Friday, September 16, 2011





There was plenty of publicity when California lawmakers debated for months over the state budget, yet the outcome – many cuts, almost no revenue increases – was a foregone conclusion once it became obvious tax receipts were running below projections and Republicans would never vote for new tax levies.

That was an example of how legislators in this state are usually little more than bookkeepers who sometimes move money from one category to another, but rarely have much effect on the largest expenditures – schools, bond payments and federally-mandated programs like Medi-Cal.

All the posturing in Sacramento makes politicians feel important, but since 1970, the most important laws in this state have almost all been passed by the people via ballot initiatives. From coastal protection to water quality, insurance rates, gay marriage and prison sentencing, the voters and not the politicians decide the issues people care about most. That’s why voters generally don’t mind if their ballots stretch out for many pages. They know they’re deciding important issues.

And yet…once in awhile, legislators get to accomplish something important. So it was in 2006, when they passed AB32, this state’s landmark bill to help limit the effects of greenhouse gases and climate change. That law is still a focus for major contention, with most Democrats claiming it will eventually produce many thousands of new jobs, while the bulk of Republicans call it a horrible job-killer. Time will tell.

Again this year, lawmakers got a chance to pass a landmark bill and they did. This one updates the longstanding Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and religion in fields like housing, employment and education. Since it passed, that law has been updated to ban most discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual preference, too.

The current crop of lawmakers got a chance to make another vital update to the Unruh act. The good news is that they actually did it, and in a strongly bipartisan way.

The law they passed with majorities of better than 2-1 in both the state Senate and Assembly will add a ban on discrimination based on genetic information to the list of protections Californians now enjoy. Such discrimination will henceforth not be allowed in housing, employment, education, public accommodations, health and life insurance coverage, mortgage lending and elections.

This kind of broad protection is not specifically offered by the U.S. Constitution. And the federal Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 protects only against discrimination in hiring and health insurance. Nor is it likely today’s conservative, rather literal-minded U.S. Supreme Court majority will decide anytime soon that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment implies the kind of wide protection in Senate Bill 559, signed without comment by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Fortunately, the high court has often ruled that states can give their citizens more protections than the federal Constitution or federal law provide. This was the basis for both the original Unruh Act and its companion anti-discrimination law, the Rumford Act, which passed a couple of years later.

The new bill, passed almost completely beneath the media radar screen, was carried by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, a former Los Angeles city councilman who will likely run for Congress next year in a newly-drawn district which has no incumbent.

His bill will be especially helpful to women with family histories of breast or uterine cancer, who are sometimes denied health or life insurance. It might also prove useful to persons with family histories of lupus, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia and many other diseases. Persons with such genetic diseases sometimes feel compelled to get their children tested secretly, with no official record, in order to protect the next generation from discrimination, while at the same time letting them get started with actions that might mitigate these kinds of genetic ailments. (Full disclosure: the writer has genetically-caused polycystic kidney disease, which led to kidney failure and a subsequent transplant.)

Said Padilla, “California led the nation with the passage of the Unruh Act. We are updating it and bringing it confidently into the 21st Century, (to) ensure that the advances in genetic testing…cannot be used to discriminate against any Californian.”

All of which goes to show that even in Sacramento’s often-poisonous partisan climate, it’s still possible to do some good work.


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





Nine months into Jerry Brown’s third term as governor of California, there’s no doubt he’s made some courageous moves at the desk where he signs and vetoes bills passed by the Legislature.

He OK’d the national popular vote measure previously nixed by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, assuring that California will help see to it that no more presidents are elected with a minority of the national vote, as George W. Bush and three others were. After states possessing more than half of all electoral votes make the same commitment, California’s massive electoral vote will always go to the overall popular vote winner.

He signed an Internet sales tax bill as part of last summer’s budget agreement, a move toward leveling the playing field between merchants who operate stores and those who sell only on the Internet.

But Brown has also made at least two misguided vetoes. One was a bill by Democratic Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield of suburban Los Angeles which sought to replace the $169 million Adult Day Health Care program – about to be ended because of state budget cuts passed in June – with a far cheaper alternative serving only the neediest patients.

In his veto message, Brown said “creating a new ADHC look-alike program at this juncture is unnecessary and untimely.” He added that the state is working with existing centers to identify alternatives.

That last came as news to the families and workers now involved in ADHC, and the likelihood is that many of the elderly now cared for in community-based centers will end up languishing unaided and unsupervised at home or going to emergency rooms, mental institutions or nursing homes – where they might cost the state far more than they have before. Up until now, the state has paid about $36 per day per patient, with that funding matched by the federal government.

But there are now waiting lists for nursing home beds in some areas, which probably means a lot of patients who have been kept alive and relatively healthy and lively by ADHC will die years earlier than they otherwise would have.

Only when death rates begin to rise will we know just how destructive this veto may become.

But the mistaken quality of another veto is immediately clear to anyone who frequents supermarkets or big box stores. This was Brown’s refusal to sign a measure called Senate Bill 168, which would have prohibited paying initiative petition carriers directly or indirectly on the basis of how many signatures they gather for state or local initiatives, referenda or recall petitions.

In recent years, carriers have been able to get anywhere from 50 cents to $3, and occasionally even more, for each signature they gather. That’s the main reason they often become aggressive at store entrances and exits, waving clipboards in the faces of customers going in or out and sometimes shouting at those who walk on by. Often, the same carrier will hold two clipboards, trying to get signatures on two or more measures from the same person – all in the interest of making more money.

It would be unconstitutional and unfortunate to put a complete stop to signature gathering at store entrances, as some states and some merchants have attempted in the past.

But restoring sanity and decorum to this process would be a good thing. And forcing the organizations that back initiatives to pay petition carriers by the hour or the day rather than strictly for piecework would be a step in this direction.

It also might put a crimp in the trend toward big-money interests taking over the initiative process because they can pay more for signatures and thus attract far more carriers for their measures.

Brown didn’t see it that way. “This bill would…prohibit organizations from even setting targets or quotas for those they hire…” he said, adding that “per-signature payment is often the most cost-effective method for collecting the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify a ballot measure…this will drive up the cost of circulating ballot measures, thereby further favoring the wealthiest interests.”

There is little or no evidence for that last statement. In fact, forcing big-money interests ( so far has invested more than $5.25 million in its effort to gather signatures for a referendum to cancel the new Brown-signed requirement that it and other Internet sellers collect sales tax) to pay daily or hourly wages to carriers is just as likely to bring down the cost of petition circulating as it is to push it up.

The bottom line is that both Brown vetoes were ill considered, based on unsubstantiated information. And both may end up making bad situations worse.

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, go to

Thursday, September 8, 2011




Some call it musical chairs, the way every couple of years termed out state legislators either run for a different office or manage to get themselves appointed to some other position where they can keep their snouts in the public trough.

This, of course, is precisely what term limits were supposed to prevent. Passed in 1990 as Proposition 140, California’s limits allow any individual to serve just six years in the state Assembly and eight in the state Senate. That’s all. Statewide officials like the governor and insurance commissioner get two four-year terms in each office they may hold.

So why is it we keep seeing the same names in the news? (Don’t count Jerry Brown. The current and former governor was able to come back for at least one term and possibly another, which would give him a total of four, because he previously served well before passage of Proposition 140.)

The answer is that political power is addictive. Once a member of almost any city’s council or a county board has seen how much more power and influence and fund-raising ability the folks in Sacramento enjoy, there’s no way to get them back down on the farm.

While in office, the elected also accrue favors. Help out colleagues and when they move into a higher job with the power to appoint people to high-paying state commissions and boards, chances are they’ll help you out. The old routine of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.”

The prevalence of this kind of behavior contributes continually to the stalemate atmosphere in Sacramento, where gridlock and ideology have dominated for the last decade. Proposition 140, in a way, made this inevitable.

For from the moment a fresh Assembly member arrives in the Capitol, the prime aim is to make a career of this, to gain position for a run at whatever office represents the next rung on the ladder. Assembly members want to run for the state Senate; state Senators often plan runs for Congress or statewide office. Defy your party’s leadership and you’ll have no chance in the primary elections that are so often the real deciders in who gets elected.

That produces strict party-line voting, except on issues that don’t appear ideological. It’s why no Republican dares vote for any semblance of a new tax. It’s why Democrats rubber-stamp big union contracts and job guarantees for some public employees.

The movement of termed-out lawmakers onto state panels like the parole board and the Solid Waste Management Board has been well documented. For Republicans, the way was greased while Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Even then, because Democrats controlled the Legislature and its leaders appoint some members of boards like the Coastal Commission, there was no dearth of opportunity for them.

Until now, this was all seat-of-pants, anecdotal knowledge without scientific merit. But the numbers were at last quantified in a summertime report from the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, which finds that the political class today is just as persistent and insistent and opportunistic as it was in pre-term limit days. Maybe more so.

The report notes that in the 1980s, 60 percent of Assembly members and 30 percent of state senators either ran for some other office or landed a plush government appointment when they left office. Yes, those legislators usually stayed in each office longer than they do today.

But the overall numbers are very similar. In 2008, 60 percent of termed-out Assembly members and 40 percent of termed-out senators stayed in government employment. Most continued on with salaries over $100,000, in many cases taking home more than they did while in elected office. It’s a sure sign that who you come to know and how you treat them is at least as important as what you might know.

The termed-out these days may not stay in appointive office very long. In many cases, their new slots – often entailing no more than two meetings per month – last just two or four years. Still, these jobs make a cushy halfway house back into real life and the need to get and hold an actual job.

Back in 1990, Proposition 140 was billed as something that would encourage Cincinnatus-style public service – people who, like the legendary Roman general – would leave home, serve for awhile and then gladly return home.

No such luck. For term limits have fostered both government gridlock, unwillingness to compromise and the continuation of a persistent, semi-permanent political class.

Which means term limits have failed, even though every poll shows they remain one of the most popular aspects of California government.


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




Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when California solidified its position as America’s most populous state, it was common for demographers and trackers of trends to say that “When California catches cold, the rest of the nation sneezes.” They meant that California was the unquestioned national trend-setter.

Back then, analysts were thinking of things like the rise of the Silicon Valley-based electronics industry and the spread of property tax limits like this state’s Proposition 13 to dozens of other states.

Those were prosperous times for California, times when state legislators debated what to do with budget surpluses: Should they send the extra cash back to taxpayers or save it for the proverbial rainy day. Wisely or not, the giveback idea prevailed, with millions of checks sent to taxpayers on the presumption that good times would keep on rolling.

This is a very different time, with a prevailing presumption of perpetual financial troubles and high unemployment, even though Californians produced about $2 trillion worth of goods and services last year, more than 1,000 times the amount of the largest budget deficit California government has ever had to deal with.

But even in these rough times, there’s still truth to the old maxim about the rest of the nation being affected whenever California twitches. For example, demographers predicted when Latino children in the ‘80s became a majority in California’s largest school district – Los Angeles – it was a sign that Latinos would be at least a plurality of the state’s population within 50 years. The Census reported that in 2010, Latinos made up 37.6 percent of California’s populace, compared to 40.1 percent for “majority” white Anglos.

That puts Latinos solidly on track to fulfill the predictions made when Hispanic schoolchildren began to outnumber all others.

Now the same thing is happening across the nation. Latinos have beceome a majority of public school students in both Texas and Arizona, though not as large a majority – yet – as they are here. The trend is the same almost everywhere else, too, as the Census showed higher than expected numbers of Latinos in virtually every state, including places like South Carolina and Louisiana, where their numbers were as much as 20 percent higher than predicted.

So what began in one big California school district has now become a national phenomenon.

It’s the same with the state budget, where gimmickry and deficits became standard procedure here through most of the last decade. Now more than half the other states have similar problems, as does the federal government.

And the extreme acrimony of California’s political climate also went national. Congressional splits and hard feelings over budgets, welfare and environmental issues echo almost precisely what occurred first in California’s Legislature, where no-new-taxes pledges on one side and fealty to labor unions on the other often lead to deadlock and gridlock.

Just as California has made budgetary decisions that will have long-term economic consequences and impacts that cost lives – including persistent delays in requiring hospitals and schools to make earthquake retrofits and cutbacks in public education at all levels – federal budget decisions and those in other states are now creating similar problems.

Texas, for one, has just made far larger cuts in its public education system than California ever contemplated. The consequences will include a poor economic future for the two-thirds of Texas schoolchildren who are now Latinos or other “minorities.” Not to mention Caucasian students.

And the springtime federal budget compromise included, as just one potentially fatal example, a $4 billion cutback in funds for the Federal Aviation Administration. That will lead to far fewer inspections of commercial aircraft and very likely more incidents like the April episode in which a five-foot hole opened in the roof of a Southwest Airlines plane. There will also be fewer air traffic controllers, increasing the likelihood of airliner collisions.

Just as California has cut spending on Medi-Cal and the Healthy Children program, other states are now reducing their own Medicaid spending and face the risk of epidemics and other public health problems that respect no political or economic boundaries. And congressional Republicans want to slash even more from both Medicare and Medicaid, the equivalent of Medi-Cal in the other 49 states.

It’s all firm evidence that being biggest often means that both opportunities and problems strike you first. And it makes ever more clear than whatever happens in California still spreads beyond state lines, very soon.


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





Investigation after investigation into last year’s San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed 38 homes has revealed bad welds, inconsistent safety testing and maintenance so inconsistent that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. didn’t know the condition of its own pipes.

The final report of the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that a series of avoidable errors by PG&E contributed heavily to the blast.

Now PG&E and the state’s other big gas utilities want their customers to pay for fixes to the whole dismal situation. What’s more, they want it done in a way that will let them reap greater profits from the tragedy.

That’s the almost unbelievable upshot of the latest rate increase request PG&E has put before the state Public Utilities Commission, one that San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and the Southern California Gas Co. would clearly like to ape. (The transportation board also reported that lax enforcement by the PUC was contributed to the San Bruno disaster.)

Because both SDG&E and SoCal Gas are owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy; their gas pipeline systems are operated as one.

The outrageous utility plans are the result of a PUC order that gas companies file plans to test or replace pipelines for which they now have no record of pressure tests. PG&E proposes to spend $2.2 billion over 10 years fixing its network, while SoCal Gas wants to expend $2.6 billion and SDG&E $600 million over the same time span.

The astonishing aspect of this is that even though gas rates paid by consumers for decades have included payments to assure safety and reliability, PG&E now wants consumers to foot 90 percent of its bill for testing and improvements. Plans of the other big utilities are similar.

Which means that unless the five-member utilities commission prevents it, consumers who have already paid billions of dollars for safety-related charges will have to pay billions more because of failures and negligence by the utility company and the PUC itself. No one questions the work must be done – San Bruno made that tragically obvious.

The proposed charges would add about $1.93 per month to the average PG&E bill and 68 cents per month at the outset for customers of Sempra’s companies, increasing to $2.83 per month for them by 2015.

The entire exercise, as proposed by the utilities, would enable them to make about $4 billion in additional new profits over the next 20 years. That would happen because whatever money is spent on new or replacement pipeline work would be a capital expense for the firms, and thus go into what is known as their “rate base.”

The rate base is the total amount they’ve spent on equipment or lines over the past 20 years. The PUC allows each company a “reasonable rate of return” on its rate base, now 11.35 percent for PG&E. In short, for every dollar it has spent on equipment or lines with an expected life span of at least 20 years, the company gets 11.35 cents profit each year. The higher the rate base, the higher the profits.

If the utilities commission allows consumers to be saddled with this new expense, it will mean big rewards for the companies for decades to come because of a tragedy that investigations have shown probably could have been prevented by PG&E.

The alternative, of course, would be forcing the companies to pay most of the bills for needed repairs and updates from their ongoing profits. As now proposed, less than 15 percent of the total costs would be paid out of profits.

“We knew this day was coming, when PG&E would expect the ratepayers to pick up the cost of the repairs,” Democratic Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo County told a reporter. Hill represents San Bruno. “They should not be allowed to profit from this,” he said.

He’s right. Therefore, the utilities’ proposals will provide a signal test of how the new utility commission majority appointed earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown will treat customers of the companies it regulates.

The commission was set up in the early 1900s to prevent the very kind of utility company excesses the current proposals embody. Under recent Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, the PUC has mostly given utilities whatever they wanted and would almost surely have approved these proposals.

If that pattern continues in this case, it would be grossly unfair to consumers whose rates have long included money for safety work and repairs. The question now is whether the people Brown placed in control of one of California’s most powerful agencies are more interested in handing out corporate welfare than they are in what is just and fair.

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