L.A. Ballot Measures Act Like Pickpockets

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

On Nov. 8, voters in Los Angeles will be asked to vote on seven measures that look innocent but take money right out of your pocket. It’s like being governed by the original Broadway cast of “Oliver.”

The show featured a gang of singing pickpockets, if you’ve never seen it.

L.A. County Measure A is a hike in property taxes to replace the funding from two expiring temporary taxes for parks. Because a temporary tax is a mythical creature, Measure A would levy a property tax of 1.5 cents per square foot of every building every year. The tax would hit businesses and apartment building owners especially hard, leading to higher prices and higher rents, and it’s permanent.

Measure M is a permanent one-half percent sales tax increase for what the county calls a “traffic improvement plan.” It would be the fourth one-half percent sales tax increase since 1980 for transportation. The third one, Measure R, was temporary, but Measure M would make it permanent.

Metro has a detailed plan on its website that shows all the projects Measure M will fund, but many of them count on the highly uncertain availability of billions of dollars in state or federal money. Some sound like outright fantasy. Valley voters are promised a tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, someday. It will do wonders to speed up the commute from Shangri-La to Brigadoon.

Now the bad news about Measure M: there are no guarantees that any of the promised projects will happen. Anything can be changed with a two-thirds vote of the Metro board of directors. And in the meantime, proposed mega-developments of housing or retail that are within one-half mile of a “planned” major transit stop qualify for streamlined approvals with no studies of the projects’ impact on traffic speed or parking, even if the nearby transit is only a watercolor illustration.

The Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees would like voters to authorize another $3.3 billion of borrowed money for more buildings, following the $6 billion the district blew through in the last 15 or so years. The money would be repaid, plus interest, by adding another charge to property tax bills for decades. Although Measure CC has “Affordable Education” and “Job Training” in its name, this is bond money that legally can only be used for land and buildings. It can’t be spent on education, or scholarships, or programs. Incidentally, in 2011, the State Controller reported on massive waste, fraud and mismanagement in the LACCD’s bond program. They promise this time they’ll really fix the bathrooms.

The City of Los Angeles is asking voters to approve Measure HHH, authorizing $1.2 billion of borrowed money to build housing for the homeless. Like the college bond, the money can only be used for land and buildings. Not one penny can legally be spent for services like mental health treatment, addiction counseling, shelters, social workers, law enforcement, or help for victims of domestic violence. The city can buy land, even forcing the sale with eminent domain, and pay developers to build high-density housing. Meanwhile, property tax bills will have an extra charge for decades to pay back the $1.2 billion plus interest. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Daily News

California’s Next Climate Policy That Won’t Help

Global WarmingYou wouldn’t expect a document titled “Vibrant Communities and Landscapes” to make so many people this angry.

“We are writing to express our concern and dismay over the draft ‘Vibrant Communities’ document,” wrote the Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed) on behalf of more than 163 business groups, 325,000 employers and 3 million jobs.

“Radical and without precedent in California public policy,” wrote Michael Lewis, senior VP of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition (CIAQC).

These comments were sent to Ken Alex, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, on Sept. 28. That was the final day of the public comment period for the draft of “Vibrant Communities and Landscapes.” It was only two weeks long.

“We strongly object to this inadequate amount of time to process a piece of policy this large and its potential impacts on the business community across not only L.A. County but the entire state,” wrote BizFed.

“We recommend that the document be scrapped,” wrote Lewis.

The “Vibrant Communities” document has cheerful photos of redwoods and sunflowers on the cover, but inside is a five-page plan to “consider land use in the context of California’s climate change policy,” and to ensure “that all Californians have equitable access to housing, health care, jobs, and opportunity.“

What does that mean, exactly?

According to the CIAQC, it’s “a new set of policies to govern every aspect of land use, transportation and air quality planning in California” written by eight state agencies without adhering to legally required procedures for new regulations.

The plan calls for policies that would allow new developments in previously-developed areas while discouraging “conversion” of open land. It envisions toll lanes (“priced express lanes”), fewer parking spaces (“reduced parking requirements for development”), and incentives for using transit in order to reduce “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT).

Driving, it seems, is the enemy of vibrancy.

But how is the government going to control how much people drive?

The answer can be found in a document released by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research last January. Thrillingly titled, “Revised Proposal on Updates to the CEQA Guidelines on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA,” the guidelines replace concerns about a project’s impact on traffic speed with calculations about the number and distance of vehicle trips it would generate. …

Click here to read the full article published by the L.A. Daily News

A Quick Guide to the 17 State-Wide Ballot Measures

VotedI know what you’re thinking as you look at the 224-page voter guide to 17 statewide ballot propositions, and it’s not printable in a family newspaper.

Still, with California effectively under one-party rule, you and the ballot initiative are the closest thing we have to a system of checks and balances. So here’s my personal guide to help you do the job.

Yes on Proposition 54 to require that bills in the Legislature be posted online in their final form for 72 hours before lawmakers vote on them. This ends the abusive practice of slamming backroom deals into unrelated or blank bills as an “amendment,” then rushing them to the floor for a vote before anybody else can read them.

Yes on Prop. 53 to require voter approval before the state can borrow $2 billion or more for state projects by issuing revenue bonds. This affects the proposed Delta tunnels water project. Revenue bonds are repaid by charging the users of whatever they’re issued to build. If you use water, that’s you.

Yes on Prop. 52 to protect a program devised by California hospitals to secure available federal matching dollars for Medi-Cal. The hospitals pay the state to help fund Medi-Cal, which then qualifies for matching funds, and then the hospitals get most of their money back. The “most” part is the problem. Vote yes on 52 to keep politicians’ hands out of the Medi-Cal cookie jar.

On the rest, I’m voting no.

Taxes and education: Prop. 55 extends a temporary income-tax hike on high-earners until 2030, but the school budget crisis is over, and a top state tax rate of 13.3 percent makes California uncompetitive with other states for the small businesses that create most of the jobs in America. Prop. 51 soaks taxpayers for $9 billion plus interest to build schools so new-home developers can escape higher fees. Prop. 58 repeals the 1998 “English for the Children” initiative and reinstates bilingual education, and it could lead to some students being automatically enrolled in bilingual classes even if parents don’t request it or want it.

Criminal justice: Prop. 57 empowers state prison officials and parole boards to release many state inmates early, regardless of enhanced sentences. Prop. 62 abolishes the death penalty. Prop. 66 changes death penalty procedures to limit and speed up state appeals.

Substances and drugs: Prop. 56 puts a $2 tax on cigarettes and extends tobacco taxes to vaping products. Prop. 64 legalizes recreational marijuana, but it also launches a massive new state bureaucracy to regulate, track and tax every plant from seed to sale, and it’s still illegal under federal law. Prop. 61 orders some state agencies to pay no more for prescription drugs than the price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, likely leading to pre-discount price hikes. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Daily News.

How LAUSD’s Chocolate Milk Ban Became an Environmental Disaster

chocolate-milkThe Merriam-Webster dictionary defines idiocy as “extreme stupidity; something that is extremely stupid or foolish.”

That’s the best thing that can be said about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s decision in 2011 to ban chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk. It might be worse than idiocy, but let’s go with that.

LAUSD has more than 640,000 students enrolled, a population that would make it the 26th largest city in America. When the district discards its trash every week, it’s an event.

Republic Services, the company that has had the LAUSD rubbish-hauling contract for nearly five years, estimated last year that the district throws out 600 tons of organic waste, including liquids, every week. Most of that is uneaten food. The liquid is unconsumed milk. White milk.

LAUSD serves milk to students from kindergarten through 12th grade every day for breakfast and lunch. The “milk options” on the menu are “White Low Fat 1%,” “White Fat Free” and “White Non-fat Lactose Free.”

But this segregated milk policy is a failure with the students and a hazard for the environment. It’s not easy to throw away two servings of milk per day for the population of the 26th largest city in America.

At a recent meeting of the LAUSD school board’s Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee, board member and committee chair Monica Ratliff asked Robert Laughton, director of the district’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, about a photo in his report that showed students pouring milk into a trash can.

“Do we throw it down the drain?” she asked. “Where does it go?”

“Originally, they poured it down the drain,” Laughton said, “but the city didn’t like milk going down the sewer system. You can’t put it down the storm drain, that’s against the law. The city isn’t crazy about it going to Hyperion (the wastewater treatment plant) either so now they’re pouring it into black trash bags and putting it into the trash bin. So it’s pretty much going across the counter and into a trash can.”

From there, the milk in the trash bags is hauled to local landfills. That probably includes the notorious Sunshine Canyon, a city- and county-owned facility operated by Republic Services, which takes in about a third of L.A. County’s garbage. It has become Granada Hills’ most obnoxious neighbor due to worsening odors.

If milk is causing problems at Sunshine Canyon, the situation may improve next year. That’s when LAUSD plans to start hauling its organic waste to another county in order to comply with new state regulations for mandatory organic waste recycling. The issue was before the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee because it’s going to cost a lot of money to haul 600 tons per week of organic waste to a composting facility as far away as southern Kern County.

The district would like to reduce food waste. Board member Scott Schmerelson said he’s been trying for a year to help nonprofits pick up unserved meals for food banks. “It’s the most convoluted and difficult process to have the correct insurance to be able to do that, and people just give up,” he said.

Different menus might help. If there’s one thing that’s certain about a “Turkey Pastrami Croissandwich with Cheese” (lunch, grades 9-12, September 27), it’s that a carton of white 1-percent milk will not pair well with it. …

Click here to read the full column from the L.A. Daily News

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley. 

Bills inspired by Stanford rape case miss big part of the problem

Brock turnerBrock Turner is a free man, and now California’s justice system is on trial.

When the former Stanford student was sentenced in June to only six months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, a sickening thud landed like a punch to the gut of millions of people who were following the high-profile trial.

Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky could have sentenced Turner to 14 years in prison and prosecutors asked for six. But despite the prosecutors’ recommendation and an impassioned letter from the victim describing her life-destroying ordeal, read aloud in court, the judge sentenced the young man from a wealthy family to just half a year in prison. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Persky explained.

In the uproar that followed, Persky moved to civil court and no longer hears criminal cases, a recall effort was launched against him, and the California Legislature sent two bills to the governor’s desk.

AB701 modifies the definition of rape to include selected acts that under current law are charged as “sexual assault” and “forcible sodomy.”

AB2888 ensures that sex crimes against an unconscious or severely intoxicated victim trigger mandatory prison sentences without any argument over whether “force” was used to commit the crime.

Another, SB813, removes the statute of limitations so rapists can be charged no matter how long ago the crime occurred.

Do these laws heighten the risk of wrongful convictions?

Try this test: Instead of thinking about Brock Turner, think about the three Duke lacrosse players who were wrongfully accused of gang rape in 2006. After a year, North Carolina’s attorney general declared the three men innocent. The Durham district attorney was convicted of contempt and disbarred.

The challenge is to get the law right so innocent defendants can clear their names and innocent victims can get justice, sometimes in cases where only two people were present, and one was unconscious or close to it.

Perhaps the law should address what happened to Turner’s victim after the crime.

In her statement to the court, the victim said she originally thought Turner would “formally apologize, and we will both move on.” Instead, “he hired a powerful attorney, expert witnesses, private investigators who were going to try and find details about my personal life to use against me.”

That’s what happens to victims of sexual assault when the perpetrator is wealthy or powerful enough to use character assassination as part of a legal or public relations defense. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Daily News

L.A. Community College District Seeks Billions More for Buildings

L.A. Community CollegeIn May, the Los Angeles Community College District put out the word that it wanted to hire a public relations firm.

A website called Everything-PR.com reported that the “scope of the work” included developing “a communications strategy” to “help the district explore the feasibility of a district-wide bond measure.”

That means the PR firm will have to explain to voters who already approved nearly $6 billion in borrowed money that the district has spent it all and wants $3.3 billion more. The publicists should get hazard pay.

The Los Angeles Community College District has nine campuses with about 135,000 students enrolled. In the San Fernando Valley, the LACCD schools are Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Mission College in Sylmar, and Valley College in Valley Glen.

Sixteen years ago, California voters approved Proposition 39 to allow education bonds to pass more easily, requiring only 55 percent voter approval instead of two-thirds. The next year, local voters approved Proposition A, authorizing the Los Angeles Community College District to borrow $1.2 billion by selling bonds to investors.

Two years later, the district persuaded voters to approve Proposition AA for almost $1 billion more.

By 2008, the money had run out and the district came back to the voters for an additional $3.5 billion, bringing the total to $5.7 billion of borrowed money – about $11 billion including interest – that’s paid back to investors by raising property taxes. It shows up as an extra charge on the bill, for decades.

What did all that money buy?

Bond money can’t legally be used for the salaries of faculty, staff or administrators. It can’t be used for operations or general expenses. It can only be used for facilities – mostly for renovating and constructing buildings.

In 2011, investigations by the Los Angeles Times and the State Controller’s office uncovered massive waste, fraud, and mismanagement in the bond program. …

Click here to read the full story from the L.A. Daily News

Why Los Angeles Urban Planners Are Wrong to Restrict Parking

ParkingJust before the backers of the anti-development Neighborhood Integrity Initiative submitted more than enough signatures to put the measure before the voters, they met with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

If the city would come up with its own plan to limit oversized developments, the group said, they would not go forward with the initiative.

Mayor Garcetti made a concession. He offered to notify the public of closed-door meetings between city officials and developers.

That wasn’t nearly enough for the initiative backers, who think closed-door meetings should be banned altogether, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Demolition of the buildings on the historic former Rocketdyne site in Canoga Park is now underway in preparation for what the developer is calling a “sustainable urban village” of about 4,000 housing units. As recently as June, City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield addressed public concerns about an excessively large development at the site by saying, “nothing has been submitted to the city for this location.”

Has Councilmember Blumenfield or other city officials held closed-door meetings with the developer or lobbyists and consultants about the Rocketdyne site? The public lacks even the right to know.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is aimed at stopping the out-of-control “spot zoning” that allows oversized developments to be approved in places where they otherwise would be prohibited.

One purpose of zoning and community plans is to provide consistency over time, so that when people buy property, whether for a home or business, they know what they’re buying. A home on a quiet street of single-family residences won’t suddenly have a strip mall or hotel as a next-door neighbor.

“Spot zoning” to allow more height and density can have an extremely negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, especially if the minimum requirements for parking are waived. And this is increasingly what some urban planners are recommending.

Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of the influential 2005 book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” says “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, encourage sprawl, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy.”

But eliminating minimum parking requirements risks turning neighboring residential streets into a scene that resembles the parking lot of Dodger Stadium when the Giants are in town.

Housing policy in California has discouraged the development of new single-family houses in outlying areas in favor of what planners call “infill,” the construction of high-density housing on vacant land in built-up areas. State law also speeds approval of “transit-oriented development,” mega-projects located within a half-mile of a train station or a bus stop with frequent service during peak hours.

Urban planners have a vision that …

Click here to read the full story from the Daily News

Obamacare Sinking Under Weight of Math

Healthcare costsThe Affordable Care Act is collapsing, and President Obama blames Republicans.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the president accused Republicans of undermining the health care law’s implementation. “It has come at a cost for the country,” Obama wrote, “most notably for the estimated 4 million Americans left uninsured because they live in GOP-led states that have yet to expand Medicaid.”

But expanding Medicaid also has come at a cost.

Medi-Cal, as Medicaid is called in California, has enrolled almost 5 million people since January 2014, when the Affordable Care Act expanded eligibility for the safety-net program. In 2010, 7.4 million Californians were covered by Medi-Cal. Today it’s more than 13 million, about one-third of the state population.

Covered California, the health care exchange where federally subsidized policies can be purchased from private insurers, has enrolled just 1.4 million people since it went online in the fall of 2013.

Is the dramatic expansion of Medi-Cal a success story?

Not if you run a hospital. California pays Medi-Cal providers less than it costs to provide the care to patients. The more people they treat, the more money they lose.

In 2009, hospitals in California were losing a total of about $2 billion annually on the care they provided to Medi-Cal patients. Today it’s about $8 billion.

The federal government provides matching funds for state Medicaid programs. To help California bring home every available federal dollar, the hospitals came up with the idea of paying a fee to the state, which would be put into the Medi-Cal program to help it qualify for matching funds. Then the state would have more money and could pay the hospitals for providing care to Medi-Cal patients.

It may sound like a game of three-card monte, but the California Hospital Association says the program has helped hospitals lose only $5 billion on Medi-Cal patients instead of $8 billion.

The hospital fee program was written into state law in 2009 and renewed three more times, most recently in 2013. It was well-supported but still bumpy: The state took a $1 billion annual cut of the hospital fees to pay for children’s health programs, and occasionally some of the hospital fees were diverted to other budget priorities.

So the hospitals are asking the voters of California to lock the hospital fee program into the law permanently. It will be on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot as Proposition 52, the Medi-Cal Funding and Accountability Act.

The measure has the endorsement of …

Click here to read the full article

Everybody Getting Sick of Obamacare

MedizinTo keep a comedy plot moving, things have to go terribly wrong, somebody has to hide the truth, and it all has to come crashing down at the end in something like a spectacular pie fight.

The whipped cream is about to hit the Affordable Care Act.

Covered California just announced that the average cost of premiums for policies sold on the state health insurance exchange will be 13.2 percent higher next year. In 14 other states, premiums for widely sold silver plans will rise an average of 11 percent.

The worse news is why: Health care costs are higher, two temporary programs to reduce risk for insurers are ending, and people signing up have been sicker than expected.

That’s the opposite of what was intended. The Affordable Care Act was supposed to reduce health care costs, outgrow its need for insurer subsidies, and get young and healthy people into the risk pool with its mandate to buy health insurance.

The individual market may have reached the dreaded death spiral — the point where insurance is so costly that only people who are sick will buy it, driving rates even higher.

There’s evidence of this in the latest numbers from the law’s “risk corridor” program, which is supposed to collect money from insurers with healthier customers (lower costs), and give that money to insurers with sicker customers (higher costs). For 2014, the program collected $362 million but owes $2.87 billion. For now, insurers will receive only 12.6 percent of the money they expected.

This has added to financial problems at the nonprofit member-run health plans known as co-ops. In 2014 there were 23 co-ops around the country. Today there are 11 — seven that lost money in 2015 and four that just announced they’re going out of business.

Five health plans have filed lawsuits over underpayments from the risk corridor program, which is set to end this year along with a second program that provides reinsurance. A third program for risk adjustment is permanent, although a Maryland health plan is challenging it in the courts.

Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled in May that the Obama administration is illegally giving money to insurance companies to pay for a cost-sharing reduction program that subsidizes the deductibles and co-payments of low-income people who buy silver policies on the exchanges.

In mid-2013, the administration removed the cost-sharing reduction program from its 2014 budget request and decided to pay for it with money that Congress appropriated for another purpose.

Congress has been trying for over a year to …

Click here to read the full story at the L.A. Daily News

Local Voices Unwelcome As State Promotes Affordable Housing

affordable housingFrom 2011 through the first quarter of 2014, more building permits for single-family homes were issued in the city of Houston than in the entire state of California.

That might be one reason that in April, the median selling price of a single-family home in Houston was $217,000 while in California it was $509,100.

There is widespread agreement that housing affordability in California is a problem, but there’s less agreement on what to do about it. Still, we should be able to agree that whatever is done ought to be transparent, publicly debated by the elected officials who represent us.

But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders are working on a backroom deal to “streamline” the approval of residential housing projects by cutting local voices out of the process.

Under this deal, any “attached housing” development that meets local zoning requirements could be built without local review of the project’s impact on traffic, parking, local businesses, the environment or the neighborhood, as long as 20 percent of its units were designated as affordable housing.

For developments located within one-half mile of a “major transit stop,” even fewer affordable units would trigger the “streamlined” approval. Just 10 percent would be enough to get pre-clearance to build a project like the 3,990-unit “urban village” planned for the former Rocketdyne site in Canoga Park.

No local review would be allowed.

This enormous change of policy is about to be slipped through the legislative process with a trick that prevents committee hearings, debate, amendments, and public notice. It will be written on one of the “spot bills” that was passed earlier in the legislative session.

Spot bills are blank pieces of legislation. They are empty, blank, with nothing written on them except a bill number and the words, “A bill related to the budget.”

Later, when a backroom deal is made, staffers pull out one of the spot bills and write the new law on it. Then the “amended” bill is brought back to the floor of each house for an up-or-down vote.

No hearings, no debate, no amendments, no public notice.

These formerly blank spot bills are called “budget trailer bills,” because they’re passed after lawmakers vote on the budget.

Trailer bills have become such an established part of business as usual in Sacramento that “trailer bill language” is posted on the website of the California Department of Finance. The “Streamlined Affordable Housing Approvals” draft is proposed trailer bill 707, if you’d like to read it. Of course, it may be changed in private negotiations. We won’t actually know what’s in the law until it passes.

Why is this even legal?

Who knows, but if the “Streamlined Affordable Housing Approvals” law is passed, whatever is in our zoning codes is the last word on what can or cannot be built in our neighborhoods.

That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s effort to update the zoning of every neighborhood in Los Angeles. We are in the midst of a “comprehensive revision” of the entire city’s zoning. The project is called “re:code LA.”

Haven’t heard of it?

Did you miss the “Listening Session: San Fernando Valley” meeting at the Van Nuys City Hall Council Chambers on July 9, 2013?

How about the “Regional Forum” at the Granada Hills Community Center on March 15, 2014? Surely you were at the “Public Forum: South Valley” at the Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center in Van Nuys on Saturday, April 2, from 9:00 a.m. to noon.

No?

The only way re:code LA could have a lower profile is if it was in the federal witness protection program.

But this “comprehensive revision” of L.A.’s zoning is the public’s last chance to have input on housing projects, because what the governor is writing on a piece of already-passed blank legislation will allow construction of huge residential developments, thickly clustered along a future transit corridor, without any local review at all. The projects need only be compliant with local zoning and include a bit of affordable housing.

It’s all too clever by half. The public deserves better than this.

olumnist for the Los Angeles Daily News and Southern California News Group

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily