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




Did Meg Whitman abet and encourage tax evasion during the decade she headed the Internet auction house eBay?

That emerged this week as a key question because Whitman, who has virtually no record in public life and little history of even casting votes, repeatedly cites her eBay tenure as a principal qualification to become governor of California. Essentially, she wants to become the state's chief tax policy maker, among many other functions.

Whitman currently leads all Republican candidates in early polling on the 2010 run for governor.

She brags proudly, loudly and often about taking over eBay as a fledgling start-up company, helping build it into a stock market giant and producing thousands of new jobs and businesses along the way.

She can do the same for California, she says, asking voters to see her record at Mountain View-based eBay as the best indicator of how she'd run state government.

One way eBay creates jobs is by encouraging untold thousands of individuals around the world to become sellers of everything from cars and houses to used clothing and fine art. All they need do is sign up with a little personal information that is kept secure by the auction house, then pay a small part of their take to the company. eBay sellers can call themselves whatever they like and most do not use real names.

This makes them very hard for tax collectors to track, both in California and other states and countries. Yet, those states and countries are entitled to collect sales tax from sellers operating within their boundaries, just like they do from other merchants. Order a pair of pants from the Internet clothier Land's End, for example, and you must pay sales tax even though the company's physical presence is in Wisconsin.

But order things from California-based eBay sellers and you will rarely be asked to pay any tax.

One reader of a recent column about the ultra-wealthy Whitman's chances to win the Republican nomination provided a list of more than 200 California-based eBay sellers he said he has patronized without being asked for a penny in sales tax. A random check of sellers on the list proved that claim correct.

The state Board of Equalization (BOE), which collects sales taxes, knows of this form of tax evasion, one that sees eBay sellers undercut their competition by not charging sales taxes that average more than 9 percent in this state. That's like giving all their customers a significant discount. Illegally.

"eBay is not evading here," says BOE member Bill Leonard, a former Republican state legislator from San Bernardino County. "The allegation has been made that many hundreds or thousands of its sellers are evading."

Some BOE staffers say the taxes evaded total in the billions of dollars over more than 10 years.

Leonard, a leading supporter of Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, one of Whitman's Republican rivals, confirms the tax collecting board asked eBay for lists of its California-based sellers while Whitman was there, only to be rebuffed. "If we ask for that information, there's no law requiring them to provide it," he ruefully said.

Whitman's deputy campaign manager for communications, Tucker Bounds, responded that "Tax collectors have a job to do that shouldn't require sniffing through the private records of … eBay users. Meg believes that the privacy of Californians should be respected by government."

eBay continues to protect such privacy even when its sellers evade taxes they owe. The firm also has refused to provide information to other states.

At issue here is not whether eBay under Whitman violated the law. The clearcut spirit of the law is another matter.

"It's not that what they did is technically illegal," said Leonard. "But it's one reason why eBay executives should not run for high office."

The upshot is that an executive who helped deprive California of the chance to collect big money - thus contributing significantly to the ongoing fiscal crisis - now wants to manage the state's finances.

In a recent interview, Whitman challenged voters to "evaluate my entire record." This is part of it.

It's true that every candidate carries some negative baggage into any campaign. The open question: Will public opinion change when voters learn that Whitman's refusal to allow tax collectors access to her company's records has contributed and still contributes substantially to California's financial plight?

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 17, 2009




Just a little over one year from today, Californians will elect a successor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. How will they remember him after that successor takes over?

Will he seem a blustery buffoon who caused far more problems than he resolved, a governator who could not govern? Will he look like a hypocrite who preached against accepting special interest campaign donations, then set records for doing so?

Will the verdict on his appeals for "post-partisanship" be that they were mere nostrums doing little or nothing to prevent the state Legislature from sliding into its most divisive era ever? Will he be remembered as the spark behind efforts to reform taxation, budget and water policies in California? Will he leave behind a sharp reduction for the California dream of unfettered opportunity for those brave and visionary enough to settle here?

All these questions remain open, and Schwarzenegger will get ample opportunities over the next year to fix things that have gone wrong and clean up messes made on his watch.

But right now, things don't look good for the Arnold legacy.

The opportunities remaining to him exist mainly because of his enduring celebrity status combined with his drive and a gift for making his every public appearance an event with production values worthy of a feature film.

That larger-than-life quality, sometimes not so obvious up close, where he can occasionally look wan and orange-haired, makes him an unusal lame duck. Despite the limited time left to him, he still has clout because, despite popularity ratings languishing in the 30 percent to 40 percent range, he commands more attention than any California politician ever has, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan.

Just as the crowds attending Michael Jackson's memorial service in central Los Angeles dwarfed those at Reagan's burial in suburban Simi Valley, no state official in memory has drawn as many gawkers as Schwarzenegger.

But for his legacy to be anything but negative, he'll have to move and move quickly. For one thing, if he doesn't want to be remembered as a tool of his campaign donors, he'll have to stop raising money for his various political committees. Schwarzenegger had the personal resources to stick with his pledge never to accept money from special interests, but he never even tried to do that. Potential successors like Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, both former Silicon Valley executives and entrepreneurs with large fortunes seeking the Republican nomination to replace Schwarzenegger, have already plunked down more of their own cash than Arnold ever did.

While both hew to a far-right line in many policy areas, they can't be accused of taking payoffs to do so. But that is a credible charge against Schwarzenegger, whose regulatory policies have consistently favored contributors from Chevron to AT&T to the automobile dealers and developers who are among his biggest donors.

If Schwarzenegger is remembered for being loud but ineffective, it will largely be because of series of botched budget negotiations staged as he watched the state's economy decline and did little about it, fobbing virtually all responsibility off onto the world economy.

Even other Republicans don't buy that, blaming him for refusing to exercise his line item veto power except in rare instances.

So far, he's also a failure as a post-partisan. This he can blame partly on term limits, which deprived him of Democratic leaders like former state Senate President John Burton and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, both of whom enjoyed hobnobbing with the celebrity muscleman.

Their departures left him dealing with the likes of former Sen. Don Perata and current Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, along with present Speaker Karen Bass. It's plain Schwarzenegger enjoys little rapport with today's leaders, while his cultivation of past ones no longer helps him out. The result has been one impasse after another over spending on social programs, education and other areas critical to the Democrats and their own campaign backers.

Where Reagan always spoke softly and rarely said a nasty word even about his political opponents, Schwarzenegger has called Democrats "girlie men," vowed to kick their kiesters and failed to win their crucial support for many changes he's wanted to make.

So there has been little or none of the "blowing up boxes," Schwarzenegger promised while a candidate in the 2003 recall election.

He hasn't done much better among Republicans, many of whom are openly skeptical he could ever win a contested primary election in their party, something that was never required of him.

If all this leads to substantial reform including permanent changes in the budget-writing process, public employee pensions and the tax system, Schwarzenegger might still be remembered positively. But rather than putting forward possible ballot initiatives in these areas, he's lately been enamored of the constitutional convention idea, an utterly unproven all-or-nothing approach that raises many more questions that it has so far answered.

The upshot is that as things now stand, Schwarzenegger figures to leave little positive residue from his more than six years in office. But there's still time for him to change that, even though he does not appear inclined to do it.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Sometime during the last few weeks, Meg Whitman has surely thought seriously about a question that only the super-wealthy ever need contemplate: How much should I spend to become governor of California?

Few campaigns in this state have ever seen as much early trouble as Whitman's well-heeled drive for the 2010 Republican nomination to that office. The stuff all hit the fan for her about nine months before next June's primary, just about the time campaigns for high state offices begun getting serious.

It started with the Sacramento Bee reporting Whitman, the former chairman of the eBay Internet auction house, had not voted in any election anywhere prior to 2002 and that she had not registered as a Republican until 2007. Even though Whitman apologized profusely for her voting record, it later turned out she's actually voted a bit more often than the paper claimed.

Then the San Francisco Chronicle reported she donated the maximum $4,000 to the 2004 reelection campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and served on an exclusive "Technology Leaders for Boxer" committee raising money for the senator, long detested by the GOP.

Whitman tried to excuse her voting record - scant but not entirely non-existent - by saying she had "focused on raising a family…," adding that "My voting record, my registration record, is unacceptable."

This drew fire from women's groups like the National Organization for Women. "That's just an absurdity," said a NOW statement. "Part of raising your children is to teach them civics and their responsibilities as citizens."

About now, many candidates would seek a graceful way out. But few have fortunes estimated at over $1 billion. So while she was apologizing, Whitman never relented in her early-season radio ad campaign or her jetting around to visit Republican groups. And polls show she still has a lead within her party, if not by much.

So Whitman won't quit, even if all the revelations, both correct and exaggerated, put a crimp in her ability to raise money from others. At last report, she had kicked 19 million of her own dollars into her campaign and raised $6.7 million from others. Her effort seems bound to become even more self-financed because of her troubles. This does not appear to faze Whitman one bit. As long as she keeps writing checks, her campaign will go on. And she can write plenty.

Whitman should persist, says attorney Robert Naylor, former Republican leader of the state Assembly and ex-chairman of the state party.

"I think she still has a chance to win the general election by attracting independent voters," he said. "Her message and her record at eBay should be very appealing to them. She's thoroughly apologized for her voting record, as she should have. But all candidates have weaknesses and flaws. None of this stuff should be fatal."

Whitman doesn't sound anywhere near ready to go home. "I refuse to let California fail," she said in an interview, then spelled out plans to lower business taxes in an effort to create 2 million jobs. She also talks of simplifying regulations on business. "It took us at eBay two and a half years to build a 'green' building in Mountain View," she said. "That's unacceptable. I know California can't be run like a high-tech startup, but we need to apply some business principles. As governor, I will focus on creating jobs, cutting government spending and improving education."

But aside from saying she'd cut corporate taxes and government spending, Whitman offers few details. She says nothing about which government services she'd cut, how many workers she would fire or how she might get legislators to okay such cuts.

As yet, she also offers no answer for the key question raised by her voting record: Why should voters trust someone who evinced little interest in public policy for most of her life with the key public policy decisions for the nation's largest state?

Asked this question, Whitman said, "I was not as engaged as I should have been. But I became more engaged in politics and policy as chief executive of eBay. I helped create thousands of small businesses there and I saw how government could get in the way. Voters will have to evaluate my entire record."

If the history of self-financed candidates in this state means anything, they will get that chance. People like Norton Simon and Michael Huffington and Al Checchi and Jane Harman and William Matson Roth all stayed in races for either governor or the U.S. Senate as long as they could. All lost, either in primaries or general elections, but they kept writing checks right 'til the end.

Whitman will likely do the same. It will be up to her to prove that her past record won't doom her to the same fate as all the others who paid for their own campaigns.


Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, October 10, 2009




For most of the last 20 years, anti-illegal immigration activists have steadfastly maintained that many of the undocumented come to America to take advantage of public benefits from schools to welfare to instant automatic citizenship for children born in this country.

The most extreme among them call the illegals’ presence an invasion, often speculating that it’s a government-encouraged movement by Mexicans to take back the vast American Southwest, lost to Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in February 1848.

But the latest numbers on illegal immigration activity and movements demonstrate that the waves of undocumented workers coming to this country are here principally for one reason: work.

That’s made clear by a series of reports from agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pew Hispanic Center and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, all of which agree that tide of illegal northbound movement across the U.S.-Mexico border is now at a 35-year ebb. At the same time, California’s share of the illegal immigrant populace is the lowest in modern times.

Increased enforcement may be playing some role in the profound changes seen both along the border and around America. But the real story here can be found in the same way as with many other stories: follow the money.

It turns out that when illegal immigrants can’t earn money here, they move away no matter what public benefits they might receive if they stay. So invasion and nationalistic desire for territory apparently never had much to do with the illegal immigration tide. Rather, it’s always been about jobs and the money those jobs allow immigrants to send their children and families who stayed behind.

Here are some of the new facts:

Apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the border are off 34 percent over the last two years, down to 662,000 in 2008 from the peak of about 1 million in 2004, according to the Border Patrol. While 35 percent of new immigrants – legal and illegal – at least initially settled in California during the 1980s, by 2007 that figure had dropped to 19 percent, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Fear of increased enforcement may be one reason for the lessened pressure at the border, as the national percentage of new hires screened by the federal E-Verify program rose last spring to 25 percent, up from just 1 percent soon after the program begin in early 2007.

Nevertheless, that still means three-fourths of all new hires here are not screened for immigration status, making it unlikely enforcement alone is the reason for the drop in illegal immigration.

So the deepest reason for the slowdown has become clear: Recession. When jobs are hard to find in the traditional categories filled by illegals, from agricultural field labor that’s been hit by drought-related fallowing of hundreds of square miles of farmland to construction jobs vastly reduced by the real estate collapse, illegal immigrants are likely to stay home or go home.

When Americans lessen spending because their own jobs are insecure and their investments have tanked, roofs often go unfixed, resort vacancy rates rise and far fewer nannies are hired. All of which cause illegal immigrants to stay home, or go home.

Combine this with the increased trend for immigrants, both legal and illegal, to head straight for areas with jobs rather than staying awhile in traditional immigrant centers like Los Angeles and Oakland, and California’s percentage of the new immigrant population drops while the percentage rises for places like Iowa and Minnesota and North Carolina.

This may represent a form of triumph for anti-illegal immigration activists like the folks who pushed the 1994 Proposition 187 with its ban on public services for illegals and a currently circulating proposed ballot initiative that would attempt to deny citizenship to children of illegals. But it comes mainly because of the overall miserable state of the economy.

And it puts the lie to claims by those same activists that illegal immigrants are one of the main causes of California’s repeated budget crises. For it there are few illegals in the state, the cost of schooling their children, treating them in emergency rooms and providing other services has surely dropped.

All of which means there’s a new immigration reality in California today, one that’s not yet completely understood and one that may last no longer than the economic downturn and the real estate and stock market troubles to which it is plainly linked.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Every Californian knows these are hard times here in America’s largest state. With a recession still raging despite the optimistic pronouncements of a few government economists, state workers are furloughed regularly, motor vehicles offices are shuttered periodically and unemployment is at near-record levels, to name just a few of our ills and inconveniences.

In any such time, goofball ideas arise, purporting to be solutions, and this year is no different.

Because it's widely recognized that a shortage of state revenues is a major problem, all manner of ideas are now springing up as potential remedies. Most are harebrained, including the most hyped among them.

One proposal comes from Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, running hard to the right in his quest for next year’s GOP nomination for governor. The Silicon Valley billionaire calls for “pro-growth tax cuts,” proving that the discredited “trickle down economics” theory pushed so hard during the Ronald Reagan era by economist Arthur Laffer is far from dead.

Laffer claimed reducing taxes for the richest Americans would somehow increase actual tax receipts, betting the wealthy would invest in job-creating industries. This proved wrong in the 1980s, when another recession coincided with tax cuts made early in the Reagan years.

Now Poizner wants to cut capital gains taxes by half and slash sales, income and corporate taxes by 10 percent. “Lower tax rates are essential to stimulate our economy,” he says. His Republican campaign rival and fellow ex-Silicon Valley mogul Meg Whitman also wants tax cuts, but she wants them mostly for businesses.

The theory here is much like Laffer’s – cut taxes for the rich and the corporations and there will be more jobs, with more tax money the eventual result. It didn’t work for Reagan and Laffer because many corporations invested their tax benefits abroad and individuals often pocketed theirs. What makes the people think things would be different now?

But the most hyped proposals come from the so-called Commission on the 21st Century, better known as the state tax revision commission. This group met for months and came up with a plan to eliminate corporate income taxes, slash taxes on the wealthy and impose a levy of about 4 percent on every business and service provider in the state, including doctors, lawyers, accountants, barbers, nail polishers and shoeshine stand operators.

This was hardly surprising, as the 14-member group, appointed equally by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders, included a chamber of commerce executive, the leader of the California Business Roundtable, members of corporate boards including the Walt Disney Co. and Bank of America, along with a sprinkling of academics and former legislators.

How harebrained is this plan? For one thing, it was supposed to be “revenue neutral,” designed to stabilize state tax intakes while assuring the amounts brought in at least match what today’s system brings. But an analysis by the nonpartisan California Budget Project found that in a typical year, it would bring in about $5 billion to $7 billion less than today’s system. That’s about what the state invests each year in the University of California and California State University systems combined.

Richard Pomp, a commission member and a University of Connecticut law professor, observed that in addition to this rather major shortcoming, business payrolls would be taxed under the commission plan, but payments to freelancers or outside contractors would not.

“That encourages outsourcing,” he said. “It exempts imports from taxation, but taxes exports. Which means it would encourage businesses to set up operations outside California.”

Despite its seeming benefits for big corporations, this plan has been greeted with skepticism by the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, along with labor unions.

Bill Leonard, a former Republican legislator and current member of the state Board of Equalization, calls the report’s ideas “the most volatile change in taxation since…1916.”

And Pomp observed that “If ever a commission report deserved a direct deposit in the round file, this is it.”

But that won’t happen. Schwarzenegger has already called a special legislative session to consider the plan, even though it has absolutely no chance of passage. Which means lawmakers could be called to Sacramento and paid their usual sumptuous per diem expenses, even though everyone knows no work product will result.

That makes Schwarzenegger and anyone else who participates in this charade as harebrained as the tax schemes themselves.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, October 4, 2009




Even though no Republican candidate for president or the U.S. Senate has carried California since 1988, it’s still not entirely impossible for a Republican to be elected governor next year.

But that task just got a bit harder, despite the enthusiasm the GOP felt after its late-September state convention.

For as the political meaning of the latest figures on new citizen voters becomes ever more clear, it’s plain they will make this state even bluer than it has already been for decades. That’s mostly because of what they believe about Republicans and the immigration issue.

Here are the newest figures: More than 1 million immigrants became naturalized U.S. citizens last year, the largest group ever sworn in during a single year. Fully 300,000 of the new citizens live in California, and more than half are Latinos. During one month – September 2008 – 34,000 immigrants became citizens in the Los Angeles area alone. In most cases, they had to pass voter registration tables as they left the large rooms where judges and others conduct the swearing-in ceremonies. This means most are now registered voters.

Freshly-minted citizens are more likely to vote in the first year or two after assuming their new status than later. That means next year’s California electorate will likely lean more strongly Democratic than ever before. Prior to last May’s special election, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state by a 44-31 percent margin, with the others on the rolls either declining to choose a party or belonging to one of several minor ones.

Even newer than the citizenship statistics is a survey on Latinos and why they vote Democratic from Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen, generally considered to conduct the nation’s most reliable studies of Hispanics.

“The growing support for immigration reform among Latinos – both native-born American citizens and immigrants – is the biggest change in their political outlook over the last six years,” Bendixen says.

His survey, conducted for the Washington, D.C.-based immigration reform lobbying group America’s Voice, found 82 percent of Hispanic voters say immigration reform is one of the three most important issues today, the others being the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three out of four believe the anti-illegal immigration movement is growing and will create discrimination against them and their families. And 69 percent of Latino voters, whether born in this country or not, are personally acquainted with at least one illegal immigrant.

Just as important, they believe by a 71-11 percent margin (with 18 percent on the fence) that Democrats will be more sympathetic than Republicans to immigration reform allowing some form of amnesty.

The Bendixen poll surveyed 800 Hispanic voters in states containing 85 percent of the Latino electorate, with a major share of the survey conducted in California.

Since approximately 80 percent of 2008’s new citizens registered to vote, the survey findings mean new citizens in California are likely to vote Democratic next year by very large margins. Add them to the more than 1 million citizens naturalized in California over the previous eight years, and it’s no wonder this state’s politics look so different from they way they were in the heyday of Ronald Reagan during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

This can only make things easier for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s reelection campaign and more difficult for conservative Republican candidates for governor like Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman. It means whoever gets the GOP nomination will have to adopt the strategy suggested by the other major Republican candidate for governor, former Congressman Tom Campbell, who says he would emphasize next fall the dangers of one-party dominance of state government. Continued Democratic control of the Legislature is almost assured by the combination of voter registration figures and current legislative district lines.

Also, every survey of their political preferences indicates Latinos and Asian-Americans, who together make up more than 90 percent of the newly-sworn citizen corps, are more supportive of government social programs and spending than the overall electorate. Yet another reason they are likely to vote Democratic.

Latinos, for example, favored the five budget-related state ballot propositions that were easily defeated last spring in an election where fewer than one-fourth of eligible voters participated.

Far more voters will turn out next year, when actual candidates appear on most ballots, along with propositions that look to be far sexier than those in the special election.

Add it up, and Republicans have a steeper hill to climb in California than ever before.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Few state lawmakers felt they had accomplished more in the Legislature’s last regular session than the Republicans who make up just over one-third of both the Senate and Assembly.

They went home proud of the fact they had kept their pledge and assessed no new taxes, as Democrats and a very few of their GOP cohorts did last winter.

They felt happy that no more of them would be subjected to the perils of possible recall campaigns and serious 2010 primary election challenges like those that either now afflict or will soon hit most of the dissidents among them who voted for February’s budget compromise, with its temporary increases in income, sales and vehicle taxes.

But did they really avoid new taxes? That depends on how you define a tax and whether you’ll have to pay it.

For there’s now no question that tens of thousands of state employees are being furloughed regularly on Fridays. Republican officials may not much like state employees – except themselves and the many aides they employ – but state workers are Californians, too, and when they are forced to take unpaid days off work, it costs them plenty. About 10 percent of their income.

But that’s not a tax, say Republican lawmakers whose refusal to increase levies on things like cigarettes necessitated the furloughs. Still, their national party, in one of its blizzard of autumn press releases opposing any health care changes that might cost money, offered this definition of a tax: “A charge, usually of money, imposed by authority…for public purposes.”

Under that Republican definition, how do the lost wages of furloughed state employees not count as a tax?

It will soon be much the same for students in both the University of California and California State University systems. UC regents appear sure to increase student fees during this school year, most likely by about 32 percent, pushing it over $10,000 per year. Together with expenses for room, board and books, the cost of a UC education will shortly top $25,000 per year. CSU is not too far behind.

By the Republican definition, this is only not a tax if you’re not a student. If you are a student or parent of one, chances are you’ll soon be paying about $3,000 more than you did last year. That’s a lot more than almost anyone will pay under last February’s temporary budget-balancing levies, but Republican lawmakers will never admit it’s a tax, even if that’s how it feels to those who must pay it.

After all, the GOP legislators might say, students can attend community colleges for far less, if they choose. Or simply not go to school at all. But those are not real options for anyone who has already completed at least two years of college level work or those who want to be teachers or professionals of any type. It is simple reality that college degrees are required for almost all well-paying jobs outside union-dominated trades. Which makes the new UC and CSU fees taxes on tens of thousands of Californians.

So the GOP lawmakers lived up to their no-new-taxes mantra – unless you happen to be one of those forced to pay extra because of their decisions.

It’s the same for anyone visiting state parks and beaches. Entrance fees are already way up, at $11 per car for most parks last month, and rising. Camping fees will be much higher, too, almost comparable with the rent at nearby motels. But no one has to visit state parks, some Republicans say. So these are voluntary fees, not taxes. Yet, some activities can only take place in open spaces and many Californians believe they need time in those spaces to cope with modern life. Last year, state parks and beaches received about 50 million visits from Californians. Those people will now be paying more. For them, these are taxes, by the GOP’s own definition.

Plus, the state Public Utilities Commission appears about to allow electric companies to increase their charges to compensate for expenses incurred in restoring power after wildfires. This charge will be paid by almost every consumer and business for a public purpose, a charge that might be less if there had been some new statewide levies. So this, too, will be a tax on most Californians – necessitated in part by the Republican refusal to okay other levies.

All of which means that anyone who believes Republican claims that the party’s adamant stance, which led some to call it “the party of no,” somehow allowed Californians to escape new expenses, is whistling past the graveyard.

The bottomline is thatmillions of Californians will be paying more for services they now enjoy. No new taxes? Only if you’re a Republican legislator.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit