- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dec. 11

The Oakland Tribune on the state’s financial climate:

With state finances improving, it’s time to pay down debts while there’s money available.

In early January, Gov. Jerry Brown will present his budget proposal for fiscal year 2016-17. In anticipation, Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor last month reported that the state is better prepared for an economic downturn than at any point in decades.

Taylor forecasts that, if the economy stays strong, the state’s rainy day fund will grow from $5.6 billion this year to $11.2 billion in 2019-20. The governor wisely championed this emergency fund and convinced voters in 2014 to require it.

In addition, discretionary reserves that lawmakers can tap will increase from $2 billion this year to $17 billion in 2019-20. That strong forecast takes into account the phase-out, starting next year, of the temporary sales and income tax hikes voters approved in 2012.

In other words, the fiscal crisis that precipitated Brown’s plea for tax increases is over. The push by some politicians and labor groups for a voter extension next year is misguided.

That said, while the crisis has passed, a huge debt hangover remains. This is not the time to add lots of new programs that will make it harder to balance the budget during the next economic downturn. Yes, there will be another downturn.

As the governor’s finance director, Michael Cohen, warned, “we must continue to pursue fiscal discipline, pay down liabilities, and build up our Rainy Day Fund during these fleeting good times.”

About those liabilities he mentioned: The state currently owes more than $210 billion for unfunded pension and retiree health care obligations for state workers, school teachers and University of California employees.

That’s how much the investment funds are currently short. Over the past four years, the governor developed plans for addressing the imbalances. But the repayments are stretched out, in most cases, for three decades.

That’s too long and the governor knows it. For example, last month, he sharply criticized the California Public Employees Retirement System for using what he correctly termed “irresponsible” investment assumptions that tamp down payments.

If CalPERS had acted responsibly, the state would have been required to make higher minimum contributions. However, the pension system’s failure doesn’t preclude the governor and Legislature from doing the smart thing by paying more now.

Just like a credit card bill, larger payments now, when money is available, will reduce future payments when times are tight. They guard against severe future budget cuts.

The same principle applies to all the retirement debts. As the governor prepares his budget, he should insist that the state more aggressively pay them down.

Brown restored the state’s fiscal stability. Now he should protect it.

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Dec. 15

San Francisco Chronicle on drought legislation :

Yet another attempt to assist drought-stricken California with federal funding resulted in a partisan dustup last week rather than a bipartisan plan. The state needs federal funding and scientific expertise to help develop water management programs that will carry us through this drought and the many more that will come. Instead, the first drops of rain provided new water to fight over.

After months of closed-door talks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Democrats, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, introduced draft language he characterized as bipartisan as a potential addition to the omnibus budget bill. The rider included $21 million for actions to benefit fish, $100 million for desalination projects, and $200 million for water recycling or reuse projects. It also had $600 million for water storage, both dams and groundwater projects.

Both Feinstein and fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer immediately lambasted the release of un-vetted language. “There were at least a half-dozen items in the bill that I had rejected and that would have drawn objections from state or federal agencies - some of them would likely violate environmental law,” Feinstein said in a statement. She said she plans to bring a stand-alone bill to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in coming days.

McCarthy’s office defended the action, saying it is unlikely any Democratic bill would make it through the Republican-controlled Senate, thus the need to introduce the language now. “Legislation is needed before the end of the year so the state can capture and take advantage of El Niño before the water runs to the ocean,” said Matt Sparks, McCarthy’s press secretary.

McCarthy has that partially right. The state needs federal assistance to deal with the worst drought in its history, one that has required water rationing and left some coastal and valley communities without water. Congress does need to move quickly to manage whatever water El Niño-spawned storms produce.

We don’t need a federal law that would send more water south to Central Valley agribusiness, as this one would. We do need programs, modeled on state efforts to increase water recycling and water efficiency, that benefit all Californians.

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Dec. 12

Ventura County Star on Gov. Brown’s efforts to fight climate change:

Gov. Jerry Brown left Paris last week before it was known whether the intense negotiations for a global climate change agreement would be successful. It didn’t matter because Gov. Brown had already achieved a major level of success outside the talks about nation leaders.

The governor has made the fight against climate change his ultimate final act on the political stage and it appears that he is winning in the initial rounds.

Gov. Brown won the attention of the global press as he bounced around the Paris salons preaching his mantra of greenhouse gas reduction. Time magazine described him as the “talk of the town.”

That’s because, beyond his intense philosophical discourses, the governor was able to raise the visibility of his plan for having the smaller governments of the world step up to achieve the kind of climate control solutions that the national governments seem unable to reach.

It’s called the Under 2 MOU group, a decidedly bureaucratic and unsexy name. Basically it’s open to any state or city around the world that is willing to commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 to 95 percent, or limit to two metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita, by 2050.

Gov. Brown and his environmental team started the idea in a pact with the German state Baden-Wurttemberg. It now has 65 signatories around the world and the exposure at the Paris conference should drive the number higher.

Basically the group believes that they can accomplish at their level what national governments faced with bigger political infighting are unable to achieve. The mayor of Seoul, South Korea, told Time, “Local governments are actually leading national governments. They are the driving force. In the new climate regime, this will continue.”

In that effort, Gov. Brown is their leader, their rock star. The three-time presidential candidate loves the job. He brings more than stardom to the role.

He can point to California’s environmental accomplishments to show that ideas can be turned into policy that then can be implemented. For instance, one of the hot topics in Paris was cap-and-trade, a 30-year-old concept that is gaining new attention. Gov. Brown can point to California’s system of an emissions trading market as a solution in practice.

There are many others, many pushed through the California Legislature by Sen. Fran Pavley, the Agoura Hills Democrat who has represented Ventura County since 2000 and also joined the California delegation in Paris. Her signature laws capping greenhouse gas emissions continue to put California in front of the world in its effort to clean the air.

Gov. Brown gave his conservative friends back home plenty of campaign fodder while in Paris with his explanation in one session that to achieve environmental success, you need policy that leads to laws and regulations. “Never underestimate the coercive power of the central state in the service of good,” he said. It’s a wonderfully inflammatory poster quote that also should not surprise anyone who has followed the governor during his long political career.

In the end, he believes that he and California can continue to be leaders in this battle to help our planet survive. We continue to support his effort and applaud his willingness to step onto the global stage with these ideas to help convince the world there is a better way.

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Dec. 15

Pasadena Star News on the threatening email that caused the closure of Los Angeles schools:

No doubt, San Bernardino was fresh on Los Angeles schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines’ mind when he decided to cancel classes today after a threatening email turned up in the school district’s inbox.

Less than two weeks after a radicalized couple believed to have been influenced by the Islamic State went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, killing 14 and wounding 22 others, Cortines had to consider the possibility that those behind the email might follow through on the threat to L.A. schools.

We now know the threatening email sent to the district was, thankfully, a hoax. But early this morning, Cortines had to make a call based on the information he had at the time, and closed Los Angeles Unified School District campuses for the day.

He made clear in media briefings that his decision came down to one thing: He would not take any chances.

Even if there were no bombs in lockers, as the email threatened, Cortines couldn’t gamble with students’ lives. He took all necessary precautions.

And so, images of empty LAUSD campuses and worried parents reached a national audience with a collective anxiety that has reached new heights in past weeks.

After a work holiday party turned deadly in San Bernardino, Southern Californians especially are still on edge, many worried that their most mundane routines could turn into their worst nightmares.

This is new territory for everyone, and LAUSD’s sending home more than half a million children sends a chill throughout the region, reminding us all of our schools’ vulnerability.

But now it’s time to separate fear from facts.

Congressman Brad Sherman and others cast doubt on the credibility of the LAUSD threat before it was revealed to be a hoax, and Bill Bratton, the New York police commissioner, criticized L.A. officials for “overreacting” to the email. New York schools received a similar threat today.

There are fair questions to ask about how L.A. officials determine what constitutes a credible threat on schools and in our communities, and we expect they will be answered in due time.

Equally important is the need to continue the fight against giving ourselves over to fear in the wake of San Bernardino. Knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy, such as calls to ban all Muslims from coming into the United States, go too far and ultimately do more harm in our communities than good.

Cortines, faced with a very specific choice, did his best.

There are times when a decision must be made in a moment, even with incomplete information. That’s the space where Cortines found himself.

If there is one good thing that came from the abrupt closure of so many schools, it was the positive response so many in our communities showed in the face of uncertainty. Parents picked up neighbors’ children, restaurants offered free lunches and temporary care centers were set up. People took care of each other.

This is likely not the last threat the region will face, nor the last crisis, in our new reality after San Bernardino. We need to be smart in our response to threats and to continue to take care of each other.

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Dec. 15

Contra Costa Times on gambling laws:

Gambling laws in California can be as hard to follow as the dice bouncing around a craps table. It’s anybody’s guess which game might be legal or illegal next.

Betting on horse races is permitted, but betting on other sports is prohibited. You can play the state lottery, but you can’t hold a bingo game - unless it’s a charity event. Card games are OK if, as in poker, the competition is among players, but not if, as in blackjack, it’s players vs. the house. (More complication: Online poker is banned.)

Piled on top of all that, there are the exploding number of Native American-owned casinos where the rules are different yet again.

Lawmakers and voters show selective judgment when it comes to gambling and associated social and moral issues, usually basing their decisions on political and economic goals.

So it’s uncertain how elected officials will come down on the latest gaming issue. But it’s clear what they should do.

The issue concerns fantasy sports, the game in which fans win or lose money based on the performances of individual athletes in team sports instead of betting on entire teams.

Sports television is full of ads for FanDuel and DraftKings, companies that run daily online versions of the games. The ads imply daily games are a road to riches for anyone with a little sports knowledge; in truth the vast majority of players lose money.

The promoters of this billion-dollar industry make the dubious claim that their games are not gambling because they involve skill as well as luck.

Oh, stop it. These enterprises are gambling, pure and simple.

New York and Nevada have determined this is illegal gambling under those states’ laws. Now come efforts in California to either halt operations here (as Assemblyman Marc Levine has asked Attorney General Kamala Harris to do) or license, regulate and tax the companies (under a bill by Assemblyman Adam Gray).

Both assemblymen say they’re acting in the name of consumer protection, and given charges that a DraftKings employee profited from a sort of insider trading, that’s a good part of the reason for state officials to act. It offered a practical look at why this industry needs some closer scrutiny.

But it may be simpler than just scrutiny.

Daily fantasy sports clearly have the most in common with traditional sports betting or online poker. Neither of those is legal here, despite years of legislative pushes.

Allowing their young cousin to be legal will only further complicate the state gambling regulations. The Legislature should outlaw these daily fantasy sports games.

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