Monday, December 11, 2017

NOW WE’LL SEE WHAT TRANSPARENCY CAN DO

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “NOW WE’LL SEE WHAT TRANSPARENCY CAN DO”


          California will be exploring new ground as the impending election year builds to its climax in early November. For the first time ever, big donors to ballot proposition campaigns will not be able to hide behind phony campaign committee names like “Californians for Safe Streets” and the like when they put their money behind causes, many of which can be self-serving.


          It will now be somewhat harder to keep dark money from having at least some light shined upon it.


          But no one can be certain just yet how difficult it will be for real donors to hide and just how exposed they might soon be. That’s partly because of some rather vague language in the state’s new Disclose Act, quietly signed as Assembly Bill 249 by Gov. Jerry Brown, who issued no statement along with his signature, as he often does on important bills.


          Advocates contend the language of the new law “will fundamentally change how campaign financing is disclosed,” as legislative sponsor Kevin Mullin, a Democratic assemblyman from San Mateo, put it.


          And it might do that. The bill requires ads for ballot propositions and independent expenditure ads for and against candidates to identify their top three funders, with none able to hide behind sometimes-misleading committee names. The idea is to identify people and organizations actually trying to exert influence, possibly causing some to downsize their contributions if they don’t want to be listed publicly as leading donors.


          This should let voters know exactly who is trying to influence them. From the “who,” it’s often easy to deduce the “why,” so California ballots could be cast in the most educated manner ever.


          Of course, this measure might have been even better than what has now become law. It could have required that disclosures of donors be made in a print size equal to the largest anywhere else in an ad. But that was amended out of the bill as it progressed through the Legislature. Instead, disclosures must be made “clearly and prominently,” a vague phrase that will no doubt be litigated for years.


          Expect some of the political consultants who conceive, write and approve the ads that will be ubiquitous as 2018 progresses to try to obfuscate matters. Their radio ads may feature the same kind of ultra-speed-reading often heard when pharmaceutical companies list drug side effects near the end of their ads.


          But newspaper and television advertising will have to include printed information on true campaign funders. In the beginning, some campaigns may try to get away with small print, but that almost certainly won’t fly in the long run.


          So while this law does contain some vagueness, it is far better than no law, a clear-cut case of not letting the perfect (identification in letters that match the largest elsewhere in the ad) outweigh the good.


          The law’s other flaw is that it does not demand exposure of the largest direct contributors to candidates, whose donors often launder their contributions through the major political parties at both the state and country levels. But there is nevertheless plenty of improvement over the longstanding ability of big donors to remain almost completely anonymous.


          Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, which pushed the Disclose Act for more than seven years before its final passage on a fairly bipartisan vote (five Republican assembly members from swing districts joined almost all Democrats in supporting it), called the new law “the biggest blow yet against the unlimited secret money unleashed by Citizens United.” That’s the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring that corporations are like people when it comes to political giving.


          The bottom line is that even with some vague parts of the new law likely to be disputed and litigated over the next few years, there will still be more disclosure of campaign finance information than ever before seen anywhere in America.


          But we will all have to wait and see how much real voters care about this and whether it really affects the way votes are cast.


        
     -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

TAX ‘REFORMS’ COULD HIT HOUSING, WIDER ECONOMY

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “TAX ‘REFORMS’ COULD HIT HOUSING, WIDER ECONOMY”


          It’s already well established that the tax “reforms” now being hashed out in secret by a joint committee of Republicans from the Senate and the House of Representatives will likely cost Californians a net sum of well over $110 billion, an average of more than $2,000 a year for every man, woman and child in the state.


          That figure is derived from calculations by the House Budget Committee staff, controlled by the very Republicans designing the changes, so it’s hard to argue.


          It’s also hard to see how this measure can possibly produce more than $2,000 a year in benefits to the Californians who will pay the added taxes, caused by eliminating or slashing several longtime, big-dollar tax writeoffs.


          There is the medical deduction, which is eliminated in the House version of this bill, but retained by the Senate. No one knows how that conflict will be resolved, but if the deduction goes, it will cost the 1.3 million Californians who use that deduction (long limited to amounts exceeding 10 percent of adjusted gross income) an average of more than $9,800 yearly. This added cost will mostly come from people already burdened by the many uninsured costs involved with chronic illnesses and from folks supporting elderly parents or other relatives in nursing homes or assisted living.


          Eliminating this deduction would be purely reverse Robin Hood – taking from the already cash-strapped in order to finance large tax cuts for corporations and the extremely wealthy.


          There’s also the proposed change in deductions for home mortgages, now applying to homes costing up to $1 million. The Senate bill keeps this, but the House would allow it for new mortgages only if they are under $500,000. The House would grandfather in existing mortgages.


          Effects of this likely change (and the joint committee is likely to reach some kind of compromise) are still not totally predictable, but it is sure to reduce the inventory of homes for sale in California, where mortgages of more than half a million dollars are commonplace. At the same time, it could take many potential home buyers out of the market because it would suddenly be more expensive for them to sustain mortgages on houses costing not much more than the average price of about $575,000 in many parts of this state.


          It’s also probable this change will cause more present owners to hang onto their homes, a supply reduction that could keep prices up. But if this doesn’t happen, the tax change figures to drive prices down by anywhere from 8 percent to 12 percent, says one estimate from the National Association of Realtors, which strongly opposes the bill.


          But the biggest effect – estimated at about $90 billion by the Budget Committee – will come from eliminating deductions for state and local taxes. This will not only cost at tax time, but also make everyday purchases from patio furniture to televisions and smart phones significantly more expensive.


          This leads to speculation the changes could throw the whole nation into recession, not just California.


          All this comes from a Republican Party that has promised continually since 1988 to levy no new taxes. So much for political promises.


          But it’s the real estate market that figures to be hit harder by these so-called reforms than any other economic sector.


          “The tax incentives to own a home are baked into overall values,” said Elizabeth Mendenhall, president of the national Realtors’ group. “When those incentives are nullified in the way this bill will likely provide, our estimates show home values stand to fall by more than 10 percent, even more in high-cost areas.”


          Affordable housing advocates also predict the projected overhaul will gut efforts to solve California’s large-scale homeless problem. The tax exemptions builders get for constructing low-cost housing rather than more upscale new residences would for the most part disappear.


          It’s possible this might not have many political ramifications for Republicans next fall, because none of it is scheduled to take full effect until 2019. But by 2020, when the new tax bills have festered for more than a year, it’s likely to be look out below for President Trump and other Republicans who naively promise massive new prosperity will trickle down from their plan.



    -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.

Monday, December 4, 2017

TRUMP AND HATE CRIMES: BIG RISE LIKELY ONLY THE START

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE:  FRIDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
   “TRUMP AND HATE CRIMES: BIG RISE LIKELY ONLY THE START”


          Hate crimes are on the rise in California and there are strong hints the increase stems in part from President Trump’s habit of using racial slurs like the “Pocahontas” tag he likes to apply to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the travel bans he’s imposed on citizens of several Muslim countries.


          There were also Trump’s call for a wall separating this country from Mexico and his claim that vast numbers of Latino illegal immigrants are criminals and rapists.


          The latest FBI hate crime statistics cover only 2016, not even including an apparent rise in white supremacist activity that’s been reported less formally since Trump refused to outright condemn the neo-Nazi-tinged rally that turned fatal last summer in Charlottesville, VA.


          Even the FBI’s numbers are far from complete, as they are based on reporting only from cities and counties that volunteer information. Many don’t bother reporting.


          There is also no proof that Trump’s rhetoric and tweets caused the hate crime spike, but there is a definite correlation of the increases with his remarks.


          Most striking in the California numbers stemming from 733 police and sheriff’s departments in all parts of the state is the rise of almost 100 hate crimes, or 11.7 percent, over the previous year, 2015. Perhaps even more important to anyone looking for a trend was a rise of 9 percent in the month of November 2016, the month of Trump’s election victory.


          The numbers show increases in both race-based crimes and in those targeting gender. The biggest increases were in anti-Latino, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT crimes.


          If there’s any parallel here to previous California hate crime spikes, it’s to the period just before and after Proposition 187 passed in 1994, seeking to deprive undocumented immigrants of all government services, from public schooling to emergency room care. The hot political rhetoric of that time also saw an upswing in crimes targeting Latinos, regardless of either their immigration status or of how long their families had been in California.


          Most hate crimes, as usual, occurred in or near large cities, with most hate crimes in San Francisco against gays, while in Los Angeles a wave of incidents targeted Jews, Muslims and African-Americans.


          Reported hate crimes linked to white supremacists in Los Angeles County jumped from 63 in 2015 to 105 last year, about two-thirds more than the previous year’s number. They have been most common in poorer communities like Cudahy, according to an annual survey by that county’s Human Relations commission.


          That commission also found African Americans the most frequently targeted group in Southern California, often the victims of white supremacists. But the danger to transgender individuals also increased sharply, with 39 reported crimes hitting them compared with 22 the year before, a 77 percent increase.


          The increases were just as sharp in Northern California, where hate crimes almost tripled in Santa Clara County, from 14 to 39, with San Jose hit the most. Of that city’s 24 reported hate crimes, 15 were based on race and ethnicity, seven were religious and two involved sexual orientation. San Jose’s total was triple its 2015 number.


          The increases in crimes based on race and ethnicity, from swastikas on synagogues and mosques to physical attacks on gays, are too striking and too ubiquitous in California’s population centers to have been spurred by anything other than the not-quite-hateful, but still race-suggestive rhetoric that suffused television and the Internet at the times when these crimes increased the most.


          It would be the height of naiveté to gloss over this reality. California learned in 1994 and 1995 that hateful political advertising coincided with a sharp rise in hate and hate crimes against the same or similar groups to those referenced in the ads.


          The 2016 numbers – more dramatically increased than in any one year since the 1990s – appear to demonstrate that this type of politics is no more benign today than 20 years ago.


          And until the numbers for 2017 come in sometime near the end of next year, no one will know the exact effect the Trump presidency has had on them. But it’s a safe bet we will see even more dramatic increases than last year’s.

                            
    -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

WILL TOP TWO ‘JUNGLE PRIMARY’ AID FEINSTEIN?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “WILL TOP TWO ‘JUNGLE PRIMARY’ AID FEINSTEIN?”


          Strong irony is in the air as California heads into the hot political year of 2018, with an initiative to end the state’s “top two” primary election system in play just as top two, also known as the “jungle primary,” may be about to accomplish its central purpose.


That aim was to allow voters in the minority party to influence elections and elect more moderate members of the larger party when their own party either has no candidate in a race or fields a sure loser.


So it is today as moderate Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein bids for another six years in Washington, D.C. amid opposition from state Senate President Kevin de Leon and possibly others from the Democrats’ left wing.


So far, no Republican has entered the race, and in past reelection efforts, Feinstein has trampled GOP opponents anyhow. This leads to two key questions to be answered in the next 11 months: Will the ‘jungle primary’ system so detested by Republicans and fringe party members help save Feinstein’s long career? And will she be the last to benefit from that system, which pits the top two primary election vote-getters for any office below the presidency against each other in the November runoff, regardless of party?


          Mostly likely, Feinstein next fall will share the ballot with the initiative seeking to return California to its previous primary system based on parties, with each party participating in the primary entitled to have a candidate in the runoff. Candidates and parties now must earn runoff slots with strong primary election performances.


          If top two is even partly responsible for a Feinstein win, she would be the most prominent case of that system fulfilling its aim.


          The Democratic left, which came within a hair of taking over the party’s state apparatus last fall, excoriates Feinstein because she once urged patience with President Trump, because she’s had Wall Street ties and has not been as shrill in opposing Trump as some younger senators, including California’s other senator, fellow Democrat Kamala Harris. (Harris endorsed Feinstein the day she announced for reelection.)


          No one yet knows how wide the appeal of a so-called progressive candidate like de Leon or activist billionaire Tom Steyer might be among baseline Democratic voters, so it’s impossible yet to determine whether Feinstein might need Republican votes to win reelection. But that is a definite possibility, and if it happens, it would fulfill the purpose of the jungle primary, backed when it began by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, both moderate Republicans. They wanted their sort of candidates to have a chance to win and their sort of voters to be able to influence election outcomes in places where they previously could not.


          Now comes Feinstein, who could be the rare California incumbent getting less than half her own party’s primary election vote. Republicans, with barely over a quarter of California’s total voter registration, would be unlikely to place a candidate on the ballot this year, just as they failed in the 2016 Senate contest.


          But if they vote in decent numbers, they are more than sufficient to combine with moderate Democrats to keep a far-leftist candidate from winning. That only works if Republicans actually vote for Feinstein, even if they would much prefer voting for a fellow Republican.


          Returns from 2016 show that almost exactly 1 million fewer Californians voted for a U.S. Senate candidate than for president, indicating  many Republicans didn’t bother to vote in a race between two liberal Democratic women, Harris and then-Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.


          If most of those in the vote dropoff were Republicans and there is less dropoff this fall, they could assure that California gets the moderate Feinstein and not someone substantially to her left and less patient or willing to compromise.


          Such an outcome would represent the explicit purpose of top two, and it’s just possible that it might also be the last gasp of that system. For if voters opt to go back to party-driven primaries, the extreme wings of both major parties will once again provide almost all candidates.


          This would assure plenty of November choices, but would essentially disenfranchise Democrats in Republican-dominated legislative districts and Republicans statewide, as well as those living in the many Democratic-dominated districts.

                   
-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