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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lady Justice and SCOTUS

She carries a double edged sword to represent Reason and Justice in her right hand, in her left she holds scales to measure the support and opposition of the case before her, she wears a blindfold to prevent judgement based on the identity of the accused or the accuser. Judgement will be with Reason and Justice, balancing the facts of the arguments without consideration of those involved in the case. Fair and blind, Justice metes out her judgements based on facts and law.

Somewhere in almost every courthouse in America is a statue, a painting, an image of Lady Justice. She is the icon on our nation's Judiciary branch. A part of the checks and balances we learn about in school, our Judiciary branch is meant to be separate from the other two branches, the Executive and the Legislative, at its highest levels the Judiciary is subject to appointment by the Executive and confirmation by the Legislative. Not subject to the whims of the people and the ugly politics that can erupt during elections for other offices, the Judiciary is to stand alone using the Constitution and the standards of Justice to determine the legality of the actions of the other branches and the citizens.

Justice, the quasi-goddess, is meant to be blind; justice in the form of judges and justices however is typically not blind--perhaps sight impared, but not completely blind. This is because humans and not mythical figures serve in our courts. Humans that have religious beliefs, have social mores and norms with which they were raised, have their personal ethics and morals developed through their personal experiences, have their ideological bases which guide their intellect. While we are a nation of laws, while we have a Constitution that binds our society, while we have a system of governance that is representative of the will of the people, how the laws are applied, how the Constitution will be interpreted, what extent the powers of the governors will be exerted over the governed are decisions made by humans, sitting in a building, adorned with Lady Justice.

Yesterday many Americans became aware of the existence of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for the first time. The most anonymous branch of government, the Judiciary, has at its pinnacle the most anonymous members of the Federal government, the Justices of SCOTUS. Most Americans cannot correctly answer how many Justices sit on the Supreme Court. Of those who correctly answer that there are nine justices cannot name any of them, and only a very small number can name all nine correctly. But these nine individuals carry as much power as the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House and any Senator, they are the final arbiters of law in our nation.

Currently the nine Supreme Court Justices are: Chief Justice John Roberts, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. Other than the Chief Justice, list is in order of when each of the Associate Justices was sworn onto the Court, starting with Stevens in 1975 and ending with Alito in 2006. Once seated Supreme Court Justices have life tenure, they leave the bench either through voluntary retirement, impeachment by the Senate or death. No member of the court has ever been removed by the impeachment process, so in the history of the United States vacancies on the court occur only through the voluntary retirement of a justice or if he or she dies while serving on the bench.

At the beginning of this month Associate Justice David Souter informed President Barack Obama that he was retiring from the Supreme Court. This act by Souter allows Obama to fulfill one of the most important powers of his office, appointing Souter's replacement on the Supreme Court. Once appointed, the nominee must then go before the Senate and undergo a very important confirmation process. After hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, that committee will then vote on the nominee, a positive vote will send the nomination to the entire Senate to vote on confirmation, a negative vote will require Obama to put forth another nominee.

Yesterday Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a Federal Appeals Court Judge, to be fill Souter's seat on the Supreme Court. While the confirmation hearings for Sotomayor will not begin for some time, the confirmation process has already begun in the senate of public opinion and media relations. For the next several months, until she is confirmed by the Senate, and she will be unless some major suprise in her background is revealed during the confirmation process, Sotomayor's life will be on public display. And every detail will be put on the scales of public opinion as a reason she should or should not be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

By all accounts Sotomayor has a very liberal judicial philosophy. She will spark the debate between judicial conservatives who feel that the Judiciary should interpret law based on the Constitution and laws created by the Legislative and Executive branches and judicial liberals who feel the Constitution is a guide within which to create law from the Judicial branch to meet the needs of modern times. For the former judges interpret law and have a narrow view of the role of the Judiciary, for the latter judges may amend and create law from the bench and they have a very broad view of the Judiciary's role in our governance. Because Barak Obama won the election in November for President of the United States he gets to use his judicial philosophy in determining his nominees for Federal judgeships. Because the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate they get to use their collective judicial philosophy to confirm any appoints made. Because of all these factors sometime in late September we will witness the swearing in of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Sotomayor's impact on the decisions of the court will be minimal until the next vacancy occurs on the court, or the next, or the next. Given her age, and presuming good health, one can expect her to serve for perhaps six or seven Presidential terms of office, giving her the potential to have a significant impact on SCOTUS decisions in the long term. Given that Justice Souter was part of a consistent 5-4 minority on SCOTUS decisions decided by one vote, her replacing Souter as one of four minority votes means little change in the prevailing majority's judicial philosophy and in the decisions rendered. Should one of the five in the consistent majority, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and often Kennedy, vacate the Supreme Court during an Obama administration however, then Sotomayor's appointment and confirmation can, and probably will, be part of a 5-4 majority for those with a liberal judicial philosophy.

Of interest is that Presidential appointments to the Supreme Court do not always turn out how the appointing President intended. Of the four members of what is termed the liberal block on SCOTUS, two were appointed by Republican Presidents: Justice Stephens by Gerald Ford and Justice Souter by George H.W. Bush. While it is doubtful that upon being seated Sotomayor will change her judicial philosophy, it is certain that the culture of the court will shift with her addition to the bench.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness...For Some

Today we commemorate veterans of the American military who lost their lives in service to our country in defense of our freedom and liberties. Freedom and liberties enshrined and enumerated in the Constitution. Freedom and liberties protected by our Judicial system. Freedom and liberties provided through representative governments in all fifty states and nationally. Freedom and liberties that through the decades and centuries of our Republic have expanded to include more and more Americans with equal rights, freedoms and liberties. Those who died fighting to create America in the Revolutionary War were fighting to establish a new country, a new nation honed under the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson's words that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When the Constitution was finally adopted almost a decade after the ending of the Revolution it was not written, but known at the time, that the laws applied to white men, and in many cases white men who owned land. Women and blacks were not included in the Constitution as they had no political power and no rights other than those given them by their husbands, fathers or owners.

