Monday, March 18, 2019

SHOULD 17-YEAR-OLDS HAVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE?


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2019, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “SHOULD 17-YEAR-OLDS HAVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE?”


          No one protested back in the 1970s, when first Congress and then every state granted 18-year-old citizens the right to vote. If they were old enough to die for their country, went the reasoning, they were also old enough to help make its decisions.


          Now a top-ranking Democratic state legislator wants to expand the franchise to let 17-year-old Californians vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the next general elections.


          “If a voter is going to be eligible to vote in a general election, why wouldn’t we want to allow them also to have a say in who they will be voting for in that election?” said Assembly Speaker pro tem Kevin Mullin of San Mateo. He wants the Legislature to put a proposed state constitutional amendment allowing this new right on the March 3, 2020 primary ballot.


          This is not exactly a new idea: 23 other states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries. And it’s been proposed before in California: Just last year, Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low of Campbell introduced another amendment lowering the voting age to 17 in all elections. That one died in an Assembly committee.


It’s easy to see this idea as a ploy by Democrats to assure they stay in power indefinitely. After all, it would be yet another way to expand the electorate, and a political truism says that the more voters turn out in any election, the better Democrats will do.


The effort is part of a series of moves by California Democrats since 2015 to get ballots into the hands of more and more voters. They enacted Election Day voter registration – used by more than 40,000 new voters last fall. They legalized “ballot harvesting,” where operatives of all parties can help voters fill out ballots, show them how to sign the ballots and then assist them in mailing those ballots or otherwise turning them in. Democrats also passed “motor voter,” making voter registration automatic for anyone getting a drivers license unless they decline. Despite management problems that saw some voters registered to parties they didn’t want, this also produced tens of thousands of new votes.


It all contrasted sharply with simultaneous Republican moves to restrict voting rights in states where they controlled both governor’s offices and legislatures. Some of those rules may be loosened considerably soon, as Democrats took over eight governor’s posts and six legislatures last fall, still leaving the GOP with 21 states where it controls the entire state capital.


Although Republicans lately have tried to suppress voting numbers while Democrats do all they can to open ballots for virtually everyone, this has only been a partisan issue for about the last eight years. Before then, voting was a matter of civics, almost all Americans agreeing that the more voters turn out, the better for the nation’s social and political fabric.


That’s still the rhetoric Democrats use, while Republicans maintain all the Democrats’ vote-expansion moves are aimed at groups more likely to vote Democratic, including undocumented immigrants.


          California Republicans have had little to say about the state’s recent voting expansions, but they were the first to take advantage when mail voting opened to all in the late 1970s, after previously being available only to those who could not get to the polls. For one example, many analysts attributed ex-Gov. George Deukmejian’s 1982 upset win over Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to the GOP’s skillful use of newly legalized unlimited absentee votes.


          Now some Republicans blame the new rules for their big losses last year, saying they must do what Democrats did in the ‘80s: master the new tactics.


          Democrats today use the old-fashioned civic rhetoric to plump for their voter-expansion efforts, including 17-year-old primary voting. “I’m a strong supporter of civic engagement,” says Mullin. “This is about getting more Californians involved in the political process regardless of their political affiliation.”


          And who knows? If this state’s Republicans ever manage to expand their appeal beyond their current conservative base, they also might find ways to turn 17-year-olds and other new voters their way, rather than letting them go lemming-like to the Democrats.


    -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

AFTER DEATH PENALTY REPRIEVES, MULTIPLE MANSONS CONFRONT NEWSOM


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2019 OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
   “AFTER DEATH PENALTY REPRIEVES, MULTIPLE MANSONS CONFRONT NEWSOM”


          Given the obvious proclivities of the California Board of Parole Hearings, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that multiple “Manson Family” members are and will soon be up for release, just short of 50 years after they helped carry out the most notorious murders of the 20th Century.


          They pose a test for new Gov. Gavin Newsom, now that he’s decided the more than 700 felons on California’s Death Row deserve to live no matter how heinous their crimes. The possibility that more than one of mastermind/guru Charles Manson’s killer gang members could soon be back on the streets was unheard of just a few years ago – and should still be.


          Manson himself died a convict in late 2017, never having had a realistic hope for freedom.


          But some Parole Board members who voted during the winter to free Bobby Beausoleil and Leslie Van Houten because of good behavior in prison are too young to remember the fear that suffused much of California during the “Family’s” reign of terror. So is Newsom.


          And more Manson acolytes likely will be recommended for freedom soon. Both Bruce Davis and Charles (Tex) Watson have applied several times, thwarted only when past governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Parole Board actions.


          Davis’ next chance at parole comes in August, while Watson gets a new try in 2021.


This gives California’s new Gov. Gavin Newsom – the first governor not old enough to have been sentient during the Manson crime spree – an opportunity to make a strong statement about how he’ll treat perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, even if he won’t tolerate executing them.


          Brown used one parole attempt by Davis, known as Manson’s right-hand man, to make a statement about gruesome criminals. "In rare circumstances," Brown wrote, "a murder is so heinous that it provides evidence of dangerousness by itself."


          Will Newsom make a similar declaration? Or will he cater to more forgiving Californians by allowing the Beausoleil and Van Houten paroles? Either way, there will be implications for Newsom’s future in state and national politics, especially in combination with his death penalty move.


          Newsom was a toddler during the public uncertainty that accompanied the ultra-bloody Manson crimes, including the murders of actress Sharon Tate and several friends in her home in the Benedict Canyon area near Beverly Hills and the next-day killings of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, several miles away.


          Beausoleil and Davis carried out the murder of musician Gary Hinman a bit earlier, Beausoleil slashing Hinman to death on Manson’s direct order in the wake of a drug deal gone bad. Beausoleil’s parole recommendation came on his 19th try for release.


          Van Houten’s role in the week’s-long Manson slaughter spree was very different. She wasn’t present for the Tate killings because she stayed on the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth where the gang squatted for months without permission. But the next night, the former homecoming queen from Monrovia joined Watson and others as they burst in on the LaBiancas.


          Court testimony showed Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBiana with a bayonet, then handed a knife to Van Houten. She testified she stabbed her victim in the back at least 14 times, then used blood from her and her husband to scrawl messages implying a race war was imminent.


          “I take responsibility…I looked to men for my value and I didn’t speak up,” she said in a parole hearing. Van Houten later led self-help groups for women prisoners.

          Rosemary LaBianca never got a chance to do anything like that, her life snuffed out in large part by Van Houten.


          Van Houten and Beausoleil now want to become just the second and third Manson gang murderers out on parole. So far, Steve (Clem) Grogan, released in 1985 after leading police to the dismembered body of movie stuntman Donald (Shorty) Shea on the Spahn ranch, is the lone gang member to have been released.


          Now it’s up to Newsom to decide whether to set more elderly Mansonites free in California. If he says yes, the choice, along with his death penalty reprieves, will follow him for a long time.
         
         
    -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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

LATINO VOTING DREAMS NOT COMING TRUE FOR BIG PARTIES


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MARCH 29, 2019, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “LATINO VOTING DREAMS NOT COMING TRUE FOR BIG PARTIES”


          Both Democrats and Republicans have long harbored big dreams about Latino voters. Now, as California gets set for its first seemingly influential presidential primary in decades, the dreams of both parties may not be coming true.


          Here are their high hopes: Democrats in California and elsewhere want Latino voting rates to climb ever higher on the assumption those voters will always lean their way and guarantee victories next year and beyond. Republicans dream that Latinos will eventually shift their way as more Hispanics move from the Roman Catholic church into evangelical Christian denominations that emphasize what are loosely known as “family values,” including opposition to abortion and a stress on heavy punishment for crimes.


          If there was ever a year when Democrats figured to see the percentage of Latino votes move strongly in their direction, it was 2018. In fact, Latino voting numbers were up both in California and nationally last fall, with more than 40 percent of eligible Hispanics casting ballots. Their added numbers aided in the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, especially in California, where Democrats flipped seven formerly Republican congressional districts.


          That increased turnout was in part the result of President Trump’s immigration policies, which led to detention of many asylum seekers and separating more than 5,000 children from their parents, a tactic judges later ruled illegal.


          But the proportions of Latinos voting Democratic and Republican remained pretty static, right about where they’ve been since the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan ran first for California governor and then for President.


          Reagan always won about 36 percent of Hispanic votes, peaking at 39 percent in 1984 after bottoming out at 33 percent in his last run for governor in 1972.


          Last year, after Trump repeatedly called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, seizing on occasional major crimes by undocumented immigrants, 32 percent of Latinos voted Republican, according to Associated Press VoteCast data collected by the University of Chicago. That’s not much of a change in percentage over the last half century.


          Other surveys and exit polls had similar numbers for Latino voters.


          This disappointed Democrats and relieved Republicans, who have long feared they might face almost unanimous opposition from the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group.


          As usual, the Republican Latino vote came largely from evangelicals who made up one-fourth of all Hispanic voters last fall and from military veterans who comprised 13 percent of Latino votes. There was some overlap between the two categories, but the final numbers suggest Republican support among these two groups came in at about 90 percent.


          That’s slightly higher than the proportion by which African-American voters – the single most reliable part of the Democratic voting coalition – usually votes that way.


          Frustrated Democrats can’t understand why more Latinos are not offended by Trump’s frequent Twitter tirades against immigrant “caravans” and his family separation policies. Their puzzlement grows when they see polls showing immigration is by far the most important issue among Hispanic voters.


          Some suggest Democrats should expend as much effort and money to win over the one-third of Latinos who persistently go Republican as they did while winning four formerly Republican congressional seats in Orange County last year.


          But Democrats have long taken Latino voters for granted. Meanwhile, Republicans want to maximize whatever Hispanic votes might be available to them. Example: Steve Frank, a longtime Republican activist, blogger and campaign manager based in Ventura County, suggested while running for GOP state chairman this winter that his party should stage vote-harvesting parties in evangelical churches everywhere in California, making sure their conservative-leaning congregants vote and that their ballots are collected and filed.


          But both parties may find their frustration continues indefinitely, because no tactic yet tried has caused Latino voting preferences to change much over the last 50 years, even while the number of Latinos voting has vastly increased. It all suggests that only something dramatic can ever break these longstanding voting habits and preferences.

         
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    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

ARE FIREFIGHTERS USING ALL THE RIGHT STUFF?


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MARCH 26, 2019, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “ARE FIREFIGHTERS USING ALL THE RIGHT STUFF?”


          It’s pretty clear to anyone who’s watched firefighters try to control the massive blazes bedeviling California over the last two years that they have the right stuff. But questions have arisen over whether they are using all the right stuff.


          The maker of a rival firefighting substance has cried foul over an exclusive contract between suppliers of Phos-Chek fire retardant fluids and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.


          That pact sees the state use no long-term fire retardant other than Phos-Chek, a highly visible pinkish-red fluid dropped from air tankers onto fast-moving flames. Phos-Chek, produced by the St. Louis-based ICL Performance Products in Ontario, CA and Moreland, ID, slows fires and can steer them, but doesn’t put them out.


          With ingredients including ammonium polyphosphate and attapulgus clay, it is toxic to most fish; firefighters must try to avoid spills into rivers and creeks. It is the only long-term fire retardant recommended by the U.S. Forest Service.


          CalFire pays just under $3 per gallon for Phos-Check, about $47,000 per full load for a Boeing 747 tanker, a total of $28.4 million last year.


          But backers of the less toxic competitor Pyrocool maintain their product is better, partly because it actually extinguishes fires, partly because it is cheaper at about 17 cents per gallon and partly because of its lower toxicity. It won a major federal Environmental Protection Agency safety award in 1998.


          “We’ve been trying for at least 10 years to get CalFire to use our product,” says Pyrocool CEO Robert Tinsley, a resident of the San Francisco suburb Brentwood. “With these devastating fires, you’d think they’d take a look at something else that has credentials.”


          In fact, some California locales have used Pyrocool, including the University of California’s Davis campus and the cities of San Rafael and El Centro. It’s also been employed by the federal bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs, British Petroleum and the U.S. Navy and Air Force.


          But CalFire won’t try it because it’s not on the approved list of the U.S. Forest Service. “We don’t do the testing; they do,” says Scott McLean, CalFire spokesman. “We’re very comfortable following the USFS lead.” CalFire does not have a chemicals testing lab, relying on the USFS, whose own lab is not accredited.


          Meanwhile, the Forest Service won’t certify Pyrocool because it failed a safety test almost 20 years ago. In that episode, Pyrocool says it provided two drums of its product to the USFS. One passed, the other failed as too corrosive of magnesium-based substances.


          Pyrocool refuses to pay for a USFS retest, maintaining the Forest Service lab is unaccredited and unreliable, unable to duplicate results. The USFS said in an email its wildfire products lab is not accredited because “there is no legal requirement” for that.


          Tinsley offered to let CalFire test Pyrocool at an accredited lab in California, at company expense. But McLean said in an email that “Due to being a state agency, we cannot honor the offer by Pyrocool to have another lab test their product specifically for CalFire.”


          McLean also said CalFire is not sure Pyrocool (like Phos-Check, a mix of water with a base concentrate) would stay in solution in an air tanker. But Pyrocool officials recount a January 2017 case where during raging wildfires in Chile, the Walmart-linked Walton Family Foundation paid to send a 747 loaded with Pyrocool in solution to the rescue of the city of Llico, which was threatened with the same fate suffered last year by Paradise, Calif.


          When it arrived and made several drops, disaster was averted.


          Tinsley also cites the case of the oil tanker Nassia, burning in the Bosporus Strait near Istanbul, where the Lloyds of London insurance consortium estimated flames would burn at least 12 days. A salvage firm dropped a helicopter load of Pyrocool and the fire was out in 20 minutes.


          No one can be sure Pyrocool or some other product would do better than Phos-Chek against California wildfires. But given CalFire’s inability to stop recent big fires, it’s an open question whether this state’s very capable firefighters are getting the right stuff to do their job well.

         
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    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

Monday, March 4, 2019

NO DEAL IS BEST DEAL ON SPLIT ROLL


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MARCH 22, 2019, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “NO DEAL IS BEST DEAL ON SPLIT ROLL”


           It’s open season these days on ballot initiatives, propositions placed on California’s ballots every two years after hundreds of thousands of voters sign petitions to put them there.


          The as-yet-unnamed and -unnumbered initiative known as the “split roll” is not exempt.


          Thanks to a 2014 law, legislators and others state officials who don’t like ordinary citizens to make this state’s biggest policy decisions now can maneuver to get already-qualified initiatives taken off the ballot. If they work out a deal with the initiative sponsors, the measure will go away.


          For the split roll measure, whose sponsors including the League of Women Voters gathered more than half a million signatures, that means it would not be Californians at large deciding what is arguably the most important tax issue now before the state, but rather a bunch of insiders.


          British Prime Minister Theresa May, opposing a second national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should pull out of the European Union, said for much of the winter that holding a second vote “would undermine public faith in democracy.”


          That’s just what a back-room deal taking the split roll initiative off the November 2020 ballot would do.


          No doubt, split roll would upset quite a few applecarts. But that is what the early 20th Century Republican Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson had in mind when he engineered the initiative process to let voters make key decisions.


          Make no mistake, the split roll verdict is a key decision. It would make the first significant change in Proposition 13 since that landmark property tax-cutting measure passed by almost a 2-1 vote in 1978. For almost 41 years since then, commercial property has been taxed at the same rate as residential, owners of both types paying 1 percent of the latest purchase price, plus a 2 percent yearly increase. Property in the same hands since 1975 gets taxed at 1 percent of its assessment that year, plus the same 2 percent annual increment.


          Split roll would change this formula for commercial property, while leaving homes alone. Business property would immediately be taxed based on current valuations, bringing in as much as $11 billion in new government revenue every year. Business interests like chambers of commerce around the state will fight this change.


          But the question may never actually get to a yes-or-no vote. Last summer, for example, the Legislature passed new privacy rules entitling all Californians to know what information Internet giants like Google and Yahoo and Facebook and eBay and Amazon have about them. They will soon be able to prohibit companies from selling that information and force companies to delete it after they learn what’s been gathered.


          That was progress, but a far cry from the ballot initiative those new rules replaced. The original would have forced companies to get consumer permission before gathering, maintaining or selling information on what Internet searches people make, what they buy and what products they look at but don’t buy – and much more.


          Initiative sponsors scrapped those things when they compromised with Big Internet, sparing the sponsors from having to raise many millions of campaign dollars while still risking a loss and a return to Square 1.


          This was the kind of compromise intended when the 2014 law passed. But it deprived voters of a voice via a classic backroom deal made shortly before the deadline for ballot measures to be assigned proposition numbers.


          Now Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he’d like to broker a deal staving off an expensive and emotional campaign over Proposition 13. He wants to simplify California’s tax code in the process and make it more fair, at the same time making the state budget less dependent on income taxes generated by stock and bond investments.


          No one is now claiming a far-reaching tax deal is likely or even possible. But if it happens and it takes the split roll off the ballot, voters will again lose the chance to make an important decision that could affect all Californians for many years to come.


          And that would be a major detriment to democracy.

         
-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

CAN NEWSOM HOUSING CAMPAIGN SUCCEED?


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MARCH 19, 2019, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “CAN NEWSOM HOUSING CAMPAIGN SUCCEED?”


          It turns out Gov. Gavin Newsom was deadly serious when he insisted as a candidate last year that California needs to build 3.5 million new housing units each year for the next ten in order to solve its affordable housing crisis. That’s a total of 3.5 million, more than double what builders around the state have put up in any of the last few decades.


          Newsome resent that message a few weeks into his new job, when he successfully urged Attorney General Xavier Becerra to sue the Orange County city of Huntington Beach for allegedly failing to allow enough new housing to handle its population growth.


          With about 202,000 residents, the median home value in “Surf City” tops $830,000, according to the website Zillow.com. Typical one-bedroom apartments there rent for between $1,500 and $2,700 per month. For those rents to eat up less than 30 percent of a tenant’s income, the renter must earn more than $60,000 per year, making many tenants “rent-burdened” by federal standards.


          The state lawsuit charges Huntington Beach has for years ignored a state law requiring cities to zone land for new housing construction. Meanwhile, many city residents feel Huntington Beach is growing too fast.


          So the Newsom/Becerra lawsuit is likely just the first salvo in a state vs. local conflict over the governor’s preferred way of solving the housing problem.


          But even if cities like Huntington Beach can be forced to allow the millions of “affordable” units Newsom and some activist state legislators want, it’s highly questionable they can solve the most visible part of California’s housing crunch – homelessness.


          Yes, cities have built thousands of transitional housing units (generally small apartments) for formerly homeless persons, who pay low, federally subsidized rent. But that hasn’t reduced homelessness.


          “Every time we build new units and move people in, at least the same number of homeless people move into whatever cities do the building,” said the city manager of a city of more than 100,000, who previously was the top administrator of two other cities. “With our climate and our policies, we are attracting homeless people from all over America.”


          Then there’s the question of affordability. Anyone who’s visited a homeless shelter like those in gymnasiums and National Guard armories on cold winter nights will know that not many of their occupants could afford even low rent.


          So while affordable housing in most cities is set up to remain relatively low-priced a long as it stands, well below market rates, the rents or costs to buy are still above what most homeless folks can pay. Especially the large component of the homeless who are mentally ill, but not institutionalized, largely because of policies that began almost 50 years ago, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan spurred the shutdown of several public mental hospitals, intending to replace them with community-based housing.


          Such housing never materialized in significant quantities, and mentally ill homeless became a California staple.


          Meanwhile, rents on affordable apartments generally run about 30 percent of the median income in any region. Under those terms, an affordable unit in the Los Angeles region would rent for about $1,350 per month, more in the San Francisco Bay area.


          Not exactly affordable if you’re unemployed, mentally ill and living on the streets.


          So it’s na├»ve to believe affordable housing or the governor’s new initiative can solve the homeless problem.


          And there’s still the problem of housing being too expensive for even middle-class workers to buy. So the percentage of renters in California continues to rise, meaning that ever fewer residents feel rooted in the state, with a stake in its future.


          All this makes some wonder if it’s sensible to invest heavily in affordable housing. In 2017, the average affordable unit in the state cost $425,000 to build if it was part of a project of 100 units or more. The cost was higher when fewer units were involved.


          This picture leaves many questions to be answered before the state goes full blast on a government-funded or government-mandated home building spree. But don’t expect anything to dampen Newsom’s deeply felt drive to solve the housing issue, and quickly.


     -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


Monday, February 25, 2019

LET'S MAKE THE PUC ELECTIVE


CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2019 OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “LET'S MAKE THE PUC ELECTIVE”


          Travel back in time to the mid-1980s, when California’s insurance rates for both cars and property were nearly the highest in America and climbing fast. In that era, state insurance commissioners, who held the power to stop much of that acceleration, were appointed by the governor.


          Then came 1988, when a consumer group called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (now known as Consumer Watchdog) and its leader decided to change all that. The group ran a ballot initiative known as Proposition 103, which made the insurance commissioner an elected official. Since then, California insurance rates have risen slower than those in any other state, saving customers over $100 billion. Coverage here remained as good as anywhere.


          It’s now high time to regulate utility companies as firmly as insurance companies and to make utility regulators responsible to the public and the voters just like the elected insurance commissioner.


          No industry has been cozier with those who regulate it than electric and gas utilities, which regularly get large rate increases, deserved or not. Debacles like the blunder-caused closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion never dented the ever-rising rates and steady profits of companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.


          Lax regulation also may have contributed to several of the huge wildfires that have plagued California over the last two years.


          Into this scene now steps new Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vowed in an interview during his campaign to fight corruption that was allowed to fester in some parts of state government under predecessor Jerry Brown.


          “I will not be timid about this or anything else,” he said. “Jerry Brown said reform is overrated. I say it’s underrated.”


          The obvious way for Newsom to reform the state Public Utilities Commission would be to appoint some new members to the five-person panel. But the state Constitution doesn’t allow that to happen fast.


          PUC members serve staggered six-year terms, so no governor can name the entire complement unless he or she gets two terms, like Brown did. Brown filled the group with former aides, including current PUC President Michael Picker, who voted, as just one example, for a San Onofre settlement plan originating in an illegal meeting between former PUC boss Michael Peevey and Edison executives. It had customers paying 70 percent of the cost of Edison’s shutdown error, until public outcries caused the arrangement to be changed four years later.


          Barring sudden resignations or the death of a member, Newsom is to get only three PUC appointees, one already named this year, and two more at the beginning of 2021. In January, he appointed Genevieve Shiroma, a farmer’s daughter and longtime member of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board and elected board member for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Quick change is unlikely at the current pace.


          The obvious way to create faster, orderly reform is to make PUC commissioners elected officials. This could be done via a 2020 ballot proposition, with an election to follow.


          Even this would be slow and frustrating, with the current PUC majority continuing policies that favor utilities and cost consumers billions of dollars they probably should not be paying. Simultaneously, the PUC tries to delay and hamstring creating and expanding municipally-controlled Community Choice Aggregations, which often supply greener energy than the utilities at lower prices.


          Newsom wasn’t specific about how he’ll combat corruption, except to say he will try to alter state contracting practices to make sure they always involve competitive bidding.


          All this leads to the reality that it’s high time to take the PUC down a peg or three from its current exalted position, where members cannot be fired even by the governor who appointed them and their decisions are not subject to lawsuits in ordinary courts.


          It will take time to make this 104-year-old agency answer to the voters. But that would be time well spent, even though the commission can be counted on to do whatever it can to maintain its status quo and quash any attempt to reduce its privileged status.

         
          -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