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Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

Oct. 24, 2012 at 5:24 a.m.


Oct. 23

U-T San Diego: "Prop. 37 keeps looking worse"

When this editorial page opposed Proposition 37 a month ago, we explained how its labeling requirement for some but far from all foods with genetically modified contents was sponsored by an organic-foods tycoon with a financial interest in making rival products look bad. We said the issue was best addressed at the federal level.

Now, however, another motivation driving Proposition 37 has come to the fore: Trial lawyers drafted it in a way that allows shakedown lawsuits targeting anyone in food sales without even having to establish that any damage occurred because of alleged labeling violations. This prompted the prominent Morrison & Foerster law firm to put out an unusual client alert warning that under the measure, "any food can be the basis for a lawsuit, unless (the seller can demonstrate) the food was produced without knowing and intentional genetic engineering. ... Proving the negative - that one did not know something - is very difficult."

What a scam. Vote no on Proposition 37.

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Oct. 22

Torrance Daily Breeze: "Secret supporters - When donors to causes hide in the shadows, voters should be suspicious about their motives"

Last week, when Gov. Jerry Brown called for a "shadowy" group of campaign contributors to "take your mask off" and "let the people of California see who you are," some listeners might have thought his colorful language was hyperbole. If only it was.

Brown conjured up an all-too-accurate image of unseen, unidentified and untouchable political operators seeking to influence California policy from outside the state.

The governor and others who support Proposition 30 and oppose Proposition 32 have been right to complain since the revelation last week that an Arizona-based group with anonymous members has donated $11 million to the other sides in two of California's biggest initiative campaigns.

Liberals have filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission, contending the donation violates state regulations of political expenditures. But even if the donation is determined to be legal, voters should resent the influence of such secret cash in our elections. This is an example of now-familiar excesses by groups taking advantage of court rulings such as Citizens United and policies that protect the identities of donors to nonprofit groups operating as social welfare organizations under IRS code 501(c)4.

The Arizona group calls itself Americans for Responsible Leadership. (You'd think individuals would want to stand up and take credit for a nice idea like responsible leadership.) Campaign finance reports show ARL gave $11 million to a California group, known as the Small Business Action Committee, that has been mounting TV and radio campaigns against Prop. 30 and for Prop. 32.

Prop. 30 is the initiative that would temporarily raise state sales taxes as well as income taxes on high earners to stave off education budget cuts, and Prop. 32 is the one that seeks to restrict labor unions' political contributions.

The problem is not which sides ARL is taking on these questions; this newspaper's editorial board endorsed both Prop. 30 and Prop. 32, so we disagree with ARL on the former and agree on the latter. This is about the group's methods.

Those methods should especially trouble supporters of the yes-on-32 campaign, which is accepting millions of dollars from a special-interest group even as it aims to reduce the influence of wealthy special interests.

It may be impossible to rid elections of big money. But voters should be able to judge big donors' motives. That's possible only when donors are known individuals, such as Republican activist Charles Munger Jr., who has given $20 million to SBAC, and his sister, Democratic attorney Molly Munger, who has bankrolled the tax-hike measure Prop. 38.

In the world of charity, the anonymous donor is admirable. In the world of politics, he or she is not so laudable. People who support their points of view with campaign cash should be willing to accept the plaudits or stand up to the complaints.

When donors hide in the shadows, voters should be suspicious.

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Oct. 18

Los Angeles Daily News: "California State University gets a fail for this report card"

The California State University has come out with its "Legislative Scorecard" for 2011-12, grading Sacramento lawmakers A to F.

Let's hope Cal State is more fair when it grades students.

The grades are based on how members of the state Senate and Assembly voted on bills pertaining to public universities, including bills that affect university funding. The intent, according to the CSU report, is "to inform the public on lawmakers' support of the CSU and public higher education."

What leaps off the page is that the graders took points away from lawmakers who voted for bills aimed at limiting the controversial salary raises that the CSU trustees have given to campus presidents - the raises that angered students whose tuition continues to rise.

CSU officials' myopia must keep them from seeing that for many people (perhaps most people), votes against pay hikes for already well-compensated campus bosses are not votes against education but votes for a more equitable policy amid state education funding cutbacks.

For what it's worth, the CSU report card lists no A's for California lawmakers this year. The highest-graded L.A.-area representatives, each with a B+, were Assemblymen Mike Feuer and Sen. Alex Padilla. The only F among local reps went to Assemblyman Steve Knight.

Sen. Fran Pavley, a former schoolteacher who lists education as her top issue, received a D-. She voted for a bill that sought to prohibit raises for CSU employees with salaries of more than $200,000.

But CSU's self-serving legislative ratings should be taken no more seriously than any other interest group's.

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Oct. 20

Contra Costa Times: "Coalition of reason among districts may pave way for others"

Anyone not worried about the current state of public education in California hasn't been paying attention.

Not to put too fine a point on it, public education in the Golden State is a mess. In their own ways, teachers, unions, taxpayers, parent advocates, business groups, administrators and, yes, newspaper editorialists have all acknowledged it.

Each likely has a self-righteous finger to point as to why we are where we are and a corollary finger to wag at the obstacles to improvement.

But the truth is that each of those groups has had a hand in creating our current circumstance. To detail how would take more space than is available. The fact remains, we are where we are. When the boat is sinking, you don't bother with who caused the hole. Everyone starts bailing. So grab a bucket.

A more-distressing truth is that there is no magic elixir to make everything better, especially in the polarized atmosphere that engulfs education. Anyone who starts a sentence about fixing California's education system with the phrase, "All you've got to do is ..." should be ignored because they simply don't understand the complexities.

For far too long, political muscle has trumped reason and sound management principles. The interest groups in this battle collect money that they pay consultants to create cute slogans and TV commercials advancing their agenda or stopping the opponents' agenda, neither of which serves the state's schoolchildren.

That must change.

Which is why we are encouraged by the innovative actions by eight school districts - two here in the Bay Area - who have come together to form a consortium that plans to seek federal funds to be targeted toward students.

For its own reasons, the state has chosen not to pursue Race To The Top funding from the Obama administration.

But in May, the administration announced that it would make available $383 million in funding grants at district levels and that it would give particular priority to forming partnerships with public and private organizations that focus on personalized learning environments for students.

Eight of California's more than 1,000 school districts have taken that challenge and decided to form what has been called a coalition of the reasonable that organizers hope will attract Washington's attention and serve as a model for other districts. We share that hope and, after reviewing it, we believe it should.

The impressive part of the plan is that the districts divided areas of concentration. Here's what we mean: the Los Angeles Unified School District will specialize in linked learning focusing on high schools using career partnership academies; districts in Fresno and Long Beach will focus on improving literacy achievements from prekindergarten through the third grade; meanwhile, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento City, Clovis and Sanger districts will hone in on improving learning of mathematics for fourth grade through eighth grade.

We believe this presents the last, best hope for dramatic positive results in our public schools. We hope this effort can serve as a crucible for establishing innovative best practices that will benefit our children for years to come.

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Oct. 17

The Modesto Bee: "CalRecycle must tackle fraud, debt"

CalRecycle, the state's quarter-century-old beverage container recycling program, is in big trouble. Bottles and cans diverted from landfills are up dramatically, but rampant fraud and mismanagement are depleting the state's recycling fund.

In recent years, the state has paid $80 million to $100 million more to consumers and others who turn in used bottles and cans than it has taken in from beverage distributors. If something is not done soon to restructure the program, the fund could run out of money within two years.

Fraud explains part of the problem. Attracted by the nickel and dime per container paid by the state, cheaters are collecting truckloads of cans and bottles out of state and redeeming them in California. Some of those used containers may have gone to legitimate destinations - to ports for export or to manufacturers - but undoubtedly a portion of them were turned in at recycling centers for cash.

Further, CalRecycle has failed to collect millions beverage distributors owe. In 2010, an audit estimated that the state was owed $10 million from distributors. That has been reduced to $3 million in recent months, but because the agency delayed collection efforts beyond a two-year statute of limitations, some payments owed will never be recovered.

The agency has made efforts in recent months to correct problems and stave off the looming funding crisis. But future success depends on the state's ability to keep its recycling fund solvent. That will require more energetic efforts to prevent fraud and much better state management.

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Oct. 19

San Francisco Chronicle: "California PUC dodges its job"

State regulators have found a way to make the San Bruno pipeline nightmare even worse. After halting public comment on looming fines, the Public Utilities Commission wants to farm the dispute out to a private mediator - a decision that's left the public in the lurch.

This move essentially caps public input and awareness of an important process. It relieves the state PUC of its direct responsibility to set fines that could range beyond $2 billion. It underscores once again the agency's inept handling of the pipeline explosion.

The decision to go to a mediator comes with qualifiers. The mediator will be a giant, worldwide law firm, DLA Piper, whose chairman emeritus is former Sen. George Mitchell. His public service is exemplary: 15 years in the Senate, four years fashioning peace in Northern Ireland, a report on steroids in baseball that led to tougher testing, and two years as President Obama's Mideast peace envoy.

It's a glittering resume, but Mitchell's remarkable accomplishments aren't the point. By taking the unusual course of hiring a mediator, the PUC is admitting it doesn't have the credibility to handle the job itself. It's giving up on its basic duty to sanction dangerous pipeline operations.

There are other problems. The hiring of Mitchell's firm was done with the assent of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which negligently operated the pipeline. But other parties such as the cities of San Bruno and San Francisco and consumer watchdogs were left out. It was a one-sided decision that ignored the very people harmed by the explosion. In addition DLA Piper has worked on other PUC-regulated utilities, links that cast doubt on its independence.

This decision process makes it clear what has happened. The PUC, with its credibility already in shambles from its inept oversight of the pipeline, rushed to find a prominent outsider to shoulder the burden. A code of silence was invoked to contain word of the decision until it took place. The state agency can now sit back, bask in the glow of distinguished statesman, and let the outside mediator do the heavy lifting.

It's been nearly two years since the disaster killed eight and destroyed 38 homes in a San Bruno neighborhood that believed an underground gas line was operated safely and overseen by a dutiful state agency.

Clearly it's time to end the inquiry and move forward. Earlier this month the PUC shut down public hearings and moved to closed-door negotiations due to run until Nov. 1. That decision was bad enough since it closed off outside observation.

At issue now are fines that may range from $200 million to $2.5 billion, a gulf that illustrates how far apart the many sides are. In addition, PG&E wants rate increases to pay for pipeline upgrades elsewhere in its network.

It's the PUC's job to take on this work and to make its decisions in public. It's doubly important to do this in a way that convinces a skeptical public that vigilant and fair-minded regulators are at work. The record shows that the agency is falling far short of its duty.

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