Californians Asked to Conserve Power Amid Brutal Heat Wave

Californians sweltering in the West’s lengthening heat wave were asked to reduce air conditioning and cut other electricity use again during critical hours Friday and again Saturday to prevent stress on the state’s electrical grid that could lead to rolling blackouts.

Saturday will be the fourth consecutive day of requests by the state’s electrical grid operator for voluntary cutbacks during late afternoon and evening hours to balance supply and demand as millions of residents endured triple-digit temperatures.

The California Independent System Operator said multiple generators have been forced out of service because of the extreme heat, making energy supplies tighter.

Electricity demand on Thursday hit a peak of 47,357 megawatts, the highest since September 2017. Cal ISO credited conservation and reduced commercial use with keeping the grid stable.

“The major concern now is even higher temperatures forecast for Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, with projected loads climbing to more than 49,000 megawatts on Tuesday,” Cal ISO said in a statement.

In August 2020, a record heat wave caused a surge in power use for air conditioning that overtaxed the grid. That caused two consecutive nights of rolling blackouts, affecting hundreds of thousands of residential and business customers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared an emergency to increase energy production and relaxed rules aimed at curbing air pollution and global warming gases. He emphasized the role climate change was playing in the heat wave.

“September is off to a searing start in the West with record breaking temperatures and fire weather expected to expand and settle over that part of the country this Labor Day weekend,” the National Weather Service said.

Author Stephanie Solomon, 33, brought her pet tortoise along with a portable baby pool with a miniature umbrella to keep it cool while selling her children’s books at the Huntington Beach Pier.

“It is really hot out here today. Well, Penelope Joy is a desert tortoise, so I think she is the only one that’s really enjoying this heat as hot as it is today,” said Solomon, as surfers and swimmers sought refuge in the ocean below.

Solomon said she was mindful of the power situation and her air conditioning was off while she was away .But she planned to activate it by phone on her walk home to “make sure it’s nice and cool in there.”

That wasn’t an option for some when temperatures climbed into the 90s on Tuesday in Colorado. About 22,000 Xcel Energy customers could not increase their air conditioning after getting messages saying thermostats were temporarily locked.

The customers had signed up for a program allowing the utility to adjust them to four degrees above the previous setting when demand for electricity is high, the company said.

Usually, customers can choose to override the adjustments, but the company said that was not allowed because of an emergency due to an unexpected loss of power generation and the heat.

One customer, Christopher Empson, said his thermostat was locked at 81 degrees (27.2 Celsius). He said he had no memory of signing up for the program, and he wished there was more communication about what the company had the power to do.

“I was kind of blindsided,” he said, and “there are some folks that, if their thermostat gets locked, that can be life or death.”

California’s “Flex Alerts” urge conservation between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., the hours when production of solar energy declines. The grid operator urges people to use major appliances, charge electric cars and cool down their homes earlier in the day, then turn up thermostats to 78 degrees (25.5 Celsius) or higher.

“The No. 1 most effective conservation measure is to set thermostats to 78 or higher” because air conditioners are the biggest users of electricity in the summer, Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the grid operator, said in an email.

“We have traditionally asked for 78 degrees, because it has a good effect on our demand, and is still comfortable to allow consumers to easily participate,” she said. “We always ask consumers to set it higher, if they can, and if health permits.”

Keeping temperatures too low can cause air conditioners to run constantly, added Jay Apt, professor at the Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering.

“If you set that puppy too low, it’s going to run all the time,” said Apt. “That’s going to do two things, the first is that it is going to use an awful lot of energy and the second is that it’s not going to give recovery time.”

The goal is to allow units to cycle on and off, said Apt, and 78 degrees is a rough estimate for the sweet spot that can vary depending on a building’s insulation.

In California, customers of Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility, can volunteer to let the company control their internet-connected thermostats during heat waves. The program automatically adjusts the thermostat schedule so it uses less energy during times of peak demand.

Customers can get $75 for participating and can opt out of it by simply changing their thermostat to a different temperature. The company does not lock thermostats, PG&E spokesperson Katie Allen said.

California cities and counties, meanwhile, were opening cooling centers.

“We have opened cooling centers in the past, but this heat wave looks like it’s the real thing,” said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, health officer in Contra Costa County east of San Francisco.

Some of the cooling centers will be specifically for homeless people, and an outreach team will also go out to hand out water to the homeless and inform them of available resources, Tzvieli said.

Read the full article at AP News

California Outlines Plan for Scaled Back Giant Water Tunnel

A new plan to reroute how water moves from wetter Northern California to drier Southern California would ferry some of it through a single, 45-mile (72-kilometer) underground tunnel, wrapping around the state’s existing water delivery system and dumping it into the main aqueduct that flows south to vast swaths of farmland and millions of people.

The proposal released Wednesday would build one tunnel to take water from the Sacramento River, the state’s largest, to the California Aqueduct for delivery further south. It’s scaled back from the two-tunnel plan championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and the latest iteration of a project that has been talked about and planned in some form, but never constructed, for about half a century.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom took office in 2019, he ordered water officials to scrap the existing plan and start over. With one tunnel, the new proposal moves less water and aims to reduce harms to the environment. But most critics say the new route will still harm endangered species like salmon and people who rely on the water in the north.

The two sides have become so entrenched that the project’s fate will ultimately depend on whether Newsom or a future governor can muster the political will to push it through, said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“This project is unlikely to be decided on its technical merits,” he said.

State water officials say a tunnel is badly needed to modernize the state’s water infrastructure in the face of climate change, which scientists say is likely to cause both prolonged droughts and major deluges of rain and snow. It would also better shield the state’s water supply from the risk of an earthquake that could cause levees to crumble and ocean salt water to flood into the system.

Though California is in the third year of a punishing drought, it saw record rainfall last October and another major dump of rain and snow in December, some of which the state was unable to capture.

“Our water infrastructure was not built for that,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency.

The Department of Water Resources plan analyzes the effects of the project on the environment, residents, fish and farmland. Critics say it will harm communities in the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which rely on water that could instead be diverted to the tunnel.

Officials did not release a price tag. A prior estimate for a different single-tunnel route put it at about $16 billion. It would be paid for by water agencies that contract with the state to use it.

Still, even if the political support to build it is there, construction likely wouldn’t break ground until at least 2028 and would take more than a decade, said Carrie Buckman, environmental program manager for the project.

The preferred route would build two stations to pull water from the Sacramento River just south of the capital city, then carry that water south alongside Interstate 5 before breaking off toward Bethany Reservoir at the top of the California Aqueduct, the state’s main channel for moving water south, built in the 1960s.

Two in three Californians, or about 27 million people, rely on water that comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vital estuary where the two rivers mingle with tidal flows from the Pacific Ocean before it is conveyed south through the State Water Project.

At the southern end of the Delta, state and federally run pumping plants suck up the water and send it south. The proposed tunnel project would take the water from the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the state’s largest water contractor, using water from the Delta to supply 19 million people, including the city of Los Angeles. The district is working to expand its supply from other sources, but the tunnel project is critical to provide flexibility and ensure the state is capturing all of the water that it can, said Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s general manager.

The Delta region is home to millions of people, more than 625 square miles (1,619 square kilometers) of farmland and critical species like endangered salmon and Delta smelt. Advocates worry the tunnel will divert that fresh water before it reaches them.

The state already lacks enough water to keep the Delta flourishing and to fulfill its existing water delivery contracts.

State officials say the tunnel would only be used when there is a lot of water flowing through the river, like after a major rainstorm. Environmental restrictions already limit how much water the Delta pumps can move at certain times of year, regardless of supply, to avoid harming fish.

Water officials say the chosen path would have the least negative consequences of the various options. Still, the 10-year construction would require removing 71 buildings, including 15 homes, as well as overtaking 2,340 acres of farmland and running through cultural resources and sites significant to tribal communities, the report said.

As for fish, the project could hurt both the Delta smelt and the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. The report says fewer juvenile salmon would survive and less food would be available for Delta smelt, which state officials say would be mitigated by habitat restoration. The project could harm water quality by increasing the amount of bromide and chloride and increasing the salt content.

Doug Obegi, senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the report “deeply disappointing” and said it fails to consider alternatives that would truly protect salmon and other wildlife.

“The science is clear that we’re going to have to reduce diversions from the Delta to protect salmon and other species,” he said.

Click here to read the full article in the AP News

David Shribman: California’s Trailer for November’s Blockbuster

e a 435-part series — one episode for every congressional district — and the contours of the plot became clear in a much-ignored Tuesday primary fight in the state’s 41st congressional district. One of the victorious nominees believes the 2020 election was stolen — and he has the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump. The other is casting the fall contest as a proxy vote about the future of American democracy.

It is a collision of two implacable positions.

It also is the theme of the debate over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol spawned by the congressional hearings that began Thursday night. It is the theme of fights within the Republican Party. It almost certainly will be the theme of historians’ examinations of our troubled 21st century passage.

“The state of our politics is the most important question in our politics,” said Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist. “This is a preview of the November election.”

Other preview elements of the fall campaign swiftly became apparent in recent days here in California. Despite its reputation for idiosyncratic politics — it elected Ronald Reagan and Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. in the same decade — California often speaks with a stentorian voice. The primaries showed a distinct impatience with Democrats, especially on crime, in a state that has voted Democratic in the last eight elections.

But nowhere in the country has the future-of-democracy theme been set out as clearly and as early as it has been in an aptly named “jungle primary” — a raucous procedure where the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the November general election — that played out here.

One of the finalists is a Republican, Rep. Ken Calvert, 69. He has been in the House for 30 years and has steadily drifted rightward since his days as an intern for the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings; indeed, in an assessment less than a decade ago, the respected Almanac of American Politics described him as “less conservative and outspoken than many of his firebrand colleagues from California.” No more. The man who once drew far-right opprobrium by criticizing radio host Rush Limbaugh voted with Mr. Trump 97% of the time and won enthusiastic backing from the 45th president, who said “Ken has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

The other is a Democrat. He is Will Rollins, 37, a former federal prosecutor whose internet home page begins with a trumpet blast on the democratic-rule issue: “Let’s kick out extreme politicians like Ken Calvert who spread the big lies and elect a new generation of leaders willing to save our democracy.” Mr. Rollins, who stresses his experience in terrorism and national-security cases and who prosecuted Jan. 6 rioters, rolled out an introductory video this spring that bid voters to “elect a new generation of Americans willing to save our democracy.”

The two are competing in a redrawn congressional district and most analysts believe Mr. Calvert has an advantage from his incumbency and having about three times as much campaign money at his disposal, though Mr. Rollins in recent weeks has kept pace in the money race.

Mr. Calvert’s election-night statement emphasized moving the country “in a different direction from the constant state of crisis and inflation we have found ourselves under President Biden” — a theme that resonated throughout California in Tuesday’s primary, where the once-impregnable Democratic advantage seemed to crack.

But Mr. Rollins brushed aside his rival’s characterization of him as “a radical newcomer to our community who supports more of the same failed Biden/​Pelosi agenda” and said that he would seek votes of Republicans repelled by Mr. Calvert’s growing affinity for Mr. Trump. His campaign rhetoric warns of conspiracy theorists who want to “erode our democracy” and “spread the big lies.”

But the integrity of elections is an issue that cuts two ways. Political figures of both parties employ that rhetoric. Trump-aligned Republicans argue that the 2020 election was stolen. Democrats and some establishment Republicans warn that Mr. Trump’s allies will only accept election results that are in their favor, especially in a possible third Trump presidential campaign.

“You can see what the narrative will be: ‘constitutional foundations’ and ‘democracy-in-peril,’” said Claire Leavitt, a Smith College political scientist. “The protesters and the insurrection supporters don’t believe they were overturning democracy. They believe they were fulfilling democracy. The progressives who want to prosecute them feel they are doing the same thing. That is where the problem comes in: Nobody believes that American democracy is something that should be taken lightly — but different groups work out of different sets of information.”

That phenomenon is writ large in the district where Mr. Calvert and Mr. Rollins will be competing — and where pugilists on both sides are primed to mobilize.

“The Republican base is going to be fired up over this, and so will the Democratic base,” said Morris P. Fiorina, the political scientist whose Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate examines the state of contemporary American civic life. “The Republican candidate will be a Trump supporter because it works for him. The Democrat will talk about the end of democracy because they don’t have any other issues to talk about. The other issues in the campaign are all bad for them.”

The latest Quinnipiac Poll showed that Americans believe that the most urgent issue facing the country is inflation — a condition Republicans will lay at the door of President Joe Biden, whose performance on the economy won the approval of only 28% of registered voters, with 64% disapproving. Overall, the president’s approval ratings are at 35%, with 56% disapproving of how he is conducting his presidency — his lowest figures yet.

Click here to read the full article in Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Gov. Brown Pushed for Softer Treatment of Violent Felons

It’s an election year and crime has emerged as a major campaign issue, so it’s no wonder that the horrendous shootout between two gang factions in downtown Sacramento that left six people dead has led to much political fingerpointing.

Republicans, who have become virtually powerless in California, quickly pointed the finger of blame at Gov. Gavin Newsom because one of the alleged shooters, Smiley Martin, had served just five years of a 10-year prison term for spousal abuse due to the state’s recently loosened parole standards.

“In California, you can do the crime and skip the time. Criminals see little to no consequences for crime, and that needs to change,” said Senate Republican leader Scott Wilk. “If we are to restore order and safety to our communities, a good place to start is ensuring early release credits are not given to violent and dangerous felons for simply breathing.”

In response, Newsom’s office has said the state prison system was merely implementing authority to grant more generous “good time” credits to inmates that voters authorized when they passed Proposition 57 in 2016.

Prison authorities had adopted the new rules on an expedited basis without the chance for public input, but after a lawsuit was filed and a judge tentatively ruled against the process, they reversed themselves and have allowed a period for comment.

The politician who should bear the onus for allowing the alleged shooter and other violent criminals to serve only portions of their sentences is former Gov. Jerry Brown, who wrote Proposition 57 and more or less tricked voters into believing that it would benefit only felons who committed non-violent crimes.

Brown’s stated aim was to undo some of the tough sentencing laws he signed during his first stint as governor nearly four decades earlier, saying they had not worked.

He closely guarded details of the “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016” until just before submitting it as an amendment to a pending ballot measure dealing with juvenile justice, thereby virtually eliminating any chance for opponents to influence “title and summary” processing by the Department of Justice.

The measure, a constitutional amendment, declares that “any person convicted of a non-violent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense” and made it easier for them to reduce the “full term” with more generous credits for good behavior.

However, it did not define or list “non-violent felony offenses.” Instead, Brown’s campaign referred to a section of the Penal Code that listed 23 particularly violent offenses, such as murder. Any crime not on the list would be considered non-violent for purposes of parole.

Indirectly, therefore, dozens of serious crimes would be considered non-violent for parole purposes. They include assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, intimidating or harming a crime victim or witness, resisting arrest that injures a police officer, violent elder or child abuse, arson with injury, human trafficking and several forms of manslaughter.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

California’s Shrinking Population Has Big Impacts

Although California’s population growth began to slow in the 1990s after exploding in the previous decade by 6 million people, both official and independent demographers continued to see relatively strong growth for decades to come.

In 2007, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in-house demographers projected that California would have 39.9 million residents by 2011. It didn’t happen.

Five years later, then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012-13 budget projected that the state’s population would be “over 39.6 million” by 2016. That didn’t happen either.

In 2016, with the state’s population estimated at 38.7 million, the Public Policy Institute of California declared that “California will continue to gain millions of new residents in each of the next two decades, increasing demand in all areas of infrastructure and public services – including education, transportation, housing, water, health, and welfare.”

“By 2030, PPIC said, “California’s population is projected to reach 44.1 million.”

That’s not going to happen either.

The 2020 census pegged the state’s population at 39.5 million and a recent report from the Census Bureau says California had a net loss of more than a quarter-million residents between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021.

“California appears to be on the verge of a new demographic era, one in which population declines characterize the state,” PPIC demographer Hans Johnson writes in a new analysis. “Lower levels of international migration, declining birth rates, and increases in deaths all play a role. But the primary driver of the state’s population loss over the past couple years has been the result of California residents moving to other states.”

Since 2010, Johnson continued, “about 7.5 million people moved from California to other states, while only 5.8 million people moved to California from other parts of the country. According to Department of Finance estimates, the state has lost residents to other states every year since 2001.”

Instead of zooming past 40 million to 45 and then 50 million by mid-century, as earlier projections indicated, California may remain stuck just under 40 million indefinitely.

That said, a stagnant population doesn’t mean a lack of demographic change. Declining birth rates, the aging of the large baby boom cohort and rising death rates – three other components – mean, for example, that as a whole, California’s population is growing older. We’re already seeing sharp declines in public school enrollment from the state’s baby bust.

The state-to-state migration patterns Johnson cites also affect the composition of an otherwise stagnant population. Overall, he says, those leaving the state tend to have low to moderate incomes and relatively low levels of education while those moving here have higher levels of education and income.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

Bid to block California ballot measure costs taxpayers

Backers of a pending criminal justice initiative say California taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $60,000 in legal fees after a judge rejected former Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to bounce it from next year’s ballot.

Brown argued the measure lacked enough valid signatures to roll back a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2016. It allows most prison inmates to seek earlier parole and participate in rehabilitation programs.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled against the former governor in May. The ballot measure’s backers said Wednesday that an agreement with state officials requires the state to pay their legal costs. …

Click here to read the full article from the Associated Press

Gavin Newsom wants California to be its own nation-state in the Trump era

Gavin newsomJust five weeks into the job, Gov. Gavin Newsom has crystallized his vision of what California will look like in the Trump era: It won’t just be the hub of the resistance against the president; it will be its own nation-state.

But before Newsom can create a country-within-a-country, he had to defuse two multibillion-dollar grenades that his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, left in his in-box: high-speed rail and the delta tunnels project. In proposing Tuesday to scale back both of Brown’s unpopular legacy projects, Newsom hopes he can preserve enough political capital to get his own legacy projects on the fast track.

If he can do that, he can lead California down its own path for as long as Trump is president. California must go it alone, because Trump’s portrait of America is “fundamentally at odds with California values,” the governor said Tuesday in his first State of the State speech. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle

How Much Should We Pay Our Public Sector Workers?


Pension moneyPublic employee compensation issues are never far from the headlines in California, but both 2019 and 2020 appear likely to continue the recent trend of increasingly contentious negotiations and the accompanying highly charged public debate.

At the local level, in recent months we have already seen teacher strike authorization votes in the major urban school districts of Oakland, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, among other localities.

At the state level, the election of Gov. Gavin Newsom raises the question of whether the Governor’s Office will continue former Gov. Brown’s precedent of requiring state level bargaining units to accept new paycheck deductions to help pay for the cost of retiree medical care.

Newsom has already signaled that he will uphold the “California rule,” which prohibits any reduction of existing public employees’ pensions even if it causes the insolvency, and or ultimate bankruptcy of the public agency in question.

Five bargaining units representing about 46,000 state workers have contacts expiring in July 2019, and the contract for SEIU Local 1000, the state’s largest union representing about 95,000 employees, expires in January 2020, according to a Sacramento Bee report.

What is not often discussed during this periodic collective bargaining process at both the local and state levels of government in California is whether the state’s system for setting public employee compensation is working or not, and perhaps more importantly, whether this whole system is sustainable given the state’s rapidly escalating public debt levels?

The unfortunate reality is that the state’s whole collective bargaining system, and accompanying laws, was setup decades ago, dating back to Gov. Brown’s first stint as Governor, and has changed little since then.

As recent events have begun to suggest more clearly, this system appears increasingly disconnected from several key principles of good government and effective public sector financial management.

Perhaps most importantly, the compensation of our public sector workers should be linked to what is financially affordable and sustainable for a given public agency.

As reported by Senator John Moorlach, the California Policy Center and others, the mounting debt and looming financial insolvency for the vast majority of public agencies in California suggests that many public agencies in California are struggling to pay their contractual debt obligations, of which the vast majority is related to public employee compensation.

Furthermore, the recent strike-ending deals cut in Oakland and Los Angeles only served to exacerbate the financial weaknesses of the school districts and push existing problems further into the future, particularly with regard to public employee compensation practices.

Another key issue that is almost completely forgotten from the get-go, is how much should we pay public sector employees to begin with?

In the private sector, employee compensation is determined by competition and market forces.  But in the public sector most positions are compensated based on decades of previous negotiations which yields a pay scale, and total compensation package, that is often far in excess of what would be paid for comparable positions in the private sector.

The public sector unions have perfected their rebuttals to these issues, and I have heard an analyzed all of them, but the simple fact remains:  why should California taxpayers compensate public sector workers in excess of the market rate for a given position?

The reality is that it is common for public employees to be compensated far in excess of what they would receive in the private sector for comparable work.  The California Policy Center and others have found this excess compensation to be as high as 100% or more when total compensation is included, particularly benefits.

Nobody disputes the value that our public sector workers provide, but when 20% of the state lives in poverty and many more Californians are living paycheck to paycheck, this is really an issue of fundamental fairness and equity to the average California taxpayer.

One last principle that is rarely discussed in the public sector is the concept of linking compensation to performance.

In the private sector, this principle is of the utmost consideration because every employee has to be paid based on the value that they provide to the company.  Moreover, the linking of pay to performance often provides a great way to incentivize employees to do a better job, thus benefiting both the employee and the company.

In California public sector collective bargaining, public sector employees are routinely awarded a whole host of bonuses, premiums, retroactive pay increases, and raises without any connection to their actual performance or value provided to the government or people of California.

In addition, as most public managers would tell you, it is almost impossible to fire underperforming or poorly performing employees, and they commonly get moved around without the bureaucracy rather than fired just because it is so difficult, almost unheard of.

From a public management perspective, the impact that this disconnect between compensation and performance permeates the whole system of California government—providing significant disincentives to work hard, produce results, and serve the state and its people in the most beneficial manner possible.

As a former financial analyst for public sector collective bargaining, I am not holding my breath for any of these practices to change soon, but at the same time, I acknowledge that change could be on the horizon at some point.

The reality is that public agencies, while more insulated from market factors, must still operate in the same market economy and within some of the same fiduciary, legal and financial parameters that private businesses do.

If a private company, makes poor financial decisions it goes out of business or is reformed and restored to financial viability.

The public sector, on the other hand, does not have the same financial bottom line as private sector businesses and can continue to deteriorate, both financially and in terms of compromised performance, over a significantly longer time horizon.

Public sector agencies, particularly local government agencies, can run out of money and go bankrupt—ultimately leaving many debts unpaid, particularly public employee debt obligations.

Just take a look at Orange County in the 1990s, and the California cities of Vallejo, Stockton, and San Bernardino in the 2000s.

No U.S. state has went bankrupt yet, but some analysts believe the State of Illinois could be close, and there is also the case of the U.S. territory Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

As the recent unrest in the state’s education system suggests, the road to financial ruin takes time, and is not pretty.

In the end, the people who are the most hurt are the least vulnerable, our teachers and kids in this case–it is just a shame that more of our elected officials and union leaders do not realize this and heed this fact of life before it is too late.

David Kersten is an independent political consultant who lives in the Bay Area. Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public budgeting at the University of San Francisco.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Latest Pension Ruling Likely To Create Future Uncertainty


CourtFor the second time in two years, the California Supreme Court has released a ruling on a large state issue that analysts say creates new uncertainty going forward.

Last week, the court issued its long-awaited decision in a court case involving a Sacramento local firefighters union that alleged a provision of the 2012 pension reform measure approved by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown was illegal under the “California Rule.” That’s the legal concept stemming from a 1955 state Supreme Court ruling that holds the terms of a public employee’s pension benefit cannot be reduced for years not yet worked, only kept the same or increased.

Cal Fire Local 2881 said that the pension reform’s ban on “air time” – the purchase of service credits to enhance pensions – violated the California Rule. But a unanimous state Supreme Court said “air time” was not a comprehensively bargained or legislatively approved vested right.

Yet in the lead opinion, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (pictured) explicitly said she was not taking a position on the California Rule question of whether pension terms could be changed going forward for years not worked.

This mixed message produced media confusion. Some news bulletins declared the justices had approved allowing a rollback of local benefits. Others suggested the California Rule had dodged a bullet.

Was ‘California Rule’ weakened or untouched?

Interest groups were similarly split.

Officials with the League of California Cities saw the court’s willingness to change the terms of pensions on a relatively minor issue as a sign it was open to a significant weakening of the California Rule. The league and many like groups hope for a state Supreme Court ruling that echoes a lower court’s ruling that pensions are not “immutable.” They were heartened by Cantil-Sakauye specifically noting the state had raised the retirement age from 67 to 70 for current as well as prospective employees.

But the Californians for Retirement Security, which represents 1.6 million public employees and former public employees, declared victory after noting that Cantil-Sakauye had specifically said “air time” was changeable because it was not a vested right – unlike basic pension formulas basing retirement checks on years worked times a percent of late-career salary.

The group and others also cited a concurring opinion written by Justice Leondra Kruger and joined by Justice Goodwin Liu that held that government employers could not “withdraw” from the pension terms established upon initial employment by “an implied unilateral contract.”

The state Supreme Court is expected to eventually take up at least two more cases involving union objections to the 2012 pension reform, so the sanctity and extent of the California Rule is likely to remain in the news. In his final year in office, Gov. Jerry Brown repeatedly urged the court to give governments the option to change future pension terms as pension costs have crowded out local, county and school programs and services. Brown’s office defended the 2012 reform law before the high court because of concern that state Attorney General Xavier Becerra was not eager to defend it.

Like 2017 case, ruling seen as murky, not clarifying

But in the meantime, last week’s ruling seems as murky as the court’s decision in the 2017 California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland case. Previously, Proposition 218, approved by voters in 1996, had been understood to require that any tax whose revenue would go to a special purpose – building a sports arena, adding libraries, etc. – had to be approved by a two-thirds vote.

Upending decades of precedent, the state Supreme Court held in a 5-2 decision that the two-thirds threshold applied only to ballot measures initiated by local governments. Because they were not local government measures, those qualified by citizen initiatives only needed simple majority support to be enacted.

In dissent, Justice Kruger took square aim at the idea that this interpretation was what voters expected in 1996 when they made it harder for local governments to raise taxes.

Kruger wrote, “A tax passed by voter initiative, no less than a tax passed by vote of the city council, is a tax of the local government, to be collected by the local government, to raise revenue for the local government. None of this could have been lost on the electorate that, also by initiative, amended the California Constitution to set ground rules for voter approval of local taxes.”

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Don’t Derail the Bullet Train Derailment


Gov. Jerry Brown, Anne GustEven before California’s High Speed Rail bond proposal appeared on the ballot in November 2008, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association commissioned a study in conjunction with the Reason Foundation because of deep concerns about the project’s viability. The study, published in September 2008, just prior to the election, confirmed our worst fears. Specifically, the executive summary of the nearly 200-page document warned:

“The CHSRA plans as currently proposed are likely to have very little relationship to what would eventually be built due to questionable ridership projections and cost assumptions, overly optimistic projections of ridership diversion from other modes of transport, insufficient attention to potential speed restrictions and safety issues and discounting of potential community or political opposition. Further, the system’s environmental benefits have been grossly exaggerated, especially with respect to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that have been associated with climate change.”

In the ensuing decade, it became increasingly clear that every negative prediction about the project came to be realized. Even initial advocates of the project, including a former chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, turned against the costly boondoggle.

The capstone of criticism came at the end of 2018 when California’s own state auditor issued a scathing report excoriating the project’s mismanagement, waste and lack of transparency. To understand just how damning the HSR audit was, just consider the subtitle: “Flawed Decision Making and Poor Contract Management Have Contributed to Billions in Cost Overruns and Delays in the System’s Construction.”

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