Tag Archives: California Legislature

The New Attack on Democracy: What the Founders Knew But We’ve Forgotten

constitutionOne of the foundational principles of American democracy is under attack.

When the nation’s Founders crafted the United States Constitution in 1787, they were careful to include a requirement that:

“The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the treasury of the United States.” (Art I, Sec. 6, Clause 1).

A similar provision for compensation applies to the president:

“The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” (Art II, Sec. 1, Clause 7).

The Founders understood that providing compensation for the new government’s elected officers was not a trivial matter, but an essential and cutting edge principle of the new democracy that they were striving to create — and one that directly and profoundly affected the kind of people who would be willing and able to serve as representatives of the people.

They knew too that no other nation on earth insisted on compensation for its elected officials.

In England, members of parliament as a rule served without pay.  In colonial America, candidates for public office usually followed the practice of their English counterparts and promised to serve without compensation.  In the states themselves, only Pennsylvania provided for “wages” from the “state treasury” to “all lawmakers.”

The Founders knew that this English aristocratic practice of not paying public officers created an enormous disadvantage for less wealthy candidates who could not afford to serve without receiving an adequate income for their efforts.

The Founders did not want public service to be a genteel avocation reserved for men of independent wealth, as it was in England, but wanted instead to create a system in which – as James Madison said – public office would be open to “those who have the most merit and least wealth.”

Fueled by the rhetoric of anti-government and anti-egalitarian demagogues (mostly in or allied with the Republican Party), this foundational and deeply American egalitarian principle is now under attack in this country – especially in California, where voters are responding to the state’s budget crisis by cutting the salaries of legislators and city officials, and where our billionaire governor constantly rails against legislative salaries and supports a 10 percent pay cut in legislative compensation.

But as the Founders knew – and we clearly have forgotten – adequate compensation for public officials is an essential element of a democratic government.

Cutting the salaries of public officials will mean that only the rich will able to serve – and when only the rich can serve, we will have the opposite of the government that Madison envisioned – one in which our representative have “the most wealth and the least merit.”

The Founders would not be pleased that the people are now so willingly – even eagerly – abandoning one of the fundamental principles of the American democracy that they fought to create.

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Orange County Republicans Shed Crocodile Tears Over the Effects of Prop 13

croctearsRepublican crocodile tears flowed this weekend in Orange County as a group of city officials called F.I.S.T. – “Fight Insane State Theft” – comprised of 14 Orange County mayors and 42 city council members, nearly all of them Republicans – protested Republican Governor Schwarzenegger’s plan to take away billions in state property tax revenue from their cities.

According to the Orange County Register, the group held a rally this past weekend in Placentia, joined by an array of Republican front organizations posing as anti-tax crusaders, including Citizens for a Better Placentia, Fullerton Association of Concerned Taxpayers, and Yorba Linda Residents for Responsible Representation.

The Register notes that the protesters are “particularly concerned about losing funds for roads and other transportation projects.”

But it is the Republicans themselves – and their corporate funded anti-tax allies – who are themselves directly responsible for giving the state the power to take away property tax revenue from California cities.

Prior to 1978, local governments in California (as elsewhere in the nation) could set their own property tax rates and spend the money that they raised on local needs.

But the Republicans did not trust local governments or local voters with the power to tax local property or to spend that revenue as they thought appropriate.

So they decided to give the state the sole power to set property taxes and to give the state legislature the sole power to decide how that money would be spent.

Prop 13 took away the cities’ power to set property tax rates or levy property taxes, and gave all such power to the state — where it would be subject to Prop 13’s strict limits and the 2/3 rule – in other words, subject to the statewide anti-tax minority’s veto, regardless of the wishes or needs of local officials or voters.

Now our local Republican elected officials and Republican anti-tax front groups are outraged about “losing funds for roads and other transportation projects”  — which, by the way, tend to benefit large landowners and developers more than local citizens — because the state wants to spend that money elsewhere.

This latest instance of Orange County Republican hypocrisy reminds me of an exchange from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot:

Estragon: We’ve no rights any more?
Laugh of Vladimir, stifled as before, less the smile.
Vladimir: You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited.
Estragon: We’ve lost our rights?
Vladimir: (distinctly). We got rid of them.

So I ask our Orange County Republicans: Having given up our rights, are you now ready to amend Prop 13 to return the property tax power to local governments and local voters?

The Charge of the Democrat Light Brigade: California Democrats Caught in Republican Tax Trap

charge-of-the-light-brigade-posters2Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
— Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Like the Russians did to the British at Balaclava in Tennyson’s famous poem, California’s Republicans have set a deadly trap for Democrats that they won’t be able to escape.

When the state’s more than $40 billion shortfall and budget stalemate was resolved last month, it was on condition that several tax increase propositions — most notably Prop 1A — be placed before the voters.  Governor Schwarzenegger has set May 19, 2009, as the date that the voters will decide the fate of these propositions in a special election.

Schwarzenegger and the state Democratic leadership support these tax increase propositions.

The Republicans – who acquiesced in both the budget and its tax increases by permitting the minimum number of their party members to vote for the deal that ended the stalemate – are now likely to oppose them.

Joining the Republicans in urging that voters reject the tax increase propositions will be the state’s powerful and well-funded anti-tax organizations, including the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.

As a result, the voters will see an intense, expensive, and high publicity campaign leading up to the May 19 special election that pits Democrats (and their union allies) arguing for higher taxes against Republicans (and their anti-tax allies) calling for no increase in taxes.

Once again, the Republicans will be the party saying no to taxes and the Democrats will be forced to be the party of tax increases.

To most voters, it will not matter that the budget deal was explicitly premised on the state getting the increased revenue from these taxes.

Nor will it matter to the Republicans that they tacitly agreed to these tax increases when they signed off on the state’s budget.

Instead, the Republicans will seize the opportunity of the special election to make amends to the state’s anti-tax forces – which are mad as hell at them for agreeing to the state budget – and to paint the Democrats – once again — as profligate spenders who want to tax Californians to death.

To make matters worse for the Democrats, the propositions that are going before the voters on May 19 are mostly hikes in regressive taxes and state fees – including increases in the state’s income tax, sales tax, gasoline tax and vehicle fees – that hit middle class pocketbooks hardest.

Again, it will not matter to voters that it was the Republicans who insisted that if the state’s revenue is increased, it be increased by the most regressive kinds of tax measures.

Nor is it likely to matter to voters that for decades the Republicans and the state’s anti-tax forces have forced the middle class to bear the brunt of the state’s revenue needs because of Prop 13’s constitutional command not to tax commercial or business property differently than owner-occupied homes, and the Republicans’ steadfast commitment to protecting the rich by opposing any form of progressive taxation.

The reason that these facts are unlikely to matter to voters is that the Democrats have done a terrible job of making these arguments in the past, and specifically failed to make these arguments during the heat of the most recent budget battle.

California’s Democrats should have taken their cue from the Obama campaign and insisted that the state’s already battered middle class be protected from any tax increase.

And like Obama, California’s Democrats should instead have called for balancing the state budget through higher taxes for the very rich who have benefited so disproportionately from both the Bush tax cuts and the financial deregulation that has led to our national economic crisis.

But it’s probably too late to do that now.

The tax trap is set.

And California’s Democrats are riding right into it.

Why I Love Conservative Talk Radio’s John and Ken Show

If you’re happy that Rush Limbaugh has been giving headaches to Republican leaders trying to find a popular political stance for their shrinking party, you’ll be thrilled to hear about the migraines that a conservative-libertarian talk radio duo named John and Ken are giving to the leadership of the Republican Party in California.

robespierre-headWhile Limbaugh helps the Democrats by shoving the Republican Party backwards toward an increasingly unpopular combination of militarism and social conservatism, at least his primary targets are Democrats.

Limbaugh wants Obama to fail, not the Republican Party.

In contrast, John and Ken almost never mention Democrats. Their primary target is the leadership and elected officials of the California Republican Party.

And while Limbaugh’s followers are the people whose marginal political power was proven in the last election to be insufficient to prevent the collapse of the Republican Party, the followers of John and Ken are people whose votes and enormous political clout are absolutely essential to California Republicans – the true believers of the California tax revolt.

But before we talk about John and Ken, we need a short history lesson:

Movements of highly motivated true believers are difficult to contain and control, and can become a mortal danger even to their putative leaders and one-time heroes.

During the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre was executed by the same mob that he had once incited and led in the Reign of Terror against his enemies.

In Communist China, Mao gave his official blessing to the radical Red Guard movement during the Cultural Revolution for the purpose of consolidating his control over the country’s universities and intellectuals. Within a short time, the Red Guards  had created chaos throughout China and threatened to destabilize Mao’s own regime.

In Iran, Abolhassan Banisadr incited and mobilized Islamic opposition to the Shah. Within a year after the Shah was overthrown, Bamisadr was himself deposed and threatened with death by these same Islamic militants.

Now California’s Republican Party leadership faces a similar fate at the hands of the anti-tax extremists who have long served as their own revolutionary guard and army of true believers.

When the tax revolt began in California in the 1970s, the state’s Republican Party leadership was opposed to a constitutional amendment that would limit the government’s ability to raise taxes.  They believed — correctly — that such an amendment would lead to enormous budget deficits.

