Friday, February 24, 2012





Just in case anyone doubts that repeated, seemingly perpetual state budget crises don’t have real-life effects on ordinary citizens, check out what’s already happened and what’s about to happen to education at almost every level in California.

Once the world’s best public school system, with access to classes guaranteed from kindergarten at age 5 and on throughout a lifetime, education in California has been severely truncated and is about to get even more limited.

The effects may be most strikingly noticeable at the community college level, where classes have long been available to all comers at nominal costs that verged on free. This enabled Californians to learn about everything from computers to ceramics, from engineering to energy as long as they wanted to keep on studying.

But budget crunches that knocked almost $1.4 billion from higher education funding over the last two years have changed a lot of that. For one thing, it now costs $26 per credit to take a junior college class, meaning a few months of an ordinary four-unit course in speechmaking or astronomy now runs more than $100, with a hike to $36 per credit likely to come soon.

The cash crunch has cost community colleges more than $500 million and reduced faculty at most of the state’s 112 campuses to the point where the system’s board of governors voted this winter to give full-time and first-time students priority in class registration. Those who take part in college orientation and develop formal educational plans will also go to the head of the line, as will students who begin taking remedial classes in their first junior college year.

That more or less leaves out adult students who long have taken up class slots, along with students who have not demonstrated they are serious about getting an A.A. degree and transferring to a four-year university.

Before those rules were accepted by the community college board (they still need legislative ratification), hundreds of students protested that – combined with higher tuition – they will drive away poor students who can’t afford enough units to stay on a fast track to transfer, even if they are serious about education.

But junior colleges aren’t the only ones with less accessibility under current plans. Even with some cuts restored in the last few weeks, hundreds of rural elementary and high schools will suffer reduced school busing. The state does not require districts to have home-to-school busing, but probably should. In many places, if there’s no bus, there’s no way for children to get to school.

School districts spent more than $1.2 billion on busing two years ago, with the state covering just 38 percent of the tab. Triggered cuts that took effect at the end of 2011 cut that support in half, meaning in many places late buses that allowed students to participate in athletics and other enrichment activities have stopped running. Some of the support is now back, but cuts in busing will be far more severe next year, if Brown’s plan to reduce funding further stands up.

There will also be some radical changes in how state money is distributed to schools. Brown’s plan would give $3,000 per year per student more to school districts where 90 percent of students are either low-income or English learners than to districts where students with these problems are less numerous.

That could mean enormous cuts for large districts like Los Angeles and San Francisco, whose curricular offerings would then plummet. So might their academic performance.

This Brown tactic vastly increase the effects of the 1971 Serrano v. Priest court decision that now mandates higher funding for schools in the economic lower half of all districts. That measure, meant to boost performance by poor children, has actually had a different effect – making almost all schools mediocre, except those that get extra funding from parents, local businesses or generous city governments.

Yes, some disadvantaged students might be helped by all these changes at many levels of public education. But there’s no reason to believe the overall effects will be positive for most, and plenty of historic precedent indicating the results will again be mediocre at best.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit





The first step toward a California housing recovery has now been taken, in the form of the mid-February legal settlement between 49 states and the five large banks that were the leading culprits in the years of mortgage fraud that created a price bubble and convinced many thousands of homeowners to take on high-value mortgages.

The settlement is for at least $25 billion and could go as high as $45 billion, with Californians getting more than one-third of the benefits, or as much as $18 billion.

No, $18 billion in cash will not suddenly pour into the state’s economy. Actual cash should not amount to more than about $5 billion, still a pretty hefty amount.

But the first step toward reversing the effects of the foreclosure tide that has swept over tens of thousands of homes is to stop the bleeding by calling a halt to the constant increase in the inventory of existing homes that are either on the market or about to enter it. It’s the massive number of houses and condominiums involved that has driven home prices down, placing many thousands of homeowners “under water,” with their properties worth less than the bank loans on them.

The 49-state settlement has been criticized on two scores: 1) That it is not big enough, that insufficient cash will flow to homeowners bilked out of down payments that in some cases amounted to many thousands of dollars, and 2) That California is getting too large a share of the settlement.

The second of those gripes is the more absurd. California gets the lion’s share of the settlement because this is where the largest portion of the abuses occurred. Some critics who claim the state’s share of the new pot is too high also assert the settlement is designed to assuage California’s chronic state budget deficits and that bank customers in other states will be dunned to pay for it via new fees.

No and no. Less than $1 billion of the money coming to California will go to the state itself, and that money will pay for new banking regulatory programs, the big banks’ money appropriately being used to police those same banks and others. If there’s to be significant help for the state budget, it will have to come via increased sales and income taxes as housing-related businesses begin to recover or through rises in property taxes if sales prices increase. Nor will bank customers pay: Bank of America (one of the banks in the settlement) tried upping its fees earlier this year and lost both large numbers of customers and epic amounts of good will.

How will all this actually work? B of A, Wells Fargo, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC) will actually pay out only $5 billion nationally in cash, including $1.5 billion to homeowners who were foreclosed upon illegally.

The cash in the settlement goes to about 750,000 of the 2 million homeowners foreclosed on nationally in the last four years, each getting a check for $2,000. Small redress, indeed, for the ordeal most have gone through and the improper fees often fraudulently charged to homeowners, plus the way the big banks sometimes foisted property insurance on borrowers at up to three times the prevailing rates.

But relatively little cash will end up here, because the illegal robo-signings used in many foreclosures were never common in California.

The lion’s share of the settlement amount will come in reduced loan balances, with about 250,000 California homeowners due to get fully $12 billion in loan write-downs. Other kinds of credits could go to another 210,000 homeowners in parts of the state hit hardest by the housing bust.

This is where the foreclosure tide should start to peter out. It could also help the banks, which have reported the average foreclosure costs them $60,000 in maintenance costs, repairs and brokerage fees.

By writing down loans that most likely would soon turn bad anyway, banks will save themselves expenses while allowing thousands of homeowners to get their heads above water again. Once that happens, there should be little more motive for borrowers to desert their houses, as many have done upon concluding that the value of their properties had declined so far that they could not in the foreseeable future rise above their loan amounts.

By cutting loan amounts, the banks essentially achieve the same goal outlined in a congressional proposal by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Mateo County, which would have allowed under-water homeowners to pay no interest for five years, with their regular payments going strictly toward principal reduction.

All this is only a step along the path to housing recovery, but it’s the first really significant one – a point almost completely ignored by most critics.


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, February 17, 2012





Let’s make one thing clear: Even if Jesus Navarro doesn’t get the kidney transplant he was about to receive when doctors at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center discovered his undocumented immigration status last month, his death probably is not imminent.

Insurance would continue covering dialysis treatments for him costing more than $100,000 per year for at least several more years. With help from blood-cleansing artificial kidney dialysis machines, patients average more than eight years survival, but with the equivalent of barely 15 percent of normal kidney function. Only about one-fourth of those under 50, however, feel well enough to work full-time.

So some protests that have cast the debate over Navarro’s celebrated case in terms of immediate life and death have been slightly off the mark. The real issues are fairness, morality, finances and the Hippocratic Oath sworn by all physicians. For the 35-year-old Navarro, a Mexican native who has lived in this country 16 years and worked for a Berkeley steel foundry the last 14, the question always was whether he will have to continue feeling only marginally healthy and being tethered regularly to a machine or can regain his health and freedom of movement.

The transplant Navarro could get would cost his insurance company somewhat less than one year of dialysis. After getting it, he would go an indefinite, but probably long, period of needing immunosuppressant drugs to keep his new kidney functioning. Until recently, the drugs presented huge financial obstacles for the poor or the uninsured, but key formulations like cyclosporine, tacrolimus, mycophenolate mophetin and prednisone all are now available as generics at much reduced costs.

(Full disclosure: columnist Thomas Elias received a kidney transplant from a live donor in 1997, after undergoing dialysis for a substantial time.)

That means much of the objection initially presented by UCSF financial officers never held water. “UCSF’s policy for financial clearance requires candidates to present evidence of adequate and stable insurance coverage or other financial sources necessary to sustain follow-up care long after transplant surgery,” said a statement from Reece Fawley, executive director of transplantation. UCSF has since backtracked a bit, saying it will perform the transplant after all, once it is certain Navarro’s insurance will remain in effect afterward.

In checking the financial abilities of potential organ recipients, UCSF is like all other transplant centers. But many individuals receive transplants with far less assured insurance coverage than what’s available to Navarro – at least 18 months of eligibility for Cobra coverage from the health insurance he held for the 14 years before an immigration check cost him his job. He currently pays $1,100 monthly for that coverage.

“Even if his insurance ran out, he’s covered by the union for 18 months,” Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who also is international vice president of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics, and Allied Workers International Union, told a reporter. “He has a willing donor (his also-undocumented wife), he has private health care. This has been ridiculous.”

In fact, many transplant recipients have far less certainty of health coverage than Navarro, whose insurance could continue even if he were deported.

So a transplant would be good for Navarro, regardless of where he might live, and would save his insurance carrier hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also would not “rob” any U.S. citizen of a donated organ, thus mollifying most anti-illegal immigrant activists.

Then there’s the issue of fairness. In conversations with hundreds of transplant recipients of many ethnicities, none has reported to this column any queries about immigration status. Why, then, should it ever have been an issue for Navarro? And there’s the fact that while illegal immigrants nationally donate about 2.5 percent of all transplanted organs each year, they receive fewer than 1 percent of all transplants. Given that inequity, simple fairness dictates that doctors should perform the needed twin surgeries on Navarro and his wife, a well-matched donor.

There’s also the Hippocratic Oath taken by all doctors, which says, “I will prevent disease whenever I can…” That oath implies a willingness to help all comers, regardless of background or life circumstance. It’s one reason doctors give emergency treatment to murderers and rapists when needed. It’s why convicts have received organ transplants. And it’s one reason Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was allowed into this country last month for urgent medical care even though many of his countrymen hold him responsible for thousands of killings. How moral would it be to deny Navarro care while giving it to violent criminals and Saleh?

So the alleged moral, financial and medical reasons raised when Navarro’s transplant was delayed could never stand up to careful examination. Which makes the real question this: While UCSF may now deny immigration status was ever an issue here, why did UCSF doctors and administrators ever allow immigration status to become relevant in this case?


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




With the March 12 candidate filing deadline for California’s June primary election fast approaching, it’s time to offer the state’s Republican Party some unsolicited, but still very sound advice:

Find candidates for Congress who are willing to abandon a few of the GOP’s longtime staples in order to become appealing and relevant to the large mass of California voters.

This state’s congressional Republicans have lived in fear ever since the nonpartisan Citizens Redistricting Commission last August adopted maps that will govern the upcoming primary. The failure of a longshot GOP lawsuit seeking to overturn the map only accented their trepidation. The suit itself was replete with irony because the GOP strongly backed the 2008 ballot initiative setting up the commission, expecting its work product would leave the party better off than any map that might be drawn by the Democratic-dominated state Legislature.

But once party officials saw the new lines, they realized there was a good chance they could lose as many as five of the 19 seats in Congress they now hold. Should that happen and President Obama run stronger in other parts of America than most now expect, this could see Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives.

Most of the GOP fear centers on districts in Southern California, although there’s also a possibility that Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, the former Long Beach congressman and ex-state attorney general who now represents a Sierra Nevada foothills area, could also be threatened.

For sure, the GOP will lose one seat because the homes of Reps. Ed Royce of Fullerton in Orange County and Gary Miller of Diamond Bar in Los Angeles County were tossed into the same district. Neither chose to move, so like veteran Democrats Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, one of them will go. Because of the new “top two” primary system, the results in both cases may be unclear until November, but for sure one longtime Republican congressman and one powerful Democrat will depart.

The new lines also threatened Republican veterans like David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee, Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Elton Gallegly of Ventura County, all of whose new districts seem ripe for possible Democratic pickups. In response, Gallegly has already announced his retirement.

How can the GOP prevent further losses? Allen Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who now co-publishes the California Target Book tracking legislative and congressional races, offers good advice: “They ought to be upset about their horrible registration numbers (and not the district lines),” he told a reporter. “Until they can solve that problem, they shouldn’t be running around demanding more seats.”

In fact, the GOP share of registered California voters is lower than ever in modern history, barely above 30 percent. Among voters declaring a preference for either of the two major parties, Republicans trail by 60-40 percent. It’s almost impossible to draw district lines favoring the GOP when the party's numbers are so low.

So the real question for Republicans is not whether they’ll lose a few seats – they probably will. Even if the party's lawsuit had succeeded, registration figures assure that any improvement for the GOP would have been slight.

So the real Republican need is to appeal to more voters. That means making a play for the mass of Latino voters (fastest growing voter group both in California and nationally) by reversing field and beginning to favor changes in federal immigration law designed to be more favorable to illegal immigrants. This sort of stance would never have flown in the old primary system, where only Republicans could vote for Republican candidates. But the new, open system where all candidates run against each other regardless of party, with the top two advancing to a November runoff, might actually favor GOP candidates who take more moderate stances on immigration.

The same with environmental issues, where Republicans in Congress steadfastly oppose almost every move toward cleaner air and water, or toward greater automotive fuel economy.

Gun control is another area where California Republicans are out of synch with most California voters. So is their firm “no new taxes under any circumstance” position.

These stances are all longtime GOP cant, but they can’t be the positions of anyone who hopes to draw a large vote from moderate Democrats and independent voters in California.

The bottom line: The GOP will lose California congressional seats this fall and will not reverse those losses until it makes changes. That may mean departing from some cherished principles, but no party can survive long-term unless it stays at least somewhat in tune with the sentiments of large voting blocs.


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