New Laws Would Soften Penalties for California Juvenile Criminals

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

In a fresh bid to reform California’s criminal justice system, Sacramento lawmakers have begun to advance several bills, many aimed at softening juvenile punishment. “Democratic state senators Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens are proposing four bills intended to keep more youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system,” as the Associated Press noted.

“State senators in California on Monday introduced an eight-bill justice reform package focused on juveniles that would create a minimum age incarceration standard, a ban on sentencing minors to life without parole and Miranda rights protections,” according to Courthouse News. “Senate Bill 190 would extend financial relief to families with children in the justice system by nixing court administrative fees, and Senate Bill 395 would require minors to consult with an attorney before waiving their rights during interrogations.” Senate Bill 439, another piece of legislation, would tweak jurisdictional rules to ensure minors under the age of 12 do not wind up in juvenile court.

String of changes

At a recent hearing around the bills, lines of support and opposition took familiar shape. “Witnesses urged lawmakers to support legislation they said would ensure the fair treatment of children under the law,” the Los Angeles Times recalled. “But law enforcement groups and prosecutors said it could keep authorities from holding offenders accountable and hinder officers from carrying out investigations.”

At a recent appearance at a Sacramento elementary school, the bills’ two sponsors worked to portray their changes in rational and moral terms. “Mitchell, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, acknowledged some minors are involved in serious crime,” Capital Public Radio reported. “But she spoke out against incarcerating children under 12 years old as if they were ‘pint-sized’ adults.”

Activists pushing to further liberalize California’s incarceration laws have seen statewide success focusing on the fraught relationship between crime and child punishment. “In recent years, state legislation and propositions have attempted to create greater court protections for young offenders and to lower the population of incarcerated youth, as research on brain development has found that children learn differently from adults and should be afforded a criminal justice approach centered on rehabilitation,” the Times noted separately. “The latest victory for criminal justice advocates was Proposition 57, which will now require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants can be tried in an adult court.”

Curbing prison culture

But adult justice also received some attention, with proposed amendments “weakening drug enhancement sentencing procedures, nixing public defender reimbursement fees for individuals found innocent by the court and sealing arrest records of those not convicted of a crime,” according to Courthouse News. “The lawmakers hope the reforms will reduce county costs related to minor drug sentences and remove employment barriers for people accused but not convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.”

Other recent criminal justice reforms have advanced quickly in Sacramento. One, targeting abuses in prison snitch rewards, passed its first legislative test with flying colors. “Assembly Bill 359 on Tuesday sailed unanimously through the state Assembly Public Safety Committee,” as the Orange County Register noted. “Under the bill, snitches like Mexican Mafia members Raymond “Puppet” Cuevas and Jose “Bouncer” Paredes would no longer be able to live like kings behind bars, raking in as much as $3,000 a case as well as cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, fast food, Xbox machines and other perks.”

“The bill caps all monetary and nonmonetary payments to informants at $100 per case, including any investigatory work. Currently, the cap is $50 per case for testimony and no limit in compensation for investigation,” the paper observed. “Additionally, the bill requires prosecutors to keep databases that track informant work and locations, and to turn detailed informant histories over to defense attorneys no later than 30 days before the preliminary hearing.”

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California Democrats spend significant campaign cash fighting each other thanks to top-two primary rule

Kamala Harris Loretta SanchezNew figures on the November 2016 election cycle showed that Golden State Democrats continued to shell out substantial sums to compete with one another for elective office. Numbers taken from the California Secretary of State, and verified with Cal-Access campaign records, illustrate how the state’s blanket primary system, which pits the top two first-round vote-getters against one another in general elections regardless of party, has changed election dynamics.

“In the 2016 election cycle, Democrats raised or spent $91.5 million on same-party races – a 69 percent increase from 2014 when Democrats spent $54.3 million,” according to Forward Observer, which gathered and analyzed the data. “The average budget for a same-party race between Democrats was $3.97 million in the 2016 cycle, up 32 percent since 2014.”

For the state GOP, by contrast, blanket primaries have had an increasingly milder effect. “Republicans raised or spent $2.78 million on same party races in 2016, a decline of approximately 80 percent since 2014 when Republicans spent $13.85 million,” Forward Observer added. “Notably, there were no same-party races between two Republicans in either the state Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016.”

