First Tesla Autopilot jury trial ends in loss for family of driver killed in Menifee crash

Jurors in state court in Riverside on Tuesday sided with Tesla in the first lawsuit blaming a fatality on Autopilot to go to trial.

Tesla convinced a jury that its Autopilot technology wasn’t responsible for a crash that killed a driver in Menifee four years ago, vindicating the driver-assistance system that’s a core part of Elon Musk’s efforts to make his electric-car company stand out from rivals.

Jurors in state court in Riverside on Tuesday sided with Tesla in the first lawsuit blaming a fatality on Autopilot to go to trial.

Also see: Tesla tells jurors fatal crash in Menifee had nothing to do with Autopilot

The family of the deceased driver, Micah Lee, and two passengers who were seriously injured sought $400 million in damages for physical injury, mental anguish and loss of the driver’s life.

Tesla’s eight-year experiment with semi-autonomous driving is mired in controversy even as Musk has maintained that the technology makes his cars the safest ever produced.

The company faces federal probes into whether defects in Autopilot have contributed to at least 17 deaths since June 2021, as well as regulatory investigations and lawsuits over claims that it has over-hyped its progress toward hands-free driving. Several suits over fatal crashes are headed to trial in coming months in California and Florida.

More on Tesla: Driver of Tesla on autopilot gets probation for crash that killed 2 in Gardena

The verdict came as Tesla shares are set to wipe out nearly one-fifth of their value in less than two weeks amid growing concerns that demand for electric cars is starting to weaken.

Also see: Tesla allowing no-hands Autopilot driving for longer periods. Regulators have questions

The trial that played out in Riverside for almost a month focused on Lee, whose Model 3 veered off the 215 freeway in 2019, slammed into a tree and burst into flames.

Lawyers representing the crash survivors argued that a manufacturing defect in Autopilot mode caused the car to sharply swerve off the road. Tesla contended Lee had been drinking alcohol before he got behind the wheel and that there was no evidence he had even activated Autopilot before the collision.

Lee’s blood-alcohol level on the night of the crash was 0.05%, and the police officer who investigated the accident concluded it was caused by Lee who was driving under the influence, Tesla’s attorney, Michael Carey, told jurors in late September. The state’s legal limit for most adults is 0.08%, but drivers can be arrested with a lower blood-alcohol level if their driving skills are found to be impaired.

Lindsay Molander, one of the injured passengers, told Carey that Lee consumed a drink and she had some wine while they were having dinner together at a restaurant in Downtown Disney in Anaheim earlier that evening.

More on Autopilot: Musk oversaw video exaggerating Tesla’s self-driving capabilities

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

Unemployment insurance: California’s ‘urgent’ $20 billion problem

California’s unemployment insurance fund is $20 billion in debt, putting the state in a terrible position in case of a recession. 

The deep debt — incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic as millions of people lost their jobs and the state borrowed money from the federal government for unemployment benefits — is on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mind.

He cited it as a factor in his recent veto of a bill that would have allowed striking workers to be eligible for unemployment benefits, mentioning that the state is paying hundreds of millions of dollars of interest on the debt.

It’s also top of mind for businesses, which face an increase in required contributions toward the state’s unemployment insurance fund as a result. And it’s on the minds of those who are concerned about whether the state’s unemployment system can handle another crisis such as a pandemic or a recession. 

The unemployment insurance fund had regular solvency issues even before the pandemic. Now the situation is more dire, with the Employment Development Department issuing a spring forecast that the debt — which the Legislative Analyst’s Office has said does not include the infamous unemployment fraud that mostly involved temporary federal benefits that the state doesn’t have to pay back — would grow to $19.7 billion at the end of the year. In addition, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office said this summer that for the first time during a period of job growth, it expects California’s unemployment insurance fund to have fewer contributions coming in than benefits being paid out.

“The administration’s forecast of a UI trust fund deficit adds urgency that may not have existed last year, making this one of the key issues facing the Legislature in the near future,” said Chas Alamo, principal fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But this is just one example of the ongoing battle among workers, labor and business in California, and how politicians have to navigate that tension.

Debt could cost California billions just in interest

It is difficult to gauge the urgency the governor and state legislators feel about the debt. 

Southern California Democrats Sen. Anthony Portantino and Assemblymember Chris Holden, co-authors of the bill Newsom vetoed citing concerns over the size of the debt, declined to comment on the debt. Lerna Kayserian Shirinian, a spokesperson for Portantino, said “the senator will continue to have conversations with the administration and others on that issue.”

Alex Stack, a spokesperson for the governor, referred to Newsom’s veto of the bill as one way the governor is avoiding increasing costs for businesses. Another way, he said, is that “the state has been covering interest payments instead of pushing that cost to employers.”

“The administration’s forecast of a UI trust fund deficit adds urgency that may not have existed last year, making this one of the key issues facing the Legislature in the near future.”CHAS ALAMO, PRINCIPAL FISCAL AND POLICY ANALYST, LEGISLATIVE ANALYST’S OFFICE

The required repayment of the debt has triggered automatic tax increases on employers, which under federal law are responsible for paying down the principal, while the state typically pays the interest. The governor last year proposed using $3 billion from a projected budget surplus to pay off some of the debt, but ended up paying only $250 million toward the principal. The state has since swung to a budget deficit, and this year paid $306 million in interest by borrowing from the disability insurance fund.

Alamo has forecast that depending on interest rates, the debt could cost the state anywhere from a total of $3 billion to $7 billion in interest payments for the next several years, possibly through 2033. The state also borrowed from the federal government for unemployment benefits during the Great Recession; that debt cost the state $1.4 billion in interest payments from 2011 until 2018, when it was paid off.

Longstanding fund problems

The California unemployment insurance fund’s solvency problems go way back. 

The fund was solvent as recently as 2018 and 2019, but still below the recommended standard of having enough funds to distribute benefits for a year, according to Department of Labor data analyzed by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank that advocates for equity in domestic and foreign policy. In 2017, and each year before that going back to 2009, the fund had been insolvent. The last time the state’s unemployment insurance fund met the standard was 1990.

The current debt has triggered a $21 increase per employee that employers must pay in payroll taxes starting this year. Employers’ rate will keep rising an additional $21 per employee each year until the state pays off the debt to the federal government, for a total of $945 per employee through 2031, according to projections by the Legislative Analyst’s Office based on the average state unemployment insurance tax rate.

“California’s business community is terribly concerned about our state’s unemployment insurance fund debt and the increased taxes it is bringing to businesses and will continue to bring for the next decade,” said Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce. “We believe all the factors affecting California’s unemployment insurance fund, including eligibility issues and EDD’s failures, must be considered when looking at the unprecedented debt.”

But others say the state’s system to fund unemployment has for years been structured to favor businesses in the first place. 

“Big businesses haven’t been paying the true cost of unemployment for decades,” said Alissa Anderson, a senior policy fellow at the California Budget & Policy Center, who said she plans to speak with Portantino’s office about the issue. Anderson added that shifting unemployment insurance debt to the state, as businesses have called for, is “a backdoor tax break for businesses.”

The state’s unemployment fund is funded by a variable percentage tax, currently 3.46%, on employers based on the first $7,000 each employee earns, the minimum taxable wage base required by federal law — a base California has not raised since 1983. That same wage base also applies to employers of both high-wage earners and low-wage earners, even though high-wage earners are eligible for higher unemployment benefits when they lose their jobs. Other states have raised their taxable wage bases as high as 100% of average weekly wages; in states like Washington, the taxable wage base this year is $67,600.

“Big businesses haven’t been paying the true cost of unemployment for decades.”ALISSA ANDERSON, SENIOR POLICY FELLOW, CALIFORNIA BUDGET & POLICY CENTER

Economists say the fact that California’s taxable wage base has been the same for so long is one of the main reasons its unemployment fund is consistently underfunded or insolvent. Another reason is that the state has added benefits and eligibility over the years without adjusting how the system is funded.

“California never has sufficient funding,” said Stephen Wandner, senior fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance and author of the book “Transforming Unemployment Insurance for the Twenty-First Century: A Comprehensive Guide to Reform.” Wandner called it “unreasonable… to have fairly generous benefits and extremely weak financing. It’s not sustainable.”

“The last time I checked, 1983 was about 40 years ago,” Wandner added. “What’s happened since then? Wages and prices have gone up every year.” In his book, Wandner recommends that states such as California should index their taxable wage base by setting it at 50% or more of the Social Security taxable wage base, or by indexing it to wage growth.

But Alamo, of the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that while the state’s wage base is lower than others, the percentage employers pay on that wage base is actually greater than the percentage employers in many other states pay on higher wage bases. “The amount contributed on behalf of workers is pretty middle of the pack,” he said.

Businesses want a working group

The state should take action to address the problems with the fund, said Jenna Gerry, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project who covers unemployment insurance issues in California.

“People need to understand the historic nature of this, and that something needs to be done now,” Gerry said, adding that fixing the system is also an equity issue in a high-cost state. The state’s unemployment benefit has been at a maximum $450 a week since 2005. “Who can live on that in California?” Gerry asked. Gerry added that the state needs to fix the unemployment fund’s solvency issues before it can raise the benefit limit.  

Bill Sokol, who teaches labor law at San Francisco State University, said the system to fund unemployment insurance hasn’t changed all these years because the business lobby is strong. Sokol also said labor is fighting for more pressing issues that affect employed workers, not unemployed ones. 

“What companies pay for UI is never going to be a top priority for unions, but it’s a top priority for business,” Sokol said. “This leaves it to the politicians to decide it’s for the greater good” to fix the unemployment insurance system, he said.

“People need to understand the historic nature of this, and that something needs to be done now.”JENNA GERRY, SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY, NATIONAL EMPLOYMENT LAW PROJECT

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation, agreed. She said that the governor has used the unemployment insurance debt “as an excuse” not to sign Portantino’s bill — which was cosponsored by the federation — but that she hasn’t “heard anything else” about how Newsom plans to address the debt. 

There are different ways to “sculpt” a solution, Gonzales Fletcher said, including lowering the percentage all employers pay into the fund but bumping up what employers of higher-wage workers are required to pay. 

That gets into the fact that employers of different sizes have differing concerns. 

Small Business Majority, a national nonprofit organization that advocates especially for under-resourced entrepreneurs and small businesses, wants to address equity issues including the disproportionate effect the funding system has on smaller businesses. 

Bianca Bloomquist, the organization’s California policy director, called the system “regressive” and said it will be important to gather data about its impact on small businesses. Bloomquist added that a well-funded unemployment insurance fund is vital because small businesses understand that “when a community is suffering (from unemployment), small businesses suffer.”

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

California union rifts burst into open over leader’s consultant hire

Lorena Gonzalez, head of the powerful California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, has run afoul of some union leaders for hiring her personal consultant who recently ran statewide campaigns opposing unions.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The leader of the influential California Labor Federation rocked Sacramento’s political establishment last fall when she suggested a blacklist for consultants who run afoul of unions.

Lorena Gonzalez, a progressive powerhouse who had stepped down as a state lawmaker to head the venerated Labor Federation AFL-CIO, argued consultants can’t get paid to bust unions and take on fights against workers and then expect to benefit from members’ money. And her stance won praise from some allies in labor.

So it was a head-snapping development inside several of the unions when Gonzalez quietly tapped her own longtime political strategist, one-time Willie Brown fixer Richie Ross, to formally consult for the Labor Federation. Ross had helped some of the state’s biggest corporate employers defeat a generational union-backed push in 2020 to raise property taxes on big businesses, which would have sent billions a year to schools and local governments.

In the weeks and months since he joined the Labor Federation, no fewer than eight high-level people directly connected to the group and broader labor world aired their discomfort and frustration with the arrangement to POLITICO. Several contend Gonzalez’s decision to hire Ross smacked of hypocrisy, arguing his past work makes him a poster boy for any boycott members had contemplated.

“She has put on the Labor Federation’s payroll a guy who has worked against the Labor Federation — just because she wants him there,” said a high-ranking labor official in Sacramento, who was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “And she’s doing this as she’s vilifying everybody else in town about their lack of purity.”

Gonzalez said in an interview that the Labor Federation has a formal process for placing consultants on its so-called “Do Not Patronize” list. If any of the unions want to put Ross on the list, she said, they can propose to do so.

“No one has done so,” Gonzalez added. She declined further comment.

Ross offered a three-word quote, in Spanish, to express how little the backlash mattered to him.

“No me importa,” he said.

Anxiety over Ross’ hire represents an exceedingly rare public eruption among California’s guarded labor unions. Disputes over personnel and strategy are often closely held, and several union leaders and advisers described their decision to speak out as a last resort to convey their exasperation — albeit mostly anonymously. Their moves also hint at broader tensions among leadership, and with Gonzalez, as unions collectively flex their political muscle amid another banner year in California’s Democratic-controlled statehouse.

Balding and bespectacled, Ross is the quintessential Sacramento throwback, patrolling the marble halls of the Capitol to coax, cajole and outright bully staffers and lawmakers alike into supporting his favored bills. With his unusual dual roles as lobbyist and political consultant, sometimes the legislators he is trying to influence are his own clients.

His deep institutional knowledge has yielded results for labor clients, like winning health care coverage for members of the United Farm Workers. Among his other union ties are the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFSCME, UNITE HERE, California Nurses, and several union-oriented lawmakers.

But he’s also helped lead campaigns that were on the opposite side of labor’s biggest and most expensive priorities. And his firm has lobbied against legislation supported by unions.

Ross has spent decades working on behalf of the oil industry — a divisive force in labor regarded by certain trade unions and more conservative members as a crucial partner in creating jobs but viewed by progressives and some public sector workers as out of step with their values. In 2020, the year Ross worked on the successful campaign to fight commercial real estate tax hikes in Proposition 15, he also helped to block an initiative to end cash bail, another union priority.

In both cases, Ross was taking on two labor powerhouses: Service Employees International Union and the California Teachers Association. CTA’s Issues PAC and SEIU State Council spent a combined $25.3 million in support of Proposition 15, which received another roughly $5.3 million from SEIU Local 2015 and SEIU 1021. The measure also was backed by AFSCME, UNITE HERE and the California Federation of Teachers.

“CFT has been on the opposite [side] of Richie’s firm a few times on some very primary issues of CFT’s — teacher due process and Prop. 15,” Jeffery Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said in an interview.

“Under my leadership,” Freitas added, “CFT will never hire Richie Ross.”

SEIU spent another $500,000 on the failed bail reform effort.

Another top leader in the Labor Federation summed up Ross’ involvement in the organization as akin to inviting a stranger with mixed financial motives to a seat at the table.

“Richie has experience and knows the business. He has great relationships. He’s smart. He’s strategic. He’s thoughtful. So he’s not a bad person to have on your team,” the labor leader said. “But you can’t trust somebody on your team if they’re also playing with the other side.”

Concerns over Ross coming aboard the Labor Federation had been bubbling up for months earlier this year. On June 9, the secretary of state’s filings first listed him as a lobbyist to the sprawling labor organization where Gonzalez is executive secretary-treasurer. Filings through June 30, the latest available, show Ross was paid $2,000 for the three-week period.

By the time Ross officially came on board, Gonzalez had already publicly put Democratic consultants on notice: Work for companies that run counter to organized labor’s goals could land them on a union blacklist. That she was reviewing procedures to kickstart the process as head of the influential labor organization made up of some 1,300 unions and millions of members across manufacturing, retail, construction, health care and other industries grabbed the attention of Sacramento insiders.

Recent chatter about a union blacklist reached a fever pitch after Gonzalez came into her new role in 2022. Gonzalez reiterated her point when her organization defended Assembly candidate and Alameda labor leader Liz Ortega-Toro against campaign tactics by housing industry groups. “Strong women of color are too often the targets of this type of ugly politics,” Gonzalez said at the time.

The Labor Federation news release added that those who violate the basic values upheld by the labor movement will be held accountable by any means necessary, including being placed on a “Do Not Patronize” list.

“You can’t get paid to union bust or take on fights against workers and ALL of labor & expect to turn around and benefit from our members’ money,” Gonzalez wrote on social media weeks earlier. Despite the warning, the federation has not formally blacklisted anyone under her leadership and has received no formal proposals to do so.

“Do not hire” lists sit squarely at the intersection where ideological fissures and the lucrative business of politics collide. After a string of upstarts ousted congressional incumbents in the 2018 cycle, the House Democrats’ campaign arm refused to work with any vendor that had contracted with the challengers. The committee backed away from its policy after less than two years amid backlash from the party’s progressive wing.

Similar blacklists have cropped up sporadically in California. In one widely-publicized 2013 spat, the Labor Federation announced it was placing six consultants on a “Do Not Hire” list for their work for two Democrats who successfully beat Assembly incumbents from their party. Among them was now-state Sen. Steve Glazer, who managed former Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign and worked the following cycle with the Chamber of Commerce.

Click here to read the full article in Politico

A new SoCal underground water storage project aims to keep supplies flowing during drought

A solution to help bolster Southern California’s water outlook during future droughts is taking shape in the Mojave Desert. Water transported in canals and pipelines has begun flowing into a series of basins carved into the desert, filling a large underground reservoir that will be available to draw upon in dry times.

The facility, called the High Desert Water Bank, started taking in supplies from the State Water Project last month. Water diverted from the East Branch of the California Aqueduct has been flowing through a 7-foot-wide pipeline and gushing into one of the basins, where it gradually percolates into the desert soil and recharges the groundwater.

Newly drilled wells will allow for water to be pumped out of the aquifer when needed to supply cities and suburbs throughout Southern California.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is spending $211 million to build the facility. The district’s officials say the project is a vital step in improving the region’s water infrastructure to adapt to climate change.

“We know that climate change will bring more of the dramatic swings between wet and dry that we saw over the last few years, so we must take every opportunity to store water when it is available,” said Adán Ortega Jr., chair of the MWD board.

The agency already stores water underground in other areas, but the High Desert Water Bank represents the MWD’s largest investment in groundwater storage to date.

The district developed the facility working with the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, which owns the property near Lancaster.

After three years of construction, the initial phase of the project has enabled the district to take advantage of the plentiful water from this year’s historic storms. And more water could be coming with the current strong El Niño, which has brought forecasts of another wet winter.

There is enough aquifer space in the Antelope Valley groundwater basin to store up to 280,000 acre-feet of water, comparable to the capacity of Castaic Lake and nearly four times the size of Big Bear Lake.

The facility, which is scheduled to be fully built in 2027, will enable the MWD to put in or withdraw up to 70,000 acre-feet of water per year — enough for about 210,000 average households.

With this much additional storage in place, Ortega said, “we can confront the next drought with more confidence.”

By increasing the district’s ability to store and withdraw water along the aqueduct, the project provides the state’s largest urban water supplier greater flexibility and a valuable backup supply to adapt to more extreme cycles of drought and wet weather.

The district’s managers said having the water bank will ensure more reliable supplies during severe droughts like the one during the last three years, when supplies from Northern California were drastically cut, forcing mandatory water restrictions for nearly 7 million people.

By banking more backup supplies, the project is also intended to help Southern California reduce its reliance on the overburdered Colorado River, where depleted reservoirs remain at low levels.

“When drought hits California, we can turn to this stored water, instead of drawing more heavily on our Colorado River supplies,” MWD General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said.

Hagekhalil and other officials spoke last week at an event inaugurating the facility. As they spoke beneath a tent, water gushed into the pond behind them, creating a fountain-like upwelling in the wind-rippled surface.

“Climate change is upon us,” Hagekhalil said. “We need to have creative new tools, holistic solutions.”

Hagekhalil noted that the district is developing a new climate adaptation master plan, focusing on building more flexibility into the region’s water system to improve the reliability of supplies. He said storing more water underground will be one piece of the district’s climate adaptation efforts in the coming years, along with recycling wastewater and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.

“It’s finding new ways to take water when we have it during wet years and put it in the ground, so we can have access to it when we have dry conditions,” Hagekhalil said. “This is the future of water management in the 21st century.”


Water has been flowing into the facility from the California Aqueduct since mid-September. By the end of the year, the district estimates it will have stored about 12,000 acre-feet in the groundwater basin, enough to meet the annual needs of about 36,000 average households.

Managers of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency said this part of the High Desert is well-suited for storing water underground. The 1,300-acre property includes vacant land and farm fields that were left dry and abandoned years ago.

As work crews have built recharge basins, they have removed old irrigation systems.

Farms in the valley have produced a variety of crops, such as hay, peaches, carrots and onions, but falling groundwater levels and increased costs for imported water have led to a decline in agriculture. The Antelope Valley groundwater basin is managed under a 2015 court ruling, which regulates pumping to manage supplies and address the long-term declines in aquifer levels.

“Our groundwater supplies, they’ve diminished. And thank goodness for these water banks,” said George Lane, president of the Antelope Valley agency’s board. “It will raise the water table. … It was completely overdrafted for a number of years.”

The Metropolitan Water District will be able to recover 90% of the water it stores at the site, paying the Antelope Valley agency when it withdraws water.

Evaporation losses and water that will be left underground will account for the remaining 10%, said Matthew Knudson, general manager of the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency.

So far, crews have finished building six recharge basins to receive water. When finished, the water bank will have 26 recharge basins covering about 600 acres, and 27 wells for recovering water from the aquifer.

The groundwater is tainted with toxic arsenic, so the project will also require building a facility to treat the water before sending it flowing back into the California Aqueduct.

The agencies plan for water levels to rise and fall as supplies are deposited and withdrawn. Groundwater levels at the site now range from about 260 feet to 280 feet underground, and will be allowed to rise as high as 75 feet underground at full capacity.

When water is pumped back into the aqueduct, it will flow into the MWD’s delivery system. The district supplies drinking water for 19 million people in six counties from San Diego to Ventura.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

CA Funding LGBTQ+ Group Fighting Parental Notification

Over the summer, when a Southern California school board opposed a new state-determined social studies curriculum that included a bio of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a threatening tweet calling out the school board president by name.

“This isn’t Texas or Florida. In the Golden State, our kids have the freedom to learn,” Newsom tweeted. “Congrats Mr. Komrosky you have our attention. Stay tuned.”

Newsom followed up the vague warning with a far more tangible one. In a subsequent statement, the governor labeled the board’s reluctance to accept the curricula an act of “hate” and announced a $1.5 million fine for what he described as a “willful violation of the law.” He also threatened a lawsuit and a state Justice Department civil rights investigation. 

“Demagogues who whitewash history, censor books, and perpetuate prejudice must never succeed,” Newsom added. “Hate doesn’t belong in our classrooms, and because of the board’s majority’s antics, Temecula has a civil rights investigation to answer for.”

Komrosky and other members of the school board for the Temecula Valley Unified School District were concerned about Milk’s well-documented relationship with a 16-year-old boy when he was in his 30s. He and other board members labeled Milk a “pedophile” and didn’t want his bio included in a supplemental curriculum for certain grade levels. 

After Newsom’s threat of legal action, the school board began to waver. Komrosky called an emergency Friday meeting that stretched late into the night and partially backed down, agreeing to accept the textbooks but putting off a decision on the 4th-grade lessons on civil rights, including the gay rights movement, until the board and parents could review it further.

The confrontation spurred weeks of headlines, with members of the LGBTQ+ community praising the governor’s actions while parents’ rights groups bemoaned the top-down threats from the highest level of state government. 

The Democrat-controlled state legislature last month passed a bill that would legalize hefty state fines for school boards that reject state-determined curricula and other state policies. The state attorney general also sued a different school district in Chino for requiring parents to be notified when their children begin identifying as a different gender in California public schools.

In mid-October, a judge sided, at least temporarily, with the state, and granted a preliminary injunction against the parent notification policy until he makes a final decision.

Over the last several months, the school board clashes have fueled a series of protests and rallies at the state Capitol in which parents, students, pastors, and school board members have accused the Newsom administration and the state legislature of keeping secrets from parents and undermining their ability to care for and oversee their children.

On the other side of the debate are Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who argue that the school boards are trying to ban textbooks teaching diversity. They also assert that students in the state public elementary schools who are changing their gender have a right to privacy from their parents who could try to stop them from transitioning – or worse – use physical force as punishment for doing so.

Amid the furor on both sides of the school board controversies, in late August, Newsom announced the latest round of grants to support an effort to combat hate crimes against transgender, Muslim, and black people after the attorney general’s office found a 20% increase in such crimes across the state in 2022.

Among the taxpayer-funded grants is $630,000 to Equality California, an LGBTQ+ group fighting alongside Thurmond against school boards’ parental notification policies and their ability to object to diversity-oriented curricula.

Over the last four years, the state has provided $400 million in federal grants to fund security measures for faith-based organizations and other nonprofits, and $196 million in grants to local organizations focused on preventing hate crimes and supporting survivors. The funding is taking place as the state is running a $31.5 billion budget deficit, up from $22.5 billion projected in January.

The state recently awarded this year’s nearly $91.5 million in “Stop the Hate” grants to more than 170 community groups after at least two disturbing incidents that police say were motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ views and racism.

In August, a San Bernardino store owner was murdered after an argument over a rainbow “pride” flag hanging outside her store, and an Oakland elementary school was evacuated after receiving a bomb threat that police said was racially motivated.

Newsom last week also approved $10 million in funds to boost the presence of police at synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship as tensions have flared over the possibility of local violence stemming from the Israel-Hamas war.

Allowing all places of worship to receive the funds to boost security appears even-handed and proactive at a time of rising tensions and threat levels.

But the “Stop the Hate” grant to Equality California has sparked criticism from opponents that Newsom is inappropriately using state taxpayer funds to assist the top LBGTQ+ organization fighting parents over school board policies.

According to the California Department of Social Services, which issued the grants, the grants “may” fund various services and programs, including those providing mental health and legal services for victims and their families. The website also says funds could go to prevention services, including “arts and cultural work, youth development, senior safety and escort programs, safety planning, training and cross-racial alliance work.”

Equality California has been at the center of the fight for protecting children’s right to change genders without their parents’ knowledge in public schools across the state. The group has fiercely opposed the parental rights movement, labeling it homophobic and transphobic, and argues that notifying parents amounts to “forcibly outing” gender-transitioning children, which could lead to physical or emotional harm for these young people who already experience higher rates of depression, mental health, self-harm, and suicide than their peers.

Equality California staff have attended school board meetings and appeared alongside Thurmond as he answers questions from the press. The group’s staffers were among pro-LGBTQ+ advocates whom a Chino school board removed from a meeting along with Thurmond after he spoke against a proposed district policy that would require schools to inform parents if their students were changing their pronouns or asking to use different gendered facilities.

Because money is fungible, and the grant can help offset costs for the organization’s other work, parental rights advocates have argued that the grant is inappropriately boosting the group’s lobbying efforts opposing parental rights policies at local school boards.

According to its 2021 tax filings with the IRS, the most recent available, Equality California Institute spent more than $400,000 on lobbying the state legislature and received nearly $6 million in revenue for that year alone.

Carl DeMaio, a conservative radio talk show host in California who is gay, was the first to take issue with the Equality California grant in a post on his website, arguing that it was one of several designed to give a financial edge to left-leaning groups, such as Equality California, that actively engage in politics by endorsing candidates and other political activities.

For instance, the group endorsed Thurmond’s reelection last year, lauding him for “personally intervening” in a school board fight in Chino and working “diligently alongside Equality California to counter the attacks against our trans and gender-nonconforming youth, in particular, and we could not ask for a better ally and champion for all California students.” It’s unclear if that endorsement came directly from the Institute or another part of Equality California’s nonprofit organization.

“There’s nothing wrong with these far-left groups engaging in political advocacy. It’s their First Amendment right, but not with my tax dollars,” DeMaio told RealClearPolitics. “This is the oldest scam going on in California politics right now. It’s the utilization of taxpayer money to subsidize Democrat and left-wing political organizations.”

“If the National Rifle Association or the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation were receiving taxpayer money, the left and the media would be lighting their hair on fire, but here in California, you have political groups getting money from the government, and no one bats an eye,” he added.  

Equality California spokesman Jorge Reyes Salinas says the Institute does not engage in political work, as DeMaio alleges, and stressed that the entire grant is devoted to supporting the state’s “Stop the Hate” program.

“Equality California Institute’s Stop the Hate program is a tool to ensure that LGBTQ+ Californians know about and have access to culturally responsive resources on hate crimes and bystander intervention,” he said in a statement to RCP. “Through outreach and partnerships, this program aims to advance education on how to curb the sharp increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in California.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to RCP’s inquiries about the grant.

Lance Christensen, a former state legislative staffer who ran for California superintendent of schools as a Republican last year, now serves as the vice president of education policy and government at the conservative California Policy Center. The Center is one of the main groups backing the parental rights policies in school boards across the state. 

Christensen argues that the deck is heavily stacked against his side because parents are already fighting the deep-pocketed teacher unions who back many of the policies parents’ rights groups have tried to fight, including extended COVID school shutdowns that kept students in virtual learning longer than many other states.

On top of that, the leaders of Equality California, which is more ideologically aligned with the Democrats who run the state, “feel like it’s their right and duty to extract money from taxpayers to help amplify their views,” he argued.

“The fact of the matter is, most parents are well aware of the positions these groups have,” he said. “They just aren’t aware that their tax dollars are going to subsidize these activities.” 

Equality California has backed a raft of pro-LGBTQ+ bills that Newsom signed into law in late September, including several measures the governor’s office has said are designed to “better support vulnerable youth.” Among the new laws is one that would require courts to keep all petitions for a change of gender identity in public documents, including those filed by minors, confidential. 

Click here to read the full story in Real Clear Politics

Oakland’s teachers union owes the district more than $400,000. Why hasn’t it paid?

The Oakland teachers union owes the city’s schools more than $400,000, a growing debt that the labor group has failed to pay for more than a year and during months of tense contract negotiations and a teacher strike in the spring.

The debt by the Oakland Education Association started to mount in the 2021-2022 school year, with a few missed payments for the salary and benefits of district staff on leave for union work. Then, during the last school year, the labor group made no payments, despite receiving invoices from the district.

District officials say the union owes $403,434 for missed payments over the previous two school years.

State law requires unions to reimburse public agencies within 10 days of receiving the confirmation of payment for worker salaries and benefits.

The union also owes the district for the compensation paid this quarter, which is expected to be close to $100,000 for the three educators typically on leave, including the union president and other executive positions.

The debt exemplifies continuing tension between the district and the union, a relationship that has been strained and often vitriolic in recent years as the two sides negotiated a contract — an agreement achieved only after a divisive nine-day teacher strike at the end of the previous school year.

The two sides have repeatedly banged heads over a wide range of issues, including school closures and the district’s fiscal health as well as the union’s demands for reparations for Black students and the use of Oakland Unified facilities for homeless families.

The lack of payments means the district paid the salaries and benefits of union leaders through the months of negotiations and the strike without reimbursement.

While it’s a relatively small sum owed compared with the district’s $800 million annual budget, it’s one that can’t be ignored given the district’s responsibility to the 34,000 students, said school board President Mike Hutchinson.

“It is hard to accept that we are now subsiding OEA leadership,” noted Hutchinson, who said he was surprised when he recently learned of the default in payments. “This is money that should be used for classrooms or other educational purposes.”

Hutchinson said he is unaware of any reasons offered for the nonpayment, but said the requirement to reimburse the district is clear in the contract negotiated with the union.

Union officials declined to respond to specific questions about why the payments to the district haven’t been made, if they lack the funds to pay the amount owed, whether they would owe interest on the debt, and whether they dispute how much is owed. They instead criticized the district over unrelated issues.

“OEA is committed to working with the OUSD administration to rectify all billing errors, including the ongoing, alarming and significant District payroll errors that impact classroom teachers and school staff daily,” said union president Ismael Armendariz. “This school year alone, we’ve heard from more than 200 teachers, school psychologists, nurses, speech therapists who have had significant errors in their pay, including not receiving pay at all.”

Armendariz said the union will continue to meet with district officials on those issues and “hope to come to a resolution soon so that we can work together to provide the best possible education to Oakland students.”

District officials said the accounting team discovered the lapse in payments from the union during the year-end reconciliation process. 

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Federal officials say plan for water cuts from 3 Western states is enough to protect Colorado River

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Federal officials said Wednesday that conditions have improved on the Colorado River to the point that a plan by California, Arizona and Nevada to voluntarily reduce water use should help keep the river basin on stable footing for the next few years.

The U.S. Department of the Interior said in a statement that the risk of reaching critically low water elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two key reservoirs, has gone down substantially.

“We have staved off the immediate possibility of the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production,” Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement.

The river serves seven U.S. states, Native American tribes and two states in Mexico, supports a multibillion-dollar farm industry in the West and generates hydropower used across the region. Years of overuse by farms and cities and the effects of drought worsened by climate change has meant much less water flows through the river today than in previous decades.

But the announcement displays how much things have changed since summer 2022, when U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said drastic cuts would be needed to stave off a crisis in the river. The states failed to reach a consensus on cuts, and the federal government did not end up forcing any.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration released two options that would have forced cuts on Arizona, California and Nevada either proportionally or based on the existing water priority system, which most benefits California. The threat of those two options finally forced the three states to reach their own voluntary plan for how to reduce their use of the river’s water.

In May, they proposed to help shore up water levels by conserving at least an additional 3 million acre feet of water through the end of 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal money.

Though the federal government needs to finish its regulatory process, Wednesday’s announcement indicates it is poised to officially accept that plan, said JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member at the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of the river’s water.

Federal money and a good winter that shored up water supplies across California and the West have helped changed the trajectory of negotiations, he said.

“This is a victory for collaboration as an approach rather than conflict, which is where we started,” Hamby said.

California will be responsible for more than half of the total cuts. Those could be achieved through things like implementing water efficiency measures and idling certain crops for months at a time, Hamby said previously.

Already, the three states have lowered their water use, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the state’s representative on Colorado River issues. He said Arizona was on track this year to use about one-third less water than the amount it is allocated.

“Arizona’s conservation efforts alone have been substantial,” he said in a statement.

Now, the states can turn their attention to a new long-term agreement for how to share the river’s water beyond 2026.

Hamby said he looks forward to “using that momentum to start to build what the next 20 years looks like on the Colorado River.”

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Three San Francisco Democrats Champion Anti-Israel Resolution

Trio of DSAers on SFDCCC blame Hamas Carnage on Israel

The San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (SFDCCC) has published a resolution that is so comically one sided against Israel, it reads like Hamas day at the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The resolution, which is scheduled to be voted on Wednesday night, is titled “Calling For a Ceasefire” and is sponsored by John Avalos, Gloria Berry, and Peter Gallota. All three are current members of the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and all three are all current members of the SFDCCC and are currently running for re-election to the SFDCCC, which sets policy and agenda for the county’s Democrats.

Highlights of the two-page resolution include:

* Denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state

* Labels Israel an Apartheid regime (twice!)

* Blames Israel for the October 7th massacre of civilians

* Adopts the language of PLO in referring to the founding of Israel as the “Nakba” (catastrophe)

* Characterizes Israel’s response to Oct 7th terrorists attacks as disproportionate

* Creates a moral equivalency between civilian Israeli hostages who were dragged from their homes to jailed Palestinians, referring to both groups as “hostages”

“The anti-Israel resolution sponsored by three members of the SFDCCC is deeply flawed and historically inaccurate,” Todd David told the California Globe. David is the Political Director for Abundant San Francisco, which is fielding an alternate slate of candidates for SFDCCC. “It denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Outrageously, it blames Israeli civilians for the Oct 7th massacre perpetrated by Hamas.  And it attempts to stop Israel from eliminating Hamas, a terrorist organization.”

While the resolution stands no chance of influencing actual policy in the near future, this is part of a coordinated effort on the left to move the Overton window when discussing Israel. Just weeks ago, it was considered radical to use Israel-eliminating language such as “from the river to the sea.” Today, we see kids on virtually every campus of the United States chanting that murderous phrase.

And now, a resolution to which three elected representatives of the Democratic Party have signed their names includes language that not even the most ambitious Palestinian apologists had dared utter.

The pro-terror wing of the Democratic Party has made even die-hard progressives uncomfortable with their rhetoric. Even radical left-wing State Senator Scott Wiener has been forced by the sickening brutality of Hamas to put out a few mildly pro-Israel tweets, and has criticized the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which “holds the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence we’ve witnessed across historic Palestine.” When you’ve lost Wiener…

The intraparty divide is causing deep pain among solid Democrats.

Todd David told the Globe, “As a lifelong Democrat, it saddens me to see the extreme wing of the Democratic party abandon Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East. It is a country where LGBTQ people and women have equal rights, which is in contrast to much of the Arab world. Democrats of all stripes should be supporting a two-state solution that ensures a safe, free, and thriving Israel living peacefully alongside a Palestinian state.”

Insiders told the Globe it’s too close to call whether the resolution will pass tomorrow night. One insider told us they are “already hearing about cowardly members of the SFDCCC looking to duck the vote” as word of the resolution’s controversial contents has seeped out. The SFDCCC election is on March 5, 2024 and will be on the Primary Election ballot.

But again, this isn’t about setting policy. Most of these guys who dream of a Hamas-led State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea would be among the first executed if they ever visited such a state. But the fact that they think this will play well with their constituents reveals just how far left the party of Truman has lurched.

It’s worth repeating that Avalos, Berry, and Gallota are not just Democrats but members of the Democratic Socialists of America, as is San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston. Preston, who is Jewish, has had to choose sides—and he apparently is more appalled by Israel’s response to Hamas barbarism than by Hamas barbarism.

For some who have waited decades for generous Jewish donors to punish elite universities over campus antisemitism, it has been thrilling to see some wealthy donors finally find their balls. People like Bill Ackman and Ron Lauder and Les Wexner have made it clear to the universities they generously support that they aren’t automatic when the school won’t even protect the safety of its Jewish students.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

U.S. Media Blocked from California Gov. Gavin Newsom Meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping

BEIJING — California Gov. Gavin Newsom met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday during his first full day in the capital city during a weeklong trip to China. 

Chinese officials physically blocked American media members from attending the meeting while allowing Chinese reporters inside.  The 45-minute meeting took place in the Great Hall of the People, a palatial building with a massive entry hall adorned with yellow curtains and a red carpet that Newsom and his delegation traversed on their way to the meeting.  

Newsom addressed reporters who had traveled to China to cover his visit after the meeting, and said he and Xi discussed climate issues, as well as fentanyl, the opioid fueling overdose deaths in San Francisco and across the United States. 

California’s fentanyl crisis has roots in China, where chemicals used to make the synthetic opioid are manufactured. The Biden administration has pressed Xi to crack down on the export of those chemicals. Newsom said he didn’t secure any new commitments from Xi on the issue, but described their conversation about fentanyl as “remarkably positive.” 

“We talked about precursor chemicals, we talked about the importance of the issue and how it’s become a leading cause of death in the United States,” Newsom said. 

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China who was also in the meeting, said Newsom spoke about his personal experience with the issue as an elected leader from San Francisco, where fentanyl has hit particularly hard. 

Newsom said San Francisco came up multiple times in the meeting, and that Xi began the conversation by reminiscing about his memories of the Golden Gate Bridge from his previous trips to California. 

Newsom said he did not speak about human rights with Xi, but did bring up several human rights issues during meetings earlier in the day with China’s vice president and foreign minister. During his meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Newsom said he discussed California resident David Lin, who the United States government says is wrongfully imprisoned in China. Newsom also said he discussed the war in Gaza and issues related to Tibet and Taiwan.  

Newsom and Xi’s meeting comes ahead of next month’s Asia-Pacific summit in San Francisco, where President Joe Biden has said he may meet with his Chinese counterpart. 

After his meeting with Xi, Newsom said his “biggest fear” with China is that the United States and China become isolated from each other. On his trip, he has stressed the importance of having an open dialog with China. 

Newsom had received widespread criticism for his plans to focus his China trip on climate issues and to largely sidestep human rights. 

Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, urged Newsom to call out Chinese leaders for their crackdown on free speech, including imprisonment of people who criticize the government, and its persecution of Uyghur Muslims. 

Click here to read that e full article in SF Chronicle

States sue Meta claiming its social platforms are addictive and harm children’s mental health

Dozens of U.S. states, including California and New York, are suing Meta Platforms Inc. for harming young people and contributing to the youth mental health crisis by knowingly and deliberately designing features on Instagram and Facebook that addict children to its platforms.

A lawsuit filed by 33 states in federal court in California, claims that Meta routinely collects data on children under 13 without their parents’ consent, in violation of federal law. In addition, nine attorneys general are filing lawsuits in their respective states, bringing the total number of states taking action to 41 and Washington, D.C.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms,” the complaint says. “It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.”

The suits seek financial damages and restitution and an end to Meta’s practices that are in violation of the law.

“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a statement. “Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.”

In a statement, Meta said it shares “the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families.”

“We’re disappointed that instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use, the attorneys general have chosen this path,” the company added.

The broad-ranging federal suit is the result of an investigation led by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. It follows damning newspaper reports, first by The Wall Street Journal in the fall of 2021, based on the Meta’s own research that found that the company knew about the harms Instagram can cause teenagers — especially teen girls — when it comes to mental health and body image issues. One internal study cited 13.5% of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

Following the first reports, a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press, published their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has testified before Congress and a British parliamentary committee about what she found.

“Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “With today’s lawsuit, we are drawing the line.”

The use of social media among teens is nearly universal in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. Almost all teens ages 13 to 17 in the U.S. report using a social media platform, with about a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms — but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent, and many younger kids have social media accounts. The states’ complaint says Meta knowingly violated this law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, by collecting data on children without informing and getting permission from their parents.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok recently introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. But once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching. TikTok, Snapchat and other social platforms that have also been blamed for contributing to the youth mental health crisis are not part of Tuesday’s lawsuit.

Washington D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb wouldn’t comment on whether they’re also looking at TikTok or Snapchat. For now they’re focusing on the Meta empire of Facebook and Instagram, he said.

Click here to read the full article in AP News