Monday, April 17, 2017

BIG UTILITY AGAIN FAILS CUSTOMERS IN NEW SAN ONOFRE DEBACLE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MAY 5, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “BIG UTILITY AGAIN FAILS CUSTOMERS IN NEW SAN ONOFRE DEBACLE”


          Any California consumers who still believed this state’s big privately-owned utility companies are either willing or able to protect the interests of their many millions of customers must surely be disabused of that notion today.


          Yes, companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are talking a good customer service game lately, repeatedly advertising efforts to make pipelines and other features of their vast systems safer, while also selling energy for less than in some earlier times.


          But the outcome of an arbitration case that Edison touted for years as a huge coming benefit for customers demonstrates that talk is cheap.


          Edison long cited the case as a coming bonanza for its ratepayers, noting it had demanded $7.6 billion from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as a penalty for furnishing flawed steam generators that wrecked the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, finally shut down in 2012.


          Customers were ticketed to get half Edison’s winnings under terms of a so-called “settlement” reached between the company, the state Public Utilities Commission and two purported consumer groups in 2014, an agreement that saw consumers assessed 70 percent of San Onofre’s $4.7 billion in closure costs.


          Oops. The decision by an arbitration panel of private judges from the International Chamber of Commerce arrived this spring: Instead of $7.6 billion, Edison will only get $125 million, or about 3.3 percent of what it has hyped for years. Customers will get half that amount, a net benefit of about $3.61 each to the 17.3 million persons in the service areas of Edison and SDG&E (a part-owner of San Onofre).

  
          This end result was partly the result of the fact that then-Edison vice president Dwight Nunn in a 2004 letter warned Mitsubishi that “…there is the potential that design flaws could be inadvertently introduced into the steam generator design that will lead to unacceptable consequences.” Edison later dispatched some of its own engineers to work with Mitsubishi’s, but no design changes followed and the generators were eventually installed. Nunn’s prediction came true a few years later.


          By awarding Edison only a tiny fraction of the money it demanded, the arbitration panel essentially held the utility at least partially responsible for the outcome.


          And yet, Edison managed in a series of secret meetings highlighted by a session involving some of its officials and the disgraced former PUC President Michael Peevey in a hotel in Warsaw, Poland, to get a deal where it would pay far less than half San Onofre’s closing costs, sticking its customers with 70 percent of the bill.


          This was so blatantly unfair that the PUC in a first-ever move last year reopened its proceedings on that deal, which was agreed to by supposed consumer groups Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN) and the state Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA). TURN subsists to a large extent on so-called “intervenor fees” awarded by the PUC when it decides rate cases and other matters where TURN participates, while the ORA is actually part of the PUC bureaucracy. So a settlement by the PUC with these outfits amounts to little more than a settlement with itself.


          Similar irony came when the PUC fined Edison more than $16 million last year for not reporting its secret meetings with PUC officials. Of course, because PUC officials were in those meetings, they were no secret to the commission, but only to customers the commission is supposed to protect.


          The arbitration result essentially vindicated independent consumer advocates like San Diego’s Charles Langley, head of an outfit called Public Watchdog. “It’s smoke and mirrors,” Langley said in 2015 about Edison’s claim of a big upcoming arbitration benefit. “They’ll never see that money.”


          Now it’s official. Neither Edison nor customers will see much of that money.


          The logical conclusion: If an international arbitration panel has in effect held Edison largely responsible for San Onofre’s failure, why shouldn’t the PUC do the same? With the entire San Onofre matter still unresolved after the case was reopened, the PUC now has an opportunity to at last demonstrate some independence from the utilities it regulates.


          Sadly, though, no one who knows the commission’s longtime patterns has reason to expect a new decision that’s any more than a token improvement.

                  

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    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

CAR TAX ZAPPED DAVIS; NEW ONES WON’T TOUCH BROWN

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “CAR TAX ZAPPED DAVIS; NEW ONES WON’T TOUCH BROWN”


          There is no doubt that a 2003 car tax increase helped wreck Democrat Gray Davis’ career as governor of California. But a new batch of car taxes just passed by state legislators at the strong urging of Gov. Jerry Brown will not harm him or his legacy.


          One reason for this is the timing: Davis was ousted in a recall election first proposed by this column less than one month after his reelection in 2002. He had almost three years remaining in his term by the time the recall came to a vote in October 2003.


          Brown has less than two years left to serve; even if a recall movement arose, there could be no vote until sometime next year, when Brown would have only months left to serve. That calendar means there’s little point to this kind of exercise, so it won’t happen.


          There are plenty of other differences, too. For one thing, corruption and not the car tax actually spurred the Davis recall, even if a lot of pundits with faulty memories now say otherwise. The column that began the recall drive (cited by national publications like the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor and by Ted Costa, the activist who filed the first recall papers) decried the fact turnout was lower by 1.5 million in the 2002 election when Davis won a second term than in the election that first made him governor in 1998.


          “This happened,” the column said, “because of massive popular disgust with a political system that encouraged graft and corruption.” It went on to describe how beholden Davis was to his big donors, both labor unions and corporations. That prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first promise on entering the recall election: that he would take no money from special interests.


          This, of course, was the first of many broken Schwarzenegger promises.


          Then there’s the fact that Davis acted alone when he raised car registration taxes in 2003, a move that unquestionably added oomph to the already-active recall. He activated a provision in California law allowing vehicle registration fees that have previously been lowered to be raised again by the governor in times of budget deficits. The state consistently ran large budget deficits at that time.


          Brown, meanwhile, got his car tax increases passed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, even winning over one Republican. So Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., was off the mark the other day when he likened the current scene to 2003.


          In fact, road conditions are far worse now than 14 years ago. That’s partly because electric vehicles and highly efficient hybrids have dramatically cut use of gasoline and also the gas tax revenues used for road repair.


          The new taxes will hit not only gasoline buyers, but also assess EVs that use no gas, which seems fair to most Californians because those cars and trucks use the same roads as all others, but until now have not paid a fair share for that privilege.


          It’s also true that Davis was unpopular even before the recall focused attention on his negatives; his job approval ratings in various polls were in the low-40 percent range, far below Brown’s performance, now running in the high 50-percent range.


          Sure, the well-documented corruption and sweetheart deals at state agencies like the Public Utilities and Energy commissions, both run entirely by Brown appointees, could provide reasons for voters to see Brown negatively. But polls suggest most voters have not cared much about any of that, at least not yet, and certainly not enough to seriously tar Brown’s reputation.


          Then there’s the fact that most voters appear to believe major road repairs are vitally needed, while there was no such feeling in 2003.


          So the scene today is vastly different from 14 years ago, and it’s serious overreach to suggest Brown might suffer a major backlash because of the new levies.


          The bottom line: Brown’s reputation and legacy have not yet been tainted by the serious problems in some state agencies under his authority, so there’s no reason to believe new car taxes will harm him, either.

          

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    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, April 10, 2017

RUNNING SCARED MAKES DARRELL ISSA LOOK DIFFERENT

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 28, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “RUNNING SCARED MAKES DARRELL ISSA LOOK DIFFERENT”


          Think of Congressman Darrel Issa, the former car alarm magnate who made a fortune off the Viper system, and you picture the ultimate Republican loyalist, the former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who bedeviled ex-President Barack Obama over everything from his birth certificate to conduct of the Food and Drug Administration.


          But these days, it is Issa who is bedeviled, with a target on his back in his San Diego County district, which stretches north into Orange County’s Dana Point.


          The target comes courtesy of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has named Issa as one of seven California Republicans in Congress it considers vulnerable in next year’s voting. Not only did Issa barely win reelection last year, by about a 1,600-vote margin, but the outcome of that race wasn’t known until weeks after the election. And his 2016 opponent, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, is coming after him again next year, while Democrat Hillary Clinton actually carried the district narrowly in 2016 presidential voting.


          One result is that Issa is now focusing much more on his district rather than spending most of his time on investigations that went nowhere and were mostly designed to harass Obama and his aides. Not a single person was indicted or removed from office because of any Issa-inspired probe and Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, the second-ranking House Republican, admitted their prime purpose was to harass Obama and his aides.


          Calvin Moore, his energetic deputy, insists Issa – one of the wealthiest members of Congress and perhaps best known around California for funding the petition drive that led to the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis – has always maintained a strong focus on his district.


          “He’s working on the same stuff he always has,” Moore said. “He wants the nuclear waste issue at San Onofre settled, he wants veterans to be able to get jobs more easily and he wants immigration reform.”


          Those are staple issues in a district which includes the huge Camp Pendleton Marine base and hosts the shut-down nuclear power plant whose spent fuel will be stored just yards from the beach under current plans.


          But although Issa insists he’s visited the spent fuel site frequently since San Onofre shut down in 2012, few in his district recall such visits prior to one staged with much publicity last winter, when he brought fellow Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois there to plump for a bill setting up new nuclear waste disposal sites.


          Issa clearly hopes the retirement of former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada will open the way for a storage site at Yucca Mountain not far from the gambling Mecca of Laughlin, a project Reid resisted for years because of reported danger to aquifers that form much of souternh Nevada’s underground water supply.


          Meanwhile, Issa has still not taken a position on the San Onofre cost settlement that is now under reconsideration by the state Public Utilities Commission because of evidence it was a sweetheart deal between former PUC president Michael Peevey and executives of Southern California Edison Co. That settlement saddled consumers with about 70 percent of the cost of decommissioning the plant, which failed largely because of an Edison blunder. It’s a major issue for consumers in his district. Issa has had five years to consider a stance, but taken none.


          Issa also submitted his own plan to replace Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, seeking to open all government employee health insurance plans to the general public and contending this could bring rates down so far that current federal premium subsidies would not be needed. Such subsides were not in his plan, which differs greatly from others put forward by fellow GOP House members. His plan has gone nowhere.


          Issa also staked out a position far from other Republicans on possible investigation of Russian intelligence links to President Trump’s 2016 campaign. He’s called for an independent prosecutor, contending Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions cannot do the job objectively enough for most Americans to trust conclusions he might reach.


          The upshot is that constituents in the 49th Congressional District shared by Issa and Applegate are seeing more of their representative than most can ever remember. He’s also seeing more of his constituents, one positive aspect of a close vote in a district that formerly was one-sided.

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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



BIG WATER YEAR LEAVES HUGE DEARTH OF INFORMATION

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “BIG WATER YEAR LEAVES HUGE DEARTH OF INFORMATION”


          In this remarkable water year, which ended more than five years of severe drought in California, there are still plenty of noteworthy water questions to contemplate and act upon.


Here’s the central one: Three years after California passed what’s often called a landmark groundwater regulation law, no one knows how much under-surface water remains accessible to wells and no one has a clue to how much replenishment the state’s supplies actually got from last winter’s massive storms.


          It’s easy to see that once-depleted reservoirs are back at peak levels, again drowning abandoned towns, buildings, corrals and other structures sacrificed decades ago to the need for water storage.


          But groundwater remains a mystery.


          Things may not be quite as mysterious as years ago, but one thing for sure: supposed new information the state now possesses about ground water basins is essentially common sense stuff understood long ago by anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about California rainfall, lakes and rivers.


          Example A is a somewhat breathless mid-winter report from the  California Department of Water Resources called “Water Available for Replenishment,” showed demand for local water and imports from other regions is highest in the Tulare Basin of the southern San Joaquin Valley.


The same report says “runoff, natural recharge and outflow are highest on the North Coast.” And we were told the estimated water available for replenishing ground water basins is highest in the Sacramento River region (about 640,000 acre feet a year, enough to satisfy the needs of 1.4 million families).



          This is all the stuff of common-sense: Virtually no one familiar with California’s water world doesn’t know that farms in the Tulare Basin consume a lot of water, both from the Central Valley Project and from wells. Who doesn’t know it typically rains more on the North Coast than anywhere else in the state? And who doesn’t know the Sacramento River watershed contains some of California’s largest reservoirs, from which water could be shifted to replenish aquifers?


          So this was essentially a useless report, telling interested Californians little they didn’t already know. There is still no way to tell how much water remains in easily reachable aquifers around the state. For example, no one has a clue how much water lies in most California underground lakes. We do, for example, know golf courses in the Coachella Valley portion of Riverside County, including Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and the aptly-named Indian Wells, always remained green even as the state Capitol lawn and many others went brown in the drought.


          Drought or not, the vast underground lake beneath the Coachella Valley keeps water shortages there at bay year after year. Plus, much of the water sprayed onto the valley’s myriad greens and fairways eventually filters back down to the aquifer.


          Far more important would be to know the extent of aquifers and their winter replenishment in the Central Valley. During the drought, farmers spent heavily to deepen wells and reach new, lower levels of underground supplies, but no one had the foggiest notion how long that could persist. Winter storms at least partially replenished supplies, but it’s still anyone’s guess how much water rests there or how long it might last.


          Water meters, reported Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West program, could help a bit with this. He told a university magazine that “If everyone had a meter on their well and you knew how much everyone was using, you could sort of calculate everyone’s contribution to aquifer depletion. But if you don’t know any of those things, they just become things to fight about.”


          That’s pretty much where we are today, more than 12 years before the new state law’s eventual deadline for controlling and measuring use of ground water as thoroughly as surface water is managed now.


          The bottom line: We know that after a winter of heavy rain, there is no more drought in California. Even Gov. Jerry Brown admitted that.


We also know at least some Californians want controls on ground water use, but that’s many years off. All of which means that we know startlingly little more now than before the groundwater law passed three years ago, and that’s a crying shame.
         
         
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    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

Friday, April 7, 2017

SANTORINI: ISLAND OF MYTHS AND VOLCANIC HISTORY

SANTORINI: ISLAND OF MYTHS AND VOLCANIC HISTORY 


By Thomas D. Elias


SANTORINI, Greece – – If islands were beautiful women, goes a classic line about this hyper-volcanic island 210 miles southeast of Athens, Santorini would be a supermodel.


From its famously bright whitewashed houses and shops to the deep blue Greek Orthodox church cupolas dotting the island, there seems no end to the beauty and bucolic quality of Santorini.


 This has made it a regular stop for myriad cruise ships that regularly ply the Mediterranean Sea and a must-see for almost anyone visiting Greece and its many islands.


We arrived here on one of the newest of the world's luxury liners, the Viking Sky, a spanking new 933-passenger ship run by the Viking cruise line best known for its riverboats.


This ship may be one of the classiest on the seven seas, filled with real luxury and little of the empty glitz seen in the brassy atrium entries of some other cruise liners. Walking onto the Sky about six weeks after its February launch, the senses were filled with sights and smells of the finest leather furniture, teak accessories and a staff unrelenting in its efforts to serve passengers.


Plus, every cabin has a veranda – there are no inside cabins on the Sky. Books are everywhere on this ship, which plays a different Ted talk daily on its closed-circuit televisions and employs many university professors to guide its shore excursion tours – at least one tour at every stop included in the cruise fare, which is as low as $2,649 per person for next year’s sailings of the 10-day Athens to Venice trip we took.


No ship, however, can detract or distract long from the high drama of Santorini, held up by many myths as the Atlantis of longstanding legend.


The current Santorini – the main island and four smaller ones circling the archipelago's volcanic caldera – is all that's left of a very large island destroyed in about 1625 B.C.E. by the most massive volcanic eruption ever witnessed by humans. The impact was felt as far away as Sweden, almost 2,000 miles north, and the plume of smoke, ash, lava and pumice it spewed was far greater than what was produced by the blasts of Krakatoa in the 19th Century or Mount St. Helens in the 20th.


Was there ever a great and advanced civilization here? The answer is maybe. For sure archaeological digs going down about 300 feet through old lava and ash have found very sophisticated artifacts. But no machines, so far. So if this civilization was advanced, it was by ancient – not modern – standards.


For sure, the volcanic blast destroyed the Minoan civilization that dominated Mediterranean shipping and commerce from the island of Crete, 140 miles south of Santorini, for more than 100 years. One of its legendary kings was the mythical Midas, he of the golden touch. The force of the volcano’s explosion was far greater than any earthquake experienced anywhere since.


Santorini, for example, endured a volcano-caused 7.9 earthquake in 1956. That’s as great a magnitude as any quake that ever struck California – about equal to the 1906 San Francisco jolt and another that hit in 1857 along the San Andreas Fault in the Ft. Tejon area near Interstate 5’s Grapevine stretch. The Santorini 7.9 knocked down many buildings, but it left the island itself unchanged. So it was a far cry from the ancient eruption.


The modern island is one of fabulous views and narrow roads given to sudden traffic jams and no visible traffic cops. That's why our veteran guide here, 25-year-island resident Charlotte Jordan, joked that you can still rent a donkey near Santorini's second city of Oia (pronounced ee-ah) and on some days beat a car or bus to the main town of Thira, about five miles away.


You can also rent a donkey, a la the famed Molokai mules, near the dock at the bottom of the 1,300-foot volcano-made cliff on the west side of the main island for the climb up to Thira. Most visitors prefer to go by cable car for a fare of six euros, or about $6.50.


It's in Oia that you'll find the prettiest, purest whitewash-and-blue-colored church on the island, St. Mary of Platsumi Cathedral.


The habit of painting church domes bright blue is said by locals to be a leftover from an era when Greeks had to be discreet about protesting discrimination by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the island for 420 years until Greeks – said to have been inspired by the American and French revolutions – finally won their independence in the early 19th century.


Blue has always been one of two colors on the Greek flag. Since any religious or nationalist protests were harshly squashed by the Turks, the church cupolas are reminders that despite their hardships, Greeks refused to forget who they were.


Greeks on Santorini for centuries also held secret classes passing on their culture in a monastery atop Mt. Elias (no relation to the author), the highest spot on the island at about 4800 feet.


The bottom line: this island is a must-see and must-experience. And a brand-new cruise ship smelling of new leather and fresh varnish is a pretty good way to get here.


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Thomas D Elias writes a syndicated column on California public affairs appearing in 93 California newspapers.

KOTOR TRAVEL: MEET ONE OF THE WORLD'S FABULOUS ROADS

KOTOR TRAVEL: MEET ONE OF THE WORLD'S FABULOUS ROADS
(California Focus bonus coverage)


By Thomas D. Elias


KOTOR, Montenegro -- Among  the world's millions of roads and highways, a very select few have themselves become destinations.


There are western Canada's magnificent Icefields Parkway, California's own Highway 1 through Big Sur and Maui's Hana Road, to name three.


None of them has anything over the nameless road that winds its way through 13 miles and 27 hairpin turns up a 3,500-foot cliff from this medieval Venetian-built port town, best known today as the setting of the James Bond movie Casino Royale. The road leads to Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, on the small nation’s rocky central plain.


          Sometimes billed simply as the serpentine road because of all those switchbacks, so sharp that authorities painted numbers at the apex of each to let drivers know where they stand, the route features almost constant views down to the Bay of Kotor, or Boka Kotorska in Serbo-Croatian, the southernmost fjord in Europe.


          Look the other way, and from some turns you can see the gorgeous beaches at Ulcinj, about 30 miles south, and part of the port town of Bar, with occasional views of the overcrowded resort town of Budva and the ultra-luxury St. Stephen’s Island, the entire place now one large five-star hotel.


The views are among the world’s finest, one dramatic vista after another. It’s no wonder Lord Byron in the 19th Century described the coast of Montenegro as “The most beautiful encounter anywhere between the land and the sea.”


The road’s surface is smooth asphalt today, with guard rails protecting drivers from abrupt, unbroken drops of hundreds of feet. Even so, bus drivers who ferry cruise ship passengers up Lovcen (pronounced love-chen) Mountain all through the summer take it very slow and easy. They sometimes have conflicts with other drivers who don't understand the worldwide protocol that on a road too narrow for more than one vehicle, the car or truck heading downhill must back up to the nearest wide spot.


Difficult as the driving looked the other day to most of my fellow bus passengers from the brand-new cruise ship Viking Sky, to me it looked pretty simple.


That's because the last time I came here, on a cross-Balkan road trip in 1989, this then-completely nameless track featured gravel and no pavement, plus the same sheer drop offs, but with no guard rails. Great fun to drive, but maybe a little nerve-wracking for passengers.


My wife and I signed up for Viking's 10-day "Empires of the Mediterranean" cruise from Athens to Venice the moment we saw it featured a daylong stop in Kotor and a shore excursion up the well-remembered road, which I recalled clearly as one of the most gorgeous, least-publicized and most adventurous drives we ever made.


We figured there must've been some heavy work done on the road in the 28 years since we last drove it – and there has been. The government of Montenegro appears to be on a road-building binge.


Not only has our favorite lane (it's still only one lane) been paved, but a new highway is almost finished over much more gradual terrain on a far longer, circuitous route between Kotor and Cetinje, also the terminus of the so-called serpentine road.


The new route has two lanes and some decent views over the Adriatic Sea coastline, but no romance or sense of adventure.


The road you might well love and certainly would never forget was built by Swiss engineers working for the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire during World War I.


It was never meant to be a highway, but rather as an invasion route for enemy troops to enter Montenegro from the back way and surprise the locals. That never worked.  For a reminder of the difficulty of the task faced by those Swiss mercenaries, near the top of the narrow road you can look across a deep gully to a steep, dirt footpath that previously was the only route linking Kotor and the rest of Montenegro.


Kotor, as romantic on a springtime evening stroll as it looks from above, appears much as it did in Medieval times, when monarchs from all over the known world sent their most promising young sailors to the town's Marine Academy to learn the latest ins and outs of navigation and boat building. Kings like Peter the Great of Russia and Ferdinand of Spain were among its patrons over the centuries.


With narrow streets and no space for cars in its Old Town, known as the Stari Grad in Serbo-Croatian, you would never imagine being able to find a replacement iPhone charger cord here, but I ran across one in a little shop off a small plaza. Modernity met medieval and my cell phone kept working.


Getting here was a great part of the fun, too. From the moment you board the Viking Sky, which made its maiden voyage in February, you sense this is a unique ship. The odors of high-quality leather and fresh varnish pervade the ship.


Its kitchens put out Scandinavian specialties not available on most other luxury liners. Brand-new books seem to cram every spare shelf aboard, even some cubbyholes around the swimming pool with its retractable roof.
         
Walk the staircases and see huge tapestries featuring Viking legends. Itineraries are carefully crafted for synergy and stimulation. Add lectures on subjects from fashion to mythology, economics and details about the next port. Free WiFi throughout the ship and no-charge mini-bars in every cabin. Free washers and driers with free laundry soap. Specialty restaurants without the extra charges common on other cruise ships, and free house wines with every dinner. Listed fares on some spring 2018 sailings of this cruise start at $2,649.


Put it together and you have a ship with both pizzazz and substance, just like the road it can take you to, one with beauty, meaning and adventure all rolled together.


-30-

          Thomas Elias writes a syndicated column on California public affairs appearing in 93 newspapers.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

TEACHER QUALIFICATIONS, NOT EVALUATIONS, MAY BE EDUCATION ANSWER

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE:  FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    "TEACHER QUALIFICATIONS, NOT EVALUATIONS, MAY BE EDUCATION ANSWER"


          Few questions about public education have been disputed more hotly over the last few years than evaluations – in a day when almost everyone agrees public schools need major improvement, how to tell which teachers are good, which are the best and which don’t deserve to be kept around.


          For some, the answer is in “value added” ratings: How much do children improve or decline in standardized testing while under the tutelage of one teacher compared to what they do under another?


          But America’s second-largest teachers union might have a better idea: make sure teachers are well qualified even before they’re hired. True, that’s what teacher credentialing is supposed to do, but no one pretends any more that a credential assures any teacher has mastery over the subjects he or she might teach.


          As a rule, teachers and their unions don’t like the value-added idea. It  puts all the onus on them and none on pupils or their parents, where many analysts believe most education problems originate and are perpetuated.


          But a few local unions have broken down and allowed test scores to be used as part of teacher evaluation. In 2015, California’s largest school district (Los Angeles Unified) and its teachers union tentatively agreed to this sort of arrangement. That agreement eventually could see state test scores, high school exit exam results, rates of attendance, graduation and suspensions all factored into teacher evaluations. The weight given to each of these factors and classroom observation is not yet agreed upon.


          Into this dispute comes the American Federation of Teachers, the No. 2 education union behind the National Education Assn. (The California Teachers Assn. is part of the NEA.)



          The AFT notes that school districts for a time raised the bar for students by using the high school exit exam and other standardized tests to make sure diplomas have real meaning. On hiatus now in California, that exam may or may not come back. But the union notes there are no similarly widespread means to test whether new teachers are qualified to take over classrooms.


          It commissioned a survey of 500 new public school teachers and found fully one-third felt unprepared on their first day. Those hired to teach special needs students or working in low-performing schools were most likely to feel unprepared and overwhelmed.


          The union suggests improving this via a national entry assessment “that is universal across the county, rigorous and multidimensional.” AFT president Randi Weingarten compared it to the bar exam taken by nascent lawyers.


          “The components must include subject and pedagogical (teaching techniques) knowledge and demonstration of teaching performance – in other words, the ingredients of a caring, competent and confident new teacher,” said an AFT report.


          In response, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which evaluates what teachers should know, agreed to start designing entry assessment standards for the profession, which would include a full year of successful student teaching under a classroom veteran.


          By doing all this, the AFT is not out to put more pressure on young teachers. Rather, the idea is that when school districts, parents, politicians and the public know everyone at the head of a classroom is qualified, pressure will mount on parents and students to do their share, because it will no longer be so easy to accuse teachers of incompetence.


          The AFT also wants new standards for teachers to help de-emphasize what it calls “a national fixation on excessive testing,” which often sees instructors teaching to specific tests, rather than striving for a rounded education for pupils. That’s natural when teachers are evaluated on test scores more than anything else.


          “Public education should be obsessed with high-quality teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing,” Weingarten said. “Tests have a role, but the fixation with them undermines (giving) kids a universal education and keeps us from fairly measuring teachers’ performance.”


          In short, give kids the best-prepared teachers possible, rather than loosing unprepared newbies into classrooms with insufficient guidance or preparation.


          Then it would be up to parents and students themselves, as they’d no longer be able to scapegoat teachers when kids do poorly.


          If this seems to represent a pendulum swing away from today’s overemphasis on tests, that’s probably a good thing, so long as standardized exams aren’t completely abandoned.

         
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     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, go to www.californiafocus.net


PG&E’S UNPRECEDENTED CHUTZPAH PAYS OFF

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “PG&E’S UNPRECEDENTED CHUTZPAH PAYS OFF”


          At the very moment when California’s largest utility company was being assessed a $14 million fine for failing to report discovery of flawed records on its gas pipelines, that same company in 2014 began asking for well over $1 billion in rate increases to pay for repairs to the very same pipeline system.


          This is Pacific Gas & Electric, the same huge utility company – California’s largest – that in 2016 was criminally convicted in federal court of safety violations and obstruction of justice related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes. The fine: a paltry $3 million. No PG&E executive went to prison for the deaths and not a single firing was mandated by federal or state authorities.


          Meanwhile, PG&E kept right on pursuing its routine every-three-years-or-so rate increases for natural gas and electric service, asking initially for more than $4.6 billion in additional charges to customers. The company ended up getting about $2.37 billion over three years in the usual “kabuki dance” conducted by the state Public Utilities Commission – this pattern sees the Big Four of PG&E, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric routinely ask for huge increases, then “settle” for about half their original request, with the PUC then bragging about how much it has saved consumers.


          But PG&E regularly posts profits approaching $1 billion a year. It’s legitimate to ask whether it should be entitled to any rate increase when it has misbehaved as egregiously as it has over the last eight years or more. (PG&E collected more than $60 billion in gas pipeline maintenance funds from customers in the 60 years preceding San Bruno, but there has never been an accounting of where that money went.)


          So here’s a criminal company demanding ever more from its customers, and the PUC simply hands it over. No one even suggests forcing PG&E to divest any of its holdings to publicly-owned Community Choice Aggregation power suppliers as a consequence of its repeated, frequent bad behavior and what federal authorities called negligence.


          Instead, the company’s customers pay more than ever. The typical monthly bill has risen from about $137 at the end of 2015 to more than $150, an increase of about 9 percent. Even when PG&E was fined by the state last year for violating pipeline safety standards, more than 53 percent of that money -- $850 million – was earmarked for repairs and improvements that customers funded years ago and were supposed to have been made long since.  The company saved another $100 million or so because its entire “fine” was tax deductible.


          And yet, in an interview published this spring, the company’s new chief executive, Geisha Williams, bragged that PG&E’s rates are lower than the national average of about $190 per month. Even she concedes this is not because of efficiency, but due to climate: There are few blizzards in PG&E’s vast service territory except in sparsely-populated mountain areas.


          All of which means that even with a new CEO and even with a new self-described emphasis on safety, PG&E still has not deviated from its longtime goal of forcing customers to put up new cash continually for it to bring its system up to the level of safety it should have had all along.


          As consumers pay their ever-increasing bills – further increases are upcoming, along with shifts in the rate tiers under which bills are figured – no one really knows just how much PG&E actually needs to stay solvent. The same is true for the other big privately-owned utilities.


But we do know that customers of all three major California gas utilities have paid scores of billions of dollars in maintenance money over many years. They have every reason for righteous indignation as they look at the increases on their monthly bills, which add up to well over $100 yearly for the average residential customer.


          But they will get no solace from PG&E, despite the new happy and safety-conscious face it is putting on. Which means the audacity and the chutzpah of PG&E has paid off, bigly.

         
     -30-

      Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.com. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net

REAL ESTATE PRICES DRIVING MOVES FROM STATE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “REAL ESTATE PRICES DRIVING MOVES FROM STATE”


          If you’re a millennial, now aged 18 to 35, there’s a good chance the only major city in California you’re very much interested in moving to is San Francisco. That’s because it’s largely walkable, with plenty of amenities like singles bars and gorgeous parks. And also a lot of high-paying, high-tech jobs if you qualify.


          Millenials may be willing to double- and triple-up so they can live where they like despite high rents, but that same cost factor is driving an unprecedented share of them away from California, says a new study from the Apartment List website (https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/millennial-population-trends/).


          When they get ready to buy, those same millennials are forced out of high-priced cities like San Francisco, Santa Barbara and the coastal parts of Los Angeles, adds the CoreLogic data analysis firm (http://www.corelogic.com/blog/authors/archana-pradhan/2016/11/where-are-households-in-high-cost-markets-buying-homes.aspx#.WDx2TVwl3mc).


          This scene is not unique to California’s higher-priced cities, but also occurs in New York, Chicago’s tonier areas, Boston and Washington, D.C. But it could lead to serious problems for California companies wanting to hire or retain the brightest members of the young-adult generation.


          In San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, where prices have skied in the last three years, 50 out of every 100 households that apply for new home mortgages are buying in nearby counties like Alameda and Contra Costa, where prices are significantly lower. Contra Costa’s median sales price over the last year, for example, was less than half San Francisco’s for comparable properties.


          Now this problem is spreading to nearby Alameda County, home to cities like Oakland and Berkeley, where 34 percent of home loan applications    are for areas even farther from the Bay Area’s urban core.


In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the millennial population decreased by 7.4 percent between 2005 and 2015, with many 18-to-35s decamping to places like Austin, Tex., Charlotte and Houston. The technology industry is strong in those places, but real estate prices and rents are half or less than for comparable properties in the most trendy parts of Los Angeles.


          Overall, says CoreLogic, home prices were up 71 percent in California in that time, with the median statewide home price in mid-2016 reaching $428,000.


          There is no backlash yet, mostly because of foreign buyers, who tend to be among their countries’ affluent, seeking a safe place to invest their riches. The leading buyers of this type have lately been mainland Chinese.


          “This makes it harder for the average person to make a living (in California),” said Sam Khater, a CoreLogic economist. “That means less teachers, fire fighters, retail workers and more. It’s causing the entire state to be more expensive.”


          Or, as a Silicon Valley executive complained earlier this year, “I pay some of my people with master’s degrees $70,000 and $80,000 a year and they still have no hope of buying a house anywhere near where they work.”


          Some locales are trying to compensate for this by subsidizing teacher housing, from kindergarten to the college level. For sure, real estate prices are a recruiting barrier when companies and schools seek to hire top talent from places like Texas and Arizona, where median home prices are barely half California’s level.


          Some places are trying to solve the problem with affordable housing, generally apartments or condominium units that builders are required to include in new developments along with market-rate housing. This kind of affordable property usually bears a resale price limit, with city and school employees often getting priority on the long waiting lists for them.


          But those same new developments, when placed in already crowded urban areas, add to traffic volume which is not notably reduced even by new public transit that has opened in parts of Los Angeles and other areas.


          It’s a real quandary for California: The state needs talented young workers to fuel its innovative industries, but even those who earn more than $200,000 yearly have difficulty qualifying for mortgages on homes selling for more than $1 million, increasingly common in this state.


          But acting to artificially reduce real estate prices would impact the resources of millions of Californians who have lived here for a generation or two.


          So far, there is no answer to this dilemma, which sees more and more companies forced to open satellite facilities in more affordable states.

         
     -30-       
     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. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net

UNHEEDED WARNINGS PAST AND FUTURE – AND THEIR BIG CONSEQUENCES

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
   “UNHEEDED WARNINGS PAST AND FUTURE – AND THEIR BIG CONSEQUENCES”


Ask the residents of San Jose’s drying-out Rock Springs neighborhood and other nearby areas if it pays to ignore warnings about future disasters that seem in normal times to be nothing more than distant, negative fantasies.


          During the heavy rains of February, when a crisis caused by a poorly-built spillway at the Oroville Dam drew worldwide headlines, the San Jose neighborhood and areas around it suffered at least $50 million of avoidable damage to private property and about $23 million in public property damage. Some estimates of the total toll come to more than $100 million.


          That’s in addition to $22 million in emergency fixes the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District now propose.


          Avoidable? Unnecessary? You bet. Even as 14,000 residents of the flood plain of San Jose’s Coyote Creek were forced to flee, local water district officials remembered their early 2000’s dealings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with managing flood controls all over the country.


          But the Corps opted not to work on Coyote Creek. After five years of negotiating with the Santa Clara Valley Water District to create levees and other improvements keeping water away from low-lying Rock Springs, the Corps begged off. It cited an obscure rule forbidding projects when their cost is more than the likely damage from a single major flood.


          Oops. The cost of the improvements protecting Rock Springs would have been about $7.4 million. That’s less than 10 percent of the damage inflicted by Coyote Creek in February.


          The total of actual damages and possible new flood control measures make the 2003 statement of Lt. Col Michael McCormick, then the Army Corps’ district commander in San Francisco, look silly: “The economic evaluation found the benefits, i.e. the reduction in flood damages, were not significant enough to justify the costs of improvement,” he said.


          McCormick is long gone, but residents are still trying to replace or repair cars that were flooded up to the hoods and homes and contents flooded and muddied well up their interior walls. There’s also the coming issue of mold.


          In a way, this was similar to what happened at Oroville, where environmental groups warned in 2005 that inadequate spillways could cause damage to the dam itself and lead to Feather River flooding downstream. The fix they recommended would have addressed precisely the problems behind this winter’s almost 200,000 evacuations and would have cost far less than the $200 million to $600 million that repairs and restructuring will now run. But the state Water Project, which operates the dam, and the water districts benefiting most from supplies it captures, downplayed potential damages.


          Both scenes resemble the old television commercials where a mechanic held up an oil filter while intoning “You can pay me now (for this), or you can pay me later (much more).”


          Californians will be paying much more now than if warnings had been heeded.


          Other warnings exist all over California. More than 1,000 bridges need seismic updating to avoid major damage in earthquakes. Potential future consequences of ignoring that kind of warning were clear in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which knocked down freeway bridges and impeded traffic for months. Also in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which led to the hyper-expensive rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and destroyed the top level of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, killing 39 persons.


          There are also many warnings about dams: An example is Santa Clara County, where five of ten existing reservoirs cannot be filled to more than two-thirds capacity for fear of seismic collapse. Wasted capacity there could provide enough water for 280,000 persons for a full year.


          And there are warnings about many thousands of homes and buildings not yet retrofitted to withstand the next large nearby earthquake. This may cost homeowners several thousand dollars each, exact amounts varying, but a fix could keep them in homes that might otherwise be red-tagged as unfit for human occupation.


          None of these other items are drawing anything like the emergency response they should, nor will they until or unless there’s a crisis.


          At which point, like Coyote Creek and the Oroville Dam, they’ll have to be fixed fast, at a much higher cost than today’s estimates.

                  

    -30-       
     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, go to www.californiafocus.net