Friday, July 29, 2011




There are plenty of reasons for the public hearings state legislators often stage in various parts of California. The reason most suspect – grandstanding to impress constituents – is certainly one. But hearings on prospective new laws also give the public and affected persons of all kinds a chance to make lawmakers aware of the sometimes unintended consequences of what they are about to do.

For when legislators pass laws in the dead of night, without so much as a press release to warn anyone about what’s coming, they can do a lot harm. Merely getting elected to the Legislature or some other office has never suddenly made anyone omniscient, despite what some of the elected may believe about themselves.

And yet, so-called “stealth” laws passed quickly before anyone has an opportunity to object or even to say anything about them, get through every year. This often happens on the last day of a legislative session, when provisions unrelated to the original stated purpose of a bill can be inserted and passed. It also occurs almost every year on the night lawmakers pass the annual budget, something that’s almost always accomplished in the early morning hours when virtually no one is looking.

Does anybody seriously think Assembly Bill 114, pushed through as one of more than a dozen “trailer” laws that enabled this year’s rare on-time budget, was anything more than a bow by Democratic politicians to the California Teachers Assn., the single union that gives them the most support?

This measure prohibits the layoff of any more schoolteachers during the coming year. It means that even if a shortfall in state revenues occurs at mid-year, and school budgets are reduced drastically again, they still can’t lay off any teaching staff. Yes, schools can cut time off the academic year if tax dollars fall short of budgetary assumptions. But this law requires that even those reductions not come unless union locals agree to them. How likely is that? So schools could go broke because of their very limited options for handling shortfalls, a situation that would not have passed muster with public opinion had this law gotten open hearings.

Then there was Senate Bill 89, another stealth budget trailer passed just hours before the final financial vote. This one eliminates $130 million in vehicle license fee pass-throughs from the state to local governments. Two-thirds of that money in the last fiscal year went to pay for core police and fire services. About $87 million will be cut from police and fire and another $43 million from other local services under this secret law and a smaller companion measure.

This will hit hardest at newly incorporated cities, which have little or no reserves and depended on that money for some of their most basic functions. In Riverside County, officials say four cities established in the last five years – Jurupa Valley, Eastvale, Wildomar and Menifee – could be forced to disincorporate, losing independence and reverting to simply being county territory. Without a fix, at the very least these new municipalities will have to lay off scores of employees, including everything from building inspectors to city clerks.

While Gov. Jerry Brown said he had no idea the measure would impact heaviest in the Republican stronghold that elected his most solid opponents in this year’s budget battle, now he knows. If legislators were to pass a revision helping the new cities, Brown’s willingness to sign or veto it would be a pretty good sign of whether this measure was really designed chiefly as political payback, which some in Riverside County suspect.

Again, it’s virtually certain this measure would not have passed had it seen any daylight before sneaking through the Legislature.

Of course, hardball politics often sees electoral winners reward backers and punish enemies. But rarely as obviously as these two last-moment measures appear to do for the Democrats now controlling every part of state government.

When emergencies happen, an effort to require ample public notice of prospective laws before they pass might sometimes make no sense. At the same time, it’s unfair, unseemly and irresponsible for the majority to use its sheer numbers to make decisions which so plainly smack of machine politics. And yet, it’s doubtful those behind these unjustified laws will ever pay a price for them.

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





It’s fair to say they did it to themselves. The future of California’s more than 400 municipal redevelopment agencies is completely unclear today, more than one month after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a budget enabling bill that threatened to eliminate them.

Redevelopment agencies, usually called simply RDAs, previously existed unmolested since the 1960s, thriving on something called “tax increment financing.” Simply put, that mean RDAs accomplished their ends by declaring some parts of their cities “blighted,” then buying up that land and in turn selling it off to developers. The developers built everything from shopping malls to low income housing projects to industrial buildings and professional sports arenas like Staples Center in Los Angeles and entertainment complexes like one across the street from Staples.

The RDAs then pocketed the difference between property taxes paid before the blight declaration and those on the new developments and used the money for a variety of city projects, plus many new land purchases. Whoever might have lived in the “blighted” areas was basically on their own when it came to finding new quarters.

Even in times when state and city governments and public schools were strapped for money, the RDAs had plenty. When their continued existence was first questioned just after Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s office last January, they quickly earmarked several billion dollars for future projects, some of them completely unspecified. They also borrowed another billion or so via bonds. So big has been their money pool that the month-old state budget counts on an annual infusion of $1.7 billion from RDAs as a key balancing method.

But RDAs may not be dead, after all. Not only are many of the city governments (city council members often double as RDA board members) that protested their elimination contending in court that it was illegal for Brown and the Legislature to wipe them out, but another budget enabling bill allows RDAs to resurrect themselves – if they contribute more to public schools.

All each has to do is fork over to the state’s general fund a share of the same $1.7 billion that the budget law would otherwise seize and continue contributing heavily in future years, with the money earmarked for education. Brown and lawmakers justify this by contending that RDA money is often misspent on projects that benefit private developers. One example: A list of projects set out earlier this year by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency set aside $52 million for a parking garage next to an art museum now being built by wealthy developer Eli Broad (He’s the B in KB Homes) to house his art collection and make it viewable by the public. The same list had only $32 million in projects for all of the poverty-riddled South Los Angeles area, including districts like Watts.

Even though they’re suing, most RDAs may eventually take the alternative offered in the resurrection bill. Some are already paying up. After all, in the maneuvering that preceded passage of the RDA elimination measure, the agencies offered to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars this year to ease state budget woes, with somewhat lesser amounts to come in subsequent years.

If they were willing to make that concession, why would their board members not take a hard look at reconstituting themselves as thriftier outfits that actively help schoolkids?

Yes, the RDAs rattled sabers after both bills affecting them passed. “This budget…relies on the illegal extortion of revenues from redevelopment agencies that will never materialize,” said John Shirey, executive director of the statewide Redevelopment Association. “This plan is unconstitutional, violating Proposition 22 which was passed overwhelmingly by voters in November. We’ll (fight) to prevent these unconstitutional measures from becoming law.”

But once they’ve taken a good look at the resurrection bill, many cities may opt out of the legal action and start living with a reduced stature.

At the same time, all this movement on the RDA front should offer a sobering thought to the thousands of special districts – for fire protection, sewage, water supplies and many other functions – which now sit atop a pile of cash amounting to more than $40 billion. That thought: If it can happen to RDAs, it can also happen to special districts, so maybe it’s time they also kicked in a goodly chunk of their cached money to help the state, its schools and parks and more, through a rough financial time. If they don’t act on their own, someone just might act against them.

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, July 22, 2011




Want to know what a California high speed rail system might actually be like? What might be some strengths, flaws and weaknesses in current plans of the state commission working to get such a system built? Or who might ride it?

One good way to find out, some readers of this column have suggested, might be to ride one of the systems operating in other parts of the world. So it was that on a cool, drizzly morning in late June, a California columnist boarded second-class coach No. 18 of the maroon-colored Thalys bullet train that zips 316 miles between Paris and Amsterdam, two sprawling European metropolitan areas separated mostly by farmland. That’s just about 40 miles less than the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Intermediate stops were scheduled in Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium and Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

You immediately notice that this is a very long train. Even with luggage that rolls, it’s a long way from car 1 near the gate in Paris’ Gare du Nord (North Station) to No. 18, third car from the engine at the front of the train, way out near the end of the platform. That’s far beyond the glass roof sheltering the lower-numbered first-class cars from the light rain.

This train is popular, packed, maybe loved. You can’t miss the throngs on the platform. Every seat in coach 18 has been booked; but there is no discomfort. Plenty of leg room. Plenty of space for baggage of all sizes overhead or at the front and rear of the car. Four airlines operate between Paris and Amsterdam, but thousands of passengers preferred the train this morning, even though it costs a bit more than many flights and significantly more than an ordinary train – even for second class.

Seating at the lowest price levels is far wider, more supportive and comfortable than on hedgehopper flights between European cities.

All this might indicate the California High Speed Rail Commission is correct in figuring that plenty of California residents and tourists would prefer the train to almost any airplane, even at a premium price.

The terrain traversed by the Thalys is, if anything, less interesting that what passengers would see from a California bullet train. And far, far less interesting than what passengers might watch if and when San Diego and Sacramento are added to the California system.

The parts of northern France and the Low Countries crossed by the Thalys are mostly open fields, with no mountain ranges or coastlines, and only one smallish body of water, the Zuider Zee. No one is riding this train for the scenery.

California would offer far more diversity, along the coast north of San Diego, over the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles and crossing the Coast Range between planned stops in Merced and San Jose.

It’s also true that if the California route were changed to run along the Interstate 5 corridor between Grapevine at the northern foot of the Tehachapis and whichever Northern California point from which it might head west over the Coast Range, the scenery would be no more boring than what’s offered by the heavily-used Thalys. Instead of wheatfields and pastures, an I-5 route would pass cotton fields, almond orchards and more as it paralleled much of the California Aqueduct.

Smooth might be the one word to describe riding on the Thalys. The railbed feels cushioned. Almost like butter. That’s for the entire route, most of which sees the bullet train coursing along the same rights of way as other passenger trains at a maximum 187 mph.

And while some Central Valley farmers who insist high-speed tracks would disrupt their hugely productive operations, it’s plain this route is surrounded by prosperous farms – many overrun during World War II by German Panzer divisions and later by American and British tanks and infantry. The thought arose while riding that America would look very different today if ranchers had prevailed with objections to Transcontinental Railway tracks traversing their land.

One other item: When passengers begin debarking at intermediate points like Brussels and Antwerp, almost no one gets aboard to replace them. This suggests bullet trains may not be for short- or intermediate-distance commuters. Today and typically, just over half those who board in Paris stay with the train all the way to Amsterdam. Maybe ordinary trains and cars suffice for shorter commutes.

This reality suggests cities like Bakersfield, Merced, Fresno and San Jose might never produce the passenger numbers California planners say they expect, calling into question the need for so many expensive stations and stops.

Meanwhile, the columnist found the Thalys loaded not only with business folk talking shop for most of their three-hour, 18 minute ride, but also families with kids, college-age travelers and assorted types not so easily categorized.

They seemed to love the ride and reached Amsterdam looking more relaxed than when they left Paris. All of which suggests a bullet train could work well in California – but only with significant changes to the current plan.

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




It’s about time someone put the correct labels on efforts by to avoid paying any semblance of sales tax in California or anywhere else. Those labels: Greed and fear.

The same tags can accurately be attached to the Internet auction house eBay, Overstock Inc. and other big Internet-only merchants opposed to operating on a level field with brick-and-mortar outfits that actually pay rent or property taxes and otherwise help Californians.

Meanwhile, the saps in California government who side with them – like former state Republican state Sen. George Runner, now a member of the state’s tax collecting Board of Equalization – are mere enablers of their greed. Sure, it’s the ideology of some to oppose new taxes of all kinds, while invariably calling them “job killers.”

But the so-called “Amazon tax” adopted by state legislators and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown as part of California’s newest budget is not a new levy. This is a tax fairness measure, seeking only to make sure that almost everyone selling in California pays the same basic share of the freight.

Amazon, of course, tries to frame its opposition differently as it begins a drive toward placing a referendum on next November’s ballot to reverse the new law requiring online merchants to collect a basic 7.25 percent sales tax on goods sold to Californians.

“This is a referendum on jobs and investment in California,” claimed Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy.

Actually, no, it’s a referendum on whether people who buy from Amazon, eBay and rest should continue to pay at least 7.25 percent less than folks who buy at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target or your local hardware store. In most places, local levies raise the sales tax at brick-and-mortar stores well above 9 percent.

Amazon wants its customers to pay less than others for the same goods because that assures it a larger share of the market. Such an uneven playing field is part of the firm’s basic business model.

To see how predatory this company is, look no farther than the action it took the day after the law passed. Amazon immediately severed connections with about 10,000 California affiliates – individuals, businesses and nonprofits – that earned commissions by referring customers to Amazon via links on their own Web sites. Dumping those affiliates was Amazon's way of eliminating any semblance of a physical presence in California, which would force it to collect sales tax and operate equally to others. So who killed those jobs? Amazon, and no one else.

This was, simply put, action aiming to set a precedent for other states, warn them off attempting anything similar, just like the company did when New York imposed a similar level-ground tax collecting law which Amazon is now fighting in court. No ballot referendum attempt there because New York doesn’t offer that method of trying to cancel a new law.

Amazon has long done whatever it could to avoid paying any kind of sales tax, so this was nothing new. This aim is the reason Amazon assiduously avoids placing its huge warehouses in states that might force it to charge tax, instead locating them in places like Pennsylvania and Kentucky, whose laws differ. Amazon, then, is willing to avoid putting warehouses near its biggest markets – places like New York City, Los Angeles and the San
Francisco Bay area – just to avoid collecting sales taxes and keep its pricing advantage over competitors that actually operate stores.

Putting this whole thing in its proper perspective was Edward Lampert, chairman of Sears Holdings Corp., who wrote to his shareholders that “Either all retailers should be required to collect sales taxes or none should...”

The real question here is why politicians who oppose new taxes want some companies to stay exempt from existing levies. Do they not realize that things like police and fire protection, parks, street cleaning, sewer service and other basics of government are funded at least in part by sales taxes? Or do they think those basic services are unnecessary?

Runner, for one, announced less than two weeks after the new law passed that “Clearly…(it) is not working.” It is already costing many thousands of jobs, he says.

His pronouncement was premature, at best. No one yet knows how this will work out. If forcing customers of Amazon and other Web merchants to pay sales tax should drive buyers away from those firms and into brick-and-mortar stores where they can actually see and feel what they’re buying, jobs will be created there – probably more than could be spurred by the same amount of online sales.

But Runner and others don’t consider that possibility – one that Amazon and eBay plainly know is likely to happen. It is precisely their fear of such a development that has kicked their greed reaction into gear or they would not be fighting this as hard as they are.

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

Friday, July 15, 2011




There are plenty of draconian cuts in the state budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed last month, items that promise to affect hundreds of thousands of Californians.

The slashes will shutter libraries, shorten school years, close state parks, send some prison inmates to county jails and may limit the neediest and sickest Medi-Cal patients to 10 doctor visits per year, just under one per month.

But the one cut that promises to provide the largest bang for Brown’s buck – doing the most damage with the least savings – is elimination of state subsidies for the 46-year-old Williamson Act, otherwise known as the state Land Conservation Act.

This law gives farmers reduced property taxes in exchange for signing contracts promising to keep their land in agriculture for 20 years. The contracts “roll over,” so that any farmer taking the benefit this year must promise not to develop his or her land for two decades. And the same for all who take the benefit next year.

At its peak, the Williamson Act was costing the state less than $30 million, while keeping bulldozers off 16.5 million acres of open space. The law passed in the 1960s, long before anyone knew of climate change or greenhouse gases, but it has been the most effective anti-climate change measure anywhere in the world.

That hasn’t spared this law from the chopping block in the recent past, when ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger targeted it year after year in his proposed budgets. Schwarzenegger had an excuse, at first. He honestly didn’t know that a 2003 study by Purdue University agronomists found that each acre of farmland in that university’s state of Indiana pulls about 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year. That’s for all types of agricultural land, including pastures, vineyards, cornfields, orchards and more.

Yes, farming also produces some greenhouse gases, among which CO2 is the leading villain in climate change – and climate change does continue despite unusually snowy winters in some places. One theory for why this happens is that the ever-quickening melting of glaciers near the poles puts more moisture into the atmosphere, and it can emerge elsewhere as snow.

But even taking account of pollution from farming, the Purdue figures mean California land protected by the Williamson Act absorbs a minimum of 1.754 million tons of carbon yearly. That’s equivalent to the weight of 18 cruise ships the size of the 3,600-passenger Emerald Princess, one of the largest current luxury liners.

After Schwarzenegger heard of these findings in a 2007 press conference, he allowed restoration of Williamson Act funding in the final version of that year’s budget and the next two. But it disappeared last summer, with $10 million worth of funding somehow reappearing in the fall along with a provision allowing some farmers to sign contracts with 10-year terms.

At the same time, some counties took on the entire funding burden of the pacts, while others refused – which means that the clock is ticking right now on hundreds of thousands of open acres that now figure to become ex-urban sprawl in little more than a decade. A bill allowing the local options to continue passed the Legislature this month.

But now even last autumn’s partial restoration of state funding is gone, which will eventually lead to development of millions of farm acres because most farmers cannot afford to pay taxes based on the market value of their developable land.

It’s possible Brown wasn’t aware of the Purdue study or a similar 2009 one that backed the earlier findings. No doubt he sought every nickel or dime of relatively harmless cuts he could find. Nickels and dimes are what $10 million amounts to in the multi-billion dollar universe of state government.

Brown warned early on his budget would bring extreme pain, but also said he would lead the state to quit fobbing problems off onto future generations.

Yet, that’s precisely what ending state money for the Williamson Act does. It will be more than 10 years before the act’s disappearance (likely if some money doesn’t somehow reappear) is widely felt. It will be 20 before much significant development occurs on land that’s now protected.

But if geologists and other climate change scientists are correct, that’s about when the kinds of weird weather California has seen this winter (record lows followed just days later by record high temperatures for their respective dates) will become dangerously extreme.

It’s also just when the current generation of kids aged 10 or younger will be taking on more and more responsibility for their world.

The bottom line: Not one of this year’s budget cuts promises to do more long-term harm per dollar saved than chopping the Williamson Act.

It’s not too late for Brown and the Legislature to reverse this poor choice, and if they’re wise, they’ll do just that.

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




It’s silly season again in California. For the sixth time in the last 25 years or so, a politician is suggesting the state needs to be split.

The interesting thing is that while the first four such fairly recent attempts involved a north-south divide roughly at the ridge atop the Tehachapi Mountains between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, the two most recent ones advocate roughly an east-west, inland-coastal split, with San Diego and Orange counties tacked onto the eastern, inland portion.

The latest secession proposal comes from Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, a Republican previously best known for his fervent defense of since-discredited and -disallowed electronic voting machines.

Stone wants to take his own county, along with the counties of Imperial, San Bernardino, Orange, San Diego, Kings, Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa and Mono out of California and form a new state, which he tentatively dubs “South California.”

The last successful split of this sort came in the Civil War era, when West Virginia was formed as a pro-Union state after the rest of Virginia joined the Confederacy.

Californians may be divided today, but feelings can’t begin to compare with that era. So why does Stone want out of the current California?

“We have a state Legislature that has gone wild,” he told a reporter just after the new state budget was approved in late June. “They just don’t care. Their goal was to get a balanced budget so they could continue to get a paycheck. There is only one solution: A serious secession from the liberal arm of the state of California.”

It’s that last sentence that reveals the most about Stone’s proposal and the previous one that came just two years ago from termed out Republican Assemblyman Bill Maze of Visalia (Maze also proposed an east-west split, with San Diego and Orange Counties included, but his quickly-ignored plan had the new state extending all the way to the Oregon state line).

In both cases, the demographic makeup of the new state would assure election of a Republican governor, mostly Republican legislators and two Republican U.S. senators.

So this can be seen as a move by disgruntled Republicans who have failed repeatedly to register anywhere near as many California voters as the rival Democrats.

They’re tired of being outgunned politically by the state’s two big coastal population centers around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Stone and Maze might also be interested in becoming statewide officials in a new jurisdiction, since neither has a realistic hope of achieving that in the current California.

In the sense that they both fear and abhor political domination by the other folks who make up at least the state’s plurality, the latest state-split sponsors have something in common with the 27 state-split efforts that preceded theirs over the last century.

All those efforts to separate Northern California played on fears that Southern California’s greater population would eventually leave the north state little voice in its own affairs. Of course, things have not worked out that way. Both the state’s longtime U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are former San Francisco Bay area officials, even though Boxer now lives in Rancho Mirage, within Stone’s own Riverside County.

The governor is an Oakland resident and former mayor. The last three presidents of the state Senate have hailed from Northern California. The lieutenant governor and attorney general are both former top San Francisco officials. What Southern California dominance? In fact, an argument could be made that Southern California is woefully underrepresented among top state officeholders.

The latest proposals also ignore reality: No new state could arise without an overall yes vote of all Californians, something that’s not very likely. Plus, Congress would have to give its okay. Also not likely with a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. There’s also the fact that small-state senators would see their clout diluted if California in effect got two more senators. And rural states might not like giving two new Senate seats to what would in fact be a largely urban new state, including sizeable cities like San Diego, Santa Ana, Fresno, Riverside, Bakersfield and San Bernardino.

These realities don’t faze the likes of Stone and Maze, who complained when introducing his own proposal in 2009 that too many radical social ideas percolate inland from the coastal counties he sought to get rid of.

“We certainly can no longer overlook the radical-thinking paradigms that have invaded California, particularly in the last two decades,” Maze said then.

His idea drew more ridicule than support, which was probably appropriate. Stone’s fatuous notion deserves similar treatment.

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, July 7, 2011




There’s one big reason why foreclosure reforms that strongly encourage banks to redo loans for “underwater” homeowners are a must for California, and soon:

This state’s overall economy and employment levels simply cannot recover to pre-recession status until the foreclosure crisis ends.

And the tide of foreclosures has shown no sign of abating lately, particularly in previous high-growth areas like the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the high desert portions of Los Angeles County and several Central Valley counties that were among the fastest growing places in America through most of the last decade.

Places like Moreno Valley, Merced, Stockton and Fresno grew immensely in large part because of easy money made available by banks which demanded little or no down payment on houses and then sold off the mortgages they wrote, helping cause the Wall Street debacles of the last four years.

That’s had a wide impact; thousands of homes now sit vacant after their occupants either were forced out via foreclosure or abandoned houses and mortgages when property values fell to the point where loan amounts topped home values, putting them figuratively under water.

With so many houses vacant, or even derelict, there is little or no demand for new housing. That means there’s little or no new residential construction underway or in prospect. Which has proven disastrous for businesses that sell everything from appliances to carpeting, lumber and concrete.

No other state over the last century has been as dependent as California on steady construction of new homes. That's the main reason California’s unemployment rate skyrocketed from about 7 percent in 2007 to more than 12 percent last year and well over 11 percent today.

Economic forecasters don’t say so explicitly, but this is also why every recent prediction indicates this state’s recovery from recession will keep trailing after the rest of America.

Foreclosures and the resulting construction slump are also the main reasons California unemployment is almost 50 percent higher than that of Texas, the state to which we are most often compared. Texas, unlike California, has no serious foreclosure or walking-away-from-mortgages crisis, mostly because housing prices never skyrocketed they way they did here between 1990 and 2007, meaning few Texans are under water.

Meanwhile, the building bust is choking the job market. In the 12 months ending in mid-June, California lost more than 74,000 construction jobs, reports the federal Department of Labor. That was on top of similar losses in each of the previous three years. Last September, the Associated General Contractors of America reported California construction employment was off by almost 51,000 jobs from the preceding year. Put these numbers together, and they suggest the construction industry has lost more than 250,000 jobs in this state since the foreclosure crisis began.

That doesn’t even count all the out-of-work real estate brokers, carpet salespeople, air conditioning installers, furniture salespeople, fence builders and more in myriad other construction and remodeling fields.

Meanwhile, commercial and industrial construction shows some small signs of recovery, adding 10,000 jobs last April alone, for a net gain of about 5,000 construction jobs in that month. In short, while commercial construction looked up a little, residential construction was still way down.

California has been so dependent on homebuilding for so long that its virtual disappearance has led to an inevitable nightmare. That’s also been disastrous for state government and its programs, from gang prevention to parks and highway maintenance.

Not only is there virtually no revenue anymore from capital gains taxes on real estate sales, but folks who have been foreclosed upon often find their financial losses are tax deductible, further reducing the state’s tax take. It’s no wonder deficits have been at record levels for the last three years.

Said Ken Simpson, chief economist for the national contractor’s group, “The construction industry may have stopped bleeding as many jobs, but there is no sign that employment levels will bounce back. We are unlikely to see significant increases in construction for the foreseeable future.”

That means California needs actions that can somehow alter the foreseeable future. Foremost among these should be mortgage loan reforms, laws compelling banks to work with underwater homeowners on restructuring payments so that homeowners won’t be on the hook each month for more than they'd pay to rent something similar to their current houses. There are no signs Congress will do anything like this, so it may be up to state legislators to act.

Without this kind of move, there is no end in sight to the foreclosure crisis, high unemployment or the persistent recession.

Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is For more Elias columns, go to




California has a new budget, and it even came in on time for a change. Cause for cheers? Maybe, but only if you don't get into the fine print. As often happens, the devil is in the details. And this is quite a bunch of devils.

Let’s start with what we will have under the budget deal passed by the big Democratic majorities in the state Senate and Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

We will have the assumption that $4 billion in tax revenues not expected as recently as January will come in over the next year. That figuring is based on two months of higher-than-expected intake by the state during April and May. Given California's slow-to-nonexistent recovery from recession, expecting the windfall to continue indefinitely is quite an assumption. If good times don’t roll, then a bunch of tentative cuts would supposedly be triggered automatically. And if that happens, expect it also to trigger lawsuits, protests and political attempts to revoke or lessen the cuts.

So we don’t have much, even if Brown says the new spending plan will resolve at least three-fourths of the estimated $20 billion deficit he inherited from Arnold Schwarzenegger. The inept Arnold never stood a chance of getting Democrats to sign off on the kind of cuts Brown okayed both in March and June.

We also now have a tax cut: The increased (beyond early 2009 levels) vehicle license fees and sales and income tax boosts Brown wanted to extend have instead died. That should save the average family anywhere from $268 to $1,000 per year, depending on whose estimate you believe. This is cause for rejoicing by car dealers, who now can knock $200 of the net price of a $20,000 vehicle.

Then there’s what we won’t have, starting with a special election to decide whether those 2009 tax boosts should be extended. Had they been extended – which may still happen via ballot initiative in November 2012 – many provisional cuts that may be triggered in January would not be in prospect.

There’s plenty else we also won’t have. For example, more than one-third of all teenagers enrolled in California public schools won’t be having any physical education classes. Cuts to PE programs under the budgets passed the last two years reduced the portion of 17-year-olds taking PE to just 23 percent. If the possible January cuts occur, the number would go even lower.

We won’t have the use of dozens of state parks – maybe as many as 70 – that will be shuttered for lack of maintenance funds.

We won’t have much adult education, which means efforts to assimilate new legal immigrants by teaching them English will slow considerably. With about one-fourth of all California adults lacking basic English literacy skills (the number comes from the National Center for Educational Statistics), extreme cuts in adult education will also relegate many thousands of citizens to perpetual unemployment or menial work. Adult education cuts are in part the result of a 2009 law letting school boards move around funds formerly spent on things like adult education, vocational education and classes for highly gifted students. Much of that money has been used to reduce the number of teacher layoffs in mainstream elementary and high school programs.

We also will have much less electronic monitoring of parolees with GPS tracking devices. Budget cuts forced down the number of monitored paroled gang members from 950 earlier this year to 400 as of July 1.

Plus, anti-gang and anti-drug trafficking efforts by police have been lopped by $71 million. This, complained Attorney General Kamala Harris, “will cripple our…operations. These cuts will eliminate many, if not all, of the (50) anti-gang task forces and jeopardize many ongoing investigations.”

So we will have more gang crime and we will have more drug dealing in our streets.

The poorest among us will also have less. With welfare spending sliced by $1 billion, monthly aid to needy families of three fell from $694 to $638 per month. The $56 cut means less food and clothing, soap, shampoo – less of everything for people who already have next to nothing. Sure, there are some welfare cheats who occasionally get publicity, but the vast majority of recipients really are needy, and they just got needier.

This comes after cuts in previous years had already closed many mental health clinics and slashed the Healthy Families initiative that gave health care to about 1 million children at its peak.

Some college and university students will also have a harder time paying tuition and fees, atop already having to pay large increases in those charges and seeing many fewer course offerings. At UCLA, where many students pay by credit card, a 2.75 percent fee will be added to bills of anyone paying that way. That’s to save the school $6 million a year, which it will use to keep some academic programs going.

Altogether, the new budget makes California a far meaner place than before. That’s not exactly what Brown promised while campaigning at this time last year, but it’s what we've got now.

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

Sunday, July 3, 2011




By now, most Americans have heard the story of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah many times, with its tale of a Greek king in ancient Syria (which included modern Israel) trying to eradicate the Jewish religion. He was thwarted by the guerrilla warfare of the Maccabees, who liberated the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.

The story says they found enough oil to fuel the Temple’s ever-burning lamp just one night, but the small vial burned continuously for eight days until more was found, the reason Hanukkah lasts eight days and nights.

As usually told, this tale does not include some of the items King Antiochus decreed in his effort to put an end to the Judaism.

Here’s what a document called “Megillas Antiochus,” (the Scroll of Antiochus) written shortly after the events, records as the words of the monarch: “We will annul the covenants which (the Jews) have established with their God, that of the Sabbath and…circumcision.”

Not even Adolf Hitler or the Spanish monarchs and priests who conducted the Inquisition attempted to ban circumcision, which Jews regard as a key mark of their relationship with God, ordained in Genesis:17:10, which specifies that “Every man child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.” The passage further says “the uncircumcised man…shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my convenant.”

Moslems also practice circumcision, but it is not nearly so central a feature of their religion or their identification with Islam.

Now comes a San Diego-based group called (MGM stands for Male Genital Mutilation), which seeks to ban the practice of snipping off the tiny foreskins of small children, usually done on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life. Hospital circumcision of baby boys has also spread far beyond the Jewish and Moslem faiths, reaching 95 percent of all American boys in the 1960s, but now down to just over 50 percent.

The anti-circumcision group’s Web site claims affiliates in 17 states, with 11 of those sub-groups headed by women.

It has qualified a local initiative for San Francisco’s November ballot aiming to ban circumcisions of any male under age 18 except where medical conditions demand it. A similar measure was proposed in Santa Monica, but quickly withdrawn by its proponent, who wanted to include a religious exemption, but was told by the movement’s lawyers that would not be constitutional. The supporters’ main claim is that circumcision before a boy is truly sentient deprives him of control of his own body parts.

The San Francisco proponent, Lloyd Schofield, claims circumcision is the equivalent of female genital mutilation, banned in this country but still practiced in certain Third World precincts with the intention of depriving women of sexual pleasure. No one has ever claimed circumcision prevents male sexual pleasure. also denies there are any medical benefits to circumcision, despite studies showing circumcision somewhat lessens male vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases and urinary tract infections. There are no recorded medical detriments.

Schofield claims many Jews support his initiative, but named none in an interview. “Scripture says a lot of things – for instance, that we should stone to death anyone who works on the Sabbath,” he said. “I say if someone wants to adhere to this, that’s their choice, but it should be their choice.” He did not mention that the operation, which typically heals in 10 days or less for infants, is far more painful and dangerous for adults. also has published a campaign comic book called “Foreskin Man,” featuring a muscular blonde hero wearing Superman-style tights and evil-looking Jewish figures, drawn in the style of Nazi-era anti-Semitic tracts, standing over a baby boy and holding back his mother as she fights to prevent the circumcision (see comic book cover at

Pro-foreskin advocates are unfazed by the similarity of their efforts to those of a bigot whose name is still reviled about 2,200 years after his demise.

They claim a desire to protect young boys, and not anti-Semitism, motivates their effort to force Jews to ignore a Biblical mandate set forth almost 4,000 years ago, just after Abraham left his home in the country now called Iraq. Moslems would also be compelled to refrain from their religion’s tradition, the reason why Jewish and Islamic groups are in a rare coalition trying to get courts to knock this measure off the local ballot. At the same time, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of Los Angeles has proposed a bill that would no allow prohibitions of circumcision.

The bottom line is that there is at least some similarity between the current effort and what Antiochus attempted unsuccessfully.

Combine this with the proponents' comic book, and they should not be the least bit surprised if and when their effort is labeled flatly anti-Semitic, no matter how many Jews they may claim are among their best friends.

Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is For more Elias columns, go to




If there’s one thing that quickly became clear in the wake of state Controller John Chiang’s decision to withhold the pay of California legislators because of their failure to produce a balanced budget by June 15, it was the shallow feeling those officials really hold for values they consistently proclaim while running for office.

Would Republican state senators and Assembly members hold tight to their “no new taxes” pledges and rhetoric even while losing $403 per day in salary and per diem payments? Many did not, saying they’d allow an election on the tax extensions Gov. Jerry Brown says are needed in return for some other concessions.

In the end, they didn’t get those concessions, so they did not sign off on the handshake deal Brown later reached with legislative Democrats.

Would Democrats continue resisting additional cuts in programs they backed while seeking election? They, too, made compromises including more budget slashing for state university and college systems and deferrals for public schools, whose teachers are among their biggest supporters.

No politician will ever admit to going back on campaign pledges. So it will be up to voters to understand the inferences of their actions.

One very significant barometer of deep belief can be time. When a balanced budget plan – one that does not allow voters to decide whether to re-enact about $9 billion worth of taxes that expire (editors: say expired here if using this column after June 30) Friday, even as it depended on the higher tax revenues of the last two months to continue -- emerged quickly, it became plain that money talked loudly to these politicians. Even amounts that are a pittance next to the billions of taxpayer dollars these same folks normally pass out.

Legislators acted far faster than usual, their agreement with Brown coming less than 10 days after Chiang’s action and just 12 days after Brown’s mid-June veto of a Democratic-sponsored budget he labeled as likely to be found at least partly illegal.

Where legislators in previous years often went days, even weeks, without publicly debating the budget after they missed a constitutional June 15 deadline, suddenly they were meeting on weekends. No backyard barbeques or visits with constituents for these folks, not until they got the job done.

Then there was the bleating that followed Chiang’s action, which he took only after determining that the budget vetoed by Brown would not have been balanced, no matter what legislators claimed.

Because Democrats hold vast majorities in both houses of the Legislature, they did most of the whining. Chiang, said Assemblyman Mike Gatto of the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, “just wants to sit there and beat up on the unpopular kids.” He added that “I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won’t be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense. California has officially degenerated into a banana republic…”

What Gatto didn’t say is that the pay stoppage was dictated by a 55 percent majority of voters via last year’s Proposition 25, which Democrats like him strongly backed because it also allows passage of budgets on a simple majority vote. So Chiang, who agonized for days over whether to stop writing paychecks, was merely doing his job.

A possibly more substantial objection came from Democratic state Sen. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa, who accused the controller of creating “a constitutional crisis, one where the balance of powers in our…government and the separation between the legislative and executive branches of state government has been breached.” Agreed Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, “The controller’s decision today sets a dangerous precedent.”

They and others apparently didn’t notice any deep constitutional issues in Proposition 25 before their pocketbooks began thinning. If they had, they might have taken up a legal challenge before now.

Essentially, voters said they don’t want lawmakers paid unless and until they perform one of their most elementary tasks, creating a budget. It was unfair for legislators to blast Chiang for doing a job he was elected to do.

But Republicans also did not get paid. Some of them – some Democrats, too – have sufficient personal wealth and other income that $403 per day doesn’t matter much to them. But plenty of folks in both parties began feeling pressure of an unprecedented sort the day their paychecks stopped coming.

How they reacted to that pressure revealed more about them and the lack of depth of their stated beliefs than anything they might ever say.

Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is For more Elias columns, go to