Morain


January 26, 2010
Mail bag: Lessons learned, or not
Xenophobia. Merriam-Webster Online defines it as "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign."
Richard A. Clark of Paradise wonders in Wednesday's Letters to the Editor, "What sort of social environment would nurture the conditions likely to produce behavior of the type reported in the story" about Gary Tudesko, the Willows High School student whose expulsion from school was overturned last week. Tudesko, 17, who was expelled for having shotguns in his truck parked next to school grounds, had racked up a series of disciplinary actions for repeatedly using the N-word, for calling a teacher's assistant a "stupid Mexican" and for cussing out teachers.

Clark writes: "Social respect is an ideal which may be attained not only through our educational system, but also through instruction and modeling by parents, relatives and community."
January 22, 2010
Mail bag: No, no, not more homework
Oh, the wretched thought of homework - especially on a Friday afternoon.

Not only do students fret over it, parents and teachers do too, as The Conversation in last Sunday's California Forum revealed.

"I can tell you honestly," Jeremy Akiyama, a high school senior in Sacramento, writes in Saturday's Letters to the Editor, "that nothing kills a teenager's weekday evening more than a dreaded stack of homework to be completed before day's end."

The Conversation delved into the amount of homework young students can effectively handle each night, and asked readers to ponder the question, "Do teachers give students too much homework?" Guidelines from the National PTA and the National Education Association say that from kindergarten to second grade homework is more effective when it does not exceed 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Akiyama implores teachers to "stop imposing a homework quota on your students," and for parents to "stop asking for more homework."

Pete Martineau of Fair Oaks has a different take on homework and the mission of education. He writes, "The chatter about problems in education is overly focused on college-bound children." His concern is about preparing those young people enter the work force once they leave school by giving them "skills and information" to make a living.
January 21, 2010
Cheers and jeers from the upset in Massachusetts
MASSACHUSETTS.jpgInept, gutless Democrats; heartless, lying Republicans; and Massachusetts voters who, until now, had cast votes without engaging their brains.

The upset Senate victory by moderate Republican Scott Brown inspired letter-writers to get visceral and put pen to paper, or keystroke to The Bee's online letter form, after Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts. The deluge of letters inspired us to devote all of Friday's letter's space to responses to the Republican triumph that letter-writer Sam Catalano of Sacramento says was due to voters with a "very poor memory."

Catalano wrote, "Republicans know President George W. Bush bankrupted the United States with a war based on lies. ... But the Democrats let them get away with it instead of constantly reminding the voters that heartless Republicans were wrong and are to blame."

Nijole King of Woodland said of Brown's upset: "I love it. Massachusetts voters finally grew a brain ... California voters - I hope you're paying attention. It's time for change."

And Bob Schmidt of Sacramento sarcastically states, "Conservatives should be happy" because the election "certainly means the death knell for the silly liberal idea that everybody should have access to health care."

Check out the other comments in Friday's Letters to the Editor.
January 20, 2010
The Donald and The Mayor, or needed leadership
In Thursday's Letters to the Editor, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's strong mayor proposal gets mixed reviews from letter-writers responding to a judge's tentative ruling that would block the initiative from the June 8 ballot.

Andrew G. Mattson wants "to forge onward" and "definite change is needed." He also sees the need for strong leadership in county government, "where the currently legless Board of Supervisors reigns oblivious to the residents."

But Kyle Fournier likens "The Mayor" to "The Donald" and writes that the initiative is a waste of time and money. Fournier writes, "It is not 'The Apprentice,' where he can just say 'you're fired!' "

Read Thursday's Letters to the Editor for the complete letters and others about an editorial regarding the "Zero Tolerance" school policy on guns and the Republican victory capturing Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts' Senate seat.

January 20, 2010
Letter from the Devil to Pat Robertson
Haiti Pat Robertson.jpgFor pundits and commentators, Pat Robertson is the gift that keeps on giving.

His bone-headed comment that Haiti's earthquake was the result of a "pact to the devil" continues to spark inspired retorts.

Here's a mock "Letter from the Devil to Pat Robertson" that the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently published from a reader.

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action.

But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake.

Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll. You're doing great work, Pat....

To read the rest of this letter, go here. 
January 19, 2010
BOE ('Building of Evil') is more spooky than column suggested
My column on Sunday jested that the state hire an exorcist to rid the defective Board of Equalization building of its demons. That brought this response from one former BOE employee, who managed to survive years of leaks, mold, falling windows, etc.

I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. Plus before BOE had better security, an irate taxpayer managed to get into the building and make his way to the 14th floor with a gun and terrify people...Some people never got over that and never came back to work.
Further evidence the building is haunted.

In my column, I noted that it's not unprecedented for exorcists to work on buildings, sometimes providing pro bono services. An example is the Hampton Lillibridge house in Savannah, where a bishop was called into rid the old mansion of ghosts. That brought this response from another faithful reader:

There could be a problem with exorcists doing "pro bono" work.  It may be the reason that the exorcism at the Hampton Lillibridge house was a failure.  It was done by an Episcopalian bishop "pro bono" (no charge). That's what happens when you don't pay the exorcist: You get re-possessed.

January 12, 2010
Response to Reid column dishonest and partisan

The response to my column today defending Sen. Harry Reid's controversial comments about President Obama's "light skin" and lack of "Negro dialect" has been predictably partisan. A number of readers said I would have been less forgiving if Reid had been Republican. Nonsense. My opinion had to do with the innocuousness of Reid's words not his partisan affiliation. Any fair reading of the column demonstrates that.

The firestorm over it is mostly manufactured outrage, driven, as Rutgers Professor David Greenberg said in a column in the Los Angeles Times today, by the 24/7 news cycle that has to be fed. Partisans, both Republicans and Democrats, regularly exploit that new cycle for their own narrow purposes.

In a separate LA Times column, Jonah Goldberg says Reid "deserves what he is getting" - that just last week he played the race card himself by accusing those who did not support  Obama's health care initiative of racism. I can't disagree with that. Racist is an ugly epithet, thrown around too easily by people on both sides of the aisle.

January 12, 2010
Good news, bad news and toxic news at the ports
Good news: Cargo moving through the state's two big ports in Southern California was higher in December than the same month a year ago. That's the first such jump in 28 months, the Los Angeles Times reports today, and it suggests an economic recovery is underway.

Bad news: It's a hardly cause for celebration if California's recovery hinges on massive shipments of cheap goods from China to U.S. retailers. During the boom, the state's dependence on port commerce required huge infusions of public dollars for transportation and new regulations to protect nearby communities from polluting trucks and port equipment. 

Toxic news: Some of the Chinese goods shipped through California ports last year included jewelry and other toys laced with cadmium, a toxic metal. The Associated Press recently published an investigation of cadmium in certain Chinese goods. That report has prompted federal authorities to act and Wal-Mart to pull the toxic jewelry and toys off its shelves.

January 7, 2010
Chat replay: Dan Morain on privatizing prisons
January 6, 2010
Schwarzenegger helps a friend, whacks a foe

As he enters his final year in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is picking a new fight with one of his favorite foils--the prison guards' union.

In the process, he likely will be helping one of his political allies, private prison company called Corrections Corp. of America--and skewering one of his foils, California's prison guard union.

In his State of the State speech today, the lame-duck governor proclaimed his intention to push to privatize prisons. Such a move, he says, would sharply cut the $8 billion-plus the state spends on prisons.

He plans to use a ballot measure that would entice voters by guaranteeing that the state would spend more on universities than on prisons. He will face a major fight. The prison guards' union fiercely opposes private prisons and repeatedly has shown its ability to spend millions on campaigns.

But of course, its money is not unlimited. Any money it spends to battle Schwarzenegger at the ballot would be money it could not spend to help elect candidates who might be friendly to the union's cause.

In tomorrow's column, I will be explaining how one firm, Corrections Corp. of America, has received a lucrative contract to house California inmates. One legislator, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), is preparing to hold hearings on the matter later this month.

 --Dan Morain

January 6, 2010
Lynch mob or seekers of school equity?

Lawmakers at 3:30 p.m. took the final steps to pass and send to the governor two education bills to make California competitive for President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" funds.

One bill has a revolutionary new provision allowing parents to petition school boards to turn around a failing school. These boards then would have to implement one of four aggressive strategies by the next school year -- including closing the school, turning it into a charter school or reconstituting the school.

Unfortunately, the California Federation of Teachers has chosen to label this parent trigger as the "lynch mob provision."

This led one observer in the Capitol to wonder, "Is it racist or just flat out ignorance that the CFT thinks of parents, largely Latino and African-American parents, as a lynch mob?"

And now, the Los Angeles chapter of the National Action Network founded in New York City in 1991 by Rev. Al Sharpton, has called for an "immediate and public apology":

For teachers to refer to parents' desire to assist in the education reform process as a "Lynch Mob provision" is extremely divisive, repulsive, and horrifying, said Pastor K.W. Tulloss, president of Los Angeles National Action Network. Teachers using belittling language when referencing African-American and Latino parents is not accepted from people that teach our children. This debate must be about ideas, not twisting and abusing racially charged language. We're saddened that an organization that represents so many teachers of higher learning would use such an inappropriate name when referring to parents. This is an historic day for parents in California. We demand a public apology from CFT.

The letter is signed by nine religious and civic leaders: Rev. K.W. Tulloss, National Action Network Los Angeles; Pastor Max Rodriguez, Weller Street MBC; Pastor Bill Hemphill, Concord Community Church; Pastor Torrey Collins, St. Rest Baptist Church; Pastor Al Johnson, True Samaritan Church; Pastor Fredrick Howard, South Side Bethel Family of Purpose Church; Melvin Snell, Los Angeles Humanity Foundation; Pastor Nathaniel Haley, United Christian Baptist Church; Pastor John Navarro, Praise Chapel, Boyle Heights.

Parents are tired of having their kids stuck in failing neighborhood schools and they deserve to have real recourse, as the newly passed bill gives them. These long-suffering parents certainly do not deserve the abuse that has just been heaped upon them (we can all hope in error) by the CFT.

January 5, 2010
Legislators head toward finish line in Race to the Top bills

After months of haggling, the Assembly finally has gotten to the final stages in moving "Race to the Top" education legislation.

The Democrats took out two parts that were controversial for some members, and placed them in a separate bill, SB X5 4: 1. allowing students in low-performing schools to "open enroll" in higher performing schools; and, 2. allowing parents to petition to require school boards to implement an aggressive turnaround strategy for a failing school. Both are essential to put real pressure on underperforming schools and give students real options for a better education.

In the Assembly Education Committee, this separate bill passed 11-4 with Assembly members Julia Brownley, D-Woodland Hills; Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco; Wesley Chesbro, D-Santa Rosa; and Tom Torlakson, D-Martinez, voting no. Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon, abstained, continuing a disturbing pattern of abdication of her duty as a legislator. Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, didn't vote.

The main bill, SB X5 1, on turning around the lowest performing schools; using data to evaluate teachers and principals; and linking preschool to K-12 to college to work force data passed 11-2. Ammiano and Torlakson voted no. Buchanan and Jeff Miller, D-Mission Viejo, abstained. Chesbro and Dan Logue, D-Chico, didn't vote.

Significantly, Speaker-elect John Perez voted yes on both bills.

The bills are being heard right now in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Then it's on to Assembly floor.

Wednesday is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's State of the State address at 10 a.m.

Assuming the Assembly passes the bills today, the Senate Education Committee will meet at 9 a.m. to deal with them. Then the Senate Appropriations Committee will meet. Then the bills go to the Senate floor. Can all this happen before the governor's 10 a.m. speech? Senators are supposed to meet at 9:45 a.m. in the Senate Chamber to proceed over to the Assembly for the 10 a.m. speech, so we'll see. It would be a nice gift to get this done.

It has been a long haul on this since July.

January 4, 2010
Richard Pombo is running--and prairie dogs are worried

Pombo-Prairie Dog.jpgRichard Pombo is jumping back into politics--and the news is causing prairie dogs across South Dakota to dive into their burrows.

Pombo lost his congressional seat in 2006, a victim of the Democratic tidal wave, an intense campaign against him by environmentalists, and of his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Pombo originally won office by claiming to be an anti-politician. But he discovered that politics is fun--so much so that he aims to head south of where he previously served and run for the seat being vacated by George Radanovich.

Speaking of aiming, it was Pombo who held one of the all-time great fundraisers. Back in 2004, when he was chairman of a congressional committee with oversight over Indian affairs, Pombo invited his benefactors to join him on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. He raised a bundle of money into his RichPac, as the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found.

There, they could partake in a buffalo hunt. For people arriving early, there was a special treat. As the invitation above says, people with a hankering for little critters could blast away at prairie dogs.

We at Swarm have never savored prairie dog. We couldn't find a recipe at Epicurious. But in some parts of this great land, prairie dog seems to be a delicacy. Here's what we could find. Prairie dog pie sounds especially yummy.

 --Dan Morain

January 4, 2010
Will decline of Thomas empire affect Sacramento Railyards?

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a fascinating news feature on the man behind Thomas Enterprises, the current developer in Sacramento's Railyards project: "Stan Thomas: An Atlanta developer with outsized dreams faces outsized debts" (Dec. 18). As the story recounts, his projects are in bankruptcy, he hasn't paid partners and vendors.

Last month, the wave crashed over Thomas. On Nov. 2, Thomas -- a longtime shopping center developer whose success led him into ever-larger ventures -- put three major projects into bankruptcy protection. He also narrowly averted foreclosure on The Forum Peachtree Parkway in Norcross, one of his signature retail developments.

A stake in the London property is up for sale, and about a dozen other projects, including those in Sarasota and Orlando, are virtually dead, he said Friday, until he can find new financing. Former business partners and vendors have sued Thomas for nonpayment and filed dozens of liens against him.


While Americans loaded up on easy mortgage and credit card debt earlier this decade, Thomas and developers like him took on debt of astounding proportions.

Wachovia Bank, his main lender and now a primary creditor in the bankruptcy cases, treated him as a "tier one" customer, Thomas said.

One jumbo loan Thomas personally guaranteed was for $125 million on The Rim, a 2 million square foot destination shopping center in San Antonio. He owes $63 million on Prospect Park, a speculative retail development that was supposed to attract luxury retailers to Alpharetta. Today it consists of a half-built parking deck.

Both of those projects, along with another in Smyrna, are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.


In recent years, Thomas had graduated to mega-developments. The Rim, in San Antonio, was envisioned as a destination retail-residential center with a Bass Pro Shops and a future phase bringing several hotels and luxury condos.

Long used to spending his days arranging financing, flying lawyers and brokers to his properties in his private planes and schmoozing tenants, Thomas now deals with bankruptcy lawyers and tries to hold together what remains of his empire.

What does all this mean for Sacramento? Work on the Sacramento Railyards project has begun largely because of large injections of public money for basic infrastructure - such as building roads. A key railroad track relocation agreement has been signed. But Thomas continues to delay in signing key agreements that are needed before any work can begin on the seven historic Central Shops buildings as a public marketplace, a new Railroad Technology Museum and other cultural/entertainment venues. Thomas still has not signed on to a key land swap involving 25 acres in the northern part of the 244- acre site (where Thomas originally planned to place a Bass Pro shop).

Who truly is calling the shots? The developer?  Or the developer's lenders? Sacramento probably will find out soon enough whether Thomas can still deliver.

About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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