- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sept. 17

The Press-Enterprise on funds to support mental health:

The story of California’s so-called Millionaires’ Tax is the kind of thing that can give a big, bumbling bureaucracy a bad name.

In an election year, it’s also the kind of story that can scare people away from supporting ballot measures that require major tax support, perhaps including potentially beneficial measures.

Here’s the story.

Back in 2004, California voters passed Proposition 63, formally known as the Mental Health Services Act, imposing a 1 percent tax on seven-figure incomes to be used to develop and expand mental health care services.

Not the worst idea, and indeed, in the 12 years since there have been plenty of anecdotes about Prop. 63-funded programs helping Californians overcome mental illness or even heading off cases in people at risk of mental illness.

One problem: The anecdotes are just that. Not statistics. Not hard evidence. Just isolated tales.

So how do voters know if state and local officials and others in charge of spending the Millionaires’ Tax’s $17 billion in aggregate revenue are using it effectively?

We don’t.

That worrisome fact was underscored last week by the release of a report by the Little Hoover Commission calling for “more vigorous accounting” of how $2 billion in annual revenue is spent and better documentation of the results.

(One pictures a wife, greeting her husband as he stumbles drunkenly up the front porch, calling for a “more vigorous accounting” of the $20 bill she gave him to buy milk.)

“The state still can’t provide conclusive data to show how it is keeping promises made to voters in 2004, or to wealthy taxpayers who fund Proposition 63 programs with a 1 percent surtax, and, most importantly, to the individual Californians and their families who rely on these services for much-needed help,” said a letter to state officials from Pedro Nava, chairman of the Little Hoover Commission, the independent oversight agency dedicated to scrutinizing California government operations.

Worse: The state has been warned about this at least three times before - in an Associated Press investigation, a state audit and a 2015 review by the Little Hoover Commission.

The commission noted that the Associated Press found four years ago that some Prop. 63 money was going to general (not mental) health programs, and that lawmakers already have siphoned away revenue for uses probably not envisioned by the voters, including $130 million a year to finance a bond for supportive housing for homeless people with mental illness.

The risk is that if it can’t be demonstrated that the Millionaires’ Tax is paying off as intended, more and more money could be diverted and the original point lost, the Little Hoover Commission said.

State Department of Health Care Services Director Jennifer Kent told the AP her agency is working to address the issues.

But how did it get to this point, and what’s taking so long?

The commission said it sees only partial improvement in financial reporting and oversight of Prop. 63 funds, and weak attempts at improvement because the diffused government programs lack central leadership taking responsibility.

The state Legislature must require better.

While we continue to wait, voters looking at the several tax-related measures on the Nov. 8 ballot must consider how carefully the proposals are designed to account for the money being collected.

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Sept. 19

Ventura County Star on criminal justice reform:

You hear a lot these days about people committing crimes in California but not spending enough - or any - time in jail.

Realignment, forced on the state after federal courts ruled our prisons were too overcrowded, put tens of thousands of prisoners back on the streets. Proposition 47 reduced nonviolent felonies like drug possession and thefts under $950 to misdemeanors, effectively meaning little or no jail time for people committing those crimes. And Proposition 57 on the November ballot would allow earlier parole opportunities and greater sentence reductions for those convicted of nonviolent crimes, among other provisions.

Prosecutors, police and others say all of this is fueling an increase in crime, and they are leading the charge against Prop. 57.

So we were pleased to read in a Star story Sunday that Ventura County has a detention facility that is less than half full - and most everyone agrees that’s a good thing.

Fewer and fewer young people are being sent to the Ventura County juvenile justice center in El Rio as authorities focus on alternative programs for those committing minor offenses. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that youth crime has risen because of it, that troubled kids aren’t getting the help they need, or that our community is unsafe because someone isn’t going to jail.

The juvenile center is designed to hold 420 offenders, but only 80 to 100 are being held there on average - and only half of those are actually serving sentences for a crime (the other half are awaiting court dates). Locked detention there has dropped from 1,459 offenders in 2009 to 766 in 2015 - a 47 percent reduction.

