The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

February 20, 2009
Niello and Steinberg defend the budget they helped enact
On Sunday, The Bee's Forum section will include separate op-eds from Assemblyman Roger Niello and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on the budget the governor signed today.

Niello discusses the reforms he and other Republicans sought as a condition for their votes, and explains why a resolution was imperative. An excerpt:

The consequences of not agreeing to a budget now were too severe and simply not an option. As California continued to face a severe cash shortage, having more bills to pay than money to pay them, the bus that is California's state government would have continued to go over the cliff and had a resulting negative impact on everyone.

The most disastrous scenario would have required IOUs to be issued for payroll and tax refunds, and small counties would have gone bankrupt, resulting in the complete stoppage of many services. There would likely have been health clinic and hospital closures statewide. Unemployment would skyrocket. At some point, the state's ability to issue bonds would completely stop and road construction and public works projects would grind to a halt.

Steinberg, by contrast, focuses on the agenda he hopes to pursue now that the budget nightmare is behind us, or at least put off for a few months. One item on his list is water:

California indisputably has a water-supply crisis. Drought conditions threaten the economic viability of its agriculture industry and could lead to shortages for communities all over the state. For too long, this has been a partisan issue. It's well past time to recognize that water shortages know no party. We must look for ways to stabilize our water supply using a variety of methods, and do so on a bipartisan basis.

To read the full versions of these op-eds, check back with The Bee's opinion pages on Sunday.
February 19, 2009
Chiang takes issue with "grandstanding" by Maldonado
Controller John Chiang has been a persistent target of Sen. Abel Maldonado during the budget negotiations, as noted in an earlier entry. Chiang isn't really happy about that. Without mentioning Maldonado by name, Chiang says the senator is "grandstanding" and is mispresenting a $1 million expenditure by the controller to renovate and consolidate his offices.

Chiang recently sent a letter to Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg laying out his version of the matter, and you can find it here.STEINBERG letter 2-13-09 CW1.pdf
February 19, 2009
Arnold pulls an open primary rabbit out of his hat
All the attention this morning is on Sen. Abel Maldonado, the Santa Maria Republican who cast the critical vote for California's budget package just hours ago.

But no matter how much you blame him for the state's budget mess, you have to hand it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He helped engineer the final deal, and got something he wanted in the process -- a 2010 ballot measure for an open primary.

It's hard to overstate what a radical change this could be for congressional and legislative races in California. If it passed, candidates for all parties would run against each other in the primary, with the top-two vote getters moving on to a runoff. That would open up chances for the Green Party to win in the Bay Area and Libertarians to win in conservative districts. It could rewrite the political map in our wacky state in ways we can't even imagine.

Moderates like Maldonado hope it will open political doors that would otherwise be closed to them. In 2006, Maldonado lost to conservative GOP lawmaker Tony Strickland in the primary for state controller, which Strickland then lost to Democrat John Chiang in the runoff. Maldonado is still seething about that, partly because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to endorse him in the primary.

Now Maldo has double revenge. The governor has been treating him like a king for days, and agreed to a budget provision that prevents Chiang from spending $1 million on furniture for his controller's office. Maldo also got the open primary measure, which gives him a thin chance of landing a state office after 2010. He'll need that chance. His party is sure to ostracize him and other five other GOP lawmakers for voting for a $12 billion tax increase, even though Maldo was successful in removing a gas tax from the package.

Here's where political reality set in. Members of Congress and the major parties are sure to attack the open primary proposal with everything they've got. It will be epic. Schwarzenegger and good government groups will rally behind it, but they'll need major bucks to counter the money spent against it. In all likelihood, they'll kill the measure and Maldo will be left out in the cold, a man without a party.

But that's a battle for another day. For now, Maldo can claim victory, as can Schwarzenegger.

Errata: An earlier version of this item had $1 billion for Chiang's office furniture instead of $1 million. My apologies. Lack of sleep.
February 17, 2009
What does Dave Cox fear most? A falling sky? Or a broken camel?
chicken_little_dvd.jpgState Sen. Dave Cox of Sacramento remains a possible vote for a budget breakthrough, but his floor statements of the last two days leave us mystified.

This afternoon, Cox got up and took issue with the floor speech of Sen. Ron Calderon, who used the fable of "Chicken Little" to describe the current budget situation. In Calderon's version of the fable, Republicans were not taking seriously the warnings that "the sky is falling" and were recklessly risking disaster.

Cox went on to describe an alternate version of the fable, one in which Chicken Little eventually learns it was only an acorn that hit him on the head, a problem fixed by a simple umbrella.

Thus Cox provided a lesson to his younger peers: There are many versions of ancient fables. All of them provide wisdom, but few offer clear answers to the problems of modern California.

After providing this lesson, Cox decided to offer us an old Arab proverb -- the straw that broke the camel's back.

February 16, 2009
Senate recesses, back tomorrow at 10 a.m.
If you missed the debate on the Senate floor tonight (Channel 2 on Comcast), you missed some fine theater.

Republicans came out in force to remind Democrats that they have dissed the GOP for years, and are now paying the price for it. Lots of whining, etc. etc.

The most interesting and statesmanlike speeches came from Republicans Abel Maldonado and Dave Cox. They continue to say they are no votes for the budget package, even though they acknowledge considerable pressure to vote otherwise.

Maldonado took aim at Senate leader Darrell Steinberg's early promise of a "Budget of 40" -- meaning, 40 senators all working together to devise a budget. Instead, he and other legislators were frozen out of the Big Five meetings that were held behind closed doors.

"Maldo" -- as he is being called -- went public with his demand for an end to pay raises for legislators during budget impasses, and an end to pet spending projects for certain legislators. He didn't mention Lou Correa by name, but everyone knew who he was taking about.

For his part, Dave Cox accidentally sparked the floor debate by doing a procedural maneuver that allowed Dennis Hollingsworth to talk. That led to a fascinating outpour by several senators, ranging from Rod Wright (a Demo) to George Runner (a Rep.).

Cox, in his comments, didn't hold out much hope he would vote for the budget package, but he effectively dinged Steinberg for quietly pushing through SB 1, which would expand eligibility for kids in Medi-Cal.

In normal times, such a push by a Democratic senate leader would go unnoticed, but with the state facing budget crisis, Cox made his point very clear.

Steinberg was the last to speak. He acknowledged the points that Maldonado and Cox were making, and on the latter point, said that the SB 1 stuff had been shelved.

So Cox and Maldo seem to be in the driver's seat. We wait until 10 a.m tomorrow to see if they are driving the state in the right direction, or ,,,,right off the cliff.
February 16, 2009
State prepares to shut down highway, flood-control projects
Update: Turn to the California Channel (Channel 2 on Comcast) to watch lawmakers debate this issue right now. (7:58 pm).

Schwarzenegger officials told lawmakers today that, without a budget resolution by tomorrow, they will be forced to suspend 276 public works projects statewide with an estimated value of $3.8 billion.

Finance Director Mike Genest and Caltrans Director Will Kempton told a senate subcommittee that the state is running out of cash to pay contractors.

Several projects in the Sacramento area could be suspended -- including HOV lanes on I-80 in Solano County and on U.S. 50 in El Dorado County, worth tens of billions of dollars. Also at risk, say officials, are levee improvements in Sutter County. You can find the full list here at PMIB Project Shut down - suspend list.pdf

Republicans at the hearing seemed unimpressed by projections that the shutdowns could affect roughly 90,000 jobs in California. One GOP Senator, Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta, said a sales tax increase proposed to close the $40 billion budget gap could cost 50,000 jobs, an estimate from a Board of Equalization economist.

Shutting down the projects will not be cheap. Kempton said it would cost about $190 million for contractors to "button up" projects they have already started -- securing equipment, filling holes, etc.
February 15, 2009
Shame on the Flash Report
Flash Report publisher Jon Fleischman today ran a "Shame on the Sac Bee" item after the editorial board used The Bee's Breaking News Alert to tout an editorial urging state Sen. Dave Cox to seek a resolution of the state budget impasse.

As Fleischman may or may not know, The Bee has published breaking news editorials before. In previous late-night budget sessions, our online editorials have warned readers about the prison guards union and its last-minute attempts to strong-arm pay raises from lawmakers, adding to the kind of unsustainable payroll obligations that Fleischman supposedly opposes. 

Now Fleischman is using his blog to suggest that esteemed reporters in the  Sacramento Bee's newsroom are having their credibility undermined because the editorial page is publishing opinions, and is using emails to let readers know about those opinions. That is shameful, especially for someone who drapes himself in the cloak of the First Amendment.

Ever since the first newspapers were published, they have run opinions, just as Fleischman is now doing on his Web site.

We've disagreed with the Flash Report over the years, but we've never denigrated Fleischman's right to say what he thinks nor personally attacked writers that he is associated with. We also find it hilarious that a guy whose blog is constantly targeting individual lawmakers -- Recall Maldonado Web Site in the Works -- would take issue with an editorial that focuses on a single lawmaker and makes a reasoned argument for him to act in the state's interest.

Shame on the Bee? Shame on the Flash Report.  

February 15, 2009
Will Maldonado's hurt feelings sink chance for budget deal?
873-BB_BUDGET_0835.embedded.prod_affiliate.4.JPGThe Bee's editorial page just posted an editorial urging constituents of Sen. Dave Cox of Fair Oaks to call the senator and urge him to support a budget resolution. (The number of Cox's office is (916) 651-4001).

Yet there's another Republican senator whose vote could make a difference as the all-night marathon session draws closer to 24 hours. Overnight, the governor and other legislative leaders were in closed talks with Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria. But Maldonado, seen to the right, has stuck to his "thumbs down" position.


One possible reason is that Maldonado is still resentful that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't support him in his campaign for state controller in 2006. ""Where was he when I needed him?," Maldonado is quoted as saying in a report today in the San Jose Mercury News.

Another complication is Maldonado's sour relationship with Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill of Fresno. "There's a difference between managing a caucus and leading a caucus," Maldonado said.

Cox, according to my sources, is also less than inspired by Cogdill's leadership. All politics is personal, as the saying goes, and in the Senate, the backbiting among Republicans has gotten very personal.

FYI, unlike the governor, The Bee's editorial board enthusiastically endorsed Maldonado in his primary bid for controller, which he lost to Tony Strickland in 2006. At the time, we said that Maldonado "could be a strong candidate for governor one day."

"Could" is the operative word there. Political leadership is judged over time, and Maldonado's book is still being written. 

February 13, 2009
Friday the 13th -- lucky or unlucky for a budget deal?
heads on stick.jpgThe deal to close California's $40 billion budget hole will either live or die today, depending on what happens this afternoon and tonight. And, of course, it is purely coincidence that it all comes down to Friday the 13th.

Now that details of the plan have leaked out, the special interests on all sides are flailing their knives and trying to gut the package. Apparently they are willing to let California run out of money.

On the right are the Flash Report, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' League and the John & Ken Show. The latter has an entertaining web site that shows various state leaders with their heads on sticks, shown above.

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has joined in this dubious spear chucking with this op-ed.

On the left, the California Teachers Association is urging its thousands of members to call legislators to scuttle parts of the deal giving school administrators more flexibility over spending. Transit groups and others are also raising hell about potential cuts.

It will all come down to three and three. That is, three Republican votes in the Assembly and three in the Senate.

But those trios will only stick their necks out (with heads to be hung on John & Ken's poles) if Democrats put up all their votes for a tax increase. That's a big if.

Meanwhile, the expected legislative votes tomorrow will coincide with the opening prologue of the Tour of California, which will bring tens of thousands to the Capitol, closing streets and surrounding lawmakers with hordes of cycling fans. If bicycle advocates had their acts together, they could storm the Capitol and demand more spending for bike lanes.

To make it even more interesting, the day's convergence of events could be interrupted by lightning, thunder, high winds and dousing rain. In other words, a perfect storm could follow a dangerous day for the superstitious. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his buddies in Hollywood couldn't have scripted it better.

Photo courtesy of KFI-a.m. 640. 
February 10, 2009
Should it be illegal to scavenge from garbage cans?
As I write this, the Sacramento City Council is hearing from residents on whether the council should approve a proposed ordinance to make it illegal to scavenge from dumpsters and garbage cans in the city.

Sacamento already has a law -- lightly enforced -- that bans people from taking items out of recycling bins. The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to scavenge from "any type of solid waste receptacle."

Just a few minutes ago, the council heard from homeless people and their advocates. They argued that scavenging from dumpsters is a "time-honored" form of recycling and that many people depend on it for income.

What do you think? Should scavenging be made illegal? And could the city possibly enforce such a ban, given that pilfering from recycling bins is rampant all over the city?
February 10, 2009
A message to Speaker Karen Bass from a letter writer

Some of our sharpest op-ed writing comes from local letter writers, who are quick to spot contradictions and hypocrisy on the part of elected leaders.

Here's a letter we ran today from Steven Swan of Sacramento. He was commenting on Speaker Karen Bass' response to a threat by Republican activists to censure any GOP lawmaker who votes for a tax increase:

Bass is quick to call out Republicans for their party's resolution to censure any dissenting opinion for their platform that new taxes should not be part of the state budget deal.

I would like to remind the speaker that she employed a similar tactic when she banished Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, from the State Assembly building to a small legislative office in a building across the street for withholding her vote toward the Democratic proposed budget in August 2008.

All lawmakers are voted into office to represent the best interests of their constituents. These elected officials should be able to do so with impunity, and any method engaged by party leaders to force a party-line vote is shameful as well as contrary to the democratic process. I expect my representation to reflect my district's interests, not those of the party to which they are affiliated. If my community's representation is only an extension of their party, we might as well elect a single lawmaker from each party to represent the entire state.

If you'd like to submit your own letter to the editor, go here.

February 9, 2009
Budget deal could hinge on changes to meal breaks, overtime
As the budget impasse hits 96 days, things are remarkably quiet at the Capitol. No one is saying much -- at least on the record. There are few salvos being launched by either side -- with one notable exception.

Labor groups are alarmed that the Big Five budget deal may soften a state requirement that employees be given meal breaks and overtime after eight hours of work. Republicans are seeking repeal of those labor laws, arguing that businesses are failing all over the place and  federal law is less demanding of employers. Unions fear that Democrats might accept some changes as the price for getting GOP votes for tax increases.

Labor groups have targeted one vulnerable freshman lawmaker, Assemblyman Danny Gilmore, R-Hanford, hoping it will scare off other GOP lawmakers. Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from the East Bay, is running a television ad (seen below) that hits Republicans who "are holding the budget hostage" until Democrats agree to the labor law changes.

Although Skinner's ad is aimed at Republicans, it is also sends a message to the Democratic leadership that her vote, and possibly others, may not be there when the budget deal is brought up for a vote. That's why the entire deal could implode at any moment, despite reports that an announcement is imminent.
February 4, 2009
Will K.J. provide refunds to supporters of his strong-mayor bid?
As of Jan. 31, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson had raised $131,500 for his bid to create a strong-mayor form of government in Sacramento. But after collecting 37,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot, Johnson recently backtracked amid protests from the city council and said he'd hold off on the measure.

Contributors to his campaign may have been surprised to read in today's Bee that the mayor's supporters may not place the proposal on on the ballot until 2010.

One wonders: What happens to their money? Will they get refunds?
February 2, 2009
Are environmental regs a drag on stimulus, or a red herring?
The debate over environmental regulations and infrastructure in California is getting lots of attention on the pages of East Coast newspapers today.

Former California governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis have an op-ed in the Washington Times. It urges President Obama to waive federal environmental regulations for certain transportation projects, including "breakthrough" projects that would speed up goods movement.

"As former California governors who faced emergencies during our administrations, we know that the smart use of emergency powers to enable rapid response can make the difference in ending a crisis. Our advice to President Obama and Congress is to recognize the urgency by granting and encouraging the use of streamlined public procedures for our nation's governors to use as your field commanders."
Meanwhile, a possible rollback of California's environmental regulations is highlighted in this New York Times blog item. It quotes environmentalists fearful that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will agree to concessions that Republican lawmakers are demanding as the price of a budget deal. The GOP demands were first detailed here last week in an item in The Swarm.

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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