Thursday, November 20, 2014




          It’s a dilemma that University of California officials have long refused to confront, but one they may soon have to face: How many foreign and out-of-state students can UC absorb and still fulfill its mission of providing an elite education for the very best California high school graduates?

          The issue has become central at many UC campuses, where an unprecedented 20 percent of this year’s freshman class now hails from outside California.

          The tens of thousands of out-of-staters are a revenue bonanza for the system, whose support from the state budget is hundreds of millions of dollars lower today than it was 10 years ago, even if it has rebounded a bit from the lows of the Great Recession.

          UC now depends greatly on the $23,000 surcharge out-of-state residents pay above the standard in-state tuition of $12,192. That provided the system with almost half a billion dollars last year and will yield even more in 2015.

          But even the 20 percent overall figure is misleading. For at the most in-demand UC campuses, Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego, about 30 percent of new students this fall were foreign or from other states. Meanwhile, at the least in-demand campuses, Merced and Riverside, out-of-staters among freshman were just 1.2 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively. This brings the average for the system way down. But just like California high school grads, few out-of-state students are clamoring for admission to Merced and Riverside.

          All this leaves UC officials and advocates able to claim accurately that “UC has not reduced the number of California students it admits,” as retired UCLA Chancellor Charles Young put it in response to a previous column, “either in the total number or the percentage of…high school graduates.”

          But with about five times as many out-of-staters today as 10 years ago, Berkeley and UCLA and San Diego unquestionably admit fewer Californians even though their enrollments are up a bit. Yes, all Californians in the top 9 percent of their high school classes are offered UC slots, but decreasingly at the campuses they – and the out-of-staters – most want to attend.

          There are some signs the complaints of students shunted off to campuses they don’t really want in order to make way for the high-paying out-of-staters are finally being heard.

          UC President Janet Napolitano and other officials this fall have indicated they may consider putting some kind of lid on admissions of non-Californians, even though they simultaneously insisted they’ve kept the university’s longtime commitment to California kids and their taxpaying parents by increasing class sizes to allow for the influx of non-Californians. They also propose to raise tuition in each of the next five years, a plan vehemently opposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. No one says publicly this is intended to make up for taking fewer out-of-staters in coming years, but it looks like one intent.

    All this reinforces the fact that the most elite of UC’s campuses increasingly cater to the wealthy, whether from other American states or from foreign counties like China and Saudi Arabia which – rolling in cash – fund full tuition for many of their young citizens at UC.

          It’s not that in-state students are not already paying plenty, too. UC tuition has just about tripled over the last decade, increases topping 20 percent in some years. In terms of non-inflated money, in 1980 the value of a median-level California home would buy more than 200 years of UC education. By 2011, it bought only about 30 years.

          Which means tuition has climbed even fast than housing costs, stunning in a state where home prices have risen faster and higher than anywhere else in America.

          While it’s true that the influx of well-funded, high-paying non-California students increases diversity on campuses, much of that diversity could also be achieved by recruiting more heavily from underserved parts of California like the Central Valley, home to myriad ethnic groups.

          The bottom line is that more highly qualified California kids than ever are being turned away from their first-choice campuses, displaced by students from elsewhere.

          It’s an open question whether and when their parents’ displeasure over this will lead legislators to reduce budget support for UC even more than they already have. That’s why Napolitano & Co. must confront this entire issue, and soon.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          Politicians and public employees drawing pensions had high hopes they would get clarity on a key question from the federal bankruptcy judge presiding over the city of Stockton’s ongoing  attempt to regain its financial health.

          But it now appears that unique inland port city will emerge from more than two years of bankruptcy without any answers to the question of whether public employees deserve more long-term security than people working for private companies.

          This question became a root, unspoken, underlying issue as tax revenues dropped during the Great Recession and cities like Stockton, San Bernardino and others searched for ways to balance their precarious budgets.

    For many decades, the general presumption was that because private sector jobs generally paid better than government work, public employees deserved somewhat more long-term financial stability than others.

          But as raises, pensions and job security began to fall or (as with defined-benefit pensions) all but disappear from private industry, the pay and benefits of public workers looked better and better. Those benefits were locked in via either union contracts or civil service standards.

          Many voters eventually saw themselves making less and earning lower pensions than public employees who nominally worked for them. This led to election of tough-on-public-employee city council members in many locales.

          Soon a new question arose: Are contracts with public employees more sacred than those with others who deal with government, like the private investors who buy and hold city bonds?

          The early autumn ruling that upheld Stockton’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy by cutting salaries of many current workers and eliminating some jobs did not touch the vested pensions of past and present employees, from police to street cleaners and clerks. That rankled bond holders who had waited years for payments and now will see them stretched out over many more years than originally called for.

          The judge, Sacramento-based Christopher Klein, said in a preliminary ruling that pension contracts are no more sacred than others. But his final ruling was based on the reality that if public employees and retirees get completely equal standing in bankruptcies, they will far outnumber other creditors and could vote down any settlement that doesn’t favor them.

          So Klein did answer one of the key questions in municipal bankruptcies, saying the workers are equal to others owed money by a city or county. That led him to leave worker pensions intact, for fear Stockton would be doomed to stay in bankruptcy many years longer if he okayed a cut.

          But the other question central to many voters who are not public employees was never addressed: Should public employees ever get better pay and benefits than private sector workers who have fewer contractual or civil service protections?

          San Bernardino voters gave one answer in the fall election, rejecting a ballot measure that would have seen future police and Fire Department pay and benefits set by negotiations between city officials and unions. That would have been a big change from the current system basing salaries on the average of 10 other cities with populations similar to San Bernardino’s 214,000.

          That vote may have been a statement that voters in the troubled city believe public employee pay and benefits are not too generous.

          Meanwhile, another federal bankruptcy judge ruling on the city of Detroit’s financial plan has just held that it’s OK to cut public employee pensions there.

          All of which means Stockton’s path forward may now be set, but it’s still unclear whether that will form any meaningful precedent or pattern for other cities to follow as they try to cope with the generous promises they made while recruiting public employees in better times.


     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to

Wednesday, November 12, 2014




          A strong spotlight shines these days on the state Public Utilities Commission as it gets set to rule on how much the state’s biggest utilities will have to pay for their sometimes fatal blunders and how much consumers will be soaked for the negligence of utility executives.

          As much as $8 billion over the next decade rides on decisions of the five-member commission, about to rule on the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion that killed eight and destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno and on the Southern California Edison decisions that caused the premature shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

          These are critical cases, but no matter what the commission rules on them, the average electric bill won’t rise by more than a dollar or two per month. A much bigger increase rides on another issue now under much quieter consideration by the same commission, which has for decades favored big companies over small utility customers.

          The seemingly arcane question to be decided sometime soon is how many rate tiers should appear on the typical California electricity bill. Tiers have a lot to do with how much customers pay for power, as for decades the rule has been that the more you use, the more you pay for each kilowatt hour.

          A typical Edison bill last winter showed up to 314 kilowatt hours costing just over 12 cents each for a total of $40.06, while the top tier of that same bill had 135 kilowatt hours priced at almost 30 cents each, for a total of just over $50. So the price was $10 more for one-third the power in the higher-priced tier.

          Now the commission is about to consider a plan by PG&E – yes, the same company under federal criminal indictment over San Bruno – to cut the number of rate tiers from four to two, a move sure to raise the rates of low-usage customers and lower what’s paid by factories, office buildings and other large power users.

          This would essentially see people who have cut their power use to conserve energy and fight climate change often paying more for using less. If PG&E wins the new formula it seeks, the same plan will soon come to Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric customers, too. Edison already proposes a such pricing.

          A further change, added to raises in raw rates, would cut discounts given to the lowest-usage (read: poorest) customers by as much as 20 percent.

          It’s all part of an effort begun by Democratic Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno to help the big utilities “simplify” their billing. A measure he pushed last year, known as AB 327 and eventually signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, also will soon impose a flat fee of about $5 per month on every electric customer, most likely coming atop what they pay now. This fee will supposedly compensate big power companies for continuing to maintain the state’s electric grid while more and more consumers install rooftop solar panels.

          This isn’t big money for most folks, but it is a slight disincentive to install solar, since the savings from it won’t be quite as good as before. Is this really what Brown and other loud advocates of renewable energy want?

          It all may be the product of a 2012 legislative conference on Maui, where some lawmakers saw their expenses paid by corporations and/or labor unions. It’s documented that rate restructure was discussed there, and that the Perea bill followed.

          If that conference had even the slightest influence on the coming changes, the plane tickets and hotel rooms the businesses and their union workers paid for will turn out to be choice investments.

          For these changes would mean billions of dollars in additional revenue each year for the big utilities, lower bills for the state’s biggest energy hogs and higher prices for millions of consumers.

          Sadly,all that’s standing between those consumers and the higher expense is the PUC, whose corruption in the San Bruno affair has been thoroughly documented.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to 




          Neither devoted Republicans nor dedicated Democrats are happy about one obvious message of this month’s election:

          At least in California, there’s no need at all to choose or join a political party.

          This message came across in several ways. For one thing, the two Republican candidates for statewide office who refused to endorse their party’s candidate for governor both did far better than all other GOP candidates for major office. For another, the two-year-old “top two” primary election system gave Republicans a decisive voice in the many districts where Democrats so dominate that GOP voters previously didn’t have influence. The same for Democrats in the few districts where the tables are turned and Republicans dominate.

    Party stalwarts hate this, because it has already demonstrated a moderating influence on legislators and members of Congress, and the leaders of both major parties tend to be extremists of left and right. It is likely no coincidence that that the two Republicans who ran strongest – Pepperdine University Prof. Pete Peterson for secretary of state and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin for controller – were the most moderate statewide candidates their party offered this year.

    Small party adherents also despise top two, because it has essentially taken their candidates off the November ballot. Libertarians, Greens and others have the same shot anyone else does in the primary, but if they’re not one of the top two vote-getters then, they are forced to the sidelines for the rest of each election year.

    And why not? If they demonstrate sufficient appeal to voters in the primary, they’ll be fine in the fall. If they don’t, they won’t be elected later anyhow and would merely clutter both the ballot and any debates that might be held along the way.

          Another central feature of top two is that voters have no need to affiliate with either party at any time unless they hope someday to win political office themselves. There is no longer any public office or proposition on any ballot for which people declaring no party preference cannot vote.

          It’s plain from the latest voter registration statistics that voters are increasingly aware of all this. Just before Election Day, 517,000 more Californians were registered than four years ago.

          But while Democratic registration was actually up slightly, by about 87,000, Republican rolls were down by almost 356,000. Where did the new voters and the former Republicans go? Most went to the no party preference column, up almost 650,000 and to smaller parties like the Greens, Libertarians, American Independents and Peace and Freedom, whose membership rose a combined 115,000. Belonging to a fringe party also no longer limits anyone’s ability to participate, as it previously did.

          The numbers show a marked acceleration of a trend toward voter independence that began in the late 1990s, but only advanced slowly before top two. Now more than 23 percent of all California voters decline to choose a party, double the 1998 figure and almost as many as call themselves Republicans (28.1 percent).

          All the parties hate this, and are again contesting top two in court, this time challenging a similar Arizona system. So far, the California plan has withstood court challenges, but no one can be sure about Arizona.

          Which means the just-concluded vote could have been the last one under this system.

          The major parties would love that, of course, as they despised the way 24 legislative races and several Congressional contests this fall pitted party mates against each other. The intra-party competition made some districts that were previously among the most one-sided into serious, unpredictable battlegrounds.

          “You no longer have a choice between hamburger and fish on the political menu,” griped one activist. “Now it’s just between two types of hamburger. What kind of choice is that?”

          It turns out to be a healthy one.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Wednesday, November 5, 2014






          This year’s election is over, and the main Nov. 4 result in California was not the least bit surprising: Four more years of Gov. Jerry Brown working with a Democratic-dominated Legislature.


          But the next election season began the moment this year’s ended, and every indication is that the long logjam that has frustrated ambitious Democrats for most of the last two decades will now break up.


          For Brown, about to start his fourth term as governor, cannot run again for that office and is highly unlikely to try for any other. Four years from now, he will be 80. He tried for president and failed while in his 30s and 40s, and no one over 69 has ever been elected for the first time as the nation’s leader. So as healthy and vigorous as Brown appears, he’ll be finished when he’s termed out in four years.


          At the same time, Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer may not seek a new six-year term. A four-termer, Boxer has been considered one of the most vulnerable senators before each of her last three runs. But Boxer always won, in part due to her hard work.


          Her last run, in 2010, was typical. She held coffees in living rooms from Chico and Eureka to the suburbs of San Diego and many points east and in between. “It’s always hard for me,” she said in an interview while running. “Every six years, there are millions of new voters and I am constantly having to re-introduce myself to them.”


          At 75 when her current term ends two years from now, the onetime Marin County supervisor may simply retire to her current home in the desert resort town of Rancho Mirage. Six years ago, as she readied her run, Boxer’s campaign kitty held $3.6 million. By contrast, a month ago it stood at just $200,000.


          Already 81 and now the oldest member of the Senate, Boxer’s longtime colleague Dianne Feinstein will be 85 when her current term ends in 2018. Vigorous as she is, will she want a new six-year commitment to continual red-eye cross-country airline flights? Especially since the Republican takeover of the Senate will move her out of her chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee, will she find it worth the trouble to run? The regretful guess here is no.


          Add this to the departures in this year’s election of California congressional kingpins like George Miller, Henry Waxman and Buck McKeon and it’s clear California is developing an entirely new political elite.


          Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, and state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, previously the San Francisco district attorney, both plainly aspire to lead, although it’s unclear whether either will go after Boxer’s seat in 2016 if she opts out, or wait until 2018, when two top-of-ticket jobs could be open.


          They are not alone. Proven office-holders like John Chiang, the current state controller and newly-elected treasurer, may want higher office. Could billionaire investor Tom Steyer, long a large contributor to liberal candidates and causes, become the next big-bucks, self-funded candidate? Will current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti try for a top statewide office? How about his predecessor, the limitlessly ambitious Antonio Villaraigosa?


          And there could be Michelle Obama. She and her presidential husband reportedly bought a house in Rancho Mirage earlier this year, not far from Boxer. So despite current denials, First Lady Michelle, like Hillary Clinton before her, might try picking off a Senate seat from a state where she never previously lived. Of course, this sort of thing hasn’t worked well for past newcomers to California.


          On the Republican side, the persistent and spirited showing of this fall’s gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari makes him an intriguing figure. And San Diego County Congressman Darrell Issa has long lusted after a Senate seat, while Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s strong campaign for state controller could give her a future.


          The upshot is that California is in for an interesting four years of politicking, with the old guard that has dominated state affairs for more than 20 years about to give way to younger people. Only time will tell whether that’s good or bad for most Californians.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to    





          So much for populism. At least when it comes to fighting the interests of big-money corporations.


          In every vote this week (editors: use “this month” here if running this column after Sunday, Nov. 9) pitting the interests of ordinary Californians against those of large companies, the corporate interests won big. Big bucks essentially convinced millions to vote against their own best interests.


    This was an unfettered triumph of the very opposite of populism, defined by the Business Dictionary as “the uncorrupt and unsophisticated against the corrupt dominant elites.”


          The most classic of this year’s California confrontations came on Proposition 45, which sought the same price regulation on health insurance that has governed premiums for auto and property insurance since voters passed Proposition 103 in 1988.


          The result – a large defeat for the initiative – raises doubt whether it will ever again be possible to defeat a concerted media campaign funded by large corporations. This has nothing to do with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in “Citizens United,” which essentially said corporations are entitled to spend as much as they like in politics. California has never had limits on corporate donations in proposition campaigns; it has, however, had voters who sometimes could see through mendacious advertising.


          Polls showed voters favored regulating health insurance prices by at least a 60-40 percent margin months before the election, before the money began to flow. They felt regulation was in their best interests.


          By the end, the margin was essentially reversed. What happened? A radio and television blitz that cost insurance companies more than $57 million, compared with about $2.5 million spent by initiative backers. That’s a margin of almost 30-1.


          Yet, almost all anti-45 commercials were prefaced by a fast-talking, lowered voice softly announcing the ad was paid for by the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Wellpoint Inc. (owner of Anthem Blue Cross), Blue Shield and Health Net. They are the state’s largest health insurance companies, the same firms standing to see reduced profits if Proposition 45 passed. The information came nowhere near getting voters to disregard what they were about to hear.


          Further, the ads asserted that 45 would put rate control in the hands of one official who could be corrupted by “special interests.” Here some of California’s largest special interests were calling other, far smaller political donors special interests. The pot calling the kettle black.


          Meanwhile, the political post the health insurance companies got voters to fear, the state insurance commissioner, is the very office whose occupants have made California the only state where car and property insurance rates have not risen in the last 25 years.


          That happened because of Proposition 103, which passed despite the fact its backers were outspent about 60-1.


          The same factors that killed 45 also defeated this year’s Proposition 46, which aimed to raise potential medical malpractice judgments and require drug testing of doctors. Again, both causes appear to be in the interest of ordinary Californians, for whom medical errors have become one of the five leading causes of death. Again, 46 was favored to start. It too was devastated by a blitz of big-money advertising that convinced voters it’s more risky to, for one example, drug test doctors than be treated by doctors addicted to prescription drugs (federal reports indicate about 15 percent of physicians have such addictions).


          What happened between 1988 and today? One thing for sure: Far fewer voters read newspapers than 26 years ago. Though thinner than before, newspapers remain the one place where voters regularly can get objective information on issues they will decide. Voters also are watching far less TV news than in 1988, cutting the numbers getting even the truncated information available there.


          Instead, more and more voters – like the general public – get their information from the Internet, where they select what they see rather than having knowledgeable editors and reporters present material to them


    Not nearly as informed as before, voters are now more vulnerable to loud, repeated lies (as several major newspapers labeled the anti-45 and -46 ads).


          The only hope is that at least some hoodwinked voters will realize they’ve been fooled and resolve not to let it happen again. But there is certainly no guarantee of this.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Wednesday, October 29, 2014




    When producers named a post-apocalyptic television series “The Walking Dead,” they probably had no idea that title also would come to describe one of the worst moves Arnold Schwarzenegger made in his seven years as California’s most amateurish governor ever.

    That was his deal to sell 11 choice state office buildings to private investors for about $2.3 billion ($600 million in immediate cash), which he planned to use as a stopgap to throw into California’s then-chronic budget gap. Never mind that even his own pet economists predicted a net loss of $2.8 billion over 30 years from this deal.

    Jerry Brown thought he cancelled this big mistake almost immediately after taking over in 2011 for his third term as governor. But somehow the deal threatens to survive; at the very least, it still haunts the state.

    The sale of buildings in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego is not exactly a ghost, largely because a San Francisco judge decided about a year ago that the potential buyers’ claim their deal was done before Brown could quash it deserves a full court trial. That trial will probably open within the next month.

    The essential claim of the buyers, a partnership called California First that’s headed by the Irvine-based ACRE LLC and Hines Inc. of Houston, Texas, is that a contract is a contract. California First won an auction staged under Schwarzenegger, but has yet to take possession of any building.

    The fact these companies are still pursuing the deal four years after Brown tried to end it is pretty good evidence they had figured to reap healthy profits from the steady stream of rents Schwarzenegger committed the state to pay for at least 30 years after the deal was done. They also planned to fire most union maintenance workers now employed in the buildings.

    Schwarzenegger tried hard to sign as many papers on the deal as possible before leaving office, since Brown had expressed great skepticism about the sale while campaigning in 2010.

    Brown knew the deal stunk, and tried to exploit a contractual loophole to keep the buildings in state hands. His claim then remains the contention of the state Department of General Services today: Because a ruling in a lawsuit that aimed to stop the sale forced the buyers to miss a deadline, the deal was never really done.

    A department spokesman told a reporter this fall that “The lawsuit is a misguided attempt to resurrect a long-defunct contract.” But California First maintains it had at least an implied contract that still should apply. And it’s for sure that Schwarzenegger wanted to sell.

    This deal, of course, was as short-sighted as the $15 billion in budget-balancing bonds Schwarzenegger pushed through 10 years ago, bonds which the state may pay off next year with a final $1.6 billion installment.

    So no one now can be sure who will ultimately own the red granite Ronald Reagan State Building in Los Angeles, the Public Utilities Commission and state Supreme Court buildings in San Francisco and the Department of Justice building in Sacramento, to name a few landmarks involved.

    Rooting hard for the deal to be consummated is the firm of Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis, whose executives contributed more than $79,000 over the years to various Schwarzenegger campaign committees. CBRE stands to get $16 million in commissions if this happens, a pretty nice return on its political investment.

    The sale drew little attention until this column in February 2010 exposed its short-sighted nature. Protests built after that.

    But California First never gave up even after Brown acted. One partnership lawyer called Brown’s cancellation “a politically motivated decision that left our client with a broken contract.”

    Brown explained his move differently, saying he sought long-term budget solutions and not short-term Band-Aids that merely “kick problems down the road.”

    The bottom line is that this was one of the worst real estate deals ever negotiated by California officials. But it may yet be revived.

    Which means that almost four years after the consistently inept Schwarzenegger left office, one of his mistakes threatens to burden the state he still professes to love for many decades into the future.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit