Bay Area demonstrators may be paid to protest, by employers

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

It’s a common accusation lobbed at liberal protesters gathered at town hall meetings, statehouses and in the streets: They’re being paid to protest.

Thanks to a rising trend among tech companies and some Bay Area firms, some, in fact, may be.

Since the beginning of the year, an increasing number of companies have unveiled policies that allow employees to take paid time off work for political or civic activities, such as protesting, canvassing, voting, volunteering or even running for office.

Big corporations like Comcast and outdoor-apparel maker Patagonia have been offering social-justice benefits to their employees for years. But several executives said the election of President Trump, and the backlash that followed, turned them on to the idea of giving their employees time off to express themselves politically. …

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New Bay Area tobacco bans include non-tobacco products

VapingRestrictive new anti-tobacco ordinances are spreading across the San Francisco Bay Area like a cigarette-sparked wildfire. Northern California cities already have some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the nation, but a raft of new laws and proposals take aim at “flavored” tobacco products such as menthol cigarettes and fruity mini-cigars.

Health officials argue that these flavored products are particularly appealing to teens, and that their bans are designed to keep young people from picking up an unquestionably dangerous habit. They also argue that the purveyors of menthol cigarettes, for example, target minority communities, and lead to ongoing health problems there.

The ordinances, however, share one trait that has advocates for tobacco “harm reduction” concerned. They make no distinction between combustible tobacco products – i.e., cigarettes, cigarillos, pipe tobacco and cigars – and smokeless products such as e-cigarettes and snus (Swedish-style spit-less tobacco that one places on one’s upper lip).

Tobacco “harm reduction” is a public health strategy designed to reduce the harmful effects of cigarette smoking by encouraging smokers to switch to far-less dangerous – not safe, but less dangerous – types of tobacco-related products. For instance, Public Health England, the United Kingdom’s main public-health agency, argues that vaping is 95 percent safer than cigarette smoking and therefore is a potentially beneficial alternative to smoking.

“About 40 percent of former and current adult smokers predict that removing their ability to choose flavors would make them less likely to remain abstinent or attempt to quit,” wrote Carrie Wade, the R Street Institute’s director of harm-reduction policy, in a recent Washington Examiner column. “While the vast majority of quit attempts are of the ‘cold turkey’ variety, e-cigarettes beat out both nicotine replacement therapies like the patch or nicotine gum and prescribed drugs like Chantix and Zyban.”

Vape liquids are not actually tobacco but mostly contain nicotine. They almost always are flavored. Many adult e-cigarette users prefer vaping with flavored liquids than vaping with those that have a tobacco flavor. These local bans on flavors, by the way, follow a recent statewide law that taxes vaping liquids at the same rate as cigarettes. The California Board of Equalization is currently working out the details of that taxation edict.

Wade described the essence of tobacco harm-reduction policy: make it easier for smokers to switch to smoking alternatives that cause fewer health-related problems. It might be ideal, health-wise if every smoker simply went “cold turkey,” but that’s not likely to happen, so harm-reduction advocates see vaping as a reasonable alternative. They see efforts to limit access to liquids and to boost taxes on them as policies that work against this harm-reduction approach.

Even California’s official Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee explained, in a public meeting earlier this year, that insufficient numbers of smokers participate in medically approved nicotine-replacement therapies. The committee, however, made no effort to distinguish between degrees of harm, and one member depicted vaping as just another form of smoking. In Bay Area cities and elsewhere, public-health officials argue that vaping is still dangerous – and they argue (despite contrary evidence) that it serves as a gateway for teens to actual smoking.

As a result of the new rules, it will become increasingly difficult for nicotine-addicted northern Californians to purchase and use vaping products. That’s particularly true as neighboring counties and cities embrace similar bans. Supporters of these bans admit that it is one of their goals to have such ordinances spread from one community to another, thus making it more difficult for people to simply go to a neighboring city to grab some vape juice.

Some proposals have become law, such as one in the Marin County city of Novato. Others are under consideration. The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors is now considering a ban after one of its committees recently approved a new proposal. Likewise, officials in San Francisco and Oakland have also introduced flavor bans.

San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen’s public statements focus on the sale of mentholated tobacco products. She explains that 80 percent of African-American smokers use menthol products. Nevertheless, her proposal includes all flavored tobacco, which includes vaping liquids. Oakland Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, who led a 2016 campaign to increase soda taxes in the city, has introduced a similar measure that includes vapor products in the flavoring ban.

Novato’s ordinance, which goes into effect January 2018, requires that all residential leases in the city include a clause calling it a “material breach of the agreement for tenant or any other person subject to the control of the tenant … to violate any law regulating smoking while anywhere on the property.” In other words, tenants can be evicted from their apartments not only if caught smoking – but if they or their guests are caught vaping.

The Contra Costa County health department justifies its proposal by stating that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive, and includes various chemicals known to cause cancer and lung problems. But harm-reduction advocates don’t claim that vaping is totally safe, only that it is far safer than cigarette smoking.

Given the political bent of Bay Area cities and counties, it seems likely that most if not all of these proposals will eventually become law. The question remains whether in their zeal to improve the public’s health, these officials are embracing policies that will make actual smoking-related health improvements that much harder to attain.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected]

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Bullet train driving local transit boondoggles

ARTICSACRAMENTO – Over the past six years, California legislators and the governor have increased overall general-fund spending by $36 billion but couldn’t find extra money to spend on road, freeway and other meat-and-potatoes transportation projects. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t spending money like drunken brakemen on myriad rail-related projects.

Sacramento’s transportation focus has been transit, which Democratic leaders believe will reduce the state’s global-warming footprint and combat congestion by encouraging Californians to ditch their cars in favor of a rail pass. State leaders complain about a lack of money – hence, the newly signed law to boost gas taxes and vehicle-license fees – but the problem always comes down to priorities.

Bottom line: California officials are far more interested in social engineering than transportation engineering. They prefer to prod and cajole us into changing the way we get around than in building the infrastructure to help us actually get around. Even the new tax-hike package includes $750 million extra a year in transit projects and for biking and hiking projects, according to a Senate Republican analysis.

The most high-profile example of this approach is, of course, the governor’s pet high-speed rail project, a $64-billion-plus project that promises to connect the Bay Area to Southern California (via a variety of Central Valley cities) in about three hours. The rail authority last week sold $1.25 billion in bonds as it seeks to get something on the ground so there’s no turning back.

As former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, referring to the cost-overrun-laden Transbay Terminal in San Francisco: “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

At least he was honest. A lot of sensible people have wondered why the Brown administration is spending so much time and scarce transportation dollars on a bullet train that won’t be particularly fast and faces enormous geographical hurdles (getting over the Tehachapi Mountains, for starters). Well, Jerry Brown is following the Willie Brown model: he’s trying to dig a hole that’s as deep and wide as possible.

In fact, state and local governments are digging several holes – fiscal sink holes, actually, that are closely linked to the bullet-train project. For instance, Orange County taxpayers, thanks to the Measure M tax, spent $120 million to build the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Its acronym, ARTIC, is a good one given that the bullet train should reach that destination sometime after hell freezes over.

This largely empty 67,000 square-foot boondoggle was meant as a central hub for the county’s bus, Metrolink and other transit services – but was justified because of the role it could play as the end point for the bullet train. The project’s boosters predicted 10,000 riders daily, but it struggles to serve 2,800 a day. As I wrote for the Orange County Register recently, it was supposed to pay for itself, but it’s only expected to earn $1.4 million of its $3.9 million annual budget. The city’s tourism district has decided to stop paying the deficit, which will now be borne by Anaheim taxpayers.

It’s an even more precarious situation in San Francisco. Willie Brown might be okay with the $2.4 billion spent on that Transbay Transit Center, a similar hub in the city by the Bay, but that city’s taxpayers should be less thrilled by its $20 million in annual operating subsidies a year.

“The three-block-long behemoth was envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the West, a dynamic hub for buses and high-speed rail that would draw more than 100,000 visitors a day,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross. “Come opening day, however, there will be no high-speed rail. Instead, for many years, the five-level showcase … will be little more than the world’s most expensive bus station — serving mainly the 14,000 Transbay bus commuters … .”

And other costs are coming for that project. “For high-speed rail to reach the new terminal,” says California Policy Center’s Marc Joffe, “Caltrain would have to be extended 1.3 miles from its current San Francisco terminus at 4th and Townsend. It would cost a lot of money – perhaps a billion dollars – to build this new 1.3-mile subway.”

San Francisco is also spending nearly $1.6 billion, in coordination with Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority, to connect the Caltrain commuter rail depot to the North Beach neighborhood. There are legitimate local reasons to extend this light-rail system perhaps, but the prospect of a pie-in-the-sky bullet train is driving some of these decisions. These are costly projects – and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Likewise, Los Angeles Metro officials just approved a massive overhaul of Union Station to enable it to “handle an expected doubling in the number of daily passengers by 2040,” according to Curbed Los Angeles. “Another big part of the project is readying Union Station for high-speed rail service” even though “questions continue to swirl around the fate of that much-delayed project as political opposition to it grows in Congress … .”

Yeah, but you’ve got to start digging holes, especially holes that get transit advocates clapping.

Los Angeles magazine wrote last week that “Against all odds, the California Bullet Train Barrels Forward.” Well, it is true the state’s political leadership won’t take no for an answer, and the courts continue to let the current project barrel ahead even though many of its main promises are at odds with the supposedly ironclad promises made to voters when they approved the initial $9.95 billion bond funding in 2008’s Proposition 1A.

Last week, a superior court judge said bond money can be spent despite an ongoing legal challenge. But overcoming political and legal hurdles isn’t the same things as surmounting myriad fiscal and engineering feats, which lie at the heart of the bullet-train’s problems.

One of the fathers of this rail project, former judge Quentin Kopp, has argued that the high-speed rail (HSR) project “is no longer a genuine HSR system, as covenanted to California voters and the Legislature. Instead, it has been distorted in a way directly contrary to the high-speed rail plan the authority attempted to implement while I was chairman.” He takes issue with the current “blended” system, which shares commuter-line tracks near Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also complained about the way bullet-train funds are used for that central subway project in San Francisco.

Certainly, sending supposed bullet trains along commuter tracks will vastly reduce the speed of the trains – and the whole purpose of a project designed to provide speedy north-to-south transportation. But Kopp, who made his arguments as a declaration in one of the lawsuits opposing the current rail project, is thinking rationally, whereas the Brown administration and the rail authority are too busy embracing Willie Brown’s cynical approach.

I argued for the California Policy Center that the new $5.2 billion a year transportation tax really is a pension tax given that state officials have refused to rein in pension costs, which will soon require the state to dump $11 billion a year into the pension systems. Had state officials fixed the pension mess, they would have had plenty of cash to fund extra transportation projects.

But the new tax increases also can be thought of as a high-speed rail tax. If state officials weren’t spending so much money on these wasteful rail-related transit projects, they’d have extra money to fix roads, bridges and freeways – and to provide realistic transit projects rather than overbuilt boondoggles designed with a future fantasy train in mind.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor to California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected]

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.

Suffocating Regulations Driving California’s Housing Crisis to the Brink

urban-housing-sprawl-366c0Stories about the desperate living arrangements of highly compensated California tech workers sound like tales of Third World misery. One newspaper reports that a Silicon Valley engineer pays $1,400 a month just to live in a closet. He’s squeezing his wallet for the privilege of having a “private room” in a house where five adults live in bunk beds in a single bedroom. Another media outlet reported that a Google engineer moved into a “128-square-foot truck — in the company’s parking lot” because the cost of living in a real house was just too much.

Housing is so expensive across California that Joel Singer, CEO of the California Association of Realtors, said last fall that “only about one-third of our fellow citizens can afford to buy a median-priced home in the Golden State, down from a peak of 56 percent just four years ago.” Californians who own their homes spend more than a quarter of their total income on housing, the highest ratio in the nation. In 2014, Golden State renters paid 33.6 percent of their income on housing — third-highest in the nation. Despite rent-control laws — actually, in part due to those laws — San Francisco has the most unaffordable rental costs in the world, according to Nested, an international real estate service. Los Angeles is tenth on the list. Three of the five costliest housing markets in North America are found in California: San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles.

The housing crisis isn’t confined to the state’s elite coastal enclaves. In Riverside County, part of a region east of Los Angeles known as the Inland Empire, only 39 percent of households “are able to purchase a median-priced home, which in February was $334,440 for a single-family home,” the Desert Sun reported last March. The national average is 58 percent.

The California housing crunch is the product of a dire shortage of homes. Over the last decade, developers have built an average of 80,000 homes each year. But that number is about 100,000 units short of what’s needed to keep up with demand. According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, the state will need to build roughly 1.8 million units between 2015 and 2025 “to meet projected population and household growth.” That would be like building more than 10 new Oaklands or nearly six new San Joses over that time.

Developers aren’t fools. They know that there is a great demand for housing in California. The profit motive would make them happy to build all those additional Oaklands. But California’s regulatory climate and development policies have eaten away at that incentive. The hurdles to building homes are high and solidly rooted: the most imposing is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which allows opponents of development to shut down projects in the courts, often with no environmental basis. But because the lawsuits can disrupt and suppress projects, the law has become, as the Hoover Institution’s Loren Kaye says, a “tool for abuse.”

Other barriers include the steepest impact fees in the nation, in some cases nearly $25,000 per unit; affordable-housing mandates in more than 170 jurisdictions that require developers either to choose between building units at below-market value or face government fines; local anti-growth policies; and rent control.

The regulatory regime even includes parking mandates that require, for example, a development to have at least one parking space for every bedroom in the project — a formula that absurdly still applies when only one driver lives in a three-bedroom apartment housing five people. A Southern California Association of Governments report says that sometimes housing units are removed from a project just to accommodate these local minimum-parking mandates.

Californians have raised NIMBYism virtually to a level of first principles. Golden Staters don’t mind housing development, as long as it’s “not in my backyard.” The state has an ugly history of established residents pressuring local officials to build policy walls that make development too costly to pursue. The result of all this government is a shortage that has produced the most distorted housing market in the country. It’s so warped and battered that it can hardly be called a market.

Layers of government housing policy have been settling on top of one another for decades, creating a deep regulatory bog that is exceedingly difficult to dredge. So it’s reasonable to ask if California will ever become livable again. And with state and local policymakers seemingly less attached to reality every year, it’s reasonable to give up and move, as many have already done.

More Bay Area residents struggling than poverty statistics indicate

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

Close to 30 percent of the Bay Area’s residents aren’t able to make ends meet as they contend with high housing costs, suggesting poverty is more widespread in the region than official reports indicate, according to a study published Wednesday.

The report by JobTrain, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit organization, estimated that 29.2 percent of Bay Area residents, or roughly 1.45 million people, are not self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency, the study’s authors said, is defined as having a stable place to live and being able to cover the basics for survival.

JobTrain hopes its report, “The Broken Pathway: Uncovering the Economic Inequality in the Bay Area,” will highlight the challenges facing many residents of the nine-county region.

“The problem is much larger than the number of people who are living in poverty in the Bay Area,” said Nora Sobolov, president of JobTrain. “The poverty rate and the unemployment rate don’t tell the full story.”

Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, agrees that the challenges are …

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Combating the Legislature’s ‘Sausage Making Behind Closed Doors’

As reported by the New York Times:

Is the State Legislature transparent enough?

That’s the question voters are being asked to consider with Proposition 54.

If approved, the measure would require that any bill in the Legislature be posted online for three days before going up for a vote. In addition, it would require the Legislature to record all of its public sessions online and make the video archives available.

The measure was placed on the ballot by Charles Munger Jr., a wealthy Republican donor from the Bay Area, and has the backing of a variety of political groups, including the League of Women Voters and the California Chamber of Commerce.

While most legislation in Sacramento is debated for months, there are instances when the majority can simply waive the rules and push through bills at the last minute. In final days of the annual session, new bills can pop up and be rushed to a vote before the public has much of a chance to weigh in. …

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Record number of San Francisco public employees strike it rich

sanfrancisco3As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

A record 23 city and county employees in San Francisco made it over the $300,000 mark in pay this past fiscal year — topped by someone who made more than half a million dollars.

And no, it wasn’t the mayor.

At the top of the pay heap was the chief investment officer for the city’s retirement system, William Coaker Jr., coming in at $512,485 …

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L.A. Has Fallen Far Behind the Bay Area — Perhaps Permanently

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Looking at Los Angeles and San Francisco, two successful California cities in 1970 whose fortunes have since diverged radically, The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies tries to answer an old question: Why do some cities thrive while others stagnate? The authors chose their subjects wisely. Had they paired up any other American cities — say, Chicago and Dallas — too many disparate factors would have come into play. Cities in the same state, however, share a universe of government policies, whether concerning income-tax rates or right-to-work rules, grounding the comparison and lending credence to the conclusions.

Los Angeles and San Francisco have much in common: top-notch climates, natural amenities like oceans and mountains, thriving arts and culture communities, and major international airports. In 1970, both cities boasted powerful industry clusters, similar concentrations of manufacturing firms, and highly educated and technically oriented workforces employed by innovative companies (Amgen in L.A., Genentech in the Bay Area). Prior to the 1990s, Los Angeles actually produced more patents than the Bay Area.

Over the last 45 years, however, while the Bay Area’s economy has soared, with per capita incomes raising rapidly, incomes in L.A. have trailed those in America’s other big cities — in fact, they were on par with those of metro Detroit. The authors dismiss many popular explanations for the trend, from housing costs to immigration to government spending levels. One after another, these theories are investigated and rejected as effects rather than causes. What, then, accounts for the difference?

The authors draw conclusions broadly similar to those made by U.C. Berkley’s AnnaLee Saxenian in her 1996 book, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. The influence of San Francisco’s counterculture, they say, inspired the Bay Area’s tech sector to develop a new approach to management oriented around collaboration, distributed development, labor mobility, and open networks. In Los Angeles, by contrast, the entertainment industry emulated Silicon Valley’s networked organizational structure, but remained disconnected from — and in many ways indifferent to — the larger Southern California economy. As indicated by measures like interlocking board memberships, Los Angeles’s corporate community is less interconnected than San Francisco’s.

The authors offer another reason why Los Angeles failed to keep up with its neighbor to the north. Unlike the Bay Area, which pursued a “high wage specialization strategy,” Los Angeles, in the interest of social justice, deliberately focused on lower- and middle-tier economic sectors. “Los Angeles’s leaders generated a low-road narrative for themselves, while Bay Area leadership coalesced around a high-road vision for their region,” they write. Such decisions have consequences, many of which are demographic. Had Los Angeles followed the same path as San Francisco, Southern California would have attracted far fewer working-class Latinos. The authors don’t directly state this, but it’s a clear implication of their findings. It’s logical to conclude that any region looking to replicate San Francisco’s success should take an exclusively high-end focus — social justice be damned.

Though academic in style, this is a fascinating book, especially for leaders thinking through development challenges in their own regions. It is narrow in focus, however. The authors leave job creation out of their definition of economic development. Instead, they focus on per capita incomes. That’s fine, but many readers will equate development with employment.

The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies paints a picture of a tough economic future for any region with a high-cost environment but a low- to medium-skilled labor force. “Los Angeles can never belong to the club of regions that can attract manufacturing back from cheaper regions of the United States or abroad,” the authors note. Though true, this will be painful for L.A.’s boosters to swallow. Retooling such a gigantic economy won’t be easy.

Poll: One-third of Bay Area residents want to leave

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

More than one-third of Bay Area residents say they are ready to leave in the next few years, citing high housing costs and traffic as the region’s biggest problems, according to a poll released Monday.

Of the 1,000 people polled by the Bay Area Council, 34 percent said they are considering leaving. Those who have lived here five years or less are the most likely to want to leave.

“This is our canary in a coal mine,” said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council. “Residents are screaming for solutions.”

In another grim result, the number of residents who believe the region is on the wrong track has increased sharply in the past year, the poll found. …

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Warriors’ Move To San Fran Faces Well-Funded Opposition

warriors.arenaThe record-setting Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions, have become one of the most beloved sports teams in recent California history. San Francisco politicians have embraced the team’s planned move from Oakland to San Francisco’s Mission Bay area, especially because the team’s wealthy owners are willing to pay for 97 percent of the $1 billion cost of a new 18,000-seat arena (illustration at right). On Tuesday, the city-county’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the project’s environmental impact report, and the team hopes to have the area built in time for the 2018-19 NBA season.

So everything is looking positive for the Warriors coming back to San Francisco? Not exactly. Critics have assembled a multimillion-dollar legal fund to fight the project at every turn, and a classic NIMBY battle between well-funded interests looms.

The main opponent “came out of nowhere” in April. The San Francisco Business Times had details:

A group of University of California, San Francisco, donors is threatening to sue or push a ballot measure against the Warriors’ potential Mission Bay arena over parking and traffic concerns. …

The group, a nonprofit called the Mission Bay Alliance, worries that arena traffic will bottle up to ensnarl ambulances headed to nearby UCSF Medical Center and threaten the neighborhood’s ability to grow as a biotechnology hub. Its proximity to AT&T Park and possible overlapping game days will exacerbate that, the group says.

Sam Singer, who is representing the alliance’s public relations efforts, [said], “The alliance wants to see the (arena) and office towers halted completely. If that doesn’t happen through the EIR and public participation process, the alliance will consider a lawsuit and going to the ballot to stop the stadium.”

Poll suggests public not sold on arena

On the eve of the supervisors’ vote, the Mission Bay Alliance released a poll of 540 voters that showed much less support than the Warriors have asserted. This is from a statement on the alliance’s website:

Based on what they know today about the proposed arena plan in Mission Bay, fewer than half of voters say they support it:

Support – 49 percent

Oppose – 42 percent

Don’t know – 10 percent  …

Once voters became aware of the facts surrounding the proposed arena and the expected regional impacts, including traffic gridlock, the lack of parking and clogged emergency access for adjacent UCSF hospitals, support for the arena plummeted even more:

Support – 38 percent

Oppose – 59 percent

Don’t know – 3 percent

Parking and traffic ranked as the two most problematic impacts, with 65 percent of voters concerned about traffic gridlock and 67 percent about a lack of parking in and around the arena. … [The project] does little to alleviate the burden the arena will put on regional transit like BART and CalTrain.

Being a popular champion helps sway debate

But the Warriors and the city leaders who back them up on the planned move could benefit tremendously from timing. San Diego voters agreed to help pay for PETCO Park for the Padres in the city’s downtown area in November 1998 — a month after the team won a rare National League title and advanced to the World Series.

The contrast is sharp with present-day San Diego and seemingly broad opposition to having local governments help the Chargers pay for a new NFL stadium. Other factors certainly come into play. San Diego’s reputation as “Enron by the Bay” has faded, but the city’s years of financial struggles have left scars. The city is debating a huge infrastructure program, prompting questions about why $200 million that might go to fix pocked roads and add fire stations would instead help a billionaire build a stadium. But it hasn’t helped the let’s-hold-our-noses-and-accept subsidies crowd that the Chargers have been hugely disappointing since their 14-2 season in 2007, rarely living up to expectations.

The Warriors, by contrast, sharply exceeded expectations in 2014-15, when they won their first NBA championship in 40 years. This season, meanwhile, they got off to the fastest start of any team in NBA history. That could be an ace in the hole for team owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com