Contributing to the discrepancy, Republicans in California have simply run against one another with less frequency than Democrats. Since the 2012 elections, when the blanket primary system began, only 20 of 79 total intraparty races – including those for seats in the Assembly, the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives – pitted one Republican candidate against another. The 59 Democrat-on-Democrat races notched over the relatively brief time period have added up: “In total, Democrats have spent a total of $195 million on same-party races since Prop. 14 first went into effect in 2012 compared to $31.3 million spent by Republicans,” Forward Observer concluded. “In other words, Democrats have spent $6.24 on same-party races for every dollar spent or raised by Republicans.”

A wedge effect

The news underscored indications earlier this year that California Democrats could be polarizing on some issues as a result of the party’s statewide dominance and tough competition for limited leadership positions. “Another effect of the [blanket primary] system, harder to quantify but possibly more serious, has been a sharpening differences between the more moderate and more progressive wings of the party, sparking sometimes thorny disagreements that could have been softened had all candidates vying for office run against Republican opponents,” as CalWatchdog previously reported. “In some cases, such as Kamala Harris’ race against Loretta Sanchez, the challenger was too weak to force a bruising battle over political agendas. In others, however, a more moderate non-incumbent drew a clear line on policy and was rewarded at the ballot box.”

“Last year, for instance, Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer – a former aide to Gov. Jerry Brown who pitted himself against the BART strike and won support from Chuck Reed, the ex-San Jose Mayor spearheading public pension reform – bested Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, the far more liberal Democrat who initially had been widely expected to win the race to replace outgoing state Senator Mark DeSaulnier.”

National impact

Nationally, divided Democrats have sometimes replicated the pattern. “Former Vice President Joe Biden, beloved by the Democratic base, had the audacity to endorse Barack Obama’s labor secretary, Tom Perez, to become Democratic National Committee chairman,” as Dan Morain wrote at the Sacramento Bee. “Sen. Bernie Sanders, who supports the more liberal Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, denounced Biden’s move as representing the ‘failed status-quo approach.’” But while Sanders made a big cameo during November’s elections, getting involved in the state initiative process, it’s unlikely he or other national party figures will try to tip the scales one way or the other in a close race scenario between two state-level California Democrats vying for the same office.

Still, the next big test of Democrats’ fundraising fortunes in a head-to-head matchup has been teed up for spring, when the special election will be held to replace new state Attorney General and outgoing Rep. Xavier Becerra in Congress. “At this point, 17 Democrats, two Republicans and one Green-party candidate will appear on the April 4 special-primary ballot,” Jim Geraghty observed at National Review. Assuming no contender wins a majority of votes on that day, the runoff election has been slated for June 6.

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Inequality in San Francisco Haunts Democrats

San Francisco, CA, USAAs San Francisco’s sharp inequality draws national attention this election year, California Democrats have begun to question how to explain their role in fostering — and reversing — the trend.

The gulf between the progressive city’s richest and poorest, and the emptying space between the two, has come to haunt Democrats worried that their almost unfettered control over state and municipal politics has left promises unfulfilled and little plan for change in the future. “During all my years in Asia I constantly grappled with the perniciousness of poverty,” Thomas Fuller wrote in a dispatch for the New York Times Sunday Review. “Yet somehow I was unprepared for the scale and severity of homelessness in San Francisco. The juxtaposition of the silent whir of sleek Tesla electric vehicles, with the outbursts of the mentally ill on the sidewalks. Destitution clashing with high technology. Well-dressed tourists sharing the pavement with vaguely human forms inside cardboard boxes. I’m confounded how to explain to my two children why a wealthy society allows its most vulnerable citizens to languish on the streets.”

A city in the hot seat

Liberals have recently raised the alarm about inequality in other elite blue-state cities. “Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation,” as Thomas Frank recently observed. “A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality.”

