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 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




       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 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




       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 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




       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 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, July 22, 2019




       There’s a big divide among congressional Democrats when it comes to their biggest issue of this summer: To impeach President Trump or not.

       The split appears to be over whether Trump’s alleged offenses have been sufficiently egregious to rise to the level of  “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but that’s not really where Democrats differ. The real rift may be most visible in California’s congressional delegation.

       This is more about strategy and survival than it is about crimes. It’s about electability, not felonies; future majorities, not major crimes.

       Democrats plainly agree on their fundamental beliefs about the President: Virtually all would say Trump obstructed justice. They agree he caused the virtual kidnapping of hundreds of immigrant children. And they concur that he has profited personally from the presidency, violating laws against foreign emoluments by, among other things, encouraging foreign visitors to stay at his high-priced hotel in Washington, DC.

       But some Democrats plainly believe there could be highly personal consequences for them in impeachment, while others see absolutely no peril to their personal positions.

       This is where the big difference lies: For House Democrats representing secure, “safe” Democratic-dominated districts, impeachment appears obviously necessary, with a quick start to the process looking best.

       Meanwhile, almost all those in swing districts favor a go-slow process.

       These realities also explain why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat and a hardened realist, keeps pushing the brakes on the drive from her party’s left for early impeachment hearings, which would coincide with the fall’s semi-official start of presidential campaigning.

       Simply put (and she would never say this aloud), Pelosi fears a premature impeachment could imperil or lose her party’s recently-won House majority by spurring more Trump supporters to vote. She also knows that once the decision to start proceedings is made, she’ll lose the major club she now holds over Trump. No one knows, for example, just what she told Trump over the phone after he threatened massive illegal immigration raids in late June, but it is known that he backed off that plan within hours of their conversation.

       This all plays out plainly in California’s 53-member House delegation, where most members come from safe districts and have nothing to fear from proceeding. But the seven Democrats who wrested away longtime Republican seats last year in places like Orange County and the Central Valley know their slots are tenuous, at best.

       “Safe” Democrat Tony Cardenas, is one example. The San Fernando Valley representative declares “It’s time to begin an impeachment inquiry into this President and get to the truth.” Easy for him to say; he won an 81 percent majority last time out.

       By contrast, Fresno area Democrat TJ Cox eked out a 50.4 to 49.6 percent margin last year in a race not finally decided until after Thanksgiving. Said he, “The troubling conclusions of the Mueller report are the beginning of a discussion on how to protect our democracy.” In short, let’s take it easy. He’s for investigating, but no more than that just now.

       It’s the same across the country, where most of the 40 Democratic pickups in 2018 came in “purple” districts where the new incumbents are not yet solidly entrenched. It usually takes two or three terms before any congressman has done enough for his or her district to feel comfortable about reelection.

       Meanwhile, Republicans are actively seeking the strongest possible potential candidates to contest first-term Democrats like Harley Rouda, Katie Porter and Gil Cisneros in Orange County, Katie Hill of Santa Clarita, Cox and Josh Harder, from the Modesto area.

       About the only new California congressional Democrat who can feel truly secure is Mike Levin, who got 56 percent of the vote last year in an open district covering parts of San Diego and Orange counties.

       Other Democrats in perpetually contested districts, including Ami Bera of Elk Grove and the Stockton area’s Jerry McNerny also must be cautious.

       Pelosi understands all this, taking a wider view of her party’s needs and status than some of the more radical members of her caucus. Which explains why impeachment most likely won’t come soon, if ever.

    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




       If you want to see a phony investigation, check out virtually every one of the last decade involving the California Public Utilities Commission. It will be no surprise if a new investigation due for a formal kickoff Aug. 13 in San Francisco turns out the same.

       This so-called “investigation” will determine whether Pacific Gas & Electric Co. should be sanctioned for apparently violating several laws and PUC orders while admittedly helping start many of the huge wildfires that afflicted California in 2017 and 2018.

       Unlike past investigations, this one most likely won’t have to use subterfuges or very mild penalties to let PG&E off the hook. One of those past investigations was into the PUC’s own apparent criminal collusion with the Southern California Edison Co. in forcing customers to pay most costs of dismantling the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

       That one, which saw a few search warrants served and spurred a fearful PUC to use $10 million in public funds hiring criminal defense lawyers for its individual commissioners, disappeared quietly just after then-Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed former state Attorney General (now presidential candidate) Kamala Harris for the U.S. Senate in 2016.

       Other PUC “investigations” produced token fines for PG&E and Edison, later recouped via rate increases imposed on customers, whom bureaucrats like to call “ratepayers.”

       The new proceeding won’t need subterfuge because of the rushed-through law creating California’s new wildfire bailout fund to protect privately owned utilities. That law changes the rules.

       Formerly, it was up to the utilities to prove they acted “prudently,” whatever that means. To defend themselves now, companies need only show their acts were consistent with what a “reasonable” utility would do. The burden of proof has shifted 180 degrees.

       To oppose a finding that utilities were reasonable, consumers must now analyze the actions of virtually every utility in America. It’s a much tougher and more expensive standard for consumer advocates, who lack the funds and large-scale legal manpower utilities deploy in all their proceedings.

       “It’s a crazy standard,” says Mike Aguirre, the former San Diego city attorney now attempting to get the wildfire fund law (better known as AB 1054) thrown out by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presides over PG&E’s bankruptcy case. “We will be reminding the judge that we are dealing with a convicted felon that has violated probation.”

       Aguirre led the legal effort that forced a huge reduction in the San Onofre settlement years after its questionable approval.

       When he calls PG&E a convicted felon, it’s because a federal court criminally convicted PG&E for its actions in the multi-fatal 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion and Alsup this year ruled it violated probation before the more recent spate of fires.

       All this is background for the PUC “investigation,” needed under AB 1054 if PG&E is to tap the taxpayer-financed wildfire fund in order to help pay tens of billions of dollars in claims it anticipates from fires it helped cause.

       Part of the very order setting up the PUC proceeding notes that the commission’s own Safety and Enforcement Division found PG&E “failed to follow industry best practices” and its “vegetation management practices and procedures were deficient and equipment operations were in severe condition.”

       Given that finding, it would be hard for the five commissioners to find PG&E acted prudently, as those words virtually define the opposite. But prudency no longer matters, under the law pushed urgently by Gov. Gavin Newsom and passed by huge majorities of legislators, the vast bulk of whom took campaign donations from PG&E in the last election. Newsom himself accepted more than $200,000 and has called queries about it “weird.”

       Newsom claims the culture of the PUC has changed, but the law he hustled through appears designed to preserve the old culture favoring utilities over their customers. That law also allows the PUC to authorize unlimited rate increases to pay back bonds the state can issue to cover utility wildfire liabilities, if companies are found to have acted reasonably.

       All of which makes the new “investigation” worth watching, if only because it is crucial to PG&E’s interests and could be very costly to its blameless customers and those of other utilities with big wildfire liabilities.

     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

Suggested pull-out quote: “Utility company prudency no longer matters.”

Monday, July 15, 2019




          Californians have heard plenty about the wildfire crisis that’s afflicted this state for the last few years, highlighted by a rash of huge blazes and evacuations of more than 1 million area residents.

          But as the height of the annual fire season approaches, there has been little attention paid to the ever-increasing expenses inflicted on property owners and renters in or near wildlands, who may not ever be burned out, but are certainly getting burned.

          For a fire insurance crisis of ever increasing magnitude is now upon California and the state has done nothing to prevent or mitigate it.

          While thousands of owners and occupants of properties fully or partially destroyed in fires from Redding to Paradise to Napa to Ventura and Malibu still wrestle with lawyers and insurance companies as they try for damage compensation, other thousands are getting hit now via their mailboxes.

          Increasing numbers of potential fire area residents from the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills to plush residential areas in suburban San Diego County and the hills of the East Bay are receiving cancellation notices from their property insurance firms, forcing them to seek new policies just when most insurers want to rid themselves of potential liabilities in or near California’s forests and brushlands.

          Others are seeing their policy premiums doubled and tripled.

          One typical homeowner in Oakhurst near the southern approach road to Yosemite National Park saw his rate raised this spring from just over $2,000 a year to more than $6,000. But at least he can still buy insurance on the general market.

          Thousands more are being forced onto the open market, trying to obtain coverage from reluctant insurers.

          It’s a situation reminiscent of the mid-1990s, when every large insurance company in America boycotted the California homeowners insurance market. They cancelled or declined to renew virtually every homeowners insurance policy in the state after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and 1994’s Northridge temblor combined to inflict billions of dollars of expenses on them.

          Rather than insisting that insurance companies continue to offer quake insurance or be banned from selling other lucrative coverage – like car and truck policies – in California, then-Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush allowed the boycott to continue and proposed creation of a state-run system that evolved into the California Earthquake Authority (CEA). Insurance companies resumed selling homeowner policies, but are off the hook now in California quakes, and would love the same to apply in wildfires.

