Monday, December 10, 2018




          As this winter’s gift-giving season proceeds, California voters might want to pause a moment and pat themselves on the back for a gift that has lasted 30 years: Proposition 103.

          If there ever was a ballot measure proving the effectiveness of direct democracy, making policy by letting the public vote on important policy choices, this is it.

          Voters who participated back in 1988 might also want to congratulate themselves on resisting the blandishments of a massive advertising campaign that sought to squash this initiative, whose backers were outspent by margins of more than 10-1. Fully $63 million was spent against Proposition 103 – that’s $134 million in today’s dollars, far more than the $110 million spent against this fall’s dialysis-meddling Proposition 8 – and it still won by a large margin.

          Most of the money came from the insurance industry, which until then had pretty much had its way with California regulators. Before that vote, governors appointed California’s insurance commissioner, with no firm rules governing what rate increases that official could allow for car and property insurance.

          Proposition 103 changed all this immediately. It made the insurance commissioner an elected state officer and imposed limits on premium increases. The Consumer Federation of America reported last month the measure has saved California motorists alone $154 billion over 30 years compared with what drivers in other states have paid – an average of about $5 billion yearly.

          The group found that auto liability insurance – the most basic part of an auto policy – now costs 5.7 percent less in California than it did 30 years ago, when the law took effect in early 1989. Prices for the same coverage meanwhile rose 58.5 percent around the rest of America.

          No one has calculated the accompanying savings on homeowner insurance and other property coverage, but it’s certain they have also been substantial. State Farm Insurance, for just one example, is now in court trying to avoid an order to reduce homeowners’ rates by $150 million a year.

          For those whom soon-to-be-ex-Gov. Jerry Brown likes to call “declinists,” that’s one thing keeping living expenses under control even while California sales and income taxes are somewhat higher than in most other states.

          “Can you name anything else that costs less now than it did 30 years ago?” asks Proposition 103 author Harvey Rosenfield, former president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, now known as Consumer Watchdog, one of the state’s leading consumer advocate groups.

          “When I wrote it, I never imagined it would save motorists as much as it has,” he said.

          Among other things Prop. 103 established: Auto insurance prices are based mostly on a driver’s safety record and miles driven, insurance companies now must open their books and justify all rate increases and they can no longer base rates on where customers live, a practice commonly known as “redlining,” which saw residents of the poorest areas forced to pay some of the highest prices.

          Of course, enforcement of these rules has not always been certain. Over the years, the insurance industry has filed more than 100 lawsuits against Prop. 103, besides trying to get the state Legislature to nullify most of its rules. Two initiatives to water it down have also been defeated.

          This fight may never end. Five current court and administrative proceedings are now challenging parts of Prop. 103, even while State Farm Insurance fights its big refund order.

          “This is proof that citizen initiatives can change the way consumers are treated and make the system fairer,” says Carmen Balber, Consumer Watchdog executive director.

          In this time when it’s become possible for state legislators to interfere in the initiative process and reach “settlements” with sponsors of measures that have qualified for the ballot, skeptics often question whether it’s wise to let the public – not politicians – decide important policy issues.

          But Prop. 103 stands as a shining example of what the initiative process at its purest can accomplish if voters can see through the flood of special interest advertising so common at election times and make decisions of their own about key issues affecting their lives and pocketbooks.

    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 is a school of thought, mostly pushed by Latino activist politicians, which says undocumented immigrants contribute to American life and prosperity and therefore should have virtually all the rights of citizens.

          For a long time, it appeared an unlimited granting of rights previously reserved for U.S. citizens would be among the major legacies of outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown, who has served more time in the office than any other person.

          But even for Brown there turned out to be a limit.

          Brown signed the law giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. He okayed rules making all immigrant children, even the undocumented, eligible for state-paid medical insurance under Medi-Cal. He gave that same group access to in-state tuition for public colleges and universities. He signed a bill letting non-citizens – even those not here legally – practice law and become accountants. Then he okayed the hiring of legal immigrants as poll workers.

          On his watch, illegal immigrants began voting in California for the first time ever. That happened without many problems and without much fanfare this fall in San Francisco, where a few dozen undocumented parents of children in that city’s public schools became the first illegals in California history to cast ballots legally, doing it in a school board election where they indirectly helped decide how taxes paid by citizens will be spent.

