Déjà Vu in the Special Session: Taxes vs. Reforms

tax signWatching the maneuvering to pass a transportation revenue package in the special session, I can’t help but think of the observation by that great philosopher Yogi Berra who said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” The legislative scrum over a legislative roads fix is similar to the struggle to find common ground before Proposition 30 was put on the ballot.

Remember those days at the beginning of Governor Jerry Brown’s third term. Brown tried to pick off a few Republican votes to secure the two-thirds margin he needed to put a tax increase measure on the ballot. In return, the Republicans who were courted by Brown sought reforms to the spending side of the budget, particularly, a spending limit and a rainy day fund. Pressured by public employee unions, Democrats in the legislature showed no interest in accepting these reforms.

The effort to achieve a compromise package went nowhere. The governor then turned to the ballot, working with union groups already pushing a tax increase initiative to create Proposition 30.

On transportation in the special session, Democrats put forward a series of tax and fee increases. Republicans countered with a package of spending proposals using cap and trade dollars, redirecting current transportation revenues for the roads, re-doing Caltrans employment, and reconsidering the high-speed rail project.

Republican senate leader Bob Huff said there is no support for tax increases in his caucus. Democratic majorities in committee killed the Caltrans and high-speed rail proposals. Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said taking money from cap-and-trade for the roads is not a serious proposal. “There is no nexus between greenhouse gas emissions and potholes,” he said.

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which supports a compromise that would include both tax increases and re-directing cap-and-trade funds said, “Both sides will likely experience some pain, both sides will need to have some wins.”

At this stage there seems no give to accept any part of the plan put forth by the other side.

Negotiations will continue. But will history repeat itself if no deal is struck?

The forces behind the tax and fee increases could play the initiative card. With supporters in labor and big business, and if the governor endorses an initiative, they certainly have the wherewithal to qualify a measure for the ballot. But, how likely is it that voters would embrace a 12-cent per gallon gas tax increase and higher car registration fees if such a proposal qualified for the ballot?

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Assembly passes bill exempting students from exit exam

As reported by EdSource:

The state Assembly on Thursday approved a bill that would exempt seniors in the class of 2015 from the requirement to pass the California High School Exit Exam to graduate.

In a 69­-1 vote, Assembly members showed overwhelming support for Senate Bill 725, by Sen. Loni Hancock, D­-Oakland, which proposes to waive the requirement for the class of 2015 to pass the exam to receive diplomas.

Hancock gutted and amended her bill earlier this week to fast-­track the urgency legislation following media reports about students left in limbo when the state Department of Education canceled the July administration of the exam. …

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Lawmakers to revive California right-to-die bill

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

SACRAMENTO — Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday will unveil plans to revive legislation that would give terminally ill Californians the right to die on their own terms.

Authors of the controversial “End of Life Option Act” shelved the measure last month when it became clear the bill didn’t have enough support to clear a key Assembly committee by a mid-July deadline. It was unclear Monday how the measure will advance now.

Senate Bill 128 would allow mentally competent, terminally ill patients to obtain a legal dose of medication from a physician to ease their suffering by ending their lives. It was inspired by Brittany Maynard, a UC Berkeley graduate who moved to Oregon to legally end her battle with aggressive terminal brain cancer. …

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California right-to-die debate heads to court

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

SAN FRANCISCO — With efforts to legalize doctor-assisted suicide stalled in the California Legislature, the contentious issue of providing end of life treatment to the terminally ill is now headed back to the courts.

A San Francisco judge on Friday is expected to hear one of the leading legal challenges to California laws forbidding physicians from providing medical treatment that helps the dying end their lives.

Specifically, lawyers for several terminally ill patients and doctors who care for the terminally ill are moving to block enforcement of California laws that date back 140 years barring physician-assisted suicide. A San Diego judge last month rejected similar arguments, but right-to-die advocates say the San Francisco case tees up the central legal issues to resolve the question across California. …

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Legislation Hiking Initiative Filing Fee Faces Resistance

VotingUnexpected bipartisan opposition has formed against a piece of legislation designed to cut down on California’s sometimes outrageous ballot initiatives.

In addition to the left-leaning Consumer Watchdog organization, citizens’-rights groups like the California Taxpayers Association and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have mustered their members against the bill. Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, told the San Francisco Chronicle “that only six of the 26 states that allow citizen initiatives have filing fees and that the highest is $500, in Mississippi and Wyoming.”

Hoping to stave off a shift in fortunes, Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, has already tweaked Assembly Bill 1100 in an effort to calm the drama. Co-authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, the bill originally proposed a massive increase in the fee charged by the state to file an initiative. Currently just $200, Low and Bloom set out to hike the fee to $8,000 — a daunting number for some, but calculated to just about cover what it costs the state to pay the attorney general’s office for drafting each initiative’s title and summary.

Low was inspired to push for the reform by a contentious recent effort that would have created a so-called Sodomite Suppression Act. “Huntington Beach attorney Matt McLaughlin submitted a ballot measure in February that would have ‘any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method,’” as the Sacramento Bee recalled. “Determined to prevent the measure from moving forward, Attorney General Kamala Harris took the measure to court and was relieved of the official duty to write the title and 100-word summary necessary before signature-gathering.”

A checkered past

Proponents of Low’s reform insisted that the bill was about more than shutting down such lurid proposals. California’s ballot initiative system has seen its fair share of half-baked ideas over the years, drawing criticism from more conservative analysts concerned that the state’s view of direct democracy was too romantic and naive.

As the Chronicle noted, initiatives have now been filed that would ban alimony, create a secession commission, eliminate private power companies, fly the state flag above the national flag, “and call the state’s top elected official ‘president of California.’”

Another ongoing challenge, some critics noted, was guiding voters away from voting in favor of unaffordable but otherwise appealing measures.

In fact, Low’s efforts to curb crazy initiatives have not been the first — nor the first to do so by jacking up the price of admission. “Given the sheer number of proposals that have been submitted recently, the Legislature has actually already tried to make filing fees more expensive,” Civinomics noted. “Laws were submitted in 2009, 2010, and 2011 to raise the fee, but two of them were vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other was dropped by the bill’s author.”

GOP opposition

For now, Republicans have recently tended more toward supporting a permissive initiative process, concerned that California lacks many other effective hedges against the state’s near-one-party rule and its more liberal judges, who largely dominate the courts. So when AB1100 came to a vote in the Assembly, votes for and against split almost exactly along party lines. Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, put forth a popular argument on the right, warning “the higher fee would make it difficult for individuals and nonprofit groups to file for an initiative,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. “She said that if the increase in the cost of living since the fee was implemented was figured in, it would now be $2,700.”

Then, as the bill made its way to the Senate, reality set in. In committee, “the filing fee was trimmed from $8,000 to $2,500 and then to $2,000,” the Chronicle recounted. “The plan to hike the charge in lockstep with increases in the Consumer Price Index also disappeared.” Nevertheless, the changes weren’t enough to satisfy critics, who will likely have to count on Gov. Jerry Brown to stop the bill from becoming law.

7 Key Measures of California’s Transportation Challenges

1. CA’s gas taxes are the 4thhighest in the nation.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, California’s 61-cent-per-gallon gas taxes are the 4th highest in the nation, behind only Pennsylvania, New York and Hawaii. This does not include the recent addition of extra cap-and-trade taxes resulting from bringing fossil fuels under California’s AB 32 law.

2. CA’s gas prices are the nation’s highest.

According to AAA, the current national average price for a gallon of ‘regular’ gasoline is $2.63. California’s current average price is $3.69 per gallon (as of 8/5/15).

3. CA’s gas tax & transportation fees yield $10.6 billion annually.

According to the State of California, Department of Transportation, Division of Budgets, 2014/2015 Fiscal Year estimates, the State brings in at least $10.6 billion in taxes and fees “dedicated to transportation purposes.”

4. Caltrans spends just 20% of that revenue on state road repair & new construction.  

Last year, Caltrans spent $1.2 billion in state road maintenance & repair, and $850 million in new construction.  Similar amounts are planned for the 2015/2016 CA State budget.

5. Caltrans wastes half a billion $$ annually on extra staffing.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report on the review of the Caltrans’ Capital Outlay Support Program found that the agency is overstaffed by 3,500 positions at a cost of $500 million per year.

6. CA’s roads rank near the bottom in every category, including:

  • 46th in rural interstate pavement condition
  • 49th in urban interstate pavement condition
  • 46th in urban interstate congestion

7. Poor road conditions cost Californians $17 billion yearly in vehicle repairs.

34% of CA’s major roads are rated to be in “poor” condition. Driving on roads in need of repair costs California motorists $17 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $702.88 per motorist.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

John Moorlach is a California State Senate, 37th District

On Bullet Train, Voters Finally May Get to Apply the Brakes

high speed rail trainPencils have erasers. Computers have the undo command and the escape key.

If you had it to do over again, would you vote for the bullet train?

It was called the “Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act” on the 2008 ballot, and it authorized $9 billion in bonds — borrowed money — to “partially fund” a high-speed train system in California.

The ballot measure required that there would be “private and public matching funds,” “accountability and oversight” and a focus on completing “Phase I” from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Anaheim. Bond funds could not be spent on the other corridors, like Fresno to Bakersfield, unless there was “no negative impact on the construction of Phase I.”

