Monday, June 18, 2012




          If there was one message that went out strongly from the early June votes on local pension changes in San Jose and San Diego, it was this: Private sector workers are tired of seeing six-figure pensions go to some public employees while their own pensions are steadily cut or become increasingly uncertain.

          Some might call this envy, and in a way it is. But the more realistic way to look at those votes is that they are a logical reaction to the reversal of some traditional assumptions.

          They should also be a boost for Gov. Jerry Brown’s pension proposals for state employees, even if some conservatives have chosen to interpret the results differently.

          The presumption for many decades was that civil servants and other workers on the public payroll enjoy more job security than most persons who work for private companies. There was little risk of them ever getting fired or laid off because unlike private businesses, governments could never go broke so long as they had the power to tax. The tradeoff for that was lower salaries for public employees than those in private companies, and lower pensions, too.

          Much of this equation has gone by the boards. State and local governments have little power to tax anymore, because the 1978 Proposition 13 demands a two-thirds popular vote to approve almost all new local levies and a two-thirds legislative vote for new state taxes. Government workers have been laid off in droves over the last few years. Hundreds of thousands in California alone.

          Meanwhile, the rich pensions and higher pay private industry offered through much of the 20th Century began eroding significantly even before the 21st Century began. Most definitive pension plans have disappeared for new private hires. Workers who used to get them now usually receive 401(k) plans that make retirement benefits subject to the vagaries of the stock market. But private sector jobs overall remain less secure than government work and public employees now often draw better pay and benefits.

          This was the background to the public employee pension votes held in usually conservative San Diego and generally liberal San Jose.

          In San Jose, where pensions made up more than 20 percent of the latest budget, almost 70 percent of voters approved a plan imposing on public workers the choice between boosting their own contributions to pensions up to 13 percent of their pay, a jump from the current range of 5 percent to 11 percent, or switching to a lower-cost plan with reduced eventual benefits. To bowdlerize the old oil filter ad, public workers have been told they can pay more now or get less later.

          In San Diego, voters eliminated definitive pensions for all new city workers except police, substituting a 401(k)-style program. San Diego also froze “pensionable” pay levels for five years.

          Voters, said Democratic San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, “understand the connection between skyrocketing pensions and the cuts in services we’ve suffered.”

          All this was taken by some as a shot across Brown’s bow, since public employee bargaining rights increased considerably when he was governor in the 1970s.

          That’s a skewed view. For Brown, as often, was way out in front on this issue. As early as last January, he issued a 12-point program of proposed pension changes that would put new state employees into partial 401(k)-style plans involving some market risk, while also asking state workers to increase contributions to their pensions. Republican state legislators have accepted that plan, but not Brown's fellow Democrats.

          After the June vote, though, there were no I-told-you-so’s from Brown, much of whose electoral support in 2010 came from public employee unions. “The pension vote in San Jose, which is a more liberal city than the state as a whole, is a very powerful signal that pension reform is an imperative,” he said in a video interview. “…people should have confidence that pensions and their reform are on the agenda, right at the top.”

          We will shortly know about that. The Legislature has only until the end of the month to place a measure on the November ballot to make at least some of the changes Brown’s seeks.

          But Democratic legislators who control both the state Assembly and Senate so far evince none of the urgency Brown conveys, nor have they acknowledged that the San Jose and San Diego votes, not to mention the failure of the recall vote against Wisconsin’s governor, have wider implications.

          That’s an ostrich approach. Yes, some lawmakers say they plan to get pension reform done by the end of the current legislative session. That’s not soon enough. The magnitude of the margins in the two big cities demonstrated that voters feel great urgency about restoring equity between public and private sector workers. And legislators had better listen, or those in competitive contests this fall could feel heavy consequences.

     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 more foreign and out-of-state students register at the University of California and the higher tuition and fees there are pushed, the more legitimate it becomes for taxpayers who built and still largely fund the ten-campus system to wonder who it will belong to in the future.

It's a question that got new force early this month, when UCLA officials voted to take their graduate school of business private, depending solely on a variety of grants, plus student tuition and fees.

No one knows, then, if the UC system will remain, as it has been for more than 70 years, the single biggest incubator for upward mobility of young Americans or if it will become a playground for the rich, both from California and other places.

          But all indications at this moment are that UC campuses are gradually coming to cater more and more to the wealthy.

          It's all because of money: The state doesn’t have as much as it needs to fund many basic services that have come to be expected of it, from parks to elementary and high school education to caring for the disabled elderly who have paid taxes all their lives and expected a bit of a safety net in their twilight years.

One result has been a steady reduction over the last decade in state support of UC, California State University and community college campuses. One result: major increases in tuition and fees have hit all those campuses. UC tuition is just about triple what it was 10 years ago, after increases of as much as 20 percent in some single years. To put things in terms of non-inflated money, in 1980, the value of a typical California home would buy over 200 years of UC education. In 2011, it bought only approximately 30 years. So tuition, amazingly, has risen even faster than housing costs.

          Another result of the funding cuts has been a decrease in the number of students transferring to UC schools from community colleges – always a good measure of future upward mobility – and a parallel increase in admission applications from other states and countries. Applications from out-of-staters don’t usually arrive spontaneously; they tend to result from outreach efforts.

          Nearly 1,800 fewer students this spring sought to transfer into UC from junior colleges than just a year ago, even as UC freshman applications rose 19 percent from last year’s levels. One reason: budget cuts at the state’s 112 community colleges make it ever more difficult for students there to complete the classwork needed for a transfer to UC. So many either had to delay or revise their plans. No one is quite certain, but it’s possible that a combination of the slow economy and higher fees at junior colleges also cut into students’ academic progress.

          At the same time, out-of-state and foreign applications to UC rose from about 21,000 last year to more than 33,000 – an upswing of more than 50 percent in just one year.

          With half a billion dollars less state support coming to the university system this year than last – and more cuts on the way if voters nix the taxes proposed this fall – it’s no wonder administrators are reaching out to non-Californians, whose tuition runs about $23,000 higher than even the increased amounts charged to state residents.

          Anyone who says UC administrators aren’t panting after that money can only be naïve. It would also be naïve to think that the flood of new non-resident applications won’t decrease the spots available to top-performing California high school graduates, who are supposedly guaranteed spots in the system if they meet standards. The fact is that more and more highly-capable in-state students are being pushed off UC campuses.

          All of which testifies to an informal but real departure from the 1959 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which spelled out specific missions for UC, Cal State and community colleges. It virtually guaranteed a UC slot to anyone in the top one-eighth of high school graduates. And it promised community college classes to anyone who might benefit from them. Nothing there about money.

          Neither one of those standards is now being met.

          Maybe it would be unrealistic to expect the universities and colleges to continue adhering to their spelled-out missions and tasks in a cash-short era. But they are not serving Californians well when they change their missions as greatly as they have without first conducting a major public debate about their future. If they’re going to change their entire gestalt, they at least ought to go back to the Legislature, since that’s who passed the original master plan.

          And if UC wants to belong increasingly to the rich and the foreign, as the current shift indicates, California taxpayers should have the option of doing something about it. Alternatives could vary from funneling more money to the campuses and strictly limiting out-of-state admissions to cutting UC off state aid altogether and letting it accept the highest bidders.

     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 assumption of almost anyone interested in politics has all along been that Republican Mitt Romney stands virtually no chance of carrying California in his bid to unseat President Obama.

          The candidate himself made that assessment all but official the other day at the end of a fund-raising swing through the state’s big cities, when he named a “leadership” team to head his campaign in this, the nation’s largest state, with the biggest pot of electoral votes.

          The Romney choices were almost automatic, representing nothing at all new or original politically, and some of them amount to a virtual kiss of death when it comes to winning elections in California. They assure that Californians who don't donate thousands of campaign dollars will see almost nothing of the national candidates this fall, not even via television commercials.

          Start with the fact that no Republican can win a statewide vote in California with anything less than about 40 percent of the steadily-larger Latino vote. Then note that Romney’s new honorary statewide co-chairman is former Gov. Pete Wilson, who almost singlehandedly turned California from a highly competitive state into one that’s considered solidly Democratic blue on every electoral map.

          Wilson did this with his unstinting support of the anti-illegal immigrant 1994 Proposition 187, which passed handily and but for a federal court order would now ban children of the undocumented from public schools, while denying all other government benefits to them and their parents, including hospital emergency care.

Wilson, trailing Democrat Kathleen Brown by 20 points in early polls on his reelection that year, promised to require all state and local government employees to report suspected illegal immigrants to the state attorney general’s office if Proposition 187 passed. Then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, now a suburban Sacramento congressman but also running for re-election in ‘94, quickly agreed to set up emergency regulations to enforce the law immediately after the election, even before its effective date.

          This all achieved two political results: It got both Republicans reelected, and it set off a massive wave of citizenship applications, with more than 2.5 million previously legal residents who were not yet citizens becoming naturalized in the next two years. Many of them said they believed further new anti-immigrant laws might be imminent, and the only way to assure their ability to remain in America was to become citizens.

          Almost all of them immediately registered Democratic, ending any hopes the GOP might have harbored for achieving voter registration parity for decades to come.

          Wilson further alienated Hispanics with a drumbeat of TV commercials featuring video of illegals running across the Mexican border at San Ysidro, with an announcer solemnly intoning “they keep coming.”

          Wilson soon was Latinos’ biggest political bugaboo everywhere in the Southwest; polls even showed he was widely detested in Mexico.

          So, in a state where Latino votes have been decisive for many years, that’s who Romney takes as the symbolic chief of his campaign. Throw in his statewide co-chair Meg Whitman, an old Romney chum who was the 2010 Republican candidate for governor and now heads Hewlett-Packard Corp. Whitman’s poll standing two years ago plummeted suddenly when it was revealed that she had employed an undocumented immigrant housekeeper for years, knew the employee was here illegally and dumped the housekeeper summarily just as she announced she was running for governor. Not exactly a move calculated to win popularity among Hispanic voters, once it became widely known.

          The rest of Romney’s California cast is purely GOP boilerplate, but completely ignores the one Republican who has lately cut into Democratic majorities among Hispanics in this state: ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. True, Schwarzenegger is not particularly popular these days, but if Romney really intended to challenge for California votes, he would include a moderate like Schwarzenegger, rather than sticking exclusively with conservatives.

          What’s more, Romney left it to Wilson to respond for the slate of chairs, co-chairs and steering committee members – none of whom will actually be expected to do much. “The members of (Romney’s) California leadership team have already been hard at work spreading his …message and working to ensure that President Obama is defeated in November,” Wilson said.

          Not exactly fiery rhetoric, but about what you’d expect from a half-hearted campaign that’s throwing in the towel in the nation’s largest state long before the political season gets intense.

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

Saturday, June 9, 2012




          Neither Proposition 28 nor 29 on the June 5 ballot aroused any significant emotion – and maybe that’s why the limited proposition action in this primary resulted in one smashing victory and one very close call.

          Term limits had been a sacred cow in California for 22 years since they were adopted via the 1990 Proposition 140. But with little interest and low turnout in the spring election, there was virtually no resistance to the alterations in Proposition 28. The large margin by which it passed, almost 2-1, suggested to some that many voters may not have understood it completely.

          Similarly, not even the $47 million-plus pumped into the anti-Proposition 29 campaign by tobacco companies could create much excitement. And while taxes remain unquestionably unpopular, smoking apparently is almost as disliked.

          Both these measures, then, possessed a stealth factor. But things will be very different this fall, when voters will see not only a presidential election (yes, California did stage a presidential primary, one that mattered not a bit), but at least six propositions will stir passionate campaigns. These will cover subjects from taxes to car insurance prices to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, the death penalty, political contributions by labor unions (via a measure sometimes called “paycheck protection”) and health insurance prices.

          There could be even more action than that, depending on whether other measures still out gathering signatures qualify. These include a ban on selling previously-voter approved high speed rail bonds, labeling of all genetically engineered foods and shareholder approval of political donations by corporations.

          The concentration of heavy-duty issues on the November ballot is the choice of the Democrats who now control Sacramento: Knowing there would be no significant presidential primary in their party, they figured turnout would be low. They also reckoned they will need a high turnout of motivated voters to defeat the third coming of paycheck protection, a conservative-backed measure aiming to curtail labor union campaign donations by forcing union leaders to obtain members’ permission yearly in order to use some of their dues money for politics.

          Democrats knew that measure would qualify in time for the primary, but didn’t want the vote in June. They couldn’t single out one measure for delay. So they opted to delay almost everything. Only time will tell if their strategy succeeds.

          Meanwhile, voters were left to concentrate on congressional and legislative primaries in the spring.

          That basically left initiatives of major interest only to smokers or political junkies.

          Who but folks in the Legislature and the most seriously wonkish others cared much whether lawmakers are limited to serving 14 years in the Legislature, as was previously possible (the time limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate), or 12 years, all of which can be in one house.

          True, Proposition 28 allows more continuity and could give legislators much more chance to develop expertise on the issues they confront daily. That could allow them to depend less on non-term limited staff members who sometimes let their own agendas color the advice and information they give their bosses. Those staff members often seem to survive and thrive while their employers move on every few years.

          Proposition 28 also may slow the perpetual Sacramento game of musical chairs which has seen most lawmakers start angling for their next sinecure even before they’re sworn in for a first term. But the suspicion remains that most voters simply believed 12 years is less than 14.

     If voters were really interested in preventing the sorts of problems term limits have brought, they might never have passed them 22 years ago, as they overwhelmingly did.

          Then there was Proposition 29, seeking to add a dollar a pack to the cost of cigarettes and raising the tax on other tobacco products commensurately. It aimed to make the cigarette tax $1.87 per pack, with the extra money going to cancer research.

          At its current level, the cigarette tax significantly reduced smoking-related death and illness in California over the last 15 years; a higher tax might have moved even more smokers to quit.

          One major flaw in Proposition 29’s plan for spending the estimated $735 million per year it would have raised was that for-profit corporations could have gotten as much as $500 million per year. Nothing guaranteed that big pharmaceutical companies who make most chemotherapy drugs would not use that state money to replace other research dollars, which would then be added to their already-large profits.

          But distaste for smoking almost proved strong enough to push this seriously flawed measure through, even with Big Tobacco spending more than $40 million against it.

          It’s understandable that voters couldn’t work up much steam about these measures. But November will be very different, featuring almost unending fodder for passions of many kinds.

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




The results are now in, and this week’s primary election appears to have given voters exactly what they wanted: a whole bunch of fall runoff contests that figure to be decided not by extreme partisans of the left or right, but rather by moderate voters occupying some kind of middle ground.

There was no excitement in the presidential primary, since ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s nomination has been a certainty since early April, when he won a big victory in the Illinois primary, and no Democrat challenged President Obama.

But that never diminished the importance of this primary, the first contested under the “top two” rules of the 2010 Proposition 14 and the first using district lines drawn by the new Citizens Redistricting Commission. In the districts, the two leading vote-getters will vie again in November, usually Democrat vs. Democrat and Republican vs. Republican. More than 20 districts will feature intra-party contests and when the count becomes final after provisional and late absentee ballots are tallied in some close races, there may be even more. The surprise was that not even one independent without party affiliation appears to have a good shot at election this fall.

This all came about because of two widely-held beliefs. One is that state government has been dysfunctional for the last decade or two and the other is that if the influence of political parties on primary elections could be reduced, more centrist legislators and Congress members could be elected.

          It remains to be seen whether these beliefs will pan out. But for sure, there should be far fewer voters than in the past who feel their wishes have been completely irrelevant in this election.

          Those newly-empowered voters reside in districts that are predominantly Democrat or largely Republican.

          Take the fall race between Democratic congressional veterans Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles. Both won substantial shares of the Democratic vote in the primary, but neither came close to going over 50 percent of the overall total. That means the eventual outcome will be decided by the district’s Republican minority, which couldn’t unite sufficiently to get a candidate onto the runoff ballot. But add a significant majority of Republican primary votes in that district to what either Berman or Sherman got, and they could decide the eventual winner.

          So for the very first time in their long careers, Berman and Sherman will have to try to appeal to Republicans, while at the same time not alienating the Democratic base. It’s an entirely new tightrope for them to walk, and it’s exactly what top-two was intended to produce.

Will either or both of them move right? Time will tell.

          There aren’t many Republicans in the Los Angeles County district where Congresswomen Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson will face off this fall. And Hahn's large primary margin may mean they will remain irrelevant. But not the Democrats in two largely Republican legislative districts in San Diego and Orange counties, where no Democrats ran in the primary.

          Altogether, voters created more than a score of similar situations all around the state, scenarios that could not have existed under the previous system, where the leading Republican vote-getter in the primary faced the leading Democrat and a bunch of minor-party candidates.

          From now on, there will be no minor candidates to dilute the November vote, nor any write-ins, either. Those candidates had their chances in the primary and since they didn’t make it then, they were eliminated. That’s one reason this system is often called a “jungle primary.” It is certainly survival of the politically fittest. But it’s the best way that anyone has yet devised – and managed to make constitutional – to diminish the influence of party extremists in choosing legislators and congress members.

          It also has now put Republicans on notice that they’d better concentrate on voter registration and reverse the slide that has seen them drop from about 38 percent of California’s registered voters to just over 30 percent in less than 10 years – or risk become irrelevant in all but a few districts.

          For the reason there will be many more all-Democrat runoffs in November than all-GOP contests is clear: There just aren’t enough Republican voters to set up many of those contests.

          All of which means California politics is entering a brave new world after this watershed primary. To see what it eventually means, we’ll all have to stay tuned.

     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