But with California’s rising generation of leaders drawn so heavily from San Francisco elites like Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris, the leading candidates for governor and U.S. senator respectively, critics have suggested that the city’s dominant political ethos is even more determinative of the near future than its prevailing technological worldview. “San Francisco and the Bay Area have long been committed to values which embrace inclusivity and counterculture. To see these values fraying so publicly adds insult to injury for a region once defined by its progressive social fabric,” Frederick Quo suggested this summer at Quartz, warning “San Francisco has become one huge metaphor for economic inequality” across the country. “In the face of resentment it is human to want revenge,” he warned. “But regressive policies such as heavily taxing technology companies or real estate developers are unlikely to shift the balance.”

West coast anxieties

The sense that San Francisco has painted itself into a kind of policy corner has played into growing perceptions among Golden Staters that residents are facing a painful, threatening squeeze, despite the state’s significant aggregate economic turnaround from the bad old days of the financial crisis when Sacramento issued IOUs. In a recent CALSPEAKS poll, “seven out of 10 respondents believe the number of people living in poverty is a “major” problem,” KQED News reported. “There was wide agreement, regardless of race, political affiliation, income level or age. Two-thirds of Californians also believe income inequality is a major problem. (The cost of health care was another top concern, considered a problem by 70 percent of respondents.)”

For a time, it appeared that Democrats were turning the corner on inequality anxieties by focusing on raising minimum wages nationwide, starting with big cities — an approach that courted big controversy in California but ultimately largely succeeded. “In the last few years, as concerns have grown about economic inequality, proposals for a higher minimum wage have enjoyed remarkable success, thanks in part to an energetic campaign for a $15 minimum wage led by fast-food workers and backed by organized labor,” NBC News recalled. “New York, California and Washington, D.C., have all passed laws to raise their minimum to $15 an hour within the next eight years.” But as KQED noted, in the new CALSPEAKS survey, just “one-third of those polled ‘strongly favor’ the state’s recent $15/hour minimum wage bump approved,” while only 26 percent “somewhat” favored it — a majority, but one still uncertain about the best way to right what they see as the state’s stubborn economic wrongs.

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Controversial New Program Will Track Your Driving — For Tax Purposes

carpool-laneAs state drivers’ changing habits undermined roughly a hundred years of gasoline taxes, California officials debuted a controversial new pilot program designed to make up the difference.

“The state of California is looking for 5,000 volunteers this summer for an experiment with potentially major pocketbook ramifications,” the Sacramento Bee noted. The so-called California Road Charge pilot program, proposed by the state Legislature, has tasked “Caltrans and other transportation officials to set up a nine-month test to see what it would be like if drivers paid for state road repairs based on how many miles they drive in their cars or trucks rather than how many gallons they buy at the pump.”

Aiming for a July start and a nine-month run, the program “already has a list of 4,300 people who are game,” according to Next City. “Participants will continue to pay the pump tax, but receive simulated monthly statements detailing how much they would pay under a road usage system.”

Losing gas

With gas prices, gas taxes and gasoline usage all sinking, lawmakers have labored to settle on a different way to collect revenue from road usage. “In California, drivers now pay 30 cents per gallon, plus 18 cents a gallon in federal tax,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“Not only are politicians averse to raising the tax — which hasn’t been bumped up since 1994, with polls showing extreme distaste from voters — but also the continuing rise in fuel efficiency and the boom in electric vehicles ensure the steady evaporation of revenues even as more cars roll up more miles on the road. Gas taxes are expected to bring in $4.5 billion this fiscal year, 16 percent less than last year and 21 percent less than in 2014. Projections call for revenues to drop another 6.5 percent in the coming year.”

Just last month, regulators signaled the shifts to come by throwing their weight behind a further drop in the gas tax. “California drivers will pay 2.2 cents less per gallon of gasoline, starting in July, after a divided Board of Equalization voted to cut the excise tax,” according to U-T San Diego.

“‘Lowering the rate is the right thing to do and I’m sure Californians will welcome this reduction,’ board vice chair George Runner said in a statement after the agency voted 3-2 to pass the reduction that was recommended by BOE staff.”

