June 21, 2016
Despite Whiners, Top Two Performed as Intended
Go back in time six years to 2010, when the “Top Two” primary election system awaited a decision from California voters. Up until then, Republicans could only cast ballots for fellow Republicans in primary elections, while Democrats allowed votes from people who declined to choose a party.
But in fall general elections, the many lopsided races in congressional or legislative districts where voter registration is dominated by one party or the other were essentially done deals before any ballots were counted. In Democratic-dominated districts, Republicans had no voice, even if their party put a name on the ballot. The same for Democrats in Republican districts.
The result was extremism in both major parties, with extreme liberal Democrats and extreme conservative Republicans virtually guaranteed election, often leaving moderates in both parties essentially unrepresented.
The Top Two system ended that. It has often allowed Republicans in Democratic districts to decide which Democrat they prefer in either Sacramento or Washington, D.C., and vice versa. It has forced the majority party in one-sided districts to heed voters in the other party, for the first time in generations. It has basically taken minor parties from the ultra-liberal Greens to the usually conservative-leaning Libertarians off almost all general election ballots.
That, in turn, eliminates the possibility of those parties being used to manipulate voters and distort elections, a la what the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Cranson did in 1986. Faced with a close race against tough GOP opponent Ed Zschau, Cranston backers advertised heavily for the previously unknown, extreme conservative American Independent Party candidate Ed Vallen, who took 1.5 percent of the vote in an election Cranston eventually won by just 1.3 percent.
Top Two also produced a new reality in California politics, creating a quasi-party within the Democratic spectrum, loosely called “business Democrats,” who vote with their more liberal colleagues on social issues, but often seem a bit like Republicans on money-related items.
All this caused little furor for the last six years, even though dozens of races for the Legislator and Congress were all-Democrat or all-Republican affairs.
But this summer is different, mostly because Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of Orange County snagged the second spot in the November runoff for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer since 1992. Without the Top Two system, Sanchez would have finished a distant second to state Attorney General Kamala Harris in a Democratic primary. This would have left Harris with only token November opposition, as no Republican managed more than a fraction of her primary election vote.
Minor party officials have griped for years that Top Two deprives their voters of a November election voice. But they will have a general election presence any time their candidates earn it. Similarly, Republicans are whining this summer about the Senate race, where they can either stay home or vote for a Democrat, either Harris or Sanchez.
That’s happening because those same Republicans were unable to coalesce around a single candidate last spring, instead fracturing their votes among 11 Republicans in a field of 34 Senate candidates. Had Ron Unz or Tom del Beccaro or Phil Wyman or George (Duf) Sundheim drawn support from even one of every five voters, a Republican would be running now.
But in a state where Democrats hold a voter registration edge of more than 17 percent, any such Republican would have little chance in the fall against Harris, the leading Democratic vote-getter. Like all other statewide GOP candidates of the last 20 years other than muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the GOP survivor would have been autumn mincemeat.
Not so Sanchez, who now is free to expand her mostly Latino voting base by going after Republican voters dismayed by the likelihood that Harris, part of the San Francisco political establishment that has held almost all major offices in this state for the last six years, might get at least six years in the Senate.
It’s up to Sanchez to make those GOP adherents comfortable with her, because they cast well over 25 percent of the primary election votes, enough to make her a credible challenger for Harris if she can attract most of them.
That’s what Top Two was designed to do, and it performed this year exactly as advertised.
June 09, 2016
GOP has Only Itself to Blame for Ballot Absence
One clear precedent emerged Tuesday night from California’s primary election results: There will be no Republican contending this fall for the U.S. Senate seat about to be vacated by the retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the first time the race for a statewide office has ever devolved into a one-party affair.
The reason is clear, too. Not only did the GOP fail to field a truly formidable Senate candidate this year, but the party had only one hopeful among its five (somewhat) significant springtime candidates with any experience in elective office. Keep this up and the GOP will be seeing many more big Democrat-on-Democrat contests.
By contrast, the Democrats fielded two electoral veterans, two-term state Attorney General Kamala Harris, also a former two-term district attorney of San Francisco, and 10-term Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.
The returns left little doubt that Republicans could have won a place on the fall ballot if their vote had not been completely fractured. Instead, all five at least somewhat well-known GOP hopefuls stayed in the race to the bitter end (which ended bitterly for them all) even though their party probably could have won a November slot if four of them had dropped out and essentially instructed Republican loyalists to vote for the remaining survivor.
This actually should have been done before the March 16 filing deadline if the party expected to make a Senate run in the fall. Instead, the last of the GOP candidates to file – Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz – waited until that very date before submitting his papers. A party once known for its firm internal discipline had none this year.
Even when polls repeatedly showed GOP candidates drawing less than 10 percent each among likely primary voters, none dropped out to let Republicans coalesce around someone.
The reason for all this was as clear as the result: No GOP candidate cared much if their party fielded no autumn candidate. All were apparently content to leave that election strictly to the Democrats, with GOP voters perhaps a moderating influence, as they often have been in all-Democrat races for state legislative jobs. Such one-party races have been common since voters adopted the Top Two primary election system as Proposition 14 in 2010, but until now, never before for a choice top-of-ticket job. It’s bound to leave rank-and-file Republicans frustrated.
“I doubt this will have long-term ramifications for the party,” said Palo Alto legal arbitrator George (Duf) Sundheim, the leading vote-getter among GOP candidates and one of two former state Republican Party chairmen who insisted on staying in the primary.
“Yes, it would be helpful to other candidates further down the ballot to have a Republican at the top of the ticket, but with the Top Two primary, we’re simply going to get situations like this from time to time.”
Not exactly a cry of despair for the party he once headed.
Said Unz, the author and chief funder of the 1998 Proposition 227, which all but ended bilingual education in California, “The truth is, I probably don’t care whether there’s a Republican candidate in the runoff. I’ve never been anything but a registered Republican, but I’ve been disappointed with the positions many Republicans have been taking lately. And from the other two Republicans in this race, I did not see anything interesting.
“To win, any Republican would need a lot of crossover voters, but it’s difficult to see two longtime party functionaries managing that.” Unz began by admitting he expected to lose the primary, but wanted the bully pulpit the campaign offered for talking about how to preserve his 1998 Proposition 227, which ended most bilingual education in California.
The result leaves the field to Harris and Sanchez, with the winner likely to be the one who can attract the most Republicans this fall. Neither came close to dominating the spring campaign, both falling far short of the vital 50 percent benchmark.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. He has covered esoteric votes in eight national political conventions. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition.
June 02, 2016
At Long last, Signs Crown Acting on Corruption
For years as the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) spawned scandals, criminal allegations and physical disasters, Gov. Jerry Brown sat silent, uttering nary a critical word about the disgraced agency.
He’s still not talking about ethical problems in his administration, including charges of cronyism and favoritism at the Energy Commission and documented lies both from state prison authorities and the group of agencies that threatened summer blackouts unless the leaky Southern California Gas Co. storage field at Aliso Canyon in northern Los Angeles reopens soon.
But at least Brown and his appointees are at long last making some moves.
Most prominent was a mid-May ruling from the PUC that reopened a scandal-plagued settlement dunning consumers about 70 percent of the $4.7 billion cost of closing the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in north San Diego County, wrecked in large part because of a blunder by its main owner, Southern California Edison.
The settlement was outlined in a secret meeting in Poland between Edison officials and former PUC President Michael Peevey, under criminal investigation for his role.
Two quieter actions could be important, too. Brown’s latest budget revision, for one, shows he has given up on the idea that the PUC problems will quietly go away without him doing anything, thus leaving him a legacy of balancing the state budget, promoting renewable energy and fighting climate change.
Even Brown – or at least his budget writers – now admits the PUC has safety problems. It didn’t take a genius to see this, after the 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline that killed eight persons in San Bruno and destroyed dozens of homes. That was followed by the San Onofre shutdown.
Then came the months-long methane leak at Aliso Canyon. Brown in mid-May quietly signed a bill by Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley of Los Angeles requiring each Aliso well to pass a battery of tests or be plugged before the field can reopen.
Along with his budget proposal for a new safety division at the PUC, that made three significant moves in less than a week for Brown, who all but ignored these fronts for years.
Put them together, and it’s clear Brown knows the state’s utilities have safety issues and his regulatory appointees have ethical ones. He’ll toss a little money at the safety problem. But not much.
In a state budget reaching above $120 billion, the governor proposes spending just shy of $1.7 million on 11 PUC staffers for a new Division of Safety Advocates (DSA).
This outfit, the proposal says, would operate much like the present PUC Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA), tasked with keeping utility rates down. ORA has dismally failed at this, instead engaging in an elaborate dance where utilities demand hugely high rates, then let the PUC cut them back a little and brag about how much it “saved” consumers. California utility rates end up among the three highest in the Lower 48 states.
What might happen with the putative new DSA? Would it contribute to “compromises” that delay safety? Would it obfuscate lines of responsibility and help set up new criminal indictments like the one PG&E faces over San Bruno? Would DSA be a waste of money?
For sure, the PUC has long possessed the ability to track how utilities spend infrastructure maintenance fees California customers have paid since the early 1950s. But the agency never did that.
Also, does creation of a new division mean the governor and his appointees tacitly admit the abject failure of the existing PUC Safety & Enforcement Division?
Amazingly, it wasn’t until 2014 -- well after both San Bruno and San Onofre – that the commission adopted a policy of continually assessing and reducing utility safety risks.
The budget plan says the new DSA would “determine whether additional safety improvements are needed.” They plainly are.
The bottom line: Sure, the PUC favors adding this office. It could provide a convenient fig leaf for commissioners to hide behind.
While Brown’s three mid-May moves should be just the beginning of an ethical and safety cleanup, they do show that secure as he feels, with no need ever to run for office again, he can be forced to recognize a need for changes, even if he won’t talk about them.
May 26, 2016
Changing of State's Congressional Guard Continues
The inevitable generational changing of California’s political guard is sure to continue next month, but don’t expect much of a shift in the party makeup of the state’s 53-member House delegation, where Democrats now dominate by a 39-14 margin.
Change began to move quickly two years ago when patriarchs in both parties retired, including past chairmen of major committees like Democrat Henry Waxman in coastal Los Angeles County, Republican Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita and Democrat George Miller of Contra Costa County.
This year’s departures will include Democrat Lois Capps of Santa Barbara County and Monterey County Democrat Sam Farr. All were in their 70s when they announced they were leaving.
There will still be plenty of seniority in the delegation, though, both in age and years of service, which means even more changes are likely two, four and six years from now.
A lot of the age and experience now resides in the San Francisco Bay area, home to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 76, and fellow Democrats Jackie Speier, 66; Anna Eshoo, 73, and Zoe Lofgren, 68. San Jose Democrat Mike Honda, 72, faces his second straight tough reelection battle this year, his political survival very much in doubt.
Over in the Central Valley, Fresno’s Democratic veteran Jim Costa, 64, faces off a second time against well-funded Republican farmer Johnny Tacherra, who led Costa on election night two years ago. Costa narrowly survived that year on the strength of late absentee and provisional votes. A strong GOP turnout for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the Fresno area could mean the end of Costa’s 38-year political career.
Further south, a succession clash is brewing in Orange County, where former Assemblyman and ex-county Republican Chairman Scott Baugh this spring began raising money for a 2018 campaign to succeed his old “friend,” longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, 68, who promptly issued a statement denying any plans to retire that soon.
Of all these seats, the one with the best chance to change parties this year belongs to Capps, who took over for her late husband Walter in 1998. The early favorite here is Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, a Democrat, but nine candidates are running and the race for the two November runoff slots seems wide open.
Two other seats being vacated this year belong to Democrats Loretta Sanchez of Orange County and Janice Hahn of San Pedro. Sanchez seeks the retiring Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat, while Hahn wants a slot on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, where her father Kenneth served 40 years. There will be no party change in either district, though; both are solidly Democratic.
But there could be a party change in the Sacramento area’s 7th district, now represented by Democrat Ami Bera, an MD and the only Unitarian in Congress. Several Bera votes have angered left-leaning Democrats. If they desert him in November, Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Steve Jones could take this swing district.
But the coastal district now represented by Farr looks safely Democratic, with Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Jimmy Panetta a heavy favorite. Panetta, 46, whose father represented the district many years before becoming Bill Clinton’s budget director and chief of staff, then CIA director and defense secretary for President Obama, staked his claim to the seat early and no other Democrat is seriously challenging.
The upshot is that California’s congressional delegation will gain some youth this year, but could lose a bit of seniority. This won’t matter much unless Democrats somehow regain control of the House and give Pelosi a second term as Speaker.
That looks unlikely, in large part because gerrymandering has made Republican dominance inevitable in much of the South, especially populous Texas.
Still, the newcomers – almost all likely to be Democrats – from this year’s election and 2014 will be poised to give California renewed clout if and when Democrats ever regain control of Congress, something that’s improbable at least until 2022, when the next Census creates new political districts all across America.
May 12, 2016
Expect Senate Race to Get Far Fiercer
In more than a year since state Attorney General Kamala Harris declared she’s running for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by retiring Democrat Barbara Boxer, Harris’ poll numbers have not changed much.
She pulled about 31 percent in the first public poll on the contest; she got 27 percent and 33 per cent in the two latest surveys, leaving her still the clear leader less than two months before the June 7 primary election.
So far, no one has laid a glove on her, but her numbers are static.
And very few seem to care. The latest California Field Poll found fully 48 percent of likely voters undecided in this contest as of early April. So most were not interested, many unaware there’s even a Senate contest underway.
“Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have sucked all the air out of the room,” opined Democratic Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez the other day, referring to the presidential nominating races on the same June ballot.
Sanchez polls second in the race, at 15 percent in early April, up from about 8 percent a year ago. Three Republicans in the race, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz and former state GOP chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Geoge (Duf) Sundheim, had a combined 11 percent, splintered three ways.
If the undecideds eventually break in the same proportion as those who have already made up their minds, the November runoff contest will feature two Democrats and no Republicans, under the top two primary system that puts the two leading June vote-getters into a November faceoff.
But this so-far-sleepy race will soon become more heated. Harris has taken heat in the last two weeks for having her office represent Gov. Jerry Brown in his effort to keep secret more than 65 emails between him or his staff and the state Public Utilities Commission from 2013 and 2014, when the PUC was deciding who would pay for blunders and disasters at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. that saw the 2012 closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the deadly 2010 San Bruno natural gas explosion.
Consumer groups claim it’s a conflict of interest for Harris to represent Brown when he or his chief of staff, former PG&E lobbyist Nancy McFadden, might become witnesses in Harris’ ongoing criminal investigation of apparent PUC collusion with the big utilities.
Outside ethics experts agree it’s a conflict, and you can bet Sanchez will hit Harris on it soon. Harris refused to comment, but her office released a statement claiming there’s an “ethical firewall” between lawyers investigating the PUC and those representing Brown.
Sanchez, meanwhile, will take fire in this mostly liberal state for voting to give gun makers immunity from lawsuits when their products are used in crimes.
But Sanchez is not shy about answering her critics. To those who blasted her for saying between 5 percent and 20 percent of Muslims would like to see a world-wide caliphate a la the terrorist Islamic State, she says, “Those are the numbers. No experts give a number under 20 percent. I’ve spent 20 years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and visited many foreign Muslim leaders and they say it’s a huge worry for them. I was just at West Point and they talked about this. It’s in congressional testimony.”
But Sanchez says she, like many voters, knows little about the three Republicans in the race. “I don’t know them and the voters don’t, either,” she said. So she believes she will survive past June and move on to a hot challenge of Harris and the Democratic Party establishment in the fall.
“I think the San Francisco Democratic Party establishment clearly told people other than the San Franciscan to stay out,” she said, referring to Harris. That city’s establishment has dominated California politics in recent years, giving the state leaders like Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sens. Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney.
Meanwhile, the three Republicans each hope to make it past June, but none has nearly as much campaign cash as either Harris or Sanchez.
It adds up to a potentially fascinating race, and one sure to become fiery as mail balloting begins in mid-May.
May 05, 2016
Here's a Move to Limit the Revolving Door
The revolving door in Sacramento is decisively alive and well today, but there’s also a move afoot to crimp it at least a little.
Nancy McFadden, chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown, is not the first to use the cycle that sends so-called “public servants” on a continuous and connected path between lobbying and government, but her case is the latest cause célèbre.
McFadden, an aide to Brown during the 1970s and early ‘80s, also worked for ex-Gov. Gray Davis and a was Bill Clinton administration official in Washington, D.C., before going to work for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. There, she soon became senior vice president and senior advisor to the corporate chairman, representing the big utility in Sacramento.