          But so far, state lawmakers – like their predecessors who were cowed during the 1990s – refuse to do much of anything. Among the biggest unresolved issues that legislators won’t directly confront this year is whether to limit liability of insurance companies with burned-out customers.

          All of which means that what former Gov. Jerry Brown said last year about wildfires and climate change – “All hell is breaking loose” – applies now to more than actual fires.

          Former Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones foresaw some of this two years ago, observing that insurers must renew policies for a time in actual fire disaster areas, but they don’t have to renew policies in non-disaster areas when they expire.

          That’s the root of the current crisis. The insurance companies understand many so-far-unburned parts of California will inevitably become disaster areas and don’t want their own finances impacted when those disasters hit.

          There is a safety net of sorts for homeowners when their policies aren’t renewed. It’s called the Fair Plan, roughly equivalent to the CEA in that it must insure anyone who applies. But Fair Plan rates are much higher than other fire policies, even at their increased rates. Yes, by law they cannot be excessive, but no one is sure what that means.

          Before last year’s fires, the number of Fair Plan policies was rising by about 1,000 per year. That will likely climb substantially over the coming months and years, eventually making the fire insurance crisis less about scarce policies than it is about money.

          The bottom line: Even if their houses don’t ignite in any of the next few fire seasons, plenty of homeowners will see their wallets get seriously burned, with state government unable or unwilling to protect them.

    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




          With California’s March presidential primary less than eight months off, herds of candidates arrive in the state regularly, seeking both votes and campaign cash.

          But one often unspoken question remains about that vote, which will look very different from most other primaries in this state: Why should people who declare themselves independent, no party preference (NPP) voters pay for a primary where they can’t vote for anyone they please?

          This question arises because state government – that’s us, the taxpayers – foots all the bills for these elections. That includes the 26 percent or so of all voters who are NPP. When primaries involve California offices, state or local, any registered voter can cast a ballot for any candidate listed for a particular office. But it doesn’t work that way in presidential primaries.

          Only Republicans can vote for GOP candidates for president next March. And while anyone who wants to can vote for Democratic presidential candidates next spring, NPP voters must first request a Democratic ballot. For those planning to vote by mail, this means sending a postcard to the local registrar of voters with the request, and all but declaring themselves Democrats.

          Those policies are set not by the state, but by the national political parties. Unfortunately, no one thought of these wrinkles back in 2010, when Proposition 10 passed handily and created the Top Two “jungle primary,” where the two leading primary vote-getters get spots in November runoffs for state offices, regardless of their party.

          State legislators have known the rules for almost a decade and chosen not to confront the national parties. That could risk a confrontation which might reduce California’s role in presidential candidate selection.

          As it stands, almost one-fourth of Californians now have a limited role because of exclusionary national party rules. No one really knows how a confrontation might turn out in the future, whether Californians or the national parties would blink first. But it’s pretty unlikely such a conflict would ever lead to there being no presidential primary here at all.

          Since California sets just about all its own election rules except those for presidential primaries, why not test this? Gov. Gavin Newsom has shown plenty of daring since he took office last January, on everything from housing problems to the death penalty. Why not take the lead on enfranchising the huge chunk of California voters (more than the total voters in all but eight other states) who may not now be able to vote for the presidential candidate they like best?

          And why should all Californians, including both Democrats and NPPs, foot the bill for the 23 percent of state voters now registered Republican to cast their votes? Why not have each political party pay for primaries not run according to state rules?

          Those questions won’t get substantial answers before the March vote, in which California might have more influence over eventual presidential choices than it has since the early 1970s.

          But some NPP registrants are already thinking four-plus years ahead, to the next time these issues arise.

          Some advocate a state law giving independent voters their own ballot, listing every presidential candidate. This won’t happen, because providing an open ballot to a quarter of the voters leaves them with more options than the majority would have. It would be unequal.

          There’s also the problem of the national parties possibly refusing to recognize ballots cast that way.

          The result is today’s situation, a mess created by the two major parties’ insistence on exclusivity financed largely by voters belonging to other parties, or none.

          “I don’t agree that a voter’s rights should be subject to party rules,” tweeted Chad Peace, a leading spokesman for NPPs. “We can’t control party rules, but we can write laws to maximize voter rights.”

          Do that, and you get a state confrontation with both national parties and their long records of opposing open voting in California. Which means this state’s primaries will remain essentially unfair until the state’s politicians rouse the courage to risk doing something about it.

    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