Budget Journos Wooed With Surveys

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The endless news cycle, as every journalist knows these days, demands a steady stream of reporting... and California's fiscal crisis is no exception.

And those seeking to influence the debate know it, too, which is probably why Capitol reporters found a couple of tantalizing emails in the 'in' box this week -- promoting new analyses of topical issues, but ones where the details offer a murkier picture than the screaming clarity of their respective press releases.

The first one arrived on Wednesday, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent out a press release with the tantalizing headline, "U.S. Chamber Study Shows Economic Benefit of Streamlining California's Employment Regulations." Then on Friday, the email chimed with a press release entitled, "NEW POLL RESULTS: Voters Support Redevelopment."

(Note that these are not related in any way, other than their attempt to woo the press.)

It's important to note that there's merit in the worldview of each survey's supporters; a good amount of bipartisan support can be found in Sacramento these days for regulatory reform, as well as some kind of local program that honors the traditional tenets of redevelopment.

But neither survey is as definitive as the headline suggests, which begs the question: will journalists read the reports or, under deadline pressure, simply crib the conclusions?

Let's start with the report on California's regulatory morass. "If California was to improve its regulatory climate to the level discussed in the report," says the press release, "the effect would be equivalent to a one-time boost of 138,001 net new jobs. Moreover, the rate of new business formation would increase, resulting in the creation of 10,087 new firms each year."

Those are eye-catching numbers in a state where unemployment continues to outpace the nation and anecdotes abound about businesses suffocated by excessive regulation.

But dig into the U.S. Chamber's full 110 page report (PDF), and you find that the methodology relies on changes on which not everyone would agree.

The organization's report (which actually analyzes every state in the nation) is based on a subjective score for various California's employment regulations, and then uses a formula to come up with the number of jobs and businesses that would exist were it not for those regulations.

And what are those regulations? They include the state's higher-than-federally required minimum wage; state meal and rest break rules; more-than-federally required family leave rules; more-than-federally required employment discrimination laws; and laws about collective bargaining and at-will employment that are generally pro-union.

That's only a sample of the laws used to calculate California's poor score. While some of these may be less popular than others, suffice it to say that several have had broad, bipartisan support in the past. And while some or all of these would have to be zapped to boost California's score in the survey, the press release headline proclaims it's simply a matter of "streamlining state employee regulations."

On to the second (and unrelated to the above) email, a new poll proclaims wide support for California's 378 local redevelopment agencies (RDAs), which would be abolished under Governor Jerry Brown's budget plan. The poll was conducted by GOP pollster Adam Probolsky, who says the data wasn't gathered for any particular client, though he did send a list of his firm's clients that include a number of California cities -- ones where city leaders strongly oppose the governor's plan.

Probolsky's press release points out that 59% of those surveyed say RDAs are a good idea, and even more Californians like them when reminded of how some agencies clean up old military bases and "run-down neighborhoods."

Fair enough, but a close examination of each question in the poll (PDF) paints a somewhat more conflicted electorate, as well as questions more leading than those used by the state's public polling organizations.

For starters, the 59% number is a combo of those who said redevelopment agencies were either "very good" (23.4%) or "somewhat good" (35.6%) -- which might mean the support is lukewarm. Then there's the question itself:

California law allows cities and counties to form redevelopment agencies for the purpose of reinvesting in the local community. These agencies have the authority to use local property tax revenues to build roads, upgrade utilities and buildings in run‐down areas. In general, do you feel that redevelopment agencies are a good idea or a bad idea?

The question isn't wrong about RDA activities... but it's also not comprehensive, given that more aggressive -- and controversial -- uses by some RDAs of property tax dollars for economic development aren't discussed.

The poll later finds support for RDAs "attracting businesses to depressed areas," though the respondent isn't given any definition of the word "depressed." It also finds very little support for eliminating redevelopment agencies once the voter is told that "300,000 Californian jobs will disappear, including [NUMBER] from [NAME] County."

That estimate comes directly out of a survey commissioned by the California Redevelopment Association, but one that's been called into question by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

But perhaps the most conflicted part of the poll comes when the voter is told the following:

There are two proposals intended to use redevelopment agency funds to help balance the state budget. One proposal would eliminate redevelopment agencies entirely and redirects all of the local property tax dollars to help balance the state budget right now. Another proposal would allow redevelopment agencies to continue operating and redirect a portion of the local property tax dollars to help fund the state government for many years.

You probably won't be surprised to learn that given that outline, almost 64% of respondents support the second option. Trouble is, that's not an entirely accurate portrayal of the debate. The first option -- based on the governor's original plan (PDF) -- fails to point out that only the first year of his RDA elimination would transfer money to the state; in all subsequent years, those property tax dollars would go to local schools, cities, counties, and special districts... with most of the money going to schools.

The second option -- redirecting "a portion of the local property tax dollars" to the state -- seems to refer to the alternative floated by the mayors of the state's big cities. But that plan relies on a complicated long-term borrowing plan (securitization), one that both Brown and legislators have rejected as freeing up too little money in the near future and adding too much debt over the long run.

One final note about the poll: it also includes job approval numbers for Governor Brown. 43.6% of those surveyed approve of how he's doing his job, while only 18% of those polled disapprove... not exactly a stinging rebuke for the guy attempting to dismantle RDAs.

Again, none of this is to say that there's zero merit in these reports; quite the contrary, digging into the specific issues and questions reveals a complexity to some hot-button topics. The question, though, is whether enough of us in the press corps will do that.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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