- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Oct. 25

The Sacramento Bee on enlistment bonuses for the California National Guard:

By all means, Congress should tell the Pentagon to back off from taking back enlistment bonuses received by California National Guard soldiers who didn’t know the payments were unwarranted.

Lawmakers of both parties, in the Legislature as well as Congress, are calling for the payments to be forgiven, demanding investigations and falling all over themselves to express their outrage. “Dishonorable, despicable and shabby,” complains Republican Rep. Tom McClintock. “Injustice” and “madness,” says Democratic Rep. John Garamendi.

It is outrageous. Thousands of members of the California National Guard, the nation’s largest, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Twenty-nine were killed and dozens injured. The soldiers are in this predicament through no fault of their own.

Yet, it’s so easy for politicians to stand up for veterans now, two weeks before Election Day.

Where were they three years ago when we and others warned about the looming crisis? And why hasn’t the problem been fixed by now?

The Sacramento Bee broke this story in a 2010 investigation. Our all-volunteer military was having trouble filling the ranks, so the California National Guard offered incentives, typically $15,000 to $20,000, to new enlistees and those who signed up again.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous Guard officials gamed the system to enrich themselves. The ringleader went to federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud. Gov. Jerry Brown cleaned house at the Guard’s leadership.

In all, about $100 million was paid out between 2005 and 2010 in bonuses that were fraudulent or given out erroneously. In most cases, the soldiers receiving the payments had no idea they didn’t qualify or were getting too much. They used the money to go back to school, repay student loans, buy homes or just to pay the bills.

In 2013, The Bee reported that about 17,000 Guard soldiers were being audited and paychecks were starting to be docked to recoup illegal payments - and that the problem would mushroom as more audits were completed. So far, about $22 million has been recovered.

Then over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported that nearly 10,000 soldiers were being told to repay bonuses. This close to the election, it made national headlines. Politicians quickly pounced to score pre-election points with voters.

Garamendi, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is on the House-Senate conference committee working on the defense budget, says an amendment would stop the clawback unless the soldiers committed fraud, and would allow Guardsmen who have already started repayments to get a refund.

He rightly points out that the amount in question is trivial in the $600 billion budget, but that the principle is not: Soldiers should not pay the price for bureaucratic failures of accounting and oversight.

This is an easy call. If only there were similar bipartisan concern for veterans and agreement on tougher issues when it’s not campaign season.

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Oct. 24

The Porterville Recorder on transparency in the state Legislature:

Proposition 54 on the Nov. 8 ballot would make California lawmakers more accountable and end the practice of last-minute legislation being stuff down the throats of California citizens.

There are two main components of the California Legislature Transparence Act. The first is it would require all public meetings of the Legislature to be recorded and those recordings made available. Most importantly, it would prohibit the Legislature from passing any bill unless it has been in print and published on the Internet for at least 72 hours before the vote, except in case of public emergency.

All too often the Legislature has rammed through legislation that many times is not even published. Lawmakers are being forced to vote on bills - mostly during the final hours of a legislative session - without knowing what they are voting for. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is one example of significant legislation passed without proper discussion and without input from the stakeholders.

The Legislative Analyst’s office estimates the bill could have a one-time cost of $1 million and ongoing costs of about $1 million annually, but we feel 10 times that much could be saved from bad legislation being passed, especially bills where lawmakers at the last minutes attach something to a bill, normally funding for a pet project.

We laugh at the argument that Prop. 54 “would throw a monkey wrench into the ability of our elected officials to get things done.” That is saying what taxpayers don’t know won’t hurt them.

We do agree that if legislators were given bills 72 hours in advance to study them, their votes might be different. Again, what Prop. 54 really ends is that last-minute practice of tacking something on a bill, a way of sneaking something past the public.

Vote yes on Prop. 54.

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Oct. 24

Fresno Bee on monitoring state projects funded with taxpayer money:

Proposition 53 is one of the lesser-known measures on the state ballot this year, but it’s one that should have your full attention. Also known as “Stop Blank Checks,” Proposition 53 presents an opportunity for voters to tell politicians and Sacramento insiders that enough is enough when it comes to spending your money on huge state mega-projects with no accountability or oversight.

Currently, voter approval is required for general obligation bonds for water, schools and other projects - but not for billions in state revenue bonds. There is absolutely no vote required. No vote by the Legislature; no vote by the people. These decisions are left to appointed (unelected) bureaucrats who are members of state agencies.

Politicians and special interests who profit from massive state mega-projects are increasingly using this loophole to circumvent voters and issue billions of dollars in debt to fund their pet projects without getting voter approval.

Proposition 53 will close this loophole and put Californians in control when it comes to issuing billions in long-term debt. The measure would simply do two things. First, it would require voter approval before the state can issue over $2 billion in state revenue bonds. Second, it would ensure that the total cost of a project is disclosed to voters before they head to the polls.

It’s a common-sense measure that all Californians should get behind and support.

Proposition 53 gives the voters more power before they are faced with paying higher rates and fees. Revenue bonds are long-term debt that extends decades, so future generations will also be footing the bill. That’s why the Tulare County Taxpayers Association, along with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and over a dozen newspapers are supporting Proposition 53.

Projects of this magnitude - over $2 billion - are the state’s biggest mega-projects that impact nearly all of us through higher rates and fees. In the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s independent analysis of the measure, it stated that “few projects cost over $2 billion.”

The LAO only named two projects that would fall under Proposition 53’s threshold. Both are estimated to total nearly $100 billion! Since these are the biggest projects in California’s history, we should have voter approval, greater transparency and more oversight.

It’s no surprise the special interests oppose Proposition 53. They do not want to lose their unchecked power and profits they stand to make when budgets increase and deadlines are delayed (think high-speed rail).

That’s why the California Public Securities Association, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and others that would directly profit from state mega-projects oppose Proposition 53. But they don’t just oppose it. They are funding false ads intended to scare voters by saying Proposition 53 impacts things that it doesn’t. Even The Sacramento Bee said the television ads included misinformation.

Please join me in voting “yes” on Proposition 53 to stop blank checks, increase transparency and give voters a say before they have to pay increased costs.

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Oct. 25

The San Diego Union-Tribune on criminal justice reform:

America needs far-reaching criminal justice reform. The U.S. warehouses many nonthreatening individuals in costly prisons without good reason. Our nation has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and, astonishingly, about 22 percent of its prisoners. And research shows that mass incarceration isn’t keeping us safer. Other industrial democracies have somewhat lower to far lower crime rates, according to the Numbeo database.

This is the bitter fruit of a tough-on-crime era in the late 20th century that led to much harsher prison sentences. The approach ignored the most elemental finding of criminology: Crime is a young man’s game. An FBI study of crime statistics in the 1990s showed that 18-year-old males are nearly 10 times as likely to be as arrested as males aged 45-49 and more than 20 times as likely to be arrested as men aged 55-59. This wrongheaded crackdown explains why the Justice Department reports that from 1993 to 2013, there was a 400 percent increase in inmates aged 55 and over in state prisons.

This backdrop makes it tempting to support Proposition 57, the ballot measure championed by Gov. Jerry Brown. But it’s too hard to ignore the process by which it made the ballot, the deceptive way it’s being marketed to voters and the measure’s reliance on an agency with a rough track record.

What became Proposition 57 got its start as a measure that would make simple reforms in the juvenile justice system. Then Brown, citing a 2014 state law allowing sponsors to “identify and correct flaws” in their ballot measures, replaced his initial language with a far-reaching constitutional amendment that would allow “nonviolent” felons to more quickly win parole. These prisoners can win sentence credits for good behavior and for rehabilitation and educational achievements.

A trial court judge initially blocked the rewrite on the grounds that these changes went far beyond what was allowed and envisioned by the 2014 law. But in June, on a 6-1 vote, the California Supreme Court sided with Brown. In dissent, Justice Ming W. Chin wrote that the decision set a precedent under which ballot measures could be rewritten at the last moment and placed before voters without going through a thorough review process involving the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state Department of Finance and affected groups.

If any measure would have benefited from such review, it is Proposition 57. The central selling point of its misleading ballot description - that it would help only “nonviolent” felons - accepts the state’s esoteric classification of many violent crimes, including rape of an unconscious person, as not being violent. Brown’s allies decry this criticism and say of course such criminals would never get early parole. But this should be established in the proposition.

A bigger problem with Proposition 57 can’t be finessed. It shifts authority for determining sentencing credits from the Legislature to the corrections department, raising the prospect that every governor could have different policies and empowering an agency with a history of issues. The State Auditor’s Office has faulted the corrections department repeatedly in the past decade for major problems - including a 2011 report that said officials did a poor job in evaluating prisoners’ likelihood of committing new crimes and a 2008 report knocking the sloppiness of their parole practices. Why trust them now?

Jerry Brown should go back to the drawing board because California deserves much better than this. No on Proposition 57.

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Oct. 21

The Pasadena Star News on the state’s high-speed rail plans:

California’s bullet train is slowing down. In May, the California High Speed Rail Authority cut the maximum operating speed of trains in tunnels from 220 mph to 200 mph. The speed of trains merging from station tracks to the system’s main line was cut by 50 percent to reduce the length of transition tracks in major cities.

Then, in early September, the rail authority told its design engineers to plan for shorter trains and smaller platforms. The changes will reduce the capacity of individual trains by 50 percent, and potentially reduce the capacity of the whole Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route.

This calls for a new round of watercolor illustrations of how great it’s going to be.

Skepticism about the $68 billion rail line has now crossed party lines and unified the Legislature, which unanimously passed a bill in August to increase financial oversight of the sprawling and ambitious project.

Assembly Bill 2847 would have required the High Speed Rail Authority to include projected financing costs for proposed segments in the business plan which the CHSRA is mandated to produce every two years.

It also would have required the rail authority to identify any significant changes in scope for segments listed in the previous business plan or in any project update reports, along with an explanation of adjustments in cost and schedule that resulted from the changes.

The Legislature passed AB 2847 in response to the Draft 2016 Business Plan released by the rail authority in February. The plan announced a shift in the planning and construction of the high-speed rail system. Instead of an Initial Operating Segment from Merced to the Central Valley to the San Fernando Valley, the rail authority was planning its first segment from the Central Valley to San Jose.

Lawmakers were not happy to learn that the segment’s end point in the Central Valley was an almond orchard near Wasco. The rail authority said the project lacks the funding to reach Bakersfield.

The mild requirements in AB 2847 for disclosure of changes and costs were passed 37-0 in the state Senate and 79-0 in the Assembly.

But in September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.

“I am returning Assembly Bill 2847 without my signature,” he wrote in his veto message. “This bill mandates additional reporting requirements for inclusion in the High Speed Rail Authority’s business plan and in the project update report. I believe this bill is unnecessary.”

The governor said the project already has “strict standards of accountability and transparency” required by state law. “I have every expectation that the Authority will meet these high standards,” he wrote.

Like a second marriage, it’s the triumph of hope over experience.

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