Making the transition

From a regulatory standpoint, moving toward a per-mile tax would offer an additional advantage — a relatively smooth and seamless transition from a logistical and bureaucratic standpoint. Of the four vendors recruited to track mileage in the new pilot program, three “are already providing bonus services to fleet managers based on vehicle data,” according to

“Azuga currently offers fleets a device they plug straight into a vehicle’s OBDII computer — a standard component in all vehicles made after 1996. Aside from automatically reporting mileage back to fleet managers, the computer is what alerts drivers to specific problems in the engine and can also offer information about what’s going on under the hood,” the site noted. “Two of the other companies signed up to track the mileage of participants in California’s test program, Intelligent Mechatronic Systems and EROAD, offer similar services. The fourth vendor, Arvato Mobility Solutions, will manage the accounts.”

Although privacy advocates have expressed skittishness and dismay, many Californians have grown accustomed to their driving habits being monitored electronically. California Road Charge will offer “the option to allow the state to monitor their in-vehicle computer, tracking where they go so they aren’t charged for the use of private or out-of-state roads,” Next City noted. “Recognizing that many will see this as an intrusion on their privacy, the state is testing other ways to collect this data, like periodic odometer reading verifications. California will also experiment with offering drivers weekly or monthly ‘all-you-can-drive’ passes.”

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SCOTUS declines to review CA asset seizure practice

Photo courtesy Envios, flickr

Photo courtesy Envios, flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take on a 15-year-old case challenging California’s asset seizure practices.

The justices decided “they would not hear a long-running lawsuit that contends the state does not do enough to notify the rightful owners before seizing their assets,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “Under the state’s law, accounts can be seized if a bank or retirement fund has lost track of the owner for three years. But lawyers who sued called the state’s system a ‘recipe for abuse’ because many people are unaware that their assets or those of a relative are being held by the state.”

The suit put the court’s interpretation of fundamental constitutional rights at stake. “Lead plaintiff Chris Taylor filed the class action at issue back in 2001, taking aim at California’s Unclaimed Property Law, which provides for the conditional transfer to the state of unclaimed property such as savings accounts or shares of stock,” Courthouse News reported. “Taylor accused state controller Betty Yee of violating due-process rights by transferring property to the state without providing the potential owners adequate notice.”

“During the intervening years, the challenge brought several amendments to the law’s notice procedures. Chief among them, California now notifies potential owners before the state transfers the unclaimed property, not after.”

Room for abuse

But the state has not changed its passive stance on money “which they freely admit they owe to someone (or that person’s heirs if they are deceased) but are unable to deliver because they can’t find them,” as HotAir noted. Other states, the site observed, had reason to watch the case closely. As CNN Money has calculated, “States, federal agencies and other organizations collectively hold more than $58 billion in unclaimed cash and benefits. That’s roughly $186 for every U.S. resident. The unclaimed property comes from a variety of sources, including abandoned bank accounts and stock holdings, unclaimed life insurance payouts and forgotten pension benefits.”

Critics have charged that governments take advantage of the perverse incentive to keep people in the dark about what they’re owed. California alone has amassed some $8 billion in unclaimed assets, according to the Los Angeles Times; “from this fund, it takes about $450 million a year to add to the state budget,” the paper reported.

Future hopes

Two justices did offer Taylor and his supporters a small consolation prize. In a concurring opinion, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas recommended that the court consider “in a future case” how proactive states should be in similar situations.

“As advances in technology make it easier and easier to identify and locate property owners, many states appear to be doing less and less to meet their constitutional obligation to provide adequate notice” prior to seizure, Alito reasoned. “Cash-strapped states undoubtedly have a real interest in taking advantage of truly abandoned property to shore up state budgets. But they also have an obligation to return property when its owner can be located.” Alito said “the convoluted history” of Taylor’s suit “makes it a poor vehicle for reviewing the important question it presents[.]”

Legislative divisions

More broadly, asset forfeiture laws have become a target for reformers in both political parties, with bills attracting controversy in states across the country. Last year, a divided Legislature in Sacramento saw Senate Bill 443 sail through the Senate but sink in the Assembly. State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Torrance, “would have reformed the state’s asset forfeiture regulations to require that police and prosecutors actually convict citizens of crimes before seizing ownership of their assets to spend on themselves,” as Reason magazine noted. Between the Senate’s vote and the Assembly’s, state police and prosecutors mobilized effectively to prevent the bill from becoming law.

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Middle Class Fleeing CA at Record Rates data has brought a new urgency to the souring fortunes of California’s middle class.

“Not only are Californians leaving the state in large numbers, but the people heading for the exits are disproportionately middle class working families — the demographic backbone of American society,” the American Interest recently noted.

Looking at labor force categories provides more evidence that California is losing working young professional families,” argued Hoover Institution research fellow Carson Bruno; “while there is a narrative that the rich are fleeing California, the real flight is among the middle-class.”

“Knowing that net out-migrants are more likely to be middle-class working young professional families provides some hints as to why people are leaving California for greener pastures. For one, California is an extraordinarily high cost-of-living state. Whether it is the state’s housing affordability crisis — California’s median home value per square foot is, on average, 2.1 times higher than Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Oregon and Washington’s — California’s very expensive energy costs — the state’s residential electric price is about 1.5 times higher than the competing states — or the Golden State’s oppressive tax burden — California ranks 6th, nationally, in state-local tax burdens — those living in California are hit with a variety of higher bills, which cuts into their bottom line.”

Real estate indicators

“In 2006, 38 percent of middle-class households in California used more than 30 percent of their income to cover rent. Today, that figure is over 53 percent,” according to Christopher Thornberg, director of the UC Riverside School of Business Administration Center for Economics Forecasting and Development. “The national figure, as a point of comparison, is 31 percent. It is even worse for those who have borrowed to buy a home — over two-thirds of middle-class households with a mortgage are cost-burdened in California — compared to 40 percent in the nation overall.”

Recent studies illustrated a continuing plunge in homeowning among traditional buyers in-state. “California’s middle class is being hammered,” wrote Joel Kotkin at the Orange County Register. “The state now ranks third from the bottom, ahead of only New York and the District of Columbia, for the lowest homeownership rate, some 54 percent, a number that since 2009 has declined 5 percent more than the national average.”

Low on houses

Some analysts looking to explain the trend have pointed to a so-called housing shortage statewide. “With supply falling far below demand, California needs to build at least 1 million more homes for low- and middle-income Californians in the next 10 years,” CAFWD suggested, adding that, although Gov. Jerry Brown “did not mention housing in the State of the State address,” he has “not explicitly ruled out addressing the issue in the next three years.”

Giving ammunition to the housing shortage thesis, meanwhile, was “a new report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office that found that poorer neighborhoods that have added more market-rate housing in the Bay Area since 2000 have been less likely to experience displacement,” the Washington Post noted. But experts have differed significantly on how to read the tea leaves of the data, and analysts disagree on whether increasing density — or what kind of density — is the right answer.

A cloudy picture

The Golden State has been haunted in recent times by sharply mixed economic indicators. “While California has added 2.1 million jobs since 2010, employment in six industries is still below 2007 levels, before the Great Recession, according to the center’s analysis. Those sectors — including construction, finance and manufacturing — generally pay more than the service-type jobs that we’re adding in droves,” the Sacramento Bee noted late last year.

Economic growth concentrated in Silicon Valley has also not done much to relieve the income or jobs picture for middle-classers. “In a recent survey of states where ‘the middle class is dying,’ based on earning trajectories for middle-income cohorts, Business Insider ranked California first, with shrinking middle-class earnings and the third-highest proportion of wealth concentrated in the top 20 percent of residents,” Kotkin observed.

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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.”

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New Water-Saving Technique: Public Shaming

Shower head water droughtAfter a wave of new rules, regulations and crackdowns, many water-conserving Californians have evaded formal and informal punishment. With no end in sight, however, others have begun to face both forms of penalties.

The mood of the public and officials alike has tilted hard against outsized consumers. Although “water providers such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have refused to divulge the names of California’s top residential water users,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “the DWP is now considering changes to its water conservation ordinance that would impose ‘substantial’ fines for excessive use and make the names public.”

Pressed by “public outrage, and questioning by Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz,” the Times noted, DWP would follow in the East Bay’s footsteps, where agency overusers recently confronted “an excessive-use penalty ordinance that allows it to fine and name water customers who consume more than four times the average household.”

From nagging to snitching

In the Bay Area, a culture of water shaming has developed from the ground up. In a report on “the domestic water police,” the New York Times recently identified “moms and dads, spouses and partners, children, even co-workers and neighbors” as among the residents “quick to wag a finger when they spot people squandering moisture, such as a faucet left running while they’re brushing their teeth, or using too much water to clean dinner plates in the sink. And showers? No lingering allowed.”

More nagging has gone hand in hand with more snitching. The Times reported that “state water agencies issued more than 70,000 warnings for overuse and more than 20,000 penalties” this June and July, with many issued when “someone’s neighbor ratted on them,” according to State Water Resources Control Board climate and conservation manager Max Gomberg.

Although those penalties landed on a relatively small group of die-hard squanderers, the state has now leveled substantial fines on whole cities that failed to meet conservation targets. “While most communities continue to hit mandated conservation targets, a few have consistently missed,” the Sacramento Bee noted. “All four were in Southern California: Beverly Hills, Indio, Redlands and Coachella Valley Water District. Each was fined $61,000.”

These sums could be only the beginning. “The penalties are based on the board’s authority to issue fines of $500 per day for violations of its emergency regulation,” according to the Press-Enterprise. “The board could also issue the providers a cease and desist order, which carries a fine up to $10,000 per day for non-compliance.”

A vicious circle

water meter 2The crackdown has come as agencies have hiked rates for users who do conserve. “Water providers in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the state have recently told customers that rates will go up at least temporarily, as utilities struggle to pay for building and repairing pipes, buying water and other costs, even as customers cut back,” according to Reuters. Agencies have sometimes wound up a victim of their own success. “In Los Angeles, conservation led to a $111 million drop in revenues during the fiscal year that ended July 1, a period mostly before the mandatory cutbacks kicked into high gear, Department of Water and Power budget director Neil Guglielmo said Friday.”

But for now, regulators have tried to emphasize the positive. “Californians slashed their water use 26 percent in September, meeting Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of 25 percent for the fourth straight month,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing recently released state data. Though encouraged by the numbers, water agencies have strained to strike a messaging balance between threats and warnings on the one hand and encouragement and pride on the other, hoping to give savers a sense of reward without subtly encouraging a return to laxity. Utilities, noted the Chronicle, remained dedicated to “trying to keep the conservation message front and center after four dry years, especially as residents may be tempted to become less diligent with forecasts calling for a wetter-than-average winter.”

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Referendum to Restore Personal Choice in Vaccinations Dies

vaccine2The drive to restore California’s vaccination exemptions through the state referendum process has failed.

At stake was Senate Bill 277, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on a wave of concern that “herd immunity” among California children was compromised by a growing anti-vaccination trend. Coauthored by state Sens. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Ben Allen, D-Redondo Beach, SB277 “will require all children entering kindergarten to be vaccinated unless a doctor certifies that a child has a medical condition, such as allergies, preventing it,” as the Los Angeles Daily News summarized the law.

Missing the mark

After submitting signatures gathered in the hopes of meeting the legal threshold of adequate public support, organizers behind the would-be measure discovered that their numbers had fallen short: “They turned in some 228,000 signatures on petitions for a referendum to overturn the measure, far short of the number needed to qualify it for next year’s ballot,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. “Referendum supporters needed the signatures of 365,880 registered voters by Monday to place the measure before state voters in November 2016.”

Efforts to meet the requirements were bedeviled by the shoestring character of the operation. “While the campaign deployed paid signature gatherers in the final stretch before the deadline, it was largely a volunteer effort,” according to the Sacramento Bee, “a tough task given that successful initiative campaigns typically cost millions of dollars.”

Citing internal documentation, the Bee noted that some California counties weren’t represented at all in the final tally. “Organizers in six counties did not submit any signatures by the deadline, according to an initial survey of raw data from the California secretary of state’s office. While the organizers’ spreadsheet contains estimates for large population centers like Orange County, Los Angeles County and Riverside County, they did not have an estimate for 16 counties in addition to the six the secretary of state said did not submit signatures,” the paper reported.

Raising allegations

vaccination cartoonBut one of the foremost political figures behind the movement to restore the personal belief exemption to mandatory child vaccinations alleged that the signature-gathering effort had fallen victim to foul play. “The leading proponent of the effort, former Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, said in an email Monday that volunteers were coerced and threatened while collecting signatures,” according to the Associated Press. “Donnelly did not return repeated messages inquiring about the effort’s chances but said in his email that he was proud of the volunteers who worked on the campaign ‘whatever the outcome is.’” Donnelly said the push “was sabotaged from without and within by powerful forces from its very inception, but we never gave up and we never gave in.”

Although Donnelly had gained notoriety of late as an outspoken gubernatorial candidate, his charges have yet to faze supporters of the stringent vaccination mandate. In remarks to KOVR Sacramento, Pan said he supported “the right to pursue a referendum,” according to the Daily News. But Pan also told reporters he was “sure the voters of California are not interested in letting a privileged few take away the rights of all Californians to be safe from preventable disease,” the AP noted.

Plan B

As the deadline for submitting signatures neared, some anti-vaccination activists created what could be a second opportunity to accomplish objectives similar to the hoped-for referendum. In a recent message posted to Facebook, the group announced that they had filed for a so-called Parental Rights Constitutional Amendment Initiative. “The measure was filed now in part because the filing fee for initiatives is going up Jan. 1 from $200 to $2,000,” the post said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Supporters have six months to collect signatures for an initiative, far longer than 90 days provided for a referendum.”

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Assisted Suicide Takes Step Forward in CA Legislature

NeedleWith doctors’ groups divided, legislation that would authorize assisted suicide cleared a key hurdle in Sacramento, triggering a fresh round of controversy.

Senate Bill 128, the so-called “End of Life Option Act,” was introduced earlier this year by state Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Bill Monning, D-Carmel. Modeled on an Oregon law governing physician-assisted suicide, SB128 set out a series of conditions that would legalize but limit the practice.

Retooled after it initially stalled, the bill has now passed through the state Senate appropriations committee. “Backers of the assisted suicide proposal made some changes to the bill to gain more support after it initially met with strong opposition from hospitals, doctors, anti-abortion organizations and disability rights groups,” Reuters reported. “As currently written, it allows hospitals and medical providers to refuse to comply with a patient’s wish for assisted suicide, and also makes it illegal to pressure or manipulate people into ending their lives.”

The bill’s final language required that medication be self-administered by a mentally competent patient diagnosed by two physicians with six months or less to live, according to California Healthline.

Deepening controversy

One key to the bill’s committee clearance, Reuters noted, was the California Medical Association, which “still opposes the concept of assisted suicide” but “removed its formal opposition to the bill.”

Yet this attempt at a compromise position has left many palliative doctors unsatisfied. Among those supportive of assisted suicide, some have argued that all patients should have a right to avoid discomfort at the end of life — an objective even diligent palliative care cannot always meet.

Others, arguing against the practice, insisted that affirmatively ending patients’ lives was an unnecessary and crude response to the discomfort of death and dying. Newport Beach doctor Vincent Nguyen told Southern California Public Radio that patients’ typical fears — “about pain, losing control or being a burden on family — can be managed with spiritual and emotional counseling and pain medications, all of which are part of the palliative care toolkit.”

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician in Torrance, went further. Contrary to their wishes, he warned, the chronically ill often “spend their last weeks in intensive care units, hooked up to life support,” according to SCPR. “To address this problem, he says that all doctors — from medical students to veteran practitioners — should be required to have training in end of life conversations.”

A moral shift

As SB128 came one step closer to becoming law, analysts began a closer look at how much popular support the bill might attract. As has long been the case on high-profile and hot-button issues, California has been seen as a bellwether in the struggle over how the law treats those who want to die.

Despite gathering momentum to legalize assisted suicide, public opinion has remained split. But in-state and nationwide, data suggested an ongoing shift in mores that benefits how SB128 is perceived. “Nearly seven in 10 Americans (68 percent) say doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, up 10 percentage points from last year,” Gallup reported. “More broadly, support for euthanasia has risen nearly 20 points in the last two years and stands at the highest level in more than a decade.”

The shift has left opponents pivoting to warn that even relatively narrow authorizations of the practice would lead to ever-broader accommodations down the road. “In the Netherlands, after many years, legal assisted suicide for the dying has evolved into death on demand, with six out of 10 doctors admitting to killing a patient who was simply ‘tired of   living,’” wrote  Jacqueline Harvey of Euthanasia Prevention International at National Review. “California is approaching that slippery slope.”

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