The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

January 30, 2009
L.A. court hires lobbyist to restore perks for judges
Today's editorial takes aim at a self-serving bill to enhance benefits for judges statewide that the state Judicial Council hopes will be part of a state budget deal. The proposed legislation, which you can find here, would add tens of millions of dollars in annual compensation obligations that would either have to be paid out of the judiciary's existing budget, or through additional appropriations.

Since publishing the editorial, we learned that the Los Angeles County courts has hired a high-priced lobbyist and former legislator to push for the legislation. That juicy tidbit was part a story by Cheryl Miller that ran this week in Cal Law, an online journal whose premium articles can only be accessed through a subscription.

As Miller notes, L.A. County lost a lawsuit last year filed by the group Judicial Watch that challenged the supplemental benefits the county was paying to its state judges.

Court Executive Officer John Clarke said two judges have said publicly that they will quit if the local benefits stop. When the county lost the Judicial Watch lawsuit, leaders of the Los Angeles County Superior Court dipped into the court's operating budget to retain a former state assemblyman to lobby the Legislature to re-establish the county's authority to offer judicial benefits. The court is paying Burt Margolin $10,000 a month through April for consulting and lobbying services, Clarke said.
This is a pretty fine kettle of fish. L.A. County and the state are both in fiscal crises, and yet the county is paying a lobbyist $10,000 a month to lobby for enhanced benefits that will have to be borne by our cash-strapped state.

One has to ask: Where is the justice?
January 26, 2009
GOP gambit? Legislation surfaces to roll back environmental rules
Bill language has surfaced in the Legislature to roll back various state environmental rules, and environmental groups are claiming that Republican lawmakers are circulating the legislation as a condition for any budget deal.

The legislation, which you can find here at budget language.pdf, would change the compliance dates for regulations on off-road diesel equipment recently passed by the California Air Resources Board. It would affect regulations on pesticides, and limit which highway and development projects would need to be reviewed for their potential greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans are declining to comment on the document. "Legislative leaders have agreed to keep the details of negotiations confidential," said Sabrina Lockhart, press secretary for the Senate Republican caucus, when asked about the document and whether it was part of budget talks.

Environmental groups are livid that lawmakers could be secretly negotiating major changes to environmental laws to reach a budget deal. Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council have called a press conference for Tuesday.

"Republican legislative leadership is exploiting the crisis to repeal laws that protect the health and safety of Californians, yet have nothing to do with the budget," the two groups said in a joint statement today.

UPDATE: The Bee's Kevin Yamamura has a fuller story on the Republican budget demands here.

January 22, 2009
Shared sacrifice: What would you give up for a budget deal?
973-shared.highlight.prod_affiliate.4.gifLast week, The Bee's editorial page ran an eight-day series of editorials examining the big interest groups whose demands are contributing to the state's $40 billion budget impasse. You can find the lead editorial here along with links to others in the series.

As part of "Shared Sacrifice," we set up an on-line forum and urged readers to tell us what they would give up -- as a member of an interest group -- to help bridge the state's budget gap.

Many of the responses were of the predictable "blame someone else" mode. But a few were thoughtful and to the point. Here's one from a reader with a persona named "WilburHaynes."

I am a non-union state employee. Because we are all in serious trouble, I am resigned to accepting a temporary pay cut but am highly skeptical that other more powerful constituencies will contribute their share. I am prepared to pay a much higher gasoline tax to help us move away from imported oil. I am willing to pay the old vehicle license tax which Arnold imprudently cut, taking on a new burden of billions on the general fund to replace the counties' lost VLF revenue. I am willing to pay higher income taxes because it is another distasteful necessity.

But I am not willing to take a 10% hit it salary while other sacred cow groups escape pitching in their share because of their political muscle, and while the electeds continue to avoid the need to implement recommendations by CPR, Little Hoover, State Auditor et al to eliminate all the bureaucratic waste, stupid procurement practices, pointless boards and commissions, etc. Yet I am, sadly, quite sure that is precisely what will occur. The politically powerless will take serious hits, the sacred cows will remain untouchable, and the electeds will continue to fail to address the real problems.

Wilbur makes a good point. It's a delicate dance, this budget deal. If everyone fears they might be dropped onto the floor, no one will want to tango.

January 10, 2009
Don't defy Di-Fi
Part calculation, part circumstance, U.S. Dianne Feinstein is all over the news in the early days of 2009.

One day she's questioning Barack Obama's choice to head the C.I.A., the next day she's getting an apology from the president elect. One day she's defying Majority Leader Harry Reid and saying that Roland Burris should be seated in the Senate, the next day Reid and other Democrats are playing buddy-buddy with Burris.

Meanwhile, she's heading the inaugural ceremonies for the guy who just apologized to her. You can also see historical footage of Feinstein in the opening scenes of "Milk," the critically acclaimed film by Sean Penn about the slain San Francisco supervisor.

All this attention can't hurt but help Feinstein as she decides whether to run for governor or stay in Congress, where she will be the first woman to head the Senate Intelligence Committee. It's a tough choice -- as the Associated Press's Erica Werner notes in a feature about Feinstein that has just hit the wires.

Feinstein said she hasn't yet decided, but she's always wanted the (governor's) job, which she came close to winning in 1990. She passed up the chance to run in the 2003 gubernatorial recall, when she was viewed as the only Democrat who could have beaten Schwarzenegger. Now, her new chairmanship provides powerful incentive to stay in Washington -- even as the prospect of being in a position to tame her unruly home state tugs her in the opposite direction, according to advisers.

This is terrific political theater. Nearly every major politician in California -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leon Panetta, Gavin Newsom, John Garamendi and other possible gubernatorial candidates -- is waiting to see what Feinstein will decide. And Di-Fi seems to be in no hurry to provide them with further clarity. This is her moment. She's relishing it.

January 7, 2009
Why did the budget deal blow up?
BB GOV 21ST 0350.JPGThere are two competing versions on why budget negotiations blew up Tuesday between Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Democrats' version, laid out in this op-ed by Senate and Assembly leaders Darrell Steinberg and Karen Bass, contends that the governor kept changing the goal posts. They say the governor got cold feet about the Democrats' plan to bypass Republicans with a scheme to raise taxes by a majority vote.

Top aides in the governor's office, however, offer a different version. They say Democrats kept wanting to defer decisions on cuts to welfare programs and state payroll that will be needed to close a $40 billion gap. And they say the governor was clear, in agreeing to consider the Democrats' tax approach a month ago, that they would have to agree to his list for public works projects to be relieved of CEQA reviews. Democrats, they say, kept changing the goal posts on CEQA after that initial handshake.

The real truth is probably a mixture of these two versions. Now we will see what happens next. In their op-ed, Steinberg and Bass say that next week, they will vote on additional bills "that are even closer to the governor's requests." That sounds like a deal is not entirely dead. But that op-ed was written before the governor quickly vetoed their package, and both sides went into acrimonious spin mode.

It was ugly yesterday, and when things get ugly, politicians stop talking to each other.

Sacramento Bee Photo from 12/11/08 -- By Brian Baer
January 6, 2009
Steinberg: Schwarzenegger has "cold feet" about budget deal
In a conference call with The Bee's editorial board this afternoon, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg explained why a promising budget deal with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blew up today.

Steinberg said that he and governor were close to resolving differences over the governor's economic stimulus proposals and budget cuts. That wasn't the big holdup, Steinberg said. Instead, he suggested, the governor was getting "cold feet" on a plan by Democrats to raise taxes and fees without a two-thirds vote by lawmakers. Here's his full comment:

Between Sunday night and Monday, something else occurred unrelated to the specifics of the issues. It is cold feet, you know. He met with Republican leaders on Monday morning. I think he is back in that place where he believes he can get Republican votes for revenue and therefore doesn't have to do this unorthodox majority vote thing. We have been sort of going down that road for five or six years. It hasn't resulted in a single vote.

Jake Suski, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment on whether the governor has changed his position on the Democrats' revenue plan or is making progress with Republicans. But Suski said it was telling that Democrats now plan to send the governor a budget package that is unchanged from three weeks ago, despite his veto threat. He said the governor would have something to say about that tomorrow.

Update: Suski, an an email, says the Governor's position has not changed on the Democrats' budget package. "The reasons to veto this proposal that the Governor laid out in his press conference on December 18th remain the same," he writes.

January 6, 2009
What should GOP lawmakers seek in a budget bargain?
Over on the Flash Report, GOP strategist Dan Schnur has posed an important question, one that few Republicans have wanted to publicly float: What reforms should they seek as price of supporting some form of tax increase?

Schnur notes how difficult it will be to close a $40 billion hole without some form of new revenues in the next 18 months. He also notes that Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines may be more flexible on new revenues than his public statements would indicate.

Villines has hinted that a package of tax and regulatory incentives that could improve the state's business climate could be part of a tradeoff for some revenue increasesBecause he was careful not to promise such an exchange, Villines was roasted by the state's mainstream media for intransigence. But while he was not willing to negotiate against himself by offering up absolute assurances of Republican support before any serious discussions had occurred, he was effectively sending a message to Schwarzenegger and the Democrats that he and his allies would be open to the conversation if significant job-creation measures were part of the discussion as well.

Schnur's essay is well timed. I hope he'll soon follow it up with another one that analyzes what type of temporary tax increase would be least harmful to the economy. Lawmakers need to have that conversation. Here at The Swarm, we think a broad-based increase in personal income taxes is preferable to a sales tax increase. Much of it would be deductible.

But kudos to Schnur and the Flash Report for at least going this far.
January 5, 2009
With Panetta's pick, maybe the CIA could reform California?
The Swarm is abuzz at the news that President-elect Barack Obama has tapped former California congressman Leon Panetta to head the CIA.

Over the last year, Panetta has been heading the California Forward effort to reform California's governance and its chronic budget troubles. We ran an essay of his on Sunday about the state's future.

Now, all of a sudden, we learn that Panetta is heading to Virginia to be the nation's top spook.

One can't help but wonder: Did the former congressman see better prospects in reforming the CIA than in trying to fix California?

And what will happen to California Forward? Will it still have the juice to push for broad reforms without someone of Panetta's stature? Or will it become....California Stalled?
January 4, 2009
Sunday morning scrimmage and...reading
One benefit of watching NFL football is it gives you plenty of time to read the morning papers.

Over at the San Francisco Chronicle, Willie Brown continues his defense of Ron Blagojevich, saying his attempted appointment of Roland Burris was "worthy of Joe Montana." (I'm doubtful the former 49ers quarterback would agree.) 

The Los Angeles Times has an important story about a court decision involving Latino representation in Madera that "has already begun to reshape school boards, city councils and special districts throughout California."

In The Bee, Dale Kasler's piece on CalPERS and its real estate investments is a must read, and it cries out for further investigation. Any connection between former CalPERS board members and the recipients of these dubious investments?

Slavery is on the mind of prominent columnists. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof writes about brothel girls in Cambodia and in The Bee, Dan Walters notes that such forced servitude is a reality here in California.

Meanwhile, in our Forum section, eight thoughtful Californians reflect on the state's prospects. Leon Panetta's essay is particularly forceful. "California's future depends on whether we will become part of a constituency for change - a strong and persistent voice for better government that cannot be ignored," he writes.

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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