Friday, August 16, 2019

Alaska travel, bonus coverage for California Focus clients; Denali travel sidebar

Alaska travel, bonus coverage for California Focus clients; Denali travel sidebar

By Thomas D. Elias

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska -- The Athabaska Indians gave this place its name -- the Great One, or the High One, take your pick -- thousands of years ago, millennia before white Americans dubbed the 20,320-foot peak Mt. McKinley in the late 19th Century.

Now the  Great One has its old name back, not that there's any sign it ever noticed the change or cared what anyone called it. Regardless of name, it’s still the highest peak in North America.

 Modern Native Americans insisted on the name change and the National Park Service went along, so you will
barely find the name of the late President William McKinley anywhere in the 6.07 million-acre park.

     But you will find plenty else. A 1,700-member caribou herd, countless moose which sometimes wander right up to the park's sole significant road as they feed on tree leaves and other green matter. Grizzly bears can pop up almost anywhere in the park, plus foxes, coyotes, marmots, jackrabbits that love sitting in the middle of the park’s only road and much more.

      This is not the most accessible of national parks, but it might just be the most natural in the 190-some park system whose units appear from the Virgin Islands and Florida Keys to the Hawaiian Islands, from Acadia National Park in Maine to the Channel Islands in Southern California.

      To get here, you can drive the Alaska Highway, running north through the Canadian province of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, ending up near 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias, in an eponymous national park, another spectacular peak in southwestern Alaska. Denali’s parking lots are peppered with license plates from places like Texas, Colorado, Washington State and California.

     But most people get here by plane and rental car or a ship-and-train combination. That's how it works for passengers from Princess Cruise ships that ply the Alaska coast from Seattle and Vancouver, BC, often docking in Whittier, not far from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Many are bused from ship to train, then stay in a Princess-branded hotel less than a mile from the park entrance.

     Those passengers then must leave luxury buses behind if they want to see Denali and its wildlife, switching to converted school buses painted in Park Service green and tan, their passengers encouraged to shout out for the driver to stop so they can gaze at leisure at a moose or bear that may be right nearby, or as much as two miles off.

     That's right -- larger animals here can be spotted at great distances from the road because most of Denali is tundra, with grassy plains and mountainsides offering grand vistas to the High One (when it's not behind a cloud bank, which means about one day out of three).

     So the park buses that everyone here rides for tours or just to reach campgrounds beyond the 14 miles of park road that’s paved, stop often and long to take in the wildlife.

     The most popular organized tour here, the eight-hour Tundra Wildlife Tour, begins a mere mile from the park entrance and goes 62 miles into the preserve, crossing wide rivers whose beds are filled with islands of dirt, rock and whatever else has washed off the mountainsides in the last week or so. Cost is $192 for adults, $87.50 for children.

     The bus we took on a July visit stopped every 10 minutes or so, whenever a keen-eyed passenger sang out that an animal was in sight. Driver-guide Mike Reifler happily hopped out from behind the wheel to man a long-lensed video camera that brought close-ups of grizzly bears wrestling playfully beside streams, bull moose standing protective guard as female moose and their kids grazed nearby and caribou seemingly in a rush to get somewhere. The show went onto drop-down video screens placed every few rows in the tour’s modified Bluebird school bus.

     "This is just a great job," Reifler confided to his charges. "I get to see the big mountain often, I get to be out in this fabulously beautiful country every day; it's my dream life." His wife also drives Tundra Wildlife Tour buses ("We try to schedule on different school days, so we can take care of our child care needs," Mike said.).

     His obvious pleasure became infectious, with passengers continuously eager to stop the bus for new encounters right down to the end of the 8-hours.

     This is a time-consuming way to see a unique national park, but on it you'll see details that never show up on small airplane tours that can cut through the clouds and get views of the High One just about every day.

     It also costs much less than plane trips offered, for one example, by Fly Denali, which operates from Healy, closest town to the park. These run $549 per adult for 100 minutes of flying time, $412 for children. That trip also includes landing and walking on a glacier for about 20 minutes. Other flying tours are available from Talkeetna, about 45 miles from the base of the big mountain, and just over 120 miles from Denali National Park by car.


Alaska Travel - Bonus coverage for California Focus column clients

Alaska Travel - Bonus coverage for California Focus column clients

    By Thomas D. Elias
    SEWARD, Alaska – A two-week trip to some of this vast state’s major population centers and some smaller towns, too, revealed the truth of the message on t-shirts commonly sold here – “Untamed.”

     At times in this fantastically scenic, rough-and-ready state, a visitor feels like the Wild West is still alive.

     Sitting in the Starbucks coffee shop section of an IGA grocery just outside the charming little town of Talkeetna, only 100 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, yielded one illustrative vignette:
     At the next table, a young man flirted with an attractive young woman. It seemed ordinary until a glance down revealed a holstered .45 caliber pistol hanging from the boy’s belt.

     Or take a hike beside a river near Denali National Park and you might notice a sign hanging from a buoy: “No shooting in the water.”

     This raw quality has survived more than 160 years of Alaska being American territory and 60 as a full-fledged state, one that produced onetime vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who seems a natural product of the society she grew up in.
     “We are few people in a vast, beautifully dangerous land,” said a letter to the editor of a newspaper.

     More and more residents of the Lower 48 states appear eager to see this place, enough to make tourism a $2 billion industry here, second only to petroleum in its economic impact.

       There are myriad opportunities for visitors to see this almost measureless land, more than three times larger than California, with a coastline four times longer than the Golden State’s – and a population of barely 700,000.

     Single-engine float planes take off every minute or two from Lake Hood, beside the Anchorage airport and just outside the coffee shop of the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel. They’re headed for tours of the 20,320-foot Denali mountain, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak. They’re also taking fly fisherman to lodges alongside lakes deep in the Alaskan interior.

       Almost every significant town offers helicopter tours of wild coastal lands and huge mountains including the four 16,000-foot-plus peaks in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Some choppers and planes land atop glaciers, which have receded by many miles, but still offer smooth landing areas and walkable surfaces.

     You can also land on the slopes of 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias and many other sharp peaks. But for some, staying on the surface of land and sea offers the most satisfaction – and far lower costs than air tours, which can cost upwards of $800 per hour per person.

     Here are a few attractions for those folks:

n   The 26 Glacier boat tour on Prince William Sound southeast of Anchorage. For
$159 for adults ($80 for children), Phillips Tours will pick you up at any of three Anchorage hotels for an 11-hour adventure where you’ll not only see glaciers calving tons of ice into the sea every hour or two, but can also take note of clear marks on nearby cliffs showing how far those glaciers reached less than a century ago.

     The six-hour catamaran ride is so smooth Phillips offers a “no seasickness” guarantee and captains of its ships like the Klondike Explorer and the Bravest actively seek out and stop near wildlife. We saw humpback whales, harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions, moose and bald eagles and their huge nests.

     A national forest ranger providing commentary on board pointed out the effects of global warming, including evidence that some glaciers have receded more than two miles in just the last two years.

     He wasn’t shy about discussing this, even though he technically works for President Trump, the nation’s leading climate change denier. “No one is muzzling us,” said the ranger. Still, his name is not given here to protect him from potential repercussions.

n There are also no muzzles on the predominantly female corps of ship captains giving commentary aboard the several ships operated by Major Marine Cruises from Seward, about 120 miles south of Anchorage. These depart from behind the waterfront Harbor 360 hotel. Major Marine runs tours of up to 8 ½ hours, priced from $89 for a 3 ½-hour wildlife jaunt to $224 for its longest trip, which features three active tidewater glaciers calving into the remote Northwestern Fjord. This one is billed as the company’s best option for wildlife photography.

   The shortest tour, down Resurrection Bay and into the Gulf of Alaska, also offers myriad glacier views and plenty of wildlife, from puffins to huge fin whales, the second-largest creatures on earth.

n  On foot. If you’re visiting Seward, where snowcapped peaks are visible year-‘round just across the
700-foot-deep Resurrection Bay, you can also see a glacier up close and personal, and free, even in the 85-degree weather we encountered.

     This is the Exit Glacier, protruding down from the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield into Kenai Fjords National Park just 12 miles northwest of town.

   The approach road features year signs showing how far the Exit Glacier extended in 1899, 1901, 1920, 1959 and more recent years. Some signs pop up along the two-mile Glacier Overlook loop trail that starts at a small visitor center where park rangers were not collecting fees when we arrived.

n Anyone who likes driving to remote areas will likely appreciate Denali Jeep Excursions along the gravel Denali Highway just south of the national park, about 250 miles north of Anchorage. Most car rental contracts in Alaska forbid driving unpaved roads. The park itself has only one road, paved for just 14 miles into its tundra interior.

    So driving more than 100 miles in a Jeep caravan to areas frequented by moose, grizzly bears, beavers and much more wildlife can be fun. For $169 per adult, Denali Jeep Excursions will pick you up at major area hotels like the Denali Princess and the Grand Denali Lodge and deliver you to a jeep compound 18 miles south of the park, near Cantwell, a hamlet of just a few buildings.

     Two-way CB radios link Jeeps on the caravan as the tour leader spots animals and delivers folksy commentary in a strong Alabama accent. You see the glacial sources of the Nenana River, a major Yukon River tributary that flows just outside Denali National Park, and you might even glimpse Denali itself on a clear day – only about 30 percent of visitors actually see the mountain.

    But you will for sure see trumpeter swans on a lake created by a beaver lodge and from the guides you’ll hear unforgettable phrases like, “men, please use the facili-trees,” just before a brief pit stop.

   It also can be easy and feel more authentic to avoid chain hotels in Alaska, even though there are Hiltons and a Sheraton in Anchorage and Best Westerns in several places.

     For one example, near Denali National Park there’s the Denali Lakeview Inn, a modern structure where almost all rooms overlook Otto Lake and several 5,000-foot Alaska Range mountains behind it. For about $230, you’ll get personal service, plus a large breakfast stowed in the refrigerator of each room, to be enjoyed whenever you like.

   Seward’s Harbor 360 offers large, modern rooms right on the waterfront for $314 per king-bedded accommodation with breakfast. This hotel features a year-‘round indoor swimming pool and hot tub.

   At Talkeetna, the log-cabin-style Susnitsa River Lodge offers large rooms and cabins for about $199, with the river of the same name flowing rapidly past beneath your veranda. We got our best views of Denali (and some of our best meals) in this small town 45 miles from the southern base of the former Mt. McKinley.

     Add it up and there are plenty of highly-civilized ways to see America’s last frontier by land and sea, even if you don’t like small planes and helicopters. Or add in a chopper or plane ride, too. But always be aware that most of Alaska looks and feels much as it did when the English explorer Captain James Cook landed at what is now Anchorage in 1778.
     Thomas Elias writes the California Focus syndicated column appearing in more than 90 California newspapers.

Monday, August 12, 2019




       Billboards offering home delivery of legal marijuana decorate the streets of every major city in California. Licensed pot shops sporting green crosses are commonplace. Their owners lobby for reductions in sales, excise and cultivation taxes on legal weed. Cannabinoid extracts and other products are widely advertised. And legal growers and sellers bemoan threats to their trade from black market marijuana.

       Ever since voters passed the 2016 Proposition 64 by a margin of almost 3-2, pot has been a hot commodity, its recreational use supposedly limited to adults in California. But no one seriously believes adolescents cannot get it if and when they like.

       In all this, the positive effects of cannabis are often cited. It helps alleviate pain for cancer patients and others. It makes folks more relaxed. Some people enjoy its odor and the atmosphere that can accompany its use.

       Meanwhile, the negatives of the weed seem almost forgotten in all its hype and popularity.

       And yet…new research is showing that marijuana has even more deleterious effects than were previously known. Yes, before legalization, pot was long considered an “entry” drug, said to lead users toward later use of cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.

       Its negative effects of sometimes causing short-term memory problems, severe anxiety, psychotic and incorrect perceptions of reality, panic, hallucinations, lower reaction times, increased heart rates and risk of stroke and problems with coordination were all known long before the legalization vote.

       These were some of the reasons Congress never imitated the actions of voters here and in other states like Colorado and Washington, where pot use also is now legal, while possession, use and sale remain federal crimes.

       Now comes new information about even more potential harmful effects that Californians should consider before visiting any nearby cannabis outlet or ordering home delivery.

       In a paper published this spring by the American Psychiatric Association’s newsletter Psychiatric News, McGill University Prof. Gabriella Gobbi, who holds both MD and PhD degrees, reports that “younger users of cannabis, age 14 and 15, (are) at significantly higher risk of suicidal behaviors.” The report adds that teenagers who use pot before age 18 are 50 percent more likely than non-users to have thoughts of suicide and more than three times more likely to actually attempt suicide while young adults.

       These problems are more common than ever before, Gobbi notes, because more than one-third of all American high school seniors surveyed in studies involving more than 23,000 participants reported using pot in 2018 (a total of 36 percent), with vaping of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, a crystalline compound that is the main active ingredient of pot) rising to record levels.

       The fact that adults voted to legalize recreational marijuana (it became legal for medicinal use in California when Proposition 215 passed in 1996) also has a strong effect on how youngsters perceive the weed.

       Said the psychiatric group’s report, “Perceptions of harm and disapproval of marijuana use have trended down…with only one in four high school seniors agreeing that regular marijuana use poses a great risk.” That fear rate stands at less than half what it was 10 years ago.

       All this puts California teenagers – and those in other states where pot use is completely legal – in danger, occasionally mortal danger. Their mental performance and capability can be affected by pot use. Their rates of depression and suicide risk are far higher than before legalization. These things are true even if kids quit using the weed before graduating high school.

       “Quitting cannabis by the end of adolescence (does) not protect people from some of the serious effects of the drug,” said the study.

       All of which makes legalized marijuana more of a threat to public health, especially the health of young people, than even anti-legalization forces claimed during the 2016 campaign around Prop. 64.

       If high schools and middle schools can teach youngers about the dangers of alcohol, and many do, this new information makes it vital for them also to teach techniques for resisting peer pressure for marijuana smoking and other forms of pot use.

       If there’s ever been a time of urgent need for better drug prevention focused on cannabis, this is it. For the weed is at least as dangerous as alcohol.

    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




       Gerrymandering has been a reality in politics more than 200 years, since Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry designed a congressional district whose outlines looked a lot like a salamander to ensure one of his fellow Democratic-Republicans would be elected to Congress. Thus, the term gerrymandering, coined by the old Boston Gazette.

       Gerry’s party no longer includes Republicans in its name, but over the last 10 years, modern Republicans have devised congressional districts even more convoluted than his creation.

       This was why Democrats running for the Legislature in Wisconsin last fall drew hundreds of thousands more votes than Republicans, but the GOP remained in control of both houses there. Essentially, Republican lawmakers in 2011 drew angular lines placing almost all registered Democrats into relatively few districts, with the rest peopled by GOP majorities.

       Seeing this reality in Wisconsin and elsewhere, voters in half a dozen states over the last year followed California in taking reapportionment from politicians.

       Wisconsin-like things happened regularly in California until 2011, when a new Citizens Redistricting Commission created by voters was appointed by the non-partisan state auditor to draw new districts, taking from politicians the reapportionment required by the Constitution every 10 years.

       Anyone can apply to be on the commission, whose final membership is determined by a drawing. Before that commission began its complicated work in 2010, Democrats self-servingly dominated the reapportionment process here in the 1990s and early 2000s. The auditor was swamped with applicants in 2009, but so few voters now are seeking spots that the application deadline has been delayed.

       The next California commission, set up via a 2008 ballot initiative, must feature five Democrats, five Republicans and four voters from neither major party. It must design districts that conform as much as possible to natural boundaries like rivers and the tops of mountain ranges, while still meeting one-person, one-vote requirements for almost equal population.

       The commission’s makeup ensures a far less partisan reapportionment plan for legislative and congressional districts than California otherwise might get, with its Democratic-dominated Legislature and Democrat Gavin Newsom as governor.

       Still, Democrats have almost a 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans, so most districts are bound to have more Democrats than Republicans, just as they have for the last decade. This could become important if the state loses a congressional seat or two, very likely because other states have lately outpaced California in population growth percentages.

       Losing one or more districts could toss two or even three incumbents into the same districts, with some being forced to move or retire.

       This can create healthy competition and maybe even some rather independent-thinking representation.

       And as in other areas where this state made creative moves to deal with serious problems, the rest of America noticed. Last May, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a measure requiring support from both major parties when new lines are drawn for seats in the House of Representatives.

       Then in last fall’s midterm election, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah voters set up their own citizens commissions.

       That will prevent situations like what arose in Pennsylvania, where Republican legislators and a GOP governor in 2011 devised a reapportionment plan giving Republicans 13 House seats to 5 for the Democrats, along with solid control of the state Legislature. Years later, in early 2018, that state’s Supreme Court overruled the plan, saying it “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated Constitutional standards.

       New districts were drawn, and last fall Pennsylvania elected an equally divided 9-9 congressional delegation, contributing to the Democrats’ takeover of the House, which restored California’s Nancy Pelosi to the speaker’s chair. Even so, the Pennsylvania Legislature remained Republican, still under the 2011 plan, although Democrats won more votes there, just as in Wisconsin.

       “There is definitely both grass roots and legal momentum for giving redistricting to ordinary citizens,” as California did, reapportionment expert Michael Li of New York University told a reporter.

       And yet… a case brought by Republicans challenging the new Michigan citizen reapportionment law could endanger the entire concept. If the U.S. Supreme Court eventually backs the GOP in this case, the California commission could die quietly, tossing redistricting back to politicians who can be counted on to look out for their own interests to the exclusion of almost everything else.

    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, July 23, 2019




       California voters have often made it clear they don’t much care for efforts by the state to interfere with free markets in housing. Despite some public polls showing support for denser housing and rent controls, these ideas don’t do well at the ballot box, the latest example last year’s resounding defeat of the pro-rent control Proposition 10 by a 59-41 percent margin.

       But state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom apparently prefer to heed unofficial surveys over what actual voters have done.

       And so, while the most radical of this year’s housing proposals has been delayed at least until next spring, the strong likelihood is that when proposed laws from the present legislative session reach Newsom’s desk, he will sign into law a large medley of seemingly pro-consumer housing bills.

       No, none individually would have the strong impact of the stalled SB 50, the effort by San Francisco’s Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener to densify housing in most California cities. But what remains would still make major changes.

       Take rent control, an idea that has strong local support in the 12 California cities where it is now law in some form. One bill by Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, Wiener’s fellow San Franciscan, would prohibit rent gouging by limiting what it calls “extreme or unreasonable rent increases.” This one, moving steadily toward passage, would limit rent increases to the level of rises in the local Consumer Price Index, plus 5 percent, with the total annual increase capped at 10 percent regardless of what the CPI might do.

       That measure flies completely in the face of the whopping defeat suffered by Proposition 10, but neither Chiu nor Newsom, if he signs it, expects any political ill effects.

       Another major bill would suspend for years local laws that legislators believe inhibit housing production, covering everything from zoning changes, building standards, fees on low-income housing and local moratoria on new housing. The measure, by Berkeley’s Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, would set what it calls “reasonable” time periods for processing housing permits. Cities and counties that don’t comply could be sued or fined.

       Another key bill would open vacant state-owned lands to building affordable homes, the definition of affordability varying by locale. “This will free up thousands of acres up and down the state on which affordable housing can be sited,” said its sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, another San Franciscan.

       “We need to unlock surplus land for this purpose and the public good,” he added.

       Unlike Wiener’s SB 50, this one most likely would not alter the entire character of whole neighborhoods and even some full cities. Instead, it would make something useful of vacant lots and unused former state buildings. By contrast, SB 50 would mandate high rise housing near all light rail transit stations and along frequently used bus routes, defined as those where buses run four or more times per hour.

       That could turn much of California into a slightly newer replica of San Francisco’s Castro District, where Wiener has lived more than 20 years among its plethora of four- and five-story walkups.

       While all these housing plans come from representatives of San Francisco and Berkeley, along with Santa Monica arguably the most left-leaning places in California, it pays not to view them all through the lens of urban, left-wing politicians trying to impose their world-view on the rest of the state.

       It’s more helpful, rather, to examine each proposal separately without rushing to judgment. Using vacant state-owned land to solve the state’s most visible social problems – homelessness and housing affordability – makes good economic and social justice sense. It would cost far less than building on land that must be purchased.

       But taking away the authority of local governments – both counties and charter cities – to control their own zoning decisions is another matter, one that could have serious consequences for almost every property owner or renter in those places.

       The bottom line: Legislators should carefully pick and choose from among the proposals now before them, taking the ones that have a proven possibility of working and discarding the rest. But it’s almost certain there will be serious change in housing policy, no matter which of the current bills become law.

    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




       Desalination began to lose its urgency among Californians and their public officials two years ago, after the drought-busting winter of 2016-17, when heavy rain and snow ended dry conditions in most of the state.

       The idea of drawing potable water from the sea became even less of a priority this year, when an autumn of record-level fires gave way to one of the state’s wettest winters on record.

       Reservoirs are brimming. Instead of desperately seeking new sources of water, Californians were moaning about the billions of excess gallons that washed into the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay. Depleted aquifers began their path to replenishment, too, with snow levels in the water-producing Sierra Nevada Mountains far above normal.

       All this helps explain why a new governor seemingly obsessed with infrastructure (he’s spurred initiatives on housing, transport and utility bailouts) has said little or nothing about desalination.

       That’s a stark contrast to the early years of this decade, when drought was persistent and severe, with water rationing common around the state and xeriscaping becoming commonplace, desert plants even getting subsidies from local governments.

       The difference is nothing new. For the cold, wet California reality is that when reservoirs are filled, there is not only less political pressure to build more, but any urgency about building new ocean-water desalination plants disappears.

       Desalination is always tantalizing here because – like Samuel Coleridge’s ancient mariner, who complained of “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” – Californians can see billions of acre feet of salt water every day, in the ocean and all its bays, coves and estuaries.

       But that water is briny, containing an array of minerals that make it almost as inaccessible today as it was to Coleridge’s parched, fictitious sailor of 189 years ago.

       It won’t necessarily stay that way. Whenever the price of other water rises, desalinating Pacific waters becomes enticing. It will become more so if the price of filtering minerals out of salt water drops.

       But when water prices and supplies remain at reasonable levels, as they surely will this year and next, desal takes a back seat. That’s how it is right now everywhere except on the Monterey Peninsula, which last month approved a start to construction on a new desal plant. Will more wet years quash that?

       All this may not sit so well in San Diego County, where Boston-based Poseidon Water since late 2015 has run America’s largest desalination plant on the coast at Carlsbad. This plant aims to supply almost 10 percent of the San Diego area’s water needs, also giving San Diego a degree of independence from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (often called the Met), through which the area gets supplies from the state Water Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct. The desalinated water is ferociously expensive, costing San Diego area residents more than double what they pay for other supplies. But it does improve the San Diego Water Authority’s bargaining position with the Met.

       The San Diego district buys at least 48,000 acre-feet of water from Poseidon yearly, but can demand 56,000 in any year it feels the need. That won’t happen in 2019. An acre-foot contains about 330,000 gallons, roughly the amount a typical family uses in a year.

       At the depth of the drought, the Met paid some farmers in the Sacramento Valley an average of $694 per acre-foot for parts of their supply, some of which was shipped to San Diego. Even at that inflated price, this water cost less than Poseidon’s product.

       These numbers establish that desalinated water is now the most expensive alternative California water districts can pursue. That’s the main reason there are less than 10 active proposals for seawater desalination along the California coast today, down from 21 in 2012.

       But if new methods to purify sea water beyond the standard technique of reverse osmosis ever become workable (and several ideas are percolating), all bets would be off.

       All of which means that the more it rains, the more the prospects for new desalinated water fall. But like crocuses in the spring, they will surely bloom again the next time a serious drought arises.

     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




       California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, an MIT-trained engineer, calls this state’s election system “the gold standard” for America, because it requires more openness than any other state’s. But there’s still work to be done.

       For example, walk into a chain grocery store or traverse the entry of many big box stores like Home Depot, Best Buy and Costco during the season for qualifying ballot initiatives, and you could be accosted by petition carriers wanting your signature on measures you may not have heard about or understand.

       But if you knew who was behind those proposed laws, who’s paying the petition carriers the usual $3 to $6 per verified voter signature, you might get a better idea what they might do than the measures’ titles ever give.

       Putative ballot initiatives and their big-letter titles can be worded in deliberately misleading ways that cause many voters to help qualify proposed propositions they eventually vote against.

       The 2017 Disclose Act, passed after several years’ effort by the California Clean Money Action Fund and its allies, already requires almost all political advertising to carry a “paid for by” statement in far larger type than anything elsewhere in the ad. It’s a unique law in America.

       But that still doesn’t yield transparency in other areas. A new package of “disclose” bills now moving through the Legislature would fix some remaining problems, including full disclosure of major initiative funders.

       The lead bill in this group, known as SB 47, would require listing the top three funders of any proposed ballot initiative prominently on petitions pushed under voters’ noses as they enter stores with almost anything but politics on their minds.

       If the funder names don’t fit on the petition itself, they would have to be listed on a separate sheet circulators would have to show all voters. That could make things clumsy for circulators, so almost all top sponsors of potential propositions would show up on the petitions themselves.

       Names of funders also could not be obfuscated with misleading committee names, as has often happened. This way, even if the name of a measure is misleading, many voters would still get a pretty good idea what it’s really about even if they are only marginally well-informed.

Anything sponsored by well-known companies from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to Apple Corp. would obviously be designed to benefit the funding firms, and voters would know it. This plainly needed requirement passed the 40-member state Senate with a whopping 31-5 majority.

       A second possible new law, known as SB 636, would require ballot labels for every proposition to list the signers of the ballot arguments for and against every proposal and the affiliations they list in the official  guide mailed to every voter. That way, the many voters who don’t bother to read the guide would still get some idea who’s behind a planned law and who’s opposed.

       The third bill in this package, AB 1217, would require the list of ballot argument signers to be included in every “electioneering communication” circulated before any election. This includes not only slate mailers that proliferate in the month or two before elections, but also Internet and social media postings. It’s an unprecedented move toward complete election transparency.

       Not exactly the same, but important in assuring election security, is a fourth proposal, known as AB 1784, requiring all votes in the state to be cast on easily recountable paper ballots that can be kept as long as needed to conduct reliable recounts in close contests.

       This stands in stark contrast to states like Georgia, where most votes are cast on electronic machines with no paper backup, and recounts amount to little more than throwing a switch and repeating the same operation that led to the originally-reported result. No initially-reported election outcome on such hackable machines has ever been reversed in a recount.

       All four of these proposed laws passed the legislative house where they originated by margins similar to that given SB 47.

       Which means the vast majority of California lawmakers actually want honest, open elections, a major sea change in legislative sentiment since the Disclose Act was first proposed early in this decade.

     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




       He would be incremental on healthcare, Gov. Gavin Newsom said back when he was just a lieutenant governor seeking the Democratic nomination for the office he now holds.

       When he didn’t say, perhaps couldn’t know, was how large the increments would be.

       At heart, Newsom would like California to have a single-payer healthcare system operating much like Medicare does for senior citizens and some others who qualify by dint of certain conditions and ailments. But he realized then and still does that this is not possible with a Republican in the White House, especially one as hostile to California as President Trump.

       For a “Medicare for all” system would cost somewhere around $400 billion per year, far more than today’s entire state budget. Much of that money would have to come from shifting the monthly payments senior Californians now make to Medicare into state and not federal coffers.

       That will not happen while Trump is president, and very likely not under any other Republican, either.

       So Newsom the candidate called for other measures to bring California closer to his ultimate goal. Democratic dominance in both houses of the state Legislature will assure that he gets to sign off on many such changes this fall, when all the state Assembly and Senate votes are in.

       A sweeping package of laws moving California well along toward universal healthcare has advanced steadily through the Legislature during the spring and summer. Backers claim these measures will reduce healthcare prices and improve quality, both claims still unproven.

       The most radical shift will be to provide health benefits to many more undocumented immigrants, something Trump’s 2020 campaign manager immediately derided as being paid for by “taxing legal residents who don’t have health insurance.”

       In fact, only a tiny percentage of the $100 million this will cost would come from Californians who lack health insurance of their own. And Newsom’s spokesman immediately responded that this spending will actually save money by providing care for Californians regardless of their immigration status before they become so seriously ill they must head for emergency rooms.

       That reasoning is similar to one of the arguments that was used against the 1994 Proposition 187 initiative which aimed to remove emergency room care and many other services from those here illegally – before it was struck down by federal courts.

       It goes like this: The more serious illnesses and injuries can be prevented, the less urgent care people will need to seek out. Urgent, emergency treatments are among the most expensive elements of modern medicine, costing far more than preventive care like vaccinations and regular checkups.

       Among other measures seemingly sure to pass during this session are bills to expand Medi-Cal (the California form of federal Medicaid) to almost all Californians, regardless of immigration status.

       Another measure, this one authored by prime vaccination advocate Richard Pan, a Democratic state senator from Sacramento and the Legislature’s only pediatrician, would give state healthcare premium subsidies to middle-income Californians, funding them with a $695 yearly fine on those who fail to buy health insurance, whether from a private source or the state’s Covered California program.

       More innovative is a bill carried by Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Canada-Flintridge that would mandate insurance companies assure fertility preservation (freezing of eggs and sperms) when a medical treatment might threaten infertility.

       Other bills aim to prevent the current phenomenon of many patients bouncing in and out of Medi-Cal eligibility as their job status changes in the gig economy and to make medically necessary prescription drugs available to everyone with health insurance, no matter where they buy those drugs.

       Said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California (a coalition of groups advocating expanded coverage and lower costs), “California is once again leading the nation to ensure our health care system works better for everyone, regardless of income, age or immigration status.” He is one who maintains the changes will lower costs while improving care.

       Those were precisely the aims Newsom spelled out a year ago, which removes virtually all doubt about whether these measures will actually become law via his signature after their final legislative passage.

    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