Political Corruption Grabbing Headlines in L.A.

Jose HuizarAfter a brief lull in 2017, there’s now another embarrassing chapter in Los Angeles County’s emergence as an epicenter of American political corruption.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar has been stripped of all his council committee assignments after having his home and office raided by the FBI earlier this month. Law enforcement authorities have been tight-lipped about their probe so far, but speculation has focused on Huizar’s close relationships with developers and his now-former role as chair of the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which reviews all large development projects that come before the City Council.

It’s the second time in six months that the city’s planning approval process has faced criminal scrutiny. In June, it was revealed that the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office was investigating the city Department of Building and Safety over allegations of “unauthorized purchases, falsified invoices and $24,900 in payments to a consulting company that did not exist,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Five members of the department’s technology office have resigned or retired, including the division’s chief, Giovani Dacumos, who was named in most of the allegations.

Huizar replaced Antonio Villaraigosa as the 14th District’s councilman in a 2005 special election after Villaraigosa became mayor. The district includes most of downtown Los Angeles as well as Boyle Heights, Highland Park and Eagle Rock.

The first Mexican immigrant elected to the City Council, Huizar has repeatedly won re-election easily. But his political standing has taken several hits this fall. Besides the FBI raid, two former staffers have sued him, saying they faced retaliation when complaining about Huizar favoring an aide he was allegedly having an affair with as well as requiring them to do personal favors like picking up his dry cleaning or moving his wife’s car so it wouldn’t be ticketed. Huizar had previously admitted to having an affair with an aide in 2013, but he was cleared in a related sexual harassment lawsuit.

Misconduct at 10 cities and water district since 2006

Huizar joins a long list of officials – mostly Democrats – who have faced serious accusations of wrongdoing in Los Angeles County since 2006. A 2016 overview by CalWatchdog found 21 officials with 10 cities and a water agency had been targeted by law enforcement over that span.

The list: Bell, Carson, Central Basin Municipal Water District, Commerce, Cudahy, Lynwood, Maywood, Montebello, South El Monte, South Gate and Vernon.

The range of offenses ranged from outrageous – the Bell city manager and City Council looting the city treasury of tens of millions of dollars – to the mundane – council members using city government credit cards at strip clubs and for party weekends in Las Vegas.

The main theory about why the county has so much corruption has to do with the inability of watchdogs to keep track of public officials’ wrongdoing, especially with many local newspapers disappearing. There are 88 incorporated cities and more than 500 government agencies and special districts in the county’s 4,083 square miles.

Study says Chicago only region with more convictions

This has led to the argument that the corruption is no surprise given that Los Angeles County is the most populous in the country. But a 2012 University of Illinois study of all federal corruption convictions since 1976 found the L.A. region was ninth in per-capita rates of corruption convictions – meaning they were far more common than in most metro areas. L.A. was second to Chicago in total convictions.

Bill Boyarsky, a veteran journalist who served on the city of Los Angeles’ ethics committee, told Southern California Public Radio in 2012 that he was unsurprised by the findings.

“There’s always been a long, long history of corruption and bending the law in the Southland,” he said. “This area is so vast [and] there’s so much going on that the corruption hasn’t been shown-up yet.”

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Gov-Elect Gavin Newsom faces pressure to cut $77 billion high-speed rail

Gov. Jerry Brown, Anne GustA new state audit raises questions about flaws in California’s $77 billion high-speed rail project, adding pressure on Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to consider cutting back the construction of the train or make other major changes.

The independent audit is the key focus of a Joint Legislative Audit Committee oversight hearing planned for Thursday in Sacramento, where top officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority are expected to be questioned by lawmakers.

According to the audit, the state risks having to pay back as much as $3.5 billion in federal funds on the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles project.

“Whatever fantasy the next governor has in mind, he has to deal with a huge multibillion-dollar shortfall between getting anything between Central California and Silicon Valley that is high speed,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican from Fresno and longtime critic of the bullet-train project who pushed for the audit. …

Click here to read the full article from CNBC

Elon Musk’s “Loop” Faces Trouble While the Bullet Train Rolls On

Hyperloop 1Call this a tale of two transit systems.

There is Elon Musk’s electric-powered platforms or skates called the Loop designed to shoot cars or mass transit vehicles holding up to 16 people through tunnels at 150 miles per hour throughout Los Angeles. Yet, a crucial piece of the network through the agonizingly crowded 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass was scuttled because of a lawsuit dealing with state environmental laws. Then there is the state’s high-speed rail project that marches forward despite numerous environmental lawsuits and funding issues.

Whether Musk’s transit system would work as described is not proven. Maybe it will run into some of the same hurdles as the high-speed rail—cost overruns, skepticism that the train can reach both its passenger goals and promised speeds.

Yet, environmental laws disrupted the Musk project but have not knocked out the bullet train.

Make no mistake, we are told both projects are designed to help the environment. The bullet train will take travelers out of their automobiles while the Musk transit system is moving vehicles around faster so they are not idling, spewing pollutants.

The Loop fell victim to a state environmental law that says infrastructure projects cannot be approved in a piecemeal fashion. Musk had sought avoidance of environmental review on what he called a stand-alone project but a couple of neighborhood associations representing areas near Sepulveda Boulevard on the west side of Los Angeles sued. Musk settled the lawsuit and put aside the tunneling project. His Boring Company has other tunneling projects in the LA area in the works, including one to run from Union Station to Dodger Stadium.

In the meantime, the high-speed rail is facing up to seven lawsuits but has not yet been “de-railed” by any of them.

The train authority also must deal with a recent audit of the project by the state auditor critical of cost overruns and building delays.

Today in Sacramento, California High Speed Rail Authority leaders will respond to the audit before a hearing of the Assembly Transportation and Joint Legislative Audit Committees.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno who called for the audit plans to examine the authority on a number of issues raised in the audit including whether contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars were properly fulfilled; and whether the authority will complete it initial 119-mile segment of the track by December 2020 so as to avoid the loss of $3.5 billion in federal funds.

Despite the audit and the lawsuits based on environmental concerns, the high-speed rail moves on. However, an environmental laws disrupt the potentially more effective Loop plan dealing with the environment.

It helps to have a powerful advocate on the side of the bullet train. How the bullet train fares with Governor Jerry Brown letting go the reins of power is interesting to contemplate.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

California’s right-to-die law upheld by state appeals court

assisted suicideA state appeals court rejected a challenge Tuesday to California’s right-to-die law for terminally ill patients, overturning a judge’s ruling in May that had briefly blocked enforcement of the law.

The statute, in effect since June 2016, allows a dying adult patient to take lethal drugs that a doctor has prescribed. Before that, two doctors must have determined that the patient would die within six months and was mentally competent to choose death.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia halted enforcement of the law in May, ruling that state lawmakers had illegally considered and passed the legislation during a special session devoted to health care. Allowing patients to take their own lives has no apparent connection to improving Californians’ health care, Ottolia said.

Bills passed in a special session require the same majority vote as in normal legislative sessions, but are generally reviewed more quickly and take effect sooner than in regular sessions. However, the right-to-die bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in October 2015, was drafted to take effect eight months later. …

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

Trump officials open door to fracking in California

fracking oil gasThe Trump administration is starting the process of opening up large swaths of land in California to hydraulic fracturing.

In a notice issued Wednesday to the Federal Register, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said it intends to analyze the impact of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, on publicly owned land throughout the state.

The area in question spans 400,000 acres of public land and 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estates throughout a number of California counties including Fresno, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

The notice of intent says BLM will begin the scoping process for a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which will determine the effects of fracking on the environment. Fracking is a technology used to release oil and gas from land. The administration’s intent is to eventually open up public land to new lease sales.

The announcement follows a 2017 lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity. That lawsuit challenged a 2015 attempt by the federal government to finalize a resource management plan that acknowledged fracking. In its settlement, BLM promised that it would first provide an environmental impact statement before considering fracking. …

Click here to read the full article from The Hill

California’s Net Neutrality Bill Faces a Grim Fate

internetAll eyes are on California on Wednesday as a State Assembly committee considers moving forward a net neutrality bill that could lead to the strongest open internet protections in the country.

If passed in its current form and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, the legislation could set a new nationwide standard of comprehensive protections to replace the Obama-era rules thrown out by the Trump administration. But a report issued late Tuesday by the Assembly’s Communications and Conveyance Committee suggests lawmakers plan to gut key provisions of the bill.

Groups supporting net neutrality, such as Fight for the Future, had warned earlier on Tuesday that Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Democrat from Los Angeles who chairs the committee, was planning to introduce amendments that would strip the bill of its most aggressive protections. They accused him of succumbing to pressures from AT&T, which has donated to his campaigns.

The group blasted the chairman’s report ahead of the hearing.

“If Assemblyman Santiago does not change course, he will become the first Democrat to actively help the Trump administration dismantle net neutrality protections that are essential for a free and open Internet,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future.

The contest in California has drawn the attention of national Democrats, who had hoped the California bill would help spur their own efforts to restore federal net neutrality protections passed in 2015, which the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission threw out in December. The rules officially expired last week. …

Click here to read the full article from CNET

California is full of psychopaths, ranks 2nd in nation, study finds

Ever feel like there’s something sinister lurking behind the crunchy granola, yoga-loving, avocado-eating facade of your fellow Californians? Now there’s research to back you up.

California is among the two U.S. states with the highest concentration of psychopaths, according to a working study from Southern Methodist University released on the Social Science Research network this week. The study looks at trends in personality traits across areas (the study hasn’t yet gone through the full peer review process, so take the findings with a grain of salt).

The only places with more psychopaths? Connecticut (thanks, hedge funds!) and, shocker, the District of Columbia. Other highly psychopathic states include New Jersey, New York and Wyoming, while West Virginia, Vermont and Tennessee are among the lease psychopathic states.

“The presence of psychopaths in District of Columbia is consistent with the conjecture found in Murphy (2016) that psychopaths are likely to be effective in the political sphere,” the author writes.

The author, Ryan Murphy, combined the findings of two past papers, one that mapped distribution of the “big five” personality traits (neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and openness to experience) across states and one that tracked which of those five personality traits most closely corresponded with psychopathy, to get the results. …

Click here to read the full article from KCRA

Gavin Newsom Embodies California Liberalism

Gavin newsomGavin Newsom — the former San Francisco mayor, current lieutenant governor, and likely next governor of California — embodies Golden State liberalism: the perfect appearance, the bear-hug embrace of identity politics, the celebration of Silicon Valley moguls tempered by hand-wringing about income inequality, the grandiose, fanciful plans for building the state into a modern utopia.

This is no accident. For better or for worse, Newsom has already done a lot to shape modern California. As San Francisco’s mayor from 2004 to 2011, he pushed the outer boundary of Democratic party politics leftward. His first gubernatorial-campaign ad reminded viewers that he issued same-sex marriage licenses way back in 2004, in calculated defiance of state law. As mayor, he banned plastic bags, the use of Styrofoam in restaurants’ takeout containers, and sales of cigarettes in convenience stores, pharmacies, grocery stories, and big-box stores. He signed laws mandating composting and requiring retailers to display the radiation levels of the cellphones they sold. He gave 400 city employees the authority to write citations for littering. He proposed, but never succeeded in passing, a surcharge on all drinks with high-fructose corn syrup.

Since taking over as lieutenant governor in 2011, Newsom hasn’t had a ton of governing responsibility. In 2012 and 2013, he found the time to host a weekly show on Al Gore’s old Current TV. The Los Angeles Times’ limp endorsement of Newsom in 2014 is unintentionally hilarious: “Being lieutenant governor mostly serves as a perch for gubernatorial candidates-in-waiting. Nevertheless, voters are asked every four years to choose among the aspirants, so here goes . . .”

With little to do in his day job, for the past few years Newsom put his energies into promoting state initiatives. In 2016, he supported and the state adopted Proposition 47, which made just about any crime involving less than $950 — shoplifting, grand theft, forgery, fraud, receiving stolen property or writing bad checks — a misdemeanor for sentencing instead of a felony. Also that year he proposed Proposition 63, prohibiting the possession of large-capacity gun magazines and requiring certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition. The measure passed, but in June 2017, a federal judge issued an injunction, saying that it probably violates the U.S. Constitution. (California’s attorney general is appealing the injunction.)

Yet as Newsom and his like-minded allies unleashed a cornucopia of bans and restrictions and mandates from San Francisco and Sacramento, quite a few Californians started falling out of love with the state. More Americans are leaving California than joining it, concluding that the cost of living, taxes, regulation, traffic, and other problems are just too unbearable, despite the gorgeous coastlines and weather and everything else that once made the Golden State so golden. The state has the highest poverty rate in the country after accounting for its stratospheric cost of living, and the second-highest housing costs, behind only Hawaii.

