Wednesday, October 24, 2012




          When a car company blunders by installing, say, a power window switch that might catch fire, it issues a recall and fixes – for free – as many as 2.5 million cars. Toyota issued precisely such a recall notice this fall, the company paying heavily for its mistake.

          But when a utility company sees one of its gas pipelines blow up, killing eight and putting many more residents in a dense San Francisco suburb out of their homes, it seeks to have its customers pay for most of the fix that must follow. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is trying that right now.

          Similarly, when other utilities see their nuclear power plant shuttered for most of a year because of a flawed part and a small radiation leak, with little chance of restarting anytime soon, they expect customers to keep right on paying as if nothing happened.

     That’s what Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. have done since their San Onofre generating station shut down last Jan. 31, with customers paying $54 million a month, or $28 so far per person their vast service areas. That’s $28 per person, not per customer household.

          The good news is that besides federal authorities that supposedly assure utility safety, a state commission regulates rates. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) can quickly halt any plans big California utilities have to keep soaking their customers, to keep profiting from their own dangerous, sometimes disastrous mistakes. Now, after Edison and SDG&E kept soaking the customers for the more than nine months since the San Onofre shut down, the PUC at last will take a look. It will soon “investigate,” with customers continuing to pay while that probe goes on.

          But the PUC has been anything but a consumer watchdog under its current president, Michael Peevey – first appointed by ex-Gov. Gray Davis, reappointed by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and kept on as president by current Gov. Jerry Brown. Peevey is a former president of SoCal Edison. You’re dreaming if you expect him to recuse himself from cases involving his old firm.

          Under Peevey, the PUC has been a steadfast lapdog for utilities. This involves not only rates, but also approvals for huge solar thermal power plants now under construction in California deserts that require massive investments in hundreds of miles of new power transmission lines. Those billions will be added to the “rate base” of each utility company, meaning they not only get repaid by customers for their investments, but are assured of a “reasonable rate of return” on those investments for the next 20 years.

        That means billions in guaranteed profits even if the solar plants don’t produce nearly what’s planned. Billions that would not accrue to them if the PUC instead encouraged putting solar photovoltaic panels on most buildings in the cities they serve. The electric output would likely be the same, but the cost for transmission lines would be next to nothing.

          Is it any wonder the big utilities love big solar plants, even when they don’t own them?

          Similarly, PG&E wants to profit from whatever it spends on fixing its hundreds of miles of gas transmission pipelines. Never mind that consumers made payments monthly for decades earmarked to assure safety and reliability of gas pipelines all over California. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded last year that – at least for PG&E – inspections and repairs have long been inadequate. So the money collected all those years plainly wasn’t used as it should have been.

          Now the utility wants customers to pay 84 percent of the $2.2 billion it says it will spend to fix its pipelines. A PUC administrative law judge proposed instead that customers pay 55 percent. Chances are, the PUC will split the difference, with customers paying about 70 percent. And PG&E would likely get to put the full amount into its rate base, ensuring a $300 million profit over 20 years from its deadly negligence.

          At the same time, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission probably won’t let even one of San Onofre’s two generators back online for many months, but it’s no sure thing the PUC will stop the consumer ripoff (as the majority owner, Edison operates the plant).

          What’s more, even if Edison and SDG&E were suddenly told to stop collecting for operating the inoperative San Onofre (don’t bet on any such order coming soon), they’d keep the hundreds of millions they’ve already collected.

          If all this seems absurd and wrong – giant companies profiting from their own dereliction – it is. But it's not likely to change as long as there is no mechanism for shortening the five-year terms of utility commissioners and getting rid of those who act as tools of the companies they are supposed to regulate.

          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




          There are occasional elections where voters are not asked to decide very much – as in last June’s primary, where the presidential candidates had been determined beforehand and the propositions aroused few emotions.

          Things are completely different today (editors: if publishing this column before Nov. 2, use “Tuesday” or “Nov. 2” here, as appropriate). California has rarely seen a ballot with as much vitally important content, as many significant decisions as this one.

          So if you’re registered to vote, there’s plenty of reason to follow through.

          From death (Prop. 34 would repeal the death penalty for even the most heinous crimes) to taxes (Props. 32 and 38 compete to raise taxes – mostly on people in high income brackets – for schools and possibly other uses). There’s a car insurance issue, a decision on whether most genetically modified food should be labeled, a re-run of the 1996 and 2005 “paycheck protection” propositions aiming to politically emasculate labor unions and even a measure to make life harder for modern-day slave traders.

          And that’s only the propositions.

          They come near the end of the ballot. Higher up are some of the most interesting and unpredictable contests for Congress and the state Legislature California has seen in the last 50 years.

          Not to mention the presidential race itself. Democrats have such a large voter registration edge statewide (43-30 percent over Republicans among registered voters, with more than 20 percent now declaring no party preference) that neither President Obama nor GOP challenger Mitt Romney has campaigned here this fall, except in fundraising mode.

          Similarly, incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein had such an overwhelming margin over Republican Elizabeth Emken in all polls of the last few months and in fundraising that this one appears to be no contest.

          But there are at least 20 congressional and legislative races that offer very interesting contests. These are almost purely the results of a combination of electoral changes voted in via initiative over the last four years. With new districts not gerrymandered to protect incumbents – for a welcome change – several incumbent members of Congress were forced into earlier-than-planned retirement rather than run against party mates or in new areas where they are relatively unknown or face big voter registration deficits.

          That happened to Central Valley Democrat Dennis Cardoza, who didn’t want to run against longtime incumbent Jim Costa and to Republicans Elton Gallegly of Ventura County and David Dreier of San Dimas, neither of whom liked the looks of their new districts.

          The fierce contest between conservative Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland and liberal Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley for what is basically Gallegly’s longtime seat should attract a large voter turnout, if only because of their deep differences.

          The all-Democrat contest between longtime incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles is another that would pull a big turnout even without the physical encounter Sherman initiated in one of their debates. Republicans have taken a role in this race, as both candidates know they’ll need votes from across the aisle to win. Several GOP U.S. senators endorse Berman, while some local Republican officials back Sherman, as that party tries try to choose what they consider the lesser of two evils.

     Also assured a big turnout is the all-Democrat Assembly race between incumbent Betsy Butler and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom. This is a contest to see who can be the more liberal.

     Altogether, there are more than two dozen intra-party races on ballots around the state, the product of the new top-two primary election system that no longer assures any party a place on the general election ballot. Candidates now must win those slots by being one of the top two primary vote-getters.

This leaves some minor party advocates griping about being left out. The answer for them is to get candidates or ideas that appeal more to mainstream voters. Then they’ll once again make some runoff ballots.

          Meanwhile, the prime focus of most voters might well be on the propositions. Interests from state universities to caretakers for the elderly infirm vocally support Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30, with its proposed tax increase, while some public school unions are fervently pushing Proposition 38, financially backed by Pasadena civil rights attorney Molly Munger, whose father is the partner of billionaire Warren Buffett.

          If both pass, it’s likely the one with the most votes will prevail, as did the 1978 Proposition 13 over another tax-cutting measure known as Proposition 8. That’s what happens when two initiatives cover much of the same turf. But there’s the possibility of a field day for lawyers here, as some wrinkles make it unclear whether all of the less-popular proposition would be cancelled out.

          All in all, California hasn’t seen such a fascinating ballot in many years, which means there’s almost no excuse for not voting this time.

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2012




          As the fall election season nears its welcome end, there are a few people and parties missing, at least in California: The candidates of the Green, Libertarian, American Independent and Peace and Freedom parties.

          When all the votes were tallied after last June’s primary election, not a single member of those parties finished in the top two in any of the state’s 233 legislative and congressional districts. That means they won’t be a presence anywhere this fall except on the presidential level. It’s one result of the “jungle primary” primary system voters adopted via a 2010 initiative, but one of the most significant – and definitely the result that drew the most whines.

          “It’s not a good situation” Kevin Takenaga, chairman of the state’s Libertarian Party griped to a reporter just before the primary. “It will force people to these established candidates – the ones who have…more major party support.”

          Not necessarily: There are a couple of independents, people who refuse to declare loyalty to any political party, still politically alive.

          What makes the complaining from the minor parties pure whining is that they had their chance. The June success and/or near-success of some independents demonstrates that candidates not labeled either Democrat or Republican can do well – if they have a message or a record that appeals to masses of voters.

          If they don’t, they don’t deserve to be in the runoff with those who demonstrated far wider appeal, and should get out of the way.

          For the presence of minor party candidates in runoff elections can distort the eventual outcome by siphoning votes away from major party candidates with similar views.

          It doesn’t happen often, but it might have in two statewide races of the last 10 years, one of them the  razor-thin 2010 election of current Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat, over Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

          Harris won that contest by a margin of just 74,157 votes over Cooley in a contest whose outcome wasn’t certain until about a month after Election Day. Meanwhile, 835,000 votes went to minor party candidates in that race, about 9 percent of the total cast, or close to one ballot in every 10.

As it turned out, the Green and Peace and Freedom candidates’ (both much closer to most Democrats than to almost any Republican) combined tally of just over 419,000 narrowly topped the combined Libertarian and American Independent (somewhat akin in outlook to Republicans) total of 416,000. What if all those votes had been cast for Harris and Cooley, but not necessarily along predictable party lines? They could have altered the outcome.

          The small parties did change of outcome of the even narrower 2002 contest for state controller between liberal Democrat Steve Westly and conservative Republican Tom McClintock, who later won a seat in Congress.

          Westly won that race by 16,800 votes out of more than 6.5 million cast. Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Laura Wells took 419,000 votes, or almost 6 percent. Had she not been on the ballot that year, chances are most of those votes would have been Westly’s, and the state would have been spared a full month of suspense over the outcome.

          Farther back, in 1986, American Independent and Libertarian candidates drew 176,000 votes in a U.S. Senate contest won by Democrat Alan Cranston by just 105,000 over Republican Ed Zschau. Essentially, the third parties gave a fourth term to Cranston, whose supporters spent more than $500,000 promoting the candidacy of American Independent hopeful Edward Vallen in a successful effort to siphon votes away from Zschau.

          This amounted to a distortion of the election, which saw more conservative than liberal-leaning votes cast, only to have a liberal senator win.

          It will now be impossible for any minor party candidate to influence the runoff election outcome, whether to swing an election like Cranston’s or merely to make some races tighter than they needed to be, as with the Harris and Westly victories.

          But what about the minor parties’ bleat that effectively excluding them from the November ballot stifles voices that can sometimes push valuable ideas?

          That doesn’t wash, either. Nothing prevents those ideas from getting a full airing during the primary.

          Will all this drive minor parties out of business? It could, as one way they’ve stayed alive has been by winning at least 2 percent of the vote in any statewide election. But they can also survive by registering voters in numbers amounting to 1 percent of the last total vote for governor.

          So minor parties with even marginal support ought to be able to stick around. If they don’t, it will be because they don’t have much appeal.

          The bottom line is that getting what amounts to deadwood out of the way in runoff elections simplifies the ballot, which is already complex enough because of the all the initiatives it features. And if that leads more people to vote, so much the better.

    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




          If some voters feel a sense of déjà vu as the fall election nears, one reason may be the battle between the tax-raising Propositions 30 and 38, a fight with strong and ironic echoes of the historic June 1978 clash between two property tax-cutting measures, Propositions 8 and 13.

          Both 8 and 13 passed in that long-ago election, but because they covered much the same subject matter and Proposition 13 won by a larger margin, the Howard Jarvis-backed property tax cuts became law. Efforts to alter it have been a political third rail ever since.

          Should both Gov. Jerry Brown’s Prop. 30 and billionaire activist Molly Munger’s Prop. 38 pass this time, most analysts believe the one getting the most votes would cancel out the other. But legal battles would likely ensue.

          Historic parallels and ironies abound here: Brown as governor during both fights has been intimately involved in each. He essentially owns Prop. 30, which would raise taxes by about $6.5 billion yearly. He fought Prop. 13 and backed Prop. 8, which would have lowered property taxes on owner-occupied homes and buildings, creating essentially what is now called a “split roll.” Had Prop. 8 passed, taxes for most residential property could be lower today, but levies on commercial and industrial lands and buildings would be higher.

          After Prop. 13 won, Brown became a vocal convert, implementing it enthusiastically, especially helping state government take control over property tax revenues away from local agencies.

          One irony today sees sometime tax cutter Brown wanting to raise taxes – even though the sums to be raised would simply make up for cuts in the vehicle license tax by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during his first days in office. This has amounted to about $6.5 billion per year since late 2003; without it there would likely be no state budget deficit and no plausible argument for either Prop. 30 or 38.

          But there is that deficit, and Brown says past history may be largely irrelevant. “In the world I live in now,” he said in one recent talk, “there isn’t much past, there isn’t much memory. It’s all about the news.”

          The news is that funding for education has been cut severely over the last few years. Tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, billions of dollars cut from university and community college budgets, plus enrollment cuts and tuition increases.

          “Snake oil,” anti-tax fighter Jon Coupal labels arguments for both Props. 30 and 38. The head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. says the fact state parks officials hid about $50 million while parks were closing somehow means billions more lurk in Sacramento bank accounts no one has found.

          The implication, of course, is that Brown, Schwarzenegger and everyone else who has cut education, highway, prison and other state funding threw those programs under the bus just to get these propositions passed. Not likely, no matter how loudly and persistently anyone makes the implication.

          Critics also say Brown’s determination to sell voter-approved bonds for high speed rail means he could avoid the additional cuts he and the Legislature have ready to take effect automatically if Prop. 30 fails. Also incorrect.

          And there’s the charge that Prop. 30 doesn’t set aside any money for education. This ignores the 1988 Proposition 98, guaranteeing a large percentage of state spending for schools. Yes, the state under both Schwarzenegger and Brown has “borrowed” some of this money. But, no, that wouldn’t make funds from Prop. 30 any more of a “slush fund” than other state revenues.

          “Sure, Prop. 30 would raise taxes,” Brown said. “But the income tax increases affect no one who makes under $250,000.” Its quarter-cent sales tax hike would affect everyone.

          Brown adds that Prop. 38 “starts at a much lower level (only the lowest tax bracket is exempt from increases) and its money goes only to K-12 public schools. It would take five years before it brings in as much as Prop. 30 and it doesn’t start until next year – not soon enough.”

          While Brown notes that school have serious financial problems – “We’ve been cutting too many teachers…and counselors,” he said – he adds that giving money to schools alone, a la 38, won’t solve the deficit. “The general fund is where the deficit is,” he said, noting it also covers other essentials like prisons and water management and Medi-Cal.

          Opponents call the cuts set to trigger if Prop. 30 loses a form of “blackmail,” especially since most are to education. “That’s where the money is,” Brown said. “We couldn’t find any other places to cut.”

          Ballot propositions are always important in California, but the 30 vs. 38 vs. no-on-both battle is one of the most vital yet. That’s why it may help that California’s votes in the presidential and U.S. senate elections on the same ballot seem to be foregone conclusions: lack of suspense about them ought to allow voters to concentrate on this critical fight.

    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