California Wants To Throw $100 Million at Its Mismanaged Retail Marijuana Sector

California’s nascent legal recreational marijuana industry is so heavily taxed and regulated that the black market still dominates. It’s so burdensome to try to get conventional permission to grow and sell marijuana the “legal” way that thousands of dispensaries operate without proper licenses. Government officials have been attempting to crack down on the problem and force them to close their doors.

On Monday California lawmakers attempted to address this problem in a very California way: Assembly members authorized a $100 million subsidy to help potential marijuana vendors get properly licensed.

As the Los Angeles Times explains, the subsidy isn’t going to the dispensaries or growers themselves—not that it should. The $100 million is instead going to local government agencies and cities so they can “hire experts and staff to assist businesses in completing the environmental studies and transitioning the licenses.”

California’s environmental regulations, most specifically the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), make it extremely expensive (and sometimes even impossible) to build anything new or improve anything in the state. CEQA requires businesses, entrepreneurs, and developers to pay for extensive environmental impact studies. It also permits pretty much anybody to file suit to try to stop construction using any sort of claim of potential environmental harm, no matter how tenuous. It is being used by opponents of marijuana operations (typically neighbors who don’t want them around) to try to block cannabis operations.

In order to give marijuana dispensaries and growers time to arrange these complicated studies, the state launched a provisional licensing system after recreational marijuana was made legal in California in 2016. Five years later, 82 percent of marijuana dispensaries in the state are still operating with just the provisional licenses, according to the governor’s office.

Rather than confront the regulations that make it impossible for cannabis entrepreneurs to comply with state law, lawmakers are essentially rewarding bad governance. Jerred Kiloh, president of the United Cannabis Business Association tells the Times that even that might not be enough, because cities have been slow to organize their own local cannabis policies. That’s exactly what happened in Los Angeles, where one of the major reasons the city had so many unlicensed dispensaries was because the city’s own bureaucracy could not get its act together. Two years after marijuana legalization, the city still had not been able to actually roll out business licenses to new dispensaries.

Los Angeles will get $22 million of this new state funding, essentially a financial reward for its bureaucratic failures.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also wants to add a six-month extension to the compliance deadlines for full licensing. This is being resisted by a coalition of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists have been complaining about the potential impact of large marijuana grow operations, particularly in matters like pollution and water and energy consumption. The resistance here is comically misguided. A piece from the Sierra Club from 2017 notes the massive scope and impacts of illegal grow operations and drug cartel operations on public lands as part of a call for tight regulations of the legal industry.

But those massive illegal grow operations are still happening because of how difficult California and CEQA make it to operate a legal cannabis business. This is much, much worse for the environment than the prospect of the state being more flexible on environmental regulations for the benefit of those who are actually trying to follow the rules. After all, the drug cartels don’t care about restrictions on pesticide use.

This article was originally published by Reason.com

Governor Newsom Announces New Electronic Vaccine Verification Cards

Governor Newsom announced Monday that a new vaccine verification system would be rolled out by California soon.

The new system will be comprised of digitized versions of all official vaccination cards, similar to New York’s Excelsior Pass. While more details will be coming in a larger announcement soon, Newsom reiterated that it will not be a passport and that vaccinations will still not be required.

“It’s not a passport, it’s not a requirement, it’s just the ability now to have an electronic version of that paper version, so you’ll hear more about that in the next couple of days,” said Newsom in San Francisco on Monday.

While most mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions are to end Tuesdayespecially after Cal/OSHA removed the proposed lengthening of mask mandates for places such as businesses through at least the end of July, businesses can require customers to show a vaccination card to enter their place of business without a mask. However, many businesses have feared that forged or copied vaccination cards could be a simple bypass, with the state concerned with people losing the small vaccination card as well.

An electronic version could help cut back on false cards, although, since a physical card will likely be used, it is unknown how successful the new system would be.