All of this is probably something of an abstraction to Newsom. His has been a life of privilege that would get a typical Republican office-seeker torn to shreds. His grandfather, William Newsom, was close friends with Pat Brown, the governor of California from 1959 to 1967 and the father of current governor Jerry Brown. His father, also named William, attended St. Ignatius prep school with oil heir Gordon Getty. In 1975, Jerry Brown picked the younger William Newsom to be a state judge. He remained a close, trusted friend to the Getty family, and when young Gavin Newsom had entrepreneurial dreams, the Gettys were happy to invest. In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle found that “Getty, or trusts and firms he controls, is lead investor on 10 of Newsom’s 11 businesses.”

Newsom likes to describe himself as a small-business owner with “a strong bias for entrepreneurs, a strong bias for those putting themselves on the line and taking risks.” One wonders just how risky a business venture can be when the Getty family and their fortune is so consistently ready to help out. …

Click here to read the full article from the National Review

Out with soda, juice and chocolate milk – California could become first state to restrict kids’ meals

Kids mealAs the food court at a Sacramento mall buzzed with families on a recent summer day, Emily Wickelgren and her daughter Thea were enjoying lunch at Subway. The 7-year-old opted for water with her sandwich instead of soda or juice.

“I do have unusual kids in that neither one of them likes soda and they don’t really like juice,” said Wickelgren, the mom of two daughters.

This is what many legislators hope will be the new norm for more California families. Under a bill advancing in the Capitol, restaurants could offer only water or milk with meals marketed for children. Not soda. Not juice. Not chocolate milk.

Those sugary drinks would still be available, at no extra cost, but only upon request. They couldn’t be advertised alongside kids’ meals or offered as a default option. If the bill becomes law, cashiers would ask customers ordering a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, for instance, if they want water, milk or a non-dairy substitute like almond milk. California would become the first state in the nation with such a requirement.

It’s the Legislature’s latest attempt to combat obesity and diabetes by limiting how much soda Californians drink. To illustrate the point at a Tuesday hearing,  Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento held up a jar containing 9.5 teaspoons of sugar—the same amount found in a 12 ounce can of soda.

Research shows that kids often get extra calories in their diet from sugary drinks like soda. The extra sugar puts them at a higher risk for tooth decay, type two diabetes and obesity, according to Public Health Advocates, a sponsor of the bill. Some health experts think changing the drinks offered with kids meals will cause a long-term behavioral shift, leading other kids to become more like Thea and prefer water over pop.

“It’s a thoughtful approach to giving families choice, making sure the choice is a healthful one but not taking away the right if they want to order the sugar-sweetened beverage,” said Sen. Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat who has been fighting the soda industry for years.

His past legislation — including bills to tax sugary drinks and slap warning labels on them — died under strong opposition from the beverage industry. But his latest bill to regulate the drinks offered with kids meals has faced surprisingly little push-back, other than criticism that it empowers the government to make decisions that should be made by parents. It passed the Senate with bipartisan support and cleared the Assembly Health Committee this week without opposition.

The California Restaurant Association has not taken a position on the bill, and the American Beverage Association is neutral, writing in a letter to Monning that it “is committed to increasing access to beverages with less sugar and smaller portions in stores and restaurants.”

The group has already embraced guidelines that say elementary schools should offer only water, milk and 100 percent juice, which may explain why it’s not fighting the proposal to get soda out of kids meals at restaurants.

Some fast food chains are voluntarily taking similar steps. McDonald’s stopped advertising Happy Meals with soda in 2013 and in February removed chocolate milk as a default option, though it’s still available upon request. The meals are now advertised with plain low-fat milk or an apple juice drink that has half the sugar of 100 percent apple juice.

At the local level, cities have started to tackle the issue too. Berkeley passed an ordinance last year with the same requirements as Monning’s bill. Other cities—including Stockton, Daly City and Long Beach—have passed similar ordinances.

Nonetheless, the bill still raises debate about how much government is too much.

“I trust parents and I thought parents can make those decisions,” said Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from Alpine who voted against the bill.

Jennifer Nevarez, a Sacramento mother of four, echoed the same sentiment when told about the proposal at the mall’s food court.

“That’s not going to work,” she said. “I feel like it should be the parents’ choice.”

Nevarez said she only buys water and apple juice for her children at home, so the soda is typically a treat when the family eats out.

Still, some experts worry that drinking sugary drinks at a young age can cause problems later on.

“What we know is that the eating habits we establish when we’re young, often carry with us as we get older,” said Flojaune Cofer, director of state policy and research for Public Health Advocates. “If we consume more sugar, we tend to crave more sugary things when we get older.”

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Too Many Teachers are Clueless on Issues Relating to Their Profession

Teachers unionIn 2006, I co-founded the California Teachers Empowerment Network, whose mission is to give educators unbiased information and to combat union spin and outright lies. While we have helped a good number of teachers, there are still way too many who are in the dark about issues that affect their professional life. A recent poll by Educators for Excellence (E4E) exemplifies this sad state of affairs.

E4E released partial survey results on May 23rd (the questions were posed in late April-early May) and the full report is due August 1st. One of the stunners is that 78 percent of all teachers had heard not much (21 percent) or nothing (57 percent) about the Janus v AFSCME Supreme Court case which would free public employees nationwide from being forced to pay dues to a teachers union. Also, 47 percent of union members said they had heard nothing about the lawsuit.

A claim could be made that many teachers don’t need to know about the litigation, as they live in right-to-work states and will not be affected directly by the imminent ruling. But given the magnitude of the case, the numbers are still startling.

The lack of teacher awareness is in part due to their unions, which don’t seem to feel the need to inform their members that they may have a right to refrain from forking over $1,000 or so a year to them. While the unions are not legally bound to clue in their teachers, you’d think the organizations that constantly showboat their affection for educators would feel some moral obligation to do so. But they don’t. And when union leaders talk about the case, they often lie.

For example, after attending the Janus oral arguments in February, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “I listened as the right wing launched attack after attack on unions and on what collective bargaining gains for working people, those they serve and their communities. Indeed, Justice Sotomayor nailed the right wing’s argument, pointing out, ‘You’re basically arguing, do away with unions.’”

If that’s all a teacher heard about the case, she would be horribly misinformed. The lawsuit has absolutely nothing to do with collective bargaining (CB) or eliminating unions. It is simply about giving teachers and other public employees a choice whether or not to join and pay them as a condition of employment.

Another question of note from the E4E survey asks teachers if they concur with the following: “Without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse.” A whopping 86 percent of those polled agreed (somewhat or strongly) with that statement.

But are teachers really informed about all the data that show that CB agreements actually don’t do anything good for their wages, and in fact may serve to suppress them? Just this past March, yet another study found that across the country, after CB laws went into effect, there was little change in teacher salary or education spending. The study by Agustina Paglayan, a professor at University of California, San Diego, was hardly the first research that showed the inconsequential or detrimental effects of CB.

In 2011, Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli compared teachers’ salaries in school districts across the country which allow CB with those that don’t. Using data collected by the National Council on Teacher Quality, he looked at 100 of the largest districts from each of the 50 states and found that teachers who worked in districts where the union was not involved actually made more than those who were in CB districts. According to Petrilli, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers – $64,500 on average versus $57,500.”

In a detailed 2009 study, “The Effect of Teachers’ Unions on Education Production: Evidence from Union Election Certifications in Three Midwestern States,” Stanford Professor Michael Lovenheim concluded, “I find unions have no effect on teacher pay.”

While Lovenheim’s study used data from just three states, Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson, using national data, came to the same conclusion.

So, according to Paglayan, Petrilli, Lovenheim and Coulson, CB is inconsequential at best, and could actually damage a educator’s bottom line. Randi Weingarten won’t tell teachers any of this.

Weingarten also won’t tell her members about Clovis, a city in California, whose teachers have been never unionized. Yet, educators there have a voice and a role in governance. Instead of a union, they have an elected Faculty Senate, in which each school has a representative. The mission of the Faculty Senate is to be “an effective advocate for teachers at all levels of policy making, procedures, and expenditures, in partnership with our administrators, fellow employees, and community as a quality educational team.”

Teacher salaries are competitive in Clovis. While starting teachers make a few thousand dollars a year more in neighboring unionized Fresno, the differences dissipate as teachers rack up more time on the job. And, while Fresno teachers are saddled with payments of over $1,100 a year to the Fresno Teachers Association, Clovis teachers aren’t burdened with union dues.

The E4E survey, among other things, points to teachers’ ignorance on many issues that directly affect them. Especially with a Janus decision imminent, it is imperative that they become more informed. Not listening to Randi Weingarten and other union leaders’ disinformation and fabrications would be a great first step.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center