Thursday, January 26, 2012





Consider for a moment what this winter season of Republican presidential candidates lambasting each other while they traversed the countryside of early primary states might have been had California been involved.

Instead of watching the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and the rest (plus the Super-PACs that buy many of their TV commercials) spend all their time and considerable fortune trying to get 12 New Hampshire delegate votes at next summer’s Republican National Convention, Californians could have seen them in person in Fresno and Anaheim. Instead of traveling the wintry cornfields of Iowa in quest of 28 convention votes, they could have been in Eureka and San Gabriel and Mountain View vying for California’s 172.

That’s about 20 percent of what it will take to win the nomination, and the top Republicans would not have been able to ignore any part of California, as they are now ignoring this entire state. Under California Republicans’ winner-take-all-by-congressional-district system, every part of the state could have been vital. Such a vote could have come in early February, as it did four years ago, when their performances here cinched the Republican nomination for John McCain and guaranteed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign would stay alive into late spring.

But California legislators – mostly Democrats – opted to make the state irrelevant this year, after experiencing several early presidential primaries that didn’t turn out quite as influential as some hoped they would be.

So they decided last summer to return this state’s primary to its traditional early June date, where it will likely decide very little on the national level. It has been 40 years since the last time any June presidential primary mattered to anyone.

As a result, Californians have not seen chartered buses with the names of Romney and Newt Gingrich painted large on their sides, as voters did in the early primary states. They will never get to see the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain.

Catering companies and charter bus lines, newspapers and hotels, plus television stations and radio outlets lost the many millions of dollars those candidates would have had to spend here. Voters missed seeing the TV commercials that swung votes in the early states. Candidates did not have to address California issues from offshore oil drilling to high speed rail to smog and home foreclosures. Although they have talked plenty about California-related issues like immigration and unemployment, none has promised California any help, as several did four years ago.

It wasn’t just vindictiveness that caused Democrats in Sacramento to make this state’s many GOP voters completely irrelevant in their party’s nomination process. There was also self-interest.

For no one knew at the time this decision was made in early summer what California’s new legislative and congressional districts would look like. An early primary could have forced politicians into decisions about whether and where to run for their next sinecure that they might later have come to regret. Even now, it’s not completely certain the new district lines drawn by the Citizens Redistricting Commission won’t be altered.

So politicians shied away from imposing early filing deadlines on themselves, dismissing the possibility of staging a presidential primary separate from other races as too expensive. Never mind that candidate spending could have pumped far more into the state economy that the approximate $40 million cost of a separate vote.

As a result, nothing much has happened here in presidential politics in this cycle. It’s still “way too early” for anything but fund-raising, say Republican Party officials.

But it didn’t have to be, and four years from now, when there will definitely be a contested Democratic presidential primary – and maybe contests in both parties – a late primary should not even be considered.

For California to be left completely out of the presidential nominating process while the likes of South Carolina and Nevada have influence is a classic example of the tail wagging the dog.

No early primary state save Florida has a fraction the diversity of California. None is nearly as representative of America’s panoply of ethnicities and interests.

So for California to have no voice simply makes no sense and a repeat of this year’s situation should never again be tolerated.


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




From the moment he began delivering his State of the State speech in mid-January, it was clear Gov. Jerry Brown realized California needs more than the avuncular presence he was most of last year. That speech traditionally offers each governor a chance to set the tone for the coming year, and Brown took full advantage.

Then he began following up right away. Rather than head straight into a round of negotiations with legislators as he did after his 2011 speech, Brown immediately flew off to the state’s population centers to push his program of capital improvements, small tax increases and substantial budget cuts. He's got to keep up that sales effort.

It's as if he suddenly realized that simply hanging out at home in Oakland or speaking in the Democratic stronghold of San Francisco or working in his Capitol office in Sacramento wasn’t going to be enough. Certainly that should be one lesson of last year, when Brown ventured south less than any modern governor in memory.

Partly, his lack of a significant presence in California's largest counties may have been the result of the fact he’s the first governor since his father Pat Brown (governor from 1959 to 1967) to come from a base outside Southern California, where about two-thirds of the state’s voters reside. When Jerry Brown was governor for his first two terms, in the 1970s and early ’80s, he lived in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles.

Brown hit other necessary notes in the immediateaftermath of his speech, as he moved about, visiting schools, city councils and a Mexican restaurant he frequented regularly during his previous gubernatorial stint. For one thing, he promised he’d be back, often. “You will see a lot more of me in Southern California this year,” he said. That’s an obvious need if he’s to pass any kind of tax increase, which he maintains is the only way to avoid about $5 billion more in cuts to public schools, universities, parks and a panoply of other popular state programs.

He also must campaign hard and often in all the state’s big population centers for there to be any chance to actualize the bullet train that's planned to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with eventual extensions to Sacramento and San Diego. Brown didn’t dream up this project and he knows voters backed it in 2008. But he’s savvy enough to understand the projected tripling of costs presented to voters four years ago might produce a different result if the issue ever were to appear anew on a ballot.

That’s why both in his speech and afterward he harped repeatedly on projects of the past that opponents labeled either impossible or too expensive in their planning phases, from the Panama and Suez canals to California’s Central Valley water project and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, all generally considered basic necessities today.

But the best thing Brown did was begin trying to counter the notion that California is ungovernable, dysfunctional and past its prime.

“California is anything but a failed state,” he said while castigating pessimists he called “declinists.” “We want to keep California on the move even though we’ve been in a recession caused by manipulations in housing and banking that cost us more than 1 million jobs. So we will invest in the future. We are not in decline, but in ascendancy.”

He mentioned California has more Nobel prize winners than any other state and all but a few countries. He listed companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook that began here and are going stronger than ever. That's the optimistic theme he has sounded since he began running for his current office, but he's doing it louder now. Twitting Texas, whose Gov. Rick Perry frequently denigrates California, he noted that state has “more than five times as many minimum wage jobs as we do, with far less population.”

And he said “California last year created many more jobs than any other part of the nation. I’m proud of that.”

So Brown this year shows signs of becoming the cheerleader California needs. But he insisted that he will still be a policy wonk, noting how complicated budget negotiations will be and that he’s working on complex reforms to public employee pensions.

Maybe it’s because more than a year has passed since Brown was last on the campaign trail, but his affect is more energetic this year than last. Which is exactly what California will need if the slow-starting economic revival here is to pick up steam and begin growing more quickly.

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, January 20, 2012




There was public indignation when this column revealed late last year the secrecy maintained by the state Public Utilities Commission as it regulates the siting, building and design of several massive solar thermal electricity projects that will soon be a major part of California’s energy portfolio.

Together with wind energy and geothermal projects, the only other developed types of constantly renewable large-scale energy, solar will soon produce about one-third of the state’s power. But because of PUC secrecy, no one knows just how much this will add to the typical monthly electric bill.

Yes, there are some clues. When considering the Mojave Solar project that will serve customers of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the five-member utilities commission talked openly about the likelihood that power from the project would cost at least double the price of kilowatts produced by oil- or gas-fired power plants.

One commissioner even suggested abandoning the project and paying its owners back the $70 million they've already spent on it, because that would be far more economical than going ahead.

Another clue came in a March 2011 document filed by PG&E detailing its energy procurement plans. In that one, the company noted that at the time it charged most industrial customers about 15.1 cents per kilowatt hour for power, but that by 2020, the cost would be 22 cents. So electricity in PG&E’s territory will cost about 50 percent more eight years from now – and most of that new cost will probably come from solar and wind energy projects.

Shouldn’t PG&E customers have a right to know this before their newly increased bills arrive? Nope, says the utilities commission. If people knew the price of the new power, criminals might game the market as they did during the energy crunch early in the last decade.

Other utility authorities pronounce that reasoning absurd, guessing that it has political rather than practical reasons, postulating that state legislators and PUC members don’t want the public to know the costs of their renewable-based energy policy.

But secrecy extends into other areas of PUC regulation, too. Not a good thing from an agency set up explicitly to keep utilities from overcharging their customers.

One recent example came when BrightSource Energy, now building two huge solar thermal plants to supply customers of Southern California Edison Co., added a large amount of heat-exchange energy storage capacity to its projects.

The aim is to allow energy produced during sunlit hours to be stored for later use during darker periods, thus making the plants into steadier suppliers of power.

That’s probably a good idea, and the PUC quickly approved it. But once again, there was no mention of cost. No one knows how much consumers will pay for that improvement, so no one outside the utilities commission can judge whether the gigantic storage units – and the power plants themselves – will be worth the money they'll cost.

As with PG&E customers using Mojave Solar power, Edison customers won’t learn how much this will cost until they get the bill. For the price confidentiality will last three years – until right about the time the BrightSource plants are due to start producing power.

PUC secrecy, authorized by a 1950s-era law, also keeps reports on investigations of natural gas pipeline safety under wraps indefinitely. So persons living on or near natural gas pipelines anywhere in California can’t be absolutely certain they are not at the same kind of risk as people who lived in San Bruno before a disastrous pipeline explosion there in September 2010.

The pipeline secrecy so far has aroused more public ire than the PUC’s similar keep-the-records closed practices on solar power pricing.

Such confidentiality might make some sense if there were any serious competition for the utilities which run gas through the pipelines or those that will be passing on to their customers the costs of power from renewable sources.

But there is no competition for companies like PG&E, Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric or Southern California Gas.

That means secrecy can only serve their corporate interests, while leaving customers figuratively in the dark.

The first glimmer of a possible change for the better in all this comes from Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, whose district includes the San Bruno disaster zone. He’s introduced a bill to repeal the 60-year-old secrecy law and let the light shine in on all aspects of utility regulation.

Any legislator who opposes that measure will have demonstrated more loyalty to corporate priorities than public safety and well-being. The same for Gov. Jerry Brown if this bill reaches him and he doesn’t sign 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




There is probably no more popular law in California today than term limits, the result of a 1990 ballot proposition limiting state legislators to six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate.

Yet, at a time when California desperately needs accomplished political leaders with demonstrated abilities to achieve solutions to complicated problems, what do we get?

Speakers of the Assembly who are virtual rookies in office, young men (no women, so far) who have achieved nothing in Sacramento other than to win the votes of the majority of their party caucus. Ideologues leading the Republican minorities in both legislative houses who are dumped willy-nilly the moment they begin to deviate even slightly from the party line.

Before term limits, California had a series of legislative leaders who actually had long records of getting things done. The legendary Assembly speaker (later state treasurer) Jesse Unruh represented a district in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood that was quickly becoming predominantly minority. He helped his new constituents by pushing through the Unruh Civil Right Act of 1959, still the lynchpin of California’s anti-discrimination arsenal.

After him came Leo McCarthy and Willie Brown of San Francisco. Brown had won passage of an abortion rights law and was a leader in both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War causes long before becoming Speaker.

All three of them knew how to count votes. When they pushed hard for passage of legislation or a budget, they knew exactly who would vote how and didn’t waste much effort on hopeless causes.

And they knew how to handle lobbyists, Unruh famously saying that “If you can’t take their money, (mess with) their women, eat their food and then vote against them the next morning, you don’t belong in Sacramento.”

There has been no such toughness since term limits ended Brown’s tenure in state government and sent him home to become an effective mayor of his beloved city.

But what have we had since? As many comedians might say, Take the last two Assembly speakers. Please.

Legislative Democrats have not had a veteran leader in the last decade, largely because they choose speakers early in their Sacramento careers, in order to ensure at least a modicum of stability in the speakership. The problem with that is you get utter greenhorns making key government decisions.

Today’s speaker is John Perez of Los Angeles, who has been unable to forge even the slightest compromise with the Assembly’s Republican minority. Part of that problem is the GOP’s ideological rigidity and willingness to dispense with even the most essential, life-saving government services in the interest of the “no new taxes” pledge virtually all have signed.

But part of it also is Perez’ inability to count votes and see what’s ahead. So it was last summer, when Perez made a highly-publicized attempt to dissolve the tiny city of Vernon, within his own district. Vernon, beset by decades of well-documented corruption, has just over 100 residents and was designed purely for the convenience of industry, which employs about 55,000 persons there.

Perez managed to muscle his bill through the Assembly, all right, but it never had a chance in the state Senate, where it got just 13 votes out of a possible 40. That’s an ignominious defeat if ever there was one, reflecting Perez’ unwillingness or inability to compromise or to count votes, two of the most important skills of a political leader. For sure, once his speakership ends, there is no apparently promising future for Perez, now known has a ham-handed incompetent.

Before him came Fabian Nunez, another Los Angeles denizen elected speaker before he’d served even one full Assembly term.

Nunez authored few bills of his own, becoming best known for glomming onto AB32, the landmark anti-greenhouse gas bill authored by then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, whose district at the time spanned much of western Los Angeles County. Nunez became familiar for hanging around then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican movie muscleman who often seemed to use him as a kind of living watch charm.

Later, Nunez became far better known for the favor he received when in his last hours as governor, Schwarzenegger vastly reduced the murder sentence being served by Nunez’ son Esteban. That may have helped the Nunez family, as Schwarzenegger later bragged, but it demonstrated Nunez’ longtime lack of political independence.

All this argues strongly for passage of an as-yet-unnumbered proposition that will be on the November ballot. This one would reduce the amount of time any person can spend in the Legislature from 14 to 12 years, but let the whole time be served in one house.

There are no guarantees, but passing that measure just might allow for somewhat more stable, competent, proven veteran leadership in both legislative houses, something that’s desperately needed, but has been lacking for more than 10 years.

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