But when Prop 13 was approved in 1978 by an overwhelming 65 percent of the voters, California’s Republican Party leaders – Governor Ronald Reagan above all — quickly hopped on the very top of the anti-tax bandwagon.  Ever since, hostility to taxes — in any form and under any and all conditions — has been an article of faith for California’s Republican Party.

The enduring political success of the California tax revolt has given enormous power to anti-tax extremists such as Grover Norquist and his organization, Americans for Tax Reform, as well as the organization of the late tax revolt hero, Howard Jarvis, The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.  Norquist and Jarvis became, in effect, the ideological leaders of the California Republican Party, and their organizations now serve as the party’s real battlefield force.  When Norquist insisted that Republican candidates swear to oppose any tax increase under any and all circumstances, every Republican member of the California legislature signed the Pledge.

It has been an alliance that has served the party well, particularly because these anti-tax organizations are so effectively run and because the identification of the California Republican Party with the tax revolt has motivated hundreds of thousands of grass roots anti-tax extremists to work tirelessly — walking precincts, making phone calls, addressing envelopes, and mobilizing home owners and community groups — on behalf of the Republican Party and to get out the vote for Republicans candidates.

Now all that is threatened by two guys named John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou with very loud microphones who are appalled at the tax increases included in the budget deal between Governor Schwarzenegger and the state legislature.

Their radio program — The John and Ken Show on Los Angeles’ conservative KFI AM-640 – is the most listened to local talk radio program in the United States.

And it has declared total war on the leadership of the California Republican Party, which it blames for the budget’s increases in taxes.

headonastickhq4Since the budget deal, for four prime-time hours every day, John and Ken have relentlessly blasted California’s Republican leadership as traitors to the anti-tax movement and the people of California.

They’ve put pictures on their website of Schwarzenegger and the leaders of the California Republican Party with their heads on pikes, swords, and toilet plungers.

They’ve called for the recall of Schwarzenegger.

They’ve called for the recall of Republican legislators.

They’ve announced “Revolt, Recall and Repeal” rallies.

And they’ve taken away the leadership of California’s tax revolt from Republican Party allies Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform, and The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

They are about to destroy the California Republican Party.

Democrats should be thrilled.

UPDATE: See related posts:

Democrats Should Be Joining the Tea Parties

Why the Republican Anti-Tax Movement Doesn’t Care About the Taxes that YOU Pay

The Charge of the Democrat Light Brigade: California Democrats Caught in Republican Tax Trap

Four Obama Inspired Lessons for California Democrats – Part Two

obama-the-teacher1

Last week I wrote that the Obama campaign should serve as a master class in winning elections for Democrats, but, unfortunately, not enough California Democrats are playing attention to the Obama campaign’s most important lessons.

These Obama inspired lessons are:
1. Blame Republicans and Present a Democratic Solution
2. Use the Internet
3. Expand the Electorate
4. Champion the Middle Class

I’ve already discussed the first two of these lessons, pointing out that during the state budget fiasco, the Democratic leadership failed to place the blame for the crisis squarely on the Republicans, and failed to present a clear Democratic solution to the state’s budget and economic problems.

I also pointed out that although the Internet is a potential game changer for California Democrats – as a less expensive and far more effective alternative to the Republicans’ expertise in direct mail – we have failed to capitalize on this advantage by building effective, informative and user-friendly websites, as well as building membership in Democratic groups on social networking sites such as facebook.

The importance of the Internet and its related technologies was underscored last week when the California Republican convention made improvement in their use of technology a primary objective.  The California Republican Party website now promises that their “Technology Leadership Committee is racing ahead bringing together leaders in California’s tech community to help make our state party the national leader in the use of new and emerging technologies in our operations and communications. The initiative is chaired by David Kralik of Newt Gingrich’s organization.”

This means that California’s Republicans are well aware of the devastating effect that Obama’s edge in technology and Internet use had in the last election, and are racing — and spending money — to catch-up.  Democrats cannot let this happen.

The remaining two Obama inspired lessons are:

3. Expand the Electorate
4. Champion the Middle Class

Let’s tackle them now.

3. Expand the Electorate

si-se-puedeThe Obama campaign succeeded in large part because it expanded the Democratic electorate by bringing far larger numbers of young people, students, and immigrant groups into the process than ever before.  Obama specifically targeted these groups and the result was millions of additional votes.

The California Young Democrats movement is doing a terrific job of maintaining the momentum of the Obama campaign and getting young people involved in the state Democratic Party.

Where we are falling short is in regard to immigrant groups.

Amazingly, here in Southern California, few election campaigns outside of Los Angeles and Santa Ana provided literature, emails, or websites in Spanish.

The website of the California Democratic Party has nothing in Spanish.  The website of the Democratic Party of Orange County has only a single half-page in Spanish.

Neither website has anything in Farsi, Vietnamese, or any of the other languages of California’s immigrants.

This must change.  We need to create Democratic Party literature and web materials in Spanish, Farsi, Vietnamese, and other languages.

We also need to campaign in predominantly immigrant and less affluent neighborhoods.

Despite the fact that so many Mexican immigrants in Southern California live in apartments, our Democratic candidates have tended to campaign only in areas of private homes, entirely ignoring apartment complexes.

While I’m aware of the problem of scarce resources, it seems to me that we cannot continue to fail to campaign directly to hundreds of thousands of potential voters, especially those who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat.

4. Champion the Middle Class

Throughout the presidential election, Obama positioned himself as the champion of the middle-class and painted his Republican opponent as the champion of the very rich.

foreclosure_1009_rp25_lrgObama also made middle-class tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign promises.  The result was millions of votes from the suburban middle-class -– and electoral vote victories in states that had long gone Republican.

The suburban middle-class that tipped the electoral scales for Obama is probably the single most important voting group in California – especially in Southern California.

Yet despite Obama’s lesson, our local Democrats continue largely to ignore the middle-class, and related groups such as homeowners and small business owners.

In fact, I could not find the word “middle-class” anywhere on the websites of either the California Democratic Party or the Democratic Party of Orange County.

How can we expect to win in districts where self-identified middle-class, homeownering voters form the majority of the electorate without talking specifically to them and about their needs?

End California’s Hostage Crisis

drain9On this morning’s radio talk shows, following the early morning passage of California’s budget, Democratic legislators have finally taken up the political fight against the Republicans and are urging revision of the state’s dysfunctional budget process.

In addition, Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced today that signatures may begin to be collected for petitions calling for two measures designed to lower the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the state budget and spending bills related to the budget from sixty-seven percent (two-thirds) to fifty-five percent.

The proposed measures would retain the two-thirds vote requirement for property tax increases.

drain10In order to be placed on the ballot, the measures need the petition signatures of 694,354 registered voters – the number equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the 2006 election. These petition signatures must be collected within 150 days (by July 20).

There is also a Facebook group dedicated to the passage of these measures called “Stop the Insanity: Majority Rule for California!

The group is dedicated to “ending the rule that forces the California Legislature to have a 2/3rds vote to pass a budget. This rule has allowed a minority party–in this case, the Republicans–to hijack the process and hold the state hostage until they get their way.”

The group’s website points out that “California is one of only 3 states that requires a supermajority to pass a budget, and the consequences have been severe. It’s time for a return to the democratic principles of majority rule for budgets in California.”

I urge you to join this group and invite your friends to join.

As blogger Dave Dayen noted this morning in a scathing article on the budget agreement, “this is a budget the GOP can be proud of, because it’s a profoundly conservative budget. Because they hold a conservative veto over it. And they get the best of both worlds – they don’t have to vote for the budget en masse so they don’t have to own it. In short, the hijacking worked.”

This is the most important issue facing California – and it’s time for a change.

Let California Fail

I’ve received several emails today asking me to call Republican legislators and beg them to vote for the currently proposed California budget.

eartrhquake1

But since the proposed budget is bad (too many cuts in the wrong places, plus regressive tax increases), why should I or other Democrats support it?

Why isn’t the state Democratic Party telling the voters that this disaster has been caused by the Republicans?

Why are the Democrats not seizing the ideological moment by calling this budget disaster a Republican disaster?

We Democrats have done a terrible job of fashioning the debate on the budget crisis.

Now we’re fighting for a budget that cuts jobs, cuts services to the poor and the vulnerable, undermines unions, trashes environmental safeguards, relies on increases in the most regressive kind of taxes (sales, gasoline and income), and gives billions in tax cuts to the wealthy.

If we win on this budget, we lose, both ideologically and in regard to the future of California. As it is, the current proposed budget rewards Republicans, the wealthy, and the tax-cut lobby for their intransigence.

They have played us as fools, and we’ve allowed them to get away with it.

When I suggested that we shouldn’t fight for this terrible budget, a friend said, “It’s so easy for us to sit here and say ‘let California fail’ because it won’t really affect us that much. We have jobs that aren’t dependent of State government. We don’t collect disability, we’re not on welfare, we don’t depend on vouchers to get us another night in an SRO. But there are millions of Californians who do, and I’m not willing to insist on anything at the moment except to get this flawed budget passed. Then [we will] fix what is wrong with this system so that we do get budgets that are fair.”

I am sympathetic to her concerns, but I am not convinced.

My friend’s plea for support for this budget reminds me of the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers.”

But we’re not beggars. We are the majority of California’s citizens and voters.

We ought to insist now on a budget that is fair — and if that fails, we ought to go to the voters and tell them that the Republicans have caused their state government to fail.

Only then will we have the chance to get real change in California.