CA fracking frozen by feds

Offshore frackingTwin legal settlements with environmentalist plaintiffs put a freeze on fracking in California waters. “The agreements in Los Angeles federal court apply to operations off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. operate platforms,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Federal agencies will have to complete the review by the end of May and determine if a more in-depth analysis is necessary,” the paper added. “They will also have to make future permit applications publicly accessible.” If the practice clears federal scrutiny and is deemed adequately safe to the environment, fracking operations could continue. If not, they could be postponed or forestalled indefinitely.

Notching a victory

The result marked a significant win for the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Defense Center, two organizations that alleged frackers had imperiled aquatic life with “over 9 billion gallons of wastewater” each year, according to Grist. Accusing the U.S. Department of the Interior of “rubber-stamping fracking off California’s coast without engaging the public or analyzing fracking’s threats to ocean ecosystems, coastal communities and marine life,” as the Christian Science Monitor observed, the groups filed suit against the federal government.

In a report on the deal, the left-leaning think tank Think Progress noted that fracking had quietly been conducted off the California coast for years. “The initial revelation of ongoing offshore fracking came as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the Department of the Interior by the Associated Press and Santa Barbara-based community organization the Environmental Defense Center, which just released a new report on the issue,” the organization recalled. “The investigations have found over 200 instances of fracking operations in state and federal waters off California, all unbeknownst to a state agency with jurisdiction over the offshore oil and gas industry.”

Industry pushback

For their part, defendants insisted the case was without merit. “Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that the petroleum industry has operated safely in California for decades, working closely with regulators and other officials,” Natural Gas Intelligence reported. Industry defenders have argued that offshore fracking levels in the Pacific haven’t been that high. While the moratorium “will not likely affect production at large because California has not been producing much offshore oil lately,” Reuters noted, “companies have fracked at least 200 wells in Long Beach, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and in the wildlife-rich Santa Barbara Channel,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The American Petroleum Institute, which joined the suit as a defendant, has refused to agree to the settlement package. Other hurdles to its implementation have arisen. The two separate settlements must still be approved by a federal judge, according to NGI.

Porter Ranch debate

Although the EPA largely exonerated fracking of the dire accusations leveled against it by some environmental activists, the practice has re-entered the public debate in California due to the massive gas leak in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of greater Los Angeles. Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, recently linked the disaster to fracking in an editorial at the Sacramento Bee; “newly uncovered documents show that hydraulic fracturing was commonly used in the Aliso Canyon gas storage wells,” she wrote, “including a well less than a half-mile from the leak.” Perhaps predictably, Golden-Krasner called for Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the practice of fracking across the state of California.

Regulators have been investigating a possible connection. “More than two months after Southern California Gas Co. detected a leak at its Aliso Canyon field, observers are searching for reasons the well may have failed. Some environmentalists are drawing attention to fracking, while experts caution that such a rupture is unlikely,” the Los Angeles Daily News observed. “The leaking well’s maintenance records don’t indicate that it was fracked, according to a review of the file released by the state Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Kamala Harris Pursues Confidential Koch Donor List

Koch BrothersPressing for access to confidential lists kept by the Koch brothers, U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris injected another note of politics into her tenure as California Attorney General.

Harris “has a fight on her hands trying to get the brothers’ Americans for Prosperity Foundation to give her access to the same confidential data it already provides to the Internal Revenue Service,” Bloomberg Politics reported. That organization has labored in court to maintain control over information about its contributors, arguing that they and it face routine threats of violence.

“Grotesque threats have been leveled against known associates of the foundation, ranging from threats to kill or maim to threats to firebomb buildings,” the Foundation alleged, as Courthouse News reported. “More mundane threats abound too, including boycotts, firings and public shaming, all of which are now demonstrated components of the playbook of the foundation’s more extreme opponents.”

Pressed on the prospect of public disclosure by judges at a recent hearing in federal appeals court, “Deputy Attorney General Alexandra Gordon told the judges that new regulations to prohibit such disclosure are in the making, though she didn’t know when they would be enacted,” the site added. Gordon waved away claims that Foundation contributors could be put in peril by the disclosure of their information. “We have basically some anecdotal evidence of threats, mostly arising from the founders of this foundation, the Koch brothers’ very public presence and very public events held by the foundation,” she said, according to Courthouse News Service. “That has nothing to do with whether this type of disclosure requirement is actually going to lead to harm.”

The legal battle between the Kochs and the state Attorney General began in December 2014, when Americans for Prosperity sued Harris for violating its First Amendment rights to free speech. Although California law requires all charitable organizations to register with the state and furnish copies of their public IRS filings, as the Los Angeles Times then noted, the so-called “Schedule B” filing, which lists the names and addresses of donors giving over $5,000 each tax year, is “kept confidential and not available to the public.”

While Americans for Prosperity “said they have been registered with the state since 2001 and had never before been asked for its list of donors,” the Times reported, a Harris spokesman said the Foundation “has been out of compliance with the law for a number of years” and “did not receive a communication previously from our office for one simple reason: the section responsible for enforcement has been chronically underfunded for years.”

By this year, however, the Kochs had gained the upper hand in court. This February, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real blocked Harris from pursuing the list “until the legality of the request has been resolved,” as Bloomberg Business observed, citing “a separate case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco halted the attorney general from enforcing the demand on the Center for Competitive Politics while that case was before that court.”

“Real rejected Harris’s argument that her office won’t publicly disclose the donor information, saying that California doesn’t have regulation preventing such disclosure and that, as such, it was left to the attorney general’s discretion whether to make it public. The judge agreed with the foundation that the attorney general’s office won’t be harmed by an injunction because it hadn’t had the donor information for the past decade.”

Whatever the outcome of the case, Harris stood to gain politically from putting the heat on Americans for Prosperity and the Kochs, who are reviled by Democrats as big-money GOP puppet masters. Of late, Harris has had to weather criticism of her own campaign spending, “using her campaign account to fund stays in upscale hotels and first-class airfares during her nearly five-year tenure as state attorney general,” as the Hill recently reported. “A review by The Hill of California campaign finance records reveals that Harris’s expenditures follow a pattern: The Democratic candidate regularly charges thousands of dollars in luxury travel and hotels to her campaign.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Supreme Court Case That Could Topple Teachers Unions

Rebecca FriedrichsFaced with the greatest legal challenge to their core source of revenue, California unions have braced for defeat and scrambled for alternatives.

Some time after its new term begins this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenges the union’s collection of mandatory fees from members. The case’s stakes have been raised as high as possible by plaintiffs’ supporters. “We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation,” said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“Since 1997, the Supreme Court has held that requiring non-union members to pay the cost of collective bargaining prevents ‘free riders,’ meaning workers who get the benefits of a union contract without paying for it,” as NBC News noted. “But in subsequent rulings, several of the court’s conservatives have suggested that the decision should be overruled.” Legal analysts suggested the track record implies a victory for California’s plaintiffs. Erin Murphy, a federal appeals lawyer, told NBC News she “would not feel very good about my prospects if I were the unions.”

Crisis mode

At the end of the Legislature’s final session, pro-union Democrats attempted an unusual “gut and amend” maneuver, wherein a bill’s contents are wiped out and completely replaced without revisiting the standard hearing process. The new language would have required one-on-one, union-sponsored “public employee orientation” for existing and new employees. The content of the orientation “would be the sole domain of the union and not open to negotiation,” with employees “required to attend in person during work hours. Taxpayers would pick up the tab,” the Heartland Institute added in a critical summary.

Although the effort failed, it was a notable reflection of state unions’ concern that they can’t rely on the Supreme Court to protect their current practices. “Public employee unions haven’t had mandated orientations because they don’t need them,” U-T San Diego’s Steven Greenhut observed, calling the last-minute gut and amend a “pre-emptive strike” on the court’s hearing of Friedrichs. “Newly hired workers must already pay dues to the recognized union.”

Not all union supporters have framed the impending decision as a crisis, however. “Even some pro-union voices have argued the Friedrichs case doesn’t portend the end of the world for public-sector unions, in that it might force them to become more responsive and democratic,” Greenhut suggested.

But the court’s decision is likely to hinge on more fundamental questions pertaining to the very definition of a union.

What’s a union?

One element of the problem has been that unions fear members just won’t pay dues if they can get away with it — the so-called “free rider” problem, familiar from the idea that many fewer Americans would pay taxes were they merely voluntary. “No one knows how many would, with annual dues in the CTA, for example, often topping $1,000,” according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “That makes this a life-and-death case for the unions,” which fear the political power of their main adversaries — certain large corporations and high-net-worth individuals — would go undiminished. It would be very difficult, in other words, for the court to successfully separate the question of unions’ political power from the question of their existence.

That has led analysts to focus on a second aspect of the problem of what a union really is. One Justice, Antonin Scalia, has indicated in the past that the existence of unions within the American system of law depends on their ability to generalize the burdens of keeping them running. “In a 1991 case, he wrote that because public sector unions have a legal duty to represent all employees, it’s reasonable to expect all workers to share the costs,” the Daily News noted.

For that reason, the question of what counts as political expenditures would likely come to the fore before the court. But the plaintiffs in Friedrichs have anticipated the controversy, because they see it as the foundation of their entire case. “All union fees, they argue, are in some way used for political activities and since they don’t always agree with the union’s stance, having to pay any fees is an infringement on their first amendment rights,” the Guardian reported.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

CSU Hikes Fees to Offset Freeze on Tuition

1024px-Admin_Building,_California_State_University,_ChicoWhat a difference five years makes.

In 2010, the California State University system issued $352 million in revenue bondsEarlier this month, it issued $1.1 billion of the same thing. The debt issuance is standard, generally considered to be part of the process to keep pace with growth. And financial disclosures are rich with information; people can go to prison for lying on these things.

Comparing the two issuances is a tour of the massive growth of the education industrial complex, a waltz through the luxury world of public, higher education.

Sky-rocketing revenues

According to the bond filings, gross revenues in the system more than doubled in the last 10 years, from $608.7 million in 2005 to $1.57 billion in 2014. The increases were generated across the board, in fees from parking to health facilities to the student union, and from continuing education to housing.

The revenue has started flowing from places other than tuition, which has remained the same since 2011 after increasing 60 percent for full-time undergrad students between 2005 and 2009 to $4,026.

Those increases incensed students, and protests forced bureaucrats to pay attention. Proposition 30, passed by voters in 2012,increased personal income tax on people making over $250,000 to fund education as well. That increase is scheduled to end in 2019.

In the meantime, though, schools have figured out other ways into the wallets of students, thus the increased fees.

Cost of an education

A student in 2010 paid $6,427 to live on-campus, support the student union and use the health facility. The same package today costs $7,958, or 23 percent more.

Students are trying to adjust. Some are living off-campus, which has become a cheaper alternative to the dorm.

Fees aren’t the only way the system has made money. While state funding has waxed and waned, the system increased private fundraising and government grant proceeds, from $1.2 billion in 2005 to $2.1 billion in 2014. The system notes that “amounts shown are not included as part of the gross revenues and generally are restricted to specified uses.”

Growth in the number of staff has sharply outpaced increases in the number of students they serve, with growth among administrators and faculty roughly triple that of students.

Between 2010 and 2015 the number of administrators and faculty grew from 47,000 to 57,000  – or 21 percent – while rank-and-file employees increased from 47,000 to 60,000, or 27 percent. Student enrollment increased from 433,000 to 466,000, or 7 percent.

In the last decade, the system saw two years of year-over-year declines in the number of full-time equivalent students.

Accepted students aren’t dropping everything and enrolling today; in 2010, 36 percent of those accepted enrolled; in 2014 that figure dropped to 27 percent.

With the continued flow of revenue, the system’s financial obligations have jumped 22 percent to over $5 billion from $4.1 billionin 2010.

And the budget? A 26 percent increase to a $8.7 billion budget from $6.9 billion in 2010.

Lottery revenue

The system also receives state lottery revenue: $42 million in 2014, up to $49 million this year. Cal State trustees have allocated part of that to the so-called Early Start program at the state Department of Developmental Services.

A portion of the lottery proceeds also goes toward the retirement fund for system employees. The system combined lottery and other funds to send $493 million to the pension system in 2014, up from $400 million in 2010.

And just last month, a new round of raises for executives was announced.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Long Road Ahead With Feinstein’s Drought Relief Bill

With the latest numbers showing a drop in California water consumption, attention has turned to a new drought relief bill introduced by Golden State U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

water spigotThe figures eclipsed earlier embarrassments faced by water districts where consumption actually spiked, sometimes for unknown reasons. “California’s urban water districts cut consumption by 27.3 percent in June,” the Wall Street Journal observed, “exceeding a tough new state mandate to reduce their combined use by 25 percent amid a prolonged drought. The savings compared with the same month in 2013 came despite June being the hottest month on record in the Golden State, officials from the State Water Resources Control Board reported Thursday.”

Partisan jockeying

In a statement, Feinstein tried to tempter expectations behind her renewed push for relief. Some analysts expect Republican opposition over its high cost and environmental protections. “I’ve introduced a lot of bills over the years, and this one may be the most difficult, and a warming climate will only make things worse,” she said. “I’m hopeful the bill we’re introducing today will serve as a template for the kinds of short-term and long-term solutions California needs to address this devastating drought.”

But some Democrats have become concerned that Feinstein’s effort cedes excessive ground on environmental regulations, hewing too closely to previous relief plans that wound up losing Boxer’s support. Feinstein had determined that the drought crisis was severe enough to justify negotiating with House Republicans — a maneuver that undermined her support within her own party, causing her to abandon the push.

This time around, revealing Boxer’s support for the rejiggered bill “surprised some stakeholders who saw the negotiations fall apart late last year over proposed changes to endangered species protections,” according to E&E Daily. Although Boxer said she was “pleased to be sponsoring” Feinstein’s new bill “because of the enormity of this crisis,” other Democrats, such as Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., warned they were “very concerned about some provisions included in the bill that are similar to the House Republican water legislation” that drove Boxer away to begin with.

A long road

That legislation was H.R. 2898, introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif. As the Sacramento Bee recounted, the bill would have supplied farmers south of the Delta with more water and sped up the federal approvals process, where stringent environmental rules can sometimes grind water and infrastructure plans to a virtual halt. Hurried along late last year during the lame-duck session of Congress, it sailed through the House with staunch Republican support, but provoked president Obama to threaten a veto, and drew strong criticism from California’s delegation of Democrats in both houses of Congress.

Feinstein herself finally caved. “There are several other provisions that would waive environmental protections that need to be changed before I could support them,” she explained, according to the Bee. “I have said all along that I will not support a bill that would waive these protections, and that remains true today.”

Now, her aim has been to replace “some provisions disliked by environmental groups” with “some of their priorities, such as a greater focus on recycling,” according to the Associated Press. “Feinstein said the shift changes the emphasis of the bill from a short-term effort to a long-term one. She said her bill would cost an estimated $1.3 billion over 10 years.”

But even assuming Feinstein could placate environmentalists and other Democrats, she recognized that the bill’s fate could well hinge on a single Republican colleague. In the machinations of Senate lawmaking, Feinstein’s objective has been to package her bill inside of planned legislation to be introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “That Murkowski bill is likely to serve as a vehicle for several state-specific drought relief measures, as well as overarching federal policy changes,” E&E Daily confirmed.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Employment Struggles for Ex-Offenders New Focus of CA Legislation

The good news is that the California Department of Corrections offers program to help inmates become opticians.

The bad news is that there are four different state statutes that allow the state to refuse to license an ex-offender as an optician, established in explicit language in the law.

It’s the riddle of reform, as California’s prison inmate population dropped 17 percent between 2005 and 2014 while the number of individuals on parole dipped 61 percent.

Where do they go, though?

Ineligible for employment

Both stats are relatively sunny reflections on Gov. Brown and the state Assembly’s effort to reduce both crime and criminals.

Among other things, the state hiked credits toward early release for non-violent and minimum custody offenders and established a new parole system for non-violent second time criminals.

But if you’re looking for a job and have been convicted of a crime involving a controlled substance – and this includes marijuana– forget about getting work on an ambulance crew, a litter van, or a wheelchair van. You could become a real estate broker, a midwife or a speech pathologist, but you’d have to make a case for it.

Any misdemeanor will keep you from working at as a smog check station attendant, a locksmith, a repo man or board member of a humane society.

The information comes from a database assembled by the American Bar Association. Users can search dictates in each state for how a conviction of a variety of crimes can affect a person’s ability to get a job, a business license, a judicial position, housing, education and 10 other endeavors.

The findings can be comforting – someone with a felony conviction can’t serve on a grand jury – and amusing, as a felon is also ineligible to participate in the cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions.

Contradictions in law

The database also exposes the contradictions in the law regarding employment restrictions on inmates. In California, “not much work has been done on fixing the employment and licensure issues,” said W. David Ball, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

“These laws are generally written broadly, and there are laws that are easy to understand, like you would not want someone who was involved with financial fraud to be a CPA,” Ball said. “But it makes no sense that someone convicted of drunk driving can’t be a cosmetologist.”

The ABA database is part of a broad effort to loosen restrictions on ex-offenders. There is a national move to create a bill in all states forcing them to examine their laws regarding ex-offenders and employment. Advocates claim passage would bring recidivism rates down.

In California, 61 percent of felons returned to prison within three years, according to a 2014 annual state report on recidivism.

The study found that “inmates committed to prison for property crimes consistently recidivate at a higher rate than those committed for other types of crimes, including crimes against persons, drug crimes, and ‘other’ crimes.”

The move to a national retooling of restrictions on ex-offenders is not welcomed by all parts of the legal community.

Too soft on criminals?

“This was like a liberal do-gooder thing,” James Bopp, a Terre Haute, Ind., lawyer told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “The law is constructed in a way to grossly favor the criminal who is seeking relief from these collateral effects of their conviction.”

The passage in November of Proposition 47 pruned the ranks of the incarcerated even more, as the law softened criminal classifications for some crimes including drug possession and shoplifting. It also made the theft and reception of stolen goods under $950 a misdemeanor.

Under Prop. 47, part of the projected $400 million to $700 million projected to be saved statewide by cutting down on the state’s incarceration bill is to be spent on mental health and substance abuse services.

Such services, while they can help treat an ex-offender, also exclude the ex-offender community: A misdemeanor conviction excludes a person from becoming a vocational nurse, treating an adolescent in a drug treatment program or obtaining a psychiatric technician license.

Additional legislation

Lawmakers are still making adjustments to the effects of the bill, plugging holes and shaping the mandate. Some are concerned that a provision in the measure would allow the theft of a gun to be lumped in with stealing a bag of Twizzlers in the under $950 category.

A measure authored by state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani is winding its way through the statehouse, seeking to fix that, making the theft of any firearm a crime not subject to the parameters of Prop. 47.

Another bill, SB205, looks to fund a university study of the effects of Prop. 47.

Still another bill, SB527, seeks to allocate money from the expected corrections savings for truancy and dropout prevention, funding over four jobs for that task alone.

Collateral consequences are also often unintended consequences, said Ball, the associate professor at the Santa Clara law school.

“I’d like to raise the bar higher so you have to make a case for ‘why not?’ rather than reasons to impose,” Ball said. “These collateral consequences really do prevent people from starting over.”

Steve Miller can be reached at 517-775-9952 and avalanche50@hotmail.com. His website is www.Avalanche50.com

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Are Californians Ready to Drink ‘From Toilet to Tap’?

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

Looking for an edge in coping with California’s drought, officials around the state have embarked on a public relations campaign for recycled drinking water.

Proponents of the new push hoped to capitalize on the bad publicity hitting the bottled water industry, where several suppliers have come under scrutiny for drawing their water from California. This month, “Starbucks announced that it would begin a process to move the bottling operations for its Ethos water brand to Pennsylvania,” NBC News reported. Nestle, meanwhile, refused to stop sourcing its water from public lands in the Golden State, although its pumping permit expired decades ago, and activists have petitioned the California Water Resources Control Board to halt the practice.

“The attention on Nestlé’s permit bumped it to the front of the pile for renewal review. The process will take at least 18 months, Heil said. Meanwhile, Nestlé can continue to operate in the forest as long as the company continues to pay the annual fee of $524 on the expired permit and operate under its provisions.”

Feeling the heat, Nestle Waters North America’s Tim Brown took to the San Bernardino Sun to vouch that California bottling operations should not be considered water-wasting culprits. “Our latest conservation measures include a waste-water recovery project expected to save annually 25 million gallons of water,” he wrote. “We supported the recent water bond to improve infrastructure and protect and restore watersheds and ecosystems and we believe that California’s new groundwater management legislation is a step in the right direction.”

Public skepticism

Yet, “despite the extensive science that goes into cleansing recycled water down to its molecular construction, in a recent study, 13 percent of adults said they would point-blank refuse to try it,” according to The Week. “Similar efforts in the past to jumpstart the recycled water trend in the state have failed.”

California’s long history with recycled water projects has lent credence to those who expect the pattern to continue. “Enticing people to drink recycled water […] requires getting past what experts call the ‘yuck’ factor,” as the New York Times observed. “Efforts in the 1990s to develop water reuse in San Diego and Los Angeles were beaten back by activists who denounced what they called, devastatingly, ‘toilet to tap.’ Los Angeles built a $55 million purification plant in the 1990s, but never used it to produce drinking water; the water goes to irrigation instead.”

Orange County officials, however, have brightened hopes for the recycled water movement. As Southern California Public Radiosuggested, the O.C.’s successful recycling program has underscored why “calling it ‘toilet to tap’ isn’t fair.”

“The recycled sewage water makes quite a journey on its path to purification before it comes out of faucets at home. About 2.4 million Orange County residents get their water from a massive underground aquifer, which, since 2008, has been steadily recharged with billions of gallons of purified wastewater.”

According to SCPR, Orange County Water District officials overcame the yuck factor “with a massive public relations campaign that involved more than 2,000 community presentations.”

In Santa Clara County, where recycled water has been steadily employed for non-drinking uses, San Jose’s public figures have kicked off a similar effort. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews, and others held a recent press conference around their own consumption of recycled water, the Contra Costa Times reported. “‘Delicious,’ said Liccardo, as cameras clicked. ‘Good stuff!’ said Matthews, as video rolled.”

Nudging state law

At the statewide level, fans of recycled water had a bit more news to cheer as well. In Sacramento, the author of a string of recycled water-use bills stretching across the several years, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, recently secured committee support for Assembly Bill 1463, another proposal pushing the approach to conservation. “Gatto’s legislation to help reduce the barriers for onsite-water recycling and allow more Californians to participate in safe and sustainable recycled-water practices was approved by the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee on a 15-0 vote,” according to California Newswire.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

New bill seeks to terminate CA high school exit exam

Gov. Jerry Brown and state schools chief Tom Torlakson have made plain for years they want no part of the education reform agenda touted by President Obama and think tanks backed by Bill Gates. The state has not pursued federal Race to the Top funds, which were meant to incentivize grant recipients to measure teacher effectiveness. Most school districts effectively ignore the Stull Act — a 1971 state law requiring that student progress be part of teacher performance evaluations — and face no push-back from the governor or Torlakson.

cahsee.testNow the Legislature has taken a first step toward bailing out on another part of the reform agenda: mandatory high school exit exams, which began in California in 2006 and were supposed to ensure a high school degree meant something. On a party-line 6-2 vote, Democrats the Senate Education Committee this week approved a bill by Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, that would scrap the state’s high school exit exam beginning with the class of 2017. Liu, a former teacher and teachers union official who represents the Pasadena area, chairs the committee.

Cabinet Report had more on her measure and a big complicating factor: What to do about students who were denied diplomas in the past because they failed a test that the state may abandon:

The legislation … that would suspend the state’s exit exam also calls on education officials to reconsider how students in the state are deemed not only ready to graduate but to lead productive lives afterward.

The question of whether to issue diplomas retroactively did come up when the bill was being drafted, according to a Liu staffer, but the provision was not included in the legislation.

Opponents of handing out diplomas retroactively to thousands of people who failed the test argue that it’s not necessary because there are several opportunities to continue retaking it, even years after graduation, and doing so cheapens the value of the diploma as a gauge for prospective employers.

Others, however, say these one-time exams provide little evidence that the person passing them is academically prepared for college and/or career.

Indeed, despite a 95.5 percent passing rate for California seniors last year, a study by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that over 50 percent of the state’s high school students are in need of remedial work when they arrive at community colleges.

Independent evaluation praised effect of exit exams

However, the Senate bill analysis noted praise of the exit exam and its impact.

According to independent evaluations conducted by the Human Resources Research Organization, California’s high school exit exam has served a valuable purpose by ensuring students demonstrate competency on standards, providing remediation opportunities prior to grade 12, and helping to overall narrow the achievement gap between subgroups. … A very strong relationship was discovered between CAHSEE achievement and college enrollment.

Liu’s measure, Senate Bill 172, will next be reviewed by the Senate Appropriates Committee.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Should citizens be allowed to videotape police in action?

Faced with mounting criticism over civil liberties abuses, lawmakers in Sacramento greenlit a so-called clarification of Californians’ right to videotape and photograph police officers on the job.

Senate Bill 411, introduced by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, protects the practice so long as active bystanders are “not interfering with official duties,” the Los Angeles Times noted.

videotaping policeAccording to the bill’s language, “the fact that a person takes a photograph or makes an audio or video recording of an executive officer, while the officer is in a public place or the person taking the photograph or making the recording is in a place he or she has the right to be, is not, in and of itself, a violation[.]”

What’s more, Lara’s bill set out that photographing or videotaping police in that matter would not “constitute reasonable suspicion to detain the person or probable cause to arrest the person.”

Setting a trend

Passing 31-3 in the state Senate, SB411 headed to the Assembly, setting up California to become a possible trendsetter in the way citizen monitoring of police could be treated. Currently, no national consensus has formed around the issue, leaving legislative momentum up for grabs at the state level.

Although settled constitutional law has recognized both a right to videotape and a right to prevent interference with policing, widespread departures from that standard have prompted state lawmakers to intervene. In Colorado, for instance, a recent bill “proposed making it a crime for police to stop citizens from filming,” as the Daily Beast observed.

But, across the country, pieces of legislation have run into trouble regardless of which side of the debate they favor. In Connecticut, for instance, a bill permitting “lawsuits against police officers who interfere with those photographing or videotaping them during the performance of their duties was blocked Monday by Republicans in the judiciary committee,”according to the Hartford Courant.

In Texas, meanwhile, a police-friendly “cop-watcher” bill drew fire from legal observers, journalists, gun owners and others:

Dallas-area House representative Jason Villalba introduced HB 2918, which would make it a misdemeanor to photograph police within 25 feet — raising serious concerns that the bill, if passed, would violate the First Amendment and prevent individuals from holding police accountable. For Texans legally carrying a firearm, the buffer zone required would be 100 feet under Villalba’s proposal.

Halting progress

As Calwatchdog.com previously reported, Sacramento has labored to keep up with changing technology, police tactics and public opinion. In January, several Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation around the use of on-cop bodycams. By videotaping situations police entered into, the logic ran, misconduct would decrease at the same time that police gained clear evidence of proper conduct that could help prevent lawsuits or help resolve them to the departments’ benefit.

police-body-cameraAttorney General Kamala Harris, for her part, has long considered police abuses to be an important part of her political and legal agenda — a stance that could gain prominence as her bid to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer draws more potent challengers.

Despite widespread support for bodycams among Democrats, along with many libertarians and some Republicans, the policy has attracted its share of problems. In Los Angeles, where Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti blazed a path toward standardizing the equipment, concern has persisted over the use of cloud storage, as Southern California Public Radio reported:

“Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will present this month his proposed city budget for the coming year. It’s expected to include money for body cameras for all Los Angeles Police Department officers. But some security analysts argue the LAPD’s plan to store body camera video in the cloud could make the images more vulnerable to attack than if the department placed them on its local servers.”

As yet, the question of cloud storage for recordings of police has not yet threatened to stall the progress of SB411  in Sacramento.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Follow the Money: New Bill Would Double CA Campaign Reporting Threshold

It could soon be harder to follow the money in California politics.

A state lawmaker wants to double the reporting threshold for political campaigns in California — allowing major donors to contribute more money and campaigns to spend more money before filing a disclosure report.

Under the Political Reform Act of 1974, as modified by later laws, candidate and independent expenditure committees must file disclosure reports after accepting $1,000 or more in a calendar year. Similarly, the state requires major donors to file campaign reports after contributing $10,000 or more in a calendar year.

Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, believes it’s time to increase those disclosure limits. Assembly Bill 594 would require candidate and independent expenditure committees to file a disclosure report after spending $2,000 or more in a calendar year. The reporting threshold for major donors would increase from $10,000 to $20,000 or more.

Political amateurs punished by campaign finance laws

Since his election to the state Assembly in 2010, Gordon has carved out a special niche in campaign finance legislation with bills to increase regulation and disclosure requirements. In 2012, Gordon authored Assembly Bill 481, which added new reporting requirements for independent expenditure and major donor committees. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Gordon’s bill,Assembly Bill 800, to give the Fair Political Practices Commission “the authority to conduct immediate audits when political campaigns are suspected of illegal activity and requires subcontractors and sub-vendors to disclose their donations.”

State-level political campaigns continue to be big budget blockbusters. According to the Sacramento Bee’s analysis of campaign finance reports, “candidates and independent groups collectively spent at least $150 million on Assembly and Senate contests statewide over the two-year election cycle.”

Why would a Democratic politician with a record of authoring campaign finance laws seemingly aid money in politics? Like his previous campaign finance proposals, Gordon’s current legislation has support from the state’s campaign watchdog, which argued that low campaign spending limits reduce political participation.

In a memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Erin Peth, executive director of the FPPC, said that the current campaign finance rules “can be a barrier for those individuals who wish to participate, but who will not be raising or spending large amounts of money in connection with an election.” Peth also argued, “Committee qualification thresholds have not been updated since at least 1987 and the proposed increases in the bill are intended to adjust the thresholds with the rate of inflation.”

According to the Inflation Calculator of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, when adjusted for the rising in the cost of living, $1,000 in 1987 is the equivalent of $2,066 today.

The rationale for higher limits is supported by pro-freedom campaign finance experts, who strongly defend political contributions as a protected form of political speech. Complex campaign finance laws force average citizens to seek legal counsel before engaging in political organizing.

“While serving on the FEC from 2000 to 2005, I kept a file of letters from political amateurs caught in the maw of campaign-finance laws,” Bradley Smith, a law professor and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, wrote in 2007. “Many of these people had no lawyers; none had the least intent to corrupt any officeholder; and all thought that they were fulfilling their civic duty by their involvement in campaigns.”

Top Two Primary could lead to more low-budget upsets

A higher campaign reporting threshold also increases the chances that those amateurs turn pro. Aided by California’s Top Two primary, which was passed by state voters in 2010, unknown candidates have been able to exceed political expectations, even achieve remarkable upsets, with low-budget campaigns. With higher reporting levels, these candidates will be able to operate in the dark for longer without tipping off incumbents.

dollar.CALast November, unknown community activist Patty Lopez failed to report any expenditures in the primary campaign, despite spending a few thousands dollars. That failure to report resulted in a $400 fine by the FPPC. In the general election, she went on to upset fellow Democrat, Asm. Raul Bocanegra.

“I made a few mistakes, and I paid the price for that,” Lopez said after the election. “Most of the people on my team, we’re not in the political arena.”

Lopez’s campaign finances weren’t managed by a campaign professional, just a family friend who was willing to serve as treasurer. That’s exactly the type of grassroots campaign political watchdogs hope to encourage with relaxed campaign finance regulations.

Her victory is proof that low-budget long-shots have the potential to win. Although it’s unlikely that Bocanegra would have been intimidated by a few thousands dollars of campaign spending, some political observers believe the lack of campaign finance disclosure contributed to the perception that she wasn’t a serious threat.

Opportunity for political professionals to exploit

Steve GlazerBy aiding political amateurs with higher reporting levels, state regulators also could empower creative political professionals to exploit the outcome of primary races. In multi-candidate primary elections, political professionals could spend just under $2,000 in online ads or automated calls backing a decoy candidate.

Such a scenario has already played out in this year’s special election for the 7th State Senate District. A Democrat-led political action committee, the Asian American Small Business PAC, spent $46,380 on behalf of Michaela Hertle, a Republican candidate who had dropped out of the race.

By backing the lone Republican candidate, the political action committee hoped to thwart moderate Democrat Steve Glazer, who had built his campaign strategy on appealing to Republicans and independent voters. Glazer ultimately advanced to the May run-off against fellow Democrat, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla. But Hertle had an impact, garnering 15 percent of the vote.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com