Tuesday, June 30, 2015

PUBLIC SAYS IT LIKES SPLIT ROLL, MAY GET NO VOTE ON IT

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JULY 17, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
   “PUBLIC SAYS IT LIKES SPLIT ROLL, MAY GET NO VOTE ON IT”


          Firm Republican opposition to tinkering of any kind with the 1978 Proposition 13 is one reason voters may get no chance next year to decide whether or not to tax commercial and industrial land and buildings more than residential property.


          “Very remote,” was how the state Senate’s GOP leader, Bob Huff of Glendora, described the chances of even one Republican voting for a so-called “split roll” measure now being carried by two Democratic state senators.


          The GOP’s stance might have been only incidental last year, when Democrats periodically held two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature. But can be decisive now, since the Democrats are short of that benchmark in both the Senate and Assembly. It would take two-thirds votes in both houses to put the so-called “split roll” on the ballot without going the initiative route, with its circulated petitions and other complications. That would tax non-residential property based on current values rather than 1 percent of their latest purchase price, as dictated by Prop. 13.


          But so what? some ask. One recent survey often cited by backers of the split roll found 75 percent of 104,000 voters polled favor withdrawing Proposition 13 protections from commercial property.


          By a similar margin, voters also would like changes in rules and definitions that sometimes prevent reassessment of non-residential property when it is sold.


          Getting this passed via the initiative route looks easy, but looks can deceive. Vocal and well-funded opposition invariably emerges the moment any proposal arises to change Proposition 13 even in the slightest. Every such response plays on the fears of California homeowners, many of whom would be forced to sell if they lost Proposition 13 coverage that limits basic levies to 1 percent of the most recent purchase price, plus a 2 percent increase in that amount each year.


          This law, of course, causes huge disparities in most neighborhoods. On a typical street in the San Fernando Valley district of Los Angeles, for example, a three-bedroom house last sold for $57,000 in 1975 pays an annual tax of less than $1,500. Across the street, a home with the identical floor plan purchased last year for more than $600,000 draws a property tax bill more than four times as high.


          This may seem unfair, but it keeps older homeowners with fixed incomes in places they might otherwise have to leave. Even if are they liberal-leaning voters on other issues, those homeowners often respond to fear-mongering claims that any change to Proposition 13 must certainly lead to the end of their own protections.


          Then there’s political and financial reality. Circulating initiative petitions is expensive, even though last year’s ultra-low voter turnout caused a big drop in the number of signatures needed to put a measure on next November’s ballot. The number is based on a percentage of the vote in the latest general election.


          But it will still cost sponsors about $5 per signature to qualify any proposal, the total expense generally topping $2 million for each initiative next year.


          Also seeking spots on that ballot will be at least three other measures that aim to increase taxes. All will compete for money from many of the same sponsors.


    One proposal would more than double cigarette taxes to $2 per pack. Another would extend the temporary tax increases of the 2012 Proposition 30, a major factor in pulling California out of its once-perennial budget crises. A third measure still on the drawing board would impose an extraction levy on oil and natural gas drilled in California, putting this state on an equal footing with places like Texas and Oklahoma, where such taxes are the foundation of fat state budgets.


          Taken together, those measures could produce more state revenue than the estimated $6 billion to $12 billion that might be raised via a split roll.


          Because that money would support public employee salaries and pensions, these measures draw support from the Service Employees International Union. They would also fund education, thus helping the California Teachers Assn. None of those other plans arouses anything close to the heated opposition spurred by a split roll. So labor unions have not said, but they might feel it’s a safer investment to go after smaller game next year.


          It all puts a vote on the split roll, once deemed virtually inevitable, very much in doubt.



          -30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net

PUC REFORM BILLS TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JULY 14, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “PUC REFORM BILLS TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE”


          It’s the same with the state Public Utilities Commission these days as with almost everything else: by the time state legislators notice something is a problem, things are so bad, so extreme that other people and agencies have already acted.


          Just now, almost six months after state and federal investigators executed search warrants on the homes of former PUC President Michael Peevey and a since-fired Pacific Gas & Electric Co. executive for whom Peevey would apparently do just about anything, lawmakers are finally ready to act.


          Unfortunately, their action is redundant, coming long after the cows have left the barn.


          Dollar bills, often rolls of 100-dollar bills, are equivalent to the cows in this metaphor. And the barn is the equivalent of the wallets and bank accounts of tens of millions of customers with gas, electric and water companies regulated by the utilities commission.


          For many years before scandal broke, the PUC under Peevey and several predecessors maintained a steady pattern favoring the interests of regulated, privately-owned corporations over those of the consumers they serve.


          This pattern extended from pricing to maintenance and safety concerns, from easy OKs of power plant siting to lack of concern over nuclear safeguards at the now-closed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power station. It has cost consumers billions of dollars over decades, costs that climb each day.


          This has been achieved via a sort of kabuki dance, where utilities routinely ask far more in rate increases than they know they're entitled to. The PUC responds by cutting the requests, still giving utilities larger increases than reality justifies. Then both the commission and the companies brag about being “consumer-friendly.”


          The dance went on unchecked for decades, legislators paying virtually no heed. The lawmakers also routinely rubber-stamped appointees to the commission named by current Gov. Jerry Brown and predecessors like George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


    Each commissioner then served a six-year term without even the possibility of being fired for one-sided rulings.


          Now, long after this column exposed the corrupt pattern and with a federal grand jury working on this case, at long last comes a state legislator to “do something” about the PUC. That’s Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lakewood. One of his bills would set up an inspector general at the commission, empowered to investigate its activities.


    Another would outlaw secret contacts among commissioners and utility executives by requiring publication of all communications between them during rate-setting proceedings. Such "ex parte" contacts have long been illegal, but no one paid attention. So phone calls and private dinners like those documented involving Peevey, current Commissioner Mike Florio and executives of PG&E and Southern California Edison continued with impunity until earlier this year, when scandal broke.


          The Rendon bills are too little, too late. Far better to give the commission’s existing Office of Ratepayer Advocates some real power to fight and expose the ongoing misdeeds of the PUC. Rather than set up a new inspector general, why not make the existing advocacy office independent?


          And with no ability for consumers to protest PUC decisions anywhere but in appeal courts, it’s now far too difficult to do anything about wrongheaded, one-sided commission rulings. Why not allow consumers to sue in trial courts, where they could present evidence rather than being confined to working with evidence developed during the PUC’s own proceedings, where administrative law judges have been exposed lately as subject to occasional bias?


          Those are simpler, less expensive changes than what Rendon proposes, the only legislative fixes for the PUC now proposed.


          Even more important to cleaning up this long-corrupt agency would be for legislators to put a spotlight on any appointee proposed by any governor. Also, if lawmakers would hold meaningful, thorough hearings on the PUC’s questionable actions. This is already within their power, but even with the scandal in progress, it still does not happen. Lawmakers show no appetite for contesting any proposed commissioner or any commission actions. That’s how consumers got stuck with Peevey, a former Edison president whose corrupt practices were easy to foresee.


          So, yes, the Legislature can and should do something about the PUC, but the best thing it could be is wake up and perform the watchdog duties it has neglected for decades.


    -30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net


Thursday, June 25, 2015

LONG WAIT LOOMS FOR GOP CONGRESS GAINS HERE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JULY 10, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “LONG WAIT LOOMS FOR GOP CONGRESS GAINS HERE”


          Few things gall California Republicans more than realizing they hold just 14 of this state’s 53 seats in Congress. That’s only 26 percent of California’s representatives, while the opposition Democrats, with 14 percent more registered voters, hold 39 seats, or about 74 percent.


          The GOP had a big chance last year to remedy that, targeting vulnerable Democrats who won their offices by narrow margins in President Obama’s 2012 reelection landslide.


          But Republicans failed. Yes, they ran plenty of close races, but in the end lost every one. Now it appears they’ll have to wait at least until 2018 before there’s much possibility Californians might become a significant part of the GOP’s big overall majority in Congress.


          How did Republicans blow the chance to oust vulnerable figures like Scott Peters of San Diego, Julia Brownley of Ventura County, John Garamendi in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Jim Costa in the Fresno area, Ami Bera in the Sacramento suburbs and Jerry McNerney in the Stockton area?


          The missed opportunity was partly because of the candidates they ran and partly because the national party didn’t fully support what candidates it had.


          The survival of Peters in a San Diego district bordering on Mexico was prototypical. He was opposed by Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman and longtime crusader for tightening public employee pensions. Peters’ district was ripe for Republican plucking, having gone for Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer by an overwhelming 62 percent in his 2013 special election victory.


          But even though DeMaio ran for mayor in 2012 and had plenty of prior public exposure, he was done in when two of his former staff members accused DeMaio of sexual harassment, a claim at least partially debunked months after the election. What could have been, maybe should have been, an easy GOP pickup instead became a 6,000-vote reelection for Peters.


          With the district’s populace growing steadily more Latino and the strong likelihood that turnout in 2016 will be well above the roughly 24 percent of last year – if only because the presidency will at stake – Peters could have a much easier reelection next year.


          It’s much the same for Costa, who was blindsided and almost knocked off by a Republican unknown last year, and for McNerney, who also squeaked by narrowly against a little-known hopeful. If the national party had recruited major figures against them or had simply financed those who did run, those could have been two pickups. But the GOP blew it.


          Now Costa and McNerney, along with the other Democrats who won only narrowly, figure to get less of a challenge next year for the same reasons Peters will be safer. All will have the advantages of several more years of incumbency to establish ties and loyalties throughout their districts,


          In many ways, the Republican ineptitude in making congressional inroads in California is emblematic of how they’ve mismanaged things in this state for years, their only respite in decades being the Arnold Schwarzenegger years, which were mostly a product of his star power as a movie muscleman.


          The party was proud last year to have prevented Democrats from achieving two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature, a dominance they enjoyed only sporadically in the two years after their big Obama-led wins of 2012. But that’s like a football team rejoicing because it narrowly beat the oddsmakers’ point spread, while still losing by three touchdowns. The GOP is far short of the numbers it will need to have any major impact on state policy in any area, and there’s little chance it will change anything soon.


          The party’s problem is simple: In order to win in most parts of California, it will have to become more tolerant of undocumented immigrants and same-sex marriage, more environmentally conscious and less hardline in opposing changes to the Proposition 13 property tax rules.


          But making any such revisions would also alienate the party from its hard-core backers, and might deprive it of even its recent levels of support.


          So the GOP in California is in a bind, and so far has shown few signs of finding its way out of this long-term jam.

         

      -30-
     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net 
   

LAWN REPLACEMENT: MIXED BAG OF GOOD, BAD EFFECTS

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
90405 FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JULY 7, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “LAWN REPLACEMENT: MIXED BAG OF GOOD, BAD EFFECTS”


          Listen to water officials from Gov. Jerry Brown down to local officials and you’d think replacing lawns with drought-resistant plants or artificial turf is a pure good, no negatives involved.


          They know lawn replacement, often called “xeriscaping” because it can use cactuses and other desert plants, generally leads to at least a 30 percent cut in household water use.


          But…you could read reports from the ongoing Women’s World Cup soccer tournament, where ambient temperatures in cities like Winnipeg and Ottawa were in the high 70s at some game times, but temperatures on the synthetic grass fields ranged from 120 to 129 degrees.


          That’s the “heat island” effect, where non-grassy surfaces like the faux grass and gravel sometimes used to replace lawns gather heat from the sun. Unlike grass, they don’t use the sunlight for anything, so heat energy can pile up and even warm adjacent buildings. Temperature differentials won’t often be as extreme as at the Women’s World Cup, but can drive up electricity use and air conditioning bills.


          Reports the Accuweather forecasting service’s blog, “Grassy surfaces will be significantly cooler on a sunny day when compared to artificial turf, gravel or pavement.”


          This is one reason some homeowner associations are trying to ban replacement of front lawns with synthetic grass, even as many water agencies pay by the square foot for tearing out existing lawns. Homeowners often get phone calls from services offering free natural turf removal and replacement in exchange for signing over those payments. Some local water agencies, however, refuse to pass along turf-replacement subsidies for fake lawns using synthetic turf.


          There’s also the fact that grass pulls carbon out of the air. The more green leaf surfaces in any area, the more greenhouse gases will be absorbed. Which means grass helps fight climate change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
          Grassy surfaces also facilitate recharge of ground water, most water landing on them eventually trickling down into aquifers. So unless replacement surfaces are extremely porous, more storm water will eventually run off into the Pacific unused and less will become ground water.


          This all leads to questions about the efficiency of lawn replacement campaigns now being run by myriad water agencies. By far the largest of these plans comes from California’s biggest water provider, the six-county Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, often called “the Met,” which has a $450 million, two-year conservation incentive program, aiming to save as much as 80,000 acre feet of water yearly over 10 years. That comes to $562 per acre foot saved, far more than the Met pays for most water today.


          The most visible and expensive part of this program is lawn replacement, which will use about three-fourths of the money to replace 172 million square feet of grass, or 3,948 acres. But lawn removal is far from the most effective part of the water-saving plan. Much more will be saved by replacing old fixtures and equipment.


          “The device replacement part of our program should save about 60,000 of those acre feet,” says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Met. “Devices give a bigger bang for the buck.” The Met is paying customers to install everything from low-flow shower heads to high-efficiency lawn sprinklers and a new generation of ultra-low-flow toilets. The biggest savings may come from new-generation cooling tower controls for heating and air conditioning units atop large buildings.


          And yet, reports Kightlinger, “Almost all the news reports on our conservation program have focused around turf replacement.”


          Then there’s the fact that many thousands of acre feet of water are wasted by over-watering grass and trees. “Commonly used shrubs, trees and grasses have a lot of drought tolerance,” says Dennis Pittenger, Riverside-based environmental horticulturist for the University of California’s Cooperative Extension. “They are usually overwatered. I think we ought to focus more on people’s watering behavior, and less on replacing plants.”


          Commercial turf grower Jurgen Gramckow of Oxnard maintains many new drought-resistant landscapes won’t hold up when rains finally come. “Landscapes with bark as ground cover, for example, will lose a lot of it and clog storm drains, too,” he says. “The water agency perspective on lawn replacement is one-dimensional. No one talks about tradeoffs, negative effects.”


          He’s right about that, which means today’s lawn replacement fad may really be less about water savings than trying to change attitudes, also known as social engineering.

         
-30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

VERGARA TIME BOMB STILL HANGS OVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
 FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JULY 3, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “VERGARA TIME BOMB STILL HANGS OVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS”


          Like a time bomb, the court decision in Vergara v. California has been mostly dormant since the last election season ended in November 2014. But its explosive potential remains as large as ever.


          Vergara, to refresh memories, is the ruling by a previously obscure Los Angeles County Superior Court judge that would essentially throw out California’s teacher tenure system and end rules making it harder and more expensive to fire teachers than other public employees.


          This became one of many areas of disagreement in last fall’s politics, with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown opposing and appealing the decision by Judge Rolf M. Treu and Republican rival Neel Kashkari strongly endorsing it.


          It was even more of an issue in the much tighter race for state schools superintendent, with incumbent and eventual winner Tom Torlakson insisting that while “No teacher is perfect, only a very few are not worthy of the job. School districts always have had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up.”


          Challenger Marshall Tuck, former chief of a large charter schools company, responded that “Kids should not have to sue to get a quality education.” He decried the fact that teachers, who can get tenure after two years on the job, often are assured they’ll win that status within only 16 months of starting work, in his view not nearly long enough for them to prove they’re worthy of a lifetime sinecure.


          But after the bombast of the campaign season, the controversy over Vergara – which can’t be acted on until and unless it survives all legal appeals – disappeared for about six months until state legislators took notice of its issues again.


          In late spring, Republican lawmakers submitted several bills to short-circuit the court process by simply adopting most of Vergara’s basics as law. One proposal declared seniority could no longer be the sole factor determining who is laid off when times get tough.


          Sponsoring Assemblywoman Catherine Baker of Dublin said using experience alone to decide who stays “constrains school districts from making decisions that are in the best interest of students and fair to teachers.”


          Another measure from Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, now a Republican candidate for U.S. senator, would have added a year to the time a teacher needs to work before getting tenure. It would also have allowed districts to revoke tenure from teachers who repeatedly get negative performance reviews.


          A third bill aimed to base teacher performance ratings in part on how students perform on standardized tests.


          Democratic critics, many of whose campaigns are union-funded, claimed these changes would “crumble the central pillar of teacher job security.” They also charged the changes would deprive teachers of due process.


          Since Democrats enjoy strong majorities in both legislative houses, these bills had little chance of passage and were deep-sixed quickly, not likely to be seen again until after the next statewide election, at the earliest.


          This means the Vergara case, filed by nine students whose lawyers contended state firing and tenure rules deprive them of the Constitutional right to a solid education, will see its issues resolved by judges, not politicians.


          Appeals by Brown and Torlakson are still active, and the state’s two largest teacher unions joined them in May, claiming Vergara “was never about students.” Said California Teachers Assn. President Dean Vogel, “During two months of trial, (the students’) attorneys failed to produce a single pupil who had ever been harmed by these (existing) laws, while teachers, principals, school board members, superintendents and nationally recognized policy experts offered dozens of examples of how these laws have helped…millions of California students.”


          One essential claim of Vergara opponents is that easing tenure rules could render teachers subject to political threats. Said 15-year kindergarten teacher Erin Rosselli, current teacher of the year from Orange County, “These laws ensure I won’t be fired or laid off for arbitrary reasons or in retribution for standing up for kids…”


          Lines are hard and resolute on both sides of the tenure/firing issue. And because most current state appellate judges were appointed by Democratic governors, it’s very likely the Vergara time bomb will be defused long before its intended explosive effect is ever felt.


    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net

UC REGENTS: DEFINE ANTI-SEMITISM OR ENABLE IT

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JUNE 30, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
   “UC REGENTS: DEFINE ANTI-SEMITISM OR ENABLE IT”


          Top University of California officials including President Janet Napolitano and several campus chancellors publicly deplore the way activists pushing UC to boycott Israel seemed to spawn outright anti-Semitic actions and outcries over the last few months.


          But they've done nothing to stop it. Students who set up mock checkpoints on campuses to harass Jewish students and no one else were not penalized. Nor were students who questioned candidates for student government about their Jewish identity. No one has even been caught in several cases where Nazi-like swastikas were daubed on campus buildings. And no one was caught after the message “Zionists…to the gas chambers” was scrawled on a UC Berkeley wall.


          Partly this is because UC has no firm standard by which to tell when protests of some of Israel’s policies sink into outright anti-Semitism.


          Now, at last, the 10-campus system’s top policymakers will have a chance to set a standard. The Board of Regents is tentatively due to vote during its July 22-23 meeting in San Francisco on whether to adopt the U.S. State Department’s “Three D” definition of when political protest becomes outright anti-Semitism.


          The State Department  criteria are simple: If an action aims to delegitimize Israel, denying the Jewish state’s very right to exist, that’s anti-Semitic. If a protest aims to demonize Israel in ways not employed against any other country, that’s also anti-Semitic. And if a protest employs a double standard judging Israel differently from other countries, that’s anti-Semitic, too.


          Here’s one clear-cut double-standard at work today: When Israel accidentally killed civilians while destroying ammunition dumps and rocket launch sites planted in crowded schools and neighborhoods in Gaza last summer, loud protests by campus groups led by Students for Justice in Palestine went on for months over the deaths of children and other non-combatants.


          But while Saudi Arabian jets bombed Shiite Moslem insurgents in Yemen daily this spring and summer, often killing more civilians in a day than Israel did in its entire Gaza campaign, the same protesters said nothing.


          In a springtime letter to Napolitano and all regents, nearly 700 UC professors, student groups, alumni and rabbis urged adoption of the State Department definition, and that it be followed by training of campus personnel to stymie anti-Semitic acts and talk, while not interfering with political protests against things like roadblocks, censorship or settlements in occupied territory.


          “It is essential for campus (personnel) to be trained…to identify anti-Semitic behavior and to address it with the same promptness and vigor as other forms of racial, ethnic and gender bigotry and discrimination,” the letter said.


          Napolitano soon after said in a radio interview that she thinks UC should adopt the Three D definition and that she will put it on the Regents’ July meeting agenda.


          That’s progress. For double standards and lies have abounded at UC throughout the so-called “BDS campaign” to boycott and sanction Israel, while demanding the university divest from companies doing business there.  For example, the pro-Palestinian SJP group has denied being anti-Semitic for years, while steadily demonizing Israel as “an apartheid nation,” even though it has absorbed many thousands of black Jews from Ethiopia and taken in several thousand non-Jewish refugees from black African countries like Sudan and Somalia.


          SJP denies singling out Israel for protest, saying since it was organized about 10 years ago that it will protest injustice everywhere. But the group has never protested against anyone but the Jewish state.


          If the Regents act as Napolitano recommends, they will be adding to a recent series of defeats for SJP, whose BDS campaign was officially rejected by the Illinois and Tennessee legislatures this spring, one dominated by Democrats, the other by Republicans. The Indiana state Senate passed a similar resolution. Student governments at several universities around the nation also rejected pro-boycott resolutions, leaving student officials at the UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles and those at Stanford almost alone in passing them.


          Because it’s well documented that heated debates over those resolutions were soon followed by outright anti-Semitic acts not prevented or punished on any campus, the reality is that inaction by the Regents would amount to conscious enabling of blatant anti-Semitism.

 
     -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

BIT BY BIT, ‘DISCLOSE ACT’ BECOMES MORE REAL

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JUNE 26, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “BIT BY BIT, ‘DISCLOSE ACT’ BECOMES MORE REAL”


          If there’s one main reason for the distrust many Californians feel for government and elected officials at all levels, it may be the way special interests from corporations to labor unions to individual billionaires pour millions of dollars into elections campaigns while hiding their identities.


          Almost five years ago, Julia Brownley, then an obscure assemblywoman and now a Democratic congresswoman from Ventura County, began trying to get state legislators to fix a bit of that.


          Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, it’s impossible to stop these groups from pouring as much money as they like into campaigns, both for individuals and initiatives. But there are ways to force disclosure of their identities even when they’d like to remain anonymous.


          So Brownley sponsored something backers called the “Disclose Act,” aiming to force disclosure of the sources for all significant campaign donations. The reasoning was that if voters knew, for instance, that Chevron Corp. was the leading donor to the “no” side of an initiative campaign about putting a tax on oil drilling, they might be a bit more skeptical of whatever arguments are made in TV commercials.


          As it stands, companies like Chevron, Exxon, Tesoro and Valero can create and donate to campaign committees with benign names like Californians Against New Taxes without much muss or fuss.


          The Disclose Act would require such committees to reveal the three leading donors behind each political newspaper, TV or radio ad, lifting the fig leaf that has long obscured who’s doing what. It would also compel nonprofits funneling money into campaigns from anonymous donors to reveal their identities.


     But it failed in 2011, and Brownley went on to Congress, where she’s in her second term. That left backers to find new sponsors for the Disclose Act and they’ve done so each year since.


          Meanwhile, bit by bit, the ideas in the Disclose Act are moving toward reality. The first movement came with a 2014 state Senate bill known as SB27, which passed in part because of outrage over an out-of-state non-profit dumping $11 million into California campaigns at the last moment before the November 2012 election. Even though the state Fair Political Practices Commission fined that Arizona-based outfit $1 million, it wasn’t forced to disclose names, even after the election.


          In response, almost two years later, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB27, forcing non-profits to disclose the sources of their so-called “Dark Money” on the secretary of state’s website.


          That’s a help, but it’s not enough. Most voters will never take the trouble to look on that website for the information. A more direct approach is needed.


          Enter this year’s version of the Disclose Act, known as AB700 and sponsored by Democratic Assemblymen Marc Levine of San Rafael and Jimmy Gomez of northeast Los Angeles. This bill would compel political ads to disclose their top three funders clearly and unambiguously in the ads. The funders disclosed must be the original ones, not dummy committees like those used in the past to mask their activity by interests from labor unions to tobacco, chemical and oil companies, not to mention wealthy individuals.


          The disclosure would have to come in large letters at the beginning of TV ads, not in fine print at the close, where no one is likely to notice. That way, voters would know who is behind a message while they're seeing and hearing it.


          This isn’t quite as radical an idea as one that surfaced in a 1990s-era initiative that would have required similar disclosure in type matching the largest and most colorful contained in any ad or commercial.


          Maybe that’s why the Assembly Election Committee passed it last month on a 4-2 vote.


          That vote meant the idea of disclosing top donors prominently has already gotten farther toward becoming law than ever before. It’s a tactic vitally needed in an era of unfettered spending by wealthy interests on all sides of the political spectrum. If spending can’t be limited, at least voters should know who’s doing it.


          So bit by bit, key elements of the original Disclose Act may well become reality. And the more the better, hopefully in plenty of time for next year’s initiative-loaded elections.

           
    -30-
     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net