Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

4/1/2015 2:30 PM
By Associated Press

April 1

Contra Costa Times: State should repeal school district budget reserve cap

Gov. Jerry Brown's cap on school district reserves was a bad idea that gets worse with age. It needs to be repealed.

Slipped into last year's state budget deal, the cap was a classic example of politics trumping sound financial planning. It was a payoff to unions that whined about districts supposedly hoarding money that could be used for raises.

There was some out-of-touch idea that local school districts were rolling with dough. It turns out that in 2013-14 districts across the state had average reserves of only 20 percent of their annual budgets, according to a report this year from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Brown's cap, if implemented, would make matters worse, irresponsibly limiting most local school district's reserves to 6 percent, or about two weeks' worth of payroll. Lawmakers should follow the LAO's advice and repeal the cap before it does damage.

The cap would impair districts' abilities to save for needed capital projects, to ensure smooth cash flows so they can meet payroll and rising benefit costs, to have funds on hand for emergency repairs, to adequately prepare for the next economic downturn, and to have sufficient balances to ensure they can borrow money at reasonable rates.

Brown pushed for the limit as he tried to build labor support for what turned out to be Proposition 2, his "rainy day" fund that voters passed in November.

The legislation creating the cap specified it would only take effect if improving economic conditions trigger a provision of the ballot measure requiring that the state make payments to its own reserve account for schools.

Even a small deposit to the state reserve would activate the cap for local districts. Had the cap been operative in 2013-14, according to the LAO, more than 90 percent of school districts would have had to reduce their reserves or try to obtain exemptions from local county offices of education.

However deserving of raises teachers may be, that doesn't excuse a state mandate that local school districts irresponsibly craft their budgets.

The cap is rife with irony. First, lawmakers approved it in the same year that they passed Brown's funding plan for teacher pensions that will more than double districts' contributions in the next six years. Second, Brown pushed the plan as he was touting greater local control for school districts. Third, the weakening of local districts' reserves was linked to his ballot measure to shore up the state's reserves.

Fortunately, the cap was not part of Proposition 2. Lawmakers created the limit and they can — and should — repeal it.

___

March 29

Monterey Herald: Highway 156 study makes sense

Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips says he's looking for a way forward for much-needed improvements to Highway 156 by proposing a preliminary study on what would be a four-lane, $268 million toll road.

"We've got to find a solution on this," Phillips said last week at a meeting of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County board. "Most of us (in North County) know we have a major problem out there."

That's an understatement. The highway was built in 1963. Its traffic jams are legendary, and would be reason enough to widen the roadway. But worse than the backup problem is the safety record: the collision rate on 156 is about 21 percent higher than the state average for a similar road. As recently as 2011, 21 of the 40 fatality wrecks in Monterey County were in the 156 area. And, emergency vehicles responding to urgent calls get delayed on the roadway just like the rest of us.

However, the way forward is hardly certain. TAMC officials say the only way to finance the $268 million project is through a toll road that would be a public-private partnership, a concept that has not gone over well with area residents. Even before a formal project has even been proposed, residents have organized opposition, saying that a toll road would be a burden.

Phillips' proposal for a preliminary study is his attempt to find a way to address those concerns. One suggestion by Phillips — who represents the affected area — is to consider alternatives to tolls for local residents. One idea is to offer discounts on tolls for locals and businesses; another is to offer an alternative, non-toll roadway.

We agree that a toll road in the area hardly feels right, but there probably isn't an alternative. There's tremendous competition around the state for funds for highway widening, and more and more toll roads are being built in order to accommodate growing transportation needs. Not that TAMC is giving up the fight easily, as Phillips said that he and fellow board member Jason Burnett continue to explore additional state funding sources.

Under Phillips' proposal, a traffic and revenue study would be completed before the transportation board would even decide whether to move ahead with the public-private proposal. Financing for the study would come from a $936,517 federal earmark.

We agree with Phillips that something needs to be done to improve the 156 corridor. And although we don't expect that opponents of the plan will be convinced by whatever the study shows, we consider the process to be an open and fair attempt to look at the any available alternatives.

Our best guess at this juncture is that a public-private partnership is the most likely scenario. But considering the difficult political path ahead, all possibilities ought to be explored. And that's what Phillips' idea achieves.

___

March 26

San Jose Mercury-News: More outrage at the Oakland VA office

For years the Oakland regional office of the Veterans Administration has been a national disgrace — part of a larger pattern of incompetence or worse that seems to have engulfed the VA nationwide. The latest report on this is as befuddling as it is frustrating. The change promised by the president and Congress to better serve veterans has yet to take root. At best, confusion reigns.

In Sunday's edition of this newspaper, staff writer Mark Emmons described a report by the VA Office of Inspector General last month about the Oakland office, which supposedly handles claims for more than 780,000 veterans from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

According to the Inspector General, Oakland regional managers conceded that 13,184 claims were improperly stashed in a file cabinet, including 2,155 requiring further review. The investigators said they couldn't verify exact numbers because of "poor record keeping practices." No kidding.

Then things got murkier. Earlier this month Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary for benefits, told a congressional subcommittee that the file cabinet in question only held duplicates of processed claims and there was no intention to hide anything. Last week the Oakland office said that 97 percent of the claims were copies, which might mean hundreds rather than thousands neglected.

Meanwhile, managers say a new electronic, centralized mail process has reduced the potential for delays, and they have taken other corrective actions recommended by the inspector general.

Whatever the status of the files, we need to hear it from the Inspector General's office — or, better yet, as acclaim from veterans and their families once they're actually receiving the benefits they've filed for and earned. While Emmons' story was shocking to some, it was no surprise to veterans or relatives who have tried to navigate the VA's Byzantine bureaucracy.

Emmons quotes two local whistle-blowers as placing most of the blame on some managers. They contend there are workers who try to do the right things but are thwarted from above.

From Arizona to the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast, whistle-blowers are coming forward and revealing how America has treated its returning members of the military and their families. That truth is ugly. This nation has let them down.

It will be a relief if it's confirmed that the smoking filing cabinet, as it were, does not prove even greater levels of irresponsibility than thought and instead just indicates bad record keeping. We hope the Inspector General can shed further light.

___

March 31

San Gabriel Valley Tribune: Easing of sex offender restriction smart policy

California just eased the rules that prohibited all sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks.

Yes, it may sound scary, but it doesn't mean that a raft of child molesters will now be let loose without any restrictions. That's a dated bogey-man concept that mistakenly lumped every sex offender into one category. They have, until now, all been treated as though they posed the same risk. They don't.

When Proposition 83, popularly known as Jessica's Law, was overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 2006, the proponents and voters failed properly to take into account that a whole range of illegal conduct labels one as a sex offender, including illegal acts with adults.

And the fact is most sexual abusers don't find their victims by staking out school yards; many already know their target, who is often a family member or family acquaintance.

Voters didn't foresee the unintended consequences of the law.

So, the state smartly moved to modify Jessica's Law last week, after the state Supreme Court found the blanket approach unconstitutional as applied to parolees in San Diego County.

Under the new policy, parole officers will continue to monitor sexual offenders and prohibit high-risk sex offenders with a current or prior conviction for lewd acts on a child under 14 from living within a half-mile of any K-12 school.

Officials will focus on those who need it most — like pedophiles — a distinction Jessica's Law failed to make.

The wide-ranging law, which also toughens convictions on sex offenders, was named after a Florida girl who was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender. The horrific case fueled fear that gave it great support at the ballot box.

At the time the proponents billed it as a way to make neighborhoods "predator free zones."

The law caught fire across the country and in California it swept all sex offenders under one category and imposed harsh prohibitions on where they could live.

The one-size-fits-all rules contributed to an increase in homelessness among sex offenders who were cut out of neighborhoods or relatives' homes because of the proximity to schools or parks. Some jurisdictions even added additional sanctions to prevent sex offenders from living nearby.

According to California officials, about a quarter of the state's paroled sex-offenders are homeless.

Boo hoo, you say?

Well consider this. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, not exactly known for being soft on crime, said, "evidence shows that a lack of stability increases the risk of reoffending."

So not only are there more homeless, convicted sex offenders, but officials say they are harder to track.

Is that safer? Hardly. It's poor policy done through the ballot box that used scare tactics and not well-planned public policy. Thankfully, it's been made more rational.

___

April 1

The San Luis Obispo Tribune: PG&E raises don't spark confidence

Multimillion-dollar bonuses for CEOs and other top executives are nothing new. But it was still jarring to learn that PG&E officials were granted healthy increases in compensation last year, even as the debate continues over PG&E's punishment for the deadly gas line explosion in San Bruno. Consider:

On Tuesday, the mayor of San Bruno called for more safeguards, including the appointment of an independent pipeline safety monitor.

Last week, the state Public Utilities Commission's new president, Michael Picker, told state lawmakers that ratepayer money earmarked for pipeline safety was diverted to executive salaries in the months before the 2010 explosion, which killed eight people, injured 66 and destroyed 38 homes. Picker is seeking a $1.6 billion fine from PG&E.

The utility also is facing a federal criminal indictment in connection with the blast.

On top of that, an investigation is continuing into allegations of inappropriate communications about San Bruno between PG&E and the PUC under former chief Michael Peevey.

Against that backdrop, we learn from Securities and Exchange Commission filings that top PG&E executives received healthy increases in their compensation packages last year. Anthony Earley, chief executive officer of PG&E, got a 13.7 percent increase to $11.6 million in total compensation, and Christopher Johns, president of the PG&E's utility division, received a 44 percent increase to $6 million.

Ratepayers weren't on the hook for the bulk of that; most of the increases were in the form of stock awards from shareholders. Earley, for example, received no increase in base pay.

It remained at $1.25 million, according to a PG&E spokesman, though Earley did receive an additional $1.8 in a short-term incentive bonus, which is based on safety, reliability and customer satisfaction. Ratepayers and shareholders contribute to short-term incentive pay.

Earley, we should note, had nothing to do with the San Bruno tragedy — he didn't join PG&E until the fall of 2011 — yet it's fallen to him to try to restore public confidence in PG&E. At a Tribune Editorial Board meeting in 2012, he spoke about that challenge: "We have to delight our customers. Our reputation is in such tatters that we cannot afford to just satisfy customers."

Earley estimated then that it would take three to five years to restore trust in the utility, "one customer, one constituency at a time."

Three years later, that rebuilding process continues.

San Bruno still looms large and in that context, generous compensation packages for executives — no matter who pays for them or how high PG&E stock prices rise — make the job of restoring a tattered reputation all the more difficult.

___

March 31

Santa Maria Times: Growing economy in sight

The Santa Maria business community heard good news a few days ago about the local economy moving in a direction it is supposed to be going.

The presentation involved results of a business confidence survey, with responses to questions and opinions from owners/operators of 300 businesses, ranging in size from very small to very large.

The snapshot of the local economy is not to be confused with a forecast of coming economic attractions, although we must say most of the survey results seem to point to a prediction of bigger and better things to come for local commerce.

The general sense we get from the report is that last year was slightly better economically than 2013, and this year promises to be somewhat better than 2014. That's the way an economy is supposed to grow, slow and steady. You absolutely don't want those sudden spurts, which tend to turn into bubbles, which have a vulnerability to bursting.

That was, essentially, what happened to cause the Great Recession, and everyone in the Santa Maria Valley is sure of one thing — we don't want another one of those.

The steady, year-to-year growth shows up in unemployment data. In January last year, the city's jobless rate was 11.3 percent. This past January, the rate had dropped to 7.9 percent. The city's bed tax showed a healthy 9 percent jump. Nearly half the business owners-operators responding in the survey expressed an expectation of hiring new workers this year.

That's all very good stuff. But there are still concerns in the local business community, and they are legitimate.

As always, business owners wanting to expand will need capital, and because of deep, lasting scars left by the financial collapse in the Great Recession, financing is not as easy as it once was. A prudent approach to lending is a good thing, but can put a chill on business expansion planning.

Another issue is that although the jobless rate plummeted more than 3 percentage points in a single year, at 7.9 percent it's still considerably above the national rate of 5.5 percent.

If business owners can get the capital they need to grow their operations, some of that difference could be erased by new hiring, which the survey results indicate those owners want to do.

But the urge and need to hire raises another sticking point — survey results also show business owners are very concerned that, even if they find the capital to grow, where will they find properly educated, trained and qualified workers.

We wrote in Tuesday's editorial about the need for a four-year degree program at Allan Hancock College, which for years has been the primary source of educated and trained workers for the local economy. The Chamber of Commerce, Hancock College and Workforce Investment Board are collaborating on a strategy that will ensure a steady supply of qualified workers. That is absolutely essential to keep the local economy traveling in the right direction.

In general, those who took the time to respond to the Chamber's survey were optimistic about Santa Maria's economic future, as well they should be. The North County has the potential to become an economic powerhouse, in part because of the strength of the local agriculture industry, and because business owners unhappy about their prospects in other parts of the state and country are recognizing the many advantages of owning and operating a business in a region that has as many assets and attributes as North County.

Actually, the future looks so bright, we might all have to consider wearing shades.

___

Print Email

20 hours ago

(0) Comments

The Santa Maria business community heard good news a few days ago about the local economy moving in a direction it is supposed to be going.

The presentation involved results of a business confidence survey, with responses to questions and opinions from owners/operators of 300 businesses, ranging in size from very small to very large.

The snapshot of the local economy is not to be confused with a forecast of coming economic attractions, although we must say most of the survey results seem to point to a prediction of bigger and better things to come for local commerce.

The general sense we get from the report is that last year was slightly better economically than 2013, and this year promises to be somewhat better than 2014. That's the way an economy is supposed to grow, slow and steady. You absolutely don't want those sudden spurts, which tend to turn into bubbles, which have a vulnerability to bursting.

That was, essentially, what happened to cause the Great Recession, and everyone in the Santa Maria Valley is sure of one thing — we don't want another one of those.

The steady, year-to-year growth shows up in unemployment data. In January last year, the city's jobless rate was 11.3 percent. This past January, the rate had dropped to 7.9 percent. The city's bed tax showed a healthy 9-percent jump. Nearly half the business owners/operators responding in the survey expressed an expectation of hiring new workers this year.

That's all very good stuff. But there are still concerns in the local business community, and they are legitimate.

As always, business owners wanting to expand will need capital, and because of deep, lasting scars left by the financial collapse in the Great Recession, financing is not as easy as it once was. A prudent approach to lending is a good thing, but can put a chill on business expansion planning.

Another issue is that although the jobless rate plummeted more than 3 percentage points in a single year, at 7.9 percent it's still considerably above the national rate of 5.5 percent.

If business owners can get the capital they need to grow their operations, some of that difference could be erased by new hiring, which the survey results indicate those owners want to do.

But the urge and need to hire raises another sticking point — survey results also show business owners are very concerned that, even if they find the capital to grow, where will they find properly educated, trained and qualified workers.

We wrote in Tuesday's editorial about the need for a four-year degree program at Allan Hancock College, which for years has been the primary source of educated and trained workers for the local economy. The Chamber of Commerce, Hancock College and Workforce Investment Board are collaborating on a strategy that will ensure a steady supply of qualified workers. That is absolutely essential to keep the local economy traveling in the right direction.

In general, those who took the time to respond to the Chamber's survey were optimistic about Santa Maria's economic future, as well they should be. The North County has the potential to become an economic powerhouse, in part because of the strength of the local agriculture industry, and because business owners unhappy about their prospects in other parts of the state and country are recognizing the many advantages of owning and operating a business in a region that has as many assets and attributes as North County.

Actually, the future looks so bright, we might all have to consider wearing shades


Should U.S. farmers be permitted to grow nonintoxicating hemp for industrial uses?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

User Submitted Photos

View photos      Submit your photos

4/28/2015 | Last Updated: 12:45 PM