After taking a $1.04 million “golden handshake” from PG&E, she went back to work for Brown when he returned to the governor’s office in 2010. She also held onto her PG&E shares and stock options for many months after getting back into government. She’s a classic example of the revolving door, especially since her agreement to take the big parting gift from PG&E prohibited her doing anything detrimental to the company.
Then there’s former Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, a Democrat who represented Fresno for five years before taking a lucrative Sacramento job lobbying for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, better known as PhRMA. That’s the main lobbying arm of drug companies often collectively called Big Pharma.
And there are former state Sen. Michael Rubio of Shafter, another Democrat, who moved to a job with Chevron Corp., and Bill Emmerson, a sometime Republican state senator from Riverside County now with the California Hospital Assn.
The recent ex-legislators play a different role than McFadden, who sits in an extremely strategic place for helping her ex-employer. The former lawmakers’ job is to influence their buddies and recent colleagues still serving as legislators. It’s not as direct a role as McFadden can play, but it’s still the revolving door. The ex-lawmakers must wait one year before they can officially schmooze other legislators, but no one can prohibit them from playing golf together or watching televised sports or hoisting a drink or two near the state Capitol.
Until now, there’s been no move against this sort of thing, which goes on even more frequently and flagrantly in Washington, D.C.
But now comes Republican state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford with an effort to at least delay influence peddling a bit. Even though it might be against the future financial interests of some of them, Democratic lawmakers ought not to give this effort the automatic heave-ho often inflicted upon GOP-sponsored bills in Sacramento.
Vidak, elected by a margin of almost 10 percent in a swing district in 2014, proposes a ban on ex-legislators lobbying their former co-workers and the governor until the end of the first legislative session beginning after the lawmaker leaves office. For statewide officials like the governor or secretary of state, he would extend an existing lobbying ban from one year to two.
For Perea, this would have forbidden formal lobbying until at least three years after his departure, as the first full legislative session after his resignation starts next January and lasts two years. That might have made him not quite as hot a property for Big Pharma, essentially adding two years to his present schmoozing moratorium.
This, said Vidak, could “discourage legislators from leaving office in the middle of their terms to take a lucrative…job, which often leads to a lucrative lobbying career.” He noted that special elections to replace departing lawmakers cost counties many millions of dollars, “money that would be better spent on critical local programs such as public safety, transportation or health.”
Vidak notes that since term limits for legislators began in 1990, 58 special elections have been held for lawmakers who resigned in the midst of their terms. Many left after winning higher office, but some became lobbyists.
In terms of good government, there’s no question Vidak’s bill represents improvement. But in terms of the financial futures of the legislators who will vote it up or down, it’s a downer. Which means this is one good idea not very likely to become reality, even though it should.
April 28, 2016
Key to Voter Turnout: Exciting Candidates, Contests
In election after election, California officialdom has been frustrated by low levels of interest among eligible voters. Just when they were beginning to feel like they had tried almost everything, the obvious solutions to the problem appeared spontaneously:
Give eligible Californians exciting, meaningful contests and they will turn out. When they feel their votes matter, they will fill out ballots, either at home or in polling booths.
That’s why, instead of wringing hands and whining about irresponsible voters not performing their important duty, all of a sudden this spring state election officials are worried about seeing too many voters.
That’s the clear upshot of an appeal by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, California’s top election official, for more money to stage the June primary. In April, he warned of a turnout “surge” and asked Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature for an additional $32 million to pay for more and fatter election guides for the November election, plus added funds to help counties cope with an anticipated flood of voters both then and in June.
The two presidential nomination races have produced massive turnouts so far this year across the county, and Padilla realizes California will be the same – in fact it may see a higher percentage increase than anywhere else.
One reason is that in recent pre-Donald Trump, pre-Bernard Sanders days, there was little excitement or pizzazz in the state’s elections for 10 years, since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last run for governor in 2006. Even then there wasn’t much of a contest, as Democratic rival Phil Angelides essentially got swamped.
Likewise, there was virtually no contest in 2014, when turnout dropped almost 25 percent from the presidential election voting levels of 2012. In that vote, Brown easily beat his Republican rival Neel Kashkari, a former Federal Reserve banker who has since taken a new role in the national central bank.
The extreme low 2014 turnout did two things, causing the number of signatures required for putting initiatives onto the ballot to drop by more than a quarter and pushing officialdom to consider desperate measures.
That low vote is behind a current plan to automatically register any U.S. citizen getting a drivers’ license as a voter. It also explains proposals to allow online voting, despite the hackable history of allegedly secure computer systems from credit cards to government records and national security secrets.
The real way to spur turnout isn’t anything risky like that. Rather, it’s to make elections meaningful. California legislators could begin by moving the state’s presidential primary up permanently to a slot just after New Hampshire. True, other states won’t like that, because candidates would have to spend time in California rather than the much smaller South Carolina or Minnesota or Tennessee, all among states that voted this year either in mid-February or early March.
It’s long been a situation of the tail wagging the dog, as for the last 44 years – since George McGovern used California to win the 1972 Democratic nomination – no California presidential vote has meant much, until this year’s.
The rare happenstance of no candidate being sufficiently appealing to seal a party nomination until the very last day of the primary season – if then – is the reason California’s vote suddenly emerged as important. That hadn’t happened in 44 years. So leave the state’s presidential primary in June and California will mostly likely wander another 40 years in the desert of irrelevancy.
Not every nominating season will be as exciting as this one: For one thing, the White House is about to be vacated by its incumbent resident, so both parties are nominating now. For another, unique personalities like Trump and Sanders don’t come along in every election cycle.
The implications of all this for routine elections around California are also clear. Match exciting candidates against each other and potential voters will become interested enough to become regular voters. Allow elections to be virtually uncontested, as many have been, and interest will wane. The same when voters get the sense that certain candidates appear to be anointed.
The bottom line: When voters feel their ballots matter, they will make casting them a priority. When they don’t feel that way, voters won’t bother.
April 14, 2016
High Time For Voters to Make PUC Accountable
Travel back in time to the mid-1980s, when California’s insurance rates for both cars and property were nearly the highest in America and climbing fast. Back then, the state insurance commissioner, who could have stopped much of the price acceleration, was appointed by the governor.
Then, in 1988, a consumer group called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and its leader, attorney Harvey Rosenfield, changed all that. The group ran the Proposition 103 ballot initiative and turned the insurance commissioner into an elected official. Bingo! Since then, California insurance rates have risen slower than those in any other state, but coverage remains as good as anywhere.
The corruption and safety scandals of the last few years demonstrate that it’s high time to regulate utility companies in this state as firmly as insurance companies, and to make utility regulators responsible to the public and the voters just like the elected insurance commissioner.
For today, with California’s electric and gas utility prices eighth highest in the nation, trailing only the inaccessible likes of Alaska and Hawaii, plus a few northeastern states like New York and Connecticut, utility rates are climbing as fast as insurance premiums once did.
No one can doubt anymore that Californians are beset by flawed utility regulation which even now favors big energy distributors over their customers. Corruption scandals come thick and fast for the state’s Public Utilities Commission, with power over both electric and gas rates and the safety of pipelines and power plants.
So this commission has failed abysmally, especially in recent years when lax regulation allowed disasters like the recent months-long methane gas leak at Porter Ranch in Los Angeles, the 2012 failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the fatal 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno. In each case decided so far, consumers have had to foot most of the bills for the shortcomings and blunders of their energy suppliers.
But Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed all five present utility commissioners, says not a negative word about his appointees past or present, nor has he tried to rein them in, even after some admitted conflicts of interest. In the last two years, about the only thing he’s had to say about the PUC came when former commission President Michael Peevey left office in disgrace at the end of 2014, just after his collusion with Southern California Edison Co. on who would pay for the San Onofre closure was proven. “At least he got things done,” Brown observed.
Yes, and Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time.
The PUC’s most recent pro-utility move: It refused even to read a request from the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group for a public investigation into the Porter Ranch gas leak, which forced a months-long evacuation of about 4,000 families. This was a blatant violation of the California constitution, which guarantees the right to petition public officials.
In a sane world, all this would lead to taking the PUC down a peg or three from its exalted position, where members cannot be dismissed even by the governor who appointed them and their decisions can’t be questioned in ordinary courts.
“This is as bad or worse than things were with insurance rates,” says Rosenfield, who still often represents Consumer Watchdog (new name of the outfit he started). “We need to make the PUC accountable to the public and not a puppet of the governor. Commissioners need to understand they work for consumers, not the utilities.”
Added Jamie Court, now head of Consumer Watchdog, “I would like to recall the current commissioners, but that can’t be done. There’s no doubt the corruption at the PUC would not exist if commissioners were elected, or if there were just one elected commissioner.”
So Court says he would support a 2018 initiative making the state’s utility regulator(s) elected, and would run the campaign for it “if we can raise enough money.” He says any such measure, like Proposition 103, would also need to impose other rules to open all records to the public and to make rate-case hearings more accessible.
With a governor unwilling to say, let alone do, anything about the corrupt commissioners he’s appointed, the time has arrived for voters to take things into their own hands.
April 07, 2016
Plastic Bag Ban Repeal: An Irrelevant Vote?
What if California voters repealed a law, but it remained the law anyway?
That’s a situation the state may soon face if a yet-unnumbered proposition aiming to repeal a 2014 statewide ban on plastic grocery bags should pass in November. The statewide law also requires stores to offer paper bags for at least 10 cents each.
The bottom line on this referendum measure, which qualified for the ballot within a mere five months of when legislators passed the plastic bag ban, is that it likely won’t matter much.
In fact, there’s little effect from the fact that the state ban is not in force today, almost two years after it passed. Any law challenged by a referendum gets suspended until the outcome of the vote is official.
There’s a pretty simple reason why neither the vote nor the law’s suspension matters much: Many local governments have their own bans in place, 146 cities and counties – about one-third of all California communities, containing a large majority of the populace. Repealing the state law would not affect those laws.
Try to get a supermarket plastic bag in any of California’s largest cities. Can’t do it in Los Angeles. Nor in San Francisco, nor anywhere in Los Angeles County, nor many others.
This infuriates makers of plastic bags, which have pretty much disappeared from the shoulders of major highways they once littered.
Grocers at first opposed the plastic bag bans, protesting the inconvenience to themselves and their customers from forcing consumers to bring their own bags or buy paper ones at checkout counters. They’ve been converted and now support the bans.
“Early polling is that consumers are adapting to no plastic bags,” Ronald Fong, head of the California Grocers Assn., told a reporter. “It’s really unfortunate that out-of-staters are sinking millions of dollars into telling us that we’re wrong here in California.”
Altogether, more than $4 million has been raised to fight the statewide plastic bag ban, only a small fraction of it raised in California. An industry association, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastic bag industry nationally, raised more than $4 million from its members shortly after the state ban passed. None came from California.
Contributors were led by South Carolina’s Hilex Poly ($1.9 million), with companies like Superbag (Texas), Advance Polybag (Texas) and Formosa Plastics (New Jersey) also among big donors.
“We believe California voters share our concerns and will make their voices heard at the ballot box,” the pro-plastic alliance’s director, Lee Califf, said in a statement. The statewide ban, he said, threatens thousands of jobs and will have “no meaningful effect on the environment.”
While removing the statewide ban would not kill any of the local ones, it could perpetuate some confusion, as the state law was intended to standardize regulations that differ slightly among localities.
What’s more, say backers – state and local – the bag bans are taking millions of unneeded bags off the street. “When they have to pay, customers avoid buying the bags,” Mark Murray, executive director of the group Californians Against Waste, said recently. He cited figures showing the number of grocery customers buying no bags (usually because they’ve brought their own) has jumped from about 10 percent to more than 35 percent.
Califf and the pro-plastic group maintain the bag ban and fee have been “a massive, billion-dollar giveaway to grocers under the guise of environmentalism.” The plastics alliance hopes to qualify a second measure for a November vote, earmarking the 10-cent bag fees for environmental causes rather than letting grocers keep them. The state legislative analyst estimates this could provide $10 million or more to such causes, but nowhere near billions.
The bottom line on this is that aside from any environmental benefits of banning plastic bags, this has devolved into a fight between two well-heeled interest groups: Grocers now love the ban on plastics because it gives them a new revenue source while they no longer must buy plastics. Meanwhile, the plastic bag companies desperately want back into the huge California market, something that’s looking more and more like a pipe dream.
May 19, 2016
Arcane Rules Give California GOP Vote a New Meaning
Donald Trump is about to become a major presence all around California. So are Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, both of whom want to stop the Trump express and force an open Republican National Convention in July on Kasich’s home turf in Cleveland.
Helping them out might be twoarcane GOP convention rules adopted in 2012 that may mean Trump needs most of the 172 Republican delegates up for grabs here. This makes California’s very late-in-the-process June primary election more significant than it’s been since 1972, when Democrat George McGovern used it to secure his party’s nomination.
But Trump might not have things quite so easy as did McGovern, who won all California’s delegates despite taking the primary by only a narrow margin. That outcome was a big reason Democrats later went to proportional representation for all their presidential primaries, with each state’s delegates doled out according to the results of its primary or caucus.
Trump may in fact need most of the GOP’s much-reduced California delegation to get the convention majority he’s been working for. (The GOP’s voting California delegation of 172 persons is down somewhat from the 350 delegates and alternates of Ronald Reagan’s heyday. The state party’s national clout diminishes when it loses an election for governor, U.S. Senate or President, and also when the GOP fails to win the majority of the state’s congressional delegation or the Legislature.)
No one is likely to get all the California delegates, as Reagan and George H.W. Bush both did. That’s because most delegates now are elected by congressional district, with the statewide GOP winner getting 13 and the rest going three at a time to the winners in each of the 53 districts.
Chances are, Cruz and Kasich will pick off at least a few districts, and maybe more, even if Trump should win statewide.
That might make Trump’s weakness among establishment Republicans a key factor. They have tried mightily to derail his candidacy; that establishment also wrote many of the party convention’s key rules.
Two of those rules, Numbers 16 (d)(2) and 16(d)(3), were adopted by the GOP convention in 2012 and have never before applied: The rules’ Byzantine legalese may amount to this: Some lawyers interpret the abstruse and lengthy language to mean you can’t be seated as a delegate if you come from a state where voters who are not registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary. (http://www.thegreenpapers.com/P16/R-Alloc.phtml)
That won’t happen in California, where voters registered with no party preference have long been welcomed in Democratic presidential primaries, but not by the Republicans.
There are plenty of other states where the GOP allows this, like Arkansas, Massachusetts and Illinois, which gave Trump pluralities.
There’s also a complication in Missouri, where Trump has been reported to have won 25 delegates to 15 for Cruz. But Missouri gives five GOP delegates to the winner of each of eight congressional districts and 12 to the statewide winner. Trouble is, votes are usually counted and reported by county and not by congressional district. Depending on what Missouri’s Democratic secretary of state chooses to do, at least some Trump delegates could be challenged in Cleveland.
This means, writes former Trump aide Roger Stone on the Infowars website, that party leaders may “have found a way to lie, cheat and steal Trump out of enough delegates to force a second ballot.” And if the convention goes to two ballots or more, no delegate will be bound to vote for anyone.
Meanwhile, there will be no courts to interpret the convention rules. All rules get whatever meaning a majority of delegates who have survived all challenges and been seated choose to give them, by majority vote.
The meaning for Trump in California should be this: If he does not fight in every district for each delegate threesome, he might be left without enough unquestioned delegates to beat back legalistic challenges and interpretations made by convention committees influenced by the establishment that so reviles him.
It might just be, therefore, that only California can prevent utter chaos in Cleveland – and the riots Trump has mentioned as a possibility if his nomination is somehow thwarted.
February 25, 2016
Will NASCAR Initiative Produce Naked Lawmakers?
Turn on the TV next time a NASCAR stock car race is on and get a good look at the coveralls worn by the drivers. They are covered with patches bearing the logos of many and varied companies that sponsor their automotive efforts, from oil and car-making companies to breweries.
Now imagine a normally staid state legislative hearing, where politicians of both major parties today show up in conservative business suits. Those folks could soon look like a stock car racing crew if an initiative now circulating makes the November ballot and passes.
The measure, formally called the “Name All Sponsors California Accountability Reform (or NASCAR. Get it?) Initiative,” would require all state legislators to wear the emblems or names of their 10 top donors every time they attend an official function.
The measure’s sponsor, Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox, takes delight in the idea and has already done some touring around California with 120 life-size photographic cutouts of politicians dressed up as they might have to under his plan.
This idea has some similarity to part of the defeated 2006 Proposition 89, an attempt to set up a publicly financed election system that would also have required every privately-financed political ad, whether on television or in newspapers or mailed flyers, to list its three biggest financiers in type as large as the biggest print anywhere else in the ad.
That proposition lost, but not because of the donor exposure provision. It went down by a 76-24 percent margin because voters didn’t want to be taxed for the sake of politicians.
There’s no tax associated with the NASCAR initiative, which Cox, a former chairman of the Cook County (Chicago) Republican committee, is willing to finance to the tune of $1 million.
“The whole idea is to hold the entire corrupt, stupid system up to ridicule,” said Cox, who ran unsuccessfully in Illinois for both Congress and the U.S. Senate before moving to California in 2008.
One who appreciates the sentiment behind this is Jamie Court, head of the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, which sponsored Proposition 89. “This could definitely make politics more racy,” he said. “If this passes, it could turn the statehouse into a nudist colony because no one would want to pin their real owners onto their clothes. We might even discover that the emperors really don’t have any clothes.”
There is, you might guess, some question over whether forcing lawmakers to wear signage is constitutional, or might be a violation of their First Amendment free speech rights. Of course, no one forces them to be legislators, any more than stock car race drivers are dragooned into that calling.
Cox, for one, would welcome a court challenge on the constitutionality of dictating dress in the state Capitol. “That would be wonderful,” he said. “The real point here isn’t to force anyone to wear anything, but to fix our broken, ridiculous system. It’s a system where people who want things from government pay for and staff the campaigns of the folks who will run that government. Any objective person would call that corrupt.”
Cox, however, stops short of calling California more corrupt than his old Chicago stomping ground. “I haven’t lived here long enough to make that comparison,” he said.
He’ll need 365,880 valid voter signatures to qualify this idea for the ballot, and Cox is convinced his $1 million commitment will be more than enough to pay for getting it on the ballot.
“The petition drive outfit we’ve hired says this is the biggest slam dunk they’ve ever seen,” he said. “They’re having the petition carriers use it as a lead item to make it easier for them to get signatures for other initiatives.”
He’s also trying to do much of the petition drive online, the measure providing printable sheets with room for only three signatures, thus making it easier for backers to get a full sheet to send it in.
The bottom line: For anyone who wants to afflict the powerful and make lawmakers feel anxious and perhaps a bit threatened, this could be a strong – also amusing – vehicle.
February 18, 2016
Time to Stop the Revolving Door in Sacramento
There’s probably no hope of stopping the revolving door in Washington, D.C. anytime soon. The constant cycle of longtime Congress members and senators moving downtown from the Capitol to take high-paying jobs as lobbyists can only be ended by Congress itself – and the prospect of big paychecks to come makes it very unlikely many so-called “citizen politicians” will ever vote to end that.
But Sacramento is different. On the surface, it’s much the same, of course. Legislators move easily and often from the Assembly or state Senate to lobbying jobs just as lucrative as any to be had in the nation’s capital. The difference is that the people of California can effectively end this practice anytime they like, via the initiative process.
The latest example of a state lawmaker taking a far more lucrative job on the side of big business came just this winter, when five-year Democratic Assemblyman Henry T. Perea departed office with a year to go in his third term, taking a job advocating for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, usually referred to as PhRMA. It is the main lobbying group for the drug companies often called Big Pharma.
Perea, the son of former longtime legislator and current Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea, will be advocating for Big Pharma in both California and Nevada, with the Nevada capital of Carson City not very far from his new Sacramento office.
He’s the third California legislator in the last 30 months to leave for a higher paycheck as a lobbyist – even though state law says he can’t actually schmooze or gift his former colleagues until the end of this year. That’s right: Legislators only have to wait 12 months before coming back to advocate directly among their old colleagues.
Before Perea waltzed down the path toward a much bigger paycheck, former Democratic state Sen. Michael Rubio of Shafter moved to a job with Chevron and former Republican state Sen. Bill Emmerson of Riverside County moved to the California Hospital Assn. And that's just within the last 26 months.
Perea made just over $97,000 a year in the Legislature; his new employer isn’t announcing his salary, but bet on it being at least double what he drew in office. Perea, father of two young children with a third on the way, probably can use the extra cash. Big Pharma had invested in him earlier, too, donating nearly $50,000 to his campaigns in the 2013-14 election cycle.
This is enough to make some wonder whether the new job might be a reward for past favors, perhaps even a reward that was promised even before those favors were done.
The very short one-year lobbying prohibition makes it attractive for big industries to hire lawmakers who once voted on bills vital to their interests. Twelve months often isn’t long in the life of a bill, and after that time is up, former lawmakers like Perea can be right back in the Capitol advocating among their buddies. Not that he won’t be seeing them elsewhere before then.
Perea, whose unofficial bio says he was “known for his skill at working the floor in the Legislature,” will be doing that again very soon. He also won’t have to worry any more about which fellow legislators he pleases or angers with his votes. Everyone will know where he stands – right where his employer tells him to.
Even before he can officially lobby anyone in the Capitol, Perea this fall will probably be instrumental in the campaign against a prospective ballot measure that aims to limit drug prices paid by Medi-Cal and other state programs to levels negotiated by the federal Veterans Administration.
It’s a joke for legislators to be able to come back and lobby their pals so soon after leaving office. There ought to be at least a five-year waiting period for them, which might cause second thoughts for some who enter politics just to get on the gravy train.
This will not happen in Washington, D.C. in the foreseeable future. But it could happen in Sacramento if citizens get sufficiently fed up with legislators like Perea parlaying elected jobs into high-paying posts as influence peddlers.
February 11, 2016
Don't Discount a Fifth Feinstein Reelection
The polls don’t look super-strong for Dianne Feinstein today. True, she has a very good approval rating in the latest surveys, the Field Poll showing 44 percent of California voters think she’s doing a good job and only 29 percent disapproving of her work.
But the same surveys indicate that even though a generation or two has come of age since she won her U.S. Senate seat in 1992, fully 43 percent of likely voters think it would not be a good thing for her to seek reelection to a fifth full term in 2018, when the former San Francisco mayor will be 84 years old. So just as many people want her to retire as think she’s doing well right now.
Simply put, that’s age discrimination. But Democrat Feinstein also faces the same problem that perennially afflicts all senators from California, one that’s caused plenty to lose their seats: This state is so big that even with six years of congressional recesses to use, no one can possibly become familiar to the great majority of voters without running a large advertising campaign.
Yet, no senator can afford that until it’s time for a reelection campaign to start. As Feinstein’s longtime Democratic colleague, the soon-to-retire Barbara Boxer, said in an interview as her 2010 campaign began, “You have to reintroduce yourself to the voters every six years. A lot of them just don’t know you.”
That’s political reality in this huge state, where the average person moves once every seven years and senators spend most of their time about 3,000 miles away.
So it’s easy for people who see Feinstein’s age and not her energy to opine that she shouldn’t run. Certainly, there’s a large cadre of her fellow Democrats who feel that way: Many of them would dearly love to take her job.
But Feinstein has hung onto that job by doing it well, acting as a moderate with friends and allies in both parties even while the Senate sees more partisan bitterness and bickering than it has in more than a century.
Emblematic was how she handled a raucous public hearing about land use in the California desert held last fall in a large tent about five miles off the Interstate 10 freeway near Palm Springs. Feinstein has pushed for about seven years to create three national monuments in large portions of the Mojave Desert lying between Barstow, Needles and Twentynine Palms. The crowd of 800 under the tent in 100-degree-plus temperatures wildly favored her plan, which has been stymied by Republicans in Congress, while President Obama dithers about it.
When those present loudly booed an aide to Yucca Valley’s Republican Rep. Paul Cook, who wants the land to remain open to development, mining and other activities, Feinstein stood with an arm around his shoulders and shushed the crowed. It was another case of her treating a political opponent in a civilized manner that’s uncommon today.
That sort of behavior has long prevented Republicans from considering her an enemy even when she advocates policies they may not like.
At the same time, no one has been more vigorous than Feinstein on issues like torture, of which she has been a major opponent for years, even as she's voted for laws like the Patriot Act. Although she no longer chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee because Republicans control the Senate, no senator is more active on national security issues, even if some have been much louder.
The upshot is that Feinstein still operates in much the same manner she has since first getting elected in 1992, when she ousted Republican incumbent John Seymour, who had been appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to the seat he had occupied for eight years.
When they see that, and they see Feinstein in operation, as television commercials will surely depict, there’s a good chance the age issue making many voters skeptical of whether she should run again could simply disappear. Which means those polls questioning whether someone her age should be a senator might just turn around completely.
January 28, 2015
Bottleneck Report: Transit Only a Partial Traffic Fix
Many of America’s worst traffic bottlenecks are holding up commuters for hours each week even where there’s plenty of mass transit nearby.
That’s the upshot of a new report titled “Unclogging America’s Arteries,” which offers a few nostrums that don’t really figure to solve the problem anytime soon. (http://www.highways.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/unclogging-study2015-hi-res.pdf)
The most prominent conclusion of the study is that 11 of the nation’s 16 worst bottlenecks are in California, the vast majority in Los Angeles and Orange counties. That won’t surprise commuters accustomed to putting up with parking-lot scenes on I-405, U.S. 101, I-110 and I-10 in L.A., but it might surprise San Francisco drivers to learn that the 1.9-mile stretch of I-80 approaching the Bay Bridge from the south and west wastes more time for more people than all but 11 others nationwide.
It may be more surprising to learn that crowding and delays on I-405 in Orange County are far worse than in New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, costing drivers and their passengers 7.1 million hours of waiting time yearly, more than double what Manhattan and New Jersey folk spend hung up in the always-jammed tunnel system under the Hudson River.
Similarly, it will probably stun the tens of thousands who commute daily on Houston’s Katy Freeway, I-10’s Texas iteration, to learn they’re not even in the top 50 when it comes to wasting time. That almost has to be an error of omission.
One remarkable thing about all this is that more than a dozen routes listed among the nation’s most crowded (a stretch of Chicago’s I-90 ranks No. 1) run near and parallel to mass transit. Theoretically, then, it’s possible to bypass the frustrating waits by riding trains or busways.
Thus, many commuters frustrated by Bottleneck #7, the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, could be riding the Metro Orange Line nearby instead, but don’t.
The same for drivers tied up on I-110 near downtown Los Angeles, who could be on the Metro Gold or Blue lines. Or plenty of drivers on that often-congested stretch of skyway in San Francisco, many of whom could ride BART.
One lessen here, then, is that mass transit doesn’t solve all congestion. Just look at the I-10 between downtown Los Angeles and the city’s Westside, where commuters sit and wait while trains zip unmolested along the almost parallel, mostly completed Metro Expo Line.
Altogether, California drivers last year wasted more than 47 million waking hours waiting in traffic along the state’s 15 most congested routes.
The federal planners who put out the new report appear to have few viable ideas for getting stalled traffic moving. They call for “cost-effective, high-impact” investments to improve traffic, but quickly add that “There is no silver bullet for addressing it.”
Among their low-cost suggestions are expansion of the 511 telephone traveler information system, and offering advisories that suggest alternate routes via radio stations and message signs. All those techniques already exist on many of the super-crowded California stretches, but they have not gotten traffic moving.
The planners also suggest using smartphone apps like Waze that let drivers reroute around the worst jams. Those apps have been known to infuriate residents in once-quiet neighborhoods that now see heavy traffic sent their way by the robotic voices of modern cellphones.
More managed lanes, like the toll lanes already used on some of California’s (former) freeways are another recommendation.
But the bottom line solution appears to be both simpler and more complex than anything traffic authorities and their planners can do: To move faster, drivers will have to start leaving their cars behind in mass transit parking lots and letting train operators do the driving.
As long as the vast majority of motorists are unwilling to do that, bottlenecks will be the rule, not the exception in the most populous, most congested parts of California.
January 21, 2015
One PUC Embarrassment Gone, But Probes Continue
Here’s the bottom line on the significant but under-publicized retirement of Melanie M. Darling, the California Public Utilities Commission judge who fined a huge utility $16 million late last year for not reporting secret contacts with PUC officials including herself:
The PUC is rid of a major embarrassment, but is still under criminal investigation. Why? Because private phone calls and emails between some of its top officials and executives of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. may have fixed the outcome of billion-dollar cases.
It’s not yet known whether the commission has had secret dealings with Sempra Energy, owner of the other two large private utilities it regulates, Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
Darling, 63, had multiple phone calls and emails with Edison executives, both reported and not, helping make a laughing stock of the state’s most powerful regulatory board.
None of it was intended as comedy. Darling’s last major assignment was presiding over hearings that saw the PUC force consumers to pay 70 percent of about $4.7 billion in costs associated with the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, 80 percent owned by Edison. SONGS shut down in 2012 following a major blunder by the company.
Neither Edison nor the PUC has ever presented a reason why customers should pay any of those costs, but they are nevertheless stuck to the eventual tune of about $2,300 for every electric meter in the territories of Edison and SDG&E, which owns 20 percent of SONGS.
That decision, it turned out, was first outlined during a secret 2013 meeting in a Polish hotel between an Edison executive and former PUC President Michael Peevey. Darling’s real, unannounced task, then, was arranging the details. Emails between her and Edison executive Russell Worden reveal she began favoring Edison and SDG&E months before the Warsaw meeting. PUC judges like Darling hold hearings and recommend decisions, but only the actual commission can finalize outcomes.
In this case, she and Worden agreed to split hearings on SONGS into three phases, with the first to set the amount consumers would pay and the last determining fault for the plant failure. That’s the reverse of normal, sensible procedure, where blame is assessed before costs are distributed. One email reveals Darling already knew about the Edison blunder when she set up her process; a later one shows she actually asked Edison whether it thought the proceeding should be reopened after it ended. Naturally, the utility said no and that was that.
So she was a major embarrassment to the commission, which insists she planned for a “long” time to retire on Dec. 25. PUC spokesmen did not answer questions about when Darling gave notice of her rather early “retirement.” She may have been dumped quickly after this column in early December noted the absurdity of her fining Edison for not reporting to the commission contacts with her and others at the commission.
It’s all part of a longtime PUC climate favoring utilities over their customers.
This pattern was obvious for many years, but the extent of relations between the commission and executives of the utilities whose rates and profits it sets was not clear until late 2014. A lawsuit then forced release of 65,000 previously secret and possibly illegal emails between commissioners, staff and PG&E. Further disclosures revealed private contacts with executives of other utilities.
Just as astonishing is the way Gov. Brown and other state officials continue treating the under-investigation PUC as if it’s trustworthy.
Example: When Brown belatedly declared a state of emergency over the ongoing natural gas leak at a SoCal Gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, about a mile from the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, he assigned investigative functions to the PUC, saying it will “ensure that (SoCal Gas) covers costs…while protecting ratepayers.” Absolutely no recognition there of the commission’s enduring disregard for the wallets of ratepayers, aka customers.
So yes, the PUC needs big change, and a wholesale housecleaning may come if indictments ever emerge from state and federal investigations. Getting rid of one embarrassing second-level official like Darling won’t solve the problem, either for the PUC or the consumers it is supposed to protect – but usually doesn’t.
December 10, 2015
Email Issue Hints at Possible Brown Corruption Role
There is no doubt Gov. Jerry Brown has tolerated corruption in his administration. But now there are hints that he might be personally involved in some of it.
For corruption Brown has known about, but not curbed, start with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), proven to have decided multi-billion-dollar rate cases after lengthy private contacts and email exchanges between commissioners, their staff and utility executives.
Then there’s the state Energy Commission, which handed tens of millions of dollars in “hydrogen highway” grants to a consultant who two years ago drew the map of where that money was to be spent, then resigned and formed a company which three months later applied for and got most of the available money.
No member of either commission has been disciplined. Nor have any commission practices changed discernibly. Brown promoted his former aide Michael Picker to president of the PUC despite the fact that during the year Picker and disgraced former PUC President Michael Peevey served together, Picker voted for every deal Peevey pushed.
At the Energy Commission, despite proven cronyism and his vote to back the hydrogen highway conflict of interest, Chairman Robert Weisenmiller was soon reappointed.
Now come hints that the consistently hands-on Brown might not merely condone corruption in his administration; he may be part of it.
These come from two directions: In San Francisco Superior Court, San Diego lawyers Michael Aguirre and Mia Severson are pushing for access to more than 60 records purportedly showing Brown or his office was in direct and frequent contact with PUC commissioners at the time of the infamous San Onofre settlement. That was the agreement worked out – apparently illegally – on stationary and paper napkins of a luxury Warsaw hotel between a junketing Peevey and executives of the Southern California Edison Co.
The deal would have customers of Edison and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. pay $3.3 billion, or about three-fourths of the cost of retiring the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which failed because Edison officials bought a flawed $660 million part knowing all along it could destroy SONGS, as it eventually did.
The PUC so far refuses to reopen that case, but has not shown why consumers should pay anything for Edison’s blunder at San Onofre.
One reason the nominally independent commission, made up of five Brown appointees, is obdurate may be that it knows Brown liked the deal from the start.
While no one will know until after a scheduled Dec. 9 court hearing what’s in those documents, another email proves Brown knew about and favored the illegally crafted San Onofre settlement early on. A June 6, 2013 note sent by Edison CEO Ted Craver to company board members starts with Craver saying he “wanted to give you a quick report on my phone calls with Gov. Brown.”
This came while Brown was in Rancho Mirage meeting with President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reported Craver, “He said what we were doing seemed right under the circumstances.” Craver also said Brown “indicated a willingness to” say publicly that Edison was acting responsibly. What else might have been said in that call?
For sure, Brown spoke to Craver while meeting with two of the three most powerful world leaders. That’s how hands-on the governor can be, even when he has no formal voice in a decision. There was also a possible conflict of interest here: His sister, Kathleen, is a board member of SDG&E’s parent company, which has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in this case.
Maybe Brown was more directly involved than we know. That’s only a guess, but Brown invites speculation when he and his PUC appointees use tax dollars trying to hide their contacts.
Brown press secretary Evan Westrup, asked for the governor’s response to or explanation for all this, would say only “I do not expect we’ll be commenting.”
This non-response came while Brown was fending off public outrage over his demand that California’s oil regulating agency provide him maps and records showing any potential for oil and natural gas drilling on his family’s 2,700-acre ranch in Colusa County.
Add it up and possible corruption involving Brown could far exceed the questionable moves which spurred the 2003 recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis.
December 03, 2015
Pump Prices Down a Bit, But Gas Gouging Continues
The days when oil companies could credibly deny they’re gouging California drivers just because they’ve dropped pump prices a bit appear now to be over.
For every measuring stick except a comparison with the price of gasoline four months ago leads to the unmistakable conclusion that this state’s three biggest gasoline refiners – Valero, Tesoro and Chevron – are still gouging customers like they did at mid-summer, when prices topped $4 per gallon in many places.
Now prices are down to $2.60 in some spots, while it’s hard to find gas anywhere at prices over $3.60 per gallon.
That’s taking some heat off the big refiners, but it should not. For even when this state’s higher-than-normal gasoline taxes are figured in, Californians are still paying about 60 cents per gallon more than the average price in many other states with far worse access to refined gasoline.
The first thing to understand is that the price is down because the cost of oil has been below $50 per barrel for many months, largely the result of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which has hugely increased American supplies.
Motorists in most parts of America benefit far more from this than Californians, with prevailing prices in most regions well below $2 per gallon all fall.
To ascertain whether a company is profiteering to take advantage of unusual market conditions, the best place to look is at its profits, which all firms whose stock is publicly traded must make public.
The most prominent third-quarter corporate report among California-related oil companies this fall came from Chevron Corp. The San Ramon-based firm has announced it will cut 11 percent of its workforce, or about 7,000 jobs, as it deals with lower oil prices that cut its company-wide profit about 60 percent below the same quarter a year ago, from $5.6 billion to $2.04 billion.
But look a bit closer and you see how bad things would have been for Chevron but for the money it gouged from California consumers. For the first nine months of this year, the huge corporation’s refining operations netted a whopping $2.6 billion, compared with $1.4 billion last year. Since 54 percent of Chevron’s refining occurs in California, in El Segundo and Richmond, it’s clear that overcharging Californians has been one of Chevron’s most profitable tactics this year.
Then there are Valero and Tesoro, the latter selling much of its gas under the Shell and USA labels. These are the only two big oil companies that break out California-specific refining profits. And what profits they reaped! For Tesoro, the profit was $770 million just from California gasoline refining in the third quarter. This was double the company’s take for the July-to-September period last year and about four times the firm’s average quarterly profit of $169 million over the last 10 years.
Valero, meanwhile, made $342 million on California refining during the third quarter, an almost obscene 14 times more than last year. Its per-barrel profit was $13.54, fully 11 times more than last year’s figure for the same time period in 2014.
All the companies claim their profits were in part due to a partial outage of the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Torrance, but exported gasoline continued to flow from California to Mexico and other destinations throughout the third quarter. If there was a shortage here, why would exports continue?
“Those outsize profits show just how broken the state’s gasoline market is,” said Cody Rosenfield, a researcher for the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group. “Instead of passing on a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil, California refiners imposed extreme and unreasonable pain at the pump for consumers.”
Sure, that pain is a tad less when prices come down. But imagine how many dollars could have flowed into the state’s economy, rather than to the Texas headquarters of Valero and Tesoro, if profits had remained at their previous, already copious levels.
Yes, billionaire activist Tom Steyer threatened last summer to fund and run a ballot initiative requiring disclosure of all refiners’ California profits, among other things, unless the Legislature imposed new transparency rules on the gasoline market by the end of September.
That deadline came and went with no action from either legislators or Steyer, leaving consumers to wonder when anyone will take a hand to stop the ongoing gouging of millions of Californians.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net
November 19, 2015
Firefighting Doubletalk: More Fodder for Government Distrust
Many Californians now deeply distrust state government, and with good reason. Start with the Public Utilities Commission, proven to have decided multi-billion-dollar rate cases after lengthy private contacts and email exchanges between commissioners, their staff and utility executives.
Then there’s the state Energy Commission, which handed tens of millions of dollars in “hydrogen highway” grants to a commission consultant who two years ago drew the map of where that money was to be spent, then resigned and formed a company which three months later applied for and got most of the available money.
No member of either commission has been punished for this
cronyism and favoritism. Nor have their procedures changed significantly.
Now comes the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, caught in what’s doubletalk at a minimum on whether or not it has for years put violent criminals into situations where they could escape with ease if they chose.
More than 1,400 such prisoners today work on firefighting crews sometimes overseen by officials of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) rather than prison guards. The current type of “trusty” prisoner has produced an average of nine escapes per year over the last five years, all but one inmate escapee recaptured fairly quickly.
The subject arises because last year’s Proposition 47 converted many drug violations and some other crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, cutting the number of non-violent criminals available for firefighting.
The measure also allowed many former drug-related felons to resume normal lives unplagued by convictions that once put many jobs and other opportunities beyond their reach.
Prison rules long stated that only non-violent criminals could be sent outside prison walls to fight fires. But no more.
The change came to light after public opposition killed a corrections department plan to extend from five years to seven the remaining time allowable for sentences of criminals on firefighting crews.
For sure, in this so-far extremely destructive fire season, work done by teams of convicts has been essential. But it turned out prison officials were untruthful for years about who was on those teams.
Their website said no violent prisoner could serve on the crews. In pulling back their proposal this fall, department officials let slip the fact that they have long used inmates whose crimes are legally defined as violent.
“Not all violent offenses represent violent behavior by the individual,” Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told a reporter in a classic example of bureaucratic doubletalk. An example of what he meant, he said, was that robberies involving a mere threat of violence are different from those where victims are physically assaulted. Never mind psychological or emotional violence from being threatened, sometimes at gunpoint.
It turned out the department’s website long said members of fire crews “must have no history of violent crimes.” This passage is now excised, and the department reported last month that 1,441 out of 3,732 inmates then in fire camps were convicted of crimes legally defined as violent. Only doublethink could allow those convicts to be considered non-violent.
Prison system spokesman Bill Sessa insists they may once have been violent, but aren’t anymore. “Having that on our website was a mistake, not an attempt to deceive,” he said. “We look at the very specific circumstances of every inmate before anyone is even allowed to be trained for this.”
Even with the violent criminals, the number of convict firefighters is far down from previous levels of about 4,400, mostly because of a combination of Proposition 47 and prison realignment, which sees many inmates paroled or remanded to county jails in their home areas.
Lowering the prison populace by tens of thousands over just two years created a manpower shortage.
Nevertheless, said Sessa, “It would be ludicrous for us to put a dangerous inmate in that situation.”
The prison system admitted to the Associated Press that inmate firefighters committed hundreds of assaults and batteries, indecent exposures and other crimes over the past 10 years, but later insisted all those incidents were in fire camps, not in surrounding communities or on active fire lines.
Still, the corrections department’s “mistake” in leaving the “no violent criminals” pledge on its website for years after it was no longer in force renders its word unreliable.
This makes at least three demonstrably untrustworthy major state agencies. Should anyone trust the others?
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visitwww.californiafocus.net
November 12, 2015
PUC Reform Vetoes Send Wrong Message
There’s something crazy when the most powerful agency in California government spends an entire year mired in scandal caused in large part by inadequate controls over the activities of its key people – and not a single reform emerges.
That’s the net result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of a package of bills that unanimously passed the Legislature this fall aiming to fix aspects of the state Public Utilities Commission, even though the bills themselves had some flaws.
The upshot is that Brown has yet to utter a negative word about the overtly crooked activities of former PUC President Michael Peevey and others at the commission, even complimenting Peevey on “getting things done” at the time he departed the commission in disgrace.
The PUC is the most powerful of state agencies because it controls what consumers pay for electricity and natural gas provided by private companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric. The agency also makes some key decision on water and telephones. Unlike all other state commissioners, PUC members serve six-year terms and cannot be fired even by the governor who appoints them.
No one would seriously claim the bills Brown vetoed were perfect. For example, they did not include the most important reform that should have emerged from the scandals: making PUC decisions reviewable in Superior Court, and not only in appeals courts or the state Supreme Court, as they are today.
But some changes these bills contained could have been valuable, including creation of an independent inspector general assigned to make sure commission actions and processes are fair and legal. There is now virtually no oversight.
So-called “ex-parte communications” – telephone calls, emails and other contacts between commissioners and staff and executives of the utility companies they regulate would have had to be reported on the PUC’s website. The problem with this was that there would have been no way to make sure all private contacts were reported.
Kevin Liao, a top aide to Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lakewood in Los Angeles County, author of most of the package and soon to assume the powerful office of Assembly speaker, reported that the possibility of suing the PUC over its decisions in Superior Court was removed from Rendon’s bills in the an Assembly committee despite his protests.
The weakened reform package nevertheless was too strong for Brown, who said in veto messages that “I support the intent of these bills…”
Just not enough to outlaw repetitions of the contacts between PUC members and utility executives which resulted in favored treatment for PG&E in its attempt to fight off punishment for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons.
Emails show similar contacts between Peevey and Edison executives produced the outline of a settlement that now stands to cost consumers $3.3 billion, or about three-fourths what it will cost to retire the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which failed because of decisions made by other Edison executives whose own emails show they knew those decisions could ruin the plant.
The amounts involved in those cases were similar to the billions of consumer dollars routinely dunned by the PUC. Example: One current PG&E proposal before the PUC calls for a $2.7 billion rate hike over three years.
Rendon said his aim was to create more transparency in the PUC’s business. But Brown has seen to it that won’t happen for at least a year, if then. He even killed provisions forcing commissioners to write their decisions in “understandable” language.
Clearly, the culture of the PUC needs serious change, but even the few changes in the vetoed bills were too much for Brown.
The fact is that Peevey, a former Southern California Edison president, had a conflict of interest from the moment ex-Gov. Gray Davis appointed him in 2002. Brown might also have one: His sister, former California state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, serves on the board of Sempra Energy, owner of both Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric.
All of which means the ground rules of the dance long conducted by the PUC and the large private utility companies it regulates have not changed even a little because of the current scandal.
The only remaining question is how long Brown will continue to suborn the blatant corruption of this powerful, but often rogue, agency.
Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
November 05, 2015
Making it Easier to Seek Death Than Longer Life
Gov. Jerry Brown may not have been aware of what he was doing, but a combination of his signatures and vetoes on bills passed by the Legislature will make it easier for desperately ill persons to seek death in California than to attempt to live longer.
With one of his moves, Brown provided a bit of a revelation of his inner thinking. The window into his psyche came as he approved the state’s new “right to die” law, allowing mentally sound patients in hopeless medical situations to get help in ending their suffering. Days later, though, he vetoed another bill that would have given terminally ill patients wanting to stay alive the right to try whatever drug they like, be it conventional, controversial or experimental.
Brown wrote in a signing message that he agonized over whether to sign the right to die law, finally being swayed by thoughts of what he might want if he were ever in a seemingly hopeless, painful situation. But there was no such introspection in his veto message on the “right to try” legislation, sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon of eastern Los Angeles County.
Yes, Brown said, “Patients with life threatening conditions should be able to try experimental drugs,” but he added that they should go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s compassionate use program, which allows some people access to investigative drugs.
The trouble is, the FDA’s process often requires many months, multiple lawyers, plenty of money and/or political clout. Many terminally ill patients die long before they complete the application process.
So the window into Brown’s psyche shows he can conceive of being so ill he’d rather die than fight on, but he can’t see himself ever being ill, desperate to live and in a situation where no legally approved drug can help him, but an experimental one might. So much for the governor’s vaunted imagination.
With his veto, Brown closed a window that appeared to open once before for the very ill who want to try something different to solve their problems.
The previous window appeared to open back in 2000, when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed what was hailed as a landmark law and potential life-saver for cancer patients. Health insurance companies were virtually the only dissenters back then and they have since effectively stymied the measure.
This law, passed as SB37 and still on the books, is simple in its concept. Patients who qualify for clinical trials of new cancer drugs should be able to participate in and benefit from those trials without financial concerns. If a clinical trial is not ongoing in California, insurance companies would have to cover routine patient costs associated with participation, wherever in America it was conducted.
This sounded simple in 2000, but insurance companies routinely refused to pay patient expenses in the first few years after it passed. The experience of the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, TX, where more than 20 FDA-supervised clinical trials of a treatment called antineoplastons have been completed, is typical. That clinic has had many patients from California, but almost none has been funded by insurance carriers, as the law intended. (Full disclosure: Columnist Elias has written a book, The Burzynski Breakthrough, now in its fourth printing, about the antineoplaston treatment and its problems in winning full government approval.)
The upshot is that the window of hope Davis opened for patients almost 15 years ago has never been very wide, mostly because of insurance company resistance.
Now Brown has extinguished the latest spark of hope for many of the same patients who benefit from the 15-year-old SB37, and others.
Brown did not quarrel with anything Calderon said in introducing the latest measure. “Although the FDA approves most compassionate use requests it receives, it often takes doctors and patients…months to navigate the process,” Calderon said. “For terminally ill patients, the waiting period can be a matter of life and death. Patients suffering from a terminal illness should be able to exercise a basic freedom – to preserve their own life.”
Former Roman Catholic seminarian Brown ought to have known that the potentially fatal combination of his latest decisions runs completely counter to the Biblical commandment written in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:19): “…today I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”
October 15, 2015
Tail Wags Dog Again as Election Season in Earnest
There has been a lot of loud talk and hyperbole during the preliminaries to next year’s presidential election. But with the political season now on in earnest, it’s fast becoming clear that for the 11th consecutive presidential election, the tail will be wagging the dog.
It is partly because of laziness and selfishness by California legislators that this state will again have little or no voice in the choosing of either party’s candidate for president or vice president. Yet, the next president’s actions will be crucial for California in areas from oil drilling to abortion to the choice of new Supreme Court justices who will rule for many years on the legality of this state’s ballot initiatives and other laws.
Plus, when the primary season ends, with the nominees chosen, once again California won't matter. That’s because this state is taken for granted by Democrats and essentially forfeited by Republicans. California has not gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988, when George H.W. Bush succeeded by using his reputation here as Ronald Reagan’s sidekick.
Of course, some Californians will have a voice. Those will be the very rich. And they may be heard louder than anyone else, anywhere, or so the most recent official political donation numbers suggest.
As of the last reporting date, the Federal Elections Commission reported, Californians had contributed $12.8 million to the flood of candidates traversing the state during spring and summer. Those California bucks accounted for 16 percent of all donations, compared with New York and Texas at 13 percent each. None of the three states will have a primary that matters, nor will any of them be seriously contested a year from November.
Those numbers, of course, represent only dollars given directly to candidates, not funds raised by supposedly independent political action committees that often end up spending far more than the candidates.
The most popular candidate, by far, among California moneybags has been Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state. She had pocketed more than $8 million in direct donations, almost two out of every three dollars raised here. That’s still only about one-sixth of her total haul.
Others doing well here included Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former GOP Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now a dropout, both of whom netted about 22 percent of their funds here.
The many millions raised here have little to do with ordinary Californians or their concerns. But if candidates were forced to campaign here, rather than spending the vast majority of their time in far less populous places like Iowa and New Hampshire, they would have to deal with what matters here.
The fact they don’t is the fault of legislators, who fear a very early California primary election because it would force them to alter their schedules, declare for office months earlier than today’s mid-March deadline and begin raising money early.
That happened to them several times during the 1990s and 2000s, when California held primaries in February and March. No, the state never voted first; rules of both major parties forbid that. But it did have major influence. In 2008, for example, Clinton’s California win extended her campaign three months longer than it otherwise would have gone.
But California lawmakers couldn’t be bothered this year. They threw in the towel two years ago on making any effort to hold the state’s primary earlier than June. The last time a primary staged that late had any influence was in 1972, when Democrat George McGovern used a California win to snare his party’s nomination. But there were fewer than one-third as many primaries and caucuses then as now, most states’ national convention delegations controlled by party bosses.
The latest figures show the three most influential early states are not even among the top 20 in providing money to candidates. Rather, it is largely be California money that funds the efforts by the candidates in those places.
If this sounds wrong, it is. So tell your local assembly member or state senator. Only they can fix this, and right now they have no incentive at all to empower their constituents.
Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is email@example.com
October 08, 2015
Expedite Gas Exports; Expedite Price Hikes at Home
It has been less than three months since Californians received their latest severe lesson in the laws of supply and demand, unfairly applied. Gasoline prices, which had dropped almost than $2 per gallon from their 2014 peaks, suddenly spiked by more than a dollar when two refineries in the state had outages.
The refineries are back online, but prices still have not returned to previous levels.
Now switch the subject to natural gas, where the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last year for the LNG Permitting Certainty and Transparency Act, which might better be called the “Let’s Send Our Big New Supplies of Natural Gas Overseas Act.”
Many Congress members who less than 10 years ago were loudly decrying America’s dependence on foreign oil and natural gas voted for this bill, which gives the federal Energy Department just 30 days to issue final decisions on natural gas exports after it accepts final environmental impact statements on them.
The reason for this short-sighted action was simple: money. Oil and gas exploration firms whose hydraulic fracturing operations in places like Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and North Dakota have produced an oversupply are tired of selling that gas cheaply to consumers in states like California, where gas bills are significantly lower now than two and three years ago.
They want to send much of the new supply in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to places like Japan and Europe for premium prices. So most of the LNG terminals built 10 to 15 years ago as import facilities have been converted from turning sub-freezing LNG from a liquid back to a gaseous form and are now are freezing gas to turn it into a liquid, the opposite of what they were built for.
Terminals are being converted in locales as diverse as Boston, Charleton, S.C. and along the Gulf Coast. Two brand-new export terminals to handle gas from Wyoming and Colorado are in process in Oregon, with another to come in British Columbia, Canada.
But because it fought off the LNG fad of 10 years ago, when federal experts and academics like Mary Nichols (then a UCLA professor and now head of the state Air Resources Board) were claiming California absolutely needed hyper-expensive LNG imports, no export facilities are in the cards here.
The votes cast by most California representatives for the LNG export speedup bill, supported by both conservative Republicans and the Obama Administration, were a serious disservice to their constituents, even if they did assure campaign funds will keep flowing from oil and gas interests.
It’s not that natural gas prices have plunged quite as much as gasoline did in early 2014, but that’s mostly because the wholesale cost of natural gas accounts for slightly less than half of what consumers pay. The rest of the price comes from transportation and the cost of maintaining pumps, storage facilities and pipelines, plus a profit percentage.
But double or triple the wholesale price of natural gas – as will surely happen when exports start reducing supplies – and California bills will go up again, probably back to the levels of 2008 and 2009 just for starters. For consumers and businesses, that will be just like a large tax increase, as there are always severe penalties when people and companies don’t pay their utility bills.
Since no one calls this a tax, few pay much heed, but anyone who listens to businesses relocating to other states knows that it’s not just high California taxes pushing them. It’s also sky-high utility rates, okayed routinely by the state Public Utilities Commission before its collusion with big utility companies became widely known and proven by email correspondence.
This, then, is no simple matter. There’s the need to preserve American energy supplies to assure the nation’s independence from outfits like OPEC, the rapacious Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. There’s also the danger from LNG, most recently seen in last year's explosions of two LNG barges in Alabama. And there’s the pernicious effect on both consumers and businesses when prices rise.
Put these together and it’s easy to see LNG exports are as big a mistake now as LNG imports would have been in California 10 years ago. But whoever said the politicians pushing this are immune from huge errors?
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net
October 01, 2015
Big Utility's Ever-Shrinking Fine For Fatal Explosion
Some were mystified when, moments after the California Public Utilities Commission assessed the state’s largest utility company a record $1.6 billion fine for violating state and federal natural gas pipeline standards before the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced it would not appeal the decision.
Even now, about six months later, PG&E still has not said why it simply accepted the largest penalty ever assessed against an American utility company.
But a relatively unpublicized vote last month in the state Senate gives a new hint about why. So does PG&E’s latest filing with the utilities commission, best known as the PUC, which sets rates for all privately-owned utilities in California.
The Senate vote effectively ended a legislative effort to prevent PG&E from using most of the fine as a tax deduction, despite the fact that the company has been found negligent by federal agencies in the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion.
There is some consumer comfort in the fact that PG&E will pay something, while Southern California Edison Co. and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. will not be penalized at all for actions leading to the failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, for which the PUC has assessed Edison and SDG&E customers more than $3 billion. Then again, nobody died at San Onofre, while San Bruno saw eight fatalities.
Allowing PG&E to write off $1.3 billion of the fine as a business expense will allow the company to recoup about $115 million, according to some calculations. That’s a bit like a motorist being able to take the bulk of a speeding fine as a tax deduction. Anyone who tried this would trigger red flags at the Internal Revenue Service.
The writeoff means PG&E will actually pay just over 40 percent of its fine to customers and the state. Yes, $400 million will be refunded to customers. Another $300 million will go to the state’s general fund and $50 million to pay for a variety of PUC safety activities. But the deduction gives the big utility part of those amounts back.
The Senate’s inaction also lets PG&E deduct the bulk of the $850 million of this “fine” that will be used to repair and improve its gas transmission system. Of course, it makes no sense for any of the fine to go for this, since the utility has collected payments monthly from all customers for pipeline maintenance and safety for more than six decades.
Because the PUC never tracked how that money was used until after San Bruno, no one knows what PG&E actually spent on maintenance and how much it just kept. The PUC has never explained why it’s allowing the company to use fine money this way.
The Senate actually voted by a wide margin not to let PG&E get away with at least some of this. The vote was 25-14 to disallow the tax deduction. But a two-thirds majority of 27 votes was needed, and all 14 Republicans voting went in PG&E’s favor, so the big utility won out.
The no-deduction bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo, called the vote a demonstration “of political influence by a major utility which spends a lot of money…on campaigns and lobbying.”
Almost simultaneously came PG&E’s latest filing with the utilities commission, an application for a $2.7 billion rate increase over three years. If the decades-old dance pattern of the PUC and the utility ensues, PG&E will end up getting about $2 billion, and the PUC will brag about saving consumers $700 million – when the company hasn’t shown it deserves any new profit at all.
Worse, any big rate increase would essentially pay PG&E back in less than a year for the approximately $640 million in San Bruno fines it will actually pay. The net result will be that PG&E comes out ahead, just as Edison and SDG&E figure to come out ahead in their questionable San Onofre settlement with the PUC, one the commission so far shows no sign of rescinding despite the questionable legality of how it was reached.
All of which would demonstrate there’s been no real change at the PUC, despite talk from the commission’s new president, Michael Picker, who has said he means to make his agency more consumer-oriented and transparent. Stay tuned.
Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is email@example.com
September 24, 2015
Arnold Helped Pave The Way For The Donald
Parallels between current presidential candidate Donald Trump and ex-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are myriad and obvious to anyone who cares to look.
Both are celebrities with no need to spend money on getting-to-know-you TV commercials like ordinary candidates for high office. Both went after political offices after pursuing lucrative careers not even slightly related to running a government. Each claimed not to need special interest money, since both are rolling in dough.
Neither has shown the slightest worry about the rumors or reality of his womanizing past and (maybe) present. Voters male and female have never shown signs of worry about their personal indiscretions.
Trump’s flashy campaign style, featuring his blue-painted personal jumbo jet and occasional rides for kids in his personal helicopter apes Schwarzenegger’s practice of constantly surrounding himself with klieg lights and aides attired in expensive leather jackets festooned with Arnold-related logos. Because he campaigned only in California, Schwarzenegger never needed a jumbo like Trump’s Boeing 757, but could make do with a mere private jet he kept at the Santa Monica Airport, not far from his home in Brentwood’s Mandeville Canyon.
The similarities go on and on, the largest of them being that their support levels are never diminished by their errors, ignorance or sins. It’s almost as if both were Kardashians, members of a dynasty founded by a lawyer pal of accused and acquitted wife-killer O.J. Simpson, Robert Kardashian, who was long suspected of destroying or hiding key evidence sought by police.
That background has never held back any member of his clan.
Nor has the way Arnold and The Donald ignore the old caution to “be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth into gear.”
Several months into the campaign for next year’s Republican presidential nomination, Trump continues to lead the GOP field, where the No. 2 spot in the polls fluctuates unpredictably.
As with Schwarzenegger, and decades earlier with actor Ronald Reagan, Democrats don’t yet see Trump as a serious threat. He puts foot in mouth at least once a week, rarely apologizing and never backing off what would be serious gaffes for any non-celebrity.
Consistency also doesn’t matter, as Trump has changed positions on everything from abortion to immigration. When he entered politics, the muscleman actor Schwarzenegger didn’t have prior positions he could contradict. But he frequently broke promises, including the first one he made as a recall election candidate in 2003.
Starting his run on NBC-TV’s Tonight Show, Schwarzenegger vowed never to accept “special interest” money. Then he immediately began accepting campaign contributions from oil companies, car dealers and almost any interest willing to write a check. He also promised to order an independent investigation into allegations he groped and otherwise sexually harassed women. It never happened. There were many others.
Once he became governor, it quickly became clear Schwarzenegger had little notion of how to run America’s largest state government. He began by threatening public employee unions, who famously whipped him in every ballot initiative contest they fought. He gave orders to the state attorney general, only to be reminded that independently-elected official did not work for him. He appointed a former utility company president to regulate that company as president of the California Public Utilities Commission.
Would Trump, who has bragged about taking advantage of federal bankruptcy laws because “everyone else in my position does,” display similar desires to be a kind of strongman? There’s little doubt he would bring at least as much bombast to the office.
Democrats who now belittle Trump’s White House chances because he doesn’t pepper his speeches with many facts or pay much heed to what he could do by himself if elected should remember Reagan, who as a campaigner also did not bother much with facts.
When faced with tough questions in the early months of his winning 1980 campaign, he often turned toward the wings offstage, saying “I’ll let Ed (Meese) answer that one,” referring to a top aide he later appointed U.S. attorney general. When an opponent rattled off facts and pointed out his contradictions during debates, he grinned wryly into the camera and said, “There he goes again.”
And he always won easily. So might Trump if Democrats keep taking him lightly. That’s the lesson for them from Reagan and Schwarzenegger, the only other big-time celebrities to seek the highest office they possibly could.
September 17, 2015
Manson Follower Again Test Brown on Parole
If this seems like déjà vu, that’s because it is. For the 29th time since he was convicted in two of the nine gruesome killings conducted by the cult-like Charles Manson “Family” in the late 1960s, 72-year-old Bruce Davis is up for parole.
Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of December to veto a late August finding by the state Parole Board finding Davis eligible for release from prison. He’s now held in the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
Brown has demonstrated in the past that he knows Davis and other followers of Manson – himself held in Corcoran State Prison – should never go free.
When parole officials last found Davis suited for release, Brown wrote a six-page ruling reversing the decision. He made this salient point: “In rare circumstances, a murder is so heinous that it provides evidence of current dangerousness by itself. This is such a case.”
Previously, Brown and other governors declined to release Davis because he refused to accept any responsibility for his role in the slice-and-dice murders of aspiring musician Gary Hinman and movie stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea.
Davis insisted for more than 40 years that he had little to do with those deaths, saying about Shea’s murder that he had inflicted only a “token” stab wound on Shea’s shoulder, while Manson himself made the fatal stabs and cuts. Finally, in 2013, Davis admitted he sliced Shea from armpit to collarbone.
Shea’s carved-up body was later found in small pieces spread around the former Spahn Movie Ranch in the Santa Susana Pass area between Los Angeles and Simi Valley, where cowboy stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers once roamed. Many episodes of TV shows like Bonanza and The Lone Ranger were at least partially filmed there. But by 1969, when the Manson group moved onto the ranch, owner George Spahn had become elderly, frail and unable to resist the cult’s takeover of his land.
In Hinman’s slaying, trial testimony by a former Manson follower revealed, Davis held a gun on Hinman while Manson slashed his face with a sword and tried to extort money from him. Hinman’s dead body was later found in Davis’s home, with the word’s “political piggy” scrawled in blood on a wall.
There is no evidence, however, that Davis was involved in the better-known Manson Family murders at the Beverly Hills-adjacent residence of movie star Sharon Tate and the Los Angeles home of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. Other race-tinged messages were written in blood within the LaBianca house.
It can be difficult for those not involved in investigating or covering the Manson Family crimes to appreciate the depth of their depravity and cruelty. The upshot was that not only were the victims killed, but the murders were done in the most painful and vicious manner conceivable, each concocted to serve some purpose linked to Manson’s vain hope of spurring a race war to which he applied the name “Helter Skelter.”
While it’s true that in more than 40 years as a prisoner, Davis has married, fathered a child and earned a doctoral degree in religion, the question of why he ever should be freed remains unanswered given the lives he helped end abruptly in some of the bloodiest possible ways.
While the many millions of Californians either not resident here or not even born at the time of those murders may not remember their impact, Brown certainly does. Back then, he lived in Laurel Canyon north of the Sunset Strip and not far from Tate’s rented house in Benedict Canyon. He may even have felt the fears experienced by other canyon dwellers aware that the Manson killers cut power and telephone lines in an era long before cell phones. Their impending victims could not call for help or even see much as their executioners approached in the dark.
Brown’s statement when Davis last came up for parole demonstrates he knows the depth of these crimes. The hope is that this former Roman Catholic seminarian has not lost the understanding that some crimes are simply too horrible ever to be forgiven, no matter how goody-two-shoes their perpetrators may appear to have become years later.
September 10, 2015
PROP. 47 Looking Like a Well Intended Blunder
The more time goes by since last fall’s passage of the high-minded Proposition 47, the more it begins to look like a well-intentioned mistake.
This was the ballot measure that turned some “minor” felonies into misdemeanor crimes, thus easing the crowding in state prisons and many county jails. It has unquestionably helped some ex-felons rebuild their lives.
But as crime statistics for the first half of this year pour in from around the state, this measure looks worse and worse, on balance. The numbers are bearing out warnings Proposition 47 opponents made in their official ballot argument against the initiative before it passed by a whopping 60-40 percent margin.
“Proposition 47 is a dangerous…package of ill-conceived policies wrapped in a poorly drafted initiative which will endanger all Californians, said opponents, led by Citrus Heights Police Chief Christopher Boyd, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn.
Here’s a bit of what’s happened since passage: In San Francisco, car burglaries are up 47 percent this year over 2014, while car thefts have risen 17 percent and robberies rose by 23 percent. In Los Angeles, overall crime is up 12.7 percent this year and violent crime rose almost 21 percent. That’s after 12 straight years of crime decreases in the state’s largest city.
Some saw Proposition 47 as a mere expansion on Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison “realignment” program, designed to reduce prison populations at the demand of federal judges up to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court. Convicts on a de factobasis were already seeing sentences reduced or being shifted from tougher state prisons to county jails. Many lesser offenders who might previously have gotten at least some jail time were going free on probation. Prior to Proposition 47, this had cut the prison population by almost one-fifth, while not causing crime rate increases in most places.
But the initiative does much more than mere realignment, switching many crimes from the felony category to misdemeanors. This includes most drug possession arrests, petty thefts, forged checks and receiving stolen property, with property crimes having to exceed $950 to be a felony. One result: Myriad drug addicts have adjusted their practices, trying to hold their take from “minor” crimes under that amount. Because of crowding in local jails, it’s common for misdemeanor offenders to be turned loose soon after their convictions.
Proposition 47 supporters also touted the fact their measure allows all those crimes to be treated as felonies if the accused has previous convictions for rape, murder or child molestation or is a registered sex offender.
Not enough, said the opponents, noting that persons with prior convictions for armed robbery, carjacking, child abuse, assault with a deadly weapon and other serious crimes would still be allowed misdemeanor status for new non-violent offenses. They pointed out that thousands of convicts who stood to be released because their crimes would be converted into misdemeanors have prior records of violent crimes not listed among the most dangerous.
At the same time, many convict firefighters (about 40 percent of crews battling major fires in California are convicts) have been released because of reductions in the category of their crimes.
Prison-provided fire crews nevertheless retained the same manpower as last year during the early blazes of this wildfire season. No one yet knows if in-prison recruiting of some new firefighters will produce the same quality of work (several fires this summer spread far wider than officials expected) or whether more convicts on wild-land crews will now try to escape.
Proposition 47 also earmarked much of the prison money it saves for mental health and drug treatment programs, aiming to cushion the effects of making most drug possessions no more than minor offenses.
But enrollment in drug treatment programs has dropped, probably a sign that many addicts no longer feel pressured to kick their habits. They know they’ll never do significant time either for using or for most crimes that support their addictions.
So it’s become quite clear the opponents made good points. On balance, Proposition 47 is turning out to be bad policy. Now it’s time for legislators to do what they can to fix the flawed measure. A start would be increasing the list of serious prior offenses than can turn the new “minor” crimes back into felonies.
September 03, 2015
Canoe Theory at Work in Guv's CEQA Exemption Deals
Gov. Jerry Brown has never professed to be the model of political or ideological consistency. In fact, he’s a decades-long advocate of the “canoe theory” of politics, which goes like this: You paddle a little to the left and you paddle a little to the right, and you keep going straight down the middle of the steam.”
You also keep all sides guessing a lot of the time and you make sure opponents of some of your policies are allies on others.
So the governor who once proclaimed that “small is beautiful” and announced an “era of limits” for California apparently has no stomach for limits on huge developments.
That’s the meaning of the agreements he made with legislators to exempt some of the most significant building projects on California drawing boards from many environmental regulations. These deals were part of the horse-trading that led to easy passage of the new state budget.
Brown’s press release on the budget, of course, made no mention of such deals, which also exempt the project-enabling bills from thorough legislative hearings because like the developments they promote, they are fast-tracked.
Yes, the same governor who demands that Californians cut gasoline use by 50 percent before 2050 and who is forcing electric companies to draw the bulk of their energy from renewable sources by 2030 has no qualms about facilitating a $200 million high-rise development in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles or the Golden State Warriors’ proposed new arena in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco, near the Giants’ AT&T Park.
This is the same governor who has not opposed changes in the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, that allow developers to qualify initiatives okaying their projects for local ballots and then let city councils adopt those initiatives without a public vote or debate.
That’s what happened in both Inglewood and Carson, medium-sized Los Angeles County cities where okays for competing 70,000-seat National Football League stadium plans came like greased lightning last winter, with no public input. Brown previously had quickly approved the Legislature’s easing of regulations on another, now inactive, NFL stadium plan for downtown Los Angeles.
Brown’s collusion in efforts by developers and their pet legislators to ease the path of massive, neighborhood-changing projects stems from his late 20th Century years as mayor of Oakland, where state regulations stymied or delayed several housing and school projects he wanted.
It was like a rude awakening to the real world for the onetime seminarian.
But that’s no justification for depriving citizens of their right to input on projects, as Brown has now done several times, all while trying to maintain an image as America’s most environmentally-conscious governor.
For the 45-year-old CEQA, which remains the same law today that onetime Gov. Ronald Reagan originally signed, the deals Brown has agreed to amount to a “death of a thousand cuts,” says one official of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Essentially, the exemptions for the largest projects now planned for California, the ones with the most potential environmental impacts, mean that the very wealthy can skirt the law by lobbying Brown and local legislators and city council members (read: making campaign donations), while homebuilders and others must live within the regulations.
The latest ones also mean that residents of Hollywood and San Diego’s Mission Bay, like people in cities like Hermosa Beach, Lawndale, Torrance and Manhattan Beach who are certain to affected by whichever new stadium goes up near the already clogged I-405 San Diego Freeway, will have little to say about their futures.
If this is what Brown really meant when he campaigned in 2010 on a promise to devolve more government authority to locals and away from the state, it will surely go down as one of the least green and least positive legacies of his long political career.
August 27, 2015
Huge Oil Company Gains, Sign of Gas Price Gouging
The days when oil companies could deny they’ve gouged California motorists through much of this year should have ended with the second-quarter financial reports of Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., which together control about 40 percent of the California gasoline market.
But their denials won’t end despite the humongous windfall financial gains they and other gasoline refiners reaped from a spring of obviously excessive gasoline prices. When the same companies unveil their third-quarter financial reports, the refiners’ take will likely be even higher.
Valero saw California gasoline profits rise from $24 million last year to $294 million in the April-through-June period this year. Per-barrel profits rose from 99 cents in 2014 to $11.23 this year.
Tesoro, meanwhile, reported a record profit of $668 million in the same time period, far outstripping its previous record of $415 million, set in 2007. Tesoro gasoline is sold under brand names like Arco, Shell and USA.
Valero and Tesoro are the only oil companies specifically breaking out California refining profits in their corporate reports. Chevron, with large refineries in Richmond and El Segundo, does not distinguish California profits from other operations. But 54 percent of that firm’s refining is done here, and its company-wide refining profits rose $214 million in this year’s second quarter, the lion’s share no doubt coming from the pockets of California drivers.
And yet, the oil industry’s regional umbrella organization, the Western States Petroleum Assn., continues to insist that oil companies did nothing out of the ordinary to create those record profits.
It was all because of supply and demand issues beyond the control of the oil companies, insisted WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd, in a response to a previous column alleging gas price gouging. She did not dispute that refiners exported gasoline to Mexico and Central and South America sufficient to supply California for three full days, or 10 percent of a month’s supply for the entire state, just before prices rose by more than $1 per gallon in many places on and immediately after July 1.
In a blog post, Reheis-Boyd called those exports a “tiny volume” of fuel.
And Valero Vice President Bill Day claimed in a telephone interview his company made more money because it made more gasoline – 88 percent more this spring than last. This left unexplained the higher prices and an 1,150 percent profit increase. Said Day, “Ask the dealers why prices were higher.” Three station owners told this column they charged more because Valero raised wholesale prices.
Profits from the July price spike won’t appear in company reports until after Oct. 1; the second-quarter results reflecting earlier hikes imposed on motorists.
Oil company executives admit the supply shortages to which they frequently expose California are highly profitable. In a conference call with stockholders, Chevron investor relations general manager Frank Mount said “Tight product supply, primarily on the West Coast, boosted refining and marketing margins and increased earnings by $165 million between quarters.”
Chevron helped create that tight supply by shipping more than 400,000 barrels of California-refined gasoline to other countries just before the latest price spike. If tight supply means huge new profits, why would companies increase their stockpiles?
All this angers the Silicon Valley-based billionaire Tom Steyer, who has funded several state ballot measures. In a press conference, Steyer asked that state legislators pass new laws forcing disclosure of oil refiners’ California profits. He would also require advance notice of planned outages and increased penalties for illegally conspiring to raise prices. “Oil refiners are getting rich at our expense,” Steyer said.
If lawmakers don’t act by mid-September, he said, he might next year fund and run a ballot initiative imposing those rules, working with the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group. “Lack of transparency keeps prices artificially high,” Steyer added. “Normally, when profits and margins increase this much, a competitor steps in with lower prices. Why doesn’t the California gasoline market operate that way?”
Whether by coincidence or not, gasoline prices dropped a bit the day of Steyer’s remarks. WSPA executives offered no explanation.
Steyer’s comments suggest the California gas price gouging story is far from over, especially since he doesn’t deny he might run for governor in 2018. A highly visible record of fighting the oil companies could give him a strong campaign calling card.
August 13, 2015
Will PROP 47 Turn Out To Be A Fire Hazard?
"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." Robert Burns in his 1785 poem “To a Mouse.”
Bobby Burns couldn’t have known it, but as California approaches what many experts forecast to be the worst wildfire season on record, his description of how good intentions can go awry, not always turning out as planned, might come into play here soon.
Nothing but good intentions were contained in last year’s Proposition 47, which passed by an overwhelming 59-41 percent margin and has since seen the release of almost 4,000 inmates from state prisons and about the same number from county jails. They were paroled or otherwise freed because the initiative converted drug use and possession, plus some other previous felony crimes, into misdemeanors with much lighter sentences.
Each year down the line, too, about 40,000 offenders who would otherwise have been convicted of felonies will now be found guilty of misdemeanors.
What does all this have to do with the impending fire season, to be fueled by millions of acres of wildlands thoroughly parched by almost five years of drought?
It’s this: While fire engines heading hundreds of miles from their home bases toward serious blazes are familiar sights to anyone driving California highways in fire season, every county and the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CalFire, also depend on thousands of state prison and county jail inmates to battle the worst conflagrations. About 4,000 participated last year.
These crews draw from the trustiest of prisoners. They must be serving a minimum of 15 to 18 months to make training them worthwhile. They must have no history of gang-related, sexual or violent crimes.
Because fire bases are much less secure than prisons, jails or other penal camps, they can’t have any history of escape attempts. These are almost exclusively low-level offenders. Basically, the very sort of prisoners most likely to see sentences shortened by Proposition 47.
No one is quite certain yet how much that will cut into the pool of suitable prisoners available for fire duty, which sees inmates leaving secure facilities up to four days a week even when there’s no fire crisis. If there’s no fire to work, they often clear brush and perform other fire prevention and mitigation duties.
It’s an aspect of convict life few if any voters considered before voting on Proposition 47. Yes, they heard a lot of about possible recidivism, speculation about how many of the newly-released prisoners would be back in the justice system again soon for new offenses.
Predictions differed on that one, and so far, recidivism has varied widely, from as few as nine percent of those released to some counties in the law’s first three months of operation up to 60 percent in others.
The fear is that offenders smart enough to keep each haul of shoplifted goods or forged and deliberately bounced checks under $950 will be back again and again, released each time because their crimes are small enough to be considered minor.
Of course, even if some of these folks slip up and steal enough to go back to jail or prison for a low-level felony, there’s some question whether they’d be allowed onto fire crews, with their relative ease of escape. That’s often judged case by case. So recidivism may not help replenish the inmate firefighting pool depleted by Proposition 47.
And there’s the fact that the initiative was sold in part as a money saver. Shifting thousands of prisoners away from the penal system was supposed to save untold millions of dollars. But more misdemeanor prosecutions have meant increased workloads for city attorneys who often handle those lower-level criminal cases, increasing pressure to expand their staffs.
If it reduces inmate fire crews, as expected at this time of anticipated great need for them, there will also be costs for hiring and training new civilian firefighters.
It all adds up to a classic situation of the sort Bobby Burns decried. For sure, Proposition 47 is turning out to have wrinkles and expenses no one anticipated when laying its very well-intentioned plan.
August 06, 2015
'Robbing the Hood' Ruling Shows PUC Unchanged By Scandal
It’s time once more to roll out the lyrics of The Who’s classic 1971 song, Won’t Get Fooled Again when examining the California Public Utilities Commission, which nominally exists to make sure monopoly utility companies don’t overcharge their captive-audience customers.
“Meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” went the words written by Peter Townshend. And with the PUC these days, nothing could be more descriptive.
Get rid of Michael Peevey, the conventional wisdom went last winter, and the PUC would likely return to its basic mission and stop constantly favoring utility companies over their customers in every decision related to rates.
And Michael Picker, the former adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown whom the governor named as PUC president after Peevey stepped down amid a still-ongoing investigation of corruption, made pious noises about transparency and openness.
But the first major decision under his aegis reveals that nothing has changed. The PUC, founded in the early 20th Century to limit monopolies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co., has once again given the utilities just what they want.
This decision essentially codifies a practice known as “robbing the hood.” Where for decades, the largest California electricity users have paid higher rates for their excesses, now they and small users will soon begin paying roughly equal amounts.
This was explained by Picker’s PUC (although the idea originated during Peevey’s tenure) as a means of ending the “subsidies” small users living in apartments enjoy at the expense of wealthy folk who use wads of electricity to power their hot tubs and Teslas.
Although specific new rates were not immediately set when the PUC early this month unanimously voted for the change, it is eventually expected to cost small users about 20 percent more each month, or approximately $10 extra for starters, the tab to rise as power costs go up. So it’s a reverse Robin Hood kind of thing, harming the poor and helping the rich. That’s how it earns the “robbing the hood” sobriquet.
Of course, the PUC didn’t mention that the really big beneficiaries of the change aren’t residential customers of any kind, not even the wealthiest energy hogs. The largest benefits will go to big businesses like oil refineries and computer chip makers, which use enormous amounts of power.
This proposal originated with PG&E, the same company indicted for criminal negligence in its fatal mismanagement of natural gas pipelines. The utilities will make billions of dollar more under the new system than they do now; just how much has yet to be determined.
The sad part of all this is that there appears little hope the PUC will anytime soon diverge from its longtime pattern of favoring big utility companies over their tens of millions of customers.
This pattern extended to natural gas during the early 2000s, when PG&E and Sempra Energy, parent of both Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric, got the Peevey-led PUC to push hard to bring liquefied natural gas (LNG) from places like Indonesia and Australia to California at enormous expense.
This state needed LNG, said both the utilities and the PUC, because a domestic natural gas shortage was impending and the PUC arranged for the state to give up most of its reserved space on two of the three big pipelines bringing natural gas here from Texas, Oklahoma and the Rocky Mountain region.
That plan was nixed when the state Lands Commission, then led by ex-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and current state Treasurer John Chiang, refused to allow construction of pipelines across state-owned tidelands in Ventura County. Since then, hydraulic fracking has produced a surplus of domestic natural gas, putting the lie to all the PUC and utility company claims of impending shortage and consumers have saved billions compared to what they’d be paying if the companies were buying LNG.
Still, almost no one heeded the PUC’s constant favoring the utility companies over consumers. Similarly, there were no large-scale protests when the PUC this month changed the electric pricing system, to the great detriment of most customers.
Apparently, not even a criminal investigation can get reporters and the public they serve to see through the subterfuges used by PUC members and their utility company cronies.
Which brings to mind the classic observation of Thomas Jefferson: “In a democracy, the people get precisely the government they deserve.”
July 30, 2015
About Time to Meter Ground Water Wells
Water flows downhill. It’s a basic reality now playing out 500 feet below the surface of California’s farmland everywhere from the fertile Central Valley to the citrus orchards of Riverside and San Diego counties.
But it’s a physical fact to which government so far pays no apparent heed. That's one big reason crops from Valencia oranges to nectarines, Santa Rosa plums and both yellow and white peaches seem smaller than usual this year.
Here’s what’s happening: As surface supplies from the state Water Project and the Central Valley Project grow ever more scarce, farmers who can afford to are drilling their wells lower and lower, to the point where many bores now stretch more than 550 feet below the surface, reports the U.S. Geological Survey.
Because most older wells reach depths between 50 and 150 feet below the surface, when deeper wells are installed, water from shallower aquifers flows to them when geologic formations permit.
With well drilling costs now reaching about $225 per foot, and some wells as deep as 1,200 feet, a new well can cost much more than $200,000, far more than many family-owned farms can pay. Which means large corporate farms are hogging a lot of water, decreasing crop sizes and yields from smaller operations.
Under current law, there’s nothing any farmer can do about it when a deeper well is sunk under nearby property, draining supplies that in some cases have lasted generations.
“They’re taking my water,” says Jack Balama, a longtime fruit farmer on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. “Basically, they’re drilling under my wells and I can’t stop them. So my nectarines and peaches are sweet this year, but not nearly as big as usual. It’s sad.”
That’s why there’s a distinctly hollow ring when Gov. Jerry Brown touts California’s new groundwater regulation law as one of the signal achievements of his second run as the boss in Sacramento.
Not only does the timetable for the 2014 law mean that significant limits on pumping groundwater won't be enforceable until about 2030, when supplies could well be even more depleted than today's, but at least until then no one will know who is using the most of this essentially irreplaceable resource.
Which highlights the need for another new groundwater law, this time one that forces quick metering of ground water use. If the public knew for sure who is drawing the most water from the state’s limited underground streams, lakes and ponds, better known as aquifers, customers could react in whatever way they want, from boycotting water hogs to gravitating to their more conservation-minded neighbors.
But this won’t happen soon. Corporate farmers are often big political donors; they saw to it that not a single legislator from the Central Valley region voted for even the weak ground water law passed last year.
Plus, there has long been resistance to water metering of any kind in the Central Valley. Many Valley communities have just begun metering water use in homes and businesses, and some don’t have meters yet, even though they will soon be everywhere.
The drought this year will see farmers around the state fallow 560,000 acres, the most in recent history, report researchers at UC Davis. This will mean 19,000 fewer jobs than without the drought. It means drivers traveling the major north-south highways through the Central Valley, I-5 and U.S. 99, will see vast vistas of bleak and vacant brown earth, some dotted with political signage casting blame for the scene on just about everyone but the farmers themselves.
The signs indicate conflict, but this time it’s not just cities vs. farms or fish vs. people, as drought battles are often cast by political spin doctors, but it’s farm against farm.
The trouble is that farmers whose wells suddenly run dry can’t always tell where their water has gone. All they know is that it has flowed downhill somewhere away from them, and the lack of any metering means no one can be held responsible.
Which makes it high time for politicians from the governor on down to stop bragging about passage of a very meek law and start acting to pass a tough one that might actually bring some equity to California’s water scene.
July 16, 2015
Vergara Time Bomb Still Hangs Over Public Schools
Like a time bomb, the court decision in Vergara v. California has been mostly dormant since the last election season ended in November 2014. But its explosive potential remains as large as ever
Vergara, to refresh memories, is the ruling by a previously obscure Los Angeles County Superior Court judge that would essentially throw out California’s teacher tenure system and end rules making it harder and more expensive to fire teachers than other public employees.
This became one of many areas of disagreement in last fall’s politics, with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown opposing and appealing the decision by Judge Rolf M. Treu and Republican rival Neel Kashkari strongly endorsing it.
It was even more of an issue in the much tighter race for state schools superintendent, with incumbent and eventual winner Tom Torlakson insisting that while “No teacher is perfect, only a very few are not worthy of the job. School districts always have had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up.”
Challenger Marshall Tuck, former chief of a large charter schools company, responded that “Kids should not have to sue to get a quality education.” He decried the fact that teachers, who can get tenure after two years on the job, often are assured they’ll win that status within only 16 months of starting work, in his view not nearly long enough for them to prove they’re worthy of a lifetime sinecure.
But after the bombast of the campaign season, the controversy over Vergara – which can’t be acted on until and unless it survives all legal appeals – disappeared for about six months until state legislators took notice of its issues again.
In late spring, Republican lawmakers submitted several bills to short-circuit the court process by simply adopting most of Vergara’s basics as law. One proposal declared seniority could no longer be the sole factor determining who is laid off when times get tough.
Sponsoring Assemblywoman Catherine Baker of Dublin said using experience alone to decide who stays “constrains school districts from making decisions that are in the best interest of students and fair to teachers.”
Another measure from Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, now a Republican candidate for U.S. senator, would have added a year to the time a teacher needs to work before getting tenure. It would also have allowed districts to revoke tenure from teachers who repeatedly get negative performance reviews.
A third bill aimed to base teacher performance ratings in part on how students perform on standardized tests.
Democratic critics, many of whose campaigns are union-funded, claimed these changes would “crumble the central pillar of teacher job security.” They also charged the changes would deprive teachers of due process.
Since Democrats enjoy strong majorities in both legislative houses, these bills had little chance of passage and were deep-sixed quickly, not likely to be seen again until after the next statewide election, at the earliest.
This means the Vergara case, filed by nine students whose lawyers contended state firing and tenure rules deprive them of the Constitutional right to a solid education, will see its issues resolved by judges, not politicians.
Appeals by Brown and Torlakson are still active, and the state’s two largest teacher unions joined them in May, claiming Vergara “was never about students.” Said California Teachers Assn. President Dean Vogel, “During two months of trial, (the students’) attorneys failed to produce a single pupil who had ever been harmed by these (existing) laws, while teachers, principals, school board members, superintendents and nationally recognized policy experts offered dozens of examples of how these laws have helped…millions of California students.”
One essential claim of Vergara opponents is that easing tenure rules could render teachers subject to political threats. Said 15-year kindergarten teacher Erin Rosselli, current teacher of the year from Orange County, “These laws ensure I won’t be fired or laid off for arbitrary reasons or in retribution for standing up for kids…”
Lines are hard and resolute on both sides of the tenure/firing issue. And because most current state appellate judges were appointed by Democratic governors, it’s very likely the Vergara time bomb will be defused long before its intended explosive effect is ever felt.
July 09, 2015
Long Wait Looms For GOP Congress Gains Here
Few things gall California Republicans more than realizing they hold just 14 of this state’s 53 seats in Congress. That’s only 26 percent of California’s representatives, while the opposition Democrats, with a mere 14 percent more registered voters, hold 39 seats, or about 74 percent.
The GOP had a big chance last year to remedy this, targeting vulnerable Democrats who won their offices by narrow margins in President Obama’s 2012 reelection landslide.
But Republicans failed. Yes, they ran plenty of close races, but in the end lost every one. Now it appears they’ll have to wait at least until 2018 before there’s much possibility Californians might become a significant part of the GOP’s big overall majority in Congress.
How did Republicans blow the chance to oust vulnerable Democrats like Scott Peters of San Diego, Julia Brownley of Ventura County, John Garamendi in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Jim Costa in the Fresno area, Ami Bera in the Sacramento suburbs and Jerry McNerney in the Stockton area?
The missed opportunity was partly because of the candidates they ran and partly because the national party didn’t fully support what candidates it had.
The survival of Peters in a San Diego district bordering on Mexico was prototypical. He was opposed by Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman and longtime crusader for tightening public employee pensions. Peters’ district was ripe for Republican plucking, having gone for Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer by an overwhelming 62 percent in his 2013 special election victory.
But even though DeMaio ran for mayor in 2012 and had plenty of prior public exposure, he was done in when two of his former staff members accused him of sexual harassment, a claim debunked months after the election. What could have been, maybe should have been, an easy GOP pickup instead became a 6,000-vote reelection for Peters.
With the district’s populace growing steadily more Latino and the strong likelihood that turnout in 2016 will be well above the roughly 24 percent of last year – if only because the presidency will at stake – Peters could have a much easier reelection next year.
It’s much the same for Costa, who was blindsided and almost knocked off by a Republican unknown last year, and for McNerney, who also squeaked by narrowly against a little-known hopeful. If the national party had recruited major figures against them or had simply financed those who did run, those could have been two pickups. But the GOP blew it.
Now Costa and McNerney, along with the other Democrats who won by slim margins, figure to get less of a challenge next year for the same reasons Peters will be safer. All will have the advantages of several more years of incumbency, too, to establish ties and loyalties throughout their districts.
In many ways, the Republican ineptitude in making congressional inroads in California is emblematic of how they’ve mismanaged things in this state for years, their only respite in decades being the Arnold Schwarzenegger era, which was mostly a product of his star power as a movie muscleman.
The party was proud last year to prevent Democrats from achieving two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature, a dominance they enjoyed sporadically in the two years after their big Obama-led wins of 2012. But that’s like a football team rejoicing because it narrowly beat the oddsmakers’ point spread, while still losing by three touchdowns. The GOP is far short of the numbers it will need to have any major impact on state policy in any area, and there’s little chance it will change anything soon.
The party’s problem is simple: In order to win in most parts of California, it will have to become more tolerant of undocumented immigrants and same-sex marriage, more environmentally conscious and less hardline in opposing changes to the Proposition 13 property tax rules.
But making any such revisions would also alienate the party from its hard-core backers, and might deprive it of even its recent levels of support.
So the GOP in California is in a bind, and so far has shown few signs of finding its way out of this long-term jam.
June 25, 2015
Nurse Practitioners: A Boon For Under-Served Areas
Let nurse practitioners in California have almost all the authority that doctors now possess, urges the state Senate via a proposed law it has already cleared.
If this bill passes the Assembly unchanged and then is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, warns the doctors’ lobby, what would be the point of spending 10 to 12 years studying and training to become a physician? MDs and their supporters also wonder how many patients with potentially serious ailments will prefer to see someone who studied and trained six or seven years instead of a full-fledged doctor.
But, say supporters of full empowerment for nurse practitioners, many of them already perform the basic functions of primary care physicians, things like giving physical exams, providing diagnoses, ordering laboratory tests, prescribing most drugs and referring patients to specialists. They now work under supervision from MDs, but they’re still performing those tasks and many get only cursory oversight because doctors trust them.
While this debate rages in Sacramento and around the state, some parts of California are currently far underserved on the medical front. Recent numbers from the California Health Care Foundation (http://www.chcf.org/~/media/MEDIA%20LIBRARY%20Files/PDF/C/PDF%20CaliforniaPhysiciansSurplusSupply2014.pdf) show huge disparities between various regions in the numbers of both primary care doctors and specialists.
Example: While the San Francisco Bay area has 78 primary care physicians and 155 specialists for every 100,000 residents, the Inland Empire region of Riverside and San Bernardino counties has but 40 primary care doctors and 70 specialists for every 100,000.
This is because medical school graduates increasingly prefer to live in the state’s largest urban areas, in and near San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles. Which suggests a compromise solution to the debate over the powers of nurse practitioners: Give them full authority in underserved areas, including the San Joaquin Valley and counties like Del Norte, Siskiyou, Modoc and Humboldt, where physicians are relatively scarce.
In fact, the chief legislative advocate for more nurse practitioner authority, Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez of West Covina, uses these scarcities as a chief argument. “About one-third of our counties…have huge shortages,” he said in an interview. “Nurse practitioners could fill that void.”
Giving them increased authority in the most medically underserved areas makes sense. For one thing, it would be strong motivation for more nurse practitioners to settle in those areas, while also providing dependable basic service for their residents. Nurse practitioners have a solid record in the 21 states where they now have full authority, with few malpractice actions against them.
The move to beef up responsibilities of nurse practitioners is part of a general shift toward empowering health care professionals who are not physicians. Last year, a Hernandez bill authorized pharmacists to administer drugs and other products ordered by doctors, as well are providing contraceptives and some other drugs without a physician’s prescription. They also can give vaccinations and evaluate tests that monitor the efficacy of prescribed drugs. So far, no problems.
Hernandez, a longtime optometrist, also tried last year to win passage of similar increased authority for his own colleagues and full powers for nurse practitioners.
“We just don’t have enough primary care physicians to do these kinds of things anymore,” he said, “because medical school graduates increasingly want to become specialists.”
Hernandez opposes granting nurse practitioners authority to operate independently only in underserved areas, but said he would back incentives encouraging more doctors to move into those places.
But he’s already accepted one compromise, amending his bill to require that nurse practitioners operating with full authority must be affiliated with a medical group or hospital.
Giving them added powers in underserved areas would help solve shortages in those regions, while leaving in place most current incentives to become an MD.
It’s the sensible way to go in an era of increased patient loads under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
June 11, 2015
Pension-Change Measure Inevitable Next Year
It was inevitable once the number of signatures needed to put a constitutional amendment initiative on the statewide ballot dropped by 300,000 following last fall’s election:
A measure to change the pension system governing many California public employees will be voted on in November of next year.
Equally unsurprising are the identities of its two major sponsors: former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and ex-City Councilman Carl DeMaio of San Diego, who has failed in runs for mayor and for the congressional seat now held by Democrat Scott Peters.
The exact content of the initiative is not yet certain, although both politicos say they may have their measure ready as early as next month for review and titling by state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who likely will share the ballot with the initiative as she runs for the U.S. Senate.
Given what Reed and DeMaio have done via local ballot propositions in their own cities, it’s a virtual certainly their measure will contain something forcing public employees at the state and local levels to increase their contributions to pension funding. It will also most likely give local governments the power to renegotiate with unions the pension benefits paid for future work, while leaving all vested benefits in place. And it might set up 401(k)-style accounts for some future public employees, rather than fixed benefits paid through CalPERS, the California Public Employee Retirement System.
When Reed tried to put a measure much like that on last fall’s ballot, he ran afoul of the attorney general, who must write an objective summary and title for every initiative before petition circulators begin seeking signatures.
Harris’ summary said the 2014 Reed measure would “eliminate constitutional protections” for some workers, including teachers, nurses and law officers. Reed strongly objected to this description, but it was upheld in court and the effort went nowhere.
Now, with the petition signature threshold for proposed state constitutional amendments down from 807,000 to 504,000 because of last fall’s low voter turnout, Reed and DeMaio are working to craft something Harris-proof.
“Some of the San Diego and San Jose policies will be included,” Dan Pellessier, president of a group calling itself California Pension Reform, working with Reed and DeMaio, told a reporter. “But we have to make it hard for Harris to make this look like a dirt sandwich, as she did before.”
That’s a challenge, because no matter how they try to sugar-coat it, Reed and DeMaio will be trying to take money from public employees either at the front end, via increased contributions, or at the back end, via reduced payouts or a change away from fixed benefits for new employees.
Something, however, has to be done. For even after the reforms pushed through by Gov. Jerry Brown early in this decade, many of the state’s 130 public pension systems are unhealthy, underfunded. In 2013, then state Controller, now Treasurer, John Chiang reported 17 plans were underfunded by at least 40 percent, 45 per underfunded by 20 to 40 percent and 22 more had shortages of 20 percent or less.
Altogether, the state’s unfunded pension liability had risen to $198 billion from $6.3 billion in 2003.
“Rising salary and pension costs for state and local government workers have outpaced the…new tax revenues generated by (the 2012) Proposition 30,” DeMaio claimed in an essay.
One result is that CalPERS will soon begin raising assessments of cities and counties to help meet their pension obligations, administered by that agency in most cases.
“It is clear that politicians in Sacramento are not serious about reforming unsustainable pension benefits,” DeMaio said. He complains that public employee pensions far outpace those in the private sector, where fixed-benefit plans are mostly a thing of the past, enjoyed by many of the currently retired, but a mere fantasy for most of today’s workers.
The challenge for DeMaio and Reed lies in crafting a plan that doesn’t renege on promises and contracts previously agreed to, while still saving money. That’s a very tall order.
June 04, 2015
Stadium Projects a Test For CEQA Changes
Reform of the California Environmental Quality Act has become a mantra for many California politicians over the last several years, all the way up to Gov. Jerry Brown, who found himself frustrated by CEQA at times during his years as mayor of Oakland.
But one person’s “reform” can sometimes be another’s disaster, and California may be about to find out what CEQA reform could really mean.
The arenas for this are two medium-sized Los Angeles area cities, Inglewood and Carson, both with ambitions to become somewhat like Arlington, Texas, the not-quite-Dallas home of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
Local officials in both cities, drooling over the potential of revenue that might come from hosting National Football League teams like the current St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, are going full steam ahead on two stadium proposals. Inglewood’s would be built by a development team headed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, the other by a joint venture of the sometime rival Raiders and Chargers.
Even if both billion-dollar-plus stadia win eventual civic approvals (both are well on their way), it’s almost inconceivable both could be built. Their sites are only about 10 miles apart, both only a short hop from the already super-congested I-405 San Diego Freeway that runs past the Los Angeles International Airport. Who would make that choice, if it comes, and how that choice might be made are still unknowns.
These are the classic projects for which CEQA was designed. The 1970s-era act, signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, requires a detailed environmental impact report (EIR) for almost all major projects. But none will be needed for either of these two gigantic projects because of a “reform” quietly introduced by the state Supreme Court last August, before Brown’s latest two appointees were seated.
As originally written, CEQA allowed exceptions to the EIR requirement if local voters approve ballot measures okaying projects. A 1996 vote, for example, allowed the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park to move forward without an EIR.
But the new court ruling allows city councils to outright adopt, with no popular vote, local initiatives that have already qualified for the ballot. Projects involved don't need EIRs. Both big stadia now on the drawing boards employed this loophole (er, reform) and construction on one, or both, could begin as early as next winter with no input at all from local voters, other than those who signed petitions.
Both development groups spent a total of no more than $2.5 million to qualify the local initiatives in their relatively small cities, compared with potential costs of $100 million or more if they’d been forced to do EIRs.
Meanwhile, whatever air pollution, traffic, economic or other difficulties and benefits the presence of one or both stadia might mean for surrounding cities like Los Angeles, Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, Hawthorne and other points only slightly farther away will simply happen. No one will quantify the effects of the projects, either during the construction phase or as they draw huge crowds for football games, concerts and other events. Nor will the effects of other commercial and residential development tied to them be known ahead of time.
Yes, CEQA has been used many times by folks with not-in-my-backyard mentalities to stymie developments that might have been constructive. But CEQA has also prevented many potentially destructive projects, and mitigated potential damage from thousands of other projects that did get built, but somewhat differently than initially proposed.
Few would argue that AT&T Park has had a mostly positive influence on its Mission Bay area of San Francisco, but that project was fully debated before the voters before it was built.
Not so for these new stadia, thanks to the state’s highest court.
Over more than 40 years, CEQA has become a tradition, like it or not. What’s going on now may turn into a classic example of what can happen when people throw out a tradition. Often they discover why that tradition became established in the first place.
One thing for sure: Californians will soon know the full effects, good or bad, of the change the state Supreme Court made to the CEQA tradition. The hope here is that it’s all positive, but no one really knows, and that may lead to many unforeseen problems.
May 28, 2015
Beam Us Up, Scotty; Drought Spurring Ideas
Ideas come fast every time California endures a drought of several years. Each time, some of them are accepted and put into use, thus making the next drought a bit easier to handle.
Back in the 1970s, the last time this state saw as protracted a dry spell as today’s, snickering and cries of “yuck” ensued when some environmentalists proposed reusing water from dishes, baths, showers and more to irrigate grass and shrubbery rather than merely disposing of it as sewage.
This idea is now called “grey water,” and it is required of much new industrial and multi-family construction like apartments and condominiums, along with low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets.
During that same drought, which ended abruptly with a huge storm season starting in December 1977, the late Kenneth Hahn, a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor who fathered both a Los Angeles mayor and a current congresswoman, suggested snagging icebergs as they calved from Antarctica and dragging them north to become drinking water.
That idea has not yet taken, even as the same global warming trend that some believe responsible for the severity of California’s latest dry period now sees more icebergs than ever dropping from Antarctic cliffs.
The modern drought is also producing new ideas, including several proposed methods for desalinating sea water far more cheaply than via the current reverse osmosis filtering technique.
It’s also seeing rehashes of old ideas. One of the most prominent is the notion of building pipelines to bring California water from faraway sources plagued by more precipitation than they need.
This one gets its most recent push from actor William Shatner, the Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Shatner, 84, proposes building a pipeline on the scale of the Alaskan oil pipeline to bring water south from Washington state, where he says there’s an excess. Shatner proposes a Kickstarter campaign to raise the approximate $30 billion this one would cost to build.
Trouble is, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this spring declared a drought in 13 of his state’s river basins. Any visitor to the Evergreen State will see swaths of once-green conifers turning brown. So it doesn’t look like Shatner will be able to beam this one up anytime soon.
Like the Antarctic icebergs, a Pacific Northwest water pipeline was also a Kenny Hahn pipe dream, this one during a somewhat shorter but still severe drought in the early 1990s, a time when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, an ex-Marine, asked all Californians to save water via “Navy showers,” turning the water off while they soaped down.
Hahn found a political partner for the pipeline idea in then-Gov. Walter Hickel of Alaska, who traveled to Los Angeles to pursue the notion of selling ice water to California in huge quantities. As in Antarctica, some Alaskan glaciers were then calving icebergs steadily, and still are.
Hickel proposed fabricating this pipeline of plastic on a giant barge as it was being laid on the ocean floor from southern Alaska to Southern California. Plastic, he and Hahn believed, would be far cheaper and more flexible than the usual steel and concrete used for oil pipelines. Plus, any leakage of pipeline water – unlike oil – would be harmless.
Some thinkers today hear of flooding and record blizzards in the East and Midwest and propose building a water pipeline from there. “You wouldn’t have to worry about leakage, like with oil,” one Google engineering manager said recently, echoing Hickel. “If water leaked, it would do no harm.”
Drought in the Northwest (several Oregon counties also are in official states of drought now, too) makes it unlikely California will soon get water from there. But a water pipe from the Midwest is conceivable under two circumstances: 1) the price of water rises enough to pay for construction, the same pre-condition needed for new desalination plants, or 2) California is able to extract enough natural gas from the Monterey Shale formation to free up one of the three major gas pipelines bringing that fuel here from Canada, Texas, Oklahoma and the Rocky Mountain region.
These ideas may sound far-fetched today, or even silly to some, but if gray water could become a reality, why not a water pipeline from someplace very wet?
May 21, 2015
This "Tax" May Be About to Rise
If a committee of legislators or U.S. Senators whose most influential members were under criminal investigation ever considered raising taxes on Californians
by significant amounts, protests would be non-stop and cacophonous. But with the seriously sullied state Public Utilities Commission about to raise electric rates for the bulk of this state’s residents, the silence from the public and from consumer advocates is deafening. Make no mistake, electric and natural gas rates are a lot like taxes, even if they’re not called that. As with taxes, don’t pay and dire consequences will follow. Maybe the fact that power prices seem more complex than taxes makes electricity customers – all of us – yawn when rate hikes are considered. Maybe it’s because the commissioners regulating large utilities like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric never have to go before the voters. But the reality is that even as at least one current PUC member and the ex-president of the commission are under state and federal investigation, as early as this month the PUC may change the entire way electricity rates are levied. The seemingly arcane question about to be decided soon is how any rate tiers should appear on the typical California electricity bill. Tiers have a lot to do with how much customers pay for power, as for decades the rule has been that the more you use, the more you pay for each kilowatt hour. The idea has been to encourage energy conservation, just as tiered water prices – now under legal challenge – are one tactic to discourage excessive water use in a drought. A typical Edison bill this spring showed up to 618 kilowatt hours costing 14 cents each, for a total of $86.52, while the top tier of the same bill was priced at 31 cents per kilowatt hour, more than twice as much. Now the commission is about to consider a plan by PG&E – yes, the same company indicted for the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno – to cut the number of rate tiers from four to two, a move sure to raise the rates of low-usage customers and lower what’s paid by factories, office buildings and other large power users. This would essentially see persons and companies that have cut power use to conserve energy and fight climate change pay more for using less. Meanwhile, energy hogs will pay less for using more, and climate change be damned.
PG&E wins the new formula it seeks, the same kind of plan will soon come to Edison and SDG&E electric customers. Edison already proposes a similar pricing change. This is part of an effort started by Democratic Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno to help the big utilities “simplify” their billing. It’s as if Perea and friends believe most Californians are not mentally competent to read an electricity bill. Another Perea measure, passed last year and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, will soon impose a flat fee (note it is not called a tax, although it acts just like one) of $5 per month or $60 per year on every electric customer. This new charge will supposedly compensate big power companies for continuing to maintain the state’s electric grid while more and more consumers install rooftop solar panels and at least partially go off the grid. This isn’t big money for most folks, but it is a slight disincentive to install solar, since the savings from it won’t be quite as good as before for big users. Is this really what Brown and other advocates of renewable energy want? It all may be the result of direct lobbying during a 2012 legislative conference on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where some lawmakers saw expenses paid by corporations and/or labor unions. Rate restructure was discussed there. If that conference had even the slightest influence on the coming changes, the plane tickets and hotel rooms paid for by businesses and their union workers will turn into choice investments. For these changes would mean billions of new dollars for the big utilities, lower bills for big energy hogs and higher prices for most consumers. Sadly, all that stands between consumers and that more expensive new reality is the thoroughly compromised PUC.
May 14, 2015
Both Logic and Illogic In Brown's Drought Plans
There is both sense and nonsense in the $1 billion drought relief package announced by Gov. Jerry Brown in a parched Sierra Nevada Mountains meadow that usually is covered in deep snow on the date Brown walked through it.
But the rationale behind the single largest part of the package is fundamentally contradictory.
Brown says California must ready for new and lasting, drier realities, then bases the most expensive part of his plan on weather patterns he previously said are most likely things of the past.
Authorized spending on all this now comes to $1.7 billion, including almost $700 million Brown proposed and the Legislature approved last year, most of it not yet spent.
It certainly makes sense to assist the most drought-stricken communities, as the package does with more than $14 million to better purify existing but polluted groundwater supplies and to truck water into those areas. No one complains, also, about more than $40 million for food and other relief for citizens and cities with lost jobs and tax revenues because local farms have fallowed many thousands of their acres.
There’s also no quarrel with the plan’s spending more than $10 million to make some existing irrigation systems more efficient. Nor with putting more than $500 million into improved capture of storm water and expanded use of recycled, purified “gray” water for irrigation and landscaping.
But Brown has taken heat over the fact that his emergency rationing plan does not force farms to cut use of surface water or lower pumping of ground water. Leaving farmers’ ground water out of the order, of course, exposes the weakness of the ballyhooed underground water regulations Brown signed into law last year – a law that will lack teeth for more than 10 years.
This all leaves plenty to question. One big question is why the plan includes only about $270 million – just over 15 percent of the package funding – for helping develop new sources of fresh water, including innovative desalination methods other than the hyper-expensive and power-sucking reverse osmosis technique now in use in a few places. Brown has not yet spoken about that.
But he has talked about why he included $660 million for new flood control projects – essentially building dams and reservoirs and lining some streams with concrete, a la the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers, where activists regularly push to remove concrete and return streams to their natural state.
The governor cited the danger of “extreme weather events,” caused by climate change, even though the only changes so far in California’s weather from global warming have been extended dry periods. “All of a sudden, when you’re all focused on drought, you can get massive storms that flood through these channels and overflow and cause havoc,” he said during a news conference.
But the state already has an extensive system of flood control channels and huge reservoirs designed to capture and control flood waters. Existing reservoirs are so low now there is little imminent danger they will overflow in the foreseeable future. So why not spend the money earmarked for flood control on building innovative new desalination plants, a tactic that would leave California far better off in future droughts?
Essentially, Brown and the Legislature are focusing on old technology to solve new problems, a criticism also leveled at them over the high speed rail project, which will use 1970s-era technology rather than exploring newer ideas like magnetic levitation and the “hyperloop” suggested by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk.
But Brown insists that “History shows us that every time California comes out of one of these droughts, it’s with a boom-and-bust cycle of rain.” This is the same man who likes to preach that times have changed and so has nature. It has been more than 40 years since any part of the state experienced 30 days of steady rains, the sort of phenomenon that might justify massive new reservoirs.
If the current measures are a way to justify shoring up levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, fine, but say so. Don’t sell them as something quite different.
All of which means that as with most government spending and projects, there’s a lot to like in the governor’s measures – but also a lot that needs a harder, more critical look than the Legislature gave it while rubber-stamping the entire package.
May 7, 2015
Can Automatic Registration Increase Voter Turnout?
No sooner had Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a new law automatically making a registered voter of every person who applies for or renews a drivers license in her state than California’s top elections official jumped on the idea.
Alex Padilla, the MIT engineering graduate who once was the Los Angeles city council’s youngest president ever, was up-front about copying Oregon. “While many states are making it more difficult for citizens to vote, our neighbor to the north offers a better path,” Padilla, the California secretary of state, said in a press release days after the Oregon law was signed. “I believe the Oregon model makes sense for California.”
The Oregon law is a significant new twist on the federal “Motor Voter” law in use since 1993. The national law requires all states to offer voter registration opportunities at all Department of Motor Vehicles offices, plus every welfare office and those that deal with the disabled.
But the law is not usually enforced. Example: Most California DMV offices may offer voter registration on request, but they don’t normally inform everyone they serve of this, nor are voter registration materials included in most DMV renewal mailings.
This would be rectified in a California version of the Oregon law, which now takes the form of a bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego.
The Oregon measure will not merely consider every U.S. citizen over 18 who contacts that state’s DMV a registered voter, but will automatically send ballots to all of them in every election.
That’s not precisely the model to be followed here. For one thing, Oregon in recent years has conducted many of its elections purely by mail, while only about half California's voters participate by mail.
So all the California law would do is add eligible new voters to the rolls. This would see them receiving by mail all voter guides on initiatives and candidates, but no absentee ballots unless they’re requested.
The motives for this change are clear, as are some problems. The California move is spurred in part by pathetic turnouts in municipal elections across the state early this spring. In Los Angeles, for example, less than 10 percent of eligible voters participated. Some city council members, then, were elected by just 4 percent or 5 percent of eligible voters in their districts. So increased voter participation is one motive for this change.
There’s also the fact that everyone involved with this proposed change is a Democrat, and increased turnout historically tends to favor Democrats. New voters, minority group members and youths tend to turn out less than Anglos over 50, who historically are more likely to support Republicans. So there’s a political motive in addition to the good-government one.
Then there are the potential problems: It’s still illegal for non-citizens to vote in California elections, whether they involve local, state or federal offices and issues. Yes, there have been proposals to allow non-citizens to participate in local elections affecting their interests. But that idea has never taken hold, and there’s little likelihood it will anytime soon.
Another potential problem is how the DMV can know whether a drivers license applicant is a citizen. Critics of Motor Voter have long complained that it can let non-citizens onto the voters’ rolls. But the agency will take only birth certificates, passports, drivers licenses from other states and similar official documents as its required proof of identity. So unless an applicant obtains a highly credible forgery, the DMV will be able to screen non-citizens out of voter registration.
Another problem is that some eligible voters never register because they don’t want their addresses, birth dates or party affiliations made available to the public. Others don’t want to be called for jury duty, for which voter registration records are used.
That’s a tougher problem, yet could be resolved by changing some rules about disclosure of personal information on registered voters.
But the bottom line will likely be that this bill, or a modified version, will pass because something has to be done to increase voter turnouts. If this can’t do that, it’s hard to see what might.
April 30, 2015
Most of Gas Price Surge Likely Due to Gouging
There is absolutely no doubt about a few facts surrounding the gasoline price surge Californians experienced in late winter and early spring.
In March, California prices averaged 84 cents per gallon higher than the national average of $2.54 per gallon, rising to $3.38 after a wintertime dip.
That meant Californians spent $34 million per day more for their gas that month than they would have in most other places. For the month of March, the extra tab came to more than $1 billion from California pocketbooks, or an average of $43 per driver. No one yet knows how much extra the similar price spike of late April has cost.
There is some disagreement over why things occurred as they did late last winter. Oil companies maintain their usual springtime refinery maintenance and the shift from winter to summer fuel formulas was a prime part of the cost. They also argue that California gasoline taxes are higher than those elsewhere.
These are certainly factors, but they don’t come near to accounting for the difference between California prices and those in the rest of the Lower 48 states (prices on the U.S. mainland should never be compared with costs in Hawaii and Alaska, where distance from refineries raises prices greatly).
Gas taxes account for less than one-fourth of the price differential, or about 15 cents per gallon higher than elsewhere, according to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The changeover in fuel composition can also account for a little, perhaps as much as another 10 percent of the differential. That leaves oil companies to answer for about 70 percent of the price difference, about $1.4 billion out of the $2 billion additional that Californians paid for gasoline between Jan. 15 and April 1.
The Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, most often associated with its longtime effort to keep insurance prices down, says the price differential has a lot to do with supply and demand. The group singles out steadily low gasoline inventories kept on hand by oil companies as a major factor.
“These companies keep California running on empty so that when a refinery goes down, gasoline prices go way up,” says Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog president. “With crude oil prices at historic lows and national gasoline prices stable, California oil refiners need to answer for the $1 billion extra they charged in March. The Legislature should demand the companies explain their billion-dollar bonanza.”
For sure, refiners keep California inventories low, with only about a 10.7-day supply on hand at most times, according to a seven-page report produced by Consumer Watchdog. The average inventory in the rest of the nation would last about 18 days.
Which means that when refineries shut down, as Tesoro’s Martinez facility did in February and Exxon’s Torrance plant did soon after, panic can set in, with gouging one result.
Domination of the California market by just two companies – between them, Chevron and Tesoro (often marketed under the Shell emblem) control 55 percent of the state’s gasoline market – also contributes. Altogether, four companies provide 76 percent of California gasoline. That consolidation is the main reason the number of refineries in this state dropped from 30 to 11 over the last 33 years. It is probably no coincidence that prices at stations like Flying J and Pilot, run by an “outsider” company – often run well below those at the major brands.
These facts this spring led Tom Steyer, a financier, venture capitalist and environmental activist considering a 2018 run for governor, to suggest state lawmakers demand answers to questions like these two: 1) Why do refiners keep so much less gasoline on hand here than in the rest of America? And 2) Why don’t refineries that do not close step up production when it becomes clear supplies are dropping?
Another question he might have added: Why should oil companies not be prosecuted for gouging when fully 34 percent of what they charged in March (according to the California Energy Commission) went for refinery costs and profits?
If state lawmakers don’t demand answers to these questions and more, they will be derelict in their duty and provide oil companies an open invitation to gouge Californians even more the next time there’s any problem at one of the few remaining refineries.
With Thomas D. Elias
So Cal Focus
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