The California Department of Health and Human Services (CHHS) noted last week that businesses can choose to simply ask customers if they are fully vaccinated in an “honor system” sort of way, still require masks, or ask for proof of vaccination.

While the official announcement is still several days away, many businesses are already gearing up for the new systems when the state reopens on Tuesday.

An electronic vaccination card

“Most places will simply have no masks and that’s the end of it,” explained Dan Sherwood, a business health and safety consultant, to the Globe on Monday. “That’s what most are saying. Now some businesses will card, usually more of those higher density places or businesses where vulnerable people who can’t take the vaccine are located. And some will even have bouncers, some being trained the last week on how to spot a fake vaccination card. The state has yet to address what happens in that situation, when the business thinks someone has a fake card and aren’t allowed in, but that will definitely be an issue. Like bars and clubs that check for being over 21, some businesses will check for vaccination.”

“Others that do the honor system are pretty much going to do it that way to not look reckless and just call off all masks, but also want a return to casualness.”

“But the main takeaway from the electronic card is that they are trying to do away with fakes the best they can right now. But we should know more about that soon.”

Governor Newsom also announced the newest in the long line of vaccination incentives on Monday unveiling a statewide drawing for one of six vacation packages on July 1st. Working with California tourism group Visit California and numerous hospitality companies, six vaccinated Californians will be chosen at random to receive a “California Dream Vacations” trip to either Anaheim, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, or San Francisco. San Diego will have two trips offered, with all trips being for four people except for the Palm Springs package.

“As we move forward to a post-pandemic life, our tourism sector is expected to come roaring back – making us, once again, a global leader in hospitality and leisure,” added Newsom on Monday.

The next vaccination milestones are expected to be hit later this week, with the state reopening on Tuesday and 10 $1.5 million vaccination lottery winners expected to be announced.

Evan V. Symon is the Senior Editor for the California Globe. Prior to the Globe, he reported for the Pasadena Independent, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was head of the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article was originally published by the California Globe.

Rep. Lieu Calls On Breyer To Leave Supreme Court

Fearful of Republicans regaining control of the Senate next year, progressive Democrats are ramping up their calls for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer to step down from the bench to ensure that President Biden’s replacement could be confirmed while the party remained in control.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) on Tuesday joined those calls, saying it would be “best for our country” if the most senior justice appointed by a Democratic president stepped down by next year, before Republicans have a chance to regain the Senate majority and use that power to block a Biden nominee, as they did President Obama’s in 2016.

“I do believe that he should retire prior to the midterms,” Lieu said on CNN. “Justice Breyer has been an amazing Supreme Court justice. This is a very personal decision for him.”

Similar calls have been made by other progressives Democrats, including Reps. Mondaire Jones and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of New York. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times.

State Auditor Finds Lots Of Illegal Activity

It’s no secret that those who complain about taxes — and who doesn’t — tend to focus on how much money is taken from our wallets and pocketbooks. In California, government takes a lot with highest in the nation tax rates in most categories. But equally insulting is the poor level of service we get for our tax dollars.

Regrettably, some behavior by government employees transcends “normal” government inefficiency and encroaches into actual illegality.

Elaine Howle, the California State Auditor, pursuant to the California Whistleblower Protection Act, conducts an annual review of improper governmental activity. The latest report, released last month, reflects just a small percentage of cases brought to her office for investigation.

The results are depressing to say the least. Here are some of the notable examples.

The first involves overpayments by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to employees. The taxpayers should have been able to recover that money, but it’s not going to happen. As much as $1.5 million in overpayments of salary advances was forfeited by the agency because it failed to provide notice to the employees within a three-year time limit. According to the State Auditor “Inefficiency and incompetency in Caltrans’ division of human resources contributed significantly to its failure to notify recipients and collect on the outstanding salary advances.”

To read the entire column, please click here.

California Reopens – Ending Most COVID-19 Rules

California, the first state in America to put in place a coronavirus lockdown, is now turning a page on the pandemic.

At the stroke of midnight, California lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions and ushered in what has been billed as the state’s “Grand Reopening.”

Starting Tuesday, there were no more state rules on social distancing, and no more limits on capacity at restaurants, bars, supermarkets, gyms, stadiums or anywhere else.

And masks — one of the most symbolic and fraught symbols of the pandemic — will no longer be mandated for vaccinated people in most settings, though businesses and counties can still require them. …

Click here to read the full article from the Associated Press

Newsom, Lawmakers Thrown Pay Raise Hot Potato

That sound you heard at the State Capitol last week was constitutional officers and state lawmakers running for cover.

“Gov. Gavin Newsom, California legislators and other state elected officials were approved to receive a 4.2% salary increase this year,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

There is no bigger political hot potato than pay raises for elected officials.

Currently, California governors are paid $209,747 per year. That will go up to $218,500 starting December 1. Rank-and-file state lawmakers are paid $114,877 plus per diem while the Legislature is in session. That will increase to $119,700 in January.

The pay raise was granted by the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which held its annual meeting to determine the salary of state elected officials for the coming year.

According to the commission website, “Proposition 112, passed by voters in June 1990, established the Commission to set the salaries and medical, dental, insurance and other similar benefits of Members of the Legislature and the State’s other elected officials.”  Another voter-approved measure, Proposition 1F (2009) prevents the commission from granting pay raises when there is a budget deficit.

Even though legislators do not propose or approve the pay raises themselves, it is a huge political hit, typically generating the sort of big constituent and media backlash that you’re seeing today.

During the 2000s and early 2010s, the state faced several years of budget rollercoasters.  Yet, the commission granted multiple pay raises during this period, even though lawmakers were often digging out from under multibillion dollar budget holes.

Working with lawmakers during that time, we were quick to emphasize that the Legislature routinely cut its operating budgets and left vacancies unfilled while the state was experiencing massive deficits – anything to change the subject.  Many lawmakers – especially those who faced tough re-election fights, declined the pay raises.

During the Schwarzenegger years, when the commission was dominated by GOP appointees, the commission twice voted to cut their pay – even by a whopping 18 percent in 2009.  Now the commission is dominated by Democratic appointees more sympathetic to pay increases.  The history of recent legislative pay raises shows state elected official pay was boosted every year between 2013 and 2019, while no change last year.

This latest pay increase couldn’t come at a worse time for Gov. Newsom, who has faced harsh criticism recently over his lack of leadership as Cal-OSHA has issued multiple confusing and contradictory workplace mask policies.  With the recall election on the horizon, the last thing Newsom wants is to be saddled with a pay raise he didn’t ask for.

According to Assembly records, three state lawmakers voluntarily reduced their pay during the Covid-19 pandemic as the state faced a massive deficit in 2020.  Newsom also took a roughly 9 percent pay cut – corresponding with the pay cut faced by state workers – last year.

Pay raises symbolize everything that’s wrong with Sacramento.  Even though state elected officials deserve to be paid a fair salary like everyone else, these pay raises are almost never justified in the public eye, even during good times.  Take a pay raise, and many constituents will see you as someone who is out to fatten their pockets at taxpayer expense while many are struggling.

Even though we face a rosier budget scenario this year, expect to see Newsom and many more state elected officials to decline this pay raise.  At the end of the day, a 4.2 percent raise isn’t worth the outpouring of constituent anger and negative press that they’ll receive in return.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Research Institute.

California’s Big Reopening: What Changes On June 15?

Photo by Richard Balog on Unsplash

California’s grand reopening day is almost here, but it comes with a few asterisks. 

If all goes as expected and promised, on June 15 our 15-month-long ordeal of public health restrictions, mandates, bans and color-coded tiers to stem the COVID-19 pandemicwill finally come to an end. As Gov. Gavin Newsom said in April and reaffirmed in May, next Tuesday is when “we can start to open up…business as usual.”

But as that much-touted date approaches, the governor’s promise of a sudden milestone is colliding with the loophole-ridden gradualism of California labor law, local control and the imperatives of fighting a diminishing — but not defeated — virus that has killed 62,500 Californians and counting.

Some mixed messages along the way have added to the confusion. So what will — and won’t — actually happen on Tuesday? Many of your questions, answered.

Will I be able to sit inside a bar, work out at a gym or go to the movies?

Probably. 

The average Californian can expect things to look fairly back-to-normal in most of the ways that matter. 

Moving “beyond the blueprint,” to use the state’s branding, and instead using federal health guidance for public places means that most businesses can dispense with social distancing requirements, capacity limits and forced closures. 

But there’s a difference between “can” and “must.” 

Counties will still be free to impose their own public health restrictions if they choose to — but only if they’re stricter than what the state is requiring. So far, no counties have said that they’ll part ways with the state’s rules, though a few, like San Francisco, say they’re still mulling over their options.

Even so, businesses aren’t taking any chances. On Tuesday, more than 35 business groups sent a letter to county governments across the state begging them to stick to the statewide rules.

Though business groups, who don’t relish the idea of getting sued, are hoping for consistent, cheap and easy-to-follow standards, your favorite restaurant, movie theater or hair salon is also free to impose its own public health restrictions. 

That means you shouldn’t be surprised if you still spot a few “No Mask, No Service” signs after June 15.

Can I go to a concert?

Depends. Are we talking open mic at the local bar or Beyonce at an arena?

The state has said it will impose additional restrictions on “mega events.” That’s defined as anything that draws more than 5,000 people indoors or 10,000 outside. (Sorry, nameless dude playing a melodica into a loop pedal, you are not a mega event).

According to the most recent state guidance, concerts, conventions and other indoor mega events will only be open to people who can prove that they’ve either been vaccinated (by showing a vaccination card, a photo of the card, or documentation from a doctor) or that they tested negative for the coronavirus in the last 72 hours. That kind of proof won’t necessarily be required at outdoor events such as baseball games, but the state is recommending that stadiums either impose such a rule or require masking.

Once I’m inside the bar, gym or movie theater, can I finally take this mask off?

Yes, if you’re vaccinated.

California’s public health officials confirmed Wednesday that along with relaxed social distancing, the state will also drop its mask mandate on June 15 and instead adopt the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means vaccinated adults should feel free to go mask-less in most public spaces. There are still exceptions for venues where the potential for many vulnerable people congregating in a confined place is high: hospitals and other health care settings, school classrooms, prisons and jails, public transit and nursing homes.

If you’re unvaccinated, you’ll still be required to wear a mask indoors in most public places, though it’s not entirely clear if or how that will be enforced. On Wednesday, health and human services secretary Mark Ghaly said that businesses can require masks of all customers, implement a vaccination verification system or simply go with the honor system

“We are not requiring businesses to, for example, have somebody at the door checking for vaccine status as a way to comply with this,” he said. …

Click here to read the full article from CalMatters.org

Progress in California Road Repairs Lagging Despite Gas Tax Hike

Four years ago, Will Kempton, then executive director of Transportation California and a former Caltrans director, said the state’s roads were “the worst I have seen.”

A few months later, the state began collecting revenue from a $52 billion, 10-year fuel tax hike to raise enough revenue to bring up to date one of the most broken street-and-highway systems in the country.

The reality, however, hasn’t matched up with the promises.

Progress in making repairs, the Los Angeles Times reports, is “lagging.” Worse, “officials now say the funding is sufficient only to complete less than half of the work needed.”

Not even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “$2 billion shot of new money” from his surplus-filled May budget revision for bridge and road repair will be sufficient to catch up to the needs. Nor will the next installment of Senate Bill 1’s tax increases, a 5.1 cents-a-gallon levy arriving on July 1.

How can this be?

According to the Times, Sacramento has allocated about $16 billion from 2017’s Senate Bill 1 for roads and highways. Yet “state officials say that much more money is needed to address shortcomings in the transportation system. Caltrans estimates it will need $122.9 billion over 10 years ‘to maintain the existing assets’ due in part to increasing costs and the age of the infrastructure.”

It would be helpful if policymakers didn’t have a habit of diverting revenues for road work to unrelated projects. But transportation funds are as politicized as any of the dollars funneled through Sacramento. For instance, it took the state only a matter of months after SB1 was passed and signed to move motor fuel tax revenues to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the General Fund, and local law enforcement.

Revenues also end up in political pits that have no bottom. The state “devotes a greater share of its transportation funds to public transit than most other states,” says George Mazur, a Davis-based principal of the transportation planning firm Cambridge Systematics.

Newsom has also used the money from higher fuel taxes as political leverage. Two years ago, his office announced that revenues generated by SB1 “may be withheld from any jurisdiction that does not have a compliant housing element and has not zoned and entitled for its updated annual housing goals.”

In 2019, the Caltrans inspector general determined that the department had misspent millions, and it disallowed more than $13 million in state and local expenditures. None of the dollars was from SB1 revenues.

A more recent Caltrans audit showed just how irresponsible the department is with other people’s money. Though not a bank, it had been in the habit of handing out salary advances, and then failing to collect on them, wasting “as much as $1.5 million.” The inspector general said the “forfeiture balance might have risen from $1.5 million to nearly $3 million if our investigation had not prompted it to take action.”

Proposition 69 was supposed to have ended the practice of siphoning off dollars by putting transportation funds in a “lock box” where they couldn’t be raided by politicians. But since its passage in 2018 — with an 81-19 support margin — Newsom ordered SB1 revenues to be redirected from repair projects “to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector.”

Further holding back progress are the steep costs involved road construction and repair. According to the Reason Foundation’s most recent Annual Highway report, California spends $186,549 per lane-mile on its roads, nearly twice the U.S. average of $94,870.

Much of the added costs are attributable to generous state labor laws. Only in Washington are highway maintenance workers paid more than in California, where the average yearly wage is almost $55,000.

The state’s steep cost of living — the consequence of poor public policy — as well as a strict regulatory regime, punctuated by the California Environmental Quality Act, also increase project expenses.

Californians desperately need both new and expanded highways, and existing roads repaired. The lousy system costs “Californians $61 billion annually due to congestion-related delays, traffic collisions, and increased vehicle operating costs caused by poor road conditions,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But Sacramento has for too long had other priorities. The Blue State agenda both crowds out basic needs and robs drivers of the infrastructure maintenance they’ve paid for.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Regulators Withdraw Controversial California Work Mask Rules

California’s workplace regulators have withdrawn a controversial pending mask regulation while they consider a rule that more closely aligns with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s promise that the state will fully reopen from the pandemic on Tuesday.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board’s revised rule, adopted last week after it was initially rejected, would have allowed workers to forego masks only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. That contrasts with the state’s broader plan to do away with virtually all masking and social distancing requirements for vaccinated people in concert with the latest recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The board’s decision late Wednesday to withdraw that worksite rule before it goes into effect allows the board to consider changes at its June 17 meeting and potentially have them go into effect by month’s end. …

Click here to read the full article from the Associated Press.

Northern California Leads In Key Vaccine Rates

San Francisco is nearing herd immunity, some experts believe, a milestone in California’s efforts to gain control of the COVID-19 pandemic.

San Francisco has one of California’s highest rates of vaccination, with 72% of residents having received at least one dose. Only one other county in California — Marin, just north of San Francisco — has a higher rate of vaccination, with 75% of residents there at least partially vaccinated.

Both San Francisco and Marin County’s rates are significantly higher than the statewide vaccination rate of 56%.

Herd immunity, also known as community immunity, occurs when a significant percentage of the overall population is immune either through vaccination or from surviving a previous infection. People without immunity to a disease are indirectly protected by herd immunity. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times.