Sunday, May 31, 2009




There's a slowdown all along the Mexican border. Border Patrol agents caught fully 27 percent fewer illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the United States between November 1 and April 30 than during the same six months a year ago.

Some of this slowdown stems from intensified enforcement efforts ranging from expansion of the physical and electronic border fence that's growing daily. The Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify program, allowing employers to tell quickly whether job applicants enjoy legal immigration status, also is a factor.

But America's economic miseries are behind most of the slowdown. Construction, hotel and many other categories of jobs often taken by illegal immigrants have dried up, so there's less of a magnet for people coming here.

In this climate, one employment category steadily features surplus, untaken job openings: agriculture. California farms don't have the kind of worker shortage they suffered two years ago, when many crops rotted on trees and vines for lack of labor to pick them. But many still report they're short of reliable workers and would like two things to correct a situation that has caused them to fallow more than 500,000 acres of fertile farmland for lack of hands to plant and pick crops:

Assurance they can keep bringing back experienced workers (many of them illegals) for seasonal jobs, and a paperwork speedup in the federal H-2A program that allows some farm workers to enter legally on temporary visas.

Now comes Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein with a plan to fix these problems. "In a sense, this might set a pattern for overall immigration reform," she said in an interview. Feinstein would allow illegal immigrants already here to achieve temporary legal status if they can prove they've worked at least 150 days in each of the last two years or 100 days in each of the last five. She would allow no more than 1.35 million such legalizations (families of legalized workers could also apply). After three more years of steady work (at least 150 days per year), the former illegals and their families could apply for green cards conferring permanent legal residency.

Before giving green cards, though, Feinstein's bill would assess a $500 per person fine for breaking the law by entering America illegally. It would also demand that immigrants prove they are current on all taxes and have clean criminal records.

Her proposal is co-sponsored by 16 other Democratic senators. Conspicuously absent is Republican John McCain of Arizona, who carried a wider-ranging immigration reform and amnesty bill during the year before he became his party's 2008 presidential candidate. An identical bill in the House is co-sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of Los Angeles and Central Valley Republican Reps. George Radanovich of Mariposa and Devin Nunes of Visalia, among many others.

This plan is backed by most regional and national agriculture organizations, including the Western Growers Assn., the Dairy Farmers of America and the National Council of Agricultural Employers. The United Farm Workers union also is aboard.

But opponents call the measure just another amnesty plan that would eventually grant illegal immigrants access to all U.S. jobs even though they in effect jumped the line for entering this county legally. There's also the claim this would allow farms to keep exploiting the cheap labor of illegals who can't protest.

"These workers are here," Feinstein said. "Yes, there are enforcement issues, but we know this much for sure: if there are questions over whether workers will be allowed to come back in future years, they will simply stay here, legally or not, and won't return home when it's off-season for farm jobs."

Feinstein acknowledges the farm labor shortage of two and three years ago is less severe now, partly because many illegal immigrant workers are back in field work, their jobs in construction and other areas gone. "That's just a short-term thing," she says. "The long-term shortage is still there. We have billions of dollars a year in lost production right now, we have California farmers leasing land in Mexico to grow crops and we are importing more foreign produce because of it, which comes with certain health hazards."

When it comes to wages, the Feinstein measure would freeze the federal Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which requires California farmers to pay legal seasonal workers in the H-2A program at least $9.72 per hour. This rate would stay the same for three years after her bill becomes law, if that happens. The AEW rate, of course, does not apply to illegals, who often receive the state's minimum wage of $8 per hour, or less.

The bottom line: Feinstein's bill would probably solve farm labor shortages for years to come and provides a balanced model for the wider-ranging immigration reform that President Obama says he wants. But its fate in Congress is completely uncertain, because of that buzz word "amnesty."

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




No sooner were the latest special election results in than the call went out from the left to dump California's requirement of a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature to pass a state budget.

Never mind that voters had just resoundingly defeated a tax extension plan that had barely won the needed two-thirds support from lawmakers. Never mind an April poll showing 70 percent of Californians want to keep the steep supermajority.

Asked what evidence there is that Californians want to get rid of the two-thirds rule for budgets, Rick Jacobs, chairman of the liberal Courage Campaign, which claims 700,000 members, came up with a complete non-sequitur:

"The special election had a very low turnout," he said. "The message there is that people don't feel things are democratic now."

That's supposed to indicate a groundswell of support for getting rid of the two-thirds barrier, which in recent years has let the relatively small Republican minority in the Legislature make tough demands that would have been laughed off without the rule?

And yet…there is no doubt the two-thirds rule produces perpetual late budgets and makes Sacramento decision-making more complex than in any other state capital. There is also some validity to the simple-majority argument, since that's what applies in almost every other matter except votes for tax increases both in local elections and the Legislature.

Let a simple majority decide matters, this argument goes, and if the voters don't like the result, they can throw the bums out.

This, of course, ignores the current gerrymandered political district lines that assure virtually no legislative seats ever change parties, even when incumbents are termed out. Only time will tell if the revised system for drawing district boundaries approved by voters last year will make much difference. Many demographers believe California's population is so clustered by ethnicity and political preference that even a complete change in how lines are drawn won't alter the party-line makeup of the Legislature.

Jacobs and others advocating an end to the two-thirds rule know they could change it via a ballot initiative, but they're not eager to try that route. Jacobs' excuse: "We need many changes and doing initiatives on one issue at a time may take too long." Translation: he knows a simple-majority proposition would lose.

But here's a plan that might win: Require only simple majorities to pass budgets that raise spending by no more than the percentage of population increases and the rate of inflation. For spending any more, stay with two-thirds.

This doesn't satisfy Jacobs and others. So he's joined the current call for a state constitutional convention to get rid of the two-thirds standard and make other changes. He's allied his group with the big business-funded Bay Area Council to demand legislators place measures on the November 2010 ballot setting up such a convention.

"Everything should be on the table there with a majority vote," Jacobs said. Neither he nor anyone else knows who might participate in such a convention, how they'd be chosen and what they might produce.

All that's known is that Article 18 of the current California Constitution allows the Legislature - and only the Legislature - to place a proposition on the ballot calling for such a convention - if the voters say yes to the idea. But - and here's that supermajority thing again, written into the state Constitution more than 100 years ago - it takes a two-thirds vote to put such a measure on the ballot.

Not to worry, say convention advocates, who come in all political colorations. If legislators won't put it to a vote, we'll run an initiative to take that exclusive power away from lawmakers. And they just might run a companion measure at the same time calling for a convention and spelling out who would be in it.

"A convention should be broad and diverse; it should look just like the population of California," said Jacobs. Does this mean he's suggesting racial, religious and political affiliation quotas for convention delegates? He doesn't say.

The fact is, no one now can say much about what a convention would look like or what it might propose (any new constitution would have to be submitted to the voters for a simple majority up-or-down verdict). Would it eliminate the Proposition 13 property tax limits? Would it remove privacy protections that now give Californians more abortion rights than apply in most other states? Would it set up a simple majority or some other standard for passage of budgets and new taxes?

The answers to these and many other questions can't be known until the convention goes to work, if it ever does. Which makes the entire notion a Pandora's Box better left unopened - even if that does inconvenience Democratic politicians who would like the ability every year to ram through whatever spending plan they like.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, May 24, 2009




And so California's seemingly endless budget battles resume, with no convenient end in sight. That's one early result of the voters' Tuesday rejection of Proposition 1-A and several others intended to straighten out the state's balance sheet.

Another possibility - slim, but still present - is that lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will finally give serious consideration to one change that could begin to spell the end of all the repeated budget crises. All they need to do is revise the regulations that now permit some real estate to change hands without being reassessed.

For sure, plenty of draconian tactics will be suggested in the coming days and weeks. Schwarzenegger has already called for selling off landmark state lands and buildings, and that might be a fine idea for properties which are useless now and show no promise of ever doing much for citizens. But you can only sell off land or buildings once. When you do it, you are in a sense selling off your patrimony. This makes it a desperation tactic that won't solve the underlying spending and revenue problems behind the repeated budget crises.

There will be calls for cuts to education, where 10 percent increases in state college and university tuition and fees are already coming, while even legislators who have long backed public schools over anything else appear ready to accept reduced public school funding.

Not to mention cuts to state parks, health care for uninsured children and a host of other items that could cause real pain for many Californians.

Meanwhile, sitting out there in the wings is a budget solution first proposed by former Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia of East Los Angeles as far back as 2003. She's long-since termed out, one reason her sensible proposal hasn't gotten much attention in years. The idea is this:

Amend the rules that allow real estate to change hands without being reassessed if the new owner is a partnership where no one person holds more than a 50 percent ownership stake. Some property involved in corporate mergers and acquisitions is also exempt.

This part of the rules for carrying out the Proposition 13 property tax system was adopted by legislators in 1979 amid strong lobbying by commercial real estate interests and the state Chamber of Commerce. It is plainly obsolete.

In 2006, the last time a legislative committee took a close look at changing the rules, sponsors of the change estimated it could produce between $3 billion and $12 billion per year. All affected properties would be either commercial real estate or apartments, so the change would cost individual owners of residential property nothing. All it would do is put affected land and buildings on an equal footing with houses, condominiums and other commercial and industrial property.

Why has this sensible idea never gotten much traction? Mostly because of claims change would be bad for business, a notion usually accompanied by contentions that Californians are overtaxed. In fact, this state is far from the top of the list in per capita tax collection, according to a springtime U.S. Census report.

California now ranks 12th in taxes paid, at $3,193 per person per year. Alaska is tops at $12,276, followed by the likes of Vermont, Wyoming, Hawaii, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota. Changing the reassessment rules would not even move California up one notch.

What about the real estate bust of the last 20 months? It has not brought values down to anywhere near the levels at which the affected properties are now taxed.

The key thing here is that this change would not endanger even one provision of Proposition 13. This is not the "split-roll" proposed so often. That would tax commercial and industrial property at different rates from homes. Rather, this change would level the playing field, remove pressure for sales tax and income tax increases like those imposed this spring and still fill much of today's budget hole.

All of which means the defeat of Proposition 1A and its companion measures plus a fresh $8 billion to $9 billion budget problem caused by reduced state tax receipts this spring need not create panic, despite election results leaving the state with a deficit of about $15 billion.

For this could be the very kind of crisis that forces good sense on lawmakers. Making the change Escutia suggested would not be a tax increase, but merely tax equalization. It would not be a burden on homeowners. It would be a permanent source of revenue. It is one key part of the answer, if anyone cares or dares to notice.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Call the Tuesday election results a resounding vote of no confidence against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the entire cadre of politicians who run California state government.

For sure the polls don't lie when they say 82 percent of voters rate the Legislature's performance poor or worse. Or when they report that Schwarzenegger gets almost the same dismal marks.

We also know from the failure of Proposition 1-A that voters will not willingly put up with prevarication by elected representatives. And prevarication is the mildest way to describe what legislators and their backers tried to pull in omitting from all ballot arguments on Proposition 1-A that it would extend from two years to four the duration of increases in sales, vehicle and income taxes.

Voters repeatedly okay new taxes when they think the money will go to causes they like and if they think backers of such proposals are honest. That's why the great majority of school construction bond issues - which amount to property tax increases - have passed in local elections since the two-thirds threshold for passage dropped to 55 percent nine years ago.

But when unpopular politicians try to foist tax increases on Californians via dishonest means without detailing the consequences of defeat for their propositions until the last moment, that defeat is almost certain.

Similarly, the fate of propositions 1-A through 1-E shows it doesn't pay when politicians try to switch money the voters have approved for one cause to something completely different. That's what was attempted here with funds from the state Lottery and tax dollars levied for specific causes like children's mental health and preschool education.

When politicians think the real wishes of the voters are something other than what they originally voted for, those politicians are often wrong.

Another way to look at the outcome is that it demonstrates phenomenal ineptitude by California's highest elected officials.

This outcome, then, amounts to as definite a vote of no confidence as a state government can get, short of recall. By itself, defeat of the first five measures on the ballot would have sent that message. But the overwhelming, simultaneous passage of Proposition 1-F, forbidding raises for government officials when they can't balance a budget, left no doubt.

And now there will be consequences. For the defeat of Propositions 1-C, 1-D and 1-E means at least $6 billion will be lacking from the budget approved in February. Add another $8 billion to $9 billion in expected tax money lost to the recession and California this summer faces a new $15 billion budget hole, at a minimum, with larger figures possible in the future after expiration of two years of increased sales, vehicle and income taxes.

The few Republicans who voted for the February budget compromise that led to this special election make it as clear as they can that they won't be okaying any more new taxes, that any shortfalls will have to be made up via program cuts.

First to face the ax will be public education. Since schools on the elementary and high school levels are entitled to 39 percent of the general fund budget, they also are likely to absorb 39 percent of the new cash shortage.

This could mean larger class sizes, fewer arts and advanced placement courses and less support for athletics, among other items. Look for individual schools to put the bite on parents for private contributions to make up at least part of this. Some public schools already dun parents up to $1,000 per student to keep things going. Those fund-raising efforts will only go up, and as they do, differences between schools in wealthy and poor areas will surely become starker.

There will also be cuts in medical aid to both the indigent and children, not to mention immigrants, both legal and illegal. Park closures can be expected, at both state and local levels. The list will be long and painful. And it will have consequences: When public health programs are cut, the risk of contagion and epidemics necessarily rises.

Once again, blame the ineptitude of public officials. They didn't advertise the consequences of defeat for these propositions either widely or convincingly until it was too late. Just as they tried to hide the true content of Proposition 1-A, they also didn't do much to let people know what a loss could mean.

All of which ought to produce serious consequences for those politicians. But for most, it won't. Today's thoroughly gerrymandered legislative districts virtually guarantee reelection for everyone who's not termed out.

Which means the real solution will have to be effective use of the new redistricting process okayed by voters last year and passage of an open-primary proposition that's set for a vote in June 2010. These two measures are about the only hope voters have of getting some wholesale change in Sacramento, where new faces and ideas have never been needed more urgently.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, May 17, 2009





If you think California has had a budget crisis over the last two years, sliding into deficits that could reach $23 billion by the end of next year even with the new taxes authorized in February, wait 'til you see what awaits in water.

Yes, this has been almost a normal year for Sierra Nevada Mountain snowpack and for rainfall around the state. But because of a court order and the after-effects of previous water decisions cutting supplies from both the Colorado River and the Owens Valley just east of the Sierras, it won't do much to stop impending water rationing in many areas.

But the good news is that at last someone has stepped forward with a sensible statement of principle that makes adequate water supplies for farms and cities in Central and Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area an equal goal with water quality and fish survival in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

The delta serves as a funnel for water pouring each spring from the western slopes of the Sierras and the southern Cascade Range, with huge pumps at its southern end relaying fluid to the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

Those pumps are not operating just now and won't until mid-June, the second year of a thus-far-unsuccessful effort to revive the endangered minnow-like Delta smelt fish species at the expense of water supplies elsewhere. Smelt numbers did not climb in the first year of court-ordered water pump shutoffs, and there's some doubt they ever will. But many millions of gallons of high quality fresh water have flowed into the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean as a result.

How to revive the delta environment and still meet urban and farm water needs from Oakland to San Diego is the focus of the independent, governor-appointed Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force, which has now developed what looks like the best plan yet for solving the water crisis:

Increase use of recycled water for lawns and industry, the task force suggests, while building more desalination plants to make ocean waters drinkable. Add infrastructure like new reservoirs and possibly a peripheral canal bringing water around the delta in a concrete channel that would allow control of runoff to the sea. And police water rights permits more tightly, making sure farmers do not use more than they're entitled to take.

There also may be some merit to a lawsuit filed in Sacramento near the end of last year. This action demands the long-term fallowing of many thousands of acres in the western San Joaquin Valley that are so tainted with toxic selenium, mercury and boron that farming them causes the chemicals to drain back into the San Joaquin River and then into the delta.

The lawsuit contends that since 80 percent of California's surface water is used by agriculture, all urban shortages could quickly be resolved by holding the polluted farmland out of production until it can be cleaned up - something that's not in the immediate offing.

About 100,000 acres in the vast Westlands Water District are already out of production because of poor drainage and chemical saturation, but the lawsuit contends farming and irrigation should stop on much, much more land.

The suit comes from the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and a self-designated watchdog group called the California Water Impact Network.

While it's long been known that taking water from farms could resolve any urban shortages, large farms in the Central Valley have held rights for more than 70 years to most water in the big state and federal aqueducts. Urban water districts bought some of those supplies to ease rationing during the droughts of the 1980s and '90s and probably could again later this year and next.

One question the new lawsuit might resolve: Does a farm retain water rights even when its fields are too polluted to plant? If not, then urban water suppliers like the Metropolitican Water District of Southern California and the East Bay Municipal Water District might suddenly find themselves with an unexpected surfeit.

The bottom line: After many years of stalemate, it appears some constructive potential solutions to long term water issues may be percolating to the surface. If that's not true, California can expect a water crisis in the near future that will make the long-running budget crunch look like child's play.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




There is silence now where once loud huzzahs erupted from medical marijuana advocates in California after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signaled this spring that federal authorities will no longer raid or interfere with medipot dispensaries in states where it is legal, so long as users abide by state law.

That's because no big change has occurred since then in this state, whose voters via the 1996 Proposition 215 became the first in the nation to pass a state law legalizing medical use of marijuana.

Federal prosecutions of medipot providers arrested while George W. Bush was president continue. Inconsistencies in what's legal persist from one county to the next. While some officials in big cities and urban counties advocate municipal sales of pot to keep prices down and make sure clinics operate within the law, their counterparts in other places continue banning medipot altogether.

Los Angeles County, for the biggest example, has more than 100 medical cannabis clubs, storefronts and delivery services, but nearby cities like Anaheim and Pasadena ban them. While some medipot supply outlets feature smoking lounges and marijuana brownies, counties like Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Merced, Riverside, Stanislaus and Sutter ban all sales, according to the pro-pot group Americans for Safe Access.

Then there are the abiding inconsistencies between state and federal law. Where the state says anyone can smoke or otherwise take marijuana for medical reasons with a mere recommendation from a doctor, federal law recognizes no medical effects at all from the weed, despite Holder's stated new policy.

That's how a federal appeals court the other day could uphold a 10-year prison term for a Chico medipot patient convicted in 2002 of conspiring to grow more than 1,000 marijuana plants, even though he had a doctor's recommendation and testified he was growing the plants for himself and four other patients who shared expenses.

That's why, if you use medical marijuana and live in housing subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, you can be evicted anytime - even if you're in complete compliance with every state and local law. As a result, Americans for Safe Access recommends on its Website that such patients not smoke pot in their apartments, but try to use only edible pot concoctions or vaporizers.

For while the California Supreme Court has upheld Proposition 215 and counties are required to issue ID cards to medipot patients who register, plenty of county officials refuse to comply. San Diego County, for one, has not issued cards, instead suing the state in an action that now awaits review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the nation's highest court upholds the San Diego County stance, there's a strong possibility several counties that reluctantly began issuing IDs last year will stop doing it or rescind the cards they're already given out.

That's because plenty of local officials believe medipot is a scam, a get-rich scheme by growers who somehow conned the majority of state voters.

An example is Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who told a reporter the Holder position doesn't matter to him. "I will do my job irrespective of what the Drug Enforcement Administration (which answers to Holder) does or does not do," he said.

Adding to the welter of confusion is the fact that despite Holder's policy change, Justice Department lawyers nominally working for him argued before a federal appeals court a month later that marijuana "currently has no accepted medical use."

At the same time, some politicians argue that California should just forget about both federal law and all disputes over the medical merits of pot, and simply legalize the weed in order to tax it, which might help balance the constantly strapped state budget. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking a cue from Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, who last winter proposed full legalization, argued this month that California should consider just that.

Some estimates claim marijuana is the largest cash crop along California's North Coast and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with estimates of the total street value of California-grown pot ranging up to $14 billion per year. A 10 percent sales tax on that amount would contribute more than $1.4 billion to the state's coffers.

But there's confusion here, too, since no one can say how much prices might drop if pot became legal.

This all creates a legal maze of almost unprecedented complexity that probably won't be resolved until or unless Congress legalizes marijuana, or at least its use for legitimate medical reasons. No one should expect that to happen anytime soon.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, May 10, 2009




It happens every time there's an epidemic of disease or a serious threat of bioterror and it's happened again in the last week or so, as cases of the swine flu that apparently originated in central Mexico appeared in California and around the world: Activists and politicians tried to take advantage.

The last time this happened came in 2001, when the anthrax scare that followed the terrorism of September 11 helped ex-President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hustle the Patriot Act through Congress and seriously abridge civil rights in this country.

It's happening again right now. Zero population growth activists not affiliated with the formal organization of that name, now called the Population Connection, insist the latest flu epidemic is one of nature's attempts to reduce the "excessive" human population of this planet.

Anti-illegal immigration activists like the Minutemen call for a total closure of the Mexican border, insisting it makes no sense to discourage Americans from traveling to Mexico because they might be infected, while still allowing Mexicans to enter this country. Of course, they say nothing about whether they'd like Americans caught in Mexico at the time the epidemic began to return home. Their call for border closing was echoed quickly by Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of San Diego County, a longtime battler against illegal immigration.

"Show me a more practical way than closing the border to prevent this from spreading and I'll go for it," says Jim Gilchrist, founder and president of the Minuteman Project. "Until we know exactly what's going on here, we have to do something."

These are predictable responses to disaster, examples of the notion that no good crisis should ever be wasted.

But the more important issue is whether current laws are adequate to deal with epidemics if they become widespread enough to merit the term pandemic, which the swine flu apparently will not.

This issue, too, comes up every time there's a serious mass threat to public health.

When anthrax seemed a serious bioterror threat in 2001 and 2002, the only doctor then serving in the state Legislature thought existing laws were not good enough. Keith Richman, a Republican who has helped run a Glendale medical group since he was termed out in 2006, tried to pass a state law giving government extraordinary authority when times become even more threatening than they seem now.

Richman essentially wanted the state to adopt a plan proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control, the Atlanta-based agency that deals with major threats to public health.

Encouraged by authoritarian elements in the Bush administration, the CDC wanted to have public health agencies take over all hospitals, seize drug supplies, quarantine everyone exposed to infectious diseases, force vaccinations on the entire populace, use armed police to confine the quarantined and draft doctors to treat victims.

The CDC plan wasn't adopted, nor was Richman's bill. But the former lawmaker, who would be mayor of the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles today if an attempt at separate cityhood had passed in 2002, still thinks current laws aren't good enough.

"I think there's some ambiguity in issues of quarantine and isolation," he said. "I'm comfortable with what's going on now, things like warnings about what to do when you have certain symptoms, washing hands often and isolating people known to be infected with this flu strain. We wanted to address potentially more severe outbreaks than this one has been so far, where it's still not clear the government can act sufficiently to stop things."

It is clear federal authorities have the power to close schools, public buildings and public transportation in a pandemic much worse than the current swine flu.

It's entirely unclear whether government should be able to suspend many civil liberties, draft doctors and essentially imprison disease victims. Few would quarrel with the notion of state and federal health officials commandeering hospitals in a true pandemic.

Add to this picture the fact that the governor already can do some of that. He has the power to use private property, including hospitals, in times of emergency. The state also can draft private personnel including doctors in emergencies. The present governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has already suspended time-consuming competitive bidding for anything needed to fight the swine flu and waived some certification requirements for lab personnel in order to speed blood testing.

But no one has resolved the issue of whether health personnel drafted to work in a pandemic are exempt from liability for deaths or damages to quarantined persons or whether adults can be forced to accept vaccinations if they contradict religious faiths or other beliefs.

These questions and others beg for resolution before a true threat to mass public health appears. But they are among the many key questions state lawmakers consistently ignore as they bicker about budgets and other more routine matters.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit





You might not like the idea of the sales tax, vehicle and income tax increases that would be extended through four years if Proposition 1A passes today (editors: if using this column prior to May 19, sub the word Tuesday or May 19 for "today" here, as appropriate).

You might be sorely afraid of the cutbacks that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators warn they will have to impose if the budget-related propositions on this ballot do not pass. For that matter, the latest estimate of state revenues indicates more cuts will come this summer even if all the measures do pass.

For sure, if most of the proposition package goes down, draconian slashes will be almost sure to follow. The only way to avoid them would be by imposing more new taxes or fees, and if Proposition 1A loses, that would send a pretty strong message from voters who don't want any of that and would be sure to nix any further tax propositions submitted to them in some future special election. Plus, the few Republicans who voted for this package against their party's wishes have made it known those votes were it, basta, no more, no mas; any further budget problems would have to be solved with reduced spending.

What programs might be lopped if most of what's on this ballot loses? Expect some state parks to close, at least temporarily. Expect a further suspension of the program allowing elderly homeowners to postpone paying property taxes until their places are sold. Expect Medi-Cal cuts, even to the extent of denying vaccinations to poor children. Expect longer waits for court cases to be heard as funding for the legal system will drop. Expect fewer firefighters to respond to wildfires this summer and fall, with additional billions of dollars in property damages the consequence. Expect shorter hours at Department of Motor Vehicles offices.

And that's just for starters. Sure, there's waste in government. This column last winter documented at least $200 million in pure waste by the state prison system - and the people running the prisons (who saw those columns and did not deny anything reported there) still have made no changes.

But finding $15 billion worth of waste is a whole other question.

This all explains why voters should not be treating the special election like they do most off-year votes. So much is at stake here for so many Californians that if voters stay away from the polls this time, plenty of those who don't vote will suffer unpleasant consequences.

But special elections, like almost all votes in odd-numbered years (the 2003 recall election was a rare exception), don't draw well in California. There are no big names on the ballot as in presidential elections like last year's or in contests for governor or the U.S. Senate like those to come in 2010.

Turnouts are so low that small but active minorities often make key decisions for all Californians. That happened in 2005, when Schwarzenegger ran a series of propositions to severely limit state spending and give him more power to make budget cuts on his own. Less than one-fourth of all Californians, fewer than half of those eligible to vote, helped defeat those measures.

People who thought the state wasteful and wanted to limit spending but did not vote had no one to blame but themselves when they didn't like what followed.

If the turnout is similarly low this time, it will once again be an active minority making decisions for everyone, but this time the effects will be more direct.

So if you don't vote and you don't want new taxes, you might just find yourself paying them as a consequence of your own failure to turn out and that of others who also did not vote when they could have.

On the other side, people who get less welfare money, fewer health benefits or drive up to a state park gate only to find it closed might also be thinking back and regretting that they didn't come out.

The tendency then will be to blame the politicians. But the real blame would lie with those who didn't vote.

For this is one election where the stakes are very clear: It's either a couple more years of paying the recently hiked taxes in effect now or a plethora of budget cuts sure to hit at least one program dear to the heart of every Californian. Which means there's soul-searching to be done before heading to the polls or sending off an absentee ballot: If you don't want cuts in programs you consider important, you have to vote for at least most of these measures. If paying less taxes means more to you than any government program, you must vote no.

But the one thing voters on all sides can't afford to do is sit home. Anyone who does that leaves his or her fate in the hands of others - never a good idea.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, May 3, 2009




There's good news and bad news on the higher education front in California these days, but so far the bad news is trumping the good.

First the good news: California high schools over the last few years graduated tens of thousands more students eligible for admission to a University of California or California State University campus than ever before. The 11 percent increase in eligibles is a sign of major progress in the state's elementary and high schools, playing out at the university level.

It's even more impressive since the increased academic performance crosses all ethnic lines. Improvement was especially remarkable among Latinos, where the number of high school grads eligible for the state's public universities leaped by 55 percent between 2003 and 2007, from 18,300 to 28,300. As an aside, if there were any remaining doubts about the benefits of the 1998 Proposition 227, which ended most bilingual education programs in the state, this ought to end them.

But now comes the bad news: All the improvements are likely to produce is a corps of thousands more frustrated young men and women.

Because just as the number of eligible students increased - 13.4 percent of all high school graduates are now eligible for the University of California and 32.7 percent qualify for Cal State - the two university systems cut back the number of students admitted for next fall.

Because of the state budget crunch, Cal State campuses will have 10,000 fewer students this year than last, while UC has been less specific, but also has reduced enrollment on most campuses.

"Our public higher education systems face a growing challenge of accommodating more students with reduced state funding," said Murray Haberman, executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, as he released the new numbers on university-eligible graduates.

It's not just the lower number of slots available on the state's university campuses. There will be more demand for financial aid, too, because higher numbers of eligible students also mean higher numbers of needy students applying. So long as admissions remain "need-blind" (conducted without regard to applicants' finances), a larger pool of applicants will always translate to a need for more scholarships. Add to that the fee increases likely to come over the next few years.

But money for much-needed scholarships may be scarce for the next few years, if only because state legislators seeking ways to cut the budget almost invariably make universities a prime target.

That's an especially nasty prospect now, as a report from the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California concluded a few months ago that the state's economy could falter over the next 20 years because not enough college educated workers are moving here and the state can't graduate current residents fast enough to meet employers' likely upcoming needs.

The PPIC claimed California needs to nearly triple the number of highly skilled immigrants coming here from other states and countries or many businesses will locate elsewhere. This study is strong evidence that cutting university budgets in times of economic stress is both shortsighted and anti-business. That's highly ironic when the leading advocates of cutting higher education are usually the same politicians who claim to be most pro-business, the ones concerned about industries and jobs migrating out of state.

Example: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who talks ad nauseum about boosting business, proposed a $132 million cut in university funding as part of his budget-balancing plan late last year. The Schwarzenegger plan got nowhere, but not because of the proposed higher education cuts.

Of course, just because more students qualify for university admission at the precise time that universities are closing many of their slots does not mean students must quit learning. To the contrary, they can use community colleges as stepping stones, the way Schwarzenegger himself did when he attended Santa Monica College in the 1970s.

But it's sheer pretense to claim that most junior colleges can offer the stimulation and quality of faculty available at university campuses.

So even if the newly-eligible, but now turned away, students do not desert higher education out of frustration, they will nevertheless lose because of the budget crunch.

And that will be a long-term loss for all Californians, which is the worst thing about the good news/bad news scene in higher education today.

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Anyone who visits Athens, Greece or Haifa, Israel or Barcelona, Spain or Tokyo, Japan this year will surely notice that visibility is far greater and the air far cleaner than it was five to 10 years ago.

All because of California. As far back as the early 1960s, this state became the first major area in the world to do something about smog, the lung-damaging, eye-stinging combination of air pollutants first linked definitively to automobiles by the Dutch-born Caltech scientist A.J. Haagen-Smit.

His finding led to the first smog control devises and later to catalytic converters and eventually to hybrid cars, all tactics eventually adopted by the rest of America and later by most of the world. Along the way, every anti-smog measure proposed for California was opposed by carmakers or oil companies or both. They called each one a "job-killing measure," even if they didn't use that specific modern epithet.

California's leadership role became assured when Republican President Richard Nixon signed the federal Clean Air Act of 1970. This measure recognized California's special smog problems, seen most vividly in Southern California and the Central Valley.

But the state's leadership role was stymied lately by the George W. Bush administration's steady refusal to believe global warming and climate change represent any threat to the United States or to humanity as a whole.

That was why the federal Environmental Protection Agency under Bush refused to provide the previously automatic approval given to new California air quality measures after this state's Legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 signed the landmark AB32, aiming to place California in the forefront of fighting global warming.

But now, as baseball player Manny Ramirez put it on re-signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, "We're baaaaack."

Because current President Barack Obama sees California as the paragon of energy saving and environmental pioneering that it really is, not only will the EPA quickly approve the new low carbon fuel standards passed by the state Air Resources Board (ARB) this month, but they will almost certainly be followed by federal rules that might prove even more ambitious.

On Earth Day in Iowa, Obama pointed out that "over the last several decades, the rest of the country, we used 50 percent more energy; California remained flat, used the same amount, even though they were growing just as fast as the rest of the country - because they were more energy efficient. They put in good policy early on."

Those policies were instituted by both the state Energy Commission (requiring more efficient appliances) and the ARB, starting during the 1970s when Democrat Jerry Brown was governor.

The new low carbon fuel rules just adopted mandate that fuel used in ordinary gasoline engines, power generation, jet airplanes and diesel engines emit less climate-changing carbon beginning two years from now. Over 10 years, the cut would have to reach 10 percent or more.

Most oil companies (the exception: California-based Chevron) opposed the new rules, claiming they can't do the job in the time allowed - essentially the same futile and inaccurate claim the automakers have made for decades.

Ethanol and biodiesel producers also had a problem with the new rules' insistence that authorities count not only the carbon emitted when burning fuels. Rather, the ARB insists on considering also how much carbon is produced or released in all aspects of producing fuels.

This could put ethanol at a disadvantage because forests in many parts of the world have been cut down to make way for ethanol-producing cornfields and American producers who don't chop down trees believe they're being treated unfairly. This area could see some rule tweaking.

As in previous rulemaking exercises, opponents claim the new regulations will produce higher prices. But the ARB contends they'll force prices lower by compelling use of alternative fuels and energy sources. This is another argument echoing previous disputes over new California rules. In the past ARB scientists have usually been at least close to correct in their estimates of what can be done, when and for how much money.

The bottom line: California has been a smog-fighting example to the world for almost 50 years and has now emerged as the leader in fighting global warming by considering not just what comes out of cars and trucks, but also what goes into their tanks.

That should be important even for folks who don't believe global warming is at least in part a man-made phenomenon. For whether the cause is natural or not, it makes no sense to allow human activity to worsen the matter.

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