Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Negative ads on Topinka's Republican policies work but could use some improvements

I like the Blagojevich campaign's current 15-second commercials about the gubernatorial campaign. They are substantive, punchy and not anything like the way-over-the-top, unfair attack ads that the Oberweis campaign ran against Topinka.

The Oberweis campaign just ran commercials with Topinka polkaing (polka-ing?) with George Ryan and then just lied by saying "Topinka ordered staff to work on political campaigns" -- an unwarranted lie without any real attribution that ought to be illegal. Why didn't Oberweis get more flak for those?

On the other hand, Blagojevich's commercials are substantive, fair, issue-oriented but aggressive. There are two of them.

The first is about Topinka's opposition to an assault weapons ban, one of the gun control advocates main goals and a fiercely fought legislative battle every year (with the exception of this year, where a 'gun truce' has been imposed by the legislative leaders to avoid the bloody trench warfare of gun bills on third reading). Treasurer Topinka argued that the definition of an assault weapon is nebulous enough to potentially include a rolling pin, and the commercial makes her look a little silly. Playing off one of her primary campaign themes of "Thinka Topinka", the commercial's tag line is "What's she thinking?"

The Blagojevich campaign has laid out these commercials on a separate website at which is a nicely transparent method of being accountable for a 'negative' ad campaign.

I think that's a very strong commercial and message.

The other commercial isn't so strong, and it's taken me a while to figure out why I think it doesn't resonate as well.

The second commercial is about Topinka's support for the "Bush tax cuts" that lowered the marginal federal income tax rates and the capital gains tax rate. The most important tax cut in terms of lost revenue to the federal government (helping to create that $400 billion annual deficit, which gives China more power over us every year since we can't pay our own bills) is the tax cut on the highest incomes. Until 2001, the tax on income above $300,000 was 39.6% and because there are ever-more very high incomes, that generates a ton of money. After Bush took over and the GOP Congress secured control, the top tax rate was cut to 35%. That's the biggest deal of the Bush tax cuts and the dumbest cut, because anyone earning more than $300,000 can afford to pay the roughly 40% while the rest of us can't afford the higher cost of everything else when the government is broke (less student aid for college, less renewable energy, less support to state and local governments, etc.).

That message isn't easy to convey. The commercial calls it the 'millionaire's tax cut' because, in combination with the repeal of the estate tax and the cut on capital gains, the people who make more than a million dollars get tens of thousands off their federal tax bills. It's a stupid policy that panders to the base of the GOP (rich people and those who think they will be) and should be reversed. But it's tough to communicate in 15 seconds the reality of the federal Republican economic policy of forcing regular, working people to pay more money while enriching the wealthy.

The commercial also lays out a great wedge issue: the minimum wage. This is a great issue for Democrats and a horrible one for Republicans, because most people know it's absurd to expect someone to make a living on $6.50 an hour (Illinois' minimum wage). Very few Republicans support raising the minimum wage, while very few Democrats oppose it. Topinka called the latest proposal "a giveaway plan" and the Democrats have proposed raising the wage to $7.50. (Some Republicans rightfully question why we don't just raise the minimum wage to $7.50 before the end of the 2006 legislative session, but hey, it's good to have an issue....)

Why doesn't the message about Bush's millionaire tax cut resonate as much as the minimum wage or the assault weapons ban? I think the answer lays in how Republicans talk about taxes.

I saw on C-Span some Republican candidate talk about an uber-consultant's (I think it was Grover Norquist or perhaps Karl Rove) axiom on taxes: never mention a number. Republicans talk about cutting taxes generally. They don't talk about which taxes they want to cut and how much money people will make based on their actual income levels. If they did that, it would be very clear that the wealthy get the money while the rest of us get Chinese-financed debt and diminished public services.

That suggests that Democrats should always talk about numbers when we talk about taxes. Blagojevich (and every other Democrat) should always talk about the Bush tax cuts for income above $300,000 (to the extent it helps to remind Illinois voters about federal policy that Topinka presumably still supports).

And a coda: it also means that progressives who want to stop cutting higher education and stop condemning kids in poor suburbs and rural towns to crappy schools that shut down at 2 in the afternoon and extend the school year to 200 days need to talk about a 5% state income tax to fund this investment, instead of our current 3% income tax. Now that we know Blagojevich is against a 5% income tax, and that we'll need a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly to pass a 5% income tax, we need to clearly and consistently make the case for a 5% income tax (and not just a vague idea of 'raising state taxes'). Let's talk about numbers!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Senate move for capital investment moves the debate forward

Senate Bill 668 (here) is a billion dollar bond program for school construction.

Last week, the Senate Democrats brought the bill, along with Senate Bill 665 (here), a $2.7 billion transportation bond bill, to the floor for a vote. Because the state constitution requires a three-fifths vote for putting the state deeper into debt, and Democrats only have 54% of the seats, Republicans need to vote for the bill as well. They did not, so the bills failed on a party-line vote.

Much of the debate, and much of the reporting on the debate, framed this as the Senate Republicans killing "the Governor's bill." Republican objections centered on the lack of any real negotiation between Governor Blagojevich and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, the lack of trust they have for Governor Blagojevich and finally, the lack of a revenue stream to finance the bonds.

I think that's not quite accurate, at least as it pertains to SB 668, the billion dollar school construction bond.

This was clearly not the Governor's bill, as the Senate Democrats chose to double the stakes and push for a billion dollar bond for school construction, not $500 million. One of Leader Watson's main points on the floor was the apparent absurdity of Governor Blagojevich's office scheduling a meeting for the day after the vote. I think that's a good sign that the bonding bill was the initiative of President Jones and the Senate Democrats, and not Governor Blagojevich. So it's a little unfair to rip into Blagojevich for not meeting with Leader Watson in time for the vote when the President pushed the bond forward to the floor.

The interesting part of the exercise was the apparent openness of several Senate Republicans to passing a capital bill. Just about every Republican began their statement with something along the lines of "I would like to vote for this, but...." Some attribute these statements as cynical window dressing to protect themselves from charges of obstructionism (remember that's what the federal GOP Senators called Tom Daschle?), but I choose to take electeds at their word. I think there's an opportunity to find a bipartisan consensus on a capital bill -- particularly the school construction bond, where, as Senator Miguel del Valle pointed out during debate, the state law creating the program strips out much of the Governor's ability to amend the rules governing the distribution of funds. Therefore, even if Republicans do not trust Governor Blagojevich, they should still be open to the school construction program, as it doesn't rely on trust.

Who can forge that consensus? I think the legislators have the chance to do that. The odd, persistent culture of deference to the Executive Branch in the General Assembly continues to shape the budget debate. It was a little weird that Governor Blagojevich dominated the Senate debate on the capital bill -- why didn't Leader Watson and the Republicans demand to negotiate with President Jones and the Senate Democrats in shaping what is, after all, a Senate Bill?

Especially given the re-election pressures that cause people to dramatically inflate the electoral consequences of passing or not passing a capital bill (really, how many swing voters will be moved in November based on whether school construction is funded?), it makes sense to me that the legislators work to find a consensus among themselves. Given that in any other year, April 11th would be just the beginning of talking about the shape of the budget, we've got plenty of time.

And I think there is absolutely zero fallout from 'missing the deadline' of April 7th to adjourn. The only deadline that matters is May 31st. Press spin that Democrats are 'failing to govern' because they didn't pass a budget seven weeks ahead of time is borderline ridiculous -- especially if one looks at the Republican-controlled Congress which is perpetually months late at passing the federal budget, and the press almost never frames that body as 'failing to govern'.

Senate Democrats and President Jones should be proud that they moved the debate about a much-needed capital program forward last week. I hope they continue to do so and take the initiative -- legislator to legislator -- at forging a bipartisan bill.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What's the best way to judge transit performance?

Mass transit systems (the CTA, Metra and Pace, not to mention the dozen or so other mass transit agencies in Illinois) are just about out of money. They aren't making a big stink about it like they did in 2005 (and they were remarkably successful at framing the entire debate over the state budget, at least in Chicago, where the headlines after the budget was passed in 2005 read: CTA won't shut down), but they are broke.

Why are they broke? The federal government has money to pay for the invasion and occupation of Iraq for years to come, but no money to help cover the cost of buses and trains. As of 1993, the feds stopped paying for any operating support for mass transit. That was a dumb idea. But, what can you do?

They are also broke because the source of their income -- the local sales tax -- is not rising. As you savvy Internet readers go buy things online, you dodge the local sales tax. And, as we move more towards a service and tourism economy, the sales tax (which is for the sale of goods, not services) generates fewer dollars. Ridership is up all over the place, but fares only cover half the cost of the service, and the taxes (the local sales tax) that supports mass transit is flat or shrinking.

We should raise the tax on gasoline or parking so that people who drive pay more of the cost of transit, since really, fares on the CTA or Pace or Metra should be a lot closer to free than they are, as every rider on transit makes life better for everyone else, while every additional driver makes life a little more congested and thus a little worse for everyone else. Ideally, drivers would pay a lot more, and riders, well, maybe they'd even get paid a little something for making life better for everyone else. Or at least they'd ride for free. Illinois took a good step in that direction in the late 90s with Illinois FIRST, a big capital bond that paid for a lot of CTA capital needs like new buses and train stations that is financed by a higher fee for a license plate. That means drivers paid for the cost of infrastructure (lots of roads, but some transit). Our operating budget should move in that direction as well.

In any event, we've got a state policy debate on how, sometime before early 2007 when the FY08 budgets must be created and it becomes very clear and very public just how broke the transit agencies are, we can come up with a lot more money and (here's the fun part) make sure it is spent wisely.

Today's subcommittee hearing of the Mass Transit Committee of the Illinois House started that policy discussion. Triggered by Representative Larry McKeon's HB4663, the subcommittee on Transit Management and Performance discussed how to implement performance measures.

This is an important and intriguing debate, because part of building the case for spending more money on transit (a very good thing, especially transit that's powered by electricity and not Saudi Arabian oil) is to get the best bang for the buck. And right now, the members of the Mass Transit committee, led by Chairwoman Julie Hamos, are looking for good ideas.

Here are a few I have and I encourage you to add your own to the comments and send that over to Representative Hamos' office.

1) All data collected by any transit agency should be available online. It should be open source. Every little bit of data gathered, especially the actual trip times of each run of each bus and train, should be available online.

2) Employee data should be online as well, including salaries and benefit packages of every employee. There's a widespread suspicion that some agencies pay too many administrators too much money. If that suspicion is unfounded, then data will evaporate that objection. If it's true, then that needs to change.

3) The state should set up somewhat arbitrary standards and force every mass transit agency to use them, so that comparing different agencies will be easy. Ideally, every agency in the country would use the same standard.

What else should the state do to make sure that transit agencies work better?

I should mention that Representative McKeon's main point was that transit agencies should be planned according to a consumer-driven process. He wants to start the process by determining what the consumer expects (reliable, on-time, cheap and fast travel, presumably), and then work backwards from there in order to figure out what the agency needs to do to make that happen and what reporting processes need to be created to make sure the agency is executing the plan that leads to consumer expectations.