Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Legislative hearing today on initiative reform

This morning I'm participating in a joint hearing of the State Senate and Assembly elections committees, which will explore whether California needs initiative reform. The hearing is taking place at the State Capitol, Room 3191, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Other speakers include Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California, and author Peter Schrag. Here is the agenda. A live webcast of the hearing will be available on the California Channel.

CA Constitutional Convention Summit coverage

I spent most of my day yesterday at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Sacramento where hundreds of people from all over the state convened to talk about whether California needs a constitutional convention. Though I saw a lot of familiar faces in the crowd, there were many people from out of town, including an array of local elected officials. While there was no consensus on that larger question of whether to call a summit, there was a lot of information provided about how a Constitutional convention could be convened, and debate about what topics would be considered.

Read John Wildermuth's story in today's San Francisco Chronicle or Eric Bailey's story in the Los Angeles Times for more details on yesterday's summit, and see the Bay Area Council's (the convening organization) Q&A document for information about the process.

CVF Redistricting reform letter, upcoming hearings

Last week I sent this letter on behalf of the California Voter Foundation to the Bureau of State Audits, which is responsible for implementing many provisions of Proposition 11, the redistricting reform initiative passed by voters last November. CVF's letter comments on the Applicant Review Panel, the Commission Application Process, Random Selection, Transparency in and Public Access to the Process, Funding, and Independent Voters. CVF board member Joseph Lorenzo Hall also submitted a letter, commenting on random selection issues.

This CVF-NEWS provides additional information about this process and upcoming public meetings in San Francisco (this Friday, February 27 and Sacramento (next Tuesday, March 3 in the Secretary of State's auditorium).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bay Area Council & others to host a Constitutional Convention summit

Next Tuesday, February 24 in Sacramento, an unusual event will be taking place. The Bay Area Council, along with a number of other nonpartisan organizations, is hosting a Constitutional Convention Summit, which will gather the state’s top leaders to review research, discuss the process, begin building a coalition to support a possible convention, and solicit ideas about what should be included in the convention. Visit the Council's web site for more details about the goals of this event. Admission is $89. A draft agenda is also available.

Statewide special election may be called this year

Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle featured this story by John Wildermuth reporting on the coming special election needed to get voter approval on a number of components of the new budget deal passed this morning by the Legislature.

Regardless of when a new budget deal gets passed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger still is going to need help from California's voters to close the state's $42 billion budget gap, and that help may not be easy to come by.

Although the Legislature spent the weekend in nearly continuous session, trying to find the votes to pass the new fiscal plan, legislators still face the prospect of putting billions of dollars in borrowing, revenue shifts and budget revisions on the ballot in a statewide special election later this year.

"Several key components of the budget agreements need to go back to the voters because they're revisions of ballot measures the voters originally approved," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

A special election vote will be anything but a slam dunk.

The biggest item on the ballot will be a plan that allows the state to borrow $5 billion and repay it with future revenues from the state lottery. When California voters authorized the lottery in 1984, its sole purpose was to bring in extra money for state schools.

The new ballot measure would allow the state to use the lottery "to provide funds for other public purposes" and borrow against future revenues.

But 61 percent of likely voters opposed the lottery borrowing in a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, showing how much work the governor has to do to turn those numbers around.

Other measures expected to be on the ballot for the special election, which doesn't yet have a date, include revisions to 1998's Proposition 10, a measure by movie director Rob Reiner that put a 50-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes for new children's programs, and 2004's Proposition 63, which taxed the richest Californians to support new mental health programs.

There's also a future cap on state spending, which would set a limit on budget increases and put any additional money into a rainy-day fund for tough financial times. Another measure would tinker with Proposition 98, which sets a minimum funding level for California schools.

The spending cap, a favorite of Republicans, is an especially important part of the puzzle. Most of the new taxes now are slated to last for four or five years. But if the spending cap doesn't pass, they will disappear after two years.

"There's a real danger that all the people who don't like what was done in the budget will get together and fight the ballot measures," said Tony Quinn, a former GOP consultant who is currently co-editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which follows state political campaigns. "This could be a real hard sell."

Potential opposition is already forming.

Monday, February 9, 2009

NYT analysis on Prop. 8 donor disclosures

Sunday's New York Times Business section featured this column, "Prop 8 Donor Web Site Shows Disclosure Law Is 2-Edged Sword", by Brad Stone, discussing how the disclosures of Prop. 8 donors' personal information is challenging long-standing open government ideals. Excerpts are below.

For the backers of Proposition 8, the state ballot measure to stop single-sex couples from marrying in California, victory has been soured by the ugly specter of intimidation.

Some donors to groups supporting the measure have received death threats and envelopes containing a powdery white substance, and their businesses have been boycotted.

The targets of this harassment blame a controversial and provocative Web site,

The site takes the names and ZIP codes of people who donated to the ballot measure — information that California collects and makes public under state campaign finance disclosure laws — and overlays the data on a Google map.

Visitors can see markers indicating a contributor’s name, approximate location, amount donated and, if the donor listed it, employer. That is often enough information for interested parties to find the rest — like an e-mail or home address. The identity of the site’s creators, meanwhile, is unknown; they have maintained their anonymity. is the latest, most striking example of how information collected through disclosure laws intended to increase the transparency of the political process, magnified by the powerful lens of the Web, may be undermining the same democratic values that the regulations were to promote.

With tools like eightmaps — and there are bound to be more of them — strident political partisans can challenge their opponents directly, one voter at a time. The results, some activists fear, could discourage people from participating in the political process altogether.

That is why the soundtrack to is a loud gnashing of teeth among civil libertarians, privacy advocates and people supporting open government. The site pits their cherished values against each other: political transparency and untarnished democracy versus privacy and freedom of speech.

“When I see those maps, it does leave me with a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which has advocated for open democracy. “This is not really the intention of voter disclosure laws. But that’s the thing about technology. You don’t really know where it is going to take you.”

Ms. Alexander and many Internet activists have good reason to be queasy. California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, and laws like it across the country, sought to cast disinfecting sunlight on the political process by requiring contributions of more than $100 to be made public.

Eightmaps takes that data, formerly of interest mainly to social scientists, pollsters and journalists, and publishes it in a way not foreseen when the open-government laws were passed. As a result, donors are exposed to a wide audience and, in some cases, to harassment or worse.


Joseph Clare, a San Francisco accountant who donated $500 to supporters of Proposition 8, said he had received several e-mail messages accusing him of “donating to hate.” Mr. Clare said the site perverts the meaning of disclosure laws that were originally intended to expose large corporate donors who might be seeking to influence big state projects.

“I don’t think the law was designed to identify people for direct feedback to them from others on the other side,” Mr. Clare said. “I think it’s been misused.”

Many civil liberties advocates, including those who disagree with his views on marriage, say he has a point. They wonder if open-government rules intended to protect political influence of the individual voter, combined with the power of the Internet, might be having the opposite effect on citizens.

“These are very small donations given by individuals, and now they are subject to harassment that ultimately makes them less able to engage in democratic decision making,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California.


“The key here is developing a process that balances the sometimes competing goals of transparency and privacy,” said the professor, Ned Moran, whose undergraduate class on information privacy spent a day discussing the eightmaps site last month.

“Both goals are essential for a healthy democracy,” he said, “and I think we are currently witnessing, as demonstrated by eightmaps, how the increased accessibility of personal information is disrupting the delicate balance between them.”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

California initiative campaigns cost $227 million

The Associated Press' Steve Lawrence wrote this recent article about the amount of money spent on California propositions in the last election. Excerpts are below.

The rest of California's economy was slumping, but the state remained a treasure-trove last fall for campaign consultants and others who make money off political races.

That's short of the record but still represents a huge investment in television and radio advertisements and other campaign spending.

"That's a lot of money," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based think tank that studies campaign finance issues.

The record for spending on ballot measures in one California election was set in 2006, when donors poured $333 million into campaigns for and against 13 propositions on the November ballot.

A 12th proposal on last November's ballot, which authorized the sale of $900 million in bonds to finance veterans' home loans, attracted little or no spending.

It was just the opposite in the campaign over Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban that passed with 52 percent of the vote. Supporters and opponents spent more than $83 million, making it the most expensive ballot measure on a social issue in the nation's history.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit organization, said the fundraising for and against Proposition 8 was unlike anything she has seen in her 15 years tracking campaign spending.

"It was a truly nationwide, grassroots effort on both sides," she said.

The record for spending on a single California proposition also was set in 2006, when $154.3 million was spent in the fight over Proposition 87, which would have imposed a tax on oil production.

California ballot initiatives often generate huge amounts of spending because the effect — win or lose — can ripple across the nation.

"And industry groups that are affected by these measures know that the stakes are high, that if something pops out of the initiative process in California it's something that other states and the federal government will notice," Alexander said.

Industry groups weighed in heavily on two unsuccessful energy-related measures on last November's ballot, propositions 7 and 10.

Three utility companies, Edison International, PG&E Corp. and Sempra Energy, provided almost all of the $29.8 million spent to defeat Proposition 7, which would have required utilities to get at least half their electricity from renewable energy sources such as windmills and solar panels by 2025.

Supporters spent $9.6 million, $9 million of which came from Peter Sperling, senior vice president of the Apollo Group, which operates several private universities, including the University of Phoenix.

National gas companies, including Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens' Clean Energy Fuels Corp., contributed 98 percent of the $22.8 million spent to promote Proposition 10. Among other things, it would have authorized the sale of $5 billion in state bonds to provide rebates to buyers of natural gas and other alternative-fuel vehicles.

Opponents said it would have benefited Pickens' fuel company and similar ones. They spent just $173,000 but emerged victorious.

Other high-dollar initiative campaigns included:

_ Proposition 2, which set enclosure standards for farm animals. Supporters spent $10.6 million, opponents $8.9 million.

_ Proposition 4, a third unsuccessful attempt by abortion opponents to require parental notification before a minor could get an abortion. Supporters spent $3.2 million, opponents $9.5 million.

_ Proposition 5, which attempted to expand drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. Supporters spent $7.6 million, opponents $2.8 million.

_ Proposition 11, which created a state commission to redraw legislative districts following each national census. Supporters spent $16.6 million, opponents $1.6 million.