Saturday, December 24, 2011




Those several years in the last decade when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was its Great Germanic Hope said more about the current state of California’s Republican Party than almost anything else that happened during his seven years in Sacramento.

The real meaning of Arnold: the GOP lacks credible candidates with intellectual substance whom it can run for major office here.

For quite awhile, Schwarzenegger, who did not bother to vote in the majority of elections over the six years before he became governor, was the hottest Republican commodity the GOP since Ronald Reagan.

Yes, some longtime California GOP political consultants reminded the Austrian-born thespian and his enthusiasts that Reagan's political career was durable because it did not suddenly spring Athena-like from anyone's mind, the way Schwarzenegger’s did.

"People forget that Reagan didn't just appear out of thin air to run for governor against Pat Brown in 1966," Dan Schnur, longtime press secretary to ex-Gov. Pete Wilson and now director of a politics institute at USC, recalled at the time.

Schnur added Schwarzenegger’s appeal within the state Republican Party, despite the fact he didn’t share many of its convictions, said more about the GOP than about anything or anyone else, including the muscleman himself, who has now returned to acting. He was right.

But Schwarzenegger was unique. What happened to Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain during the fall shows how remarkable it was that Schwarzenegger not only survived, but even took a large plurality of the female vote after his womanizing was exposed – and never denied – in the weeks and days before the 2003 Gray Davis recall election. It wasn’t until he was out of office that philandering cost him much of anything, and then it ended his marriage, but exacted no political price.

One magazine story titled "Arnold the Barbarian" (a play on his movie title role as "Conan the Barbarian") made it plain as early as 2002 that reporters would look into all aspects of his life, and they finally found something solid after he left office – an out-of-wedlock child conceived with his family’s housekeeper.

Schwarzenegger never really had much sense of irony. That became plain in late 2002, when he telephoned a columnist who had observed that California needed a new Patton in Sacramento. "That's a really good line," he said, perhaps unaware that complimenting the World War II general in his thick Germanic accent might seem inappropriate to some.

That call spurred even more enthusiasm among Californian Republicans, who have lost almost all statewide elections since 1994, than they've shown for any candidate since. They'll be even more irrelevant in Sacramento in 2012 than before, with current Gov. Jerry Brown indicating he may not even consult the minority party in budget negotiations.

The fact that party officials and voters in general could be so moved by Schwarzenegger's ephemeral and chimerical personality spoke volumes. It demonstrated the GOP would grasp at almost any straw as it desperately sought to win.

No doubt the party would do it again today, if another Schwarzenegger lurked in the political weeds. For as it heads into an election year, the GOP has seen absolutely no credible candidates rise up to oppose U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s reelection, not even a fabulously wealthy candidate like those the party has recently fielded, people like financier Bill Simon, its nominee for governor in 2002, and Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the twinned businesswomen it turned to for its top slots last year.

Not even record-level spending by Whitman in her campaign against Democrat Jerry Brown could make her truly competitive for governor, as all too often she had a deer-in-the-headlights demeanor.

Sadly for the GOP, no new billionaires show the stomach for a big-money run just now, and at this writing no one in the fabulously wealthy class is making any noises about trying for governor in 2014, either.

Without such candidates – and Schwarzenegger was an almost unique combination of celebrity and personal wealth – a party usually turns to its bench, people who have held secondary statewide offices like controller and lieutenant governor or been big city mayors, like ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, once top gun in San Diego.

But the GOP has no bench; it lost every statewide race last year and the only one it won four years earlier was Schwarzenegger’s own reelection.

Next in line might be members of Congress, but with the House under Republican control, the party’s best-heeled and best-known politicos there are loath to give up their leadership positions.

So where does the GOP turn? Who knows, now that there’s no Schwarzenegger available for a bailout?

Which means California can expect its years of Democratic domination to build on themselves – and that’s the true meaning of the Schwarzenegger boom, which highlighted better than almost anything else the deep weakness of the party he identified with. He did little for California during his time as governor and less for his party, now in a sad-sack condition.

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




Jon Coupal likes to say his hard-fighting organization, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, exists to beat back constant attacks on Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 initiative that limits property taxes in California.

But in reality, it’s the Jarvis group – named for the longtime Los Angeles anti-tax gadfly who co-authored the measure – that’s constantly fighting to keep Proposition 13 in a warped state very different from what was pitched to voters.

One big question as the state heads into an election year is whether Californians are at last ready to restore Proposition 13’s intent. Count on Coupal and his group to fight fiercely against any such change, as they have so effectively in the past. And yet, restoring Proposition 13 to what most voters thought they were getting would obviate any need for the proposed tax increase initiatives now multiplying like rabbits.

Any time traveler revisiting the California of 1978 would see a land where residential property taxes were skyrocketing, based as they then were on the latest market value of each property. Not the latest sale price, but a market value assigned to every piece of property by county assessors who based their numbers largely on “comparables,” the prices of similar homes in the same or nearby neighborhoods.

Many senior citizens and others on fixed incomes lived in dread of the annual assessment letter informing them of their home’s purported new value. Plenty (no one knows the exact number) felt compelled to sell as property taxes rose steadily.

Along came Jarvis and his Sacramento-based pal, Paul Gann, with Proposition 13, which they sold as a measure designed to give homeowners financial predictability by setting their tax at 1 percent of any property’s most recent sale price or its 1975 assessed value. The tax could rise no more than 2 percent each year after that. No one made much – if any – mention of apartments or commercial and industrial property.

Two of the results: California has had systematic tax inequality for the last 33-plus years, with neighbors in similar houses paying radically different taxes, mostly based on when they bought and not on the current value of their homes. There was originally some question whether this would violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, but the state Supreme Court quickly said it was OK, and that ruling stands unchallenged.

Another significant result has been that homeowners pay a far larger share of the property tax bill than businesses in many places, a big change from 1978.

In Santa Clara County, where the proportions were about equal in 1978, commercial property owners lately have paid only about 35 percent of the bill, compared with 65 percent for homeowners. In Los Angeles County, homeowners then paid about 52 percent of the freight; now they pay almost 70 percent. The change has been similar in many other places.

This comes partly because of a loophole adopted by the Legislature in 1979, just months after Proposition 13 passed, which lets some partnerships and merger deals evade reassessment when properties change hands. It’s also because apartments and commercial and industrial property are not usually sold as frequently as houses and condominiums.

That’s one reason the so-called “split roll” concept where non-residential property would be taxed at a different rate from homes and condos has refused to go away since it was originally proposed in 1979.

Split roll has never come close to adoption, but it has been proposed repeatedly, with Gov. Jerry Brown raising the issue in a tentative way last summer, when he tried unsuccessfully to jawbone Republicans in the Legislature into extending some temporary taxes adopted in 2009 as a budget-balancing tactic.

Brown has not spoken of the split roll since, but he has also not recanted.

Neither Brown nor anyone else backing the split roll has ever suggested changing residential property taxes even one iota. So contrary to what Coupal often suggests in newspaper columns and direct mail pieces, there is not and never has been a threat to the original home-saving intent of Proposition 13.

But the time may have arrived for serious consideration of both closing the partnership/merger loopholes and adopting a split roll.

For sure, business lobbyists and others will argue these changes are “job killers.” But with Proposition 13’s huge tax breaks for business in effect, California has fallen into some of the highest unemployment in the nation. So have these breaks been anything more than a gift to business, mostly big businesses like the CVS drugstore chain, Macy’s department stores, Wells Fargo Bank and a Gallo family winery in Napa County?

The evidence suggests the current rules amount to welfare for business, not a job creator, with little benefit for most Californians. Just another reason why it’s high time for some changes in the way Proposition 13 is administered.


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

Thursday, December 15, 2011




It’s fashionable to say -- and the "Occupy" movement has made this a basic tenet -- that Republicans and Democrats are really alike beneath their skin, any apparent differences amounting to no more than a contrast between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

But Occupy and it adherents are dead wrong about that, even though it's a central part of the rationale that's let the populist movement spread from New York to several California cities and then around the world this fall.

The demonstrators in tents and sleeping bags had some things right, of course, including the fact that campaign finance is the root of many American political evils, and both Republicans and Democrats often dance to the tunes of their big donors.

But with the primary/caucus season starting in earnest, you'd have to be blind and deaf not to see huge differences between the two major parties. So the results of this year’s presidential and congressional races will decide huge policy issues.

The two biggest areas of difference just now are health care and the environment.

Republicans in the House of Representatives havesteadily attacked environmental protections of clean air and water since the moment they took control there last year. In this relatively short time, 161 votes have occurred on bills aiming to roll back those protections.

Environmental purists may have been grossly offended, even completely turned off, by President Obama’s nixing some new restrictions on smokestack emissions proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that doesn’t change the fact that Democrats have stymied myriad Republican attempts to roll back anti-smog, anti-acid rain regulations and restrictions on industrial waste running into rivers, lakes and oceans.

Had all those passed, America – and smog-prone California in particular – might soon come to look something like Communist-era Eastern Europe, where a pall of heavy pollution hung over almost every sizeable city and rivers reeked of oil and other pollutants.

One still-current Republican proposal would set overseers over the EPA and require cost considerations to trump health and science concerns whenever new rules are considered. When contemplating that one, it behooves voters to remember that every new California smog regulation has been fought by car companies claiming their sales would evaporate if the rule took effect. Constant freeway traffic jams are a pretty good demonstration of how wrong those claims have been.

If not for Obama and the Democratic majority in the Senate, some analysts say, America would be returned to lax levels of environmental regulation not seen since the 1880s.

Give the GOP and its extremist Tea Party component the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, and such a turning back of the clock is possible. That’s because most Republicans today buy into “trickle down” economic theories that contend less regulation equals more jobs. This claim, and its companion contention that lower taxes mean more jobs, have never been proven in the 31 years since they became conservative dogma in 1980.

Then there’s health care, where every Republican candidate for President and virtually all the party’s congressional candidates swear they will immediately get rid of the health care policies they call “Obamacare.”

“The window for action comes and goes, so we need to be ready,” pronounced one analyst at the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute looking forward to the election aftermath.

So if your 24-year-old adult child is now covered by your health plan because that young person either can’t get or can’t afford one of his or her own, that could disappear if Republicans take control.

Republicans, led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, want to scrap the requirement of the Obama program that every individual obtain some kind of health insurance before it takes effect in 2014 – even if it’s upheld by the GOP-dominated Supreme Court. They favor tax credits that consumers could use to shop around for health insurance in a new system not dominated by employer groups. Their approach would be completely different and far more laissez faire than what Democrats passed while they controlled both Congress and the White House.

It all adds up to a huge contrast, with Republicans pushing the concept of smaller government in every respect, from fewer regulations to allowing citizens to go without any health insurance. They believe this would make America a better place with fuller employment, while Democrats hold it could make America filthy and leave millions unprotected from disasters of many types, from earthquake and hurricane damage to health crises.

Which means it’s pure nonsense to say, as the “Occupy…” demonstrators have through the fall and early winter, that the election outcome doesn’t matter because both big parties have the same bottom line. They really don’t.

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





The many negative stories represent aberrations, revealing nothing at all typical about public employees in California. Yet, they have turned public opinion against civil servants so severely that it will be difficult to pass any of the current spate of tax increase proposals, no matter who might back them or bankroll them.

That’s the political reality created when a newspaper digs up information on the fired head of the housing authority in California’s largest city quietly getting $1.2 million after being fired earlier this year.

It get more intense when that news follows on the heels of headlines about University of California regents doling out raises between 6.4 percent and 23 percent to 12 high-ranking administrators and lawyers already paid more than $200,000 per year. The rationale for this move at a time when students are paying about 40 percent more in tuition and fees than five years ago, while class offerings have been cut back substantially? The regents say they must grant raises or they might lose valuable talent to private industry or other colleges.

Voters can put up with frequently seeing road repair crews taking it easy on construction sites during work hours. They quietly endure long lines at the Employment Development Department and other government offices. They shrug at potholed streets and rough highways in a state whose roads were once the smoothest anywhere.

Those are all annoyances, but the ideas of unreasonably high pay and overly generous pensions are now paired and they fuel rising resentment against public employees of all types.

Especially when headlines reveal big bucks going to undeserving figures like that fired housing official or already well-heeled administrators like those the UC Regents granted big pay hikes.

At a time of high unemployment and slow economic recovery, actions like these generate the perception that public employees have it better than those who work for private business, with more job security and better pensions and benefits.

In fact, for more than a year, there’s been a steady barrage of newspaper and blog reports about public employees fattening up on taxpayer dollars. These stories don’t change the fact that public employee pensions actually average well under $30,000 per year in California, with many retired public workers getting no Social Security. The common perception also ignores the fact that laid-off public employees make up a substantial portion of California’s unemployed, right about 10 percent at last report.

Mundane facts like those will never be attention grabbers. Stories about indicted, ousted and sometimes criminally overpaid officials of cities like Bell and Vernon will always get far larger headlines.

The same for the more than 30 prison doctors and mental health professionals who have been paid about $8.7 million over the last five years for essentially doing nothing. All have collected six-figure state salaries while the wheels turn on disciplinary proceedings. One has drawn more than $200,000 a year for acting as an in-house mail courier.

Voters have also read of prison guards already paid high wages drawing overtime to sit in hospital rooms with paraplegic convicts, who by law must be guarded around the clock even if they’re too crippled to get out of bed, let alone run away.

Some voters wonder, also, why UC regents never test their theory about needing to hand big raises to people already getting top dollar. Why not, they wonder, refuse raises to UC and California State University bigwigs and then see how many really do get other offers? It’s a good bet that in these hard times, many won’t. Next time the issue arises, maybe the regents could grant big raises only to employees who actually have another offer or two.

And voters have seen the state Supreme Court ruling in an Orange County case which strictly limited local government’s ability to cut health care benefits for retirees, many of whom don’t have to pay for Medicare or its sometimes-expensive supplement plans. In that case, Orange County officials argued they could reduce benefits because they never explicitly promised to leave them untouched at high levels.

Uh-uh, said the court. You granted the benefits and kept them going for years, so you implied you would keep them up. That, said the justices, is as good as a binding promise.

Put it all together and it’s no wonder many voters believe they are worse off than the public employees they pay

As long as that’s what a large part of the public believes, it will be hard anytime soon for anyone to pass any kind of tax increase beyond the local level.


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