California’s Single-Payer Health Care Plan Would Be Costly and Risky

MedizinSingle-payer health care is e a major issue in California’s 2018 gubernatorial election. Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom has strongly endorsed the idea, while Republican candidate John Cox is opposed. Last year, a single-payer bill, SB 562: The Healthy California Act, passed the state Senate but was placed on hold in the Assembly.

SB 562 would replace the current health care system with a state program under which all provider claims are paid centrally with no network restrictions, deductibles, co-pays, or other limitations. One governing body would replace the current array of public and private insurers. Medicare, Medi-Cal, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) would be integrated into the new system.

Proponents of single-payer primarily tout its ability to move the state towards universal coverage. However, California is already fairly close to achieving universal coverage. The June 2017 CDC report states that only 6.8 percent of Californians are uninsured. The other 93.2 percent already have private insurance, Medi-Cal, or gained insurance through Covered California during the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expansion.

Creating a single-payer health care system would be enormously costly, time-consuming, and difficult from a political and implementation standpoint. If achieving universal coverage is the primary goal, existing insurance schemes and government programs could be expanded to cover the uninsured instead. If Medi-Cal coverage is considered insufficient, it could be enhanced without impacting other categories of insurance.

A major argument from proponents of single-payer is the claim that it saves money by eliminating profits and administrative overhead — money that is going to insurance providers. Relative to all health care costs, these amounts are quite small. Most California residents already have coverage either through the government (Medi-Cal or Medicare) or a non-profit provider (Kaiser Permanente or Blue Shield), so profits only enter into the equation for a minority of Californians. Second, SB 562 would remove incentives to control costs, eliminating managed care. As a result, provider charges would probably increase substantially, overwhelming any savings from the elimination of middlemen.

Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest non-profit health plan and the insurer for many Californians, is known for its high quality of care and cost-conscious decision-making. A single-payer system would eliminate managed care organizations, and with them, the years of efficiency gains made to eliminate wasteful spending and improve quality. A statement by Kaiser’s CEO last year emphasized the difference between universal coverage and single-payer, mentioning his hesitations with single payer’s outdated fee-for-service model.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge of a single-payer system is the price tag. Analyses estimate that implementing a single-payer system would cost California between $330 billion and $400 billion per year, and there are reasons to believe that these estimates are too low. To put the potential costs in perspective, the entire California state budget for 2018-2019 is $201.4 billion. SB 562 does not provide details about how funds would be raised to pay for single-payer.

Furthermore, SB 562 has no mention of cost control measures, while explicitly saying there will be no co-pays, deductibles, or premiums. It plans to cover all medically necessary care, including medical, vision, dental, hearing, and reproductive services. Other services like chiropractic care and acupuncture would also be fully covered under the new program.

Many other countries have universal health care coverage and better health outcomes than the United States, an argument frequently used in favor of single-payer. However, many of these countries utilize free-market mechanisms that promote cost-conscious decision-making. These include price transparency, fewer regulations, consumer choice, and cost-sharing to prevent overuse of services.

Aside from the fundamental problems aforementioned, there are considerable political and legal roadblocks associated with implementing a single-payer system in California. Assuming that tax increases would be a necessity for funding purposes, a key obstacle would be gaining the two-thirds vote requirement for passing any such increases in the state legislature. Other obstacles include Proposition 4 of 1979, referred to as the Gann Limit, which limits state and local appropriations. Implementation of a taxpayer-funded single-payer system would necessitate repealing the Gann Limit or exempting the new taxes from the limit. Proposition 98, passed in 1988, requires that a certain amount of state tax revenues be diverted toward education funding and taxes for a single-payer system would fall into this category. So, once again, voters would have to approve exempting these new taxes from Prop. 98.

Proponents of the single-payer system believe that the new taxes needed to fund it could be addressed in legislation without requiring voter approval. The California Budget & Policy Center sees this as “very unlikely,” since it would require amending the state Constitution. When it comes to Proposition 98, the likelihood of exempting new taxes is less clear, since it depends on differences between the General Fund and Special Fund, potentially opening the door to a lawsuit.

Much uncertainty exists about the possibility of rolling federal funding into the California Health Fund (a new fund from which the state government would pay all medical expenses). The federal government funds Medicare and most of Medi-Cal, setting or at least influencing eligibility rules. This creates a hurdle to covering undocumented immigrants; federal funds are currently not allowed to finance any of the social services provided to this population.

The combination of the political and legal complications, SB 562’s enormous price tag, and the lack of cost-control measures and long-term funding uncertainties need to be carefully considered by Californians. Vermont tried to implement a single-payer health care system in 2014 but ultimately abandoned it following a myriad of challenges. Vermont had a population of 625,000 residents at the time. California’s is home to nearly 40 million people. Increasing access to health care is a laudable goal, but changes to the system should focus on improving health care outcomes for patients and  improving the quality and affordability of care. Increasing the state government’s role in health care is unlikely to deliver those results.

This article was originally published by Reason.com

California Restaurants Banned from Providing Plastic Straws or Kid’s Meal Sodas

StrawsGov. Brown signed 41 bills into law on Thursday including banning restaurants from automatically distributing plastic straws or advertising kid’s meals with a soda.

The California Constitution requires that September 30 is the last day for the Governor to sign or veto bills passed by the Legislature before September 1. Governor Brown on September 20 signed 41 bills and vetoed 6.

Brown signed 40 of the 45 bills authored by a Democrat and 1 of the 2 bills authored by a Republican. The environment and education were the two biggest focus areas of the legislative 2018 legislative session with Brown signing 9 education bills and vetoed 4; while signing 10 bills and vetoing 0 associated with the environment.

Brown justified signing Assembly Bill 1884, prohibiting dine-in restaurants from automatically providing plastic straws with meals, with a statement that plastic is now a danger that “pervades every aspect of modern life” and its “single-use convenience has led to disastrous consequences” for society that must eventually be eliminated.

The governor stated that with the annual global production of plastic having reached 448 million tons by 2015, plastic in the world’s oceans now kills millions of marine mammals each year. He added that microplastics in tap water and plastic straws, bottles, packaging, and bags “are choking our planet.”

The impact of the bill will be limited because it does not apply to fast food, coffee shops and other take-out stores that are the biggest distributors of plastic items. Customers can still get a straw at dine-in eateries but will have to independently request one.

Brown also signed Senate Bill 1192 that amends the California Retail Food Code to requires all dine-in and fast food chains to offer milk; a non-dairy milk alternative; or sparkling, still or flavored water as a default or advertised beverage for a child’s packaged meal. The bill does not prohibit a restaurant from selling, or a customer’s ability to purchase, an alternative beverage if the purchaser requests one.

Both AB-1884 and SB-1192 will be effective on January 1.

The most significant surprise on Thursday was Brown’s pocket veto of Senate Bill 1424 that would have directed the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to establish an advisory group to study the supposed “problem of the spread of false information through Internet-based social media.

Brown called SB-1424 called the “creation of a statutory advisory committee to examine this issue not necessary,” given the numerous studies by academic and policy groups.

This article was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

Let’s Avoid a “High Speed Rail” Situation in Space

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, flickr

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, flickr

Putting aside questions of effectiveness and even validity of the satellite project proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown at his Global Climate Action Summit, we should be concerned that the satellite could emulate the high-speed rail in that the costs will not be covered as promised and that taxpayers will end up holding the bag.

The release from the governor’s office said initial funding “has been provided by Dee and Richard Lawrence and OIF, as well as The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.” The release adds that, “Additional scientific, business and philanthropic partners are expected to join this initiative…”

Then there’s this: “Planet (Labs) will manage the mission operations and collaborate with the State of California and others on funding this groundbreaking effort.”

Clearly, the state–that is the taxpayers–are expected to chip in for the satellite project. More is expected from outside sources such as business and others. But let’s not forget the promise of the high-speed rail: That it would be funded by the state, federal and private interests. Yet, no private money has come forward.

Whether the state should even sponsor such an endeavor is not the issue here. The point to be considered is that given the situation with the rail, it would be best to have that money in the bank before setting off on this project; before the taxpayers are involved to a greater extent than desired.

Will California embark on the satellite project on the hope that money will come from private concerns? As with the high-speed rail, will we see a General Obligation bond to help support it?

Remember, the idea is not for one satellite but multiple satellites. No price tag was associated with the project so we can’t compare its costs to that of the rail project. But, who really knows the high-speed rail cost. It’s forever changing. Is that the future of the California satellite venture?

If, in fact, taxpayer money is involved it should also come from taxpayers beyond California’s borders. The satellite monitoring will be world-wide and at a minimum the United States Climate Alliance made up of 17 states that are involved in the alliance should contribute because they would benefit from any information the satellites collect.

On another level, you do have to hand it to a clever Jerry Brown for turning around the “Governor Moonbeam” moniker once given to him by Chicago Tribune columnist, Mike Royko, when Brown proposed California launch a satellite for a different purpose 40-plus years ago.

While Royko declared the moniker “null, void and deceased” 15 years after appending it to Brown, the governor has come to embrace the nickname. With his latest satellite pronouncement, he turned a mocking handle into a mark of enlightenment. And to do so at the end of his term completes the circle of his time as California’s governor.

But part of Royko’s complaint was the issue of cost and that nagging question of cost still exists. It is currently spoiling Brown’s signature issue, the high-speed rail. If the satellite proposal follows a similar path, it would undercut the now prized Gov. Moonbeam appellation.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Court Says California Cities Must Let Homeless Sleep On Streets

homelessA ruling this month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which holds it is unconstitutional to ban homeless people from sleeping on the streets is likely to complicate the attempts to crack down on homelessness problems by local governments in California.

While the ruling involved a 2009 law adopted by Boise, Idaho, it is binding on California, which is one of the states under the 9th appellate court, which is based in San Francisco.

“[J]ust as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not ‘criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets,’” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for a three-judge panel.

The finding that the law is a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment was welcomed by activists who have long argued that such restrictions make being poor a crime.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told the Idaho Statesman that “criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, and we applaud the court for holding that it is also unconstitutional.” Her group provided an attorney to the handful of Boise homeless men and women who sued over the city’s law.

If Boise does not appeal the ruling, the 9th Circuit will have expanded on the protections for the homeless that it created in 2007. The appellate panel ruled then that Los Angeles could not ban people from sleeping outside when shelters were full.

Legality of living in cars is next battleground

Meanwhile, the next fight over homeless rights in California has already emerged. It involves regulations in many cities that have the de facto effect of banning people from sleeping in their vehicles, even if the practice is not specifically singled out.

In Los Angeles, for example, a city ordinance that bans overnight parking in residential areas and a growing number of such restrictions in commercial areas have made it increasingly difficult for vehicle dwellers to find anywhere to sleep. This has made life difficult for the estimated 15,000 people who live in their cars, trucks or recreational vehicles in the city. The policy prompted sharp criticism from some quarters this spring over a perception that City Hall was insufficiently sympathetic to those without shelter.

City officials in San Diego and Santa Barbara are going in the opposite direction, starting trial programs in which car dwellers are allowed to use a handful of designated parking lots overnight – so long as they meet a handful of rules meant to preserve public safety and to minimize littering and public defecation and urination.

But San Diego may have to expand its program or develop other new policies as well. Last month, federal Judge Anthony Battaglia issued an injunction banning the city from ticketing people for living in their vehicles.

Unlike in the other high-profile federal cases involving city laws and homelessness, Battaglia’s argument wasn’t based on the idea that penalties which appeared to single out the homeless were cruel and unusual.

Instead, he concluded that “plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the ordinance is vague because it fails to alert the public what behavior is lawful and what behavior is prohibited.” He noted that some people were given tickets merely for reading books in their cars.

The injunction is not permanent, but Battaglia indicated he is likely to make it so in coming months.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Making the DMV Audit a Reality

dmv

Motorists across the state have had to wait in hours-long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register their vehicle or license renewal. Some have spent an entire day waiting in line. Upset drivers have flooded my office with calls and emails.

To make matters worse, DMV personnel mangled 23,000 voter registrations. How did this happen?

In 2015, Democrats passed the Motor Voter Law, directing the DMV to automatically register new voters, unless they choose to opt out. State Senate Republicans warned that this would be problematic. At the time, my colleagues and I expressed our concerns of adding to an already overburdened workload at the DMV. Furthermore, the DMV is the wrong venue to register new voters since this is not the agency’s area of expertise.

Three years later, we learn that tens of thousands of Californians have been registered to vote even though they did not want to be registered. The DMV also made “mistakes” that assigned some voters a different political party preference than the one they chose. We sincerely hope this was not a case of voter fraud.

Once again, the DMV is the state agency that just can’t get it right. It already has been criticized by the public for long wait times, which it blames on an antiquated computer system and the federal REAL ID law – passed in 2005 and set to be implemented by 2020.

Before the legislative session concluded in August, a group of Assembly Republicans called for an audit of the DMV. At the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit hearing, DMV Director Jean Shiomoto apologized for the long wait times, asked for more money and reassured lawmakers that the problem would be corrected by the end of the year. The request for an audit failed after some Democrats did not vote for it.

The public has lost confidence in the DMV.

It has mishandled its core mission, along with a long list of problems including the erroneous registration of voter affidavits. Something needs to be done to regain that trust. The best way to do so is for the DMV to undergo a nonpartisan audit, which would reveal the extent of its problems and suggest recommendations for fixing them.

Enough excuses. Let’s audit the DMV now.

California State Senate.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Bill to Stop ICE Arrests at State Courts Awaits Governor’s Signature

ICE 2A bill with the potential to worsen California’s already-frosty relationship with the Trump administration passed the Legislature on a near-party-line vote in late August and was presented to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature last week.

Senate Bill 349, by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (pictured), D-Bell Gardens, is a direct response to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s embrace of the tactic of detaining unauthorized immigrants when they come to state courthouses to deal with matters in the California criminal justice system.

Exact statistics are not provided by ICE on its detentions. But there have been regular reports of ICE raids at state courts and their parking lots in California – especially in the Fresno area – as well as in Arizona, Texas and Colorado within the last year.

ICE officials issued a formal notice in January of their intent to go after targeted individuals when they have scheduled appearances in state courts. Some have said they moved to adopt new policies after the California Legislature adopted and Gov. Brown signed “sanctuary state” legislation last year limiting state cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Lara’s bill would specify that state court officials have the authority to block activities that interfere with the proceedings and operations at state courts. It would require federal immigration agents to have a warrant before they can enter schools, courthouses and state buildings to arrest or question people. It would ban civil arrests in courthouses and authorize the state Attorney General’s Office to pursue civil claims against individuals who violated SB349’s provisions.

The legislative aides who wrote the analysis of the bill cited historical evidence that the practice of not picking up people at courthouses for offenses unrelated to their visits – known as “the common law privilege for civil arrests” – goes back hundreds of years and far predates any controversy over illegal immigration.

Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra have been joined in their sharp criticism of ICE’s tactics by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In a statement issued last month, she blasted arrests at state courts as “disruptive, shortsighted, and counterproductive … . It is damaging to community safety and disrespects the state court system.”

Some sheriffs want more cooperation with feds

Nonetheless, conservative sheriffs in some counties who oppose “sanctuary” policies are supportive of ICE’s aggressive tactics, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims is openly looking for ways to increase her department’s cooperation with ICE in spite of the state law.

That suggests that even if Lara’s bill is signed by Brown, some police agencies may be far less enthusiastic about enforcing it than others. Court battles over what exactly “sanctuary”-style laws compel these agencies to do seem likely.

At issue is the scope of the generally accepted doctrine that the federal government cannot compel state law enforcement agents to enforce federal regulations and that state laws prevail unless they directly conflict with federal laws.

Historically, conservatives in the post-Reagan era and Southern Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s have had more of a “states’ rights” approach to interpreting this doctrine, while liberals have leaned more toward the idea that the federal government deserves deference in gray areas open to different interpretations.

In the Golden State, these political roles have been swapped in the Trump era.

While sharply critical of the Trump White House on many immigration issues, Brown has not commented specifically on Lara’s bill. He has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto it and the hundreds of other passed bills he has not yet made a decision on.

Lara is the Democratic candidate for state insurance commissioner on the November ballot. He is running against Steve Poizner, who is now an independent after serving as insurance commissioner from 2007-2011 as a Republican.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Government Boondoggles Threaten CA Property Owners and Taxpayers

High Speed Rail FresnoOne would hope that with the profound foolishness associated with California’s infamous High Speed Rail (HSR) project that our elected leadership would have learned a thing or two.

But this is California. Because we do things bigger and better than anyone else, it’s apparent that one massive boondoggle isn’t enough — we need two.

Let’s recap what we’ll call Boondoggle, Senior.

The complete dysfunction of HSR is no longer in dispute. Missed deadlines for the business plans, lack of transparency, massive cost overruns, engineering hurdles that make the project virtually impossible to complete and a lack of funding are tops on the list. Not only is HSR no longer viable, but the biggest irony is the project was justified on grounds that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even there it fails, as the independent Legislative Analyst has concluded that the project will be a net GHG producer for the foreseeable future.

HSR is now an international joke. Many who originally supported the High Speed Rail project have changed their opinions, including a former Chairman of the HSR Authority.

Boondoggle, Junior, is the planned construction of the Twin Tunnels project through the Sacramento River Delta, also known as WaterFix. While there is no doubt that California needs additional water infrastructure — and the dams and canals we have now are in need of serious maintenance – Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnel project suffers from the same major flaw as High Speed Rail — an abject lack of planning and no vision for how the project will be funded.

Like the High Speed Rail project, the financing for the Twin Tunnels is illusory. Many of the potential major wholesale customers of water from the Twin Tunnels are highly skeptical of its viability and balk at paying for it. The one exception is the Metropolitan Water District in the greater L.A. area, which has now said it will pay for the full project. Of course, that means its customers will pay.

Lack of transparency is another quality the Twin Tunnels project shares with HSR. Earlier this week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held a hearing that opened the way for an extension of the long-term contracts for the State Water Project for another 50 years. (The hearing was supposed to be conducted in the waning days of the Legislative session, but because the topic is so controversial, it was delayed until after everyone left town.) …

Click here to read the full article from the Pasadena Star News

Business Not United on Gas Tax Repeal

Gas-Pump-blue-generic+flippedWhile business organizations are largely opposed to Proposition 6, the gas tax repeal measure, opposition to the measure from business is not universal.

Yesterday, the influential California Business Roundtable announced its positions on November’s ballot and Proposition 6 was absent. The California Business Roundtable took a neutral position on SB 1, the gas tax increase bill, so the CBRT board decided not to take a position on Prop 6.

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business/California has been pushing for the gas tax repeal to pass since July.

The California Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to the gas tax repeal months ago. CalChamber remains a leader in opposition to the tax repeal measure and it is not alone. The No on 6 website lists more than 50 business related organizations in the opposition coalition including the Bay Area Council, the California Small Business Association and VICA, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association.

Proposition 6 would require that all legislatively passed taxes on fuels and vehicles only become effective after a statewide vote of the people. The measure is written so that the taxes passed by SB 1 would be null and void since they did not get a public vote.

CalChamber’s board opposed the repeal citing the Legislative Analyst’s estimates that $5 billion in annual revenue for state and local transportation projects would disappear. The Chamber argued that repealing the gas tax would:

  • Stop transportation improvement projects already underway in every community in California. This measure would eliminate funds already flowing to every city and county to fix potholes, make safety improvements, ease traffic congestion, upgrade bridges, and improve public transportation. 4,000 local transportation improvement projects are already underway across the state thanks to SB 1.
  • Make traffic congestion worse. California’s freeways and major thoroughfares are among the most congested in the nation, and Californians spend too much time stuck in traffic away from family and work. This measure would stop projects that will reduce traffic congestion.
  • Cost drivers and taxpayers more money in the long run. The average driver spends $739 per year on front end alignments, body damage, shocks, tires and other repairs because of bad roads and bridges. Fixing a road costs eight times more than maintaining it. By delaying or stopping projects, this measure ultimately will increase costs for motorists.
  • Hurt job creation and the state’s economy. Reliable transportation infrastructure is critical to get Californians to work, move goods and services to the market, and support the economy. This measure would eliminate more than 680,000 good-paying jobs and nearly $183 billion in economic growth that will be created fixing California roads over the next decade.

NFIB California State Director John Kabateck sees things differently. “California small businesses and working families are being crushed in this state with rising costs in every aspect of running their business, which is why NFIB was the leading statewide business association opposed to Senate Bill 1 last year, and why we fully support Proposition 6 to repeal these regressive gas and car tax increases on hardworking Californians. Business owners deeply understand the need for a vibrant transportation infrastructure, and they also know Sacramento has mismanaged existing transportation tax revenues for decades which has resulted in abysmal roads across California. However, with a $200+ billion state budget with a $9 billion surplus, clearly higher taxes are not needed—better management of our tax dollars is the answer, and Proposition 6 forces the legislature to be accountable with existing transportation tax dollars.”

While business associations are not all lined up on the same side, as with most things political, money can make a difference. Estimates are the No on 6 campaign could put $40 million or more into defeating Prop 6. The yes side will only have a couple of million at best and is unlikely to buy any statewide television ads to convince voters. The Yes on 6 campaign is counting on voters affected adversely in the pocketbook by the tax increase to ignore opposition ads and vote for the repeal.

While business is not uniform in its Prop 6 position, business dollars could play a decisive role in the outcome.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily. 

Silicon Valley’s Political Perils

FacebookLast week’s news underscored growing concerns over the politicization of tech companies. With his inimitable style, President Trump claimed on Twitter that Google shows political bias by skewing the news found in online searches. Relatedly, a group of some 100 conservative-leaning Facebook employees formed an online community to escape the strictures of a “political monoculture” and provide themselves a “safe” place for “ideological diversity” among their 25,000 co-workers.

It’s a truism that Silicon Valley leans left, but the average tech millionaire is not easy to pigeonhole ideologically. A revealing, if little-noted, 2017 study from Stanford University compared more than 600 “elite technology company leaders and founders,” 80 percent of them millionaires, with more than “1,100 elite partisan donors” of both political persuasions. The distinctions are revelatory for anyone interested in mapping the future of American politics. “Increasingly, technology entrepreneurs are using their personal wealth and firms’ power to exercise political influence,” the survey’s authors observe. “For example, recent federal candidates have referred to Silicon Valley as a ‘political ATM’.” The study found that 80 percent of tech millionaires overwhelmingly donate to Democrats over Republicans; hardly a surprising finding.

But the key reveal of the Stanford analysis is not about party alignment in donations: it’s in what can only be called a kind of political schizophrenia around the core ideologies associated with each party. On one hand, the study showed that Silicon Valley’s titans are firmly aligned with Democrats on social issues, what the survey calls “liberal redistributive, social, and globalistic policies.”  But on the other hand, the survey shows that the ideologies—if not the financial support—of tech millionaires solidly align with Republicans on issues relating to the regulatory environment, specifically around such topics as drones, data storage, self-driving cars, and employee policies.

This ideological rift prompted the Stanford researchers to conclude that tech’s business elites are donating politically against their “self-interest.” For analysts and political operatives, the question is whether that’s an immutable or malleable political reality. After all, it’s not just Republicans like President Trump attacking Silicon Valley; Senator Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, is one of many in that caucus taking on the tech giants on “fairness” issues surrounding income inequality in general and Amazon CEO’s Jeff Bezos’s uber-wealth in particular.

It’s risky for companies to become identified with a specific political orientation. The recent evidence of a political tilt at numerous Silicon Valley firms—or at least among their leaders—has ignited controversy, not just in Washington but also in the tech community itself. At least one Valley executive worries that “political correctness” could hurt innovation, the mother’s milk of the tech sector. Google’s firing of engineer James Damore for raising questions about gender differences on an internal discussion board showed the willingness of tech companies to police political expression.

There is a real existential risk for tech companies to be found in the historical propensity of governments to declare new tech enterprises, especially new means of communication, as inherently monopolistic—and thus inherently unfair. Back in 1949, on the theory that radio broadcast companies had monopolistic control of that medium, Congress ordered broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” The Fairness Doctrine would survive for nearly four decades, before it was revoked in 1987.

Some Democrats sought to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine a decade or so ago, in response to the rise of talk radio, which became overwhelmingly conservative after 1987. Now, some Republicans (and Democrats, too) are looking again at the notion of “fairness” in the context of the dominant market share enjoyed by the likes of Facebook or Google. Google’s global share of “search” has reached 90percent, and Senator Orrin Hatch has already sent a letter to the FTC to request an investigation of anti-competitive practices at the company.

When it comes to issues surrounding access to accurate and “fair” news and information in particular, the challenging question is whether anyone can easily see if there is (or isn’t) an algorithmic finger on the scale of fairness. In the history of the news business, this is an unprecedented concern. The designers and coders of the algorithms respond that the Web’s interstices are arcane and not easy for the layman to understand. In effect, the experts are saying: it’s complicated, so trust us. From a technical perspective, it would indeed be difficult to come up with a “user interface” that provided credible transparency about how news and information are curated or accessed on Web platforms. But one could have said the same thing, circa 1990, about converting the Arpanet’s technically arcane TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) into a Web system so simple that preschool children can use it now.

As Steve Jobs famously said two decades ago, “simple can be harder than complex.” But conquering complexity used to be what animated Silicon Valley. That is, in fact, how Google got started. It’s time to revive that zeitgeist, and make the power of news on the Internet not just easy to use, but easy to trust.

Berkeley Officials Reject Plan to Fast-Track New Housing

HousingAs CalWatchdog reported July 2, the city of Cupertino’s decision to stop fighting a massive mall makeover project enabled by a far-reaching 2017 state law meant to promote more housing construction could someday be seen as a milestone in state planning.

Senate Bill 35 by Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, requires cities that have not met their affordable housing requirements to approve projects that are properly zoned, pay union-scale wages to builders and have at least 10 percent of units in “affordable” ranges.

After months of objections from Cupertino elected officials and activists, in June, the city signed off on developer Sand Hill Property Company’s plan to convert the largely empty 58-acre Vallco Mall site to a huge multi-use project with 2,400 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space and 1.8 million square feet of office space

Given that 98 percent of cities have been found to have an inadequate supply of affordable housing, according to a state evaluation, the Cupertino precedent seemed potentially huge.

Two months later, new developments related to SB35 appear to point in the opposite direction.

Last week, Berkeley officials rejected a plan to use the law to fast-track approval of 260 apartments and 27,500 square feet of commercial space at 1900 4th Street just east of the Berkeley Marina despite evidence presented by developer Blake Griggs Properties that it was properly zoned and otherwise met SB35’s edicts.

City tactics in fighting project have familiar ring

The tactics that Berkeley is prepared to use mirrored the ways that construction projects have been fought in California for decades: raising a variety of legal objections that could cost developers millions of dollars because of delays, even if they have little or no validity or applicability.

Berkeley planning chief Timothy Burroughs said the project could not proceed because:

  • It would have been built on land designated as a historical landmark because of a Native American burial ground. As a city with its own charter government, it is given deference in protecting its history.
  •  It would have considerable low-income housing but not enough housing for those with very low incomes.
  •  It would have increased traffic in the area in ways not allowed by city laws.

The objections were of the sort that Weiner sought to bypass with SB35. This is why the developer warned of a lawsuit earlier in the summer after the city put up roadblocks to approval.

But in a surprising move reported last week by the San Jose Mercury-News, West Berkeley Investors – part of the group backing developer Blake Griggs Properties – has backed out of the project without explanation. The assumption of many is that it saw the hassles as outweighing the chances for success.

The Mercury-News also reported that a spokesman for Berkeley City Hall said officials would welcome it if developers chose to reactivate a previous application that had far fewer residential units – 135 – and slightly more commercial space – 33,000 square feet.

In his Sept. 4 letter rejecting the latest version of the project, the city planning chief emphasized the historical significance of the Native American burial ground. Why that significance would lose weight in planning decisions if a smaller project were being considered was not explained.

But Burroughs pushed back against the idea his city was hostile to adding housing stock. He said 910 housing units have been built since 2014, 525 are now being constructed and 1,070 are cleared and in the pipeline.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com