Wednesday, October 15, 2014




    It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Proposition 1 water bond on next month’s ballot will pass easily: Every poll shows it with almost a 2-1 lead heading into the vote and the opposition has virtually no money for television commercials.

          But two other propositions are almost equally deserving of yes votes, Propositions 45 and 48.

          Proposition 45 is almost a no-brainer. It would place health insurance rates under the same kind of regulation that has made California the only state where automobile insurance prices have fallen over the last 25 years – since voters adopted the 1988 Proposition 103 and put car and property insurance rates under the authority of the state insurance commissioner.

          One look at the list of donors to the No on 45 campaign (available on the secretary of state’s website at, reveals that through the end of September, all $34 million-plus spent to defeat 45 had come from the state’s largest health insurance companies: Blue Shield, Anthem Blue Cross and its parent company Wellpoint, Kaiser Foundation, United Healthcare and HealthNet.

          The single biggest check came last year from Wellpoint, which plunked down more than $12 million almost instantly when it became clear 45 would reach the ballot.

          Radio and television ads financed by those big bucks are misleading as can be, warning that 45 could somehow reduce the negotiating power of the commission that regulates Covered California’s rates under Obamacare. It won’t. But it will require insurers to justify rate increases for groups and individual policies before they can be bumped up.

          The bottom line: The officials who would regulate health insurance rates under 45 have already saved Californians more than $105 billion over the years via car insurance rate hikes that didn’t happen. This proposition is sponsored by Consumer Watchdog, the same populist outfit that wrote and sponsored Proposition 103 in 1988, getting it through despite being outspent 60-1 in that election by the big auto insurance companies.

          The need to approve Proposition 48 may not seem as obvious, because its passage would simply allow construction of a new Indian casino already approved by every state and federal authority with a voice in the matter, from the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

          While it’s true this gaming compact would be the first allowing a Native American tribe to build a gambling hall off reservation land in California, approval in no way means other tribes would have an easy time gaining a similar nod.

          (Full disclosure: The writer is part-owner of the Madera Tribune, headquartered about one mile from the planned site of the putative new casino, to be owned by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians.)

          In a state suffused with Native American casinos, this one is controversial only because it would adjoin State Highway 99 about 25 miles north of Fresno and presumably attract some gamblers who now take their money to other nearby casinos. In fact, almost all funding for the No on 48 campaign as of Sept. 30 came from existing Indian casinos which fear new competition.

          The two biggest contributors to the campaign against 48 are the existing Table Mountain and Chukchansi Gold casinos, also located near Fresno, and their financial backers. The second-leading contributor to the No campaign is Chukchansi’s leading lender, New York’s Brigade Capital Management.

          The No campaign calls on voters to “Keep Vegas-style casinos out of neighborhoods,” but it’s really about eliminating competition. There is in fact no neighborhood adjacent to the casino site, only a hotel, gas station and open land.

          Meanwhile, building the casino would produce about 4,000 permanent jobs in Madera County, where unemployment runs about 25 percent above the statewide average. It would also draw workers from nearby Fresno and Merced counties, whose unemployment is even higher.

          Only an accident of fate – and the fortunes of long-ago tribal warfare  – left the North Forkers so far from a major highway that they need to build off their reservation.

          The bottom line: Both these propositions and the water bond deserve yes votes both on their own merits and because of the disingenuous nature of the opposition.

     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




          Of all the issues in Proposition 46, an omnibus measure on next month’s ballot aiming to improve patients’ rights in several health care areas, money is the one that counts most.

          The central question boils down to this: Should victims of medical malpractice and their lawyers get rich, or should malpractice insurance companies stay rich?

          For one underlying reality caused by the state’s 38-year-old cap of $250,000 on the amount of pain and suffering damages any patient can collect when mistreated has been that insurance carriers like NorCal Mutual and The Doctors Co. got rich while patients often have no legal recourse no matter what’s happened to them.

          Even when juries come in with multi-million-dollar judgments in cases where patients have lost limbs or even their lives due to mistakes by their doctors, those amounts are routinely knocked back to $250,000 by judges in accord with the law. The only thing not limited is economic losses – lost wages and the like due to medical mishandling or negligence. Prop. 46 would raise the $250,000 limit to $1.1 million, indexing it to inflation afterward.

          So when a patient's history documents serious cardiac reactions to a particular drug in the past and a doctor still insists the patient take it, the penalty can’t go above $250,000 even if a drug reaction leaves the patient bedridden and disabled for years.

          The limit has had two meanings: Wronged patients usually can’t find lawyers to take their cases, since any substantial case will involve at least $100,000 in expert and witness fees, with attorney fees tacked on. Not much left of the $250,000 after that, so why bother?

          And insurance companies have profited greatly. One credible estimate puts their administrative expenses and pure profit at a total of about 70 cents from each dollar doctors pay for malpractice coverage. By contrast, 80 cents of every health insurance premium dollar in California, by law, must go toward paying claims. “That 70 cents leaves a lot of room for higher payments without rate increases,” says Jamie Court, president of the sponsoring Consumer Watchdog advocacy group.

          Sure, as the No-on-46 TV and radio commercials tell us, trial lawyers want to make more from malpractice cases. They’ve spent about $6 million promoting Proposition 46. But insurance companies have put up the bulk of the $58 million raised to fight the measure. The leading contributors? The Doctors Co. and NorCal Mutual, at $10 million each. Would these outfits ever spend so much if they didn’t feel their huge profit were threatened?

          So voters will decide if trial lawyers and a few malpractice victims get big chunks of cash, or whether the insurance companies keep on profiting.

          A peripheral Prop. 46 issue is drug-testing of doctors. Federal estimates are that 15 percent of practicing physicians have substance abuse problems, often controlled substances like Vicodin and Xanax, which they can easily access. With doctors numbering just above 30,000 in California at last report, this means about 4,500 are likely drug impaired at any given time. Yet, the state Medical Board disciplined only 326 over the last 10 years for drug abuse, an average of just 32 per year.

          So many surgeons now operate while on drugs, often narcotics. Thousands of other doctors make key decisions for their patients while drug impaired. Yet, the Medical Board can’t find them unless someone complains.

          Enter drug testing. All doctors would have to be tested randomly under Proposition 46, any with complaints getting tested right away. Those who test positive would see their licenses suspended until they at least begin rehab.

          This issue, says the ballot argument on the No side, is only included to distract voters from the main issue, money. Maybe so, but the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst says random testing would lower costs related to drug abuse by many (unspecified) millions of dollars.

          Prop. 46 would also compel doctors to consult a statewide prescription database before writing new scrips. The aim is to keep drug abusers from “doctor shopping” for physicians willing to feed their drug habits. It also could stop doctors from running so-called “pill mills,” where they’re paid solely to write prescriptions for controlled substances.

          But money remains the central issue. The question of who gets rich or stays rich is now before the voters as baldly as it ever has been.

    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 8, 2014




          Just like this fall, there was a desultory quality – some called it murky – to the way Gov. Jerry Brown campaigned two years ago for his pet Proposition 30, which raised sales taxes a smidgen while considerably upping income tax levies on the wealthiest in order to bail out schools and a few other state services to the tune of $6.5 billion a year.

          Sure, Brown campaigned. But in the last weeks of his effort, there were no big labor rallies. No speeches to massive crowds in the main squares of the state’s biggest cities. There were few days when the governor made more than one appearance and plenty with none. Most of his appearances came on public college campuses, where his measure was already popular because of the likelihood that it would forestall more tuition increases.

          In short, Brown was no dynamo. He looked and in some ways acted like the 74-year-old he was.

          He’s been no more active this fall, at 76. If, as expected, he wins a fourth term next month, he’ll be the oldest person ever elected governor of California.

          There is little doubt Brown is in top physical shape. He hikes, he bikes, he runs, he lifts weights. When New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie famously called him an “old retread” in a 2013 speech, Brown challenged him to a three-mile road race and nothing further was heard from the obviously overweight, out-of-shape easterner. Brown also has been fortunate, never having had a serious health crisis.

          And he’s hinted that he wants to accomplish a lot more in what figures to be his last term in any public office. “My goal over the next few years is to pull people together,” he said in one talk. “We have our antagonisms in California, but we can find a common path…California has a lot of dynamic future ahead.”

    In another, he said, “The key to administering this state is having a disciplinarian in the corner office.” He referred, of course, to himself.

    The implication was that he’s uniquely equipped to unify the state, even though he’s failed somewhat at that task in the first four years of his second go-‘round.

          Whatever the reason, he hasn’t campaigned much against Republican Neel Kashkari, the sacrificial lamb opposing his reelection. But he has relatively quietly overseen major changes in education financing and prison policy.

          Brown’s style when campaigning this year has been pretty similar to when he was attorney general, his most recent previous job. His speeches then were mostly low-key affairs, with no rousing emotional appeals and little apparent forethought.

          “I haven’t written a speech in awhile,” he said at one appearance. “They’re hard to write and even harder to read, so I just stick to my notes.”

    At times, he’s seemed nostaligic for a slower-paced past. “In the world I live in now, there isn’t much past, not much memory,” he said. “It’s all about the news. So we work on all the chaos, hope and fear that drive us all.”

          But no one can doubt Brown still has a passion for California. He sees that the state’s problems are mostly new versions of those that confronted his father, Pat Brown, governor from 1959-67: water, transportation, education and crime prevention. As then, he remarked, the question today is “how much (money) do we keep for ourselves and how much we contribute to the commonweal.”

          That’s mostly in the category of musing, though. If anything aroused passion in Brown in the last few years, it was the influx of money from unidentified donors to an Arizona committee that kicked more than $10 million into the campaign against Proposition 30. “Who are these guys?” he demanded. “Are they foreigners? That's illegal. Are they Californians using Arizona to hide from their own state's sunshine laws? Also illegal.”

          That’s about as fiery as Brown gets these days. Will he be even lower-key in his expected new term?

          The answers to that kind of question will determine whether Brown can govern effectively as a lame duck over the next four years. His future is entirely up to him.

    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




          From the rhetoric Gov. Jerry Brown employed on it, you’d think a law he signed early this fall would clean up the initiative process for all time.

          Not exactly, for like the so-called ground water fix he signed earlier, this one also leaves untouched the chief flaws of the process it's supposed to fix.

    Yes, the law known as Senate Bill 1253 will make improvements. But not nearly as many as 2012’s long-dead SB 52 "Disclose Act" could have. That plan would have forced every political commercial in California to reveal its three largest funders prominently for six seconds at the start of ads, rather than using small print at the end. Similar rules would have applied to print ads, radio spots, mass mailers, billboards and websites.

          Instead, the new law merely requires the secretary of state to post on the Internet and regularly update the top 10 donors to the committees behind every initiative measure. In short, to know who’s behind what, voters must be active, not passive, seeking out key data rather than having the information handed to them easily and prominently.

          Yes, voters will be able to see online the fact that – for one example – the campaign against this fall’s Proposition 45 attempt to rein in health insurance rate hikes is so far funded by $37 million from some of the state’s largest health insurance companies – United Healthcare, Kaiser, Blue Shield and Wellpoint (owner of California Blue Cross).

          But they won’t get that information in large type on TV screens or loud voices at the start of radio ads. Instead, high-speed slurring  over of this key information – the way it’s done in the current misleading No-on-45 ads – will likely continue. Yes, the information will be out there, but no, the great majority of voters won’t digest it.

          And yet, Brown claimed the law he signed “strengthens the integrity of the initiative process, which is uniquely influential in California political life.” Brown also liked the new law’s for the first time allowing initiative sponsors to pull back measures if the Legislature passes something similar prior to ballots being printed and mandates legislative hearings on any measure likely to reach the ballot.

          But…none of these things actually changes much. They do nothing about sky-high per-signature payments to initiative petition carriers, payments that move them to push for signatures from persons who are not registered voters – a phenomenon that this fall cost the “Six Californias” proposal a place on the 2016 ballot when a large percentage of its signatures proved no good.

          Use of well-paid circulators has lately made the initiative process easily bought. Essentially, if you’ve got the money, you can get whatever crazy idea you like onto the ballot, unless you are as inept as Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper was in pushing Six Californias, a rare big-money flop.

          The bill Brown signed aims to help ease the domination big bucks exert over initiatives by extending the signature period from 150 days to 180, the presumption being that allowing petition carriers more time will give volunteer-carried measures a better shot than they’ve previously had.

          This could be a positive change, as is the new information that will soon be available online. But it’s not enough to really clean things up.

          Yes, the main funders of misleadingly-named political committees involved in initiative campaigns will be revealed to all who pursue the information. But no, it won’t be done prominently, unless one side or the other takes the Internet data and puts it into a separate “look who’s behind this” ad.

          So there’s still a need to revive the original Disclose Act, carried in 2012 by current Democratic Congresswoman Julia Brownley of Ventura County. Even better would be resurrection of a late-1990s proposal demanding exposure of the biggest donors behind any ad in type matching the largest size found anywhere else in the ad.

          The idea here is that since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and others can contribute as much as they like to independent campaigns not controlled by candidates, it’s more important than ever to identify the donors.

          That’s why -- just like his very mild ground water action -- the new law Brown signed is an improvement, but nowhere near enough to really clean things up.

     Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is For more Elias columns, go to

Thursday, October 2, 2014




    How concerned will Gov. Jerry Brown be with the well-being of ordinary Californians in the new term he’s widely expected to win next month (the latest major poll has him leading his opponent by a 54-33 percent margin)? How much will he pander to the interests of large corporations?

    The first answer to those questions will come near the end of this year, when Brown either reappoints Michael Peevey to another six-year term as president of the powerful state Public Utilities Commission or jettisons him due to a wide public perception that the commission has become routinely corrupt during Peevey’s 12-year tenure.

          Peevey’s presence on the commission, which regulates natural gas and electric utility companies and their rates except where utilities are municipally owned, has long seemed a conflict of interest. A former president of the Southern California Edison Co., he and his commission consistently act in the interests of big utility companies. So he’s been likened to a fox guarding the henhouse (this column first called him that in 2005, three years after his initial appointment to the commission by ex-Gov. Gray Davis).

    One reason his career has seemed greased, with nary a problem getting confirmed by the state Senate, is that he’s married to Democratic state Sen. Carol Liu, whose district covers a wide swath of the San Gabriel Valley in suburban Los Angeles County.

          There are indications he may again prove immune to the conduct that has surrounded him for years. In one interview this fall, Brown called Peevey “a strong force…I know there’s been a lot poured out on this topic, but I would say he gets things done.”

          For many years, Peevey has presided over the nonstop kabuki-like dance performed by the PUC and companies like Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric. This theatrical exercise sees the utilities routinely ask for sky-high rate increases, knowing the PUC will knock it back, but they'll nevertheless get all they really want and expect each time.

          That sort of phony rate regulation has never hurt Peevey, even though it hits hard on most businesses and residents of the state. One reason he’s so secure is that PUC members, once appointed and confirmed, cannot be fired even by the governor who appointed them or any successor. Their terms are all but inviolate, regardless of their performance.

          But Peevey is in trouble now. Once it became clear that he informally advised PG&E on how to conduct itself after federal officials first pronounced the company “negligent” and then indicted it for a huge gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010, he recused himself from further proceedings relating to that blast and the penalties to be exacted on PG&E for it.

          He fired his chief of staff when emails revealed “inappropriate communications” between her and PG&E. But does anyone seriously believe a chief of staff would advise a troubled, regulated company without the full knowledge and approval of her boss? Peevey’s staff also allegedly helped PG&E decide which administrative law judge would hear a PG&E rate case deciding how much the company pays for gas pipeline repairs and how much its customers will be assessed. Of course, consumers have paid monthly for gas pipeline maintenance since the 1950s, but PG&E didn’t always use the money for that.

          Plainly, the PUC’s civil service lawyers and analysts do not believe Peevey was in the dark on all this. In one September staff meeting, they reportedly demanded he resign, with some likening him to “an untouchable mob boss.”

          Brown knows all this. He also knows Peevey consistently refuses to reveal how much some large new solar thermal power plants will cost, even though other commissioners labeled their price tags “exorbitant.” When those plants come online within the next two years electric bills will rise sharply.

          But Brown might not mind that. He’s an enthusiastic backer of all sorts of renewable energy projects, which Peevey has pushed hard – one reason why Brown thinks he “gets things done.”

          The problem is that most of what Peevey has done favors big corporations at the expense of their customers. If Brown reappoints him, he will be thumbing his nose at every consumer and Peevey would have another six years to coddle the companies he loves to favor.

     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




          No candidate likes to admit in October that he has virtually no chance to win the office he’s running for. So it is today with Neel Kashkari, the Republican nominee – read: sacrificial lamb – who is Gov. Jerry Brown’s reelection opponent.

          But occasionally a seemingly sure loser shows enough fire and grit to establish himself or herself as a force to be reckoned with in the future. An example is Dianne Feinstein, then the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, who ran a fierce but losing campaign for governor against Republican Pete Wilson in 1990. Her effort demonstrated statewide appeal; she handily won a  seat in the U.S. Senate two years later and has outlasted Wilson by more than a decade.

          Kashkari now trails Brown by about 22 points in the polls, one of which indicated that just six weeks before Election Day, his name was recognized by only about 25 percent of Californians.

          This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Kashkari is so far behind in the polls, big campaign donors don't put much money behind him, which assures that he can’t run many television ads, thus keeping him relatively unknown.

          But Kashkari evinces no discouragement over his situation, insisting he’s gaining ground all the time. “In early March I was at 2 percent in the polls,” he said in an interview. “Now I’m at 34 percent in the polls. Brown is stuck at about 50 percent and more people in the polls say California is on the wrong track than the right one.” Actually, Brown was at 57 percent in one recent survey, 54 in another, both figures topping his performance in the June primary election.

          But Brown, well known to 84 percent of Californians asked to identify him in one survey, has yet to spend much of his $20 million-plus war chest on television, at a time when he was advertising heavily four years ago in his race against self-funded Silicon Valley billionaire Meg Whitman. In fact, he indicates he may spend some of his money furthering the Proposition 1 water bond with which he and Kashkari share the fall ballot.

          None of this fazes Kashkari. Little does. When two of his fellow Republican candidates for statewide office refused to endorse him during the party’s fall convention, he responded with a fiery speech calling Brown “coddled.” He insisted the GOP is the better party for immigrants, despite its firm opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants, even children whose lives are in danger if forced to return home. He’s also called Brown “lazy” and “a creature of the status quo.”

          “I clobbered him in our debate,” Kashkari claimed, even though most analysts rated it a draw. “I’m using innovative tactics, too.” One was posing for a week as homeless and unemployed in Fresno to dramatize the plight of California’s poor, whom Kashkari says Brown steadily fails to help. “That shattered Brown’s myth of the California comeback,” he said.

          And Kashkari thinks the race will tighten, as elections often do in late October, when voters begin to pay attention.

          All this demonstrates the dogged quality of Kashkari, who began the year as a primary election underdog well behind far-right Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, and then surpassed him despite the unpopularity of the bank bailouts he helped design while a U.S. Treasury official at the height of the last recession.

          Does this mean he might run for one of the two California seats in the U.S. Senate due to come open if either Barbara Boxer (term up in 2016) or Feinstein (2018) opts to retire?

          “In all honesty, I’ve never ruled out any of those opportunities,” said Kashkari, who appears to love campaigning and might just keep going like a battery bunny if defeated this fall. “Right now, I’m 100 percent focused on November.”

          But if or when he wakens on Nov. 5 as something other than the governor-elect, bet on Kashkari starting right in on his next effort. Which means that win or lose, Californians have probably not seen the last of Kashkari. And his independence from Republican dogma on issues like abortion and poverty might just give him a better chance than any Republican Senate candidate of the last 20 years.


Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is

Thursday, September 25, 2014




          There is little doubt about why the putative “Six Californias” ballot initiative that Silicon Valley billionaire Tim Draper hoped to put on the 2016 ballot failed: It was and is a terrible idea.

          This measure appeared to be a shoo-in to make the next ballot for which it was eligible. Draper had almost limitless funds and put petition circulators at thousands of storefront doorways in the present California. The going rate paid to circulators can run upwards of $5 per valid signature. Draper put $5.2 million behind his measure to fracture the nation’s largest existing state.

          And yet, it failed miserably. It was the worst failure in the modern era for any proposed citizen initiative with respectable financial support. Draper needed 807,615 valid voter signatures to get his measure onto the ballot. He submitted more than 1 million in June, and it became almost a foregone conclusion that his measure would qualify.

          But when county election officials around the state reviewed signatures at random to see how many were valid, they concluded that only about 750,000 were really those of registered voters, the rest coming mostly from non-registered folks stopped by the circulators who signed petitions just to end the pestering.

          If the reviewers’ projection had come within 15,000 of the required number, Draper would have gotten an automatic canvass of all signatures. But that won’t happen now.

          Why did the entrepreneur fall short? The best guess here is that many annoyed store customers accosted by circulators had seen or read a little about the idea and realized it was no good. So – in a resounding confirmation of the merits of the initiative process – many refused to sign.

          And the idea really does – did – stink. Imagine for a moment what the bidding for Tesla Motors’ new lithium ion “gigafactory” might have been like if six Californias and not just one had been involved in the competition. As it is, Nevada will pay a bribe of about $1.35 billion for the privilege of hosting this facility near Reno. What might the proposed state of Central California, home to the existing California’s proposed location in Stockton, have offered? If six Californias had become reality, Central California would have begun as America’s poorest state. Had its new officials topped Nevada’s bid and offered more than the $78,000 the Silver State will pay for each new job Tesla creates or spawns, it would be even poorer.

          What might West California, home to Los Angeles, have bid? Or the desert-dominated South California?

          That’s just one example of how each of these regions becoming a separate state could have hurt them all.

          The reality is that Draper’s plan to fragment California – and he says he’s not giving up – is one of the goofiest, dopiest ideas ever seen in a state known for nutty schemes.

          Draper says he’s motivated by a belief that the existing California is “ungovernable.” But he wants to create six sets of bureaucracies where now there is one. They wouldn’t necessarily have identical regulations, and there’s no guarantee any or all would enjoy the property tax protections of the existing Proposition 13. Or the clean drinking water assured under Proposition 65. Or the low auto insurance rates ensured by Proposition 108. Each new state would set its own rules, without regard to the others. So what could be built in the Los Angeles County city of Pomona might not be legal in nearby Chino, in San Bernardino County, for just one example.

          There would also be the state of Jefferson, comprising a slew of counties in California’s northernmost region. This one would not have even one University of California campus, which could leave residents paying $36,000 a year in tuition if they attend a UC.

          Anyone who thinks it’s tough to get water policy agreements from one Legislature would suddenly be faced with six. Good luck. How would any of this make the land area that’s now California easier to governable?

          But Californians won’t be facing these potential problems and a lot of others anytime soon, because many had the good sense not to sign. Which is itself a sign that despite its many critics, the initiative system actually can work very well.

    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