Monday, April 25, 2011

Judge Rosenberg claims my column was “full of misstatements and misconceptions.”

In the April 26 edition of The Davis Enterprise, an op-ed penned by Yolo County Judge David Rosenberg will be published. Judge Rosenberg’s piece, which is now available in the online edition of the newspaper, is an attack on my April 13 column which questioned whether now is the right time to be spending $5 billion on 41 courthouse projects, one of which will be built in Woodland.

New Yolo courthouse will benefit residents
By David Rosenberg

Under the headline “Courthouse plans straining budget,” your columnist Rich Rifkin (April 13) challenged the new Yolo courthouse project. His column is so full of misstatements and misconceptions that I felt compelled to respond.

As a public service, I will count up every misstatement and every misconception I made.

In fact, a new courthouse project was approved (years ago) for Yolo County, costing about $173 million. The land already has been identified and acquired, the design phase is now under way, leading to the start of construction, hopefully, at some point next year.

So far, Judge Rosenberg has failed to point out a single misstatement or misconception of mine.

However, even the headline of Rifkin’s column is inaccurate.

The judge should know that I have nothing to do with the headlines. Those are written by the editors. That qualifies as the first misconception in this exchange.

Rosenberg 1-0 in misconceptions.

This project is not straining any budget — state, county or local.

I never stated in any way that this project is straining any budget. That counts as a second misconception for the man who worked so hard to get a public skate park built in Davis.

Rosenberg 2-0.

Not one penny of taxpayer money is used for the courthouse project.

I never said the 41 courthouse projects would be funded by a tax. I explained carefully in my piece how a new fee would be attached to all parking tickets, moving violations and other criminal convictions in which the convicted is not sent to prison.

I won’t charge Judge Rosenberg for a third misconception, here. Rather, I will charge him with a blatant deception. His effort is to mislead his readers, making them think I wrote incorrectly how the funds for his courthouse will be generated.

Rosenberg 2-0 in misconceptions plus one deception.

No state general fund money is used for the project.

Again, I never stated that any general fund money would be used. That counts as deception number two for Dave.

Rosenberg 2-0 in misconceptions plus two deceptions.

The project is completely funded by a statewide surcharge assessed against everyone convicted of a violation of the criminal law.

I think this statement qualifies as deception number three and misstatement number one for Yolo County’s presiding judge. He misleads his readers with “a violation of the criminal law,” because almost all of the money will come from traffic offenders and parking violations. And because, when a person is sent to prison (see EDIT 1) he normally does not pay the fee but works it off, Judge Rosenberg knows that it is not “everyone convicted” who will pay this surcharge.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 2-0. Misstatements: 1-0.

Rifkin’s column asserts that the money for the new courthouse could better be used elsewhere.

It could be better used elsewhere at this time. What I wrote was that until we are out of the economic and budget crisis, we should put off funding luxurious courthouses like the one planned for Woodland.

He says “with that much largesse, Yolo County could pay off almost all of its $175.5 million unfunded pension liability to the miscellaneous employees.” Interesting theory.

Thanks for your interest in my theory, Dave.

But Rifkin ignores several facts.

Let’s hear your facts, your honor.

First, to do so would violate state law, which requires that the money collected from people who violate the law should be used for court facilities.

I did not ignore that “fact,” Davey! I suggested that the Legislature change the law. I noted, “…there is no reason SB 1407 could not be temporarily changed.”

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 2-0. Misstatements: 2-0.

Second, to do so would ignore the constitution, which would mandate some sort of nexus between the fee and the expenditure — using the funds from those convicted of crime to pay off a county’s debt has no nexus; using the funds to pay for court facilities certainly does.

I never said these fees should be used to pay off the county's debt. I merely noted that the amount that Yolo County's pension funding for its miscellaneous employees is short is nearly identical to the amount the new courthouse would cost. In other words, if Yolo County had this money, it could pay off this debt.

It’s hard for me, a layman, to argue the state constitution with a superior court judge. However, I believe the judge knows he is being duplicitous, here. He admitted as much some paragraphs down when he wrote this:

“Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for ‘other purposes’ and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.”

So which is it, judge? You state that the money cannot be used for other purposes, and then you state that the money is being used for other purposes. Is your left brain not communicating well with your right brain? Or are you just trying to deceive your readers?

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 3-0. Misstatements: 2-0.

Finally, pursuing Rifkin’s “logic” to the ultimate conclusion, government should not pay for capital projects but should divert its money to pay for debt service or operations.

Once again, this public servant is trying to deceive his readers. Either that, or he just did not read my column carefully.

I never mentioned anything about not paying for capital projects. I never even said the judge’s shiny new courthouse project should be abandoned. I simply suggested that while we are in a severe budget crisis, it is questionable in my mind whether now is the best time to be spending this $5 billion it will cost to build 41 courthouse projects, 35 of which are brand new buildings.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 4-0. Misstatements: 2-0.

I suppose the city of Davis should not have built or repaired roads, or parks or pools, or the Veterans’ Memorial Center or the Senior Center — per Rifkin, the money would have been better spent in operations.

The judge seems to have no factual points to make. So instead he just makes up shinola like this. The fact is that I don’t object to roads or public buildings. I simply argued in my column that while the state is drowning in red ink, it would be a good idea to put off this $5 billion expenditure.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 4-0. Misstatements: 3-0.

The reality is that it is never easy to accommodate long-range projects such as roads, bridges, canals or buildings.

Actually, the judge is wrong here. It’s not that hard. Our state has passed scores of bond measures to fund these sorts of projects. Since 1996, we have approved more than $21 billion in general obligation bonds. For details, see what the Legislative Analyst’s office reports.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 4-0. Misstatements: 4-0.

The immediate demands for operations are always great. Kudos to the governor, the Legislature and the judicial branch for recognizing this and for creating a logical funding source for new courthouses in California: a fee charged only to persons convicted of crimes. Who better to pay for court facilities?

Repeating himself, as the judge is wont to do, Rosenberg states that these courthouse buildings will be paid for by convicted criminals. He conveniently fails to mention that almost all of the money will be generated by a large surcharge on traffic tickets and a smaller charge tacked on parking tickets.

Do you wonder why the judge didn’t explain that in his tirade?

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 5-0. Misstatements: 4-0.

Rifkin goes on to say that Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald mentioned to him that the price of the new Yolo courthouse is almost three times the price of the “luxurious” Mondavi Center. But surely Greenwald and Rifkin understand that a courthouse is not a theater.

A courthouse is not a theater? Thanks for letting me in on that, your honor.

A courthouse is a complex structure, unlike any other building. The current Yolo courthouse facilities see more than 300,000 separate trips of users and visitors each year.

That’s another way of saying about 1,000 people each day go into our courthouse. I wonder how that compares with the foot traffic in a typical big box store?

A courthouse has special security needs, the requirement for three separate pathways (for the public, for in-custody defendants, and for judicial officers and staff), unique courtrooms, public-serving counters, jury assembly space, holding cells, interview rooms and numerous other requirements.

Further, the new Yolo courthouse will be a LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, using the latest energy-saving technologies.

I wonder how many times in this column Judge Rosenberg will tell us that the new courthouse building will be LEED certified? I think LEED certification can be a nice thing. The new Target is LEED certified.

As an aside, there are a lot of environmentalists who are critical of LEED certifications. The famed architect Frank Gehry, who designed the purposefully weird Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, has, for example, said that LEED certification is often given for “bogus stuff.” I never charged that Rosenberg’s building will be given LEED points for bogus stuff.

Certainly, $173 million is a great deal of money — but it is what it costs to build a courthouse. The new courthouse planned for Sacramento County is pegged at about $510 million.

The judge likely read that in my column, where I noted that the “new 35-courtroom Sacramento Criminal Courthouse is slated to cost $509 million.” Maybe he wants you to think the $172.9 million project in Woodland is cheap by comparison?

The main thrust of Rifkin’s column is that in these difficult times, the money for courthouse construction could be better spent by being diverted for other purposes.

That was my main point, judge. I am glad to see you understood what I said.

Whether true or not, Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for “other purposes” and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.

Recall that a few paragraphs up, Judge Rosenberg, who is an expert on the constitution, said this could not be done. Have you decided, Dave, which way is it?

So, clearly, the Legislature — which thrashes around for available pots of money in difficult times — has, in fact, diverted courthouse construction funds for “other purposes” already.

Good. I thought you told me that was unconstitutional. I guess you were thinking of some other state constitution when you wrote that.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 4-0.

Fortunately, the Yolo courthouse project is so high on the list of critical projects that it will (sic) unaffected by this diversion.

It looks like no one edited Rosenberg’s writing. Not only does it have grammatical errors (“will unaffected”), but no one pointed out to the judge that he repeats his points again and again.

Rifkin’s column then goes on to denigrate courthouse projects as “Taj Mahals.” That is inaccurate and unfair.

How is that a denigration? The Taj Mahal is fabulous. Wikipedia says, “It is widely considered as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and stands as a symbol of eternal love.”

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

Courthouses are important public buildings that last many generations. The current historic courthouse in Yolo County has lasted almost a century. The new Yolo courthouse will be a courthouse for the next hundred years.

I have not seen any architectural renderings for the new Rosenberg courthouse. However, my guess is that it will feature a lot of high end d├ęcor. If it doesn’t, I will gladly buy Dave a coffee in downtown Woodland.

It will not be an insubstantial building — it will house 14 courtrooms, a jury assembly area to accommodate more than 300 prospective jurors, clerks’ offices and counters for the public, holding cells for in-custody defendants, security stations and many other features unique to courthouses.

Did you say it will house 14 courtrooms?

In addition, the new courthouse will be a LEED building, built to the best standards of environmental efficiency that we can muster.

Wait a minute, Dave. Didn’t you already brag that it will be a LEED building? Is it not against the law in Woodland to repeat yourself in your same column?

The Yolo court facilities are among the busiest — perhaps the busiest — public buildings in the county.

Maybe that’s because our district attorney has a tendency to bring every possible case to trial, rather than reach plea agreements with defendants? I don’t know if that is true. However, I have read that argument in a widely read Davis blog.

Rifkin’s criticism even goes so far as to challenge the five-story projection for the new courthouse.

Goes so far as to challenge? I stated its height as a matter of fact: “The five-story project will house 14 new courtrooms, each twice the size of the courtrooms in the historic edifice on Court Street.”

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

Five stories, while clearly substantial, will not be out of place on Main Street in downtown Woodland.

I never said it would be out of place.

The historic Hotel Woodland — just down the street from the proposed courthouse — has four stories and roof facades.

As it happens, the Hotel Woodland is more than five blocks from where the Rosenberg Courthouse will be erected. Most of the existing structures adjacent to the block between Lincoln and Main and Fifth and Sixth streets, where the courthouse will be, are one story tall.

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 7-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

The current historic courthouse on Court Street has four stories. There is a processing plant on Main Street just four blocks east of the proposed courthouse that is more than five stories in height.

The point is that the new courthouse must hold 14 courtrooms and attendant court uses.

You say it will house 14 courtrooms?

While the courthouse could be four stories, or even three stories, that would be poor planning. A shorter courthouse would have a larger footprint, taking much more of the land and thus restricting future expansion in 10 or 20 years.

The judge claimed above he is building this structure to last 100 years. Now he says in 10 or 20 years he wants it built even larger? Which is it, Dave?

Misconceptions: 4-0; Deceptions: 7-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

One problem with state buildings is that the state builds only for today’s needs, not for tomorrow’s requirements. The current needs for Yolo County are 14 courtrooms.

You say it will house 14 courtrooms?

In 10 years we will need more. By using less of the land, the court has the ability to expand on site.

Maybe instead of spending a lot more money in 10 years, we can make use of the historic courthouse on Main Street a decade from now?

Rifkin then criticizes the 14 courtrooms planned in the new courthouse by asserting that each will be twice the size of the current courtrooms.

I never criticized that. I merely pointed it out: “The five-story project will house 14 new courtrooms, each twice the size of the courtrooms in the historic edifice on Court Street.”

It is apparent that the judge has poor judgment when deciphering between a criticism and a statement of fact.

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 6-0.

It is certainly correct that the new courtrooms will be twice the size of current courtrooms.

He even agrees with me! Wait! I thought he said my column was full of misstatements. Maybe that was just the judge exercising poor judgment?

But what Rifkin fails to say is that current courtrooms are less than half the size of a standard California courtroom per state minimum standards.

This is circular logic, your honor. You and your fellow judges arbitrarily decide what the standard is, and then you declare our courtrooms fail to meet that standard. What I wonder is, what percentage of cases tried in our current Yolo County Courthouse must be moved to other facilities because the current courtrooms are too small? If it is greater than 1 percent, I will buy Judge Rosenberg a second cup of coffee in downtown Woodland.

Our current courtrooms were built in prior generations — our historic courthouse was built to house two courtrooms and we currently have eight courtrooms shoehorned into the building. We have two courtrooms in trailers, and others in rented buildings and in converted holding areas.

That’s a fine argument that at some point we need a new courthouse facility. I have not challenged that. I have simply questioned why, when the state is more than $15 billion in the red, we can’t put off this $5 billion, 41 courthouse program for a few years?

When the new courthouse is built, Yolo County will finally have standard-size courtrooms like other counties in the state.

Is that really what is bothering you? That other counties have bigger and better courtrooms than you have? Shouldn’t you be explaining how many trials had to be moved out of our county because our courtrooms are too small?

The need for a new Yolo County Courthouse is manifest. Our current facilities are scattered throughout the city of Woodland. The historic courthouse is ancient, and seismically unsafe.

You say it is seismically unsafe? Really?

Maybe you meant to say that it does not meet current seismic safety standards in California. But that certainly does not mean it is not structurally sound enough to survive the tremors that hit Woodland.(Note: there are no worrisome fault lines in or around Woodland. The closest faults are in the Capay Valley)

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 7-0.

Every single one of the existing courtrooms is substandard.

Yet they do not seem to be obstructing justice in Yolo County at the moment. As such, waiting a few more years until our economy recovers and the state’s fiscal crisis is resolved would not hurt anyone (other than a few judges who want nicer digs right away).

We have inadequate space for jurors, who often have to sit on stairways. We have no space for children. The wiring, plumbing and electrical systems are ancient. Hallways are shared by in-custody defendants, witnesses, victims, jurors, members of the public, judges and staff. It is truly medieval.

Truly medieval? Medieval times ended in the mid-1400s, before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. You must have meant to say the historic courthouse is truly Wilsonian. It was erected in 1917.

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 8-0.

That’s why Yolo wound up at the very top of the food chain in terms of critical needs for a new state-of-the-art courthouse. The citizens of Yolo County deserve no less.

You don’t mean to say, the court employees and judges deserve no less?

At the beginning of his piece, Judge Rosenberg claimed my column was “full of misstatements and misconceptions.” He never once pointed out a single misstatement or misconception of mine. Yet his op-ed was riddled with errors, each of which I noted above. It is sad that a public servant like Judge Rosenberg feels compelled to attack my work with so little regard for honest argument. He restated many of his points, simply because he had so little of worth to state. He had no direct refutation of anything I wrote. I feel embarrassed for the judge for having submitted this piece of drivel. It makes him look small.

EDIT 1: David Greenwald of the Davis Vanguard explained to me that the fee is not waived when a person is sent to prison. Rather, he said, the criminal must work off his fee in that case.

However, some court fees may be waived by a judge due to financial hardship. See Court Rule 3.50 to 3.58:

The rules in this division govern applications in the trial court for an initial waiver of court fees and costs because of the applicant’s financial condition. As provided in Government Code sections 68631 and following, any waiver may later be ended, modified, or retroactively withdrawn if the court determines that the applicant is not eligible for the waiver.

EDIT 2: Here are the six new fees imposed by SB 1407:

1. Proof of correction fee, $25 -- This fee is now collected per citation. Effective January 1, 2009, the fee will be collected per correction. $15 on the first correction and $25 on any additional corrections on the citation are remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
2. Traffic violator school fee, $49 -- 51% of fee collected remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
3. Criminal conviction assessment, $35 -- $35 remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
4. Criminal conviction assessment, $30 -- $30 remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
5. State court construction penalty, $5 -- Increase remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
6. State court construction parking penalty, $4.50 -- $3 remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One artsy gang banger ...

The people who say, "truth is stranger than fiction," just don't read much fiction. But once in a while, the truth is as hard to believe as fiction.

If I saw a crime drama on TV in which a murderer confessed to his crime by having his chest tattooed with all of the details of the murder, I would find that hard to believe.

If additionally the homicide investigator who discovered the tattooed man with all the details of his crime depicted on his chest only knew the details of that murder because before he was promoted to his new position he had been a beat cop in the exact neighborhood this strange killing took place, I would find that an incredible coincidence.

Yet apparently in the Pico Rivera section of Mexican L.A., there is just such a stupid killer and just such a lucky cop. This is from the L.A. Times story:

The process was routine. L.A. County Sheriff's homicide investigator Kevin Lloyd was flipping through snapshots of tattooed gang members.

Then one caught his attention.

Inked on the pudgy chest of a young Pico Rivera gangster who had been picked up and released on a minor offense was the scene of a 2004 liquor store slaying that had stumped Lloyd for more than four years.

Each key detail was right there: the Christmas lights that lined the roof of the liquor store where 23-year-old John Juarez was gunned down, the direction his body fell, the bowed street lamp across the way and the street sign — all under the chilling banner of RIVERA KILLS, a reference to the gang Rivera-13.

As if to seal the deal, below the collarbone of the gang member known by the alias "Chopper" was a miniature helicopter raining down bullets on the scene.

Lloyd's discovery of the tattoo in 2008 launched a bizarre investigation that soon led to Anthony Garcia's arrest for the shooting.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teachers need to be paid based on their performance, not on seniority

The L.A. Times reports today that the L.A. Unified School District is moving in the right direction, but in my view that district still has not yet gone far enough:

In a dramatic turn for the country's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified released school ratings based on a new approach that measures a school's success at raising student performance — the first in a series of high-stakes moves that will thrust the district into the center of the national debate over education reform.

Next month, the district will take the more controversial step of providing thousands of teachers with confidential ratings of their performance using the same approach, known as value-added. The district is also negotiating with the teachers union to include such measures in teachers' formal performance reviews, an effort the union bitterly opposes.

Along with some peer-review and the judgment of a school principal, how much progress a teacher's students make should determine how much the teacher is paid.

The new measure of academic success has been a top priority for incoming Supt. John Deasy, who formally takes over Friday. It comes as districts throughout the country are wrestling with the reliability and the proper use of the value-added approach, which estimates school and teacher performance by analyzing students' improvement on standardized tests in math and English.

There are, of course, some subjects, like art or music, where measuring student progress objectively is difficult. In those cases, peer-review and the judgment of the principal should decide how good the teacher is.

The district has had the data to conduct its own analysis for years but had never done so. Officials have said their adoption of the approach was hastened by a Times series and database released in August that rated elementary schools and about 6,000 elementary school teachers according to their value-added scores. The paper will release an updated database with the scores of 11,500 elementary teachers in the coming weeks, and later this year plans to expand it to include middle schools.

The L.A. Times has done a great public service with its project to promote value-added measurements of teacher performance.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's new school performance measure is likely to surprise many parents, who have traditionally compared schools — and at times purchased homes — based on the state's Academic Performance Index, which rates schools on a 1,000-point index based mainly on their students' abilities on standardized tests.

One thing I have never believed is that school A is better than school B if A has better test scores. The higher test scores are mostly a function of the home environments the students come from. However, if students at school C are making significantly better progress than students at school D are, then C is a better school.

Likewise, a teacher whose students come in with scores in the 50th percentile and leave with scores in the 60th percentile deserves more credit (and money) than her counterpart whose children scored in the 60th percentile coming in and stayed in the 60th going out.

The value-added approach focuses on how much progress students make year to year rather than measuring solely their achievement level, like the API, which is heavily influenced by factors outside a school's control, including poverty and parental involvement. Value-added analysis compares a student with his or her own prior performance, largely controlling for outside-of-school influences.

Because value-added is based on standardized test scores, most experts agree it should be one of several measures to determine school or teacher performance.

One argument against using standardized test scores is they force teachers to teach to the test. I don't see a problem with that, as long as the standardized tests are asking the right question. The reform is not to get rid of the tests; it's to make the tests as good as they can be.

Some critics say the value-added approach is too volatile to be used for teacher evaluations, but most experts say it is more accurate for campuses because it is based on the performance of hundreds, if not thousands, of pupils.

If volatility is a problem, then grade teacher performance over a few years, not just one.

The district's ratings, dubbed "Academic Growth Over Time," can send parents a very different signal about a school's performance. Take, for example, 3rd Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, which has an API score of 938, putting it among the highest-scoring schools in the district. Under the new growth measure, 3rd Street is one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district.

"We've got to do a better job and reexamine," said 3rd Street Principal Suzie Oh, adding that she was shocked by the results.

It would not surprise me to know that some schools in Davis which are deemed very good are in fact not helping students make much progress.

Board member Richard Vladovic later said, "I think this is going to be a great tool to help parents."

But A.J. Duffy, outgoing president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in an interview that he suspects that administrators will use the new information punitively.

Punitively? Well, yes, if a teacher sucks.

Duffy and other union leaders have said they will not agree to a new teacher evaluation system that includes student test score data because they believe it is unreliable and will narrow the curriculum.

The teachers unions, predictably, want more money and no accountability for performance.

I agree that there are many great teachers, and all great teachers are underpaid. However, unless we insist on accountability, we won't get the best efforts out of our teachers and we won't get rid of those teachers who need to be fired.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How to amend the Constitution without amending the Constitution

The San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting story today about a multi-state effort to change the way we elect the president.

Constitutionally, the electoral college chooses the president. This reform would not change that. It would alter the way most states choose their electors to the electoral college, and by doing so ensure that the winner of the popular vote would always be the winner of the electoral college vote. In effect, it would render the electoral college meaningless.

If AB459 is adopted, the 55 electors in California would no longer be determined by the popular vote in California. They would not be determined by the vote in Congressional districts or other districts. Rather, they would be given to the party whose presidential candidate won the most popular votes in the 50 states plus D.C.

This action would not be done in California alone. AB459 will only take effect if a collection of states with 270 or more electoral votes combined goes along with it. Once that happens, every state in this coalition would hand all of their electoral college votes to the plurality or majority winner of the popular presidential vote.

In effect, this is an effort to take power away from the handful of states whose popular vote for president tends to be close. New Mexico and Iowa, for example, get a lot of attention from the Democratic and Republican nominees, because the popular presidential vote in those states tends to be close. They are the swing states. A state like Texas gets no attention, because it will surely go to the Republican. Likewise, no one campaigns in California, because the Democrat will win no matter what.

But if California and Texas promise (by law) to award all of their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote (instead of each state's popular vote), then every marginal vote in California and Texas will count.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote. Had the AB459 system been in place in states which compose a majority of the electoral college, all of the Texas electors would have been Democrats and Gore would have been elected president.

AB459, the legislation that (Assemblyman Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat) supports, would change California's system. He said states that pass similar legislation would agree through a compact to award all their votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. The laws wouldn't go into effect until states representing 270 electoral votes, a majority and the number needed to elect a president, agree to the compact.

Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maryland - with a total of 73 electoral votes - have passed the legislation proposed by National Popular Vote, a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley and founded by Stanford Professor John Koza, who came up with the idea.

I suspect if this system takes effect in enough states, the attorneys general in the so-called swing states will challenge its constitutionality. This compact won't explicitly get rid of the electoral college. But it will implicitly make it irrelevant.

Two-thirds of the time and funding invested by presidential candidates' campaigns in 2008 was spent in a handful of swing states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, said Hill, while strongly Democratic California and other states where the outcome was considered predictable were left out of the mix.

Republican presidential candidate "John McCain and (Democrat) Barack Obama in 2008 both raised $150 million from California - and they spent together less than $30,000 here in the general election," Hill said, a fraction of 1 percent of their total advertising budget.

That $30,000 figure is telling. That is less money than Don Saylor and his buddies in the firefighters' union spent winning Saylor's seat on the Davis City Council.

Popular-vote supporters intend to change that in time for the 2012 presidential elections, guaranteeing that candidates would spend more time, resources and effort wooing states around the country rather than concentrating on swing states.

One thing to note is that the effort in California is bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans, here, understand that the electoral college math forces national candidates to ignore us, because we are now such an overwhelmingly blue state. In fact, marginal voters, Democratic-leaning or Republican-leaning, really have no reason to vote for president under the current system.

In California, former state Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte and former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell already have joined the popular-vote effort. A 2008 Public Policy Institute of California poll showed 70 percent of likely voters support the idea.