Thursday, April 29, 2010

SO FAR, CAMPAIGN IS MOSTLY AS BROWN FIGURED

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“SO FAR, CAMPAIGN IS MOSTLY AS BROWN FIGURED”

On the day he officially filed papers to run for his old office as governor, Jerry Brown predicted he would soon trail in many polls.

“When you spend $50 million or so, you will move the polls at least some,” he observed. “I’m not someone who says, ‘I have a billion dollars and I want to be governor.’ I haven’t lived the corporate life, flying around in private jets. But I believe I can get my message out.”

Brown was right about the polls. The almost $60 million spent so far by the campaign of former eBay executive Meg Whitman did briefly put her ahead of Brown in several polls, by margins ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent.

Brown’s strategy of spending little and not campaigning worked in the non-run for the Democratic nomination, as his challengers self-destructed one by one. He knows Whitman won’t go away so quietly if she wins the Republican nomination to take him on. He describes her seven-month (so far) barrage of ubiquitous radio and television advertising as “basically invading the minds of the people.”

Whitman would say nothing specific in response, her press secretary Sarah Pompei offering only that “Voters are not looking for someone with a failed record who raises taxes to do anything.”

While some Brown supporters worry that he’s been too quiet and too reluctant to spend any of the war chest of about $16 million he now has on hand, his campaign shows no signs of fear.

In fact, campaign manager Steve Glazer maintains Whitman hasn’t gotten much for all her money, the same view often propounded by Whitman’s Republican rival Steve Poizner.

Glazer knows all about the poll margins Whitman has recently enjoyed over both Brown and Poizner, the state insurance commissioner who is also primarily a self-funded candidate.

But, he says, “All she’s really done with all that advertising is move her name recognition from 10 percent to 60 percent. The same polls that show her ahead also show only 8 percent of the voters are firmly committed to her, while 13 percent are firmly committed to Jerry. So more people have strong positive feelings for Jerry than for Whitman, in spite of all that money. That’s one reason we feel OK even though she might be ahead of us on primary day.”

Glazer, a longtime Brown loyalist who drew no salary for the first few months of this year’s campaign, echoes his boss by predicting that even though Brown will eventually spend only about one-fifth of the $150 million Whitman has said she’s willing to give her own campaign, “We’ll have the resources to get our message out.”

For one thing, he notes, during the fall season when voters are paying close attention, there will be so much on-air advertising for so many candidates and ballot propositions that no one will be able to dominate the airwaves the way Whitman has so far. Even so, Whitman (or the almost equally wealthy Poizner) will be able to pour an endless flow of slick and artful fliers into every mailbox in California, a tide Brown hopes most folks will see as pure junk mail.

Glazer maintains all this will just make voters even more cynical than they already are, claiming a cynical electorate would work to Brown’s advantage. “These days, people have to think you’re real in the end. And Meg is the original Madison Avenue candidate, since all most people know about her is what she’s told them in her advertising. Remember, this woman marketed Mr. Potato Head when she was at the Hasbro toy company.”

All of which does not assuage the fretting of some Democrats. Longtime campaign honcho Clint Reilly, one manager of the failed 1994 campaign for governor by Brown’s sister Kathleen, saw parallels between that year and today’s scene in a recent essay written for a liberal web site.

“We faced a Hobson’s choice that year: Spend money (against incumbent Republican Gov. Pete Wilson) during the summer and perhaps catch up, or conserve money for the October endgame,” Reilly wrote, suggesting Jerry Brown will face precisely the same choice after the June primary.

But this year’s Brown’s campaign will have much more money on hand after June 8 than his sister’s did. Enough to mount a bit of an ad blitz of its own later that month if Brown is so inclined.

But Brown and Glazer insist they’re not worried, even though they realize they could trail by five to 10 points as June begins. “There is no parallel (to 1994) and we won’t be passive,” Glazer said. “We’re not going to project our planned course publicly yet, but we will do what we need to do.”

Even before he made headlines by calling for three-way pre-primary debates between himself, Whitman and Poizner, Brown insisted that “I’m prepared for debates. This will not be just a campaign of carefully crafted television commercials.”

Time will tell if he’s right.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

MERCURY’S SELF-SERVING INSURANCE RATE INITIATIVE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MAY 11, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“MERCURY’S SELF-SERVING INSURANCE RATE INITIATIVE”

It’s never hard to find self-serving propositions on the California ballot. But even in a time that sees Pacific Gas & Electric Co. sponsoring a measure to force cities to get a two-thirds popular vote before they can set up or expand a public electric utility, a measure sponsored by Mercury Insurance takes this year’s prize for sheer gall.

Mercury, of course, maintains it did most California drivers a big favor by spending more than $1 million to qualify its initiative for the June ballot, where it will appear as Proposition 17.

“Our measure rewards responsible drivers,” initiative spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks insists. The definition of a responsible driver? Anyone who maintains constant car insurance coverage for years, never letting it lapse. By this definition, a college student on a campus where cars are impractical is irresponsible when he or she lets a policy lapse. Soldiers deployed to other states and countries for a year or two are also irresponsible for not continuing to pay premiums on car insurance policies that do them no good.

These are just two categories of drivers who would have to pay extra-high premiums under Mercury’s measure, which claims to offer discounts for drivers who maintain constant coverage year after year.

That would include about 82 percent of California’s drivers. It’s difficult to understand how any price that’s applied to more than four out of five affected customers can be called a discount. A price that’s so commonly applied is actually a regular price. And, in fact, that’s how the 1988 Proposition 103 insurance rate rollback initiative treats things.

Meanwhile, those who let their insurance lapse – no matter how sensible or responsible the reason – will pay through the nose if this measure passes.

Lawyer Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote Proposition 103 and founded the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, has videotaped a test case where he filled out insurance applications via computer, pretending to be a Nevada resident applying for Mercury coverage under that state’s laws, which allow a penalty for letting insurance lapse.

Listing qualifications identical in every way except that one “applicant” had allowed his insurance policy to expire, Rosenfield found the rate 73 percent higher.

“Comparing California to Nevada is like comparing apples to oranges,” responded Fairbanks, without indicating how it’s different to apply for insurance in Nevada than in California. One difference, of course, is that companies operating in California now must base their prices mostly on a driver’s record, and not on how often or how long that driver has had insurance.

Rosenfield calls the Mercury proposal a “swindle” that could cost motorists buying new policies hundreds of dollars a year more than the the same coverage costs someone who has kept his or her policy going continuously.

Mercury claims its measure will benefit many thousands of motorists because today’s no-lapse “discount” only applies if drivers stay with the same company. Drivers who do that often qualify for other, actual discounts, so most stay put once they make a choice. Proposition 17 would let the same rates apply when drivers switch companies. Plainly, Mercury plans an aggressive campaign to woo other companies' customers if its initiative passes.

Proposition 17, thus, stands in the tradition of deceptive measures put forward from time to time by companies and industries trying to feather their own nests.

Another was a tobacco industry push for an end to local smoking regulations. Just two years ago, Texas energy executive T. Boone Pickens – chief funder of the scurrilous Swift Boat ads that many believe killed the 2004 presidential candidacy of multiple military medal winner John Kerry – spent more than $5 million pushing a measure that called for California to issue $5 billion in bonds that would have been spent primarily for cars running on compressed natural gas, a commodity produced in large quantities by a Pickens company.

Voters usually see through these kinds of self-serving measures, but not always.

The question this time is whether voters will recognize that Mercury’s measure will cost them hundreds of dollars anytime their car insurance lapses, whether intentional or not. One thing for sure: Mercury will continue to outspend its opponents by plenty, viewing every nickel it puts into the campaign as an investment.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Saturday, April 24, 2010

LEGALIZED POT WOULD BE NO PANACEA”

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 7, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“LEGALIZED POT WOULD BE NO PANACEA”

There’s a sense among a lot of Californians that legalizing marijuana and then taxing it is some sort of panacea that would solve many law enforcement problems, make it safer to smoke pot and also produce a tax bonanza of $1 billion or more per year.

Voters will see just such a proposal in November.

Much of the pro-legalization thinking is based on analogies to the alcohol experience, which sees various forms of booze putting about $3 billion into the coffers of state and local governments each year and providing more than 300,000 jobs around the state.

But cannabis is not alcohol and the current confusion about marijuana does not constitute a situation anything like Prohibition.

For one thing, major distilling companies had produced whiskey, beer and other alcoholic beverages legally for many decades before Prohibition. By contrast, not a single significant tax-paying company has produced so much as an ounce of pot in this state or nation in the last century, if ever.

Yes, criminal elements did control much of the booze trade during Prohibition and they did foment gang warfare during the 1920s and early ‘30s. But backyard breweries and distilleries were far more rare than pot gardens are today. And when it came to larger-scale production, foreigners were rarely involved. So it was far easier to bring alcohol into the realm of legitimate business than is likely with legalized pot.

Then there’s the matter of federal law. When Prohibition ended, so did most federal alcohol raids. But Californians have their heads in the sand if they believe a state vote to legalize pot will end all federal raids on growers and gardens.

Yes, President Obama indicated while campaigning in 2008 that he most likely would not hassle mom and pop medical marijuana operations, from growers to dispensaries. And raids have eased off considerably since his election, even if they have not completely stopped. Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, reserve the option to raid under the constitutional provision giving federal law precedence over state laws.

Obama never said a positive word about recreational marijuana, not covered by the 1996 Proposition 215, which made medipot legal in this state but authorized no other sort of use. Sure, plenty of pot users pay $40 or $50 to shady doctors who hand out the “recommendations” needed to get marijuana at dispensaries that have proliferated in some counties. That’s a subterfuge and an end-run around the law, but falls far short of open defiance of federal law, which full legalization would amount to.

Many precedents suggest such defiance would cause the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to restart serious anti-pot enforcement efforts again if recreational use is “legalized.”

Then there are the matters of price and taxation. The sales and excise levies that would produce the largest share of taxes anticipated by backers of legalization depend directly both on price and the openness of sales.

How likely are pot prices to remain at their present level of $100 per ounce or more? Not very, if every pot user can suddenly grow his or her own in a backyard or a window box. Which means estimates of the tax take from legalization are probably far higher than it would really be – especially if most pot became home grown and not subject to any taxation at all other than what new growers might pay head shops for seeds or small plants.

And how likely are the big commercial pot growers – those who maintain heavily armed cadres of illegal immigrants around their often-boobytrapped gardens in national forests and other woodlands – to allow themselves to be taxed?

With legalization already likely to bring the street price of pot down, the drug cartels behind many of today’s illicit operations won’t want to give a nickel to the tax man.

They may, in fact, engage in some kind of warfare against growers who do pay taxes and let themselves be regulated. They won’t take kindly to competition or to having their street dealers made irrelevant.

Which means legalization could bring to California the kind of drug wars that now plague countries like Mexico and Colombia, where gangs and cartels openly defy police. It’s a Third World horror scene California need not inflict on itself.

None of that even mentions the moral and medical questions often raised both by doctors and police: What is the social benefit of legalizing a mind-altering substance that produces passivity and lethargy? And what about addiction, anxiety and psychosis, three conditions the Harvard Mental Health Letter says (in its April issue) may be associated with regular pot use.

All of which means that life will surely not become simpler if pot is legalized, nor would the benefits be as clear-cut as proponents suggest.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

PG&E SPENDING BIG TO KEEP MONOPOLY

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“PG&E SPENDING BIG TO KEEP MONOPOLY”

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the giant Northern California utility company, is about to test one of the central axioms of initiative politics. It goes like this: You can defeat almost any ballot proposition by spending really big money against it, because people are generally inclined to vote “no” when they are confused, but it’s much harder to pass a proposition no matter how much you spend.

Make no mistake, PG&E will spend whatever it thinks it will take to pass the innocuous-looking Proposition 16, a June ballot initiative that would require a two-thirds majority of local voters before any local government could set up a publicly-run utility to sell electricity.

For PG&E feels threatened these days, even under siege. There’s a move for San Francisco, the company’s home town, to declare itself electrically independent. There’s a similar possibility in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. The South San Joaquin Irrigation District would like to provide power for Manteca and other cities. Altogether, such moves are afoot in more than 40 locales around California.

Essentially, these areas appear en route to setting up arrangements called community choice aggregations (CCAs), where cities and districts buy power from generators and sell it to local residents at prices of their choosing, transmitting the energy they obtain over the power grid owned and operated by big utilities like PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

Plainly, PG&E does not want to become something akin to a common carrier that mainly supplies transportation, but if that gradually happens, it would largely be the big utility’s own doing.

For PG&E was a prime backer of the disastrous state deregulation plan adopted in the late 1990s with approval from then-Gov. Pete Wilson. That plan saw PG&E and other utilities sell off many of their most significant power plants to the generating companies that now can sell to CCAs at negotiated prices.

CCAs also are a means of encouraging more “green” power than traditional utilities now provide, with some cities wanting to set up new solar arrays, biofuel facilities, wind farms and more.

All it takes now for a CCA to go forward is a few votes by city councils and district boards. That’s not enough of a barrier to suit PG&E. So it spent $3.5 million to qualify Proposition 16 for the ballot, put another $18.5 million into its effort in the three months after the measure was certified and will spend more than $35 million before primary Election Day in June. Giving some idea of how little appeal this measure has to others: PG&E as of April 15 was the sole funder of Proposition 16.

Presenting itself as a benevolent giant, PG&E has already used a spate of colorful mailers to call the proposition a matter of fairness. “We believe our customers should have a say in determining whether or not their local government spends public money to take on the risks of the power business,” says company spokesman Andrew Souvall. “We want to give people more control over how their tax dollars are spent.”

But the initiative worries even well-established public utilities. Palo Alto, for one, worries it might not be able to seek new power sources without laborious public votes that would require two-thirds majorities that are always difficult to obtain. In Lodi, where the publicly-owned utility is a century old, city officials worry they won’t be able to serve newly annexed areas.

Council members from more than a dozen cities label the measure “an attempt by PG&E to create a monopoly.”

As for giving taxpayers more say, they warn that if this passes, a simple majority of voters would set perpetual two-thirds-vote requirements for all future attempts to establish public power agencies.

City officials may be vocal in opposing the measure, but they can’t spend any taxpayer dollars against it, while PG&E has no limits on its spending under both federal and state law.

It’s one of two self-serving propositions this spring, each placed on the ballot by companies that stand to benefit most from them. The other is Proposition 17, sponsored by Mercury Insurance, allowing insurance companies to charge more for auto insurance bought by drivers who have not had continuous coverage up until the time they buy a new policy.

In both cases, the companies are testing that old axiom about yes votes being hard to come by, trying to pass propositions while outspending their opponents by factors of 1,000-1 or more.

If they succeed, they will surely provide fodder for the many critics of the initiative process who say it should be altered to reduce or eliminate the influence of big money on public policy.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Thursday, April 15, 2010

FIRST STEP TO GOOD GOVERNMENT JUST TWO MONTHS AWAY

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“FIRST STEP TO GOOD GOVERNMENT JUST TWO MONTHS AWAY”

Every poll shows that most Californians believe their state government is dysfunctional, plagued with scores of hard-line conservatives and liberals who almost always refuse to compromise, acting as if political party principles and loyalties are more important than the good of the people of California.

Voters can start to fix this less than two months from now, when they vote on Proposition 14, the open primary proposition reluctantly placed on the June ballot by state legislators as part of a 2009 budget deal. The budget won a deciding vote from Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria only after his colleagues agreed to give voters a shot at an open primary.

This will be the third time in the last 14 years that Californians have voted on open primaries. The so-called “blanket primary” proposition passed as an initiative in 1996, mandating that all candidates be placed on the primary ballot together and allowing all voters to participate in whichever party’s primary they liked. That system produced several moderate winners in districts with voter registration leaning heavily to one party or the other, and the two major parties joined in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to disallow the system.

The system proposed this time is virtually identical to a plan voted on as Proposition 62 in 2004, when the two major parties again combined to defeat it.

Like the blanket primary, it would see all candidate names listed together, but instead of the top vote-getter in each party moving on to the November general election, the two top overall vote-getters would now advance. So there could be some legislative and congressional districts where two Republicans would fight it out in November and others with two Democrats.

Neither the perception of dysfunction nor realities like late budgets with significant deficits, furloughs for state employees and constricted hours at state parks will change immediately if this passes, but there is a solid chance for gradual and healthy change over a relatively short time if Proposition 14 passes.

The current reality of Republican primaries dominated by extreme conservatives and Democratic ones controlled by extreme liberals offers little chance of getting compromisers into office. Most of the eventual winners never have to appeal to voters outside their own party, as districts are drawn to favor one side or the other quite heavily. But put two Republicans up against each other and the election outcome would be determined by the Democratic and independent minorities in their district, with the converse likely in strongly Democratic districts.

No wonder the party brass and the true believers on both sides hate this idea so much. They often say they object to open primaries (often called a “top two” system) because it would keep minor parties like the Greens and the American Independents off the fall ballot. But do those parties deserve places on the runoff ballot when their registration numbers and their actual vote count in almost all elections is a small fraction of the major ones? This system allows minor party candidates as much room to qualify for runoffs as anyone else – if they can appeal to voters.

Two neighboring state Senate districts in the northernmost parts of California offer fine examples of the advantages of a top two system. In the Fourth District, covering some or all of counties like Shasta, Butte, Siskiyou and Placer, just short of 44 percent of registered voters are Republican, with 32 percent Democrats and the rest mostly independents. The two leading candidates to succeed a termed-out incumbent here both have impeccable conservative Republican credentials and whoever wins their contest will almost automatically get the Senate seat.

But if they had to face each other in a runoff – and there’s a good chance that in an open primary both would draw more votes than any Democrat – they would have to appeal to the 56 percent of voters who are not Republicans and thus take fewer hard-line positions or risk defeat.

It’s just the reverse right next door in the Second District, including all or much of Humboldt, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. Democrats dominate here with just under 50 percent of all registered voters, while Republicans are at barely 24 percent. In a top two system, both runoff candidates might well be Democrats, and their eventual contest could be decided by the 50 percent of voters who are either Republican or something else.

In both cases, candidates would be forced to appeal to people outside their own party, with a different ideological take. They would become accustomed to compromise and give-and-take before they reached Sacramento.

Because of the power of incumbency, it would take awhile before the full effect of open primaries is felt. But it would surely happen, just as it was beginning to occur before the blanket primary got the boot.

Which means that if voters really want effective government, they’ll see past the phony arguments the major parties constantly throw up against open primaries and vote yes on Proposition 14.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

ANTHEM RATE HIKES VIOLATE SPIRIT OF MERGER PACT

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 27, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“ANTHEM RATE HIKES VIOLATE SPIRIT OF MERGER PACT”

Nobody at Anthem Blue Cross, the firm that’s now a poster boy for out-of-control health insurance premiums, likes remembering the company’s days of high anxiety back in 2004, when California’s then-Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi was holding up its $18 billion deal to take over Thousand Oaks-based WellPoint and its California Blue Cross subsidiary.

But those not-so-good old corporate days are again extremely pertinent for Blue Cross customers, as the firm considers raising rates by about 39 percent as soon as next month for 800,000 individual policies and by almost as much for groups.

Garamendi, who went on to become lieutenant governor and now is a Democratic congressman from an East Bay district near San Francisco, managed to delay this takeover almost a year while he haggled with Anthem, headquartered in Indianapolis.

This wasn’t about the shift of yet another corporate headquarters away from California. It was all about money.

Garamendi knew there was nothing he could do about the loss of hundreds of California jobs that was sure to follow the takeover (it did), as Anthem cut out “redundant” workers at all levels in its newly combined operation. A frequent resister of insurance rate increases, he at least wanted at least to make sure Anthem didn’t pass along the inflated price it paid for WellPoint to Blue Cross customers.

So he refused for months to sign off on the merger, a form of passive resistance that threatened to hold up the entire deal, which also involved WellPoint insurance subsidiaries in other states.

Anthem eventually sued, questioning Garamendi’s right to hold up the deal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger applied pressure for the deal and the job losses to go through and Garamendi eventually backed off somewhat. But in the process, he achieved some things for California consumers: Anthem formally agreed to forego any rate increases for Blue Cross customers to cover its merger expenses, which increased more than $2 billion during the delay as WellPoint shares rose from $91 to $113 between the day the deal was announced and the day it went through.

The company also promised to invest $200 million over 10 years in under-served communities through California’s Healthy Families program, plus another $15 million on children’s insurance programs and $50 million for training nurses and operating clinics in California.

It wasn’t as good as keeping California Blue Cross a California company, but at least it was something.

“Was” appears likely now to be the operative word. For there is no way the cost of medical tests, doctor and hospital fees and medical supplies has risen 39 percent in one year, a claim made by Anthem executives while testifying before Congress and state legislative committees.

Nope, it’s now clear that even if Anthem doesn’t admit it, a good part of its rate increase would go to replenish corporate cash spent on the WellPoint takeover.

It’s been just over five years since that deal was completed, with Anthem adopting the WellPoint name for its parent company, much as North Carolina-based NationsBank renamed itself Bank of America after taking over the B of A. The Anthem tag was then hung on California Blue Cross.

That’s enough time so the corporation can conveniently maintain it has lived up to its written commitment not to make customers pay for its high-priced acquisition – while in reality making them do that.

For certain, the huge price increases Anthem may now assess violate the spirit of its agreement with Garamendi, even if they might not violate the letter of that deal.

Anyone who takes Anthem at its word in this is na├»ve, for this is the same company that committed more than 700 violations of state rules between 2006 and 2009, according to Garamendi’s Republican successor, Steve Poizner, now running a conservative campaign for his party’s nomination for governor.

The alleged violations, Poizner said, ranged from misleading consumers and failing to pay claims on time to lowballing claim payments and ignoring inquiries from state regulators. He called Blue Cross “belligerent” and “uncooperative.”

The overall picture is of a company that even a business-friendly Republican candidate and official like Poizner feels he can’t trust.

One quick result is a demand from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that all health insurance firms planning rate increases list on their websites the specific medical expenses that allegedly justify those hikes.

Anthem is also in court defending itself from a consumer lawsuit claiming Blue Cross illegally closed certain types of policies to new members and offered existing customers fewer benefits at higher prices.

All this is not the picture Anthem painted in late 2004, when its spokesman claimed the WellPoint acquisition would have “many benefits for Californians and policyholders.”

At the very least, the latest actions of the new WellPoint/old Anthem violate the spirit of the deal it made in 2004. At worst, courts will find some of those actions strikingly illegal.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Saturday, April 10, 2010

ARE REPUBLICANS MOVING TOO FAR RIGHT TO BE ELECTED?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 23, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“ARE REPUBLICANS MOVING TOO FAR RIGHT TO BE ELECTED?”

How far right can California’s Republican candidates move before they’re too far out of this state’s apparent mainstream to be electable?

That question hangs in the air this spring as the five major GOP candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate practically trip over each other while running to the right.

They do this because they know their party’s primaries are dominated by conservatives who rarely nominate a moderate for anything. Many analysts believe, for instance, that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – elected in the 2003 recall – never could have won a GOP primary.

This situation will hold unless or until the overall California electorate okays an open primary like what’s proposed this June as Proposition 14.

Only when all voters can vote in all primaries will candidates need to appeal to the broad middle ground, unrepresented in California for decades as the right wing rules the GOP and a far left/organized labor coalition controls the Democratic Party.

For now, anyone who wants to get anywhere in the GOP must cater to the right, even if it means running counter to what all polls show the vast majority of Californians favor.

This conservative dominance is one reason Republican voter registration fell to an all-time low of about 31 percent this spring.

“If we ever go below 30 percent,” Meg Whitman, the current poll leader in the race to become the Republican nominee for governor, warned in one recent speech, “it will be almost impossible for us to win elections.”

Republicans now can win statewide even though they are unlikely soon to win a legislative majority because voting runs much heavier in districts they dominate than in many with strong Democratic majorities.

But if they weave too far right while vying for party nominations, they risk losing the moderates and liberals who together comprise the vast majority of the electorate. And if they recant their primary stances, they become flip-floppers.

The most obvious Republican move right for the primary is by current state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Whitman’s rival for the nomination for governor.

Poizner has campaigned around the state for two years, often taking different stances from what he espoused while running for the Assembly in 2004. Whitman’s campaign loves noting his switcheroos. She, of course, has no prior record – not even much of a record of having voted.

Whitman notes that Poizner opposed ex-President George W. Bush’s 2004 tax cuts and donated $200,000 to the year-2000 campaign for Proposition 39, which lowered the majority needed for school construction bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent. Whitman estimates that added $40 billion to the state’s tax load.

Meanwhile, she makes improved education a major promise, but doesn’t say where schools would be without Proposition 39 money.

Whitman also charges Poizner backed an immigrant guest worker program in 2004 and praised Bush’s efforts to pass an immigrant amnesty program, but now wants illegal immigration totally cut off and illegals deprived of all public services. Poizner calls Whitman soft on illegal immigration. And so on.

Whitman opposes immigration amnesty and vows to cut 40,000 state workers. She promises to become “Gov. No,” pledging to veto any bill not about job creation, government spending cuts or improved education. No one knows whether her plan would produce a larger spending cut than Poizner’s proposed 10 percent, across-the-board reductions in taxes and spending, especially since schoolteachers are public employees. In both cases, this is campaign blather; neither candidate’s position will become reality while Democrats dominate the Legislature.

One thing for sure: both candidates and the three Republicans vying to take on three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer this fall made certain few Latinos will vote for them this fall, since every poll shows immigration reform with some kind of amnesty is a high priority among that group – the fastest growing voter bloc in California and the nation. Polls also show most other voters have a live-and-let-live attitude toward illegals.

The candidates also seemed to want to alienate pro-choice women, with Whitman blasting Poizner for favoring government-funded abortions a few years ago, but reversing himself now. And, led by Whitman and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, GOP candidates grow more skeptical of global warming every day in a state where environmental measures usually pass.

The real question is how long these stances will be remembered outside the Republican Party.

For if this year’s crop of candidates is anything like many predecessors, they will become more moderate after the primary, when they must appeal to an electorate not dominated by conservatives and Tea Party activists.

Back when Jerry Brown was governor, top aide Tom Quinn remarked that “We can say almost anything we want before Jan. 1 of an election year; no one will remember.” It’s now well beyond Jan. 1 and Brown will soon start trying to make sure the great mass of voters – non-Republicans – remembers what these people are saying now.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

JUST HOW VULNERABLE IS BARBARA BOXER?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 20, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“JUST HOW VULNERABLE IS BARBARA BOXER?”

All three Republicans now vying to challenge Barbara Boxer this fall call her “vulnerable” – and much worse – at least three or four times daily. So have three major polls, all of which found the three-term Democratic senator running about even with each of her possible opponents.

And yet… while 41 percent of Californians said in one survey last summer that they’d prefer to see Boxer unseated this fall, her approval rating in the Rasmussen poll (which often gives Republicans slightly higher percentages than they actually reap) and others remains at about 49 percent.

That’s right about where it usually is, and only slightly lower than ratings for California’s other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein. Oddly enough, almost no one calls Feinstein vulnerable as she looks to a likely 2012 reelection campaign.

What’s going on here? Just the usual, says Boxer.

"It’s tough for me every six years,” she said in an interview, noting that she’s riding a winning streak of 10 straight elections, dating from the 1970s when she first ran for supervisor in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. “A lot of people move in and out of California all the time, so you’re always dealing with a lot of voters who don’t know you. I have to reintroduce myself to the public every six years.”

Each time, her opponents – like current Republican leaders Tom Campbell and Carly Fiorina – have been touted as strong candidates, but lost. When she ran against former state Treasurer Matt Fong, Boxer recalled, “People said it was curtains for me. He was an Asian-American man, a moderate Republican with a mother (longtime former California Secretary of State March Fong Eu) who was a Democratic icon.”

In 2004, against another former Secretary of State, Bill Jones, who had long been the only Republican in statewide office, Boxer was again the early underdog. But she won by a 58-38 margin, topping the 54 percent drawn by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that year in California and pulling 6,955,728 votes, still the most ever cast for any Senate candidate. Since then, Jones – a longtime state senator who won two statewide elections before losing to Boxer – has frequently been labeled “incompetent.” No one ever called him that before he lost.

Maybe Fong wasn’t weak and Jones was competent. Maybe Boxer knows something many analysts don’t. For sure, she knows her position is tenuous every time she enters an election season.

“All my races are hard, and this one will be, too,” she said. “It’s California, and despite a lot of people saying it’s a Democratic state, I know it’s very independent. It’s a huge state, so I need a campaign to tell people where I stand and what I’ve done for them.”

One reason her would-be opponents may have closed the early 10-point or larger gap she had over all of them: They’ve been campaigning actively, beating the bushes for votes almost every day, appearing in local newspapers and on local television, while Boxer has been active here only on weekends when she can fly out from Washington, D.C.

That’s a problem for every senator whose state is distant from the capital. Boxer has already raised more than $12 million to counter this factor with an ad campaign that likely won’t open until well after the June primary. Most likely, she’ll raise a total of $30 million, with another $10 million or so in independent expenditure ads on her behalf if labor unions or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee believe she remains vulnerable as the November vote nears.

One thing she’ll surely hear plenty about this year that she hasn’t in past campaigns: The “call me Senator” encounter she had with a brigadier general during a committee hearing last year. That’s been a common You Tube video for months and will surely show up in Republican campaign ads.

In the exchange, she told Gen. Michael Walsh, testifying about federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “Could you say ‘Senator’ instead of ‘ma’am?...It’s just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”

Republicans leaped on that as a sign of senatorial arrogance. Boxer’s explanation: “The general had no problem with that. I just thought I should call him General and he should call me Senator since those are our titles and it was an official hearing. So, once in 18 years I did ask to be called by my official title. I think it’s so much less important than things like the jobs bills I’ve worked for and passed and many other things.”

Her longtime campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, says the continuing play that incident gets is “a sign we’re in a toxic political climate. People are angry. We also know that in off-year elections, the party in power always loses seats.”

But Kapolczynski insists Boxer will beat whatever Republicans runs against her. And if she does, that Republican will likely be called “weak” or “incompetent” for a long time to come.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Friday, April 2, 2010

PRO-ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT STUDIES WON’T END DEBATE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“PRO-ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT STUDIES WON’T END DEBATE”

If the UCLA and USC professors whose studies early this year concluded that allowing illegal immigrants to stay in America would provide a huge boost to the economy thought their findings might end one of this country’s longest-running policy and moral debates, they were sadly mistaken.

For the battle over illegal immigrants and whether they should be permitted some path to eventual citizenship actually heated up after those reports appeared.

On one side, the studies’ authors and others insist that legalizing the currently undocumented would produce wage increases, increase tax receipts at all levels of government, up the consumption of consumer goods and create jobs.

The other side says that is probably baloney, but even if it’s true, it would still come at the expense of American citizen workers who desperately want and need at least some of the jobs now taken by illegals.

What’s constructive in all this is the perspective it lends to the longtime argument over how much illegal immigration costs state and local governments or whether the undocumented actually pay their own way via sales and gasoline taxes, property taxes (included in their rent payments) and other levies, including those on utility and telephone bills.

The anti-immigrant lobby argues that illegals cost California about $7 billion per year for services like public education and emergency medical care. But some studies say they pay in more than that in the obvious taxes – plus an unknown amount in state and federal income tax. Plus, since many use counterfeit Social Security cards to obtain jobs, another unknown amount is paid to that system for accounts that will never be drawn upon. Which means illegals are actually subsidizing Social Security.

But no one had previously assessed the costs and benefits of illegal immigration for the general national economy, of which California makes up more than 12 percent even in today’s lean times.

Now come the supposedly impartial Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA; and Manuel Pastor, a geography and American studies professor and co-director of the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Hinojosa-Ojeda, a former advisor to ex-President Bill Clinton, claims legalizing the estimated 12 million illegals now in the United States would produce a $1.5 trillion benefit to the economy over 10 years – about $12,500 per year per legalized immigrant over current levels. Pastor says legalizing the approximately 3 million illegals in California would immediately increase state and local taxes by about $350 million a year.

This would happen because of the increased wages legalization would bring, the consumer goods the newly legalized would buy and the taxes they would pay on their increased income. Plus, legalizing many of the undocumented would drive wages up for almost everyone, because there would presumably no longer be an easily exploited under-class available for employers to play off against U.S. citizens and legal immigrant workers.

Under that reasoning, deporting 360,000 Mexicans back to their home country – as the U.S. did in just the first 11 months of last year – actually meant a $4.5 billion overall loss to the American economy in 2009 alone. Hinojosa-Ojeda reports he reached his conclusions using data on what became of the 3 million former illegals who achieved permanent resident status or citizenship via the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan.

Not everyone believes all this, of course. Skeptics wonder why, if illegals would be so productive here if granted amnesty, they weren’t similarly productive in their home countries.

And there’s the issue of American-born workers. Immigration amnesty advocates maintain newly legalized workers don’t cost American citizens many jobs.

But the anti-illegal immigrant Center of Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., contends that’s not so. There is no proof on either side, but CIS research director Steven Camarota maintains “The big losers are native-born Americans who compete with (illegals) for jobs, wages and scarce public resources.”

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, another anti-illegal immigrant group, added to a reporter “Basic common sense tells the American public that when you have double-digit unemployment, granting amnesty is not a good idea.” But he offered no evidence.

The bottom line is that there is no consensus on the net costs and benefits of illegal immigration, but one thing is certain: The new studies add a completely different perspective to the debate, providing unprecedented ammunition for advocates of legalization.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

ARNOLD’S INSURANCE “FEE” ACTS LIKE A NEW TAX

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 13, 2010, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“ARNOLD’S INSURANCE “FEE” ACTS LIKE A NEW TAX”

Fee: a payment asked or given for professional services, admissions, licenses, tuition….
Tax: a compulsory payment.—Webster’s New 21st Century Dictionary

More than any governor in California history, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been adamant about his pledge never to raise taxes.

“I refuse to raise taxes,” he said at his mid-winter budget presentation, “because there are so many other areas where Sacramento can be smarter, more efficient and save precious taxpayer dollars.”

Yet, Schwarzenegger has never hesitated to raise fees, whether the increases involved state park admissions, college and university tuition or the cost of a driver’s license.

Those, of course, are all optional activities, in a sense. While it’s true that young people who attend universities generally increase their future potential in many ways, including earning power, no one forces them to attend college, so by Webster’s definition, tuition is a fee even if students feel the payment is compulsory. Visiting state parks and driving also are optional.

But buy a home and there’s no choice about obtaining fire and liability insurance: every bank, credit union or other lender requires this. Paying for insurance is compulsory.

That’s why the 4.8 percent surcharge on all residential and commercial property insurance Schwarzenegger’s budget proposes to charge looks more like a tax than the fee he claims it is.

Even the governor hedged a tad when he proposed it. “We consider it a fee,” he said. “I let some people debate over that – what’s a fee and what’s a tax. But I call it a fee.”

California’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, Mac Taylor, disagrees. “We’ve always felt it was a tax,” he told a reporter.

Plainly, even Schwarzenegger realizes he’s playing games with semantics here. For essentially this is a sales tax on every property insurance policy sold in California, one that will cost the average policyholder $48 per year, a total of about $200 million. Money produced by this “fee” would be earmarked for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CalFire.

That makes this plan particularly unfair to everyone who doesn’t live in an area prone to wildfires. If you live in San Francisco or the Oakland flats or Fresno or the cities of Madera or Bakerfield or San Bernardino, chances are you will never need a CalFire crew to help you out. City or county fire departments handle home and building fires in those places.

But it’s different for property owners in the highly-populated, high priced suburban hills and many lower-priced rural areas, plus some leafy hillside areas in big cities like Los Angeles and Oakland. Their mortgage lenders also demand they buy fire insurance and because of their locations, they often must pay far higher than average prices to get it. In fire seasons, they will see plenty of CalFire personnel and a lot of others, too.

But their decision to live in those areas is a conscious choice. No one forces home buyers to choose Malibu or the Berkeley hills or the Hollywood hills, where hugely expensive wildfires occur so regularly that their former Native American denizens were staging controlled burns centuries before Europeans arrived.

Why should a resident of the Berkeley flats or San Francisco’s Marina district or Huntington Park or San Leandro pay a “fee” for their protection? Why should the owners of the Serramonte shopping mall south of San Francisco pay this fee, or the owner of the huge Gilroy factory outlet mall or the operator of the Westside Pavilion shopping center in Los Angeles? It makes no sense.

Decades ago, telephone companies began breaking toll calls and other specialized services off from the price of a basic land line, billing only the users of those functions for them. It was called “usage sensitive pricing” and it made sense. Spreading the costs run up by heavy phone users among everyone, including those who used their phones least, made no sense; the practice stopped.

Now Schwarzenegger wants to bring it back, asking homeowners sensible enough not to buy in wildfire risk areas to subsidize those who do, even though most property owners in those areas boast incomes far above the statewide average.

The bottom line: If the state needs to raise $200 million to fund fire protection for homeowners who put themselves and their possessions at risk, charge them and not everyone else. Sure, that would raise their fees well above the average now contemplated. But that was part of the risk they took by willingly moving to a danger area, just like students who enroll at a university by their own choice run the risk of hiked tuitions.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net