Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mendocino County Measure F, End Corporate Rule, Defend Democracy

Measure F Official Title: Advisory Measure to End Corporate Rule and Defend Democracy

Mendocino County, California, election of November 6, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court, so far, is okay with our government telling us exactly how much lead can be in our drinking water; how far apart (and from what types of trees) studs must be in the houses we build; and what banners cheerleaders can hold up, or not hold up, at public school football games. But when it comes to political campaign contributions, the Court had ruled that almost anything goes.

The effect, of course, is to allow both the average citizens and billionaires the rights to give unlimited funds to use in political advertising. How much can you give? True, most politicians have always allowed themselves to be bought and sold like so many properties on a monopoly board. The recent change is that the Supreme Court says Congress cannot regulate campaign contributions even in its own elections (even though the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power of regulating the "manner" of elections in Article I, Section 4.). The election of 2012 is consequently being characterized by almost endless political advertisements funded by the criminally wealthy. Most of this "political free speech" as the Supreme Court would characterize it, is in the form of misleading attack ads.

The billionaires may be private citizens, but in almost every case their wealth was created by corporations. These corporations themselves, according to the Supreme Court, are persons with rights granted by the Constitution.

Imagine, however, if when the Mendocino County Building inspectors showed up, someone claimed that their construction project was a person, and therefore exempt from building codes. That the house has a right to build itself from sub-standard materiasl, for instance. That may seem absurd, but if the reasoning (if it can be called that) of the Supreme Court is taken to its logical conclusion, the housing result follows. Ultimately, by saying free speech implies a total lack of regulation, the Supremes argue that government should have no power whatsoever.

Why are corporations persons? Why, per the Supremes, because they are owned by persons, and to suppress the (alleged) rights of corporations would be to suppress the rights of the real human persons who own them.

Corporations are a form of property. You can buy or sell them like any other form of property. They have a legitimate purpose: to allow investors to share risks and rewards. There is nothing wrong with that in a barbaric, pre-utopian economy.

Proposition F takes the position, and allows the voters of Mendocino to take a position, saying the obvious: property is not a person. Property does not have free speech rights, or the right to freedom of religion, or the right to make political campaign donations.

A building is a piece of property. It can (and usually does) have multiple owners. Should personhood free buildings from regulation? Should city buildings be exempt from fire and safety codes?

Of course not. In a democracy we can argue endlessly about the details of the building codes, and the food and drug safety codes, and whether every child in every car must be strapped in a special seat meeting government regulations. But we need building codes, and food inspections, and the other trapping of civilization. Unless we want to abandon civilization itself.

We need to regulate campaigns, taking into account the needs of the candidates to have fair access to voters. And of the elected officials to represent all of the citizens, not just a few wealthy donors. We need to keep any particular group of people from buying the politicians who are supposed to represent all of us.

Measure F may only be an advisory measure, but it is sound advice.

William P. Meyers, Publisher and Editor, Mendoday.com

More information:

CaliforniaDemocracy.org pages on corporate personhood and related issues.

Move to Amend seeks to amend the Constitution to abolish corporate personhood and allow for the regulation of election campaigns.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yes on California Proposition 40, Uphold Redistricting

Official Title: Redistricting. State Senate Districts. Referendum.

Proposition 40

For decades the politicians in the state legislature wrote their own tickets on California legislative districts, and also for the U.S. Congress districts in the state. The results were a disaster. It was almost impossible to defeat an incumbent in an election. Almost all districts were either heavily Democratic Party or Republican Party dominated. In order to achieve this, the Democrats in the legislature gave up roughly 3 seats in U.S. Congress.

In 2008 and 2010 the voters approved Proposition 11 and Proposition 20, setting up an independent commission to draw district boundaries without respect to the needs of individual politicians.

Republican Party politicians did not like the results of redistricting. They put Proposition 40 on the ballot. A Yes votes approves the new districts (really just State Senate districts) while a No vote allows the California Supreme Court to appoint former judges to redo the redistricting.

Meanwhile the California Supreme Court has ruled that the State Senate districts under consideration will apply in this 2012 election. Proposition 40, in effect, needed to be on the primary ballot to be effective; being delayed, it now borders on the ridiculous.

Yes on 40, up hold the independent redistricting commission.

Proposition 40 summary, official arguments, and text

No on California Proposition 39, Public Funding of Energy Corporations

Official Title: Tax treatment for Multistate Businesses. Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency Funding. Initiative Statute.

Proposition 39 appears to close a corporate tax loophole, and it would fund renewable, or "clean" energy in the state of California. Since in general I have supported closing corporate tax loopholes, and favor the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, why am I not supporting Proposition 39?

The California corporate income tax loophole is complex. Few corporations operate only in California. Their revenues and expenses come partly, or even mostly, from out of state. Current laws allow corporations to pick from two methods to determine how much taxable income to report. Naturally each corporation picks the method that results in their lowest taxes. Proposition 39 would impose a uniform method on these calculations.

Proposition 39 should result in an additional $1 billion of tax expense to corporations and $1 billion of revenue to the state government. If Proposition 39 stopped there, it would be a good initiative.

However, 39 continues a California tradition of misgovernment by pre-determining how the new tax revenue will be spent. At this point the money should just go to paying reducing the annual deficit. Once we have an annual surplus, it should be used to pay down debt. Once debt is at a tolerable level, it should be used to create a "rainy day" fund.

Only if the California budget situation improves vastly over the next few years should the $1 billion be considered as money that can be spent by the government. And how should it be spent? We can't know that now.

Our budget is a mess partly because past initiatives have roped off funds, forcing them to be used in certain ways, for instance to pay off bonds or for public education. The alleged benefit of this earmarking of tax revenue is that without it the Legislature would go wild and fund frivolous bureaucracies and new tax loopholes, while ignoring core areas.

It has not worked and it will work less well as time goes on. As corrupt and incompetent as the Legislature has been, it is still better to allocate funds on an as-needed basis. Some human judgment is needed to allocate funds each year, and that becomes impossible when initiatives earmark the vast majority of taxes collected by the state.

Has "clean energy" been left out? Clean Energy is itself a corporate industry. It has been highly subsidized by the federal government. Closing one corporate loophole to raise funds to shower down on a particular (and very small) set of corporations is just plain crazy. Wrapping a corporate subsidy in the flag of environmentalism may be good politics, but it is bad governance.

No on 39, No taxpayer funded bailout to the energy industry.

Proposition 39 summary, official arguments, and text

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Yes on Proposition 38, Income Tax increases to Pay for Education

Official Title: Tax to Fund Education and Early Childhood Programs. Initiative Statute

Proposition 38 would increase California income tax rates to fund public education at every level as well as early childhood development programs. Education is good for individuals and is also at the heart of our democratic culture. Education funding went up during the housing boom, but even then was largely inadequate. It has declined since 2008, and is set to decline more next year if both Proposition 38 and Proposition 30 fail to pass.

The other side of the equation is: who will pay this tax? In California we already have a relatively high state income tax and state sales tax. The income tax, however, is quite progressive, so that low income families pay little or no tax. The problem for the state is that real estate taxes, which are the primary funding source for public schools, are not only capped, but in most cases seriously undervalue the real estate. In my mind reforming the old Proposition 13, which got us into this mess, would be a better way of raising funds. Apparently no one thinks a proposition amending 13 could pass muster with the voters.

Proposition 38 raises income taxes taxes by 0.4% at the low end ($7,316 for a single citizen, so about $35 per year, but at that level the exemption would bring the tax to zero). It progresses gradually, with the bulk of people probably in the $38,000 to $48,000 bracket being increased from 8% to 9.4%, about $500 per year. Currently the highest tax rate, 9.3% begins at $48,000. Proposition 38 would make for graduated increases in the top bracket up to a peak of 2.2% additional for those lucky folk making $2.5 million or more per year. That would be about $55,000 additional tax at that level.

Fair enough, but while the lower middle class in particular complains about high costs at state colleges, they don't want to be taxed to pay for it. A soak the rich scheme would have had a better chance of passing, but the middle class is so large that failing to increase its taxes really limits how much money can be raised.

Interestingly, the woman behind Proposition 38, Molly Munger, has a lot of money but did not get it through having a high income and saving parts of it. She inherited her vast fortune from Big Daddy Charlie Munger, best known for his association with Warren Buffet. California's inheritance tax is pretty minimal, but for some reason no one looks at that as a source of funding. And of course the rich, represented by Mitt Romney, want to end the national inheritance tax altogether.

Ms. Munger ran some attack ads against Proposition 30, which she sees as undercutting Proposition 38. Proposition 30 barely raises enough money to keep the education budget at current levels and balance future budgets, so you can see why teachers & professors mostly favor 38. The problem is 38 is unlikely to pass (because it taxes the working and middle classes). Attacking 30, causing it to fail along with 38, would be yet another disaster for our schools.

Vote for Proposition 38. It is the right thing to do. But your vote for Proposition 30 is the crucial one, as it has a better chance of passing.

Yes on 38, Increasing Income Tax Rates to Fund Education

Proposition 38 summary, official arguments, and text

Monday, October 15, 2012

Yes on California Proposition 36, Three Strikes Reform

Official Title: Three Strikes Law. Repeat Felony Offenders. Penalties. Initiative Statute

Proposition 36 would amend California's Three Strikes law, which was supposed to be aimed at career and habitually violent criminals but in addition gave life sentences to many whose offenses were not that grave.

Under the current law, if a person has two prior "serious" or violent felony convictions, upon a third felony conviction (not just a violent or serious one), the sentence is life imprisonment. Under this system two bar fights and a non-violent theft can result in life imprisonment.

Three felonies may seem like a lot to those who have led felony-free lives, but the point is to distinguish sets of felonies that should add up to life imprisonment. Under Proposition 36, if one of the felonies was rape, murder, or child molestation, the third felony still results in life imprisonment.

Proposition 36 will make changes for those whose two prior convictions were for less grievous felonies and whose 3rd strike is a "nonserious, non-violent" felony. Even then, the usual sentence for the 3rd strike would be doubled.

Will some offenders be set free and then go out and commit a fourth crime? Sure. And everyone starts with zero convictions, yet crimes occur. Do most crimes go unconvicted? Certainly. The clearance rates for murders tends to less than 10%, and those solved are usually the amateur murders, not the gang-related or professional ones. Most criminals are convicted of only a few of the crimes they have actually committed. Yet most eventually serve some prison time, if they are not murdered by other criminals, because the more offenses you do, the more likely the police are to take notice and eventually try and convict you.

Do many former criminals reform? Yes, actually. When we sentence someone to life imprisonment for relatively minor crimes, we are sending the wrong message. If the justice system is fair, and is perceived as fair, it is much easier to get broad public buy-in. If the justice system strikes people as unjust, many people will refuse to cooperate with police or prosecutors who might otherwise.

Proposition 36 appears to be well thought out. It won't do away with crime in California, but it will make the justice system fairer.

Yes on 36, Fix the Three Strikes Law

Proposition 36 summary, official arguments, and text

Sunday, October 14, 2012

No on Proposition 35, Human Trafficking

Official Title: Human Trafficking. Penalties. Initiative Statute

Proposition 35 increases the penalties on "human trafficking," which means forced prostitution and slave labor. In the case of prostitution, it would not seem to apply to people who are freelance, voluntary prostitutes, but would apply to pimps, traffickers and kidnappers.

Slavery, and especially sexual slavery, are bad things. They are already illegal and the punishments are not light. The problem seems to be enforcement, which has usually been a low priority. In this time of tax resistance and cutbacks, it has been nearly nonexistent.

Sadly, human trafficking is a black-market business that responds to the laws of supply and demand. Even if there are more convictions, and longer sentences if Proposition 35 passes, there will be plenty of soldier-businessmen to step in and continue the practice.

Stiffer penalties may actually endanger the girls the law is presumed to protect. The girls are witnesses and often rightly afraid to testify given the brutality of their owners. With the stakes raised, owners would have greater incentive to murder anyone they suspected would testify against them.

I admire the people who put this issue to the California voters. However, I think it would be better to enforce the current laws. How you force overburdened police to prioritize this, I don't know.

So my No is not a strong No. If you think heavier penalties will do anything about this evil, then you should vote Yes.

Another solution would be to legalize and regulate prostitution, as is done in Nevada. Even then, however, we would need to keep the laws against sex slavery, and of course against sexual coercion of minors.

No on 35, Don't increase human trafficking penalties.

Proposition 35 summary, official arguments, and text

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Yes on California Proposition 34, abolish the Death Penalty

Official Title: Death Penalty. Initiative Statute

Proposition 34 repeals the death penalty in the State of California, replacing it with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

 Killing people is wrong, no matter who does it. Even in war, once an enemy soldier is captured, the rules of war forbid killing the prisoner.

 Some people may truly seem to deserve the death penalty, but they are the exception. The death penalty commonly is given to those who cannot afford good lawyers.

We know innocent people have been convicted and executed by our legal system. That is unacceptable.

 If I could make an exception for imposing the death penalty, it would be for Class A War Criminals, which is those powerful leaders who plan and engage in war. However many Americans have been such Class A War Criminals in our history, not one has been brought to justice, much less sentenced to death.

The death penalty is barbaric. It has been abolished in most civilized nations.

It may not be in our power to abolish it in the United States of America, but we can at least abolish it in the State of California.

 Yes on 34, Repeal the Death Penalty

Proposition 34 summary, official arguments, and text

Monday, October 8, 2012

No on California Proposition 32

Official Title: Political Contributions by Payroll Deduction. Contributions to Candidates.
Initiative Statute

Proposition 32 is supposed to look like a good campaign finance reform law, but instead it is an act of class warfare designed to get working-class money, what little there still is of it, out of politics. It pretends to limit corporate money in California elections, but does not.

Proposition 32's main point is banning political contributions using payroll deductions from both unions and corporations. But corporations don't impose payroll deductions for political purposes. Direct corporate contributions would come out of shareholder's profits. Most "corporate" contributions are actually personal contributions by management and shareholders.

Union payroll deductions are actually union dues. Without payroll dues deductions it would be almost impossible to fund unions. Ask the Wobblies, or Industrial Workers of the World, who became largely irrelevant in the 1920's largely because they insisted that workers pay dues voluntarily to the union each month, rather than through payroll deductions. Payroll dues deductions are part of the deal when a business recognizes that its employees have decided to be represented through a union.

This does lead to some problems, ranging from union bureaucrats paying themselves more like CEOs than like the workers they represent, to the problem of some workers paying to finance the campaigns of candidates or issues they disagree with.

I might support a law that prevented rich people from buying elections, and also restricted the use of union dues to directly representing the workers to their employers.

California Proposition 32 is not that law. It places no meaningful restrictions on rich people or corporate management or stockholders. It would kill funding of pro-union and pro-worker candidates.

No on 32, Save Our Right to Organize and Be Represented

Proposition 32 summary, official arguments, and text

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Yes on California Proposition 31


Proposition 31 reforms the California state budget process and adds flexibility to local government implementations of state mandates.

For over a decade every year the California State legislature has been late passing budgets. Often the partisan-driven deadlock in Sacramento has resulted in government workers and vendors receiving vouchers instead of paychecks. Partly that is the responsibility of voters who have sent uncompromising fools to represent them.

At least if Proposition 31 passes we will only have to go through the fiasco every two years, instead of each year. This also lines up budgets with elections for the State Assembly, which are held every two years.
The administration of state-funded programs by local governments has also become something of a nightmare and boondoggle. Proposition 31 cannot fix this, but it does have provisions to allow local governments to work together to tweek their procedures. Hopefully for the better.

31 also allows the Governor to reduce spending when there is an unexpected shortage of funds. That could have solved a lot of problems if it had been in place before the recession.

As usual, the text of Prop 31 is long and complicated, so opposers can find details to dislike.

Quoting the Argument in Favor, "Proposition 31 requires a real balanced budget." It actually makes more sense to build surpluses during good economic times and then spend during recessions, but what we have now is overspending all the time, which is leading us to disaster.

The Argument Against says Proposition 31 "will lead to lawsuits and confusion." That is not much of an argument: all law leads to lawsuits and confusion. We still want the best laws we can write. Most of the arguments against 31 seem to be scare tactics, rather than based on the actual likely effects of the law.

Yes on 31, Reform the California Budget system.

Proposition 31 summary, official arguments, and text