Sunday, September 27, 2009




How desperate are some opponents of illegal immigration to get their case before the public (as if it weren’t already a top issue)? Desperate enough to put forward a possible ballot initiative that absolutely everyone involved knows would be held unconstitutional the moment it passes.

There are plenty of other questionably constitutional measures now in circulation, hoping for a place on the ballot next year. These include one requiring possession of government-issued identification in order to vote and another that would assess a one-time 55 percent tax on all individual wealth that exceeds $15 million for an individual or $20 million for a married couple.

But no other current proposal is as baldly contrary to the Constitution as the anti-illegal immigrant measure that’s the brainchild of Bill Morrow, a termed out former Republican state senator from Oceanside and two other anti-illegal immigration activists.

Their aim: Preventing children of undocumented immigrants from becoming United States citizens even when they’re born here.

This, of course, runs counter to the specific language of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one of the Reconstruction-era amendments enacted after the Civil War to make sure children of former slaves would be full citizens.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” says Section 1 of the amendment. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…”

In short, if you’re born here, you’re a citizen regardless who your parents might be and regardless of their immigration status or citizenship. No state can ever do anything to diminish that right to citizenship.

But Morrow and partners paid the state attorney general’s office $200 to register and seek a title for an initiative aiming to do precisely that. If they can gather 433,971 valid voter signatures, they can even put it on the ballot.

Seeking somehow to circumvent the 14th Amendment, these immigration activists try to hide their true intention. Their measure doesn’t specifically deny citizenship to anyone, even though that is its plain intent. Rather, they would forbid hospitals from issuing birth certificates to newborns lacking at least one U.S. citizen or legal immigrant parent. This would have to be proven via one of a variety of documents.

For those who can offer no such proof, the measure would have hospitals issue a “certificate of live birth for birth to a foreign parent.”

Of course, under the 14th Amendment, that baby would be a U.S. citizen no matter what his or her birth certificate might be titled. But the purpose here is at least as much to deny such children the benefits of citizenship – things like public schooling and emergency health care – as it is to deny them citizenship itself.

A birth certificate with caveats, like this one, would likely be taken by unsophisticated parents speaking and reading little English as signifying something short of citizenship.

This is clearly unconstitutional under the second clause of the 14th Amendment, which forbids any law abridging the “privileges and immunities” of any citizen. Just such abridgment is its exact intent. So it’s very unlikely a “foreign parent” birth certificate will ever be issued in California or anywhere else, until or unless the 14th Amendment itself is amended or repealed. Since the amendment also guarantees all citizens equal protection of the law, this country would be a very different place if the amendment ever disappears or is substantially changed.

Morrow and his associates know all this. Their aim, clearly, is to discourage would-be immigrants from coming here solely for the purpose of giving birth to new U.S. citizens. Called "anchor babies" by some, their very citizenship raises family unity issues whenever their parents are threatened with deportation.

It is, of course, far easier to put up $200 to get a putative measure titled and put into circulation than it is to raise the $1 million-plus usually needed to qualify it for the ballot.

So this one may never come to a vote. But that doesn’t appear to matter much to its sponsors, who have now raised the issue of citizenship for children of illegal immigrants in a unique and high-profile manner.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




You couldn’t really blame farmers and farm workers in the vast stretches of west San Joaquin Valley these days if they were muttering something like “water czar, schmater czar."

For even though U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to Fresno and Coalinga at midsummer to announce that he’s making his chief deputy secretary an ambassador to the big players in California’s water crisis, nothing has changed.

More than 500,000 San Joaquin Valley acres remain fallowed, pulled out of production because of lack of water. Unemployment still approaches 40 percent in farming towns like Mendota, Huron, Dos Palos and Firebaugh. The yellow-and-black signs posted in dry fields beside Interstate 5 that read “Congress Created Dust Bowl” – those aren’t coming down anytime soon. And there’s the prospect that the huge pumps at the south end of the delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers will be stopped again next spring, just as they were this spring.

For not only is the minnow-like delta smelt – whose survival is the goal of the pump shutdowns responsible for much of the drought in the west valley – still endangered despite discovery of a copious colony near a large island in the delta, but its slightly larger relative the longfin smelt also now has that designation.

Salazar says he wants to improve things by expediting one idea that looks promising: The so-called “two gates” proposal, a $160 million plan that would use moveable gates to screen threatened fish like the two smelt species out of water flows as they are sucked into the pumps.

That’s as constructive a suggestion as the water crisis of the last few years has produced, one that’s eminently doable and would not force either side to compromise. But state legislators couldn’t even agree on something as simple as that while trying to pass corrective water measures this summer.

Salazar also became the latest to assert that he’s trying to “bring all of the key federal agencies to the table” in trying to make water peace. Of course, they have all been at a bunch of tables together for many years, with seemingly countless Bay/Delta task forces and committees convening, issuing reports and not solving much over the last 20 years or so.

Not that there’s a lack of sensible ideas out there. One suggests fallowing of thousands of acres in the west valley that are so tainted with toxic chemicals they can’t be farmed responsibly, then passing their water rights to other farmers until the land is cleansed. Another is to increase use of recycled laundry and dish water for lawns and industry throughout the state, reducing demand considerably because lawns and cooling processes are far more thirsty than people.

Yet another would see California built more desalination plants to take advantage of the virtually endless seawater lapping at on the state’s doorstep. But that hasn’t yet become cost effective in most places.

It also makes sense to add new dams and a peripheral canal around the delta, facilities to catch runoff from winter rains and spring snowmelt which now drains into the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay without accomplishing much.

But even with plenty of federal economic stimulus dollars around and earmarked for infrastructure, there’s no consensus on any of these items, so nothing gets done. Plus, in a time of extra-lean budgets, there’s little state money available to match the federal dollars.

Farmers say the nation’s food supply is endangered as they scrub plans to grow seasonal crops while using precious water to ensure some permanent plants like fruit trees and grapevines survive the dry period.

And politicians posture. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who previously showed little interest in the plight of farmers, farm workers and the businesses that depend on them, suddenly scheduled a visit and a photo op in troubled Mendota after he was upbraided by farmers at a Fresno appearance where he had planned to ignore water and talk only budget.

Salazar names a czar with no real powers.

What’s needed in the water wars is both the common sense to move quickly on measures that can be done immediately and the sense of alarm that would be needed to put someone truly powerful in charge of an anti-drought campaign. If Salazar and his boss, President Obama, really want to get something done, they could appoint someone more prominent than a deputy secretary as a de facto “ambassador” to California. How about Vice President Joe Biden, who has no firm responsibilities in Washington, but does have Obama’s ear far more frequently than Salazar?

That’s just one possibility. The bottom line is that it’s not enough for officials like Schwarzenegger and Salazar to talk, or even to spend a relatively insignificant sum like $160 million, which might buy some fish screens, but won’t put a dent in the cost of a dam.

Real action is needed, and soon, or the San Joaquin Valley, still the crop cornucopia of America, will lose some of its most talented farmers, farm workers will leave and the nation will find itself importing a lot more food than it already does.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Tuesday, September 22, 2009





Gerrymandering makes the election of Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to a seat in Congress from the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco and Oakland almost a certainty when runoff day arrives Nov. 3.

Then comes a real test for the Democrats in the state Legislature. For the moment Garamendi is sworn in as a U.S. representative, he must give up his current slot as lieutenant governor.

Will the Democrats who control both the Assembly and the state Senate allow Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to appoint whoever he likes to the state’s nominal No. 2 job? Or will they take a stand and risk leaving the office open until next fall’s general election?

To some, all this appears to approach the meaningless. The lieutenant governor’s post, many “experts” say, is powerless and worthless and ought to be eliminated. Schwarzenegger has cut almost all staff from the office via line item vetoes in the last two state budgets, so it’s been hard for Garamendi to develop serious issues documents. The lieutenant governor’s only function, they say, is waiting around to assume the governor’s office in case the elected governor dies – much like the vice president of the United States.

And that’s true – until the state Lands Commission, the University of California Board of Regents or the California State University Board of Trustees meet. Which they usually do on a monthly basis. Then, suddenly, the lieutenant governor can become a pivotal figure.

So it was when the possibility of building an liquefied natural gas receiving facility off the southern shore of Ventura County nearly became reality in 2007. Schwarzenegger strongly backed the proposal, which would likely have cost consumers billions of dollars in needless natural gas price hikes over the next 30 years. The state Coastal Commission was opposed, but that didn’t matter because the former Bush administration had the power to override Coastal Commission decisions and was poised to do so.

But the seemingly “powerless” Lt. Gov. Garamendi suddenly became the hero of the 2,000-odd citizens of Oxnard and its environs who turned out for the decisive public hearing on the matter. Because the lieutenant governor is automatically chairman of the state Lands Commission, Garamendi became the key figure as that commission denied developers permission to run pipelines necessary to the project across state tidelands. Schwarzenegger’s surrogate on the commission voted for the project.

Two years later, it was again Garamendi standing up for coastal protection as the Lands Commission again overrode a Schwarzenegger plan to allow new offshore oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel. That plan is not yet dead, as Schwarzenegger keeps trying to wrest control over the issue away from the Lands Commission, one of the few state agencies not filled with appointees who almost robotically do his bidden even when they’re supposed to be independent.

But Garamendi will almost surely soon be gone from both the lieutenant governor’s office and the Lands Commission. Schwarzenegger can name his replacement, but needs confirmation by both the state Senate and Assembly.

If confirmed, whoever he appoints could serve almost nine years in the office, the rest of Garamendi’s term, plus two more full ones. This “powerless” individual could do a lot of good or ill during that time via votes of the Lands Commission and the two university boards.

Garamendi is convinced legislative Democrats will confront Schwarzenegger and refuse to confirm anyone who would be his rubber-stamp toady on the Lands Commission.

After the potential environmental consequences of his moving to Congress were noted during the summer special election primary campaign, he wrote in an email, “There’s a strong possibility a denial (of confirmation) will occur if the governor appoints anyone except a place holder who the Democrats find OK.”

Most Republicans would like Schwarzenegger to name either of two current GOP state senators to the office: Jeff Denham of Merced or Sam Aanestad of Penn Valley. The two figure to be rivals for nomination for the office in next spring’s Republican primary, and incumbency would likely be a big advantage of either. But Democrats likely wouldn’t go for either, not when a Democratic state senator – Dean Florez of Shafter – is also running and is the top money-raiser in the race so far.

So Schwarzenegger might have to name a temporary space-filler caretaker. State Democratic chairman John Burton suggests former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, for one. Legislative Democrats would then have to try to figure out how likely Riordan or any other such person would be to kowtow to the governor.

With legislative leaders feeling Schwarzenegger double-crossed them on many line-item vetoes he applied after making a budget deal in July, there is a possibility they’d be willing to hold up whoever he nominates. But there’s also the possibility they’ll get tired of battling him or succumb to one of his intermittent charm offensives.

Either way, their choice will likely have a major impact on the future of the California coast – quite a consequence for a vacancy in an office many consider useless and powerless.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman don’t appear to have much in common, other than the fact that they are the early leaders in the money race that’s always a key part of getting a major-party nomination for governor of California.

But there’s one thing both ought to understand well as they maneuver in the early portions of the contest to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in Anerica’s second most visible political post: Early money confers credibility, but it’s no guarantee of ultimate success.

Just ask Norton Simon and Michael Huffington and William Roth and Al Checchi and Jane Harman, all of whom poured many millions of personal dollars into unsuccessful runs for governor or the U.S. Senate. Early financial leaders often lose. And no principally self-funded candidate (Whitman has pumped $19 million into her own campaign so far, with much more likely to come) has ever won a top-of-the-ticket race in California.

That said, it’s far better to have money than not.

For sure, otherwise solid candidates like Republican Tom Campbell and Democrat Jack O’Connell would love to have the resources a Whitman can dump into her own cause or Brown’s ability to raise funds based on his long history in California public affairs and the name recognition it gives him.

But they don’t. So ex-Congressman Campbell is largely relegated to pushing his message on the Internet and via free media interviews, while state schools superintendent O’Connell mostly speaks at education affairs – plenty of them.

Both have offered far more specifics than their better-funded rivals, but that won’t matter if they can’t get their mugs on television at crunch time in next spring’s primary election season. And that takes money.

Which brings us to the second-place moneybags in each party’s contest: Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco and Republican state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Poizner, a near-billionaire former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has the ability to spend as much as the former eBay auction house chair Whitman, and has so far plunked down almost $5 million of his own. But a far greater percentage of his cash on hand comes from others than is the case for rival Whitman, who has never before sought office and has rarely even voted in the past. (Not that records of non-voting seem to matter much: Schwarzenegger voted in fewer than half the elections during the decade before he became governor.)

Poizner said while running for insurance commissioner four years ago that he wouldn’t have true credibility unless the majority of his campaign cash came from other donors. Critics see this reasoning as mere rationalizing for an unwillingness to invest really big bucks in his own effort. They call him a cheapskate.

As for Newsom, he’s a millionaire, not a billionaire, his fortune built on a chain of inventive wine stores he founded before entering politics more than 10 years ago. He lacks the funds of a Whitman or a Poizner and his fund-raising ability so far has fallen far short of what ex-Gov., ex-Oakland mayor and current attorney general Brown has displayed even before formally entering the contest. As of the June 30 reporting date, Brown had about $8 million on hand to less than $2 million for Newsom.

Putting that into perspective, Newsom didn’t have much more money at that point than candidates like Dean Florez, a Democratic state senator from the Central Valley town of Shafter who’s running for lieutenant governor, or San Francisco City Attorney Kamala Harris, seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Brown as attorney general.

Running second or third in either party’s money race doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose: witness Gray Davis winning the governor’s office after trailing far behind Congresswoman Harman and airline mogul Checchi on the 1998 money lists. But even at that, Davis spent more than $7 million in the primary season, enough to air an adequate number of TV commercials. Newsom has a long way to go before reaching that level. He’s been staging town halls around the state for months, displaying a dynamic style and bright idealism, but he’s not yet reaching enough voters to matter much. And he trails Brown in early polling, even in his own city.

All of which means it’s now advantage Brown and Whitman, with nothing guaranteed except that Newsom, Poizner and the rest will have to raise money frantically for the next few months or forget about it and possibly settle for some lesser office.


Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns,

Thursday, September 17, 2009




Former Gov. Gray Davis calls this “a possible Proposition 13 moment,” adding that “I think something big is about to happen.” What he means is that Californians are so disgusted with state government they might be ready to make wholesale changes. He’s an expert on such moments: the last time one arose, he became the first California governor ever thrown out of office.

In fact proposals for reform are popping up like weeds rising through cracks in pavement. Everywhere there’s an opening, there’s an idea.

This could be a good thing, or a bad one. For while there are many possible wrong ways to make changes, there are probably only a few ways to do it right.

Doing it right is crucial. Moments like this – when California government’s ineptitude is rightly lambasted not only inside the state, but by many outsiders, too – do not occur often and should not be wasted.

Yet, wasting this chance is what many so-called reformers appear ready to do. Foremost among them are backers of a constitutional convention, which could try to change everything in state government, so long as it doesn’t violate the United States Constitution.

These lovers of tinkering with government would like to solve all problems in one fell swoop. The problem is, they might also end up changing a lot that’s right. And by putting all their proposals in one putative new state constitution, they would almost surely guarantee its rejection in the popular vote that would follow any convention. For no document that covers everything can please everyone, which means a proposed new constitution would be targeted instantly from every point in the special interest spectrum.

That makes the approach suggested by a foundation-funded civic group called California Forward far more sane and promising. For one thing, the changes California Forward proposes would be written by scholars and experts, not the hotel maids and field workers and car wash attendants and grocery baggers and car salesmen likely to people a constitutional convention with delegates chosen at random, a la courtroom juries.

“We need to change the culture in Sacramento,” says the group’s co-chair, former Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg. “In Sacramento, everyone acts rationally within the system. Their purpose is to get reelected and then move on to another office. So they vote the party line and they propose bills that are tough on crime, tough on business, saving the wild burros, unrealistic on the environment, and so on, even when they have no chance for passage. Then they can go home and say ‘I proposed this,’ or ‘I fought for that.’ We need to change the incentives to make it in their best interest to do things that are good for all of California.”

Adds Davis, “It’s a system that guarantees confrontation and discourages compromise.”

To fix this, California Forward proposes several reforms that will be shaped into ballot propositions, some of which could come before the voters as early as next fall. The group backs the open primary proposition already on the June ballot. That measure sets up a system listing all candidates together in the primary and then matches the top two vote-getters in the runoff, regardless of party. Davis, not part of California Forward, says this “would force every politician to speak to a broad electorate twice every election year, not just to their own parties. It would make them answer to everyone, which they don’t have to do now.”

California Forward also wants a two-year budget cycle to encourage long-range thinking, with legislators not allowed to propose any bills other than emergency measures during years when new budgets are considered.

Its plan would allow budgets to pass with a simple majority vote, while keeping the present two-thirds majority requirement for passing new taxes. Do this and the majority party would instantly be accountable for its actions. “It would end the game-playing we now see when people are always trying to round up the last couple of votes to get to two-thirds,” says Hertzberg.

California Forward also would require spending one-time revenue windfalls on one-time uses like new roads or buildings, rather than being used to fatten the budgets of ongoing programs, whose beneficiaries then demand spending at the new level be continued indefinitely. And it would require that any new programs passed either in the Legislature or by ballot initiative specify the source of any new money they’ll cost.

Most of these proposals still lack details. “We’re trying to set a framework just now,” Hertzberg says. “We need to change the rules, change the system to create new incentives that lead to constructive behavior by politicians.”

Every item Hertzberg’s group mentions makes sense. Most reforms in its package also are among listed aims of constitutional convention backers. But doing these things via a series of ballot propositions prevents the kind of mischief that could emerge from a convention, while also providing far fewer fat targets for opponents of change to use in trying to shoot down anything constructive.

That’s the right way to do reform. Other approaches are far more likely to fail, and waste a rare opportunity.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit





There's the governor's plan for cutting $1.2 billion in spending from California's prison budget and there are the state Senate and Assembly plans, mostly formulated by Democratic legislative leaders. But there is as yet no publicly palatable plan. Maybe that's because politicians seeking ways to make that cut and still avoid releasing inmates who might endanger public safety have not yet listened to ordinary citizens, including some people who work within the prison system.

Knowledgeable suggestions are out there, for sure. Plenty poured in from around the state during the summer after this column invited ideas from readers.

Those ideas, taken together with fast action on many millions of dollars worth of waste previously acknowledged by court-appointed prison health czar Clark Kelso, could make it far easier for legislators to meet their budget-cutting goal.

The waste Kelso admitted included his statement that “We’re paying at least $100 million more – maybe much more than that – than we should be” to outside hospitals where prisoners are treated when they have problems beyond what prison doctors can handle. The waste comes because most outside hospitals have so far not negotiated the kinds of contracts that commonly allow health maintenance organizations and insurance companies to pay far less than hospital “rack rates.” Huge savings could result from mandating fast-tracked price negotiations.

Then there are correctional system rules requiring that two guards accompany convicts around the clock when they’re off prison grounds – regardless of whether they are completely disabled. Prison officials say this is necessary both because of flight risks and to protect their charges from harm if enemies on the outside learn they are in a low-security hospital. Some prison officials estimate those rules lead to as much as $20 million in yearly wasted pay for guards who essentially do nothing while sitting around hospital wards.

But those are only two areas of unnecessary prison spending.

Readers pointed out many more ranging from excessive power usage in prison cells to the cost of caring for inmates who get nursing home care within the prison system.

“Some inmates who get medical, dental, mental health or nursing home care can cost the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as much as $500,000 per year apiece,” wrote one reader who serves as a chaplain at both Folsom prison and the California Institution for Women at Chino. That figure, which some officials have said applies to hundreds of prisoners, is more than 10 times the cost of maintaining a single ordinary inmate. The implication: sending high-maintenance prisoners to outside nursing homes when they’re too physically disabled to pose any threat to the public or those caring for them could save further tens of millions of dollars.

One problem: There would be a huge public outcry the first time such a prisoner escaped because he or she turned out to be faking disability, and then committed a serious crime. That makes this a mildly risky cut for legislators whose first concern is always their own reelection.

A potential cut that poses no such risk was offered by a Davis reader who is a former prison department employee. “Civil service rules allow a state supervisor or manager to be paid for an entire day even if he or she leaves work early to go to a medical or dental appointment or just to go home early,” she wrote. “Prior to a rule change 15 years ago, whenever (these persons) left work early, they used vacation time or sick leave, just like rank and file employees.

“During my nine years there, it was common for many managers to work very short days. I never saw these managers stay late on other days to make up for it, as the rules presume they will.”

A legislative hearing could easily determine how much this wastes and spur changes in the rules.

As for power usage, a guard at Mule Creek prison in Ione noted that “In every cell, inmates run their TVs 24/7. I see the TVs on all night when I do my counts and the prisoners are sleeping, or the inmates stay up all night watching TV and then sleep all day. In order to rehabilitate a person, don’t you think it would be smart to get them used to being awake during business hours?” Not to mention cutting down the prison system’s power bills.

Other readers pointed out wasteful purchasing practices for things like prison coveralls and cafeteria trays, which can be bought from outside providers for far less than it costs to get them from prison industry facilities.

Chances are the readers who offered these ideas have only scratched the surface of wasteful prison spending. But neither Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nor state legislators have even heard these ideas because in all their debates and whining and name-calling in the prison cut debate, they have yet to hold public hearings soliciting public input.

If they’d make some of the reader-suggested cuts and try to find still more waste, perhaps they would have a far easier time making the budget cuts that are now so urgently needed.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Almost everyone in and around California's state government knows something realized by only a few who are not directly involved:

It's not the two-thirds vote requirement that's been behind the budget delays and IOUs that have plagued this state. It's not even the huge ideological divide that sees Democrats defend labor union interests at every turn, while Republicans fight firmly against the tax increases craved by public employee union leaders driven to produce both job security and constant raises for their members.

Nope, the root cause of the problem has always been revenue and its unsteady flow. Revenue, as in tax dollars.

When revenue falls, state government cuts jobs and services, because rainy-day reserves have never been adequate and for sure the state can't stop paying interest on its bonds. The state also can't print money the way the federal government can when it runs short or wants to create an economic stimulus.

So there's got to be a way to even out the boom and bust cycle of tax revenues. Funds flowed at flood tide during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, when stocks rose exponentially and investors who cashed out paid taxes on their enormous capital gains.

It was the same during the real estate bubble early in this decade, when homeowners by the tens of thousands "flipped" properties for profits in the 20 percent to 50 percent range after holding them two years or less.

Those capital gain taxes translated into expansion of the state and local government workforces, from police to fire protection to clerks at the local Department of Motor Vehicles office, teachers, nurses, prison guards, park rangers and sewage treatment workers.

The first of the modern spate of budget impasses in the Legislature came after the dot-com bust, when expected tax revenues didn't materialize and lawmakers fought over whether to raise sales and income taxes to make up for it, or just cut back.

The same battles were re-fought this summer, when tax intake fell about $60 billion short of levels predicted by supposedly reliable forecasters just 18 months ago.

It's a boom/bust cycle that must end and only a fundamental change in the tax system can do it. Something has to happen to end the huge fluctuations that have reflected ups and downs of the state economy for a century and a half, dating back to the Gold Rush era and extending up through aerospace booms and busts, the dot-cot phenomenon and a series of real estate bubbles and bursts.

But the state plainly will never stop taxing capital gains as a major class of income and it shouldn't.

Nor will the ballyhooed notion of legalizing and then taxing sales of the state's huge marijuana crop solve much. At best, this might bring in about $1.8 billion per year, less than one-thirtieth of the $60 billion shortfall of the last year. And even that $1.8 billion estimate is based on the shaky assumption that pot prices would stay the same if it's legalized. How likely is that unless there's some sort of cartel-like conspiracy to keep prices up?

So the real necessity appears to be creating a large reserve to draw from in times of true emergency. Doing this would take will power of a sort elected officials have rarely shown. For creating a large reserve -- $10 billion or more - can only be done while revenues flow smoothly and trend upward. But those are the very moments when Californians of all stripes usually figure the good times will roll on forever, causing them to spend freely.

Meanwhile, a flat tax, where every Californian pays the same percentage of his or her income regardless of how high that income is, will never fly in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, even though it's favored by some Republicans on Gov. Schwarzenegger's ballyhooed Commission on the 21st Century Economy, better known as the tax revision panel.

Nor is any significant amendment likely for Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that limits property taxes to 1 percent of their 1975 levels or 1 percent of the latest purchase price, with only small increases allowed from year to year.

But an update in how changes of property ownership were defined by the 1979 Legislature does make sense and might produce as much as $12 billion per year in new revenue by closing a massive current loophole without imposing any new taxes.

All of which means it will take a little courage, a lot of ingenuity and quite a bit of patience before conditions are right for starting to build a solid state reserve. Just because the so-called leaders who ran this state in the 1990s and early 2000s didn't exhibit those qualities is no reason why today's elected officials should not. The least they can do after inflicting panic and hardship on the state's populace for months is try to stabilize state finances so this summer's pathetic IOU-spattered scene is never repeated.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




It's become almost as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. The California Republican Party appears about to shoot itself in the foot - again.

The GOP usually does itself in by taking positions that the vast majority of Californians oppose - anti-abortion, anti-gun control and more.

So bad are things that state Republicans now number barely 31 percent among all registered voters, compared with almost 45 percent for the Democrats. That's about a 3-2 advantage for Democrats going into every election, with the category of independent, decline-to-state voters now at about 20 percent and fast catching up to the Republicans.

But things are never bad enough that diehard conservatives in the GOP won't try to make them worse. Their latest proposal will be voted on at the party's state convention later this month in Indian Wells.

That's when delegates decide whether to exclude independent voters from their primary elections, both statewide and in district votes for Congress and the Legislature.

The reasoning for this, as expressed by longtime activists: Why let someone who doesn't care enough to join your family help decide the family's future?

There are, of course, lots of reasons why one might want to give decline-to-state voters a voice in a party primary. Here are two: If they're allowed to participate, they might eventually care enough about the party to join it. And academic studies have repeatedly shown that voters who cast a ballot for a candidate once are far more likely to do it again the next time they get a chance.

That's the reasoning Democrats have employed for the last decade, encouraging independent voters to take part in their primaries and then retaining the vast majority of those votes in November runoff elections.

Some Republicans understand this dynamic. State Sen. Abel Maldonado, possibly the party's leading moderate, calls the exclusionary plan "just crazy…I've never, ever seen a business…run by eliminating 25 percent of the market share. Anyone would walk away from that deal."

This kind of reasoning doesn't sway many Republican purists. "In most cases, the decline-to-states don't vote in either party's primary, anyway," says Stephen Frank, a former head of the conservative California Republican Assembly. "I just don't think people care about this."

They probably don't and won't - until primary Election Day early next June. Then some voters who like one or more of the GOP hopefuls for governor or the U.S. Senate and planned to vote for them might suddenly be told "sorry, you can't," at their polling places or find their absentee ballots include only local candidates and propositions, no Republicans.

How likely are they to vote Republican a few months later, in November?

Frank says it won't matter. "People don't care about this. They care about prison releases and taxes and health care and real issues. This is all inside baseball."

Democrats don't see it that way. They've actively courted decline-to-state voters. Since the two major parties combined in the late 1990s to get California's short-lived "blanket primary" system killed by federal courts, Democrats have invited independents to vote in every primary election.

"Democrats will continue to welcome decline-to-state participation in our primaries," said state party spokeswoman Kate Folmar.

Republicans saw the results of that policy - increased Democratic domination - in several elections, then began allowing independents into their primaries. But it didn't help them much in runoff elections, so now they may go back to their exclusionary ways, even though gubernatorial candidates Tom Campbell and Meg Whitman disagree with the conservatives.

Essentially, Republican delegates who vote to expel independents from their primaries will be saying they want to keep control of their own affairs, even if that makes them consistent losers.

The GOP (joined this time by party-line Democrats) will also firmly oppose next June's open primary ballot proposition, which would have all candidates in all primaries listed on the same ballot, with the top two vote-getters matched in the runoff, regardless of party affiliation.

None of this, say the die-hards, has anything to do with the party's minority status. Rather, they blame moderates like Maldonado who occasionally vote with Democrats to pass budgets or approve new taxes.

"As long as we help raise taxes and deficits, we will be a minority," insists Frank.

This may not make much sense in a state where the party constantly blamed by Republicans for big government and big spending also has the biggest numbers. But it's what most of the GOP apparently believes.

Which will make it no big surprise if the GOP again does itself in with the fast-growing corps of independent voters.

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