Intrusions on Our Liberties Cannot End Soon Enough

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had a message for people who gathered in groups over the weekend at beaches and parks.

“We know who you are,” he said.


What does that mean? Is the city conducting surveillance of residents by capturing the location data from cell phones? Is the mayor demanding records from phone companies?

On March 12, my own cell phone received a text informing me that Mayor Garcetti “shared updates about the City’s actions to help protect the public and slow the spread of COVID-19.” The text included handwashing instructions and a link to the mayor’s video.

Because I never signed up for such messages and wondered how the service had my phone number, I unsubscribed. “You have been opted out and will receive no further messages from Everbridge Alerts,” the message read.


Everbridge is a company that markets “Mass Notification with Incident Communications” services to cities, companies and government agencies. It can send messages that “target the individual and not the device” and “broadcast to virtually any communications device including desktop alerts.” According to the company’s website, it can “reach anyone, on any device, anywhere, at any time.”

With Everbridge’s ability to “specify target locations,” perhaps the company could collect the cell phone numbers of people at a beach or a park. Maybe the city obtained cell phone location data from another source, or used facial recognition technology. Regardless of the method, this is surveillance. City officials should explain the precise meaning of “We know who you are.”

And we’d better put some state constitutional limits on government “emergency” powers before we’re living in East Germany on the Pacific.

Consider a statement made by L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Monday.

“We will be closing them, they are not an essential function,” Villanueva said, speaking about stores that lawfully sell firearms.

The sheriff explained that he has decided to shut down gun stores because people have been buying guns. “Now you have the mixture of people that are not formerly gun owners and you have a lot more people at home and anytime you introduce a firearm in a home, from what I understand from CDC studies, it increases fourfold the chance that someone is gonna get shot.”

Villanueva added that he personally is a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment.

Someone should send him a copy of it. There’s no exception for CDC studies.

Villanueva also announced that he’s adding 1,300 deputies to patrol the county during the coronavirus stay-at-home lockdown, and he criticized the county supervisors for not including him in their press conferences about the COVID-19 quarantine orders. “They should have used authority figures the community recognizes that would be the enforcers of it to deliver the message with far greater impact,” he said.

If you’re not sure where this leads, you won’t have to wait long to find out, at the rate it’s galloping.

The good news is that we may soon see the end of coronavirus restrictions, and just in time.

Like the first green sprout of spring, the cheerful sign popped up over the weekend when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw a monkey wrench into Senate negotiations over an emergency stimulus bill, and then on Monday released a ridiculous House version full of cartoonish political wish-list items.

That’s not how our politicians act when they’ve just heard a dire projection of national doom. When they emerge from one of those briefings, they’re ashen-faced and they vote as fast as they can on whatever anybody puts in front of them.

The resurgence of partisan politics is an indication that the briefings are much less ominous than before.

Sure enough, at the White House news briefing Monday, Dr. Deborah Birx read some statistics from other countries and said, “That mortality data that I gave you should be very reassuring to all of you.” President Trump predicted that we will be reopening the country “soon.”

Let’s hope so. We’ve lost freedom of assembly, the liberty to travel freely, the right to buy a firearm, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and now the courts are closed. We’d better end this emergency before the Bill of Rights is carried out on a gurney.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News

Susan Shelley is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”

Pressure Mounts for Property Tax Relief

From many corners, California politicians and tax officials are under increasing pressure to extend the current April 10 deadline for paying property tax bills.

The request is not unreasonable and there are many ways that government can assist homeowners who are under threat of hefty penalties or tax foreclosures.

To date, our political leaders have been responsive to those suffering from the economic shock due to the COVID-19 virus. Many California localities have passed emergency laws against evictions and the state, via Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive authority, has ramped up special protections for small businesses and extended the tax filing deadlines for income taxes. These actions are justified.

But homeowners are hurting, too, because of the pending due date for the second installment of property taxes.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California’s leading protector of homeowners, has received numerous inquiries in the last three weeks of this crisis. One example was an email from Karen D. who told us that she is “a single mother who normally works 2 jobs to stay afloat. Both my jobs have been cut during the crisis. I have applied for Medicaid with no response in 2 weeks. Also property taxes remain due on April 10 with no extension. Since I pay my property taxes separately from my mortgage that means I need to still pay my mortgage and my property taxes with no income … the help is not out there for us.”

Media outlets are beginning to understand the severity of the looming threat that the April 10th deadline presents to homeowners.

To read the entire column, please click here.

Life “In Place”: The Bay Area shuts down to preempt a Covid-19 outbreak

On March 15, officials in six of the nine Bay Area counties issued a health order directing citizens to shelter in place as a response to the Covid-19 epidemic. This order closed most businesses and activities, except for those deemed essential, and directed people to stay in their homes for the most part. Over the next few days, the remaining Bay Area counties joined the order, placing the entire region and its 8 million people into an economic freeze. California governor Gavin Newsom has now extended the order statewide. The coming weeks will show which is worse: the near-term toll of Covid-19 or the longer-term economic impact of the fight against it.

The Bay Area was the first major region to issue such a health order, though the Covid-19 outbreak is larger in New York and Washington State. It was characterized in the media as a form of lockdown, though the actual order is a far cry from house arrest. The list of essential businesses or services permitted to continue is long, running from the obvious—grocery stores, sanitation, and emergency medical services—to the convenient (such as hardware stores) to the unexpected (such as dry cleaners and even accounting firms, when necessary for legal compliance). Reflecting Silicon Valley’s status as the world’s tech capital, operations to support global Internet and telecommunications got an exemption. Recognizing California’s continuing housing crisis, all residential construction was deemed essential, too.

On the first full day of the new regime, CNN commentators criticized San Franciscans for going out on the street, but the order was never intended to confine people in their homes—it made clear that they could still go to the supermarket or drug store, walk their dogs, or exercise, as long as they didn’t congregate in groups. The authorities are imposing no restrictions on freedom of movement, though most people are staying close to home anyway.

Life in the Bay Area is not quite at a standstill, but it’s crawling: all offices and most businesses are closed. On Tuesday, parking officers were out ticketing cars parked in street-cleaning zones. This led to such an outcry (moving your car is not an “essential activity”) that the city not only voided the parking tickets but suspended all parking enforcement, except for parking meters and offenses such as blocking fire hydrants.

Otherwise, San Francisco has been taking it in stride. Immediately after the order was announced, lines stretched out the door at most stores. The wait was often fruitless, as toilet paper and other essentials were already gone after people stocked up over the weekend, expecting some sort of restriction. The line at the meat market was longer than the one at the grocery store; the line at the marijuana dispensary was the longest of all, stretching around the corner. Pot dispensaries were reclassified as an essential business the next day. Marijuana is considered a medical treatment in California, but with recent legalization, many people stopped getting medical-marijuana prescriptions. Closing the dispensaries was considered akin to closing a pharmacy.

At one grocery store, all canned goods were gone, except for one brand that remained on the shelf. Nearby, jars of fruit or peanut butter, just as long-lasting as canned food, were untouched. Sweet potatoes were gone, but regular potatoes and yams were plentiful. Many grocery carts were full of bottles of wine and liquor, reflecting a different concern about being homebound for weeks. Others were full of bottled water, though there is no reason to expect the health crisis to affect tap-water supplies. Wags have noted that if a big earthquake were to strike now, the city has never been better prepared.

Anxieties have largely been kept private. Some people deliberately cross the street or stand aside on the sidewalk to avoid passing within six feet of another person. Others walk by and say “Hello” as normal. In tech-savvy San Francisco, digital communication is more central than ever. Children talk to their friends on FaceTime instead of meeting for play dates. Preschool teachers send out video “circle time” with activities to keep children occupied. Friends meet up in Zoom chat rooms for “Quarantini hour” to discuss the day’s events, instead of gathering at a bar.

What’s not much discussed is whether the juice will be worth the squeeze. A local recession, to say nothing of a national and global one, looks unavoidable. Small retail will be hard-hit. Already under pressure from online delivery, local businesses now face an impossible situation. Delivery services were classified as essential businesses, giving Amazon a de facto monopoly on most retail within the region. Restaurants and bars are in trouble. Since delivery and takeout are permitted, a few restaurants quickly pivoted from onsite service to taking orders over the phone. Still, almost every food-and-drink establishment in the city is laying off workers.

The shelter-in-place order is often described as “work at home,” but that arrangement is available only to an elite segment of the workforce. Remote-working across time zones and continents is familiar to professionals at big tech companies, but store clerks and bartenders can’t do their jobs by logging into a Virtual Private Network. Once laid off, they can claim unemployment insurance, but this just shifts the burden to a state budget about to get hammered through loss of sales taxes and other revenue.

The Bay Area shelter-in-place order is preemptive: no health crisis exists in the region—yet—and the order is intended to prevent one, if possible. We have no reliable figures for the number of people infected, but as of Thursday, a few dozen are hospitalized. In Italy, doctors are facing decisions of which patients to let die because of scarce ventilators; at San Francisco General Hospital, more than 80 percent of the ventilators on hand are still available. A YouTube video of Italians saying what they wish they had done a few weeks ago—in particular, taking social distancing and isolation seriously—has been widely shared.

If Covid-19 cases don’t spread throughout the Bay Area, an unanswerable debate will begin between those arguing “the health order worked” and those claiming that “the health order was unnecessary and caused economic harm.” If cases do spread, a similar debate will start between “this proves the order was necessary” and “the order came too late and caused economic harm for no reason.” Italy, of course, is enduring both the health crisis and the economic harm of a stricter quarantine than San Francisco. For now, San Franciscans wave to friends on the street or talk to them through open windows — but most won’t open the door.

Phillip Sprincin is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This article was originally published by City Journal Online.

COVID-19 and the Coming Rent Control Initiative

A move to prevent evictions from rental apartment units during the coronavirus crisis could gather steam now that the governor has pledges from some of the biggest banks to give victims of the coronavirus a reprieve on mortgage payments. Landlords, with an eye on a coming rent control ballot measure, would find it in their long-term interests to avoid evictions of tenants and implement other protective measures for those affected by the economic consequences of the virus. 

While the election is months away, the rent control measure has qualified for the ballot and any missteps by landlords during a time of the current national emergency surely would become campaign fodder in the Fall. 

A rent control initiative, Proposition 10, was defeated handily two years ago. The newly qualified initiative that would override current state law and give local governments more power to implement rent control, is sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the same group that was behind Proposition 10. 

Reasons for defeating the former initiative and the new version are still valid. Basically, it boils down to rent control would freeze construction of housing units. A greater housing supply would limit rents. 

But if pictures are captured now of landlords evicting tenants who through no fault of their own lost jobs and cannot pay the rent, those pictures will be displayed prominently in the Fall campaign. 

Landlords have financial obligations of their own and they are counting on rents to pay for needed services and repairs to their property or to take care of their own needs from groceries to mortgage payments. 

Yet, the California Apartment Association understands the long-term consequences of how actions taken today could well play into the politics of tomorrow. The organization offered advice to members that includes: freezing rents, halting evictions and waiving late fees. 

The government subsidies should help some of the small business landlords; and with luck and Californians following medical advice guidelines, the virus situation will dissipate, and lost payments will be made up. 

While following the CAA recommendations is a threat to many people who are just trying to conduct a fair business, they are being reminded that another big threat is coming at them in November. This might fall under the old formula that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily.

Time for California’s Unions to Get Serious About Pension Reform

There was a time, long long ago, when California’s pension systems were responsibly managed. They made conservative investments, they paid modest but fair benefits to retirees, and they didn’t place an unreasonable financial burden on taxpayers. But a series of decisions and circumstances over the past thirty years put these pension systems on a collision course with financial disaster. And like hybrid war, or creeping fascism, or a progressive, initially asymptomatic disease, it is impossible to say exactly when these pension systems crossed the line from health to sickness.

An excellent history of how California’s public employee pension systems moved inexorably towards the predicament they’re now in can be found in a City Journal article entitled “The Pension Fund That Ate California.” Written in 2013, when California’s pension systems were still coping with the impact of the Great Recession, author Steven Malanga identifies key milestones: The power of public sector unions that began to make itself felt starting in the late 1960s. The pension benefit enhancements that began in the 1970s. The growing power of the union representatives on the pension fund boards. Prop. 21, passed in 1984, which allowed the pension systems to invest in riskier asset classes.

The biggest milestone on the road to sickness, however, began in 1999, as Malanga writes, “when union-backed Gray Davis became governor and union-backed Phil Angelides became state treasurer, and the CalPERS board was wearing a union label.” The state legislation that followed, mimicked by local measures across California, dramatically increased pension benefit formulas. Not only were benefits increased, but they were increased retroactively, meaning that even state and local employees nearing retirement would receive the increased pension as if these higher benefit formulas had been in effect for their entire career. And as the internet bubble blew deliriously bigger, the experts said the cost for all these enhancements would be negligible.

In the aftermath of the internet bubble’s inevitable pop in 2000, pension systems engaged in accounting gimmicks and deceptive proposals to assist the unions to roll out these benefit increases to nearly every city and county in California.

This would be an early example of how government unions and financial special interests saw an alignment of their political agendas, but it wouldn’t be the last. As payments to the pension plans inexorably increased, year after year, unions found common cause with the financial sector to market tax increases and bond measures. Every election, in lockstep, they would fight to convince the taxpayer to pay more and borrow more – and it was always for the children, for the elderly, but in reality, it was usually for the pensions.

The Burden of Public Sector Pensions on California’s Taxpayers

The complexity of pension finance makes it relatively easy to obfuscate the problem with creative accounting and emotional arguments. But certain facts can help to put the issue in perspective. Before the current financial crisis began, California’s state and local public sector pensions were estimated to rise from approximately $30 billion per year to $60 billion per year by 2025. Currently, California’s total state and local government general revenues are around $500 billion per year, meaning that pension payments are already set to consume over 10 percent of ALL state and local government revenue.

This ten percent doesn’t include the cost of retirement health insurance benefits, nor the cost for Social Security which many of California’s public employees also enjoy. It also doesn’t include the tens of billions spent every year by taxpayers to pay overtime, based on the fact that paying overtime is actually less expensive than paying for another government employee who will require another pension benefit package.

The pension burden, however, is about to get much bigger.

With most pension reform stopped in its tracks by relentless litigation, perhaps the only way pensions can ever be reformed will be through economic necessity. If so, now would be a good time. A perfect storm has struck. Here are highlights:

1 – The stock market has crashed. Interest rates are at zero, meaning it is unlikely investments in bonds will see continued appreciation. Real estate may also be at a peak, and in any case, real estate investment appreciation cannot make up for losses in stocks and bonds.

2 – Government revenues are going down for various reasons. California’s state government relies heavily on receipts from high income individuals, and those individuals rely on stock appreciation. These revenues always fall in a downturn, and this effect will ripple into every California city and county. Also, sales tax revenues, which local governments rely on, will dramatically fall over the coming few months.

3 – Californians for the first time in several election cycles have rejected local measures to fund taxes and bonds. Normally, at least two out of three new local tax or bond are measures are approved by California voters. This time, in March 2020, those proportions were surprisingly reversed, with about two out of three failing to get voter approval. This means new revenues these localities were counting on will not materialize.

A closer look at CalPERS will reveal just how dramatic the problem has finally become:

In their 6/30/2019 financial statements, CalPERS, the largest pension system in the U.S., reported themselves to be only 70.2 percent funded. To cope, the system was requiring its participating agencies to nearly double their annual payments by 2025. Needless to say, these increases were going to create havoc on civic budgets that already can barely afford to pay for their pensions.

That was then.

As of March 20th, the market value of all investments managed by CalPERS had fallen to $333.8 billion, after topping a record $400 billion just one month earlier. The most recent officially reported estimate of the total liability carried by the CalPERS system is $505 billion as of 6/30/208 (ref. most recent CalPERS CAFr, page 122). If you review the trends over the past decade, this figure has never gone down. This means, best case, as of today, CalPERS is 66.9 percent funded. The real number is almost certainly lower.

As of March 20, for example, the Dow Jones Index closed at 19,161. At close on 3/23, the Dow is down to 18,591, down another 3.1 percent. At this time, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.

Pension Solvency Will Require Union Cooperation

If there’s one thing that history has shown, it’s that nothing gets done in California without the blessing of the public sector unions. One may argue on principle that unionized government is an abomination, having little or nothing in common with private sector unions which – properly regulated – have a vital role to play in American life.

But so what? California’s state and local governments have been taken over by these unions, who operate as senior partners to leftist billionaires, trial lawyers, race-baiting rent seekers, and environmentalist fanatics. For the most part, financial and corporate special interests are complete sell-outs to these all powerful unions, or survive via precarious detente.

Fixing pensions in California, with union cooperation, would be relatively easy. With union cooperation, politicians would have a chance to enact reforms that would not get mired in endless litigation. With union cooperation, government workers – and the public – would be able to learn about the extent of the problem instead of getting dosed with emotional propaganda. Possible solutions could be far reaching and inspiring. Here are some ideas:

1 – Reduce all pension benefit accruals to pre-1999 levels for all future work. Leave intact benefits earned to-date.

2 – Lower the long-term rate of return projection for pension assets to 6 percent.

3 – Lower the inflation stop-loss for retirees from the current 70-80 percent to 50-60 percent – provide for COLA reductions if economy encounters deflation.

4 – Raise the age of eligibility to 62 for all employees, with full benefits only available to miscellaneous employees at age 67 (same as Social Security).

5 – Implement additional “triggers” that take effect if funding falls below 80 percent, including suspension of COLA, prospective further lowering of the annual multiplier for active workers, retroactive lowering of the annual multiplier for active workers, reduction of the retiree pension payment, increase the required payment to the pension plan by active workers via withholding.

The pension systems themselves could assist this process greatly if they simply provided analysis of what measures 1 and 2 would accomplish. Lowering the rate of pension benefit accruals for future work will permit lowering the long term rate of return projection without increasing the total liability. If the pension system analysts could provide a table expressing that curve, it would greatly assist policymakers and reformers, including the union leadership.

Unfortunately, pension actuaries and fund managers do not have an illustrious track record in these exercises, so, again, it would be useful if the union leadership itself would insist on a quick turnaround and an honest, depoliticized assessment.

And what if, from now on, public employees earned lower pension benefits? First of all, it would take an awful lot before those benefits descended to the level of what the rest of California’s workforce can expect from Social Security.

An independent contractor in California has 12.4 percent withheld by the Social Security Trust Fund, and for that, they may expect a maximum of $36,132 after over 40 years of work; the average is $18,036. In 2015, the average pension for a California public employee after only 30 years of work was $68,673, not including any benefits. It is surely higher now.

What public sector union leadership might contemplate is how can the prospects for all workers in California improve. Now, with the economy grinding nearly to a halt, it is an especially good time for this sort of contemplation. Why not require CalPERS to invest 50 percent of their assets in “California based companies and projects” instead of the current 9.1 percent (ref. CalPERS CAFR, intro page 4)?

The idea that CalPERS and other pension funds were ever helping California’s economy is a blatant falsehood. The numbers are irrefutable. In 2018 CalPERS collected $28.7 billion, but only paid out 26.9 billion (CalPERS CAFR, pages 42 and 43). Since $3.5 billion of those payments were made to retirees living out of state, only $23.4 billion stayed in California. This means that Californians gave CalPERS $5.3 billion more than retirees living in California received in pension benefits. Meanwhile, over 90 percent of CalPERS investments are made outside of California.

What if public sector union leadership decided to fight for all California workers, by supporting reform of the California Environmental Quality Act, which would permit cities and suburbs to expand their borders onto open land again, greatly lowering housing costs? What if these unions supported pension fund investments in revenue bonds and equity positions to build new freeways, water storage projects, and cheap energy infrastructure? Imagine how much could be built if literally hundreds of billions of pension fund assets were invested right here in California!

There is a new consensus that could form in California, excluding the libertarian fanatics who think the only criteria for a pension fund investment is the return, even if it requires investing in Chinese slave shops. This new consensus could also exclude the identity-politics demagogues whose only criteria for a proper investment is the “diversity” of the workforce, the directorships, and the communities affected.

Who knows, maybe a new consensus could even knock the environmentalist fanatics – along with their trial lawyer and crony “capitalist” allies – down to size, allowing “green” investment criteria to resume its appropriate place within a kaleidoscope of worthy considerations.

If all these things were done, California’s cost-of-living would go down, meaning public sector retirees could enjoy the same standard of living as before, even if they retired with somewhat lower pensions. Moreover, the economy would be sizzling again, pouring record tax revenues into a solvent public sector.

The win-win envisioned here is no more preposterous than the notion of 7.25 percent pension fund returns for the next thirty years, and far more beneficial for everyone living in California instead of just beneficial for public servants.

This could be a time for a consensus that wipes away extremes, which might make CalPERS and the other pension systems a benefit to California’s economy instead of a terrifying drain. Public sector unions; the ball is in your court.

This article originally appeared on the website California Globe.

As Coronavirus Spreads, Private Sector Offers Hope — And Treatments

Optimism is in short supply as the coronavirus pandemic grows deadlier by the day. COVID-19 has taken thousands of lives around the world and upended nearly every aspect of daily life.

But there is at least one bright spot in this global public health emergency. That’s the astounding speed with which private firms have begun tackling the problem. While federal regulators have exacerbated the crisis at seemingly every turn, private firms have rolled out promising new therapies and technologies that could help mitigate the pandemic — and save lives.

The stats are grim. In less than three months, the virus has surged from Wuhan, China, to infect more than 430,000 people across 168 countries worldwide, according to official counts as of the morning of March 25. Many more people may have the virus and not know it. More than 18,000 people have died.

Here in the United States, the first coronavirus case appeared north of Seattle on January 21. Just over two months later, more than 53,000 cases — and 728 deaths — have been reported.

The federal government’s efforts to combat the pandemic have been — less than stellar. Early test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were flawed and unusable. Federal regulators initially refused to use tests from the World Health Organization and other foreign countries. And the Food and Drug Administration has been slow — slow to review and approve new tests developed by private labs, slow to relax regulations on the production of new ventilators, and downright hostile to potential at-home tests for COVID-19.

Private firms, by contrast, have provided a rare source of hope in the midst of the pandemic.

Just last week, Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna launched clinical trials for the first-ever COVID-19 vaccine. The company managed to identify the trial compound in just 42 days. Other firms — including Inovio, Sanofi, Vaxart, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson — are also working on potential vaccines.

Other firms are testing potential treatments. Gilead Sciences is investigating whether remdesivir, an antiviral that has previously shown promise against SARS and MERS, could be effective against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Regeneron is conducting trials to see if its arthritis treatment kevzara can fight COVID-19. Abbvie, another biopharmaceutical firm, is doing the same with its HIV drug Kaletra.

Similar progress is finally happening in the testing market. Last week, two separate commercial COVID-19 tests won approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Several companies are trying to offer at-home testing for the novel coronavirus. For example, Austin, Texas-based Everlywell is already producing at-home test kits for COVID-19. ScanWell Health, a Los Angeles firm, has promised a direct-to-consumer test kit that takes only 15 minutes to deliver results.

The FDA has made clear that it hasn’t approved any at-home coronavirus tests. They’d be wise to figure out how to do so.

It isn’t just bioscience firms snapping into action. Google recently launched a website with authoritative information about the virus. Amazon will soon provide at-home testing to Seattle residents, with funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Philanthropic groups backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are also working to boost testing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the same time, American automakers have offered to use their facilities to make the ventilators that are crucial to treating COVID-19.

All of this is a testament to the vitality of America’s market-based economic system. Such breakneck innovation and adaptability is a regular occurrence in a dynamic market economy. And as we’re finding out on a seemingly daily basis, government bureaucracies serve as a brake on such innovation.

The breakthroughs coming from the private sector are our best hope for overcoming not just the global health emergency created by COVID-19 but the economic crisis the pandemic has unleashed. It’s reasonable to assume that, once effective treatments and vaccines are available, a return to normalcy won’t be far behind, and our economy will once again open for business.

Even as the number of COVID-19 cases ticks up around the world, the dynamism and ingenuity of the private sector’s response offers some much-needed hope that America—and humanity—will soon end this pandemic.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, Encounter Books, January 2020. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Researching Institute.

Grassroots Infrastructure for Initiatives and Recalls is Growing in California

Earlier this month the effort to recall Gavin Newsom was officially ended. As reported in the Times of San Diego on March 17, “Last week, the California Secretary of State’s Office informed Erin Cruz of Palm Springs that her petition effort to oust the Democratic governor had failed.

A year earlier, an initiative to repeal California’s gas tax made it onto the ballot, only to be defeated in the general election of November 2018. These represent two significant failures on the part of populist conservative reformers in California. But the story of these two failed attempts at change should not dishearten activists.

The ability for underfunded, technologically savvy groups of activists to use the initiative and referendum process to attempt fundamental change in California is a mega-trend that has just begun. It represents an existential threat to California’s ruling establishment. Without major donors, without support from political parties or the media, a movement has formed that does not yet realize its power.

The Recall Gavin petition drive was launched by author and current congressional candidate Erin Cruz and a core group of committed activists. Within 150 days they had to attempt to gather a daunting 1,495,709 signatures. They ended up collecting a gross total of 352,271 signed petitions, of which 281,917 were verified and valid. This may not have been nearly enough to put a recall onto a statewide ballot, but it is nonetheless an astonishing and record-setting achievement, because they did this with nothing. No significant donations. No professional signature gatherers.

The Gas Tax Repeal in 2018, launched by Carl DeMaio, was a hybrid effort, enlisting the support of volunteers as well as hiring professional signature gatherers. But DeMaio’s pioneering tactics, which utilized volunteers not only to gather signatures but also to verify signed petitions, permitted his organization to negotiate nonexclusive arrangements with professional signature gathering firms, and ultimately brought the total cost to qualify the initiative down to a fraction of what a conventional effort would have cost.

Grassroots Initiatives Enabled by Technology Are the Future

Change in California is not coming from the state legislators, who are controlled by the overwhelming power of public sector unions in an alliance with left-leaning billionaires and compliant corporations. Apart from the unlikely entrance of a maverick billionaire into the fray, cases where California’s business sector fights this alliance are rare. While private sector interests do have some fight left in them – the upcoming campaign against the split-roll initiative and the effort to repeal portions of AB 5 are examples – for the most part the fights they choose are defensive, and the strategy they prefer is compromise and tactical retreat.

What California’s state legislators and elite power structure have not reckoned on, however, is the growing potential for activists, linked together and coordinated using online resources, to put transformative initiatives, referendums and recalls onto the state ballot. There are millions of Californians who feel completely disenfranchised by California’s political establishment who can now be mobilized using online assets. Compared to past election cycles, the cost today to do this is negligible.

Organizations that worked on the Newsom Recall and the Gas Tax Repeal remain active, and are launching new campaigns. Erin Cruz’s Restoring America Now Action Fund is actively moving towards circulating a petition to recall Xavier Becerra, and has announced plans to launch additional recalls of top state elected officials. Orrin Heatlie, a retired law enforcement officer who was involved with Cruz on the first Recall Gavin effort, has launched the California Patriot Coalition and is on the verge of circulating a 2nd petition attempting to recall Newsom. Carl DeMaio’s Reform California organization remains active and could become involved in new initiative efforts.

Overcoming Obstacles to Establishing Grassroots Power

The technology to allow registered voters to download, print, sign, circulate, and even verify signatures is already present. Even ten years ago, such a comprehensive set of online assets would not have been feasible, but a lot has changed in a decade. Today, virtually everyone, including senior citizens, are online and know how to navigate a browser to download and print a document. Today it is possible – at zero cost – to shoot an instructional video with a smart phone, then upload it so anyone can watch it. Today, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are used by tens of millions of Californians, making it possible for powerful groups to form virtually overnight and, and at no cost, get directed to websites that will assist them to download, print and sign ballot petitions.

An example of the power of social media can be found in the latest recall Newsom effort led by Orrin Heatlie, who has created Facebook groups dedicated to the recall in every county in California. Anyone interested in trying again to recall the governor can go into Facebook, search on the term “Recall Gavin 2020,” and the main page will come up. Members can then be directed to the site for their particular county. Tens of thousands of Californians have already joined these Facebook groups.

It is easy to overstate the difficulties of doing something as radical as putting a half dozen or more initiatives onto California’s state ballot by November 2022. But while the professional consultants who advise activists to only try for one or two initiatives are not necessarily right, there is a limit. How many petitions shall a volunteer circulator be asked to carry? How many petitions shall a supporter be asked to download, print and sign? It is safe to say that fewer than three would be too few, but more than ten would almost certainly be too many. A consensus must form around roughly a half-dozen measures, and that won’t be easy.

One obstacle, if the goal is not only to make the ballot, but to win, is to avoid initiatives that are divisive to the voters. That is not to suggest avoiding initiatives that will trigger fierce institutional opposition. An initiative to reform union work rules, as attempted by the Vergara case which lost on a technicality, would arouse the full resources of the teachers union in opposition. That’s fine. But avoid initiatives that split California’s electorate into two bitterly opposed camps. We all know what those are. Steer clear of them. And that, too, will not be easy, because often the most committed and effective activists are those who care about one and only one issue. Their support is required. They must be respected and convinced to be part of a broader movement.

Another obstacle, perhaps the biggest, is to avoid diluting efforts. Across the state, there are groups of potential volunteers that want to be part of something big and are ready to support it with their individual donations and volunteer time. But which something? Will it be the recall Becerra effort, or the 2nd recall Newsom effort? And as the calendar winds its way into the 2022 election cycle, with several attractive reform initiatives being circulated, which one will they support?

The solution here is also not easy, but it is necessary. The grassroots, statewide groups of volunteers that intend to circulate reform initiatives will have to cooperate with each other. There are a few levels of cooperation, and the higher the level of cooperation that can be achieved, the better. Here are some ideas:

Ways Statewide Reform Initiative Organizations Can Cooperate

1 – At the very least, statewide groups cannot put out competing initiatives that both accomplish the same goal. During the recent Newsom recall effort, not only was Erin Cruz’s group circulating a petition, but another group led by James Veltmeyer also had a recall petition approved for circulation. Although Veltmeyer’s effort never acquired momentum, it created confusion among potential supporters. In a different set of circumstances in the future, duplicate petitions might destroy the chances of either to succeed.

2 – The next level of cooperation would be for the various county organizations that are set up to receive and verify signed petitions to cooperate with each other. This could be via an agreement between the statewide groups sponsoring them. For example, Orrin Heatlie’s California Patriot Coalition already has active networks in every county. DeMaio’s network of county organizations can presumably be activated at any time. Erin Cruz has announced the intention to mobilize organizations at the county level in the near future. What these statewide groups can do, along with not launching duplicate petitions, is to promise to forward signed petitions that one county group receives by mistake, to the correct county group. If that is impractical, then they can exchange with each other a single statewide address, and agree to forward petitions to the correct statewide group. This will prevent any petitions being lost.

3 – The ultimate level of cooperation would be for the statewide groups to share the resources of their county volunteer organizations. This could work on a county by county basis. But if, in a particular county, the volunteers for one statewide initiative effort have a backlog of thousands of signed petitions they need to verify, and in that same county, another statewide initiative effort has over-capacity because they have more volunteers available than petitions requiring verification, they could assist the other group. This would reassure volunteers that they aren’t in the wrong place. It would let them know that regardless of which organization they support, they will still be part of a unified effort to transform California.

Another way to cooperate would be to share online code. While the websites and databases necessary to run these efforts have already largely been built, each organization has online strengths and weaknesses. Sharing best practices would go a long way towards shortening the learning curve, and could spell the difference between success or failure for some efforts.

To coordinate a cooperative effort, the California State GOP could get involved, once their focus on November 2020 is behind them. But grassroots reform can occur with or without the CAGOP. In some respects, if the groups pushing these initiatives avoid extreme propositions that divide the electorate, it might be better for them to remain totally nonpartisan. Reforming public education, restoring law and order, rewriting CEQA for the 21st century, financing new water and transportation infrastructure, and saving the pension funds are not partisan issues, nor are they extreme. They are populist issues with broad support from Californians of all types.

Technology and populism can align to allow ordinary Californians to fix their broken state. California is ripe for a fundamental political realignment, and for the first time, California’s grassroots voters can take matters into their own hands.

This article originally appeared on the website California Globe.

California Likely Closed Through April

Forget shelter in place: It may be time to settle in place.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that California will likely remain closed through April. His prediction came the same day President Donald Trump announced his intention to reopen the country by Easter, on April 12.

Newsom did not directly address Trump’s comments, but he emphasized that such a timeline would not work for California.

  • Newsom: “We’re trying to bend that curve, but we haven’t bent it. … April, early April, I think that would be misleading to represent, at least for California. … I’ve said this very honestly and objectively based on all the expertise and experts … the next six to eight weeks will be pivotal and will be determinative in terms of being able to … reset expectations. … I said eight to 12 weeks … we can continue to do what we’ve done, and if we do that, hopefully, we’ll be in a very different place than we are today. I think April, for California, would be sooner than any of the experts I’ve talked to would believe is possible.”

By underscoring his reliance on health experts to determine an appropriate time to reopen the state, Newsom implicitly contrasted himself with the president, who said he chose the April 12 date because “I just thought it was a beautiful time.”

However, it’s ultimately governors, not the president, who will decide when their states reopen for business. To date, almost half of U.S. states have imposed lockdowns in response to coronavirus. …

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Protecting Taxpayers in a Time of Crisis

The word “unprecedented” is fitting for the coronavirus crisis that is now savaging both the health of countless Americans as well as our nation’s economy.

Not since September 11th has the United States faced such a challenge.

In reaction to the outbreak, healthcare professionals have emphasized the importance of speed. Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization, who has seen more than his share of epidemics, advised “Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly. If you need to be right before you move you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management,” he said.

In a few weeks, or perhaps longer, we will be able to assess whether our health care response to the virus, including quarantines, social distances and “sheltering in place,” was overkill or not enough. But everyone, at this point, seems to fully grasp the concept of “better safe than sorry.”

The same philosophy seems to be applicable to the economic crisis as well. The immediate reaction from our political leaders has been to do something – anything – and do it fast. At the federal level, there has already been bipartisan support for a preliminary bailout of $1 trillion. For those of us who are fiscal conservatives, the headlong rush to add to the existing mountain of federal debt is deeply disturbing.

At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken aggressive action on the health care front but also has signed into law (or issued executive orders) designed to lessen the economic damage. While some of these policies are understandable under the circumstances, the interests of taxpayers and property owners do not seem to be getting the same level of concern as other interests.

To read the entire column, please click here.

Covering School Funding in Time of Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has interfered with many functions that could result in long-term changes. At-home workers might become more plentiful after the crisis passes (perhaps even helping to solve the problem of crowded freeways); limited sports seasons may lead to fewer games in the future on basketball and baseball schedules; and even consideration of California’s school funding through Average Daily Attendance might get a second look.

Governor Gavin Newsom said it is probable that schools will remain closed throughout the remainder of the school year.

Newsom expects the federal government to provide waivers to school districts which receive federal funds using school attendance as a factor.

Likewise, the legislature has prepared to keep the school districts financially whole by passing AB 117 to offset any loss of funding because of COVID-19 school closures. The bill states that the bill would deem instructional days and minutes requirements met during the period when schools are closed due to the virus.

California schools are funded on the basis of Average Daily Attendance (ADA). The ADA is calculated on the number of children actually in attendance in a school or district each day school is taught. Without state and federal intervention to change the rules, schools’ budgets would be devastated.

The advantage of ADA is that school authorities and parents will see to it that students attend classes.

Like regulations in other fields of endeavor, the school funding rules have fallen, at least temporarily, to the virus’s interference with normal circumstances.

While a handful of states use ADA as a funding calculus, a larger number of states base funding on Average Daily Membership (ADM). ADM is based on total school enrollment so if attendance is down, the schools don’t take a financial hit.

Advocates for ADM argue that poorer school districts suffer under ADA funding schemes because attendance rate is often lower. Also, administrative record-keeping and counting would be reduced under an ADM system.

Perhaps this crisis will bring re-evaluation of ADA funding. Re-thinking school funding on an ADA basis is worth considering because of the continued drop in student enrollment in California schools.

That is a discussion for another time. For now, state and federal governments are responding as they must during this unprecedented crisis.

Joel Fox is editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily.