Wednesday, August 24, 2011




Gov. Jerry Brown announced four appointments in an Aug. 11 press release, including a new director and chief deputy director for the state’s Department of Managed Health Care. All four are residents of Northern California.

One day earlier, another announcement listed six appointments to the state parole board. Five are Northern Californians.

This pattern has been visible from the first month of Brown’s return to the state’s top political job: He has appointed more than four times as many Northern California residents as Southern Californians, and very, very few from the Central Valley. There was also an imbalance under the last three governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis and Pete Wilson, but it’s more marked under Brown.

One reason there’s always some imbalance is that a strong cadre of experienced bureaucrats already lives in and around Sacramento, often tapped for the second tier of appointees, deputy directors of departments and the like. The other reason is that it can be tough to get people from Southern and Central California to move to Sacramento for full-time work when their lives and families are well-established.

“There have been some great candidates who chose not to abandon paradise for life in Sacramento,” said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup.

That still doesn’t explain why significant jobs not based in Sacramento are not being filled more or less in proportion to the population, about 70 percent residing in Southern and Central California.

Overall, Brown had made 380 appointments as of mid-August. Fully 298, or 78 percent, hailed from Northern California, compared with 69 from Southern California and just 9 from Central California, roughly defined as the Central Valley south of Sacramento and the Central coast from south of Monterey to Santa Barbara.

For jobs not attached full-time to Sacramento or the San Francisco area, the count was 67 from Northern California, 43 from Southern California and 6 from either the Central Coast or out of state.

Among top policy-making positions like his cabinet, the state Supreme Court and the Public Utilities Commission, the vast preponderance are Northern California residents.

All this suggests one or all of three things may be at work. There may not be as many qualified people in Southern California as in the northern regions of the state, something Brown’s office denies. It’s also possible that living in Northern California for most of the last 35 years caused Brown, a former Los Angeles community college trustee, to become more familiar with Northern California individuals than others. Governors always name most of their top policy advisers from among those they already know. And it’s possible the real estate collapse has made it more difficult for many people to move to Sacramento when appointments are offered, since homes are no longer easy to sell without taking big losses.

Brown declined to answer questions about all this. But Westrup said his boss “looks for the best candidates (for each job) from every part of the state, period.”

Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, lays much of the imbalance on location and real estate.

“It’s easier to commute to Sacramento from other places in Northern California,” he said. “And people who have the credentials a governor looks for are often already in Sacramento.”

Figures the governor provided listed Sacramento area residents as Northern Californians. Among recent appointees, four of the six parole board members named Aug. 10 were from that area, all with prior experience in state government.

So when Brown looks for experience, he often finds it very close to the state Capitol.

But that doesn’t explain why his three Public Utilities Commission appointees all hail from the San Francisco area, home to the PUC’s headquarters. The problem there is that although one holdover Schwarzenegger appointee on this powerful five-member panel has a Southern California background, there’s little reason to believe the other four members know much about the economic, energy and environmental concerns of the south state.

Were there no qualified residents of either Southern California or the Central Valley when Brown looked for PUC members, who get six-figure salaries and five-year terms to regulate electricity and gas prices? The salary and job security of PUC commissioners have often enticed Southern Californians to accept such appointments.

With unemployment in the Central Valley far higher than elsewhere in the state, should Brown’s new job-creation czar really be a former San Francisco bank executive from leafy Pebble Beach?

Brown has not answered these questions, but the implication of his actions is that he’s found more Northern Californians than anyone else qualified for a wide variety of high state jobs.

It would be naïve to think there are no regional rivalries or animosities and to believe there will be no regional bias when the corps of appointees is unbalanced by region.

One thing Brown is not is naïve, so it’s reasonable to expect some other type of explanation from him.


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




No presidential candidate is hotter among California Republican activists today than Rick Perry, the Texas governor. Their infatuation with the jut-jawed, 27-year professional politician has extended to their pocketbooks for years, as Californians have donated more than $500,000 to his campaigns since 2002.

This is the same Gov. Perry who presides over what sometimes looks like a Texas war on California, with Perry himself writing letters to businesses advising them to leave this state. The same Perry who did nothing to curb the half-dozen Texas companies that bilked Californians out of more than $10 billion in illegally fixed electricity costs over the last decade.

Among deep-pocketed Californians helping keep Perry’s efforts going have been developer Alex Spanos of Stockton, lead owner of the San Diego Chargers football team, and his son Dean; the Orange County-based Fluor Corp., and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Energy Political Action Committee.

The attraction to Perry is partly based on his rugged, almost Ronald Reagan-esque looks, but also on the so-called “Texas Miracle,” in which his state gained substantial population and four congressional seats over the last 10 years, while adding about 200,000 jobs at a time when the rest of the nation lost millions.

But a closer look at that “Texas Miracle” reveals it as largely bogus. Many of the new jobs in Texas are low-paying, contributing to that state’s 18 percent poverty rate (almost 50 percent higher than California’s) and held by illegal immigrants, whose numbers there doubled to 1.7 million during Perry’s tenure (accounting for at least one of those new congressional seats). Does anyone think 850,000 illegals would have moved into Texas in the last decade if they weren’t getting jobs? Even pay for workers in the manufacturing sector, where illegals are unusual, ranks 38th among the 50 states, according to one report from a bipartisan Texas Legislature study group. And 26 percent of Texans have no health insurance.

Which means much of Perry’s reputation has been built on the backs of the very undocumented immigrants he rails against whenever he campaigns.

Similarly, Perry and other Texans ridicule California’s state budget woes, with the candidate portraying himself as a fiscal leader wherever he goes. But the Texas deficit of more than $10 billion last spring works out to about 25 percent more red ink per person than the California deficit of the same moment.

While California’s new budget largely spared schools from new cuts, about half the slashes in Texas (over $4 billion worth) came from public education, with class sizes rising in most Texas schools and the state’s public university systems taking bigger budget hits than the University of California and California State University systems.

At the same time, Texas is suffering through its worst drought since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, with Texas cattle ranchers forced to take huge losses by selling off herds early and trees dying for lack of water in the limestone-based soil of the Panhandle.

In California, ex-Gov. Pete Wilson preached water conservation and demonstrated how to take short “Navy showers” during this state’s drought of the 1990s. But Perry exercises virtually no leadership in his state’s crisis, which also has caused disastrous wildfires. His main effort: A statewide pray-for-rain session in April, which produced no discernible results.

Meanwhile, he calls global warming “contrived” and “phony,” even as many Texas-based scientists predict conditions are about to grow much worse.

There’s also the irony that the same Gov. Perry who in 2009 raised the notion of Texas leaving the Union now seeks to preside over that Union.

And there are hints of significant corruption. Several mid-August newspaper reports detailed Perry’s “crony capitalism,” which has seen the deficit-riddled Texas government give nearly $200 million to companies headed by his pals and contributors. Gray Davis' far smaller pay-to-play episodes were a major factor leading to his recall here in 2003.

And several of the so-called “independent” political action committees (which can spend unlimited sums) backing Perry’s presidential bid are run by former Perry aides. One such PAC, Veterans for Rick Perry that was founded by his former legislative director Dan Shelley, said on its initial statement of organization it will support only one candidate, Perry. It’s illegal for so-called Super PACs to explicitly support only one candidate. Other PACs backing Perry also are run by men tied closely to him, casting doubt on their independence.

There's more, too, and all of it means many Californians have not really understood what's beneath Perry's style. The bottom line: Californians now agog over the Texas governor may become disillusioned as they learn more about him, and so might many other GOP primary voters.

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, August 19, 2011




Trying to predict the hottest campaigns over California initiatives many months in advance is a bit like reading tea leaves. But there are some exceptions this summer:

The attempt by to reverse a legislative decision compelling Internet companies to collect sales taxes is already a major fight. And there is no doubt the battle over a nascent ballot measure to impose severance taxes on oil drilled in California will be a costly donnybrook, with conflicting TV commercials airing almost from the moment the initiative qualifies. Volunteers and paid petition circulators have been collecting voter signatures since mid-May and will need to turn in 504,760 valid ones by the end of September to make June 2012 statewide ballot.

Here’s what this fight is about: As the state’s budget crunch escalates, the fact that California is the only oil-producing region in the world where private companies pay no tax for taking oil from the ground stands out more and more.

Almost everything in California is taxed, from gasoline to clothing, from car parts to restaurant meals. Somehow, the oil lobby has been strong enough for long enough to avoid any severance tax in spite of several efforts to impose one. The latest was an initiative that failed in 2006 amid a blitz of oil industry advertising.

Here’s the basic reason why advocates say an oil tax is needed (along with other new state revenues from things like changes in property tax assessment regulations): California is getting many billions of dollars less in both income and capital gains tax revenues than it did before the great stock market and real estate busts of three and four years ago. Yes, there are now tens of thousands fewer state employees than even one year ago and vital services like public universities, schools, highway repairs, fire protection and state parks have already taken huge cuts, with even bigger ones in prospect.

If relatively painless new sources of revenue can be found, items that don’t impact many Californians, they should be exploited.

The argument against, of course, is the usual one against any new tax, even one that doesn’t directly affect consumers: "There is no such thing as a tax on a business," the anti-tax activists often contend. "All so-called business taxes are actually passed along," so that consumers wind up paying even if the levy isn’t applied directly to them.

That generic anti-tax argument doesn’t apply significantly to an oil severance levy, mostly because oil companies usually lump the taxes they pay into their overall expenses, and charge them to their customers worldwide, a practice that won’t change if this measure wins, even though it specifically bans pass-throughs of the severance levy to refiners, gas stations or consumers.

The bite from the proposed 15 percent levy on the value of each barrel of oil extracted from beneath California lands or waters would amount to no more than a small fraction of a penny per gallon when applied to the worldwide sales of companies like Chevron and Shell. So Californians would pay very little if they assessed this tax, while it would produce between $2 billion and $3 billion yearly, mostly earmarked for education.

Similarly, Californians pay a fraction of a cent per gallon now for the 25 percent tax Alaska applies to its oil, a levy first applied while Republican Sarah Palin was governor there. Why should Californians in essence pay taxes to Alaska, while no one anywhere pays severance tax for California oil?

Oil companies, of course, care little for that logic. They, along with the Kansas-based oil baron Koch (pronounced “coke”) brothers who also are prime funders of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement, will put tens of millions of dollars into the campaign against the proposed severance tax. The measure will be backed by labor unions, education groups and environmentalists.

The oil companies will also label severance taxes a “job killer,” a tag businesses regularly try to hang on proposals they don’t like. They will ignore a UC Berkeley study funded by the non-partisan California Endowment which found the levy would save several thousands of jobs statewide while causing a maximum of 300 job losses in oil-related businesses.

All of which means there will be plenty of arguing over this measure, and plenty of money to air all the arguments. Which makes it all but certain the oil severance tax will become a centerpiece of the next election, with every major candidate forced take a stand on it.

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





For many years, it could have been standard to suggest that entering high school students look around their homerooms on the fall semester’s first day and notice everyone present. Because they could expect that one out of three of those students would not graduate with them.

Recession has brought a slight improvement to that dismal situation: Fewer openings in the menial job categories that attract many dropouts have meant that “only” about 30 percent, or three of every 10, youngsters lately have been leaving school early. Of course, that’s still not the officially reported rate.

Where are the missing students? Some are still able to get jobs flipping hamburgers, some wash cars, some are gang-bangers, some join the military, some are simply a question mark.

Even though it’s improved slightly, this remains the most serious problem facing both California and America. For even if California’s dropout rate is slightly higher than the rest of the nation, most other states would be close behind if their dropout reporting were as honest as California’s has become. If this continues and schools do nothing new to entice and encourage kids to pursue at least a high school diploma, we will have a large and permanent underclass of the uneducated illiterate.

When they become adults, not only will these individuals hold inferior, low-paying jobs – if they’re employed at all – but they will be unsophisticated thinkers who can be sold whatever bill of goods dishonest politicians and merchants of their time choose to purvey. It’s a sure-fire route to second-class stature as a state and nation.

Today’s honesty in dropout reporting, of course, is only partial, even if it’s a lot better than before. The state is now telling us how many students leave high school (about 18.2 percent of those who enter, a 3 percent improvement from last year's report), how many quit before they even get to high school (at least 3.5 percent of 8th grade kids – more than 17,000 youngsters – in the newest report, which doesn’t yet include 6th or 7th graders) and how many are leaving county-run schools for juvenile hall detainees, special needs children and students who have been expelled from other schools (more than 42,000 in 2008-9). County school dropouts are included in the overall high school figures.

But while the state Department of Education has become more above-board (previous state dropout reports never included middle schools and county programs), local school districts still prevaricate by leaving middle schools and county schools out of their figures, and the state has no power to compel honesty from them. Only local voters can do that, by pressing school board members to tell the truth.

The old estimate of one-third of students dropping out was reduced after the state instituted a computerized system in the middle of the last decade, assigning permanent identification numbers to all students enrolling anywhere in California. Kids keep their numbers even if they move to other districts, making it possible to track them. Tracking has cut the apparent high school dropout rate, although it still can’t account for students moving to other states.

Alan Bonsteel, a physician and head of a group called California Parents for Educational Choice, has pressed harder than anyone for accuracy in dropout reporting, if only to provide parents with more accurate assessments of public schools. He calls the newly-reported middle school dropout rate “earthshaking,” and it is.

For long history tells us that when almost one in every 10 children aged 11 to 14 years is probably leaving school before he or she can be taught very much, the underclass they become will often turn criminally violent. Meanwhile, budget cuts are knifing into most police forces.

Plainly, nothing will entirely eliminate dropouts. There will always be kids for whom school holds little or no appeal and some who just won’t learn. But it’s also clear the ongoing dropout crisis must be mitigated.

The first step should be making local school districts as honest as the state has become. Only when they reveal the full extent of their problems will voters focus attention and tax dollars on fixing them. But school boards don’t want to own up to their problems. So long as their own dropout figures don’t include middle school and county school figures, districts almost everywhere will crow about being “above average.” That’s dishonest.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to track these kids … from the schools where they started,” state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson said last spring. He’s right.

The bottom line: While there’s been improvement in the dropout rate, largely because of the dismal economy, there will be little further lessening of dropouts unless and until local districts own up to how serious their problems are. Only then will they be forced to work at getting dropouts back in school and preventing existing students from quitting.

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