          In short, Brown quietly did more to assimilate immigrants into the daily commercial and political life of California than anyone before him. But even he had a limit.

          That was when it came to a bill allowing non-citizens to serve on official boards and commissions. Brown’s message was simple and succinct when he vetoed SB 174, authored by the termed-out Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara of East Los Angeles, about to become state Insurance Commissioner. Previously, Lara helped write the law giving drivers licenses to the undocumented and was a sponsor of California’s “sanctuary state” law that prohibits California police and sheriffs from turning over many criminals to federal agents for deportation when they’re released from jails.

          Said Brown’s veto message: “I believe existing law – which requires citizenship for these forms of public service – is the better path.”

          Lara disagreed, saying non-citizens deserve representation in public life because they pay at least some taxes. Lara added that “Qualified Californians who have worked hard and are experts in their field should be given the opportunity to serve the state, regardless of immigration status.”

          Lara also told legislators as his bill progressed through one committee after another that only immigrants with work permits, known as green cards, would be able to claim payment for their service.

          Brown, however, drew a line, but it’s uncertain whether Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom will go the same way if and when a similar bill makes it through the Legislature.

          The efforts to give noncitizens more rights and privileges are part of a movement toward complete normalization of life for immigrants who have not bothered to become citizens, including even the undocumented. Ironically, the harder President Trump and his supporters push for deporting every illegal immigrant, the greater the pushback from their supporters.

          There’s now a movement, for example, to let immigrants over 18 vote in all local and state elections. It is backed by some prominent politicians, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Wrote one syndicated columnist, “Noncitizens, legal and not, are ready. Many have been residents for decades. The younger ones learned the principles of American democracy in our school systems and some volunteer for candidates and causes. Their economic power and concern for our collective future is qualification enough (for) the voting booth.”

          The problem, of course, is that giving this ultimate civic right to noncitizens, along with all the other privileges Brown okayed, removes much of the motive to do the very basic book-learning needed to become a citizen.

          Which makes letting noncitizens vote or serve as government officials of any kind a bad idea, something that even a dedicated immigrant advocate like Brown finally realized.

    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, December 3, 2018




          It’s obvious the huge, fast-moving and devastating wildfires of the last two autumns changed the face of parts of California. Large swaths of onetime woodland and brush are now blackened; former luxury homes – and simpler ones, too – became mere rubble and concrete pads.

          Many courageous homeowners, some burned out once and others repeat victims, some famous and others just folks, are determined to risk their lives and property again in exchange for the joys of living amid nature’s beauty for at least another 10 or 15 years. It usually takes that long for plant life to regenerate enough to fuel another big conflagration.

          Rebuilding has already begun in some places. In neighborhoods turned to ash last year, the sounds of hammers, saws and building supply trucks are now common, with contractors in demand.

          And yet…with each passing fire season, cries grow louder to restrict the rebuilds. Questions arise about whether all insurance customers should see higher rates so that a privileged few can live the life they choose. Outcries against allowing routine rebuilding in the areas called “urban interfaces” grow louder each fire season. There’s also the question of utility rates: Should all consumers pay so that power lines can be strung in fire-prone areas where large numbers of homes will predictably burn?

          These are valid questions, but they beg another one: If rebuilding and expansion of new housing is banned in the fire-prone areas containing much remaining undeveloped land, where do we put new housing?

          There’s already a housing shortage, just now felt strongest by the thousands displaced in this fall’s fires that destroyed the Butte County city of Paradise and smaller towns around it, along with hundreds of homes in Malibu, Thousand Oaks, Oak Park and other areas northwest of Los Angeles. Some victims, especially those who were underinsured, can’t even find temporary shelter outside mass civically-run facilities.

          If California doesn’t allow rebuilding in place or expand development in the burned areas, how to grow housing in the state by about 3 million units over the next 10 years, as Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom advocated during his election campaign?

          Almost inevitably, the answer will include rezoning and dense new inbuilding in places considered built out for much of the last century.

          Just such a plan was pushed in the Legislature last year by Newsom’s fellow San Franciscan, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener. It didn’t last long, predictably shot down by city officials vowing to fight for local control and against Wiener’s plan for zoning nullification.

          Known as SB 827, that plan would have prevented localities from regulating housing construction within half a mile of frequently used transit stops, whether rail or bus. In wide areas, it would have mandated housing density seldom seen in California outside the downtowns of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, with minimum heights of 45 feet to 85 feet in many places, making eight-story high-rise buildings common in many low-rise parts of the state.

          This plan won backing from high-tech moguls including the CEOs of Twitter, Mozilla and others headquartered in the densest parts of San Francisco.

          The plan would change the character of California more than anything since the advent of the automobile, and it still might happen.

          For without intense inbuilding in areas that are already built up, many of the needed new units will appear on urban fringes where wildfires are sadly predictable.

          Yes, Wiener’s bill drew strong opposition from residents and governments as geographically diverse as Mill Valley and Santa Monica. But without rebuilding and new building in the fire areas, pressure for such a plan will keep rising as the housing crunch worsens, steadily at times, but also with sudden increases like what has followed the frightening, spectacular fall fires.

          All of which means the blazes that have already degraded the look of hundreds of thousands of acres might soon change the character of California itself, including areas never touched by any major fire.
    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




          California’s big utilities breathed easily in the early fall this year, relieved by a new state law that seemed to guarantee they would never go bankrupt over liabilities from fires caused by their equipment.

          But that relief lasted only until the Camp, Hill and Woolsey fires flared up spectacularly, destroying the Butte County town of Paradise and some surrounding areas, while many hundreds of homes burned in the Thousand Oaks and Malibu areas of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

          For last summer’s utility bailout bill known as SB 901 contained what amounted to a donut hole noticed by few before it passed. The law ended this year’s fiercest legislative battle on terms long sought by utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

          They forgot one thing: Their pet bill covered liabilities from most future fires and the big blazes of 2017, which raged through the Wine County, Lake County and Ventura County – but it left out 2018. Oops.

          Few noticed the omission until the state’s most destructive fire ever broke out near Paradise in Butte County. It was quickly linked to possible power line problems. Then came huge flames in Southern California, where an electric line connection was also alleged.

          But it appears the utilities will soon get more relief. “We think it’s clear anything that would cause the bankruptcy of a major utility would have a negative effect on the ratepayers,” said Democrat Chris Holden of Pasadena, chairman of the state Assembly’s Utilities and Energy Committee. Translation: Some utilities are too big to fail.

Holden, who received more than $51,000 – well over one-fourth of his 2018 campaign funds – from the big utilities now at risk and other power-producing companies, promised in an interview to carry a bill in the new Legislative session filling the SB 901 donut hole.

          If it could have passed this month, current Gov. Jerry Brown, whose sister Kathleen sits on the board of San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company, would surely have signed it. But Holden delayed his bill until January, and it’s not so certain what Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom might do. Holden and Newsom have talked.

          Here’s the rub in the potential fire bailouts for the utilities: If any company can show it is in danger of bankruptcy due to fire damage it caused – negligent or not – its customers would pick up much of the resulting tab.

          Like SB 901, Holden’s new bill would force the companies to pay all damages not covered by their insurance until the state Public Utilities Commission determines they are close to going broke. At that point, Holden said, the PUC would have the companies issue 20-year bonds for the rest, to be paid back via increased rates. So all utility customers, including any who consciously chose not to live or build businesses in fire-prone areas, most likely will foot most of fire expenses.

          No one knows just how broke a company must be for the PUC, which historically favors utilities over their customers, to declare it in danger.

          In the Camp Fire alone, potential PG&E liabilities could exceed $15 billion, Holden said. He did not explain why a utility bankruptcy would necessarily harm consumers, when PG&E’s Chapter 11 filing during the energy crunch almost 20 years ago caused no service interruptions.

          Nor did he say why, in case of bankruptcy, utility assets like dams and power lines couldn’t be sold to the highest bidders and keep operating, while city- and county-run Community Choice Aggregation utilities move in and provide other services. CCAs are already spreading rapidly around the state, with Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer the latest local official to advocate one for his city.

          In short, if customers don’t quickly fight the new bailout, they will likely find themselves paying for most damage from the latest fires and all other major ones going forward. Then the sky would be the limit on millions of electric bills.

    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