Today the estimated cost is over $68 billion, private and federal funds are not in sight, and accountability has been cut back — instead of two spending reports to the Legislature every year, only one report every two years will be required. And “Phase I” broke ground in Fresno.

Place your finger on the escape key and stand by. State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Fresno, has introduced a bill, co-authored by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, to put the bullet train before the voters again. If Senate Bill 3 (SBX1-3) can muster a two-thirds vote in the state Senate and Assembly, it will be on the June 2016 ballot.

The measure would freeze spending on the bullet train and direct unspent funds to the Department of Transportation to be used for roads, which would come in handy because California needs $59 billion just to maintain the freeways for the next 10 years. Gov. Jerry Brown has called a special session of the Legislature to look for revenue to fill the state’s transportation budget pothole after signing a “balanced” budget that left that item out.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office offered some suggestions that illustrate the difference between what tax increases can raise and what the bullet train costs.

• Raising the tax on a gallon of gasoline brings in $150 million per 1 cent increase.

• Raising the tax on a gallon of diesel fuel collects $30 million per 1 cent increase.

• Raising the vehicle registration fee nets $33 million per $1 increase.

• Doubling the vehicle weight fees raises about $1 billion.

• Raising the vehicle license fee hauls in roughly $3 billion per 1 percent increase.

There are other options. The LAO says lawmakers could prioritize the budget to use money from the general fund to maintain and construct roads. Billions in cap-and-trade revenue, collected from fees now levied on gasoline and diesel fuel, could be used for highway projects that reduce traffic and improve mileage.

Additionally, $900 million that was loaned from state transportation accounts to the general fund could be repaid and used for roads. “Efficiency and effectiveness” could be improved by prioritizing cost-effective maintenance projects, increasing accountability and oversight, and examining Caltrans’ “capital outlay support” program to see if it is “operating efficiently.” Hint, hint.

The scrimping, saving and tax hikes needed to maintain the freeways can’t begin to address all the other transportation infrastructure needs, and we still have to pay for the rising costs of Medi-Cal, unfunded pensions and health benefits for state employees, and desperately needed water projects.

In 2008, the ballot argument for the bullet train promised high-speed rail “without raising taxes,” but it’s a shell game if tax revenue is spent on the train while taxes are raised for the roads.

Sen. Vidak’s bipartisan bill ought to have the support of every lawmaker. Voters deserve a chance to undo the bullet train and escape from this mess.

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Reach the author at Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow Susan on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.

Proposed bobcat trapping ban feeds debate over government’s role

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

The California Fish and Game Commission will consider a statewide ban on bobcat trapping this week, a proposal that has reignited debate over wildlife protections and the power of regulatory agencies.

In 2013, the state Legislature tasked the commission with developing buffer zones around national parks, state parks and other wildlife areas in California where bobcat trapping would be prohibited. That plan is up for consideration at a meeting on Wednesday.

But language in Assembly Bill 1213 allowing the commission to “impose additional requirements, restrictions, or prohibitions related to the taking of bobcats” has resulted in a second option that would expand the ban across California, with an exception for “depredation trapping” to protect against animals destroying property. Hunting would be unaffected.

Why is California voter participation so demonstrably low?

VotedSure, it’s been more than half a year since California’s last statewide election. But Californians’ remarkable failure to participate still deserves some attention today as we start focusing on the 2016 elections. In last November’s midterm Congressional election, the largest state in the nation had about the lowest voter participation of any state in the country. Hardly more than 42 percent of California’s registered voters bothered to mail-in their ballots in the conveniently provided pre-addressed envelopes, or even show up at the polls. This dismal voter participation was even worse than voter disinterest in one of the state’s other previous bad showings in 2002 when just over 50 percent of participants elected Gray Davis, the Democrat, over the GOP’s Bill Simon. In neighboring Oregon, voter participation in the November 2014 election at 69.5 percent was more than half again by percentage the level of participation of California voters in the same election.

Why is California voter participation so demonstrably low? Some pundits have offered that last year’s election was not a presidential election when voter interest would be higher and that popular Governor Jerry Brown, who was on the ballot, was destined to cruise to a big victory over feeble Republican opponent Neel Kashkari anyway, thus lessening voter interest. Democrats have a big political registration edge in the state, control every statewide elective office, and have near two-thirds control of both Houses of the state Legislature. And even with low voter turnout, the state bucked the national trend in which the GOP picked up seats in Congress, and Californians who did vote actually expanded the number of Democratic Congressional seats in Washington, D.C., from California by two (though improving GOP representation in the state Legislature just above the critical 33 percent needed to thwart tax-increases).

Yet a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll reveals that more Californians, by 46 percent to 45 percent, think their state is headed in the the wrong direction rather than the right direction.

One reason for low voter turnout, and even for failures of the GOP to have made more gains in California in the November 2014 election, could be a failure to give voters a really good reason to turnout and feel their vote will be counted and make a difference. There are after all plenty of GOP and middle-of-the-road, independent voters in the state, as the same PPIC poll says 65 percent of CA voters are center/right, with conservatives, at 35 percent, having the plurality. An earnest young political consultant might conclude these voters just need to be contacted and given a good reason to get fired-up to change the results of many elections in the state.

One election where better voter turnout, perhaps by more focus on core GOP voters who sat on the sidelines and who didn’t get inspired enough to vote might have made a difference was the 52nd Congressional District race in conservative San Diego County. Just four years ago this seat was represented in Congress by Republican Brian Bilbray. But a Democrat won the seat in 2012 and the Republican challenger in 2014 was Carl DeMaio, a former member of the San Diego city council who had lost a close race for Mayor of San Diego. Unfortunately, DeMaio’s campaign became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, some key aspects of which were found to have been manufactured against him. Scott Peters, the incumbent Democrat who was thought to be vulnerable in the GOP sweep in other states, ended up winning the election with 51.6 percent, to DeMaio’s 48.4 percent.

Yet a key factor in DeMaio’s loss was low voter turnout. At 49 percent, according to the California Target Book, some observers believe that if DeMaio’s campaign could have brought out the same level of base voter participation as even the lopsided victory of fellow Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, (about 56 percent), if the campaign not seen the scandal in the press, and had the campaign perhaps redirected resources to simply inspire baseline Republicans to do their public duty and come out to vote in larger numbers, the result could have been quite different, a GOP victory. According to the Target Book’s analysis, voter turnout in the 49th Congressional District where Darrell Issa cruised to a lop-sided 60 percent victory was 47 percent. One need not have a political science degree to understand that voter turnout in the 52nd race was not remarkably different given all the political spending and emphasis of Republicans to win the race; and that many GOP voters had to just pass on making a vote in the race. This observer believes that the problem was a failure to give more focus on peer-to-peer direct-voter contact with core Republicans, and this issue might have repeated itself in several of the other close Congressional races the GOP lost in California in 2014. Hard-core Republican voters were just not given a compelling or convincing reason to vote in the numbers needed to win the races, and especially in the 52nd, which was a winable seat.

Even with comparatively lower registrations in California for Republicans than Democrats, the GOP has great opportunity to win elections in the state and bring reform in the current generally apathetic low voter turn-out environment. A few victories could help Republicans grow in numbers. Voters are truly unhappy with the direction liberal Democratic leaders are taking the state, and if the GOP can better seize on ideas, candidates, strategies and tactics that really motivate conservative and middle-of-the-road voters to return their millions of empty ballot, they can win. Will they?

This article is cross-posted by the Flash Report

New Bill Targets Drones That Interfere With Firefighting Efforts

Fed up with private drones interfering with firefighting, a state senator has announced another bill to keep unmanned aerial vehicles away from hot spots.

Courtesy CalFireSen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado, said SB168 would indemnify emergency responders who damage a drone during firefighting, air ambulance or search-and-rescue operations.

Earlier this month, aerial fire crews responding to a blaze that swept across Interstate 15 north of San Bernardino had to pull back after five drones were spotted above the fire.

It was the fourth time in a month that a drone had disrupted wildfire response in the region, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. Gaines introduced SB167 earlier this summer to increases fines and introduce the possibility of jail time for drone use that interferes with firefighting efforts. Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, co-authored both bills.

“Private drones don’t belong around these emergencies. That is the first message I want to get out,” Gaines said in a news release. “But if one gets damaged or destroyed because it’s in the way then that can’t lead to financial penalty for the people trying to save lives and property. It’s unfortunate, but that’s all it is. People can replace drones, but we can’t replace a life. When our rescuers are risking their own lives to protect us, I want them thinking about safety, not liability.”

Courtesy CalFireGaines also said it’s his hope that the advent of effective “jamming” technology could keep drones away from emergency response areas and flight paths.

He went on to say that “public education efforts could ensure that the safest, least-damaging methods for avoiding or disabling unauthorized drones will be the primary methods used in these crises.”

In a phone interview on Friday, Gaines said its his understanding that the federal government is working on a technology that would jam a certain frequency used by private drones.

Some government agencies are already using drones, or have plans to do so, to monitor areas including wildfires.

Contact reporter Chris Nichols at chris@calwatchdog.com or on Twitter @ChrisTheJourno

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com