Friday, March 25, 2011




If taxes are defined as money that citizens must pay in order to avoid serious difficulties, then surely health insurance premiums are a kind of de facto tax.

That’s certainly the view of Dave Jones, California’s new insurance commissioner, who has been frustrated since entering office by his inability to overrule proposed rate increases by the state’s largest health insurance companies for their individual and family policies.

When Blue Shield on Jan. 1 announced an increase that would hike rates to levels 59 percent higher than what they were last October, it drew a loud protest from Jones, a former Democratic state assemblyman who earlier served as a Legal Aid lawyer. Blue Shield eventually delayed its increase until next January at the earliest because of the outcry from Jones and outraged customers.

But Jones couldn’t simply order Blue Shield to desist. He can stymie sudden increases in car insurance rates and in the price of homeowners insurance and other property policies, but not health insurance.

Interestingly, Republican state legislators who have taken their party’s standard “no-new-taxes” pledge rarely say anything about health insurance rate increases, which are effectively taxes on those who pay them.

Things were the same when Anthem Blue Cross in early March announced it would raise its individual rates by about 20 percent for most of its 700,000 non-group policy holders, making a total increase for them of about 40 percent in the last year. When the same company tried to raise rates by 39 percent in May 2010, it drew so much animosity the company scaled back the increase – for awhile. Now Blue Cross has backed off again, but only for a few months.

Jones’ Republican predecessor, Steve Poizner, jawboned last year’s Blue Cross increase down, but only by using the bully pulpit his office provided. Like Jones, he lacked the power to simply stop the raise.

Even while in the Legislature, Jones sought to change that. “I’m trying to get this office the authority to reject excessive health insurance rate hikes, just like I now have the ability to turn down absurdly high rate increases on auto, property and even medical malpractice insurance,” Jones said in an interview. “In the Legislature, the insurance lobby prevented my bill doing this from passing.” It was mostly Republican votes in the state Senate that killed his bill last year.

The bill is back again this year, with Jones’ 14 percentage-point election win of last fall adding clout to the effort to push it through. If the Blue Shield and Blue Cross rate hike efforts don’t help it along, it’s hard to see what might.

Not that Jones wants to clamp down excessively on insurance companies. He says he just wants to keep their rates in line with expenses. His main aim in office, he adds, is to protect consumers while making sure California has “healthy and viable” insurance markets. Those are the same goals Poizner espoused, but in the reverse order. Where Poizner often saw himself as an arbiter between insurance companies and their customers, Jones might approach his new office more as a consumer advocate.

He’ll also do what he can to bring President Obama’s health care program into California reality. His first act as commissioner, taken the night he took office in early January, was to create a new regulation giving him power to enforce the federal law’s mandate that at least 80 percent of health insurance premium dollars go to patient care and 20 percent or less for administration and profit.

“We are carrying that out, too,” Jones said. “Right now, we’re reviewing a number of rate filings from insurers.”

Where most past insurance commissioners have made car insurance their top priority, Jones indicates he may focus more on health insurance.

He also has reestablished a branch of his department that tries to get insurance companies to invest cash reserves in California, where they can get tax credits for it. “I think we’ll see some movement here,” Jones said. “I’m already requiring insurers to report all their investments in the state’s more underserved communities – the poorest Census tracts. I’m aiming to get at least $10 million invested there.”

But talk to Jones and you get the feeling he’ll make his top priority the drive for the ability to regulate health insurance rates just like other insurance prices. If he can do it, he’ll have established a permanent new brake on the profligate profit-seeking of the big health insurers who have lately raised the tax-like premiums they collect from hundreds of thousands of Californians.

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




Foresight is a quality rarely seen among politicians in Sacramento, which makes it remarkable that 10 state legislators actually displayed a lot of it barely two weeks before the devastating March 11 9.0 Japanese earthquake and the nuclear power plant crisis that followed.

The group of 10, mostly Democrats, but notably including Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, fired off a letter in late February to the U.S. Energy Department’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future begging the federal team to hold hearings in California before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relicenses the Diablo Canyon or San Onofre nuclear power plants. Blakeslee’s participation is notable not only because his party usually wants the wishes of big industries and utilities rubber-stamped, but also because he’s the Legislature’s lone geophysicist, with a doctorate in earthquake studies.

