Monday, July 30, 2012

San Bernardino County Wants Oversight from Fair Political Practices Commission

The historically scandal-plagued county of San Bernardino has taken a step in the right direction. Its Board of Supervisors took the unprecedented step of asking the state's ethical watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), to enforce the its campaign finance rules. Last week Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill authorizing that setup.

While the county's plan is unique, so is its history of corruption. It was only last year when three former county employees, including former County Supervisor Bill Postmus, were indicted as part of an inquiry focusing on misappropriation of public funds and bribery.

The county's leaders have signaled their plan to enact campaign contribution limits of $3,900 per contributor. This is the same limit imposed on contributions to state legislators. The limit might be a bit high for county elections, but this plan is better than nothing. County officials will also have the opportunity to make changes down the road.
The FPPC's oversight will help to ensure that San Bernardino's contribution limits are more than symbolic. The history of campaign finance legislation teaches us that rules are evaded without proper enforcement.

While other cities and counties have their own ethics commissions, it seems to be that the FPPC is the right agency for the job in San Bernardino. It was created to, among other things, implement, administer, and enforce California's Political Reform Act. The agency is under strong leadership and they are thinking broadly and strategically about how best to promote civil engagement and the integrity of electoral and legislative processes.

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Campaign finance reform boosted by bill

Quoted in this piece in the Press Enterprise. 

San Bernardino County is poised to become the first local government in California to use the state’s political watchdog agency to monitor its campaign finances, a move officials hope will improve the county’s corruption-stained reputation.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday, July 24, signed legislation allowing the state Fair Political Practices Commission to sign a contract with the county to enforce campaign finance rules being developed by the county’s Board of Supervisors.
In April, the state commission unanimously voted to support the county’s proposal.
Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who suggested a contract with the commission, praised the bill signing.
“This legislation provides the county with an effective and affordable means of policing campaign contribution and spending rules,” she said in a press release. “Now the board can move forward with adopting campaign finance rules that limit campaign contributions and help thwart influence peddling by deep-pocket donors.”
Reached by phone, Rutherford said she hopes supervisors can approve the contract by the end of the year before campaign finance rules are expected to take effect.
Some California cities and counties have ethics commissions, including the city of Los Angeles. Riverside County does not have an ethics commission, nor do any of its cities.
San Bernardino County officials considered forming their own ethics panel. But Rutherford said, “There’s no need to form another layer of county government when there’s already a state agency that is more than capable of enforcing these rules.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said she can’t think of any other examples of the commission doing what it intends to do in San Bernardino County.
“It’s certainly a good idea,” she said. “I think it’s important to have those laws in place and for people to know they are in place and they’re being enforced … (The commission has) good people who are thinking broadly about these types of laws and what they’re intended to do.”
Using the state commission “helps us avoid the conflict of interest issues that come with ethics panels appointed by the elected officials they are trying to police,” she added.

Friday, July 27, 2012

State pays millions in fees for overdue bills

Quoted in this article in the Bay Citizen. 

If you've ever paid a bill or a traffic ticket after it was due, you are familiar with late payment fees.
It turns out the state of California is familiar with them, too.
The state paid more than $34.3 million in penalties for overdue bills from July 2004 through June 2011, according to new figures from California's Department of General Services, the state's business manager.
The state accrued more than a third of those late fees – more than $11.7 million – in the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to figures provided by the department.
Critics say the state has no excuse for failing to pay its bills on time.
“We shouldn’t really ever be doing this, but particularly when we are in a fiscal crisis, it’s especially problematic,” said Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “When you are using the taxpayers’ money, there is a responsibility to act with reasonable care. It is really inappropriate to be tardy in paying bills when it’s costing so much in late fees.”

Donating to Campaigns Via Text? Not This Year

Rachael Myrow hosts a great discussion with FPPC Chair Ann Ravel about giving campaign donations via text message.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Has the GOP Lost Its Power in California?

This weekend Adam Nagourney wrote a wonderful article in the New York Times in which he asked whether the Republican Party is in a state of decline in California.
Upon reading the headline I thought of my experience at a polling place in the Los Angeles area last month. When I was there I noticed something about the voting machines: The ratio of Democratic polling voting machines to Republican voting machines was quite high. While there were three machines for Democrats, there was one for Republicans, one for both members of the American Independent and Green parties, and another for both members of the Libertarian and the Peace and Freedom parties. The ratio makes some sense given party registration numbers.
Republicans account for approximately one in three registered voters, Democrats make up over forty percent of registered voters, and Decline to State Voters, such as myself, make up more than one in five registered voters. If registration patterns are any indication, registered Republicans could soon be the third largest group of the electorate, behind Democrats and voters listing no party preference.
Democrats hold all of the statewide offices in California. In addition, Democrats make up a majority of members of both legislative houses. The big question for November will be whether Democrats are able to pick up enough seats to number two-thirds of a legislative house. This is key because it takes two-thirds of both houses to increase taxes or fees, obtaining that threshold could make a big difference.
Nagourney points to the fact that on the national level Republicans are focused on social issues. Those conservative stances on social issues may not be the way to keep Republicans in California, or to stay independent voters.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Top-paid California legislative employees get pay raises

Quoted in this article in the Sacramento Bee. 

As California lawmakers slashed funding for social services and state workers this spring, some of the Legislature's top-paid staff saw the size of their own salaries grow.

Read more here:

Jessica Levinson, an associate professor at Loyola Law School, said that while the increases may be earned or overdue, the use of taxpayer dollars to pad already high salaries won't sit well with voters who are struggling to find a job or make ends meet.
"Voters feel like 'the money in my wallet is going into their wallets and they're making more than I am,' " Levinson said. "There's something about that that doesn't feel fair or good or even permissible in a fiscal crisis."

Read more here:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

California's 'Charter' Cities are Under the Microscope

Quoted in this article in the WSJ. The following is the beginning of the article:

"The last three large California cities to seek bankruptcy protection or announce they plan to had seen their housing values, tax revenue and employment crumble. They also have something else in common: They all are so-called charter cities.
Now another California city, Compton, says it may have to file for bankruptcy by September. It, too, is a charter city. Some say that's no coincidence.
Of the state's 482 cities, 121 have their own constitutions, or charters. That gives them more leeway in governing their affairs, including the freedom to set their own rules about elections, salaries and contracts."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Brinks Trucks in the Campaign

Here is another post by the terrific Ciara Torres-Spelliscy. 

One open question vexing voters in 2012 is how much corporate money is influencing the election.  The reason that this basic question is so hard to answer is the broken system we have for reporting money in politics.
Of course, some money in politics can be easily traced thanks to the yeoman’s work of organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics, which and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which runs FollowTheMoney. But these two groups are only as strong as the underlying disclosure laws.
The loopholes in these disclosure laws are big enough to accommodate an armored Brinks truck full of campaign cash. Just like a real Brinks truck, voters can’t see through the truck to tell exactly how much money is in play.
The problem, as I’ve written about at greater length here and here, is the use of two types of non-profits: 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s. Combined with the FEC’s inadequate reporting rules (some of which a court has already ruled violated the APA in the Van Hollen v. FEC case), 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s provide the perfect subterfuge for big corporate campaign spending. 
The long and the short of the way the tax law and the campaign finance regulations interacts boils down to this: if a corporation funnels its political dollars through a nonprofit, the public is none the wiser.
This sorry state of affairs is unnecessary. A functional FEC would have fixed this disclosure problem long before the 2012 election. Legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is intended to provide transparency of our elections process.
As I write this, there is a filibuster in the Senate on the DISCLOSE Act. Voters want a transparent election where who is trying to sway their vote is crystal clear. We hold our democracy out as the light of the world. Wouldn’t it be better if this were actually true instead of mere rhetoric? 

Ballot Initiative Season Has Begun, and it's Not Exactly a Good Thing

Ready, set, go. Ballot initiative season is officially upon us. The 11 (yes, 11) ballot initiatives that we will be voting on in November now have numbers, which means the fundraising race will kick into high gear. Expect many advertisements via your television, radio, mailbox, and likely your computer screen as well.
We are simply weighing in on too many decisions via a flawed process.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The ballot initiative process is riddled with problems. As it currently stands it does not provide citizens with a good process to make vitally important decisions about the laws that govern us.
The ballot initiative process asks voters to make crucially important decisions in isolation. Our government is too big and too complex to make decisions on a piecemeal basis.
In addition, it is entirely rational for each voter to vote in favor of more services and against revenue increases. The ballot initiative process does not require that voters weigh the consequence of their decisions. Further, voters are accountable only to themselves, not a group of constituents, so quite reasonably may make decisions for their benefit.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

The Supremes Say It's Okay to Steal Your Valor

Hello, my name is Jessica. I will be stealing your valor. Well, I may not actually pilfer your valor, but thanks to the Supreme Court, I can if I so chose.
Much, if not all of the recent news coverage of the Supreme Court has understandably focused on the Court's decision to uphold President Obama's landmark healthcare law. Reporters and commentators have largely failed to cover another decision that came out on the last day of the 2011-12 term.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court told us to say goodbye to the 2005 Stolen Valor Act. That Act made it a crime to falsely claim military awards or decorations. The Court ruled that the Act is unconstitutional because it contravenes the First Amendment. Thanks to the Supreme Court disreputable men everywhere will have to search for a new pickup line when barhopping by military bases.
This case began when a true lowlife, Xavier Alvarez, told people at a meeting of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in Los Angeles County that he was a Marine who received the Medal of Honor. Seemingly the only honor Alvarez received was being a member of the water district governing board.
Alvarez was prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act and eventually pleaded guilty to violating it.
How does one defend this law? The federal government was in the unenviable position of arguing to uphold the Act before the Court. The government essentially argued that statements barred by the Act (lies about receiving military medals and decorations) are false statements that have no value and do not deserve First Amendment protection.
The Court did not buy that argument. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, got it exactly right when he said the First Amendment "protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace." Echoing George Orwell's fears in the revolutionary and terrifying novel about totalitarianism, 1984, Kennedy mused that the allowing the government to prohibit speech because it is false would create a Ministry of Truth.
Kennedy's fears are well founded. The First Amendment protects not just what we want to say and hear, but also disgusting, despicable statements that we would rather people not say or hear. I am not terribly worried that the government will prohibit popular speech embraced by the majority of Americans. I am, however, concerned that the government will see fit to bar speech with which it disagrees, or which it simply finds to be vile and contemptible.
Members of the Supreme Court share that fear, and that is why they are suspicious of laws that infringe on speech rights. This distrust of government motives means that the Court applies a high level of scrutiny to most restrictions on speech. Restrictions made on the basis of the content of speech, like the Stolen Valor Act, are presumed invalid.

That is as it should be. Living in a country that prizes the protection of speech, often regardless of how abhorrent that speech is, is not for the faint of heart. Our legal tradition all but ensures that people can say, and may have to listen to, speech which offends us to our core. Difficult as this may be, it is no doubt preferable to living in a country that tells us what can and cannot be said and heard.

The purpose of the Stolen Valor Act is to guard against the devaluation of military honors. While that purpose is undoubtedly a noble one, the solution is not to bar false speech about military medals and decorations. Rather the solution is to foster a free marketplace of ideas, which allows all of us to call people like Alvarez liars and to have an open and robust exchange about military honors. Laws against libel and fraud do tell us that not all lies are created equal, and some may actually harm our ability to have an open and robust debate.

But Alvarez's lie was quickly and easily verifiable and has led to widespread condemnation. It is far better for private citizens to use their own speech rights to hold individuals accountable than it is for the government to prevent people, even those like Alvarez, from speaking.

Luckily the Court agreed. The four members of the so-called liberal wing of the Court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, joined Kennedy's opinion. Kennedy also persuaded Chief Justice John Roberts who, despite his decision in the health care case, is nobody's liberal. Three members of the Court's conservative faction, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, dissented.

But despite the fact that the Court gathered more than a bare majority to invalidate the law, advocates of the now-overturned law need not despair. Breyer, joined by Kagan, concurred with the result, but wrote a separate opinion signaling that Congress could write a more narrow law that focuses on specific harms that result from lies about military medals and honors.

Finish reading this post on the Huffington Post here

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Angelenos: Be Careful Where You Park

This week the Los Angeles City Council voted to increase the penalty imposed by parking tickets.
The move is yet another sign of the times, by which I mean that Los Angeles is in a fiscal mess: an almost $240 million budget shortfall. We spend more than we bring in; what is a city to do?
In the case of Los Angeles, we are putting an increased burden on those of us who either park in the wrong place or stay too long in the same place. The latest fine increase is the sixth of its kind in the last seven years.
How much money will these increased fines bring in? Estimates put the number at over $8 million. That money will be put in the city's general fund, which pays for basic services like firefighters and police officers.
Most of my fellow Angelenos are familiar with that panic-inducing moment when one realizes that their meter runs out in three minutes, but they are at least a seven-minute walk away. If you don't somehow figure out how to cut your time in half and race back to your car, that parking spot is about to get more expensive. Another less than fun experience is realizing that it is in fact Tuesday, street cleaning day, where you have just parked.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

With Text-to-Donate Now in Play, Younger Voters May Have a Bigger Voice

California last year became the first state to permit campaign contributions via text message, a move that was followed up by the Federal Election Commission in June, setting the stage for text-to-donate in national elections.

But the question is why. The purpose behind new policy is to allow more people to participate in the electoral and political processes. The idea is text message contributions will make it quicker and easier for small dollar contributors to give. In addition, the belief is that it will be the younger members of the electorate, who do not typically give campaign donations, who will disproportionately take advantage of these new rules.

These are real and important goals. Younger members of the electorate do not vote nearly as much as older members. Perhaps if they buy in, both literally and figuratively, to the electoral process they will feel compelled to make their voices heard at the ballot box in greater numbers.

In addition, bringing in new contributors by allowing contributions by text message could change the tone and substance of the debate. If candidates feel that young people and/or small contributors are engaged in the process, they could hear more from, and hence be more responsive to, the concerns of more segments of the electorate.

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This is a Terrible Way to Make Laws

As readers know, an epic ballot initiative battle is brewing. On one side of the ring we have the Chief Executive Officer of the most populous state in the nation, Governor Jerry Brown. On the other side we have a Pasadena-based, Harvard-educated attorney and daughter of billionaire Charles Munger, Molly Munger. Both are supporting ballot initiatives that would raise taxes.

Their proposals are different, but their overall goal of raising revenue is the same, and many fear that with two proposals on the ballot it is more likely that both measures will fail. Others worry that voters could be confused by the differences and/or similarities between the measures.

Thus Munger has been under enormous pressure to drop her proposal, something she has not done. In fact, she is now suing because of the placement that Brown's proposal is slated to get on the November 2012 ballot.

Brown recently signed a bill that means constitutional amendments, like his proposal, will be listed near the top of the ballot, pushing Munger's, a statute, down to a less desirable location.

The takeaway here should go beyond the seemingly endless struggle between Brown and Munger. The point is that as a state we should truly take another hard look at the ballot initiative process. Can this really be the best way to make laws?

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