Oct. 16

Chico Enterprise-Record: State has strange sense of priorities

The state is taking money from citizens to award to green energy projects. Yes, taxpayer money was spent on a cure for cold feet.

Politicians love their pork. We're not talking about the other white meat here, but the sort of spending done to reward certain backers of favored causes.

Usually pork comes in the form of earmarks in spending bills, but California legislators years ago decided to just throw taxpayer money at an entire industry. Anything to do with alternative energy automatically became eligible for this government largesse. Put the word "green" in your company name and you were (and are) a virtual lock for a handout.

It's hard to blame the businesses. The government said there was a pot of green available for green energy, and smart business owners figured out how to exploit that to get ahead.

A Los Angeles Times story (see http://www.latimes.com) about the state's alternative-energy spending showed how the state handed out $1.6 billion last year to a range of projects having to do with energy efficiency and alternative energy.

Some of the projects were extremely beneficial and revolutionary. Others, not so much.

For example, the story said the state spent almost $15 million to build 10 hydrogen fueling stations for the state's 227 hydrogen-powered vehicles. That's $1.5 million to build each station, and about $66,000 spent per car—not exactly a bargain for the state's taxpayers.

Those hydrogen fueling stations were financed by a $3 charge on all license plates. Other pet energy projects are financed through extra charges on utility bills—about $36 a year per household on average for gas and electric combined.

Some truly extraordinary projects received state support. But many of the projects were inane, a waste of money, such as the $1.6 million awarded by the California Energy Commission to a UC Berkeley team to try to develop a cure for cold feet.

A report by the Legislative Analyst's Office shared this startling news: The state may soon be spending more money on alternative energy and energy efficiency programs than it spends on the entire University of California system.

This fascination with green energy dates back 10 years, one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's many failed legacies. That doesn't mean we need to keep funding his mythic Hydrogen Highway. Now that alternative energy is established, let it stand on its own two feet. We don't need to give away subsidies in perpetuity, especially at a time when state and local budgets are so tight.

We're pressed for police officers and letting prisoners out at the same time that we're using government money to try to develop a milk truck that runs on cow manure? How does that even begin to make sense?

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Oct. 14

San Francisco Chronicle: Gov. Jerry Brown veers right, left signing bills

Gov. Jerry Brown was as iconoclastic as ever in his verdicts on the 900 bills that reached his desk. Legislators seemed to get the message that he didn't want to see any big-ticket spending plans. But there were still plenty of pressure-point issues that forced him to veer either right or left—and he did plenty of each.

By far, the most attention went to his approval of immigration changes that permit driver's licenses for undocumented residents and a measure that bars police from turning over crime suspects without valid papers to federal immigration authorities.

On a conservative note, Brown sided with the gun lobby in rejecting a bill that would have barred high-capacity magazines on semi-automatic rifles, the most significant gun-control proposal of the session.

Here are some of his key decisions:

Environment: Brown signed a measure that called on oil drillers to disclose activities and the ingredients of hydraulic fluid pumped into wells. It was a sensible compromise that allows the practice, but with new rules. 

He also approved a pact with Nevada which, while relatively weak, keeps the two states together in guiding development around Lake Tahoe.

Law enforcement: He vetoed SB131, which sought to lengthen the statute of limitations for certain claims of child sexual abuse. In a long veto statement, Brown noted that California has already passed many amendments to the time limits for these cases: "There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits."

Regrettably, Brown vetoed SB649, which would have allowed prosecutors the discretion to charge simple possession of heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Law enforcement and prosecutors were against the bill. Brown said that a comprehensive look at sentencing reform is coming.

The governor also mimicked the actions of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in vetoing AB999, a bill that would have required the state corrections department to create a five-year plan for making condoms accessible in every prison in the state. The humane and pragmatic thing for Brown to do would have been to sign the bill, since inmates have higher rates of HIV/AIDS infection—which they then bring to their communities upon their release.

Labor: Brown signed a gradual increase in the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour by 2016. He vetoed a measure extending a death benefits sign-up period for survivors of public safety officers and approved a bill giving domestic workers overtime pay. He also stopped a bill that favored labor unions in gathering signatures for ballot measures—yet another example of the governor's independent streak.

Education: The governor vetoed AB375, which sought to streamline the teacher firing process in California. The current process is lengthy, expensive and unacceptable, but Brown correctly noted in his veto message that this bill is "rigid" and could create new problems. AB375 made some important improvements—among other things, it limited the delays that have frequently stymied teacher dismissals—but it was too strict about things like the number of depositions, a decision which should be outside the purview of this legislation. California's teacher firing process still needs to be streamlined. We urge the Legislature to return to this issue next year.

A surprise was Brown's decision to sign AB955, which will allow six of California's community colleges to offer courses during the short summer and winter sessions at inflated prices. A typical three-unit course that would cost $138 during the regular course year will cost $600 during the winter and summer sessions. The bill was drafted in response to the incredible congestion at community colleges as more and more students struggle to get the classes they need—but by drastically increasing the price of these courses, this bill will make life difficult for California's lower-income students.

Overall, Brown's preferences—a generally pro-business outlook tempered with liberal social policies—no doubt played a role in cooling down the Democratic majority in the Legislature. His bill-signing decisions, a little something for his party brethren to love and hate, once again showed that his is the voice of restraint in Sacramento.

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Oct. 15

Santa Cruz Sentinel: California's prison mess

The up and down saga regarding overcrowded California prisons may lack the horror, incompetence and otherworldly partisanship of the federal budget showdown—but that doesn't mean it isn't also tying government in knots.

The latest twist came Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's appeal in the state's prison overcrowding case—leaving California still under a federal court order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by early next year, or nearly 10,000 inmates.

This is decidedly bad news—for Brown, for Democratic legislative leaders and for Californians who rightfully might wonder if their local communities are going to have an influx of criminals released from state prisons. The high court's ruling came after a deal reached by Brown and legislators that sought to give the state additional time to reduce prison crowding while at the same time putting more money into rehabilitation and treatment programs to keep offenders from returning to jail. California's recidivism rate is about 65 percent—the highest in the country.

Now the only hope to avert releasing the prisoners is coming to some sort of settlement with the very inmates who sued the state over prison conditions. With attorneys for inmates hailing Tuesday's decision as a victory, any such settlement is unlikely—unless the state comes up a realistic plan, and money, to reduce overcrowding and then gets a three-judge federal panel to approve it.

While it's easy to blame government for getting us into this mess, it's also true that voters in the past supported tough sentencing measures that caused the state's prison population to soar—without the commensurate funding to keep building new lockups.

The upshot is that most Californians are worried dangerous criminals will be back on the streets.

Because of the rightful fears about a mass release of inmates, Brown has already put back in motion his original plan to reduce overcrowding by leasing space in local, private and out-of-state facilities to avoid early release of prisoners. In an agreement announced Tuesday morning by Corrections Corp. of America, the state will pay $28.5 million a year for what is now a federal detention facility in California City, Tenn. That prison can hold 2,304 inmates; the prison operator will pay the first $10 million for upgrades needed for California's high-security prisoners. After that, state taxpayers are on the hook.

We can't blame Californians for being worried—especially since the ruling comes two years after AB 109 was implemented. That law was the first stage of reducing prison overcrowding and costs, with lower-risk prisoners—convicted of non-violent, non-serious or non-sex-related crimes—released into local custody. While results of the prison realignment have been mixed, in Santa Cruz County, at least, they've been remarkably positive.

The governor has little choice but to ship prisoners to private prisons. We only hope he also continues to fund programs to combat recidivism—otherwise we'll never get out of this mess.

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Oct. 11

Los Angeles Daily News: Gov. Jerry Brown lends hand to homeless veterans

California's military men and women who have spent much of the last week worrying about the toll the government shutdown will have on them got a bit of good news on Thursday.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will let voters decide whether to provide $600 million for veterans trying to get on their feet.

He should be saluted for doing what we suggest he do last month.

In Los Angeles County 16,500 veterans live on the streets, shuffling between homeless shelters and searching for stability.

Voters had already approved $1.4 million in bonds to help veterans—many coming home from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those funds could only be used to purchase single-family homes or farms.

Turns out the money sat mostly unused because mortgage rates on the open market were cheaper than those offered by the Veterans Affairs Department.

Now voters will rightly get a chance to decide whether to repurpose those funds and make housing available to the most needy. But the bill authored by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez could also wind up costing $25 million annually. It's an amount proponents of the bill say will pay for itself by taking veterans off the street and putting them in facilities where they will get care and job leads before they wind up needing other expensive services.

California voters have long shown sympathy for those who served our country, now they will at least get a chance to consider one way to correct an inefficient program. That's better than letting millions intended for veterans sit idle.

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Oct. 15

Porterville Recorder: FPPC should move faster on investigations

Over the past 12 months, the state's Fair Political Practices Commission has conducted three investigations into current and former Porterville City Council members and in each case, found little or no wrongdoing.

However, those investigations, for what turned out to be little or nothing, took several months, all the while the person under investigation was under a cloud of suspicion.

Just this month, the commission completed its investigation into allegations that city council member Greg Shelton had violated election laws by allegedly accepting free tickets to an event in town, then handing out those tickets.

Former Mayor Ron Irish was alleged to have violated the conflict of interest law by accepting payment from the Chamber of Commerce for his company's alarm service while voting on chamber matters when he was on the council, and council member Cam Hamilton was alleged to have accepted an illegal gift of a dinner at a local casino.

Both Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Shelton were entirely exonerated, while Mr. Irish was given a warning due to a technical glitch.

In each case, and especially Mr. Shelton's, the FPPC took months to resolve the complaints and issue its decision. In each, the cloud of suspicion hung overhead, and nearly a year delay in the case of Mr. Shelton is far too long to be accused of something only to be cleared of those accusations. The FPPC needs to move quicker.

We understand the FPPC was created in 1974 as a watchdog over politicians and political campaigns. We know it has become a tool for some who seek revenge against a candidate or file a complaint simply against someone they do not like. We also know FPPC receives hundreds of complaints a year.

We hope the FPPC can streamline its process to move more quickly to dismiss a complaint and give the public updates if investigations continue for more than six months. Those accused deserve such consideration

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Oct. 15

The Riverside Press-Enterprise: Bring 'bullet' train project to a full stop

Recklessness is a dubious approach for a project already facing serious questions about its viability. But that word aptly describes the state's attempt to bypass taxpayer protections to evade an adverse court ruling over "high-speed" rail plans. Legislators should not tolerate that tack—and should bring this risky project to a full halt.

The state's latest filing last week in a lawsuit challenging the "bullet" train does nothing to reassure Californians that this project is fiscally realistic. The state claimed it can keep spending federal dollars on plans for the train, even as the project fails to meet voter-approved requirements intended to prevent the waste of taxpayer money.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge in August ruled that the rail plans violated the requirements of Proposition 1A, the 2008 bond measure that provided $9 billion for the project. The judge said the California High-Speed Rail Authority did not comply with Proposition 1A's requirement to show where the money would come from to pay for the first operational segment of the line. The agency also failed to obtain all the environmental clearances for that stretch of track, as the measure required. The judge, however, scheduled another hearing for next month on the question of how to remedy the violation.

But no one should be comfortable with a legal approach that blithely dismisses the financial safeguards built into Proposition 1A. The state's court brief argues that the rail agency can push ahead on construction by using federal tax money instead of state bond funds, because the restrictions do not apply to federal dollars. The state has $3.3 billion in federal tax funding to help pay for a 130-mile stretch of track between Bakersfield and Merced.

Whether the Proposition 1A restrictions apply to the federal tax money is a matter of legal dispute. But the state's approach certainly violates the spirit of the measure and the promises the bond's backers made to taxpayers. Besides, the federal money requires state matching funds, so using those dollars would commit California to additional state taxpayer spending—using either bond money or some other dollars from state taxpayers.

And those safeguards were intended to prohibit just the course the rail agency is taking: The state has the $6 billion it needs to build the Central Valley stretch of track. But that line would only become usable for high-speed travel once the tracks extended to the San Fernando Valley, at an additional cost of $25 billion. The agency has no idea where that money would come from, apart from the hope of the unlikely infusion of another $20 billion or so from the deeply indebted federal government. Nor does the rail authority have a more realistic plan for funding the rest of the $68.4 billion-plus system that would theoretically connect Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

California is likely to end up with a mostly useless stretch of track through the Central Valley, after spending billions of dollars on a project that serves no pressing public need.

Trying to bypass fiscal protections is a troubling sign for a project already based on wishful thinking. Legislators should not ignore that danger signal—and should instead stop this train before it becomes a boondoggle.