Debate Rages Over CA Death Penalty

Death PenaltyObliged by a court settlement to figure out a new method of capital punishment, California officials have exacerbated the state’s protracted debate over executions by settling on a different kind of lethal injection.

With a widespread shortage of execution drugs used in the now-familiar “cocktails,” officials have now aimed to “let corrections officials choose from four types of powerful barbiturates to execute prisoners,” according to KCRA Sacramento. “A choice would be made for each execution, depending on which drug is available. The single drug would replace the series of three drugs that were last used in 2006, when 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen was executed for ordering a triple murder.”

“The plan to use barbiturates to execute inmates sentenced to die in the most populous U.S. state drew fire from religious activists, who called capital punishment grisly and anti-democratic at a hearing in Sacramento,” Reuters reported. “Law-and-order advocates urged its adoption.”

“If the new protocol is adopted by corrections officials and voters do not outlaw the death penalty next November, the state could theoretically begin executing 18 prisoners who have exhausted their appeals. Legal challenges to the lethal injection drug, however, could drag on for years.”

Opponents of the new plan insisted that it amounted to a trial-and-error approach. “The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is suing to obtain at least 79,000 corrections department documents related to lethal injections,” KCRA noted. “It says the regulations may lack enough safeguards to prevent the state from using backdoor ways to obtain execution drugs that manufacturers never intended for that purpose.” Past cocktails have been harshly criticized for sometimes failing to execute inmates as quickly and painlessly as lethal injection was intended to do.

Languishing inmates

Much of the frustration around the issue stems from the unique backlog that has built up on the state’s Death Row. “It’s been 10 years since California executed its last death row inmate. Since then, the death row population has grown to 745,” KQED noted. “Since 1978, 117 death row inmates have died, the vast majority from natural causes and suicide.”

Although California’s Death Row has ballooned to an extraordinary size over the years, other states have found themselves burdened by court requirements in similar ways. Florida, second to California in the size of its death row population, recently faced a Supreme Court ruling that has thrown the status of its condemned inmates into question. “Death penalty prosecutions are stalled, and state lawmakers are hustling to write and pass a new death penalty law before their session ends in six weeks,” the New York Times reported. “Also in question is whether the 390 inmates awaiting execution in Florida will remain on death row or be resentenced to life in prison.” The predicament, which has gained the attention of reformers and activists across  the political spectrum, has contributed to the rise of execution reform as a hot-button issue around the country.

Divided opinion

California’s own controversy has strengthened amid a sharp divide in statewide public opinion over capital punishment. Voters, a new poll found, have “now equally divided between scrapping the death penalty altogether and speeding up the path to executing inmates on the nation’s largest death row,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. “The poll found that 47 percent of voters favor replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole in California, up from 40 percent in 2014. But at the same time, the poll shows that 48 percent of registered voters would support proposals to accelerate the state’s notoriously slow system of resolving death penalty appeals to pick up the pace of executions.” Both those proposals were likely to wind up on this election year’s ballot in the form of initiatives.

Opinions have split even among Death Row inmates themselves. “Opinions vary, just like I’m sure they vary on the outside,” one inmate, Charles Crawford II, told KQED. “Some of us are against it, some of us not so much. Some of us, it’s like if they’re going to do it, do it and not have us sittin’ here for 20 or 30 years.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Over Half-Billion Likely to be Spent on November Ballot Measures

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image2562817Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on legislative lobbying efforts made headlines this week but the total amount will likely pale next to what is expected to be spent this year on that other form of California lawmaking — the initiative process.

Coverage of the lobbying reports disclosed that $312.7 million was spent on lobbying the legislature in 2015, a double-digit increase from just two years earlier.

But according to initiative guru, Rick Claussen, of the consulting firm Redwood Pacific, which specializes in initiative campaigns, a crowded November ballot could produce spending of nearly half-a-billion dollars.

Claussen offered some best guess rounded figures that could be spent for and against a number of the high profile initiatives headed for the ballot.

MediCal Protection measure                                              $50 million
Referendum on Plastic Bags                                               $10 million
Revenue Bond Vote Requirement                                     $30 million
Condom Requirement for Adult Films                             $5 million
State School Bond                                                                 $7 million
Drug Pricing Mandates                                                        $65 million
Minimum Wage Increase (two initiatives filed)             $30 million
Property Tax Increase                                                          $50 million
Prop. 30 Extension (different versions filed)                  $60 million
New Plastic Bag Fee for Environment                              $5 million
Tobacco Tax                                                                           $100 million
Legislative Transparency                                                    $5 million
Marijuana Measure                                                              $35 million

$452,000,000 to persuade voters on policy decisions appearing on the ballot!

Not on the list: the gun control measure which should see lots of money raised on both sides; the governor’s proposal for sentencing reform; potential death penalty reform measures — one to eliminate the death penalty, the other to carry out the penalty more swiftly; political finance reform; and an attempt to end high-speed-rail by diverting rail funds to water projects. All these and more could make the ballot and ring up the initiative campaigns cash register even higher. Indeed, perhaps 20 measures might appear on the November ballot, moving the spending totals close to or well over that half-billion dollar mark.

Funding for initiatives topping the amount spent on a year of legislative lobbying should not come as a surprise to anyone closely following California politics. As academics such as Bruce Cain and others have pointed out, California has, in essence, two electorates. The electorate filtered though legislative elections and the electorate that votes directly on ballot measures.

The two lawmaking approaches yield different outcomes on issues because of the nature of the voting population in the legislative districts as compared to the statewide voting bloc. Initiatives appeal to statewide voters that often express a different opinion than legislators.

Money spent to influence legislators is a big story. More money will be spent to influence citizen-lawmakers.

Then again, there are many more decision makers when it comes to initiatives.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

CA fracking frozen by feds

Offshore frackingTwin legal settlements with environmentalist plaintiffs put a freeze on fracking in California waters. “The agreements in Los Angeles federal court apply to operations off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. operate platforms,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Federal agencies will have to complete the review by the end of May and determine if a more in-depth analysis is necessary,” the paper added. “They will also have to make future permit applications publicly accessible.” If the practice clears federal scrutiny and is deemed adequately safe to the environment, fracking operations could continue. If not, they could be postponed or forestalled indefinitely.

Notching a victory

The result marked a significant win for the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Defense Center, two organizations that alleged frackers had imperiled aquatic life with “over 9 billion gallons of wastewater” each year, according to Grist. Accusing the U.S. Department of the Interior of “rubber-stamping fracking off California’s coast without engaging the public or analyzing fracking’s threats to ocean ecosystems, coastal communities and marine life,” as the Christian Science Monitor observed, the groups filed suit against the federal government.

In a report on the deal, the left-leaning think tank Think Progress noted that fracking had quietly been conducted off the California coast for years. “The initial revelation of ongoing offshore fracking came as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the Department of the Interior by the Associated Press and Santa Barbara-based community organization the Environmental Defense Center, which just released a new report on the issue,” the organization recalled. “The investigations have found over 200 instances of fracking operations in state and federal waters off California, all unbeknownst to a state agency with jurisdiction over the offshore oil and gas industry.”

Industry pushback

For their part, defendants insisted the case was without merit. “Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that the petroleum industry has operated safely in California for decades, working closely with regulators and other officials,” Natural Gas Intelligence reported. Industry defenders have argued that offshore fracking levels in the Pacific haven’t been that high. While the moratorium “will not likely affect production at large because California has not been producing much offshore oil lately,” Reuters noted, “companies have fracked at least 200 wells in Long Beach, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and in the wildlife-rich Santa Barbara Channel,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The American Petroleum Institute, which joined the suit as a defendant, has refused to agree to the settlement package. Other hurdles to its implementation have arisen. The two separate settlements must still be approved by a federal judge, according to NGI.

Porter Ranch debate

Although the EPA largely exonerated fracking of the dire accusations leveled against it by some environmental activists, the practice has re-entered the public debate in California due to the massive gas leak in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of greater Los Angeles. Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, recently linked the disaster to fracking in an editorial at the Sacramento Bee; “newly uncovered documents show that hydraulic fracturing was commonly used in the Aliso Canyon gas storage wells,” she wrote, “including a well less than a half-mile from the leak.” Perhaps predictably, Golden-Krasner called for Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the practice of fracking across the state of California.

Regulators have been investigating a possible connection. “More than two months after Southern California Gas Co. detected a leak at its Aliso Canyon field, observers are searching for reasons the well may have failed. Some environmentalists are drawing attention to fracking, while experts caution that such a rupture is unlikely,” the Los Angeles Daily News observed. “The leaking well’s maintenance records don’t indicate that it was fracked, according to a review of the file released by the state Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Time for Carly Fiorina to Call it Quits?

The Republican presidential primary candidates are now thankfully narrowing for voter consideration after the Iowa caucuses.  Senator Rand Paul, former Governor Mike Huckabee, former Senator Rick Santorum, have all suspended their campaigns based on the first results.  This constriction of the GOP presidential selection process could not have come any time sooner, as the Republicans bitter process has taken time and focus off of beating the Democratic nominee, and that focus will be really essential, the sooner the better, if the GOP is to win this November.

Santorum and Huckabee received a dismal 1 to 1.8% each in the Iowa vote, which was lead by Ted Cruz (27.6%), Donald Trump (24.3%) and Marco Rubio (23.1%).  Rand Paul pulled 4.5% of the vote, and decided to quit the race and focus on his Senate re-election.  Yet candidates Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Chris Christie, none of whom garnered more than 1.9% of the Iowa vote, are moving on to New Hampshire.

It makes sense that Christie and Kasich would stay in the race.  According to Real Clear Politics, a 2/4 New Hampshire poll has Kasich competitive in the Granite State at 13%, and Christie is making a showing at 6%.  But Carly Fiorina is pulling just 2%, essentially the same as she received in Iowa, after which three of her fellow candidates with similar showings suspended their campaigns.

Why is Fiorina staying in the race when voters aren’t listening to her message?  That question doesn’t seem to matter to 2012 GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has called on ABC to include Carly in the next GOP debate because she is “the only woman.”  But the question does matter to many Republicans who have concluded that Fiorina simply cannot win the race, and that her presence on stage at the debates and on the primary ballots has become an exercise in vanity, geared towards making money after the election on writing a book or winning a secondary cabinet position, rather than a serious effort to win election.

Yet if the GOP wins the presidency, (as long as the winner is not Donald J. Trump, who famously insulted her), Fiorina has a lock on at least a secondary cabinet position right now.  It would be hard to believe that a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz would not welcome her to their cabinets in some role.  So why should Fiorina continue to run, given that she is just going to continue to lose, and badly, according to polls?  Why should she occupy a space at the GOP debates that will be useless, denying voters more time to understand and challenge the views of the really competitive candidates?  Doesn’t Fiorina just contribute to lengthening the limited time the eventual GOP nominee will have to zero in on Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) poor policies?  Perhaps we will know more next Wednesday morning, the day after the New Hampshire primary results are made public, where Fiornina will very likely finish in the last place slot.

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Capitol Corruption Inspires June Ballot Measure

Photo Credit: kqed.org

Former State Senator Leland Yee. Photo Credit: kqed.org

California Secretary of State Alex Pedilla has assigned a number, Proposition 50, to the only measure to appear on the upcoming June primary ballot.

If passed by the voters, Prop. 50 would amend the state constitution to allow either chamber of the Legislature, by a two-thirds vote, to suspend a member of that body without pay or benefits.

The measure stands as a reminder of the corruption that has gripped the California State Capitol in recent years.

To understand the origin of this measure, placed on the ballot by the Legislature, you need only look back to March 28, 2014. That was just days after State Senator Leland Yee became the third Democrat in the Legislature’s upper chamber to become embroiled in criminal wrong-doing, with the federal government charging Yee with gun-running, illegal sale of firearms, of taking tens of thousands of dollars in cash bribes, and more.

The previous month, State Senator Ron Calderon had been indicted by the federal government on bribery and corruption charges. A month before that, State Senator Rod Wright was convicted by a jury of multiple felony counts of voter fraud and perjury.

Then-State Senate President Darrell Steinberg was part of a bi-partisan Capitol establishment which largely looked the other way, permitting Wright to serve after being charged, and – incredibly – after being found guilty. Calderon was also allowed to continue to serve despite his high-profile charges. Public calls by several Republican Senators to take action, including a formal resolution to expel Wright, were buried by Steinberg and not permitted to come to a vote. It wasn’t until Yee was indicted that finally the pressure on the State Senate leadership was such that they were forced to act.

Yee’s indictment was apparently the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and the Senate voted to suspend Calderon, Wright and Yee. When that was done, it was made clear that there was no authority under the state constitution to stop paying the Senators their $90,526 annual pay–and benefits. At that time the constitutional amendment that would become Prop. 50 was introduced.

Wright remained in the Senate until appeal of his conviction was denied. Calderon and Yee served through the end of their terms in 2014, while suspended from their official duties. Both have criminal trials pending.

California state law allows only for measures placed on the ballot before the Legislature to appear on the June ballot. All measures qualified by gathering signatures must appear in November. It is anticipated that over 15 measures will appear on the general election ballot.

This article was originally published by Brietbart.com/California

New Legislation Targets Encrypted CA Smartphones

cellphonesA worldwide controversy over whether to ban encrypted smartphones has opened a new front in California, where lawmakers introduced legislation that would crack down on the devices.

Assembly Bill 1681, introduced by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, would mandate that phones made “on or after January 1, 2017, and sold in California after that date” must be “capable of being decrypted and unlocked by its manufacturer or its operating system provider,” as CNET reported. “Any smartphone that couldn’t be decrypted on demand would subject a seller to a $2,500 fine. If the bill becomes law, there would be a ban on nearly all iPhones and many devices that run Google’s Android software across the state.”

With California home to both Google and Apple, observers quickly declared a broadening trend toward increased legal pressure on tech companies. But competing justifications for the crackdown have emerged, with lawmakers outside California opting to hang their own legislation on a different peg. As Ars Technica remarked of AB1681:

Despite very similar language to a pending New York bill, the stated rationale is to fight human trafficking, rather than terrorism.

AB1681’s language is nearly identical to another bill re-introduced in New York state earlier this month, but Cooper denied that it was based on any model legislation, saying simply that it was researched by his staff. He also noted that the sale of his own iPhone would be made illegal in California under this bill.

World worry

California policymakers have become an intimate part of the global push to prevent smartphone encryption from helping individuals and groups evade law enforcement monitoring and detection. At the Davos Open Forum, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., joined an international panel of public and private-sector officials to air concerns about the potential for over- or under-enforcement. “Governments claim the need for greater security and seek to monitor global communications, while citizens, more willing than ever to share, demand greater protection of their digital privacy,” according to Vice News, whose editor in chief moderated the discussion.

In the U.S., meanwhile, top law enforcement officials have sought to coordinate a nationwide effort patterned after California’s and New York’s, each of which drew support from its respective Attorneys General. “The National District Attorney’s Association hasn’t hidden its intention to mobilize its local offices,” according to The Verge. “The association, along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, announced in November that they planned to partner with state legislators to enact mandatory smartphone decryption bills around the country. The group wrote in a letter that it looked ‘forward to working with lawmakers to strengthen our current laws, and ensure they are representative of today’s technology and the challenge public safety officials face in preventing crime and safeguarding their communities.’”

An uphill battle

But pushback has already begun from within the crypto and tech communities. On the one hand, advocates and activists have long warned against granting governments a so-called “backdoor” to the data and metadata stored on devices and accessible through them. “There have been people that suggest that we should have a backdoor,” Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said on “60 Minutes,” as the Silicon Valley Business Journal noted. “But the reality is if you put a backdoor in, that backdoor’s for everybody, for good guys and bad guys.”

On the other hand, however, going further, “legal and technical experts argue that even if a national ban on fully encrypted smartphones were a reasonable privacy sacrifice for the sake of law enforcement, a state-level ban wouldn’t be,” as Wiredobserved. “They say, the most likely result of any state banning the sale of encrypted smartphones would be to make the devices of law-abiding residents’ more vulnerable, while still letting criminals obtain an encrypted phone with a quick trip across the state border or even a trivial software update.” For that reason, both the California and New York bills face an uphill climb, despite strong pressure to pass them — or some version of them — into law.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Pierce College Foundation inspires with grants, scholarships

graduation cap diploma isolated on a white background

Imagine you’re auditioning for a national commercial and you’re asked to read the line, “What can one person do?”

First, read the line as if you are completely discouraged.

Now try it again, this time believing you really can make a difference and all you’re asking is where to start.

Better.

That’s the way political science professor Denise Robb read the line when she stepped into the role of chair of the Foundation for Pierce College. Robb has volunteered long hours to strengthen the foundation, save the Pierce College farm, and raise money for scholarships to help community college students achieve their dreams.

“People don’t realize how big a difference financial help can make in the life of a community college student,” she said recently. “Out of the 29,000 we serve each year, only 14,000 of them are full-time. Of the full-time students, only 70 percent complete or transfer. Of the part-time students, more than half drop out. The main reason they give? Financial need. Textbook costs, tuition, additional expenses for classes.”

Last month, the foundation awarded $1,000 scholarships to 13 Pierce College students with inspiring stories and tough schedules, like Kelly Sharko, who’s studying to be a nurse while working full-time, and Jason Sturdivant, who grew up in poverty without a father at home and today is a U.S. Army veteran and the first member of his family to pursue an education.

“Forty-one percent of our students are the first in their family to attend college,” Robb said.

Andrea Amara is one of them. When her family endured tough times, she paid for her education by tutoring schoolchildren. The scholarship will help her reach her goal of a degree in computer science.

Another scholarship winner, business management student Barbara Lombrano, is a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War and was elected the first female commander of American Legion Post 502 in Moorpark.

Mary Anselmo and Noura Hervani each received scholarships funded by a $50,000 endowment from the Reseda Women’s Club. The checks were presented by longtime club member Evelyn Morris, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Ever since her own children were students at Pierce, Morris has been a passionate advocate for agriculture education and for the Pierce College farm.

Robb has been working to build support for permanently protecting the roughly 200-acre farm from the possibility of commercial or residential real estate development. She now has a stack of letters and statements from elected officials, faculty and staff unions, and local civic and business groups. They’re all backing her call for a study of preservation methods that would allow the college to use the farm land for education, but never again to sell or lease pieces of it for commercial purposes.

Unfortunately, most of the members of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, the people with the power to authorize that study, have not allowed Professor Robb into their offices to make her case.

“It’s proving far more difficult than I anticipated,” she said.

Don’t expect that to stop her. Recently Robb secured a $25,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation for the farm and renewed a $660,000 grant from Amgen for students and teachers to learn DNA sequencing. And she has recruited new board members for the Foundation to help raise more money for scholarships. “We read essays from 116 students,” Robb said, “It was almost impossible to whittle it down to 13.”

Scholarships went to chemistry major Linda Nguyen, architecture student Paul Macander, sociology students Brenda Lopez and Liliana Flores, science and engineering student Maria Benavides, business administration major Jasmine Boyle and philosophy major Katie Rogers, who worked from the age of 15 to help support her three siblings when her parents lost their business. Rogers put aside her dream of attending a major university after her father developed health problems and she was needed at home. She hopes one day to become an attorney.

“I know that a student from a low-income family statistically isn’t as successful when it comes to obtaining higher education,” Rogers wrote in her essay. “My goal is to beat the statistics.”

What can one person do?

Make a tax-deductible contribution to the Foundation for Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills, Calif., 91371, or online at http://foundation.piercecollege.edu.

And ask the board of trustees why some of them won’t meet with Professor Robb about preserving the farm. Call board president Scott Svonkin at (213) 891-2044 or fax your thoughts to him at (213) 891-2035.

Lake Tahoe Opens Ski Area Closed Since 2011! But what are water regulators doing now?

California has lately been the grateful recipient of a barrage of rainstorms, courtesy of a near-record El Niño event, prompting some to wonder if the drought that has stricken the state these past four years is coming to an end.

Yet state officials released figures Tuesday showing that California had missed its water-conservation target in December, reducing water use by 18 percent instead of the proposed 25 percent.

There was sunnier news, however, when considering average figures for the past seven months: in that case, California has exceeded its goal, reducing water consumption by 25.5 percent.

So, what is actually happening, and what is the prognosis for the future?

We’re at halftime,” said State Water Resources Control Board chair Felicia Marcus. “We’re not doing too badly, but we certainly haven’t won the game yet.”

Indeed, there was an expectation that water reduction would suffer during the winter months, according to the board’s press release, when there is less water use anyway and less opportunity to reduce the heavy outdoor use of the summer.

“Nonetheless, Californians are urged to keep up their efforts to conserve through the winter months,” the statement added.

There is no doubt that this year’s El Niño is also helping address the state’s worst drought in recorded history.

To cite some specifics, the Folsom reservoir that supplies Sacramento suburbs rose 28.5 feet in December. More spectacularly, as reported by National Geographic, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which was at a 500-year low, had already reached 103 percent of its average by the beginning of January.

It is now at 113 percent, and when compared to the record low of six percent of normal volumes at the end of last winter, this is heartening news.

The importance of the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack is hard to overstate, for if temperatures are cool enough, the precipitation gifted by El Niño will fall as snow and then gradually melt and refill reservoirs.

Lake Tahoe drank in 100 millimeters of rain just in the first week of January. Ski slopes have opened for the first time since 2011 at Mount Waterman.

Read the rest of the article here: http://news.yahoo.com/end-sight-californias-drought-230228601.html;_ylt=A86.JyO8ObFWK38A90MnnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTEzczJpOWYwBGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMyBHZ0aWQDRkZVSUMwXzEEc2VjA3Nj

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Attorney General Reins In Shady Bond Practices

School bond studyIt’s not often that taxpayers get good news, especially in tax-happy California. Even more surprising is when the good news is an official opinion from the state’s Attorney General, someone not normally associated with friendly treatment to taxpayers.

Last November, this column noted that local governments, especially school districts, were prone to engage in questionable campaign activity to secure an unfair advantage in bond elections. Although it is illegal for officials to use public resources (including public funds) to urge a vote for or against a political issue, consultants frequently advise tax proponents to wage one-sided “informational” campaigns. This includes sending out material stating all the good things a bond or tax measure will do, but usually they stop just short of violating the law by telling people how to vote. (Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has had multiple successes in obtaining court injunctions against school districts that cross the line into advocacy, but by the time the court rules, the political damage has already been done.) And to top it all off, the “consultants” compensated with taxpayer dollars are frequently given financial incentives if they win.

Fortunately, the incestuous behavior of school districts with political consultants and bond salesmen received a long overdue slap down last week. The opinion, in response to several questions proffered by California’s Controller John Chiang, covers many activities taxpayers have been complaining about for years. As noted in the opinion, “Bond elections typically involve a range of pre-election activities, which can include: conducting opinion surveys to evaluate voters’ attitudes toward a bond issue; developing a financial plan; determining appropriate bond issuance size and tax rates; drafting documents needed to place a bond measure on the ballot; conducting a public-information program; training staff to inform the community about funding needs and bond financing; preparing a tax-rate statement for the voter pamphlet; providing information to the election campaign; conducting informational workshops; and preparing the ballot question itself.

“Although district staff may be able to provide some or all of these functions, it is common for districts to contract with private vendors to perform or support them [and a] practice has developed within the municipal financing industry whereby investment bankers, financial consultants, and bond attorneys (collectively referred to here as ‘municipal finance firms’ or ‘firms’) offer to contract with a school district to provide the pre-election services that the district seeks. Under such an arrangement, the firm agrees to provide the pre-election services at no, or reduced, charge to the district in exchange for the district’s promise to select the firm as its contractor to provide post-election bond services, if the bonds are approved by the voters.”

The Attorney General first concluded what should already be obvious: “A school or community college district violates California constitutional and statutory prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure by contracting with a person or entity for services related to a bond election campaign if the pre-election services may be fairly characterized as campaign activity.”

But the A.G. went on to conclude more specifically that “a school or community college district violates prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure if the district enters into an agreement with a municipal finance firm under which the district obtains pre-election services (of any sort) in return for guaranteeing the firm an exclusive contract to provide bond-sale services if the election is successful, under circumstances where (a) the district enters into the agreement for the purpose (sole or partial) of inducing the firm to support the contemplated bond-election campaign or (b) the firm’s fee for the bond-sale services is inflated to account for the firm’s campaign contributions and the district fails to take reasonable steps to ensure the fee was not inflated.”

Admittedly, there’s a lot to unwrap here. But the upshot is that taxpayers should not be forced to finance a political campaign to raise taxes.

Obviously, there are times when the legitimate capital needs of a school district justify a request to voters to assume debt in the form of a school bond. But the process should be driven by actual educational needs, not the desire of consultants and the bond industry to make a fast buck.

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.

High-Speed Rail Needs More Oversight, Audit

high speed rail trainThe Jan. 27, 2016, Assembly Budget Subcommittee hearing labeled “Oversight of High Speed Rail” turned out to be anything but a hearing on oversight.  (Video of Hearing)

The hearing, prompted by pressure from Republicans when an explosive LA Times article reported the Authority had failed to include and ignored cost increases predicted by its prime contractor, Parsons Binkerhoff (PB), while the 2014 business plan was developed and published.

The cost increase predicted by the PB report was about $9 billion, a 31 percent increase for the Merced to Burbank segment.  The report also showed an overall increase of about 5 percent for the whole Phase I of the project, with a net increase of about $3.5 billion to the baseline project for the San Francisco to Los Angeles segment.  Indeed the 2014 business plan, simply incorporated the 2012 business plan cost estimate of $68 billion. 

Reading the staff report prepared for the hearing, it was easy to predict the result of the hearing. The staff report included “cut and paste” excerpts from the Authority’s business plan, but no such excerpts from the LA Times’ article.  The only speakers were to be from the Authority, Dan Richard (Chair) and Jeff Morales (CEO).  From the Authority’s Peer Review Group Lou Thompson appeared.

Thus the whole hearing was setup to be a “white wash” of the issues the Times’ article raised.

Richard spent about 10 minutes telling the world (again) how well run and open the Authority has been in carrying out this project.

Then Morales gave his input, essentially seeking to discredit the Times’ article by claiming the PB report included going all the way to Burbank whereas the comparison cost routing would stop at Sylmar (about 16 miles shorter in distance). Morales claimed about $4.5 billion of the cost difference was due to the PB report extending the segment to Burbank. Claiming this extension would cost $4.5 billion to go only 16 miles on level surface when a corridor like the San Fernando road could be used, is simply not believable. The other $4.5 billion of the PB projected cost increase was simply discarded by the Authority by claiming elimination of elevated structures in the PB estimate with building on berms would save this $4.5 billion.

This brings up the question of why pay PB to produce cost estimates, when the Authority can just claim we will build the segment differently and substitute our own costs? All of this testimony from Morales came without his producing any data for his testimony, since all of this is labeled “DRAFT.”

The Authority surely needs more oversight. Lou Thompson echoed this need in his testimony. The Authority resists additional oversight with all its might.

Morales had written the Chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee a letter in which he was opposed to the approval of an audit of the Authority proposed by Senator Andy Vidak.

Let me give you a personal example for this need.

I commented on the need for an audit of the Authority previously. Since that article was published, additional information has appeared.

The reply from the Authority on Sept. 18, 2015, to my public record request of Sept 8th 2015, stated:

The June 30 Funding Contribution Plan (FCP) is expected to be posted in the near future.When it is available, it will be posted to the following website:  http://www.hsr.ca.gov/About/Funding_Finance/funding_agreements.html

The June 30 FCP was indeed finally posted on Jan. 21, 2016. That is about 4.5 months after my request. But what is really interesting is an inspection of the FCP reveals it was produced on July 28, 2015 (see the properties snapshot of the FCP) the FCP was available well before my initial request. Public Record Requests are mandated by law to be filled within 10 days, not 4.5 months later.

Los Angeles Times reporter, Ralph Vartabedian, has authored another article since the Jan. 27 committee hearing. It explains a lot.

The High Speed Rail project is the largest such endeavor in the nation. It needs more oversight and it needs an audit from the non-partisan State Auditor now. It is time for the Democratic  legislative leadership and the Authority to stop denying such an audit.

esident of Menlo Park and Founder of DERAIL, a grassroots effort against the California high-speed rail project.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily