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01.23.08

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Photograph by Eric Thayer/Getty Images
Mr. Rights: Barack Obama at a Jan. 21 civil rights parade in South Carolina.

Poll Dance

This election season, don't believe anything you hear about term limits or casinos. Our endorsements for the Feb. 5 measures and candidates.

by Metro Santa Cruz staff


On Feb. 5, dubbed "Tsunami Tuesday" by the achingly clever pundit class, California will join 23 other states at the polls in the biggest single day of primary voting in the nation's history. That's some clout. So let's hope more Californians make it to the voting booth this year than in March 2004, when only about 30 percent of eligible voters found the strength within to drive to a polling place or even just lick a stamp. Those who do choose powerfully to get off their bums two Tuesdays hence will find the most interesting presidential primary race in recent memory and a tidy collection of confusing state measures, as well as several local pleas for education money. In these pages we attempt to shed light on some of the more perplexing issues on this year's ballot. Following are Metro Santa Cruz's endorsements of the state, local and presidential measures and candidates.

PROPOSITION 91
Transportation Funding
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: YES

Voters love earmarked fees and taxes—and officeholders resist them—for precisely the same reason: they control exactly how funds must be spent. The public likes it when overdue-book fines to go solely to libraries and bridge tolls pay only for better bridges. But electeds, always looking for bucks to bridge some budget gap, feel bound and boxed in by these limits. As a result, the public and its servants struggle regularly over earmarking.

Prop. 91, surnamed "Transportation Funds. Constitutional Amendment and Statute," is the latest child of the longstanding argument over where the approximately $3.3 billion collected annually in state gasoline and diesel fuel taxes should go. Most officeholders want it to go into the general fund. Voters want to see it pay for roads and taxes.

In March of 2002 voters approved Prop. 42, which steered fuel taxes into a special fund solely for transportation projects, dedicated 40 percent of funds to critical state projects and 20 percent each to counties, cities and public transit, and allegedly prohibited raiding the fund except for financial emergency.

But victory was premature, as it turns out that Prop. 42, written in large part by legislators, offered such loose definitions of "emergency" that within the next five years the governor and legislature had already declared two of them and proceeded to strip the transportation fund of an entire year's worth of revenue.

So a couple of years ago, taxpayer groups, transit riders and the construction industry started again, and wrote and circulated a much tighter version in the form of Prop. 91, hoping to permanently end those funding raids.

Once again, though, the Legislature offered a "solution" in the form of its own Proposition 1A, which purported to tighten the rules by limiting emergencies to two per decade and require repayment of any raided monies within three years. It passed in November 2006.

Apparently not noticing that Prop. 1A still allows funds to be raided six out of every 10 years, Prop. 91 petition organizers declared themselves content, turned in what they imagined was an inadequate number of voter signatures and declared their much tighter version "not needed." In fact, they say exactly that in the official state ballot pamphlet.

But then two significant developments occurred. First, the proportion of valid voter signatures supporting Prop. 91 turned out to be so much greater than usual that it qualified for, and by law had to appear on, the ballot anyway. Second, early this month, the governor and legislators once again began nibbling at the transportation funding lockbox. It looks like the raiding is likely to begin again. Transit agencies, overall, are staying out of the fight. Luis Mendez, deputy director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, told Metro Santa Cruz that the group "has not taken a position." But numerous transit users groups, including Southern California Transit Advocates, do take a position; namely, that the much tighter limits imposed by Prop. 91—no long-term borrowing, no constant emergencies and full repayment within 30 days of each new budget—are the only way to bring the raids under control. We agree with the transit riders: without the tightest possible rules, fuel taxes will continue to be raided—and therefore recommend a YES vote on Proposition 91.

PROPOSITION 92
Community College Funding
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: YES

The question here is whether to leave community college funding lumped in with K-12 money or let it move out and get its own apartment, administratively speaking. A yes vote means an imminent trip to Ikea—separate funding, more money for community colleges in the future and an immediate reduction in fees from $20 per credit to $15.

It's a sad thing to see educators fight over money, but that's what happens when there isn't enough. Right now the state, under Prop. 98, spends 40 percent of its general fund on K-14 education. California's 109 community colleges get roughly 10 percent of that pie; K-12 gets the other 90 percent. The way the community colleges figure it, the formula for determining that split is unfair (it's tagged to K-12 enrollment—community college enrollment doesn't count) and has cost them $2 billion since 1988.

The community colleges want to break away and tie future funding to the state's young adult population rather than enrollment figures. They also want to lower fees by $5 per credit, the better to serve all those bright young minds. Altogether that means at least an extra $300 million per year.

There are good arguments against Prop. 92, chief among them that it's silent on the subject of where that extra money will come from. Kind of a huge problem this year. As a result, the main opponents are the UC and CSU governing boards and the California Teachers Association, all of whom fear the community colleges will take money from their own strapped schools and universities.

But the community colleges need a promotion. For too long they've been an afterthought, considered an optional extension of high school. Supporters of this measure like to say community colleges are a gateway to the middle class. They're also a crucial public institution as California strives to stay competitive in a recalibrating global economy.

California's budget is going to need some fixing, with or without the financial burden this measure imposes. Meanwhile, California's future deserves an investment. Vote YES on Prop. 92.

PROPOSITION 93
Term Limits
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: NO

It's natural to want to keep a good guy in office, and Santa Cruz has a tradition of electing excellent representatives. It's bad public policy, however, to support general legislation to protect one elected official or district. And Prop. 93 is seriously flawed because it affects the careers of sitting legislators rather than create a sensible public policy for the future.

Nothing on this ballot is generating as much confusion as Prop. 93 among California voters. And that's no accident—it's by design. Prop. 93 is the initiative process at its worst: a measure written to insulate this state's elected officials from checks on their power, then spun around to be sold as term-limit reform. In truth, the only significant thing this measure will do to the terms of California's lawmakers is increase them: from six to 12 maximum years in the Assembly, and 8 to 12 years in the Senate. It will also allow dozens of legislators who would term out this year to do an end-run around term limits via a so-called "transition period."

Now, it's not that we don't like many of these seat holders, and in fact we're sorry to see some of them go, especially our own 27th District Assemblyman John Laird, whose work on the budget and the environment has been an asset to the entire state. But there's a reason term limits are so popular with voters. They blunt the system's ridiculous incumbent advantage and promote accountability to the electorate while promoting new energy and ideas (in part, we have term limits to thank for the high number of women and minority lawmakers now in Sacramento). Critics of the current restrictions fret over the fate of the state's best political minds, but if years of seeing term limits in action have taught us anything, it's that a talented state politician facing one will usually find another job in public service.

The antics of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata haven't helped the cause. The two drummed up the measure, went back on a pledge to couple it with redistricting and then got the California primary moved back to February to allow them to run again in June if it passes. The governor's flip-flopping endorsement last week doesn't pass the sniff test, either.

We're put off by this measure, whose biggest backers include unions and tribal gaming interests and which appears to be little more than a move to save the powerful jobs of a select few. That's why Metro Santa Cruz recommends a NO vote on Prop. 93.

PROPOSITIONS 94-97
Tribal Gaming Compacts
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: NO

Propositions 94-97 are essentially identical, differing only in which of the so-called Big Four tribes will benefit if approved. (Prop. 96 also allows one tribe to build a second casino on recently purchased adjacent nonreservation land; this is unlikely in the near future.) These four Southern California tribes—the Pechanga, Morongo, Sycuan and Agua Caliente—already have casinos with 2,000 slot machines apiece, so these propositions are not about the introduction of gambling into communities. What they are about is the state of California's blind, unbridled avarice (or is that desperation?) when it comes to the lure of gambling monies sluicing into the state's General Fund.

The Pechanga and Morongo tribes are each seeking to increase their slot machine inventory to 7,500; the Sycuan and Agua Caliente to 5,000. Proponents claim their contributions to the state could accordingly rise to an estimated $9 billion over the next 20 years, or about $450 million a year. But that's not for certain, since the responsibility for figuring out how much to send to the state each year would rest with the tribes' very own selves. Comforting thought, that. In an election year in which billion-with-a-b is the terrifying cry of the deficit battle, lawmakers leap upon these promised monies gratefully and with little inspection. Whether lawmakers should be larding California's coffers with gambling monies—a regressive and lazy way to raise public funds—is moot at this juncture. It is the text of the propositions and the compacts themselves in their current incarnation which give pause. Contrary to proponents' advertising, none of the phantom profits are directly earmarked for schools. Environmental impact accountability is hugely weakened in these proposed propositions. Guarantees for casino workers are essentially nil. The tribes in question are exempted from service payments—like chipping in for road improvements to handle all that new traffic. Also, the smaller of California's 108 tribes would be adversely affected by the sweetheart deals that Props. 94-97 offer to just four tribes.It's a big, ugly, expensive fight. The four tribes have shoveled more than $35 million at this effort. A consortium of unions, other tribes and race tracks have dumped $14 million and counting into the fight against it.Casinos aren't going to go away, and certainly, these Big Four will try again for new, more generous compacts. But Props. 94-97 are not the way to go about it. Vote NO.

Local Measures
MEASURE G

Loma Prieta Joint Union Elementary School District
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: YES

At first glance this measure looks perplexing, but upon closer examination it's actually a no-brainer. In 1996 voters approved a $150-per-year parcel tax to help fund schools in the Loma Prieta Elementary School District. That tax has already been approved for the next four years, but the ability of administrators to spend revenue generated from the tax is not guaranteed over that time. The question posed by Measure G is whether or not school administrators can continue to spend the $283,000 a year the parcel tax is already generating until 2012. Well, yeah! Especially if, as supporters say, it will help maintain a high quality of educational programming, small class sizes and well-maintained facilities in the elementary schools. No argument against the measure was filed. Metro Santa Cruz urges voters in this school district to vote YES on Measure G.

MEASURE P
Santa Cruz City Elementary School District
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: YES

The first five years of a child's educational career are extremely important for brain development, and this measure aims to continue the focus of Santa Cruz elementary schools on individual attention during this critical time. To accomplish this, the measure would continue a previously implemented parcel tax of $105 per year for nine years (until 2017). Importantly, residents over 65 would be exempted and no money would be used on administrator salaries. The money would be funneled into keeping class sizes in K-3 classrooms at 20 pupils/teacher, reducing class sizes in grades 4-5 from 32 to 27 pupils/teacher, supporting early literacy programs and providing arts education. This focus on small class sizes and well-rounded early childhood development is critical for local schools at a time when every elementary school in the city faces a potential loss of $250,000 in state revenue. That figure comes from State Sen. Joe Simitian's analysis of the governor's '07-'08 budget plan, and may change as the debate over the proposal continues. Regardless, if this tax does not pass, the funding squeeze will be much worse—with supporters estimating $1.25 million in lost revenue if the measure fails. This measure requires two-thirds approval to pass. No argument was filed against the measure. Metro Santa Cruz urges your YES vote on Measure P.

MEASURE O
$18.9 million for San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends: YES

Rebuilding the San Lorenzo Valley (SLV) High School library, which was consumed by fire in September of 2006, is the district's main justification for promoting this measure. For good measure, it's also asking voters to fund an expanded performing arts theater, additional security measures and the conversion of space currently empty or used for storage into classrooms. The total cost of all this will be $18.9 million. Superintendent Julie Haff estimates the tax rate would be no more than $20 per year per $100,000 assessed property value. The proposal has garnered a great deal of opposition from SLV property owners. Opponents point out that district schools already have an $18.5 million bond outstanding from Measure S, which was approved to fund construction projects in 2000. That bond is being paid off over 25 years. Superintendent Haff points out that Measure S funds were already used to remove 40 portable classrooms and instead house the students in permanent rooms. She admits, however, that property owners will continue to pay off the Measure S bonds for the next 17 years.

Critics of the measure further argue that instead of constructing more classrooms, the district should make use of the Redwood and Quail Hollow Elementary schools, which were shut down in 2001 and 2002 respectively. SLV district officials point out that these facilities actually are being used, just not strictly for elementary instruction. Quail Hollow houses child care-, education- and health-related programs benefiting more than 150 kids. Meanwhile, the Redwood Elementary site is used as the administrative office center for Ocean Grove Charter school, which serves 500 students. The other classroom space is used by the Boulder Creek Recreation and Parks District for a pre-school and administrative offices. Collectively, it sounds like the facilities are being used to their full extent.

The opposition also argues that the district has already been granted an insurance payment of $2 million to cover the library fire. Good point, but the district counters that the cost of importing portables, repurchasing half of the burnt books, and the burnt computers has already cost them $700,000. Administrators add that the library was built back when SLV only had 500 high school-age children. Now it has 1,500, so a larger library is necessary. The site of the burnt-out library will be converted to an arts center. While it is unclear if it is really "necessary" to build a larger library, or only "desirable," it does seem clear that more money besides the insurance payment will be needed to rebuild the library and repurchase burnt books, even if it is only the same size as the one destroyed by fire.

In the final analysis, the opponents have raised some fair points, but haven't generated a strong enough argument to convince our paper that more money wouldn't be useful to the district. In fact, Metro Santa Cruz may very well have urged voters to reject this bond measure based on the fact that property owners are already paying off the 2000 bond generated by Measure S. However, even a cursory glance at the bigger picture—SLV high school may lose up to $1 million this year due to state funding cuts—indicates that it is prime time to bolster local funding of our schools. Therefore, Metro Santa Cruz urges your YES vote on Measure O.

Presidential Race
Democratic Primary
Metro Santa Cruz Recommends:
BARACK OBAMA

Bill Clinton and Al Gore erected a bridge to the new century, Bush bombed it, and now we need to rebuild it.

It will be harder to do than last time, because the world is very different from the 1990s afterglow of the Berlin Wall's crumble. The Internet, $4-a-gallon gas, melting ice caps, a weak dollar, China's rise, nuclear proliferation and armed Islamic fundamentalism have transformed the international landscape. We need a president who can reach out to an interconnected world.

If Barack Obama is elected, it will send the world a message that this is a new America: not the monocultural, aggressive, ugly America of the past, but one that is hopeful, forward-looking and engaged with a diverse planet. Hillary Clinton is less well equipped for that job. For all of her strengths, she is essentially a policy wonk, with more scars than accomplishments from her Washington years. Failed health-care initiatives, as well as her votes on Iraq, should give voters pause. Her condemnations of disgraceful national practices like waterboarding and extraordinary rendition came only after she was pressed on the campaign trail, when she could have been a leader in the Senate opposing the administration's conduct.Obama has been such a leader. The clarity of his ideas is rooted in the depth of his convictions. Even more important in this bleak political landscape, he has shown an extraordinary ability to inspire a broad range of Americans.

Obama has been primarily responsible for the rare buzz of excitement surrounding the 2008 Democratic primaries. This is often attributed to his prowess as a speechmaker, but it's a mistake to think of Obama as merely a great orator. The meteoric rise of the young senator from Illinois—the reason he sets audiences' hearts racing—has to do with something more than his public speaking abilities. Ever since Obama first captured the national spotlight with a showstopper of a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, what has electrified voters is the power and clarity of his ideas, and the sense that people get, when listening to him talk, that he is speaking the truth.

In a debate a few weeks ago, NBC's Tim Russert asked the candidates to describe the moment that they decided to run for office. Obama's response was by far the most memorable. He said he has struggled with the decision: "The most important question was not whether I could win the presidency," he said, "but whether I should." As he described the period of soul-searching that preceded his decision to run, Obama seemed to be honestly letting us in on his true feelings. It was a Hillary-in-the-diner moment.

At the same time that he is connecting in a heartfelt way with the people who hear him, Obama is putting forward some simple and powerful ideas. At the center of his campaign—as everyone knows—is the simple and profound notion that American politics is in need of a revolution.

"It's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most," he says, "it's the smallness of our politics.

"America's faced big problems before, but today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence that we can't tackle the big problems."

Obama's promise is that he brings a vision, and that he is a true leader. When he says, "I will bring the country together," he is talking once again about building a bridge. A lot of Americans know in their hearts that this is exactly what needs to be done if the country is going to be able to more forward again. It's a big job, and we believe Obama can do it.


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