Current licenses for both plants run well into the 2020s, but the owners of each are already working toward relicensing. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has applied to renew its permits for both units at Diablo Canyon, on the coast at Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. That plant’s license was last approved without an earthquake response plan, because Diablo Canyon is built to withstand the 7.5 temblor thought to be the maximum possible for its location.

Southern California Edison, operator of San Onofre, is expected to apply for license renewals at Units 2 and 3 of that plant, adjacent both to a state beach and the Interstate 5 freeway south of San Clemente, at the northern edge of the U.S. Marines’ huge Camp Pendleton base.

The message of the 10 legislators was not necessarily to deny renewals, but to take them slowly. The same message was echoed just after the Japanese quake by California’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

And why not go slowly, especially after explosions, radiation leaks and fires rocked Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the big quake and the disastrous tsunami that slammed ashore a short time later.

For one thing, license expirations are not imminent: the earliest comes in 2022. Plus, the state of seismic knowledge has advanced considerably since the two California plants were last licensed. So a complete examination of their operations is in order, even if there is no known imminent threat.

“Concern over seismic events at nuclear power plants in California is not a new issue,” wrote the state lawmakers. They noted that a nuclear plant at Humboldt Bay was closed for seismic retrofitting in 1976 because of newly-known earthquake faults and was later decommissioned.

They also noted that when a 6.8 quake in 2007 jolted Japan’s Kashiwazaki nuclear facility, the world’s largest, ground motion nearly doubled the maximum for which that plant was designed. The latest quake also far exceeded design expectations. How can we be sure the same thing won't happen here? the lawmakers asked.

“We believe the seismicity and remaining uncertainty of California creates concerns…,” they said.

What concerns? While both PG&E and Edison have issued soothing statements since the Japanese disaster about how prepared their plants are and how they’re designed to take the maximum possible movement of any known nearby faults, plenty is known today that was not a few years ago.

For one thing, the U.S. Geological Service in 2008 reported discovering a previously unknown “significant” fault directly beneath Diablo Canyon, meaning there are at least two active faults in its immediate vicinity. A quake on one fault can sometimes trigger movement on others nearby, creating more earth movement than the known maximum for any single fault in the area.

The legislators added that “there is credible reason to believe that the design basis … approved by the NRC at the time of licensing (San Onofre) may underestimate the seismic risk at the site.” This doesn’t make San Onofre unsafe, they said, but it may mean its margin of safety is less than previously thought.

While no one accuses either PG&E or Edison of deliberately understating risks, that has happened at other American nukes, most notably New York’s Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, where builders were found by federal investigators to have lied in 1988 about seismic safety factors.

So it behooves Californians and federal regulators not to meekly accept the statements of the big utilities. They’ve been wrong before, as when PG&E told the state just prior to the 2008 USGS report of a new fault that “We believe there is no uncertainty regarding the seismic setting and hazard” at Diablo Canyon.

The Japanese crisis, complete with evacuation of half a million persons and a radiation quarantine zone extending 19 miles around Fukushima Daiichi, demonstrates that the risks of nuclear power – entirely aside from problems with storing radioactive waste – dictate going slowly whenever possible. And the long time frame before California’s two nukes actually need relicensing mandates not just hearings, but very careful analysis of all potential hazards and the reliability of all planned safety and mitigation measures.

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

Friday, March 18, 2011




The first real test of California’s new “top two” primary election system will likely come on July 12, when two high-powered and well-known Democrats vie to replace the long-serving Jane Harman in a strongly Democratic coastal district of Los Angeles County.

The new system calls for the two top finishers in all primaries to face off in a runoff election, regardless of party. It also allows for outright victory by any candidate who draws more than 50 percent of the total vote in any primary.

It’s almost certain than neither of the two big-name Democrats – Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen – will win the seat outright in June. That’s because voter registration in the district is about 45 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican and 22 percent decline to state, meaning there will almost surely be enough Republican primary votes to prevent any Democrat from getting an immediate win.

But if Hahn or Bowen, both proven vote-getters with enduring popularity at opposite ends of the district, can pull large numbers of independent voters, it’s possible this district could see the first-ever Democrat vs. Democrat runoff race at mid-summer.

There is, however, a wild card here. Leftist Democrat Marcy Winograd, a self-described “progressive” and a high school teacher who twice gave Harman stiff primary challenges (she won 37 percent of the Democratic vote in 2006 and 41 percent in 2010), could sneak into the runoff if she hangs onto most of the voters who previously went for her.

Hahn, who entered the race only moments after Harman announced she would move on to become head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., has tried to position herself as the mainstream, pro-defense, pro-Israel Democrat in this race. Call her a “blue dog,” similar to the departed Harman.

Hahn, sister of former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and daughter of the late longtime Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, won election to the city council three times with ease from the district’s southern portion centered on her city's harbor area and has strong name recognition throughout the district.

Bowen, meanwhile, lives in Marina del Rey at the north end of the district, but represented virtually all of it for eight years in the state Senate – because in California, state senators each have about 200,000 more constituents than members of Congress. So Bowen is well known and liked in all parts of the district she shared for years with Hahn and Harman. But her strongest support probably would come in the north end of the district, around the Venice, Marina del Rey and Westchester areas.

But Bowen lacks major endorsements. Ted Lieu, who won a February special election in the state Senate district with 57 percent of the vote in the first round, backs Hahn.

Plus, Bill Rosendahl, the liberal Los Angeles councilman representing the areas of Bowen’s base, was also quick to endorse council-mate Hahn, jumping on her bandwagon while Bowen – with almost four years to run in her term as secretary of state – was still mulling over whether to run.

Bowen, best known for cleaning up problems with California’s electronic voting machines, was a consistent liberal vote in the Legislature, in particular showing little sympathy for polluters.

The best-known Republican in this race is Mike Webb, the elected city attorney of Redondo Beach and a former city prosecutor. He’s almost certain to get at least 25 percent of the June vote, and will probably make the eventual runoff if Winograd splinters the Democratic vote enough to preclude an all-Democrat runoff.

Something similar happened early in March in Northern California’s fourth state Assembly district, where so many Republicans vied to replace new state Sen. Ted Gaines, who has moved into the state Senate, that a Democrat actually led the primary voting result in a rock-ribbed Republican district. So the runoff pits Gaines' Republican wife against a Democrat, rather than being GOP on GOP.

A Bowen-Winograd or Hahn-Winograd runoff race would surely test the premise that led to last year’s passage of Proposition 14, which set up the top two system. The idea was that in districts like this one, where voter registration heavily favors one party or the other, occasional races between rivals from within the same party could lead to election of more centrists.

It’s not known for sure just yet whether Hahn or Bowen will emerge as the more moderate Democratic candidate in this contest. But you can count on one trying to capture the bulk of Republican votes in the runoff, if and when they face off either with one another or with Winograd.

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




Until this month, the impact of California’s impending budget cuts was purely theoretical. Sure, there have been warnings aplenty about cuts to schools, police, adult day care, prisons, Medi-Cal, state parks and much more. But actual cuts were believed to be a thing of the future, not likely to hit home until late summer, if then.

Forget that leisurely timetable. Cities, counties, school districts and other agencies that need to plan ahead have already begun slashing programs and spending to keep them in line with the reimbursements they would get under Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget-balancing plan.

That blueprint calls for a combination of spending cuts and an extension of a few existing taxes due to disappear July 1 unless voters opt in a special election to extend them. So far, no one has seriously considered all the state and local programs that would be cancelled if the tax extensions don’t come. And at mid-March, it was uncertain there will be any special election.

What’s already happened gives some idea of what else might come:

 The Fresno County’s sheriff’s office has laid off 75 workers, resulting primarily in early releases of prisoners from the county jail. The releases began last year and have accelerated in the last month, with most car thieves and burglars exiting jail within hours of being booked because Sheriff Margaret Mims’ new budget-dictated policy is to cut loose all those accused of non-violent property crimes until after they’re sentenced.

"Do I keep a car burglar or do I release a child molester?” she asked a reporter, noting that her budget today is 25 percent less than in 2007. “That's basically what we're down to and we have to keep the most violent and the most serious offenders in the jail space that we do have." Don’t even ask her what happens if she has to slash her budget more and still accept some prisoners currently housed in state prisons, a money-saving tactic that’s part of the Brown plan.

 Santa Cruz County has begun phasing out counseling services for “minor” drug offenders who get treatment under a program set up by the year-2000 Proposition 36. The county usually handles about 300 persons each year in the program, which offers treatment to drug offenders with less than three convictions.

“I think it’s a tragedy,” said Bill Manov, who leads that county’s drug abuse programs. “Evaluation studies conducted by UCLA show that Proposition 36 has saved taxpayers $2.50 (in jail and prison costs) for every $1 invested in treatment.”

If the county can’t offer treatment, many minor offenders will likely be imprisoned at much higher cost and with far less likelihood of staying sober in the long run.

 School districts are abandoning gifted and talented education (GATE) programs wholesale. That’s because while the state budget line for GATE remained fairly stable over the last two years, legislators in 2009 passed a little-noticed change as part of that year’s budget compromise: School districts now may divert GATE money to “any educational purpose” including closing budget deficits.

The result has been large cuts in GATE classes in cities as varied as San Jose, Oakland and Palm Springs.

These are just a few of the cuts already made, and even if some areas have not yet seen them, those kinds of program slashes will arrive everywhere soon.

Brown insists that voters should have a say before cuts go even deeper than they already have. So he castigates Republican legislators unwilling to go along with authorizing a vote before the 2009 tax extensions expire.

One lawmaker he singled out is state Sen. Tony Strickland, a conservative Republican who won election last year by fewer than 900 votes over liberal Democrat Hannah Beth Jackson in a district covering much of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“Budget cuts are hitting people in Mr. Strickland’s district hard, but he stood on the steps of the Capitol and called for double the cuts,” said Brown press secretary Gil Duran. “Schools in his district are already cutting days (five days in some districts, more in others) off the year due to big deficits. A vital police gang unit in Ventura has been forced to disband. It’s hard to see how deeper cuts to education, public safety and medical assistance to the most vulnerable will benefit the people of his district.”

But police, schools and other public service agencies are already drawing up contingency plans in case Brown is forced into a budget balanced solely by spending cuts. If they’re forced to put those plans into effect, it’s likely every person in California will feel at least some effects.

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

Saturday, March 12, 2011




Dwight Eisenhower is usually recognized as a fine president, and an even better general. But in the long run, he may be remembered as much for one warning he issued three days before leaving office in 1961:

“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower warned. Americans, for the most part, paid little attention and the nation today spends more on its military than all other countries in the world combined.

It was little noticed, but a termed-out Republican governor issued a different, but possibly equally profound, warning to his party mates early this year, just as he was about to leave office. This was just as unexpected as when Eisenhower, the Allied commander in World War II and the pre-eminent American soldier of his generation, warned that the armed services and the defense contractors tied to them might acquire too much power and money.

The governor was Georgia’s Sonny Perdue, his state’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction and long one of the most conservative politicians in America, also an advocate of cracking down as hard as possible on illegal immigrants. Perdue was well aware that his state will receive one new seat in Congress next year on the strength of population growth largely fueled by Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal.

His possibly prophetic statement went like this: “The Republican Party needs to be very, very careful that it maintains the golden rule in its rhetoric regarding immigration. Immigration is a very emotive, emotion-filled subject that I think sometimes gets us out there where our hearts really aren’t.”

His party, Perdue added, “needs to ensure that people of color and people who are not U.S.-born feel welcome. And I think that is the challenge of the Republican Party.”

That’s also the lesson of California for the national GOP. Since 1994, when ex-Gov. Pete Wilson ran for reelection using commercials that steadily repeated the statement that “They keep coming,” most California Latinos have not felt welcomed by Republicans. Polls and voting results show this is generally as true for legal immigrants and longtime residents as for illegals. One result of Wilson's campaign is that more than 2 million California Latinos have become citizens in the more than 16 years since. Another is that movie star muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger has been the only Republican elected to a top-of-ticket job like governor or U.S. senator during that time.

For whenever rhetoric against illegal immigration becomes shrill, hate crimes against Latinos rise, without regard to their legal status. Most Latinos know this and it colors their voting behavior. This is part of the reason every survey shows wide support among all types of Latinos for comprehensive immigration reforms that assure humane treatment for all Hispanics now residing in America.

Democrats in California always campaign on this plank. Most of their party mates in other places do, too. Not coincidentally, Democrats almost always win statewide races in California, which currently has no Republican in any major office.

But national Republicans, in spite of Census numbers that demonstrate a fast-growing Latino presence in many parts of America, still take strident stances against illegal immigrants, rather than a conciliatory approach that would call for tight borders, but some way for illegals to attain documented status and eventual citizenship.

An example is U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who has announced hearings about increased border enforcement, ways to increase arrests of illegals in their workplaces and expanding the E-Verify employee identification program, now set to expire late next year.

At the same time, President Obama insists he won’t give up his notion of immigration reform, which calls for employer sanctions, a (difficult) path to citizenship and strong border enforcement. It’s pretty obvious which approach is more likely to appeal to Latino citizens, who are today’s fastest-growing group of voters.

Perdue’s warning to his party mates essentially asks them to take a humane approach and not to be mean. It drew no response at all from the party’s national leadership.

It’s almost as if the national GOP is suicidal on this issue, sticking to its hard line no matter what the population trends and polls may say (virtually every survey indicates most Americans prefer an Obama-style approach).

It’s fashionable among pundits these days to say that California’s status as a national trend-setter is not what it used to be, but the handwriting is plainly on the wall for the national Republican Party: If it doesn’t heed the Perdue warning and soften its line on illegal immigration or advocate for humane treatment of those already here, within the next decade or two it may follow the path of its California branch and become almost irrelevant, no matter what happened in last year’s election.

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




Go online today and buy a book or DVD from an independent California-based seller on and you will pay a bit of sales tax. Buy the same book from and you won’t.

Similarly, buy a jacket from and you’ll pay sales tax. Go to eBay and buy the identical item and chances are you won’t.

This inequity not only hurts companies which dutifully collect and pay sales taxes because it’s the law and they want to be responsible citizens, but also hits hard at schools, parks, in-home services for the elderly infirm and everything else California government does.

No, these are not tax loopholes granted by politicians to companies that donate campaign dollars. We’ll get to those later. The sales tax problems stem purely from cheating by individual sellers and the corporations that protect them in the interest of boosting themselves a bit above their law-abiding competition, both on the ‘Net and in real-life stores.

This became a minor campaign issue last fall, when this column revealed that most California-based eBay sellers pay no sales tax and the company, under both Meg Whitman, the failed Republican candidate for governor, and her successors has refused to provide the state Board of Equalization with a list of its California sellers to be compared with lists of tax-paying merchants. The company said it refuses in the interests of privacy. Translation: eBay gets a cut of every sale on its site, so even the slight reduction in sales caused by collecting and paying sales tax would cost the company more than it wants to pay.

One BOE estimate was that this cost the state about $1 billion over the past 10 years. Now the BOE has provided a figure for the overall cost of such tax evasion, including eBay and every other miscreant. It comes to about $1.45 billion per year, just under one-twelfth of the current state deficit.

So if your child’s classroom becomes more crowded next fall or if teachers at public schools disappear, and if roads become more potholed or your favorite state park closes or you can't sign up for a course at a university or community college, you’ll know who some of the culprits are.

The state can’t force companies like eBay to cough up lists of their independent sellers, so any move to help the state collect its due – any merchant with a physical presence in California must pay sales taxes – would be voluntary. This would change if several bills now in the Sacramento hopper aiming to allow direct assessments of Internet sales to Californians should become law. When other states have tried to make this compulsory, it hasn’t worked: New York attempted in the last decade to force Amazon to turn over lists of its sellers in New York state; Amazon not only refused but moved warehouses out of that state. The same thing is happening now in cash-strapped Texas. This is one reason California has not gone hard after eBay’s sellers.

At the insistence of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this state in 2009 also gave tax breaks amounting to slightly more than its missing sales tax revenue to many out-of-state corporations with significant operations in California.

These include companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Roche pharmaceuticals and similar behemoths. When an initiative to rescind those breaks appeared on the ballot last year as Proposition 24, the companies spent heavily on the “no” campaign and defeated it. So California is deprived each year of $1.5 billion it previously took in. Did defeating Proposition 24 save jobs, as the big companies claimed it would?

No sooner had the votes been counted than Roche announced a layoff of 840 persons from its Genentech subsidiary in South San Francisco. Comcast, another donor, quickly announced plans to move at least 150 jobs from California to Utah, while laying off 212 California workers. Meanwhile, there is so far not a single job known to have been created or saved by those tax breaks.

But the tax reductions amount to about another twelfth of the deficit. Together, the recently created and ratified loopholes and the sales tax evasions amount to about one out of every six deficit dollars.

Maybe when voters see the final budget proposals and the new taxes needed to keep popular current programs going, they’ll rethink their sympathy for tax scofflaws like eBay and their approval of new tax breaks for big corporations.

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

Friday, March 4, 2011




Ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made his way to a remote desert location last October, not far from the Interstate 15 freeway that runs between Southern California and Las Vegas. So did U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and bunches of utility executives.

All pronounced themselves thrilled to mark what they called a landmark advance in energy, the start of work on a huge solar power farm that will help meet the state’s goal of producing one-third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

The project, on a site near the Mojave Desert’s Ivanpah dry lake, is the second-largest of six solar thermal energy projects Salazar has greenlighted that will use about 12,000 acres of federal land for 30 years or more. The largest is eight miles west of Blythe, near the Arizona border and a bit closer to Los Angeles. This one was greenlighted three weeks after Ivanpah.

These two big projects will generate about 1,000 new jobs, making them a significant component of the “green” job growth counted on by current Gov. Jerry Brown. When finished, they will produce about 709 megawatts from 28,000 solar dishes and panels, enough to power about 300,000 homes year-round.

The solar plans are now being challenged on grounds they impinge on endangered species and treasured Native American sites. A more serious question about them is whether they represent a colossal waste of federal money. Altogether, more than $6 billion in federal stimulus money is earmarked for these projects, along with billions more worth of tax credits and other writeoffs for the solar firms that will build and own these, which will be among the world’s largest solar power plants.

The question: Would that money be better spent on much simpler and smaller solar photovoltaic panels that can be installed on rooftops and parking lots in the cities where the power will be used than on vast expanses of solar thermal panels in the desert, where the electricity will have to be transmitted hundreds of miles to its eventual users? The jobs are not an issue here. Photovoltaic would create at least as many as solar thermal.

The answer, as outlined this winter in an article in the journal Natural Gas and Electricity, is that the same amounts of energy can be produced from photovoltaic panels for less than 55 percent of the cost.

The author, San Diego engineer William Powers, cites federal Department of Energy statistics to argue that solar thermal energy is now outmoded, and not being pursued in other advanced countries like Japan and Germany, both of which have large-scale solar photovoltaic energy projects underway.

One reason is that photovoltaic panels are far simpler than solar thermal ones. Photovoltaic energy is produced when sunlight is converted directly to electricity without the involvement of water or oil, while solar thermal uses fluids like synthetic oil or pressurized steam to convert heat into energy in large-scale facilities.

The bottom line financially, Powers calculates, is that solar thermal energy, including all transmission expenses, would cost about $250 per megawatt hour, while photovoltaic would run only about $136 per megawatt hour for sites getting the frequency of sunshine seen in or near Los Angeles and San Diego.

There are two reasons why big power companies like Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric (Pacific Gas & Electric remains mostly an interested spectator at this point) line up behind the big solar thermal farms in remote locations: One is that when photovoltaic panels are installed on private buildings, the utilities must pay the owners a “feed-in tariff” for power not consumed in the buildings themselves that is then put onto their overall grids.

The other is that building the transmission capacity to carry power from faraway desert points to big cities and their suburbs would cause them to invest billions of dollars, thus increasing their “rate base” considerably. A major component of electricity pricing is the “rate of return” (yearly profit percentage) utility companies get on their rate base, the total they’ve spent over the last 20 years on facilities and equipment. The current estimate for building just one of the needed transmission lines – roughly paralleling Interstate 15 – is $750 million.

Which means large solar thermal plants could force even greater electricity price increases than building new, conventional oil- or gas-fired power plants.

All of which suggests another look at the huge and politically-connected solar developments in California’s almost-always-sunny deserts is called for. Californians and all American taxpayers deserve to know for sure that these won’t turn into just another massive government-supported boondoggle.

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




Whether or not he manages to eliminate all of the more than 400 city redevelopment agencies that have thrived around California for six decades, it now appears Gov. Jerry Brown will at the very least spur them to do some things they probably should have done long ago.

Things like turning over large amounts of the tax dollars they raise to public schools and paying to pave city streets. Basic government functions.

Since redevelopment agencies (often simply called RDAs) get all their money from property taxes that ordinarily go for such purposes, these concessions might seem like common sense items that should have been happening all along.

But that’s not often been how things worked. RDAs are local agencies authorized to declare certain parts of their cities blighted, then buy up the land and sell or give it to developers of shopping malls, hotels, stadiums, condominiums, apartments or office buildings. The difference between taxes paid on the property in its “blighted” pre-redevelopment condition and what’s paid on the new structures goes to the RDAs, which use it to buy up more allegedly blighted land for more new buildings that in turn raise more new property tax money.

Most RDA governing boards are made up of the same people who sit on city councils, with hundreds of councils holding RDA meetings right after their regular sessions, adjourning one meeting only to switch hats and call another to order.

Brown’s budget proposal calls for eliminating all RDAs and letting cities use other means to encourage new construction. Money now flowing to them would instead go to the state, to the tune of $1.7 billion per year. Those funds could be used to keep parks open, prevent shortening of the school year, preclude larger-than-planned cuts in Medi-Cal and in-home care for the disabled elderly, blind or developmentally disabled, and more.

The RDAs’ counterproposal, floated by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and backed by California’s 10 largest cities, would see the RDAs divert $200 million a year to the state for the next 25 years, that money to be used in part as collateral letting the state borrow $1.7 billion a year for awhile – thus bringing the state payments equal to what it would get each year if there were no RDAs.

Sensing he has the city officials on the run in spite of their defiant talk about lawsuits and their attempts to approve tens of billions of dollars worth of future projects before RDAs can be eliminated – all in the hope of keeping most of their money away from the state – Brown has not bitten at the compromise RDA offer.

"He’s made it clear that any (budgeting) plan involving smoke, mirrors or gimmicks will be dead on arrival,” press secretary Gil Duran told a reporter.

Which means the RDA offer may never become official. Even if it doesn’t, it is a sign city officials are not so sure about their frequent claim that last year’s Proposition 22, which prohibits the state from dunning RDAs as it did the last two years, would also prevent state officials from simply disbanding them.

The League of California Cities, often derided by Republicans as a liberal group, claims RDAs are fully protected by that initiative, which passed on a 60-40 percent vote.

The large margin, in a general election, ought to contain some notes of caution for Brown. It was a statement that voters trust local governments more than the state.

If Brown rejects all the cities’ overtures and insists on an all-or-nothing approach, city officials may campaign against his entire budget plan if there’s a special election this June. Such an election would in any case figure to draw fewer voters and a more conservative electorate than any general election or statewide primary. The Proposition 22 results indicate the cities might defeat Brown’s plan and force him to accept a cuts-only approach to the next budget.

That, says the non-partisan state legislative analyst’s office, could lead to massively reduced spending for public schools and colleges, courts, Medi-Cal and more, a long-term halt to all sales of state bonds and switching to a pay-as-you-go system for new highways and other infrastructure projects, to name just a few likelihoods.

This would be atop the cuts Brown already proposes.

What’s developing, then, amounts to an unprecedented game of political “chicken,” with neither Brown nor the cities wanting to capitulate until the public’s views on RDAs become much more clear.

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