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James Lacy, author of “Taxifornia,” discusses California’s plastic bag ban and state government with Stuart Varney on Fox Business.

What incumbent candidates conveniently leave out of campaign ads

Humorist Will Rogers observed, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” If Rogers were a Californian today, he would say the same thing about the state Legislature.

Fortunately, for average citizens, the Legislature adjourned a few weeks ago so its ability to inflict more harm on taxpayers, property owners and businesses is on hold until the first of the year.

Lawmakers are no longer in Sacramento listening to high-powered lobbyists for special interests that back more taxes and spending. Most have returned to their home districts to beg for votes. They are likely to be attending local events and some will actually be walking in neighborhoods to convince voters they deserve to be returned to the Capitol. And, of course, they will be invading your mail box, television and radio with their political ads.

The majority of candidates for reelection will be bragging that they and their colleagues have achieved a balanced, on time budget and the state is on the right track. Their accomplishments, they will claim, entitle them to continue in office.

However, here are some things that most will not mention. California continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in all 50 states. Our state ranks first in marginal income tax rates, state sales tax and gasoline tax. Businesses, and the jobs they provide, continue to flee the state. Even firms like Tesla and SpaceX that have been provided massive tax subsidies by Sacramento, have chosen to expand their facilities outside of California – Tesla to Nevada and SpaceX to Texas. And the Legislature continues to support subsidies to Governor Brown’s bullet train that may end up costing taxpayers nearly $100 billion.

Another topic that most incumbent lawmakers will not want to discuss is their efforts to pass ACA 8, an amendment to the California Constitution that would make it much easier to increase property taxes to pay for infrastructure bonds. Passage of this, and other proposals that fell just short of approval this year, could have resulted in increased property taxes totaling billions of dollars, once again putting homeownership in jeopardy as it was prior to Proposition 13, when there were no limits on annual increases in the tax bill.

It is also unlikely they will want to discuss their rejection of legislation that would have slowed the implementation of carbon fees, fees that are likely to add somewhere between 15 and 40 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas after the first of the year. This is no less than a war on the poor, who already can barely afford to put fuel in their cars due not only to high prices, but also to the highest gas tax in the nation. And California has plenty of poor. We lead all 50 states in the percentage of those living in poverty.

Voters who have the opportunity to meet candidates for office, whether they are incumbents or aspiring challengers, should be prepared to ask a few questions.

Here is a good question for all candidates, “Do you believe it is fair that Californians pay the highest tax rates in nearly every category?” An excellent follow-up question would be, “Where do you stand on an extension of the Proposition 30 income and sales tax increase, set to expire in the next several years?” And, of course it is always revealing to get answers to this question, “Do you support the governor’s bullet train that could cost taxpayers a hundreds billion dollars or more?”

Honest answers to these questions would provide a good gauge of how well a candidate understands that their actions have real consequences for average Californians. Some may show that they genuinely respect those they serve, while others, who are likely to equivocate when responding, will reveal that they are motivated by self-interest.

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.

Methane Emissions From Fracking Plummet, But EPA May Impose More Rules

Methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing operations, or fracking, fell 73 percent since 2011, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. A welcome development for President Obama’s climate plan, but one that may not stop the EPA from imposing more regulations on the oil and gas industry.

The EPA just released data showing that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions inched up 0.6 percent in 2013 due to higher utilization of coal to generate electricity. But as emissions from coal grew, emissions from the oil and gas industry fell last year, in particular, methane emissions from fracking operations.

“Reported methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems sector have decreased by 12 percent since 2011, with the largest reductions coming from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells, which have decreased by 73 percent during that period,” the EPA reported. “EPA expects to see further emission reductions as the agency’s 2012 standards for the oil and gas industry become fully implemented.”

Good news for fracking, but is it good enough to stop the EPA from issuing more regulations? It’s not exactly clear.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy has said the agency was considering “cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts” to reduce methane emissions. In 2012, the EPA imposed pollution control requirements for oil and gas wells which is expected to drive methane emissions down.

But pressure from environmentalists and Democratic politicians has increased as the deadline for EPA to issue possible new rules for methane looms. Any new rules or voluntary programs crafted by the agency would have to be finalized by March 2016.

“Ton for ton, methane causes at least 80 times more warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period,” reads a letter from 15 senators, led by Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, to President Obama.

“Voluntary standards are not enough,” the 13 Democrats and two independents wrote. “Too many in the oil and gas sector have failed to adopt sound practices voluntarily, and the absence of uniform enforceable standards has allowed methane pollution to continue, wasting energy and threatening public health.”

Environmental lawyer David Doniger with the Natural Resources Defense Council has called for increased regulations on fracking to reduce methane emissions. The New York Times reported in July that Doniger helped come up with the “blueprint” for the EPA’s rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants — which is why some lawmakers are taking his interest in methane emissions seriously.

“We know this methane leakage can be cut by half or more with proven, cheap technology,” Doniger wrote in a blog post. “But EPA’s current standards don’t apply to fracked oil wells that also contain gas — gas that the drillers often just waste by venting or flaring it away.”

“The Obama Administration, in conjunction with the NRDC, is carrying out an all-out assault on America’s fossil fuel resources that is unnecessarily inflating the cost of energy,” said Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe.

Inhofe has questioned the integrity of a series of EPA white papers on methane emissions from the natural gas industry. Inhofe wrote to the White House that the EPA white papers lack “a fundamental understanding” of the oil and gas industry and that the agency “believes it has the capacity to actually help oil and natural gas companies” operate more efficiently.

Natural gas operations, including fracking, releases methane emissions which can be captured and sold or burned off — also called flaring. The EPA has been trying to enhance the environmental image of gas by encouraging companies to capture gas instead of flaring it, which means it’s not being emitted into the atmosphere.

The oil and gas industry says it doesn’t need any more help from the agency to capture methane as emissions have been falling dramatically even as gas production booms.

“Thanks in large part to innovations like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, America is leading the world in producing natural gas and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Howard Feldman, head of regulatory and science affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.

“Industry will continue to be a leader in environmental stewardship as it maintains our country’s leadership position as the top producer of natural gas,” Feldman added.

Follow Michael Bastasch on Twitter and Facebook

This piece was originally published on The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Quarter-million applicants still waiting for Medi-Cal

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com:

A quarter-million Medi-Cal applicants have been waiting more than 45 days, and in some cases nearly a year, either to receive coverage or find out why their application has been denied.

That’s an improvement from the 900,000 applicants who were languishing in early summer without coverage or word from Medi-Cal. But it will take another six weeks for most of the remaining 250,000 residents to receive or be denied coverage, according to Department of Health Care Services Director Toby Douglas.

At a Sept. 23 Assembly Health Committeeoversight hearing, Douglas touted the Medi-Cal expansion as a “tremendous success,” but cautioned the enrollment backlog may never be totally cleared.

Legislators expressed frustration that their constituents are being dropped from coverage without notice, getting the run-around when they try to find out what’s happening with their applications or never being informed about the potential for Medi-Cal coverage in the first place.

“It’s taking months – months – to check on the status of cases,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. “We are completely unable to help constituents in a timely manner. And it’s happening over and over again.”

Patterson said applicants seeking information are getting caught in what he called a referral loop. “They are told the state is just a billing agency and they need to contact the county,” he said. “The county says, ‘It’s not our job, you have to go talk to the state.’ This is a loop that’s going on and on. We get the concerns that they are bounced from person to person, and everyone saying they can’t address the issue and they need to call somebody else.”

Covered California

Two million patients have been added to the Medi-Cal rolls the past year through the new Covered California exchange, part of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Medi-Cal now covers 11 million Californians – about 29 percent of state residents. The Medi-Cal budget is more than $90 billion, an 80 percent increase from just four years ago, according to committee ChairmanAssemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.

The application-processing delays have been due to the unexpectedly large increase in applications, technical snafus and administrative decisions to delay coverage until residency and income are verified, according to Cathy Senderling, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association.

“We are in a situation where it’s been incredibly exciting to have the Affordable Care Act after so much planning,” she said. “But it’s also been very frustrating for our workers and we know for our customers as well.”

Most of the 250,000 cases remaining in the backlog are in some stage of being worked on, she said. “Many of them actually need to be denied. And the capacity of the system has not yet been brought up to be able to do that because of the way it was programmed and the confusion that would be created for our customers.”

Patterson argued that these kinds of snafus are inherent in “a state-run and sort of a command-and-control approach to health care.”

“We asked for this,” he said. “By doing the things we have done, by taking this Affordable Care Act, putting a California overlay on it and the 2 million additional, all of the things that we have done, we should have understood that this would be the result, that we were going to end up with significant bureaucratic problems, that we were inviting these very kinds of problems.

“So I think to suggest that we are the victims of success doesn’t sit well with the people that are trying to be the examples of the success. And so the backlogs, the payment, the notifications, the dropping of individuals, all of this is really creating a serious matter of an urgent level. And I hope that you can take that back to your organization and the governor and others in charge.”

Backlog

Elizabeth Landsberg, director of legislative advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, pointed out that many of the hundreds of thousands of people stuck in the Medi-Cal backlog have suffered as a result.

“Some people are going without health care and having terrible health consequences,” she said. “Some can’t get care tests because they can’t pay out of pocket for them. And some are going into medical debt and facing collections because of it. This is a story about real people, our neighbors, our friends, our fellow Californians.

“It’s a story about a woman with severe pain from diverticulitis who has been using the emergency room when her pain is severe. The doctor said she needs to get non-urgent treatment of the condition to prevent the severe pain and the trips to the emergency room. We have patients going to the emergency room, but they cannot get on Medi-Cal and get the care that they need. Emergency rooms don’t provide that.

“This is story of a woman who applied through the Covered California portal in December, was told she should be eligible for Medi-Cal. She has medical bills from May 2014 and she has a hospital threatening her with collection actions against her. This is the story of a man who also applied nine months ago and has to pay out of pocket for insulin pump supplies and was hospitalized for diabetes complications affecting his heart.”

Landsberg said the state is not informing applicants of “their right to file for a fair hearing if they don’t have a timely eligibility determination. State law is clear, we have to make these decisions within 45 days.”

Her organization, along with several other advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court on Sept. 17, Rivera vs. Toby Douglas, seeking to force the state to comply with its own law.

“Consumers simply don’t know that something’s going wrong if they don’t get an answer,” said Landsberg. “They get one notice from Medi-Cal saying, ‘We think you’re eligible for Medi-Cal, you’ll hear if you are.’ Many people still are familiar with the old rules where childless couples weren’t eligible for Medi-Cal. They don’t know that something’s wrong.”

Access

Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, is also concerned that his constituents are being left in the dark.

“People are asking how we get folks connected with access to health care,” he said. “I’m concerned representing a community … where we see a high level of immigrant, working class, Latino and minority populations that are not having the same access to registration and information about how to sign up as other non-Latino groups are. That’s a problem in terms of outreach.”

Douglas assured the committee that improvements are being made. “Everyone is working around the clock,” he said. “What I want to report to you, and where we will get soon, is that every individual that applies and is providing all the information necessary will get enrolled in the program in the appropriate timeframes. And that’s what we need to get to. And we’re not there yet.

“The system continues to get a lot better. This continues to be a work in progress. We were quick in implementing health care reform. And it’s going to take next year still to work through some of these final system stages.”

He cautioned, though, that as his department works to get things right with the first year of Medi-Cal applications through the Covered California exchange, those applications will soon be coming up for renewal, potentially creating new challenges.

Who to Dislike More: The Supporters of Ballot Propositions, or Those Who Oppose Them?

I don’t know who to distrust more, the people who write ballot propositions, or the people who write the ads opposing them. Both sides seem to be good at lying to us, although they lie in different ways. Many of our ballot propositions are special interest pleading, designed to give some advantage to the oil companies or the insurance companies. Others are just flat out unconstitutional. And when a decent proposition makes it to the ballot, the special interests gang up on it ferociously.

Here’s a little test you can give yourself: The next time you hear a political ad on your car radio about a ballot proposition, ask yourself, “Did that ad tell me anything about the proposition itself, like what it is actually supposed to do?”

My prediction, based on long experience, is that you can go through a whole season of political ads, and never find out what the propositions would actually do. This year, we’re getting bombarded with ads opposing Propositions 45, 46, and 47, and as usual, all of the ads sound pretty much the same. They are full of angry, self-righteous tones, scathing in their denunciations, but communicating exactly nothing about the substance of the propositions.

Here’s one clue: What’s the dirtiest word in the political advertisers’ dictionary? You might think that it’s murderers or rapists. But No.

It’s politicians, as in The Politicians. This season, we’re getting exposed to a new variant, Sacramento politicians. Somehow, the idea that our form of democracy involves electing people to represent us has become a bad thing, at least in the world of AM radio.

This does not mean that we should automatically trust all of our elected officials, but the way that radio and tv ads use the word politician, the intonation implies that they are all sleazy, dishonest, and out to steal from us.

Even if this were true, the idea that a particular ballot proposition turns our liberties and our wallets over to the politicians is almost always a stretch, and most of the time, it’s a total non sequitur.

Just for the sake of amusement, let’s reflect on what those propositions are actually supposed to do, and then consider what, if anything, we’ve learned about them from television and radio.

I have to add a caveat here. Once in a while, we get a proposition that is intended to protect us consumers. These are the odd exceptions. We’ll start with what looks to be one of those odd exceptions, a proposition aimed at protecting you and me from unreasonable increases in our health insurance.

This proposition would give the State Insurance Commissioner the authority to override increases in health insurance premiums. It’s called Proposition 45, and it has the support of consumer advocates such as Jamie Court and Harvey Rosenfield. Some of us remember  Prop 103, which put a modest amount of state regulation on the automobile insurance market. It was authored by the same Harvey Rosenfield. Now we have Prop 45, which is supposed to do for health insurance what Prop 103 did for auto insurance.

What’s noticeable about the radio and television ads opposing this measure is that the particular state official who can override a rate increase is never named. Rather, it’s a politician, who is further identified as somebody who will rake in millions of dollars in campaign contributions if this proposition is to pass.

The substantive idea, that the voters could pick their own elected official, and give that person some regulatory authority over health insurance premium increases, is treated as if it were a bad thing.

You have to recognize the cynicism involved in this kind of message. It’s more or less implied that the voters will pick a dangerously warped individual to fill the position of Insurance Commissioner, or any other high office in the state for that matter. That’s the clear implication in a radio ad which uses an angry tone of voice to say those words, the politicians.

Going up the line, we have Prop 46. The Official Voter Information Guide sent by the California Secretary of State’s office gives this proposition the name “Drug and alcohol testing of doctors. Medical negligence lawsuits. Initiative Statute.”

As written, it sounds like it’s designed to protect the public from hordes of drunken, drug depraved doctors, people who are writing dangerous prescriptions and engaging in ruinous surgeries. What’s curious is that this is camouflage for the real intent, which is to give victims of true medical malpractice a break. To explain what is really going on, and the extent of distortion in the anti-Prop 46 campaign, takes a bit of explaining.

Back in 1975, there was a concern about the number of lawsuits filed against doctors for malpractice. The legislature passed a bill which, among other things, put a cap on awards given to patients for what are called noneconomic damages. The colloquial term for noneconomic damages is “pain and suffering.”

In other words, if someone went into the hospital in order to have the left leg amputated and by accident, the right leg was cut off, there would be two types of damages. The patient might find that he could no longer work in his longtime profession.

Being out of this particular job, and likely for the rest of his career, he would suffer loss of earnings. The 1975 bill didn’t touch that element of a lawsuit. But the suffering that results from losing the good leg, that you might otherwise have walked on, is the noneconomic kind of loss. The 1975 bill capped such losses at $250,000.

The problem with this situation is that even back in 1975, the supporters of the bill assumed that it would be modified over the course of time to take inflation into account. The original bill did not include a cost of living adjustment, and the state legislature has never made the obvious changes. There has been almost 40 years since the bill passed, and that included a lot of inflation.

So Prop 46 is essentially an increase in the legislated limits on medical malpractice damages.

You may feel that there should be no medical malpractice lawsuits, or at least very few of them, and that jury awards need to be controlled. If that is how you feel, then you might want to vote against this measure. You would be on the side of what the Republicans have been calling tort reform.

On the other hand, if you think that the 1975 bill was somewhat reasonable, and you merely wish to correct its original limitations to take inflation into account, then you might want to vote in favor.

I need to give disclosure here that I have known lots of attorneys, including those who have defended doctors and those who have sued doctors, and I also know lots of doctors. Take everything I have said here with that in mind. And having said that, there is a point that Prop 46 illustrates that needs to be explored.

Let’s say that you have a legal goal that you think has merit. For example, back in the old days, it required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature to pass the budget. The result was ongoing gridlock. In practice, the budget was determined by 4 or 5 people — generally the leaders of both parties in both houses of the legislature and the governor. It was a formula for legalized blackmail on the part of the minority party. A series of ballot measures were introduced over the course of the years, and until the most recent, they lost.

What did they have in common? Well for one thing, they usually didn’t go far enough, which would have been to declare that budgets, like other kinds of bills, can be passed by a simple majority. You know, democracy and all that.

Instead, the proponents would try to present the voters a watered down version, like reducing the required votes from two-thirds down to some number between fifty and sixty percent. Supporters of the minority party would oppose these measures on general principles, and supporters of the majority party would find them to be half measures at best.

Authors of ballot measures try to add a little sugar to make the medicine go down better. They try to bribe the voters in some way.

Back in the battles over state budget votes, one bribe offered the voters was to withhold salary payments from legislators if they didn’t pass a budget on time. It was a way to punish lawmakers for failing to get their work done. It was the sugar added to the medicine, because the rest of the proposition lowered the threshold for passing a budget to a simple majority.

In practice, that sprinkling of sugar is usually irrelevant. With the budget passage requirement reduced to a simple majority, it became possible to pass California budgets on time.

In Prop 46, we have a requirement forcing doctors and nurses to submit to drug and alcohol testing. The text of the proposition does its best to rationalize this demand by arguing that there are a lot of substance abusing, impaired doctors wandering the corridors of our state’s hospitals.

This may or may not be an accurate portrayal, but the proposition as written provides only vague guidelines, as best I can read it. If you wanted to deal with the problem of impaired physicians, you could do so in a better, more carefully thought out way. In Prop 46, the drug and alcohol testing requirements are the slight of hand that are supposed to get the increase in medical malpractice awards raised above the $250,000 limit. There would have been a more reasonable approach to raising that limit, and that would be simply to raise it.

Then there is Prop 47, which is about criminal sentencing. What’s curious about it is that both sides seem to be making reasonable points. When you read the pro and con arguments in the ballot pamphlet, you find a pro argument that makes sense. Our laws for personal possession of drugs are severe, and should be modified.

That part is OK with me. That’s because to me, the possession of small amounts of drugs may be harmful to you, but it is not, in and of itself, harmful to me. Where I depart from the pro-Prop 47 position is their argument that small property crimes such as shoplifting automatically become misdemeanors. In this case, there is a victim, and allowing criminals to continue their careers as thieves does not fall under the concept of victimless crimes. The opponents also make a point about classifying thefts of guns as misdemeanors. It is a serious point, and one that the pro side should rebut if there is a rebuttal available.

In other words, I see elements in Prop 47 that seem to have merit, and I see arguments by the opponents that also seem to have merit.

What I have not heard, on radio or television, is a nuanced statement that admits any of the above. I imagine that as the election gets closer, we will hear some ads that simply quote the chief of police from one district and on the other side, the district attorney from somewhere else. And it is extremely unlikely that any of the radio or television ads will tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Radio ads are expensive, so the sponsors of these ads are trying to make them as convincing as possible, while using the least amount of expensive air time. For this reason, the ads are tailored to be strongly manipulative, while avoiding going completely over the line into full-scale lying. Telling half lies, that is to say, lying by omission, fills the bill adequately.

What’s interesting is that most of the time, the people of California seem to sort out the propositions pretty well. Since most propositions that end up on the state ballot are written by special interest groups, the default position should be to vote NO on most propositions, and our voters seem to sort these ballot measures appropriately.

If you look at Propositions 46 and 47, you begin to figure out that the issues could have been better handled as legislative matters. The fact that the state legislature is intimidated from doing useful things due to the influence of special interest money is well known. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us need to vote for iffy propositions, particularly the ones that are designed with nothing but hidden agendas in mind.

Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch, where this aritcle was originally published. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net

Pension funds feel heat on climate change issue

This piece was originally published on Calpensions.com:

CalPERS signed a United Nations pledge in Montreal last week to measure the “carbon footprint” of its $296 billion investment portfolio, with the goal of reporting the results before a UN climate change conference in Paris late next year.

CalSTRS announced in response to a UN climate summit in New York last week that its investments in “clean energy and technology,” now valued at $1.4 billion, will be increased to $3.7 billion over the next five years.

UC Regents voted on Sept. 17 to reject a student-led call for divesting fossil fuels from a $91 billion investment portfolio (three-quarters in retirement funds), but did not rule out using divestment later after developing a new investment framework.

Pension funds have used their investment clout for targeted social goals, notably divestments or stock boycotts of apartheid South Africa and tobacco. Curbing the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels said to be disastrously warning the climate is a much larger global undertaking.

“We call on other investors to join us in assessing the climate risk in their investment portfolios and using that knowledge and insight in their investment decision,” Priya Mathur, the CalPERS board vice president, said in the carbon pledge news release.

President Obama called for more worldwide action to reduce climate change as he spoke at the UN climate summit in New York last week. “Nobody can sit on the sidelines on this issue,” he said.

Consultants announced last week that 180 institutions (pensions, religious, philanthropic, local governments and others) have pledged to divest fossil fuel holdings worth $50 billion, including the $860 million Rockefeller fund, founded on an oil fortune.

A coalition of groups announced that nearly 350 global institutional investors, managing $24 trillion, called on government leaders to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and provide “carbon pricing,” which would help redirect investments to clean energy.

Carbon pricing, charging a tax or fee for emitting a ton of carbon dioxide, is favored by many economists as a workable way to reduce global warming. The concept has the support of CalPERS and CalSTRS.

“If a meaningful price on carbon emissions is established, CalSTRS believes its clean energy and low-carbon investment could grow to almost $9.5 billion, nearly seven times the current level of investment,” Chris Ailman, CalSTRS chief investment officer, said in the climatesummit news release.

California has a limited form of carbon pricing with a “cap-and-trade” program for oil refineries, power plants and large factories. As a cap on greenhouse gases tightens, industries must cut their emissions or buy an “allowance” from other firms or the state.

Calling for action on climate change, demonstrators marched through Manhattan last week at the climate summit, as many as 400,000 in some estimates. But there also are climate change skeptics. Summit news reports showed contrasting views of how the issue is viewed in the political arena.

National Public Radio reported that Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist for a committee putting money from billionaire Tom Steyer into a half-dozen close races, said, “In many of these campaigns, climate is being used as a wedge issue, focused on Republicans.”

Fox News reported that Dan Simmons of the Institute for Energy Research said a recent Gallup poll found 41 percent think the economy is America’s biggest problem, while only 1 percent cited the environment and pollution. “Limiting greenhouse gas is not something that the majority of Americans consider one of the most pressing issues of our time,” he said.

CalPERS and CalSTRS have moved away from divestment, troubled by the cost, no hard evidence of results and legislative meddling. They prefer to use their status as shareholders for “constructive engagement” with companies to push for change.

California Public Employees Retirement System consultants estimated that a 1987 law requiring divestment of South African-connected firms cost CalPERS $529 million, and not being able to invest that amount boosted the total to $1.86 billion by 2006.

South African divestment cost the California State Teachers Retirement System $600 million to $750 million, the consultants said. Similar costs resulted when CalPERS and CalSTRS voluntarily divested tobacco stock.

The two big pension funds clashed with the Legislature over a 2007 law requiring divestment of foreign companies doing defense or energy business in Iran. Labor-backed Proposition 162 in 1992 gives public pension systems sole control of their funds.

Now climate change is creating a new wave of pressure. Last July the mayors of Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond published an article in the Sacramento Bee urging CalPERS to join their cities and San Francisco and Santa Monica in fossil fuel divestment.

The mayors said that if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius, believed to be the best chance of avoiding runaway climate disruption, no more than a third of proven fossil fuel reserves can be consumed prior to 2050.

If governments act to control climate change, the mayors said, the companies will have to leave most of their reserves in the ground, even though they continue to spend hundreds of billions exploring for new reserves.

“A growing ‘carbon bubble’ — overvalued companies, wasted capital and stranded assets — poses a huge risk to investments in fossil fuels,” the mayors said.

When the CalSTRS board was urged to divest fossil fuels last June, similar arguments were made by Deborah Silvey and Jane Vosburg, representing teachers and retirees with the 350 Bay Area Divestment Campaign.

The international grassroots campaign founded by author Bill McKibben takes its name from the view of some scientists that the current carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 392 parts per million, must be reduced to 350 ppm to avoid a climate tipping point.

After a 10-campus student group, “Fossil Free UC,” urged divestment, UC Regents appointed a task force on sustainable investing. The regents adopted the task force recommendations during a well-attended meeting Sept. 17.

The goal is to develop a framework for sustainable UC investing by next July that includes ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors. An evaluation of ESG strategies is to include “whether to use divestment.”

Regent Bonnie Reiss said that making the case for divestment should be an “uphill battle” because of fiduciary obligations. Reiss and Regent Gavin Newsom suggested a look at coal holdings, which Stanford University plans to divest.

The University of California also will “allocate $1 billion over a period of five years to solutions-oriented investments such as renewable power and fuels, energy efficiency, and/or sustainable food and agriculture.”

Meanwhile, 350.org groups throughout California have been working to get the support of CalPERS and CalSTRS members and unions and may soon launch a formal divestment campaign, “Fossil Free California.”

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com.

Is Common Core Technology Worth It?

This piece was originally published on Fox and Hounds:

California’s transition from its previous STAR program to the Common Core State Standards has been slow and more costly than expected. With the first Common Core tests scheduled for this spring, school districts are still struggling to provide all of the necessary technology and bandwidth for the new assessments, which are required to be administered electronically in lieu of traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

State Budget Solutions, a nonprofit research organization, released a report last week on the technology spending for Common Core in California’s top five districts: Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, and Elk Grove. The study revealed technology cost overruns, controversial funding plans, and a myriad of problems that accompanied the new technological devices in multiple districts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, has been heavily criticized for using public bonds to finance its iPad program that is estimated to exceed $1 billion. Immediately after the first batch of iPads was distributed, LAUSD dealt with additional challenges of students breaching firewalls, missing and stolen devices, and confusion over accountability. Last month, the district officially suspended its contract with Apple due to high costs and ethical questions regarding Superintendent Deasy’s relationship with Apple during the bidding process.

Other districts, such as Fresno and Elk Grove, are facing problems of technological readiness. Fresno Unified found that the new tablets are difficult to use for students who are unfamiliar with touch-screen keyboards and do not have computer access at home. Elk Grove Unified would like to incorporate more online content in the classroom, but lacks adequate funding after spending the majority of its Common Core money on installing wireless access, replacing obsolete computers, and buying over 8,200 Chromebooks.

These findings raise an important question that states and school districts ought to consider: is Common Core technology worth it? Advocates often talk about closing the “digital divide” and providing students with the skills and technology necessary for the 21st century workforce. Ideally, every student in the country will at least have access to a personal computing device in the near future. But to ask states and school districts to finance this massive technological overhaul in a limited time span of a few years is not only likely to fail, but also fiscally irresponsible given the deep cuts in education during the recent recession.

The report lists a handful of the many solutions available that can offset technology costs for districts. Among them include a tax credit to incentivize low-income families to buy computers or tablets for students to bring into schools. California education leaders have a tough job of implementing Common Core ahead of them, but ensuring the state’s financial stability and focusing on student learning and growth (as opposed to standards-based exams and technology purchases) are essential for the future of the state.

Hannah Oh is a Visiting Analyst at State Budget Solutions, focusing her research on education. 

CTA battles CA Democrats

In a surprise twist this election season, the CTA and its backers, across a number of pressing issues, have adopted positions at odds with powerful Democratic incumbents and newcomers.

The catalyst was the Vergara v. California case. Education scholar Joshua Lewis summarized it in the Washington Post, “In the most explosive education-related court ruling in a generation, [Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu] invalidated several laws dear to California teachers unions, including statutes that provide their members generous tenure rights and seniority protections and specify elaborate and costly procedures required to fire a teacher.”

In the decision, the judge held special protections for teachers “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” He specifically cited two famous cases that prohibited segregated schools, Brown v. Board of Education by the U.S. Supreme in 1954 and Serrano v. Priest by the California Supreme Court in 1971.

For decades the CTA has enjoyed unparalleled influence and support among California Democrats. Now its unanticipated trouble has come at a moment when evidence suggests the CTA has concluded its political back is up against the wall.

The Vergara fallout

From the moment in June when Treu issued his sweeping ruling, policy observers warned the political tables were turning. At the state and federal levels, Democrats quickly divided, some lining up in defense of unions, others spinning the Vergara ruling as an urgent opportunity to improve education.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the latter approach. Calling the student plaintiffs “just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged” by the current education system, he called Treu’s ruling “a mandate to fix” the system’s flaws. “This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities.”

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a codefendant in Vergara, is appealing the ruling. For years he has received strong CTA support.

Torlkason holds an officially nonpartisan position. But he has been challenged in his re-election bid by a fellow Democrat, former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck, who supports Vergara. Associated Press reported that Tuck, if elected, immediately would withdraw the superintendent’s office from the Vergara appeal.

Moreover, Tuck cautioned that teacher tenure should not be granted until at least four years on the job, instead of the current two. And he vowed to assemble a panel of education professionals and experts to propose revisions to California’s rules and regulations.

Another defendant in the case is Gov. Jerry Brown, who is running for re-election as a Democrat. He also is backing the appeal of Treu’s ruling.

Brown’s opponent is Republican Neel Kashkari, who said in June, “I applaud today’s ruling by Judge Treu, which recognizes that every student in California has a Constitutional right to a quality education but that their rights are being violated by failing schools.”

More legal trouble

The Vergara decision has proven to be just one challenge faced by the CTA. Leaked PowerPoint documents recently revealed the union has begun to reckon with the possibility that it will lose the ability to impose mandatory dues. A lawsuit brought by California teachers opposed to that dues scheme may soon be decided against the union.

As the suit moved forward in January, CTA president Dean Vogel told Fox News in a statement that the lawsuit’s aim was “to weaken unions, and the workers they represent.”

The recent PowerPoint slides indicated the union looks on the end of mandatory dues is a matter of “not if, but when.” At City Journal, Larry Sand observed the PowerPoint “offers a candid assessment of emerging legal ‘attacks’ in the wake of Harris v. Quinn,” a recent U.S. Supreme Court case holding the First Amendment exempts some part-time workers from involuntary union fees. “The high court is likely to take up Friedrichs v. CTA, a much wider-ranging lawsuit now pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals alleging that compulsory dues to public-employee unions are flatly unconstitutional.”

Looking for a firewall

CTA leaders have struggled even to rely upon the California state budget. Traditionally a place where CTA influence was freely wielded and powerfully felt, budgeting has now become a more complex and unfavorable process — despite the Legislature’s continued dominance by Democrats.

The Nov. 4 ballot includes Proposition 2, which boosts the state rainy day fund to 10 percent from 5 percent of general revenues. It is supported by many Democrats, including Brown. But the CTA has mounted a campaign to sink it.

A Sept. 16 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found Prop. 2 leading by a comfortable margin of 43 percent to 33 percent, with 24 percent undecided. Voter passage of Prop. 2 would deal another blow to CTA.

James Poulos is a contributor to Calwatchdog. This piece was originally posted on Calwatchdog.com. 

Dem Senator Wants To Punish Student Loan Borrowers Who Choose Private Sector

The U.S. economy has been strangely dismal for new college graduates. How dismal? Well, the average college graduate under 40 who carries student debt currently has a median net worth of just $8,700. The Washington Post recently advised newly-minted college graduates to give up hope and go live in their parents’ basements.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wants to help.http://www.dreamstime.com/-image13783473

Eschewing efforts to create the private-sector jobs that drive economic growth and wealth creation, the progressive Senator instead proposed a new law this week that would generously forgive the student loans of government workers and employees at qualifying nonprofits.

“Teachers, police officers, public health workers and other public servants should be applauded and supported — and not drowned in debt to pay for the degrees many such jobs require,” Blumenthal declared in a press releaseobtained by Red Alert Politics.

“The current Public Service Loan Forgiveness program should be expanded — and made more flexible — to enable student debt to be worked down or off completely,” the Senator added.

Blumenthal’s bill would supercharge the existing, already-generous Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which completely forgives the student loans incurred by qualifying government and nonprofit workers if these special workers manage to stay employed for 10 straight years and make their loan payments each month.

Nonprofit groups that qualify are tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. Such organizations have included the local chapters of the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Center for American Progress, which is related to the leftist blog ThinkProgress.

Workers in private-sector, for-profit industries currently enjoy no such loan forgiveness program and wouldn’t enjoy the impressive additional benefits Blumenthal proposes.

Under the Democrat’s plan, government and qualifying nonprofit operatives would only need to work two years to get a 15 percent discount off their student loans. Two years later, they would get another 15 percent discount. After just six years of work, these special workers would have fully half of their student loans written off. After eight years, it would be 70 percent. After 10 years, government workers and 501(c)(3) employees would owe nothing on their student loans.

“We should reward public service — particularly as the need for talented and dedicated public servants grows,” Blumenthal said, according to Red Alert.

The Democratic Senator gave no indication of how much this additional bounty for certain, special Americans would cost the federal government.

Eric Owens is a contributor to The Daily Caller. This piece was originally posted on Dailycaller.com.

FEMA Wasted Millions Replacing Buildings That Only Needed Repair

Government officials’ bad math wasted millions of taxpayer dollars intended for disaster relief, a recent investigation has revealed.

In 2008, Cedar Rapids was granted $330 million to repair damage caused by the month-long flooding that had plagued much of eastern Iowa. Three hundred and ten city facilities and 5,390 homes in Cedar Rapids were damaged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to apply what is known as the “50% rule” to determine whether to replace or repair a damaged building, which states that “federal funds can be used to replace damaged structures only when the cost of repairs meets or exceeds 50 percent of the repair costs.”Cabinet Members at FEMA Headquarters

According to a recent audit, however, FEMA decided to replace four salvageable buildings instead of repairing them, and wasted millions of dollars in the process.

“Replacing the four facilities cost $20,674,433, while repairing them would have cost $8,570,454,” the investigation, conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, explained. The OIG is a government agency responsible for investigating misconduct, fraud, waste and abuse in other government agencies. FEMA officials weren’t willfully wasting money, though–they just don’t understand their own guidelines.

FEMA officials responsible for calculating the respective costs of replacement and repair miscalculated in all four instances, ignoring their own rules about what may be included in repair and replacement costs. The calculations for assessing the damage to the city’s main library, for example, not only overestimated the repair cost by including costs not related to the repair, but underestimated the replacement cost by omitting necessary ground elevation costs. They made the same errors in the calculations for a park maintenance shop, and underestimated the repair costs of two animal control facilities, again omitting ground elevation costs. These miscalculations led FEMA to incorrectly decide to replace the buildings, violating their own disaster relief guidelines–and wasting $12 million.

The audit also found that FEMA did not use the most cost-effective method of ground elevation, including $278,822 “of excessive and ineligible elevation costs” in the final cost for replacing a third animal control facility, which the OIG recommended be “disallowed” from the project. If FEMA concurs, the city may have to return that money.

Despite FEMA’s $12 million miscalculation, the OIG is not recommending that Cedar Rapids return any of that money, since it “found no evidence that the City provided false or misleading information to FEMA.” Instead, the OIG simply recommended that FEMA “review and revise 50 Percent Rule policies and procedures.”

“FEMA needs to improve and refine its calculations in regard to repairing or replacing damaged facilities,” said Inspector General John Roth. “We have made several recommendations that will assist FEMA in that process and hopefully prevent misspending on disaster relief.”

Tristyn Bloom is a contributor to The Daily Caller. This piece was originally posted on Dailycaller.com.