Saturday, August 29, 2009




To understand why most Californians – and other Americans, too – feel so alienated from their representatives in Congress, it helps to observe an old dictum: Follow the money.

If you do that, it’s easy to see why constituents often conclude that the people charged with seeing to their interests care more about various special interests based in Washington, D.C. and certain other wealthy ZIP codes.

That’s because very little of the campaign money raised by members of this state’s 53-member delegation in the House of Representatives comes from anyone who can vote for them. Rather, the moneybags are people and interests concerned strictly with how those Californians vote in Congress.

On average, California members of the House raised 82 percent of their funds outside their districts during the period from 2005 through 2007, the latest period for which figures are finalized. That statistic was developed by a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group called, whose aim is to “illuminate the connection between money and politics.” MAPLight used numbers provided by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics (See the full report at

Here are the figures on a few of California’s most prominent Congressional veterans:

-- Fortney (Pete) Stark, whose safely Democratic district covering the east shore of San Francisco Bay from Alameda to Fremont has kept him in office by wide margins since 1972. Stark raised $737,000 in the two-year period, ostensibly to defend his seat. In last spring’s primary election, he drew more than 250,000 votes to fewer than 3,000 for the Republican he trounced in the fall. So Stark plainly did not need all that money. But he did top the entire Congress in raising 99 percent of his funds outside his district.

-- Jerry Lewis, 16-term Republican from a San Bernardino County district centered on Redlands. Lewis, who had a bit more of a challenge last fall than in other years, mostly because of an ongoing corruption investigation, raised $1.58 million in the two-year period, 96 percent out of state. The top 10 ZIP codes from which his money came were all in the Washington, D.C. area.

-- Nancy Pelosi, Democratic House speaker from San Francisco, who faced a somewhat fanciful challenge last year from a longtime peace activist angry that Pelosi didn’t orchestrate an impeachment of ex-President George W. Bush, who was about to leave office anyway. Pelosi raised $3.2 million in the two years, spending very little on her reelection. Fully 87 percent of that money came from outside her district, with $1.1 million from the D.C. area.

-- Henry Waxman, longtime Democratic congressman from the west side of Los Angeles and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman, whose district includes the wealth of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Bel Air, has not had a serious challenger in decades. Nevertheless, he raised $1.1 million, with 91 percent coming from outside his district. More than half came from the Washington D.C. area, with only 20 percent originating in California.

These are only a few examples, but together they demonstrate that members of Congress are not exactly beholden to the people who elect them, but rather to special interests bent on influencing their votes.

Those four and other longtime incumbents all have enjoyed safe, or almost safe, seats for many years. They raise money, in part, to pass on to other candidates in tighter races, thus picking up chits they can call in when rounding up votes for a pet bill or a cause important to them.

Said Daniel Newman, MAPLight founder and director, “Instead of a voting democracy, we have a dollar democracy – may the biggest-spending special interest win.”

Arguing the other side, Democratic political consultant Roger Salazar says members of Congress “never know what’s going to happen. They might suddenly find themselves with a serious opponent. Also, people in Congress are national figures with reputations beyond their districts.”

But Charles Keating, the convicted fraudster who was the symbol of the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, may have summed it up from the donors’ viewpoint. Asked whether he expected that officials to whom he contributed would vote his way or influence federal officials on his behalf, he responded, “Why else would I give them all that money?”

Few of today’s donors are as open as Keating about what they’re really after, often adorning their largesse with idealistic language.

But the reality is that donor motivations haven’t changed a bit since Keating’s heyday, nor has the willingness of elected officials to take their money and play their games, which often ignore the well-being of the people who elect them.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




The statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the federal Centers for Disease Control make it clear there’s as compelling need for health care reform in California as anywhere in this country.

Since 2000, for example, average health insurance premiums paid by and for families in this state are up 114 percent to about $13,000 per year, with more than one in five families forced to spend 15 percent of their income on health care.

President Obama contends his health care plan would ease those problems greatly, with the competitive insurance exchange he envisions – with or without a publicly-owned choice – holding down premiums both for employers and buyers of individual policies and for more than 5 million California families who would suddenly become eligible for tax credits on premiums they pay.

He also claims his plan would greatly up the number of small businesses providing insurance to employees. Where only about 46 percent of small businesses offer coverage now, the claim is that would rise by at least 10 percent under a reform plan.

But there remain some holes Obama needs to fill in his estimates of how California would benefit from reform; these mostly involve illegal immigration.

Obama adamantly insists his plan would in no way benefit illegal immigrants, but it’s hard to see how one of his central claims can be accurate so long as he ignores the large populace of illegals in this state, variously estimated at between 1.8 million and 2.5 million persons.

“Right now,” says the White House position paper on how the Obama reforms would help Californians, “providers lose over $5.1 billion in bad debt which often gets passed to families in the form of a hidden premium ‘tax.’ Health insurance reform will tackle this financial burden by…covering the uninsured, allowing the 355 hospitals and 115,740 physicians in California to better care for their patients.”

That “hidden tax” amounts to about $1,400 per year in added expense for every current policy holder in California. The clear implication is that pass-through charges for indigents using emergency rooms will disappear if and when everyone has health insurance.

But that can only be true if everyone is covered. As long as the plan excludes illegals – and there’s no way any plan covering them could get through Congress – it won’t eliminate a major portion of the expenses creating the “hidden tax” in California.

For very few illegals have health insurance. But courts have ruled repeatedly that hospitals cannot turn them away from emergency rooms, the venue they generally must use because doctors and ordinary hospital admissions officials usually demand proof of insurance before providing care.

This makes it plain a healthy chunk of the $5.1 billion “hidden tax” will still be out there even if some form of the Obama plan takes effect. What remains unknown is who will pick up that tab: Will it be the federal or state government or will hospitals and emergency room doctors still be stuck with those billions of dollars, which would likely be passed on to insurance customers much as they are today? There can be no accurate assessment of the Obama plan's California effects unless he addresses the illegal immigrant expense.

Then there are his claims that preventive care will reduce the California health care tab. His report correctly notes that 15 percent of children here are obese, while 17 percent of women over 50 in this state have not had mammograms in the past two years and 40 percent of men over 50 have never undergone a colonoscopy. Getting more Californians health coverage, the paper claims, will reduce expenses caused when illnesses become advanced because they went undetected in their early stages.

Two problems here: First, no one knows how many of those un-scanned men and women are illegal immigrants who would not be covered under the Obama plan and whose coverage would therefore not change. Second, the Congressional Budget Office maintains things like free mammograms, diabetes and colon cancer tests for all would likely end up costing more than treating problems as they arise. And third, no one knows how many of the untested men and women would opt for those exams even if they were completely free.

Still, there’s little doubt that, as Obama claims, many Californians need more preventive care and better insurance coverage overall, at a price they can afford.

With at least 60,000 children due to be dropped from the state’s Healthy Families program by Oct. 1 and as many as 610,000 more set to be dumped by next July, there’s little doubt California needs something new and better.

But it would be wrong to portray the current Obama estimates of what his plan would do for California as anywhere near accurate and complete, if only because they ignore at least one gigantic elephant that’s seated right in the middle of the state’s living room.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, August 23, 2009




The most interesting thing about the New America Foundation think tank’s recent Sacramento seminar on replacing the California state constitution with something unknown and unpredictable was that even the foundation’s designated election law expert had to admit the “Pandora’s Box” problem.

For months, the business-sponsored Bay Area Council and others who want to tinker with the fundamentals of this state’s governance have claimed they can limit matters to be covered by the constitutional convention they would like to call, a putative gathering known to some by the shorthand term “Con-Con.”

A ballot initiative calling such a convention, they’ve said, could guarantee that there will be no changes in the property tax limits set under Proposition 13, for just one example.

But it’s not necessarily so. As election lawyer James Harrison told the seminar, the best example of a constitutional convention deviating from all plans was the first one: the 1787 convention that drew up the U.S. Constitution.

That convention was supposed to revise the ailing Articles of Confederation. But delegates quickly gave up on that weak document and instead produced a new plan that led to a much stronger national government,

Similarly, the only real limit on what a state constitutional convention might do is that its final product would have to be approved by a vote of the people. Approval would take only a majority vote, not even the 55 percent semi-supermajority now needed to approve such relatively trivial matters as local school construction bonds.

Which means the Pandora’s Box problem is very real. Open a convention and there’s no way to tell what might come out.

Not only might a convention get rid of Proposition 13, it might also eliminate the stronger-than-federal California abortion rights signed into law by the late Gov. Ronald Reagan. It might decree that gasoline tax money can be used for all sorts of things besides transportation and roads, or it might make big changes in labor laws. It could do as it wished with gay rights, gun control, offshore oil drilling, criminal sentences and a host of other major issues including some that were allegedly resolved many years ago. Bottom line is that a constitutional convention could do just about anything it wanted. The only check on it would be that final up-or-down vote of the people.

What it might do, of course, would largely be a function of who is in it. That was a completely open question until mid-August, as the current constitution offers no guidance on who might participate. The New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that has had a California arm for less than 18 months, wants delegates chosen randomly in a manner similar to juries. That way, says the group’s political reform program director, it could be completely representative. No elitism for this think tank, which draws its funding from rich foundations and big businesses like Comcast, Blue Shield and Microsoft. So there would be no careful vetting of delegates, as there was for that original 1787 convention. That way, you could have more many car wash workers than political science professors among the delegates.

But the first of what figure to be a spate of proposed initiatives on the subject, which entered circulation Aug. 14, don’t even try to limit subject matter and call for popular election of 400 delegates. These proposed measures seek to keep things Simon-pure by imposing strict campaign spending limits of a sort that’s been found unconstitutional (federally) many times before and by ordering delegates’ names kept secret until the vote results are certified and all 400 of them, plus their staff, are sequestered with all outside contact forbidden.

Of course, that doesn’t account for polling, which would indicate who the likely delegates will be long before they’re chosen. Nor does it prevent special interest groups from running their own candidates. So this plan is no more workable than the New America Foundation’s notions and chances are the current measures won’t get close to the 694,354 valid voter signatures needed to put them on a special election ballot.

Which leaves Californians back at square 1, still pondering what a convention might cover and whether it would be filled with as many illiterates as university professors.

What problems do the Con-Con backers say they want to fix? They’d like to end the current two-thirds majority requirement for passing state budgets and new taxes. They want to end some aspects of the initiative process; especially they don’t want voters setting priorities for how their tax money will be used – ballot box budgeting, they call this. In short, they’d like state government to run more smoothly, regardless of what the people might want.

But it may not matter much what current backers want to do. Once a convention were convened, it could pretty much do whatever it liked, just like the first one.

Which means calling a constitutional convention would be very risky business, especially since every fix the current backers say they want to make can be done with an old-fashioned ballot initiative. And of course, the Con-Con con also might create far more new problems than it solves old ones.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




All through this summer’s budget crisis, while Republican and Democratic legislators haggled with each other and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all sides promised one thing: There would be no reductions in the quality or availability of fire and police protection anywhere in California.

But now, with California heading into the most destructive part of its fire season, a time when winds can whip flames into 90 mile per hour maelstroms, it’s clear that promise was not kept.

Anyone who suggests fire protection can be as good this fall as in recent years most likely will turn out to be living a fantasy. That, of course, would include Schwarzenegger, for whom everything almost always is “fantastic” in more ways than one.

For one thing, the new state budget cuts $27 million from Cal Fire, the state agency that sends people and equipment wherever they’re needed most. The reduction includes more than $10 million earmarked for new fire engines, hoses, pumps and other equipment. So firefighters will be working with old equipment. If there are significant failures of things like pumps and hoses, it’s an open question whether owners of property charred as a consequence could sue the state for damages. Even if courts rule they can’t sue, this still may turn out as another in a series of penny wise, pound foolish spending cuts that will end up costing taxpayers far more than they are saving by not paying more new taxes.

Maybe that’s why Schwarzenegger sounded a bit defensive when he visited the command post for the year’s first significant inferno, the Lockheed fire in Santa Cruz County. “California has the best and bravest firefighters…and I am confident that they will beat back these fires like they have in years past,” he said.

There's also the matter of the DC-10 airborne tanker, another so-called budget cut likely to cost more than it saves.

For years, California has contracted for a standby DC-10 that can dump up to 12,000 gallons of water or fire retardant each time valves open beneath its huge tank. Photos of the plane dumping orange fluid on raging flames in Santa Barbara last May became iconic emblems of the state’s firefighting efforts.

But a stroke of Schwarzenegger’s pen cancelled the $7 million contract that kept that jumbo jet plane on standby for California. Now, the state will pay more than $66,000 every day it uses the plane, with a five-day minimum. Anything beyond 21 deployments would end up costing more than the budget cut – and if this year turns out like the last few, that’s how it will be.

This assumes the DC-10 is available when needed. The old contract demanded the plane take off within 30 minutes of any call; the new arrangement allows up to 24 hours for responses.

But these reductions in state firefighting ability may pale beside what local fire departments will suffer because of the new budget’s raids on local funds.

In Los Angeles, for one, firefighting officials must cover a $39 million shortfall caused in large part by the state raid. So there will be “brownouts” at many city fire stations, with a total of 87 fewer firefighters on duty each day, almost one-tenth of the usual work force. One battalion command team, 15 fire companies and nine ambulances will be out of service each day, but no city fire stations will actually close.

In other areas, including parts of San Diego County ravaged by several large fires over the last five years, fire prevention efforts are being cut. High-risk Fallbrook is one such place, while several other local districts are ironically casting about for money to pay their contracts for standby assistance from Cal Fire. If they can’t pay, the state agency will either have to let the locals handle all problems or go to work without the payment it usually gets. Since Cal Fire insists nothing will diminish its performance, the agency will probably work some fires without reimbursement. Some budget solution.

The most significant thing here is that while officials say they will still “attack and respond,” they may not be able to be as effective as usual.

This year's budget was atleast partly based on a hope that the upcoming fire season will be less severe than the last few.

That’s held up so far, as there were no significant blazes anywhere in California until mid-August. But the driest part of the year is still ahead, the season when past wildfires have ravaged Malibu, Berkeley, Bel Air, Rancho Santa Fe, Laguna Beach, the Oakland hills and many other California areas built in places where Native Americans conducted planned annual burnoffs for centuries.

All of which means Californians may soon find out the consequences of at least one political falsehood: the oft-repeated claim that big budget cuts won’t mean less protection for the people whose safety is the first responsibility of every government.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns,

Sunday, August 16, 2009




California has a budget crisis as bad as any state’s and it has a water
crisis that’s nearly unique. But no California crisis can match the dropout crisis.

For most of the last 10 years, this column and a very few other news outlets reported that the high school dropout rate in California was about one-third, even while school districts reported much smaller rates. That is, of every nine students who enrolled in middle school in any given fall, about three would disappear before their purported high school graduation day rolled around.

It turns out this grotesque dropout rate is very real. The actual rate today is likely very close to 33 percent, three out of nine. That includes students who drop out before they reach high school. It also includes those who make brief pit stops in continuation schools and then disappear.

This disgrace is one reason so many California companies import skilled labor from other countries, leaving large numbers of native-born Californians in low-paid, unskilled jobs. It’s one reason for a recent forecast that this state’s companies will need to bring in millions of foreign workers by 2020 just to keep current industries running, let alone new businesses.

California’s public schools largely ignored their shameful performance until last year. But it’s notable that the dropout rate last fall at charter high schools was significantly less than in ordinary public schools. That may be at least partly because almost all charter schools have waiting lists, with eager parents trying hard to shoe-horn their kids in. Parental involvement has always been the best insurance against dropouts.

But at Locke High School in Los Angeles, the lone charter high school in this state that accepts everyone in its attendance area, 85 percent of students from the previous year turned up last fall, about 15 percent higher than the year before the school went charter.

What more telling indictment of a public school could there be than when a nightmarish 15 percent dropout rate from one year to the next actually constitutes a major improvement?

State school officials began taking this problem seriously only two years ago. Until then, they had little information on how many students disappear from the education system.

But last year, they admitted to a 21 percent high school dropout rate, and this year they say it was 20.1 percent. The lobbying group California Parents for Educational Choice claims to have found a simple math error that would raise the official rate to about 25 percent, not counting middle school dropouts.

The state Education Department hopes to grow more precise in tracking students, with every pupil from the kindergarten level on up now assigned a 10-digit number. Before this system began, school districts could downplay their apparent dropout rates by claiming many students had moved to other schools. Now students can be tracked even when they transfer hundreds of miles from where they begin school, so long as they stay in state.

“We get certain identifying information from all of them when they register in a new school, so even if they don’t know their number, we can properly identify them,” says Keric Ashley, the Education Department’s chief data manager.

This year’s rates still don’t include junior high and middle school dropouts, but State Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell promises that will begin next fall. Official state dropout figures then should come much closer to reflecting what is really happening.

Make no mistake, what’s happening is a tragedy of epic proportions. Its human consequences dwarf those of the budget and water crises, serious as they are.

For when at least one-quarter and possibly as many as 35 percent of high school-age Californians are dropping out of school, a huge segment of this state’s future populace is condemning itself to a second-class adult life. “Over a lifetime, dropouts have lower earnings, worse health, higher rates of incarceration, a host of problems,” O’Connell says, calling the current reported rate “unacceptable.”

Perhaps one way to help reduce the problem would be granting differential diplomas to students who meet all other graduation requirements, but repeatedly fail the high school exit exam. While state officials maintain the exam has not increased dropouts, there is copious anecdotal information to the contrary, with many dropouts saying they left out of frustration and a feeling that since they couldn’t pass the exit test, why stay when they would never get a diploma?

Giving two levels of diplomas would at least end this motive for leaving, while still recognizing students who do pass the exam.

But that’s only a small part of the problem. With dropout rates as high as they are, it’s time to evaluate all curriculum and all teachers at all levels. O’Connell calls this “the new three R’s. We need to improve our rigor, relevance and relationships with our students.”

And because parents are the real key to solving this problem, a major advertising campaign and community organizing effort aiming to motivate them to keep their kids in school should quickly become a top state priority.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




To most Californians who have noticed it, the ongoing dispute over the legality of half a billion dollars’ worth of late-July budget vetoes by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like a schoolyard squabble. You have the governor and the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature bashing each other and hauling out lawyers to make predictably partisan arguments.

But there’s more going on here. What’s happening is an attempt by Schwarzenegger to remake California government in a more authoritarian form against the express wishes of the people and their elected representatives.

Here’s the essence of the dispute: Back in February, the governor signed a budget bill designed to take the state through the end of the fiscal year ending at midsummer of 2010. Before signing, he nixed whatever items he disliked, making use of his line item veto powers.

Tax revenues soon fell far short of the expectations behind that budget, so a new round of negotiations eventually led to July’s budget revision, with many cuts from the February version. Schwarzenegger treated this as a whole new budget, which would give him the right to a fresh round of line item vetoes. But lawmakers said it was not a new budget, just a series of cuts in previously authorized spending. They argue it can’t be a new budget when less than everything is involved, and claim the governor illegally used his line item veto on spending he previously okayed.

Chances are the state Supreme Court will eventually decide this question. When the case gets there, some bright lawyer will surely ask this question: If Schwarzenegger’s actions are legal, why did he need to try twice (unsuccessfully) during the last four years to pass new laws authorizing the precise kinds of actions he's just taken?

For the latest moves amount to a third chapter in Schwarzenegger’s long quest to gain more and more budget powers for himself and future governors.

Back in 2005, he called a special election, spending many millions of dollars and endless energy while trying unsuccessfully to pass five ballot initiatives designed to give him and his successors vastly more power. The key measure then was Proposition 76, which aimed to let governors cut spending in midyear wherever and however they like anytime they so much as say they think a deficit might be on the horizon. Yes, that measure would have required governors to inform legislators 45 days in advance and give them a chance to make their own cuts. But since any budget actions take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, reality would assure that governors make all decisions.

After that idea lost by a wide margin, Schwarzenegger stayed silent on the matter almost three years. But he was back in 2008, including in his proposed budget then a provision mandating that whenever a governor declares a fiscal emergency and legislators don’t make all the cuts he likes, the governor could step in and make cuts for them.

Both the 2005 initiative and the 2008 proposal sought to give California governors financial powers exceeding those enjoyed by the president of the United States or any other governor. That shouldn’t have been a surprise: Schwarzenegger mused early in his tenure that life would be much easier if only he were a dictator.

In fact, what he’s done this year looks almost precisely like what he attempted in 2005 and 2008. He declared a fiscal emergency and unilaterally cut state worker hours and salaries. Then, when legislators didn’t make enough other cuts to suit him, he made vetoes where and as he saw fit. It’s almost a complete acting out of his prior proposals.

Schwarzenegger essentially ignored the fact his 2005 proposition failed miserably at the polls, along with the rest of his so-called reform package, and the fact his 2008 proposal never made it out of any legislative committee.

When this year’s financial crisis came along, Schwarzenegger tried to do on his own what neither voters nor lawmakers would allow. Now he has set a precedent that will stand for many years to come unless a new lawsuit by Senate President Darrell Steinberg or another like it overturns his action.

How likely is that? “It’s clear Schwarzenegger is trying to exercise some unique powers,” says Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies. “Does he have those powers? Maybe. But courts don’t usually like to get into power disputes between branches of government like this, so they might just say the solution would be for legislators to override his vetoes.”

If that’s the ruling, Schwarzenegger’s cuts will stand because it would take a two-thirds vote to overturn, and no Republicans would go along.

Which might mean that Schwarzenegger has brought to reality his idea of making California governors fiscal dictators – emperors, Steinberg says – despite the fact those ideas have been outright rejected twice, by the voters and the Legislature. If it stands, this will be a power grab of classic proportions.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, August 8, 2009





The announcement on the information line of the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club one recent day said a lot more than intended.

“Our guest tonight will be San Francisco Mayor Gay-vin Newsom, a candidate for governor,” the voice intoned. Not Gavin, but Gay-vin.

It didn’t really matter whether the woman recording that message slipped or really didn’t know how to pronounce Newsom’s first name.

Either way, it’s pretty clear his chances to win the governor’s office will largely depend on public feelings about the items for which he is best known: his 2004 executive order legalizing same-sex marriages in his city, in contradiction of state law, and his notorious “whether you like it or not” exclamation about such unions, used as a key element in TV commercials that last year helped pass Proposition 8 and its ban on such marriages.

His words and actions likely will help him in next June’s Democratic primary election, as Democrats – aside from African Americans – voted strongly against Proposition 8. But the issue would surely hurt him in a November runoff against any of the three major Republican hopefuls, because GOP voters went overwhelmingly for the gay marriage ban while independents were split.

“It’s always right to do what’s right,” Newsom intoned the other day before speaking to a mostly-black town hall audience in one of the grittier parts of South Los Angeles, a place where same-sex unions are not popular. He’s not backing off his support for gay marriage.

But he insists his “whether you like it or not” quote was taken out of context. “I was talking about how the courts always step in to help minorities, and gays will be the next. In 1967, 70 percent of Americans opposed interracial marriage. If we had let the people decide, do you think you’d have interracial marriage today? These are individual rights we’re talking about, and it’s just not right to say separate but equal is wrong for African Americans, but OK for gays and lesbians.”

He jokes that, “I wonder what my wife would have done if I’d gotten on one knee and proposed to her this way: ‘Will you civil union me?’”

Not too many politicians these days make matters of principle key elements of their standard stump speeches, like the 42-year-old Newsom. This may be part of a strategy of being completely up-front about his beliefs, a piece of his very necessary effort to win public trust.

Trust has been an issue for him ever since he was forced in 2006 to admit he had had an affair with the wife of his (former) best friend and campaign manager. “You have to earn people’s trust,” he says now. “I didn’t try to hide from what I did or equivocate about it. And the people of San Francisco had the chance in 2007 to vote against me, but they reelected me with a 74 percent margin. They know me best.”

Newsom’s main rival on the Democratic side next year will likely be state Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former two-term governor in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Newsom rarely says much about Brown, but his chief campaign adviser, Garry South, speaks right up. “A retread,” he calls Brown. “When you put up one of those, it does not work.” He cites the example of Walter Mondale, the former vice president who was once the most popular politician in the history of his home state of Minnesota. Mondale was defeated after he got the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination there after incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed in 2002.

“They put up a retread,” South said, “and they paid the price. Brown (who will be 72 by next year’s primary) has an old frame of reference. Anyone who voted for him the last time he ran for governor in 1978 would be at least 50 years old next year.”

Newsom doesn’t touch that subject, knowing he would quickly be labeled ageist, and also aware that some of Brown’s longtime positions are now widely accepted. Brown’s environmental themes of the ‘70s, in fact, sound a lot like what Newsom hypes today while claiming what’s happened lately in San Francisco is the way of the future for all California.

That includes subsidized health insurance for everyone in the city, subsidized solar energy installations, the promise of college expenses for all high school graduates who qualify, and an ability to bring in a balanced budget, on time, in difficult times.

“Everything we’ve done in San Francisco can be scaled up,” Newsom says.

He gets some heat at home for taking credit for other people’s ideas, but responds that “I always talk about what we’ve done in San Francisco, not what I’ve done.”

His energetic presentations invariably draw positive responses from Democratic audiences. But so far, he’s been preaching to his own choir. One test will come when Brown formally enters the race and legitimately takes credit for many ideas Newsom likes to pitch. Another may come later, if he wins the Democratic nomination and runs up against a Republican with very different ideas.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns,




It may not be the unkindest cut and it may also not be the most inefficient or deadly one Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made when he used his veto pen to blue-pencil more than $500 million more from the state budget than legislators had already done.

But cutting $27.8 million from the Williamson Act program that preserves agricultural lands and leaving it with a token $1,000 was surely the brownest cut of all.

Once and for all, it puts the lie to Schwarzenegger’s bluster about being the world’s greenest public official, a pose that has put him on the covers of international magazines and led him to sponsor or participate in myriad high-profile environmental programs, both live and on television.

Schwarzenegger never has evinced pretensions about being particularly humane; his state finance director, Mike Genest, in one remarkable conference call last spring conceded the budget cuts then planned and now largely executed by the Schwarzenegger administration would probably result in multiple deaths. That was all part of holding the line against new taxes beyond those imposed in February.

Among the governor's vetoes were many millions for child welfare services, early childhood education, health care for low income persons, AIDs prevention programs and health insurance for children of the working poor.

None of that was hypocritical, for Schwarzenegger has rarely advocated safety nets for the poor or the ill.

But the Williamson Act is different, and Schwarzenegger wanted to axe it for at least the last two years, even though it eliminates far more climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere than any other program now in effect or contemplated anywhere in the world, including the cap-and-trade proposals of both President Obama and the California Air Resources Board.

Here’s a little background on the Williamson Act: It’s a 43-year-old program named for John Williamson, a 1960s-era assemblyman from Kern County, that gives farmers a property tax subsidy if they pledge to keep their land in agriculture for periods of 10 to 20 years. It currently protects 16.4 million acres of farm and ranch land from development.

And here’s what that has to do with being green: A Purdue University study earlier this decade found that every acre of farmland in that state pulls an estimated 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air each year. That’s for all types of farmland, including grazing land, vineyards, rice fields, cotton fields, orchards and more.

This is a lowball figure, of course, because it’s based on Indiana lands. No green leaves or blades of grass take carbon from the air there during the winter, as they do here. But even under those conditions, far less advantageous than in California, the math works out to a minimum total of 1.754 million tons of carbon absorbed yearly by those 16.4 million Williamson Act acres. Or 3.5 billion pounds. Nothing else planned anywhere involves more than a fraction of those amounts.

Schwarzenegger, the much-hyped champion of the battle against global warming, knows this. He was given the numbers during a 2007 press conference after his press secretary admitted the governor and his staff knew nothing of the Williamson Act’s climate-changing relevance. This was immediately after he first proposed cutting out the state’s support for the program, a cut that did not happen because legislators restored funding. The governor, no longer able to deny knowledge of his hypocrisy, also tried to chop the program in budget negotiations earlier this year, but was thwarted again by lawmakers.

Legislators likely can’t restore it now, because they would need a two-thirds vote of both the state Assembly and Senate and because Democrats in Sacramento are far more outraged by Schwarzenegger’s other vetoes than by this one.

So it will now be up to cash-strapped counties to decide whether to continue Williamson Act contracts or cancel them. Cancellation would not mean immediate bulldozing of farm and ranch lands, because current pacts would have to run their course before farmers could sell land to developers.

But many farmers and ranchers have said the Williamson Act subsidy is the only thing that prevented them from doing this long ago.

Which means the symbolic butcher knife Schwarzenegger wielded so visibly on Twitter just before announcing his vetoes could chop millions of acres from California’s agricultural lands over the next two decades.

That would be the brownest of legacies for a man who has styled himself an international champion of green causes.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, August 1, 2009





Want to know the recipe for cooking up larger and larger hate group memberships? Take the election of a liberal President, add a governor reneging on his “no new taxes” pledge, toss in the highest unemployment in 30 years and oh, yes, make sure that the new President is an African American.

Stir thoroughly with right-wing talk radio blather about things like “heads on a stick,” simmer with same-sex marriage, make sure the liberal African-American president talks up immigration reform, and you’ve got the perfect recipe.

Or the perfect storm, if hate speech, hate crimes and white power rallies are not your personal preference.

In fact, the current surge in the number of hate groups and the parallel rise in their membership was completely predictable. As early as the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter became President, organizations that track hate mongers developed what amounted to a model for predicting rises and falls in hate-group membership.

The more conservative a President might be, the more anti-illegal immigrant sentiment is heard in Congress, the lower the number of hate groups and the smaller their membership rolls. When a liberal is elected, it’s just the reverse.

Reason: Conservative Presidents are perceived by many as more likely than liberals to cut welfare payments, crack down on crime, increase wiretapping, choke off illegal immigration and build up the military – all policies that hate group members tend to support. Never mind that liberal presidents sometimes do these things more effectively than conservatives, as with Bill Clinton’s welfare reductions of the mid-1990s.

But combining items like an African American President, high unemployment and more taxes is certain to arouse rage in many Americans.

New hate group numbers recorded by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center demonstrate this clearly. In a springtime report, the group detailed a surge in the number of hate groups to 926 nationwide, 83 in California. This was a 5 percent increase from just a year earlier, when unemployment had already begun to rise, but Barack Obama was still a U.S. senator.

The recent rise in the number of hate groups parallels an increase in hate crimes against Latinos, which the FBI reported up by 35 percent between 2003 and 2006, the last period for which it has complete figures. The FBI says these crimes are usually intended to target illegal immigrants, but often hit legal residents who are native-born U.S. citizens.

In California, hate groups listed by the poverty center include racist skinhead gangs operating in areas from San Diego to Fresno and the San Francisco Bay area. There are also white supremacist outfits including several units of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement based in Glendale.

“Anti-immigrant rage, fueled in part by the shrinking job market, was the No. 1 factor driving the hate crime increase prior to this year,” said Mark Potok, director of the poverty center’s Intelligence Project.

But both that center and the Anti-Defamation League say an upsurge of anti-black hate followed immediately upon Obama’s election last fall. Some crimes, of course, cannot be directly attributed to hard feelings aroused by the election result; they might have happened anyway. That’s the case for last fall’s Riverside County murder of a white Marine sergeant and his African American wife.

But there is little doubt hate group activity grew more open nationally as 2008 progressed and it became apparent Obama would win. There were denunciations of “President Obongo” at a hate rock concert in Missouri, racial slurs shouted at Latinos from the steps of a courthouse in Tulsa, Okla., and a plot to kill Obama broken up by police and FBI agents in North Carolina.

“Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites,” Potok observed. “The reality of a black man in the White House, combined with the economic crisis and Latino immigration has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”

Agreeing is former Klan leader David Duke, now a Louisiana politician. He calls Obama a “visual aid” for angry white Americans, adding that last year’s election was sure to produce “dramatic increases” in hate group membership.

The statistics bear that out, with the Secret Service reporting that Obama got more death threats more continually last fall than any previous president-elect.

Chances are there’s no clear remedy for all this. Government agencies and educators have never been able to stem either racist or anti-immigrant hate, in California or nationwide. There’s no reason to believe they’ll do better now. Which makes this a time when law enforcement at all levels needs extreme vigilance against the scourge of hate crimes.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit





And so another California budget agreement is reached, full of program cuts and higher fees, but without the slightest attempt to plug the biggest tax loophole in California history, one that has cost the state at least $90 billion and possibly as much as $300 billion over the last 30 years.

It’s not that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the lawmakers who were his accomplices in yet another fiscal fiasco didn’t know about this budget solution. This column has been calling it to their attention for years, and some officials have emailed responses to those pieces.

The termed out former Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia of Eastern Los Angeles County pushed an end to the loophole as long as she held office. The Los Angeles Times has called for a correction. The California Tax Reform Assn. has wanted this fix for more than a decade.

But it has yet to receive serious consideration in Sacramento, even at a time of utter budgetary disaster.

Take a look at the just-enacted budget, the one adopted after politicians refused even to consider plugging this loophole, which creates a privileged class of property owners able to evade the reassessments normally performed under Proposition 13 whenever real estate changes hands.

Their budget includes billions of dollars in cuts to public education, closes some state parks, eliminates health care for many thousands of children and poor adults, and on and on. It calls for selling off many state properties, some of which were bequeathed to the people of California supposedly in perpetuity.

Maybe some of these cuts would still be needed even if the big tax loophole were closed. For sure, all could at least have been reduced.

Here’s the loophole: Whenever partnerships buy a property and no one individual holds a majority stake, the transaction is not considered a change of ownership and the property thus does not get reassessed. When one big vintner recently purchased 1,700 acres in Napa County, for instance, lawyers set up the new ownership as a partnership of several family members rather than part of the family’s company. So taxes on that land are still based on decades-old valuations.

Closing this loophole would not be a new tax; it would only force partnerships like that one to pay the same level of taxes every homeowner or small business pays when buying a home or storefront: 1 percent of the most recent purchase price. What’s more, current definitions of what constitutes a change of ownership are not part of the original 1978 Proposition 13; rather, they are regulations passed by legislators in 1979.

All it takes to equalize taxation in this state, therefore, is a simple majority vote in the Legislature, plus the governor’s signature. No two-thirds vote. No ballot initiative. Certainly no constitutional convention. But none of the state’s so-called leaders has been willing to act.

How much revenue has the cavalier attitude of top officials spurned? When Escutia conducted hearings, the estimates of money lost through this measure ranged from $3 billion per year to $12 billion. At its low end, thus, changing this one regulation would be enough to keep elementary school class sizes at current levels, keep all state parks open and more. Schwarzenegger and the lawmakers would have a full menu of program choices to restore.

Of course, changing a few other Proposition 13-related regulations could produce even more money for the cash-starved state.

One often-cited example came when the Canadian firm Intrawest Corp. bought the popular Mammoth Mountain ski resort in 1997. The deal left management control with the sellers, so there was no reassessment. By some counts, the tax loss over the eight years until the resort was next sold amounted to $20 million. That was about $2.5 million per year in lost revenue from just one property. Other subterfuges involve mergers and acquisitions where properties are controlled by new owners using old company names.

Fixing the regulations that allow these dodges would not be a new tax. It would merely force new corporate owners or partnerships to pay the same taxes as homeowners and owners of commercial property or apartment buildings who have been honest.

The sense that this would be a new tax is one reason it has yet to be taken seriously in Sacramento. Another reason might be the tact that real estate and development interests are among the top three classes of campaign donors to officials of both major parties.But once it dawns on denizens of the Capitol that they are fostering an unequal tax system and condoning a privileged class of property owners, attitudes might change. When they understand how much money is at stake, they might also realize this is one way to lessen or avoid another budget crisis next year.

Call it neglect or incompetence, it is a disgrace that this injustice has lingered for years after lawmakers and the governor became aware of it.
Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit