Thursday, July 29, 2010




Few bills before the state Legislature this summer will draw as firm opposition as one called AB 1998, a partial ban on single-use plastic bags in California which would also include a form of a “bag tax.”

From the sound of the opponents, you’d think this plan was a major health hazard and a huge tax hit, perhaps even akin to the $1.40-per-pack additional levy also lately proposed for cigarettes.

But no, the bag tax discussed here would amount to about a nickel a bag for one-time-use recycled paper bags starting in 2012, and it has specific exemptions for plastic bags like the ones used for fresh produce and meat products that often leave liquid residues on counter tops and elsewhere.

Stores would also be required to offer reusable cloth or plastic bags for sale, as many already do. The idea is to stop the vast expansion of use of one-time-use plastic bags, of which about 19 billion are now are distributed in California every year (about 600 per person). That would cut national dependence on foreign oil at the same time it vastly reduces the proliferation of plastic trash plaguing city streets and rural highways.

A prior version of this plan called for charging 25 cents per single-use bag, probably too high to accomplish the law’s purpose. Certainly voters in usually-green Seattle, Wash., thought that level of fee was too high when they voted overwhelmingly last year to overturn a 20-cent city levy on non-reusable bags.

Why even consider what amounts to a bag tax when California voters less than two years ago nixed an attempt to extend this year’s increases in sales, income and car taxes for another two years.

Three reasons: Oil, crowded landfills and the persistence of plastic.

Plastic comes from oil; each plastic bag not used is a small step toward energy independence. Meanwhile, using fewer paper bags would contribute to reducing greenhouse gases by keeping more trees intact.

Plus, many landfills are near capacity and the more trash piled into them, the greater the pressure to create new ones farther and farther out from where urban residents actually produce their trash. Then there’s the ubiquitous nature of plastic bags: what swimmer hasn’t washed up against one at an ocean beach; who hasn’t seen them blowing in the wind?

But here’s the real reason the so-called bag tax and the partial plastic bag ban are good ideas: This is one tax you don’t have to pay. Reuse existing plastic or paper bags and there’s no charge. Use cloth or rattan bags, backpacks or some other container, and you’ll also avoid any levy.

An ongoing and more extreme movement among some cities to ban plastic bags altogether is part of the impetus for this plan. The idea here is to give consumers a choice of recycling plastic bags, taking their goods in new or reused paper ones or using cloth bags, while still allowing use of plastic where it seems vital for individual and public health.

But there’s strong resistance to all this. The plastics industry has an active lobby in Sacramento. Some people like plastic bags because they’re light, can be crumpled into a tiny mass when they’re no longer useful and they can be used to line trash cans. Which makes the fate of this proposal uncertain, even though Gov. Schwarzenegger has indicated he would sign the bill if it passes, saying it would be “a great victory for our environment.”

Meanwhile, the movement toward bans and a fee doesn’t speak to the question of paper bags and where they come from or end up. Paper bags are neither as pernicious nor as persistent as plastic. They can be used several times if their bottoms stay dry and they decompose in landfills.

Which is why the fee in the plan authored by by Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Santa Monica is a good idea.

In a way, it apes the 99.99 Cents Only store chain, which several months ago placed a charge of less than a nickel on plastic bags. Customers who don’t want to pay a few pennies for a new plastic bag can stuff an old one in their pockets or handbags and bring it along, if they don’t have a cloth bag. This system has neither reduced customer traffic nor added significantly to checkout times. It would work with paper if AB 1998 passes the state Senate.

Worried you might forget a cloth bag if you drive to market? Keep one or two in the car.

It adds up to a choice: Recycle plastic bags if you like them best. Pay the fee for a paper bag if you don’t want to bring a reusable one or you don’t want to recycle. Or use cloth and pay nothing. There’s something for almost everyone here.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is




Both Republicans and Democrats continually cloak their positions on immigration amnesty with declarations of morality: Republicans say it’s a crime to be in this country without proper documents, while Democrats maintain it would be inhumane to deny basic services to millions of persons who came to this country mostly to better their lot in life.

Both stances mask the political realities that come with immigration amnesty, no matter how arduous a path might be established for any current illegal immigrant to win permanent legal status in America.

The No. 1 reality at work here is what follows the final step in the citizenship ceremony that is the ultimate end of any amnesty program: As new citizens file out of the ceremony where they've sworn an oath of allegiance to the United States, they always pass a table where they can register to vote.

Before 1994, new citizens of Hispanic origin – most from Mexico, with many from Central America – regularly registered Democratic by margins of about 7-3. But the numbers changed dramatically after 1994, when passage of California’s Proposition 187 threatened to withdraw all public services from illegals. Since then, more than 85 percent of new citizens from Mexico and Central America have registered Democratic.

Many voters registering in the late 1990s were former illegals granted amnesty and a path to citizenship under a 1986 law written by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon.

Since 1994, more than 3 million new Hispanic citizens have been sworn in just in California, the vast majority declaring themselves Democrats, even though Republicans were directly responsible for their legalization.

This is the single largest reason for California’s swing from a state where Republicans consistently won major offices like governor and U.S. senator to one no Republican presidential candidate has carried in 22 years. Muscleman movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only GOP candidate to win a top-of-the-ticket race here in the 16 years since Pete Wilson won reelection as governor by backing Proposition 187 to the hilt and running his infamous “they keep coming” commercials that decried illegal immigration.

So it’s no wonder Democrats want further amnesties and Republicans won’t hear of them. It’s no wonder Republican state legislators passed Arizona’s anti-illegal immigrant law while almost every Democrat who could voted against it.

If there’s one California area where the impact of Hispanic voters is most telling, it just might be San Bernardino County, a longtime bellwether that voted for the presidential candidate who won the national popular vote in every election from 1948 through the end of the 20th Century.

While less than 8 percent of San Bernardino County residents were foreign born 30 years ago, the figure had climbed to 18 percent in 2008. Reagan took 60 percent of the county’s 1980 vote, but fellow Republican John McCain polled only 46 percent two years ago.

That’s a change not at all unique to one county. In a state where only 8.5 million persons voted in 1994, the figure was over 10 million in 2008, an increase of 1.5 million or almost 18 percent – most of them Hispanics. It’s pretty easy to see that when you add so many voters and between 65 percent and 75 percent of them consistently vote as a bloc for one party, that party – the Democrats – will get a major advantage.

For Republicans, this is a vicious cycle. They campaign heavily against immigration amnesty, but every poll of Hispanic voters indicates that issue is their top priority. Yet, it would be oxymoronic to expect any Republican to favor amnesty in light of what amnesty has done to the party. That’s why the primary election season saw so much hard-line “no amnesty” talk from gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman and her springtime challenger Steve Poizner. It also explains why Whitman flip-flopped almost immediately after the primary and began promoting herself as much softer on illegal immigration than she was in the spring.

Democrats, meanwhile, often say they favor amnesty, while doing little about it. But they almost never take the same hard-line stance against illegal immigrants as Republicans. So they’re not precisely pleasing their new Hispanic adherents, but they’re not alienating them, either. If they ever do produce a new amnesty, chances are it would provide another long-term boost for their party.

All of which means there will be no position changes soon for either major party. And that in turn makes it unlikely there will be any real change soon on the immigration front.

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

Sunday, July 25, 2010




Racial and religious discrimination in housing has been illegal in California since the early 1960s, when the Rumford Fair Housing Act passed. Subsequent laws banned discrimination in sales, rentals and employment on grounds of gender, national origin, sexual orientation and marital status.

But those laws just might not last much longer if Supreme Court nominee Elana Kagan is confirmed sometime in the next month or so, as widely expected.

Even though the state’s anti-discrimination laws are stronger than anything the federal government ever enacted, they’ve consistently been upheld by courts at every level. On the Supreme Court, former University of the Pacific law Prof. and Stanford Law School graduate Anthony Kennedy, the single justice with the strongest California background and lately the court’s swing vote, has consistently backed those laws.

But all that might not matter once Kagan reaches the court. At least that’s the implication of a memo she wrote 14 years ago, while a staff lawyer in the Bill Clinton White House.

Kagan wrote in response to a California state Supreme Court decision that amounted to a rebuke for then state Attorney General Dan Lungren, later the unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor in 1998 and now a GOP congressman from the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento.

In that decision, the state’s highest court found it was against the law for a Chico landlady to refuse in 1987 to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple living together on grounds that her religion forbade her to assist such a living arrangement because it considered sex outside marriage a sin.

Even though California law specifically banned housing discrimination on grounds of marital status, Lungren refused to assist any legal action by the would-be renters, forcing them to use private attorneys.

They eventually prevailed in the state Supreme Court, even though the ruling came years after they had any use for the apartment. Kagan recommended that Clinton’s Justice Department support the landlady’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kagan’s memo, among many documents handed to the Senate Judiciary Committee before its hearings on her nomination, said the state court’s decision could undermine the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a now-defunct federal law forbidding states from imposing severe burdens on private religious practices. The U.S. Supreme Court struck that law down in 1997, ruling it interfered too much with state authority. But that didn’t change the strong language in Kagan’s memo.

The state court decision essentially said that because the landlady made her apartment available to the general public, she was like any other business owner and could not discriminate against anyone who sought to rent from her, as long as the applicant was financially able to pay the rent and any required deposits.

Kagan disagreed. The logic of her memo, which called the state court ruling “quite outrageous,” could easily be extended to matters of race, religion and all the other categories covered by California’s anti-discrimination laws.

What if the claim is made that a landlord’s religion proscribes persons of different races living in the same building or neighborhood? What if an apartment owner says his faith frowns on gays or women living alone?

By the reasoning in the Kagan memo, that belief should trump state laws holding that such discrimination is against the overall public interest. No senator asked her about that memo in the Judiciary Committee hearings, and there’s a good chance Kagan would not make a similar argument today. But maybe she hasn't changed her mind.

Then,all it would take to overturn California’s laws on fair housing and fair employment would be for Kagan to desert the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc, which she is commonly expected to join, and link with conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts, who are consistently been leery of sweeping anti-discrimination measures.

If thathappened, California and other states could revert to the days of real estate covenants restricting property sales to members of certain racial and religious groups, the era when landlords commonly rejected African-Americans, Latinos or Jews even when they were more financially qualified than other prospective tenants.

Kagan hasn’t addressed this subject in more than a decade, but the existence of her Clinton-era memo is evidence of how unpredictable the performance of Supreme Court justices can be and the vital importance of their votes.

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




In a two-person political contest, voters only occasionally get the chance to judge candidates on their personal qualities of character. These rare chances can come when politicians are suddenly confronted by unexpected, unscripted crises of their own creation.

That’s just what has happened in the run for governor of California, where both candidates faced self-inflicted crises within days of each other, both coming in June.

The contrast in how Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman handled their respective situations was stark.

Brown’s problem came first. On one of his regular jogging jaunts through the east Oakland hills near his home, Brown encountered a fellow runner whom he did not at first recognize. The other fellow, a radio news reporter, recognized Brown instantly and asked questions about the nascent fall election campaign.

That was when Brown opined that messages purveyed by Whitman’s big-money effort (she had just spent $71 million of her own cash – more than $47 for each of the 1.49 million votes she received – to win a primary election over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner) reminded him of the tactics devised by Nazi Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister and the inventor of the Big Lie principle in politics. That’s the one which goes like this: If you repeat something plainly untrue often enough and loudly enough and prominently enough, virtually everyone will eventually come to believe it.

“You know, by the time she’s done with me, two months from now, I’ll be a child-molesting…” Brown observed, trailing off at the end of the sentence, the radio guy reported on his blog. “It’s like Goebbels… Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda… She’ll have people believing whatever she wants about me.”

The reporter carried no tape recorder while he ran, and Brown’s comment therefore was never heard over the air.

Well aware that casual Holocaust comparisons are anathema to many Jews, who don’t want the massacre of six million of their co-religionists trivialized, Brown could have denied the whole thing. It would have been his word against the reporter’s. Deniability was built into the situation.

But Brown never tried that. Instead, for a week afterward, it was almost all he wanted to talk about. He discussed it on his weekly San Francisco radio show. He apologized publicly to Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a frequent go-to guy for media seeking quotes on Jewish matters.

Just four days after Brown’s chance encounter while exercising, newspapers broke the story that Whitman, while chief executive of the eBay online auction house, once shoved an employee hard during a disagreement and her company paid a $200,000 lawsuit settlement.

Rather than immediately admitting the 2007 incident and letting the story gradually die out, Whitman at first talked all around the issue of physical contact. “In any high-pressure working environment, tensions can surface,” went her statement. “(the employee) and I had a professional disagreement, which we put behind us.” Added her campaign, “A verbal dispute in a high-pressure working environment isn’t out of the ordinary.” Nothing about physical contact. Whitman herself used almost the same words during a subsequent interview with a friendly talk-show host. Of course, $200,000 settlements for workplace verbal disputes are very much out of the ordinary, even for rich companies like eBay.

A week later, answering questions from reporters, Whitman had a different description, saying she “physically escorted” the employee out of a room. That’s not exactly the same as a strictly verbal dispute.

So Whitman took more than a week to fully own up to her act, even if she didn’t quite lie about it first.

It wasn’t the first time in her campaign that she had skirted the truth, only to change her tune when called on it. After newspapers reported she rarely voted before becoming a candidate for the state’s highest office, she at first attempted to say official voting records were incomplete.

One of her early television commercials had to be pulled when it turned out to contain an exaggeration of the time she’s lived in California.

She denied ever using an image of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in a primary election commercial when the image had been there for all to see.

And there were veracity problems with her handling of questions about her time on the board of the scandal-plagued Goldman Sachs investment bank.

Whitman’s huge investment of personal cash in the primary campaign and the commercials it bought papered over most of these problems when they first arose. But there’s no denying the stark contrast in the way these two candidates handled the latest embarrassing personal contretemps.

It will be up to the voters to decide whether the way the two rivals dealt with those problems reveals anything fundamental about either of them.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is

Saturday, July 17, 2010




You’d think tempers on University of California campuses last spring were hotter about the upcoming tuition increases than anything else. You’d be wrong.

The most contentious issue on the flagship Berkeley campus and the large campus in San Diego was about money, true, but the question students grappled with most loudly was whether the university’s Board of Regents should divest itself of investments in companies that help supply Israel’s military, specifically General Electric and United Technologies.

The divestment proposal considered by student senates on the two campuses was based on claims that Israel has committed war crimes and the two companies aid and abet that by supplying aircraft engines, helicopters and other military equipment.

The margins by which the divestment demands – not binding on the Regents in any case – lost were so narrow that this proposal is certain to be back during the next school year at these campuses and others.

At Berkeley, for instance, the student senate first passed a divestment resolution by a 16-4 vote, only to have student body President Will Smelko veto the measure. That margin was more than the supermajority needed to override his veto, but three yes votes evaporated in the days between meetings, and the veto was eventually sustained when the vote to override came in at 13-5, just a single vote short of an override.

All this, of course, was based on a bunch of flawed premises pushed by Palestinian activists and so-called “human rights” groups.

They complained, for instance, that Israel’s security barrier denies some Palestinians access to fields and orchards, even though it’s been re-routed many times to allow access where it’s possible without defeating security goals. They complain that the wall (actually a fence for 97 percent of its length) denies Palestinians access to medical care and to the territory of Israel itself. They contend that Israel denies political and human rights to Palestinians within Israel, in its occupied territories and the coastal enclave of Gaza.

These claims, full of falsehoods and half-truths as they are, find many sympathetic ears on UC campuses, where residents of Muslim countries make up a large portion of the almost 12,000 foreign students, whose ultra-high out-of-state tuition and fees subsidize the educations of thousands of in-state resident students. Their governments, and their often oil-wealthy parents, also donate additional funds to various campuses.

Those students have become extremely active politically on campuses. One example: they made up much of the crowd that shouted down Israeli Consul General Michael Oren when he attempted to speak on the UC Irvine campus last February. UCI in June suspended the Muslim Student Union for a year because of that incident.

Each claim these students regularly make against Israel is severely flawed. Complaints about the security fence, for instance, ignore the many suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians in the years before the barrier went up and the fact that now there are almost none. The gripe that Israel deprives Palestinians of civil rights ignores the free elections held in the West Bank and Gaza, which most recently produced the radically anti-Israel Hamas-led government of Gaza. It also ignores the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens, all ethnic Palestinians, enjoy the same rights as other Israelis, more civil rights and freedoms than are possessed by any Arab populace in any Arab nation.

The allegations of war crimes during Israel’s most recent incursion into Gaza, claims that Israel deliberately bombed schools and hospitals, ignore the fact – verified by international observers – that Hamas combatants regularly took shelter in such buildings (a war crime), using their occupants as human shields while they fired at Israeli troops. Claims that the incursion itself was illegal under international law consistently ignore thousands of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel during several prior years.

Given these facts, the remarkable thing was that any resolution demanding divestment from companies doing business with Israel could get anywhere. But the political determination of Muslim students at UC campuses gives them on-campus clout out of all proportion to their numbers.

Which means there’s a very good chance these resolutions will pass next year, placing Berkeley or any other UC campus that okays them among the most radically anti-Israel student bodies in the world. All that prevented passage at Berkeley this year was the courage of the student body president.

The Muslims and their allies, who include some leftist Jewish students and faculty, claim all this is not anti-Semitism. But the resolution at Berkeley singled out Israel, while ignoring all human rights violations in counties like Iran, Russia, Sudan, China and Rwanda, all among the most egregious violators of human rights on the planet, some of them sites of mass slaughters. If singling out the Jewish state for special condemnation when its actions don't even belong in the same category as those others’ is not anti-Semitism, it’s hard to see what is.

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




As Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last spring signed her state’s landmark bill cracking down on illegal immigration, she listed crime as her biggest reason.

Her signature, she said, aimed to solve a “crisis (of) border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigrantion.”

If she’d gone to the one Arizona city that confronts Mexico most directly – Nogales, where the border separates the town into American and Mexican components – she’d have discovered the connection she claimed simply does not exist.

In 2000, Nogales, AZ experienced 23 rapes, robberies and murders. Last year, after 10 years of population growth mostly through illegal immigration, there were 19 such crimes. Aggravated assaults dropped by one-third. There have been no murders for more than two years.

So much for the immigration-created crime wave.

Yes, there is crime aplenty in Mexico, especially drug-related crime in cities like Tijuana and Juarez on the south side of the border. But illegal immigrants have not brought that with them. Many, in fact, come to America to escape it.

Yes, there is the occasional violent crime along the border. A Cochise County rancher was killed in March, possibly by a drug smuggler, although no one knows that for sure. A sheriff’s deputy in Pinal County was shot and wounded in April, allegedly by illegal immigrant drug runners. But every law-enforcement agency along the Arizona sector of the border says drug cartels normally don’t target U.S. residents.

“This is a media-created event,” Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County (Tucson) told the Arizona Republic newspaper. “I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure.”

That is one reason federal apprehensions of illegal immigrants are lower this year than they’ve been since the 1990s.

It’s not merely politicians in Arizona who have tried to exploit a non-existent link between violent crime and illegal immigration (no one denies that crossing the border surreptitiously is a crime, but it’s not a violent one).

That alleged link became a major theme of the California Republican primary election battle between Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman last spring. But there is no link, according to the latest research on the subject.

That research comes from University of Colorado sociology Prof. Tim Wadsworth, whose research on crime and immigration completely debunks the notion that more immigration necessarily equals more crime. Wadsworth, of course, would be the last to deny that some immigrants, illegal or not, are criminals and even violent criminals.
But here’s what he reported in the April issue of the academic journal Social Science Weekly (
“Cities that experienced greater growth in immigrant or new-immigrant populations between 1990 and 2000 (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno and San Diego were among those with the greatest rise in migrant populations) tended to demonstrate sharper decreases in homicide and robbery. The suggestion that high levels of immigration may have been partially responsible for the drop in crime during the 1990s seems plausible.”
Wadsworth worked only with statistics from the 1990s, a decade for which the numbers are complete. But the same cities that saw the most foreign immigration in that decade also were the leaders in the next 10 years, and in most of them, violent crime continued its downtrend.
Wadsworth didn’t stop with just the big cities, though. He looked at 459 communities with populations of at least 50,000. He said distinguishing the effects of legal and illegal immigration is difficult, as the last two U.S. Census reports did not track those numbers. But he noted that immigrant citizens and non-citizens often congregate in the same areas for reasons of culture and language. He tracked robberies and homicides because they are harder to hide than other crimes.
Rather than causing crime waves, Wadsworth says, the numbers suggest that “immigration may be partially responsible for the decrease in violent crime.” His statistical analysis shows that growth in the new immigrant population led, on average among the 459 cities, to a 9.3 percent decline in the murder rate and a 22.2 percent decrease in robberies.
Wadsworth does not, however, expect his pioneering research to change political rhetoric. “The association between immigration and crime has been a center point of anti-immigrant discourse since the 1880s,” he said. “Although there has been scant empirical research to support such claims, they have persisted with little debate.”
Now there is some research. But politicians who exploit the supposed – and, it turns out – nonexistent link between increased crime and illegal immigration mostly likely won’t change their tune. It’s been too useful.
Which means it will now be up to voters to see through the false rhetoric and act accordingly.
Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Saturday, July 10, 2010




Ho-hum. Another summer, and other state budget deficit, another impasse in the Legislature and once again a major part of the solution stares lawmakers in the face and they do nothing about it.

Oops. Wait a minute. This year, for the first time since the early 2000s, a potentially major portion of the solution is actually getting a serious look. Not that it has much chance of becoming reality, but at least this year the much-needed closing of the state’s biggest tax loophole has made it out of one legislative committee.

The needed change involves Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax-cutting initiative that has never been amended and may never be. The change now under discussion would do nothing to the actual Proposition 13 and its formula for setting all property taxes at 1 percent of their 1975 values or 1 percent of the most recent sales price, and then letting them increase no more than 2 percent per year.

That means it should not need the two-thirds majority that would be required to amend Proposition 13 itself.

Here’s all that needs to be altered: The definition of a change in real estate ownership. The existing definition was not part of the original initiative; rather it was set by the Legislature early in 1979 when a variety of business lobbies determined that simply reassessing property every time it sold wouldn’t suit them.

The current definition is a little obfuscated, but essentially if a property sells and no one person or entity assumes more than a 50 percent ownership interest, there is often no reassessment.

This loophole was created to let limited partnerships and corporations acquire property without triggering property tax increases. When former Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia of eastern Los Angeles County first proposed fixing the definition in 2004, she and others estimated it would produce between $1.5 billion and $12 billion each year for state and local governments.

Property values have declined since then, but the amounts bandied about would still likely make up much of the projected $20 billion deficit at the root of the ongoing budget wrangling.

The current reform effort is carried by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco. “There’s a loophole in the law and it’s morally incumbent upon us to close it, so when businesses (and their property) change ownership, there’s no game-playing,” Ammiano said during a press conference where he and several other legislators promoted a package of bills they said would close this and other loopholes.

One bill would impose a 10 percent tax on oil drilled in California, much of which comes from beneath state-owned lands. Another would repeal a provision allowing corporations to choose their own taxation formula each year. But reforming real estate ownership-change definitions is the topper.

Do this, says the corporate lobby, and you’ll drive more and more businesses from California. Don’t do it, say Ammiano and others, and you add more and more each year to the share of taxes paid by homeowners, which has risen since the pre-13 era.

While the change embodied in Ammiano’s bill would not alter homeowner assessments one cent, it would “place another massive burden on California’s struggling businesses…and force employers to lay off workers, close their doors or move…to (other) states,” argues Jon Coupal, the head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Coupal also challenges claims that the loophole costs the state very much. “Proposition 13 opponents can only point to a handful of alleged abuses of the law,” he said.

True, the critics usually cite only a few cases. But they contend those demonstrate a large pattern. If fractionalized new ownership involving several individuals or companies can avoid some reassessments – and it indisputably has – there’s every reason to think the practice is as common as Escutia and Ammiano have claimed.

Coupal, like some of his predecessors at the Jarvis organization, claims the reform effort represents the early phase of a drive to kill Proposition 13 altogether. He claims businesses will leave California “in droves” if the change occurs. But he offers no evidence for either claim.

Which leaves this as an issue of simple fairness. If all residential property is reassessed when it’s sold, why not all business property?

But as long as calumnies like Coupal’s are thrown around without being debunked, the needed change won’t happen, the budget problems will persist and so will the current inequities.

The bottom line is that this change should pass, but chances it won't -- or that if it does, it will be vetoed instantly.

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




For more than seven months, Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor, has berated Democratic rival Jerry Brown for not telling Californians exactly what measures he would pursue to pull this state out of its financial malaise.

Meanwhile, she’s spelled out detailed plans for what she'll make happen if she wins the office.

Whitman’s stands come via an unprecedented 48-page magazine printed on high-quality paper that promises she'll cut 40,000 state jobs, suspend regulations for reducing greenhouse gases mandated by the 2006 AB32 even if a November ballot initiative aiming to do the same should fail, revise state labor laws and increase the number of H-1B visas given to foreign workers at high-tech companies.

There is, therefore, little doubt about what Whitman will attempt if she takes office. Hers is an approach very much like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger took during the 2003 recall election that made him governor – one that didn’t work for him and probably won’t work for Whitman if she becomes governor next January.

Sure, the media love this kind of openness. By spelling out dozens, maybe hundreds, of specific actions she will take or support, Whitman opens herself to all manner of questions and analyses. Everyone knows where she stands on a host of matters.

This can work well in a campaign, and it did for Whitman in the primary. But – like her talk about preventing amnesty for illegal immigrants – she might find once she takes office that there’s little she can do about much of her agenda. It took Schwarzenegger more than a year to learn this.

The Whitman approach stems from her long experience as a business executive, topped by almost a decade as chief executive of the eBay online auction house. She didn’t have to deal with a Democratic-dominated Legislature there. And her pledge to help turn that Legislature part-time (see page 22 of her campaign magazine) won’t sit well with many lawmakers who would vote on the bulk of her proposals.

Brown’s approach has been completely different. A former two-term governor, he said shortly after filing his candidacy papers that “We need to distinguish between what a CEO of a company does and what a governor does. The governor can’t pick many of his or her employees or a board of directors. It’s very different.”

That’s one reason Brown has played his cards close to the vest so far, revealing very few proposed actions. No promise to build a peripheral canal to carry Northern California river water around the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers (Whitman’s magazine calls for an “alternative conveyance system,” which sounds to many like a peripheral canal). No plan to make legislators part-time. No promises to fire a large percentage of state workers.

Just a commitment to work with any legislators interested in solving problems. Yes, Brown takes a sort-of pledge about no-new-taxes: “I don’t think we have to raise taxes and there will be no new ones while I’m governor unless the people themselves vote for them,” he said. It’s an approach he followed for eight years as mayor of Oakland, where voters did pass (by two-thirds majorities) parcel taxes to help schools and police.

Rather than reveal a specific agenda, Brown has talked only about a process. “Focus on the budget is clearly the No. 1 priority,” he said. “I will deal with all 120 members of the Legislature from the day I’m elected, if I’m elected. I’m prepared to do the best I can to get us out of this mess.”

He makes it conditional, because he knows he can lose this election, as he lost his 1982 run for the U.S. Senate and a couple of abortive presidential bids.

Brown also has a touch of the optimism his father, Pat Brown, exuded during two terms as governor, a time when the University of California and the Cal State system expanded exponentially and most work on the state Water Project was done.

“Look,” he says, “we have a deficit for sure. But it’s a tiny fraction of California’s gross state product, which is in the trillions of dollars. That makes this more a problem of money management than anything else and we will fix it. There is plenty to work with.”

But he also makes no promises to state workers. “We need to look at every aspect of state government,” he said. “We need to slow our spending as the resilient, dynamic economy of California comes back.”

There were no specifics there. In fact, Brown's talk isn’t much different from Whitman’s overall theme. It’s the approach that’s different.

Yes, reporters would like him to reveal more about his plans, if he has any. They need things to write about. But whatever Brown says now could hamstring him later, as Schwarznegger’s promises did him and Whitman’s could do to her.

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

Saturday, July 3, 2010




For many years, one justification for giving generous pensions and other benefits to public employees was that their pay was below what most of them could get in the private sector. Rich pensions were seen as a recruiting tool, one way to get top people into government and keep them there.

But times have changed. Despite the furloughs imposed on many state and local government workers, not only are most government jobs more secure than those at private businesses, but salaries for most are at least comparable to those in the private sector and pensions are far more generous.

That’s been accentuated over the last three years as company after company abandoned the style of pension plan that offers regular monthly payments for life, shifting to 401(k) accounts allowing employees to build savings for retirement but not protecting them from failed investments.

While some private pension plans that have been “grandfathered in” for longtime employees allow retirees to start collecting somewhat reduced benefits at age 55, many retirees from California government jobs – especially police and firemen – can start collecting full pensions five years earlier than that.

So taxes from people with inferior pensions are funding the fatter monthly checks going to folks who allegedly work for them. Something seems wrong here, and many have come to resent it.

These are some of the reasons behind a sudden flood of ideas that emanated from the campaign trail during the spring primary election. Another impetus: the miserable recent investment records of California’s two biggest public retirement systems – the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System – have forced state and local governments to fork over far more to fund pensions than they did, say, 10 years ago.

At the height of the dot-com investment bubble in the late 1990s, state government paid almost nothing to fund pensions because the funds’ results from investing employee retirement contributions were copious. Now the state pays more than $3 billion a year to fund those pensions. It’s the same for local government, where for one example, Los Angeles will use about 19 percent of its new budget to fund pensions.

One study by economists at Stanford University estimated it would take five consecutive years of 20 percent investment profits for the big state pension plans to return their assets to levels equal to their obligations.

Which has led almost everyone in politics today to conclude something has to change. Why should public pensions be based in large part on what an employee gets in his or her last year, when employees can arrange to pad their overtime hours during that year, a practice called “pension spiking?” Why should non-police and fire government employees be able to draw full pensions at 55 when almost no one in the private sector can get full payments before age 65? Why should police and fire personnel get full pensions starting at age 50?

Good questions all, and they have been asked in recent months by candidates on all political sides as well as figures like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a onetime union organizer. No one suggests existing employees who were promised benefits at today’s levels when they were hired should have the rug pulled from under them. That would be illegal. But changes affecting new hires are certainly legal and possible.

Schwarzenegger, for one, calls state worker pensions “the single biggest threat to the fiscal health of California’s future.” He endorsed a bill by state Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Temecula that would increase retirement ages for most new hires from 55 to 65 and for public safety workers from 50 to 57. Hollingsworth also would change the way benefits are awarded by using an average of workers’ three highest-paid years, rather than just their last year.

Public employee unions say these changes are not needed, that an economic recovery will restore the pension system to good health. They say only a relative few government retirees get six-figure pensions, with most receiving benefits of less than $30,000 per year.

Some of those assertions are true. But that doesn’t change the contrasts between defined-benefit public employee pensions and what’s happened to private ones.

The bottom line is that change will come soon to government pensions. They won’t disappear, but they will come to look more like what’s available to other workers. That will happen no matter who becomes governor next winter. It might, in fact, happen sooner if Democrat Jerry Brown, endorsed by labor and accustomed to working with public employee unions, wins the fall election than if it’s Republican MegWhitman, who would face a Democratic-controlled Legislature filled with lawmakers beholden to the unions that helped them get elected.

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




Here’s a question for the California High Speed Rail authority: How about cutting out the most expensive parts of your current plan – which also happen to be the most controversial – while leaving its essence intact?

That’s a question no one on the board making the plans for this putative system has answered, or even been asked.

As it now stands, the estimated cost of this project is $43 billion, but state voters have approved “only” $9.95 billion in bonds, while the federal government has committed another $2.25 billion. It’s anybody’s guess where the rest of the money might come from (the project’s board hopes for more federal money and plenty of private financing, but has yet to arrange any). Plus, anyone who thinks building a 238 mph rail system stretching from San Diego through Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco will come in at or under budget is probably hallucinating.

That, at least, is implied in a springtime report by state Auditor Elaine M. Howle, who told the governor and the Legislature that “The High Speed Rail Authority has not adequately planned for the future development of the program…the program risks significant delays without more well-developed plans for obtaining funds.”

This, of course, didn’t keep the authority from hiring a French/South African executive with experience running high speed systems in Europe as its chief executive at $375,000 per year, plus a housing allowance.

The auditor’s report, scathing as it was, did not even take up the question of local opposition to the current plan, currently strongest on the San Francisco Peninsula but rising in the Anaheim-Los Angeles corridor and other metropolitan areas.

So why not do a little reassessing, especially in light of the High Speed Rail Authority’s own report of last winter, which amounted to a bait-and-switch on the voters who approved the state bonds for this project by a 52-48 percent margin two years ago? That report raised the estimated year-2035 fare for the San Francisco-Los Angeles run from the $55 projected in ballot materials two years ago to $105 dollars. Nearly doubling the fare would cut the pool of likely riders by about one-third.

And yet, those eliminated riders, plus taxpayers in parts of the state far from the high speed trains are still on the hook for repaying the bonds, if and when they are sold.

Given this dicey picture for the future of California high speed rail, maybe it’s time to redesign the system’s planned map to eliminate its most expensive portions while keeping the fundamentals intact.

Here’s how to do that: Run high-speed trains on existing track in densely-populated areas even if that means running them at ordinary train speeds. Tie them in with existing transit systems.

So Southern California trains, for example, might run full-out from Carlsbad north to about Tustin and then slow down as they use ordinary, existing track between Anaheim and Los Angeles. It might add a few minutes to the trip, but would cost billions less and raise far fewer hackles.

From Los Angeles, the trains could run at ordinary speeds into the San Fernando Valley and then go full-out through the Central Valley. Rather than running over the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and San Jose roughly along Highways 152 and 101, the train could be rerouted over the Altamont Pass into the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco, where passengers could switch to special Bay Area Rapid Transit trains for a non-stop run into San Francisco on existing track. The Sacramento spur, to be added later under current plans, would remain pretty much as it now stands.

That eliminates the need for the most expensive rights of way. It satisfies Peninsula cities and environmentalists who have demanded a tunneled system that would add billions of dollars to the project cost.

It might add as much as 45 minutes to the entire ride, but would still leave passengers to enjoy hundreds of miles of travel at very high speeds. In short, this would retain the essence of the high speed rail experience without impacting urban areas significantly.

It would take high speed rail away from areas that are now resisting it most strongly and leave the plan intact in areas that are welcoming it.

And it would cost many billions of dollars less, probably coming in at a price close to the state’s existing means.

There is precedent for all this, too. Amtrak currently runs successful trains that link to buses between Union Station in Los Angeles and Bakersfield and from Emeryville on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay into the city itself.

Do this and if the mass of Californians still want more when the project is up and running, more could be added. But build a sensible, economical system first.


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




There’s been plenty of good news lately for Californians who oppose setting up import terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) in this state. But the jury is still out on whether that means California consumers will be freed from the prospect of becoming dependent on that pricey form of imported energy.

The good news first: Only one active effort to build a California LNG import facility remains active and it isn’t very active. That would be the proposed but almost dormant Esperanza receiving terminal, which would be built 15 miles off the coast of Long Beach.

The list of possibilities dwindled to that one when the state Lands Commission during the late spring formally terminated a bid to build a terminal tentatively called “Clearwater Port” on the coast just north of Ventura. The termination was automatic because there had been no activity by Clearwater’s would-be builder, Houston-based NorthernStar Star Natural Gas.

Shortly after the Lands Commission action, NorthernStar declared itself bankrupt.

The demise of Clearwater marked the third LNG proposal to go under in the last 10 years, joining other failed plans to site facilities near Eureka and off the coast near the Los Angeles-Ventura county line.

LNG is natural gas supercooled to a liquid and shipped thousands of miles across oceans in gigantic, multi-hulled tankers, then reheated back to a gaseous state and pumped into existing pipeline networks. The only foreign LNG now able to reach California comes through Sempra Energy’s Costa Azul receiving plant north of Ensenada, not far south of the Mexican border.

There’s further good news for California consumers in the forecasts of both the U.S. Energy Information Agency and several leading private natural gas consultants indicating there will be no need for LNG anytime in the foreseeable future.

One reason for that is a fast-increasing effort by U.S. companies to exploit the gas contained in shale deposits in Wyoming and Colorado.

Consultant Ben Schlesinger, who has worked for Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell Oil, Tokyo Gas, Nigeria LNG and other industry giants, is one who predicts the glut of American gas coming on-line in the next several years will create an oversupply of gas not only here, but also in Europe – which imports almost all its energy.

This suggests it’s likely that some American LNG facilities will be converted from receiving gas to sending it overseas – the very thing that’s about to happen to a just-approved facility at Kitimat, Canada, on the British Columbia coast north of Vancouver. First designed as an import plant, Kitimat now will become an exporting facility.

And yet, there’s still some potential bad news out there for California gas customers worried about the high cost of LNG. It comes from Oregon, where a plant at Coos Bay is well along in the approval process. Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission estimated long ago that three-fourths of all imports coming to any terminal in that state would end up in California.

Why should that concern consumers? Because each specially-built LNG tanker costs more than $1 billion and it takes at least six to keep any receiving plant supplied. The plants that first turn natural gas liquid and then turn it back to an invisible gas cost more billions. Those costs are inevitably included in the price consumers pay for whatever gas they use that stems from LNG, raising them substantially. No matter how piously companies like PG&E, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric (SoCal Gas and SDG&E are both fully-owned by Sempra) deny that LNG will increase rates, the sheer amounts invested in LNG facilities guarantee it.

Which means millions of Californians have a major interest in a very local-looking Oregon dispute. For the longer farmers in two Oregon counties can delay building of a link between Coos Bay and PG&E’s existing pipeline for Canadian gas near Roseburg, Ore., the greater will be the predicted American natural gas glut.

And the greater the glut, the lower the price of all natural gas worldwide. If the price gets too low, there will be little incentive for building any new LNG plants. That’s what happened in the early 1980s, when both PG&E and Southern California Gas insisted LNG was critical for California’s energy needs – only to see crashing gas prices make their plan for an LNG plant at Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara County economically infeasible. As a result, Californians have paid an estimated $40 billion less in gas bills over the last 30 years than they otherwise would have – and there have been none of the shortages the big utilities predicted. The sky did not fall when Pt. Conception was left in its natural state.

A lawsuit by the Chumash Indian tribe created the delay that killed that effort. Citizen groups in Oregon are using every delaying tactic they can devise while trying to duplicate the consumerist triumph of the Chumash.

Californians need them to succeed – or we will pay untold billions more in gas bills over many decades to come.

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




It’s almost as if the Board of Regents that runs the University of California can't wait to fire a warning shot across the figurative bow of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state Legislature and the candidates now running for those positions.

“Show us more money,” UC’s leaders seem to be saying, “or we’ll make some radical changes that your constituents won’t like very much.” Since Regents are appointed to 12-year-terms, they will not have to face furious voters if those changes come; the politicians would have to.

When it meets July 13 in San Francisco, the board will consider proposed changes that include three-year degrees, steadily increasing tuition well beyond this year’s 32 percent rise, eliminating “duplicative” programs on various campuses and thus making all campuses become essentially specialty schools, allowing out-of-state student enrollment to as much as double and charging different tuitions at its various campuses around the state.

These are a few of the ideas presented to the UC Commission on the Future last spring, and some of them could fundamentally change the university.

All these things would either save money or bring new funds to a university that has begun to lose key faculty to competing schools around the nation that are able to pay more than cash-strapped UC.

Designed to educate the cream of California’s high school graduates, UC is already refusing admission to thousands who are academically qualified because of state budget cuts. But the past year’s reductions in state funding for the system are only the latest. Over the last 19 years, one report to the Regents said, state funding for the university dropped an inflation-adjusted 54 percent, while students are paying triple what they did in 1990.

Accept more out-of-staters and the financial contribution from student tuition and fees will rise even more. Every out-of-state undergraduate pays almost $13,000 per year more than the cost of his or her education. So doubling the system’s current 7,600 out-of-state enrollees would produce almost $100 million, about half the university’s present budget gap.

But that would come at the expense of qualified in-state students, many of whom will be consigned to community colleges this fall, anyway, because of cuts in classes and admissions.

Three-year degrees, which would become available to students who complete a large number of advanced placement courses in high school, would also reduce the budget deficit, lessening the needed roster of professors. And they would save students a full year’s expenses. The price paid would be truncating the college experience for thousands of students.

There’s also the possibility of using online classes to make course offerings from one campus available to students on others. This could eliminate some of the crunch that now sees some classes required for degrees filled to capacity before students who need to take them have a chance to sign up. The price paid here would be a lack of student-faculty involvement and interaction. Both professors and students who have sampled online education report it is generally no substitute for eye-to-eye contact in the classroom, especially in small classes.

Then there’s the prospect of increasing fees another 5 percent to 15 percent. No explanation needed for why that would be unpopular.

The regents also will consider billing the state far more than UC now does for services performed by the university. As it stands, federal agencies pay full costs for research they commission, but the state usually does not.

Take it all together, and it’s a warning to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his potential successors and all legislators that UC might not sit by passively anymore as the politicians steadily reduce its state support.

The only one of the potential actions the board is about to consider that won’t be unpopular is the plan to bill the state for work done, which would likely be perceived as little more than a fund shuffle.

Everything else here represents massive change in the state’s 50-year-old education master plan, which sought to guarantee a UC education to everyone who deserved a crack at it. That’s how it’s worked for most of the last half century, too.

No one at UC is saying so, but when the regents consider plans that amount to a serious downgrading of both what a University of California degree signifies and a major reduction in educational opportunity for qualified Californians, there is bound to be some public displeasure.

The only question is whether politicians in Sacramento will fear further public opprobrium at a time when polls show voters are already more dissatisfied with their work than ever before – or whether they’ll figure their public esteem can’t fall any further.

And then there’s the other reality: Even if lawmakers wanted to give the university more money, right now there just aren’t any more funds available.

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