Thursday, June 28, 2012

Will Los Angeles Follow Stockton's Lead of Bankruptcy?

The City of Stockton, the now-infamous port city located in Northern California, is declaring bankruptcy. It is the largest U.S. City to take the drastic step of declaring bankruptcy. Stockton is facing a $26 million budget deficit, it has stopped making bond payments, and employee pay, and health and insurance benefits, have been cut significantly.
Is Los Angeles next? There is no doubt that it is in bad shape financially -- and I mean really bad shape. But for a number of reasons I do not think Los Angeles will go the way of Stockton. Its leaders, hopefully, still have a few more tricks up their sleeves. The key here will be to look at other available options.
The situation in Stockton is unique for a few reasons. First, Stockton was among those cities leading the country in foreclosures. Indeed it has the second highest rate in the country. Too many people bought houses they can no longer afford. When houses are foreclosed banks lose money and the government loses property tax revenue. That is and was a huge issue in Stockton. Second, Stockton gave public employees salaries and benefits that the city, in hindsight, simply could not afford.
Here, Los Angeles' chief administrative officer, Miguel Santana, is pushing hard for both higher taxes and lower spending. Los Angeles is and should consider adjusting the retirement age for new city employees. We are also exploring the option of outsourcing or partnering with non-profits to help run the zoo and other city-run properties.

The Supreme Court Upholds the Health Care Law

Coverage the Supreme Court's decision re the ACA on Click here for a short piece by Lyle Denniston.

And here is some more coverage:

Click here for a piece from John Cushman of the NYT. And here for a piece by Josh Levs at CNN. And here for a piece by Anna Wilde Matthews of the WSJ.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Campaign Donations via Text Message?

I appeared on the California Report with host Rachael Myrow to discuss.

Here is the link.

And here is a link to a great OpEd co-written by the Chair of California's Fair Political Practices Commission, who led the charge for allowing donations via text message.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Will Tree Trimming Make the L.A.'s Budget Problems Real?

This week much of the news coming out of City Hall deals with the newly-adopted City Council redistricting maps and whether to provide free wireless access at the Los Angeles International Airport. Instead of addressing those topics I will instead address something that may be of deeper concern: tree trimming.

Over the past few years I have wondered how many people living in our city or our state directly feel the consequences of the Los Angeles' financial crisis. Unless one works for the city or regularly uses city services, is L.A.'s financial distress only felt indirectly?

This week brings news that a city service we may all need at some point could be threatened by budget woes. Please take a moment to look out of your window and onto the street. Are the trees trimmed? The answer is "no" in a number of areas because the city's tree trimming schedule has been delayed.

Now what exactly does trimming trees have to do with how people are impacted by the city's financial crisis? Apparently some of the trees are so overgrown that it will be difficult or impossible for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to drive down streets and respond to emergency calls. This is scary stuff.

How often are the trees trimmed? According to the the Daily News, every 40 years. Yes, that's right, every four decades. We used to cut the trees every 15 years, but that's apparently no longer possible in our current fiscal mess. The Street Tree and Park Maintenance budget was cut more than $1 million this year, from approximately $9.6 million to about $8.5 million.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Citizens United gives free speech a high price

My first piece on Politico is here.

Here is an excerpt:

As election 2012 progresses, there’s continuing hubbub about the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for super PACs. Proponents of campaign-finance laws see the ruling as opening the floodgates for unlimited, often undisclosed, money to overwhelm our political system. Opponents view it as a victory of free speech over government regulation.

Where does the truth lie? While super PACs may be “speaking” up a storm, it’s now difficult to hear anyone else. That can’t be good in a representative democracy, which has long prided itself on protecting free speech.

A quick tour through the campaign-finance law landscape demonstrates there is much to be concerned about — unless you’re a wealthy donor or well-funded corporation.

It begins with the Supreme Court’s seminal 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. The court analyzed the constitutionality of Congress’s first comprehensive campaign-finance scheme, passed in the wake of Watergate. It essentially found that money spent in elections ? both by candidates and independent groups ? should be treated as speech and protected by the First Amendment. So expenditure limits are virtually guaranteed to be found invalid. But campaign contributions are less “speechy” and so subject to a slightly lower level of review. That’s why courts often uphold contribution limits.


Monday, June 18, 2012

State Lawmakers Passed a Budget, but Where are the Republicans?

Much of the news coming out of Sacramento concerns the Legislature's passage of a budget by the constitutional deadline -- June 15 -- last week. In the past the Legislature has blown right past that constitutional deadline. What is different?

Back in 2010 California voters approved Proposition 25, which lowered the requirement for lawmakers to pass a budget from two-thirds of members of the State Senate and State Assembly to a simple majority of both legislative houses. Proposition 25 also sweetened the deal for voters by providing that legislators would lose their pay if they "didn't do their jobs" and failed to pass a budget by June 15.

The consequence of Prop 25 is that Democrats can pass a budget without needing even one Republican vote. But what does this budget look like?

Well, only a simple majority is needed to impose spending cuts, but in order to impose revenue increases, either by increasing fees or taxes, two-thirds of both legislative houses must agree. That means Republicans must get on board in order to either raise revenue, or put a measure on the ballot asking voters whether they will agree to raise revenue. In what may be the understatement of the decade, it is safe to say that members of the GOP are averse to raising either fees or taxes.

Last year Governor Jerry Brown involved Republicans in budget talks because he wanted them to agree to put his tax proposals on the ballot. These efforts were unsuccessful, and Brown instead used the initiative process to gather enough signatures to put his proposals on the November 2012 ballot. This year Republicans seemed to play a much smaller role in the budget process.

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What's the big deal about Citizens United?

My OpEd appears in today's Capitol Morning Report.

The US Supreme Court's much-maligned decision in Citizens United has been described as a "watershed," "landmark," or "revolutionary" case. Few have asked whether it made much difference.

Citizens United, handed down in 2010, invalidated a portion of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as McCain-Feingold), which prohibited corporations and labor unions from spending general treasury funds on communications advocating the election or defeat of specific candidates.

The Court based its decision on two main conclusions. First, corporations must be treated as akin to individuals, at least in the campaign finance context. Second, the Court found that campaign expenditures by independent groups -those not coordinated with a candidate- are not corrupting. (In a 1974 decision, the Court found that corruption or the "appearance of corruption" justified placing limits on contributions made directly to candidates.)

As a result of the second provision, a circuit court and the Federal Election Commission later found that contributions to independent expenditure groups could not be limited either. If spending by independent groups cannot give rise to corruption then there is no compelling reason to limit donations to them. Thus, we now have so-called Super PACs. These are independent expenditure only committees that can raise and spend unlimited sums.

Sounds like a pretty big deal, right? Well, yes and no. The Court's decision in Citizens United did not change the law in California. Thanks to Prop 34, approved by voters in 2000, California's non-federal political campaigns have been under a Citizens United-like regime for a dozen years. Indeed, the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United essentially means that the rules covering independent expenditures in California are in place across the nation and in federal elections within the state itself.

Nonetheless, I would argue that Citizens United represents an important psychological shift. The handcuffs are off. Corporations and labor unions no longer need to disguise their advertisements as anything other than pleas to get voters to vote for or against a candidate. Any concerns that corporations or labor unions may have had about whether it was legal to make certain expenditures have likely evaporated. We live in a new environment with very few limits on corporations and independent expenditure groups.

As a result of Citizens United and other factors, more money will be spent on California political campaigns. While full and accessible disclosure is important, it is not a solution to a system flooded by money. Money buys access and influence, whether or not it is disclosed. To think that candidates will not be grateful, and give more access to those who spend large sums on their behalf (even when those sums are not coordinated with the candidate's campaign) is to ignore common sense.

But California is a unique place for many reasons. Therefore I caution against using California as a bellwether for how Citizens United will affect elections throughout the nation. For instance, in California we have the initiative process. This process, designed to reduce the influence of special interests in our lawmaking process has ironically done just the opposite. What one needs to get a measure qualified for the ballot is money (to pay signature gatherers) and what one needs to try to defeat a proposed initiative is money (to pay for negative advertising). This is, in many cases, a process dominated by money. It is also an experience which is not affected by Citizens United.

It is also important to remember that campaigns in California are getting more expensive for reasons unrelated to Citizens United. First, we have a new open primary, top two election law. This law means that every candidate will attempt to appeal to every voter in the primary election, as opposed to just vying for the votes of members of that candidate's party. Reaching the entire electorate is expensive. This law also means that the general election between the top two vote getters could be a real, competitive fight. In the past the "real" race often happened in the primary election, and the general election was somewhat inconsequential, and therefore inexpensive.

Second, we now have newly drawn districts. In the past, sitting legislators, who drew lines to keep themselves in power and ensure that they were safely re-elected, drew legislative districts. This time around an independent redistricting commission drew the lines. These lines could lead to more competitive races, which means more money will be spent in these races.

In sum it is difficult to extrapolate much from California's experience pre-Citizens United. It is, however, easy to see that more money will be spent in California and throughout the nation thanks to that decision.

What's the big deal about Citizens United?

I ask and attempt to answer this question in today's Capitol Morning Report.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

L.A. City Districts Poised to Change, but Not Without Some Drama

This week the Los Angeles City Council preliminarily approved new lines for city council districts. So we're almost done drawing new districts, right? Not so fast.

What is redistricting? Every ten years we count how many people live in the country, the states, and local jurisdictions. Then we draw new district lines for each of those areas. However, who the "we" is matters greatly. If the "we" is sitting legislators drawing their own district lines, then those boundaries may likely look quite different than if the "we" is an independent commission. Legislators will quite rationally draw lines that consolidate their power bases and help their changes at re-election. Independent commission members will -- hopefully -- draw lines that, among other things, best represent communities of interest.

In Los Angeles a redistricting commission draws the boundary lines. However, the commission is not exactly independent. Council members appoint those commission members.

There are 15 city council districts in the city of Los Angeles. The council voted 12-2 to approve the new districts. Jan Perry and Bernard Parks, neither of whom benefit from the new lines, opposed the new map. Put another way, Perry and Parks' districts were all-but-gutted.

There will be another vote next week. Then the plan will need Mayor Villaraigosa's approval. Assuming the lines are eventually approved the next stop on the redistricting train will likely be lawsuit center. In addition to Perry and Parks, who are unhappy with the district lines, Koreatown community activists have threatened to sue over the new maps.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Lessons of the June 5, 2012 Primary Election

Last week Californians voted in primary elections for the president, federal and state representatives, judges, and proposed ballot initiatives. Actually, let me rephrase that: Last week a small percentage of eligible voters in California weighed in on various ballot questions. About one-in-four people who could vote, did vote, which may, in fact, be the lowest in recent history for a presidential primary.

Californians, or the few of us who mailed in ballots and went to the polls, were faced with two proposed ballot initiatives. First up, Proposition 28, the successful proposal to tinker with the state's term limit laws. Now, instead of being able to serve 6 years in the state assembly and 8 years in the state senate, for a total of 14 years of service, our state lawmakers can serve for a total of 12 years in either or both houses.

Does that sound like a relatively minor change? Well, it is. It will be hard to determine whether voters approved of Prop 28 because they thought they were shortening the amount of time lawmakers could serve as state representatives, or because they thought they were giving lawmakers more flexibility. In any event, this is not the type of large-scale reform that California needs.

While we may not know why voters approved of Prop 28, we do know that it faced little opposition. Few ads were taken out to opposed it. Negative advertising matters, particularly with respect to ballot initiatives.
That brings us to Proposition 29, which may be this cycle's poster child for showing why negative advertising matters. Prop 29 looks likely to fail. That proposal would have imposed a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes and used the revenues for cancer research. There was a great deal of advertising against Prop 29. Unsurprisingly, tobacco companies were willing to shell out great sums to defeat the measure.

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California Courts Are Cash-Strapped But Owed $7.5 billion?

I'll be on Patt Morrison today at 2pm to discuss.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

D.A. Race Close as More than 115,000 L.A. County Votes Remain Uncounted

Quoted in this article on

KCET political commentator Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School said results do tend to hold after semi-official numbers are announced. She did, however, note that vote-by-mail voters are traditionally older and conservative, which could bode well for Jackson, a Republican.

Trutanich, who has already announced a reelection bid for city attorney, raised the most money and earned a number of noteworthy endorsements.

Meeting Jackie Lacey and Musings On the American Dream

The day after the California primaries I happened upon Jackie Lacey. When I say, "happened upon," I mean it. I walked into a building where I had other business to attend to and saw the open door to the press conference. There was Chief Deputy District Attorney Lacey, fresh off her primary election victory, heading into the runoff election against Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson.

Lacey was articulate at the press conference and kind during our brief meeting. But this post is not about Lacey or her candidacy. Rather it is about something she said in the press conference. Lacey pointed out that what separates blue-collar workers and the second-in-command at the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation is one generation. I have heard other people, in other places, make similar comments. Many of us have, I'm sure, have heard analogous stories. What those comments essentially boil down to is this: My parents (or grandparents) did not have the opportunities that I did -- I received an education, I achieved a certain position in my career. The implication being that catapulting up the socioeconomic ladder is possible here (and for our purposes today, "here" is Los Angeles).

But will these stories become fewer and further between? Is this narrative, in other words, soon to be a historical account?

We -- voters, citizens, Americans -- are told the story of the American Dream, which gives us hope, that if we obtain an education and work hard, we can have a better life than our parents and/or grandparents. But because of the problems currently facing our city (and indeed our state and our country), current and future generations may no longer be able to realistically think they can "do better."

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Changes in campaign finance laws likely mean fewer indictments in the future

Quoted in this article by Martha Bellisle.

Here is an excerpt:

Super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates but can give unlimited amounts to candidates as long as they don’t “coordinate with the candidate,” said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Citizens Redistricting Commission Defunded, Will Cease Operations

Quoted in this article on

"We should make sure this isn't because the commission is politically unpopular," said Jessica Levinson, a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School and KCET political columnist. "My guess and hope is that something is worked out... so there is some very, very bare bones ability to operate."

Monday, June 4, 2012

Happy (Almost) Election Day, California

Money may have an outsized influence over our political system and campaign spending may (consciously or not) sway legislative votes so it increasingly seems we have little power over that phenomenon. But we do have the power over our own votes.

We, the voters, just like they, the lawmakers, are inundated with campaign spending each election cycle. We hear radio spots, we see television commercials, we acknowledge online advertisements, we get slate mailers, and we may also get emails. But it is up to all of us to determine how much weight to give each of these.

Campaign spending undoubtedly skews the debate and the information that is readily available. Heavy campaign spending often means we, the voters, must spend more of our most precious resources -- time and energy -- to get useful information about candidates and ballot measures. The burden to educate ourselves in the face of substantial campaign spending is real. But the alternative is far worse than that burden.

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

California's new 'jungle' primary could be tough for GOP candidates

I am quoted in this story on

Residents voted in favor of the jungle primary in a 2010 referendum known as Proposition 14.

It was intended to get more moderate candidates elected to foster compromise and “to end  nasty, partisan wrangling and gridlock in Sacramento and Washington,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“But whether California's jungle primary will achieve its stated purpose remains to be seen,” she said. “In particular, it is difficult to predict because of the recent redistricting process.”
Levinson says her “strong guess” is more moderate candidates will emerge as winners, but as a result of the new district lines and a shift in demographics “I think we are likely to see more Democratic lawmakers.”