As Americans fought in more wars the nation they were defending and the freedom for which they fought was expanding the rights set down in the Constitution to include women, minorities and seemingly all Americans. Seemingly. Social conservatives, like social liberals, are proud Americans. Social conservatives, in general, revere our military and their duty to serve and protect the Constitution of the United States and our defend our liberties and freedoms. Social conservatives do not wish the freedoms and liberties they enjoy to extend to others in our country, they wish to continue to deny equal access to government services to gays that they as heterosexuals enjoy. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for some, for those who are hetero sexual; limited liberty and limited pursuit of happiness for those who are homosexual. In the opinions of those who deny equal rights and access to homosexuals the men and women in our military are protecting equal rights for all, non-gay, Americans; and more limited rights and access to those who are not--for those who are gay.

The time has come to correct the discriminatory application of our Bill of Rights, of Jefferson's words, the time has come for two fundamental changes in policy and law to ensure equal access and liberty for America's homosexuals. Gays in the military and gay marriage must be addressed and policies changes if we are to be truly a country with equal rights and opportunities for all.

A gay man or woman can be elected to serve as a mayor, or governor, or even as the President of the United States--serving as Commander in Chief; but he or she cannot serve openly in the United States Army, or Navy, or Air Force, or Coast Guard or Marines. A gay man or woman can serve in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Tulsa Police Department or the Wisconsin Highway Patrol protecting American citizens, upholding law and order and defending the Constitution and our freedoms; but he or she cannot serve openly in any branch of the United States Military. A gay man or woman can work for a private contractor on a military base in Germany, Japan, Alabama or Texas; but he or she cannot go through Basic Training to become a soldier or Marine. A gay man or woman can work inside a United States Embassy in Paris, or Ankara, or Santiago; but he or she cannot wear a uniform of the United States Military and guard that same embassy.

In every aspect but one a gay man or woman in the United States can protect and defend our nation; they cannot serve openly in the United States military. It is time to overturn the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy that denies homosexuals the opportunity to serve openly in our Armed Forces. The policy is a joke and the longer it stays in the place the more of a farce it becomes. Gays have been serving in the Armed Forces for decades, just not openly. When we honor those who gave their lives to defend our nation we are certainly honoring homosexuals who were killed in combat--just don't tell anyone they were gay. When we honor our Veterans past and present in November we are honoring homosexuals who have served, and are serving, in our military--just don't tell anyone they are also honoring homosexuals for their service. Gays have served and are serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines--it is time to allow those currently serving and those who will serve in the future to do so openly with pride in who they are and the service they perform.

Policy two is becoming the most divisive issue of this era, gay marriage. Like abortion it has become a polarizing issue that cuts into political parties, churches and households. In California those in favor of gay marriage saw a Constitutional Amendment passed with Proposition 8 that stated marriage in the state can only be between a man and a woman. The timing of this issue being put on the ballot was unfortunate for those in favor of gay marriage as it coincided with the Presidential election of Barack Obama and saw record voter turnout in the state for black and minority voters--demographic groups opposed to gay marriage. Had the measure been on the ballot at any other time the chances were far greater that it would have failed.

Unfortunately Proposition 8 never should have made it to the ballot. Unfortunately the members of the California Assembly and Senate are political cowards who are great at giving speeches and taking donations but poor at leading and taking a stand. It is my assumption that the overwhelming majority of homosexuals in California are not Republicans, it is further my assumption that the majority of political support and contributions from homosexuals in California are made to elect Democrats to office. This support in time, effort and money has been for nought as Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have refused to take on the issue of gay marriage in California and pass legislation legalizing the act; unlike legislatures in Vermont, Massachusetts and even Iowa.

Following the passage of Proposition 8 the more activist and vocal members of the homosexual community wasted no time in castigating members of various religions and private individuals for their support of Prop 8, to me this has been a waste of time and energy and has done nothing more than create more opposition to their cause. Rather than screaming vitriol at those who could not have passed Prop 8 on their own (i.e. registered Democrats and independents who voted for Prop 8--which are the voters who caused its passing); they should be screaming at the politicians they have helped elected in election after election who have refused to put the issue through legislatively. Democratic elected officials were very prominent at rallies up and down the state prior to the election voicing their opposition to Prop 8, but the words were hypocritical and empty given their united lack of action on the issue. Afraid of any backlash in their home districts the Democrats kept gay marriage of the legislative agenda, the result was Prop 8.

Many people ask me, "How can you be a registered Republican and support gay marriage." My reply is that marriage is licensed by the State of California, as such it should equally apply to all couples regardless of sexual orientation. Two men or two women getting married and having all the same rights and responsibilities as Leslie and I enjoy in no way harms our nation, harms my marriage or harms anyone else. Opponents espouse that allowing homosexuals to marry will lead to "other" marriages, polygamy and even bestiality--ridiculous arguments that have no basis other than conjecture. They decry such unioins will demean "traditional" marriages, which by saying this they demean their own marriages as being defined by others rather than by themselves as husband and wife. As will be shown in those states where the elected officials had the courage and integrity to ensure equal access to government services and rights to all Americans, there is no damage to society or the state through gay marriages.

My solution to the gay marriage debate is very simple. Most of those opposed to gay marriage are opposed because they feel "marriage" is defined historically and Biblically as the union of one man to one woman. They object to labelling unions between a man and a man or a woman and a woman as "marriage." The State of California allows the issuing of "marriage licenses" therefore there exists a problem in syntax and definition. But the State of California bars the issuing of such a license to anyone but a man and a woman to legalize their union as "marriage."

Change the name of the license. Instead of issuing a marriage license the state can amend the name of the license to a Licence of Union, or something similar. It would be the only such license in the state and available to any couple desiring the legal status currently defined as "marriage" in the State of California.

For those who want a sanctioned marriage then churches can provide their own "certificate of marriage" and it would be up to each church, religion, congregation to determine who is and is not eligible for certificates of marriage from that institution. As part of this provision however I would find a way to preclude any couple from using the courts to force an institution to provide certificates to homosexual couples if said unions are not part of that religion or churches doctrine. Therefore if the Presbyterians or Unitarians want to issue certificates of marriage and Catholics and Mormons do not, then they are free to issue or not issue as long as their policy is consistent and equally applied.

