Friday, August 15, 2014




          There are still skeptics who maintain the California economy remains in recession, that talk of economic recovery amounts to whistling past the proverbial graveyard when unemployment remains above 7 per cent.

          Gov. Jerry Brown labeled these folks “declinists” two years ago, when unemployment was much higher and the signs of recovery were not nearly as strong as they are today.

          But those signs are now seemingly almost everywhere, even though a few major corporations are in the process of moving headquarters elsewhere.

          For one thing, in midsummer, California – like the rest of America –finally had gained back all jobs lost in the recession of 2007-11. The new jobs may be in different places and of somewhat different types than those that were lost, but the fact is there actually has been a little bit of job growth since 2008, something that befuddles the declinists. The figures come from a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

          Then there’s the fact that California lawmakers are starting to realize this state has serious competition for some of its key industries, with other states and even some foreign countries willing to grant large subsidies to companies that move headquarters or parts of their businesses.

          One example is the upcoming move of Toyota’s national headquarters, complete with its sparkling museum of classic cars the company has produced since the 1930s, to a Dallas suburb. Not only will Toyota get large tax reductions for at least its first eight years in Texas, but it will pay far less for the land it needs than it figures to get when it sells the land it will vacate in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance.

          That’s standard procedure in many states. Louisiana, for example, has attracted large amounts of film and TV production not only because of its green scenery, but also because production companies save as much as 30 percent of their costs by going there. That’s through a combination of subsidized hotel rates and equipment rentals, tax relief and lower-priced labor. The same happens in places like North Carolina, Idaho and New York.

          The first step in California lawmakers wising up came when the Legislature during the summer expanded and extended tax exemptions for movie and TV production here. Then they passed a bi-partisan bill sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox and Republican state Sen. Steve Knight, both of Palmdale, giving military contractors Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin as much as $420 million in tax credits over 15 years for production of a new strategic bomber to replace the B-2, which was also developed largely in the Antelope Valley. In case they don’t get the Defense Department contract for that project, another bill with the same benefit for Northrop Corp. would provide similar help – about $28 million a year, or 17 percent of wages paid to manufacturing workers.

          There has been reluctance here to subsidize big industries, one reason California has lost a lot of them to other states and countries. There is good reason for that hesitance, as subsidies raise questions of favoritism and special interest influence. But with others offering so much, California at least now realizes it must get into this game.

          Then there’s venture capital, where the Silicon Valley this spring absolutely dominated the world scene. Fully 41 percent of all venture dollars invested around the world from April through June went to San Francisco Bay area startups, a big improvement from the first quarter, when places like Texas and Massachusetts drew significant investment.

          But last spring, all of Europe got less than half what went to Silicon Valley, according to a report from PitchBook Data. The end result of this should be more companies headquartered in California, to join former startups like Google, Intel, Yelp and Twitter.

          Put it all together and you get a dynamic picture of job recovery, the prospect of great job growth and a reborn determination to preserve what the state already.

          That’s all bad news for the declinists who enjoy putting California down even while it pulls itself back up toward the golden stature it long enjoyed.


    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




          Executives of California’s large privately-owned utility companies don’t usually have to worry about much. Their companies enjoy virtual monopolies in vast regions, their profits are guaranteed, their shareholders are generally assured of regular dividends – which means they can count on collecting large salaries indefinitely.

          This security is enhanced by the fact that when the folks who run companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have made mistakes, they’ve never been held personally liable for anything.

          But times have changed since the state’s abortive venture into electricity deregulation led to selloffs of many power plants and an energy supply crisis in 2000-2002, with no penalties to decision-making executives for the bankruptcy of PG&E and the almost simultaneous near failure of Edison.

          Since that time, actions and policies decided by officials of those companies have led to two more disasters of a different nature. There was the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed 35 houses in the Crestmoor area of San Bruno. And there was Edison's decision to allow installation of faulty major parts in its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, leading to the retirement of SONGS, for which Edison and minority partner SDG&E now want to dun customers billions of dollars.

          In both cases, customers have already paid plenty. PG&E, like counterparts Southern California Gas and SDG&E, regularly collects funds for gas pipeline maintenance via monthly bills and has done so since the 1950s. Since federal authorities after San Bruno fingered PG&E maintenance as negligent, it’s fair to ask what the company did with all the money it collected, a question not yet addressed.

     Similarly, since Edison and SDG&E customers have paid monthly for decades for the eventual retirement of San Onofre, it’s hard to see why they should pay even a nickel more, especially when a federal report concluded the early retirement was caused by the knowing actions of Edison bosses.

          So far, no utility executive has paid anything close to a personal price for those problems. But the utility brass involved in gas pipeline management and the San Onofre decisions ought to be quaking a bit today, in part because a San Mateo County judge in August cleared the way for lawsuits against executives whose alleged mismanagement led to San Bruno.

          On the same day that legal decision came down, another court action about 6,000 miles away in London, England should also have gotten executive attention.

          This one saw three former top executives of the Associated Octel Corp., also known as Innospac, sentenced to prison for bribing Indonesian and Iraqi government officials to continue their nations’ importation of a toxic tetraethyl lead fuel additive that is banned in America and most of the rest of the world.

          The Colorado-based company sustained profits for its lead product by making millions of dollars in illicit payments between 2002 and 2008.

          Of course, an English court’s decision to send the threesome away for terms ranging from two years to four years cannot be a legal precedent in any American court. But it certainly could give federal prosecutors here the idea that the long era of personal immunity may be over for corporate executives and the decisions they make.

          So far, there have been no court actions against Edison for its mismanagement that easily could have endangered the millions who live within range of a potential San Onofre radiation leak.

          But PG&E is now under criminal indictment for alleged obstruction of justice along with a variety of counts for regulatory violations.

          Legal experts take the obstruction charge as a sign federal prosecutors plan to pursue the San Bruno case aggressively, with the likelihood of at least a huge fine for the corporation.

          That, in turn, could open the so-far nameless executives responsible to shareholder lawsuits for lost profits and dividends, if the penalty is steep enough.

          And it opens the door to asking why, if PG&E did in fact both act negligently and then obstruct justice by impeding the investigation that followed San Bruno, the executives who guided those actions should escape personal penalties?

          If personal penalties can be exacted in England, prosecutors should be asking themselves, why not here, too, especially when the direct cause of multiple deaths is much easier to prove here?
      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 second edition. His email address is For more Elias columns go to




          Two years from now, Californians will not only be thinking about electing a U.S. senator, 53 members of Congress and a President, but most likely also about the possibility of carving up their state into six new ones.

          The ballot initiative to do this is the brainchild of billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper, who observes to reporters that “bad government is not to be tolerated” and that “California is ungovernable.”

          His idea of creating new states like Silicon Valley, Jefferson and West California and possibly making state capitals of places like Santa Ana, Redding and Fresno comes after many other failed efforts to rip California apart, mostly motivated by water politics or Republican frustration at living in a Democratic-dominated state.

          But just as Californians for the next two years will bandy about the idea of Balkanizing their state, some may also want to consider using their state’s sheer size and scale to secede from the Union.

          Granted that the last time anyone made a serious effort at something like this, a four-year Civil War resulted. But still, California takes occasional stabs at semi-sovereignty and even manages to pull some of them off.

          One example is on smog, where the federal government for 44 years has let this state set rules tougher than those in force elsewhere.

          California governors sometimes even broach the topic of sovereignty. Example: On a July junket to Mexico City, Jerry Brown observed that “Even though California is a mere sub-national entity, it is equivalent to the eighth largest country in the world and we intend to operate based on that…clout.”

          Brown referred to gross domestic product, where California ranks just behind Brazil and Russia, but is gaining on them, and well ahead of prominent nations like Italy, India, Mexico and Argentina.

          Like his predecessors going back to Goodwin Knight in the 1950s, Brown has signed international memoranda of understanding on subjects like trade, environment and tourism. But MOUs don’t have the force or standing of treaties, which a stand-alone California could make.

          A sovereign California also would no longer have to pour money into the federal government’s sinkhole, getting back only about 77 cents for every dollar its taxpayers put in while the likes of Mississippi, West Virginia, Maryland and Florida get far more than a buck back in federal spending for every one they kick in.

          Six Californias would give the current state 12 senators to the two it has now, guaranteeing that small states like Wyoming, Delaware and Wyoming will fight to kill this idea. They could do that if and when it comes up for congressional approval, as it must if the voters approve Draper’s idea.

          A sovereign California would also avoid the pesky worries that plague the six-state idea, like how to split up the state’s universities and how to finance states like Jefferson (northern counties whose public services, including fire protection, are often subsidized by the rest of California) and Central California, which would instantly become America’s poorest state.

          Right next door to the poorest state, of course, would be the richest, Silicon Valley, perhaps making the Google headquarters in Mountain View its Capitol building. That would likely be the de facto headquarters, anyway.

          While there are questions about whether six new states could stay afloat financially and intellectually, there would be no such qualms about a sovereign California, which could create as many senators as it wanted.

    This, after all, is the idea capital of the world, a place where world-changing enterprises from the Google search engine to Apple’s family of i-Products originate. It’s where film companies like Paramount and Warner Bros. and Disney and Dreamworks create global dreams. It’s where public universities became great and its farms feed much of the human race. As a nation, it would rank sixth worldwide in producing solar power and boast the world’s fourth-highest human development index score, while having only the 35th-highest population.

    But splitting into six would create have- and have-not states with plenty of foreseeable grudges and grievances against each other.

    California could avoid all that by becoming independent. Or, of course, by simply remaining a single state.


    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




          For many years, it was valid to urge that students take a good look around as they entered high school in the fall – because more than one-third of their opening-day classmates would probably drop out before Graduation Day four years later.

          Dropouts remain a big problem, but the rates have been cut substantially, down from the disastrous 34 percent of several years ago to somewhere between one-fourth and one-fifth of entering high schoolers.

          Vocational education, special efforts to keep disaffected youngsters interested and to involve English-learners can be credited for much of the improvement. So can a computerized system that tracks students far better than before when they move from district to district, so not nearly as many simply “disappear” during their school-age years.

          But that doesn’t mean this year’s entering pupils will experience stability during their public school years. Changes are assured, if not so much via disappearing classmates, then through coming changes in curriculum, testing and the rules affecting teachers.

          For one thing, Common Core standards should take hold substantially in California during the school year just opening.

    Despite attacks deriding them as a socialist plot or worse, these are simply standards set by the state Board of Education for subjects like math and English, so that students emerging from all schools in California and the other 44 states that have adopted them can be assumed to have learned the same basics.

    Students will also see their teachers subjected to more flexible dismissal rules this year than they have been in more than half a century. After years of wrangling and repeated sex and cheating scandals involving teachers in many districts, legislators last spring passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law streamlining the dismissal process.

          Teachers can now be let go when merely suspected of serious offenses like attempted murder, sexual misconduct or drug abuse. School districts can now act before a teacher has been convicted, once they determine through a hearing process that an employee is unfit for the classroom.

          That’s separate from the controversial court decision in the case of Vergara v. California, in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down state laws that in effect allowed teachers to get tenure after just 16 months of work, laws that have resulted during typical years in just over two dismissals of teachers for incompetence – out of more than 275,000 public school faculty statewide.

          But the Vergara decision has not yet taken effect, and probably won’t for several years even if it’s eventually upheld by appeals courts.

          So the bill Brown signed, plus another requiring increased pension contributions from teachers and school districts will be the two major changes for teachers in the 2014-15 school year.

          Changes in testing emphasis also will come this year, as Brown’s chosen state school board president, Michael Kirst, told an education blog this summer.

          “In the past,” he said, “the Academic Performance Index (API) was the be-all and end-all and now…people need to move beyond the API.”

          The API has long been the final word in state evaluations of how schools are performing, but under Brown’s pet Local Control Funding Formula for schools – passed along with the state budget in June – districts will develop local plans to show how they are meeting state goals in eight areas including pupil achievement, parent engagement, rigorous curriculum and matching state standards. In the meantime, API ratings will be on hiatus.

          The state school board has another 14 months to come up with a new method for evaluating student strengths and weaknesses, to be used along with a reconstructed API.

          Most of these things will not much affect students’ lives and academics this year, but by the time entering high schoolers finish up in 2018, they can count on things being very different in education.

          And maybe, just maybe, the dropout rate will have been cut even farther than it already has been. That, after all, should be a major result of all these changes, if they really are the big improvements their backers claim.


    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




          When California voters adopted the “top two” primary election system four years ago via Proposition 14, they meant to make state politics more moderate, to ease some of the sharp divides between Republicans and Democrats that led to legislative and budgetary gridlock.

          It’s working, but still a work in progress. For the relatively new system that pits the two leading vote-getters in each primary against each other the following November regardless of their party affiliations is now changing some runoff campaigns as profoundly as it quickly did many primaries.

          A classic example comes in the 25th Congressional District, a solidly Republican area stretching from Simi Valley in Ventura County through a sliver of the San Fernando Valley and on into Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster. The seat has long been held by the retiring Buck McKeon, now chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

          No Democrat will win this seat, for the two men who survived the June primary are both Republicans. Former Ventura County state Sen. Tony Strickland got 29.6 percent of the June 3 vote to 28.4 percent for current state Sen. Stephen Knight of Palmdale. The leading Democrat, Lee Rogers, netted a mere 22 percent of the primary vote.

          Those numbers make it clear that even if Rogers had reached the November ballot, as he did two years ago, he’d have been trounced by any Republican opponent. But top-two means Democrats will have a strong influence on the eventual outcome, anyhow.

          This is a classic district where one party – the GOP in this case – so thoroughly dominates that the minority party in the district has no chance to win. But Proposition 14 intended that members of the minority party in such districts should still have a voice – perhaps even a decisive one.

          And in the 25th, where Strickland and Knight ran about equally well among their GOP cohorts, Democrats likely will decide things. Strickland and Knight well know this, as signaled by their appearing at an August forum of an Antelope Valley Democratic club.

          Before top two, there’s no way either of these candidates would have been caught in any roomful of Democrats, nor would the Democrats have wanted them. But things are different now, and the eventual winner will know Democratic votes put him over the top.

          It’s similar in the 26th state Senate district in coastal Los Angeles County, where two Democrats are vying for one seat. How likely would it have been before top two that Ben Allen, the leading vote-getter in the primary, would trumpet an endorsement from Don Knabe, a Republican county supervisor. Not very, but the other day he put out a press release to brag about it.

          Allen, a Santa Monica school board member, ran well ahead of runoff opponent Sandra Fluke in the primary despite the fact that Fluke has a much higher national profile, the result of her being gratuitously belittled during a spat over birth control with far-right radio host Rush Limbaugh. But she has little local political experience and so far has collected no endorsements from significant Republicans even though GOP voters will likely decide this race in a mostly-Democratic district.

    The scene is much the same in the San Jose-based 17th Congressional District, where incumbent Democrat Mike Honda won 48 percent of the primary vote to 28 percent for well-funded fellow Democrat Ro Khanna. Here, too, Republicans could provide the decisive votes in a Democratic-dominated area.

    After these races and a dozen or so similar ones, the winners will be well aware that the minority party voters who put them in office are watching whether they revert to the kind of doctrinaire, non-compromising partisanship that has plagued American politics for the last decade or so.

          That’s likely to produce at least some spirit of compromise from the winners, assuming they want to hold their seats. If it does – and there are indications this happened with some 2012 winners – it will mean that top two is gradually achieving its purpose of moderating the politics of both California and the nation.


     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




          And so California government now walks a tightrope, put in that position by one of the latest in the large corps of successful high-tech startups this state has spawned over the last few decades.

          Make a misstep in one direction and the state stands to lose a huge battery plant and 6,500 jobs. Stumble the other way and the state’s most important environmental law could be discredited, tainted by favoritism.

    This quandary features Tesla Motors, whose luxury electric cars are made in the former General Motors and Toyota automotive assembly plant in the East Bay city of Fremont. Tesla parlayed a good idea, a derelict factory and a variety of state and federal government subsidies into huge success. Now it’s playing off the state that nurtured it against places like Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

          The car company, whose advanced batteries allow its Model S to go farther on a single charge than any other commercially sold electric vehicle, plans a new “giga-factory” to make even better lithium-ion batteries. Company owner Elon Musk will likely decide sometime this fall where to locate his 10 million-square-foot facility.

          California wants that plant, likely to be built in or near Stockton, within easy reach of the Fremont factory. But state environmental laws could help send it elsewhere, if only because the required environmental impact reports and other evaluations likely can’t be done in Musk’s timeframe.

          But Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators are tired of high-profile companies that start here, then move factories and headquarters out of state. Texas, with its lack of a state income tax and its offers of cheap land, relatively low-wage labor and promises of eight years or more of tax exemptions, has made the most such inroads. Most recently, it lured Toyota’s national offices from Torrance to the Dallas area.

          So negotiations are underway to give Tesla major exemptions from the landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which has often been used to stymie or delay large construction projects.

          Among ideas proposed are limits on environmental reviews prior to construction and letting Tesla mitigate any damage from the plant after it’s open. It was probably no coincidence that on the day word of these possible concessions reached Wall Street, Tesla stock jumped about 30 points.

          These kinds of concessions are not completely unique, but they have rarely been put into operation. National Football League stadiums proposed for the City of Industry and downtown Los Angeles – the NFL won’t go for both – won similar concessions from the Legislature earlier in this decade.

          But such sweetheart deals for large projects upon which elected officials place a high premium anger both environmental groups and some local politicians.

          Back in 2011, when concessions were made to the Anschutz Entertainment Group for the proposed Farmers Field in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills Councilman John Mirisch questioned in an online essay whether “we should be granting CEQA exceptions…for individual projects.”

          “There is no doubt CEQA is sometimes abused,” he said, noting that businesses sometimes emploit it to stifle expansion by competitors. “Yet for all its flaws, CEQA serves a fundamental…purpose, which is to specify the impacts of a project…and to allow policy-makers to require mitigations.”

          No one knows what mitigations either Tesla or an NFL stadium might have to make, or how expensive they could be. But once a project is built, it’s a lot easier for the owners to try to fight off added expenses and inconveniences.

          And the Sierra Club called a large-scale exemption for Tesla “simply unacceptable.”

          But legislators have been known to favor politically potent industries before, just this year passing tax benefits for military airplane makers in an effort to keep high-paying jobs here, with vastly expanded tax breaks for movie and TV producers coming soon.

          It’s also true that Brown called in his 2010 campaign for “reform” of CEQA, but hasn’t gotten anything much through the Legislature.

          All of which sets up the tightrope walk: Brown and the Democrats who dominate the Legislature can’t afford to lose the support of environmentalists. They don’t want to make CEQA a laughingstock. They also want to keep the ultra-green Tesla, whose cars produce no smog, operating in California. So they’ll compromise, and they still may not keep all Tesla’s jobs and money here.


    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

Monday, August 11, 2014




          No one knows better than Democratic Party politicians that voters who tend to support them are at high tide in November general elections during even-numbered years when offices like President and governor and U.S. senator are at stake.

    Turnouts are far lower in primary elections, special elections and those held in some cities during odd-numbered years.

    That’s the main reason why voters last June saw no citizen-inspired initiatives on  their primary election ballots – and also a big reason why the turnout then was a record low for a primary election. Turnout was also depressed because Gov. Jerry Brown was virtually unopposed in his party and a shoo-in to move on to November.

          Knowing all this, Democrats who control city councils from Sunnyvale to Livermore to Santa Monica have for several years been placing measures on local ballots aiming to consolidate their votes with the wider elections held every other November.

          These measures usually pass by margins of 70 percent or greater, as voters would rather do their chores all at once and not be bothered in odd-numbered years. They also don’t mind the fact that consolidation saves millions of tax dollars around the state.

          If maximum public participation is the goal, this is a good thing. Look what happened in the last municipal election in Los Angeles, California’s largest city: Eric Garcetti became mayor by about a 54-46 percent margin over fellow Democrat Wendy Gruel in balloting where only about 13 percent of city residents voted. This means Garcetti, whose position makes him influential in both state and national affairs, was actually elected by about 7 percent of U.S. citizen Angelenos. How representative is that?

          So it should be no surprise that an election reform commission appointed by Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson (a former state Assembly speaker) now calls for a local proposition to move Los Angeles elections into even-numbered years.

          There’s also no doubt that shifting votes to even-numbered years, with runoffs in November, is good for Democrats. “This will especially increase turnout of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans,” said Loyola Marymount University Prof. Fernando Guerra, the commission chairman.

          As it happens, all those groups have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats over the last decade or more, the only exceptions coming when muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger twice ran for governor.

          So the election consolidation moves, besides increasing voter turnout, are also likely to increase Democratic control of cities making those changes.

          The same theory applied to ballot initiatives when the Democratic-dominated Legislature voted three years ago to put them all in Novembers  of even-numbered years, except when a statewide special election is called before then.

          When he signed that switch into law, Gov. Jerry Brown took note of the hugely greater turnout in general elections over primaries. “This is the essence of democracy,” Brown said. He noted that in 2010, when he ran in both June and November, 10.3 million voters turned out in the fall compared with just 5.7 million in the June primary. At the time, a Field Poll found that majorities of voters of all parties supported the switch.

          But this spring, with no initiatives on the primary ballot and nothing much else at stake in most districts, turnout fell to a record low, well below 2010 levels.

          It will likely come back up again this fall, when measures on subjects from gambling to health insurance rates should galvanize voter interest.

          The switch to autumn-only for initiatives gets California back to where things were prior to 1970, when citizen-inspired measures first appeared in primary votes. Republicans plainly don’t like the reversion, knowing important issues will be decided when Democratic voting is at its apex.

          “This kind of political game-playing sends a clear message that the governor and Legislature have no intention of working in a bipartisan manner,” Bob Dutton, then the state Senate’s minority leader, said when Brown signed off on the switch.

          Right now, though, there’s only one thing Republicans can do to avoid having more cities and more initiative results dominated by Democrats: Sign up new voters and try to get their party – now trailing by about 15 percent in voter registration – back to parity with the Democrats.

    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