Monthly Archives: May 2012

Focus Groups: Behind the Two-Way Glass

It’s a Wednesday evening at a non-descript office park in Concord, the largest city in Contra Costa County, about 30 miles east of San Francisco. Ten voters – all Democrats – are led into a meeting room and seated around a large conference table. A two-way mirror runs along one wall, behind it a room where we were allowed to watch. Only first names are used to encourage participants to speak freely.

Mark Baldassare of the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California leads the voters through a 2-hour, open-ended conversation about government – what they like and don’t like, what they want. A similar group of Republican voters will follow. Baldassare starts by asking each participant to complete a sentence: “I’m feeling _________ about the way things are going in the U.S. these days.” Both groups expressed frustration, and even fear for the future.

There’s plenty of bipartisan dissatisfaction – with politicians and government. Jeff, a 52-year-old manager for PG&E, spoke for many of the Republicans in his group: “The government oughta be working on balance the budget – but back everything across the board. And let all the departments deal with that as it may.”

Several Republicans, including Jeff, said they had little faith that politicians of either party would ever really cut spending or shrink government. Many Democrats also said they lacked faith in government. But for different reasons. Some felt elected officials were beholden to special interest groups and rich donors. Keely, a 48-year-old homemaker, wondered about waste.
 
“I will pay more taxes, but I want someone to open the books. Show me what’s going on. What happened to all this money?”
Continue reading

The Home Stretch to California’s Surpisingly Hot June Primary

United States Capitol

Tyche Hendricks/KQED

The June 5 primary may look drama free. After all… The presidential contest? Settled. The U.S. Senate race? Not too exciting.

But thanks to retirements, redistricting and California’s new top-two primary, the conventional wisdom about incumbents having safe seats is being turned on it’s head.

Host Scott Shafer moderated the conversation on Forum Friday, zooming in on several hotly-contested Congressional races and analyzing two political reforms that have completely re-shuffled the deck.

He’s joined by:

  • Carla Marinucci, political writer for The San Francisco Chronicle
  • Eric McGhee, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and author of “Open Primaries,” a report prepared for PPIC about the possible impacts of Proposition 14
  • Matt Rexroad, Yolo County supervisor, Republican political consultant and founding partner at Meridian Pacific
  • Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies

Take a listen:

Top-Two Primary Election: How’s That Work Again?

The "top-two" primary will be tested in a California state-wide election for the first time in June. Illustration: Getty Images

If you open your Sample Ballot for the June 5 primary election, you’ll find a big difference.

Take the race for the U.S. Senate: Instead of a roster of candidates for the one political party to with you belong, you’ll see all 24 candidates in a big long list (including 14 Republicans, 6 Democrats, 2 Peace and Freedom, 1 American Independent and 1 Libertarian). Even if you don’t have a party affiliation, you can now vote in the primary.

Pick your one choice from that long list. The two candidates who get the most votes will go to the general election in November.

KQED’s education blog, The Lowdown, explains it right here.

Once you understand how to vote using the new system, you may want to know more about how it’s going to change California politics. KQED’s Forum devoted an hour to the topic earlier this week. It was a lively — even heated — debate.

Former California Democratic legislator Steve Peace is the co-chairman of the California Independent Voter Project, which authored the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act. He thinks the new primary system is good for Democracy:

Bottom line is, open primary means competition. Competition means a healthier system…. Seventy-three percent of Californians say that partisanship is at the root of our problems. (Yet) we’re run by the other 27 percent.

But Jon Fleischman, a GOP strategist and publisher of FlashReport.org, a website on California politics, hates it:

As I watch the practical application of Proposition 14, the amount of money that it takes to compete now is just absolutely staggering and stunning. The effect of that is that I’m watching the special interests from Sacramento, whether it’s the labor unions on the Democrat side, whether it’s certain business PACs on the Republican side or certain major donors are now weighing in and coming into these districts and they’re going to cherry pick the candidates.

You can hear the entire show right here:

Forum: Prop. 28 Seeks to Reform Term Limits

The California Capitol building.

Opponents of Proposition 28 say that it will prevent fresh faces and ideas from coming into the capitol. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Proposition 28, an initative on the June 5 ballot, seeks to alter California’s term limits for legislators. Currently, legislators can serve a total of six years in the state Assembly and eight years in the state Senate — or two three-year terms and two four-year terms, respectively. Prop. 28 seeks to change that limit to 12 years in either the Senate or Assembly or a combination of both.

On Wednesday, KQED’s Forum discussed the pros and cons of Prop. 28. Guests included Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and Steven Baric, Chairman of the California Republican Party. Here are highlights from each guest:

Dan Schnur:

I would argue, as most proponents of the original term limits initative believe, that getting fresh perspective in Sacramento, getting a broader range of not just demographic but professional diversity, has been [a] benefit [but] it hasn’t magically fixed any problems. I would say for those that oppose term limits, for those who are deeply suspicious, you are entitled to vote against this initiative — certainly. But one of the greatest concerns I hear from opponents of term limits is the disruption in the lack of continuity and we think this 12 year fix addresses that problem.

Steve Baric:

Only 8 percent of legislatures since term limits have been inacted, have actually served their full tenure in both houses. I don’t think it’s really correct to say it’s going to reduce it from 14 years to 12. The studies have shown — that were done by US Term Limits — that it will actually increase the amount of time legislatures spend in Sacramento. And I think that’s the concern a lot of Californians have. Because, quite frankly, a lot of Californians don’t think the folks in Sacramento are doing a good job and shouldn’t be rewarded with additional time up in Sacramento.

Want more? Listen to the full show yourself — it lasts about 24 minutes:

San Jose Voters to Decide On Pension Reform Measure

by Peter Jon Shuler

Downtown San Jose (Helene Labriet-Gross/AFP/Getty Images)

Downtown San Jose (Helene Labriet-Gross/AFP/Getty Images)

San Jose voters will face Measure B (pdf) on June 5, a ballot initiative aimed at reining in the city’s pension costs. But although Measure B has become a divisive political issue, San Jose’s pension problems are not that unusual.

In December, a deeply divided City Council approved the controversial measure for the June ballot. It was a big win for Mayor Chuck Reed, who had been pushing it for months.

“This is an important step the council is taking,” Reed said after several hours of public testimony and debate. “To try to solve the cost of skyrocketing retirement benefits which have driven us to cut services year after year.”

The mayor points to the fact that the city’s pension costs have tripled in the last decade. And if left unchecked, the city’s pension plans would face billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

So what went wrong? Some of it can be blamed on the dot-com bust and the mortgage collapse cutting into the value of the retirement funds. The pensions were based on the assumption that funds would continue to rise, and so in hindsight they were underfunded. San Jose State political science professor Terry Christensen says it can also be traced back to attempts to compete with the private sector.

“Ten years ago, 15 years ago, public sector employers were worrying about how do we get cops and librarians? How do we hire staff?” says Christensen. “Well, one way is you offer good pay and benefits. And so we dug ourselves into this hole. It turns out to be a hole, but I guess it didn’t look like it 10 or 15 years ago. And of course San Jose is not the only city facing the problem.”

Cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles face the same quandary. San Diego has a measure before voters this election. And the state of California is in the midst of its own pension debate.

In San Jose, Measure B would require employees to make additional contributions to their plans — up to 16 percent of their pay — to help cover projected shortfalls.

The measure allows employees to avoid the extra fees by opting into a less generous plan with smaller payouts and later retirement ages.

Public workers say it’s unfair to expect them to the bear the brunt of a problem they didn’t create. And they say most retirement pensions are not luxurious. The average for San Jose is about $40,000 a year with a cost of living allowance of three percent.

Like many city employees, 48-year-old Jordan Ciprian is worried about the changes. Ciprian, a watershed protection manager, stops to talk just after work as he leaves city hall on his way to his car.

“How I planned for our retirement was based on the pension and when I first came here,” he says. “Roughly 12 years ago I moved from the biotech industry over to the city with a cut in lieu of the pension, kind of planning on that. So it would impact us pretty significantly.”

Ciprian lets out a deep sigh. Along with other city employees, he recently took a 10 percent pay cut. Measure B, he says, would just make that worse.

“I’d have to look for probably secondary employment, something like that,” he says. “As well as looking for a different job altogether, outside of the city, that would bring my income back to at least on par with what I used to have.”

Measure B would provide new employees with a stripped-down retirement plan, but leaves the details for the city council to decide later. Councilman Pete Constant, who supports the measure, notes that it would leave existing pension commitments intact.

“I think it’s very important that the employees and the residents of San Jose know one thing,” says Constant. “And that is every dollar that has been earned and accrued by our employees and our retirees is protected by Measure B. Measure B only makes changes prospectively in the future.”

Even opponents of Measure B agree the city needs to overhaul the terms of employee retirement benefits. But they say putting it on the ballot has turned the conversation over pension costs in San Jose into an ugly feud.

“We do need to work on pension reform and it has to be done now,” says Councilman Ash Kalra. “But it needs to be done in a way that is thoughtful and collaborative and that actually is legal. And instead we’re going forward in a way that’s divisive, destructive when the reality is the situation is not as dire as they’re making it out to seem.”

Kalra points to cases like San Francisco, where city officials and union leaders eventually sat down together to come up with a pension reform plan. But political scientist Christensen says that’s not likely to happen in San Jose’s current political environment.

“I think Mayor Reed and some of his allies would say San Francisco really kicked the can down the road with what they did, rather than really ultimately solving it,” says Christensen. “And Mayor Reed is pushing harder for a more substantial solution.”

The 11 San Jose public employee unions are already rallying their membership to help defeat Measure B. But union workers remain a minority in a city of a million people — many of whom saw their own retirement plans vanish years ago.

Election Road Trip: Inland Empire Voters Seek a Voice in Wake of Recession

Riverside Foreclosure Auction/Scott Shafer

Outside the courthouse in the city of Riverside housing speculators sit in lawn chairs — protected from the mid-day sun by little blue awnings — and place their bids in the daily home foreclosure auction.

The same scene plays out every week day in San Bernardino, Chino, Fontana and other Inland Empire cities. Behind each auction is someone who reached out for the American Dream but couldn’t hold on.

On a road trip to take the political pulse of this growing region, The California Report’s Scott Shafer talked with homeowners losing their grasp and investors scooping up properties at a discount — who say they are re-energizing the area’s economy and helping it recover from the crushing effects of the recession.

But it will take a long time for the Inland Empire to bounce back from the mortgage meltdown. The region boomed in the last decade, then suffered the second highest home foreclosure rate in the country. It still struggles with 13 percent unemployment, higher than the state average.

The recession has left many in the Inland Empire feeling politically irrelevant and overlooked, in spite of the fact that the region is home to 4 million people, larger than many states.

In his reporting, Shafer found people working to create a stronger political voice for the region. And this election year could be key.

Though the Inland Empire has long been a Republican stronghold, many of the new arrivals from coastal cities are more likely to be Democrats. That means that several congressional elections here are now hotly contested. And with both parties campaigning hard, the Inland Empire could get what it’s been craving: attention from politicians.

Listen to Shafer’s story:

 

Forum: Calif’s Top Two Primary System

California will test its top-two primary system, or open primary, for the first time in a statewide election this June. How does a top-two system work? Basically, everyone votes for one candidate from among all of the contenders, no matter what party, and the top two vote-getters move on to the Nov. ballot.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Wyatt Buchanan summarizes it nicely:
Elections officials liken it to an Olympic race in which the first heat determines who competes in the final, and the competitors in the final could be from the same country. That means some November races could be between candidates of the same party.

KQED’s Forum examined the issue Monday. The three guests all had very different takes on the method. Here’s an excerpt from each guest:

The bottom line is that open primary means competition. Competition means a healthier system. Hopefully, ultimately, both major political parties as well as the smaller parties will respond to that competition and we will see an environment in which the political parties themselves become healthier, stronger, more intellectually relevant and reconnect with a society that candidly has walked away from the party system.

  • Jon Fleischman, GOP strategist and publisher of FlashReport.org, a website on California politics:

What I’m seeing at the practical application is because of the expense of the system, people are more beholden to the special interests than they are to the political party… This measure peels back the influence of political parties — who steps into the vacuum? Our labor unions, big corporations with all of the money … now the only monied interest out there to help people are people who want something out of of government.

  •  Laura Wells, 2010 Green Party candidate for Governor of California
So the possibility is, because anybody can vote for anybody in June, that if everybody voted for their values in June, and basically Green Party values are California values — social justice, the environment, grass roots Democracy, nonviolence — then there’s a possibility that Greens could be in one of the top-two spots and then people would have a real choice in Nov. not just one corporate-funded party as opposed to the other corporate-funded party. Not just one rich, incumbent candidate running against one equally rich and well-funded candidate.

If your curiosity is piqued, listen to the entire show but note that the first five minutes are devoted to breaking news about the California budget.

In Inland Empire Economic Distress May Drive Voters

Each weekday at noon, on the front lawn of the Riverside Courthouse, hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands in the auction of homes recently foreclosed in Riverside County. Events like this one are held each day here — and in San Bernardino, Chino, Fontana and other Inland Empire cities hit hard by the housing bust.

Bidders, many working for housing speculators, sit in lawn chairs with little blue awnings to protect themselves from the brutal noon sun.

Behind each auction is a story. A person, a family. People who reached for the American dream, but couldn’t hold onto it.

As the auction continues, I ask one of the bidders — Long Beach realtor Jesus Quintaro — if he ever thinks about the former owners who lost the homes he’s bidding on. “I do think about it,” he says, “but a lot of them got a lot of money out of their homes. They refinanced. Some may be victims — but a lot of them made the choice to refinance, get money out, or get into a home they couldn’t afford in the first place.

Another bidder, John Chang from Orange County, sees complains that the media portray investors who buy up foreclosed homes as vultures. He says they’re making a contribution — putting people to work. Continue reading

First Up on KQED’s Election 2012 Road Trip: The Inland Empire

Scott Shafer reporting in the Inland Empire

The California Report’s Scott Shafer just returned from the first stop on a statewide “listening tour” to take the pulse of California voters this election year.

The November election is shaping up to be a referendum on government… “How much government do we want? And who’s going to pay for it?” So we’re framing our election coverage with the question “What’s Government For?”

In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Shafer heard some surprising answers, such as Republicans feeding the poor and asking government to do more. And he found that the region’s elected officials don’t yet reflect the changing political complexion of its current population.

In the presidential lounge at Riverside’s Mission Inn hang portraits of the presidents who have visited over the years. All but one are Republicans. And the Inland Empire has long been a bastion of the GOP. Four years ago, though, voters went for Barack Obama.

Shafer found that many of the new Democratic voters are transplants from coastal cities like Los Angeles. And many of them are Latinos. But low voter turnout prevents them from having the political clout they could. Shafer met some folks who are trying to change that.

Take a listen:

 

California’s Inland Empire

So what is the Inland Empire?

MAJOR CITIES: Riverside, San Bernardino, Fontana, Moreno Valley, Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario, Corona, Victorville, Murrietta, Temecula

POPULATION: 4.2 million (grew by almost one-third over past decade)

RACE and ETHNICITY: Latino 47%, White 37%, Black 7%, Asian American 6%

MAJOR INDUSTRIES: Warehousing/logistics, service sector, manufacturing, agriculture (once-booming construction and real estate/finance jobs dried up with the mortgage meltdown)

ECONOMIC INDICATORS: 13% unemployment, second highest home foreclosure rate in California, highest poverty rate in California for a metro area larger than 2 million people

 

 

State Worker Pay To Come Under Gov. Brown’s Budget Ax

Flickr/Clinton Steeds

As Gov. Jerry Brown prepares to release the “May revise” of his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, sources in his administration are letting it be known that the governor will be asking public employees to take a hit.

Tax revenues are $3.5 billion less than expected, further widening the budget gap, and Brown needs to find the money somewhere. Here’s more from Sacramento Bee reporter Jon Ortiz:

Officials representing Gov. Jerry Brown met with state employee union leaders last week and delivered the news: A budget revision he’ll release Monday includes a new proposal to cut payroll costs in the upcoming fiscal year.

The decision to take a bite out of state workers’ pay comes amid a deepening California budget deficit that Brown pegged in January at $9.2 billion through 2012-13 but now is thought to be considerably more.

The sources, who declined to talk on the record because the administration asked all involved to keep the budget discussions secret, said Brown’s representatives didn’t outline specific cuts. They said the governor wants to cut payroll costs by at least 5 percent, and asked union leaders to come up with ways to make the reductions.

Brown has the authority to lay off workers, but any other reductions – a pay cut or furloughs, for example – require bargaining or legislation.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/05/10/4479637/jerry-brown-tells-unions-state.html#storylink=cpy

 

For state employees, the news is a reminder of the furloughs and layoffs of the Schwarzenegger years.

For Republicans, it suggests a ploy to win favor for the governor’s tax increase measure moving toward the November ballot.

The details will be revealed Monday when Brown unveils his budget revision plan.