Did California Get Its Money’s Worth From $1.7 Billion COVID Test Contract?

The Valencia lab, a public-private venture between the state and PerkinElmer, processed only 1 to 8% of all Californians’ COVID tests in the first 10 months of the contract. And the lab was riddled with dozens of problems, according to an inspection report.

A patient sample that wasn’t processed for more than 30 days. A test used without proper validation of its accuracy. Patient results changed without notification. Safety and disinfection procedures called into question. 

These are just a few of the myriad problems at the Valencia Branch Laboratory, a public-private COVID-19 testing lab operated by PerkinElmer that the California Department of Public Health hired in a no-bid, $1.7 billion annual contract.

An inspection report released last month by the health department outlines major problems dating back further than a year ago, raising new questions about how the state is spending taxpayer dollars to combat the pandemic. The report shows the lab has routinely underperformed, failing to meet the contract’s goals for turnaround times and numbers of processed tests. But the state auto-renewed the year-long contract at the end of October.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials say the laboratory has been crucial to expanding the state’s testing capacity for schools and underserved communities. 

But California’s two largest school districts — Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified — aren’t relying on the lab because it was unavailable when they needed it. 

A CalMatters analysis shows each test at the PerkinElmer Valencia lab costs the state more than three times the amount the Los Angeles Unified pays a Bay Area startup, SummerBio.

Already, the state has paid more than twice as much to PerkinElmer for 5.5 million tests as LA Unified’s total projected $350 million cost for the entire school year. The school year is less than half complete, but LA Unified already has administered 7.4 million COVID tests while never using the state’s PerkinElmer lab.

In the 10 months following its October 2020 opening, the lab processed between 1 and 8% of all COVID-19 tests administered in California each week, according to available data archived by CalMatters. During the first week of December, the lab processed roughly 8.5% of California’s tests, according to the most recently available data.

PerkinElmer, a global testing diagnostic company, did not respond to a request for comment about the cost of the testing and the reported problems at the lab.

“CDPH probably should have canceled (the contract) because honestly, there’s other vendors out there. They’re doing it for a lot less money more efficiently.”

STATE SEN. SCOTT WILK

State health department officials, in an unsigned statement in response to questions, said the PerkinElmer contract was renewed because of the potential for a winter surge and continued need for testing.

But the health department’s report, which was released eight months after officials indicated it would be completed, revealed that inspectors from the state’s Laboratory Field Services threatened sanctions for major deficiencies just 10 days before the contract was renewed.

The state public health department “probably should have canceled (the contract) because honestly, there’s other vendors out there. They’re doing it for a lot less money more efficiently,” Republican Senate minority leader Scott Wilk, who represents the area surrounding Valencia, told CalMatters. 

Wilk has been the most outspoken critic of the contract, repeatedly calling on the Newsom administration and the health department to halt the auto-renewal. Wilk said his office is working on a proposal to reform the no-bid contracting powers that the Legislature granted Newsom at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“I think there have been abuses there,” Wilk said. 

Public health experts and advocates say despite the lab’s troubles, it provides critical testing for smaller school districts, rural counties and underserved communities. Roughly 62% of tests processed at the lab are from communities of color, with about a third from the state’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, based on the California Healthy Place Index.

In Madera County, for instance, the lab allowed the county and its partners to ramp up testing in a speedier time frame. 

“Valencia has been a net positive for Madera County. Residents would have been at a significant disadvantage without the combination of the Valencia lab and state contracts like the one with OptumServe,” said Sara Bosse, Madera County’s public health director.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

California Redistricting Commissioner Misses Key Meetings

On the day California’s independent redistricting commission approved and released to the public long-awaited draft political maps, one of the panel’s 14 members was missing for the bulk of the key meeting.

