Saturday, December 26, 2009




California will soon be hearing a new cry of alarm from its movie tough-guy governor, whose upcoming state of the state speech will be unable to gloss over the reality that this year’s budget shortfall is even worse than last year’s.

Maybe the numbers won’t be quite as high: The deficit staring at state officials might be a “mere” $20 billion instead of the $40 billion or so of one year ago. But that’s only because of last year’s cuts, which lower considerably the starting point measuring the new negatives are measured.

So the pressure for large cuts is again upon us. Some will surely want to lop 15 percent or so from whatever was allocated to all state programs during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Some will want to chop even more from programs that took substantial hits last year.

But budget cutters beware: The moves that save you a little money this year might end up costing far more down the line. Of course, because of term limits, many people making key decisions this year will not be around to cope with the consequences even as soon as one year from now. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example.

It’s impossible, of course, to list all the potential moves that might backfire. But here’s one: Cutting funding for battered women’s shelters, a 2009 cut that has been partly rescinded, costs not only untold human misery when women are forced to stay with violent husbands or boyfriends. But the cuts can cost more money than they save when those women show up at emergency rooms, trauma centers and hospitals for treatment of injuries that could have been avoided if they’d found a shelter. No one has yet calculated how much the 2009 closures – some later reversed – will eventually cost.

Similarly, no one can know how much an unheralded upcoming prison system cut might cost.

The prisons are due very soon to lay off three-fourths of their education staff, teachers trying to bring some degree of literacy and other skills to convicts. Back in the 1960s, when education programs were at their peak, California had America’s lowest recidivism rates for ex-convicts.

Not now. The state today sits in the middle ranks in recidivism, partly because of prior staff cuts. “No other program cuts recidivism like education,” says Christopher Brady, holder of two master’s degrees and a teacher at San Quentin State Prison. “You’re blowing your brains out when you cut the part of the prison system that works best.”

Education takes up just 2 percent of the $8 billion prison budget, but 60 percent of that money will dry up. Since crime and illiteracy rates are directly related, this move will have high costs in money and lives lost or immeasurably harmed.

State parks took a $14 million cut last year, almost 10 percent of that system’s previous budget, and they’re sure to be on the firing line again this spring.

The cost of cutting parks is often measured in lost wilderness experience for urban children and recreational opportunities lost to reduced park hours and maintenance. But here, too, budget cuts can lead to actual dollars lost. Not merely via lawsuits from contractors or nearby businesses whose survival is threatened when parks close or reduce their hours.

There’s also show business. Movies and television are areas where state parks have long produced significant money for California. This comes not only when legendary movies like The Virginian (1929) and High Noon (1952) and The Unforgiven (1992) go on location in Jamestown and Columbia state historic parks in Tuolomne County, but also from routine filming.

Fully 526 productions, including 47 feature movies, were filmed in 2008 in California state parks, which double for places like Wales, Korea, Connecticut and the Planet of the Apes. That’s was down 15 from 2007. Close the parks, turn off their water and power, and who knows how many more location shoots will leave the state?

Schwarzenegger talks often about getting business and jobs to stay in California, but his budget cutters may be sending many productions away, along with thousands of jobs. “We don’t know how many productions would leave if parks close,” says one department spokeswoman. The guess here: plenty.

No one suggests the next budget can come without cuts. But budget writers must heed the long-term costs of their choices – in jobs, wages, taxes and human misery – in fields like these, not to mention highways and higher education, for just two more.

Because they were often unthinking last year, they ended up shooting themselves in the foot frequently, even having courts reverse some of decisions, like the one cutting out pay for most home-care workers.

It’s a dilemma so serious that honest politicians this year will have to question whether their stances can really rest solely on party loyalty and ideology, as they often have in the past, or whether practical necessity may override things like “no new taxes” or absolute fealty to the goals of labor unions.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




There will be wildly contentious battles over ballot propositions this year, with fights over a possible repeal of the Proposition 8 ban on same sex marriages, whether to hold a state constitutional convention and whether to legalize marijuana completely, to name just three hot-button initiatives heading for a popular vote.

But the biggest fight, the sharpest split, may come over water. No one knows for sure, but the water plan and an associated bond issue approved last fall by state lawmakers might determine who will become California’s next governor. All major Republican candidates back the plan, while Attorney General Jerry Brown, the lone significant Democrat now running, hasn’t said much about it.

No one knows, also, whether Mark Twain really did say back in 1875 that in California, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.”

Whether it was his or not, the remark remains as apt as ever today, almost 135 years after it was supposedly first uttered.

The fighting this year will be over that as-yet-unnumbered water bond proposition, an $11.1 billion tar baby strongly backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s vital to pass this, he and other advocates say, if there’s to be progress toward assuring adequate water supplies for all parts of the state. There’s money in it for new dams, groundwater basin protection, environmental protection in the vital Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and many, many local projects. Almost every lawmaker put something for his or her district into this package.

Unlike past plans like the putative Peripheral Canal vetoed by voters in 1982, which would have carried water around the Delta in a concrete-lined ditch, this one has backing from some major environmental groups. Both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund signed onto the water plan before it passed.

But whatever good will that reigned when the water measures passed in October quickly gave way to the discord usually prevalent whenever changes in California’s water situation near reality. Brown, who okayed the Peripheral Canal idea while governor 28 years ago, was badly burned by the public’s rebellion against it; maybe that’s why he’s being cautious now.

But others are not at all reticent. No sooner had Schwarzenegger signed the water package than Delta area legislators, fishermen and Indian tribes claimed it would lead to utter destruction for the Delta – this despite creation of a Delta Stewardship Council designed to preserve species and water quality there.

They seized on Schwarzenegger’s almost immediate announcement that he intends to pursue something like a Peripheral Canal, charging that because the governor will appoint four of the seven Stewardship Council members, “you can be sure…the canal’s construction (will be) a priority for the council members…” This, of course, ignores the fact that Schwarzenegger will be governor for less than one year from now, while it will be many years – perhaps decades – before dirt is turned on the projects now contemplated.

Realities like that don’t stop the emotional responses water always spurs, emotions likely to split the state on a north-south basis when the bond battle heats up next fall. Cries that vast quantities of Northern California river water are wasted washing cars and watering lawns in Central and Southern California were heard less than a day after the package passed. There will also be financial issues with the bond package, which would cost about half a billion dollars yearly to repay and contains an estimated $2 billion worth of pure “pork.” And some in the Delta area call for revival of the long-dormant Auburn Dam as an alternate to the Peripheral Canal or for a system of gates and locks within the Delta itself.

In the meantime, plenty of other fights are already underway in courts and within the bureaucracy. On those fronts, no sooner had federal Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked for a National Academy of Sciences review of the environmental findings that led to reduced water pumping from the Delta last spring and summer than two environmental groups asked a judge to give even more protections to the threatened, minnow-like Delta smelt than it now enjoys.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the San Francisco-based Bay Institute sued together, demanded both endangered status for the Delta smelt and protected status for the similar longfin smelt.

At the same time, the Fresno federal judge who ordered pumping reduced ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should have considered more environmental impacts like depletion of underground aquifers and more particulate air pollution via dust from fallowed fields before enacting its plan to protect the smelt.

It’s a picture so complex and laden with emotion that no one can reliably predict the election outcome. And it will produce an expensive campaign likely to prove again (on all sides) the wisdom of yet another Twain aphorism: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, December 19, 2009




Memo to California voters: If you’re tired of dysfunctional government where ideology trumps good public policy, vote yes on the “Elections: Open Primary” proposition this June.

Why? Because that’s the quickest way to assure putting at least some moderate centrists into the state Legislature. It’s also the quickest way to give a voice to millions of voters who now essentially have no representation in state government. And it's the first step toward making state government work better, far faster and surer than a constitutional convention or any other tactic.

The open primary would be pretty simple: Each primary election would be completely open, with all candidates from all parties listed on a single ballot. No more Republican, Democratic, Green, Libertarian or any other party primaries conducted simultaneously but separately. No more haggling over whether to let independent voters into party primaries.

From that one ballot, the top two vote-getters would reach a runoff election, regardless of their party affiliation, unless one has a clear majority.

This should sound familiar; it’s exactly how hundreds of local elections in California have been conducted over decades. This is why two Democrats often are the finalists in mayoral elections in places like Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento.

The open system differs in two ways from the “blanket primary” approved by voters in 1996 and later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. That plan, used only in one California election cycle, also listed all candidates on a single ballot, but it put the leading vote-getter from each party into the runoff election. So all parties still conducted their own primaries.

The ideological extremists running both major parties hated that system as much as they despise the open primary, also known as the “top two” system. Regardless of ideology, party honchos can’t stand the idea that voters from the other major party could influence the primary outcome in theirs.

