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“The Ringer,” the first track on Eminem’s 2018 album, Kamikaze, includes a line that piqued Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold’s curiosity: The rapper claimed the Secret Service visited him due to some controversial lyrics about Ivanka Trump.

To find out if it was true, Leopold filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the federal law that allows anyone to demand access to government records. After a year of delays, the Secret Service provided Leopold with 40 pages about the interview with the real Slim Shady, including a note that he was “exhibiting inappropriate behavior.”

This wasn’t the first time government transparency has intersected with hip-hop. Type “Freedom of Information” into Genius.com (the site formerly known as Rap Genius) and you’ll turn up tracks by Sage Francis and Scroobius Pip using FOIA as lyrical inspiration. The hip-hop duo Emanon sampled Joanna Newsom for “Shine Your Light,” in which they declare that due to redactions of FOIA documents, we’re “never gonna see the true history of this nation.” Even George Clinton, whom many rappers cite as inspiration, chanted about “getting funky” with the freedom of information on the track “Maximumisness.”

There’s nothing quite like an envelope of freshly photocopied documents to make a journalist or open-government advocate break into song. But there’s also nothing that brings the melody to a record-scratching halt than the government withholding information without due cause.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is an international nonprofit based in San Francisco that fights to uphold civil liberties in the digital age—work that includes filing hundreds of public-records requests each year with a variety of government agencies. In collaboration with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, we also compile “The Foilies,” a list of anti-awards that name and shame government officials and corporations that stymie the public’s right to know.

Now in its sixth year, The Foilies are part of the annual Sunshine Week festivities, when news and advocacy organizations celebrate and bring attention to state and federal open-records laws that allow us to hold the powerful to account. (Yeah, we’re running this a couple of weeks late; the onset of the pandemic delayed things a bit.)

And this year’s winners are….

The Twitter-Assist Award: President Donald Trump

It’s not often that prying documents out of the CIA comes with a little bit of help from the commander in chief. But Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold (yeah, he turns up a lot in The Foilies) stumbled into just that kind of luck when Trump tweeted an acknowledgement that he had ended “massive, dangerous and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.”

Leopold requested information on the payments from the CIA. Despite the president’s confirmation that these payments existed, the CIA still refused to confirm or deny the records existed, a move known in the legal world as a “Glomar response.” Leopold went to court—and a judge found that because Trump had acknowledged the payments publicly, the CIA had to stop playing secrecy games and hand over the documents.

The Space Opera Award: New Mexico Spaceport Authority

In space, no one can hear you scream about thwarted public-records requests, but down on Earth, you can take the government to court and make them listen.

That’s what Heath Haussamen, editor and publisher of NMPolitics.net, did after the New Mexico Spaceport Authority in 2017 refused to hand over basic public records related to the private companies that lease real estate at Spaceport America, the much-publicized commercial launchpad just outside Truth or Consequences, N.M.

With a New Mexico Attorney General’s Office opinion in hand that determined the Spaceport Authority had violated the state’s open records law, Haussamen filed a lawsuit. After following the wormhole of the justice system, Haussamen finally received the records in 2019, along with a $60,000 settlement for his trouble—but not before the New Mexico Legislature stepped in and passed a new law granting the Spaceport even more secrecy over its operations.

The Catalog Is Out of the Bag Award: Special Services Group

In response to a California Public Records Act request for information about surveillance technology, the Irvine Police Department in California provided researchers at MuckRock and Open the Government with a catalog called the “Black Book” from a secretive company called Special Services Group. The catalog advertised a range of spy devices that would make Q drool, including cameras that can be concealed in gravestones, vacuum cleaners and baby car seats.

But as Vice’s Motherboard prepared to publish a story on the documents, Special Services Group stepped out of the shadows to issue sweeping legal threats, arguing that by publishing the documents, researchers were violating everything from federal copyright law to arms-control regulations. Vice, MuckRock and Open the Government rightfully resisted the censorship threat, since that’s not how it works. Special Services should have taken its beef to the city's law firm, which reviewed and then released the documents.

The Smokescreen Award: Texas Elementary Schools

Across the country, parents, educators and lawmakers are fuming about nicotine “vaping” among underage students. Considering that this is branded as a public-health crisis, one would assume schools would be forthcoming with data about vaping incidents on campuses to help inform policymakers.

That’s not what Sarah Rafique, a reporter with ABC 13 Investigates in Houston, found when she filed records requests with more than 1,000 schools across Texas. About 10 percent of agencies missed the 10-day deadline to respond. One school demanded an (illegal) flat fee of $150 for all requests, while another agency demanded to know the reason for the request before they’d hand over the documents. “It was weird, too, that some districts said they didn't have any data/information, but when I explained I was reaching out to 1,000 districts (and they wouldn't be singled out, per se) all of a sudden, they had numbers to share,” Rafique said in a Twitter thread outlining the most troubling responses to her requests.

The Uncontrolled Burn Award: Federal Aviation Administration

Someone at the Federal Aviation Administration has an unhealthy relationship with their CD burner.

Last year, Mike Katz-Lacabe of the Center for Human Rights and Privacy filed a FOIA request with the FAA to get records about helicopters and airplanes operated by 19 different police agencies in California. The FAA turned up 120 MB of files. They could have put them on a single CD-ROM, which can hold about 700 MB of information. Instead, the FOIA officer burned the records to 19 separate discs and sent them to Katz-Lacabe in the mail.

The Queen of all FOIA Denials: Egyptian Museum of Berlin

For three years, Cosmo Wenman battled with the German-government-funded Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection (aka, the Egyptian Museum of Berlin) over a freedom of information campaign to release the 3-D scan of a bust of Queen Nefertiti. The museum denied the request for the high-quality scan of the over 3,000-year-old statue, arguing that it would threaten its commercial interests—namely, by creating competition in the sale of images or reproductions.

“The organization was treating its scan of Nefertiti like a state secret,” Wenman wrote in Reason.

After a prolonged battle, and temporary access to a very slow computer containing the scan, Wenman was finally given a USB drive with the full 3-D image. No word on whether museum visits have declined precipitously.

The Busiest Government Office Award: U.S. Department of Justice

In response to yet another FOIA request from Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold, this time for documents relating to the Mueller investigation, the Justice Department claimed it has as many as 19 billion responsive documents. This would mean the investigation had generated or collected more than 28 million documents each day, weekends included.

Although Mueller’s investigation lasted 22 months, the DOJ told Leopold it would take 2,300 years for it to review and produce the requested records for public disclosure. Leopold tweeted that he is exploring cryogenics as a way to review the records in the 4320s.

The Pointless Redaction Award: Mueller Report

Among the many blacked-out sections of the Mueller Report, a few redactions particularly stood out. The National Security Archive reported that the Justice Department redacted sections of public news stories that the Mueller Report quotes or cites. For example, the report cites a CNN headline as: “(Redacted) Says He Won’t Agree to Plea Deal”—but the CNN story is freely available online, and a quick Google search shows that the redacted words are “Roger Stone Associate.”

The Repeat Winner Award: Atlanta Mayor’s Office

Back in 2018, then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed earned a Foilie when he responded to a corruption probe by releasing 1.476 million documents, which he displayed in a six-foot wall of boxes at a press conference, even though it turned out that many of the documents were entirely blank or fully redacted.

Mayor Reed is no longer in office, but his legacy lives on in Atlanta, where his former press secretary, Jenna Garland, was convicted this year for violating Georgia’s Open Records Act. The New York Times reported that she sought to frustrate journalists’ requests for records by directing city spokespeople to be “as unhelpful as possible,” “drag this out as long as possible” and “provide information in the most confusing format available.”

This is the first time that a public official has been charged or convicted under Georgia’s open records laws—and if recent history is a guide, it may not be the last.

The Unnecessary Fee Award: Horry County, South Carolina

Horry County, South Carolina, is the home of Myrtle Beach and its many dedicated beach-goers—and home to this year’s most unnecessary FOIA fee. The Myrtle Beach Sun News sent out requests to a number of local towns and public entities inquiring about payments made on behalf of public agencies to settle lawsuits in the last five years. Many of the towns in Horry County emailed the responsive documents back for free; some charged less than $50, but the county itself asked for $75,500.

When asked why the records cost so much, the county was unable to provide an exact accounting. Although its $75,500 demand is not the most outrageous total to grace the Foilies, Horry County’s response is award-worthy in light of how disproportionate it was compared to other agencies. 

The Surveillance for You, Privacy for Us Award: Ring Inc.

