Thursday, May 26, 2011




For years since the 2008 passage of Proposition 1A gave planners of high speed rail in California the prospect of spending $9.9 billion in state bond money, they have seemed bent on a single path: spending as much as possible.

They’ve gone after and gotten billions more in federal help, they’ve chosen some of the most expensive possible routes for their system extending it to areas where the main Los Angeles/San Diego to San Francisco runs are unlikely to pick up many paying passengers. They made a laughing stock of themselves by choosing an extinct small town (Borden) in Madera County as one terminus of their projected first leg of the project. And their cost estimates have been labelled unrealistic lowballs by every competent analyst who examined them.

But now, at long last, with congressional Republicans threatening to hold up much of the promised federal aid, the state’s High Speed Rail Commission is beginning to show some sense.

The first sign of this came in early May, when the bullet train visionaries revived the possibility of taking a direct route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, passing near the hamlet of Grapevine, now mostly known as a truck- and rest-stop along Interstate 5 at the northern foot of the Tehachapi Mountains that separate much of Southern California from the Central Valley.

Reopening the issue does not mean the HSR system has abandoned the idea of its north-south trains making a northeastward loop into the Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster. But it does suggest that these locales may have been included in the plan presented to voters as a political ploy to draw votes in areas that might not otherwise be interested in financing a train between two huge urban areas.

The possibility of running the bullet train almost straight north paralleling I-5 through the mountainous section that also carries the “Grapevine” tag because of the convoluted roadway that preceded today’s wide and mostly straight freeway opens other significant questions.

If the HSR commission is looking for the most direct, money-saving route for its new tracks north of Los Angeles, why not find the same thing elsewhere?

Why run trains through the center of the San Joaquin Valley, over the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and then along U.S. 101 to San Jose rather than using a more direct route following I-5 north along the western edge of that valley, then heading over the Altamont Pass into the San Francisco Bay area?

Doing that would eliminate many miles of hyper-expensive track, obviate the need for pricey stations in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and San Jose, and remove the threat of a huge ditch or high viaduct bisecting some of the most productive farmland in America. Build the system along I-5, where a freeway already cuts through cotton fields and other cropland, and you’d save what now looks like years of dispute.

Build it away from the San Francisco Peninsula, where resistance to the proposed viaduct cutting through cities like Palo Alto, Menlo Park and San Mateo grows steadily louder and firmer, and you would not only save money and avoid conflicts with the existing Caltrain commuter system, but you’d save many billions, as land prices are higher on the Peninsula than almost anywhere else in America.

Using the Altamont Pass would also allow bullet trains to link with the existing Bay Area Rapid Transit system around Livermore, with BART running special non-stop fast trains into its existing San Francisco stations – also alleviating the need to construct a station in The City. Any passenger time lost by switching trains would be made up for by being deposited at convenient San Francisco locations.

It’s true this would leave much of California out of the high speed rail system, but most current estimates indicate the passenger load from places like Fresno and Merced would be too light to justify the costs of stopping there.

The main purpose of this system was always to provide a high-speed link between Northern and Southern California’s major urban centers, with other places added to make the plan palatable to more voters. Those detours would make the eventual ride take longer, possibly driving away customers.

But no possible change is definite yet, and some of the more sensible ones have not even gotten a minute of commission discussion.

Until that happens, and Californians are given solid financial and passenger load information, this project will never again enjoy the public support it got at the polls three years ago.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




Politicalirony was as thick as it gets on the day Gov. Jerry Brown introduced his revised state budget plan, one that incorporates many ideas generated by his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

No recent California governor has crowed more about his successes than the sometimes buffoonish Schwarzenegger. But he couldn't brag at all on the day Brown accepted many of his ideas (with no mention of Arnold, of course). Rather, as Brown released his new fiscal plan, Schwarzenegger was thoroughly occupied with trying to clean up his ultra-messy personal life. At almost the same moment Brown spoke, word emerged about the “love child” Schwarzenegger fathered in his home 10 years ago (just days after conceiving his youngest formally acknowledged child) with a household servant.

Make no mistake, Brown’s plan does adopt a lot of ideas generated during Schwarzenegger’s seven years in office. It is replete with what amount to rewrites of suggestions from the California Performance Review, a citizen panel appointed by Schwarzenegger in his first year as governor to develop ways of making state government more efficient and less costly.

