- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

July 28

Ventura County Star on health insurance rate hikes:

The two largest insurers in the Covered California health insurance exchange are jacking up their monthly premiums by 17 and 20 percent next year.

The news was appalling, but it should not have been surprising.

And all of us should remember that there is nothing we can do about that, even though we once had a chance to place controls over those rates.

Anthem Blue Cross has told the state it is going to increase its premiums by 17 percent next year, while Blue Shield is seeking a 20 percent increase. The insurers explain their unconscionable rate hikes by saying fewer people are signing up for the exchanges, those who do are using more health care services than anticipated, and prescription drugs are continuing to increase in cost.

About 5 percent of Californians are covered in the insurance exchanges. Almost all of them qualify for federal subsidies that will offset some of that premium increase.

The state insurance commissioner can declare the rate hikes unreasonable but cannot do anything to actually prevent them.

We had a chance two years ago to give the commissioner the power to actually deal with issues like this, but only 41 percent of California voters supported Proposition 45 in the 2014 election.

That proposition would have given the state insurance commissioner the power to reject excessive health care insurance rate increases. It also would have required insurance companies to publicly disclose their rates and their justifications for proposed premium increases.

It basically would have done for health insurance what California voters did for auto and home insurance way back in 1988 by approving Proposition 103. That measure gave the insurance commissioner the authority to approve auto and home insurance rates before they went into effect and defined the criteria for setting those rates.

It should not be surprising that we voted down Prop. 45. We were told to vote no over and over and over again, through a barrage of campaign messages on TV and in our mailboxes.

The insurance industry spent almost $57 million to fight it. Supporters could cobble together only $6 million to promote it.

The result is that we now have another concrete example of the costs of health care running amok.

We remain solid supporters of the Affordable Care Act, which created these health care exchanges. We now have a system in place that allows every American to be eligible for health insurance regardless of their current health condition or income or status. That is a remarkable achievement.

But what the act avoided dealing with, and what our political leaders continue to avoid dealing with, is the cost of health care.

We would support legislative action to do what Proposition 45 tried to do in regulating the rate-setting of health care insurance in California. But that simply would be a regulatory bandage that would not heal the patient.

Health care costs are out of control. They must be contained to keep our economy growing.

We would like to see a thorough and robust debate of this issue during the fall election campaign. But we do not expect that to happen in the current political climate.

___

July 28

Whittier Daily News on an investigation into a California online education company:

California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office recently reached a settlement agreement with online education company K12 Inc. and the California Virtual Academies, the 14 online charter schools the company manages in the state.

But the accord has been anything but harmonious.

The attorney general had accused the company of misleading parents in claims about student success and parent satisfaction, inflating student attendance, on which public funding is based, and somehow coercing the nonprofit charter schools it manages into bad contracts. Yet, after a lengthy investigation, it settled with K12 and the CAVA schools for $6 million in reimbursement costs for the office’s investigation and $2.5 million to settle a private lawsuit about attendance calculation. Under the terms of the agreement, K12 admitted no wrongdoing or liability but agreed to various reporting, staff training and other business practice reforms.

In one of the most contentious provisions, the company agreed to expunge $160 million in “balance budget credits.” The attorney general characterized this as “debt relief,” which K12 vehemently rejects, describing the credits essentially as subsidies to offset the costs of its services to schools when those costs would otherwise exceed revenues. Given California’s education funding environment, the company never expected those credits to be repaid, it said.

The attorney general’s investigation always smacked more of politics than legitimate concerns over the quality of educational services provided. The Wall Street Journal characterized it as a “mugging” and an example of “thuggish government.” It is probably no coincidence that the investigation came shortly after the California Teachers Association launched a campaign in 2014 to unionize K12’s charter schools and K12 challenged the union petition. That union support would be very important to Harris in her hotly contested U.S. Senate race with Rep. Loretta Sanchez. In June, the union-dominated California Public Employee Relations Board certified the CTA, ordering the CAVA schools to collectively bargain with the union.

“There is a reason families keep coming to our programs and it’s because we are committed to deliver valuable education services within the laws and rules of every state,” K12 CEO Stuart Udell said in a statement.

If students and their parents are happy with the company’s services and continue to use them, the state has no legitimate grounds to step in and intervene. K12 touts customer satisfaction surveys that show that 92 percent of parents say their children have benefited academically from the K12 curriculum. This should be the ultimate test schools should have to pass.

The sad truth is that public schools answer to the whims and agendas of teachers unions and politicians, not students and their parents. Policymakers should be embracing competition and new educational technologies and business models that offer students and their parents more options and greater flexibility to tailor educational services to their needs, not trying to destroy them while propping up status quo.

___

Aug. 1

Sacramento Bee on California efforts to reduce impacts of climate change:

As Philadelphia baked and wildfires roared like the apocalypse in California, Gov. Jerry Brown last week called on the nation to remember the impact this presidential election could have on climate change.

“What America needs today are not deniers, but leaders. Not division, but common purpose. Not bombast, but bold action,” Brown told the Democratic National Convention, lambasting Donald Trump and lauding Hillary Clinton. “Trump says global warming is a hoax. I say Trump is a fraud.”

The crowd cheered wildly. But cheers are cheap. Outside California, curbing climate change has been a far harder sell than it should be, given the peril. And here in the state capital, the matter of how best to combat it is devolving into a trickier question than Brown implies.

As state lawmakers return Monday from their July break, one of their toughest orders of business is how best to protect and expand California’s push to stop global warming, including the state’s signature climate change law. Passed in 2006 and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it calls for the greenhouse gas pollution that underpins global warming to be cut to 1990 levels by 2020; a proposal by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, would extend it to 2030 and reduce those levels even more.

In polls, Californians are overwhelmingly supportive. But, like a 10-year-old Prius, the state’s strategy is showing its age, gathering problems and, as it clunks along, crying out for a tune-up. As lawmakers puzzle over how best to do that, the clock is ticking.

For example, there’s the drag of litigation. A state Chamber of Commerce lawsuit, now pending appeal, contends that the system created to implement greenhouse gas cuts, California’s famed cap-and-trade program, is actually a tax that should have required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass.

The program, which essentially levies fees on major polluters, is also suddenly stalling. After a roaring start last year, when every quarterly auction for emissions “credits” raised hundreds of millions of dollars, an auction in May generated an embarrassing $10 million.

Some groups have never gotten past the sticker shock of California’s decision to lead the charge on climate. The oil industry desperately wants to get rid of the current law’s low-carbon fuel standards. Pro-business Democrats and Republicans balk at the impact on gas prices and the costs for people trying to make a living in less affluent and more polluted regions.

Others wonder whether California’s prodigious push even matters. California’s emissions represent only about 1 percent of the global problem, and if we are really trying to get the biggest bang for the buck, they ask, why are we fiddling with electric cars and methane digesters in the Central Valley instead of focusing on green technology that will work in Third World countries, or restoring rainforests in Brazil?

Meanwhile, since term limits were eased, lawmakers of both parties have started asking why so much important policy is being driven, not by them, but by unelected regulators at the California Air Resources Board.

These and other factors are playing out in an election year, and it’s unclear whether Brown and state lawmakers will be able to agree on a game plan. But they need to get busy; these questions aren’t getting easier and the law’s 2020 expiration date is approaching.

Speeches are fine, but the governor and legislative leaders need to roll up their sleeves, start counting votes and get everyone on board with a workable plan for hitting long-term climate targets. For a state on the road to existential climate disaster, we’re relying on an unsettlingly shaky vehicle.

___

Aug. 2

Fresno Bee on legislation regarding the release of police body camera footage:

For much of this year, bill after bill has been introduced to try to bring some sort of law and order to handling video of police encounters with the public. Most of this legislation has gone nowhere.

Assembly Bill 2611 by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, would automatically block the release of body-camera footage that shows the death of a police officer without first getting an OK from the officer’s immediate family.

At first blush, this seems reasonable. It makes sense, at least emotionally, to want to shield the children and spouses of slain officers from the trauma of seeing footage of their deaths.

But it’s not that simple. Police do extraordinarily difficult work, but they are government employees, ultimately answerable to the public. Low’s bill would give officers an unprecedented level of protection from such scrutiny. We understand the impulse. But this is an example of how lobbying from law enforcement groups has resulted in the defeat of several bills that would have provided more transparency on police use of force.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, for example, would have set a 60-day limit for police departments to release body-cam footage. It died in the Assembly. Another from Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would have made investigations of excessive-force claims public record. It got stuck in suspension.

Not everything has been a slam dunk, though. A bill that would’ve required public agencies to give police three days’ notice before releasing body-cam footage to the public cleared the Assembly, but failed in a Senate committee last week.

One reason is police already have more protections than other government workers. They can, for example, seek an injunction banning release if they have genuine reason to fear for their safety.

Ultimately, what’s being asked for in Low’s bill might not matter anyway because, as several cases have shown, body cameras aren’t the only source of footage to emerge in police shootings.

Most often, it comes from bystanders with smartphones, leading police departments to put out official footage of their own to counteract the going narrative about an officer being at fault. Low’s bill would actually hamper that process, putting this burden of spin on grieving families.

Transparency is unavoidable. Police organizations should stop fighting this battle.

___

July 27

Los Angeles Times on Gov. Brown’s giant grid project:

Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t shy away from big solutions to the problems that ail California. A multibillion-dollar bullet train to transport Californians from north to south. Two giant tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San-Joaquin Delta to help move precious water around the state. The most aggressive climate change laws in the nation.

His latest ambitious undertaking is to build a regional electricity market linking utilities in 11 Western states into a massive electrical grid that could make power more reliable, less expensive and greener. This giant grid would allow California to sell the excess solar power it expects to generate in coming years to states such as Utah to help them kick their coal-burning habits. The big skies over the American West would be clearer and cleaner. Everyone wins, at least that’s the pitch.

It’s a promising idea that energy experts say is the best-option future for the currently power-balkanized West. But this grand plan is still so new that it’s not yet fully thought out - which is a problem because it has been moving forward at breakneck speed despite warnings from environmentalists, legislative leaders and consumer advocates to slow down.

It’s been barely a year since the regional power market idea surfaced in Senate Bill 350, the landmark climate change law mandating that 50% of California’s power come from renewable sources by 2030. Among other things, the bill directed the quasi-governmental agency that manages the flow of electricity through most of the state - the California Independent System Operator, or Cal-ISO - to study the feasibility of developing a regional market for electricity. The study was released this month, showing modest benefits in the form of slightly lower electricity rates and cleaner air. But even before the study was released, pressure was building to get approval for the next step before the Legislature adjourns the session next month.

Whoa. Compared with the glacial movement of most massive government projects, this one is moving at the speed of light. So fast that many people, including some lawmakers, some consumer groups that focus on utilities, and the Sierra Club feel that their questions have been brushed aside by Brown’s energy officials and Cal-ISO. For instance, what does it mean for California to disband Cal-ISO and replace it with a regional commission that would include representatives from states that don’t share California’s strict carbon-reducing goals? Would partnering with the coal-heavy utility PacifiCorp, which serves Utah, Wyoming and other Western states, truly result in that utility reducing its coal portfolio - or would it provide markets and incentives for PacifiCorp to continue producing dirty power, as some fear? Is it possible that municipal utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power might be swept into the regional market against their will, as they worry might happen? Are the other states in the region on board with California’s grand plan?

Answers must be forthcoming before the Legislature approves dissolving Cal-ISO and replacing it with a regional board to oversee the new, multi-state grid. A little background: Cal-ISO’s job is to manage the flow of energy through most of California’s high-voltage power lines so that participating utilities have the power where they need it, when they need it. It is nonprofit, independent and designed to be impartial to any of the participants, which include the three large private investor-owned utilities in California - Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric.

PacifiCorp, which serves much of Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California, and which derives about 60% of its power from coal, would be added to the grid under the proposal. But PacifiCorp executives say they will not be able to partner with the California utilities without approval from regulators in the states they serve. And those states have indicated they won’t participate if California runs the operation on its own. Reasonable, but what’s the guarantee that if California gives up some control of its transmission grid it might not end up undermining its own climate change policy? As of yet, there isn’t one.

The big grid idea might ultimately be one of the great legacies of Brown’s fourth and final term. It could be great for air quality and for ratepayers - if it’s done right. But there’s no reason to rush into it. California is still on track to reach the required 50% of renewable power by 2030, though a regional market might make it a cheaper to get there. Other states have already shown interest in joining the regional market once California gets it going.

But there’s every reason to move deliberately, starting with fact that Californians are still skeptical of state lawmakers’ ability to make wise power policy after the disastrous electricity crisis of 2000. Slamming through a proposal that many informed people feel has not been properly vetted won’t improve the public’s trust.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide