Sept. 8

Los Angeles Times: "The pulpit should be free of politics"

Churches and other nonprofits long have been forbidden from endorsing political candidates. But erratic enforcement of the law has emboldened supporters of legislation in Congress that would end the restriction. Far from needing to be repealed, the ban on politics in the pulpit ought to be enforced more aggressively.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., would repeal a 1954 amendment to the tax code sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. The amendment says that churches and other so-called 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations may not "participate in, or intervene in . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

Jones' legislation seeks to restore the "1st Amendment rights" of churches, but that's misleading. Churches may have a 1st Amendment right to endorse candidates, but there is no constitutional right to a tax exemption. Congress is free to condition such exemptions—which can be worth millions of dollars—on an agreement by churches and charities to refrain from partisan political activity. And it's the IRS' responsibility to enforce compliance.

Unfortunately, enforcement has been minimal, despite highly publicized protests in which some preachers have endorsed or opposed candidates by name during religious services, daring the IRS to sanction them. Paradoxically, the lack of enforcement is cited by some critics as a reason to repeal the law.


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Not all critics of the Johnson amendment would abolish it. The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, comprising religious leaders from several traditions, recently suggested that members of the clergy should be allowed to endorse candidates "in the context of a religious worship." But churches would still be barred from spending tax-deductible contributions on election activities.

The problem with that proposal is that a political endorsement from the pulpit is likely to be influential precisely because it occurs as part of a religious rite. The ban on such endorsements should remain, but the IRS needs to have clearer standards for determining when a preacher has crossed the line. ...

In a 2007 Supreme Court decision interpreting federal election law, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that a political advertisement should be construed as an endorsement only if it "is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate." That should be the test for a sermon as well.

The IRS should adopt such a standard, and then vigorously enforce it.

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Sept. 6

U-T San Diego: "Football coaches still callous, irresponsible on concussions"

It was six years ago this month that Mission Hills High School linebacker Scotty Eveland suffered a catastrophic brain injury during a football game. Testimony from trainers showed Eveland had been put into the game even though Mission Hills coach Chris Hauser knew he was suffering from blinding headaches. In 2012, the San Marcos Unified School District settled the lawsuit filed by his Eveland's family for $4.375 million.

It's now 2013 and we know more than ever about the pervasive brain-injury risk facing football players. Yet a new Chronicle of Higher Education survey shows callous coaches are still ubiquitous. In an anonymous survey, nearly half of 101 trainers at major college football programs reported being pressured by coaches to OK putting concussed players back into games.

The Chronicle noted the high turnover rate among trainers at major college programs and provided considerable anecdotal evidence linking it to coaches' anger over limits being put on use of players with brain injuries. Those allegedly forced out include two former athletic trainers in the Pac-12 Conference—one for a prominent but unnamed California school.

This is depraved. No college should give its football coach any say, formal or informal, on the job status of team trainers. Doing so puts student-athletes at grave risk from irresponsible, predatory coaches. 

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Sept. 4

Contra Costa Times: "Time for leadership in Sacramento to ensure reporting of child abuse"

Every school worker who knows about possible child abuse must report it directly to authorities. That's the law.

We're not talking about notifying the principal. We're talking about immediately alerting police or child protective services. It's not optional. It's mandatory.

Yet in Moraga, San Jose, Brentwood, Antioch, and allegedly Concord and Redwood City, cases of sexual and physical abuse went unreported.

From janitors and teachers to principals and top administrators, school employees just don't get it. Neither do state lawmakers.

Despite clear documentation of the reporting failure, despite a clear need for a standardized training program for school workers, legislators and state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson have done little.

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, introduced a bill that would have required each school district to develop a policy for reporting suspected abuse and to review it with employees annually.

It was weak legislation, especially since it's clear that individual school districts cannot be trusted to carry it out. ...It stalled in the Appropriations Committee chaired by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Burbank—but for the wrong reason. Gatto tells us he was concerned about the cost because the state would have been on the hook for reimbursing districts about $1.5 million a year to implement the requirements.

That's a pittance when compared to the horrible abuse that went unreported, to say nothing of the litigation when students and their parents later learn of the failure to act.

Legal settlements in just the Moraga district this year cost $4.65 million. One Brentwood case cost $950,000. More lawsuits are pending in those districts as well as in Antioch and Concord.

Gatto insists he's serious about solving this problem in a more cost-effective way. If he is, he immediately will introduce legislation establishing a statewide online training program about employees' reporting responsibilities and requiring that every school worker provide proof of completing it annually.

Meanwhile, as schools chief, Torlakson could set up the training program and model policies for schools. He holds the bully pulpit for education. For the sake of the children, it's time for him to lead. No one else has.

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Sept. 10

Fresno Bee: "State prison compromise offers opportunity"

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have reached a compromise on state prisons. They announced Monday that they won't immediately spend $315 million to increase prison capacity if federal judges give them another extension to reduce the prison population.

Without an extension, they intend to tell the judges, they'll have no choice but to house inmates in private out-of-state prisons and lease in-state space in private prisons.

And what would they do with an extension? They would put $75 million of the $315 million for new prison capacity in a Recidivism Reduction Fund in an attempt to get the kind of results they got from a 2009 effort, where in two years they prevented re-offenses by 9,500 felony probationers, saving the money it would have cost to send them to state prison.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg believes this is major progress—getting the governor and the Democratic and Republican caucuses to agree that reducing the revolving door of recidivism will be the priority and that the state will not seek to expand prison capacity unless necessary.

Essentially, they are asking the court to accept the current inmate population at 146.9 percent of design capacity and to extend the 2009 order to get population to 137.5 percent of design capacity for another three years.

While this new consensus is welcome, the public should be skeptical unless the vague language is backed by concrete steps and benchmarks. Steinberg also points to small progress in sentencing.

Legislators sent a bill to the governor that would change the penalty for simple possession of drugs from a felony to a wobbler, giving prosecutors the discretion to charge possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, depending on individual circumstances. That's something, but it is yet another piecemeal fix for the state's incoherent criminal sentencing system.

That idea is not in the compromise, but Steinberg believes the Legislature is poised to take on real sentencing reform.

Whether judges will grant another extension remains to be seen. If they do, the governor and legislators will have to make good on reducing recidivism -- with hard deadlines -- a task that had been abandoned for too long in favor of prison warehousing.

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Sept. 9

Riverside Press-Enterprise: "Demand answers in Bay Bridge construction debacle"

The opening, at last, of the new stretch of the Bay Bridge does not end the questions that surround that troubled project. The Legislature still needs to find out why bridge construction took so long, ended up so far over budget and yet still faces safety questions. And legislators need to ensure that the state can avoid a repeat performance on other big infrastructure projects.

The new eastern Bay Bridge span opened last week, more than two decades after the 1989 earthquake that prompted the bridge work. The state initially planned a big public celebration with huge crowds and fireworks, but opted for a low-key opening instead. That was the right choice, given the project's history of cost overruns, years of delays and embarrassing failures of oversight. Only a temporary fix to construction defects, for example, allowed the new span to open at all last week.

The fact that traffic now flows across the new span does not relieve legislators of the responsibility to find out what happened and prevent a recurrence. Californians need to know why a project Caltrans estimated in 1997 would cost $1.3 billion ballooned to $6.4 billion—nearly five times the original figure. While Bay Area motorists will cover much of that cost through higher bridge tolls, state taxpayers are also paying part of the bill.

Legislators should also investigate why a project that started as a safety upgrade ended up plagued by questions about its own reliability. News stories over the past few months revealed a series of safety issues with the new span. Some of the large steel seismic safety bolts broke when workers tightened them in March, raising concerns about the more than 1,200 bolts in the structure. Stories in the Sacramento Bee in May reported that some of the steel tendons crucial to the span's structural integrity had corroded, and that welds in the main bridge tower were faulty.

Even more baffling were the management decisions behind those flaws: Caltrans workers, for example, installed bolts the agency's own design manual forbids for use in bridges. Workers did not promptly seal off the tendons to prevent corrosion, as Caltrans rules demand. The agency also gave incomplete and misleading information to an outside reviewer studying the corrosion issue.

The bridge debacle raises concerns about other big state projects, such as the state's already dubious $68.4 billion high-speed rail project and a $25 billion plan to reroute water exports and improve the ecologically troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If the state cannot manage something as straightforward as bridge construction, what will happen on those projects, which are far more ambitious and risky undertakings?

The Legislature cannot change the dismal record of the Bay Bridge project. But legislators can take steps to help ensure that future public projects are not likewise hobbled by carelessness and mismanagement.

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Sept. 9

San Jose Mercury News: "Google sets the pace in pushing the NSA on spying"

Revelations that the National Security Agency has cracked the encryption technology that was supposed to protect Internet users' privacy is a nightmare for Silicon Valley.

Consumer trust is at stake. If it plunges, so will Internet commerce. Valley firms need to work with Congress and the Obama administration to reassure people that companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook are reliable stewards of private information. And now more than ever, they need to disclose how they use that information for commercial purposes.

It was heartening to learn last week that Google is trying to combat the NSA's hacking. Others should join in pressing the NSA to publicly clarify the tech industry's role in surveillance, and companies need to inform users of the extent to which they have gone to prevent hacking—government or otherwise. They should disclose whether they have given the NSA backdoor access to information, and if they have, what justification they required.

In July, Yahoo persuaded the secretive U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to declassify legal briefs explaining Yahoo's effort to protect consumers from government surveillance. It was a significant win for transparency. But it's increasingly clear that Americans are in the dark about the extent to which both technology firms and the government are tracking our everyday lives.

This valley has spent four decades cultivating its image as the place to get rich inventing technology and gadgets that make people's lives easier and make the world a better place. That last point won't hold up if consumers believe the NSA is using the tech industry for what may be illegal government espionage on Americans. It's a short leap to think the companies themselves are exploiting data people were led to believe is protected by solid encryption.

It's one thing for tech companies to help federal agents track potential terrorists when shown sufficient cause. It's another if they've given government spies the unlimited ability to pry into users' private emails, see where they go and who they meet and launch fishing expeditions into their medical and financial records.

The obvious question is: If the government can do this, why not others?

Tech firms need to show that it's possible to combat real terrorist threats while protecting Americans' legitimate right to privacy. They need to be on consumers' side by trying to prevent unnecessary and illegal intrusions into private information. If they can't do this, people will pull back from posting information and doing business online.