A gay man or woman can perform the marriage of a heterosexual couple in many different churches and religions in our state who allow gay clergy--but they cannot be married themselves to their partners. A gay man or woman can work for the County Clerk's office and issue a marriage license, but cannot receive one to marry his or her partner. A gay man or woman can be a Justice of the Peace and perform a marriage ceremony for a man and a woman, but cannot participate in such a ceremony with his or her partner. Like precluding gays from openly serving in the military it is hypocritical and discriminatory for the state to issue a license for some to marry but not others. It is time for the elected representatives in Sacramento to have the courage and integrity to back up the empty words they shouted into microphones and from stages supporting gay marriage. Change the name of the license, create an equal status for all couples desiring of legalizing their romantic unions in the form of marriage or matrimony or whatever definition they choose to use.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, this applies to all Americans not just most. As we commemorate those who gave their lives in defense of these principals let us look at those who are excluded from their meaning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Charitas Dictator: My Solutions to CA Financial Crisis

Even San Francisco rejected them. By a landslide the voters of California told its government, "We do not want more taxes. We do not want you raiding one account to pay others. We do not want to extend your ability to spend our money with impunity." So now what? What will our dysfunctional state government do to change its culture of spending on salaries and expanding government?

Were I placed in the role of Charitas Dictator of California I would enact the following decrees as solutions to California's budget difficulties today and fix them for future years. Someone has to stick their neck out, goodness knows our Legislature will not as evidence by their continuous use of Propositions to do their jobs.

Make it harder to get Propositions on the ballot. Too often our state Legislature shirks their responsibility in making difficult decisions by putting propositions on the ballot and letting the voters decide. The Propositions that were on the ballot on Tuesday never should have been sent to the voters. Not only did voters say "No" to tax increases and more spending, they also said "No" to the Legislature when asked to do their job. Restrict the Legislature from placing any propositions on the ballot, increase the number of signatures required for the people to place an initiative on the ballot from 5% of the turnout from previous gubernatorial election to 10%.

Eliminate term limits. Combined with the changes in the redistricting process that become effective in 2012, we should eliminate term limits for members of the Assembly and Senate. The revolving doors in Sacramento create revolving doors in elected offices throughout the state creating instability and politicians spending more time collecting donations and working for election to the next level than paying attention to their current jobs and constituents. Elections are term limits, do not limit how many an individual may win.

Spending cap mandates on the State budget. Regardless of revenue the growth of the state budget should be capped at a formula of population growth and inflation. If revenues exceed spending funds should be divided between paying down debt, funding reserve accounts, returning funds to counties and cities and returning taxes to tax payers in the form of rebates. Increased revenues over a prolonged period should not enrich those who work for the state, but rather should be returned to those who provided the excess revenue.

Budgets are made on revenues received not forecast. In conjunction with the previous item, lawmakers will not longer use budget projections to create budgets. Too often the projections are wrong, or are misleading, to allow higher spending and balancing the budget for signature only to see revisions later in the fiscal year. All budgets going forward would be based upon prior fiscal year revenues--you can't spend what you did not collect. The current budget crisis is worsening because of the spending built into the budget and a complete failure to accurately predict revenues for the current fiscal year. I realize this proposal has a one year lag time; we are already spending fiscal year 2008-09 revenue leaving none for FY 2009-10. Therefore a special bond would be floated to provide revenue for the first fiscal year of the new budgeting process. Every budget for the next fifteen years would first carve out funds to pay down the bond from revenue collect the prior year before any other spending items are placed in the budget.

Negotiate with public employees: a lot of job losses or fewer job losses. California has 235,000 employees, does anyone really feel everyone of those jobs is necessary? As charitas dictator I approach each of the public employee unions and offer them option A or option B, their choice: Option A is the elimination of 15% of the jobs represented by that collective bargaining unit. Option B is the elimination of 10% of the jobs and those who remain will have new contracts reducing benefits and limiting salary increases to be the same formula used to allow for increases in the budget. Benefits would change such that all employees would contribute on par with those contributions in the private sector to retirement accounts: the state will match 50% of your personal contributions up to a maximum amount that equals the limits imposed on private sector employees. Medical benefits would be paid based on the MediCal rates of coverage; our state is already insuring and paying for the medical benefits of millions of Californians, if this insurance is good enough for them it should be good enough for the 200,000 plus public employees. If an employee wants private insurance they will be credited the amount of the insurance premium payments equivalent to the MediCal premiums. These reforms are enacted for all state employees, not just those who are union members, but anyone who receives a check from the State of California.

No more state resources used to collect political donations. The state will not longer allow payroll deductions to collect donations made to the political units of the employee unions. The state will not pay for the accounting, collection and distribution of funds used to elect individuals to public office. Public employee unions must collect their political donations directly from the individual union members not from the state through their paychecks.

Reform MediCal so it is equal through the state. There is so much institutional dysfunction in the MediCal system that wastes so many millions of dollars that it is hard to know where to begin; so let's over simplify the program. First, all hospitals will receive the same reimbursement for the same treatments, no more tiered payouts depending on where the hospital is located or whether the hospital is contracted with MediCal--the same for payments to doctors and other health care providers. If it is mandatory that anyone walking into any hospital be treated then it should be required for the state to reimburse all health providers equally. This alone will eliminate the need for a huge amount of staff that is currently utilised to review and deny claims, process appeals, approve claims, cut the reimbursement, all on a patient by patient basis. If a hospital or health care provider is found to have engaged in fraud then immediately begin fraud prosecutions, and put in place a leadership team to ensure the hospital stays open. This single pay provision will also save hospitals and health care providers up and down the state hundreds of millions of dollars in personnel costs used for accounting the current complex MediCal system of payments. It will benefit patients in that they will not have to be transferred from non-contracted to contracted hospitals and no matter what hospital they go to in the state they can expect the same level of care.

Reform the education system. Eliminate the mandates for programs that create a one fits all mentality. Cut the State Department of Education in half and push the savings down to the local school districts. Allow the school districts to have more control over their budgets and how they wish to spend their revenues. Using standardized tests, if districts fall behind take over the district and slowly re-integrate local control; such as occurred with Compton Unified School District in recent years. Put more control closer to the parents through their local school boards and Superintendents. With increasing power in Sacramento we have decreasing opportunities and programs for our children, we need to reverse that trend.

Encourage department managers to succeed and reward success. Too much money is added to our budgets to maintain prior years' funding, whether the funds are needed or not. Reward department managers who are able to show year after year after year savings with financial incentives. Allow managers to present five year plans for projects and place into their budgets funds to save for future expenditures for capital improvements. Allow managers of our public funds to operate as their counterparts are allowed to operate in the private sector, plan for success and reward success. Our current system does not bring accountability into the management of public funds nor does it allow for long term planning; managers are operating on a year to year basis without encouragement to be innovative or creative in product delivery. Changing the culture will encourage more entrepreneurial management and will attract individuals who thrive in such an environment.

Cut taxes. Roll back the sales tax by 2.5% across the board. Roll back auto registration fees by 10%. Cut the income tax rates by 1.5% for every level and raise the income levels for each tier so they more closely match those at the Federal level. You cannot tax your way out of a recession. Study, after study, after study shows that raising taxes cuts revenue, lowering taxes raises revenue. Look at the states that have done well during our recession and you will see states that are attracting businesses and jobs because of their low tax rates. Even during the economic growth from 2002 through 2007 California's business community grew slower than most states. Taxes are killing job development and growth in this state. We need to attract wealth and investment, we do that by allowing success to accrue to those who succeed.

Drill for oil. Open the coastal oil fields for development and extraction. Follow the leadership of Governor Sarah Palin in Alaska and the deals negotiated with the oil companies to extract oil and natural gas from her state. For the Palin haters ignore who and concentrate on the results, a tremendous spike in revenue for the State of Alaska. California is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue that could benefit our state, unfortunately a small minority has been allowed to deny those funds to the people of California. I find it appalling that the Legislature and Governor find it okay to throw a huge tax burden on the families of this state but refuse to extract the millions of dollars of revenue sitting right off our shores.

Sue the Federal government. Require providers of service receiving state funds to document whether the recipients are legal residents of the United States. If they are not then send a bill to Washington D.C. Prisons, hospitals, schools, law enforcement are all expending resources to pay for services provided to illegal aliens allowed into this country by lax federal enforcement of our borders. Take the Feds to court and recoup the billions spent by California tax payers every year as a result of the problems created by Washington's inability, or refusal, to address this problem.

Require and accounting and spending of money from Propositions. We have billions of dollars that have gone unspent because of voter passed initiatives; from stem cell research, to Rob Reiner's cigarette tax, to fixing the Delta to avoid a Katrina type collapse, to countless other propositions passed and funded but not accounted for to see if the projects have been completed or even worked upon. Every proposition that requires bond funds would also have an audit component for review every two years. If within five years at least half the funds have not been spent to accomplish the purpose of the proposition then the funds are returned to the State, the bond is paid off and the project(s) shut down. There is no accountability for any of the funding for the multitude of propositions passed by the voters, seemingly on a whim. Most of the spending propositions benefit a very narrow segment of the population, make them accountable for the funds or they lose all of them.

Keep the two-thirds majority requirement. I would not change the requirement that all budgets and tax increases require a two-third majority vote in the Assembly and Senate. One can imagine the budget problems we would be having if it were not for this rule and if the Democratic majorities in both houses had the ability to pass budgets with a simple majority. Only the hold out of Republicans have lowered the tax increases from initial Democratic proposals and lessened the spending in the proposals. Unfortunately every year the necessary two or three Republicans have eventually jumped over the line and allowed the horrendous budgets of the past decade to pass. Removing the two-thirds obstacle will remove any filter on the budgeting process.

Given the ideological bent of this state and the control the public employees have I am certain that these proposals would probably fail in any general election, which is why I would have to enact them as the Charitas Dictator, or Benevolent Dictator. For our budget problems in this state to be solved in the short and long term we will need someone, or more likely several someones, to have the courage to stand up and loudly proclaim specific solutions to our problems.

Monday, May 18, 2009

We Are Californians Not Colonists

In 1765 the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a tax which was imposed only on the American Colonies. The purpose of the tax was to fund the presence of the British military in the American Colonies, where they remained after the conclusion of the French and Indian War. While later repealed, the Stamp Act was a major factor in coalescing the American Colonies into a single political unit for the purpose of fighting the Stamp Act and other taxes later imposed on the American Colonies by the British Parliament. The British saw the Colonies as a source of revenue and also a source of geopolitical advantage in spreading their control across the American Continent using the British Army and Navy now garrisoned in America.

Of course the most important phrase to come out of the Stamp Act was the rallying cry that began in Boston and spread through the Colonies, "No Taxation Without Representation." And Representation began with every colony sending representatives to Philadelphia which later became the Continental Congress; which as we know later became the Constitutional Congress and still later the Congress of the United States of America.

Now we find ourselves in the 21st Century on the far side of the North American Continent from the original American Colonies in the State of California. Like the 18th Century American Colonists citizens of California are finding themselves subject to increasing amounts of taxation to support what they see more and more as a foreign government, when in fact it is the government of their own making. And like 18th Century American Colonists more and more Californians are feeling their taxation is coming without representation, when in fact they cast the actual votes that have elected those passing the taxes. Juxtaposing a more modern phrase with that of the American Revolution, if perception is reality than in many Californian households there is taxation without representation.

There are numerous factors that have led our State Legislature, abetted by the signature of whomever held the Governor's office, to the current state of financial collapse in state finances. The most basic and over-riding cause has been the explosion of spending in Sacramento over the past ten years or more that has doubled the size of the California government expenses. This has been enabled by the combination of term limits and gerrymandered legislative districts which ensured not only a Democratic majority for both the State Assembly and Senate, but ensured further that each District is so gerrymandered that only the most Democrat of Democrats or Republican of Republicans stand any chance of getting elected in the jigsaw shaped district they represent.

Further compounding the issue has been the question of representation. Who exactly have the Legislators in Sacramento been representing? The middle income families who are paying the highest income tax rate in the nation? The lower income families who are paying the highest sales taxes in the nation? The children in the State's public schools who while having the highest paid teachers in the nation score near the bottom in standardized tests? The business owners who have been taking their businesses out of the state, and during the sustained period of economic growth from 2002 through 2007 did not open new businesses in our state? Are any of these groups represented by the budgets passed in each of the past ten fiscal years by our Legislature? The answer is no, and because of that we ask, do we have taxation without representation in the State of California?

We get what we elect and the majority of Californians have blindly followed the path of campaign ads, political flyers and what the letter is inside the parentheses on the ballot--for the Legislature if there is a (D) then it gets elected in almost 60% of the State. And who funds that (D)? Prison guards who created the most expensive prison system in the United States. Teachers' unions who have the largest amount of spending on education in the United States and the highest teacher salaries. Unions representing almost all of the 235,000 state workers from Chula Vista to Redding, the most of any state in the United States. Year after year, election after election these groups have poured millions of dollars into state political campaigns, almost exclusively funding the candidates of one party, and year after year we have seen budget after budget paying these groups back with increased numbers of employees, higher salaries and higher benefits. And now the people of California are waking up to the reality of what has happened to them.

The Governor and other officials up and down the State have been on a tour trying to scare the people into voting for Propositions 1A through 1E on Tuesday. The message is the same, if we do not pass these measures we will face an even greater budget deficit. We will have to lay off some government workers (at latest count about 2%), we will have less money for schools, for prisons, for the fixing of infrastructure.

What they do not say in these Scare Rallies is the even if the voters do pass Props 1A-E, and increase the highest taxes in the nation for even longer, if we will still have deficits in the coming years because of the massive give-aways in the previous ten budgets. None of these Propositions unravel any of the previous spending or contracts, all they do is perpetuate them.

Just as the Colonists formed the Stamp Act Congress which eventually led to the Declaration of Independence, the People of California need to band together and overthrow the ideas of those who govern us. We need to defeat everyone of the Propositions on the ballot and force our Legislature and Governor to address the real problems we face: too much government, too much government spending and too much of our hard earned money that is taken from us in taxes going to pay too many people salaries and benefits that are too high.

It is time for the people of California to quit enabling Sacramento while disabling our schools and communities and future.

Vote NO on Propositions 1A through 1E. Tell every elected official in the State "No more taxes, no more spending."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rebuttal To Teacher Union President On Props 1A-E

On Wednesday the Press-Telegram ran a letter to the editor from Michael Day, President of the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB) which I re-print below and link here. Mr. Day uses his letter to try to convince voters why they need to vote "yes" on Propositions 1A through E on Tuesday May 19th; or should I say scare voters into supporting the measures?

I have been publicly critical of Day in the past, most notably several posts I wrote for the Long Beach Post (you can click this link then put TALB in archives section, or for sample see this post); the main source of my criticism was not so much Day as the Executive Director of TALB until his dismissal last year, Scott McVarish. Since McVarish arrived in Long Beach TALB became increasingly militant and power hungry in his attempt to control the Long Beach Unified School District. After a take over of the union by the California Teachers Association and an audit which showed significant malfeasance by more than one staff member at TALB McVarish "resigned." During this period Day was the President of the local and acted very much in concert with McVarish and his plans for controlling the district. Since McVarish has left TALB has been working for their teachers more and against the district less.

With that as background here is Michael Day's letter to the editor on Wednesday May 13, 2009 to the Press-Telegram, my letter will follow:

Propositions support schools

For the last few years the employees and students of Long Beach Unified have dealt with dwindling support from Sacramento while maintaining high academic standards. Because of decreased funding we have seen support for students cut through reductions of specialists, aides, nurses and tutoring programs as the district works to maintain fundamental services for our kids. Even services we used to consider part of our core program, such as libraries, music and counseling, are being pared back to near non-existence.

The public needs to realize how important propositions 1A through 1E are to our schools. We need to support propositions 1A and 1B to restore the $9.3 billion Sacramento has taken from our schools while creating a plan to repay those vital funds. We need to support propositions 1C through 1E to ensure our schools do not suffer billions in cuts next year. We have been getting by the last couple of years, while making great academic gains, but a defeat at the ballot box will only cause suffering for the students we serve and the people who serve them.

For years teachers have been told we must do more with less. But if propositions 1A through 1E do not pass we will do less with less. The public and the politicians demand a great deal of accountability and performance from our schools. And in Long Beach our teachers, administrators and classified staffs meet those challenges. But until the public and politicians
are willing to equate adequate funding with performance we will not have the system our students deserve. Not for a lack of effort on our part but for a lack resolve on theirs. Please vote "yes" on Propositions 1A through 1E.

Michael Day
Teachers Association of Long Beach

Today, Thurdsay May 14th, the Press-Telegram printed my rebuttal to Mr. Day (link here, 2nd letter):

Support for schools

Re "Propositions support schools" (Letters, May 13):
Michael Day, president of the Teachers Association of Long Beach, is right: Our teachers, administrators and staff in the Long Beach Unified School District do a tremendous job educating my children and tens of thousands of others. He is correct that every year this job is being done with less and less support from Sacramento.

However, Day and others in Sacramento and in the public employee unions are perpetuating a fallacy in saying we must support Propositions 1A through 1E so our schools and other services will not face more cuts. Even if the propositions pass we will see cuts in services while state government continues to grow.

In the past 10 years the size of the state budget has doubled. Since California must have a balanced budget, this means that revenue to the state has also doubled in the past 10 years. In the past few years our schools have cut computer classes, science camps, counselors, music, reading and arts programs. Our state government has doubled in size and our school programs have been cut with more to follow.

I ask Mr. Day and other supporters of the propositions: In the past 10 years has the quality of education doubled? Has the funding for local schools doubled? While we have seen our taxes increase have we seen a corresponding increase in the level and quality of services delivered? I answer "no" to each of these questions, just as I will also vote on Props 1A-E.

What makes Mr. Day or other supporters of Props 1A-E think that giving Sacramento more money will not lead to even more cuts in funding for local education and programs? Voting "yes" on Props. 1A-E will just enable Sacramento to continue to spend our tax dollars to the benefit of public payrolls with no tangible benefit to our students or our citizens. If you need proof just look at the last 10 years.

Dennis C. Smith
Long Beach

Quit enabling Sacramento while disabling our schools and communities, vote no on Props1A-E!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How Cities Should Manage the Next Foreclosure Wave

In February Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a 90 day moratorium on foreclosures in the State of California. There were some loopholes, naturally, but the effect of the law was to keep tens of thousands of foreclosures from happening from the end of February through the end of this month, May 2009.

Since February we have seen an increase in the number of "short-sale" transactions (seller owes more in mortgages against the property than the sales price necessitating mortgagor(s) to discount principal owed to facilitate closing) as many homeowners have sold their properties ahead of filings of notices of default and foreclosure. As well California has seen a flattening of the median sales price through the first quarter of 2009, indicating a firming up of the housing markets through much of the state--particularly coastal counties and communities--from the bottom up. In some areas there has been an increase in median prices, particularly condominiums in some zip codes.

In part the flattening of the median prices and increase in the number of short sales versus bank owned foreclosures on the market in California are the result of the Governor's moratorium on foreclosures. With only a few weeks left before the moratorium expires what preparations have various California cities and counties and lenders undertaken for what will occur when that happens? My guess is nothing.

While the moratorium has allowed many lenders to off load poor performing mortgages through short sale transactions initiated by their borrowers, what the moratorium has not done is reduce the flow of borrowers into default on their mortgages. As a result lenders in California have a very significant number of mortgages on which they are about to initiate foreclosure proceedings. Three months of unpaid mortgages are going to start being processed by the banks and if not handled properly California housing markets will be hit with a flood of foreclosure sales due to the moratorium. The primary argument against the moratorium was what it would do to housing markets when the moratorium expires--we are about to find out.

Supply and demand function in any market, and left without interference will seek a market price for any good or service. Everyone with a basic concept of economics knows that scarcity of supply raises prices, scarcity of demand lowers prices, abundance of supply lowers prices and abundance of demand raises prices. For the past several months we have seen a growing abundance of demand in the lower price ranges and a flattening of supply, leading to stabilizing of home prices for the first time buyer markets. What happens to those markets when flooded with pent up supply due to banks being able to foreclosure again on delinquent borrowers? Abundant supply creates lower prices.

There is a possible solution to the flooding of the market with lender REO's (an industry acronym for Real Estate Owned, bank owned foreclosures) and the subsequent fallout in housing prices. Banks and local governments can work together to allow the banks to receive revenue from their REO properties while slowly placing their inventory on the market over period of a year or more and cities and counties can increase the supply of rental housing or moderate income housing for first time buyers.

Using Bank of America and the City of Long Beach as an example. Long Beach can approach Bank of America and determine how many properties they have in Long Beach that are REOs, in delinquency and about to be foreclosed upon. Understanding that BofA will need to remove the "toxic assets" off their books, BofA will continue with its normal foreclosure processes on delinquent borrowers. Understanding that the City of Long Beach is concerned with property values in its communities and the loss of tax revenues BofA will agree to work with the City to slowly sell its REO inventory over a period of twelve, eighteen or twenty-four months; slowly bleeding inventory on the market instead of dumping it all at once. For the properties that are not yet placed on the open market the City of Long Beach housing department can work with the BofA REO department to fill the properties with tenants paying fair market rent, perhaps subsidized (I cannot believe I wrote that word!) with funds from the housing department, to allow BofA to maintain funds for property taxes, insurance and general operating revenue (such as paying personnel in the REO department). Some of the properties can become eligible for funds from the housing department set aside for first time buyer programs that are currently not used due to inefficiency and requirements imposed on everyone involved.

Housing and government do not get along very well. Government imposition of requirements for low to moderate income families purchasing or renting housing creates hundreds of pages of restrictions and regulations and bottlenecks any funding to the point that no funding occurs. In the City of Long Beach there are millions of dollars in housing funds left unspent due to the requirements imposed on those funds being too stringent for the market to comply. If someone with sense in government, at the local, state and federal levels, were to look at the looming foreclosure flood about the hit the market in California he/she can see the problems that will occur. Yet under the guidelines imposed on housing funds there is nothing a city can do to manage the flood of inventory about to the open market in their communities. By re-negotiating the restrictions placed on housing funds from the state and federal governments cities can free up millions of dollars to use in working with banks so the inventory of REOs can be managed in a manner that helps both the banks and the communities where the properties are located.

From the bank's perspective the ability to forge a partnership with local governments to manage the removal of REOs from their balance sheets over time will add stability to their balance sheets, revenue to their income statements and groundwork for future partnerships that benefit both parties. Instead of having hundreds or thousands of properties on the market with declining values, they can have a few hundred properties at a time selling in a more stable market environment.

I do not expect this proposal to work as there is little chance the bureaucracy of the government housing departments can move nearly fast enough to free up the necessary funds from their current regulations that prevent their use. Cities across the country are flush with funds to promote home ownership and community development through rehabilitation of distressed properties--unfortunately the policies, procedures and regulations governing the funds make them useless. It is time for local governments to push back on Sacramento and Washington and renegotiate the terms under which those millions of dollars are being restricted.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Self-Filling Paychecks Crashing Local Budgets

The vast majority of California cities are doomed to financial failure in the near future because of the mandatory raises in salary given to the bulk of their employees and subsequent increase in pension payments. Imagine if you were guaranteed a raise in your salary every year and corresponding raise in your retirement pension with no regard to how well you do your job, all because your employer is worried you will go to work for your competition.

That is what happens with most of the municipal employees across the State of California. Here in Long Beach we hear the same refrains when contracts with various sectors of city employees are being negotiated: 1) We have to pay them more or they will go work for City "X" and 2) We have dedicated employees in the City who deserve our support.

Which is it? Are they dedicated to their jobs or are they mercenaries ready to bolt to Vernon or Bellflower or Santa Ana because the same position there is paying 3% more in base salary? They cannot be both, either they are loyal or they are in it for the bucks. Because almost none of our members of City Council over the years have any business experience, especially management and/or ownership experience, they believe the arguments. As a result our city employees have guaranteed raises in their contracts and when it comes time to renegotiate they are given raises framed in such a way at to appease only the most intellectually vapid among us: our employees are within 5%, 3%, 1% of the median for the sector in the region/state. Of course the employees in the municipalities against whom our employees' contracts are based are represented by the same union and of course have the same language in their contracts. As a result the unions, across several different city governments, have contracts guaranteeing perpetual raises for their members since the median income will always be going up.

Essentially every raise that occurs in any municipality in the state trickles through the system to enact raises for every other city due to a rising median salary and benefit package. If Alameda pays their General Maintenance Worker II's more money then when Richmond's contract renews their workers will get a raise to "stay competitive" and so it trickles down the state, Fresno, San Louis Obispo, Glendale, Bell, Long Beach. And by then when Long Beach gets their raises it will trickle back up to Alameda in time for them to get their new raises.
Keeping in mind how difficult, damn near impossible, it is to fire any employee with union representation, these employees are guaranteed the salaries regardless of productivity, efficiency or any standard of job performance. Further, it includes payments into their pension plan--which is the real budget killer.

As residents we are subject to attempts at blackmail by management telling us, if we do not give these raises and "stay competitive" we will lose our best and brightest to a neighboring city who is paying their employees more. Really? In this economic environment Carson, El Monte or Aracadia are going to bring in new employees to replace existing employees who are what retiring? Being fired? Because they have money in their budgets to hire more General Maintenance Worker II's or Division Budget Analyst Managers?

If anyone decides to leave the guaranteed employment, guaranteed salary--which is quite generous given the lack of performance requirements that can lead to dismissal--and guaranteed pension for a few bucks more, I say let them. Let them go. Here in the private sector we often do, sure go to the suppossed greener pasture, leave stability and venture into the unknown. Employees know this is the case and because of that do not play chicken for pay raises. There is a bottom line to company profit and sustainability, if giving you a raise just to keep you jeopardizes that then good luck at your next place of work if you choose to go. Further, if you cannot justify your raise with corresponding increases in profit, decrease in other expenses, productivity or other measurable output then you will not get one. Try that with a city job.

So if employees in negotiations say, "We can go to ______ (fill in city of choice here) for more pay, I say let them try it. For one we can use the job loss on the city income statement. But more importantly it is a bluff. If we do not give our cops a big pay increase, or our firefighters or our City Hall employees, we will not be seeing any job exodus. When city management uses this argument it is tatamount to me telling my children to go to bed or the Bogeyman will get them.

Currently the City of Long Beach has ninety-four former employees drawing over $100,000 per year in pensions from CalPers for a total of over $11.25 million per year. Guess where that money came from? Not the employees but from the tax payers. Instead of building a new library City Councils past handed out pay raises. Instead of fixing streets or sewers City Councils handed out retirement benefits based on last salary. Instead of protecting the city infrastructure our elected officials and city managers padded salaries, particularly for those groups most active in campaign donations for local and state elections. With each new series of raises comes a series of pension contributions that are that much higher, that drain that much more from city coffers, that creates that many more retirees in the $100k club. Meanwhile the rest of us pay into our own 401(k) with limited company contributions--mainly due to federal tax limitations--and keep pushing back how long we will have to work before retiring.

The City of Long Beach, and other city governments across the state, must stop the spiralling salary increases that feed off each other. Call the employees' bluffs that they will leave their current jobs in search of more pay elsewhere, I say good luck matching what you have now. There is a reason employees in the private sector stay with the same companies for decades: loyalty, steady employment and fairness by both sides.

Finally regarding the pensions Long Beach and other cities need to renegotiate with every group and individual. Retirement benefits should not be set on an employee's last year, or six months, of employment but rather be based on the median income of the last five or seven years. Each employee must pay into his or her retirement account as we do in the private sector. Finally, if an employee leaves before five years they only carry a portion of the city contributions with them.

It is time for our elected officials and senior city management to quit playing us for fools, and time for the electorate to quit being played. Take control of the spending which is 80% of the budget: salaries and benefits. Quit worrying about losing employees and start worrying about saving money for today and into the future. Start acting like employers who care about the long term survival of our city and not like politicians worried about your next campaign donations.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

California Math: Double Spending = Cutting Funding

After writing my post earlier this week on the inability of school districts to remove bad teachers I began to think of the lack of control our local school districts really have. It seems the closer one is to the student the less control there is in the education and the decisions relating to it. The control and direction of funds is upside in my view. The on-site administrator, the principal, has almost no budget control; the local school superintendent is pushing money into boxes established by the State Department of Education; and the State funding and spending is also dependent on the Federal Department of Education. The person closest to the student has the least say in what programs may be needed at a school and what programs are not needed.

This has evolved because of several factors, primarily because our education system has evolved into one size fits all. This results in mandates and programs that must be implemented for students in rural Turlock as for urban San Francisco. Not trusting school districts to properly care for the children in their own communities, the state mandates how funds are to be spent restricting the maneuverability local school boards and superintendents need to fit their students in their district.

In the background of this is of course the budget, which is actually in the foreground. I am having a very hard time understanding how our State Legislature has passed budgets that have doubled spending from Sacramento in the past ten years, yet my local district is cutting programs that existed ten years ago. How bad is your government when it doubles in size across the state in a decade, but the programs available to your children ten years ago have to be eliminated because of lack of funding from the state? It speaks to the corrupt culture that is so pervasive in our election and budget process that those public employees' organizations who have donated so many millions across the past decade to elect the majority of our legislators have received raises and increased benefits in budget after budget, yet at our local school we are raising money to retain a computer lab instructor.

I will beat this drum again, and again, and probably several more times, the California voter has no idea what he or she is voting for when punching a ballot. Every single summer we go through the same budget crisis and some time in July or August or even September a few Republicans will cross the line and vote for another budget that increases spending in California--but not in the classrooms. Raises will be given to prison guards, state sanitation workers will be given higher retirement benefits and a guaranteed no lay off clause, Assembly aides will be promoted and paid well into six figures, and no voter will bat an eye to vote for the same person in the next election. All of this abetted by first Gray Davis and now Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In Long Beach the district has had to cut the science camp trip for fifth graders, a rite of passage in the culture of the district, as I said our campus is raising $50,000 to retain a full time computer lab teacher, other friends say they are losing Spanish instructors, or physical education (we already lost ours), or what music or art instruction they may have. Program after program is being cut from a budget that is getting less and less funding from Sacramento despite the doubling of the budget in the past ten years.

The new math in California: double spending while cutting funding. And we can expect it to continue because the public employee organizations will poor millions more into the coffers of our elected officials, primarily Democrats--or I should say exclusively--who will pass more budget items favoring the employees over the citizens, favoring their salaries and job security over children's education.

Our system is truly broken and needs to be fixed. For education my proposal is to release the mandated spending from the state and give funds to the districts. Then let the districts determine how best to put the funds into the classroom. Release control of education back to the local community. If a district is failing and it is evident the funds are not being spent in a way that is educating the children of its community then the State can step in with a program to rehabilitate the district. But do not make every district suffer because of the few who may mismanage their funds. We already have classes that tend to teach to the lowest common denominator, let's not have funding on the same principle. If Turlock feels more funding is needed in language arts and less in music let them spend their funds to support this, if Capistrano wants higher math scores and less funding for language arts let them spend their money how that community sees best for its students and its needs.

With the placing of Propositions 1A-F on the ballot the Governor and Legislature have shown the California people they have no clue how broken the system is, what is very scary is they have shown the people they have no clue how to fix the system either. The only way to force it to be fixed is to break it further--and the start to the fix must be returning control of funds for education to the local school boards, to the communities that paid the taxes should go the control on how they are spent. Take control away from the special interests in Sacramento and bring it back to parents and communities.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Are Millions of Dollars Spent to Protect Bad Teachers?

On Sunday (5/3/09) The Los Angeles Times had a major front page article by Jason Song detailing the job security teachers have in California once they obtain tenured status. This article is a must read for every adult in the state.

For parents the article pulls back the curtain showing some of the bureaucracy which controls your children six or seven hours a day, one hundred eighty days a year for thirteen years. It reveals the lack of control over the teachers by you a parent, and by your representatives elected to your local school board. Most basically it shows once again how important is your vote in school board elections to ensure independent members of your community are elected to represent you, the parent, and thwart any efforts by your local teachers union or the state organization to control your school district.

For elected school board members it is a wake up call to get stronger rules for dismissal in their contracts with their teachers' unions. Reading the Times article detailing case after case of incompetent, or worse borderline sexual predator, teachers retaining their jobs for years while districts go through the process to dismiss them one wonders why we even have school boards at all. If an employer cannot take measures to ensure the safety, physical and emotional, of its charges from its employees then the system is broken. School boards across the state need to restructure their contracts to eliminate most of the process needed to dismiss teachers currently being protected by their unions and they processes installed in their collective bargaining contracts.

For members of our State Legislature this article is a wake up call that the gig is up. The relationship between the teachers' unions across the state and by the huge statewide umbrella to which most of the locals tithe, the vaunted California Teachers' Association, and funds funnelled from teachers' paychecks to the Democratic Party, its candidates and propositions it supports is evident. And thanks to the Los Angeles Times article, many parents will begin to see the correlation to the candidates supported by the unions and the inept teacher who may be teaching their child. Voters will begin to connect the dots between the over-protective laws handcuffing their district administration preventing them from firing the teacher making lewd and lascivious comments and actions to their daughter. As part of the upcoming process to break down and untangle the relationships and spending mandates that have led our state to a financial abyss, pressure should also be put on the legislature to change the laws restricting the ability of bad teachers to be dismissed.

As for teachers, this article begins to crack the veneer they have ably constructed that has held them as a protected class above criticism because of the noble profession in which they engage. The connection between their unions and the buying of officials enacting laws protecting bad teachers at the expense of our children is fully exposed. Millions and millions of teachers' salaries have been collected through automatic payroll deductions and syphoned to candidates and propositions without any real input for the majority of teachers. And the results are disastrous for those in the profession as evidenced by the budget cuts throughout school districts throughout the state. Propped up by millions of dollars every election the large majority in Sacramento has spent, spent and then spent some more until we arrived at our current budget crisis. Every school district budget cut can be laid at the feet of the number one contributor to those currently in office in Sacramento: teachers' unions. Spending millions to elect anyone with (D) next to their name. Los Angeles Unified is looking at laying off perhaps a thousand teachers or more--whose fault is that? The same people whose elections to office in Sacramento were paid for by those teachers being laid off.

The average teacher when asked about their political contributions or their local union politics typically replies, "I don't get involved in that." And they don't, they just blindly tithe to the apparatus that has screwed them with budget cuts and allows bad teachers to be in the classroom next to theirs. The system is broken, and it was broken by those who are supposed to look after the best interest of all teachers and work with our communities to instruct our children. It was broken by organized labor in conjunction with their political allies who cared more about the power of the whole instead of the good of the community.

Our teachers' unions have way to much power in our state. Voters need to stand up and take back their school boards and insist their elected officials protect their children first and teachers' second. There is no excuse for a pedophile or totally incompetent teacher standing in front of your child for six hours a day--and s/he will remain there as long as the CTA and its locals retain the control they have on our state political systems.

Should a local school board hold firm in negotiations at contract time to make it easier to dismiss those teachers who clearly need dismissal you can count on the local union to spend significant amounts of funds in a public relations campaign vilifying the school board. They will spend the funds of the many, many, many quality educators who are their members to protect the few who deserve no such protection. Vocal members of the local will campaign on campuses and at meetings pulling out the "woe are we the teachers" argument, and many of those voices will be from some of those being protected.

As a parent of children in the Long Beach Unified School District I am willing to undergo some short term pain for long term gain. If the LBUSD board draws a firm line in negotiations demanding easier resolution to dismissals that save time and needed funds for the district and more quickly eliminates bad teachers I will support them. If the Teachers Association of Long Beach, the local union, makes this a strike point and threaten to walk out over the issue I say: let them. Let the union take the position of closing down the district to spare the jobs of a few teachers. Let them show the public, their members and the students they would rather every student suffer than allow a few bad teachers be eliminated from the classrooms.

It is time for parents and the voters to take back control of the education of our children and wrest as much of that control away from Sacramento where control has been usurped by the CTA. Contact your local school board representative and tell him or her: I support you, change this insidious process.