Voters Say State Is On Wrong Track

Californians surveyed cite homelessness, gas prices and housing among top concerns.

Tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Some 7,000 volunteers will fan out as part of a three-night effort to count homeless people in most of Los Angeles County. Naomi Goldman, a spokeswoman of the organizer the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said the goal is to “paint a picture about the state of homelessness.” (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Coronavirus cases are dropping and the state’s unemployment rate is on the decline, but most California voters still say the Golden State is headed in the wrong direction, with high gasoline prices, low housing affordability and persistent homelessness cited as the biggest challenges.

In a new survey on some of the most prominent economic topics, nearly 6 in 10 voters said the state is on the wrong track and more than 70% rated high gasoline prices as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. The survey of registered voters by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies was co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

“Californians are giving a negative rating of the direction of the state,” said Mark Di Camillo, director of the Berkeley institute’s poll. “That coincides with how voters are viewing their personal financial situation.”

In response to the pain at the pump, voters said they are likely to cut back on driving.

Few, however, said they expected to switch to public transit. Only 25% said they were likely to take buses or trains more often.

By contrast, 7 in 10 said they were likely to drive less around town or cancel vacations or weekend road trips because of the high prices.

The pain of high gasoline prices, which last month reached a statewide average of $5.73 a gallon — up $1.79 from a year ago, is felt most keenly by lower-income Californians, Black and Latino residents and those under 30, according to the survey.

Among California voters earning less than $40,000 a year, 81% said gasoline prices were a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. At the other end of the income scale, 57% of those earning more than $200,000 said the prices were not a serious problem.

Gasoline prices were described as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem by 79% of Black voters, 85% of Latino voters and 75% of voters under 30, according to the survey.

Lorena Mendez, an airline catering company worker at Los Angeles International Airport, struggles weekly deciding how to fill her tank and buy groceries, among other household expenses. She bought a house in Bakersfield because housing is more affordable there, but her commute to LAX is two hours in each direction. On some days, rather than driving home she stays with her mother, who lives closer to her job, to save on gas.

“Everything has gotten more expensive, gas and groceries,” she said in Spanish. “It’s hard to figure out which bill to pay first.”

Until recently, Mendez said, she earned about $22 an hour, but her bosses have cut her pay to about $18 an hour. She hopes to work extra hours to make up for the pay cut.

“I was barely able to pay my bills, and now with everything getting more expensive, it’s a struggle,” she said.

For many workers like Mendez who have long commutes, public transit isn’t a viable option. The poll asked voters who said they were not likely to take transit more often to choose up to two main reasons. Among the most common responses were that buses or trains were not convenient either to their destinations (45%) or their homes (35%), that transit takes longer than driving (39%) or that service isn’t frequent enough (20%).

A significant number said they don’t feel safe waiting for or riding on a bus or train (34%) or that they worry about catching COVID-19 or some other illness (16%). Safety concerns were more common in Los Angeles and Orange counties than in the San Francisco Bay Area or San Diego. Few voters — 3% statewide — said transit costs too much.

In 2016, Los Angeles County voters showed just how frustrated they were with traffic. They approved a half-cent sales tax that will pump out $120 billion over four decades to further build out a massive rail system that can carry commuters from the foothills to the sea and to make highway improvements.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already spent $9.2 billion in the last 10 years on transit projects, including a yet-to-open light rail line running from the Mid-City area to the South Bay, a regional connector line and an extension of a line that connects the Westside to downtown L.A.

The agency projects it will spend an additional $30 billion on rail in the coming decade and will over the next few decades double the length of its interconnected rail system in the hope that it will lure more commuters across the region.

Academics said voter reluctance about riding transit in response to gas prices was not surprising.

“While gas prices have gone up, most roads and parking continue to be free and plentiful, incentivizing their use,” said Jacob Lawrence Wasserman, research project manager at UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “And, with transit not given the priority and service to get Angelenos to many destinations reliably, many are left stomaching higher gas prices instead.”

At the same time, by 56% to 35%, voters supported the state’s effort to build a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco that is already expected to be more than three times the original cost estimated when voters approved funding in 2008.

Registered Democrats favored the project 73% to 18%, but Republicans opposed it 66% to 25%. Nonpartisan voters supported the project 55% to 35%.

The glum attitude about the state’s direction was shared, to varying degrees, by California voters of nearly every age group, ethnicity and political stripe.

Just over half of Democrats said the state is headed in the wrong direction, and 93% of Republicans agreed with that gloomy assessment.

Only 21% of voters said they were financially better off than they were a year ago, 42% said they were worse off and 34% said there had been no change.

The survey showed voters are pessimistic about the future: Only 21% predicted they will be better off financially in a year, 30% said they would be worse off, and 44% expected no change in their financial situation.

The poll found that voters now rank the coronavirus near the bottom of a list of 15 challenges facing the state, far behind problems such as housing affordability, homelessness, crime, gas prices and climate change.

Over the last week, the state has averaged 2,824 new coronavirus cases, a decrease of 

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

Working Californians Hit Hard By Gasoline Prices

A recent column in this space was headlined “Inflation, the cruelest tax.” Well, if inflation is the cruelest tax, then inflation’s impact on gasoline, combined with the nation’s highest tax, can only be characterized as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In addition to inflation and taxes, other government policies related to petroleum are counterproductive. These include regulatory burdens and open hostility to the entire petroleum industry currently on display in both Washington and Sacramento. All this adds up to a lot of unnecessary pain being inflicted on the middle class and working poor.

But now, progressive politicians are looking at poll numbers with alarm as they discover that most Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track, due in large part to feckless and incompetent leadership. Rather than fix the problems, however, the reaction of both the Biden and Newsom administrations has been to deflect blame.

A couple of months ago, the Biden administration blamed rising fuel costs on supply chain issues. Then, returning to an old excuse resurrected when the need arises, the blame shifts to the “greedy oil companies.”

But even the most artful political spin is unlikely to change the public’s understanding of who is at fault. Republicans are replaying the video clip on a constant loop where Biden stated unequivocally, “No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period.” Moreover, the attempt to blame the war in Ukraine is especially easy to expose as unfounded. Gas prices were already at record levels before the hostilities began.

In California, Gov. Newsom is attempting to blunt the political backlash by promising some sort of rebate to taxpayers out of the state’s massive surplus. But any notion that he would do so out of the goodness of his heart would be in error. Taxpayer advocates in 1979 sponsored the Gann Spending Limit which voters overwhelming approved. It is the Gann Limit, not Newsom’s benevolence, that might afford some relief for California drivers filling up their tanks.

If skepticism among voters when it comes to energy policy is high nationally, it is even more so in California due to the long history of misspending and gas tax proceeds. For example, in 1990, voters were told that California’s roads, freeways and bridges were crumbling and that spending on transportation was so seriously inadequate that a gas tax increase was desperately needed to save California from ruin. Fast forward to 2017 with the infamous passage of Senate Bill 1, a massive tax increase of another 12 cents per gallon on gasoline, an additional 20 cents per gallon on diesel fuel and a sharp increase in the cost of vehicle registration.

Voter anger at high gas prices might be less intense if they believed they were getting good value in the form of well-maintained roads and highways. But California consistently ranks in the bottom ten of all states in highway maintenance despite having the highest gas tax.

Our political leaders claim that the pain we’re feeling is because addressing climate change is our highest priority. But many of the restrictions they impose are counterproductive to environmental well-being. For example, rather than encourage drilling in North America, we are increasingly reliant on oil shipped from overseas, including from despotic regimes. But oil tankers run on massive diesel engines and foul our ports. How does that help address climate change?

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

How Can You Help People In Ukraine From California? A Ukrainian Lawmaker Has Some Ideas

Oleksandra Ustinova — who has been a member of the Ukrainian parliament for almost three years — was visiting her husband in Texas, where he is based, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

Ustinova, a former anti-corruption activist, quickly flew to Washington D.C. to advocate for help for the country.

“I know a lot of decisions, unfortunately, regarding the lives of Ukrainians are taken here,” she said of the United States’ Capitol. “How strong the sanctions are going to be, how strong the response to what Putin is doing is going to be, is directly aligned with how many people die in Ukraine.”

The Sacramento Bee spoke with Ustinova on March 3, 2021, offering her views on how people in California and across the United States can help Ukraine from afar. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WHAT IS HAPPENING IN UKRAINE?

“Lately, Putin has gone nuts. The first few days, he was shooting military bases and infrastructure. Airports were destroyed. Bridges are blown out. Main roads are totally destroyed. I cannot imagine how long and how expensive it’s going to take to fix this disaster, because the country lies in ruins.

Click here to read the full article at the Sacramento Bee

Feinstein Approval Ratings Plunge

Senator gets negative marks from nearly half of California voters in a new poll. VP Harris also scores poorly.

Views of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s job performance have tumbled to the lowest point in her three-decade Senate career, with just 30% ofCalifornia voters giving her positive marks in a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Respondents gave similarly unenthusiastic marks to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose popularity is underwater, with 38% approval and 46% disapproval, while they were evenly divided in their rating of President Biden. The assessments of Biden and Harris dropped sharply from last summer, in line with their slumping poll numbers nationwide.

Amid the broadly pessimistic mood of California voters polled, two-thirds of whom said the country is headed in the wrong direction, the lagging approval for Democrats Feinstein and Harris stands out, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the IGS poll.

“I was amazed at the disaffection for both of the women,” DiCamillo said.

The 49% of registered voters giving Feinstein a negative assessment included respondents from core Democratic blocs: those who identify as “strongly liberal,” voters under 40, and Latinos and Asian Americans. In all regions of the state — including the major population centers of Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where she is from — a plurality of voters said they disapproved of her performance.

“I’ve never seen those constituencies moving to the negative side in unison as we’re seeing now,” said DiCamillo, who has conducted polls at UC Berkeley and, before that, the statewide Field Poll, on Feinstein’s popularity since she joined the Senate.

Most striking is her loss of popularity among female voters. Feinstein had typically performed strongly with women since 1992, when she and former Sen. Barbara Boxer became the first female senators from California. Now, a third of women surveyed said they approved of her performance, while 42% disapproved.

“For her to be underwater among female voters is a very significant and ominous sign for her,” DiCamillo said.

Throughout her tenure, Feinstein generally received positive marks from voters and was elected to the Senate six times. But her most recent campaign, in 2018, when she was 85 years old, rankled some in the state; now, at age 88, she is the oldest sitting senator and has had to swat down speculation about her retirement numerous times.

Her standing frayed in recent years with her party’s progressive flank, which complained that Feinstein, as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, was not tough enough on former President Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court. She has made some overtures to strongly liberal voters; namely, softening her support for the Senate’s filibuster rule in order to advance voting rights legislation. But her popularity has been low since January 2021.

Her colleague, Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, got slightly higher grades from voters in the IGS poll, with 34% approving and 26% disapproving. A plurality of respondents — 40% — said they had no opinion of his job performance, signaling that Padilla, 48, remains an unknown to many in the state since being appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year to serve the remainder of Harris’ Senate term.

For Biden and Harris, the tepid reception from voters in reliably blue California underscores their larger woes in terms of public opinion.

Poll respondents were evenly split in their regard for Biden, with 47% approving and 48% disapproving. That marks a two-digit negative shift since the last IGS poll, in July, when his standing was at 59% approval and 37% disapproval.

While Biden, 79, still has the approval of 72% of California Democrats, that support dropped by 14 points in the last six months. Among voters with no party preference, his approval ratings plunged 15 points in that time, with 50% now disapproving of his performance.

Harris’ polling has followed the same downward trajectory as Biden’s; it is not uncommon for a vice president’s numbers to lag behind those of the president. But there’s little sign Harris, 57, is getting the boost in support that would be expected from voters in her home state.

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

The People Behind California’s Plan To End Chronic Homelessness

Getting off the streets and into housing is often touted as a statistical success.

But reality is much more complicated.

Jackie Botts recently took CalMatters readers on an intimate tour of the winding road Fernando Maya, a formerly homeless veteran, traveled from the streets of Los Angeles to a Project Roomkey hotel room to his own studio apartment in subsidized housing.

His story highlights the myriad personal and systemic factors that make it difficult for people to find housing and stay housed – including the collision with a car while bicycling and head injury that hampered Maya’s efforts to rebuild his life.

In the latest episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast,” CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon interviewed Jackie and Maya about his story and her reporting process.

So where is Maya now, and what lays in store for him next?

“Well, I’ve got a door. I’ve got a door with a key. I have seven days a week for cop shows,” he joked. 

On being inside, he reflected, “This is always a positive for me, every day. Because it is secure. I have the walls to secure me from the elements, I don’t have crashes blowing by me.”

Jackie recounted first meeting Maya two years ago, while reporting on the state’s food aid program.

“You were excited to talk to a journalist and I remember you saying, like, ‘I can be your eyes and your ears on the street,’” she said. “It just seemed like you had a story worth telling and so we kept in touch and I would just like, check in and ask you little questions.”

The story gained urgency as the state announced a $12 billion appropriation last summer to address the California homeless crisis, a chunk of which recently became available to expand mental health housing and treatment.

But a severe worker shortage in the California homeless services field threatens the state’s ability to massively expand services. Many homeless service workers — who make low wages for high-stress jobs — are burned out.

Maya talked about the importance of case workers to him and other people experiencing homelessness. “Some of us need help,” he said. “Some of us don’t know we need help.”  

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

Reparations Are For Descendants of Black Slaves, Weber Says

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s secretary of state said Thursday that reparations for African Americans should be limited to people whose forbears were kidnapped from their homeland, stripped of their ancestry and left with nothing after generations of forced labor.

Shirley Weber, the daughter and granddaughter of sharecroppers who authored legislation creating the first-in-the-nation task force to study reparations, said while Black immigrants have suffered from racism in the U.S., they always had a country to return to. Slavery was more than a physical condition, she said, and its psychological impact stunted people’s ability to strive beyond survival.

“The fear my grandfather felt, I remember as a child, was palpable, and it crippled him and his family’s ability to dream beyond the cotton fields,” Weber said at Thursday’s meeting of the task force to study and develop reparations for African Americans. The meeting continues Friday.

She said that Barack Obama likely never would have dreamed of becoming president had he descended from enslaved people. Obama, the country’s first Black president, had a white mother and a Black father from Kenya who came to the U.S. to study. Obama, she said, “did not have limitations and fears drilled in his psyche, and thus aspire to become the president of the United States.”

The nine-member task force, which started meeting in July, is on a two-year timeline to address the harms of slavery, especially given inaction at the federal level. Critics have said that California did not have slaves as in other states and that it shouldn’t have to address the issue, or pay for it.

But expert testimony being heard by the task force overwhelmingly points to large racial disparities in wealth, health and education in California. African Americans make up just 6% of California’s population yet were 30% of an estimated 250,000 people experiencing homelessness who sought help in 2020. Their communities have been razed in the name of redevelopment and Black people remain over-represented in jails.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation returning prime beachfront property to descendants of a Black couple who had the land taken away by eminent domain.

Click here to read the full article at AP News

Judge Allows Earlier Potential Releases for Repeat Offenders at California Prisons

SACRAMENTO — A judge is allowing California to proceed with plans to allow earlier potential prison release dates for repeat offenders with serious and violent criminal histories under the state’s “three strikes” law.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shama Mesiwala has lifted the temporary restraining order she imposed last month.

That order temporarily blocked California corrections officials from acting on emergency regulations allowing them to increase good conduct credits for second-strike inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses who are housed at minimum-security prisons and camps.

Their daily credits can now increase from half off their sentences to two-thirds off their sentences.

The ruling “clears the way for the Department to implement regulations that incentivize incarcerated people to participate in positive rehabilitative activities and avoid negative behavior,” corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in an email.

Twenty-eight of California’s 58 district attorneys moved to block the rule, but Mesiwala agreed with corrections officials that the prosecutors lacked standing to challenge the regulations.

The prosecutors argued that it would apply to those convicted of, among other things, domestic violence, human trafficking, animal cruelty and possession of weapons by inmates who have previous convictions for serious and violent felonies. California has a narrow definition of what constitutes a violent crime.

They argued that they had legal standing to challenge the rules because they “represent over 20 million Californians who have been impacted by these so-called emergency regulations.”

But the judge ruled Thursday that the prosecutors do not have legal standing, which is “fatal to their contention that they have shown a likelihood they will prevail upon their claims.”

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

California Water Districts Will Get More Supply Than Planned

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Last month’s wet winter storms led California officials on Thursday to announce they’ll release more water than initially planned from state storage to local agencies that provide water for 27 million people and vast swaths of farmland.

The Department of Water Resources now plans to give water districts 15% of what they’ve requested for 2022. That’s up from last month, when the state said it would supply 0% of requested water beyond what was needed for necessities such as drinking and bathing. It was the first time ever the state issued an initial water allocation of nothing.

State officials stressed California’s drought is far from over and urged people to keep conserving water. But December storms that dumped heavy snow in the mountains and partially refilled parched reservoirs have provided some relief from what had been an exceptionally dry year.

Still, the state hasn’t seen a major storm yet this month, and most state reservoirs remain below their historic averages. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows much of California remains in severe drought.

“Dry conditions have already returned in January. Californians must continue to conserve as the state plans for a third dry year,” Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement.

California stores and conveys water across the state through a vast network of reservoirs, dams and canals known as the State Water Project. It works alongside the federally run Central Valley Project to move water primarily from the state’s wetter northern region to the drier south.

Click here to read the full article at AP

Rewarding Failure In The K-12 System

California spends a lot on education. Ever since the passage of Proposition 98 in 1988, which guarantees to education a minimum of 40% of the general fund, per-pupil spending on K-12 has risen faster than any other category of state appropriations. And yet, for all that new money, the state’s education monopoly continues its history of failure to deliver a quality product.

Just last month, this column cited the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, showing that in 2017-2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, per-pupil spending for the state’s K-12 public schools was $13,129 in inflation-adjusted 2019-20 dollars, the highest ever. Measured in the same constant dollars, per-pupil spending was $9,594 in 1999-2000.

California is quickly rising in the ranks in spending according to multiple metrics and we are now at least 17th highest in the United States. And many of these statistics are pre-pandemic, before the state plowed even more money into the system.

Where it excels in spending money, California lags in educational outcomes due to a clear hostility to meaningful education reforms. For decades, reformers have unsuccessfully advocated for more school choice, merit pay for teachers, advancement based on merit rather than seniority and the ability to fire bad teachers including some credibly accused of crimes against children.

The “reforms” coming out of the union-dominated Legislature will only make matters worse. The latest iteration of this is Senate Bill 830 by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, that would change the way schools are funded. Under current law, schools get financial support based on a formula that includes average daily attendance. This bill would eliminate daily attendance from the formula, and with it the financial incentive for school personnel to attempt to get students in the building.

To read the entire column, please click here.

Criminals on Both Sides of the Bars

Prisons are supposed to be secure places where offenders are held accountable and prepared to lead law-abiding lives when released. In fact, that’s right in the Bureau of Prisons’ Mission Statement, “to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” However, that’s hard to do when some of those running prisons are criminals themselves. 

The Inspector General of the Department of Justice found that employees of the Bureau of Prisons have committed rape and murder, taken cash to smuggle drugs and weapons into prisons, and stole government property such as tires and tractors. In addition, the IG found that BOP employees had filed false reports, incited violence, lied, were stalkers, and took bribes. Since 2019 more than 100 federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for these crimes.

Those crimes were committed by the people that are supposed to be “correcting” the behavior of inmates. Good luck with that!

Last November, the Warden of the women’s prison at FCI Dublin in California was indicted for groping a female inmate, asking two inmates to strip naked for him, and taking and storing photographs of a naked inmate in her cell.

He is also accused of trying to deter one of his victims from reporting the abuse by telling her that he “was ‘close friends’ with the person that investigates allegations of misconduct by inmates, bragged that he “could not be fired.”

This year another BOP employee at FCI Dublin was arrested on charges he coerced two inmates into sexual activity. It appears that some randy foxes are guarding the henhouse.

I have a unique perspective on the crimes committed at the Dublin prison. I was inmate 06833-097 at the Dublin prison complex from March 1994 to February 1995. At that time, it was an all-male labor camp. While imprisoned there similar corruption happened regularly.

One day, I was exchanging my tools at the Tool Shed. Clay and Joe, the inmates assigned there, told me that the foreman of the landscape crew had come into the shed and ordered them to go and pick up cigarette butts in the maintenance yard behind the shed. This was odd because there were plenty of inmates assigned to sweep up the butts, and the shed would be left unsupervised while they were out in the yead.

However, Clay and Joe knew better than to question the foreman. After several minutes passed, they saw him put something in the back of his pickup and drive off. They returned to the tool room and noticed two empty outlines where brand-new Skilsaws had been hung just that morning. When Joe and Clay reported the missing saws to their supervisor, he listed it as an “inmate theft.”

Because I had been in government other inmates would tip me off about staff thefts. For instance, in the week before the prison would take inventory prior to the start of a new fiscal year, several inmates told me to keep my eyes and ears open. They predicted that word would spread through camp that the Supply Room door had been left open and the officer was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough, soon inmates were scurrying back and forth between the Supply Room and their lockers with their arms full of socks and underwear.

Later that afternoon a surprise shakedown of all the inmate lockers was called and all the extra items were confiscated. The officers returned the inventory to the Supply Room. The scam was that a couple of days later when taking inventory, it was “discovered” that there were shortages for many items carried on the books. The shortages were attributed to “inmate theft” thereby covering up all the clothes that the staff pilfered for their families the preceding year.

As for staff dalliances with the female inmates, I learned that prior to my arriving at the camp several officers had been frog marched out the prison gate for having sex with female prisoners in return for smuggling in drugs and cigarettes.

The women’s prison was adjacent to the Garage where I was assigned for much my time at Dublin. We were able to visit through the fence with the women inmates. While this is secondhand info, it was confirmed by the women inside the fence as well as male inmates who were in the camp when this occurred. The BOP brushed the scandal under the carpet. Rather than charging the officers for their crimes the offending officers were merely reassigned to other prisons.

The crimes I have described were committed by “bad apples” among prison officials. I admire many of the who have dedicated their lives to keeping prisons safe while helping prisoners become better people. The work of these heroes is undercut when the prison system doesn’t cull these bad actors from their ranks.

The Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will guard the guardians? If prisons are to send inmates home better than when they went in the ethics of the corrections profession must be restored. The acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons just announced he is stepping down. However, real change requires more than a change at the top. It means a fundamental change in the BOP the culture that has tolerated such criminals among their ranks. The Bureau of Prisons needs a top-to-bottom housecleaning. And  it needs it stat.

Pat Nolan is the Founder of the Nolan Center for Justice at the American Conservative Union conservativejusticereform.org