The CPR’s final product can be viewed at, but it essentially sat on an electronic shelf until Brown became governor. Republican Schwarzenegger had no hope of getting many of the changes recommended through a Democratic-controlled Legislature and few could be done by executive fiat.

Now Brown, determined to confront the state’s chronic budget crises during his first year in office – “I don’t want to spend four years on this stuff,” he said shortly after last year’s election – is able to adopt much of the performance review agenda in something akin to a “Nixon in China” phenomenon. Just as the late former hardline conservative President Richard Nixon could get his party to accept an opening to China it never would have taken from a Democrat, so Brown in California is making changes that would be much more difficult for a Republican to pass.

It was the California Performance Review that called for fixing what it described as “the state’s complex and incoherent organizational structure,” saying it undermines accountability. Brown’s first step in that direction came when he eliminated the cabinet post of education secretary, placing responsibility solely with the elected schools superintendent and the state Board of Education.

Similarly, Brown calls for ending or consolidating as many as 43 of the state’s more than 300 boards and commissions, suggesting their work is often expensive, redundant and confusing.

That’s the kind of thing Schwarzenegger’s appointed panel recommended, to no avail. But with a Democrat proposing them, ideas like eliminating the state Mining and Geology Board, to name one, and shifting its functions to the state Office of Mine Reclamation, are likely to win easy legislative approval. Similarly, the California Postsecondary Education Commission will likely go, its functions transferred to the Department of Education at a savings of almost $1 million.

The performance review also recommended selling off surplus state property, and although Brown quickly cancelled Schwarzenegger’s scheduled sale of some of California’s most iconic public buildings, his new budget calls for selling the Los Angeles Coliseum and plenty of other little-used or vacant real estate.

Similarly, when Schwarzenegger tried to cut welfare and programs for the elderly, blind and disabled, legislators would have none of it. But Brown has already lopped $2.1 billion from those services, causing consternation among senior citizens, the disabled and their advocates and helpers, but little conflict in the Legislature.

Brown has reduced Medi-Cal benefits for the poor, while instituting higher co-pays for those least able to pay. If Schwarzenegger had tried that, he’d have been labeled inhumane and the cuts quickly restored.

Schwarzenegger was called anti-worker when he forced furloughs on state employees; Brown continues some of them without losing support from labor unions that helped get him elected.

Meanwhile, few credit Schwarzenegger for any of these things. And instead of being able to brag about being foresightful, he’s fending off questions about whether there are more love children and expressing fond, but unlikely, hopes of restoring his marriage, which turns out to have been mostly a sham during his entire time as governor.

All of which makes this the richest of times for lovers of irony in life and politics.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Friday, May 20, 2011




Eliseo Medina is one prominent Democrat who wasn’t much upset by last year’s midterm election outcome, in general a Republican rout of Democrats.

That’s because Medina, the international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, believes 2010 may be remembered as a political watershed year, but not in the way Republicans would like. He sees it as a lot like 1994 was for California.

That was the year GOP Gov. Pete Wilson won reelection largely on the strength of an anti-illegal immigrant appeal, his campaign backing the anti-illegal Proposition 187 and featuring commercials that intoned “They keep coming” as they showed illegals running across the Mexican border at San Ysidro. It was also the last year any Republican who wasn’t a muscular movie star won a top-of-the-ticket race in California. Since then, three GOP candidates for governor have lost California, along with five senatorial hopefuls and every Republican presidential candidate.

“Rand Paul (the new Tea Party-linked GOP senator from Kentucky) may turn out to be the national Pete Wilson,” says Medina. “Among Latino voters, he’s as disliked as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County (Phoenix) Sheriff Joe Arpaio.”

Wilson, of course, became anathema to Hispanic voters both in California and nationwide after his ’94 campaign. Aside from ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, every candidate with whom he’s been associated since has lost by double-figure margins, most recently Meg Whitman last year, when he was her largely-honorary campaign chairman.

The main reason for this has been Latino voters, who provided Gov. Jerry Brown with his entire margin of victory last fall, going for him by an 84-13 percent margin, according to several exit polls. Medina, whose union spent more than $5 million on independent expenditure television commercials, brochures and house-to-house campaign visits, is convinced Brown’s Latino take was largely because of Whitman’s tough anti-illegal immigration rhetoric in the primary election, when she and rival Steve Poizner constantly and loudly vied to be toughest in promising a crackdown on illegals.

“There was a lot of confusion up front because of the $15 million Whitman put into Spanish-language television ads soon after the primary,” Medina said. “But eventually, (Hispanic) people realized what she was. Then their enthusiasm to vote picked up and they felt they had to vote to defend the Latino community from attacks by Republicans.”

Much the same thing happened next door in Nevada, where Latinos voted for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid by a 94-5 percent margin and were largely responsible for keeping him in office. “Once we made it clear to Latinos that (Republican) Sharron Angle was constantly demonizing immigrants, people became very defensive,” Medina said.

Voting participation figures lend strength to Medina’s conviction that Republican harping on illegal immigration will eventually be as harmful to the party nationally as it has been here. In California, the Latino share of the electorate rose from under 10 percent prior to 1994 to at least 18 percent last fall, with some analysts claiming it was 22 percent. Latino voters made North Carolina and Virginia swing states in the 2008 presidential election, their participation in those places rising from less than 5 percent in prior elections to the 8 percent range, almost all the increase going to the Democratic column.

As Hispanic immigrants’ presence grows steadily in other parts of the nation, Medina believes they will emerge as an electoral force, just as they did in post-1994 California. Here, the citizenship drive that followed passage of Proposition 187 turned California from a tossup state to one that’s strongly Democratic. There is currently no comparable citizenship drive nationally, but as more and more employers try to lower labor costs, Hispanics will continue increasing their presence in places far from any border.

“The Latino community is no longer a regional community,” said Medina, whose union represents about 95,000 California state workers and many thousands more who work as janitors, food processors and others. “It’s growing everywhere, which means it is only a matter of time before we become a force in places where anti-immigration candidates have run strong. Like Kentucky.”

If Republicans want to prevent a national party calamity like that which continues to afflict them in California, Medina suggests they need to get active in immigration reform efforts that feature some kind of amnesty for illegals.

“For sure,” he says, “we will work to keep Latinos engaged. Our efforts were important in California and Colorado and Nevada and they will have more and more impact around the entire country. Our impact is rising in places like Arizona, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.” All places where GOP candidates won last year with strident anti-immigrant stances, but locales where the Latino vote is growing steadily. Something the national Republican Party might want to note.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




Any week now, the state Department of Education will issue its annual report on the number of school dropouts in California. Note, the term is no longer “high school dropouts” – that’s because a lot of kids today leave the education system long before they ever arrive in high school.

Because of budget cuts that in many places have eliminated things like arts and music programs, busing, child care and some sports teams, state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson expects the new dropout rate to be higher than last year’s official and already pathetic 21.5 percent, which added up to 89,895 students in the 2008-2009 school year, the last one covered.

That report, however, lowballed the actual number of dropouts by about 15 percent, mostly because it did not include kids leaving middle schools. Education Department statisticians say at least 7,500 departed at that early age in 2009, an incomplete number because California’s relatively new reporting system only gave access to information about 8th graders that year; it was too new to cover 6th and 7th graders. Seventh grade will probably be included in this year’s report and sixth grade in 2012, when middle schoolers will be included in the overall statistics.

So right off the top, last year’s figures and those to come this year let educators off easy, the real rate of dropouts last year being more like 25 percent than the 21.5 percent reported. This meant about one of every four students who enrolled in middle or high schools in 2005 disappeared from school systems by 2009. It was an improvement over many prior years, not primarily because of anything school districts. Rather, the improvement was because the modernized reporting system that now assigns a permanent identification number to every child who enrolls anywhere in the state allows better tracking of children whose families move from district to district.

As incomplete as last year's numbers are, Torlakson considers them a disaster. “It’s a hugely disgraceful rate,” he said in an interview. “And it contributes to our prison population and gangs because all these things are linked together.”

But none of that is the diciest or most political part of the picture. That comes with county schools, as opposed to local ones.

All 58 California counties run little-publicized school systems, mostly for problem pupils. There are schools in juvenile halls and youth camps – it’s difficult to drop out of those. Not so at alternative or continuation schools, often peopled by students expelled from local schools for behavior problems or other troubles, including pregnancy. Credible estimates of the number who disappear from those schools over any four-year period run as high as 85 percent.

These dropouts are included in the overall statewide figure, but not attributed to the districts from which the pupils came. The activist group California Parents for Educational Choice (CPEC) contends many districts expel significant numbers of students they believe will eventually drop out, forcing them into continuation schools, where they are not counted as dropouts from the local system.

Whether or not this is true, the fact that continuation school dropouts are not counted against their local districts makes the dropout numbers for all local districts misleading. How misleading? State figures show fully 42,252 students dropped out of those county-run schools in 2008-9, about 36 percent of all dropouts reported.

So it’s no wonder that whenever the state reveals overall dropout figures, local districts everywhere crow about their “above average” performance. Sure, their numbers are better than the statewide average – they don’t count the problem pupils they’ve previously dumped.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to track these kids both by county and by the high schools where they started,” says Torlakson. But that hasn’t yet been done.

Says CPEC President Alan Bonsteel, who has advocated 20 years for accurate reporting of dropout statistics, “As long as the state figures include middle school dropouts and county numbers, but the districts’ numbers don’t, almost everybody gets to look better than average. And as long as everyone thinks this is someone else’s problem, nothing gets done about it.”

Misleading local voters in that way, as almost all school districts do, makes it far easier for school superintendents to hang onto their jobs and for school board members to get reelected. But it seriously downplays the problem. “We need to look at patterns to see how schools and their students do all the way through,” said Torlakson, who has had to concentrate on budget problems more than educational issues since taking office in January.

The bottom line: Any system that helps schools perpetuate a situation where scores of thousands of students drop out yearly, usually condemning themselves to second-class status for life, has to change. One easy change would be to make the numbers for each local district more accurate so parents and voters – no longer misled – would be more likely to agitate for the corrective measures that are plainly needed.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Friday, May 13, 2011




Critics have called the springtime Jerry Brown road show – mostly staged in schools in Republican legislative districts and interrupted briefly when he needed a small growth removed from his nose – little more than a tactic aiming to pressure GOP lawmakers into allowing a special election on the tax extensions sought by the Democratic governor.

While that may be correct, the uncensored, unscripted town halls Brown has staged at least forced some politicians to hear directly from constituents about the effects of state budget cuts already made and the consequences of what might follow if there is no extension of about $12 billion in annual income, sales and car license levies that were temporarily increased in 2009.

So it was the other day at William S. Hart High School in the leafy Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, where Brown met with about 150 Southern California school, police and fire officials, insisting on hearing from Hart students, teachers, parents and administrators before anyone else could say much. Maybe because of the venue, the emphasis there was almost exclusively on schools -- by far the largest state budget item -- and their supporters, students and teachers had plenty to say.

Brown as usual was accompanied by his budget director Ana Matasantos and state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic assemblyman from the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco.

“Changing from 25 students per class to 39 (as Hart has done in the last year) makes a huge difference in getting to know students and working on their strengths and weaknesses,” said the award-winning teacher of a chemistry class visited by Brown, Torlakson and local Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (a Hart alum).

Every student in the class raised a hand when Brown asked how many intended to attend college. That’s the norm at Hart, with test scores among the highest in the state.

Added a chemistry student, “Our classrooms seem a lot less personal now than before.”

Those kinds of complaints might not make much of a dent on the consciousness of politicians and taxpayers who would welcome the end of the temporary taxes, which cost the average California family about $28 per month.

So it may also have been useful for some of them to hear from Amy Daniels, head of Hart’s parent council.

“We have fine, experienced teachers taking early retirement because they don’t want to deal with 39 students in a classroom,” she said. “Our schools are sharing assistant principals. We cut out school bus service for athletics and now we’re driving our kids to away games. We’re paying extra for extracurricular activities and clubs, which therefore now add up to activities for the affluent. We’ve cut out classroom sections in chemistry and physics. Freshman sports may be eliminated. Our fear as parents is palpable. We’re worried we might not be able to provide the quality education our parents gave us.”

The police and fire chiefs in attendance didn’t speak publicly, but in private conversation several said remarks from them would have echoed the educators’.

One of those who benefited from Hart’s quality education was Smyth, a former football star at the school, who heard all this and more, but still allowed that “I don’t see where the tax increase ultimately solves the problem.”

Well first, Cameron, it’s not a tax increase. Yet. Californians are already paying the levies in question, and most barely notice. Second, the tax extension – if leaders of his alma mater are to be believed – would at least keep things from getting worse. And third, he must not have heard some of things the head of his onetime elementary school district had to say.

“Everything we’ve done, laying off 60 teachers and 90 staff and administrators, is based on an estimate of public schools losing another $2 billion next year if there’s no tax extension,” said the superintendent of the Newhall School District, Marc Winger. “But now we’re told it could be another $2.5 billion on top of that. That would make things much, much worse.”

These folks were telling Smyth that if he doesn’t at least vote to let voters decide whether or not to extend the 2009 tax increase, today’s students and tomorrow’s will not have anywhere near the opportunities he did. Maybe he listened. Maybe not. His vote will tell.

But at least he heard the voices, including Hart principal Collyn (cq) Nielsen warning that without the extension “it will lead to diminished competitiveness.” That’s especially true, others noted, in fields like chemistry and physics, where instruction cuts are coming in the very areas where American students trail behind many others.

It may have smarted for Smyth to hear these things from his constituents and former teachers. It should have, since he’s one of the reasons for the bad news he heard. Maybe Brown needs to stage similar sessions in every Republican-held district in California, so every legislator who’s now preventing a public vote can hear the same sorts of things, and just as directly.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




City redevelopment agencies by the slimmest of margins -- one vote -- survived an initial legislative effort to kill them earlier this spring, but it’s now clear their practices will most likely never be the same again.

For until this year RDAs, as they’re known in government and developer circles, had rarely gotten much scrutiny, locally or statewide. Their most controversial actions come when they declare some areas blighted and buy them up, later selling the same land to developers at prices often discounted considerably from what they’d bring on an open market.

RDA money comes from the difference in property taxes paid after new developments go in – everything from shopping malls to affordable housing to football stadiums – and taxes paid on the same properties in their “before” state. This is called “tax increment financing.” It now amounts to about 12 percent of all property taxes paid in the state, more than $5 billion per year.

Eliminating the RDAs is primarily the idea of Gov. Jerry Brown, but he’s been joined by liberal Democrats objecting to the way areas populated by the poor are almost always the first to be called blighted, with residents moved out to make way for glitzy development. Example A of this may be downtown Los Angeles, where there would be no Staples Center (home of the basketball Lakers and Clippers and hockey’s Kings) or LA Live entertainment complex had the poor and homeless who long occupied the area not been evicted.

Many conservative Republicans and Libertarians also want RDAs gone, seeing them as a far-too-powerful government intrusion into private property rights.

Meanwhile, many of Brown’s labor union allies – especially those in building trades like plumbers and carpenters – want RDAs to stay, feeling they create many union jobs. The RDAs claim they account for a steady 300,000 jobs per year in construction and ongoing uses of redeveloped properties.

Other estimates from state officials have come in as low as 14,000 jobs, indicating the RDA’s claims are at least somewhat inflated.

Then came a report from state Controller John Chiang, who examined 18 medium- to large-sized RDAs out of the state’s total of 398. He found there is no consensus definition of a blighted area, noting that even palatial ocean-front homes and plush hotels in ritzy Coronado are in a potential redevelopment area. In Palm Desert, he found redevelopment money renovating “greens and bunkers at a 4.5-star golf resort.” Palm Desert’s RDA – in a wealthy city with virtually no poor residents – gets the 10th highest tax revenues in California, with cash on hand “amounting to $4,666 for each of the city’s 52,000 residents.”

Other cities used tax increment money for lobbying expenses and code enforcement, as Chiang’s report bore out many negative perceptions of RDAs.

Still, most Republicans in the Legislature oppose eliminating them and transferring $1.7 billion of their annual revenue (what’s left after making required payments on existing bonds) to the state, earmarked for schools, universities, parks and other functions threatened by the ongoing budget crunch.

The Chiang report and the ongoing pressure from Brown moved the RDAs to offer a “compromise” that would let them keep operating, but still hand over a significant chunk of their cash.

The state RDA association offered to have its members voluntarily contribute 20 percent of tax increment dollars this year to local schools, relieving some pressure on the state budget. That would amount to more than $700 million. Over the next nine years, the agencies would contribute another $1.7 billion, or just under $200 million per year.

Neither figure approaches what Brown wants to take from RDAs for help with the ongoing state budget crunch, so he has not bitten, even though the agencies also offered to toughen their audits and focus “even more” on job creation by assisting local businesses with “financing for new technologies, machinery and equipment.” Critics who accuse RDAs of making sweetheart deals with business owners they like saw this as an expansion of a distasteful phenomenon.

“They say politics is the art of compromise,” wrote RDA association director John Shirey in a published essay. “This package is a reasonable solution to deliver on that promise.”

Not good enough, apparently, because a month or so later, the RDA group sweetened its offer by backing a state Senate bill tightening the definition of blight and banning use of tax increment money for golf courses and racetracks.

It’s still not much of a compromise, since RDAs have committed more than $5 billion toward indefinite, unplanned future projects or giveaways like stadiums for pro football teams – just to keep the cash away from the state. They don’t mention rescinding those moves.

It’s also unlikely Brown or a majority of state lawmakers will accept the compromise, because it lets RDAs stay in business with the same people in charge.

But even if they do survive, the entire discourse will surely mean that life has changed permanently for redevelopment agencies and the projects they so often promote.

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

Friday, May 6, 2011




Maybe it’s because state legislators have no idea today what their districts will look like next year and who or what they’ll be up against.

Maybe it’s because the moment anyone in public life even begins to talk about changing the slightest aspect of Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax-cutting initiative, that person comes under immediate and intense attack from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which uses its vast array of mailing lists to arouse instant resentment against any and all supposed transgressors.

So great is the intimidation factor that Proposition 13 has remained untouched for almost 33 years – and so have the far more dicey regulations adopted to implement it the year after it passed.

During that time, three new public university campuses have opened in California, six governors have come and gone and one has come back again, Proposition 13 author Howard Jarvis and his tax-protesting sidekick Paul Gann have died, freeways and ballparks have been built from scratch, California has endured two major earthquakes and a couple more that bordered on that status and the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have all won World Series championships.

Eras have come and gone in politics, sports, entertainment and even road building. For sure, it’s a different era, too, in state budgeting and finance.

But there sits Proposition 13, with its mandate that no property can be taxed at more than 1 percent of its most recent sales price or 1 percent of its 1975 assessed value (plus an annual increase of no more than 2 percent in the tax as a slight bow to inflation).

Virtually no one of political significance or influence argues for a change in that basic formula for residential housing. After all, the main reason Proposition 13 passed so handily (65-35 percent) was that home values were rising rapidly in the ‘70s, when taxes were directly proportionate to market values. The result was that low-income homeowners and those on fixed incomes were threatened with being taxed out of their homes.

But the campaign for Proposition 13 barely mentioned commercial property, which today is a prime beneficiary of the measure. For commercial and industrial properties are taxed using the same formula as homes. And while residential property changes hands an average of once every seven years in California, commercial property is far less volatile.

What’s more, Proposition 13 assessment rules passed in 1979 let many properties evade the tax increases to which virtually all homes are subject. If a merger occurs, property taxes can often remain stable (one recent case: The takeover of Sav-On Drugs by CVS Caremark took the form of a merger, and thus has seen few increases in property taxes paid on stores it owns).

Additionally, when apartment buildings or other properties are bought by limited partnerships, there is often no increase in property taxes unless a single individual holds a controlling stake in the new ownership.

When changes to these rules – not part of Proposition 13, but adopted the year after it passed – were first proposed in the Legislature early in the last decade by former Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, they were essentially hooted off the floor by fellow lawmakers fearful of political electrocution if they touched any aspect of Proposition 13.

At the time, changing just those rules could have raised $5 billion a year without impacting a single homeowner or existing business. That was then enough to resolve the state’s budget problem.

But with the state’s financial crunch much worse today and showing few signs of ebbing, and with universities, public schools, parks, Medi-Cal, police, fire prevention and other essential public services being cut not merely to the bone, but into the bone, it’s time some things became fair game at last.

Some of themonies held by special districts (topping $41 billion according to some credible estimates) ought to be part of the solution. The rules of what constitutes a change of property ownership also need another look. And it’s high time to consider seriously a “split roll” of property taxation, where commercial property is perhaps not taxed at its actual market value, but certainly at a higher rate than homes.

If California fails to make moves like these, while continuing to cut services to its students, services and have-nots – people essentially without much of a political voice – we will deserve whatever epidemics, crimes, wildfire damage and other problems we get.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




These are times of high anxiety for California politicians of all stripes who hold state or federal office anywhere below the statewide level. Even some city council members and county supervisors now quiver as they await possible grand opportunities.

It’s all about reapportionment, the once-a-decade process in which the boundary lines for every congressional and state legislative district in America are drawn anew to reflect population movements and changes.

All through the spring, California’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission dutifully traveled the state holding hearings. This group, dominated by no particular party, combined with the charge it carries both from the 2008 initiative that created it and the one-person, one-vote decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, casts terror into the hearts of politicians once so secure their jobs were pretty much lifetime sinecures.

The sense of security came from the reapportionment plans of 1991 and 2001, which created districts all but guaranteed to perpetuate incumbents in office and maintain their seats in the hands of the same party should an incumbent leave for any reason. Since 2000, only one of the state’s 53 congressional seats has changed parties, and that only because a narrow tail of Democrat Jerry McNerney’s mostly Central Valley 11th District stretches west into the East San Francisco Bay area. Formerly occupied by right-wing Republican Richard Pombo, that district became a tossup when its geographically small East Bay section became heavily developed.

There have been even greater changes all across California, with much population moving away from coastal counties to both the Inland Empire region of Southern California and the Central Valley.

Many coastal districts and some in the Bay area now contain more than 100,000 fewer residents than the almost 800,000 each new district will need to feature. Result: there will be fewer coastal districts in the new plan and no one knows just what the new ones will look like.

The redistricting commission’s other charge is to make district boundaries more logical than they have often been, following city limits, county lines and geographic features like rivers and the crests of mountain ranges.

As a result, Republicans Jerry Lewis and David Dreier, both now representing parts of the Inland Empire, could find themselves sharing a district. So could Democrats Howard Berman and either Brad Sherman or Adam Schiff, all of whom represent at least some parts of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.

It’s entirely possible Democrats McNerney and John Garamendi could be tossed into the same district, as could Democrat Mike Thompson and Republican Wally Herger in Northern California.

If the narrow coastal district represented by Santa Barbara’s Lois Capps is extended inland, Ventura County Republican Elton Gallegly could be tossed into a primary contest with fellow GOPer Buck McKeon, now the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, whose illogically gerrymandered district stretches from Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County to Death Valley and then along the California-Nevada state line as far as Mono County.

And the winner of the current dustup among Democrats Janice Hahn, Debra Bowen and Marcy Winograd in the thin-coastal-strip 36th Congressional District of Los Angeles County could easily end up sharing a new district with rookie Karen Bass or two-termer Laura Richardson, whose personal financial troubles would haunt her in such a primary matchup. The impending district change may have been one reason the formidable 36th District incumbent Jane Harman resigned last winter to head a Washington, D.C. think tank.

It’s also easy to see why retirement rumors have floated about for months suggesting departures for the long-serving likes of Gallegly, Lewis, Dreier and Democrat Fortney (Pete) Stark of another East Bay district. If you’re insecure about your reelection chances or don’t want to have to introduce yourself to a substantially new constituency, retirement can be the graceful way out for some political veterans.

Similar scenes are even more common on the state legislative level.

All of which promises to make 2012 a year of political flux unmatched in California in more than a century. For when incumbents are plunked into shared districts (who knows? There may be three in a few cases), opportunities can open for all manner of eager lesser officials now serving in the Legislature or on local boards and councils – people whose ambitions have been stymied for a decade or more. Some thwarted political careers could also be re-ignited. Are you listening, moderate Republican Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria and liberal Democrat Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, to name just two?

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit