- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sept. 23

The Sacramento Bee on early childhood education:

It’s a well-worn cliche, but it’s true. One of the smartest things anyone can do is invest in the future.

Gov. Jerry Brown, willing to follow that adage on many important issues, has the chance to do it for education by signing Assembly Bill 47. Authored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, the bill would go a long way toward ensuring every 4-year-old in California can attend preschool.

It doesn’t go all the way, though. AB 47, also known as the Preschool for All Act, doesn’t quite live up to its name because it doesn’t carve out an annual budget appropriation. Instead, lawmakers would have to approve funding for it each year - a compromise meant to address concerns about the low hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to fund such a comprehensive preschool plan. Such is politics.

What the legislation does do is create an annual framework for making preschool funding a priority.

That’s important because, right now, low-income parents of about 32,000 children can’t afford it. This is true even though California has spent millions of dollars in recent years to undo recession-era cuts and boost enrollment in the State Preschool Program. With this year’s appropriation, about 158,000 poor kids have access to preschool.

That’s a big number, but tens of thousands of children remain left out. The research is clear about the benefits of preschool, to the students and society at large.

Studies show that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs are more likely than their counterparts to succeed in school and graduate from high school on time. As teenagers and adults, they are less likely to commit crimes.

This is especially true for children from low-income families, where parents often have lower levels of educational attainment, and are less likely to have the time or resources to properly nurture the cognitive development of their kids in the crucial first five years of life.

This achievement gap between rich and poor students is already evident.

In the first go-round of Common Core testing, for example, only 31 percent of kids from low-income families met or exceeded the standard in English and 21 percent did so in math. By comparison, 64 percent of students from wealthy families met or exceeded the standard in English and 53 percent did so in math.

California should be doing everything it can to put this next generation on the right path. The first step is to increase access to preschool for disadvantaged students - the ones most likely to fall through the cracks. We laud the governor’s tight-fisted nature. But in this instance, investing a little can reap big returns.

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Sept. 24

The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on protecting desert land:

In February, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a well-balanced bill as a follow-up to her spectacularly successful California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

This editorial board endorsed her S. 414 that same month, citing two main reasons:

-Feinstein’s 1994 bill - upgrading Death Valley and Joshua Tree from national monuments to national parks, and establishing Mojave Natural Preserve - had a huge, beneficial impact on San Bernardino County and beyond. The parks draw ever more visitors and their money, to the tune of an estimated $194 million for the region’s economy, and more than 2,700 jobs in 2014.

-Her new bill, called the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015, does a great job of balancing desert protection with ensuring the public’s continued access to the land for hunting, hiking, camping, off-roading, rockhounding and other recreational uses.

Even while endorsing S. 414, we expressed reservations about the prospects of its getting through a dysfunctional Congress. Nineteen ninety-four was a different time, when a bill like Feinstein’s Desert Protection Act could be debated, attract votes from both sides of the aisle in both houses, be sent to the president and become law.

Her new bill was introduced Feb. 9, referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and there it remains. Representatives for Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, have said the congressman is working on alternative legislation to address some shortcomings in Feinstein’s bill but it has yet to be introduced.

Meanwhile, Feinstein did an end run around her own bill last month, writing a letter to President Obama asking him to designate three new national monuments in the desert.

He should do it - if it comes to that. But first, he should give Congress more time and the chance to act on S. 414 and to consider Cook’s alternative. It would be a better outcome for Feinstein’s bill to be refined as it passes through congressional committees and both houses to become law. The bill takes a comprehensive approach to desert protection, designating some new wilderness areas, for example, but ending current wilderness protection and allowing vehicle access to other lands.

But if Congress doesn’t start moving the bill by the end of the year, Obama should grant Feinstein’s request to make three new national monuments in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

They would be the Mojave Trails National Monument, preserving lands between Joshua Tree and Mojave National Preserve and a stretch of historic Route 66; Sand to Snow National Monument, ranging from the desert floor to the top of Mount San Gorgonio and including the headwaters of the Santa Ana and Whitewater rivers; and the Castle Mountains National Monument, surrounded on three sides by the Mojave preserve.

These desert areas are well worth protecting. National monument status protects all existing uses and access to the lands, public and private. What national monument status does not necessarily provide, as we’ve seen with the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument created in 2014, is additional funding or resources for managing the land.

These areas of our desert should be preserved for those who come after us. Ideally, that would happen through Feinstein’s S. 414. If not, President Obama should set aside the three new national monuments.

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Sept. 25

The Riverside Press-Enterprise on limiting when state courts can contract out services:

One of the foundations of American democracy is the separation of federal government powers. The legislative, executive and judicial branches counterbalance one another, preventing a centralized tyranny. Authority also is divided among federal, state and local bodies, again to prevent one from dominating.

A bill passed by the state Legislature manages to violate both separation-of-powers principles. Senate Bill 682 is by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and severely limits when local trial courts can contract-out services. Courts commonly do so to reduce costs to taxpayers and increase efficiency in the system.

For example, the bill allows contracting-out only when “the trial court clearly demonstrates that the proposed contract will result in actual overall cost savings.” And there must be “assurance that the contractor’s hiring practices meet applicable nondiscrimination standards.”

But courts already must follow all state laws, including those mandating adequate accounting and barring discrimination. So SB682 really is just overkill and harassment of the judicial branch by the legislative branch. It’s a demonstration of what Alexander Hamilton warned about in Federalist No. 78, “The judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks.”

Another problem with SB682 involves the Eighth Amendment’s “right to a speedy and public trial.” Anyone familiar with the state courts knows that justice way too often is delayed. The Great Recession sharply cut court budgets, which only recovered their fiscal 2007-08 funding levels this year.

As Gov. Jerry Brown soberly warned in his budget statement, “Similar to other areas of government, the (judicial) branch needs to operate differently without the expectation of funding restorations.” That means operating more efficiently, including contracting out at the discretion of local officials.

SB682 strongly was supported by the state’s public-employee unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO and the San Bernardino Public Employees Association. But the elements in SB682 already can be negotiated with local courts’ employee unions, which is where budget disputes should be settled.

We recommend that Gov. Brown veto SB682.

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Sept. 28

The Fresno Bee on health insurance mergers:

At last count, about 1 in 10 Americans lacked health insurance, a rate that has been halved in a handful of years. Not long ago, millions of people were one serious illness or pre-existing condition away from the poorhouse. This is major progress, and so far, it has happened without the soaring premiums and elimination of choice predicted by opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

Now a wave of huge health insurance mergers is on the horizon, with complex implications for consumer choice and competition. Federal authorities are reviewing them, and soon states will begin to weigh in. California regulators must and should take full advantage of this chance to ensure that consumers won’t get burned.

Anthem - already a massive provider of employer-based insurance - wants to become the nation’s largest health insurer in terms of enrollment by buying its smaller competitor Cigna for $48 billion. In the Medicare Advantage slice of the market, Aetna wants to acquire Humana for about $35 billion.

The deals, like others announced this year, take place in an evolving competitive landscape. Under the Affordable Care Act, at least 80 percent of an insurer’s premiums must be spent on patient care. That protects consumers, but it also limits profits. To make money, companies have been acquiring rivals’ customers, the better to spread their costs.

The Aetna-Humana merger seeks to capitalize on the movement of baby boomers into the Medicare market. Other insurers are looking for economies of scale in handling the Medicaid managed care expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Still others are trying to keep up with the ongoing consolidation of hospitals and other health care providers, whose own mergers over the years have given them more leverage in negotiating reimbursements.

These proposed deals would reduce the top five U.S. health insurers to just three (Anthem, Aetna and UnitedHealth Group). More power for insurance companies could mean higher premiums and deductibles - and fewer choices for consumers.

Nationally, antitrust regulators can help by insisting that the merging companies sell off some of their plans to rivals in states where there’s too little competition. The state of California also will have a say through its departments of justice, insurance and managed health care.

They should not only focus on regional markets and barriers to entry, but also push for guarantees that any economies of scale from these mergers be passed on in the form of lower premiums for consumers.

The state should also set some metrics on quality, such as provider directories that accurately reflect which physicians take which insurance.

And maybe these mega-insurers should be asked to help bear the cost of poor and undocumented patients who are ineligible for subsidized health insurance.

There’s still time, but these mergers should be analyzed fully to make sure that they work for us.

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Sept. 29

The San Francisco Chronicle on reducing the state prison population:

Over the past four years, California has made massive shifts in who - and how - it chooses to incarcerate.

In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown responded to a court mandate to reduce California’s state prison population with a plan called realignment, shifting the responsibilities for jailing and supervising many low-level felons from the state to local governments. California voters also responded to the state’s high levels of incarceration in 2014 by passing Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for many property and drug crimes.

The result of these changes hasn’t been a miracle - but it hasn’t been a mess, either.

The most recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California, an independent nonprofit think tank that’s been closely following the impacts of these historic changes, shows that there’s plenty of good news.

Statewide, California has seen no increase in rates of violent crime or recidivism, as many critics feared might happen after so many people who would have once been incarcerated in state prison were either redirected to local jails or probation and recovery programs.

“Analysis shows little cause for alarm,” write the PPIC report’s authors, Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin. “Property and violent crime rates are now both below 2011 levels and have reached historic lows.” (The report is statewide and notes that there have been spikes in some property crimes in the Bay Area.)

That’s the good news. On the other hand, the report also says that these shifts haven’t come as cheaply as many Californians hoped.

Noting that the state expected to save money on corrections after realignment, Lofstrom and Martin write that “Savings have not materialized, however. California’s 2015-16 budget year general fund corrections spending is $10.07 billion, more than the $9.65 billion spent in 2010-11, the last full budget year before realignment.”

Lofstrom and Martin attribute some of the increased costs to rising spending on inmate medical and mental health care. That’s necessary spending, as the state needs to end court-ordered receivership of those services. But it also points to the fact that we won’t see all of the results of our changing incarceration policies for some time to come.

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