That partly reflects a 57 percent drop in juvenile arrests during that period. But just as importantly, only young people accused or convicted of major felonies are being sent to juvenile hall. Others are being allowed to stay home and take advantage of a growing number of programs designed to help them get on the right track.

“We’re keeping the ones that pose a risk to the community,” Melinda Cross, who oversees operations of Ventura County juvenile facilities, told The Star. “We just need to focus on kids that have to be here.”

Correctional officers at the juvenile center use a type of scorecard to assess each offender and decide whether he or she should be held, looking at the alleged crime, criminal history, flight risk and other factors. Some in law enforcement believe the assessment system is unproven and thus carries too much weight.

But the entire system at El Rio seems to be working well, not only for troubled youth but also for officers who may have to spend several hours getting a child booked into juvenile hall. It’s refreshing to see a criminal justice situation where less truly is more.

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Sept. 20

East Bay Times on legislation regarding the price of prescription drugs:

It takes more than good intentions to make a ballot measure worth passing.

There are good reasons to be outraged at drug pricing by Big Pharma, which sets prices partly from a need to recover research costs but sometimes out of just greed. Proposition 61 proposes an answer, at least for state purchases for Medi-Cal: Prohibit the state from paying more for prescription drugs than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which generally pays about 25 percent less than other government agencies.

But nobody can say definitively how this proposition would play out, or how it would affect the availability of some life-saving drugs. Don’t take a chance. Vote no on Prop. 61.

Prop 61 is loaded with unknowns, but here’s one sure thing: If it passes, Big Pharma will do everything it can to keep it from working as promised. Otherwise, every state will adopt a similar law.

The simplest way to do that would be to negotiate higher prices for veterans’ prescriptions drugs. A VA analysis concludes that Prop 61 could cost veterans $3.8 billion more every year. No wonder every significant veterans organization in the state opposes the ballot measure.

Consumers Union and Health Access, two of the leading proponents of reining in prescription drug prices in California, have both taken a neutral position on Prop 61.

The other thing pharmaceutical companies could do is simply raise the prices for drugs not bought by the VA to offset its losses. Or it could decide not to offer some of the drugs that the VA currently buys, knowing that if the state cannot obtain drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for beneficiaries, California could fall out of compliance with Medi-Cal guidelines and suffer a loss of federal matching funds.

The independent California Legislative Analyst’s Office, in two separate studies, reported that “the fiscal impact (of Prop. 61) is still uncertain and that it was “unable to come up with a reasonable estimate of the measure’s potential fiscal impact on state costs for prescribed drugs.”

And even if Prop. 61 reduced prices for state-insured residents, it would only help 12-15 percent of Californians. It doesn’t apply to anyone covered by private insurance, which includes about 50 percent of the state’s population. Prop. 61 also specifically “exempts purchases of prescription drugs under managed care programs funded through Medi-Cal,” which applies to another 25 percent of Californians.

We sympathize with the goal of this proposition. Legislators have fought for years to make the pricing of prescription drugs more reasonable. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, tried to shed sunshine on the reasons for skyrocketing prices this year, but both failed to gain traction.

The fight to bring sanity to drug pricing should continue, but this proposition is not the answer. Vote no on Prop. 61.

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Sept. 18

San Francisco Chronicle on Gov. Brown’s decisions on key bills :

Gov. Jerry Brown has begun to sign some of the bills that have piled up on his desk following the end of the state legislative session. Both the bills he’s signed and the ones he’s rejected offer a unique window into where California is making progress - and where the state is falling short.

One of the most contested bills this year was AB1066, which extends California’s overtime pay rights to farmworkers. Brown signed AB1066, which was authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, last week.

The bill just squeezed out of the Legislature, thanks to heavy industry lobbying. It will raise overtime wages for farmworkers over several years, ultimately resulting in time-and-a-half pay for farmworkers who work more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. Currently, farmworkers earn overtime if they work more than 10 hours in a day, or 60 hours in a week.

AB1066 is similar to a bill that was vetoed by previous Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. This has been a long fight.

Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the concept of fair overtime pay for farm work. It’s still tedious, back-breaking labor done by low-income, vulnerable people.

It’s hard to believe, for example, the business line that farmworkers will lose money because all farms will simply slash hours. Food can’t be left in the fields during harvest, so some workers will surely benefit from the new law. On the other hand, experts have noted that we don’t have much data about who works how many hours - so it’s impossible to say that most workers will benefit.

If the consequences of AB1066 may not be clear for some time, the consequences of California’s unbalanced tax policy have been clear for decades.

Eight years after the financial crisis decimated California’s budget - leading to a four-year crisis - California still has a tax structure that’s profoundly unstable, and therefore unfair.

The general fund depends heavily on income taxes from California’s wealthiest residents. The state takes in a relatively low amount of property tax revenue, thanks to Proposition 13. Its other major source of income is sales tax, which has declined as a share of revenue as more Californians spend their money on services - which are mostly untaxed.

A budget that relies overwhelmingly on income taxes from the wealthy is going to be subject to boom-and-bust cycles, along with the stock market. That’s unfair to the Californians who depend on the state for their medical care, their disability services and their pensions.

Brown has offered some ideas for rebalancing the budget, like extending the sales tax to some services, but fixing California’s broken revenue system hasn’t been a focus for his administration.

The hesitation is understandable. Doing so will be an enormous undertaking. This is also a mission that’s likely to have politically unpopular solutions.

Yet remaking California’s tax structure would be a fitting legacy for Brown in his final term. It might also sort out some of the confusing messages he sent to Californians with his tax bill signings.

One of the bills Brown vetoed, for example, would have given tax forgiveness to homeowners who managed to get write-downs on their underwater mortgages. Struggling homeowners fight hard to get those write-downs, which can make the difference for people trying to keep their homes. Denying them a tax break might make more sense if all California homeowners paid their fair share of taxes. That’s progress California hasn’t made yet.

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Sept. 18

San Jose Mercury News on a review of the state’s gang member database:

A recent state auditor’s report documented a shocking lack of transparency, accountability, oversight and data security in CalGang, the database of (supposedly) known gang members used by law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

Even more damning, the auditor questioned the accuracy of the database maintained by the Department of Justice and the lack of documentation about many of those included on the list.

The auditor found that agencies “lacked adequate support for 13 of 100 people we reviewed in CalGang and for 131 of 563 (23 percent) of the CalGang criteria entries we reviewed.” The database sample included 42 individuals who were supposedly under the age of 1 when the data was entered - likely the result of data-entry error.

A person can be added to the CalGang database for nebulous and questionable reasons, including being seen with gang members or wearing “gang dress,” the second- and fourth-most common reasons for being included, respectively. As noted in a recent VoiceofSanDiego.org report, “In a gang-heavy neighborhood, that could include simply talking to a neighbor and wearing a red shirt.”

Though CalGang claims to abide by federal regulations and state standards for ensuring accuracy and protecting privacy rights, the auditor found little evidence that it does.

“As a result, user agencies are tracking some people in CalGang without adequate justification, potentially violating their privacy rights,” State Auditor Elaine M. Howle wrote in an introductory letter to the governor and legislative leaders. “Further, by not reviewing information as required, CalGang’s governance and user agencies have diminished the system’s crime-fighting value.”

So here we have a database that not only violates many people’s constitutional rights, but is impeding its intended function through inaccuracy and lack of oversight. It’s the latest in a long line of government “watch lists” with similar problems.

Multiple state audits have likewise said that the Armed and Prohibited Persons System, designed to help get guns out of the hands of those adjudicated by a court or mental health system to be ineligible to possess firearms, suffers from failing to identify many people who should be on the list and erroneously including others who have every right to own guns.

And the “no-fly” terrorist watch list is notorious for sweeping up a lot of innocent people, including small children, veterans, journalists and politicians, due to clerical errors or because they had names similar to others considered to be threats.

The CalGang audit has raised calls for reform in Sacramento, but it seems that government watch lists are inherently rife with inaccuracies that violate individuals’ rights and diminish their effectiveness. Reform sounds great, but let’s seriously ask whether the actual benefit of any database outweighs these significant flaws.

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