Wednesday, September 18, 2013




    Anyone who says there was no effect from political rule changes California used for the first time last year just hasn't been watching. These included “top two” primary elections, slightly revised term limits and use of election districts drawn by non-partisan non-politicians.

          Those changes had enormous impact this year on some of the most important issues taken up by state legislators – making it obvious some similar changes could be useful at the federal level.

          The main impact of the changes has been restoration of respectability to the word “compromise.”

          For decades before the rule changes, behavior patterns in Sacramento were much like those so paralyzing today in Congress: almost mindless adherence to the party line of whichever party lawmakers belong to and blind unwillingness even to listen to the reasoning of the other side.

          But the new rules, including a term limit change allowing legislators to serve 12 total years, whether in one house or both, has lessened the need for new lawmakers to start looking for their next jobs almost as soon as they’re elected. So there’s less pressure for rookies to please party leaders who control money they could use if and when they seek to move up the political ladder.

          Meanwhile, top two frees some politicians from the fear of extremists within their own parties, who often controlled the old Democratic and Republican primaries.

          And some of the new districts are more competitive than the old gerrymandered ones, making moderation more attractive.

          These were some of the reasons why compromise ruled in the legislative session just ended. Democrats have overwhelming majorities in both the state Assembly and Senate, so much of the give and take was between the extreme left and moderates within the party, but on some issues, even the small minority of Republican legislators got involved.

          The best example was prison reform, where Bob Huff of Diamond Bar and Connie Conway of Tulare, GOP leaders in the Senate and Assembly, joined Democratic leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown in announcing a compromise that will encourage rehabilitation efforts while assuring no current prison inmates are released earlier than normal.

          Because of a federal court order, the state must decrease prison populations to no more than 137.5 percent of design capacity by the end of this year. This threatened to force a few thousand early releases.

          Some Republicans wanted to solve the problem by building more prisons. Many Democrats, led by Senate President Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, wanted to place thousands of inmates into rehab. But all political sides agreed to ask the judges to amend their order and allow the state more time to lower the number of prisoners by expanding rehab programs that do well in preventing recidivism of drug- and alcohol-related crimes.

          Should the judges insist on their current deadline, the deal would see the state rent space in out-of-state prisons and county jails while the rehab plan ramps up.

          That gets in both the main elements of Brown’s plan for mainly renting more space – which Republicans liked – and Steinberg’s rehab-centered ideas. It’s a classic compromise.

          So was what happened on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, the drilling method in which water and chemicals are inserted in shale formations to loosen oil and natural gas. Fearing ground water pollution, environmental activists demanded a moratorium on fracking, which could become an economic bonanza, while the oil industry wanted the old system of loose or no regulation.

          The new compromise law will force permits for the first time, and require disclosure of exactly what chemicals are used, plus continuous monitoring of ground water quality.

          “The last-minute changes undercut critical safety measures,” griped the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This was a good bill gone bad.” But it’s still a lot more regulation than California has had.

          There was compromise, too, on drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, where some sought regular drivers licenses for all. Instead, the undocumented can soon get licenses, but ones with special watermarks and notations not permitting them to be used to prove they can legally be employed. Half a loaf for immigrant advocates, but a lot more than the nothing they’ve gotten in previous years.

          Brown rightfully gets a lot of credit for the atmosphere of moderation that produced these compromises. But so should the rule changes, without which it’s likely at least some of these deals would not have been done.

    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




          For most of the last five years, the pessimists Gov. Jerry Brown likes to call “declinists” were out in force, shouting to everyone who would listen that California’s best days are behind it, that Texas is the place to go. Some of them even profited from such moves, working as business relocation consultants.

          But they’ve been oddly silent lately. For good times are starting to roll again in the Golden State. Even in manufacturing, where the carmaker Mercedes Benz this summer leased nearly 1.1 million square feet of a former airplane plant in Long Beach that had been shuttered about seven years.

          The Eastern food franchise Dunkin’ Donuts will open 45 stores in California soon, creating about 1,000 jobs. Amazon’s new distribution centers in Patterson, Tracy and San Bernardino will hire at least 1,000 more workers than they already have. The same company just leased 75,000 square feet of office space in Santa Monica for its new television and movie production company, not saying how many workers it will hire.

    That’s just up the street from a new Microsoft research facility and only a few miles from where Google has renovated a large building in the Venice district of Los Angeles, increasing the credibility of the so-called Silicon Beach area in western Los Angeles County, where YouTube and Yahoo, among others, already had large presences.

          The declinists just two years ago seemed pleased when California’s economy slipped to tenth place in the world from its longtime position as No. 8, surpassed by Italy and Russia. But the Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy now predicts California will be back to No. 8 by year’s end.

          No, it’s not likely the state will soon get back to No. 6 in the world again, as it was in 2000. That’s less because of failings here than due to the fast emergence of China and Brazil, both of which dwarf California in size, population and natural resources and were downtrodden until fairly recently. The outputs of both those economies surpassed California’s in the early 2000s.

    Even lobbyists for California businesses which have long chafed in California’s relatively strict regulatory climate seem happy these days.

    “California is now in the mix for the next round of manufacturing investments,” Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers & Technology Assn., said during the summer, just after Brown signed bills exempting manufacturing equipment from sales taxes and providing credits for businesses in areas with the highest unemployment and poverty.

          The business lobby had pushed for the sales tax exemption for 10 years, since a previous one expired.

          And yet, all is not completely hunky-dory. California still loses the occasional business or event, one recent example being the X-Games, which essentially outgrew the Los Angeles facilities where it has been staged. Unemployment, although down almost one-third from two years ago, remained at almost 8 percent through the summer, even though California’s job growth was among the highest in the nation, with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting increases in all of the state’s 26 largest counties.

          So there still has not been full recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-11. Home foreclosures are down from their peak levels of three years ago, but remain higher than previous norms.

          And while the state has more millionaires than any other, with the accompanying mega-mansions, only 44 percent of residents are now able to afford a median-priced California home, priced at $428,510 in June. That’s down from 56 percent a year earlier, when prices were much lower.

          Good for sellers, awful for buyers, especially first-time buyers, and a possible indicator that the mercurial real estate price rises of the last few months, with their accompanying spate of all-cash offers, may signal a future bust.

          And poverty continues to be problematic in high-unemployment areas, especially those in the Central Valley. Merced County, for one example, had some job growth, but one-fourth of all households there remain below the federal poverty line of $23,550 income for a family of four.

          All of which means things are looking up in many industries and for California in general, but there’s still room for plenty of improvement.

     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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013




          It’s secession season again in California. For the seventh time in the last 27 years or so, there’s a movement afoot to split the state.

          But while most secession attempts have sought to divide California on a north-south basis, with the divide roughly at the top of the Tehachapi Mountains between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, the latest effort – like the two most recent previous ones – involves far more creative and interesting borders. The previous pair sought east-west splits along political lines, wanting to take the most conservative-leaning parts of California away from coastal counties that tend to vote more liberally.

    The newest effort is a completely different twist, even carrying a name: The state of Jefferson.

          This one originates in Siskiyou County, a mostly-rural, mountainous area bordering on Oregon that is roughly bisected by the north-south Interstate 5. County supervisors there, confronted by a roomful of citizens frustrated by what they see as neglect and even persecution from state government, voted 4-1early last month to leave. They'd like to take some other Northern California counties and a few from southern Oregon with them.

          Supervisors in some neighboring counties will probably vote on the idea soon.

          If the state of Jefferson were to become reality, its largest cities might be places like Ashland, Medford or Klamath Falls, Ore., or Eureka, in Humboldt County. Should it stretch as far south as Shasta County, Redding would become its metropolis.

          Many Siskiyou residents and some in nearby counties are angry over new gun control laws and firefighting fees being assessed by state officials in wildfire-prone areas. They also harbor longtime fears that big cities to the south might one day tap wild and scenic rivers like Eel, Smith or Trinity. They feel unrepresented in Sacramento, and are plainly alienated from the freeway-conscious cultures of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.

          It’s rather ironic that this move comes while California’s governor, for the first time in decades, is a significant rural landowner, Gov. Jerry Brown owning a ranch north of Sacramento.

          But the strong odds are that no matter how intriguing the Jefferson idea may be and no matter how valid the grievances of the affected area, this state split will go no farther than all the past efforts.

          For one thing, any such split would have to be okayed by Congress. How many other states will vote, in effect, to give the present California two more seats in the United State Senate? No other state wants its clout diluted.

          There’s also the likelihood that the demographic makeup and political leanings of the Jefferson area would assure election of a Republican governor and legislature, something Democrats now controlling Sacramento and the U.S. Senate would resist.

          These kinds of factors are significant reasons why there has been no successful state split since the Civil War era, when West Virginia was formed as a pro-Union state after the rest of Virginia became the seat of the Confederacy. Feelings may run high today in some places, but there’s no way an annual fire fee can arouse the same deep feelings as slavery did a century and a half ago.

          This doesn’t mean people in rural Northern California aren’t sick of being dominated politically by the big coastal population centers. So the newest state-split advocates have at least something in common with the 28 previous efforts to split the state since California joined the Union, mostly spurred by Northern Californians fearing domination by Los Angeles.

          What’s more, secession would require an overall yes vote from all Californians, very unlikely.

     The bottom line now, as with past state split efforts, is that it’s not going to happen, no matter how much fun some folks might have while talking up the idea.

          But mere talk won’t solve the economic and political problems of the area. Only better representation in both Congress and the Legislature can start doing that, but there’s no prospect most of the current major office-holders whose districts include Siskiyou County will change or grow more effective anytime soon.

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 third edition. His email address is




          Repeated battles for the soul of California’s Republican Party began in earnest in 1968, when the ultra-conservative state Schools Supt. Max Rafferty bested moderate U.S. Sen. Thomas Kuchel in a June primary election and went on to lose badly to Democrat Alan Cranston, who would then be reelected three times.

          The newest split in this party that began by advocating freedom over slavery is about immigration, with moderate elements in the state GOP wanting some sort of pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the conservative wing holding they are all criminals who should have no rights or privileges.

    It’s a reflection of a national battle first symbolized in 1964 by the fight over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s nomination for President, one that still sees state parties all over America severely divided almost 50 years later.

    In those days, the battle was over segregated housing, voting rights and what was euphemistically called “states’ rights,” the party’s conservative wing arguing that states should be able to restrict voting, allow landlords to discriminate on the basis of race or religion and more.

    Today’s conservative Republicans say they discriminate against no one and want merely to limit government intrusions on individual rights, while insisting that no illegal act – including sneaking across a border – should be rewarded.

          “The GOP divide is serious and real,” writes Stephen Frank, conservative blogger and former president of the California Republican Assembly. “Issues like amnesty and abortion have so divided the party that folks on both sides of those issues say if they lose, they walk.”

          Already about 14 percent behind Democrats among registered voters, the state’s GOP can ill afford to have anyone opt out. But Frank, strongly against both abortion and what conservatives call amnesty, claims that when Republican voters “no longer see a difference between the two major parties, (they) say no to the GOP.” He says that’s happened since 14 GOP senators voted for the omnibus immigration bill now languishing in the House of Representatives.

          But House members have long been moved more by what’s happening in their districts than anything else. If they alienate their constituents, they can’t survive.

          So it makes sense that Republican Jeff Denham, whose district includes Central Valley cities like Tracy, Manteca and Turlock has lately spoken in favor of “top to bottom immigration reform.” About 44 percent of residents in his district – a swing one since new boundaries were drawn – are Latino.

          By contrast, only about 20 percent of residents in the district of fellow GOPer Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach are Latino and Rohrabacher adamantly opposes any law granting any sort of path to citizenship for the undocumented. The overwhelming white Anglo majority in his district makes it among the nation’s most conservative.

          Their colleague and party mate, David Valadao of Visalia, meanwhile, called the Senate immigration bill “monumental,” saying he is committed to “developing a reasonable, responsible immigration plan.” No coincidence, probably, that 67 percent of his district’s population is Latino, including about half its registered voters.

          For the most part, this split does not carry over to abortion, the other litmus test for Frank and his fellow conservative leaders. Almost every Republican is pro-life. And yet, the state’s Republican convention last year voted only narrowly to keep the party’s strong anti-abortion platform plank. So there’s disagreement on that, too.

          California is not unique. In states as varied as Maine and Alaska, state GOP officials have been forced out lately while their parties – like California’s – face financial problems. “There’s been a lot of division and disharmony in the Republican Party,” Maine’s new GOP chairman, Rick Bennett, told a reporter.

          But Frank believes the real danger to the party lies in what might happen if the Republican-controlled House passes any immigration bill containing a route to citizenship – which is probably necessary to get Senate concurrence and become law.

    If no such law passes, plenty of Latino voters in districts represented by Republicans will vote against the GOP. Of course, many would anyway.

          But if enough Republicans do go along and Frank proves correct, a large segment of base GOP voters could stay home next year and beyond. Which means the party faces consequences either way, and might as well search its soul and do what it believes just and moral.

    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