Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Political Committee Funds: Not for Love Interests or Business Startups

A word to the wise: Just when you thought "silly season" ended with the election, it did not.
Last week, California's political watchdog agency imposed two fines on treasurers of political committees for misuse of funds. In the first case the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) fined a treasurer of a committee formed to support the decriminalization of prostitution for loaning dancer at a strip club money. Strangely enough (insert sarcasm here), a treasurer of a political committee cannot use committee's funds to make loans to love interests.
The loan was apparently to pay expenses related to a family law case and plastic surgery. Again, oddly enough, those expenses do not count as proper expenses for the political committee formed to decriminalize prostitution.
The FPPC acted quickly and fined Luke Briet almost $10,000. The apparent loan of $3,000 has not been repaid.
But the fun doesn't stop there. The FPPC also fined another treasurer, Michael Gunter, of a different political committee. Gunter's violation was based on using $10,000 of the committee's funds to start his own business. He was the treasurer for the Californians for Privacy Committee -- I'm guessing he would have preferred to keep many of his activities private (ba-dum ching!).
None of these violations rise to the level of now-infamous campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee. She, thanks in large part to the investigation and subsequent actions by the FPPC, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay $10.5 million in restitution to her victims.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Did Super PACs Make a Difference in the 2012 Election?

Across the country during the last election cycle, billions of dollars in outside spending were put into races, and right here in Southern California, there is one race that appears to exemplify how much that influence can have on campaigns.

Incumbent Congressman Joe Baca recently lost to another Democrat, State Senator Negrete McLeod. Baca and McLeod had raised less than $1 million between the two of them. But then a funny thing happened on the way to Election Day. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured more than $ 3 million of his very sizable personal fortune (estimated at about $25 billion) into the San Bernardino County race.

Bloomberg's Super PAC, Independence USA, spent money on television advertisements and campaign mailers. Why? Well, Bloomberg is a staunch gun control advocate and Baca is a pro-gun Democrat.

While we may never know the true effects of outside campaign spending in races throughout the country, the Baca-McLeod race points to the strong influence that outside spending can have in some instances. In this case Bloomberg's Super PAC spent more than three times the amount raised by both candidate campaigns combined. It is possible that Independence USA simply grabbed the biggest microphone in the race and the people listened.

In addition, it is notable that paid forms of communication (television advertisements and mailers) are still the primary mode of electoral communication. Although members of the electorate may increasingly get their information on the internet, they are still watching and reading advertisements that cost money.

Finish reading this post on KCET.org.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

New court rules; clinic break-in

Quoted in this one in the Press Enterprise.

Picketing and proselytizing are prohibited at San Bernardino County courthouses under an order issued Nov. 19 by Presiding Judge Marsha Slough.

Does the new order trample the First Amendment?

The central courthouse has been picketed by people protesting judges’ decisions or county supervisors’ actions. Did that prompt the ban? No, picketers were not the target, Slough said.

The order came in response to complaints from people waiting in lines to get into the Rancho Cucamonga courthouse who were being aggressively proselytized by people for religious views.

Waits to get through security checkpoints can be as long as half an hour or more, and people who have business with the court were a captive audience, she said.

In order not to target any group or viewpoint, the order simply bars threatening, confronting, interfering with or harassing anyone entering any county courthouse.

I spoke to two First Amendment experts. Both said the order appears within constitutional bounds.

“Whenever the government makes restrictions on who’s speaking … we’re very nervous about censorship,” said Jessica Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School.

But if the order is neutral regarding the content of the speech, the court can place restrictions on “time, place or manner,” she said.

Terry Francke, general counsel for open-government advocates Californians Aware, said courts are allowed to control expressive activities on property they own. But that doesn’t extend to the public sidewalk.

Slough’s order applies just to the walkways where people gather to enter the courthouses. Volunteers who monitor the lines and help people with directions will watch for violators; deputies are in charge of enforcement.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Did Our Electoral Reforms Make Any Difference?

This month Californians experienced a full round of elections under our new open primary, top-two election system and our new legislative lines, drawn for the first time in the state's history by an independent redistricting commission.
So did the systems fulfill their purposes? With respect to the top-two system, the terrific Joe Mathews recently said "no."
Under the top two system any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation, and the top-two voter-getters, again regardless of party affiliation proceed to the general election. Instead of our typical primary elections in which we nominated a party representative to proceed to the general election, we have one large "open primary." And instead of our typical general election in which party nominees face off, we have something more like a runoff election in which only the top two candidates compete.
The purpose of the top-two system was to elect more moderate candidates. The idea was that the winner of each election would have to appeal to the entire electorate twice, and would therefore have to appeal to voters from both major parties.
First, there were 28 races in which two candidates from the same party competed against each other. The best-known example of these intra-party fights may be the scorched-earth contest between incumbent Democratic Congressmen Bran Sherman and Howard Berman. Sherman ultimately came out ahead in that race. Second, Democrats now control a super majority of both legislative state houses. An increase in the number of registered Democrats in California is also an important factor in allowing Democrats to obtain a two-thirds majority in the state assembly and state senate, but as Mathews pointed out, this could show that the top-two election system has not led to less partisanship or more independents in the legislature.
We also held a full round of elections under new legislative maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission rather than legislators. One of the purposes of the creation of the independent redistricting commission was to eliminate the ability of incumbents to draw legislative lines in order to keep their seats safe, instead of drawing legislative legislatives lines to keep communities of interest together.
Shortly after the election, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) issued a reportdetailing a number of interesting facts, some of which can be attributed, at least in part, to the new reforms. The biggest sign on how they made a difference was the competitiveness, which led -- in what Mathews and I seem to both agree -- to more costly elections.
Additionally, Mathews may well be correct (as he is about so many other things) that the top two is worth ditching. He points to a lack of increased engagement in state races, a lack of benefit to independents and moderates, and no change to partisanship or number of incumbents. In addition, as Mathews explains, and as I have written about in depth, the top-two system all but guarantees that third party candidates will not appear on the general election ballot.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jessica Levinson sits in for Ian Masters: Political Reform in California

Here is a link to the radio program I guest hosted on 11/26/12 on KPFK.

We covered topics related to politics and political reform in California. My terrific guests were Ann Ravel, Chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, Kathay Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause, and Torey Van Ooot, political reporter for the Sacramento Bee.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Viewpoints: Initiatives are controlled by backers with bankrolls

I published this Op-Ed in today's Sacramento Bee.

Here is the first paragraph:

As we enter a state commonly known as campaign withdrawal, we can look back and sigh, knowing, with few exceptions, who we elected to represent us. But we didn't just elect representatives; we also enacted laws, on our own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Time for 'Educational Trips' for Our Elected Officials

As the holidays approach many of you may feel like getting out of town. So do our elected officials.

Many take this time before the legislative session begins to go on so-called "educational" trips. In and of itself this could, at least in some cases, be a good idea: Officials can learn about various business and environmental issues. But the wrinkle is that special interests groups largely, if not exclusively, fund many of these trips, meaning they are often categorized as gifts.

The educational experience appears to vary widely among the trips. In some cases our officials meet with foreign officials; in other cases they appear to spend much of their time on recreational activities -- like golf.

Our elected officials should not be expected to stay home and/or avoid any contact with lobbyists and special interests as they often serve important purposes. However, it is of course important to remember that almost by definition these lobbyists and special interests are seeking to obtain favorable outcomes from elected officials and those officials must at times regulate those interest groups. Close relationships can, in other words, create or appear to create conflicts of interest.

Appearances are important. When it appears that elected officials obtain perks like trips paid for by the very interests seeking to influence them, the public can reasonably have questions about the propriety of those arrangements.

Finish reading this post on KCET.org.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Money Out / Voters In Conference

Here is a link to a portion of my speech. (A better link to the full discussion to follow shortly). My charge was to detail the history of campaign finance law, in 20 minutes or less.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Welcome to the New California -- Politically Speaking

Hello, readers. Welcome to the "new California." Californians have now lived through a full election cycle with two big election reforms.
First, Californians recently approved redistricting by an independent redistricting commission. That, for the first time in the state's history, gave an independent (or bipartisan, or better yet: multi-partisan) group of citizens the power to draw our state's district lines -- now gone are the days of legislators drawing district lines to ensure their safe re-election.
Second, in 2010 Californians approved open primary, top-two elections. That means any voter now can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation. In the general election (which is really more like a run-off election) the top-two vote-getters competed (one good example: two congressional Republican candidates faced off in a traditionally blue district of San Bernardino County. Learn more here).
Shortly after the election the Public Policy Institute of California crunched the numbers and published a report which sheds some light on the effect of those electoral reforms.
One prediction came true: On the average, elections were more competitive. Those making this prediction (myself included) hardly went out on a limb. In 2001, California legislators drew district lines, in large part, to ensure their safe re-election. Once an independent redistricting commission took over and ignored incumbency protection concerns and instead drew lines to do things like maintain communities of interest, it a virtual sure thing that at least some races would become more competitive.
Similarly, under our old system, because of registration numbers, the winner of a primary election was all but assured success in the general election. Put another way, there were a good number of districts, which were either so heavily Democratic or Republican, that the majority party's primary winner did not need to wage much of a battle in the general election. The top-two election changed that, and we saw competitive races between members of the same party in a number of districts.
We may want to promote more competition in our elections for a number of reasons, but with increased competition comes increased cost. Anyone who lives in a competitive district no doubt heard their share of radio advertisements and received a plethora of campaign mailers. Those campaign advertisements, and others, cost money.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Redistricting, SuperPacs had large influence on election in California

Quoted in this one in the Daily News.

Here is an excerpt:

"The redistricting (process) favored Democrats," said Jessica Levinson, associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School.

But it also resulted in "costly and competitive races," she added.
But California may quickly lose many of its veteran members if other states don't follow suit, and also do away with politically-charged line drawing.

"That's the danger," Levinson. "Unless every state does redistricting with an independent commission, California risks losing its senior members."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Calif. proposition results mixed, liberal or not

Quoted in this one in the SF Chronicle.

Here is an excerpt:

While Californians were approving higher taxes to fund schools and state programs, they were also voting to maintain the status quo by rejecting two ideologically charged initiatives, a liberal measure to repeal the death penalty and a conservative attempt to enfeeble labor unions politically.

One message is that "public opinion on the issues takes a long time to change," said Jessica Levinson, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. She said voters were presented with a different question on three strikes - whether to scale it back while retaining the core of the law - than the up-or-down decision they faced on the death penalty.

In general, said Levinson, the Loyola associate professor, "money spent against ballot measures is much more effective than money spent in favor of them."

Controversy Brewing in Huntington Park Over Water District, City Attorney

Here is a link to my appearance on SoCal Connected. 

Here are a few excerpts:

Gonzales: But soon the chorus of jeers turned towards this man, the city attorney, Francisco Leal.
Gonzales: Francisco Leal has made millions as an attorney for Huntington Park and other southeast L.A. cities. He's moved from town to town for years, often serving as lobbyist and a contract city attorney. And sometimes, controversy followed him. In 2005, he was terminated from his job as lobbyist and city attorney of Commerce. He settled with the city and agreed to pay $70,000. Questions about his firm have been raised in places like Lynwood and Alhambra, but not in Huntington Park. Since 2000, the city has paid Leal’s various firms over $4 million to be a lobbyist, the city attorney, and legal counsel for the city's redevelopment department.
Levinson: So we have one person who is simultaneously a consultant, which is an undefined grey term in this situation, a lobbyist that seems to look like a consultant, and an attorney. And it’s just not only the same person wearing all these hats, but wearing them for various parties that are all involved in the same litigations. There are too many relationships going on here.
Levinson: Lawyers put things in writing all the time, this is kind of our bread and butter. Not all of what we do is just a handshake or a wink and a nod, particularly when it comes to ethical duties, when it comes to duties of loyalty, when it comes to confidential information.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

High Court Issues Rare Weekend Order Siding With State Election Commission Over Donor Disclosure

Quoted in this article in the Daily Recorder. 

Here is an excerpt:

FPPC Chair Ann Ravel called the donation "the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history."


"This is the new world of dark money and shell nonprofits," said Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor and election law expert at Loyola Law School. "This will be a problem that comes up again." 

State high court supports disclosure after whirlwind weekend of activity

Quoted in today's Daily Journal. 

Here is an excerpt:

The state Supreme Court justices needed less than 20 minutes to decide, unanimously, to compel an Arizona group to identify the source of its $11 million donation to a California campaign fund.

The decision came via teleconference at around 2:20 p.m. on Sunday, according to a Supreme Court source with knowledge of the proceedings, and followed a whirlwind of activity by the court over the weekend. That included an all-nighter by one staff attorney who drafted alternative orders the court could issue depending on what the justices decided.


"This is just the beginning in terms of disclosure for the public," said Jessica Levinson, an elections law expert at Loyola Law School. "It's also just the beginning in terms of lawsuits and legislation."

Voters in Los Angeles Go to the Polls

Looking forward to being on KNX1070 to discuss the election today at 7:20.

Political contributions more difficult to trace after key U.S. Supreme Court decisions

Quoted in this piece in the Sac Bee about campaign disclosure. 

Here is an excerpt:

"I think we're going to increasingly see this kind of shell game of nonprofits trying to influence ballot initiatives," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School ...
"But I also think we're going to see much more legislation trying to promote disclosure and transparency," Levinson added. "And there will be more court cases."

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/11/06/4963560/political-contributions-more-difficult.html#storylink=cpy

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Print Email Font Resize South Bay Assembly race between Craig Huey, Al Muratsuchi is most costly in California

Quoted in this article in the Daily Breeze.

"No one wants to waste money," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies money in politics. "They are only going to spend it if they think it's going to affect the race. They are only going to do that in competitive races where it makes a difference."

Contributions to candidates aren't the only funds flowing into the race. Muratsuchi has been helped by so-called independent expenditures - outside groups that advocate for one candidate but are not officially tied to any campaign. A group called Californians for Fiscal Accountability, Dentists, Physicians has spent more than $440,000 in campaign advertising against Huey, records show. The group can spend what it wants so long as it does not coordinate its actions with the Muratsuchi campaign.

Other groups spending on behalf of Muratsuchi included the Asian American Small Business PAC ($11,623) and the CA Statewide Law Enforcement Association IE Committee ($10,089), records show.

No outside groups have spent on Huey's behalf, according to campaign records.

"Basically, these are groups who have made what is in many cases a business judgment that they are willing to spend 100 or 200 thousand or a million dollars, if they think electing their preferred their candidate will get them a million and one," Levinson said.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Superstorm Sandy’s economic and election impact

Here is a link to my appearance on AirTalk with Larry Mantle today. 

Superstorm Sandy is headed north, and for much of the East, the worst is over. But with extensive flooding and major damages to several big cities lining the coast, this is just the beginning of a long entanglement with the storm and the wake of destruction it left.
Power outages are affecting millions of East Coast homes and businesses, New York City subways and tunnels are flooded, underground garages have filled with water, and cities up and down the coast are littered with debris from the storm. Because cities like New York don’t see storms of this caliber often, Sandy came as a surprise, even to local hospitals, whose backup generators began failing last night, forcing evacuations. Even though the storm is passing and the sky is clearing, rescue and rehabilitation efforts are sure to take a good deal of time and money for the cities hardest hit by the storm.
What will the economic impact be for cities whose public services have been damaged by Sandy? How long will relief efforts take, and at what cost? What effect, if any, will this have on the presidential election next week?


Jessica Levinson, Professor of Law, Loyola Law School; Research focus on election law and governance issues
Gregory Daco, U.S. Economist, IHS Global Insight

Sandy & Election 2012

Scheduled to be on "AirTalk" today at noon talking about the affect of Sandy on the election.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Do Ballot Initiatives Foster the Darker Side of Political Spending?

Californians will soon go to the polls to weigh in on no less than eleven ballot initiatives. These initiatives could change the law on everything from the death penalty to the labeling of food.
I have previously written here about the pitfalls of the initiative process. This mechanism of direct democracy, designed to guard against the power special interests held over our elected officials, is now similarly controlled by special interests. Money is the driving factor behind which proposals qualify for the ballot.
Large sums are spent not only to pay signature gatherers to get proposals placed on the ballot but also to support or oppose those measures once they qualify for the ballot. One need only to open the mailbox or certain websites, or turn on the television or radio, to see the enormous amounts of money being spent to attempt to sway voters on these eleven initiatives.
Last week I wrote about a large donation, $11 million to be exact, given by an Arizona non-profit corporation to two ballot measure committees in California.
This post is, in part, an update on events that occurred last week. Currently members of the voting public only know that a group called "Americans for Responsible Leadership" donated that large sum to a committee opposing Proposition 30 and supporting Proposition 32. Proposition 30 is Governor Jerry Brown's tax initiative. The initiative would raise income taxes on high wage earners and sales taxes for all and put that increased revenue towards public education. (I previously discussed Prop 30 here) Proposition 32, while styled as good government reform, is in fact an effort to reduce the political power of unions in California. (I wrote about Prop 32 here).
Other than the name of the organization, the place it "resides," and the committees to which it donated money, the public knows little to nothing about Americans for Responsible Leadership. In an effort to give the public vitally important information about the identity of this organization, the State's political watchdog organization, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) sued the organization.
The court held a quick procedural hearing last week, and will hold a hearing on the merits of the case next week, one week before the election. It remains to be seen whether the public will obtain information about this group before the election. I am, however, hopeful that this experience and the quick actions by the FPPC will prevent this scenario from repeating election after election.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Large, Undisclosed Sums Given to Support or Defeat California Ballot Initiatives

The outcome of 11 ballot initiatives on the November 6 statewide ballot hangs in the balance. One thing is already clear: The amount of money being given and spent to urge members of the electorate to vote "yes" or "no" on these measures is significant. A report published last week puts the amount of money given in favor of and against ballot measures at almost $300 million.
And this money is not divided evenly among the eleven ballot measures. A number of wealthy individuals have given large sums to support certain ballot measures. Attorney Molly Munger, for instance, has given almost $33 million in support of her proposed ballot initiative,Proposition 38, which would raise the income tax on most Californians and put that increased revenue into the public school system. (For more on it and and the competing proposition, Prop 30, read this article on KCET's Ballot Brief.)
It is important to note that the $300 million figure reflects money given to ballot measure committees more than two weeks before the election. We can only expect that figure to rise as the election nears (Ballot Brief updates who's funding what a couple times a week. Keep trackhere).
Because of a number of Supreme Court decisions, the amount of money spent to get voters to vote "yes or "no" on ballot measures (not to mention to elect or defeat candidates) is unlikely to ebb. At least in the short term, it seems likely that the only way to regulate money flowing throughout the political marketplace will be to disclose the source and use of that money.
But last week a non-profit group based in Arizona gave $11 million to committees supporting or opposing two California ballot initiatives. From my perspective, the problem is that we know very little about this group. If, as the Supreme Court says, money is the equivalent of speech, then the identity of the speaker is vitally important. It is human nature to weigh an argument based on the identity of the speaker. Such information helps people to determine why an individual or entity would spend large sums concerning ballot measures. Without proper disclosure, the electorate is left only with the message funded by such donations, but not the source of that message.

Campaign watchdogs say Arizona group's $11 million donation exploits loophole in California law

Quoted in this article in the Sac Bee

Here is an excerpt:

In California's ever-expensive ballot wars, voters typically know who funds advertisements that hold great sway with the electorate.

But that may be changing.

An Arizona-based nonprofit named Americans for Responsible Leadership gave $11 million this week to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative and curb unions' political power without saying where a single dime originated.
Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/10/18/4920421/campaign-watchdogs-say-arizona.html#storylink=cpy
Campaign watchdogs say such donations exploit a loophole in California campaign finance law. Nonprofits can shield donors as long as money was never earmarked, with the burden of proof falling on state regulators already deluged with work.
"It is vitally important information for the public," said Jessica Levinson, a professor atLoyola Law School who formerly worked at the watchdog group Center for Governmental Studies. "The identity of a speaker allows the public to evaluate the credibility of the claims that are made by using this money."

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/10/18/4920421/campaign-watchdogs-say-arizona.html#storylink=cpy

Sunday, October 21, 2012

News from Cal: State measure spending among highest yet

Quoted in this piece in the SF Chronicle. 

Here is an excerpt:

Identifying supporters

Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which oversees campaign contributions and spending, said she is more concerned with the disclosure of donors than with the amount of overall spending.
"As long as the information is disclosed and people know who is spending to support or oppose ballot measures, it's hard to say that it's corrupting, which I think is the issue of campaigns," Ravel said.
But Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School who follows money in politics, said high spending is both a fact of life in modern campaigns and a problem.
"The amount of money being spent in campaigns is really overwhelming," she said. "It gives the impression that politics is a game for monied interests. I think it drowns out other voices."
Levinson said it's not realistic to try to lessen the amount of money spent, given the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that money is the same as speech, but she said federal entities including the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission should be stricter about what qualifies as a nonprofit that does not have to disclose donors.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Campaign watchdogs say Arizona group's $11 million donation exploits loophole in California law

Quoted in this one in the Sac Bee. 

Here is an excerpt: 

In California's ever-expensive ballot wars, voters typically know who funds advertisements that hold great sway with the electorate.
But that may be changing.
An Arizona-based nonprofit named Americans for Responsible Leadership gave $11 million this week to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative and curb unions' political power without saying where a single dime originated.
Campaign watchdogs say such donations exploit a loophole in California campaign finance law. Nonprofits can shield donors as long as money was never earmarked, with the burden of proof falling on state regulators already deluged with work.
"It is vitally important information for the public," said Jessica Levinson, a professor atLoyola Law School who formerly worked at the watchdog group Center for Governmental Studies. "The identity of a speaker allows the public to evaluate the credibility of the claims that are made by using this money."

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/10/18/4920421/campaign-watchdogs-say-arizona.html#storylink=cpy

Monday, October 15, 2012

Does Bad Behavior Turn Off Voters?

Last week two debates between federal candidates made national news. The first was, of course, the Vice Presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. As I watched both the debate and my twitter feed a few things became clear. First, this was a much livelier debate than the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney. Second, we were going to spend a good deal of time talking about Biden's smiles, chuckles, tone, and other mannerisms.
This is another way of saying that we judge candidates on their appearances and affections all of the time. Many of us spent a good deal of time talking about the fact that in the first debate it looked like President Obama might want to be somewhere else. Substance matters, but appearance and style matter as well. But what happens when two candidates agree on most of the substance but have markedly different styles?
Well, that brings us to the second debate to capture national media coverage: the matchup between incumbent Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. This has been a nasty race from the beginning. The two Democrats from the San Fernando Valley were drawn into the same district, thanks at least in part to the fact that an independent redistricting commission drew legislative lines for the first time in the state's history. In addition, because of the new top-two electoral system, two candidates of the same party can faceoff in the general election as long as they received the greatest number of votes. The two also share many of the same political positions.
The public has become all too accustomed to politicians behaving badly. By which I mean they call each other names, stretch the truth, and figuratively sling mud at each other. But a funny thing happened at the debate between Berman and Sherman last week, that figurative slinging of mud almost turned literal. At one point Sherman put his arm around Berman and aggressively questioned, "You want to get into this?"
Berman and the public should say "no." We most definitely do not want to get into "this" if "this" means physical altercations between political candidates. Our system of government is set up to allow for a robust, and at time contentious debate about the issues. Physical altercations are, to be charitable, counterproductive and feed into the dislike and distrust of politicians. Schoolyard squabbles have no place in political campaigns.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Candidates must stay cool or face Brad Sherman-Howard Berman-style YouTube moment

Quoted in this piece re Berman v. Sherman.

Here is an excerpt:

Embarrassing video moments would seem to hurt mainly the candidates caught in them. But Jessica Levinson, an associate professor at Loyola Law School who studies election law, said such episodes can also reinforce voter disgust with politicians in general, making them a wash.
But the upside of the always-on media world is that there will surely be another scandal to feed the 24-hour news cycle. Election Day is 3 1/2weeks away -- an eternity in YouTube terms.

"Voters do to a certain extent have amnesia or the ability to look the other way," Levinson said.

By Election Day, she said, some voters might remember that there was some sort of scuffle between Sherman and Berman, but forget the details. But Berman could try to keep it in their minds by buying campaign ads, Levinson added.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Will Two Competing Tax Initiatives Spell Loss at the Ballot Box for Both?

As most Californians who follow politics know by now, there are two measures on the November 2012 ballot, which, if passed, will increase taxes to fund public education.
The first is Proposition 30, Governor Brown's tax measure. This ballot measure would temporarily increase the sales tax by a quarter of a cent and increase income taxes on those making above $250,000. The increased revenue would go to fund public education. Last year's budget was passed assuming that Prop 30 will pass. If Prop 30 does not pass, so-called trigger cuts to education will go into effect.
Brown tried a number of times, to no avail, to get the needed two-thirds of both legislative houses to agree to his tax proposal. Finding no success in the legislature he is going directly to the people through the ballot initiative process.
But Governor Brown was not the only one with an idea to increase taxes to fund education. Attorney Molly Munger, the daughter of uber-wealthy Charles Munger, the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, had a proposal of her own. Munger paid to gather the signatures to get Proposition 38, the competing tax measure, on the ballot. Prop 38 would raise income taxes on almost everyone in California and would also put the increased revenue toward public education.
There are a number of differences between the two measures, and I do not purport to give anything here but a very high level overview of the two proposals.
I believe there should be something disturbing about Proposition 38. Even if you whole-heartedly agree with the substance of that proposal, its route to the ballot is an uneasy one -- at least for me. Prop 38, like so many other ballot initiatives, was put on the ballot by someone elected by no one, and arguably accountable to no one.
If Munger's purpose is a broad one -- of increasing taxes to fund education -- it may have behooved her to put the tens of millions she is putting into supporting Prop 38 (and opposing Prop 30) into supporting Prop 30.
Voters now face what may be a confusing choice between two competing measures purporting to do a similar thing through similar means. It seems to me that this was a missed opportunity for two individuals with comparable goals to use a terribly imperfect process to achieve a common aim. Instead Munger tread her own path, and with it, risks losing not only her personal battle, but what seems to be from a general perspective, her larger war.

Blue Shield's union ties raise concerns about conflicts

Quoted in this piece in the Los Angeles Times. 

Here is an excerpt:

At a time when public-sector unions across the country are fighting to hold on to generous retirement and health benefits, one of the loudest voices standing up for their rights is Dave Low.

A longtime labor activist, Low carries considerable clout as executive director of the California School Employees Assn., a 215,000-member union that represents bus drivers, custodians and other school workers. He also leads a broader group of 1.5 million government employees, including firefighters, police and teachers, called Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security.
But Low had another job as well until recently. He was a consultant for Blue Shield of California, which has secured lucrative health insurance contracts that cover many of the same public workers that Low represents. His contract shows he was to be paid up to $125,000 a year for his work, which went from 2004 until Aug. 31.
Low isn't the only person with union ties pulling double duty for Blue Shield. One of the insurance company's senior executives also works as a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly 300,000 government workers statewide.
Experts say those close ties between Blue Shield and key labor unions may give the nonprofit company undue influence over multimillion-dollar insurance contracts for public employees. It's common in California for a joint panel of labor and management officials to pick the winning insurance bidders and set many of the terms.
"This raises red flags about conflicts of interest and self-dealing," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who studies public corruption. "It really starts to feel offensive when the public money at stake is so huge."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Details behind Yaroslavsky's 2004 Super Bowl tickets in dispute

Quoted in this piece in the Los Angeles Times. 

Here is an excerpt:

Good-government advocates say politicians should never use their office to land tickets and other perks unless there is a clear public benefit.
"Public officials are public servants, and they should be serving and representing their constituents, and not using their office to get perks like tickets to sporting events," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who studies public corruption.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

O.C. High School Students Find Balance in Politics & Money

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to hundreds of high school students for a "Constitution Day" event in Orange County. My topic was the influence of money on political campaigns.

I made a few observations, which may or may not give us some insight into future members of the California electorate.
Cynicism Abounds
First, my perception is that this was a smart, engaged group who were disillusioned by the influence of money in politics. Some students voiced their feelings that contributions and expenditures are a form of legalized bribery; most agreed that people give campaign contributions and make independent expenditures to get something in return from a candidate.
Second -- again with the caveat that this is just based on my perception of the conversation -- many of the students seemed to believe that candidates and elected officials are amenable to the needs and interests and campaign donors and those who make independent expenditures on a candidate's behalf. It was, seemingly, assumed that elected officials would be in some way indebted to those giving them large sums, or spending large sums on their behalf.
In sum, the students appeared to take it as a given that people give and candidates receive with the understanding that this money is part of a type of business deal. Money is given and spent, and a favor is expected and granted in return.
Money May Talk
While many of the students agreed that money caused problems in the political and electoral processes, many also agreed that money helps candidates reach voters. Students voiced concerns that if the use of money in campaigns was too severely limited it would silence the ability of donors, candidates, or independent spenders to disseminate their messages.
In essence the students hit upon the delicacy of the balance that must the struck when creating campaign finance regulations. On one hand, there are significant, compelling, and/or important governmental interests weighing in favor of restricting the use of money in political campaigns. On the other hand, money was and is still needed to help disseminate one's message.