Tuesday, October 27, 2015




          The single easiest bill for California legislators to pass this year probably was Senate Bill 725, giving about 5,000 high school students the ability to graduate without taking the state’s high school exit exam, which suddenly became unavailable when they tried to take it in July.

          But then the lawmakers went much further and, with approval from the quixotic Gov. Jerry Brown, effectively nullified everything the exit exam had accomplished since 2006.

          Failure to pass the exit test since that time had meant not merely an inability to graduate, but also could cancel previously-arranged college admissions and some military enlistments. By being so definitive, it also let employers and others know that a California high school graduate would have certain knowledge and skills.

          Legislators clearly could not let 5,000 kids no longer able to access the exam be stranded, plainly justifying their votes of 37-0 in the state Senate and 77-1 in the Assembly to grant those students a reprieve.

          But there was no reprieve for the exit exam, suspended since state education officials declined to renew a contract that expired in May with the firm that formerly administered the test.

          Their reason: The exit exam did not conform in its math and language arts sections to the Common Core curriculum now being taught in public schools.

          Somehow, that didn’t keep the vast majority of high schoolers from passing it. The pass rate last year was just over 95 percent, with many students taking the test as early as their sophomore year. Why has it been so easy? One reason might be that the exit exam’s math section covered mostly sixth- and seventh-grade material, while the English portion reached only the 10th-grade level.

          The rationale for discarding all results of the exit exam since 2006 and allowing diplomas to everyone who failed it but met other graduation requirements was that it did not test according to the new Common Core standards. So what? Common Core did not apply in those years, and the vast majority of students passed the test.

          One newspaper then featured a happy-talk story about a young woman who failed the math portion of the exam repeatedly, but suddenly became a high school graduate and thus eligible to pursue a registered nurse degree. Would you want someone unable to do seventh grade math calculating fractional drug dosages your doctor might prescribe for you?

    The exit exam actually filled its main purpose most of the time it existed, as the story of the putative nurse illustrates. That purpose was as a kind of certification that any high school graduate in the state could safely be assumed to know things no one had been sure of during the era of social promotion that preceded its adoption in 2005.

          Now that Common Core has made changes in basic curriculum, legislators easily passed a bill by Democratic state Sen. Carol Liu of La Canada-Flintridge suspending the exit exam requirement until 2019.

          Between now and then, educators are supposed to develop a new test. Its nature is still unknown, but a 2013 report by state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson might offer some clues. He suggested some “alternatives” to the then-in-force exit exam.

          One would eliminate the exit test as a stand-alone graduation requirement and use results of the Smarter Balanced assessments – computerized tests aligned with Common Core – to determine readiness for graduation. The state Education Department bills them as the “new generation” of student proficiency assessments.

          Another was to use Smarter Balanced tests together with results of voluntary exams like the SAT college admissions test to tell whether students are worthy of graduation. The trouble with that is that it's usually only college-bound students who take the voluntary tests.

          Torlakson also said successful completion of certain courses could determine whether students meet graduation requirements. That could be a lot like life before the exit exam.

          The ultimate outcome will likely be an exit exam of some kind, since legislators like state Senate Republican leader Robert Huff are on record saying “Without an exit exam, we will return to the days (of no) guarantee of minimum mathematics and language arts competency. We can’t let that happen to California students.”

          So it’s highly uncertain what the new graduation standards will look like.

          Meanwhile, the anxiety, efforts and accomplishment of more than 2 million students who passed the test since 2006 are now rendered essentially meaningless.

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net




          Just over one year from today, Californians will be focused on helping elect the next president and picking their next U.S. senator.

          That so-far-sedate race looks like it will boil down to either Democrat state Attorney General Kamala Harris or Democratic Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez against a Republican, take your pick among  state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside and former state party chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro.

    Partly because all are underfunded and partly because they represent the ever-shrinking California GOP, it just may happen that no Republican survives next June’s Top Two primary, letting  Harris and Sanchez split the larger Democratic vote and duke it out in the fall. To prevent that, two of the Republicans will have to drop out long before that primary.

    But all this drama will only be an appetizer.

          Yes, for those folks, Election Day will be a finish line. But to many others in California politics, it’s just a starting point. Replete with early opt-outs from the Senate race, the field for the 2018 run for the much-more-powerful office of governor will be off and racing the moment next November’s returns are counted. Candidates are already making moves.

          This field looks far more prominent and monied than those vying to replace current four-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

          At least four major Democrats are now gearing up to run, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the ex-mayor of San Francisco; former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, billionaire investor Tom Steyer and former state Controller Steve Westly, himself a Silicon Valley near-billionaire. An early Field Poll showed Villaraigosa with a narrow lead over Newsom, with current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, thus far a non-candidate, in third place.

          So far, only one Republican is currently nosing around the race – Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen. Like current presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, handily defeated by Boxer in 2010, Swearingen isn’t letting a mere statewide defeat dissuade her from seeking a much bigger office. Swearingen was narrowly defeated a year ago by Betty Yee in a run for state controller.

          As with the Senate race, most eyes and the big money will be on the Democratic side in this race. Not only are Steyer and Westly capable of writing enough personal checks to fund their campaigns entirely, but Newsom had $5.5 million on hand for the run as early as July 1, his staff saying his fund-raising had barely begun.

          Nationally, Newsom may be the best-known of this group because of his pioneering 2004 executive order permitting same sex marriage in San Francisco, a move that set a national precedent upheld this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

          But Villaraigosa has at least as much name recognition in Southern California. To gain even more, one of his preliminary moves was a “listening tour” of the Central Valley, with stops in places like Bakersfield and Visalia. No miscues from him like the one by L.A. mayoral predecessor Richard Riordan, who took a similar tour while he considered running for governor in 1998, reporting on his return that he had visited some “strange places.”

          Riordan’s campaign didn’t go very far after that.

          One question mark hangs over both Villaraigosa and Newsom: How much will past womanizing hurt them among female voters, the majority of California Democrats? Newsom’s past includes trysts with the wife of his onetime top aide, while Villaraigosa’s indiscretions with a television reporter led to the end of a long marriage.

          There’s no such spice in the backgrounds of Garcetti, Steyer or Westly. Steyer is a former hedge fund executive and Westly an early leader of the eBay online auction house.

          Their money could assure that Westly and Steyer quickly become as well-known to voters as Newsom or Villaraigosa, via an onslaught of TV commercials.

          No such big money is available yet to Swearingen, but if she should survive the primary as its lone Republican, thus becoming a November finalist, she’ll likely get plenty. So Swearingen and her party need other Republicans to stay out. Democrats have become so dominant in California that any split in the GOP vote could put two Democrats into the runoff matchup, the same as it could in the ongoing Senate race.

          So while the political season just now getting underway will end in about a year, chances are that campaign will amount to little more than an appetizer for the much larger California race to come.


    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net

Monday, October 19, 2015




          There’s something crazy when the most powerful agency in California government spends an entire year mired in scandal caused in large part by inadequate controls over the activities of its key people – and not a single reform emerges.

That’s the end result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of a package of bills that handily passed the Legislature this fall aiming to fix aspects of the state Public Utilities Commission, even if those bills themselves had some flaws.

The net upshot is that Brown has yet to utter a negative word about the overtly crooked activities of former PUC President Michael Peevey and others at the commission, even complimenting Peevey on “getting things done” at the time he departed the commission in disgrace.

The PUC is the most powerful of state agencies because it controls what consumers pay for electricity and natural gas provided by private companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric. The agency also makes some key decision affecting water and telephones. Unlike all other state commissioners, PUC members serve six-year terms and cannot be fired even by the governor who appoints them.

No one would seriously claim the bills Brown vetoed were perfect. For example, they did not include the most important reform that should have emerged from the scandals: making PUC decisions reviewable in Superior Court, and not only in appeals courts or the state Supreme Court, as they are today.

          But some changes in these bills could have been valuable, including creation of an independent inspector general assigned to make sure commission actions and processes are fair and legal. There is now virtually no oversight at all.

          So-called “ex-parte communications” – telephone calls, emails and other contacts between commissioners and staff and executives of the utility companies they regulate would have had to be reported on the PUC’s website. The problem with this was that there would have been no way to make sure all private contacts were reported.

          Kevin Liao, a top aide to Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lakewood in Los Angeles County, author of most of the package and soon to assume the powerful office of Assembly speaker, reported that the possibility of suing the PUC over its decisions in Superior Court was removed from Rendon’s reforms in the Assembly Appropriations Committee despite his protests.

          The weakened reform package nevertheless was too strong for Brown, who said in veto messages that “I support the intent of these bills…”

          Just not enough to prevent repetitions of the extra-legal contacts between PUC members and utility executives which resulted in favored treatment for PG&E in its attempt to fight off punishment for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons.

          Emails show similar contacts between Peevey and Edison executives produced the outline of a settlement that now stands to cost consumers $3.3 billion, or about three-fourths what it will to retire the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which failed because of decisions made by other Edison executives whose own emails show they knew those decisions would ruin the plant.

          The amounts involved in those cases were similar to the billions of consumer dollars routinely dunned by the PUC. Example: One current PG&E proposal before the PUC calls for a $2.7 billion rate hike over three years.

          Rendon said his aim was to create more transparency in the PUC’s business. But Brown has seen to it that won’t happen for at least a year, if then. He even killed provisions forcing commissioners to write their decisions in “understandable” language.

          Clearly, the culture of the PUC needs serious change, but even the few changes in the vetoed bills were too much for Brown.

          The fact is that Peevey, a former Southern California Edison president, had a conflict of interest from the moment ex-Gov. Gray Davis first appointed him in 2002. Brown might also have one: His sister, former California state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, serves on the board of Sempra Energy, owner of both Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric.

          All of which means the ground rules of the dance long conducted by the PUC and the large private utility companies it regulates still have not changed even a little because of the current scandal.

The only remaining question is how long Brown will continue to suborn the blatant corruption of this powerful, but often rogue, agency. 

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 tdelias@aol.com




    Gov. Jerry Brown may not have been aware of what he was doing, but a combination of his signatures and vetoes on bills passed by the Legislature will make it easier for desperately ill persons to seek death in California than to attempt to live longer.

          With one of his moves, Brown provided a bit of a revelation of his inner thinking. The window into his psyche came as he approved the state’s new “right to die” law, allowing mentally sound patients in hopeless medical situations to get help in ending their suffering. Days later, though, he vetoed another bill that would have given terminally ill patients wanting to stay alive the right to try whatever drug they like, be it conventional, controversial or experimental.

          Brown wrote in a signing message that he agonized over whether to sign the right to die law, finally being swayed by thoughts of what he might want if he were ever in a seemingly hopeless, painful situation. But there was no such introspection in his veto message on the “right to try” legislation, sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon of eastern Los Angeles County.

          Yes, Brown said, “Patients with life threatening conditions should be able to try experimental drugs,” but he added that they should go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s compassionate use program, which allows some people access to investigative drugs.

          The trouble is, the FDA’s process often requires many months, multiple lawyers, plenty of money and/or political clout. Many terminally ill patients die long before they complete the application process.

          So the window into Brown’s psyche shows he can conceive of being so ill he’d rather die than fight on, but he can’t see himself ever being ill, desperate to live and in a situation where no legally approved drug can help him, but an experimental one might. So much for the governor’s vaunted imagination.

          With his veto, Brown closed a window that appeared to open once before for the very ill who want to try something different to solve their problems.

          The previous window appeared to open back in 2000, when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed what was hailed as a landmark law and potential life-saver for cancer patients. Health insurance companies were virtually the only dissenters back then and they have since effectively stymied the measure.

          This law, passed as SB37 and still on the books, is simple in its concept. Patients who qualify for clinical trials of new cancer drugs should be able to participate in and benefit from those trials without financial concerns. If a clinical trial is not ongoing in California, insurance companies would have to cover routine patient costs associated with participation, wherever in America it was conducted.

          This sounded simple in 2000, but insurance companies routinely refused to pay patient expenses in the first few years after it passed. The experience of the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, TX, where more than 20 FDA-supervised clinical trials of a treatment called antineoplastons have been completed, is typical. That clinic has had many patients from California, but almost none has been funded by insurance carriers, as the law intended. (Full disclosure: Columnist Elias has written a book, The Burzynski Breakthrough, now in its fourth printing, about the antineoplaston treatment and its problems in winning full government approval.)

          The upshot is that the window of hope Davis opened for patients almost 15 years ago has never been very wide, mostly because of insurance company resistance.

          Now Brown has extinguished the latest spark of hope for many of the same patients who benefit from the 15-year-old SB37, and others.

          Brown did not quarrel with anything Calderon said in introducing the latest measure. “Although the FDA approves most compassionate use requests it receives, it often takes doctors and patients…months to navigate the process,” Calderon said. “For terminally ill patients, the waiting period can be a matter of life and death. Patients suffering from a terminal illness should be able to exercise a basic freedom – to preserve their own life.”

          Former Roman Catholic seminarian Brown ought to have known that the potentially fatal combination of his latest decisions runs completely counter to the Biblical commandment written in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:19): “…today I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”

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 tdelias@aol.com

Tuesday, October 13, 2015




          Shades of 1994 and the “Pete Wilson effect” that very quickly turned California from a swing state that could go either way in any particular election to a solidly Democratic one where only a mega-movie star like Arnold Schwarzenegger could break through for Republicans.

          It appears Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump might be on his way to doing the same thing to his party on a national basis.

          The GOP’s Wilson did it by heartily backing the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in his reelection drive for governor that year, airing a steady stream of TV ads that showed migrants running across the border at San Ysidro while an announcer intoned, “They keep coming.”

          Within less than three years, about 2.5 million legal Hispanic immigrants living in California became naturalized citizens and virtually all registered Democratic, turning California into one of the country’s most dependable Democratic bastions. A sudden infusion of more than 2 million voters into one party’s base in a single state can do that.

          It was fear that drove many immigrants who previously were more interested in events in their Latin American hometowns suddenly to take an interest in California politics. Fear that if Proposition 187, with its restrictions on public schooling and hospital care for the undocumented, could pass by a 2-1 margin, legal immigrants might be the next target. Real security against deportation, many believed, could come only via citizenship.

          As the campaign over 187 played out, thousands of legal immigrants reported racist conduct against them of sorts they had never before experienced. At self-serve gasoline stations, it became common to hear cries of “out of the way, wetback,” when lines formed. Schoolchildren reported previously friendly classmates hurling similar insults. There were also outright violent acts, all of which created a climate of fear that spurred the citizenship flood.

          Now it’s happening again. Los Angeles freelance writer Tina Vasquez titled a recent column on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian “I’ve experienced a new level of racism since Donald Trump went after Latinos.”

    Of course, it’s not only Trump. As he’s led the Republican polls during the first few months of the primary election season, the large troupe of trailing GOP candidates has aped almost all his stances, no matter how unreasonable (imagine the expense and legal problems in rounding up and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants).

          For Vasquez and many fellow Latinos, this has translated into individual insults and innuendos of the same sort Hispanics experienced during and after 1994.

          “A couple of weeks ago, while I was running errands in my neighborhood, a stranger asked me if I was ‘illegal,’” she reported. “Around 10 minutes earlier, another stranger asked me if I spoke English. Both were white and one even called me ‘senorita.’”

          These questions were being asked of a native U.S. citizen who reports she’s lived in Los Angeles 29 of her 30 years.

          Now extrapolate this nationally, just as the many individual racist episodes of 1994 occurred in almost all parts of California.

          In Texas, fully 3 million legal Hispanic immigrants have never applied for citizenship. In Georgia, it’s more than 500,000. In South Carolina, it’s about 300,000.  And on and on.

          In each of those states, the number of Latinos eligible to apply for citizenship is more than sufficient to spur the same kind of transformation that occurred here 20 years ago. All that’s needed is for fear to reach the same level it did here.

          Of course, no one can be sure that will happen, or that Latinos in other states might not be more passive than they were here. But the potential for political change is enormous and only one of the current GOP candidate crop (South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham) has had the courage to stand up and say so.

          Meanwhile, Trump and the rest are banking on winning angry Anglo voters, just as Wilson did in 1994. Like him, they might win this year, if only because it takes quite some time to complete the naturalization process. But if they continue their current path, they risk the same sort of second-class status for their national party that Republicans now suffer with here in California.

    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 tdelias@aol.com 




          As the state moves toward taxing marijuana growers for the first time, those same growers also are starting to face restrictions on water use, just like farmers of more conventional crops.

          One reason is that the water consumption of pot farms has caused serious depredations of salmon and trout runs in several Northern California streams, most notably the Eel River and its tributary streams in the so-called “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Marijuana has long been the largest cash crop in that region.

          It’s not that a single cannabis plant is much more thirsty than other crops. One plant, according to many reports, can take anywhere from six to 15 gallons per day, about as much as a corn plant and not nearly as much as it takes to produce, say, a single one-pound beefsteak or the denim needed to make a pair of jeans.

          But when the estimated 30,000 pot growers in the area – most claiming to grow only medicinal marijuana – are done watering on any typical day, they have often used more than 720,000 gallons of water.

          One question might be, “And for what?” The detrimental mental and motivational effects of regular pot smoking are at least as well-known and well-researched as the medical and palliative benefits on the positive side of the weed.

          But while virtually all other water users in California have suffered drought-related cutbacks over the last year, the often-clandestine nature of pot farming has left it without similar restrictions.

          This may be about to end. For the first time, a system of regulating medical marijuana growers statewide was signed into law this fall. That came after Republican George Runner, an ultraconservative former state senator now serving on the state’s tax-administration Board of Equalization, opined that California should levy an excise tax on medipot, and use the money to fight marijuana-related crimes, like poaching on public lands and draining streams dry.

          Some streams have dried up in part because of drought, but also because many growers pump water regularly to large storage tanks which have lately dotted the landscape in some rural areas. They supply water for terraced planting that has produced erosion into streams, creating other problems.

          One reason there are no controls: The Emerald Triangle features thousands of acres owned by timber companies and other large property holders who rarely, if ever, patrol their holdings. So pot growers brazenly squat on the land, often setting booby-traps in their immediate vicinity and bringing in crews of undocumented laborers from Central America. Nicaragua is reportedly a major source of such labor.

          One result is that fish runs essential to survival of coho salmon and steelhead trout can end as young fish are left high and dry, literally fish out of water.

          Plus, growers often use pesticides and rat poisons with little regard for whether they drain back into stream beds and future water supplies, or for whether poisoned animals and insects enter the food chain after being eaten by birds.

          Enter the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, whose jurisdiction runs north from Marin County to the Oregon state line. Calling it a “first step” toward protecting water resources, that board voted 5-1 in late summer to compel growers to register their operations and operate with environmental responsibility. That could mean restrictions on water use, as well as protecting streams and wildlife from contamination.

          The new regulations, billed as a pilot program that will spread to the rest of the state if successful, don’t aim to arrest growers and in fact provide ways for them to screen their identities from officers out to enforce federal laws still outlawing all pot production.

          “We are not endorsing marijuana cultivation” one board member said. But the board is officially recognizing widespread growing which often disregards county-set limits on the number of medipot plants one person may raise.

          In this battle of fish vs. pot, it’s clear the weed is winning for now, but at least the plight of the salmon and trout has been officially recognized for the first time.

          What happens if a ballot initiative fully legalizes recreational marijuana next year? That’s anyone guess.

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. 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 www.californiafocus.net