Commissioners spent seven hours on Nov. 10 reworking draft legislative, congressional and board of equalization lines that, once finalized, will be used for the next decade. Antonio Le Mons, a No Party Preference commissioner from Studio City who now has a Rancho Mirage address, logged on late and didn’t participate in the process, video recordings and transcripts show. But before voting to approve the draft lines, he congratulated his fellow commissioners for the accomplishment.

“I’m very proud to have been a part of this process with my fellow commissioners,” he said. “This has been quite a journey in the heart of a pandemic, and I think we should all feel very good.”

This wasn’t the first time Le Mons logged on late or missed a meeting before important deadlines. The commission has marked Le Mons absent for roll call in 16 of 44 hearings since October, as members met for marathon line-drawing sessions. Commissioners have until Dec. 27 to send certified maps to Secretary of State Shirley Weber before they’re used in 2022 statewide elections.

Sometimes, as happened on Nov. 10, Le Mons was marked absent during roll call before arriving late. The commission, according to spokesperson Fredy Ceja, records attendance only to establish a quorum at the start of a meeting.

The nonpartisan panel comprises five Republicans, five Democrats and four No Party Preference voters selected during a lengthy process that began in 2019. Commissioners are charged with drawing lines using census data that “provide fair representation for all Californians” under ballot measures voters approved in 2008 and 2010 to strip the Legislature of redistricting power.

Le Mons’ commissioner profile outlines 25 years of nonprofit and private sector leadership. He’s listed as the chief operating officer of the Skid Row Housing Trust, a Los Angeles-based organization that helps homeless, disabled and poor people, along with those struggling with drug addictions, to find permanent shelter. Le Mons is also, according to his commissioner biography, a former member of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists. He now runs a personal coaching and consulting firm.

He is also a co-star on streaming channel Fox Soul’s “The House,” a show that premiered Oct. 8 and focuses on Black LGBTQ issues. It’s unclear when filming began or if it coincided with commission responsibilities.

Most commissioners have missed a meeting, and some more than one, though it’s difficult to determine how many under the commission’s record-keeping system. Certain members also participate more than others, and many turn off their cameras during meetings. Republican commissioner Derric Taylor was marked absent for nearly as many meetings — 14 — as Le Mons over the last few months. Ceja said Taylor started a new assignment with additional responsibilities in his role at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Ceja said he did not know why Le Mons had missed meetings.

Click here to read the full article at LA Times

‘Big Lie’ Proponent John Eastman Uses Christian Crowdfunding Site To Raise Money For His Legal Bills

A lawyer who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally, spreading the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, is now using a Christian crowdfunding site to raise money for his legal fees. 

Originally, John Eastman set a $100,000 goal for the fundraiser on GiveSendGo. Upon reaching that objective in just a week, he upped the target to $150,000. He’s now topped that amount by $271, having raised money from 2,179 donors. The crowdfunding site which launched around 2014, says it is “meant to give Christians the opportunity to be supported by the body of Christ.”  

An attorney and former dean of Chapman University’s law school, Eastman represented Trump in legal challenges to the 2020 election. In November, the House’s Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed Eastman. Earlier this month, he declined to testify, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, according to Politico, which cited a letter Eastman’s attorneys sent the committee. 

Click here to read the full article at Forbes

California Democrats Embrace Tough-On-Crime Rhetoric

“It is time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city … come to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement … and less tolerant of all the bulls—t that has destroyed our city.”

“We need to … ensure that those who commit crime are held to account and that no one gets a free pass.”

“The need for a system that can … alert law enforcement to vehicles associated with violent crime, in real time, has never been more apparent.”

“Once we had the issue of a lot of folks coming to Melrose to do crime, we said, ‘We have to hit this with everything we have,’ so we put in some extra funding.”

“I will not wait out this holiday season and let these organized groups continue to believe they can prey on California shoppers and retailers with no repercussions.”

These Tuesday comments did not come from Fox News commentators or even California conservatives. They came from California Democrats — San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Attorney General Rob Bonta, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz and Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin of Thousand Oaks, respectively — signaling a definitive shift in the party’s approach to crime ahead of the 2022 elections.

Case in point were the politicians’ Tuesday announcements:

The tough-on-crime rhetoric comes amid a sea of sobering statistics: Oakland police on Monday announced they’re investigating the 131st homicide of the year — the city’s highest total in a decade. And a Tuesday report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that homicides, aggravated assaults and violent and property crime rates in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco are all up in 2021 compared to last year.

Also cracking down on crime is the state Employment Development Department, which announced Tuesday that it has suspended payments on certain disability insurance claims and is subjecting medical and health providers to increased vetting to halt “a recent move by organized criminal elements to file false disability insurance claims.” The department, which has already confirmed paying at least $20 billion worth of fraudulent claims, said its actions would help prevent “further fraud” but could result in longer wait times for legitimate claimants.

This article originally appeared on CalMatters

House Votes To Hold Meadows In Contempt

WASHINGTON — The House voted on Tuesday to hold former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with a special committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, setting the stage for possible criminal prosecution of an advisor to former President Trump.

The vote, 222 to 208, was the second time in recent months that the House had held a former Trump advisor in contempt, and it was the first time since the 1830s that the chamber had leveled such a sanction on one of its former members. Two Republicans joined all Democrats present in voting for the measure.

“Mr. Meadows is a central participant and witness to the events of Jan. 6,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House committee investigating the insurrection, said before the contempt vote. “If he can get away with ignoring the law, and witnesses summoned before Congress can merely pick and choose when they comply, our power of oversight will be gone.”

The contempt vote came a month after the House took the same action against Stephen K. Bannon, alleging the the Trump confidant and former White House advisor had refused to comply with the House committee’s subpoena for information and testimony. Bannon was indicted by a federal grand jury last month on two charges of contempt of Congress. He is set to go on trial in July.

The House action against Meadows followed a 9-0 contempt vote on Monday by the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers on the panel said Meadows initially provided 9,000 pages of records before refusing to provide more records or show up for a deposition last week. They said Meadows is uniquely positioned to provide information to discuss the role Trump and the White House played in inciting the riot and responding to it.

“We’ve given Mr. Meadows every opportunity to cooperate with our investigation,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House panel, said Tuesday. “We’ve been more than fair. He’s brought this situation on himself. But there is no doubt in my mind that he’s in contempt of Congress and has to be held accountable.”

Republican House members countered that Democrats were pursuing the contempt charges for partisan reasons. Just two of the nine Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt did so on Tuesday. Meadows served as a GOP House member from 2013 to 2020, when he took over as Trump’s chief of staff.

“He is a good man, and he’s my friend. This is as wrong as it gets,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said before the vote. “Your lust for power, your lust to get your opponents is so intense that you don’t care.”

Meadows’ attorney, George Terwilliger III, has asserted that the former White House advisor cannot comply with the subpoena for two major reasons. As a former top presidential advisor, Meadows shouldn’t be compelled to testify before Congress because it might result in staffers wary of providing candid advice to presidents.

He also said Meadows did not wish to undermine Trump’s assertion of executive privilege, a legal doctrine that has allowed presidents to withhold certain confidential communications from public disclosure.

Meadows “has fully cooperated as to documents in his possession that are not privileged and has sought various means to provide other information while continuing to honor the former president’s privilege claims,” Terwillger said in a statement Tuesday before the vote.

Citing executive privilege, Trump has sought to block the National Archives from turning over his White House records to the House committee. His case suffered a setback last week when a federal appeals court rejected his arguments, setting the stage for those documents to be given to Congress if the Supreme Court declines to intervene.

The House panel, which has two Republicans, has interviewed more than 300 witnesses and subpoenaed more than 40 people as it seeks to paint a clearer picture of the day’s violence and what contributed to it.

Goaded on by Trump’s months-long, falsehood-filled campaign that the 2020 election had been stolen, hundreds of his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to block the certification of President Biden’s electoral college victory. More than 700 people have been charged by federal prosecutors in the Capitol riot.

Click here to read the full article at LA Times

Mayor Breed Wants to Flood Tenderloin With Police To Confront Drug Dealers — And Those Using Drugs

Mayor London Breed wants to significantly boost the police presence in the Tenderloin over the next few months as part of a public safety blitz, which includes a crackdown on those who are selling drugs — and those who are using them — in the long-troubled neighborhood.

On Tuesday, Breed called for increased funding for police overtime to help pay for the move, which includes tackling the resale of stolen goods. She told residents last week that she believes policing is an “important tool” to address some of the neighborhood’s woes, which include widespread drug dealing, a surge in fatal overdoses and a spike in gun violence.

“It’s time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city … come(s) to an end,” Breed said at a news conference in City Hall on Tuesday, flanked by department heads and Supervisors Catherine Stefani and Ahsha Safaí. “It comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bulls— that destroyed our city.”

The Department of Emergency Management will lead the two- to three-month intervention that officials hope will result in more sustainable changes. Increased spending for police overtime is just one component of the plan, which will also focus on basic infrastructure needs like more cleaning, public toilets and streetlights.

But the push for more officers will likely draw the most attention, landing amid a national reckoning over the role of police in vulnerable communities. It also marks a shift in messaging from the Breed administration, which for the past year has focused on creating programs that remove law enforcement from interactions with those struggling with homelessness, mental health issues and drug use.

Breed’s public safety plan comes as the Tenderloin continues to grab national headlines and the mayor feels heat to get the city’s spiraling homelessness and overdoses crisis under control. It also lands a day after the mayor announced a plan to rein in the school board. Both initiatives could score her political points, but have also sparked criticism.

The mayor’s office said overtime pay will also be used for other priorities, such as deterring retail theft in Union Square. Breed also introduced legislation Tuesday, co-sponsored by Safaí, to tackle reselling of stolen goods on the streets by prohibiting street vending in existing “problematic” areas such as UN Plaza and requiring vendors to post approved permits.

Click here to read the full article at the San Francisco Chronicle

Merced Irrigation District Sues California over ‘Water Grab’ for Fish, Downstate Users

The Merced Irrigation District, a regional water authority in the San Joaquin Valley, is suing the State of California over a plan to divert water from the Merced River watershed to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for fish and downstate use.

As Breitbart News reported in 2018, the state’s Bay-Delta Plan aims to increase the amount of fresh water in the delta, also known simply as the “California Delta,” which has suffered from increasing salinity in recent years.

The Merced Irrigation District (MID) alleges that the plan is simply a “water grab” that will take water from local users and send it to the delta, to satisfy environmental interest groups — many of which have no connection to the state — and Southern California users.

The MID has conducted its own scientific studies to suggest that declining salmon populations in other parts of the state are not due to water diversion, but rather to the arrival of alien predators and other development activities, such as mining. The MID has also negotiated with the state in the past to provide its own salmon habitat restoration — while keeping the water.

But the state has decided to go ahead with its plan, though it has not yet said how much water it plans to divert from the Merced River, which is a tributary of the San Joaquin River that flows from the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite National Park, through the rich Central Valley farmland before joining the main watercourse northward to the Delta.

MID officials have set up a “Save Merced’s Water” website to gather signatures from residents to stop the diversions from moving forward.

“Our perspective is we didn’t create [California’s] water quality problems,” [MID spokesperson Mike] Jensen said. “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to bear the brunt of fixing them.”

Click here to read the full article at Breitbart Local

Beware of California’s Obscene Budget Surplus

Here’s a cautionary tale for California politicians who think voters will forever tolerate rising taxes as Sacramento swims in budget surpluses.

In 1978, virtually every political institution in California opposed Proposition 13, including big business, labor, local governments, and education advocates. Then voters stunned the elite political class by enacting the iconic tax-cutting initiative, a constitutional amendment that legislators couldn’t touch, by nearly a two-thirds vote.

The passage of Proposition 13 was driven by both fear and anger. The fear that motivated voters to the polls is easy to understand. Although unthinkable today — thanks to the security provided by Prop. 13 — in the mid-70s homeowners were literally being driven out of their homes by high property taxes. Howard Jarvis himself witnessed a despondent widow plead her case at the public counter in the L.A. County Assessor’s office where, regrettably, she collapsed and died of a heart attack.

The terrible fear of losing one’s home, even if the mortgage had been fully paid, was matched only by anger. If citizens believe today’s political environment is divisive, it was more so leading up to the election in June of 1978. Even those who cared little for politics rose up in rage after opening their annual property tax bills.

Part of that anger was driven by Governor Jerry Brown’s admission that California was sitting on a massive surplus. It was so large that California’s treasurer at the time, Jesse Unruh, labeled it as “obscene.” To Californians, the sight of government sitting on wads of cash while homeowners were losing their homes due to excessive taxation was just more gasoline on the fire.

Click here to read the full article on the San Gabriel Tribune

One Indicator Shows California’s Recovery Is Incomplete

Despite assurances that California’s economy is a treasure to behold – “We are world-beating in terms of our economic growth,” says Gov. Gavin Newsom – the post-pandemic recovery has a gaping hole in it. State unemployment is the highest in the country.

Federal data for October show that the jobless rate improved from September’s 7.5% to 7.3%. That puts the state in a last-place tie with Nevada, and far off Nebraska’s best-in-the-nation 1.3%.

Texas and Florida, rivals in many ways, posted far better numbers in October, 5.4% and 4.6% respectively.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports nine of the 15 metropolitan areas posting the highest jobless rates in the country are in California. This includes the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area statistical area, which has an unemployment rate of 7.1% – 373rd in a list of 389 metro regions.

Newsom can brag about California “dominating in every category,” and being home to the “fastest growing companies, the most influential companies in the world,” as he did at October’s California Economic Summit.

But an economy that has a jobless rate as high as this state’s isn’t fully healthy, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Public Policy Institute of California’s November survey found that 52% expect bad times ahead, while only 47% expect good times. Four months earlier, the outlook was just the opposite: Only 44% expected bad times ahead, while 54% thought the future looked good.

Legendary California journalist Dan Walters recently pointed out that eight of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates in October were red states, and nine of the 10 states with the highest jobless rates were blue. It’s a sharp reminder that public policy plays a substantial role in joblessness.

“It could just be coincidence, of course, but maybe those red states with low unemployment rates have regulatory and tax policies that encourage job-creating investment and maybe California and the other blue states with high jobless rates are perceived as being hostile to business,” he says.

Walters was being charitable. Taxes and regulation always impact job numbers, and both are uniquely heavy burdens for California businesses. Regulation stifles innovation, which promotes job growth, and we know taxes negatively affect employment because lawmakers say as much when they hand out tax breaks to companies expecting them to put people to work.

Lockdowns also figure in the state’s high jobless rate. Many businesses that were forced to close never reopened, and some that did still aren’t operating at full capacity. By October, the state had regained only a little more than two-thirds of the 2.7 million jobs that were lost due to the lockdowns.

California policymakers have come to think they can do whatever they want, and the hard work of previous generations that built this state will save them from the negative economic consequences that spin off their plans. It doesn’t work that way, though. There’s too much garbage in, garbage out in Sacramento.

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

This article first appeared in the Pacific Research Institute

What About Rebate Checks? Democrats Want to Spend California’s Surplus on Infrastructure

State lawmakers want to use a projected $31 billion surplus to fuel an infrastructure boom, a tactic that could reduce the amount Californians might see in any rebate checks this year – if they happen at all.

The state expects to have so much money it risks exceeding a state spending threshold called the Gann Limit. If it does, it must send more money to schools and some money back to taxpayers through rebates.

Top Democratic lawmakers who control the budget process in Sacramento said they intend to reduce the amount they exceed the limit in part by spending a big chunk of the projected surplus on infrastructure.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, who runs the Assembly Budget Committee, said he wants to spend a “significant portion” of the surplus on infrastructure, including $10 billion for school facilities and $10 billion for transportation projects.

That would, in theory, mean lawmakers wouldn’t have to send as much money back to taxpayers in the form of rebate checks, though they could still send stimulus checks anyway, regardless of whether they exceed the state spending limit. Stimulus checks are still on the table, said Ting, D-San Francisco, depending feedback lawmakers receive from their constituents.

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Although he expects rebates to be discussed in budget negotiations, Sen. Scott Wiener said he thinks the state needs to prioritize infrastructure spending.

“We’ll have some critical needs around infrastructure that need to be prioritized,” the San Francisco Democrat said. “If you’re sending rebates back instead of bolstering water systems and addressing sea level rise… you’re still shortchanging taxpayers.”

Assemblyman Vince Fong, the top Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee, said he supports spending surplus money on infrastructure, but said the budget should also include tax relief.

“There needs to be infrastructure investment in water storage and at our ports, but we have to realize our businesses are overtaxed,” the Bakersfield Republican said. “We have to look at providing permanent tax relief.”

State budget spending on infrastructure will be on top of billions in federal infrastructure money recently approved by President Joe Biden, which U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the Sacramento Press Club on Thursday will fund a range of different projects.

“We’re talking about roads and bridges, we’re talking about rail, transit, buses, talking about ports, and airports, talking about water and internet access,” Buttigieg said.

Ting said he wants lawmakers to use the state surplus for drought resilience projects and broadband expansion to communities without reliable internet access. He also called for more spending on housing and homeless aid.

Wiener, who chairs the Senate’s Housing Committee, said he also supports spending more on housing and homeless programs.

Senate leaders say they hope to build on targeted tax relief programs such as the California Earned Income Tax Credit, known as CalEITC, the Child Tax Credit, and Small Business Relief.

This is the second year in a row California revenues have come close to triggering Gann Limit requirements. Senate Democrats have yet to name specific proposals for next year’s budget, but in a set of early goals said they’d like to consider reforms to “modernize the Gann Limit while respecting original intent.”

In a statement, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley and chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said the state’s surplus should be used to built a more equitable economy.

“Moving toward an equitable economy for all requires increased investments in affordable housing, our essential workforce, infrastructure at schools and colleges and protecting the climate,” Skinner said. “Fortunately, we have the opportunity to make such investments while we continue supporting small businesses and those Californians still struggling.”

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Red Bluff, criticized what he said were Democratic efforts to evade rebates under the Gann Limit in the past.

Nielsen, vice chair of the Senate Budget Committee, expressed skepticism about Democrats’ plans to “modernize” the Gann Limit.

“Their intent is not to revise and reform it,” he said. “Their intent is to destroy it.”

Nielsen said the state’s surplus should be spent on infrastructure to prevent forest fires and the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County to supply water during droughts. Lawmakers also need to make public safety a priority in next year’s budget, he said, noting recent “smash-and-grab” robberies affecting retail.

Expanding the state’s low-income health insurance program to more undocumented immigrants will also be up for consideration. Currently, the program excludes undocumented people ages 27-49. Ting said he supports expanding it to everyone, but it isn’t clear yet that there will be enough money to do it in the next budget.

Lawmakers’ overarching goal is to ensure regular people feel the benefits of the strong economy that has netted the state such a windfall of cash, Ting told reporters at a press conference.

“The budget remains strong, yet if you talk to individual Californians they are very pessimistic and don’t feel the benefits,” he said.

Click here to read the full article at Fresno Bee