Citizens Weigh in on California's Future

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What's Next California

What's Next California

Three hundred Californians got a crash course this past weekend on California governance, then made their voices heard about what direction they think the state should be headed. They were part of a deliberative poll called "What's Next California?" convened by a collection of non-partisan government reform groups and steered by Stanford University Professor Jim Fishkin.

The deliberative poll -- a three day gathering -- brought together citizens from across California. The came from Bakersfield and Berkeley, Redding and Riverside, and spent the weekend in a Torrance hotel. As they gathered Friday, Irene Salazar of Fresno reflected: "The government doesn't know everything that the citizens go through... they don't understand our lives, so it would be better if it involved us."

KQED's Cy Musiker chatted with one of the organizers, Zabrae Valentine of California Forward, on the first day of the event. Valentine called the poll a "deep discussion" on four issues: tax and fiscal reform, the intitiative process, the way the legislature represents voters, and the way programs and services are delivered with an emphasis on local accountability.

"We've got some serious problems that are affecting pretty much everyone's quality of life," she said. "There are very few opportunities for voters to have deeper discussions and arrive at informed opinions about where the state should go."

Participants were selected as representatives of a random cross-section of Californians. And they seemed excited to have been asked to participate. Katie Loving of Costa Mesa in Orange County said she was inspired by the gathering to become more involved in government at the state and local level. "It's an awesome thing we're doing this weekend," she said. "It really is a motivational factor for me."


300 Californians. One Deliberative Poll. One What?

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People in Conversation

Flickr: Chad Griffin

They'll be meeting in a hotel ballroom in Torrance all weekend... 300 Californians who represent a scientific, random sample of the people of this state. The event, called "What's Next California?" is billed as our first-ever statewide deliberative poll.

What the heck is a deliberative poll? You'd better ask James Fishkin, the head of Stanford University's Center on Deliberative Democracy.

It's essentially a new, in-depth kind of public opinion polling, according to Fishkin, where participants actually take time to learn about the issues, rather than shooting answers from the hip.

Here's a quick glimpse at a deliberative poll that took place in Michigan last year, where citizens tackled tough questions about tough economic times.

You can listen in on those Michigan citizens in more depth here in a PBS broadcast.

The California poll will tackle questions about how we might overhaul the way we govern ourselves in this state. The 300 citizens will be learning and talking about:
- legislative representation
- the initiative process
- state and local government restructuring
- taxation and fiscal policy.

Woohoo! I can hear you saying. Sounds like a rip-roaring time in Torrance!

Okay, yes, it's wonky stuff. But California governance could sure use some help. And if you spend a few minutes listening to the Michiganders in the PBS video, you might find it's pretty interesting. You're going to have people from vastly different backgrounds, with wildly divergent political views sitting down together in small groups actually listening to each other.

Here's Fishkin's preview of what it's all about. Even if you're not in Torrance, you can read up on the issues the participants will learn about and follow their agenda through the weekend on the "What's Next California?" website.

And stay tuned on this site for details of what transpires over the weekend.

The deliberative poll was organized by an assortment of non-partisan government reform groups: California Forward, the New America Foundation in California, the Public Policy Institute of California, the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, California Common Cause, the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University and the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University.  It is being coordinated by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions' By the People Project.


Those Little Pots of Money

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Santa Catalina School kids jumproping

Santa Catalina School

California's school funding system is bewilderingly complex, even for educators and policy makers. And decisions affecting the state's 6 million students are mostly made in Sacramento. But that could be changing, as The California Report's education reporter Ana Tintocalis reports Thursday.

School finance has been shaped by four decades of piecemeal policy changes, including court mandates (including the Serrano and Williams decisions) and voter initiatives (such as Proposition 13 and Proposition 98).

It is also constrained by numerous pots of "categorical" funding which school districts must spend on efforts mandated by the state, including student assessment and child nutrition, class size reduction and foster youth programs.

Traditionally, those little pots of money have accounted for about a third of the dollars that flow to California's roughly 1,000 school districts. Two years ago, grappling with a crippling budget shortfall, the legislature cut the cash in those pots by about 20 percent but gave school districts much more freedom (at least for a few years) in how they spend the money in about 40 pots. Still, roughly $10 billion of state money remains in about 20 required funding pots.

That's emblematic of a school funding system that remains driven by the state, rather than local communities, as education reporter Ana Tintocalis explained on Wednesday.

At an education budget summit at UCLA called by Gov.-elect Jerry Brown in December, one school superintendent after another stood up and applauded policy makers for giving districts more control over how they spend their money. Facing a budget crisis, they want more money to work with. But they also asked for even more flexibility.

Those state-mandated programs may be well intentioned. But critics say they aren't in tune with the unique needs of students in individual districts. And they say the programs often don't improve academic achievement.

Now a little-known school district may be paving a new path. The Twin Rivers Unified School District near Sacramento is part of a pilot project that allows parents, teachers and principals at individual schools to have much more control over how they spend the state dollars.

And, as Tintocalis describes, that model could go statewide under a bill authored by Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley. The bill, AB 18, would streamline school funding, reducing the number of special pots and giving districts much greater control over how their budgets.

That's a step toward the overhaul of California school funding that a group of high-powered education experts recommended a few years ago. If the school funding system is made simpler, parents and community members might actually become more engaged. And if that happens -- who knows? -- our kids might as well.


Keep Schools Solvent With a Tax on Oil Drilling?

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School Crosswalk

Flickr: Kt Ann

Almost 15 percent of California school districts are in critical financial jeopardy, California's state schools superintendent Tom Torlakson announced this week. That's 143 districts that may not be able to pay their bills in the coming months. The school funding crisis has led to swelling classrooms, shorter school years, program cuts,  and layoffs of teachers, librarians and counselors. And California lags behind the nation in per pupil spending.

How did we get into this mess? The lack of cash is partly due to the recession, of course. But as The California Report's Ana Tintocalis reports Wednesday, the problem is built into the structure we use to fund schools. And it has led to a push for new taxes for education, including a long-sought tax on oil drilled up in California.

(Timeline produced by Adam Susaneck, KQED.)

For the past thirty years, school districts have received the bulk of their funding from state coffers, rather than local property taxes. Schools are guaranteed roughly 40 percent of the state's general fund revenue. But the state money comes largely from income tax, which is much more volatile. So as the economy goes up and down, so does education funding.

Statewide, education suffered roughly $18 billion in cuts over the past three belt-tightening years. And the legislature has deferred paying schools several billion dollars it owes under Proposition 98's minimum funding guarantee. While Gov. Jerry Brown left school funding mostly intact in his 2011-12 budget proposal, it could get slashed further if new revenue isn't forthcoming

That all makes it tough for school districts to plan. And it has prompted education advocates to propose a laundry list of new tax ideas. A number of school districts have managed to pass parcel taxes. A Democratic state senator suggests making it easier for school districts to raise local taxes. The state teacher's association wants higher taxes on the highest incomes. And a community college professor is gathering signatures for an oil severance tax.

It's not clear which of these strategies might make education funding less volatile. But any of them could bring in more cash.

Of course many Californians think they're already taxed plenty. Republican State Senator Bob Huff, who chairs the senate budget committee, says taxes are not the answer. Schools have plenty of money, he told Tintocalis; they just need to spend it more wisely. 

Oil extraction tax proposals have surfaced numerous times over the past couple of decades. California is the only state that doesn't tax oil companies for taking this natural resource out of the ground. In this interactive timeline, we examine the Quixotic history of efforts to pass an oil severance tax. None have succeeded so far. Will this year's plan fare better?

In 2008 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said we should use an oil severance tax to balance the budget. In 2006, environmentalists wanted the money to go to green energy research. A 1991 plan would have substituted it for an unpopular "snack tax." And way back in 1980, Gov. Jerry Brown was pushing an oil tax to fund public transit.

This year Cypress College political science professor Peter Mathews has launched a petition drive to get a 15 percent oil severance tax on the ballot. The proceeds could pump $3 billion a year into California's public schools and colleges. Mathews shoe-string operation doesn't have big backers so far to underwrite the effort to gather more than 500,000 signatures by the end of September. But Californians may be sufficiently alarmed about the school funding crisis this year to boost the measure's chances.


California's First Ever Budget Veto: A Game Changer?

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Fred Silva speaks at SPUR June 16, 2011Fred Silva spent four decades in Sacramento working on state finance and government. So he knows what he's talking about when he says Gov. Brown's veto of the state budget (the first in the history of California, Silva said) broke away from years of business-as-usual.

And despite the grim economy and the apparent gridlock in the state legislature, Silva was surprisingly upbeat during a lunchtime talk he gave at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association: "I was quite optimistic when I saw the YouTube video where the governor vetoed the budget."

Why so enthusiastic? In a sit-down interview with Governing California, Silva shared his perspective:

Governors have tended to acquiesce to an old political axiom in public budgeting which says, "You get what you got in the prior year.... And if we don’t have enough resources to fund our obligations, we’ll simply borrow money to do it." Our prior governors, on a bipartisan basis, would do that.

This is the  10th year where we’ve been unable to bring fiscal balance. It’s our 10th anniversary, if you will. And here’s a governor who’s said "I'm not going to do that any more.".... We’ve spent this 10-year period just kicking the can down the road and not really facing our underlying fiscal problems.

Silva and the non-partisan government reform group he advises, California Forward, have been pushing for just the kind of change Jerry Brown is after: moving power (and tax dollars) back down to the local level where they used to be 30 years ago.

The governor didn’t simply say, let’s simply raise taxes and be done with it. What he suggested was, "Bring more resources in and put those resources at the community level where they can actually make a difference." So he's talked about realigning responsibilities at the same time. You have to do one with the other.

Okay, Mr.Silva, great concept. But the governor didn't get the Republican votes to he needed for tax extensions. Brown rejected the borrowing and the one-time fixes the Democrats just offered. And they've passed some pretty hefty cuts already. So where does that leave us?

It leaves the governor and the legislature in a decidedly awkward moment, where the legislature can’t say "We did our job; we’re finished." The governor has said, "No you haven't done your job." So the next two weeks will be important in that dialogue between the governor and Republicans as well as the governor and Democrats.

Does Silva anticipate a new budget deal that would include tax extensions? He was coy.

It’s hard to know. I’m one of those that’s always hopeful that the common interest in improving California is what’s at root here and at some point there’s an answer to that question.

Is Silva a Pollyanna? Or does he know something about politics in Sacramento that the rest of us don't? More importantly: given the situation as it stands now, is realignment dead?

It’s much harder to do. Some of it can probably be done without new taxes, because this is about realigning a responsibility that the state currently has, that it expends money on, and having that money transferred to the community level. It's much more difficult to do, but some aspects of it can be done... but not to the extent that the governor has proposed. That takes new revenue.

So what's at stake for those services he'd like to see realigned?

It's all about improving outcomes... about improving K-12 education and criminal justice, and social services like drug and alcohol and other services. It’s all about how at the beginning of this century we’re willing to rethink how we manage our public resources.... I'm hopeful that a crisis like this is able to produce an answer that can actually improve governance in California.

That's the word from someone who can take the long view. Stay tuned.


What'll My New District Look Like?

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StateCapitolCalifornia political junkies spent the weekend poring over the draft maps released Friday by the Citizens Redistricting Commission, handicapping the odds that politicians will be re-elected and that political parties will gain or lose power.

How will your electoral districts change? Does the commission's first draft of your congressional, state senate and state assembly districts make sense? I looked up my address on the cool interactive maps that the Los Angeles Times has created and compared the shape of my current districts with those proposed by the commission.  Result? The new lines certainly change the map, but on reflection it makes sense. My urban community on the shore of the San Francisco Bay is lumped with other similar cities, rather than hopping over the hills to the inland suburbs. Check out your own location.

It looks like the new maps may create a few more competitive districts, which could elect either a Democrat or a Republican, but not many more. The Sacramento Bee analysis suggests that there could be five swing districts in the Assembly, up from two now, and two swing districts in the Senate, up from just one. That's not much.

But as commissioner Maria Blanco told KNBC, the commission's mandate wasn't about drawing competitive seats, it was about keeping districts equal in population, geographically compact, contiguous, reflecting "communities of interest," and respecting the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act to ensure that minority voting strength not be diluted. "We were specifically forbidden in the process of drawing the lines, of looking at the political registration of a particular district," she said.

As Arizona State University political science professor Jennifer A. Steen remarked Monday on the Zocalo Public Square blog Nexus, "competitive elections can be tricky to engineer through mapping." And given that California's redistricting process doesn't mention "competitiveness" but focuses on geographic and community integrity,

if California’s goal is reduced partisanship and more competition, then all of this adds up to a pretty self-contradictory effort. It’s like saying you want a more comfortable house, but you don’t want it to have electricity, a roof, or running water.

In fact, it's looking like the new maps may lead to more seats going to Democrats in an already Democratic state. That's because of Californians' tendency to live near like-minded folks. As the liberal blog Fire Dog Lake suggests, it could even give Democrats the two-thirds majorities in both the state senate and assembly that would allow Dems to raise taxes and make other big policy changes that have long been stymied by the minority Republicans in the legislature.

If that occurs, it will be the result of a transparent, independent process, rather than one controlled by incumbent legislators. As The California Report's John Myers remarked the other day, "the only losers are incumbents. They were shut out of the process."

It's worth remembering that in most places across the country, redistricting is still controlled by incumbent state legislators.


Budget, Budget Hoozgotta Budget?

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Next 10 Budget Challenge ButtonAs the legislature's June 15 deadline to produce a balanced budget looms (and with it the threat of forfeited paychecks), the state senate will begin Friday to debate the budget in daily floor sessions.

The budget sought by the Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrats includes extending sales and vehicle taxes that are due to expire. Republican lawmakers say no. (Brown says he just wants the extension until September when he would put the taxes to voters in a special election.)

It should be easier to pass a budget this year since voters last November said the process requires just a simple majority vote in the legislature, not the old two-thirds vote. And Democrats have a majority.

But... the budget is only a spending plan. To have money to spend, you need revenue. And the projected revenue from current taxes is coming up short, by almost $11 billion. That's where the tax extensions come in. Trouble is, to raise state taxes in California requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature. Democrats don't have a two-thirds majority. Thus the log-jam.

So while we wait... how would you like to see the budget balanced? With spending cuts? Tax increases? Some combination of the two? Next 10, a non-partisan public policy organization, has just released a new version of their California Budget Challenge. There are a few of these online games around but this is a good one. Give it a try!

(Headline with apologies to the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.)


Controller to Lawmakers: No Budget? No Paycheck!

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California State Controller John Chiang

Armando Arorizo Bloomberg/Getty

State Controller John Chiang announced this morning that he plans to withhold the paychecks of state legislators, starting June 16, if the lawmakers haven't submitted a balanced budget to the governor. The real tough love? "Payments forfeited will not be paid retroactively."

Chiang says he's just complying with the terms of Proposition 25, the "On-Time Budget Act of 2010," approved by voters last November. The initiative didn't say lawmakers must submit a "balanced" budget, just "a budget bill" by the longstanding June 15 deadline -- or forgo their paychecks. In recent weeks, some have suggested that passing Gov. Jerry Brown's  budget proposal in March was enough to satisfy the terms of Prop. 25, even though that proposal still leaves us with a deficit of about $10 billion.

But Chiang counters that Prop. 25 must be read in tandem with 2004's "California Balanced Budget Act," Proposition 58, which specifically requires a budget bill that balances revenue and expenditures. As L.A. Times columnist George Skelton noted recently, "It has been 25 years since the Legislature wrapped up its budget work by June 15."

Though the controller's stance is surely making some legislators ansy in private, Assembly Speaker John Perez publicly supported the move:

I support the Controller’s decision to withhold paychecks from the Legislature if we do not send a comprehensive, balanced budget to the Governor by our Constitutional deadline. I was a vocal supporter of Prop 25, and I do not believe we should even be talking about loopholes or ways to get around that provision because our focus needs to be on doing our job and passing a balanced budget.

Here's the full text of Chiang's statement, released Thursday morning:

In response to recent questions regarding the impact of Proposition 25, Controller John Chiang today announced he will permanently withhold Legislators’ salary and per diem beginning on June 16 if they fail to approve a balanced budget in the next two weeks.

"Presenting the Governor with a balanced budget by the Constitutional deadline is the most important, if not most difficult, job of the California Legislature," Chiang said.  "In passing Proposition 25 last November, voters clearly stated they expect their representatives to make the difficult decisions needed to resolve any budget shortfalls by the mandatory deadline, or be penalized.  I will enforce the voters' demand."

Proposition 25, titled the "On-Time Budget Act of 2010," was approved by voters November 2, 2010.  The initiative lowered the vote requirement for passing a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority.  It also required members of the Legislature to forfeit their salary and reimbursement for travel and living expenses incurred from June 16 until "the day that the budget bill is presented to the Governor."  Payments forfeited will not be paid retroactively. 

Recently, questions have been raised regarding whether the budget passed by the Legislature had to be balanced, or if the budget bills passed in March would suffice.  The Controller's analysis of these issues concludes Proposition 25 cannot be read in a vacuum, and must take into account the provisions of Proposition 58 (passed by voters on March 2, 2004), the intent language found in Proposition 25, and the voter information and campaign materials upon which the voters relied.

Proposition 58 states, "[T]he Legislature may not send to the Governor for consideration, nor may the Governor sign into law, a budget bill that would appropriate from the General Fund, for that fiscal year, a total amount that ...exceeds General Fund revenues for that fiscal year estimated as of the date of the budget bill’s passage."  Because Propositions 58 and 25 overlap in the same section of the Constitution and address the same topic, they must be read together. 

And here is the controller's legal analysis, underpinning Chiang's announcement.


Inmate's Mom: "Isn't There Some Better Way?"

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San Quentin Prison

Flickr: Charles Kremenak

Last week reader Brenda Atchison shared a painful personal story about her son, who is serving time in an Orange County jail for crimes related to his persistent drug addiction.

Atchison wrote in response to a blog post tying California's overcrowded prisons to the state's policy of re-imprisoning parolees for often-minor parole violations. And she connected her family's crisis to California's policy crisis in plaintive terms:

Our prisons are full of addicts that have violated their probations. If we as tax payers are going to foot the bill, why can't we foot the bill to rehabilitate them from drugs? Overfilling our prisons and not getting these people any help is basically institutionalizing them on tax payer's dollar. Isn't there some better way to handle all this?

One answer to Brenda's question is captured in the 2010 documentary film, "It's More Expensive To Do Nothing." The film examines the causes of crime and recidivism, including addiction, and offers examples of successful approaches to get non-violent ex-offenders on track (at much lower cost to us taxpayers). Check out the trailer. Powerful stuff.

One program the film mentions is San Diego's Prisoner Reentry Program, a pilot program funded by a state law, SB 618. San Diego County's District Attorney testified before a state commission this spring about the work her county has done. She encouraged the state legislature to expand the program to two additional counties, as the law proposes. But California has 58 counties; will the other 55 get help launching successful re-entry programs of their own? Here's an assessment of the San Diego program.

Californians have repeatedly told pollsters that they are not interested in spending more on prisons and the state correctional system. Yet we have a crisis on our hands -- both in terms of overcrowding, as the U.S. Supreme Court told us last week, and in the human terms Brenda Atchison describes.

Can we make our penal system more effective and more humane without spending more money? One more idea came this week from Professor Shima Baradaran, who chairs the American Bar Association's Pretrial Release Task Force. In a New York Times op-ed piece on Monday, she suggested that we lock up too many defendants before their trials, and that with better screening and electronic supervision, California can reduce its jail population and save money. Worth a look.


Beyond "Rabbit on a Skateboard" Redistricting

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Illinois' 17th Congressional District

Illinois' 17th Congressional District

They say democracy is a messy business. It sure wasn't glamorous this week when California's Citizens Redistricting Commission met in a cramped and dingy lecture hall on the campus of Oakland's Laney College.

A dozen commissioners crammed around three folding tables on the small floor of the steeply-raked hall on Tuesday, laptops open for note-taking, as a series of community presenters clicked through Powerpoint presentations pitching their versions of California's electoral district maps.

A similar forum is underway at Cal State Northridge all day Friday and KQED's NewsFix blog has a link to the webcast. In fact, the commissioners have been criss-crossing the state for most of April and May, holding hearings in city council chambers and community colleges. And they'll be doing more of the same through July, listening to public feedback on the draft maps they are due to release June 10.

The commission has a staff of about a dozen, but commissioners are responsible for booking their own travel -- from Palm Springs to San Diego to Auburn to Santa Rosa. Commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy, an Oakland urban planner, remarked during a break in the Laney College meeting that she was glad to be able to sleep in her own bed for a few nights.

What's at stake with this messy exercise in democracy? The make-up of California's Congressional delegation, state legislature and little-watched state Board of Equalization, which oversees the collection of a raft of state taxes and fees. In other words, political power -- for parties, economic interests, ethnic groups, geographic regions.

Speaking up for geography on Tuesday was Marc Robinson, a consultant hired by the San Joaquin County Citizens for Constitutional Redistricting, a coalition of business and community groups that wants to see county interests better protected. Currently San Joaquin County is divvied up between four state assembly districts, two state senate districts and two congressional districts. Robinson offered maps that would keep the county intact, adding in the delta sections of Sacramento County and eastern Contra Costa County to yield the correct number of residents for the new districts.

In past decades (as is still the practice in other states), the state legislature was in charge of redistricting. That meant that the party in power made sure it kept a majority of seats and individual legislators crafted districts to ensure their re-election. The resultant wheeling and dealing led to gerrymandered districts like Illinois' 17th Congressional district, known as the "rabbit on a skateboard," and California's 23rd congressional district, which snakes along the central coast and "disappears at high tide."

That's not to say that politics won't be playing a role in this year's redistricting. Republican political insider Tony Quinn has accused Democratic commission members of trying to stack the deck. Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio has shot back. And Tea Party activists have turned out in force at a number of commission meetings. As former State Senator Don Perata told The California Report's John Myers, the process is intrinsically political:

"When people say, 'We want our communities of interest,' that is a political statement," says former state Senate leader Don Perata. "That's not a philosophical statement or a theological statement. It's saying that we want to maintain the power that we derive by commonality of interest. That's politics."

The commissioners have been wrestling with the many possible definitions of "communities of interest," one of the criteria they must use in drawing districts, along with equal population, compactness and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act that protects minority representation. In addition to keeping cities and counties intact, they've heard testimony that favors defining communities by transportation corridors, school districts and linguistic communities. One group suggested that the Los Angeles area should be delineated in terms of its distinctive valleys.

"The districts we have now were drawn to protect incumbents," said Commissioner Maria Blanco. "If all we do is take the incumbency protection out of it, our districts are going to be better because they're not going to be gerrymandered."