May 2009


The final measure of the six proposition budget bail-out is Proposition 1F which would forbid pay raises for officials when there is a projected deficit. Although the legislators who have spawned this nightmare ballot are purportedly the highest paid in the nation refusing to give them raises isn’t going to save any money, it just doesn’t spend any more. We’re not talking about keeping billions of dollars in the General Fund, either, just enough to make the gesture.

What is that gesture? The legislators want to show they understand we’re all suffering and we all must sacrifice. I won’t be getting a raise at work this year and neither will anyone else. Sacramento wants to show that they’re not going to get raises when times are hard too. I’d like to vote no just to spit in their face but really, why not just put it in the books?

What should happen is pay cuts, at least to bring California’s government salaries into line with the rest of the nation. Maybe dock pay, as many have suggested, when there’s a budget impasse. Others have proposed halting campaign contributions during budget stale-mates. These are good ideas, and much more effective than refusing to give the rich and well connected a raise during deficit years. Sacramento understands this and notice how these are not included in the proposition. I’ll suck it up and vote for the tossed bone but if anyone tries to rub my belly I’m taking the hand with me.

Image from the Sacramento Bee by Brian Baer.

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Children and the mentally disturbed are very similar in that they are both difficult to navigate around on a crowded sidewalk. Perhaps this is why Propositions 1D and 1E have been written, two initiatives which would divert funding from two previous amendments and direct that money into the General Fund.

Back in 1998 Proposition 10 placed a half-buck tax on packs of cigarettes to fund the First 5 program, an umbrella fund for localized children’s health and education programs. Critics argue that the nebulous funding for these programs has no accountability but there are many programs which help lower-class families by providing daycare and health clinics for children which were started with First 5 monies. If you see cracks in the system work on sealing the cracks, not destroying everything.

Possibly more reprehensible is Proposition 1E which would suspend funding approved in 2004 which taxes millionaires an additional 1% for mental health programs. The temptation is that this would be a two-year suspension and that funding would return as originally intended; proponents of this initiative also point out that many of the programs receiving Proposition 63 funds are still in development while established programs are facing cuts. However, there are drop-in centers and other programs which are already working with the funding and opponents are wise to suggest without these safeguards in place the police would begin spending more time dealing with the mentally ill who have been left out in the cold.

I understand that these are desperate times but passing two measures which strip funding from special programs established to protect the most vulnerable is the same as kicking them out of the way to hop in a lifeboat. We’re supposed to carry the people who can’t walk, not toss them aside for a little under $500 million.

Photo from a Time article on mental illness, taken by JoeFox / Alamy

Feeling lucky? State legislators were when they included $5 billion in this year’s budget that’s not in pocket. That sum was supposed to be delivered from the passage of Proposition 1C, a bizarre piece of legislation attempting to beef up the State’s lottery and sell the possible profits to the futures market.

Since 1984 California has had its lottery available to all dreamers and alcoholics. Payments to winners were capped at 50% of the revenue and schools received what was left over after operating costs. Lawmakers have examined other states’ much more successful lotteries and decided that offering bigger prizes would attract more players and boost income. Interesting concept– I’ve never voted on a proposition that had a clause about funding a gambling addiction hotline, but okay.

But wait, there’s so much more. The lawmakers decided to sell future profits from the lottery tickets for a quick fix of cash to cover this year’s budget shortfall. Ah, the greenest pasture in the land, the futures market, could now gamble on California’s gambling. How can lawmakers sell such a pie? Cutting education funding out of the equation.

It’s not as bleak as all that, the education funding lost by selling the lottery to investors would be replaced by a lump sum payment from the General Fund (which is empty) and then readjusted afterwards by evaluating attendance and cost-of-living standards. Right now money that schools receive from the lottery are based on the amount of money spent on the lottery. In the future this money will be from the General Fund with a bottom baseline guarantee. Which means that in the future California may find itself in similar financial straights as right now and still owe a guarantee once floated by ticket sales.

I’m not ethically opposed to state sponsored gambling– hell, maybe the Indian casinos could help bail us out. However, I am opposed to the idea of selling futures to investors, especially when the budget analysts concede the payback would span 20-30 years and would most likely result in having to pay out from the General Fund. The same fund that also guarantees additional education funding which was once covered by lottery sales. The profits of which were sold long ago for a couple billion dollars to shore up a bad budget by lawmakers who had created a ballot measure that received advertising from a gambling machine company.

Image from the California Lottery website, unattributed.

You want politics? California has politics and Proposition 1B is this year’s winner for most blatant bought and sold measure of the election. The inclusion of this initiative was an attempt to appease the California Teachers Association who have been threatening legal action over educational funding. The hook was tying this to Proposition 1A; if voters reject 1A, which they likely will, 1B cannot take effect even if it passes. If you were wondering why the CTA is advocating the entire budgeting package being voted on, this is your answer.

The short version is that the voter approved Proposition 98 guarantees school funding except for particular circumstances, such as nearing bankruptcy. As revenues have declined sharply over the last year or two the funding for schools suffered and there’s legal ambiguities as how this matter should be resolved. The placing of Prop 1B was a pacifying measure that would pay schools back the lost budget which has the side-effect of also raising minimum funding guarantees in the future. So if the state is broke in two years time there would be no legal ambiguities– the money would have to be produced.

I’m all for education and frankly my experience with the public school system here suggests they could do with the money. However laying a blanket over a fire isn’t a way to put the fire out, it just sends the blanket up in flames.

Image from Fight Crime.org, taken by Duncan McIntosh. Stolen from fight crime, ha!

The cornerstone of California’s upcoming special election is Proposition 1A, a constitutional amendment regarding the State’s budgeting practices. It’s a complicated agreement made between Democrats and Republicans desperate to sign off on a budget, and the legislation reeks of stale sweat and bad nerves. The major components:

The rainy day fund would more than double in size from 5% to 12.5% of the General Fund. Portions of the fund would be used to fund education and the rest would be set aside for either disaster relief or as insurance against future budget crises.

Temporary increases in sales taxes (SF went from 8.5% to 9.5%), vehicle licensing fees and income tax would be extended, the first for a year and the others for two.

California’s governor would be given powers to circumvent legislation and make budget cuts. (more…)

On Tuesday, May 19th, California voters will be invited to participate in a lose-lose election. The emergency ballot initiatives 1A-1F are a concerted effort thrown together by State legislators to soften the blow of looming debts and declining revenues, and many are saying it’s a hard pill we have to swallow to prevent utter bankruptcy.

Governor Schwarzenegger held a press conference on Thursday to intimidate voters by outlines his proposed cuts should the measures fail, then included all of the disastrous cuts which will be made if the measures pass. Major newspapers are backing the passage, holding their noses while writing their opinion pieces.

No one can deny that these are dire straits, but many are arguing how to cope with a projected $21+ billion deficit. If all propositions pass the deficit would be reduced to a projected $15.4-billion, hence the damned if you do, damned if you don’t atmosphere surrounding the special election.

Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome (and polls are sinking five of the six) the State would still borrow $6 billion for debts and make sweeping cuts to education and health, cut government staff and sell off property including San Quentin State Prison. Schwarzenegger plans on diverting an estimated 23,000 state prisoners into county systems as well as handing over 19,000 undocumented prisoners (presumably people incarcerated for being undocumented) to the Feds. He has also proposed drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Many of the contingency cuts will simply be increases to those proposed no matter the outcome of the election. The thickest neck on the chopping block belongs to education and lawmakers are scrambling to manipulate numbers to maximize their ability to reduce funds. State Finance Director Mike Genest is pushing for an immediate $1 billion cut from school budgets by the end of the quarter to decrease the required funding for next year’s budget. Meanwhile the State is examining larger cuts while mindful of Federal requirements in education funding for stimulus money. Critics rightfully criticize the Governor’s team’s suggestion that stimulus money can compensate schools as the bailout is intended to stimulate the economy, not provide debt relief.

An additional $2 billion could be borrowed from county governments already suffering from empty coffers and more people turning to public services. The decision to remand state prisoners into county jurisdiction is especially offensive because it passes costs to local governments while picking their pockets. These forced loans would have to be repaid within three years, assuming that California is able to miraculously rebound in that time frame after removing much of the security net many residents are clinging to while impoverishing county governments.

No one is going to win on Tuesday. There are no candidates up for office, at least not in San Francisco, and turnout is likely to be very low. However, given the grave nature of this special election I feel it’s of the utmost importance to sign my name, cast my ballot and share in the experience of riding the sinking ship down. If my polling station hasn’t been shut down– budget cuts have already reduced the number in town with warnings that more, last minute closures can be made.

Photo is by Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press via The Los Angeles Times

The Big Sell Out

Okay, not officially a sell out because I work for free, but as of today I am now a quasi-official writer for Wired’s Raw File, the photography department’s new blog. Yes, blog. But that’s fine because it’s affiliated with a major print and online magazine which I hope translates into actual journalistic credit down the road. Because I fully intend on selling out to whatever degree possible in the world of journalism 2.0 or whatever the fuck it’s called.

My first posting was about some recent challenges photographers have been facing in the UK. Police have been citing recent changes or additions to anti-terrorism legislation to harass both press and amateur snappers, completely against the spirit of the law and democracy. Journalists have also been complaining of having their attempts to cover the rash of protests throughout England either foiled by police blockades or dangerous because of police batons; some press photographers have been hospitalized while working in London.

And important topic and I’m glad I was able to pull something of this magnitude for my first offering. Thanks to my friend and editor Keith who landed me the opportunity, then hacked and sawed and stitched my drivel into a publishable news piece. I would encourage you all to take a gander to make me look good in front of the editorial team I’ve never met, but don’t feel obliged to comment because that would just be embarrassing.

An also, if you catch wind of any story remotely involving photography please feel free to hip me. I’m not a photographer, don’t follow photographers, and have very little understanding of what it entails. This makes me a poor choice for The Raw File but hopefully I’ll be able to continue pitching ideas that pass

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