- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Oct. 5

The Fresno Bee: Stockton bankruptcy case should be a warning

A judge’s potentially groundbreaking ruling in the Stockton bankruptcy case should send a clear message.

To the Legislature: It can’t rewrite federal bankruptcy law. To the city of Stockton, Franklin Templeton Investments and CalPERS: They need to make a deal. And to local officials across California: They need to get serious about pension reform.

In his verbal ruling, Judge Christopher Klein declared Wednesday that public employee pensions are not off limits in bankruptcies. He suggested that insolvent California cities could choose to reduce already-promised pension payments and even walk away from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

Stockton does not plan to do that. Under its reorganization plan, it pledges to keep making its $29 million annual payment to CalPERS. Because the settlement calls for Franklin Templeton to get back only $4 million of the $36 million it loaned the city, the firm went to court to get more, even if the money comes out of pensions. By delaying a decision on the reorganization plan until Oct. 30, Klein left an opening for a compromise.

This ugly spectacle ought to refocus local officials on their financial reality: If they don’t control long-term retirement costs, those obligations will consume tax dollars at the expense of services to residents and jobs for current employees.

Many cities and counties have started trying to dial back pensions, reducing benefits for new hires and requiring employees to pay their full share of CalPERS contributions. Because these changes are being made through negotiations with unions, local governments are often having to hand out pay raises and other sweeteners in return. And because they were far too generous for much too long, it will take years for significant savings.

Some 2,000 local agencies are facing higher payments to CalPERS now and for the foreseeable future. Yet a majority of the CalPERS board is enabling local governments to hand out even more benefits. In August, the board voted 7-5 to count more than 100 kinds of supplemental and temporary pay in calculating pensions for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013. The majority ignored pleas from Gov. Jerry Brown, who correctly warned that the move undermined pension reform passed two years ago.

If other cities don’t learn the right lessons from Stockton’s huge financial mistakes, they could put their citizens in similar straits, even if they don’t flounder all the way into bankruptcy court.

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Oct. 6

Merced Sun Star: Student debt-relief bill all promise, no delivery

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, identified student debt as one of the most pressing national issues facing higher education.

That’s not news to hundreds of the students enrolled at UC Merced, many of whom are first-generation college students whose families are already sacrificing enormously to send their children to college. That’s not news, either, to the students at CSU Stanislaus who are trying to earn enough money from part-time jobs to buy books and gas while borrowing the costs of their tuition.

More than 70 percent of American college graduates leave school with average debt of $30,000 IOUs that can take decades to pay off, even past the point of an entry-level salary. In California the average debt is around $20,000, still a big cloud hovering over what should be a sunny start to a career. Many delay or reject graduate school because they fear taking on additional debt.

Worse, these young people are forced to carry debt with interest rates that are two or even three times higher than what most Californians pay on their mortgages. Instead of investing in our future by helping these students, we’ve ended up making the private lenders - essentially, all of America’s major banks - even wealthier.

That’s why the California Student Loan Refinancing Program, which authorized a state revolving fund to help college graduates refinance student loan debt, generated national attention when it was signed into law last month by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Unfortunately, like all loan documents, there’s fine print. A close reading of AB 2377, which would have leveraged a pool of state money to guarantee lower-interest refinancing through private lenders, reveals that there’s little substance to the legislation.

First, there’s no money in the revolving fund. The $10 million analysts feel is necessary to launch the program was never appropriated. A smaller pot of about $6 million in existing funds that the bill’s backers had their eyes on disappeared into the general fund. And even if there was money to lend, it wouldn’t be available to everyone.

Second, only Californians with bachelor’s degrees, good credit records and jobs with the government or at nonprofits can apply for refinancing. These are the same people who can already qualify for refinancing privately. Many in that group - doctors and teachers, for example - already have access to special federal debt-relief programs and state loan-forgiveness programs. For them, the revolving fund is just one more perk.

Those with hope for the program say it’s a first step toward an actually useful debt-relief pool; now that the legal authority exists, they say, lawmakers can add money next year. We won’t hold our breath. This fanfare-wrapped nothingburger is all bun and no beef.

If legislators really want to do something to help students and their families, they need to put our money where their mouths are. Perhaps they first fund the program, then broaden access to their so-far empty pool of refi money. Better yet, find a way to underwrite income-based repayment arrangements for the many unemployed and underemployed student debtors out there. There are an awful lot of baristas and temp workers with four-year degrees who could use a hand.

At the least, they could encourage debt counseling - not just a sales job for private loans - for incoming freshmen.

Napolitano is right: A generation of college graduates staggering under a crushing debt load is a pressing national issue. But empty promises won’t help get them out from under it.

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Oct. 8

San Francisco Chronicle: Sacramento’s scandals never cease

Sacramento has had a sad, scandalous year.

The past week brought two news stories that show just how out of control the state Legislature has become. First came the news that the state Senate has decided to withhold a taxpayer-funded report about nepotism among Capitol staff.

The review, by an independent attorney, was performed at the request of state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg after allegations emerged about senior staff members hiring their friends and relatives.

The state Senate has denied a formal request for the report by The Associated Press under the Open Records Act, citing a legal settlement.

Meanwhile, three Republican central committees in California have agreed to pay thousands of dollars in fines for money laundering during the 2010 elections.

In all three cases, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission, the committees failed to report that they were acting as intermediaries between maxed-out donors and Republican candidates. Under state law, donations to political parties are not supposed to go to specific candidates.

All of this comes up against a backdrop of a very bad year in Sacramento.

Just to briefly review: Three Democrats were suspended from the state Senate. Two of them, including San Francisco’s own Leland Yee as well as Ron Calderon of Los Angeles County, are facing federal corruption charges. The third, Sen. Rod Wright of Los Angeles, has been convicted of perjury.

This summer, another state senator was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Clearly, some of these scandals are more serious than others. But the overall picture is of a state Legislature that’s lost touch with basic concepts of professionalism and appropriate behavior.

It’s a pattern that disgusts voters, depresses turnout and erodes public faith in our political leadership.

We have called on all three of the state senators to resign from office, and failing that, for the leadership to expel them. Wright resigned in September after he was sentenced to 90 days in jail - but the other two remain on the state’s payroll.

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Oct. 5

Imperial Valley Press: Failed strike fighter effort points to positive action

The Imperial Valley was not going to get the F-35C Strike Fighter squadron at Naval Air Facility El Centro. Some recently departed NAF officials said as much in private and semi-public circles. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a war worth waging.

In a national economy where both the public and private sectors are on the gradual mend, the Navy was looking at costs in the short-term. No matter how strong the local case was that building in Imperial County would cost the government less, it was the upfront financial output that sealed the deal.

When the record of decision was issued late last week that Naval Air Station Lemoore had been chosen to house the squadron over NAF, costs and facilities already in place were cited. Lemoore, while deep in public opposition over the added air and noise pollution, had the necessary infrastructure to make the initial capital outlay for the government more attractive.

It is unfortunate that Imperial County was probably never given the fair shake we deserved. County officials and supporters armed themselves with accurate studies and numbers, and took the fight to D.C., spreading the message that bringing the strike fighters to El Centro really would have cost the Navy less money over a lifetime of operational costs, guaranteed flying time and public support.

And the financial benefit to our economy - well, that would have been significant. Yet it is worth noting that NAF isn’t going anywhere, and its presence will continue to bring millions into the county economy. This county also has shown the Navy through this experience how tightly we are aligned with NAF and how Imperial Country is a true friend and partner.

There is a greater lesson still going forward from the strike fighter movement: the tide of concerted efforts and collective action to make Imperial County better and stronger is gaining momentum and showing itself on so many other fronts that only good can happen as a result.

We have said this over and over in this space, and we’ll say it again - the spread out, fiercely independent nature of the Valley, with its separate camps/cities and natural dividing lines, has worked against the county for many years. It has needed to end for us to grow moving forward.

It has not ended; it might never, considering it is ingrained in the pioneering spirit and psychological makeup of the region. But for certain, that perception of provincialism is being tested mightily and the walls are continuing to break down. We see it in many examples.

The closure of National Beef was the fastest, most cohesive call to arms we have ever witnessed locally. So many jobs and an industry were poised to take a hit - and did - that would take years to correct. Without a full-frontal assault made up of every Valley agency, governmental body, the public and private sectors, we would haven’t had a chance. And while the end result wasn’t good, it showed what we are capable of.

To a lesser extent, we gathered that kind of action on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center closure, efforts to fund expansion at the Calexico port, the movement to draw Tesla’s lithium-ion battery plant and its 6,500 jobs. All of these efforts required a new level of working together.

There will be more chances to make these kinds of concerted stands, to create economic opportunity, to bring in jobs, and better the quality of life for all residents. When those chances arise, we can certainly see a different kind of spirit around this Valley that will put the brakes on individual efforts to rally around a common causes. Finally.

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Oct. 6

Santa Maria Times: Keeping the news flowing

April 22, 1883, was a big date for us. That’s the day this newspaper was born, predating Earth Day and other wordly events.

We don’t mean to imply that the startup of the Santa Maria Times has more historical significance than Earth Day, but the date means a lot to us - and it means a lot to the thousands of readers who have been along for the ride every year since then.

This newspaper was there in March 1891 when Santa Maria Union High School was among the first to be created under the California Union High School Act.

We were there March 2, 1906, and reported on the fact that the Ladies Literary Club decided to become the Minerva Library Club.

We also were there in the spring of 1926 when the region’s first radio station opened in a studio at the Santa Maria Valley railroad office, and was operated by Capt. John Hancock.

We were on hand in 1939 when President Hoover came to visit the Santa Maria Club, spending the night across the street at the Santa Maria Inn, as a guest of Frank McCoy.

We reported in 1944 on the federal government’s order to build POW camps here to house German prisoners captured overseas.

We were on the scene in 1967 when Marian Hospital opened its four-story facility on land donated by Allan Hancock.

We’ve reported on bank openings and world wars. Large or small, we have done our very best to bring you the news and stories that matter, whether it happened at your front doorstep, or half-way around the world.

This is National Newspaper Week, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Newspapers have been in the news lately, mostly gloom-and-doom reports on declining circulation numbers, diminishing ad revenues and an industry forced into retreat by social media and the general demographics that, by force of nature, always favor the young.

Don’t you believe it. The newspaper business is as vibrant and vital today as it ever was. But like every industry in the beginning of a new century in which technology is king, it’s an industry in transition.

It makes us smile when folks predict the death of newspapers, because having spent our lives in this business, we understand how important newspaper are to readers and to society. Freedom of the press is among the reasons we have a free and open society.

If not for newspapers and their reporters’ tenacity in digging out official corruption and malfeasance, there’s no telling what bureaucrats and deep-pocket special interests would be getting away with. There’s nothing quite like a nosy reporter asking questions about suspicious activity to keep policy makers in line.

But that watchdog thing is just one of our many responsibilities to readers. This newspaper also is the place where you read about hometown heroes and the people who make this such a great place to live. It’s where you get the times and dates for important meetings and festivities.

We pride ourselves on being this community’s bulletin board, a place where people can send their announcements and their opinions on important issues so others can share that knowledge. Nothing beats face-to-face communication, neighbors talking to neighbors, but we are easily the next best way for the community to share information and ideas.

Along the way, we think of ourselves as guardians of the 1st Amendment, an awesome responsibility, but one we gladly accept. Here’s to another 130 or so great years of bringing you the community and the world.

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Oct. 7

Los Angeles Times: Proposition 1 bonds a first step in addressing state’s water needs

Evem in wet years, there will never be enough Sierra snowpack to give every interest group and every region in California enough inexpensive water to quench every thirst and satisfy every ambition. The state has a long way to go before it properly takes account of its water limits and updates the way it divvies up this crucial natural resource. Proposition 1, the $7.5-billion water bond on the Nov. 4 ballot, is really just a drop in the bucket. But it’s a start.

It probably took the crippling drought, now in its third year, to even get this measure on the ballot, given the state’s decades-long standoff over water. Starting with an $11.1-billion bond that was removed from the ballot in 2010 and again in 2012 for being both untimely and too bloated, lawmakers dickered for months over the measure as special interests around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta fended off even the hint of anything that might help the controversial proposal to build twin tunnels to divert water southward, and as agricultural interests lobbied for funding to complete several long-sought dams.

The final bond measure that emerged from negotiations includes funding for a range of needed water projects, including groundwater cleanup. That’s likely to help Los Angeles finally make use of aquifers underneath the San Fernando Valley and rely less on imported water. Similar projects are proposed for areas around California, including towns in the Central Valley whose local water supplies are currently so contaminated as to be unusable.

The largest single spending item is $2.7 billion for water storage. That is in essence a kind of twin to the “rainy-day fund” at the center of another measure on the ballot, Proposition 2; just as money is saved from years of plenty to tide the state over in economically lean years, storage can preserve water from rainy years for periods of drought like the current one. The storage item could perhaps be described as a “not-enough-rainy-days fund.”

Proposed storage projects include recharging depleted groundwater basins. To many, though, storage is a euphemism for dams, even though there’s no specific language in the measure about dams. The mere prospect of new dams, though, was enough to turn some environmentalists against the measure - because of their damage to rivers and fish migrations, among other concerns - just as it was crucial to keeping some agricultural interests on board.

In fact, Proposition 1 doesn’t make dam construction any more likely but simply moves the dams-or-no-dams discussion to another time and another forum - a state water commission that must evaluate spending proposals based on the likelihood that the projects will be built and will produce enough usable water to make the expenditure worth it. It is a clever compromise, and makes the bond a package deserving of voter support.

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