California Legislature denies another request for harassment records

The California Legislature has refused to release additional information on sexual harassment complaints requested by the Los Angeles Times in the wake of widespread scrutiny on how the Capitol handles such matters.

Officials representing the Senate and Assembly each said late Tuesday that they were denying a request by The Times, submitted on Nov. 3, for data beginning in 2006 for “all cases involving current and former employees of the [Legislature], current or former members, or any other person who was the subject of an inquiry by the [Legislature] where the charges were found to be true, discipline was imposed or the complaints were judged to be well-founded.”

Daniel Alvarez, the secretary of the Senate, and Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer of the Assembly, cited the Legislative Open Records Act in denying the request. The act says certain records are exempt from mandatory disclosure, including personnel files and records of complaints to or investigations conducted by the Legislature.

The Times has sent three requests to each chamber seeking aggregate data and other information about sexual harassment complaints. The officials responded earlier this month with “summary data” on the number of investigations conducted, but left other parts of the request unanswered. …

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

Lawmakers to Californians: Do as we say, not as we do

CA-legislatureWith a declaration that “public servants best serve the citizenry when they can be candid and honest without reservation in conducting the people’s business,” lawmakers passed the California Whistleblower Protection Act in 1999.

The idea was to protect workers who report misconduct, so that they can blow the whistle on bad actors without losing their jobs. The bill at that time covered workers at state agencies and California’s two public university systems. Lawmakers expanded it in 2010 to cover employees of the state’s courts.

But one group of California government workers has never had whistleblower protection under the law: those who work for the lawmakers themselves. It’s an example of how the Legislature sometimes imposes laws on other people that it doesn’t adhere to itself.

“Lawmakers make laws that affect all of us, including them, and they are softening the blow of regulations for themselves,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who chairs the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“It feels like double talk.”

The Legislature’s exemption from the Whistleblower Protection Act has garnered attention in recent weeks, as a groundswell of women complaining of pervasive sexual harassment in the state Capitol publicly call for such protections for legislative employees.

But the whistleblower act isn’t the only area of the law in which the Legislature has demonstrated a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality:

Public records

Want to know whom government officials are meeting with, talking to or emailing? Or how officials were disciplined after an investigation found them culpable of wrongdoing?

State agencies and local governments must release such information — calendars, emails and disciplinary records — under the California Public Records Act, which the Legislature created in 1968. But the same information is nearly impossible to get from state lawmakers because the Public Records Act does not apply to the Legislature.

Instead, lawmakers are covered by the Legislative Open Records Act, which they passed in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The act that applies to them is riddled with exceptions, effectively keeping secret many documents that other branches of government must disclose.

“The Legislature has created in many areas a black box where the public can’t see records it would be entitled to see if the public officials at issue weren’t in the Legislature,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization advocating government transparency.

The Legislature’s open-records law allows it to withhold investigations of wrongdoing, even when they led to disciplinary action. It also keeps secret correspondence by lawmakers and their staff, as well as officials’ calendars. The Legislature even refused to give reporters the calendars of two senators undergoing federal prosecution on corruption charges, until media companies sued and won a court order compelling their release.

Another difference: As more government agencies began storing information electronically, the Legislature updated the Public Records Act in 2000 to compel disclosure of digital records. Now state agencies and local governments must provide public records in any format in which they exist. That gives the public access to electronic records, such as databases, in their original digital format.

But the Legislature has never made the same update to its own open-records act. “It was a non-starter,” former Assemblyman Kevin Shelley told the Sacramento Bee in 2015.

Open meetings

The idea that government meetings should be open to the public, and designed to welcome public input, has been enshrined in California law for more than 60 years. In 1953 the Legislature passed the open-meeting law that applies to local governments, and in 1967 it passed a similar one for state agencies.
Yet the 1973 law it passed requiring open meetings of the Legislature does not follow the same rules. One major difference: It allows legislators to gather secretly in partisan caucuses.

When contentious issues hit the floor of the Assembly or the Senate, it’s common for one political party or the other to pause proceedings and call for a caucus. Legislators file out of the chamber and into two private meeting rooms where Democrats and Republicans separately gather for conversations that exclude the public and the press. They can hash out disagreements or craft strategy behind closed doors, then return to the chamber to publicly cast their votes.

Local governments, such as city councils, cannot do this. With a few limited exceptions, state law forbids a majority of a local board from gathering privately precisely because it shuts the public out of the decision-making process.

“I always remember county supervisors being rankled,” said Peter Detwiler, a retired long-time staffer to the state Senate’s local government committee. “‘You guys put these rules on us and you don’t ever put rules like that on yourself.’”

The same laws also slow down decision-making by local governments and state agencies so that the public can weigh in. Local governments must give at least three days’ notice before taking action, while state agencies have to post agendas 10 days in advance.

Legislators, until this year, did not have the same constraints. Though most bills go through a months-long process of public deliberations, a handful of bills each session were written just hours before lawmakers cast votes on them, leaving the public no time to offer their input. Democrats who control the Legislature said the last-minute lawmaking allowed them to put together sensitive compromises that could have blown up with more public scrutiny.

But voters grew frustrated with the secrecy. A Republican donor worked with non-partisan good-government groups to put Proposition 54 on last year’s ballot, requiring that bills be written and posted online for at least three days before lawmakers can vote on them. The result: voters put a rule on legislators that the politicians wouldn’t put on themselves.

Out of state travel

With culture wars raging nationally over transgender rights, California’s liberal Legislature last year passed a law banning state-funded travel to states with laws that discriminate against gay or transgender people. Eight states are now on California’s no-go list. Some have laws that could forbid LGBT people from adopting children or exclude gay students from some school clubs; others have banned anti-discrimination policies that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their identity.

Yet while legislators have banned state-sponsored travel to Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, they haven’t stopped traveling to those places themselves. In June, Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara traveled to Texas for a conference of Latino government officials. Soon after, Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg went to Kentucky to study the state’s bail system.

Hertzberg was working on legislation to overhaul bail in California, and “felt it critical to observe first-hand the impact of bail reform in (Kentucky), which has a very well-established system of pretrial release,” his chief of staff Diane Griffiths wrote in an email.

The travel-ban bill does not exempt lawmakers — a late amendment actually specifies that it also applies to the Legislature — so how are these trips taking place? Lawmakers are getting around the law by using campaign funds (not tax-dollars) to pay for them.

The Legislature’s leaders declined to defend the exemptions, but in the past lawmakers have contended that they are justified because of the unique role of a law-making body and the need to protect legislators’ security. As far as critics are concerned, legislators get away with making exceptions for themselves because their hypocrisy doesn’t attract enough notice to generate mass outrage.

Right now there’s plenty of attention on the Legislature over its policies for dealing with sexual harassment — and some debate about whether extending the whistleblower act would help remedy the problem.

As is, the Legislature has internal personnel policies that forbid retaliation, and legislative employees are also covered by a different state law that prohibits retaliation for complaining about discrimination or harassment. But the whistleblower act goes even further, laying out a process for workers to confidentially file complaints to the independent state auditor.

Lawmakers will yet again consider a bill giving whistleblower protection to legislative staff when they return to Sacramento next year. GOP Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore plans to re-introduce a measure that has stalled in the past. And — in a nod to some who have say that her bill wouldn’t apply to employees reporting sexual harassment — she said she’ll add language explicitly stating that it does.

This article was originally published by CalMatters

Which legislators stood up for California taxpayers this session?

CapitolIn 2017, the California Legislature launched a sustained and withering assault on middle-class taxpayers. Its victories were numerous and significant: A $75 per document recording tax was approved, affecting up to 400 different transactions; a gas and car tax, which takes effect November 1, will cost California households another $600 a year; and an increase in environmental regulations, known as cap-and-trade, could increase the cost of fuel by an additional 70 cents/gallon by 2030.

In the face of such devastating policies, it is easy for taxpayers to question whether legislators will ever be held accountable. However, a useful tool to assist taxpayers is the annual legislative Report Card published by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Introduced back in 2007, the point of the report card is to document how lawmakers have voted on issues important to taxpayers. Lawmakers tend to hide behind statements, often of dubious veracity, to justify their votes. The report card sets aside motives, politics and party affiliations and simply asks one question: did legislators stand up for the interests of taxpayers?  While politicians may obfuscate, the numbers don’t lie.

HJTA’s 2017 scorecard featured a list of 22 bills which, represents a broad sample size, making it easy to see who is either a friend to taxpayers or beholden to the special interests that pervade the state Capitol. Beyond the obvious tax increases listed above, other bills include those that make it easier for local governments to increase sales taxes, and allow for San Francisco Bay Area residents to increase bridge tolls. Attacks on the initiative process are another common theme highlighted in the scorecard.

Given the policy breadth of the bills listed above, it should come as no surprise that the 2017 scorecard was nothing short of abysmal. A record 79 legislators failed the scorecard while only 24 got a grade of “A.” Ten legislators received the coveted and difficult to get perfect score in 2017: Assembly Members Travis Allen, Brian Dahle, Vince Fong, Jay Obernolte and Jim Patterson. They were joined by State Sens. Joel Anderson, Patricia Bates, Jean Fuller, Mike Morrell and Jeff Stone. These legislators should be commended for their diligence on behalf of taxpayers. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Sexual misconduct in the California Legislature – Outside firm hired to investigate

Nancy Skinner

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is among more than 140 women who signed the letter detailing sexual harassment in politics and demanding that it end. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, announced on Tuesday that the state Senate will hire outside firms to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol in Sacramento – allegations referenced in an open letter signed by women claiming widespread harassment while working in California politics.

“There’s always more employers can do to protect their employees,” de León said. “Everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior and I applaud the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward and making their voices heard.”

The open letter was published on wesaidenough.com.

“The time has come for women to come together, to speak up and to share their stories,” part of the letter read. “The time has come for good men to listen, to believe us, and to act as strong allies by speaking out against harassment in all its forms.”

Below the text was a box to share and submit a story of your own to the group.

“If you see – or experience – inappropriate behavior, don’t sweep it under the rug. Speak up, speak loud, and know there is a community of people who will support you. Let’s work on the solution together,” the letter added.

In particular, the writing criticized the Legislature’s procedures for dealing with such complaints, with some women arguing they fear speaking out over concerns that it will put their professional life in jeopardy.

“If you hang someone out to dry as a Weinstein of the Sacramento community, that sort of gives folks the political cover to say look we got the bad guy, we fixed this,” lobbyist Samantha Corbin told the Sacramento Bee. “That’s not true. We want long-term culture change where men are held accountable and there is a system where woman can work and feel safe.”

Assembly leaders also said this week that they will launch public hearings, prompting some speculation that the claims are being given a heightened sense of attention in wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal that has rocked Hollywood.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, issued a joint statement with with Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale.

“First, we must change the climate that has allowed sexual harassment to fester,” the statement read. “Second, we must ensure victims have a safe and dependable environment to come forward and discuss complaints no matter who the perpetrator is and without detriment to their career or environment. Third, we must ensure that sexual harassment is dealt with expeditiously and that the seriousness of consequences match the violations committed.”

The move by de León comes just days after he announced his primary challenge to longtime incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., likely creating a sense of urgency to quell any criticism that he presided over a toxic and abusive culture while in leadership in Sacramento.

The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer will conduct the investigation and CPS HR Consulting will “review the Senate’s policies and practices against harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” according to de León.

One of the more explosive allegations comes from lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who described to several papers an incident where a current lawmaker, who has not been named, shoved her into a bathroom and masturbated in front of her.

The actions come in conjunction with the #MeToo campaign, which is spreading across social media, where victims are documenting their experiences with harassment.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Is California’s Tax Burden “Fair”?

TaxesA recent report by the highly regarded Calmatters.com found that the State of California has been on a “taxing binge” over the past few years, having enacted a whole slew of recent tax increases such as the “gas tax,” the “cap and tax” energy taxation scheme.

The Calmatters.com analysis found that the recent state tax increases “plus a slew of new local government levies and hikes in personal income and taxable retail sales, will raise total tax collections to just under $300 billion, or $50 billion more than they were just two years ago,” according to the report.

“Nearly $200 billion will go to the state and more than $100 billion to schools and local governments,” states the report, which concludes that California likely has the “highest” tax burden in the nation.   (Note:  As good as the original Calmatters.com revenue analysis is, there appears to be several major revenue sources excluded such as “fee” revenue, county revenue sources, and “special district” revenue to name a few.  Based on my rough estimations the total state and local burden is likely closer to $400 billion, possibly more, if “all” revenue sources are included) 

That puts the state’s total estimated tax burden at an estimated $300 billion, which is roughly 11.5% of the state’s economy, based 2016 California Dept. of Finance figures that peg the state’s total economic activity at about $2.6 trillion.

To put this into perspective, the federal budget recently approved by the Senate proposes about $4 trillion in spending, which is about 21% of the nation’s $19 trillion in estimated gross domestic product (GDP), according to figures produced by the Trump Administration.

It must also be noted that these figures fail to adequately account for significant “deficit spending” and “mounting debt” at all levels of government, which have the effect of pushing an increasing tax burden into the future.

Thus, while the federal government is considering a dramatic reduction in tax rates, California government continues on a “taxing binge.”

A new updated report by the California Taxpayers’ Association (Cal-Tax) found that the Democrat-run California Legislature has proposed “more taxes and fees in the first half of the 2017-18 legislative session than in all of 2015 or 2016,” states the report.

The Cal-Tax report found that California Democrat lawmakers have collectively introduced 89 proposals that “cumulatively would cost taxpayers more than $373 billion annually in higher taxes and fees,” states the report.

This “taxing binge” at the state level, has been copied at the local level of government in California in recent years with a record amount of tax and bond measures being proposed in the June and November 2016 elections.

According to a report by CaliforniaCityFinance.com, there was an “unprecedented” 452 tax increases and 184 separate bond measures placed on the November 2016 ballot by California local governments and school districts.  More than 80% of the local tax increases passed and more than 97% of the bond measures passed.

But these overall figures, don’t tell the whole story. The key policy questions that emerge are what are the factors driving this “acceleration” in the California tax burden? And how are California state and local governments spending all this additional tax revenue?

A third question that I believe must be asked yet often is not, is who is paying all these additional state and taxes?

As an expert in state and local finance, I have extensively studied the facts and evidence on all of these questions and drawn some overarching conclusions.

First, the key factor driving the recent “acceleration” in the state’s tax burden is “unchecked” and “unsustainable” increases in the “cost of government” in California at both the state and local levels.

The state’s “public employee pension crisis” is the biggest single driver of the “cost of government,” combined with significant baseline expenditure increases in current and retired public employee health care costs.

Given that labor costs typically compose more than 80% of public sector budgets, and more than 90% of the cost increases, the “cost of government” cannot be addressed without significant mitigation of public employee compensation cost increases.

Second, how are state and local governments spending this additional tax revenue?  This issue is connected to the first question and touches on perhaps one of the most disturbing trends in California public finance—this money is primarily being squandered on “unsustainable” increases in the cost of government, not on improving government services and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the complex nature of public budgets makes it very easy to hide the nature and extent of cost increases.  But my overall conclusion is simple, the “driving forces” behind both the underlying “need” for the tax increase as well as the actual expenditures themselves are caused primarily by “unsustainable” increases in public employee compensation costs.

In short, baseline public employee compensation costs are rising at rates that far exceed average revenue growth for public agencies.  Based on my review of local and state budgets, during economic expansions stand and local revenue growth averages about 4-7% per year, compared to increases in public employee compensation costs that average between 10-25% of total agency costs.

Thirdly, who pays this increasing state and local tax burden?  This is also a complex question, but there is no question that the heaviest tax burden falls on average Californians and small businesses, particularly the poor.

A 2015 report by the California budget project, found that California’s lowest-income families pay the largest share of their income in state and local taxes, with the bottom 1/5 of all taxpayers paying 10.5% of their income in taxes.

Incidentally, these same low-income and poor families are paying nearly 70% of their income in housing costs, according to the California Legislative Analyst.

That is why the recent tax increases approved by the California Democrat Legislature are so “offensive” because they take a bad problem and make it even worse.

The $5-6 billion increase in the “gas tax” and vehicle fees is highly regressive, and so is the “cap and tax” scheme which creates a new energy tax burden that will be the heaviest on poorer individuals and families, along with small businesses.

As for the whole slew of local taxes, those also tend to fall disproportionately on “average” taxpayers, small businesses, and homeowners, as opposed to special interests who can afford to mount major opposition campaigns, thereby preventing such proposals in the first place.

Ironically, there continues to be calls for “tax reform” in California, but if you look behind these “tax and spend” efforts such as the “Make it Fair Campaign,” they all propose billions in additional taxes, particularly on individuals and small businesses.

But to truly make the state’s tax system “more fair,” that would require limiting future tax increases and lowering taxes on “average” Californians, homeowners, and small businesses.

Unfortunately, there are very few “well heeled” interest groups in Sacramento who are willing to champion that cause.

David Kersten is the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy—a Bay Area-based public policy think tank and consulting organization. Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public budgeting at the University of San Francisco. 

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Gov. Brown signs major bills – How will they affect you?

jerry-brown-signs-lawsSACRAMENTO – In his veto message of two bills that would have banned smoking at California state parks and beaches, Gov. Jerry Brown argued that there must be “some limit to the coercive power of government.” Nevertheless, in a sea of bill signings this week, the governor vastly expanded the power of government to dictate private workplace rules, along with a number of other measures that expand state regulatory prerogatives.

One of the more far-reaching bills, Senate Bill 63, mandates that companies with at least 20 employees provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers to care for a newborn or adopted child. Before the signing, state law required such leave for companies with 50 or more workers. The bill’s backers said it is about simple “fairness,” but the California Chamber of Commerce labeled it a “job killer” that “unduly burdens” small companies and “exposes them to the threat of costly litigation.”

Brown also signed Assembly Bill 168, which bans all employers – including state and local governments, and even the Legislature – from asking for the salary history of any applicant. Instead, the employer must provide a salary scale. It was pitched mainly as a gender-equality measure.

“The practice of seeking or requiring the salary history of job applicants helps perpetuate wage inequality that has spanned generations of women in the workforce,” said Assembly member Susan Eggman, the Stockton Democrat who sponsored the bill. Opponents argue that there are many legitimate reasons for employers to seek out an applicant’s salary history and that the law will cause employers mainly to enlarge the pay range, thus making it much harder for applicants and employers to find the appropriate level of pay.

These bills were part of a package backed by the California Legislative Women’s Caucus. Not all of them were workplace-related. For instance, the governor signed AB10 by Assembly member Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, which “requires public schools serving low-income students in grades 6 to 12 to provide feminine hygiene products in half of the school’s bathrooms at no charge.”

And he signed AB273 by Assembly member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, which “expands the eligibility criteria for subsidized child care services to parents who are taking English as a second language or high school equivalency courses.” Brown also gave the OK to a bill that will subsidize diapers for poor women.

In other topic areas, the governor signed 11 bills on Wednesday designed “to improve California’s criminal and juvenile justice systems, restore the power of judges to impose criminal sentences and reduce recidivism through increased rehabilitation.” These include measures that would seal the records of people who were arrested but never convicted of a crime; allow a parole hearing for juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole; and a bill that gives judges additional discretion regarding the “firearms enhancement” for sentencing decisions.

Furthermore, the governor signed AB1448, by Assembly member Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, which allows the Board of Parole to continue its parole hearings for elderly prisoners who have served at least 25 years in prison after federal oversight of the prison system ends. The state had been under federal court decrees dealing with overcrowding, but has since passed a realignment law and other programs that have reduced the size of the inmate population. In his signing message, the governor said that this elderly-prisoner program has successfully reduced costs involving geriatric prisoners who no longer pose a risk to society.

The governor previously had signed SB384, by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, which creates a tiered sex-offender registry rather than the current system of lifetime registration. The bill received significant law-enforcement support. Supporters argued that “local law enforcement agencies spend between 60 to 66 percent of their resources dedicated for sex offender supervision on monthly or annual registration paperwork because of the large numbers of registered sex offenders on our registry,” according to the Senate bill analysis.

“If we can remove low-risk offenders from the registry it will free up law enforcement officers to monitor the high risk offenders living in our communities,” supporters argued. There was no official, recorded opposition to the bill, but Republican opponents expressed fear in the floor debate that these changes would put the public at risk.

The governor signed a controversial drug-pricing transparency bill, SB17, that forces “drug manufacturers to notify specified purchasers, in writing at least 90 days prior to the planned effective date, if it is increasing the wholesale acquisition cost … of a prescription drug by specified amounts.” The pharmaceutical industry fought vociferously against the measure, which it believes is a first step in a national campaign to impose government price controls.

The governor used some of his strongest – and most ideological – rhetoric in touting this measure. “The rich are getting richer. The powerful are getting more powerful. So this is just another example where the powerful get more power and take more,” he said, according to a National Public Radio report of the signing ceremony. “We’ve got to point to the evils, and there’s a real evil when so many people are suffering so much from rising drug profits.”

This was part of a package of recently signed medical-related consumer-oriented legislation. Other legislation puts limits on the gifts and benefits doctors can receive from drug manufacturers, prevents drug makers from steering consumers to higher-priced medications, creates a licensing system for pharmacy benefit managers, and creates a California Pharmaceutical Collaborative to help government agencies negotiate better deals for pharmaceuticals.

Signings have been far more plentiful than vetoes.

But the governor vetoed a bill that would require people who work for many web-based meal-delivery services that deliver pre-packaged uncooked meals to consumers to obtain a food-handler’s card. In his veto message, the governor wrote that he is “not convinced … that the existing regulatory scheme for food facilities is suitable for this new industry.” Brown vetoed a bill that would have created a new state task force that would examine opioid prescriptions in light of the state’s opioid crisis.

He also vetoed AB63, which would have imposed the same curfew (between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.) on drivers under the age of 21 that now applies only to those under 18. “Eighteen-year-olds are eligible to enlist in the military, vote in national, state and local elections, enter into contracts and buy their own car. I believe adults should not be subject to the same driving restrictions presently applied to minors,” Brown explained in his veto message.

Stay tuned. The governor has until Sunday night to sign or veto the remaining bills passed this session.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Brown signs Sanctuary State law, risking Trump retaliation

As reported by the L.A. Times:

Under threat of possible retaliation by the Trump administration, Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark “sanctuary state” legislation Thursday, vastly limiting who state and local law enforcement agencies can hold, question and transfer at the request of federal immigration authorities.

Senate Bill 54, which takes effect in January, has been hailed as part of a broader effort by majority Democrats in the California Legislature to shield more than 2.3 million immigrants living illegally in the state. Weeks before Brown’s signature made it law, it was met with swift denunciations from Trump administration officials and became the focus of a national debate over how far states and cities can go to prevent their officers from enforcing federal immigration laws.

Brown took the unusual step of penning a signing message in support of SB 54. He called the legislation a balanced measure that would allow police and sheriff’s agencies to continue targeting dangerous criminals, while protecting hardworking families without legal residency in the country. …

Click here to read the full article

California Legislature abandons middle class

CapitolDoes anyone honestly think that the California Legislature’s complete abandonment of the middle class is unrelated to the state’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rate?

This past week presented a stark contrast in the Golden State. First, the controller reported state tax proceeds from all categories are exceeding budget projections. Specifically, the state brought in almost $9 billion in August, exceeding projections in the state budget by over $340 million. All three of the major sources of state revenue — personal and corporate income tax plus sales tax — were up over last year. While a substantial portion of this uptick in economic activity can be attributed to the Trump recovery, there is no denying that California remains an economic powerhouse in its own right.

However, about the same time as we were getting cheery news about state revenue, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that over 20 percent of Californians live in poverty. The “Supplemental Poverty Measure,” which takes into account California’s absurdly high cost of living, gives us the highest poverty rate in the country while the rest of the nation has shown improvement.

So how is it that the most economically powerful state in the union has a poverty level that would make even Mississippi blush? In large part, the answer lies in California’s toxic mix of crony capitalism with mindless pursuit of progressive policies. And both were on full display in the final week of this year’s legislative session.

Few bills moving through the last hectic hours at the Capitol could be remotely characterized as helping the middle class. For example, Assembly Bill 1250 is a complete sop to labor interests. It would prohibit counties from contracting out for services “customarily” performed by county workers unless 14 complicated requirements are met. This would drive up the costs of county government — ultimately paid by taxpayers — and would hurt nonprofits which provide low cost, effective services to county governments. Fortunately, it appears that AB1250 has been stymied this year but will be pushed into 2018.

On a more grand scale, little compares to the various bills moving through the Legislature to deal with the housing crisis. Special interests have formed a conga line outside the governor’s and legislative offices to get a slice of the public pie (baked, of course, with taxpayer dollars). First, is a massive housing bond. Keep in mind that a $4 billion dollar bond will likely incur $8 billion in taxpayer costs after interest and the cost of bond underwriting (Wall Street loves California debt). Second, labor once again wants any public dollars spent on housing to be subject to costly labor restrictions such as Project Labor Agreements or prevailing wage requirements. Who pays for the higher costs? Why, taxpayers, of course.

Overall, California’s housing policies being pursued are designed to reward special interests rather than increase housing stock in any significant way. It is totally lost on our elected leadership that the best housing policy would be for government to reduce regulations that stand in the way of housing construction rather than increase regulations. One bill, Senate Bill 35, does provide a little relief from burdensome CEQA requirements but it contains 18 separate provisions that developers must meet in order to qualify for the expedited permit process for residential development.

The only bill of which we are aware that would have significantly helped housing affordability was Assembly Bill 1100, co-authored by Assemblymen Phil Chen, R-Brea, and Matthew Harper, R-Huntington Beach, to increase both the current homeowners exemption (which provides homeowners with a scant $70 of annual tax relief) and the renters credit. This proposal would require no new government program nor impose new regulations, which probably explains why it lacked popularity in the Capitol. However, it would have put immediate cash into the pockets of all Californians who have to pay for the roof over their heads. That’s what we call middle-class tax relief.

Middle-class Californians have a choice. Stay in California and continue to be the piñatas for progressives and special interests or bail out to other states. Increasing numbers of California’s middle class are choosing the latter.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

This article was originally published by the Orange County Register

This is where California legislation goes to die

Bills and legislationShortly after last year’s presidential election, Democrats in the California Legislature drew headlines by introducing a flurry of bills attacking “fake news.” They called for more resources to teach media literacy, so public school students could better discern facts from the kind of bogus stories that proliferated online during the campaign.

Yet in the months since, all three of those bills have quietly met their demise, victims of the Legislature’s appropriations committees. Officially, the committees—one in each house—are supposed to pull the Legislature’s purse strings, weighing how much a proposal is expected to cost, and comparing bills against one another to establish priorities for spending state tax dollars. Unofficially, the appropriations committee is where bills go to die—especially the ones the ruling party wants to bury with little trace.

This month the appropriations committees quietly killed the last of the fake news bills, a pile of marijuana measures, a proposal to create a “pro-choice” license plate and another to allow cities to keep bars open until 4 a.m.—an issue few lawmakers outside of San Francisco seem to regard as a burning problem.

As befits a good murder plot, lawmakers target potential victims by placing the bills on what they call the “suspense file.” Then, twice a year, the appropriations committees cull through all these bills, allowing some to proceed to a floor vote but stopping many in their tracks. In other committees, lawmakers publicly vote when they kill a bill, attaching their names and reputations to the decision. But there is no public vote when the appropriations committees snuff out bills on the suspense file.

“It’s the closest thing that the Legislature has to a veto power,” said former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Los Angeles Democrat who chaired the appropriations committee from 2012 to 2014.

Sure, decisions are based on weighing the costs and benefits of the proposed policies, Gatto said. “But it’s also a cost-benefit analysis politically: How much does the house want to put a bill like this on the floor?”

Euthanizing a bill in this way shields lawmakers from having to cast a difficult floor vote—often choosing between a popular idea and one that aggravates powerful interests in the state Capitol.

A look at some of the dozens of bills that appropriations committees recently axed:

Making school spending more transparent: AB 1321 would have required every school to publish reports on how much money they spend per student. Civil rights groups said it would ensure that funds intended to help needy children are spent in their classrooms. But teachers unions and school administrators—influential forces in the Capitol—spent most of the year opposing the bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego.

Water under the Mojave desert: Environmentalists backed AB 1000 as an attempt to block a controversial project that would pump groundwater out of the Mojave desert and direct it to more populous communities near the coast. The bill also had the unusual support of Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But labor and business groups opposed it, and the project developer, a company called Cadiz, is a big political donor. After killing the bill, Senate appropriations chairman Ricardo Lara released a statement saying the project had gone through extensive environmental review and the Legislature shouldn’t interfere. Cadiz stock then shot up 31 percent.

Protecting whistleblowers in their midst: State employees who report government wrongdoing are protected from being fired under the Whistleblower Protection Act—but not if they work for the Legislature. So for four years, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore has introduced a bill to extend whistleblower protection to legislative employees. And for four years, the bill has been buried by the Senate appropriations committee.

Blocking coastal oil drilling: After President Donald Trump signed an executive order that could expand oil and gas drilling into federal waters off the California coast, Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara introduced a bill intended to block it. Her SB 188 would have prohibited the state from approving new leases on pipelines or other infrastructure needed to support new oil and gas development. The bill would have cost the state millions of dollars in lost leases. Its demise in the Assembly appropriations committee marked a loss for environmentalists and a win for oil companies—and the Trump Administration.

Watchdogging the police: Prompted by a string of high-profile police shootings, Democrats introduced a handful of bills intended to create more public trust in police. AB 748 would have made public more footage from police body cameras. AB 284 would have required a public report on two years of police shootings in California. Law enforcement groups opposed both bills, but supported another that also was killed: AB 1428, which would have provided the public with more information about the status of complaints against police officers.

In a Legislature that processes thousands of bills each year, the two appropriations committees play a critical role in culling ideas—but many could have been rejected earlier if lawmakers were more willing to say no.

“There are pressures from lobbyists, pressures from leadership, pressures from constituents. And the path of least resistance is for members to rely on this end-game that plays out very quickly on a Friday,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.

“It allows a critical mass of legislators to get the outcome they want without having to put their name on that hard choice of saying no.”

That might explain why the Assembly appropriations committee quashed a bill that would have reduced the fine for rolling through a red light on a right turn from $100 to $35. Who would possibly want to vote against that?

This article was originally published by CalMatters

Damage from legislative bills delayed, but still harmful

CapitolSometimes, California’s laws are like a guillotine on a timer.

By the time the blade drops, everybody who set it up has made a safe getaway.

To illustrate, consider four different laws that did their damage long after the perpetrators moved on, and a brand new one that’s likely to raise rents and perhaps tax Californians right out of their own homes.

In 1999, the Legislature passed and Gov. Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 400, which increased the pensions of state workers, even those already retired. At the time, everyone was told it would cost taxpayers nothing because the pension fund’s investment returns would easily pay for the higher benefits.

Then the blade dropped. In 2016, the tab for state employee pensions was $5.4 billion, more than 30 times what the state was paying before SB400 took effect. Today the state faces crushing pension debt that’s deep into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

In 2006, the Legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 32, which included a requirement to lower the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Regulators had the idea to raise money by auctioning permits to emit greenhouse gases as part of a “cap and trade” program. The new expense for manufacturers, utilities, refineries and truckers was passed through to consumers, who today pay $1 per gallon more for gasoline than the national average, 30 percent higher electricity rates, and don’t even ask about the price of tomatoes.

In 2008, the Legislature passed and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 375, which was intended to reduce “sprawl” and “vehicle miles traveled.” This law made it more difficult and expensive to build new housing in outlying areas. In 2016, California lagged behind 28 other states in new housing creation, while rents have been bid up by the surge of people who, under different government policies, might be homeowners in new communities.

In 2011, California lawmakers cut the reimbursement rate that the state pays doctors who treat Medi-Cal patients, but that didn’t stop them from expanding the Medi-Cal program under the Affordable Care Act. In the last four years, about 4.5 million Californians were added to the rolls of the safety-net health insurance that’s called Medicaid in the rest of the country. There are now about 13.5 million people on Medi-Cal, one-third of the state’s population.

But there was no corresponding increase in doctors who accept Medi-Cal, and the number of emergency room visits has gone up, not down, as more people became insured. A lawsuit just filed against the state charges that the shortage of providers is discriminatory against Latinos, who are now the majority of Medi-Cal enrollees, according to the suit. The newly formed California Future Health Workforce Commission says that by 2025, the state will have 4,700 fewer primary care doctors than needed.

The latest guillotine-on-a-timer is SB231, by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, which passed the Assembly on Aug. 31 by one vote. It redefines “sewer” to include stormwater, “correcting” a 2002 court ruling that said local governments can’t impose taxes or fees for stormwater projects without voter approval. Now they can, according to the bill. It will be easy to add huge new annual fees to property tax bills, and rents will go up, too.

SB231 now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

By the time the blade cuts your throat, he’ll be out of there.

olumnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”