Wednesday, June 29, 2016




          Louis Marinelli polled just 6.2 percent of the vote in San Diego’s 80th Assembly District during the June primary, but there’s at least a chance the subsequent “Brexit” vote in Great Britain could increase his influence greatly.

          Marinelli, a teacher of English as a second language, has made a semi-independent California his theme for years. Until lately, he hadn’t pushed a complete split from the rest of the United States, the way some promoters of an independent Texas now advocate, using Twitter hashtag #Texit.

          Marinelli’s Yes California Independence Campaign (formerly called Sovereign California) sees immense promise in the way the United Kingdom likely will soon divorce the European Union. Yes California had mostly sought a semi-autonomous status similar to what Scotland has in the U.K.

          Just maybe, if Britons felt they had more of a voice within the EU, they would have voted to remain in it. That kind of larger voice is what Marinelli’s nascent movement has sought for California.

          Prior to the late-June British vote, Yes California Independence had not seen much success. In March, for example, the group under its previous name failed to qualify a new and more aggressive ballot initiative that would have asked that Californians vote on whether to become independent, with governors present and future to be called “presidents.”

          The measure also specified that if the rest of America refused to allow a so-called “Calexit,” the question would automatically appear on the state ballot every four years, along with the question of whether California should apply for membership in the United Nations.

          Even in a year when the number of signatures required to qualify initiatives for the ballot is at a historic low of about 365,000, this idea found no traction, just like Marinelli’s state Assembly campaign.

          But the Brexit vote could change things. “It shows secession isn’t just a relic of the 19th Century,” Marinelli told a reporter. “It’s an example of an independence movement occurring in the Western world, a modern-day, 21st Century example of a political entity seceding from a political union. It means Californians who hear the word secession don’t have to think of the Civil War anymore. Now they have an example of how it can happen peacefully and legally…, and that’s the path to mimic here in California.”

          Marinelli has changed his tune a bit over the last two years. In 2014, he said in an interview that a totally sovereign California wasn’t needed, that the state should merely become capable of making its own binding deals with other countries and be able to pass laws that could not be overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

Back then, he wanted to set up a nonpartisan blue-ribbon panel of state legislators to analyze “sub-national sovereignty” and its effects on Californians and other Americans. The group would hold hearings and call experts to testify on how California could sign its own treaties with foreign countries and otherwise assert itself internationally — while still using the United States dollar and having its citizens register with Selective Service and serve in the American military.

The idea of making binding agreements with other countries is something recent California governors like Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger have liked, to the point of signing myriad “memoranda of understanding” with provinces and states belonging to other nations from India to Russia, Canada, Brazil and, yes, the U.K. These have had little long-term meaning because they lack the status of treaties.

Marinelli also raised the question of whether California should stop participating in presidential elections and revert to something like the not-quite-statehood status Puerto Rico has today.

And he plumped for the symbolic change of always flying the state’s Bear Republic flag at equal height with the Stars and Stripes on public property.

          No one took much of that seriously until after the British vote. Now far more radical changes may be taken seriously, at least in part because California gets back only about 77 cents in federal spending for every dollar in taxes its citizens contribute. There’s also the reality that Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court are often at philosophical odds with a majority of Californians.

          No, a Caleavefornia movement is not imminent. But neither is the notion quite as preposterous as it used to be.


    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 fanfare was loud when Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators announced agreement on a package of Public Utilities Commission reforms the other day. You could almost hear Brown saying “This will clear up any clouds in my legacy.”

          Sorry, Governor, it won’t.

          For while the proposed PUC changes do make some improvements, they leave the powerful commission’s main problem unsolved: The five commissioners still are not accountable to anyone as they set natural gas and electricity rates and supervise pipeline and power transmission safety.

          Nothing in this package assures that commissioners won’t continue favoring big privately-owned companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric over their customers, as the PUC consistently has done for the last 40 years or more.

          Nothing to make sure commissioners who act corruptly can be ousted once their wrongdoing is proven. Nothing to prevent situations like one that arose in late June, when Commissioner Mike Florio recused himself from a major PG&E rate decision because he previously admitted helping that company “shop” for a favorable judge in another case.

          What use is a commissioner who can’t participate in many of his agency’s most important cases?

          But positives abound in the reform package, too. For example, lawyers and consumer advocates who present useful information in PUC cases would now be able to get intervenor fees even if they don’t go along with eventual settlements in those cases. Previously, only groups that helped devise settlements could get such fees, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This rule has often made lapdogs out of outfits that are supposed to help keep utility rates down.

          It can’t hurt to prohibit utility executives from joining the commission until at least two years after they’ve left companies they once ran. This rule might have excluded the disgraced Michael Peevey, a former SoCal Edison president now under criminal investigation for his conduct during eight years as PUC president.

          It’s a good idea for the PUC to open offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento, in addition to its San Francisco headquarters. The current sole location in San Francisco can leave PUC staffers unfamiliar with safety and other problems elsewhere in California.

          And it can’t hurt to subject commissioners to possible prosecution by the state attorney general if they don’t quickly reveal the content of private contacts with persons involved in their cases, often known as ex parte communications.

          These are all parts of the reform package, but nothing would change the five commissioners’ quasi-judicial standing, which sees even the governor who appoints them unable to sack them for any reason until their six-year terms expire. The changes also leave PUC decisions open to challenge only in appeals courts.

          “If decisions could be challenged in trial courts, PUC rate cases might never end,” said Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto, from the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles. He’s right that court cases can drag on, but allowing challenges only in appeals courts prevents introduction of new evidence, when most PUC observers agree that evidence gathered in rate cases historically has favored utilities over consumers.

          One solution might be to allow trial court appeals of large cases, perhaps setting the floor at $1 billion. This could allow meaningful challenges of the most important cases.

          “We do have some accountability in this package,” said Gatto, who has been crusading for PUC reform. “We bring in the attorney general when there’s secrecy in ex parte communications. We create a new ethics ombudsman, who is supposed to act completely independently like inspector generals in some federal agencies. We also set up a new deputy director of the agency for safety. That person would be assigned to make sure money consumers pay for things like pipeline safety is actually spent for that.”

          Previously, there was no one to track such spending, and much of what consumers paid for safety and maintenance via their monthly bills over the last 60 years went for other things.

          The bottom line: There’s plenty positive in this package and it ought to pass the Legislature handily, with Brown committed to sign it. But there’s still a need to impose more accountability, or the PUC’s long run as a rogue agency may not end soon.


    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

Monday, June 27, 2016




          Back in 2007, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger desperately cast about for ways to cut the deficit-ridden state budget, he suddenly slashed $27.8 million from the a program that preserved agricultural lands, leaving a mere token $1,000 for it in a $90 billion general fund spending plan.

          Now that cut in so-called Williamson Act contracts, dubbed the “brownest cut of all” at the time since it came from a governor with very green pretensions, seems about to do more environmental damage than ever, in large part because of a new business plan adopted by the state High Speed Rail Authority.

Schwarzenegger’s cut left 16.4 million acres of farmland exposed to potential development, land formerly protected by contracts between counties and landowners previously committed to keep farming their acreage in exchange for a property tax break funded by the state.

          The cut has already had a measurable impact, but the bullet train authority’s latest action figures to accelerate things.

          Here’s a bit of what’s already happened, based on figures developed by Conservation Science Partners, a non-profit in the Sierra Nevada mountain town of Truckee:

During the decade from 2001 to 2011, only partially covered by Schwarzenegger’s Williamson Act cut, which has been continued by current Gov. Jerry Brown, California lost 785 square miles of farmland to development, equal to 502,000 acres at 640 acres per square mile. That was a higher percentage than in any other Western state, and no one knows how much more has been eaten by urban sprawl since 2011.

          By the end of that year, fully 19.5 percent of California’s total land mass was developed, the highest percentage of any Western state.

          The springtime plan for a bullet train construction U-turn can do nothing but exacerbate this trend, the brownest item in California’s modern budget history.

          Just how brown? One 2003 study from Purdue University showed that  every acre of farmland in Purdue’s home state of Indiana pulled an estimated 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air each year. That’s for all types of farmland, including pastures, vineyards, rice and cotton fields, orchards and more.

          This is a lowball figure based on Indiana lands, which unlike California open spaces, sprout nothing green during the winter to take carbon from the air. Even under those less-than-ideal conditions, the math works out to a total of 1.754 million tons of carbon absorbed yearly by the 16.4 million present and former Williamson Act acres. That’s more than is saved by any man-made tactic, including expensive cap-and-trade programs. The act was named for 1960s-era Republican legislator John Williamson, who dreamed it up.

          Now consider the latest high speed rail plan, which sees the first bullet trains running between Bakersfield and San Jose, and not between Merced and Los Angeles, as previously planned.

          The change means early bullet trains will likely carry more commuters than other passengers. With estimated travel times of an hour or less between Fresno and San Jose, Silicon Valley workers who can’t afford sky-high real estate prices in cities like Los Gatos and Palo Alto could get to work fairly quickly via the bullet train and connecting Caltrain routes or corporate buses.

          This solves problems for a lot of people, while potentially creating enormous urban sprawl on current farmland. For the High Speed Rail Authority, it could assure a full passenger load, something that’s been very uncertain from the original conception of this massive project. That could help the authority lure private investors who so far have not put up a nickel.

          For high-tech companies, it resolves the problem of finding affordable housing for employees, because land is exponentially cheaper in Central Valley locales like Merced, Chowchilla and Madera, all hard by the bullet train route. It would let them expand near their headquarters, rather than putting new plants in cheap-land states like Texas and Arizona.

          For farmers whose Williamson Act contracts have either expired or are about to, it could mean big money when developers move in even before all the tracks are laid.

          But ill effects are obvious, too. There will be far less sequestration of greenhouse gases when housing tracts eat up farmland. Urban sprawl could spread as never before.

          All because of two governors who have billed themselves the greenest ever, anywhere, and their hand-picked appointees.


     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




          No political endorsement ever seemed more innocuous and expected than Gov. Jerry Brown’s backing of state Attorney General Kamala Harris for the U.S. Senate seat now held by the retiring Barbara Boxer.

          Like Boxer, both are Democrats. Harris was Brown’s successor as head of the state’s Justice Department. Each is part of the Northern California Democratic group that now controls most major statewide offices, including both California seats in the Senate, plus the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s slot and the attorney general’s seat. Rarely has one region held so much power so firmly in California.

          But there may have been more to the Brown endorsement than met the eye.

          Harris’ department is currently conducting a criminal investigation of the state Public Utilities Commission’s conduct of major cases stemming from the failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the multi-fatal 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline in San Bruno. Not only are PUC commissioners the most powerful of Brown’s appointees outside the judiciary, but he cannot remove them once they’ve been sworn in, as he can every other person he appoints, except judges.

          Brown has maintained steady contact with his PUC appointees, mostly via email and telephone.

          Public records requests caused more than 100,000 PUC emails to be disclosed, now available on the website, created by the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group.

          Conspicuously absent from these now-readable and -searchable documents are more than 60 emails between the PUC and Brown or his office (without seeing them, no one can be certain who said what) exchanged around the time of the PUC’s decision to dun Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. customers for about 70 percent of the $4.7 billion it will eventually cost to close down San Onofre, which failed because of a blunder by Edison, the plant’s operator and 80 percent owner.

          Handwritten notes found in a Justice Department search of the La Canada-Flintridge home of former PUC President Michael Peevey showed the San Onofre settlement closely matched a deal hatched in a secret meeting between Peevey and Edison executives during an industry conference in Poland. (The PUC recently reopened its San Onofre settlement case.)

          Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre, now a consumer advocate, first demanded the Brown emails in an early April public records request, but Harris stepped in, saying she would rule on whether Brown is entitled to some kind of executive privilege. This simple yes-or-no decision is still in the works.

          So Brown was endorsing the very official who had already waited months to decide whether he needs to make emails public. Until the emails can be widely read, the public cannot know if they demonstrate some sort of untoward conduct.

          Now, Brown loudly and enthusiastically endorses an official who might possibly stand between him and embarrassing revelations. She happily accepted his backing. At the very least, this looked like a conflict of interest.

          Meanwhile, Harris’ office maintains it has set up a hermetic seal between her department’s investigation of the PUC and anyone involved in deciding the email issue.

          “The attorney general…has more than 1,100 attorneys who represent state agencies on a wide array of matters,” said her spokesman David Beltran. “No government agency, and no public utilities company, is above the law, which means all investigations go where the evidence takes us.”

          But by law and common practice, the attorney general represents the governor in any criminal case relating to his official activity. So the official determining whether the public can see whether the governor has done something wrong is also his defense attorney. Does that pass the smell test?

          So far, none of this has become a major issue in the Senate campaign matching Harris and longtime Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats.

          But it would be unwise for Harris to believe that will continue; not with millions of Californians paying billions of dollars as a result of the San Onofre settlement, as it now stands.

          Nor should the so far-Teflon-coated Brown expect to be untouched by all this, if the emails eventually become public and show him favoring utilities over consumers.

Email Thomas Elias at 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. For more Elias columns, go to

Monday, June 20, 2016




          Once California’s primary election season ends in early June, most candidates go into a sort of stasis for almost three months, until just before the traditional Labor Day start of the fall political season.

          But if Loretta Sanchez is smart – and no one ever suggested she’s not – she will not wait months before resuming an aggressive campaign for the U.S. Senate. Sanchez on Election Night in June eased into a November runoff against state Attorney General Kamala Harris, beating out five Republicans who split the GOP vote while Democrats – already more numerous – were only divided two ways.

          There’s every reason to believe that if Sanchez slacks off over summer vacation, she’ll put herself out of politics indefinitely. Every post-primary poll has shown she lags far behind Harris.

          Just such slacking off is a California political tradition. To keep campaigning means keeping up the spending and energy levels of the primary season. Just a month before the June 7 primary, Sanchez had raised slightly over $2 million, a paltry sum compared with the usual $30 million to $40 million that’s spent on successful top-of-ticket California races.

          The best historical lesson about what can be accomplished by staying active on the campaign trail was taught in 1978 by current Gov. Jerry Brown, when he sought reelection to a second term during his first gubernatorial era.

          When the primary ended that year, incumbent Brown trailed his upcoming Republican challenger, the popular state Attorney General Evelle Younger, a former district attorney of Los Angeles County, in all polls. California was not yet a safe Democratic stronghold state in that era.

          But Younger took the traditional path. Just after the primary, he left for Maui and stayed on vacation almost a month, figuring no one would heed politics until summer’s end. But that year was volatile, just like 2016. In the June vote, Californians had passed the landmark Proposition 13 property tax limits over Brown’s objection, so there was plenty to talk about.

          And Brown did. Overnight, he pivoted from the Jarvis-Gann Initiative’s leading opponent to its foremost enabler. He traveled up and down the state, campaigning not merely for himself but also discussing how the new property tax law could be codified and made to work smoothly without destroying public education, parks and other services the initiative’s opponents had worried about.

          Brown put up two series of television commercials that summer, too. He was seemingly everywhere, campaigning far harder than his current older incarnation ever has.

          All this buried Younger, who became a sure loser in the fall, and was finished politically.

          Observed Brown later, “You get some results when you advertise prolifically and no one else is on the air.” For him, that was a vast understatement.

          No one has needed even to consider this kind of summer campaigning in recent years, when incumbents like Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have not felt seriously threatened after the primary. Partly, that’s been because California became a “safe” Democratic state and partly that’s because none of their opposition was either well-funded or determined enough to go on a summer offensive.

          Helping make summertime campaigning effective is the reality, documented in a broad body of psychological research going back to World War II, that the more often people hear positive messages about a person they have only recently begun to like, the more solid that feeling becomes.

          This could make a post-primary offensive from Sanchez extremely effective, especially because even though Harris has been in office six years and has vast poll leads, she’s somewhat lesser-known than many other public officials of similar status.

          It also means, of course, that Harris, could conduct a summer offensive of her own, especially since she had far more money on hand than Sanchez at the last reporting date. But a radical departure from traditional politics seems more up the Sanchez alley, since she’s by far the more outspoken of the two.

          That’s a quality she’ll need to take advantage of, because she starts the runoff as a distinct underdog, just as she did in the primary season.

     Email Thomas Elias at 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 fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to




          As he submitted his May revision of the state budget, now mostly enacted, Gov. Jerry Brown won praise both for its relative stinginess and for the fact it included one addition aiming to ensure more attention to safety from big utilities regulated by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

          At almost the same moment, the PUC opened a reconsideration of its 2014 decision on distributing costs from the 2012 failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a ruling that previously dunned consumers more than 70 percent of the $4.7 billion cost for closing San Onofre.

          And Brown signed a bill requiring extensive testing of wells at the Aliso Canyon storage facility maintained by the Southern California Gas Co. in northern Los Angeles before that site can reopen and once again produce large profits for the company.

          And yet, all this is plainly too little and too late. Brown inflicted no penalties at all – not even a word of criticism – on his PUC appointees who repeatedly voted for the San Onofre ruling, even after the revelation that it was negotiated in a secret meeting between the PUC’s disgraced former president and an executive since departed from the Southern California Edison Co.

          He said not a word about blackmailing lies from the PUC, the state Energy Commission and other state agencies which co-wrote an April study threatening electricity blackouts unless Aliso Canyon is reopened soon. Those falsehoods – exposed, even conceded during a May legislative hearing – have nevertheless been repeated often since.

          Brown also punished no one at the state prison department after it admitted the falsehood of a longtime claim that serious criminals have never been sent to low-security firefighting camps.

          There’s been more since then, even some direct Brown hypocrisy over shipping coal from Utah through Oakland to Asian markets. Turns out Brown, who famously told Pope Francis last spring that “90 percent of the coal” reserves worldwide “can never be taken out of the ground” because of climate change, has a financial interest in coal trains and ships.

          “Oakland” magazine reported that public records show he owns a stake valued between $100,000 and $1 million in Evergreen Park Plaza LLC, a real estate venture that figures to profit if coal is exported through the former Oakland Army Base, where its parent company is the master developer. The parent firm is controlled by Brown’s friend Phil Tagami, who also hosted his 2005 wedding.

          Then there’s the small matter of the PUC and Energy Commission quietly entering into a confidentiality agreement without any public hearings. Their pact would “ensure the nondisclosure of any inspection, investigation or enforcement-related confidential information shared between the (commissions).”

          This deal was part of the consent calendar in the Energy Commission’s May 17 meeting, where it passed without comment. It aims to keep the public in the dark about new safety problems that might arise at utilities regulated by both powerful commissions.

          This is all the very opposite of the transparency the governor promised in 2010 while campaigning to return to the office he held for eight years in the 1970s and ‘80s.

          Plus, this spring Brown vetoed a bill requiring that persons trying to influence state procurement practices register as lobbyists. The Fair Political Practices Commission had already labeled this bill, possibly influencing billions of dollars in state spending, as a “significant burden” where there is no “significant problem.”

          Brown echoed this in his veto statement, saying “I don’t believe this bill is necessary.”

          But that bill just might have helped save his former chief of staff, Gray Davis, who later became governor, only to be undone in part by a procurement scandal in which the Oracle software company donated $25,000 to his campaign less than a day after getting a large state contract.

          No one knows if a measure like this could have spared Davis all that trouble and humiliation and prevented Arnold Schwarzenegger from becoming governor.

          What’s certain is that Brown’s administration is anything but open and transparent, with few, if any, consequences for corruption and lies, even when they are copiously documented. The small positive moves Brown made in May didn’t go nearly far enough to fix this problem and he has yet to speak his first words about much of what’s been happening on his watch.


    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

Thursday, June 9, 2016




 Give light and the people will find their own way. – Longtime motto of the former Scripps Howard Newspapers.

The essence of that slogan – that voters will act in their own interest if they know enough about an issue or a politician – is at the heart of two measures that might just be California laws less than one year from now.

          One is the so-called “NASCAR Initiative,” which would require all state legislators to wear the emblems or logos of their top 10 campaign donors every time they attend an official function.

          Imagine if that had applied to the ongoing series of primary election debates in both parties this spring: The stage at early contests with as many as a dozen candidates splayed across a series of stages would have looked a lot like the infield at the Indianapolis Speedway or the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, where dozens of race car drivers in fire-resistant jumpsuits are festooned with logos of car companies, breweries, battery makers and many more.

          What logos would some candidates have chosen to represent the industrialist Koch brothers or other large funders of their Super PACs? Would Democrat Bernard Sanders have been the only candidate with a plain business suit? Would donor logos have made attractive accessories for the pantsuits usually worn by candidate Hillary Clinton? They certainly could have made voters better informed, as the words emerging from her mouth and others’ could much more easily have been evaluated in the light of their sponsors.

          No one knows just now, because no polling has been done on it, whether this somewhat whimsical idea pushed by Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox will make the ballot and then pass at the polls. Or, if voters do pass it, whether it would pass constitutional muster. How people dress can be interpreted as a form of speech, which might make this measure a First Amendment violation no matter how popular the idea might become (by late April, it had more than one-fourth the signatures needed to reach the fall ballot).

          So it’s good to have backup. And the newest version of the California “Disclose Act” would provide some of that.

          This measure, first proposed at the end of the last decade by then-Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Ventura County, now a Democratic congresswoman, is less splashy than the NASCAR proposal, but might be more effective because it contains no discernible constitutional issues.

          Known this year as AB 700, the Disclose Act would force all political advertising to clearly and prominently list the top three “true” funders of any ad in large, clear type, one name per line, on a solid black background. This would be the first law in America to finger so-called “dark money,” which is donated to some political action committees and non-profits in ways specifically aiming to keep them anonymous.

          This measure passed the state Assembly on a 60-15 vote, with all Democrats voting in favor, along with nine Republicans. GOP members voting against openness in political financing included the Assembly minority leader, Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley.

          Said Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles, “Voters deserve transparency in our electoral process. (The Assembly) vote moves us forward in the fight to undo unlimited money in our elections.”

          In fact, passage of the Disclose Act could provide the first true test in many years of whether the old Scripps Howard motto remains valid. If voter preferences were to change as disclosures are made in TV commercials and newspaper ads, that would be a reliable sign of public reaction to new information.

          If both measures should pass, California could end up with the greatest amount of openness in American history. That would be an even better test of whether Scripps Howard, which for generations used a lighthouse as its logo, was correct.

    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




          There’s a good chance state lawmakers this year will pass a ban on ex parte communications involving members of the Coastal Commission. It’s a nice idea, but inadequate.

Ex parte communications – the legalistic name for private meetings, phone calls and email exchanges between key state officials and the people or companies they regulate – emerged two years ago as one of the most corrupt parts of California’s public life.

          That’s when emails revealed the president of the state’s Public Utilities Commission had met secretly with executives of the Southern California Edison Co. during an industry meeting in Poland. The meeting produced a hotel napkin outline of a $3.3 billion charge to Edison customers, who might get off the hook later this summer for at least some of the expense of closing the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, caused in large part by an Edison blunder.

          Before then, executives of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. were already talking and emailing secretly with PUC members and staff about how to ease their costs for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight and destroyed dozens of homes.

          These were classic examples of ex parte communications, a practice that’s long allowed both sides of disputes before some state regulatory agencies to make their case in private. Reality is that a big advantage always accrues to utilities and other interests with the money to hire full-time advocates paid to develop close ties with regulators.

          Last year, legislators unanimously passed several PUC reform bills including a ban on ex parte communications with commissioners. Gov. Jerry Brown quickly vetoed the measures, which could have harmed the interests of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, parent company of Southern California Gas Co. and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co., where Brown’s sister Kathleen is a highly-paid director.

          The bills Brown vetoed had a narrow focus, homing in on only one state commission. Revelations over the last year made it clear that ex parte communications have also long been a key part of how the state’s Coastal Commission operates. No one knows how much influence consultants meeting privately with commissioners had over the springtime firing of that agency’s strongly environmentalist former executive director.

          Brown, whose coastal appointees approved the firing, has so far said nothing about ex parte communications, or whether he will veto the bill banning them from Coastal Commission operations that easily passed the state Senate. It is carried by Democrat Hannah Beth Jackson, who represents much of the Santa Barbara and Ventura county coastline.

          Jackson’s bill is fine as far as it goes, but it falls far short of what’s needed. Brown’s 2015 veto means ex parte communications are still legal at the PUC, where commissioners lately adopted their own rule against such conversations or emails. But the commission can cancel that rule anytime, and just might when the heat is off.

          Ex parte communications are also allowed at the state Board of Equalization, the Public Employee Relations Board and the California Air Resources Board, where automakers are a constant lobbying presence.

          What’s needed is an across-the-board ban, not piecemeal legislation like last year’s attempted ban at the PUC and this year’s reaction to crises at the Coastal Commission.

          Members of these commissions and boards often whine that they rule on so many cases they’d be swamped if they had to act only on information in submitted documents. They say their talks with parties affected by their rulings give them better, more complete understanding.

          But these officials are often well-paid, the PUC commissioners and many other state board members taking home six-figure salaries. Why shouldn’t they pore over detailed documents, rather than subjecting themselves to the blandishments of lobbyists, consultants and landowners? At the PUC, commissioners also often have private meetings with Wall Street bankers whose investment choices can be affected by state rulings, especially if those bankers know in advance which way a decision will go.

          All of which means the playing field in state government right now tilts toward favoring big money interests. Sure, a ban on ex parte communications by coastal commissioners would be a step in the right direction, but it’s just not enough, not when the same practice is common elsewhere, too.


    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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016




          Whew! The most actively contested California presidential primary election in decades is over. Candidates Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders were ubiquitous for a month, logging thousands of miles and dozens of rallies. New voters registered by the hundreds of thousands.

But it meant very little in the end because of abysmal timing. Millions of Californians ended up voting in the ninth inconsequential California primary of the last 44 years. All the rhetoric of Sanders and Trump and Clinton was just so much noise because both Trump and Clinton had clinched their nominations long before a single California vote was counted.

          This makes a year when California’s votes actually mean something even more rare than a blue moon: those occur about twice a year when two full moons occur in the same month.

          As things stand, there is no reason to believe the California primary will matter much more for the next 40 years, either, because the early June date comes so late in the presidential selection process. So it’s mandatory that Californians who want to matter start now on pressuring their state legislators to move the vote up, or resign themselves to more primaries that are loud charades like this spring’s.

          California can’t vote first because rules of both major parties forbid any state from holding caucuses ahead of Iowa’s early January date or primaries before New Hampshire’s in early February.

          Justifications for this are mostly financial. Candidates don’t have to raise as much money to compete in small places like the first two states, plus other early stops in South Carolina and Nevada.  No one seriously argues those states are anything like representative of the entire nation, demographically or in any other way. So why should they perpetually be allowed to winnow down the field of candidates?

          That’s what they did this year, as possibilities like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and onetime California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, among many others, fell by the wayside early on.

          What if California had inserted itself into the process on Feb. 23, the day Nevada Republicans caucused? That was a week before the March 1 so-called Super Tuesday when states voting included Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Texas.

          Had California moved up, many other states would have chosen the same day or even a date one week earlier, giving candidates very little time to celebrate or recuperate from the Feb. 9 New Hampshire vote.

          What’s wrong with that? Candidates would have had to campaign here long before they actually did. This could have compressed the primary calendar, but by the time February was over, a truly representative sample of America would have voted, and a lot of energy expended (wasted?) since then might have been obviated.

          That’s essentially what happened in a couple of election cycles of the 1990s and 2000s, when California’s vote came early and helped decide things quickly. For sure, Californians’ votes would count more earlier than they have in any June presidential primary since 1972, when Democrat George McGovern took the Democratic nomination by winning here.

          But the current setup is convenient for state politicians, who would face a far earlier filing deadline than this year’s March 9 (a week later for offices whose occupants aren’t running for reelection) if the primary were moved up.

An earlier filing deadline would force decision-making as early as December and accelerate the fund-raising calendar. That’s if California chose not to have two primaries, as it could: an early vote for president and the traditional June date for other offices.

          State lawmakers who have long kept California impotent in presidential selection hide behind the added cost of doing this, about $100 million. But in a state budget of $200 billion, that cost is less than peanuts. Isn’t it worth something to get Californians feeling involved, even inspired? Sanders did that to some extent this spring, even if he was mathematically eliminated long before the polls closed here.

The bottom line: the fact that candidates actually staged rallies all over the state is no excuse to leave things the same.


      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




          One clear precedent emerged Tuesday night from California’s primary election results: There will be no Republican contending this fall for the U.S. Senate seat about to be vacated by the retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the first time the race for a statewide office has ever devolved into a one-party affair.

          The reason is clear, too. Not only did the GOP fail to field a truly formidable Senate candidate this year, but the party had only one hopeful among its five (somewhat) significant springtime candidates with any experience in elective office. Keep this up and the GOP will be seeing many more big Democrat-on-Democrat contests.

          By contrast, the Democrats fielded two electoral veterans, two-term state Attorney General Kamala Harris, also a former two-term district attorney of San Francisco, and 10-term Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.

          The returns left little doubt that Republicans could have won a place on the fall ballot if their vote had not been completely fractured. Instead, all five at least somewhat well-known GOP hopefuls stayed in the race to the bitter end (which ended bitterly for them all) even though their party probably could have won a November slot if four of them had dropped out and essentially instructed Republican loyalists to vote for the remaining survivor.

          This actually should have been done before the March 16 filing deadline if the party expected to make a Senate run in the fall. Instead, the last of the GOP candidates to file – Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz – waited until that very date before submitting his papers. A party once known for its firm internal discipline had none this year.

          Even when polls repeatedly showed GOP candidates drawing less than 10 percent each among likely primary voters, none dropped out to let Republicans coalesce around someone.

          The reason for all this was as clear as the result: No GOP candidate cared much if their party fielded no autumn candidate. All were apparently content to leave that election strictly to the Democrats, with GOP voters perhaps a moderating influence, as they often have been in all-Democrat races for state legislative jobs. Such one-party races have been common since voters adopted the Top Two primary election system as Proposition 14 in 2010, but until now, never before for a choice top-of-ticket job. It’s bound to leave rank-and-file Republicans frustrated.

          “I doubt this will have long-term ramifications for the party,” said Palo Alto legal arbitrator George (Duf) Sundheim, the leading vote-getter among GOP candidates and one of two former state Republican Party chairmen who insisted on staying in the primary.

          “Yes, it would be helpful to other candidates further down the ballot to have a Republican at the top of the ticket, but with the Top Two primary, we’re simply going to get situations like this from time to time.”

          Not exactly a cry of despair for the party he once headed.

          Said Unz, the author and chief funder of the 1998 Proposition 227, which all but ended bilingual education in California, “The truth is, I probably don’t care whether there’s a Republican candidate in the runoff. I’ve never been anything but a registered Republican, but I’ve been disappointed with the positions many Republicans have been taking lately. And from the other two Republicans in this race, I did not see anything interesting.

          “To win, any Republican would need a lot of crossover voters, but it’s difficult to see two longtime party functionaries managing that.” Unz began by admitting he expected to lose the primary, but wanted the bully pulpit the campaign offered for talking about how to preserve his 1998 Proposition 227, which ended most bilingual education in California.

          The result leaves the field to Harris and Sanchez, with the winner likely to be the one who can attract the most Republicans this fall. Neither came close to dominating the spring campaign, both falling far short of the vital 50 percent benchmark.


    Email Thomas Elias at He has covered esoteric votes in eight national political conventions. 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