Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'DISCLOSE ACT’ AS ANTIDOTE TO DISMAL VOTE TURNOUTS?

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


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “‘DISCLOSE ACT’ AS ANTIDOTE TO DISMAL VOTE TURNOUTS?”


          Politicians have come up with myriad alleged reasons for the dismal vote turnouts seen across California in this spring’s municipal elections – not even reaching 10 percent of eligible voters in the state’s biggest city, Los Angeles.


          Bad timing, some suggest. Too many elections, others say. Another excuse: not enough news coverage.


          But these rationalizations ignore a fundamental reality of today’s politics. Voters just don’t trust politicians, believing many have been bought by special interests making unlimited, often anonymous donations under the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision, which declared that corporations have some of the same rights as people.


          Because Supreme Court justices serve for life and several who voted for Citizens United are relatively young, that decision won’t be reversed anytime soon. So anyone believing that openness and transparency can create trust in government must look elsewhere for solutions.


          One that many believe can be effective is immediate, prominent disclosure of the biggest funders of political campaigns and advertising both for individual candidates and ballot propositions.


          Enter California’s proposed “Disclose Act,” a putative law that’s been on the drawing board in the Legislature for more than five years. It would require the top three funders of ballot measure ads be shown clearly in the ads themselves. And it requires the donors listed in the ad be the original sources of the cash, forbidding the use of committee names often employed to conceal the identities of the original contributors.


    While this doesn’t require similar disclosure of donors to so-called independent expenditure committees backing individual candidates, it’s a big step in the right direction. Donors to the candidates themselves are listed on the secretary of state’s website.

         
          Backed by the California Clean Money Campaign and more than 400 other organizations, the Disclose Act reemerged in the Legislature in March, co-sponsored by Democratic Assemblymen Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles and Marc Levine of Marin County. It’s now also known as AB 700.


          “The goal…is to press for greater transparency at who’s trying to hide behind these magnificently titled political committees, expose their true identities and motives,” said Gomez.


          It’s anybody’s guess whether voters watching TV and Internet ads would pay attention to this information if offered. But at least this would give them the chance to understand what and who is behind the ads blasted at them.


          Would it have worked with something like last fall’s Proposition 45? That measure, aiming to regulate health insurance prices just like car insurance and property coverage premiums already are, led in polls by about 10 percent when the campaign around it began in July of last year.


          But a $55 million ad campaign, seemingly ubiquitous for months on both radio and television, reversed that margin and led the initiative to lose by 59-41 percent.


          The measure was opposed by the California Medical Assn. doctors’ lobby and the California Hospital Assn., among others. They feared controlling insurance premiums would cut into their members’ income. The endings of their ads also contained fine print and barely audible statements saying they were paid for by the state’s biggest health insurance carriers, Kaiser Permanente, Blue Shield, the parent company of Anthem Blue Cross and HealthNet.


          The result made it plain almost no one read the fine print or heeded the sotto voce disclosure statements, let alone checked out the secretary of state website. The ads turned around about 1 million voters, as effective a campaign as the state has seen in years.


          Things might have been different had the Disclose Act been around. Would voters who knew the message was sponsored by Big Health Insurance still have changed their minds and chosen today’s unregulated health insurance premiums? It’s speculative to say that disclosure would have prevented the turnaround in voters’ opinion on insurance rate regulation, but the Disclose Act at least would have let them know who was trying to influence them.


          All of which means that although the latest version of the Disclose Act would still leave plenty more to be done, it would be a big step toward voters’ understanding the political process and leveling a playing field that now tilts markedly toward large corporations.

         

    -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

DESALINATION LOOKS BETTER AS WATER PRICES RISE

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


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“DESALINATION LOOKS BETTER AS WATER PRICES RISE"


          "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink…”  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798, in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”


          The reality confronting millions of Californians as they cope with yet another lengthy episode in a seemingly endless series of droughts is that – like Coleridge’s mariner – this state has billions of acre feet of water clearly visible every day in the form of the Pacific Ocean and its many bays and estuaries.


          But that’s briny salt water, containing an array of minerals that make it almost as inaccessible today as it was to that parched, fictitious sailor of 200 years ago.


          But it doesn’t have to stay that way. As the price of water goes up, desalinating Pacific waters becomes ever more enticing and it will become more so if the price of taking salts and other impurities out of salt water falls. In short, if the rising price of fresh water ever comes to match a falling cost for purified sea water, expect desalination to begin on a large scale in California.


          It appears things are moving that way now. Over the winter, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – largest urban water district in the state – paid Sacramento Valley rice farmers an average of $694 per acre foot of water for 115,000 acre feet to be sent south via the state Water Project. For some farmers, selling water is now more profitable than growing crops.


          This sounds like a lot to pay for one acre foot, the amount needed to cover an acre one foot deep and about the quantity used by two typical urban families in the course of a year. But at that price, water costs still costs only about one-fifth of a cent per gallon. Well water, by comparison, averages about $293 per acre foot.


          Meanwhile, ideas for new methods of desalinating water arrive frequently at the state Department of Water Resources, where analyst Michael Ross checks to see which might have real promise.


          “The cost of desalination will come down,” Ross says. “The price of other water is coming up, as we can see from the Met’s purchase. Right now I have a basket-full of proposed processes on my desk.”


    Traditional desalination via the process of reverse osmosis (RO) will vastly increase later this year, when Massachusetts-based Poseidon Water opens a $1 billion facility at Carlsbad in northern San Diego County. The plant will make 48,000 acre feet yearly, about 7 percent of San Diego County’s supply, at a cost of about $2,200 per acre foot. A smaller RO plant opened four years ago in Sand City, near Monterey. Santa Barbara plans to reopen a similar plant that was mothballed for years.


          But some believe reverse osmosis, which uses a series of membranes to filter sea water, is too expensive.


          One idea Ross has reviewed comes from a Texas firm called Salt of the Earth Energy, which would use water from perforated plastic pipes eight to 15 feet beneath the ocean floor, mixing gases and chemicals into sea water from which ocean-bottom silt has filtered almost all marine life. The process would also produce industrial chemicals like phosphates, carbonates and hydroxides, helping bring down the cost of the water produced.


          The firm’s consultant, James Torres of Rancho Cucamonga, says the high end of water cost using this process would be $650 per acre foot, less than the Met is now paying for some of its supply.


          “This idea is at a proving stage,” said the DWR’s Ross. A test facility is planned along the Gulf Coast of Texas and if it proves promising, the method could solve many current problems with RO, including the fact only half the water RO plants take in eventually becomes potable; the rest is returned to the sea as heavy brine harmful to marine life.


          “Our process uses 90 percent of the intake,” said Torres. “And we’ll use only about half the power of an RO plant.”


          Another possibly promising technology called “Zero Discharge” is currently being tested in the Panoche Water and Drainage District in Central California, using solar power to evaporate and then collect water from irrigation discharge, with about a 93 percent recovery rate.


          Which means drought has not brought despair. Instead, it’s spurring an inventiveness that may soon put the lie to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.



    -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, March 25, 2015

BEST BUDGET IDEA? LETTING SICK, ELDERLY CONVICTS GO

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

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “BEST BUDGET IDEA? LETTING SICK, ELDERLY CONVICTS GO”


          Sometimes it can take more than a decade for a completely sensible idea to catch on. So it is with what may be the single best money-saving idea in last year’s state budget, one that is just now beginning fully to take hold.


          The idea, part of a plan by Gov. Jerry Brown to appease a panel of federal judges demanding ever more releases of state prison inmates, calls for the possible parole of several hundred convicts who are chronically sick or mentally impaired, plus a new parole program that could affect thousands of the elderly, defined as over 60.


          It’s an idea first proposed to this column in 2002 by reader Ray Procunier, then a Grass Valley resident. Procunier, who died two years ago at age 86, was director of corrections in California under Gov. Ronald Reagan and during part of Brown’s first term in the 1970s. He also headed prison systems in Texas and Utah.


          “When Reagan was governor, we cut the prison population by one-third and there was no increase in crime, not even a blip,” he wrote 11 years ago, in response to a column. “I guarantee I could cut down today’s prison population by 100,000 or more and not hurt a soul in the process.”


          Among his chief suggestions was the wholesale parole of prisoners over age 55, regardless of the Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out law or their specific sentences. He would have kept murderers, rapists and other serious sex offenders behind bars unless they had major chronic illnesses. These tactics alone, Procunier said, would cut prison costs by more than $4 billion – equivalent to at least $5 billion in today’s dollars.


          Brown made something very similar a central point of his plan to comply with the federal court’s ruling on prison-overcrowding. The big question: What took so long for this idea to percolate to the top?


    The most likely answer is inertia, along with a fear component, as no politician ever wants to appear soft on crime. This proclivity helped produce Three-Strikes and to increase the state’s prison populace from about 25,000 in 1980 to 170,000-plus in 2008. It’s taken the court order to cut that down a bit.


          So far, as Procunier predicted, the early paroles have caused no significant statewide crime increase. As of mid-March, California had set loose 74 elderly convicts, with thousands more waiting their turn. Releasing the chronically ill will likely have a similar negligible impact on crime, although just 76 such paroles had so far been approved.


          This is true because national crime statistics show most violent crimes are committed by persons in their teens, 20s and 30s, and very few by persons aged 55 or above. At the same time, the cost of maintaining hospitalized inmates ranges between $68,000 and $125,000 per year apiece, depending on where they are treated. That’s significantly more than the average $47,000 annual cost for maintaining the typical healthy convict.


          So far, 15 other states acting on this kind of information have begun expediting releases of elderly prisoners, who can use pensions, savings, Social Security, welfare or the resources of relatives to cover their expenses outside custody. Most ill inmates released early can be covered almost immediately by Medi-Cal under Obamacare, while the state gains not only prison space, but also can stop posting two guards in each of their hospital rooms around the clock, as required for prisoners hospitalized outside the prison system.


          All this explains why the current Brown plan makes sense, both as a means of helping comply with the court order and saving many millions, perhaps billions, of prison dollars. Too bad Brown and other governors didn’t have the good sense to do this many years ago, after Procunier first suggested it.


    -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

HOW CALIFORNIA WON BY LOSING TESLA BATTERY PLANT

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 7, 2015, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “HOW CALIFORNIA WON BY LOSING TESLA BATTERY PLANT”


    It was supposed to be a $5 billion project, creating 6,500 jobs. That was the hype when Tesla Motors last summer orchestrated a five-state battle to host a huge “gigafactory” where it plans to build batteries for its next generation of electric cars.


          Anyone who’s driven one knows the Tesla Model S seems to take off like a bullet from a standing start, pushing driver and passengers back into their seats with strong G-forces.


          But the only bullet involved with the luxury electric car company’s battery plant – to be built in association with Japan’s Panasonic Corp. – is the one California dodged by losing the plant to a location near Reno, Nev.


          For construction of this plant is not exactly moving like a speeding bullet. Rather, it’s plodding along, at best.


          Meanwhile, Nevada has already okayed spending at least $70 million on roads to service the plant, not to mention an unknown amount in property taxes lost to the exemption given the plant as one incentive to build there. Iron workers had erected $15 million worth of steel framing on the site by early winter. Then came an apparent slowdown.


          An early March Reno newspaper report quoted a post on the national union job board of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers saying “Project Tiger” – the Tesla plant’s code name – “has been cut back by 80 percent at this time. This is all subject to change.” In short, Tesla is hiring far fewer electricians than previously planned.


          This could be because of reported problems finding and/or keeping competent project managers on the job -- or not.


          The development came almost simultaneously with the company downsizing its China production facility, cutting 180 of 600 employees there, or 30 percent of its workforce.


          Was there a link? Possibly not, but Tesla wasn’t saying, insisting both that the Nevada plant is right on schedule and that there’s nothing to worry about in China. But if Tesla’s sales of its high-end Model S – which can cost about $120,000 – have slowed, might that affect the pace for rolling out its promised mid-price, mid-size car, due to get its batteries from the Nevada plant?


          Company kingpin Elon Musk isn’t saying. The firm sold only 120 cars in China in January, behind its projected pace and one reason Tesla stock has traded lately at more than $40 below its 2014 peak. Musk maintains this was because many urban Chinese don’t have access to garages, where American Tesla owners most frequently recharge their cars.


          He insists this is a very temporary glitch, because Tesla is fast building a large chain of recharging stations across much of China, with nearly 700 slots now open in 70 cities.


          This all appears to mean great uncertainty for Tesla, and for the state of Nevada, which eventually will pony up $1.3 billion under promises made when it landed the battery plant. No one knows the pace with which the plant will be built. No one knows if it will produce the thousands of expected jobs, for which Nevada will pay well over $100,000 each if all 6,500 materialize – more for each if the plant hires fewer workers.


          Nevada has never paid anything like that to casinos or other big employers. Nor has California ever paid so much in corporate welfare. Plus Tesla will pay no local property taxes for years to come and no one knows who will build schools and hire teachers for children of the putative new workers.


          That’s what California “lost” when it didn’t get the opportunity to subsidize Tesla’s battery plant, which could have been sited near Stockton. Just now, it looks like this state dodged a significant bullet.


          A larger question, of course, is whether any government should make corporate handouts on so grand a scale. Whenever American companies encounter similar government subsidies to their foreign rivals, they gripe about unfair competition.


          And yet…Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz all have gotten similar packages from states like Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.


          The ultimate outcome of the Tesla deal is not yet known, but right now it looks like California will be far better off by losing the battery plant than if it had “won” the competition.

           

    -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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

INTIMIDATION FACTOR COULD CAUSE A HARRIS CORONATION

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


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “INTIMIDATION FACTOR COULD CAUSE A HARRIS CORONATION”


          It’s now a certainty that Kamala Harris will have an opponent on the November 2016 ballot. But much less certain is whether that opponent will be any more threatening that Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist who placed second in California’s 2012 Senate primary election, was to incumbent Dianne Feinstein.


          For one by one, potentially formidable opponents to the election of Harris, now the state attorney general and previously district attorney of San Francisco, have fallen by the wayside since early January.


          Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer took himself out early. So did state Treasurer John Chiang, followed by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who opted instead to run for governor in 2018. Then former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took herself out, possibly because she would have had to face questions about her role in deceptions that led to the war in Iraq. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin also nixed a run.


          Any one of those four fellow Democrats and two Republicans could have posed a threat for Harris’ bid to replace the retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. Harris doesn’t look particularly intimidating, but she got to work very quickly on the Senate race, declaring for the job almost immediately after Boxer announced her impending retirement.


    Before anyone else had done much of anything, she staged high-profile fund-raisers in Bel Air, Long Beach, San Francisco and Washington D.C. At the same time, she quickly got endorsements from dozens of prominent Democrats. Harris, who handily won reelection as attorney general last fall before starting this run, also was helped when her investigators raided the home of the disgraced Michael Peevey, former head of the state Public Utilities Commission.


          Investigating Peevey, who drew praise from Gov. Jerry Brown and other major Democrats even as his alleged corruption became more and more evident, has made Harris seem politically independent and a tough backer of consumer interests.


          Put all this together and she’s a pretty intimidating candidate.


          Yes, there’s still the possibility of someone else substantial getting in against Harris, whose name was recognized by only 40 percent of likely voters in one late-winter poll. But so far, the only declared opponent is Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of San Diego County.


          Several Democratic congressional veterans, realizing that gerrymandering in other states has made it very difficult for their party to regain control of the House of Representatives, also might risk making this run.


          While Harris’ early entrance, bully pulpit as attorney general and her early endorsements strengthen her, she lacks the huge war chest used so often by senatorial candidates like Feinstein, Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson to scare off significant opposition. Newsom, who quickly raised $800,000 this winter to run for governor atop the $3 million left in his campaign kitty after last year’s run for reelection, will plainly try to employ financial intimidation against all but billionaires when his campaign gets serious two years from now.


          But Harris didn’t have that kind of money before she began raising new funds and has not made a formal financial report. She had just $1.3 million in her campaign account when her reelection run ended last fall, and it’s unclear how much of that is transferable to a federal campaign.


    By contrast, Burbank Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff had $2.1 million in his war chest at last report, and all of it could be used for a Senate run if he opts for that over reelection. Schiff has also said he thinks it’s time a credible Southern California candidate challenged the state’s San Francisco-based Democratic power elite, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Newsom, Harris, party chairman John Burton and Gov. Jerry Brown, with his base across the Bay in nearby Oakland.


    Villaraigosa, with strong appeal among Latino voters,  had appeared poised to be that kind of candidate before pulling out. Another Latino might yet emerge as a Harris challenger, with Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra of East Los Angeles, part of the House Democratic leadership, still possibilities.


          But right now Harris dominates this race, in part because she got in early and acted fast. Unless someone else acts soon, it figures to be more coronation than contest.

         
    -30-

    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 tdelias@aol.com

WILL LAWYER HIRING LEAD TO LOWER UTILITY RATES?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MARCH 31, 2015, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “WILL LAWYER HIRING LEAD TO LOWER UTILITY RATES?”


          It’s now possible that mid-February will be remembered in years to come as a fateful time in the century-long history of the California Public Utilities Commission. That’s when, without offering any legal justification, the five commissioners spent public money to hire a criminal lawyer.


    If courts find this move was as blatantly illegal as it looks to some, they may soon cease treating this powerful but disgraced body that sets power and natural prices for most Californians with the extreme deference they traditionally have evinced.


    Should judges reverse this possibly illegal PUC decision, how long before they begin looking askance at some of the commission’s other dicey rulings favoring giant utility companies over their customers.


          Right now, state and federal authorities are investigating the commission and its immediate past president Michael Peevey. Among tens of thousands of released emails are some showing inappropriate, potentially illegal, contacts between Peevey, at least one present commissioner, and high officials of regulated companies like Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co.


          This was predictable from the moment Peevey joined the commission more than 12 years ago, first appointed by then-Gov. Gray Davis and later reappointed by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. No one could reasonably expect Peevey, a former Edison president, to deal objectively with his friends and former colleagues. It was a classic case, first noted here in 2004, of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.


    The lawyer-hiring decision shows that despite pious declarations from Peevey successor Michael Picker about how “decisions should be based on the record developed in public,” things may not have changed much since Peevey departed as 2014 ended.


          With criminal investigations in full swing, commissioners signed a $49,000 contract with the Los Angeles law firm Sheppard Mullin, defense attorney Raymond C. Marshall of the firm’s San Francisco office in the lead role. Marshall is charging a “discounted” rate of $882 per hour. The $49,000 won’t go far at that rate.


    The commission has also used Walnut Creek lawyer Katherine Alberts to stonewall requests for records of PUC communications about a 2014 settlement forcing customers to pay $3.3 billion of the $4.7 billion cost for retiring the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station, owned by Edison and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co.


          But California Government Code section 995.8 says that a “public entity is not required to provide for the defense of a criminal action…” It adds that before hiring defense lawyers, an agency like the PUC must formally determine such a defense “would be in the best interests of the public entity and that (employees involved) acted...in good faith…and in the apparent interests of the public entity.”


          The PUC made no such determination and held no public hearings on hiring attorneys. Nor has it said who its criminal lawyers will defend.


          This spurred a lawsuit from former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre and his partner Maria Severson. They want the commission to reveal who its new lawyer will defend and hold hearings on whether that’s in the public interest.


          Aguirre said other commission decisions may have been made improperly, even criminally, including the San Onofre settlement. Another he cited was a ruling last November assessing a measly $1 million fine against multi-billion-dollar PG&E, also cutting its natural gas rates by $400 million a year as penalties for its conduct around the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons. Even new commission president Picker, who voted for those penalties, now says the company should pay much more.


    Aguirre also questioned a $14 million settlement with SDG&E after a 2007 fire ignited by power lines downed because of poor maintenance. That blaze destroyed 1,500 homes in northern San Diego County.


          The courts' traditional deference to the utilities commission has never before encountered criminality in commission conduct of its business. Meanwhile, the commission refuses to answer questions about its legal authority for hiring outside criminal lawyers.


          All of which means utility regulation in California has moved into a state of high flux. Who knows? It might soon be open season on those other questionable decisions and more and that could lead to rolling back some of California’s sky-high utility rates, which are at just as onerous and compulsory as high taxes.

                   
     -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, March 10, 2015

A CALIFORNIA COMEBACK FOR GERRYMANDERING?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MARCH 27, 2015, 2014, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
   “A CALIFORNIA COMEBACK FOR GERRYMANDERING?”


          Way back in 1811, almost 40 years before California became a state, then Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry okayed a congressional redistricting plan guaranteed to let his Democratic-Republican Party control his state’s congressional delegation.


          The plan – motivated by Gerry’s loss of a seat in Congress after opponents set up a district he could not possibly win – contained a district shaped like a lot like a salamander. This led to use of the term “gerrymander” to describe the process by which legislatures draw districts to ensure outcomes they like.


          Fast forward 197 years to when California voters short-circuited that process by approving the 2008 Proposition 11, which set up an independent citizens’ commission to draw state legislative district lines starting in 2011. Two years later, passage of Proposition 20 added congressional districts to the commission’s task.


          Now, after two election cycles featuring many more close and competitive races than California had seen in decades, the citizens commission’s work may be thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court via a case brought by leaders of the Arizona Legislature.


          Ironically, the plaintiff Arizona politicians are Republicans fearing a weakening in their control of that desert state. But if the Republican-dominated high court rules for them, it will be at the same time be increasing Democratic hegemony in California, where almost 80 percent of Congress members already are Democrats.


          But that would not be inconsistent for this Supreme Court, which has shown for almost 20 years that it cares little about increasing voter turnout or letting voters make their own choices.


          The current justices have gutted the Voting Rights Act. Most were on the court that in 2000 threw out California’s former “blanket primary” system, adopted by voters in 1996. Under that system, challenged by both major political parties, anyone could vote for any candidate on the primary ballot, regardless of party registration. The leading vote-getter in each party then made the November runoff election. Most current justices also were on the court that – also in 2000 – called a halt to recounting votes in Florida, thus assuring the presidency for Republican George W. Bush, who tallied about half a million fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore. In all those cases, so much for what the majority of voters wanted or for helping more Americans exercise their right to vote.


          So it was hardly surprising that several justices appeared in a court hearing this month to favor the arguments of the Arizona Legislature’s Republicans, who argued that the Constitution gives the right to redraw congressional districts each decade exclusively to legislators.


          They noted that the Constitution says “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.” Of course, choice of U.S. senators was taken out of legislative hands in 1913 by the 17th Amendment, but even before then, many states were electing senators by popular vote regardless of the fact that Article 1 of the Constitution still said senators from each state were to be “chosen by the Legislature thereof…”


          So there’s plenty of precedent for deviating from strict constitutional construction, even without an amendment.


          But, as cynics might say, tell that to the justices.


          Justice Antonin Scalia, leader of the court’s usually controlling conservatives, claimed in the early March hearing on the Arizona appeal that when the Constitution says “Legislature,” it means only elected lawmakers and not the mass of voters who often pass state law via ballot propositions. Never mind that initiatives didn’t exist in 1787.


          Letting a commission draw districts, Scalia said, “is giving this power to an unelected body…”


          Californians deliberately did just that. And the work of the first citizens’ commission, vetted by the state’s non-partisan auditor, has gotten generally good marks.


          Chances are if the court – due to rule on this case before July 1 – rules for the Arizona legislators, the decision would quickly be applied to California via lawsuits in lower federal courts. That makes it possible new congressional districts could be in place by the 2016 primary, drawn by Democratic legislators to favor election of even more Democrats to Congress. Voters would be lucky if lines look no more convoluted than salamanders.


          But there’s one large comfort here: Any such ruling would apply only to congressional districts and not state legislative lines. So the citizens commission will be back in 2021 no matter what, even if its work is not as broad as it was four years ago.


          -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