Thursday, December 30, 2010




As he campaigned last fall, new Gov. Jerry Brown made it clear that one key element in fixing California’s huge financial problems would have to be big changes in public employee pensions.

Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already achieved a little of that on the statewide level by negotiating several new contracts with public employee unions that will set up a two-tier system where new hires get somewhat fewer benefits than long-term employees hired under different conditions and promises.

Still, the majority of public employees work not for the state, but for cities, counties, school districts and other local agencies. One of them – the city of Vallejo – declared bankruptcy two years ago as a way to force unions to renegotiate both pensions and salaries. Then came scandals in cities like Bell and Vernon, where public employees and local elected officials exploited their constituents to an apparently illegal degree, both in terms of salaries and pensions.

It’s clear, then, that any wide-ranging changes in public employee pensions will have to involve the locals.

That’s why it’s striking that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has stepped up in a surprising way. It’s unexpected for Villaraigosa, a former speaker of the state Assembly and a onetime teachers union organizer, to be helping Brown in part because the mayor once thought he would be standing by now in Brown’s spot.

But Villaraigosa’s putative campaign for governor reached a sudden and early demise when he couldn’t keep his pants zipped up and his once-celebrated close marriage collapsed under revelations of an affair with a Latina television reporter. Now he’s divorced, with only one or two major offices potentially available to him after his second mayoral term expires in 2013.

Rather than just feel sorry for himself, Villaraigosa decided his best course was to attempt leaving a legacy, even if it offends some of his friends in the labor movement.

Some results of that decision are now before L.A.’s city council and others will be on the local ballot on March 8, in the form of a proposition that would make enormous changes to the city’s pension plan for police and firefighters. Those changes can apply only to new hires because, short of bankruptcy, federal laws prevent changes to pension benefits offered workers when they were hired.

The need for the changes is clear, best stated by Los Angeles City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who warned that unless something is done, civilian (non-police and non-firefighter) pension costs will amount to one-third of the city’s budget by 2030. L.A. now pays about $300 million a year in such pensions, from an annual budget of about $7 billion. By 2015, the pension cost will be $769 million and it will keep growing as about 400 civilian employees retire each year at age 55, expecting to collect pensions for life based on their last year’s pay.

Changing civilian pensions can be done by city council members, with a sign-off from Villaraigosa. Among the revisions: Local civil servants would for the first time have to start contributing to their health-care costs to the tune of about 2 percent of pay. Their pensions would be capped at 75 percent of workers’ average salary over their last three years in harness and cost-of-living adjustments would be cut from 3 percent yearly to 2 percent.

Plus, the retirement age would rise from 55 to 62, graying the city work force considerably.

“The fact is that Los Angeles cannot continue down an unsustainable path,” Villaraigosa said. His March ballot measure would impose similar changes on new police and fire employees.

There’s a lot here for Brown to chew on as he begins to negotiate with the very public employees to whom his 1970s-era signature gave bargaining rights. He has an innate advantage over Schwarzenegger or any Republican who might possibly have won the governor’s office if he had not run: Because the unions know his role in the rise of their members’ benefits, they also know he’s not their enemy. That should make them more likely to work out compromises with him than they might with others.

Yes, public employee unions funded a good part of Brown’s campaign. But at least publicly, he never promised them anything but a place at the table as he tries to work out the budget solutions of which their contracts will have to be a part.

Villaraigosa has now has given Brown a big leg up. Because he’s a former labor leader, unionists cannot see his actions as deliberate hostility, but rather will be forced to consider them pragmatic necessity. And if they view the changes Villaraigosa is pushing that way, it’s bound to make budget-easing deals far easier for Brown to craft.

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





Gnashing of teeth and expressions of chagrin were highly audible around California the other day, when the U.S. Census Bureau reported the state will not get an additional seat in Congress for the next 10 years.

Geez, there would sure be a lot more clout from 54 seats in the House than from today’s 53, wouldn’t there? Well, probably not. When California got one new seat in 2000, its influence increased exactly zero.

But at the same time, the increase of about 4 million residents between 1990 and 2000 assured that California got somewhat larger amounts of federal education support, superfund cleanup dollars, welfare and education money, highway funding, water cleanup dollars, anti-gang funding and more. Those kinds of grants are usually handed out on the basis of population.

So the state’s officially-figured growth of 3.8 million persons (slightly more than the population of Oregon, but about 1.5 million less than the state Department of Finance believes was the real figure) between 2000 and 2010 should also make certain that California keeps getting the largest share of any state when it comes to the $400 billion yearly in per-person federal spending.

There will also be no substantial loss to the state from not getting one more seat in the Electoral College. If there’s any deficit in any of this, it will be in the ego department.

Until now,California had always received more seats in Congress after every Census since it joined the Union in the mid-19th Century. Not getting any new slots is a first. Worriers quickly drew the inference that California somehow stopped growing, easy enough with anti-California negativity now commonplace in the national media.

But it’s not so. Even if the growth was “only” the official 3.8 million persons, the rise was consistent with the state’s population increases of approximately 4 million in each of the last four Censuses.

In fact, California’s officially-listed growth over the last 10 years was second only to Texas’ 4.3 million, and a pretty close second, at that. The big growth in Texas, the Census found, came primarily among Hispanics, just like the recent growth here. But Texas had far fewer Latinos in 2000 than it does now, having become much more of a magnet for illegal immigration from Mexico over the last decade than before. Why? The Border Patrol in the early 2000s concentrated more on closing off its San Ysidro sector in Southern California than any other part of the border. Many illegal immigrants shifted to places like Texas and Arizona.

Both will get additional seats in Congress because of it.

Nevada, which grew by just 520,000 persons over the last decade, also gets one more seat, for a total of two. Why would half a million new residents give Nevada a new slot, while almost eight times as much growth gets none for California?

The answer lies in the percentages. With its new official populace of 37.2 million, California accounts for just over 12 percent of all United States residents. The current 53 seats make up just over 12 percent of the House. Nevada’s growth, like that of Texas and Florida, increased its percentage of the total American population, while California’s growth did not.

That’s what comes of being the biggest state to start with. You can grow substantially and almost no one notices, while those who started out much smaller might grow about the same or even much less, but look far larger than before.

There are, of course, benefits from not having had the official growth of 5 million or so it would have taken to net a new seat in Congress. That extra 1.2 million persons would have put further demands on a water system that’s already overtaxed. They would have added to traffic problems, school crowding and urban sprawl, committed crimes and further overfilled prisons and hospitals. And more.

It may also be that California is nearing physical maturity, with its metropolitan areas pretty much built out. Much new construction today comes in the form of tear-downs and build-ups. Unless and until the real estate market revives considerably, that will continue.

All of which means that, yes, California is still growing even in recessionary times. But unlike Nevada, it is not undergoing out-of-control expansion.

If California is indeed reaching a sort of maturity, maybe it’s also time the state’s politicians did the same. This state will again have by far the largest delegation in Congress for the next 10 years, by a margin of 15 seats over No. 2 Texas. But that won’t matter unless California’s representatives start working together for the first time ever, putting the state’s interests over narrow ideology and down-the-line party loyalty.

They’ve never done that, with the result that new jobs and industries that could and maybe should have come here ended up elsewhere instead.


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

Sunday, December 26, 2010




It’s easy enough to say the mess that is this state’s budget has little impact on ordinary Californians other than furloughed state employees or many of the elderly and infirm who have lost government-paid in-home care.

But after seven years of steady deficits under the administrations of outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex-Gov. Gray Davis, things are getting more serious than that. One sign of how bad it’s gotten: criminals who would almost certainly be doing time in any other circumstance are going scot free, not penalized in the least for their misdeeds.

One clear illustration may be the case of Tony Wagner, which was to have been heard in Riverside County Superior Court in September 2009. There is little doubt about the facts of this case, which saw Wagner and a friend enter the Hemet home of Jerry Jackson with Jackson’s ex-girlfriend Celeste Trzepacz (cq), who sought to recover her dog from Jackson.

Fisticuffs followed between Wagner’s friend and Jackson outside the house, while Trzepacz went inside. While there, she heard three gunshots, went back outside and found that Jackson had been wounded in both knees. Wagner eventually admitted to police that he shot Jackson, but said it was in self-defense.

Two weeks later, Riverside County prosecutors charged Wagner with assault with a semiautomatic firearm and inflicting great bodily injury. The felony case wound its way through the court system and was finally set for trial the day before Wagner’s constitutional right to a speedy trial would be violated.

But no trial ever occurred because no courtroom and no judge was available on the set date, and the case was dismissed the following day.

The dismissal, thus, was solely the result of a shortage of judges, the same shortage outgoing state Chief Justice Ronald George decried in 2004, when he asked Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to create 350 new judicial posts around the state. Only 100 new judges have been seated since then.

The shortage is most severe in fast-growing Riverside County, where more than 250 cases have been dismissed for lack of judges and courtrooms. Those dismissals – mostly in misdemeanor cases – were upheld in a unanimous late-autumn decision by the state’s highest court, which rejected an appeal from the county’s district attorney, Rod Pacheco. Pacheco argued that when the speedy trial time limit is almost up, criminal cases should get priority over all others, and should thus be heard by judges who normally deal with juvenile offenders, child custody, divorces, probate matters and other civil trials.

But the high court, in one of George’s last pre-retirement decisions, ruled that doing this could impair the courts’ duty to “provide for fair administration of justice…and thus would be unconstitutional.”

While Riverside County in mid-2009 stopped “last day” dismissals with a new court-management system, the entire state is now on notice that without hundreds of new judges, dismissals of criminal cases will surely become commonplace over the next few years.

Failure to find adequate financing for state government, then, means both Schwarzenegger and recent legislatures failed in their basic responsibilities, if protecting public safety is one of the prime functions of government, an assertion Gov.-elect Jerry Brown often made during the fall election season.

Health care for persons who can’t afford insurance is also a form of protecting public safety. Not caring for them can cause epidemics. Building safe highways and hiring enough police and firefighters are other forms of protecting public safety. So is assuring clean drinking water and getting rid of smog. Plus, voters via the 1988 Proposition 98 decided that public education should be the highest priority for state government.

In lean times, some of these major functions have been cut back, one reason why police forces are operating with fewer officers than they’d like and roads are far more potholed than drivers would prefer.

But when courts release criminals for lack of judges and those decisions stand up on appeal, more alarm bells than ever should be ringing in Sacramento and in the ears of every Californian.

Which means it may be time for voters to pay attention when they’re asked to approve new taxes of some kind in a special election that’s almost certain to come this spring.

The bottom line: This is an entirely new kind of problem for California, and the state will become an unsafe place to live if the voters opt to let it go on either in Riverside County or anywhere else.


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





Walter Mondale was the last major politician who told Americans they would need to pay higher taxes if they wanted the government to keep doing everything it does for them. The 1984 Democratic presidential nominee was swamped in that year’s election. Mondale’s honeymoon after winning his party’s nomination lasted about 30 seconds after he gave that warning in his acceptance speech in San Francisco.

Jerry Brown’s honeymoon in his second Sacramento coming has already lasted two months longer than that. But it will end abruptly on Jan. 10, when he’s due to present his proposed budget, or even sooner if he tells anyone what will be in that document. Of that, Brown is certain. His honeymoon will end for the same reason Mondale’s did: Brown is about to tell Californians they will need to pay more for services they already have.

Brown even jokes wryly about this.After basking for a few moments in the applause of a roomful of school superintendents and teachers union officials during a budget briefing for educators the other day, he wryly noted that “I don’t think we’ll be hearing much of that after Jan. 10.”

Added his advisor and fall campaign manager Steve Glazer, “There will be people screaming on every street corner.”

For Brown intends to resolve the state’s entire $28 billion deficit in his first budget. He doesn’t want to have to deal with it every year he’s in office, he said.

“If it were me, I’d just cut 25 percent across the board,” allowed state Treasurer Bill Lockyer during the same meeting.

Brown won’t do anything quite like that. He’ll try to prioritize, he indicated, but there likely will be no exempt state-funded department or program. Because 71 per of California’s general fund budget goes to what the state Finance Department loosely calls “local services,” every community or institution getting state money will be hit.

That includes prisons, courts, health care and Medi-Cal, public education from kindergarten through graduate school, care for the elderly and infirm, parks and everything else except debt service. The state will keep paying principal and interest on all its bonds.

The post-Jan. 10 screamers will surely include some of Brown’s leading campaign donors. One major contributor was the California Teachers Assn., the state’s leading teachers union. Union president David Sanchez moaned during Brown’s session that “Last year, over 50 percent of the budget cuts affected schools. If you cut more, there’s the possibility of closing down schools. No one wants a teacher’s career anymore due to the possibility of being laid off within a year or two.”

Brown’s response to this whine from a consistent big-money backer of Democratic candidates? “Our dilemma is that 60 percent of the people don’t want their schools cut, or fire or police,” he said. “But 60 percent also don’t want new taxes. That’s a problem.” It was certainly no reassurance to either the CTA or others in the crowd of educators, many of whom also supported Brown.

Brown didn't cast blame directly on anyone for the huge deficit, but it was obvious he feels his two most recent predecessors had a hand in creating the deficit.

“Over the last 10 years, lots of techniques were used to kick the can down the road,” he said. “Those are gone. Now it’s all a matter of what do we absolutely need, what can we not do without? There’s been some sense that we could solve it all out of waste, and yes, there is some waste and duplication in government. But the waste is not of this magnitude.”

So Brown will start his cutting “where I’ll go to work every day,” promising to trim spending and payroll for his own office by 25 percent immediately.

He implied that new taxes should be at least part of the answer, but only if the voters go along. One near certainty: After he’s shown Californians the austere future they might face, he’ll call a special election where they can ease some cutbacks by approving new taxes.

If voters statewide won’t do that – and they refused as recently as 18 months ago – then it will be up to localities. “Cities and school districts will probably try to pass taxes of their own to make up for what’s lost,” he said. “That means some places will have a higher level of services than others.”

This is already true, as a few dozen cities like Beverly Hills and Palm Springs kick money in to their public schools every year, while many others don’t.

All of which translates to a bittersweet January for Brown, who will likely get plenty of applause at his unpretentious inauguration, but then face loud protests from past supporters and opponents alike the moment they see his financial plan.

It will be no picnic, but Brown never expected it to be. “The new governor should not have a coronation; he should get condolences,” he said just after announcing his candidacy.” How right he was.


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