CA Republicans ‘Stand with Sriracha’

The debate over a hot sauce factory is spicing up California politics. huy_fong_foods-201x220

After a small number of complaints over the factory’s alleged smell, the city of Irwindale recently voted to declare Huy Fong Foods, makers of the popular sriracha condiment, a public nuisance.

For state Republicans, that’s an election-year gift. GOP candidates and organizations are going public in support of David Tran, Huy Fong’s proprietor. Tran now counts among his champions GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari and the Republican Party of Los Angeles County.

The RPLAC has released a statement urging the Irwindale City Council “to take such actions as necessary to keep Huy Fong Foods in Los Angeles County,” praising Huy Fong’s growth, job creation and local economic dynamism.

Further afield, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz also has voiced his support for sriracha, although his solution to the company’s woes is to propose that Huy Fong relocates to his own state. Cruz’s comments follow the bold overtures of Texas Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas.

As yet, Tran has been cordial but coy in his response to the enthusiastic Texans. That has likely persuaded California Republicans that Tran isn’t headed for the exits. But their strong incentive is to help strengthen Tran’s disposition to stay.

Minority outreach

California Republicans have struggled for years to boost support among ethnic minorities. Fears of further losses have been stoked by the recent remarks of Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, likening California’s immigration ordeal to a war.

Donnelly currently is leading Kashkari in the June primary contest for governor. The new Top Two system almost certainly will give Gov. Jerry Brown the top spot, with Donnelly currently leading Kashkari for the second spot for the November runoff.

At the same time, moderate and liberal Republicans find value in shifting attention away from their corporate and financial affiliations. Those ties turn off many voters, including some conservatives, who are still troubled by the economic and political impact of the economic crisis and government bailouts.

One way to do that is by emphasizing minority outreach. There, the challenge is to target potential voters who aren’t already caught up in thorny issues like immigration that don’t play well to the state’s divided GOP.

One such group, Asian Americans, currently votes reliably for Democrats. Numbering more than 16 million nationwide, the group makes up at least 4 percent of the national electorate – and in 2012 gave Barack Obama a bigger margin than he won among Latinos, as Politico reported.

Statistics like these have frustrated Republican analysts. Party leaders are well aware that the group tends to align with Republican voters on cultural issues such as the importance of traditional family and the role education and enterprise play in upward mobility.

A Pew study from 2012 found that Asian Americans are better educated, wealthier and more focused on work and familial ties than Americans as a whole. But it also found the group relatively more satisfied with the country’s direction.

Entrepreneur

Given Tran’s plight as a Vietnamese-born entrepreneur, his background and predicament make for a perfect cause for Republicans.

That’s especially true of more “establishmentarian” party members. The identity politics challenges surrounding minority outreach help explain Kashkari’s sudden enthusiasm for the “stand with sriracha” campaign.

Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs whiz who went on to mastermind the controversial Troubled Assets Relief Program bailouts in 2008, took to Twitter last week to urge support for Huy Fong. Tran’s legal and regulatory struggles help Kashkari cast his campaign, as he put it, as a fight against “regulations killing jobs.” That takes the spotlight off of his personal political history as a member of the East Coast corporate and federal elite.

The Irwindale City Council is set this week to adopt a resolution formalizing the nuisance declaration. As the pressure on Huy Fong Foods increases, Republicans are poised to ratchet up their own rhetoric as well.

Public support for Huy Fong likely will work to the GOP’s advantage. “Sriracha is more than a hot sauce,” Frank C. Giradot wrote in the Pasadena Star-News. “Sriracha equals the American Dream.”

(James Poulos is a contributor to CalWatchdog. Originally published on CalWatchdog.)

A Modesto Proposal

A California teachers union local is trying to break away from CTA/NEA and why it matters.

In 1870, a new town south of Sacramento was to be named for financier William C. Ralston, but he was too modest and asked that another name be used. Thus, the town – eventually immortalized in the film American Graffiti – was named Modesto. Today, the city of 200,000 is embroiled in an interesting and quite immodest battle of wills. The Modesto Teachers Association (MTA) – the city’s 1,525-member local teachers union – is threatening to divorce itself from its state and national affiliates, the California Teachers Association and National Education Association. While this may engender a yawn from many, the consequences could be far-reaching.

Upon entering the profession, public school teachers in California are forced into a unified dues structure. This means that they join a national union, its state affiliate and the local union. To ensure a steady cash flow, the union folks don’t let their members write a check or use a credit card to pay their dues. Instead, the unions simply get local districts to extract the money from a teacher’s paycheck on a monthly basis and then turn it over to the unions, all at taxpayer expense. (If teachers were allowed to voluntarily pay up, the union would be on life support.) In 2013-2014, CTA’s yearly portion of the heist is $644 while the NEA skims $182. The rest of the dues money stays with the local union. So teachers wind up paying on average over $1,000 a year to the three unions for the privilege of teaching in the Golden State.

As reported by the Modesto Bee, the MTA/CTA imbroglio in a nutshell:

The MTA leadership proposed leaving its state affiliate after CTA found the local was out of compliance in spending a $280,000 annual grant. The local has received the grant through the CTA for decades to pay for office staff: a full-time executive director and a secretary.

Here’s the hitch: The MTA does not directly employ its executive director. Instead, for 22 years, it has paid the Modesto district to keep a former teacher on its payroll.

After 22 years, why is CTA just now raising a ruckus? Has CTA been falling down on the job or did it intentionally turn a blind eye to the “problem?” Or is there another reason for the altercation?

In any event, this may seem like a family squabble with no ramifications for anyone outside the union circle, but there is a bigger picture worth noting. If the teachers do decide to go through with the disaffiliation (a vote is scheduled for May 6th), it will mean almost one million dollars less for CTA and over $277,000 less for NEA on a yearly basis. The money that Modesto teachers will be withholdingfrom CTA is used for such things as communications ($22 per teacher), occupancy/properties ($20), governance ($34), etc. But while the aforementioned monies serve to feed the union bureaucracy, a hefty portion of teachers’ dues goes to politics. It is no secret that CTA is the biggest political spender in the state ($290 million in 2000-2013) and throws its weight around by fighting to limit charter school expansion and other forms of school choice, and keeping the tenure and seniority statutes in place. And unknown to many teachers and the general public, CTA spends millions on such controversialnon-education-related issues as same sex marriage, implementing a single-payer health-care system in California, blocking photo ID requirements for voters, and limiting restraints on the government’s power of eminent domain.

NEA’s political spending – about $130 million a year – also has an overwhelming one-way political direction. It has given large blocks of money to the AFL-CIO, Media Matters, MALDEF and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Granted, if the teachers vote to disaffiliate, the unions won’t much miss their dues contributions: NEA’s total yearly income is typically about $400 million and CTA’s about $185 million. But if on May 6th, Modesto teachers step up, thrust a middle finger at the capo and demand independence, other teacher union locals could be inspired to follow suit. And if that happens, it could trigger a tectonic shift in the political landscape in California and the nation.

(Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. Originally published on Union Watch.)

Gov. Brown’s Legal Strategy for Bullet Train Faltering

Last week’s decision from a state appeals court to issue a summary judgment denying the Brown administration’s unusual request to block a second trial in which Kings County and other plaintiffs challenge California’s high-speed rail project bodes terribly for the governor’s overall legal strategy. That strategy builds on the novel theory that the need to get started on a big public-works project has such overriding importance that it trumps the normal necessity of ensuring such projects comply with state law.

The second trial, now expected to proceed this summer before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, will focus on whether the project’s present plan complies with Proposition 1A, the 2008 bond measure providing it with $9.95 billion in seed money — in particular the guarantee that the train get from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes. Kings County’s attorneys say that’s impossible with the present plan to have actual high-speed rail cars only going from northern Los Angeles County to Fresno.

Attorney General Kamala Harris had asked the judges to block the trial with an “extraordinary writ” on these grounds:

“The trial court lost sight of the purpose of the Bond Act, which is to build a high-speed-rail system that will foster the future prosperity of the State. The Bond Act must be reasonably interpreted to achieve that purpose.”

The judges concluded that the true “reasonable interpretation” was that the plaintiffs had raised genuine issues that deserved full consideration at trial.

Argument that was summarily rejected also made in other appeal

The first trial, also before Judge Kenny, dealt with the legality of the project’s financing plan and the sufficiency of its environmental reviews.

Kenny said both were inadequate and blocked the use of state bond funds until the problems were remedied.

That ruling is now being considered on an expedited basis by a state appellate court at the direction of the California Supreme Court. And what is the argument the state is using to challenge those rulings? Essentially the same argument that was rejected last week. This is from the Sacramento Bee in January:

“The administration said in a request for expedited review that ‘the trial court’s approach to these issues cripples government’s ability to function’ and could have implications for other infrastructure projects.

“The state argues the normal appeals process could take years to resolve and is ‘not a real choice.’

“‘Since the project’s inception, opponents of high-speed rail have tried to block its construction,’ the filing said. ‘Now, two rulings of the Sacramento Superior Court — which are otherwise unreviewable as a practical matter — imperil the project by erecting obstacles found nowhere in the voter-approved bond act.”

A lawyer familiar with the case mocked this argument as amounting to, “Damn the legal niceties, this mean judge is getting in our way.”

It failed last week to persuade appellate judges to delay bullet train trial no. 2. It doesn’t seem likely to persuade appellate judges to discard the results of bullet train trial no. 1.

(Chris Reed contributes to CalWatchdog. Originally posted on CalWatchdog.)

World Awaits Western Leadership

The events we have been witnessing in Ukraine are critical not only for their impact on the people of eastern Europe – the precedents set during the coming weeks and months will have significant influence on the future balance of power across the globe.  While much of the Western world sat idle during the recent annexation of Crimea by neighboring Russia, in the broader context of foreign policy, the West’s response (or lack thereof) will be scrutinized as significantly as Putin’s next step.  One key actor paying close attention is undoubtedly China.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and as Condoleezza Rice recently reflected, when the world recognizes that America fails to fill a void of influence in the realm of international affairs, other players emerge to close the gap.  Foreign leaders are carefully studying the actions of Russia, and perhaps even more importantly, the accompanying reaction from the West, in part to ascertain the United States’ level of commitment to its allies in geostrategic regions throughout the world.  China maintains a watchful eye on the situation as it has unique territorial disputes of its own, from conflict with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, to its claims over various islands in the South China Sea, to its complicated relationship with Taiwan and Tibet.

Though China is unlikely to engage in a pseudo-military annexation of Taiwan similar to that which just occurred by Russia in Crimea, there is little doubt that Beijing is carefully scrutinizing the actions of Russia and the West.  The last decade has witnessed the rise of China as a counterbalance to U.S. hegemony, particularly in Asia.  China and Russia have a historically unique relationship and share an immense border.  China, with its incredibly massive population, is increasingly urbanizing, putting a strain on its dwindling national resources.  Russia, with its aging and shrinking population, is resource heavy, and it supplies much of Western Europe with its energy supplies.  China’s political structure over the past half century adopted many Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist tendencies, but Moscow and Beijing are often aligned politically largely insofar as their cumulative output effectively counterbalances U.S. influence in the region.  In short, the relationship between China and Russia is closely intertwined but complicated.  They both, however, grow impatient over continued American involvement in their backyard.

Unlike during the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the United States were the two perennial powerhouses, China’s emergence now means there is a trifecta of actors at play, which presents a new host of quandaries.  For this reason is it paramount to recognize that the West’s response to the situation in the Ukraine is undoubtedly receiving close scrutiny in Beijing and could have implications down the road as China continues its ascendance.

The annexation of Crimea generated little more than verbal condemnation by Western powers, followed by a spattering of largely symbolic sanctions that did nothing to quell Putin’s advance.  With the build up of Russian troops on the eastern border of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s has recently hinted that he seeks only to protect ethnic Russians from a government in the Ukraine that is increasingly hostile to them.  His next move is anyone’s guess, but one thing is clear: the West’s tepid response to the Crimean annexation has done little to discourage the Russian premier.

While it may appear that Ukraine will not have an immediate impact on the American economy or reputation, the same cannot be said for the myriad of potential Chinese conflicts down the road.  China holds a substantial amount of American debt, fields the largest military in the world, and has shown no hesitation in using violence as a means of maintaining totalitarian control.

President Obama’s foreign policy actions of late have demonstrated a commitment to condemn, but not to act beyond that.  The world is watching the lack of reaction.  In Moscow and Beijing, inaction can speak even louder than words.

(Ben Everard is a contributor to California Political Review. Originally published on California Political Review.)

Supremes in the Balance

Jerry Brown and the future of California’s highest court

California’s Supreme Court was once the nation’s most respected and influential state judicial body. Its opinions were collected in textbooks and pored over in law schools from coast to coast. That iconic status began to erode in the 1970s and has deteriorated for the most part ever since. In recent years, the California Supreme Court has become a joke. If he wins reelection in November as expected, Governor Jerry Brown will have a chance to shape the court for years to come. His appointments will determine whether the court moves toward greater moderation or continues the leftward judicial trend that began in his first tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983.

Brown appointed three activist liberals to the seven-member court during that period. Chief Justice Rose Bird, along with Associate Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, were ultimately removed by California voters in 1986 for ignoring the law, especially the death penalty. Brown’s successors, Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, appointed centrists, but the court never fully repaired its reputation. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas (1987–1996), the court reversed much—but not all—of the jurisprudential mischief done during the surreal Bird era, particularly in criminal cases. But the pendulum began swinging in a liberal direction again under Chief Justice Ronald George (1996–2011), who showed a lack of principle when it came to enforcing the rights of property owners, employers, and insurance companies. Moreover, the court suffered a major loss when Janice Rogers Brown, an outspoken conservative, left to join the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2005.

Under Bird, the court invented the common-law claim for “wrongful termination” (despite a legislative presumption that employment may be terminated “at will”); created the tort of “bad faith refusal to settle” insurance claims; and unleashed a torrent of shakedown litigation for “unfair competition.” The court eventually scaled back the first two but has continued to encourage costly unfair-competition lawsuits. It ruled in 2011, for example, that the maker of Kwikset locks could be sued for labeling the locks “Made in U.S.A.” because some products contained screws and pins sourced in Taiwan. The court’s rulings have spawned a cottage industry in California of suing for minor regulatory violations and trivial inaccuracies in packaging, labeling, and advertising. In 2013, a Sacramento man sued Subway in California federal court because a “foot-long” sandwich he bought at one of its franchises was fractionally less than 12 inches long.

The court also generated a flood of “wage and hour” claims by employees (typically brought as class actions) for offenses such as failing to take prescribed rest breaks and meal periods. Few employers avoided such lawsuits. At the same time, the court is strangely hostile to contractual arbitration of disputes, finding novel reasons and loopholes limiting enforcement of arbitration agreements, though other jurisdictions routinely enforce them. In short, the court’s lawsuit-friendly rulings have created a hostile litigation environment that has led national tort-reform groups to rank California as one of the nation’s “judicial hellholes.”Plaintiffs can assert claims in California that no other state allows, such as “public nuisance” actions against makers of lead paint (before it was banned in 1978) on behalf of local government bodies. In December, a California judge ordered three paint companies to pay $1.1 billion in such a case.

The court’s controversial and divisive rulings extend to other areas. For example, in 1997, Chief Justice George orchestrated recognition of a state constitutional right for minors to obtain abortions without parental consent. The court seems eager to stay ahead of every trend and fad. Just this year, it held that an illegal alien could be admitted to practice law in California, notwithstanding that his presence in the United States is a crime and he cannot legally be employed. “The fact that an undocumented immigrant is present in the United States without lawful authorization does not itself involve moral turpitude or demonstrate moral unfitness so as to justify exclusion from the state bar,” the court declared.

At present, Governor Brown has appointed only one judge, former UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu. Liu’s 2011 appointment was notable, however, because President Obama had previously nominated him to the notoriously liberal Ninth Circuit but withdrew the nomination when the Senate refused to confirm him. By contrast, Liu’s appointment to the California Supreme Court sailed through with no controversy.

The retirement of Joyce Kennard, a moderate who served for 25 years after being appointed by Deukmejian, means that Brown will soon have to pick a new justice. Three of the sitting justices—Marvin Baxter, Kathryn Werdegar (author of the Kwikset decision), and Ming Chin—are over 70. Thus, a reelected Brown may get to appoint a majority of the seven justices. The short list of candidates identified in a recent Los Angeles Times story consists mainly of left-wing law professors, sitting liberal judges, or “public interest” lawyers, such as MALDEF’s Thomas Saenz, who engineered the successful federal court challenge to a 1994 ballot initiative prohibiting illegal aliens from accessing public benefits.

With his judicial picks, Brown has an opportunity to redeem himself for the Rose Bird mistake. Californians should hope that he makes the most of it.

(Mark Pulliam is a lawyer and commentator who from 1993 to 2003 covered the California Supreme Court as the legal issues correspondent for California Political Review. Originally published on City Journal.)

Rumsfeld’s Problem Is Our Problem

In filing his tax returns, Donald Rumsfeld included a letter to the IRS stating, “As in prior years, it is important for you to know that I have absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate.” Now critics of the former secretary of defense and member of Congress may not be sympathetic, but they overlook the fact that Rumsfeld’s problem is shared by almost every American taxpayer.

The U.S. Tax Code is currently 73,954 pages long and a few more pages are probably being added as this is written. Every year, members of the Washington, D.C. political class pay lip service to the goal of tax reform, but usually all Congress does is tinker around the edges in an effort to please special interest supporters and to increase revenue, or “raise taxes” in the language of average Americans who end up with the bill.

This seems a good time to renew discussion of several proposals to actually simplify the tax system that have shown popular support over the last several decades.

The idea of a flat tax would be to establish a uniform tax rate for all filers with no deductions except, perhaps, for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. Under this system, it would be clear to filers exactly what they owe. An additional benefit would be that it would remove distortions to the economy. The current system creates an incentive for taxpayers to put their money in tax shelters. With a flat tax, taxpayers would put their money where it would earn the greatest return.

Critics of the flat tax worry that it would be unfair if rich and poor paid the same rate. However, this problem could be substantially alleviated by providing for a large personal deduction of, say, $50,000. It would be hard to argue that low income families and individuals would be unfairly treated if the income tax didn’t even kick in until the first dollar over $50,000.

The flat tax has been supported by the Hoover Institution’s Alvin Rabushka, former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors Arthur Laffer, and Nobel Laureate Milton Freedman. Even Jerry Brown supported this concept in his last run for the presidency. Brown went so far as to say that once the flat rate had been established, it should only be changed by a national referendum.

Another proposal that has gained traction with the popular imagination is a national sales or consumption tax that would entirely replace the income tax. Individuals would no longer have to deal with the IRS, they would pay their taxes when spending money. Many supporters are attracted to a system they believe would put the IRS out of business.

However, several important issues would have to be resolved. Would the tax also apply to services? And would it open the door to a European style value added tax, where each level of production and distribution adds an additional tax to the point where the consumer no longer has any idea how much they are paying for a product and how much of the total price is going to the government?

There are those who point out that the IRS, rather than being abolished, would continue to exist to ensure that businesses of all sizes are collecting and sending Washington the national sales tax. Critics also express concern that Congress could easily ratchet up taxes through a series of small increases over time that would result in a serious increase in the national tax burden.

There would, of course, be opposition to any simplified system and it would include those who make a good living professionally preparing tax returns. It has been estimated that Americans spend nearly $30 billion dollars annually on tax preparation. And it seems likely the only way the Washington D.C. politicians would support a simplified tax system would be if the filing form had just two instructions. The first, “Enter how much you made last year in the following box,” followed by, “Send it in.”

Any changes to our national (and state) tax system, not motivated by the avarice of the political class, that make it easier to understand and comply with would be welcomed by most taxpayers. As Rumsfeld, who is 81, told the IRS, he hopes that at some point during his lifetime, “the U.S. government will simplify the U.S. tax code so that those citizens who sincerely want to pay what they should, are able to do it right, and know that they have done it right.” Even for younger taxpayers, it might be more realistic to hope that this happens in the lifetime of our great grandchildren.

(Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights. Originally published on HJTA.)

The Cost of Driving in California

Feeling the pain of gasoline prices? In California the average price of gasoline is about $4.20 a gallon. That’s second highest in the nation behind Hawaii. Some of the recent jump in state gas cost can be attributed to refinery troubles. But California also leads the nation in taxing gasoline.

According to a chart prepared by energy giant Exxon Mobil earlier this year, California is the only state with combined state, local and federal tax that tops 70-cents a gallon.

Of course, some in the Golden State  think that is not enough.  Efforts to create an oil severance tax would add to the cost of gasoline, perhaps even vaulting the per gallon price of gas past Hawaii, which has the extra burden of importing its oil.

Exxon Mobil’s blog claims that in 2013 for every gallon of gasoline and other products refined, shipped, and sold in the United States the company earned a 5.5 cent profit. The blog notes that compares to 40 to 60 cents per gallon collected by the federal, state, and local governments in gasoline taxes in most states — higher in California.

Meanwhile, there was a tidbit of positive energy related news on the cost of driving in Dan Morain’s Sacramento Bee column yesterday. Morain reported that the giant electric car battery plant Tesla Motors is seeking just might end up in California after all. The company, which is headquartered here and has benefited from multiple state subsidies and benefits that encouraged the company’s growth, had previously announced a list of western states that might be home to the factory. California was not among them. Beyond the push for electric cars, this news involves the important issue of a potential 6500 jobs for the state.

I criticized Tesla’s earlier stance on factory location on this site last month. As I wrote at the time, California seemed to meet the requirements Tesla was looking for in establishing its factory, with the exception of the ease of acquiring environmental permits. “Ironic, if the permitting is the hurdle that convinced Tesla to look elsewhere since this is a car company that lives on its reputation as an environmentally friendly product and survives because of its ability to sell pollution credits,” I wrote then.

Perhaps, Tesla was feeling the heat from California politicians who have passed laws and regulations beneficial to the company. But there are a couple of lessons to be learned here as to the cost of driving and doing business in California.

The state’s heavy tax burden on gasoline drives up the cost of living and working in the state for all it’s businesses and residents. The state’s heavy cost of doing business potentially drives away even favored companies. Politicians take note.

(Joel Fox is the Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee. Posted on Fox and Hounds.)

Robert Rizzo Heads to the Slammer

Robert Rizzo is going to jail. Facing over 100 counts of corruption and associated wrongdoing, he will spend 12 years in state prison.

The ex-city manager will also serve 33 months of a federal sentence for income tax evasion.

The case against Rizzo was astonishing in scope. As the mastermind of a grand, ongoing scheme to rip off the city of Bell, Rizzo had to answer for six counts each of perjury and conflict of interest, 10 counts of falsifying public records, 46 counts of misappropriating public funds, and 69 counts of felonious public corruption.

Rizzo pled no contest.

The Bell case drew in six officials total, five of whom sat on the city council. The story of their abuse of the public trust and enrichment at public expense shocked Californians. Amid few reports of corruption in state and local government, Rizzo and his collaborators seemed extreme.

California has not been known for widespread political corruption. In the high-profile State Integrity Investigation launched by the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International in 2012, the state received an enviable ranking of fourth best among the 50 states for openness of government. Rizzo seemed an aberration.

Then this year, the state Senate suspended three of its members at the end of March for separate offenses. State Senator Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, allegedly was caught in an FBI sting and faces federal bribery charges. State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, was arrested and criminally charged with corruption and conspiracy to traffic in firearms. And state Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, has been convicted of eight felonies.

Political fallout

The spate of corruption stories has quickly soured public opinion. A new Field Poll recently showed that, for the first time in over a decade, more respondents disapprove of the state Legislature than approve. Because of the timing of the poll, the nine-point swing against Sacramento is understood to clearly reflect the impact of the Senate scandals on voter sentiment.

Democrats are scrambling to respond. Although the suspended senators still draw their regular pay of nearly $100,000 a year, pressure is mounting against them. State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, wants Yee to resign. Gov. Jerry Brown wants all three to go.

In perhaps the most striking indication of Democrats’ worry, Steinberg and state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, the next president pro tem, canceled one of the party’s signature fundraisers early this month. In a statement, the two attributed their decision to “the very recent and extraordinary breaches of the public’s trust.”

At the Pro Tem Cup event, Democrats have raised up to $65,000 per golf package, according to Reuters. But as CalWatchDog.com reported, although the fundraiser was canceled, the lawmakers kept the donations.

The embarrassing turn of events has presented Republicans with a fresh issue for what has become a typically daunting election year. It remains unclear, however, whether the state GOP can turn the Bell and Senate scandals into an advantage at the ballot box.

(James Poulos is a contributor to CalWatchdog. Originally published on CalWatchdog.)

Public Safety Pensions – Reduce Now or Slash Later

“Once people get the facts, they do not support slashing people’s pensions.”
- Dave Low, chairman, Californians for Retirement Security (Washington Post, February 25, 2014)

Really?

Making sure “people get the facts” is difficult when most “facts” the public sees are promulgated to the media by pension fund PR departments eager to preserve the torrent of taxpayers money flowing into their favored investment firms, along with PR firms representing taxpayer-funded public sector unions whose primary reason to exist is to increase the wages and benefits of their members.

According to the most recent data available from the California State Controller – over $600 billion of taxpayer’s money is privately invested by public employee pension funds (Public Retirement Systems Annual Report, FYE 6-30-2011, released 5-22-2013, page xv, Figure 2), and every year, taxpayers pour another (woefully inadequate) $27 billion into these financially troubled funds (same report, page xxii, Figure 12).

As for the California’s public sector unions? It’s hard to get facts on these massive institutions whose operations – despite being 100% funded by taxpayers – are largely defined by their opacity. But just in California, their collective revenues per year from dues and agency fees can be reliably estimated at over $1.0 billion per year.

Those are two pretty big elephants in this room we call California, Mr. Low.

Chairman Low’s comment was quoted in an article entitled “In San Jose, generous pensions for city workers come at expense of nearly all else.” The focus of the article was the exodus of public safety personnel from San Jose, since their pensions have been “slashed” as the result of a reform initiative passed by nearly 70% of voters.

So what are the facts about public safety pensions in San Jose?

Getting these facts are also difficult, but earlier this week, the California Public Policy Center released a study entitled “Evaluating Public Safety Pensions in California,” with San Jose’s independent pension system one of those selected for analysis. The other two were the independent pension system serving public safety retirees from Los Angeles, and public safety retirees who participate in CalPERS.

As documented in this study, the average retired public safety employee in San Jose collects a pension considerably better than the average public safety retiree from Los Angeles, or the average public safety retiree who is part of the massive CalPERS system. Factoring in the length of service, and the year of retirement, take a look at these pensions:

City of San Jose Public Safety Retirees
Average Base Pension by 
Years of Service and Year of Retirement

20140404_Ring-Fellner_SJ-by-Svc-and-Ret

It is very important to note that these averages are just for “base pension.” In general, based on the data received from other pension systems who supplied the additional data, public safety retirees collect at least $10,000 per year in health benefits that are not considered part of their base pension, and San Jose is no exception (ref. SJ safety retiree health benefits). This means the average public safety retiree in San Jose, if they retired in the last ten years and worked 25 years or more, collects a pension and benefit package that averages over $110,000 per year.

These are the “facts,” Mr. Low. This is what voters decided to “slash,” although if you read Measure B, “slash” is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. “Sanity” may be more appropriate.

The reader looking for additional “facts” may wish to click on this link, which points directly at individual pension amounts for the most recent fiscal year for which data is available: “San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan (2012).” For that matter, perhaps the factually minded reader may wish to click on this link, which points to how much individual public servants currently working for the City of San Jose made according to the most recent data: “All salaries for San Jose (2012).”

The observant viewer of these links to San Jose’s city employee pay and pension data will note, factually, that the vast majority of highly compensated individuals work in public safety. But what about the averages? What is the average total pay and employer-paid benefits for San Jose’s public servants? For that, refer to the next chart, taken from another California Policy Center study entitled “San Jose, California – City Employee Total Compensation Analysis,” using 2011 payroll data provided by the city itself:

20140415_RingUW_SJ-city-pay-2011

Lest anyone suspect that “averages” for pay – and the pensions whose value is calculated based on final rates of pay – are misleading because of a handful of overpaid executives, please note that median pay for San Jose’s public safety employees exceeds their average pay.

No reasonable person questions the need to pay public safety personnel a premium for the work they do. But to preserve defined benefits, not to mention the financial survival of our cities and counties, we must make tough decisions now, to avoid having to “slash” later.

(Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center. Originally published on Union Watch.)

Gore: Global Warming Doubters ‘Immoral, Unethical”

Whenever you read about Al Gore, keep in mind that he frolics in a compound in Montecito valued in 2010 at $8.875 million. Now it’s probably worth at least $12 million. Reported the Huffington Post at the time:

“Records show that the approximately 6,500 sq. foot home boasts 6 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms, a large pool house, 6 fireplaces, wood framed french doors, and carved stone detailing throughout.”

And that was his fourth luxury home.

Gore’s “carbon footprint,” how much energy he uses and how much CO2 he spews into the atmosphere, must be larger than entire provinces of Bangladesh.

Yet after he recently jetted to Hawaii, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported:

“The ‘barriers’ to doing something about climate change are business and political interests that profit off of fossil fuels — ‘dirty energy that causes dirty weather.’ He compared fake science from polluters stating that humans are not to blame for the climate to tobacco companies that used to hire actors to play doctors who denied cigarettes were dangerous.

” ‘That’s immoral, unethical and despicable,’ he said of both.”

That’s funny. Because in his political campaigns, Gore used to profit from both tobacco and being anti-tobacco. As Joan Beck reported in 1996, after Gore told a heart-wrenching story at the Democratic National Conventiion of his sister dying of lung cancer:

“He and his family made money by raising tobacco on their Tennessee farm for years — profiting from a product that killed lots of other people’s sisters and husbands and parents and brothers and friends in a particularly vicious and cruel way.

“They didn’t stop when the surgeon general issued his sharp warning linking tobacco with illness and death in 1964, not until Nancy’s tragic battle with lung cancer.

As late as 1988, Al Gore was bragging in a speech to tobacco farmers in North Carolina, ”Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I’ve hoed it. I’ve dug in it. I’ve sprayed it, I’ve chopped it, I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.” And made money growing a carcinogen that killed other people’s loved ones. Gore made this speech, remember, four years after his sister’s death. And 24 years after the surgeon general’s report.

Now, of course, Gore has become vastly wealthier trading in on the global warming/climate change political fad, even as he enjoys the lifestyles of the rich and famous and high carbon-footprinted and hypocritical.

(John Seiler is the managing editor of CalWatchdog. Originally published on CalWatchdog.)