Sunday, June 20, 2010




In the realm of California ballot initiatives, the preliminaries are over.

Yes, some people cared deeply about the recently-passed Proposition 14 and its effort to change state government via an open primary election system. Two big companies cared enough to invest more than $70 million in their own pet initiatives, designed to feather their nests a bit more. Both lost.

But when it comes to influencing the future lives of Californians, three measures either on or about to come onto the November ballot have far greater potential than anything on the primary election ballot. These propositions do not yet have numbers, but one is an effort to legalize marijuana, another would rescind the landmark 2006 anti-greenhouse gas law known as AB32 and the third is an $11 billion water bond.

If passed, all could have major lifestyle effects. More than four months before the fall vote, the one with the least chance of success appears to be the effort to stymie AB32. But that could change because of the cash being put behind it by two major Texas oil companies which operate refineries here. They’ve spent about $1 million so far on the drive to qualify this measure for the ballot, which appears likely to succeed.

It’s impossible to say which of these measures might have the most impact. For sure, legalizing pot would affect millions of people and might have surprising and unpredictable effects on the economies of several counties. Because most of those who want to use the weed can already find all they want, it might not have much effect on automobile accident rates, academic performance or general alertness. And it might free up police to fight other crimes now back-burnered at times while cops chase pot growers.

Why does the effort to dump AB32 have the least chance of passage, at least at first glance? One reason is that voters who want to say no to AB32 will have to vote yes on this proposition. That kind of confusion never bodes well for ballot measures. Another is that while Mercury Insurance and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. outspent opponents of their pet propositions this spring by a margin of about 500-1 – and still lost – the oil companies and others who oppose limiting greenhouse gases will not be alone in the financial field.

Forces wanting to preserve AB32 and its requirement for cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 have their own campaign committee, dubbed Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, co-chaired by former Secretary of State George Shultz, who often backs conservative politicians and policies. Among its members are the League of Women Voters, Google, the Audubon Society, labor unions including the Teamsters and the California Nurses Assn., Levi Strauss and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

So this will be a two-sided campaign, with one faction calling AB32 the ultimate in job-killing regulations and maintaining it has already caused many businesses to leave California and the other dubbing the anti-32 proposition the “Dirty Energy Initiative” and claiming AB32 will create far more jobs by promoting “green” energy than it will cost. One way or the other, this one will likely affect the lives of millions of Californians.

The campaign over the water bond proposition will also not be one-sided. This measure – not an initiative because the Legislature put it on the ballot – draws large-scale support from the state’s huge agriculture industry and water agencies from Sacramento south. It’s opposed by some environmental groups and by conservatives who don’t like the idea of issuing more bonds at a time of financial crisis.

The pro-water bond side says the measure recognizes today’s tight budget problems by requiring bonds to be sold slowly, with no more than half the $11 billion to be issued before the end of 2015. They argue that the well-documented water shortages of the past two years, which caused several Central California farming counties to make one list of the 20 most troubled counties in America, dictate creation of new reservoirs and dams. They also claim that without quick fixups, a Hurricane Katrina-like calamity could befall residential areas that now stand beneath levees along the Sacramento River and other mid-state waterways.

Meanwhile, opponents argue the bill creates a new state water commission made up entirely of the governor’s appointees and that conservation is the answer to water problems. Some in the North State insist the measure would inevitably lead to construction of a Peripheral Canal to bring Northern California water south around the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, something that’s anathema to many in the north.

Again, whichever way this goes, it will have a massive effect on lifestyles. If the proponents are right, and defeat leads to perpetual water rationing, lawns will change, showers will be shorter and restaurants will go back to serving water only on demand, as they did during a long drought in the 1970s.

And if it wins, there could be both new state budget troubles and more water for farms.

It’s almost as if the spring campaign was a form of spring training, with the real season for initiative politics coming right up.

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




Any voters worried about not having meaningful choices in the fall election can now rest easy: There have rarely been as many contrasts in California’s top-of-the-ticket races for governor and U.S. senator as this year.

The differences between Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman go far deeper than just their bankrolls, but it’s OK to start there. Yes, Brown owns a home and his family possesses a ranch in rural Northern California, but Whitman is a billionaire. Brown spent next to nothing to get his party’s nomination for governor, while Whitman plunked down more than 70 million personal dollars in what primary opponent Steve Poizner – who put up $24 million of his own in a futile effort – called “the most blatant attempt ever to buy an office in California.”

For sure, there has never been a political donor to compare with Whitman, who is taking full advantage of Supreme Court decisions allowing individuals to spend whatever they please on their own campaigns. There can be no doubt about the depth of her desire to become governor, even if she hasn’t adequately explained her deepest motivations.

The personal contrasts run even deeper: Brown spent a good part of his youth renouncing personal wealth and later worked with Mother Teresa in India during a decade-long hiatus from public life spanning most of the 1980s and early ‘90s. Whitman studied business and has spent her life in pursuit of personal and corporate wealth. Brown enjoys sparring with reporters and other questioners; Whitman has kept such contacts to a minimum. California has never seen rival candidates with such differing aims and outlooks.

That’s just the personal side. The policy contrasts are just as sharp. As attorney general, Brown pushed for federal adoption of California’s clean air standards and strongly supported the AB32 greenhouse gas restrictions now targeted by the oil industry and conservative politicians. Whitman wants to suspend AB32 until the recession is over. Brown refused to defend the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages; Whitman backs it. Whitman wants no public services for illegal immigrants; Brown has always expressed sympathy for immigrants of all types. And on and on.

The contrasts are also sharp in the Senate race, pitting Democratic three-termer Barbara Boxer against Republican Carly Fiorina. They go far beyond the differing hairdos upon which Fiorina remarked just after winning the GOP primary.

While Boxer has spent a career in public offices from county supervisor to Congress to the Senate, Fiorina rose through the business world to become chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Corp., where she engineered the takeover of Compaq computers and was eventually ousted because her policies drove share prices down. During that time, she expressed little interest in public affairs; like Whitman, she rarely bothered to vote.

Their personal histories aside, Boxer and Fiorina differ on almost every significant issue that interests large numbers of Californians: Boxer is for greenhouse gas reductions and a cap-and-trade plan; Fiorina joins Whitman in wanting to suspend AB32. Boxer supports same-sex marriage; Fiorina is opposed. Boxer voted for and vocally supported President Obama’s health care plan; Fiorina has promised she’ll work to get it repealed or truncated.

These kinds of differences demonstrate that eligible voters who don’t bother participating in elections because they say they can’t see differences between the parties are just plain wrong. In this year’s votes, you’d have to be blind not to notice the contrasts.

And yet…Libertarians insist the differences are only cosmetic. Both major parties, they insist, represent little more than competing versions on a big-government theme.

The same for skeptics on the left, including frequent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

The folks who say there’s little difference have always been wrong. Democrats have created government-run programs from Social Security to Medicare to food stamps, smog reduction and now the new health care program. Republicans fought all these changes, sometimes voting unanimously against them.

Each party says it stands for individual liberty; they just mean different things by the term.

These differences will play out again this fall in California, with clear choices confronting Californians at every major turn. That may not produce close races, but it surely will create plenty of excitement and voter involvement.

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010




Now we know for sure: California voters are fed up with the status quo in Sacramento and want state government fixed. They want an end to the ideological gridlock that has long afflicted the Legislature and they want state lawmakers who are not beholden to extremist elements of either political party.

That’s the meaning of the June 8 victory for Proposition 14, the open primary measure setting up a system some prefer to call “top two.”

In fact, from now on, the top two vote-getters in all California primary elections except presidential votes will make the general election ballot, setting up possible November runoffs pitting Democrat against Democrat or Republican against Republican.

It also means that getting the endorsement of a party organization or a labor federation will no longer be tantamount to automatic election.

This is the best thing California voters have done for themselves since 1996, when they voted in a slightly different open primary system – the so-called “blanket” system – which produced several election victories for moderate candidates in the few years it was operative. Both major political parties combined in a lawsuit to get that setup thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Proposition 14 was designed after the “top two” system now operating in Washington state, which has won approval from the high court.

A study by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California earlier this spring concluded that Proposition 14 would not produce immediate massive change.

That’s probably true. But as incumbents in Congress, the Legislature and state offices gradually fall victim to term limits or other factors producing turnover, its effects will become profound.

For political districts in California have been one-sided for more than a generation. They are either top-heavy with registered Democrats or dominated by Republicans. In both parties, extremists tend to vote more frequently and more heavily in primaries than moderates. This may be a result of the fact that party organizations ruled by either the extreme left or the extreme right have pretty much removed doubt from the outcome of most primary elections long before Election Day.

Not even the changes to be wrought by the 2008 Proposition 11, which created a citizens redistricting commission that is now being selected via a laborious process, will change much of that. For several demographic studies have shown that persons with similar political views tend to choose the same places to live. That may be due to real estate prices, which can act as a segregating factor creating neighborhoods for the rich, the middle class and the poor, or it may be because people of various ethnicities are more comfortable living among people similar to them.

Whatever the reason, those studies show, the new districts to be drawn in 2011 may have more logical shapes and boundaries and there may be a few more politically competitive districts than the state has today, but most will probably still be dominated by one party or the other.

That’s why a combination of better districts and open primaries is needed to increase the number of legislators willing to compromise with political rivals and consider the good of the entire state more important than party ideologies.

As Jeannine English, president of California wing of the American Association of Retired People, said in a pre-primary essay, the open primary will lessen the opportunities for candidates to pander to extremists.

“We see it every time a primary approaches – Democrats pander to organized labor, promising tax increases to fund more union jobs and government programs,” she said, “while Republicans scream about taxes and make promises to big business that tie their hands (once they’re elected).”

With many districts seeing party registration splits of about 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of one party or the other, a large minority of voters has been essentially without representation for generations. Now candidates in Republican districts can hope to make the runoff and eventually win election by appealing to a combination of moderate Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats. The same in reverse in Democratic districts.

The combination of this new system and the new districts about to be drawn means a long-term sea change is coming to California politics starting in 2012, with its effects to grow stronger every two years.

Which ought to go a long way toward restoring reason and not ideology as the guiding force in state government.

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




When finances turn questionable for a big business, there are layoffs. From General Motors to General Electric and even the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Chronicle, that’s how it’s done.

It doesn’t always work: GM, for instance, would probably be out of business today without a huge government bailout. The San Francisco Chronicle has shed subscribers at almost the same rate it’s dumped employees.

This is the same approach advocated in almost every speech Meg Whitman has made since she started running for governor, and it’s not surprising. All her experience has been in corporate environments, from marketing toys at Hasbro to running the FTD long-distance florist service and eBay. She wants to lay off 40,000 state workers as a first step toward making California solvent, but doesn’t say which ones or what services will be cut when they’re gone.

Now that she’s the Republican nominee for governor, voters will compare her approach to the more collegial tack advocated by her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown, who promises that if elected, he will instantly sit down with everyone involved in the state decision-making process, from legislators to public employee unions.

It’s a contrast in approach as dramatic as any in a California election since Ronald Reagan ousted Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, in 1968 by advocating a top-down style of government similar to what Whitman implies she might bring.

Whitman has gotten this far by expending huge sums of her own money and campaigning mostly in an aloof manner, refusing for months to meet with reporters, traveling with a large entourage and hiring squads of high-priced consultants.

Campaign emails that fell into the hands of reporters indicated she tried to force all her opponents out of the primary election. When Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner did not acquiesce, she began running a series of negative and sometimes inaccurate ads attacking him even when he was as much as 50 points behind in the polls.

Not exactly a collegial approach, and Brown says it’s one that wouldn’t fly in Sacramento.

“We ought to distinguish between what a chief executive of a private company does and what a governor does,” Brown said in an interview. “A governor can’t pick his employees and the members of his board of directors the way a CEO can.”

Brown learned this the hard way during two terms as governor, which he began by telling the world he was bringing in “the best and the brightest” from around America to help him run California, only to watch a few become laughing stocks when they tried to govern by fiat.

Whitman implies she can use a CEO’s tactics and approach to discipline California’s budget. But as a CEO, she controlled 100 percent of her company’s budget. As governor, about 85 percent of her spending would be allocated even before she started, to things like bond payments, public education, local government support and highways. Court decisions since current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered all state employees to take unpaid furlough days have shown how tough it can be for a governor to act alone.

The Whitman ads that won her the GOP nomination didn’t deal with any of this. Rather, she tapped into the strain of anti-government, anti-illegal immigrant feeling that runs strong today and hopes to ride it to victory over Brown this fall.

That worked in the primary, but the question now is whether it can work in a general election with a far more diverse electorate. Brown, running as more of a populist than he was in the 1970s, is betting it won’t.

Virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination this spring, he promised to “wrestle the bear” of the state budget to the floor, but at the same time cast himself as a defender of working Californians and state workers.

“We hear from a lot of conservative circles (read: Whitman) that it’s the people who work for the people, the firefighters, the nurses, the janitors, these are the people who caused our problems – not true,” he shouted to a convention of the Service Employees International Union.

He says it was big business and big banks, not big labor, that sent the economy into the tailspin from which it is only slowing recovering.

And he calls Whitman ignorant about both California and its government. “She only knows what her consultants tell her,” Brown said.

On one thing Brown is definitely correct. “This will not be just a campaign of carefully crafted commercials,” he declares. Gifted at drawing news coverage when he likes, he will see to that. And he blasts Whitman for the way she’s funded her own campaign. “I’m not someone who says, ‘Oh, I have a billion dollars, I want to be governor.’” For sure, Brown won’t match Whitman’s money. But count on him being on TV plenty -- even without the approximately $45 million he will spend.

All of which will make this a campaign of more contrasts and choices than California has seen in a long while.

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

Friday, June 4, 2010




Most Californians, all polls show, want to cut the costs of running America’s largest state prison system, where the care and feeding of an average inmate runs to about $47,000 per year.

But those same polls also show most Californians want dangerous criminals kept behind bars at least as long as they remain a public menace.

This seeming contradiction is reflected in the electoral arena, where – for example – Republican Meg Whitman has campaigned to build more prisons in order to end overcrowding, but also wants to cut the prison budget. How she could manage both is anyone’s guess. It’s equally a mystery where anyone might find money to build more prisons without issuing more bonds of the same type whose repayment currently weighs so heavily on the state budget. That's one reason why Gov. Schwarzenegger's current budget proposal would fob some state prisoners back onto county jails.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown just wants to cut the prison budget, but offers no details, promising only – as he does with many budget issues – that he will begin intense meetings with all legislators regardless of party almost immediately after the November election.

This all made it refreshing when J. Clark Kelso, the controversial court-appointed prison health czar who once proposed expanding inmate health facilities to the tune of about $8 billion, stepped up with a very logical cut:

Parole a handful of longtime inmates who are physically incapable of doing anyone harm and save upwards of $40 million per year. The full amount he listed was $213 million over five years.

Good idea, Clark, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Kelso was talking about the cost savings of releasing just 32 prisoners who are identified as severely incapacitated. They’re all in such bad shape they can’t hurt a flea.

Kelso’s small group included 21 longtime convicts languishing in civilian nursing facilities or hospitals where laws and regulations require round-the-clock supervision by prison guards. No matter how incapacitated they are, the guards stay with them, often drawing overtime pay. Cost for each of them runs more than $1.9 million a year, which tends to raise the system-wide average cost of holding a prisoner.

It’s true that if released, some of these criminals might end up on Medi-Cal, also getting government to cover their medical expenses on the outside. But Medi-Cal is largely federally funded, taking much of the onus off the state. And there would be no guards for them anymore, saving millions per year. The guards they have now supposedly serve more to protect these prisoners from any revenge-minded former associates than to protect the public from them.

The other 11 on the Kelso list sit in prison facilities and cost the state “only” $114,000 per year each. A classic example of an inmate like this was Susan Denise Atkins, who died of cancer last year in the California Institution for Women at Chino. Atkins, a onetime follower of the malignantly murderous cult leader Charles Manson who inflicted multiple stabbings upon Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in 1969, had become a model prisoner before she became terminal.

Unload those prisoners and you make a start at cutting some of the least logical of prison expenses.

But that should only be a start. For California now runs the world’s largest geriatric care system, mandated by the 1990s-era three-strikes-and-you’re-out law that can make lifers out of shoplifters and car thieves. The fact is that most violent criminals are young men; few murderers and rapists are over 35.

But once you’re a lifer in a California prison, you also get health care for life. As Kelso says, “When you take away someone’s freedom, whatever the reason, you take on responsibility for them.”

So why not parole all inmates over age 65 who have served more than 25 years and whose behavior and evaluation by prison psychiatrists determines them not to be physically dangerous?

Give them electronic ankle bracelets. Track them carefully. Maybe even give them food stamps so they can survive in an outside world that’s no longer familiar.

But get them out of the prison system where holding them now does the state far more harm than good.

Doing this, of course, would require a major revision of three-strikes, and voters have been unwilling to do this when modifications were proposed to them via ballot initiatives.

But times were better then, the last attempt at change coming via the 2004 Proposition 66. With the economics of both the state and its prisons substantially worsened, perhaps a moderate, sensible loosening of three-strikes’ rigid requirements could now pass.

It’s the sensible way to cut prison spending and provide state budget relief with only a minuscule risk of harm to the public. And it will be interesting to see whether any significant candidate for governor has the courage to get behind a plan like this.

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




All through his almost seven years as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most basic priority has always been clear: As much as possible, feather the nests of his largest political donors.

A secondary priority has been to “get” his political enemies.

This has been true in almost every budget proposal and many of the legislative deals he’s struck to get his fiscal plans passed. Never was it more visible than in the budget bargain of February 2009, providing $2 billion a year in corporate tax breaks.

So it is again with Schwarzenegger’s latest budget plan, which takes aim squarely at the poor and at state employees, most of whom earn under $60,000 per year. Perhaps this proposal is mostly a bargaining ploy, designed to force Democrats to propose new taxes, which they have already done.

Yes, the plan has some positive components, including restoration of $140 million in state parks funding and, at long last, leaving steady the state's already much reduced contributions to its public university systems.

But Schwarzenegger would fob the responsibility for providing any safety net to the poorest Californians onto counties – themselves cash strapped. He would remove almost all state aid for 1.4 million persons. There are also huge cuts in the Medi-Cal program covering the same people and many others. And there’s no certainty about what any county could or would do for its poor.

Schwarzenegger would also subtract one day’s wages each month for all state employees, giving them eight hours of personal leave instead. This pay cut would come atop the 5 percent reduction he proposed in January, essentially docking state workers 10 percent of their pay. At the same time, their pension contributions would be upped by 5 percent of each paycheck because of bad investment decisions by government pension plans. Taken together, all this would give highway engineers, Department of Motor Vehicle clerks, park rangers, tax auditors, agricultural inspectors and many more a net of 15 percent fewer take-home dollars than they’ve gotten in prior years. The three days most state employees have lately been furloughed each month would end, leaving net pay about the same as in the last few months but much lower than before. Another way to look at it: employees would work two more days per month for the same pay they’ve recently gotten.

Meanwhile, the plan asks absolutely nothing new of private sector workers or businesses. Corporations would keep their tax breaks, old and new, and might get even more. California would remain the only oil-producing state without a severance tax on oil and would become the only one without a welfare-to-work system.

It’s plain what’s going on here: The poor don’t vote as reliably as others, so they have little clout in Sacramento. And Schwarzenegger has vilified public employees and their unions for years, beginning with his late 2003 promise to kick their rears. Those unions have thwarted Schwarzenegger for years, defeating several pet ballot propositions designed to increase his power, and this is the last chance for the termed-out governor to get back at them.

As he proposed his budget revisions in mid-May, Schwarzenegger said the state could easily afford to keep its health and welfare programs going -- if state workers’ pay and pension benefits are reduced even more than he’s already proposed.

Schwarzenegger has no use for either of these interest groups, so he’s now in effect inviting them to compete politically, telling them to fight over what scraps may exist on California’s bare dinner table.

The governor would like to befuddle union-backed Democratic legislators who also generally support programs benefiting the poor, pitting the two constituencies to which they are most devoted against each other.

“We can’t fall for Arnold’s wedge,” warns Robert Cruickshank, public policy director for the liberal Courage Campaign.

But Democrats almost certainly will have to concede something to Schwarzenegger. That’s because they can’t raise a dime of new taxes without a Republican vote or two in each house of the Legislature, and none now seems available.

Will they reduce pension benefits for new state employees to raise the money needed for keeping welfare alive? Will they keep pensions at present levels and allow removal of virtually all aid for the poorest of the poor, thus expanding the existing homeless problem and likely creating new public health issues? Will they find another way, via taxes or borrowing or something else?

No one can answer these and other questions just yet. But two things are clear: Schwarzenegger has put organized labor and advocates for the poor in an unprecedented quandary. As a result, this year’s budget battle could be longer and more bitter than even the extended fights of the last few years.

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