The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

September 26, 2011
Ag Sec Tom Vilsack pitches high concept to Robert Redford

20110926_ha_AGSEC0125.JPGU.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in California to talk jobs, innovation, and exports, veered off script in a meeting with The Bee's editorial board today and told about his big Hollywood idea.

A fan of author Timothy Egan's book, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America," Vilsack told about using what influence he has to try to get a movie made about it.

Thumbnail image for REDFORD 2006.jpgVilsack, the former governor of Iowa, said the book "has everything," from towering figures Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot to civil rights and racial issues, not to mention a really big fire.

As ag secretary, Vilsack oversees U.S. Forest Service land. The book tells the story of a massive wildfire during President Roosevelt's administration, the heroic effort to control it, and how that helped lead to the U.S. Forest Service.

First, he called documentary maker Ken Burns, who said he was booked with 10 years worth of projects. Then he thought of Robert Redford, and asked an aide to see if he could track down a number.

Soon after, the aide came back. "I panicked. What do you call him? Bob? Robert? I got him on the phone and I decided it was Mr. Redford."

He proceeded to recall how he urged Redford to read the book and consider turning it into a movie. Next, Vilsack though of who might star in it, and came up with the name, Jeff Bridges, and sent him an email.

No word on whether the Dude abides, or on whether Redford does, either. If it comes to pass, the movie could only help the forest service's standing.

Many things have changed since TR's day. But resistance remains intense to government involvement in forests, as Rep. Tom McClintock made clear in this rally, er, hearing held last week at the Capitol to blast forest service stewardship of public lands.

If they film it in California, perhaps the movie company could get movie tax credits, and employ a few Hollywood workers.

September 18, 2011
Amazon vs. Wal-Mart's costly fight could have cost far more

To get a sense of the stakes involved in the fight over Internet retailing legislation, take a look at the money spent on lobbying in the first half of the year.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, spent $1 million on campaign donations in California and another $533,000 to lobby lawmakers and the governor's office in the first six months of the year.

That's nearly twice the amount it spent on lobbying in all of 2010, and far more than it has spent in any single year in Sacramento.

Please see today's column for more about taxes.

Overall, retailers spent nearly $2.9 million in the first half of 2011. That's almost 50 percent more than the average that retailers spent during the same periods in the prior four years.

The big spending undoubtedly took place in the final days of the legislative session. But third quarter spending reports won't become available for several weeks.

Seattle-based Amazon, a company with $34 billion in annual revenue, has had modest lobbying presence in California.

Still, the $78,000 Amazon spent on direct lobbying of lawmakers in the first half of the year is double what it spent in the first six months of last year.

Amazon found another way to get money into the California political process. The company rarely spends money on campaign efforts.

But after Democrats approved legislation earlier this year to force Internet retailers to collect sales taxes, Amazon shelled out $5 million to place a referendum on the 2012 ballot, and quickly gathered the requisite 800,000-plus signatures.

If Brown signs the legislative compromise, Amazon won't turn in the signatures. As for that $5 million, well, that money is in the pockets of political consultants and signature gatherers and they not giving it back.

Of course, if the referendum went forward, consultants figured, the campaign would have cost $40 million, maybe more.

September 18, 2011
Amazon versus Overstock, the battle continues

Legislators were quick to praise their handiwork brokering a compromise among Internet retail behemoth Amazon and major traditional retailers such as Wal-Mart.

But as Gov. Jerry Brown decides whether to sign the bill - he probably will - other Internet retailers aren't quite so enamored, particularly folks at the Utah-based Internet retailer,

Please see today's column for more about Amazon and taxes.

"States should not be legislating to benefit one company, and that is what California has done," Overstock President Jonathan Johnson told me by phone.

The issue is a little complicated. But remember back to the start of the summer when Brown signed the original legislation requiring that Internet retailers start collecting sales taxes.

The fundamental issue revolves around whether the e-retailers have a physical presence, otherwise known as "nexus," in the state. If they have that connection, they must collect sales taxes.

Internet retailers reacted to the original legislation by firing so-called affiliates, thousands of individuals who operate websites that carry Internet retailers' ads.

The state had argued that the use of those affiliates amounted to a physical presence in the state, triggering the legal requirement that they collect sales taxes.

Maybe the state was right under the law. Maybe not. Whatever. The new legislation would grant Amazon a year's reprieve from having to collect sales taxes. Amazon could rehire affiliates without worrying about having to collect sales taxes in the interim.

That's good for Amazon and maybe its affiliates. But other Internet retail companies aren't part of the deal. If they hire back their affiliates, they might run afoul of California tax authorities.

"We'll still do our best to compete," Johnson said. "But we're not going to create nexus because we don't want the burden of being a tax collector in a state where we don't have nexus."

Johnson knows plenty about Internet retail, and assumes that Amazon is giving up little in exchange for agreeing to the legislation.

He notes that Amazon intends to open distribution centers in California, to speed shipping to consumers. Once those centers open, Amazon clearly would have a physical presence, and would need to collect taxes.

"I'm guessing, but Amazon either already has nexus or is intending to create nexus in California. This deal is like taking off sleeves from their vest. They're not giving up much," Johnson said.

Amazon didn't grant an interview but offered a statement by the head of its government affairs operation, Paul Misener:

"This bipartisan, win-win legislation will allow Amazon to bring thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of investment dollars to California, and welcome back to work tens of thousands of California-based advertising affiliates."

September 16, 2011
Obama-Romney poll numbers show California's great divide

In politics, there are many Californias -- Coastal California and the rest of us, young and old, white and non-white.

The Field Poll this week illustrates those points once more, clearly.

President Barack Obama would beat any Republican challenger in California if the election were held today. But he'd win by an especially wide margin in Coastal California.

The incumbent would best former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 55 percent-33 percent along the coast. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the contest wouldn't be that close. Obama would win 68 percent-22 percent.

People ages 30 to 39 favor Obama by a 62-23 percent margin, while Latino voters support him 65-23 percent

But in the Central Valley, the picture changes rather dramatically.

Romney leads Obama, 50-40 percent in the valley. Romney also leads among voters 65 and older, 46 percent-45 percent, and among white voters, 47 percent to 43 percent.

The splits are basically the same for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, currently the Republican front-runner nationally, though not in California.

The pattern is the same for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who faces reelection in 2012, although she could be in for a tough fight, if, of course, a Republican were to emerge as a potential challenger. None has.

Feinstein would win in Coastal California against the unknown Republican, 46-39 percent, but lose in the Central Valley, 29-56 percent.

The Field survey found voters are in terrible mood. Who can blame them? Unemployment is stubbornly high. Poverty is rising. Houses are under water.

The Field Poll found 46 percent of voters surveyed approve of the job that President Obama is doing, down from 54 percent back in June.

Congress is doing worse. A record 86 percent of covers disapprove of the job Congress is doing. A mere 9 percent think Congress is doing a good job. You have to wonder who they are.

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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