EFF has written a lot about Amazon Ring surveillance doorbells, mostly aided by a torrent of great investigative reporting done by journalists using public-records requests. The doorbells may be capturing the movements and conversations of neighbors and pedestrians in neighborhoods all across the United States—while meanwhile, Ring employees really value their privacy.

One researcher, Shreyas Gandlur, turned up an email from Ring to the Joliet City Police Department, asking them to redact the names and email addresses of any Ring employees that may show up in emails released through FOIA. “Ring employees have strong personal privacy interests,” wrote one Ring employee (whose name was redacted).

The About Face on Face Recognition Award: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

How hard is it to unmask records on face recognition? The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) discovered the many faces of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when it filed a request for information on the agency’s acquisition and use of face recognition technology.

ICE initially said it had only three redacted records—while failing to search one of its largest directorates, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). After POGO successfully appealed, ICE responded that a query of ERO had been conducted and was being reviewed. Two months later, ICE said the request had been closed. After POGO reached out to the agency, ICE then contradicted itself, stating that the appeal was assigned, and ERO would be queried. A follow-up request seeking updated information was met with silence. Accordingly, POGO has decided to face off with ICE in a different venue—the courtroom—after filing a lawsuit for the records.

The Hardest Department to FOIA Award: Chicago Police Department

In 2019, the Chicago Police Department was in the news multiple times for its inability to respond to even the most straightforward public-records requests.

After members of CPD raided the wrong home and traumatized a family, the family sought to get the body-camera footage of the raid. The family believed that, in addition to showing the mistaken raid, it would also show police misconduct. Unfortunately, the CPD refused to turn over the footage.

In July, the CPD was forced to turn over documents after 14 months of stalling over a FOIA request for files on officers. After a legal opinion from the Illinois Attorney General, the CPD turned over a spreadsheet with more than 33,000 names dating back to the 1940s.

Does the Chicago Police Department use search warrants? Of course it does, but you wouldn’t know it by its FOIA responses. Also in July, the CPD told Lucy Parsons Labs that it did not have any responsive documents for a request for all executed search warrants. After several months of fighting, the department finally released records about 11,000 search warrants issued over a five-year period.

The Choose-Your-Own Exemption Award: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

What’s an agency to do when it can’t identify a FOIA exemption to justify withholding records? In ICE’s case, it created its own.

As is common practice in immigration court, where there is no discovery process, attorney Jennifer Smith sought the immigration file of a client by filing a FOIA request with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS told Smith that it had identified 18 records, but instead of producing those records, it mysteriously instructed Smith to request them from ICE.

Two years later, ICE finally responded that it was withholding the records to “deny fugitive alien FOIA requesters access to the FOIA process when the records could assist the alien in continuing to evade immigration enforcement efforts.” While admittedly creative, there is no “fugitive disentitlement” exemption under FOIA. Moreover, this fake exemption countered exactly what immigration attorneys are trying to do: ensure that their clients won’t be considered fugitives.

The ACLU of Colorado sued on Smith’s behalf, and in 2019, won the case.

The Anything Can Be Confidential Award: U.S. Supreme Court

With the rise of outsourcing, no-bid contracts and elected officials seeking to reduce government spending, private businesses and government have never been more intertwined. Whether it be facial-recognition technology or algorithms used to determine whether people receive public-assistance benefits, private companies and the technology they build are embedded in government’s daily work.

Yet in June, the U.S. Supreme Court made it much harder for the public to access records that involve private companies. In the case Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader, the court interpreted a FOIA exemption broadly to allow the government to withhold records that a company considers confidential. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, private information could not be withheld from a FOIA requester unless the government or the business could show that making the information public would harm the business. But under the court’s June decision, the government can withhold any information a business deems private.

Confidential business information under FOIA is thus in the eye of the beholder—a result that will frustrate the public’s ability to understand how the government uses private companies’ products and technologies as part of its duties.

The Resigned to Secrecy Award: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown came into office with a stated goal of restoring trust after public records showed that her predecessor had ordered officials to delete thousands of his emails from state servers. One concrete step Brown took to improve transparency: creating a state public records advocate to push for more openness.

The abrupt resignation of Oregon’s newly minted public records advocate, Ginger McCall, in September significantly undercut Brown’s stated commitment to transparency. In her resignation letter to Brown, McCall said that she received “meaningful pressure” from Brown’s office to advocate for the governor’s interests, rather than the public’s interest in having a transparent state government. Brown’s office at first denied McCall’s characterization and later chalked it up to a difference in views on McCall’s position.

McCall released notes of her meetings with Brown’s staffers that reflected an effort to make McCall’s position report directly to the governor’s staff, rather than being an independent advocate for the public. If there is any doubt, we believe McCall. She has long been a conscientious and honest advocate for the public’s right to know.

The Enemy of the Press Award: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra

Obtaining data about police misconduct under California’s public-records law can be a crime, according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. That was the upshot of legal threats Becerra’s office made to two investigative reporters in March 2019 after they received data on police officer arrests and convictions in the past 10 years in response to a public-records request filed with the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.

According to a letter from Becerra’s office, the spreadsheet, which detailed officers’ criminal histories, was off-limits to the public, and its mere possession by the reporters was a misdemeanor. The reporters didn’t back down and instead “formed an unprecedented collaboration to investigate the list, involving three dozen news outlets across the state.”

Becerra’s legal threats backfired spectacularly, leading to statewide comprehensive reporting about criminal investigations into police officers, including a searchable database. But Becerra should never have threatened the journalists in the first place; it’s an authoritarian move that conflicts with his efforts these past years to position himself as the counterweight to President Donald Trump.

The Stupid, Dumb, F**king Idiot Award for Political Interference: U.S. Department of the Interior

In 2019, reporters at Roll Call broke the news that the Interior Department had been allowing political officials to intervene in the processing of FOIA requests, either by stalling or potentially blocking the agency from fulfilling the request.

The reporting on this so-called “awareness review process” was based on FOIA documents obtained by Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental organization based in Colorado. Among the scores of examples Weiss obtained was a stalled FOIA request from Buzzfeed’s Jason Leopold for all emails in which Interior press secretary Heather Swift used the terms “fucking," "idiot," "stupid" and "dumb.” (See below; Swift had already been caught calling CNN’s René Marsh a “fucking idiot” in an email.)

“If political appointees get to decide what the public gets to see, it completely undermines the letter and spirit of FOIA,” Weiss says.

The Foilies were compiled by Electronic Frontier Foundation senior investigative researcher Dave Maass; staff attorneys Aaron Mackey and Saira Hussain; Frank Stanton Fellow Naomi Gilens; and policy analyst Matthew Guariglia. For more on our work, visit eff.org.

Published in Features

President Donald Trump published controversial new rules earlier this week making it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they use—or are likely to use—Medicaid, food stamps and other social safety net programs.

California has reacted with anticipated outrage.

“This is a reckless policy that targets the health and well-being of immigrant families and communities of color,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press release.

Added Attorney General Xavier Becerra: “We will not stand idly by while this administration targets programs that children and families across our state rely upon. We are ready to take legal action to protect the rights of all Californians.”

The expansion of the so-called “public charge” rule was long-anticipated—as was the response in California, home to a disproportionate number of the nation’s immigrants and headquarters of the anti-Trump resistance.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has said the proposed new rules are intended to deny green cards to immigrants seeking U.S. benefits and to “promote the self-sufficiency of aliens within the United States.”

Here are six things to know about the latest immigration battle between the Trump administration and California.


What Would This Rule Actually Do?

Under the new regulation, legal immigrants into the United States could be denied permanent residency if immigration authorities deem them “likely at any time to” enroll in any number of public benefits for more than a year. The list of benefits includes food stamps, federal housing assistance and health insurance through Medicaid.

It’s an idea that the Trump administration has been kicking around since the very beginning of his presidency. Following multiple leaks to the press of versions of the rule, the Department of Homeland Security finally published a proposed draft last October. Earlier this week, the administration published the finalized rule, which will go into effect 60 days from Wednesday.

The new rule would also discourage immigration officers from granting visas to those making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, those receiving healthcare subsidies through the Affordable Care Act, and any applicant “likely to require extensive medical treatment or institutionalization.” The regulation also includes certain exceptions for immigrants serving the military, children, pregnant women and some students.

It’s one in a series of Trump administration initiatives that would curtail government benefits for low-income people and immigrants, including a proposal posted in late July that would cut food stamps to 3.1 million Americans.


Why the Concern?

Since 1882, the federal government has given immigration authorities broad authority to keep people out of the country if they’re deemed likely to become “public charges” of the state. Though the term “public charge” is never actually defined, since 1999, immigration officials have applied it only to people likely to be “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through cash welfare programs or publicly funded institutional care.

The new rule dramatically expands that definition to include “people who may have the occasion to one time use that type of benefit,” said Deep Gulasekaram, a professor of immigration and constitutional law at Santa Clara University.

“That is unprecedented,” he said. “And that is what truly makes this really a scary proposition for a lot of people.”

The new visa standards would—for now—only be used to approve or deny applications. But the Trump administration is also reportedly considering whether participation in these programs by otherwise legal immigrants could also be used as grounds for deportation.


Who in California Would Be Directly Affected?

Across the country, roughly 382,000 people applying for green cards would be reviewed to determine whether they are—or are likely to become—public charges under the new definition, according to the government. Given that nearly one in five people who received a green card between 2015 and 2017 lived in California, according to federal data, the rule will likely have an outsized impact on California green card applicants.

Advocates expect the impact to reach even further. Many mixed-status families are expected to unenroll from public benefits due to a fear that the public charge rule would impact their or family members’ chances of adjusting their status in the future.

According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, as many as 765,000 people across the state may lose access to Medi-Cal and food stamps due to fear alone.

The UCLA researchers project that the rule could have a particularly strong collateral impact on low-income children in California, where one in two children are part of an immigrant family. Nearly seven in 10 Californians predicted to lose benefits would be children, according to the study.

The federal government offered up a much smaller estimate of the impact, predicting that fewer than 400,000 individuals across the country would forego applying or disenroll.


Has Talk of the New Rule Had a Chilling Effect Already?

Yes. As different versions of the rule have been leaked and then proposed over the past two years, California service providers and advocates have reported immigrant families opting out of public benefits in large numbers.

Elizabeth Ambriz, a CalFresh outreach worker for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, says this is the main reason that people have given for not applying for food stamps in the past eight months she’s been on the job.

“There are a lot of people who are working on becoming permanent residents, and their lawyers tell them, ‘Do not get CalFresh, because that will make you not be eligible to get your green card,’” Ambriz said in early August while tabling for CalFresh at a local health clinic.

Coupled with a decreasing unemployment rate, the looming new rule has been viewed by anti-poverty workers as a primary driver of a substantial decrease in enrollment in public benefits over the past two years.

One sign that immigrant families are already spooked in California is the drop in the number of households in which only children are eligible and enrolled in food stamps, usually because the parents are undocumented. These households declined by more than 40,000 in the state—including more than 85,000 children—between January 2018 and January 2019, according to an LAist analysis.

Meanwhile, a national poll by the Urban Institute of nearly 2,000 adults in immigrant families found that one in seven reported that someone in their family had declined a public benefit in 2018 because they didn’t want to risk a future green card. The effect was stronger among low-income families, Hispanic families and families with children.


Will California Be Suing?

Will the president will be tweeting? When the Trump administration announced a preliminary version of the rule late last year, Becerra fired off a 51-page letter, in which he called the rule “not supported by evidence, logic, or Congressional action,” “an arbitrary and capricious attack with no legal justification” and, in short, “unlawful.”

As a preview of the state’s legal argument, the letter suggests Becerra may once again argue that the Trump administration failed to follow the rules that govern how new regulations must be introduced. 

For anyone who has watched California take on the Trump administration again and again, it’s a familiar argument. The state has struck down or successfully delayed a number of new regulations by persuading a judge that the administration didn’t explain why a new rule was necessary, didn’t provide enough compelling evidence to support the justification, or simply didn’t give the public enough time to weigh in on the change—all in violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

But that argument may be harder to make in this case, said Gulasekaram. 

“As a formal matter of changing the administrative rules, they complied with what is required,” he said, adding that courts give “a lot of deference” to agencies when deciding how to interpret a vaguely written law, particularly in immigration law.

Given the California Justice Department’s propensity for taking the Trump administration to court, state prosecutors could be typing up a complaint as you read this. Asked about a possible lawsuit, the press office for the Office of the Attorney General provided a short written response: “Stay tuned!”


Why Does This Remind Me of California in the 1990s?

According to reporting from Politico, Stephen Miller, one of President Trump’s most loyal and truculent policy advisers, has been the driving, hectoring force within the White House for this regulatory shift.

The Santa Monica-born 33-year-old was only 9 in 1994, when a majority of Californians passed Proposition 187, denying most public services to undocumented immigrants. The proposed constitutional amendment was later thrown out by the California Supreme Court. But Miller seems to be channeling the spirit of Prop 187 anyway, said Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant and frequent critic of his own party and President Trump.

Alongside more aggressive immigration crackdowns, the administration’s family separation policy and ceaselessly hostile immigration rhetoric, Madrid sees this latest regulation as yet another bid to “stoke the fire” and keep the party’s base energized for 2020.

“Will it work? It might for another two years,” said Madrid. “But if history is a guide, those two-year gains will lead to a generation of evisceration (for the Republican Party) at the national level.”

Despite winning the overwhelming support of California’s electorate, many experts say that Prop 187 turned an entire generation of Latino voters away from the California Republican Party. Many political commentators have drawn parallels to that moment in California history and the current political climate nationally. 

“The textbook has been written,” said Madrid. “The history is not old. It’s in the last decade or so.”

Today, proposals to extend legal protections and social services to immigrants who have entered the country illegally enjoy broad support in California, and any policy that could be characterized as an attack on legal immigrants isn’t likely to be well-received.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

When Antoinette Martinez rolls her cart through the produce section of the FoodMaxx in Watsonville, her 5-year-old son, Caden, often asks for strawberries and blueberries.

Sometimes Martinez bends, but usually she sticks to the produce on sale: Roma tomatoes for 69 cents a pound, or cucumbers at three for 99 cents. Banana bunches are relatively cheap.

“If it’s not under a dollar, then I don’t buy it,” Martinez said, bypassing $2 lettuce as Caden clambered into her grocery cart. “It’s about stretching the dollar.”

The food budget isn’t as tight as it used to be since Martinez, a single mother, got a job at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Cruz County. She helps people sign up for food stamps, known in California as CalFresh.

Between her $2,380 monthly paycheck and about $100 she receives in CalFresh, Martinez can make it through the month without her or Caden ever going hungry. But under a new proposal from the Trump Administration, Martinez and her son would lose their food stamps. So would many clients she helps at the food bank, along with an estimated 3.1 million other Americans.

Californians are likely to be hit particularly hard. The proposed rule, announced last week, would undo the ability of states to provide food stamps to households that have incomes above the federal food stamp limit—130 percent of the federal poverty line—but hefty expenses.

That would have the biggest impact in states like California that have raised the minimum wage to try to chase the skyrocketing costs of housing. As California’s minimum wage creeps towards $15 per hour by 2023, many more workers could be bumped off food stamps when their monthly incomes rise above the federal limit.

Under current law, a California family of two with a gross monthly income between 130 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level—or between $1,784 and $2,744—can qualify to receive CalFresh as long as their net income after housing, childcare or medical costs falls under 100 percent of the poverty level, or $1,372.

For now, Martinez falls right into that bracket.

The rule would also cut the benefit for families who have savings or assets above a federal limit that many states, including California, currently waive. That limit—$2,250 for most families—is only slightly more than the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in California ($2,110), and about half that of a two-bedroom in San Francisco ($4,730).

“It’s clear that states like California are a target on this,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that the proposal to eliminate what he called a “loophole” would reduce fraud and save the federal government money—more than $9 billion over the next five years, according to a federal estimate. The proposal could go into effect following a 60-day public comment period. 

“Our job is to make sure folks have the tools they need to move away from (food stamp) dependency … and preserve the benefits for those most in need,” Perdue said.

But advocates counter that the move would largely cut benefits for working families who spend large chunks of their paychecks on housing and care-taking costs for young children or ill or disabled family members.

“There’s actually no evidence that making someone hungrier makes them less dependent on public benefits. And there’s plenty of evidence showing the opposite,” said Bartholow.

The Western Center estimates that some 250,000 Californians could lose CalFresh, based on estimates made when California expanded eligibility in 2008 under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and again in 2013 under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Additionally, children in those families could lose automatic eligibility for free lunches at school.

The proposal to cut food stamps is the latest in a series of Trump administration initiatives to curtail government benefits for low-income people, including a rule that would tighten food-stamp work requirements, another to block some legal immigrants from getting a green card if they are deemed likely to use public services, and another to adjust the way the federal poverty measure is calculated.

Those other proposed rules have cleared their comment periods, but the Trump administration has yet to impose them.

Opposition from California’s Democratic leaders to the latest proposal was swift and predictable.

“There is not a state in the country that is probably more aggressive in pushing back from a litigation perspective, so that will be analyzed by the lawyers,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told CalMatters. A spokesman for Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration over 50 times thus far, said his office was reviewing the proposal.

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, who represents Martinez’s district, sent Secretary Perdue a letter, signed by 45 California Democrats in Congress, asking that he take into consideration the harmful effects of this proposed rule and act quickly to rescind it.”

Martinez knows the feeling of hunger well. For many years, she said, she was homeless, battling addiction and mental illness. “When I was homeless … there was no place to eat,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t really too sure where to go.”

She recalled what happened next: She got pregnant, enrolled in CalFresh and was finally able to count on a steady source of food. Then she entered an intensive program to help homeless people get back on their feet.

Martinez and her son have now been housed for two years. She said she’s close to finishing her associate degree in human services at Cabrillo College and dreams of being a case manager for a nonprofit, helping others battle addiction and poverty.

She worries about what the food-stamp proposal would mean for her and her growing son. But she said she’s also concerned about the rest of the community she serves in Santa Cruz.

Within the county, 21.7 percent of residents live in poverty, the third-highest rate in the state after Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, according to new data from the Public Policy Institute of California.

“CalFresh is the first line of defense against hunger; the food bank is the second,” Martinez said. “We were barely surviving, but we’re not going to be able to survive if (President Trump) continues to push this.”

Jackie Botts is a journalist at CalMatters working for The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in National/International

Despite speculation about bold moves—in a far-left direction, even for this blue state—Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative Democrats actually landed a budget Thursday that’s surgical about new taxing and spending while still keeping promises to help poor Californians and working families.

Under the $214.8 billion spending plan, the state inched closer to universal health coverage, expanding Medi-Cal to all low-income young adults regardless of immigration status. State lawmakers also charted a course to increase tax credits to the working poor and boost subsidies to middle-income Californians to buy health coverage. There were significant investments in early education and housing, while a portion of the surplus was diverted to pay down pension liabilities.

While Democrats began the year with a surplus of ideas for taxing Californians, only a few strategic levies survived the negotiation process, specifically a fine on individuals who don’t have health insurance under a state mandate. There’s even a little tax relief: Parents, for instance, will get a temporary tax exemption on diapers.

One hitch? The devil is in the details, some which have yet to be worked out. Though Democrats met their deadline for a balanced spending plan, most of the underlying policy to enact the budget wasn’t hashed out—and may not be for weeks. Call it a learning curve: This was the new governor’s first time negotiating with seasoned legislative leaders who know how to count votes. Look for more action in coming trailer bills.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s new budget—including maybe, just maybe, the first steps toward the establishment of a four-year college in the Coachella Valley.

Yes to Health Care for Undocumented Young Adults

The Legislature agreed to the governor’s plan to expand Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people, to young adults ages 19-25. It’s a step toward offering free health care to all undocumented adults since the state already makes Medi-Cal available to children regardless of immigration status.

The Senate had proposed going further by offering Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors 65 and older. However, none of the leaders backed offering health care to all low-income immigrants.

The state expects an estimated 90,000 young adults could gain coverage when the benefit begins next year. Already, 76,000 have registered for a limited version of Medi-Cal that covers emergency services and prenatal care available to low-income people regardless of immigration status. The price tag for this expansion? About $98 million a year.

It’s worth noting the state also affirmed its commitment to restoring optional Medi-Cal benefits. During the recession, coverage for audiology, optical, podiatry, speech therapy and incontinence creams had been taken away.

Obamacare Lives: A $695 State Mandate to Carry Health Coverage

Starting next year, California will join New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia in requiring residents carry health coverage or face a $695 state penalty—a fine that will go up each year with inflation.

The state individual mandate aims to replace the federal one that Republicans repealed in their effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The administration says California needs to act, because without a mandate, the number of Californians without coverage—10.4 percent in 2016—will go back up. Separately, a study conducted by the University of California estimated the uninsurance rate will rise to 12.9% by 2023, or 4.4 million people, without state action.

Money raised from the penalties, about $450 million over three years, will be used to give bigger subsidies to those who purchase private insurance through the state’s health coverage exchange, Covered California.

Newsom and lawmakers hope to expand assistance to 190,000 middle-income Californians making between $48,000 to $72,000 a year, according to Health Access California, a health advocacy group.

Fear of Recall = Not Many New Taxes

The budget includes a plan to impose a fee—that still needs to be voted on—of no more than 80 cents a month on each telephone line to help digitize the state’s 911 system, which is still analog. The next-generation system would improve call delivery, better location data and incoming text capability.

Other than that and the health-care mandate, lawmakers opted against most of the new taxes proposed early in the session. In fact, California parents and women will get a sales tax exemption on diapers and menstrual products (though only for two years).

Notably rejected, given the state’s current $21.5 billion surplus, was Newsom’s push for a 95-cent tax on most residential water bills to fund-clean-drinking water initiatives in the Central Valley. Instead, the Legislature worked out a deal to clean up toxic water by diverting money generated from big polluters under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Some environmental groups questioned using clean air money to pay for drinking water, but supporters reasoned that water is being contaminated with arsenic and other toxic chemicals from the heavy use of fertilizers, so it makes sense to draw the $100 million for cleanup from the agriculture industry’s portion of the greenhouse gas fund.

One issue that won’t be resolved this week is whether California will conform its tax code to match federal changes made by Republicans in 2017. Newsom is relying on the projected $1.7 billion increase in net revenue from that to expand the state’s earned income tax credit, the centerpiece of his anti-poverty agenda.

Assembly Democrats in swing districts are skittish about limiting deductions and losses that can be claimed by some businesses. They know the fate of former Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled from his Orange County seat after voting to raise California’s gas tax. Tax conformity requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, so the pressure is on.

Paying Debt and Rainy-Day Saving

Lawmakers embraced the governor’s proposal to use some of the surplus to make extra pension payments, a step Newsom says is necessary to tame the state’s $256 billion retirement liability for state workers and teachers.

The Legislature approved supplemental payments of $3 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and $1.1 billion to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System for the state’s portion of unfunded liability.

To relieve school districts across the state, the Legislature will contribute a total of $3.15 billion toward paying down their liabilities and reducing their payroll contribution rates. One difference is where it will go.

Previously, Newsom had all the extra payments going to the teachers' pension fund—a reaction, in part, to teachers strikes that erupted as he took office. Now a portion of that money will be doled out to CalPERS. The change was made in recognition that while teachers are members of CalSTRS, many other school employees from janitors to bus drivers belong in the state’s other public-employee pension fund.

Besides paying down California’s “wall of debt,” as former Gov. Jerry Brown called it, the state is shoring up for a downturn—or in Newsom-speak, “building budget resiliency.” The new budget carries a roughly $20 billion reserve from several rainy-day funds. This amount, while hefty, would be easily wiped away in a downturn. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state would need as much as $40 billion to cover the budget in a moderate recession.

Big Spending on Housing

With new commitments topping $2 billion, the budget represents the most important action the governor has taken so far on housing and homelessness. The lion’s share will target the state’s homeless population, including $650 million in grants for cities and counties to build and maintain emergency shelters, and $100 million for wrap-around care for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Another $500 million will go toward quintupling the size of the state’s affordable housing financing fund, plus hundreds of millions earmarked for cities to update their often outdated housing plans.

While lawmakers and Newsom have agreed to cut big checks, it’s not clear who’ll get the money, and with what strings attached. Big-city mayors and lawmakers want homelessness grants directed towards the state’s largest 13 cities, while Newsom wants to spread out the money to include counties.

Newsom also wants to deny transportation funds to cities not building enough housing. As of Thursday, lawmakers were still negotiating a scaled-back version of the proposal. Another Newsom proposal that speeds construction of homeless shelters by sidestepping environmental laws also remains unresolved.

Lending a Hand to Working Families

Expanding California’s earned income tax credit has quickly become one of Newsom’s signature anti-poverty programs, because it gives a cost-of-living refund to low-income working families. Lawmakers are poised to triple the program from $400 million to $1.2 billion to provide a $1,000 refund for families with children under 6 and expand income eligibility from $24,950 to $30,000.

Anti-poverty advocates had wanted Newsom to include undocumented workers who file with individual taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. That proposal did not make the final version of the budget. Still, the administration estimates the current expansion will increase the number of beneficiaries from 2 million to 3 million households.

The budget also will make it easier for low-income families with children to qualify for assistance, increasing the CalWORKs asset limit to $10,000 and the motor vehicle exemption to $25,000—changes that will allow people to save and hang on to cars that can get them to work.

And parents of all incomes will get a longer paid family leave to care for new babies—eight weeks, up from the current six weeks, starting in July of next year. The goal will be to boost the benefit to 90 percent of most wages, up from the current maximum of 70 percent.

The K-14 Kids Did All Right

As required by law, the lion’s share of the budget goes to public schools, with nearly $102 billion in state money to be pumped into California classrooms and community colleges, plus another $389 million in a special reserve fund for schools. Though the figure is an all-time high, California is still viewed as lagging in per-pupil spending, in part because of the high cost of living.

Democrats are also demanding more stringent oversight of charter schools, which can operate like private schools, tend to be non-union and have proliferated in big cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles. Newsom proposed prohibiting charter schools from blocking or disenrolling special-education students who require more support for disabilities. Lawmakers readily embraced that change.

The budget includes $300 million to build more kindergarten classrooms in an effort to boost full-day kindergarten programs. Newsom had initially proposed $750 million but that was reduced after a study found most part-day kindergarten programs are in wealthier communities.

After-school programs will get a $50 million boost over the $600 million or so the state is currently spending. The money will help cover the cost of minimum wage increases enacted during Brown’s tenure.

So Did the Little Ones

In emphasizing early education, Newsom and lawmakers agreed to expand day care and preschool slots by the thousands while investing in training for child care providers.

Newsom gets $50 million in seed money to start child savings accounts for college and post-secondary education. He initially asked that all of it go toward pilot projects with First 5 California and local governments, but the Legislature is designating $25 million to that. The other $25 million will create a state program with the Scholarshare program in the Treasurer’s Office.

More Free College and Help for Student Parents

Newsom and legislators delivered on a $45 million promise to fund a second year of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students at campuses participating in the state’s College Promise program.

Other big winners include students with children, who will be eligible to receive grants of up to $6,000 to help cover their families’ living expenses. The budget boosts by about 15,000 the number of competitive Cal Grants—a significant jump, but far less than the 400,000 qualified students who applied for the state scholarships last year and didn’t receive them.

The University of California and California State University systems will receive money to increase enrollment, and waive tuition during the summer to help low-income students graduate faster. Lawmakers also set aside funds for campuses to combat hunger and homelessness, strengthen veterans resource centers, and provide more mental health counseling. A center at the University of California San Francisco is getting a $3.5 million earmark for dyslexia screening and early intervention.

Backers of the state’s controversial new online community college fended off an effort to slash the college’s funding, clearing the way to enroll its first class this fall. And CSU will get $4 million to study five possible locations for a new campus: Stockton, Chula Vista, San Mateo, Concord and Palm Desert.

Lots for Police Training; a Little for Police Records

Reflecting the Legislature’s focus this year on reducing police shootings, the budget includes $20 million to train police officers on de-escalation tactics, and how and when to use force. Outside the budget, bills to set a tougher standard for police to use deadly force and require more officer training are advancing through the Legislature, reflecting a compromise between civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office will get $155,000 to implement the new state law he’d been resisting: making law-enforcement misconduct records public. Becerra will also have to report to the Legislature on how many requests his office processes, and how much time is spent on that. A judge ruled in May that Becerra must produce the records; previously he had said he would not release them until the courts clarified whether he had to.

Powering Down to Cope With Wildfires

Besides beefing up the state’s firefighting capability and disaster preparedness, California will add powering down to its to-do list for coping with climate change-driven wildfires.

The budget doles out $75 million to state and local agencies whenever investor-owned utilities decide to shut off electricity during red flag weather warnings. One note: The Assembly added language to track how the money is used.

CALmatters reporters Matt Levin, Felicia Mello and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California is once again defending the Affordable Care Act, leading a coalition of Democratic states against a small army of Republican lawmakers seeking to undo the Obama administration’s signature health-care law.

On Jan. 3, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and 16 other attorneys general appealed last month’s ruling by a federal judge in Texas that declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, unconstitutional.

“I’ve seen how the ACA has transformed lives, and I’ve seen it up close,” Becerra said in a phone call with the press this morning. “That is why so many of us are committed to defending the ACA.”

Many legal experts, both liberal and conservative, have predicted that the Texas ruling will be overturned by a higher court. Last month, Judge Reed O’Connor of Fort Worth ruled on a lawsuit filed against the federal government by top law-enforcement officers and other elected leaders of 20 states, including Texas and Florida. That legal coalition of red states argued that the individual mandate, which requires people to either buy insurance or pay a fee, was unconstitutional. The Texas judge agreed—and argued that the healthcare law should be nixed in its entirety.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court gave the green light to the mandate, arguing that Congress had the right to penalize the uninsured through its power to impose taxes. When Congress eliminated that fee as part of its sweeping change to the federal tax code last year, Republican lawmakers argued that the mandate could no longer be upheld as a tax.

Though the federal Justice Department disagreed that the entire law should be struck down, it declined to defend either the individual mandate or the requirement that insurance providers offer coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Last month, Becerra and this same blue coalition of lawmakers successfully requested that the Texas court’s decision be suspended while the legal challenge makes its way through the court system. That process takes another step now as the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals must decide whether to take up the challenge.

“We are going to take it wherever we need to take it,” said Becerra.

Since passage of the Affordable Care Act eight years ago, some 5 million more Californians get coverage through expanded Medi-Cal, private plans under the state’s Covered California exchange, and the ability of young people under age 26 to stay under their parents’ insurance. That represents a quarter of all Americans covered under the law. In addition, about an eighth of the state’s budget is derived from the $25 billion the federal government provides to subsidize Affordable Healthcare Act plans and the expansion of Medi-Cal.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Sporting starred and striped jackets and Make America Great Again hats, the California Republicans who gathered on election night in the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego were in a remarkably chipper mood.

They cheered when the results came in from Florida, showing the GOP candidate apparently won the narrow race for governor. They lustily booed and jeered when the face of San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, appeared on the monitor.

If the assembled party activists were disappointed by the fact that, closer to home, they had lost their bid for every statewide office in the state, most seemed to take it in stride. Certainly, no one seemed particularly surprised.

Just as the polls predicted, John Cox, California’s Republican candidate for governor, lost the job to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, none of the five Republicans vying for statewide office this year won their races. In the contests for the two remaining statewide offices and the U.S. Senate, a Republican candidate didn’t even make it onto the general election ballot. That leaves GOP voters without a single statewide representative for the third election cycle running.

Adding insult to injury, the only right-of-center candidate to mount a realistic statewide campaign was former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who got as far as he did after ditching the Republican brand entirely and running as a political independent.

With votes still being counted, Democrats also were within striking distance of reclaiming supermajorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate.

Maybe most painful of all was the fate of Proposition 6. This was the effort to repeal a recent increase in the gas tax—or, at the very least, to tap into the California voters’ historic dislike of higher taxes and expensive commutes, and convince them to once again vote Republican. The measure failed, and Republicans were quick to blame the defeat of Prop 6 on Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose office was responsible for writing the text describing the measure on the ballot.

“A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow very angry because they were tricked,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. He pointed to polling that showed voters approved of repealing the gas tax, but not Proposition 6. (An alternative explanation offered by Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare: Voters approve of the low gas taxes in concept, but worried about the specific consequences of repeal).

“We won on the issue,” insisted Carl DeMaio, who chaired the “Yes on 6” campaign. The lesson he took from the election wasn’t that the message itself was flawed, but that the party simply needs to fight harder.

“Every single election, every single race, we are going to make the fraudulently stolen gas-tax-repeal initiative a main issue in regular elections, and, yes, I predict, a couple recall elections very soon,” he said to the crowd. DeMaio has vowed to recall Becerra, as well as Democratic state Sens. Anthony Portantino and Richard Roth. He then led the crowd in a cheer: “We will fight!”

It was a cheer of defiance in the face of the declining fortunes for the GOP. That, of course, is not a new story. Earlier this year, Republican registration among California voters dipped below those of political independents, making the party of Ronald Reagan the state’s third-most-popular political affiliation, behind Democrat and “no thanks.”

But as national Republicans secured their grip on the U.S. Senate while surrendering control of the House, for California Republicans, the 2018 midterms feel like a new low.

It’s been more than 130 years since Californians replaced a Democratic governor with another Democratic governor. And while Gov. Jerry Brown was a fiscal conservative by Sacramento standards, Newsom can be considered the stuff of Republican nightmares: a San Francisco progressive who supports single-payer healthcare, picks Twitter fights with the president and has flirted with the idea of reforming Proposition 13, the property-tax-capping ballot measure that helped give birth to the modern conservative movement and the Reagan revolution.

“This will be the third time that higher taxes have won as an argument at the ballot in California,” said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30’s “millionaire’s tax” and then voted to extend it again four years later.

The fact that the average California voter elected not just to stick it to millionaires this time, but agreed to pay higher taxes at the pump, might suggest that “taxes are not the third rail” of California politics that they once were, he said.

“I think Republicans forgot that it’s not 1978 anymore,” added Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, referring to the year that voters approved Prop 13 by a nearly 30-point margin. “That was a different time and a different electorate.”

For sure, California has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But even as the state has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the profile of the typical Republican voter has stayed relatively static: relatively white, old and affluent. Fortunately for the state GOP, this is the same demographic niche that most predictably turns out to vote. But in the absence of a message that might begin to convince Democrats and independents to switch parties, that may only postpone the inevitable. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, millennial voters are more likely than their elders to identify themselves as liberals, favor single-payer healthcare, and oppose the president. 

“This is a failing franchise,” said Whalen. He argued that the state party has two fundamental problems: “message and messengers.”

Cox put the blame for whatever messaging shortcomings his own campaign experienced on the press, at least in part.

“I wanted to have a dialogue and a discussion about what we needed to do to get rid of that money in politics,” he said. “At some point in time, the message has got to get out, and it’s got to be the media.”

But according to Whalen, the party put itself at a disadvantage when the most-prominent state Republican on this year’s ballot, Cox, was relatively unknown to most California voters prior to the final months of the campaign. Those further down on the ballot were—and likely still are—largely anonymous to all but the most politically engaged. With the exception of Steven Bailey, the retired El Dorado County judge who ran for attorney general, none of the party’s statewide candidates had experience in elected office.

“You’re counting on rookie quarterbacks to lead you to the Super Bowl,” said Whalen.

But even where experienced Republican political leaders do exist in California—city, county and congressional representatives increasingly concentrated in the exurbs and rural stretches away from the state’s populated coasts—it’s tough to convince an all-star player to join a team with such a lousy track record. A Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006. And one of those candidates was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare “international movie star willing to run for office,” said Pitney. “But that bracket seems empty right now.”

In the lead up to the June primary election, state party insiders at least thought they’d finally settled on an appealing message.

“I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out … with, ‘Repeal the gas tax,’ and, ‘Oppose the sanctuary state,’” Krvaric told CALmatters earlier this year.

But as late as of this spring, the majority of Californians said they support state policies to protect undocumented immigrants.

Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and the author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, says that the state already tried that political line in the 1990s. In 1994, state voters passed Prop 187, a ballot measure that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of state services had it not been struck down by the courts.

“That was when we should have been paying attention to how to restructure our economy instead of turning inward and blaming other people for the problems that we had,” he said. While the nation as a whole may now be having its own “Prop 187 moment,” brought on in part by national demographic trends that mirror California’s a few decades back, voters here have “wisened up from that experience,” he said.

As for the gas-tax message, which Cox made one of the cornerstones of his campaign, the election results speak for themselves. The gap between the preferences of the state party’s base and those of the average voter seem increasingly impossible to bridge. And yet that is precisely the task before any Republican candidate who hopes to compete statewide.

Cox faced his own version of this challenge with his on-again, off-again relationship with the president over the last year. In 2016, Cox, famously, did not vote for Trump, instead casting his ballot for the libertarian Gary Johnson. But in a lead-up to the June primary, Cox noticeably warmed to the commander-in-chief, touting their biographical similarities and their mutual support for a southern border wall. It was the president’s endorsement that helped Cox secure a place on the general-election ballot.

But once Cox found himself competing for a wider electoral audience, he began doing his best to distance himself from Trump’s more-controversial policies and tweets, but without offending the president’s many supporters. “I’m not running for president,” he has said, employing a defense popular among Republicans across the state, and country.

The state party won’t have an easy time distancing itself from Washington, D.C., anytime soon, even if it wanted to, said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at the UC Irvine.

“With a national GOP that has itself moved toward more-extreme politics, it’s hard for the state GOP to escape that shadow,” he said. Politics are increasingly nationalized, he continued. Many voters don’t know who represents them in Sacramento, or even in Congress, but they do know who the president is, and to which party he belongs.

Given the president’s political instinct to appeal to his base (a base that increasingly does not look like California) and not the electorate as a whole, that puts the state GOP in a bind, he said. “If that’s going to be the argument that the party has for the next 10 years, I don’t know that the Republican party nationally, and certainly not in California, can sustain that.”

Once again shutout from statewide office, some of the California candidates said they hope to instead to advance conservative policy in California through ballot measures.

Voters “don’t want anything with an ‘R’ next to its name,” said Konstantinos Roditis, the candidate for controller who had the “R” next to his name. “If we want to make change in California that people want, the best way, I believe, is to do it through the initiative process.”

Both he and the candidate for treasurer, Greg Conlon, discussed the possibility of putting a state proposition on the ballot aimed at reducing California’s public-sector pension liability as soon as 2020.

“Our positions are not really Republican; they’re really bipartisan, because the people want it,” said Roditis. “Democrats in Sacramento don’t want it.”

In the short term, the California Republican Party’s greatest hopes for broader political relevance may lie with the governor-elect. Many Republicans believe that Californians will tire of Democratic rule if and when Newsom begins to push through the many ambitious and expensive policies he’s promised on the campaign trail.

The lesson of the last few elections is that Californians have a modest appetite for certain taxes, said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has written about the politics of the California tax revolt. “It doesn’t mean that Californians are ready to embrace all kinds of higher taxes,” he said. “I would bet you that if you put Proposition 13 on the ballot as it applies to homeowners, it would pass again easily.”

A recession, and the budget crunch that would likely follow, could result in a similar political backlash. “You can’t sit around and wait for the revolution,” said Whalen. “But I would not get too far down the road with grim prophecies. Things can change quickly in politics.”

Think back to 1974. In the midterm elections after the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the state Republican Party lost five seats in a once-in-a-generation electoral pummeling. But six years later, Ronald Reagan, another Californian, ran for president and won.

“This Republican Party will be back in this state,” Cox said, “and our path to success is going to be based upon delivering the quality of life that people need so desperately.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The California Democratic Party no longer accepts donations from the oil industry, viewing that as politically unsavory for a party pushing to curb climate change. But that hasn’t stopped oil companies from spending millions to help California Democrats win.

Instead of giving money to the party, oil companies are donating directly to Democratic candidates and pouring huge sums into outside groups that campaign for a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

The petroleum industry has put at least $19.2 million into California politics in the 2017-18 election cycle, according to a CALmatters analysis of campaign finance data. Much of it is helping Republicans, including $2 million to the California Republican Party. The industry also gave roughly $14 million to independent committees supporting some politicians from both parties.

But the oil money helping California Democrats is significant. It includes:

  • More than $853,000 in direct contributions to 47 Democrats running for Assembly and Senate—including powerful leaders of both houses of the Legislature—and to the campaigns of Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Ed Hernandez.
  • More than $2.8 million on an independent campaign to help Democrat Susan Rubio win a Los Angeles-area state Senate seat.
  • More than $343,000 on an independent campaign supporting the re-election of Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield.
  • Nearly $160,000 to a committee that campaigns for business-friendly Democrats.

In addition, oil companies and other business interests are pooling funds on campaigns supporting other Democrats running for the Legislature: Tasha Boerner Horvath of Encinitas, Sabrina Cervantes of Riverside, James Ramos of San Bernardino, Bob Archuleta of Pico Rivera, Vanessa Delgado of Montebello, Freddie Rodriguez of Pomona and Sydney Kamlager of Los Angeles.

It’s all part of a broader push by business interests in recent years to shape the type of Democrats who hold power in the state Capitol. As the Republican Party has diminished in California, and progressive activists nudge the Democratic Party leftward, big business has helped foster a cadre of more-conservative Democrats in the Legislature. This “mod squad” amounts to a bloc that can kill or water down environmental legislation.

“For years, I would have to convince the business community every election cycle that a moderate Democrat is good for them—not as great as a Republican who would do everything they tell them to, but better than a liberal Democrat,” said David Townsend, a political consultant who runs a business-backed political action committee that works to elect Democrats.

“I don’t have to make that argument anymore. It’s patently clear,” he said. “Now it’s a question of who is a mod, and how much can (business) help?”

Chevron, Valero and Phillips 66 are among the businesses working to elect Democrats through Townsend’s PAC and others like it. The companies are members of the Western States Petroleum Association, which doesn’t give political donations, but lobbies in Sacramento.

“We’re focused on bringing the conversation around energy back to the middle and away from the polarized extremes,” Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the petroleum association, said in a statement.

But many environmentalists see this kind of centrism as anathema to Democratic party principles. The California Democratic Party’s platform calls for a moratorium on fracking and a new tax on fossil fuel extraction—ideas that have failed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Our fear is that if oil companies are pouring money into candidates even before they’re elected, if they are elected, what will be their moral compass when there are issues with the refineries or natural gas power plants?” said Diana Vazquez, a policy manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

The group ranks legislators every year on their environmental records. One of the low-scoring Democrats this year is Salas, the Bakersfield assemblyman benefiting from big spending by the oil industry, a major employer in his oil-rich region.

The environmental group gave an even lower score to Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio—the sister of Susan Rubio, who is running for state Senate with more than $2.8 million in support from petroleum. Environmentalists are supporting Susan Rubio’s opponent, Mike Eng, also a Democrat.

Susan Rubio’s spokesman touted her work on parks funding and other environmental issues as a Baldwin Park council member, and said her sister’s track record doesn’t indicate how she’ll vote.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that despite campaign support from Big Oil, Democrats have passed environmental measures that oil companies opposed—including legislation to curb offshore drilling and expand renewable energy.

“Does it influence individual members? I’m not sure,” Rendon said. “But as a body, I think we have a good record of standing up to oil.”

Yet Big Oil’s influence in the state Capitol is why the chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus pushed the party to ban oil-company money at the end of 2016. (The Democratic National Committee followed suit earlier this year, but, facing blowback from labor unions that rely on oil industry jobs, quickly reversed course and overturned the ban.)

RL Miller, the party’s state environmental caucus chair, said she’s not surprised the petroleum industry has found other channels for spending on California Democrats this year.

“I’ve always known that it would be a long road,” she said. “Getting the party not to take the money is a step, but the end goal here is to remove their influence in Democratic politics.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Although California can’t do much to block the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies, opponents in the “Resistance State” keep finding ways to chip away at their foundations.

The latest: pushing the state and its Democratic leaders to cancel its business deals with, investments in, and campaign donations from private companies with federal immigration contracts:

• A group of K-12 teachers are urging their retirement system to divest from GEO Group, CoreCivic and General Dynamics.

• Some University of California students and workers are pressing the UC system to sever ties with General Dynamics Information Technology. The company helps the system administer a placement test for incoming first-year students.

• Politicians and the state Democratic Party are shedding donations from CoreCivic, operator of private prisons and detention facilities.

“I don’t think we should profit off of the lives of other people,” said Adrianna Betti, one of hundreds of teachers who are urging CalSTRS, the organization responsible for the pensions of California K-12 teachers, to divest from the private prison companies. “The concept that I’m going to retire off of this type of money—it bothers me immensely.”

Betti told a recent CalSTRS investment meeting that the organization needs to provide more transparency about its portfolio and realize they are making moral choices with their dollars.

“Nobody with a moral lens would have made this decision ever,” she said.

Amid public outcry last month, President Donald Trump backed off of his initial policy of separating undocumented parents from their children at the border. “So we’re keeping families together, and this will solve that problem,” he said. “At the same time, we are keeping a very powerful border, and it continues to be a zero-tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”

More than 1,800 children have been reunited with families after being separated at the border, but more than 700 still remain separated—and some of those may be in California.

The state—which Trump branded “out of control” in its immigration defiance—passed a trio of laws last year designed to make California a “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants who don’t commit serious crimes. Although the Trump administration sued to have the laws overturned, it has not yet been successful.

But the emotional family separations posed a particular frustration in Democrat-dominated California. Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined 17 other states in contesting the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy last month, arguing in the complaint that family separation is causing severe trauma that state resources will be strained to address.

The federal government “does have the right to decide how to conduct immigration processes. They’ve done a very poor job obviously—very harshly,” Becerra said on KQED earlier this month. “We are more limited there in what we can do as far as allowing these kids to be free.”

One move the state could make: divestment. It’s a tactic that various activists have proposed against gun manufacturers, tobacco companies and fossil-fuel firms. Successes include the UC divestment effort in the 1980s against South Africa, which Nelson Mandela credited with helping bring an end to the racist apartheid regime.

CalSTRS said it is determining potential risk factors the private prison companies may post to pensions. At its meeting, investment committee chairman Harry Keiley said he’s asked the chief investment officer update the board on the issue by September.

CoreCivic said in a statement that none of its facilities provide housing for children who aren’t under the supervision of a parent, adding, “We also do not enforce immigration laws or policies or have any say whatsoever in an individual’s deportation or release.”

“We are proud that for over the past 30 years, we have assisted both Democrat and Republican administrations across the country as they address a myriad of public-policy challenges,” said the company spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. “CoreCivic has a strong commitment to caring for each person respectfully and humanely.”

Other educators are urging the UC system to sever ties with General Dynamics Information Technology. The University Council-AFT—the labor union that represents librarians, lecturers and other university faculty members—sent such a letter to UC president Janet Napolitano in June, who also received a similar letter from the Council of UC Faculty Associations, the umbrella organization that represents the different faculty associations at each campus.

The University of California Student Association, an organization that represents students across UC campuses, is also pressing the UC system to end its contract. “To work with a company actively taking part in the state sanctioned violence of separating families seeking asylum, and profiting from it is to be complicit in the inhumanity of their actions,” the association said in a letter to the president.

“This is still happening, and they’re not doing as much as they could,” said Stephanie Luna-Lopez, a third-year student at UC Berkeley and associate chief of community development for the Associated Students of the University of California, the student association for UC Berkeley. “We actually cannot do anything, because it’s out of our control.”

Napolitano contends that UC has contracted with the company for years; that it assured her they were providing case work for unaccompanied minors to facilitate reuniting families; and that breaking ties would be “detrimental” and “disruptive.” (Although she presided over significant numbers of deportations as head of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, Napolitano has denounced Trump’s separation policy.)

General Dynamics Information Technology has worked with the Office of Refugee Resettlement since 2000, providing casework support for the Department of Health and Human Services. It says it has no role in the family separation policy, but facilitates reunifications.

Democratic legislators and the Democratic Party have, since Jan. 1, 2017, collected some $250,000 from private-prison companies that incarcerate undocumented immigrants. Now they’re distancing themselves.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon tweeted last month that he would donate campaign money received from CoreCivic to the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which works with formerly incarcerated people to reform the justice system.

After CALmatters noted that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom received private prison money in his campaign for governor, an aide said Newsom donated $5,000 to the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Families Belong Together project, which protests Trump’s immigration policies.

The California Democratic Party has also announced it will no longer accept contributions from organizations that run private prisons or other incarceration services.

“The private-prison system represents so much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system,” said CDP chair Eric C. Bauman in a statement. “Accepting donations from companies that profit from the systemic injustices and suffering that results from them is incompatible with the values and platform of our party.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

With primary-election ballots still being tallied across the state, things are looking good for the California Republican Party … that is, not catastrophically bad.

It may be as close to good as the state’s second-biggest political party can hope for in California in 2018.

Assuming preliminary results hold, Democrats and Republicans fought to a virtual standstill on Election Day, avoiding the nightmare scenarios that political insiders had been fretting about for months.

Republicans made it into the top two spots in some of the most important contests for statewide office. That includes a decisive second-place finish by San Diego businessman John Cox, who will go on to face Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the race for governor. That could prop up conservative turnout in November even as Newsom tries to rally his base against the candidate he calls a “foot soldier” of President Trump.

But Republicans failed to make it into the November race for U.S. Senate (which was largely expected), lieutenant governor (not quite as expected) and insurance commissioner (though a former Republican with no current party affiliation came in first).

Republicans did not manage to shut Democrats out of any competitive congressional races—despite the Democrats’ own worries about that—boosting the latter’s hopes of regaining control of the House in November.

Republican turnout was not suppressed by Trump, his low statewide approval ratings notwithstanding. So now what for the California GOP?

“They’re looking to charge up the base in seven key congressional districts,” said Mike Madrid, referring to seven Republican-held districts in which a majority of voters supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. “In California Republican politics, that’s about all you can consider a victory at this point.”

Madrid is a Republican political consultant who worked for Antonio Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial campaign and is sharply critical of the party under Trump.

A California Republican hasn’t been elected to any of the statewide constitutional offices or the U.S. Senate since 2006. Party registration has been sliding ever since, dipping below the share of voters without a party affiliation.

Republicans may have placed second in a number of statewide races this time, but if recent trends continue, that merely forestalls defeat in November. At last count, the various Democratic candidates for governor cobbled together more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to less than 40 percent for the Republicans.

In the attorney general’s race, where Republicans also managed to avoid a shutout, incumbent Xavier Becerra leads retired judge Steven Bailey, who placed second, by 20 percentage points.

One right-of-center candidate may have scored a first-place victory, though he isn’t listed as a Republican. Steve Poizner, who served as the state’s Republican insurance commissioner from 2007 through 2011, ran for his old job without a stated political party preference. The lack of an “R” next to his name may have helped.

“We understand that we’re the underdogs,” said state party chairman Jim Brulte. For months, he has argued that the party’s way forward is to consistently remind voters that Democrats have controlled every lever of power in Sacramento for eight years—and are therefore responsible for any problems facing the state.

“They own it; they broke it, and we’re the fix,” he said. “Their strategic reason for wanting to mention Donald Trump inevery other sentence is because even though they’re in charge, they don’t want to take credit for California.”

Democrats get it.

“It’s going to be Trump, Trumpism and the Resistance,” said Newsom spokesman Nathan Click while describing the campaign ahead. In his speech on election night, Newsom described Cox as “a foot soldier in Trump’s war on California.”

Cox responded in his own speech the same night: “It wasn’t Donald Trump who made us the highest tax state in the country. It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.”

Hammering Democrats on taxes, particularly on the recent increase in the state’s gas tax, will be a central talking point for Republicans in the coming months.

In one unequivocally good piece of news for the state’s GOP in this election, voters overwhelmingly opted to fire Josh Newman from his state Senate seat in Orange County. The successful recall campaign strips Democrats of their supermajority control of the state Senate, although they hope to win it back in the fall. It also provides Republicans with a political game plan for the months ahead.

“People who supported the gas tax (increase) are going to have a lot of explaining to do,” said Brulte.

Pete Peterson, a Republican who ran for California secretary of state in 2014 and who is now the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, said he hopes the party thinks a bit bigger than the gas tax. By overwhelming backing a left-leaning candidate like Newsom over a relative moderate like Villaraigosa, the Democrats have left the Republican Party an opening in California, he said.

The premise of the Villaraigosa campaign was to tack toward the center of California’s political spectrum, embracing targeted government assistance and a liberal immigration policy, while pumping the brakes on expensive programs like a proposed single-payer health-care system, enthusiastically supporting charter schools and occasionally wading into conservative rhetorical territory about red tape and bureaucratic excess.

With Villaraigosa’s loss, “there’s a significant part of the Democratic Party that is not going to be represented in this governor’s race,” said Peterson, who supports Cox. “So the question I have for Republicans is: Do you see that as an opportunity?”

Madrid says it’s too late. Cox embraced the support of President Donald Trump and spoke in favor of his immigration policies.

“To think that somehow moderates, centrist Democrats are going to move over and vote for a Trump supporter because they’re paying some extra money at the pump completely fails to grasp what is happening in this country and this state,” Madrid said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

In his year-and-a-half as California’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra has made a full-time job of fighting the Trump administration—filing more than 30 lawsuits to defend the environment, immigrants, birth-control access and more.

Which makes it odd that when Becerra’s supporters bought TV time to air a campaign commercial for him, they chose the most Trump-boosting network around: Fox News.

The ad spends 15 seconds describing Becerra in ways that likely repel the typical Fox viewer, saying he is “leading the resistance, defending Dreamers, stopping the wall, taking on the NRA.” But the other 15 seconds hails one of Becerra’s Republican opponents, Steven Bailey, as the “pro-gun, pro-life” candidate who “stands with President Trump (and) opposes sanctuary cities.”

It’s the latest in a series of twisted tactics now emblematic of campaign 2018: Why would a group trying to elect a Democrat promote his Republican opponent to a conservative audience? The answer: Because California’s election rules have turned normal campaign tactics on their head.

Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot, and voters can choose any of them. The two with the most votes on June 5—regardless of their party—advance to the November general election.

This “top two” system has scrambled traditional campaigning. Instead of candidates simply promoting themselves and attacking their opponents, campaigns are going to bizarre extremes to give certain opponents a boost, whether via old media (mailers and TV ads) or new (social platforms and texts). In some cases, they’re raising the profile of candidates they believe would be easier to beat in the general. In other cases, they’re propping up obscure opponents to shave votes from a more-formidable foe.

Think of these Machiavellian maneuvers as the political equivalent of a triple-bank pool shot. They’ve already spurred ethics complaints from two candidates for governor, alleging that campaign groups aren’t properly identifying whom their messages support.

“The ‘top two’ primary has really changed the decision-making calculations for campaigns,” said political consultant Garry South, a veteran of Democratic campaigns who is not working on any statewide races this election. “Things are happening that might look a little strange, but are probably pretty rational calculations.”

Some messages aim for niche audiences. Others, blasting more broadly, do double-duty, simultaneously promoting two opposing candidates in an attempt to boost a candidate’s preferred opponent.

The ad showing the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general is not paid for by either one. An independent committee largely funded by Realtors and labor unions paid for it, and disclosed in campaign finance reports that it supports Becerra and opposes Bailey. The race includes two other candidates: Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and Republican attorney Eric Early. The ad appears to try to consolidate GOP support for Bailey, making it harder for Jones to get in the top two—and easier for Becerra to win in November.

“I can’t speak to the motivations of an outside group, but they do see Judge Bailey as the strongest alternative,” said Bailey spokesman Corey Uhden.

In deep-blue California, where just a quarter of voters are registered Republican, and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide office since 2006, many Democrats would rather face a Republican in November, because it virtually assures their victory. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor, almost said as much at a recent debate when he said a Republican would be an “ideal” opponent in the fall.

Polls show the a tight race for second place between Republican John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, with many voters undecided and 24 other candidates on the ballot.

So Newsom is running ads that could help Cox consolidate the Republican vote. One does double-duty by contrasting Newsom’s work to pass stricter gun controls (an appeal to Democrats) with Cox’s support for the NRA (an appeal to Republicans). Newsom deployed a similar tactic after President Trump endorsed Cox, flooding cell phones with a text message announcing the news.

The response from Republicans? Some indicated on social media they thought the Newsom campaign had contacted them by mistake. Others identified it as a Democrat’s move to influence the GOP vote.

“Be careful what you wish for sneaky Gavin,” tweeted Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said the campaign sent the text to Californians across the political spectrum: “That’s a good message for Republicans and Democrats.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign filed a complaint with the state’s political ethics watchdog about similar ads by a Newsom-backing group. The complaint says “the clear and cynical short-term goal” for Newsom and his supporters “is to manipulate the primary election and to make sure a Republican advances to the general election.”

The indignation is rich, since an independent group backing Villaraigosa is also trying to pull the puppet strings on the California electorate: Hoping to dilute Cox’s support among Republicans in order to launch Villaraigosa into the top two, the group is running ads that deride Cox and others that promote his GOP opponents. It sent GOP voters a mailer promoting Republican Robert Newman, an almost unknown candidate, and Assemblyman Travis Allen, Cox’s main competitor.

Another mailer it sent Republicans features a striking photo of the attractive Allen family in front of a military plane. Ben Avey, a member of the Sacramento County Republican Central Committee, assumed it was from Allen when he first pulled it from his mailbox. Then he flipped it over and read the fineprint: the ad was actually from the pro-Villaraigosa group.

“Even as a kind of sophisticated voter, I was kind of shocked it came from an independent expenditure supporting Antonio Villaraigosa, just because it was so bold in what it was doing,” Avey said. “There was some double jujitsu there.”

Cox filed an ethics complaint against the pro-Villaraigosa committee, alleging it broke the law by not reporting its support for the other Republican candidates on campaign-finance disclosures.

“It is a blatant attempt to split the Republican vote and get two Democrat candidates into the November election,” said Cox spokesman Matt Shupe.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat struggling to gain traction in his campaign for governor, dispatched a press release blasting both Newsom and Villaraigosa for “turning to Republicans to advance their own personal gain.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

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