This might in fact be bad for the party bosses. But it’s good for almost everyone else. Here’s why:

Today’s legislative and congressional districts are gerrymandered so thoroughly that even though term limits change the bodies occupying them, very few seats ever switch parties. Change can rarely happen when voter registration in many districts is so one-sided that winning a party primary is tantamount to election.

So in a district where Republicans hold a 60-40 percent registration edge among voters willing to affiliate, Democrats essentially have no voice. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will get the seat. The converse for districts where Democrats maintain big advantages.

Because the primary winner can’t lose in a runoff, candidates rarely even try to appeal to the general populace, speaking only to the party faithful. Meanwhile, party primaries for many years have been dominated by extremists on the left or right, the left for Democrats and the right among Republicans.

Open primaries can change all that. Republicans running in GOP districts would need Democratic votes and could no longer cater only to their party’s right wing. The same for Democrats in districts their party dominates.

That’s exactly what leaders of the two major parties don’t want. Elected at party conventions attended mostly by true believers, they represent the far fringes, not the broad moderate middle of America and California. It's no accident party bosses who find it hard to agree on anything all want to maintain the system that created them.

They went to court together to throw out the blanket primary and they teamed to defeat an open primary proposition in 2004. Their counterparts did the same thing in Oregon last year, defeating a top-two proposition there.

The two major parties are joined in opposing top two by the smaller parties, who want to stay in general elections even though they have no chance to win. They whine that they should have a presence in every election, regardless of whether they’ve earned it.

Even officials of the major parties will piously argue for this while they're opposing open primaries. It’s the only time these people give the slightest thought to Greens, Libertarians and other small parties.

But open primaries don’t deprive any party of anything it earns. Put up candidates with wide appeal and they would make runoffs, just as they occasionally do in local primary elections.

There’s also the complaint that an open primary can put two candidates from the same party into a runoff. This can happen only if one of them draws heavily from members of the other major party. It’s possible in districts with one-sided registration if many members of the No. 2 party cross over in the primary. Rather than depriving those voters of representation, as party purists claim, an open primary actually would give them influence for the first time since 1998.

All of which should make the open primary the top priority this spring for any voter interested in better government for California. Nix it again and voters will have no one to blame but themselves for continued gridlock in the state Capitol.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit


After six years of watching a movie muscleman wrestle unsuccessfully with California’s problems, voters will be getting a huge change of pace in the new year.

There’s not a show business personality in sight in either major party as the four major candidates still in the run for governor prepare for the primary election season to get serious.

In fact, the campaign corps looks more like a “geek squad,” filled with personalities that would fit better in a picture like “Revenge of the Nerds” than “Conan the Barbarian.”

These candidates make few vague promises, although zillionaire former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, the early leader among Republicans, does promise continually to “create 2 million jobs in the private sector.” Even that phrase, though, can't compare with the kind of empty promise Arnold Schwarzenegger made when he pledged continually in the 2003 recall election to “blow up boxes.”

The only thing that’s blown up under his guidance is California’s fiscal situation, as his policies saw the state’s credit rating slide to the lowest of any state while unemployment shot up to near-record levels.

This campaign season features candidates with very specific ideas. So much so that on one recent conference call with journalists, Republican Steve Poizner, the current insurance commissioner and a fabulously wealthy former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who in mid-December put $15 million into his own campaign, talked nonstop for 45 minutes about his plans before pausing to take questions.

Poizner, trailing badly in the early polls before he begins to air television commercials, touts his “10-10-10” plan for cutting personal and corporate income tax rates by 10 percent, slashing 10 percent from the state budget and piling up a $10 billion reserve of state cash.

Meanwhile, the current No. 2 in GOP polls, Tom Campbell, likes to say his Web site “is the most information-filled of any (candidate) Web site I’ve seen.”

It contains, among other things, pie charts aiming to show how he would limit state spending increases to a combination of the levels of inflation and population increases.

Among Democrats, the closest thing to a movie star was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is married to former starlet Jennifer Siebel. He offered very specific plans that had no chance of getting through even the current Legislature, dominated by his fellow Democrats. Without either a large personal fortune or a loyal corps of backers, he flamed out quickly when his promises of universal government-backed health insurance and large-scale job training programs drew very few campaign donations.

Then there’s the overall leader in most early polls, Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

As always, Brown is at least as interested in process as program specifics, although he appears far more grounded now after eight years as mayor of Oakland than in his previous gubernatorial incarnation of the 1970s and ‘80s.

He talks of smoothing the way for builders and others as they negotiate the state’s regulatory maze and finding ways around the federal biological opinions that currently limit pumping of water from the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

But he warns that nothing will be easy for the next governor, whether it’s he or someone else. He remembers what happened 30 and 40 years ago, and warns that “the same interests are still around.” In one session, he regaled supporters with the ironic tale of how big farmers were dissatisfied with the amounts of water to be moved south from the Delta under the abortive 1982 Peripheral Canal plan. So they funded television commercials featuring environmentalists fighting the same plan because they felt it sent too much water south.

“I think there are solutions if we can get a consensus,” he said. “I think we can get that consensus because we no longer have a choice. California is in breakdown and we need a breakthrough.”

He also notes that state government is essentially “a $100 billion business with only an $80 billion revenue stream. That means it’s going to take adults to solve this. People talk about cuts, but what more can be cut? Yet, no one wants more taxes.”

Every candidate is well aware of the conundrum Brown outlines. They differ only on how to solve it.

But at least today’s candidates offer substance rather than mere flash. Unlike Schwarzenegger, they’re more interested in productivity than production values. Which means there’s hope for California yet, and the geeks now running are one source of that hope – even if they will all likely begin trashing one another other soon.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, December 13, 2009




It’s the holiday season, so optimism is in the air, not least among California Republicans. As they head into next year’s election, they sound like they have before one major election after another since 1992. Trouble is, little of that earlier happy talk ever materialized.

Candidates from George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush to John Seymour, John McCain, Matt Fong, Bill Simon, Bill Jones, Michael Huffington and Dan Lungren have predicted they would run strongly against Democrats here, and then did not.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Republicans today are sounding optimistic about their chances of hanging onto the governor’s office wrested away from the Democrats by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election that ousted Gray Davis.

National Republican pundits like George Will look at the California field and see wealthy candidates like former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner as potential national saviors for a party that now has few prospective presidential candidates.

“The Republican revival nationally might begin here next year,” Will wrote after a visit with Whitman. Of course, Will also predicted the first President Bush would carry California against Bill Clinton in 1992 and that Barbara Boxer would never be elected to the Senate (where she’s now seeking a fourth term). Just for two examples of the national commentator’s California expertise.

But Will is not alone this time. Some Republicans hope an attempt to repeal Proposition 8’s ban on same sex marriages will make next fall’s ballot and play a similar role to the gun control initiative that brought out conservative voters in 1982, helping defeat favored Democrat Tom Bradley.

“This will be a good GOP year,” opines Stephen Frank, a former head of the conservative California Republican Assembly who has helped Poizner. “With Proposition 8 revisited, it could be a blowout for the GOP.”

And Fox News commentator Fred Barnes, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, is as smitten by Whitman as Will. “Everything is going to change after the 2010 election, when all these new faces come into the (national) Republican Party,” Barnes wrote. Whitman, he added, could be the key “as governor of the biggest state, a brainy, conservative, accomplished woman at the top of the Republican ladder.”

Never mind that she didn’t care enough about public affairs to vote in about three-fourths of the elections held during the last 10 years. Or that she wasn’t even a registered Republican until 2007.

The GOP talk this year echoes 2000, when George W. Bush promised he would “contest California to the very end,” adding that “Our chances are very good out there.”

But he never seriously contested California, losing by a wide margin to Democrat Al Gore after visiting the state only once that fall and failing to air a single TV commercial here.

It was the same last year. McCain swore he’d fight hard in California, believing his moderate stances on immigration amnesty and global climate change made him the ideal candidate to move this state back into the Republican presidential column for the first time since 1988. McCain then gave up on California even earlier than either Bush.

Now Republicans are licking their chops over the prospect of running against Attorney General Jerry Brown, who supports same sex marriage and some environmental measures even tougher than what Schwarzenegger has okayed.

They’re trying to revive the “Gov. Moonbeam” sobriquet applied to Brown by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko after Brown advocated having a state-owned communications satellite. Royko later recanted and apologized to Brown, and his satellite notion no longer looks goofy. If it had happened, prices for the Internet and other services might be much lower today.

What’s more, California is not the same place it was in 1982, or even 1990, the last time a Republican governor was elected to a first term through the normal process involving a contested primary election. It is a much “bluer” place, if only because more than 2.5 million Latinos have become citizens here in the last 14 years, most registering as Democrats.

But Republicans still have a chance. They vote in far higher proportions than Democratic voter blocs like Latinos and African Americans. When they’re excited about an issue, as they might be about defending Proposition 8, they become even more determined to vote.

Still, Scharzenegger is the only Republican who has won a top-of-the-ticket race in this state since 1996 – and he didn’t have to run in a primary before winning the office in 2003.

So Republicans can lick their chops over 2010 all they like, but they will have to prove much more than they have so far if anyone is to take their boasts seriously. For recent history shows such talk is cheap in California.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




For much of the last three decades, California companies like Sempra Energy and Pacific Gas & Electric have tried to foist expensive, environmentally questionable liquefied natural gas onto this state’s consumers. Then came a big Australian energy firm, whose expensive effort to build an LNG receiving plant off the Ventura County coast failed more than two years ago.

Now it’s the Russians, specifically the partially state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom, who want both to increase California utility bills and make America more dependent than ever on foreign energy.

In the past, efforts to import LNG to California failed in part because their sponsors sought to build receiving facilities inside the state, efforts thwarted by agencies as different as Indian tribes and the state Lands Commission. The timing seemingly could not be worse for LNG now, as the current glut of domestic natural gas is so great that operators of one big Texas LNG receiving facility have begun re-exporting their supplies to countries that do have need.

LNG is natural gas supercooled to a subfreezing liquid and shipped across oceans in quarter-mile-long cryogenic tankers, then rewarmed and placed into existing pipelines.

Always, there is big money behind the efforts to bring LNG to California, which means they can never be taken lightly, no matter how unneeded LNG may be.

How unneeded is it today in this state? Totally, unless the state Public Utilities Commission votes to give up even more of the domestic gas supplies that now flow to California from places like Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. So far, the PUC under the leadership of former utility company executive Michael Peevey has voted to release one-fourth of the space California now reserves on two major pipelines. If that move ever becomes reality – and it can only happen if LNG replaces current gas supplies – domestic gas now used here would go instead to the Northeast and Midwest.

Repayment of corporate investments in building tankers, liquefying plants and receiving terminals is always included in the price of LNG, almost invariably making it more expensive than pipelined domestic supplies.

LNG is unneeded today by everyone except those who invest in it because existing domestic gas supplies are adequate to serve American needs for the next 100 years, there is a current surplus and because demand for gas actually declined slightly in California over the last 10 years, despite population growth. This was due in part to the advent of energy-efficient appliances.

Gazprom, which controls 17 percent of the world’s known natural gas reserves, doesn’t care about any of that. “Our goal is to expand into all North American markets,” John Hattenberger, head of Gazprom’s Houston-based U.S. marketing and energy-trading wing, told a newspaper in Ft. Worth, Tex., the other day.

Californians beware: The last time a big energy trading outfit set its eye on California, the disastrous energy crunch of 2001-2002 resulted, with blackouts and brownouts commonplace amid a flurry of Texas-based deals, many of whose perpetrators were later convicted of illegal market manipulation.

Gazprom already has a foot in California’s door: It supplies some of the LNG going to the Sempra-operated receiving plant in Baja California, Mexico. As might be expected, part of that gas has been approved for sale to customers of another Sempra-owned company, San Diego Gas & Electric.

Gazprom liquefies this gas on the island of Sakhalin, just north of Japan. It also will produce LNG at Shtokman, on the Barents Sea coast of Siberia.

Two very logical destinations for much of that gas are the LNG facilities now proposed at Coos Bay and Astoria, Ore.

Both are well into their planning and permitting phases, with the Oregon Public Utilities Commission estimating about three-fourths of all gas they handle would end up in California. That could easily happen if pipelines of 100 miles or less are built from the two Oregon coast locations to an existing line that now carries gas from fields in Canada to PG&E customers throughout Northern California and the San Joaquin Valley.

As with the Gazprom contract to supply Sempra’s plant at Costa Azul, Mexico, California authorities would have little to say about all this. The state Lands Commission, which blocked the Ventura County LNG plan by refusing to allow a pipeline to run across state-owned tidelands, would be out of the picture. The Chumash Indians, who blocked an earlier LNG effort at Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara County on religious grounds, would not be involved.

In short, only the PUC would have a voice, and it has rubber-stamped every LNG proposal it’s seen over the last 30 years, always predicting gas shortages that never materialized.

So Californians beware: The Russians are about to attempt a raid on your wallets, operating from bases in Texas, Siberia, Baja California and Oregon – and also inside the PUC’s San Francisco offices.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, December 5, 2009




The biggest challenge facing Democrats who dominate California’s legislature as they look ahead to a short December session will be this: Do they really want another big rumble with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Already this year, they’ve sued the governor for allegedly seizing veto powers that don’t belong to him, faced him down over cuts to health care for poor children and defied his threats to veto every potential new law that came before him if they didn’t do as he ordered and sign a package of water bills they felt were not yet ready for prime time.

Now that he’s named Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado to fill the lieutenant governor’s job vacated when Democrat John Garamendi won election to Congress, the question is how much energy and political capital Democrats are willing to spend on going to the mat with Schwarzenegger again.

This is an appointment that normally would be considered a ho-hum item. There’s a reason why the nominally No. 2 official in California is often called the “lite governor.” The job has few responsibilities, little staff and only a few who have held it were able to move up into the real governor’s office. By appointing Maldonado, Schwarzenegger carefully avoided giving a leg up to any of the half-dozen or so candidates vying to win the job in next year’s election – but may have boosted the statewide ambitions of Maldonado, whose past compromises with Democrats make it unlikely he could otherwise win a Republican primary election.

Despite its shortcomings, Garamendi made his former job a good bit more influential than it usually is, using its automatic places on the state Lands Commission and the governing boards of California’s two big university systems.

As a University of California regent, for example, he fought to avoid raising tuition and fees and helped keep them from going even higher than they have. No sooner was he in Congress than remaining regents approved a 32 percent tuition-and-fee increase with little dissent except from students.

But it was at the Lands Commission where he did most with the job. In 2007, just months after becoming lieutenant governor, Garamendi became the key figure as the Lands Commission thwarted a plan to build a large floating liquefied natural gas import terminal off the Ventura County coast. Schwarzenegger ardently backed that plan, but could do nothing for it once the Garamendi-led commission nixed the idea of running big gas pipelines across state beaches and tidelands.

This year, Garamendi and Democratic state Controller John Chiang, also an automatic Lands Commission member, outvoted Schwarzenegger’s representative on the commission and refused to okay a plan allowing new slant oil drilling under state tidelands off northern Santa Barbara County from an existing oil platform.

Schwarzenegger had figured pumping the oil would give the state more than $150 million a year in new revenue from leasing fees (the state has no extraction tax), but the Lands Commission felt environmental threats in the sensitive area were too great.

The governor responded with a bill carried by Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Orange County that would have removed this issue, and only this issue, from Lands Commission jurisdiction. His measure went nowhere.

Before Schwarzenegger nominated Maldonado, the leading legislative foe of the slant drilling plan vowed to prevent any new lieutenant governor from boosting either offshore oil development or LNG.

“That won’t happen,” warned Democratic Assemblyman Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara County, a leading oil-drilling opponent in the Legislature and also a candidate for state attorney general, before the appointment. “We have to do what we can to make this a litmus test. Unless this appointee promises never to okay this project, I’m sure the members of the Assembly who understand how dangerous this is will vote not to confirm. We will grill the appointee and fry him and filet him and roast him on this. An appointee can always go back on his word, but if you break your promises, you can essentially end your career.”

Maldonado, a mild opponent of the slant drilling plan who also voted for a 2005 bill (vetoed by Schwarzenegger) aiming to make it harder to build LNG receiving terminals, defuses all that. Especially if he promises during hearings on his appointment to act consistently with his past votes. Which means that despite talk of the costs involved in holding a special election to replace Maldonado if he’s confirmed, the main reason Democrats would have for killing this nomination is that it would give a statewide office to a Republican.

The question for legislative Democrats, then, is whether they’re willing to stage a major battle over those limited stakes when they know far more portentous fights are in the offing in this cash-strapped state.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




Jerry Brown was in the conference room of a large law firm talking to about 30 of the well-heeled supporters who have provided him enough money to drive off all early competition on the Democratic side of the 2010 run for governor – even before he officially becomes a candidate.

The meeting came just about a week after the California attorney general attended a fund-raiser for the Republican district attorney of San Bernardino County. At the time, he was being raked for this break in strict party politics by his now-departed intra-party rival, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Brown, Newsom’s campaign charged, committed political adultery and “slept with the enemy” by helping the conservative DA, Mike Ramos, raise campaign money.

This unfortunate metaphor inspired some San Francisco newspaper readers to reflect on Newsom’s own admitted adulterous history. “Newsom would know about adultery, wouldn’t he?” observed one.

Brown wasn’t about to tweak his competitor that way, but he was unhappy with the exchange. “It shows how far we’ve gotten from the old civility,” he said, noting he believes Ramos is a sound prosecutor and that law enforcement figures often cross party lines to help each other. As attorney general, Brown is nominally the state’s top lawman.

This dialog between the campaigns, Brown contended to his backers and in an interview the next day, showed what any new governor will have to overcome in order to get things done in Sacramento.

“We need consensus,” he said. “We can’t make things work unless we can get people to agree on the basics.”

That, he said, is why he’s running for governor even though he’ll be 72 by the time of next year’s vote and realizes that getting elected governor “is more like a crucifixion than a coronation.”

He jokes that he’s perfectly suited for the job, because “you need someone who has no political future.”

Brown definitely has a political past, as governor, state party chairman, Los Angeles Community College board member, mayor of Oakland and unsuccessful candidate for both president and the U.S. Senate.

Essentially, he’s saying that while he’s not beyond partisanship, he can work with Republicans. In fact, he says that’s a big reason he wants another crack at the office he held for eight years in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“We’ve got to bring people together,” Brown told his supporters. “There’s poisonous partisanship at work all around the country. There’s also a general grumpiness and the governor is often the recipient of howls of execration. But I love the excitement and adventure of taking a stalemate and moving it to a consensus. I’ve brought people together before and I can again.”

He cites the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act as a leading example from his earlier days as governor. “We got the (United Farm Workers) union and the growers together and got them both to compromise,” he said. “Sure, there might have been some buyer’s remorse later, but it’s actually worked pretty well ever since.”

The prospect of more challenges like that one plainly stimulates this former seminarian. “These things tax one’s intellect and emotions,” he said. “It’s an honorable calling and I don’t see a lot of expertise in doing it (among other candidates),” he observed. “The embedded conflicts in everything from water to the environment and public pensions and the budget take a very knowledgeable, patient, empathetic person to resolve. I may not have all those qualities, but I love the process.”

That’s a more comprehensive, deeper statement of why he wants to be governor again than any other current candidate has made or is likely to make.

It’s probably the reason Brown has led all active prospects in polls taken this year.

“The experts say I’m running well without doing any serious campaigning because I’ve worked in California for a long time and people know me,” he said. “I don’t do any real analysis on why it’s happening this way.”

But he takes nothing for granted. “I know it’s hard to change voter opinion absent very heavy advertising or at least the strong public interest that comes only in the last weeks of a campaign,” he said. “So why has public opinion moved my way at this early time? That’s an unknowable question.”

This statement shows how much Brown has changed. The earlier vintage Gov. Brown would have had an explanation, and probably not a humble one.

Which means this is both the same old Jerry Brown and a very different one. For sure, his hard knocks in presidential campaigns and his failure in a U.S. Senate run gave him pause. He all but disappeared from public life for almost 10 years after Republican Pete Wilson whipped him in the 1982 Senate race.

But every indication is that no one will easily defeat the current Brown, with his combination of old wit and new maturity.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, November 29, 2009




Maybe it's because growers of medical marijuana are sitting ducks, not nearly as hard to find or as nasty to deal with as the Mexican drug cartels that run many large marijuana farming operations deep in forests on federal- and state-owned land, in parks and forest reserves.

Maybe it's because of the enduring contradictions between state and federal laws -- about to become more severe if Californians next year pass a pending initiative to flat-out legalize marijuana.

For despite his campaign statements, President Obama has not ended confusion on the medipot front, dashing some hopes of patients, growers and operators of the medical marijuana dispensaries that have proliferated in many California cities. (Sure, some of those patients and dispensaries are phonies out for nothing but a high or a profit, but there are also plenty of legitimate medical users.)

More than six months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promised twice (sort of) to stop federal raids on state and locally sanctioned medical marijuana operations, raids continue. Not as many as under ex-President George W. Bush, but still some.

And federal prosecutors show few signs of ceasing efforts to convict and imprison cannabis defendants arrested before Obama became president.

Holder, of course, was never very specific in his promises. "What the president said during the campaign will be consistent with what we're doing in law enforcement," he said.

Here's one thing Obama said while running for office: "We will not be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws." Here's another: "Whether I want to expend a whole lot of political capital (on marijuana issues) is not likely." He also observed that he has "problems with mom and pop shops…because that becomes difficult to regulate." But he also said that "If it's an issue of doctors prescribing or recommending marijuana, I think that should be appropriate."

That's enough to let Holder and the Drug Enforcement Administration that answers to him do pretty much what they like.

So, in late summer and early fall, the DEA made several raids on medipot growers in California and elsewhere. One netted five persons in Lake County, north of San Francisco, where 154 pot plants were confiscated.

The grower, a local contractor, had a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana and was a designated supplier to several others with similar recommendations. That seemed to meet terms of California's 1996 Proposition 215, which allows use and supply of medipot when doctors' recommendations are involved.

The raid apparently resulted from official suspicion that the grower was involved in pot sales beyond the medical realm, making a raid in line with Obama's observation about regulating small operations.

If all this sounds confusing, it is. That's one reason the state Senate by an eight-vote margin in late summer passed a non-binding resolution urging the federal government to end medipot raids of all kinds - on growers, dispensers and users alike - and to "create a comprehensive federal medical marijuana policy that ensures safe and legal access to any patient that would benefit from it.'

This may be a sensible sentiment, but Obama gave notice while a candidate that he would not devote energy to such an effort. Which is one reason a bill co-sponsored by the ultra-liberal Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and the ultra-libertarian Orange County Republican Dana Rohrabacher to do just what the state resolution suggests is going nowhere in the House.

As a result, there is still plenty of fear in the medipot community. Maybe not as much as before Holder's rather equivocal commitment not to bother medical users and their suppliers, but still plenty of uncertainty. Cities and counties are confused, too. Los Angeles is one example: City council members appear ready to authorize continued operations by many of the medipot dispensaries now open there, while the city attorney and district attorney both insist they are illegal because federal law trumps any state initiative. Both threaten raids.

There's also still the possibility that if you use medipot and live in federally subsidized housing, you can be evicted anytime - even if you're in compliance with state and local laws and regulations. That's why the pro-pot group Americans for Safe Access recommends on its Web site that patients in such housing not smoke pot in their apartments, but try to use only edible pot concoctions or vaporizers when at home.

Still, there's no doubt the Obama administration has been - as promised - less eager that its predecessor to flout state laws and insist on the primacy of federal drug regulations over Proposition 215 and similar laws in other states.

But if you're a cancer patient who legitimately needs relief, if you're the grower supplying that patient and others with aches and pains for which doctors recommend pot as the safest palliative, the uncertainty that still remains is unsettling, at best.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




The University of California now says it will ask state legislators for $913 million more next year than it received in this year's budget. The California State University system will ask for an increase of $884 billion.

These requests come as public college and university tuition and other fees are climbing to levels that will soon approach those of top private campuses. What's more, despite the universities' requests, any likelihood of higher education getting more money next year seems like a pipe dream when estimates of next year's state budget deficit range from $7 billion to $24 billion, figures so daunting they helped spur the resignation of the state's finance director, who admits he considered ways to put California into bankruptcy last spring.

Meanwhile, enrollments are being cut, class sizes are rising, availability of small sections where students can get detailed instruction from graduate students on concepts discussed in large lecture classes are dwindling and community college enrollment is up, while successful transfers from them to four-year campuses are down to only about 40 percent.

Taken together, this sad picture translates into a serious truncation of the California dream.

Public higher education has always been a huge part of that dream, the vehicle of upward mobility for millions of enterprising students over the last century and the engine at the heart of almost all this state's many successes.

When the state Water Project pioneered the transportation of huge amounts of water over high mountains, UC-trained engineers did most of the conceptual work and drew the bulk of the plans. While big Silicon Valley successes like Hewlett-Packard and Google were founded by products of the private Stanford University, they could not have gotten far without thousands of talented programmers and engineers turned out by UC and Cal State schools -- including the current chairman of Google. When California developed into the world's agricultural leader, it was in large part sparked by graduates of UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Riverside and several Cal State campuses.

The list could go on and on.

All this is seriously threatened now by a trend in Sacramento toward cutting higher education first. Things are so bad that more money is now spent on state prisons than state universities, a startling turnabout from the decades when the UC and Cal State systems pioneered making quality education available and affordable to every qualified person.

One example of the consequences is what's happening at San Jose State University, where 2,500 fewer students will be enrolled next fall than entered this September, when the school already cut 3,000 slots. San Jose State will accept all qualified students from surrounding Santa Clara County, but will limit entry by non-area residents and toughen standards for admission to popular majors like engineering, business and nursing.

"We're downsizing," campus President Jon Whitmore told a reporter, "so if there is a smaller group of students and a smaller group of employees, we are still providing a quality education."

With the same sort of thing happening across the state, fewer qualified workers will be available to major industries. CSU plans to downsize by 40,000 students statewide, enough promising young people to fill a small city. True, there will still be more than 400,000 students on CSU campuses, but fewer university graduates will be able to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the University of California plans to cut about 2,500 students, leaving it with just over 100,000 total slots. These numbers spell shrinkage for the California dream.

This impending tragedy could be avoided, of course, if attitudes were different in state government. Providing an additional $2 billion to the universities would end all these cuts and restore most classes and student slots. That would cost an average of $52 per year - a dollar week - per Californian.

California voters repeatedly show in local elections they are willing to pay far more than that in parcel taxes, city sales taxes and other levies when they can see the benefits that money will provide. But statewide politicians have never even tried to make a case for higher education. It's far easier to cut and slash and raise tuition and fees and drive the state's once-proud university systems into something less than world-class stature, allowing them to contribute ever less to the state's future.

So attitudes - any maybe a lot of politicians - need to change if the education component so vital to the California dream is to be revitalized. For Californians have shown time and again they are willing to pay when convinced their money is needed and won't be wasted.

Which means money isn't the only thing lacking in these days of fiscal and budgetary crisis. There's a lack of leadership with vision for this state's future.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Wednesday, November 25, 2009




Read the polls and you’d think the end was near for this, America’s largest state. One recent survey published by the state’s largest newspaper and repeated on every major radio and television outlet in California reported that 79 percent of the state’s residents believe their state’s best days are behind it.

At least that’s what the headline said and what was widely repeated – evidence that neither the headline writer nor the radio and TV reporters who regurgitated his work bothered to look at the poll question. The actual query asked whether residents believe things are going in the right direction or are “pretty seriously off track,” and 79 percent said matters are off track.

That’s hardly surprising when unemployment has topped 10 percent for months and “underemployment” – a term for persons not working or working part-time when they’d prefer full time work – runs about 25 percent. But it’s not the same as what the headline said. For there are signs aplenty that Californians are willing to work at putting things back on the right track – and even pay to do it.

Perhaps the best evidence for this appears in the results of the early November off-year election, where dozens of cities and school districts placed proposed new taxes before local voters. The vast majority of those proposals passed easily, even parcel taxes aimed at helping school districts.

Fully 24 of 36 local city tax or fee increase proposals that required only a majority vote passed. Three of five city tax increases passed where a two-thirds vote was needed. Seven of 11 school parcel tax proposals also passed with two-thirds votes and the two proposed school bond measures requiring a 55 percent majority both passed.

Altogether, 37 out of 57 local revenue measures passed. So plainly, where Californians were given the choice of trying to make improvements, the vast majority said yes.

How could this happen in a state where politicians continually bray that taxes are too high, that voters won’t tolerate any more levies? One reason is that each of these measures was local, involving schools or city services that directly affected large numbers of the people voting on them. Another was that these were not statewide campaigns, so there were no television commercials blaring about the evils of new taxes and threatening dire consequences for jobs and business if they passed. In fact, local business groups strongly backed the vast majority of these proposals.

Measures passed in locales from Culver City to Palm Springs, from Atherton, Dinuba and Vallejo to Norco, Fairfax and South Pasadena. Yes, 20 proposals failed, but even among defeated measures, none drew less than 42 percent of the vote. The widespread nature of those elections indicates the vote represented something like a cross section of California voters, and they plainly did not feel as pessimistic as the poll headline claimed.

There are other signs of potential for improvement. One is the fact that even though some businesses have relocated outside California to take advantage of cheap land and special tax breaks, more businesses continue to start up here than in any other state. Far more, in fact, than are leaving.

What’s more, some states – Wisconsin was first – are having second thoughts about the tax breaks they’ve granted migrating businesses and movie production companies looking for lucrative locations. Wisconsin this fall rescinded its benefits to production companies, concluding policing and other expenses made tax breaks for film production a losing proposition. North Carolina is mulling a similar move. Unemployment rates in those states – and neighboring Nevada, which campaigns constantly for California businesses to cross the state line – are as high or higher than California’s.

There’s also the reality expressed by Attorney General Jerry Brown in a recent interview. Brown, the only major Democrat now running for governor, observed that “This state has challenges, but it’s still very wealthy. The gross state product is $1.7 trillion and very few countries (seven, to be precise) can match that. So we know the wealth is here. What we need is a consensus to get that money moving.”

Brown, who leads every potential Republican rival by at least 20 points in recent surveys, might be the only active politician not using blatant economic scare tactics as next year’s campaign takes shape. Every other candidate sounds panicked, which makes it unsurprising that voters are unhappy with the state’s direction.

But propaganda-like political rhetoric about California’s supposed hopelessness and dysfunction is belied by the election results. Which is something Brown’s rivals might want to note.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




Maybe Carly Fiorina has analyzed the same numbers that trouble Meg Whitman. Maybe that’s why Fiorina, the onetime wonder woman of Silicon Valley who engineered Hewlett-Packard’s takeover of Texas-based Compaq Computer Corp., took several months deciding whether to challenge the supposedly vulnerable U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

There’s no doubt Whitman, the former eBay chief executive who has already pumped almost $20 million into her campaign for governor, ran the numbers on California’s current political reality, which is very different from what past Republican governors like Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson dealt with.

Whitman, the current frontrunner in most polls in the three-person field seeking the GOP nomination to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger, ran through a bunch of statistics during one remarkable meeting with local elected officials in the Riverside County town of Menifee.

Although the session came while most public officials were talking budget figures, the numbers Whitman took up were demographic.

Republicans, she noted, made up just 31.1 percent of registered voters in California in the most recent report from Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Democrats were at 44.6 percent, with the vast bulk of the remaining 24.3 percent of voters registered decline to state.

So, she said, any Republican seeking statewide office starts off with a deficit of more than 13 percent.

This sets up some daunting tasks for any GOP candidate not named Schwarzenegger, Whitman realizes. To win next November, any Republican will need to win over at least 20 percent of registered Democrats and 60 percent of independents, plus taking more than 90 percent of registered Republican votes.

Schwarzenegger accomplished all that and more in 2006, when he won over more than 30 percent of registered Democrats and took a majority of independents. But Schwarzenegger is a unique figure in California political history, perhaps comparable only to Jesse Ventura, the one-term governor of Minnesota who also appealed across all party lines. Like ex-professional wrestler Ventura, Schwarzenegger had wide appeal traced to his larger-than-life movie-star personality. And he embraced some issues that are normally Democratic property, like climate change.

Whitman told the Riverside County meeting she can come close to matching Schwarzenegger’s performance by dint of shoe-leather, and for sure she has traveled the state during the early months of this campaign as much as any recent candidate. But all her travels and speeches to Republican audiences – something Fiorina hasn’t begun to match – still leave her out of contact with 98 percent of voters. So the real “shoe leather” will be expended on television screens when Whitman begins spending the bulk of the fortune she’s placed in her war chest.

But even if she becomes ubiquitous during the primary season next spring, Whitman will be up against several new realities.

There was a time when California Democrats voted in far smaller percentages than Republicans. Even though congressional and legislative districts are apportioned by population, it consistently took far more votes to get elected from a Republican district than a Democratic one.

But that’s changed. In 2008, for instance, Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman won 121,000 votes while getting elected from a district spanning parts of Marin and Sonoma counties where a total of 175,000 ballots were cast. In a district that’s as solidly Republican as Huffman’s is Democratic, Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore drew 86,000 out of a total of 150,000 votes cast.

Perhaps this was because 2008 was a presidential election year with an immensely popular (at the time) Barack Obama topping the Democratic ticket, but in two of the most solidly partisan, highest-turnout districts in California, Democrats substantially outvoted Republicans. That would never have occurred as recently as 20 years ago.

It’s true that in some strongly Democratic districts, especially those with large Latino population, it still doesn’t take very many votes to get elected. An example is the San Fernando Valley district of Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, who won last time with 74 percent of the vote, but still only had a total of 49,000.

There was a time when such low vote counts in Democratic districts like that one meant that even though they had little chance of winning legislative majorities, Republicans still had a decent shot at statewide office. But Latinos vote in far larger numbers now than 20 years ago, as do African Americans, with both groups strongly Democratic. Now instead of turnout in mostly Latino districts matching 20 percent or less of the Republican vote in counties like Orange and San Diego, the vote in Latino districts is usually more like half the level seen in those strongly GOP areas.

It’s a new and constantly changing demographic and political reality that makes getting elected in California far tougher for Republicans than ever before.

And that’s enough to give anyone in the GOP pause before sinking untold time, energy and money into a statewide race, no matter how vulnerable a Democratic opponent might appear.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, November 15, 2009




Just as they have in her two previous reelection campaigns, once again this year Republicans and so-called experts list Barbara Boxer as one of the most vulnerable U.S. Senate Democrats running in next year’s mid-term election.

Maybe some of those estimates ought to be revised. A quick look at Boxer’s past election performances could easily be interpreted to demonstrate that she’s a lot stronger than most analysts realize, and growing stronger despite what some polls show.

Here are the results: In 1992, her first statewide election, Boxer beat prominent conservative talk show host Bruce Herschensohn by 4.9 percentage points. Running for reelection in 1998, she whipped former state Treasurer Matt Fong, a moderate Republican, by 10 points. Then, running in 2004 against the popular former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, she doubled that margin to about 20 points. Not so shabby for someone rated extremely beatable when the campaign began.

It’s easy enough to claim Boxer’s opponents were weak. But they were not. Herschensohn had higher name recognition before 1992 than Boxer’s. Fong had won his previous office by a wide margin. And Jones was the only Republican to win statewide office in what was otherwise a 1998 Democratic landslide; his Senate candidacy got strong backing from the then very popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. None of these men looked like weak sisters before the results were in.

Next year Boxer will apparently face either businesswoman Carly Fiorina or Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Some call it Boxer’s luck, but both Republican hopefuls carry heavy baggage.

Fiorina gets far more national press coverage than DeVore, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, all but endorsed her even before she officially declared herself a candidate.

But Fiorina, like GOP gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman, has a long record of non-voting. One newspaper investigation found she’s voted in only six of 14 state elections since registering to vote in California, shortly after she took over as chief executive of computer maker Hewlett-Packard. Officials in New Jersey and Maryland, the two states where she lived for almost 20 years prior to that, could find no record of her ever voting.

The question she must answer is the same as the one asked of Whitman: How can someone with so little demonstrated interest in civics or government be trusted with key public policy decisions?

Then there’s her business record. Over the opposition of others in her firm and many outside analysts, she spearheaded H-P’s acquisition of the rival computer maker Compaq, which was based in Houston. Whether it was related to that takeover or the overall bust, H-P stock lost 60 percent of its value on her six-year watch. By contrast, it has more than doubled in four years under her successor.

Under her leadership (and she denies knowing about it), H-P sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-tech materiel to Iran through a Middle Eastern agent, evading a U.S. ban on trade with that country.

Then there’s the fact she accepted a “golden parachute” valued at either $40 million, $42 million or $45 million (reports vary), after laying off more than 10,000 employees.

This all adds up to something like paradise for whatever media consultant Boxer might hire to make her TV commercials. Easy pickings. “So far,” observed Democratic campaign consultant Steve Maviglio, “she’s been an opposition researcher’s dream candidate.”

Then there’s DeVore, who some believe is running for the Senate because he’ll be termed out of his state Assembly seat next year and there are no seats in Congress or the state Senate readily available to him.

DeVore, a dogged advocate of building more nuclear power plants in California and elsewhere, is about as doctrinaire a conservative Republican as can be found. His Sacramento voting record gets a 100 percent rating from the state Chamber of Commerce. He favors large-scale oil drilling off the California coast, even in the Santa Barbara Channel, where a huge oil spill in 1968 sparked the worldwide environmental movement.

He proudly opposes all new taxes and any restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. In short, he might be the ideal candidate in a Republican primary, where conservatives typically dominate, but many of his positions are anathema to a majority of California voters, if polls and voting results are an indication.

Which makes DeVore, too, a fat target for Boxer campaign commercials.

Is this just blind luck for Boxer, who less than a year ago expected Schwarzenegger would be her opponent? Maybe and maybe not. Barbara O’Connor, a Sacramento State University politics professor, observed to a reporter the other day that “Everyone underestimates Boxer…she is wickedly good at raising money and if the race gets close, deep pockets from the national Democratic Party could start pouring in.”

She’s also a dogged campaigner, enjoying the coffee klatches she stages in every corner of the state.

Boxer vulnerable? Maybe, but she’s demonstrated many times that she will never be a pushover.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




In all the celebratory, back-slapping press conferences and statements following this month’s agreement on a potentially landmark state water management plan, no one so much as used the term “peripheral canal.”

For sure this water deal will not produce a carbon copy of the 1982 referendum that killed the last previous major California water deal, one that called for building a canal around periphery of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river Delta to bring Northern California water to Central and Southern California.

That’s because a popular vote is already part of the water plan – since the most important components of this deal are contained in a proposed $11 billion bond issue. Like all state bonds, these must be approved in a popular vote before they can be sold. That vote comes next November. No one wanting to stymie this plan will have to run a petition campaign, and the campaign around the bonds already shapes up as at least a partial rerun of 1982.

For sure this plan becomes an empty shell if the bonds don’t pass.

Since a majority of current voters were either not born by 1982 or were too young to vote, a recap of what happened then is in order: Legislators approved and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on a proposed concrete-lined ditch to move Northern California river water and rain runoff south, preventing much of it from flowing out to sea through the Delta and the San Francisco Bay.

This was robbery, screamed many in the north. Their water would flow south and they would be left high and dry, with ruined fisheries and rotten water quality in the Delta.

The result was the largest north-south ballot split ever seen in California. The referendum to kill the canal lost by about a 65-35 percent margin south of the Tehachapi Mountains which rise between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. But almost everywhere else it swept more than 90 percent of the vote. The canal died and the entire concept became political anathema until the current three-year drought caused farms to be fallowed, water rationing in many cities and record unemployment in some parts of the Central Valley.

The canal remains sufficiently taboo that it wasn’t a formal part of the new water deal. Rather, that arrangement calls for assuring water quality in the Delta, careful monitoring and restoration of ground water basins and aquifers, capturing far more rain and flood runoff than today, plus construction of new surface storage facilities, better known as reservoirs. Left unsaid was that it might take a canal to make a lot of the newly captured water useful.

Unsaid, that is, until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just happened to mention it the afternoon after the water package passed, during an appearance in the anti-canal hotbed of Stockton.

At last, he said, the state can “fix the Delta and build a canal around the Delta.” Next morning’s headline in the Stockton Record: “Governor Drops ‘Bomb’ on Delta.”

The battle was on.

Instantly, the north-south split reappeared. Democratic Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, a candidate for state Senate whose district includes Santa Rosa, Napa and Vallejo, quickly called the water deal “the same tired story all over again.”

Fanning flames of regional chauvinism, she added that, “The Central Valley and Southern California plan to take water from the North by building a peripheral canal. The rub is that they want Northern California to pay for it, too. All Northern Californians get from this bond is the privilege of paying the bill.” That’s partly true.

But the bond would not pay for any canal. As contemplated, water districts selling the supplies it conveys would cover costs by raising rates for their tens of millions of customers. Whether Northern Californians benefit might depend on your definition of Northern California. Much of the San Francisco Bay area, for example, would draw from new supplies just as it now does from the state Water Project.

Northern California also would get increased flood control, preventing hundreds of millions of dollars in water damage in wet years. It would benefit from levee repairs and restoration of salmon and other fisheries, plus new controls on water quality in the Delta and underground aquifers.

But these realities – some of which were also built into the 1982 deal – might bear far less influence than emotional appeals like Evans’.

There are some differences this time. For one, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who as San Francisco mayor was the first to sign the 1982 anti-canal referendum petitions, backs today’s plan.

Conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, many of whose members strongly opposed the canal last time, helped shape the new plan.

So the outcome next year might be different. For sure this campaign will be more than mere déjà vu, if only because concerns about the burden of repaying $11 billion in bonds will get almost as much attention as the more emotionally-charged issues at the heart of the long-running north-south animosities.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, November 8, 2009




If there’s one surprise so far in the budding campaign for governor of California, it’s the fact that the candidate with the least cash on hand is somehow staying extremely competitive. So much so that the leading fear of his super-rich intra-party rivals is that he will somehow, somewhere come up with significant funds – and blow them out.

What has Tom Campbell done so far and how does he do it? From the very start of this race, he’s run either first or second in the polls. In the most recent Field Poll, taken while billionaire former eBay chief Meg Whitman was airing weeks of radio ads, Campbell was only two percentage points behind among Republicans, while Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner placed a distant third.

“I think it’s because of the new media,” said Campbell, who estimated he had $300,000 on hand late last month, while his opponents had war chests well into the multi-millions. By new media, oddly, Campbell doesn’t mean the Internet. Rather, he’s talking telephones.

Campbell calls his new tactic “tele-town halls,” but they’re actually much larger than the live ones staged by many members of Congress. His first seven drew 280,000 participants, all responding to robocalls inviting them to press 1 on their telephones and join the town hall. Only registered Republicans who have voted in the last four elections were called.

“These only cost us $25,000 apiece and they all had at least 5,000 to 7,000 people who stayed with it five minutes or more,” Campbell said. “I’ve never before seen a town hall with that many people. About one-fifth of those who come on actually stay for more than five minutes.”

He thinks those participants have influence far beyond their numbers. Hence his poll standing, he believes.

But plenty of so-called experts think Campbell’s chances could founder once his rivals begin airing their inevitable television commercials.

“He’s doing so well because none of the others has begun advertising seriously yet,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican consultant who now heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Campbell doesn’t evince much fear of that, plowing ahead with both his new media and riding a surge of post-poll fundraising that should shortly put his campaign kitty over the $1 million mark. The usual major California campaign requires at least $30 million for a respectable showing.

“If I had more money, I’d be doing more of the same,” says Campbell, a former Silicon Valley congressman, ex-state budget director and a longtime Stanford professor who later became dean of the business school at UC Berkeley. “I would also be more active on the Web. I’ve made my Web site as content-filled as any I’ve ever seen, but I would use extra money to pay for more advertising links to the site on search engines like Google and Yahoo.”

Content-filled. There’s a phrase that pretty much describes the Campbell campaign style. While rivals promise to create jobs and cut government spending, Campbell has produced detailed blueprints for balanced future state budgets and even a water plan.

You might not like his ideas, but no one in this campaign has matched him for the kind of specifics most candidates won’t go near.

Take the no-new-taxes pledge his opponents and most other Republican politicians have taken with alacrity. Campbell won’t touch it.

“It’s wise to keep one’s flexibility if you want to govern effectively,” he says, while observing that “there’s a big difference between campaigning and governing.” He cites a new tax on medical insurers that the health insurance industry itself helped pass. “It qualifies the state for four times as much federal money as the tax involves, and by doing that pays for itself by bringing new customers to the health insurers,” he said. “You couldn’t back this if you took a no-new-taxes pledge. That would be counter-productive.”

But don’t mistake Tom Campbell for profligate. His budget blueprint would limit spending increases to the level of inflation and population growth. “My plan is not politically correct for either the general public or Republican primary voters,” he said. “But I know it’s what we need to do.”

The same for his water plan, which backs a new Peripheral Canal-style conveyance around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and would expand or create new reservoirs, while refilling underground aquifers. He would finance this with bonds to be paid off by water users rather than from the state’s general fund.

This, then, is not your mine-run feel-good candidate. Rather, he’s pushing what his governmental expertise suggests to him are the best policies for the entire state. Unfiltered by a staff of so-called “experts.” “I’m my own research director,” he says.

Maybe California is ready for this kind of substance after six years of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glitz and the accompanying decline. Maybe that’s the real reason Campbell stays high in the polls even while his bank account is low.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




The winter holidays are fast approaching, and with them the advent of a long season of being confronted by initiative petition circulators outside almost every big box store, grocery emporium and shopping mall in California.

That’s nothing unusual. What’s extraordinary this year is the potential for destruction and divisiveness in the putative ballot propositions those paid carriers will ballyhoo.

Best publicized of these is one calling for a constitutional convention to reboot California government, backed by Google and other high-tech giants that finance the Bay Area Council business lobby.

Why is this a bad idea? For one thing, despite sponsors’ pious claims that their measure would limit action by that convention to fixing the state’s budget and ballot initiative processes, cutting the influence of special interests on elections and government, bettering relations between state and local governments and making government more efficient, there’s room here for enormous mischief.

Sponsors maintain delegates would be forbidden to take up other topics, like gay marriage or the death penalty, immigration, abortion or new taxes.

But constitutional lawyers have repeatedly opined that once a convention starts, everything is fair game. That’s why many fear a convention might eliminate the Proposition 13 property tax limits. Others worry about an end to the Proposition 98 requirements for funding public schools. Any report or TV commercial that says any subject “would not be part of the debate” most likely will prove grossly inaccurate.

Every stated aim of the convention sponsors could be accomplished by a series of simple initiatives, with no need for a constitutional convention, whose delegate makeup would be decided at least in part by random chance, like jury pools. Since the sponsors don’t need a convention to accomplish what they say they want, it’s an open question why they insist on going this route. Might they eventually hope for a reduction in corporate taxes?

Meanwhile, another public interest group called California Forward, has two rival measures on tap aiming to fix most of the stated problems the convention advocates decry. Which can only lead to massive confusion.

But circulators will also shortly begin beating the bushes for many other proposals. There’s a re-run of the thrice-beaten measure to require parental or judicial consent for girls under 18 to get abortions. That one keeps coming back because when it loses, the margin is always small.

Mercury Insurance is behind a measure to roll back part of the 1988 Proposition 103 and allow insurance rates based partly on the basis of a driver’s record of having insurance coverage or not. Not on a driver’s record of tickets and/or accidents – nobody argues with that.

This one would let companies collect more from drivers who have let their insurance coverage lapse for any reason, ranging from illness to giving up driving for a few months or years.

“Nothing in the petition summary for this tells voters about the premium increases…Mercury’s proposal would allow,” says Harvey Rosenfield, founder of the Consumer Watchdog group and author of Proposition 103, which rolled back rates for all types of insurance in California. Rosenfield calls Attorney General Jerry Brown “shameful” for altering the summary, which initially pointed out the potential rate hikes.

There’s also a measure changing term limits to allow state legislators 12 years in either the state Senate or Assembly, or both, a change from the current limit of six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, which allows some lawmakers to stay 14 years. This one is not particularly pernicious, merely innocuous. And there’s one to make the Legislature part-time.

Plus a plan to make it harder for cities to set up municipal electric utilities and get rid of big companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. PG&E is the sponsor, seeking to squelch competition before it starts. There’s also a possible repeal of last year’s Proposition 8 ban on same sex marriages. Another measure would require photo IDs before anyone can allowed to vote. This one doesn’t speak to the huge, relatively new phenomenon of mass absentee voting.

Silliest of all in this unusually silly season might be a proposal to forbid divorce. That’s all divorces, anywhere in California. And there are more.

While some of these ideas have some merit, most have little or no benefit for anyone but the special interests promoting them and paying the petition circulators.

Those circulators will usually be working for more than one measure, bearing sheafs of signature sheets. It can be easy to sign for one you don’t like.

So even if you do like one of two of these ideas, if you sign sheets hurriedly, you could be helping put a bunch of highly questionable ideas onto the ballot, where anything can happen.

That’s why this is one year when it might be best to just say no to almost all petition carriers who accost you.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Friday, October 30, 2009




There's an old saying in politics: "If you don't vote, you don't count."

In short, areas where voting turnout is low lose influence in government and the money and services that come with it.

But there's something even more basic at stake when it comes to getting counted in the federal Census that's conducted every 10 years. If you don't get counted, this principle might read, then you simply won't count - for anything.

That's why a current effort by some Latino clergy to encourage a Census boycott by illegal immigrants makes little sense.

It's not that these ministers and priests, members of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, fear Census takers will report illegals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leading to their deportation. This has never happened, and the Barack Obama administration vows to keep that record intact.

Nope, the convoluted reasoning of these religious "leaders" holds that by becoming statistically invisible, the 11 million or so illegals residing in this country will be able to push Congress to move on immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for them. Huh? Becoming invisible will somehow give illegals more clout?

Are these people kidding?

No, they're not kidding, and their effort could lead both illegal immigrants and the states where most of them reside - principally California - down an unprecedented primrose path to disaster.

It's not just that California is so strapped it was forced to issue IOUs earlier this summer. It's not just that the state budget crunch led to serious proposals to cut out all government-funded health care for illegal immigrants and their children. It's not just that the fiscal crunch spurred calls to ban illegal immigrant children from public schools - even though the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly forbidden this.

All those areas and more would worsen if illegals refused to be counted, because federal funds (that means tax dollars from California, which already gets back far less than its citizens put into the U.S. Treasury) are allocated on the basis of population. Don't get counted, and the flow of federal money that now funds most health care for poor children here will slow down.

Federal highway funds would also be reduced, along with the subsidies that now pay the bulk of the cost of buses and mass transit rail cars used by illegals and citizens alike. That would mean more potholes, less new pavement, fewer freeway widening projects and cancellation of many bus routes.

But not getting counted would also produce precisely the opposite effect the anti-Census Latino clergy hopes to achieve.

For political district lines are drawn on the basis of population. The more people in an area, the more assembly members, state senators and members of Congress an area will get.

Don't get counted and places like East Los Angeles and the agricultural areas of the Central Valley and parts of San Francisco and its East Bay suburbs will get fewer districts. Fewer districts in those areas would mean fewer Latino faces in Congress and the Legislature, which in turn would mean fewer politicians pushing for the immigration reforms sought by the clergy group.

Because illegal immigrants in California were undercounted by an estimated 750,000 in the last Census, Latino areas are already under-represented. Make the undercount significantly worse and representation will be even lower.

There's some anecdotal evidence the proposed boycott is gaining momentum. It doesn't take much to persuade people already afraid of detection and deportation to keep their heads down.

The only good things that have happened on this question are that other Latinos are fighting to overcome the boycott call. "This would be a phenomenal stride backward in the strides we have made to make sure we are equal," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, who calls the boycott plan "wildly irresponsible."

He and others point out that the idea of non-cooperation plays directly into the hands of anti-illegal immigrant groups who want the undocumented to enjoy no rights or public services. Outfits like the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies have long contended counting illegals skews the one-person, one-vote principle that controls the shaping of political districts. They argue it should be one-citizen, one-vote. In fact, that's how elections are conducted, but citizenship and immigration status do not now control the preliminary political steps that come before the actual vote.

That's why it takes far fewer actual votes to win a seat in Congress or the Legislature from predominantly Latino districts than in places like coastal Orange County, San Diego or San Francisco.

All of which means the clergy behind this proposed boycott is promoting one of the most self-destructive plans in American political history. One hopes their spiritual advice is more sound than their political acumen.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




The most unusual thing about the 2010 race for governor of California, the campaign that's been proceeding in under-the-radar stealth style for much of the past year, is that the current leader is the one putative candidate who has yet to stage a single public campaign event.

That would be Jerry Brown, the attorney general and ex-governor who wants another crack at the job that was America's second most visible and powerful political role even before current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took it to new levels of stardom.

Rivals abound. On the Democratic side there are San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and, maybe, Los Angeles County Congresswoman Jane Harman. The three major Republicans include two big-money Silicon Valley products and another from the same area who lacks the large war chest. Those would be former eBay chief Meg Whitman, current Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and Tom Campbell, whose long resume includes stints as state budget director, congressman, Stanford law professor and UC Berkeley business school dean.

Four of those five others have been all over California for many months. Newsom has staged what seem like countless "town hall" events speaking to the Democratic faithful. Whitman has poured about $20 million of her own cash into her campaign and met with business groups and Republican clubs from Redding to Riverside and beyond. The intellectual Poizner attends every GOP event he can find, while the classy Campbell is as accessible to voters and reporters as any candidate in modern memory.

Through it all, Brown has stayed almost silent about his ambitions. Having rehabilitated himself well beyond the "Gov. Moonbeam" tag hung on him about 30 years ago by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, he was an ultra-pragmatic mayor of Oakland and now has a workmanlike record as attorney general.

He may be 71, and Newsom campaign adviser Garry South may call him "a retread," but he's got some huge advantages.

For one, there's his age and long record. South likes to observe no one under 50 could possibly ever have voted for Brown in his previous gubernatorial incarnation. He suggests Newsom will capture the youth vote.

There's one problem with this. Early projections indicate that only about 6 percent of 2010 Democratic primary voters are likely to be under 30, while about 38 percent will be over 60. Advantage: Brown.

Then there's fund-raising. Many candidates quake in constant fear of a billionaire candidate rising from the weeds to take them on. That was the outlook of ex-Gov. Gray Davis, who continued raising money furiously against such a possibility even when he was quite secure, thus giving himself an aura of corruption that made his fear a self-fulfilling prophecy when Schwarzenegger rose up in the 2003 recall election.

Brown operates from no such fear. Until early October, his fund-raising committee was not even officially geared toward seeking the governor's office, which imposed a limit of about $6,000 on what any single donor could give during either a primary or general election season. Still, he raised more than $8 million during the first half of the year.

That sum dwarfed the $1.2 million gathered by Newsom. It also leaves Brown free to go back to his donor base now that's he's got an "exploratory committee" for the governor's race, with each of those $6,000 contributions able to morph quickly into more than $25,000.

If he raises four times as much in the next few months as he did during those six months, as this implies he could, he will have well over the $30 million generally needed to run a credible top-of-ticket race in this state.

For even if Whitman were to kick another $20 million or $40 million into her campaign kitty, there are still limits on the amount of advertising time anyone can buy. There are, after all, only so many TV commercial slots.

Meanwhile, all the money Whitman and Poizner and Newsom have burned up flying around the state, hiring more and more staff and buttonholing everyone they can find has not done them much good. Campbell, for instance, runs about as strongly as any Republican even though he has a fraction of the others' funds.

All the Republicans as well as both potential Democratic rivals to Brown trail him by substantial margins in every early poll.

So, a year before it will be decided, this begins to take on the look of a classic hare-and-hounds contest.

Or, in an expression sometimes attributed to Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame, the faster Brown's rivals go, the behinder they seem to get.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, October 24, 2009




Ever since the state issued a "Small Business Regulatory Study" this fall, advocates of decreased regulations on businesses of all kinds have used its big numbers as evidence of vast over-regulation.

"This study validates…that small businesses face insurmountable costs and disincentives to grow in our state," moaned John Kabateck, executive director of the California branch of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

The figures in the study make him look right: The total cost of regulations in California is just short of $493 billion per year, it says, with the cost to each small business (100 employees or fewer) averaging $134,122.

There's only one problem with this study: It's worthless, a complete waste of the $85,000 in taxpayer money it cost. Even the author of the law that appropriated money for the study now deplores it.

"My intent was to find ways to minimize the impact of state regulations on small business," said Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno, a former Democrat, now Independent. "This report is sketchy in terms of recommendations…it does not do what I had in mind."

Here's why this study is essentially junk, deserving of quick deposit into a landfill:

Its authors did not examine regulations one by one, assessing the cost of each and adding it all up. Rather, said Marty Keller of the state Office of Planning and Research, "This was a macro study." Whatever that means.

Nor did the study's authors, led by Sanjay Varshney, dean of business administration at Sacramento State University, even attempt to determine how much money regulations actually save business, consumers and the state. Without that balance, the cost figure means little or nothing.

Take safe food regulations as one example. It costs butchers and supermarkets plenty to throw out old, rotten meat. But allow them to somehow stanch the odors of such cuts and try to fool consumers into believing the stuff is fresh, and disease would surely follow, with lawsuits the inevitable result.

Which means that while regulations forcing disposal of old meat have costs, the same rules save taxpayers and consumers many millions in medical bills, and also most likely have a net benefit to small businesses by sparing them legal costs and court judgments.

It's the same in weights and measures. Regulations force gasoline stations, for one example, to calibrate pumps so a gallon registers as a gallon, rather than letting a half-gallon register as a full one. This involves a cost to any service station owner who wants to cheat, but it's a benefit to consumers and even to station owners who would surely be sued by customers once they learned they'd been deceived.

And what about clean water rules that force factories and cities to stop dumping effluents and other pollution into rivers, streams and oceans? Those laws not only spare the public from illness, they assure that existing water supplies won't become unusable.

Then there's the study's implication that California has more regulations than other states. The only problem with this is, as Keller admits, that there was no effort to determine which regulations are unique to California and which are virtually universal. So who knows whether California has more restrictive rules than other states, or which fields those rules might affect? You can't tell from this study, no matter what anyone says.

Besides all this, the study raises another question: Why should it have cost the taxpayers $85,000? Varshney, after all, is already on the state payroll. He and his students could easily have completed this study as an academic exercise with no additional cost to the state.

Varshney did not respond to repeated efforts to obtain answers to these questions. He did tell another reporter his study is "a first step…I am hoping we opened the door and more groups will try to improve on it."

The larger question, of course, is why any research laced with so many holes would ever be purveyed by the state. The answer most likely is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has consistently opposed most new regulations other than those aimed at cutting greenhouse gases, and he insisted on watering down even those. So it's completely predictable his appointees would publish a study that implies California has too many, too onerous regulations.

Some have said the $85,000 this report cost is mere peanuts in the universe of California's government spending. But that sum might have prevented dropping at least one class from the curriculum at either the University of California or a California State University campus.

It's a classic example of government commissioning a worthless, meaningless study suited only to be used by special interest groups like the NFIB and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. And it raises the question of how many other completely wasteful projects also consume tax dollars.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit