- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

July 31

The Vallejo Times-Herald on a long-term transportation plan:

The my-way-or-the-highway approach to transportation funding in Washington needs to end. It’s essential to the Bay Area that Congress pass a long-term plan so that the federal share of critically-needed BART, CalTrain and road projects is secure and predictable.

But last week, the House only extended the existing federal transportation bill through October, kicking the can down the road again and forcing the Senate to delay attempting to pass a six-year bill until fall.

We miss the days when Congress set partisanship aside and recognized that reliable transportation is a strong national interest and passed funding to put Americans to work building infrastructure.

It’s been more than a decade since Congress agreed on longer range deal so that local and regional officials could plan for the future, which adds to the expense and limits creative thinking.

To their credit, California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have made a good-faith effort to secure a six-year transportation bill. But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, rejected the bipartisan deal over how it would be funded.

The $350 billion Boxer-McConnell bill is a classic compromise: imperfect. For one thing, it only provides funding for three years at a time, forcing another battle in Congress over the next three.

Revenue from the federal gas tax no longer comes close to meeting transportation infrastructure needs. At 18.4 cents a gallon, the tax hasn’t been raised for 22 years, and vehicles have become more fuel efficient. Now there’s a shortfall of $15 billion a year to meet construction needs of more than $50 billion.

Congress is loath to increase the tax with an election looming, so it has been playing around with tax reform proposals to generate more money. But have failed to agree on one.

The Bay Area’s roads are in horrible shape and its transit systems are incomplete. Coupled with the high cost of living, this makes it harder for the region to attract and keep companies and quality workers.

California’s Legislature is convening a special session this year to deal with California’s billions in transportation needs. But federal funding also is essential.

Our highway system, once the envy of the world, has become an embarrassment, and we lag the rest of the industrialized world in mass transit. You can’t turn that around passing bills three months at a time. McConnell and Boxer are doing their part. If McCarthy or others have a better idea, they need to build a coalition to pass it - or they need to compromise.

If politicians can’t remember what that words means, look it up - and then do it.

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July 31

The Contra Costa Times/Oakland Tribune on declining student enrollment at UC campuses:

With the University of California announcing that state residents comprise a record-low portion of the students admitted for the fall, it’s time for a serious discussion about whom the system is supposed to serve.

Far too many Californians with excellent high school records are being turned away from UC’s premier campuses, especially Berkeley and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the university has boosted enrollment of out-of-state students, who pay much higher fees, to balance its books.

The shift over the past decade should alarm Californians who consider that UC’s first mission is to serve state residents. In 2005, 95 percent of the enrolled freshmen systemwide were state residents. By 2014, that dropped to 83 percent. At Berkeley, the decline was even sharper, from 92 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2014.

Gov. Jerry Brown captured our sentiments when he said in January that he didn’t want UC to lose sight of its mission. “The University of California is created by the people of California. It’s historically been for the citizens of the state,” he said.

“Yes, it’s good to have some foreign students and some out-of-state people. But I don’t think that should be viewed as a financial mechanism. It should be more the intellectual environment of the school.”

The governor in his original budget proposal for this fiscal year sought to freeze out-of-state student levels. But the spending plan approved in June did not include that freeze. UC says it plans to keep enrollment of state residents flat for the upcoming year, but will add out-of-state students, although not at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses.

To be sure, the funding paradigm for UC has undergone a monumental shift. State general fund contributions for last year were less than in 2000. Making matters worse, UC faces rising retirement costs because it has badly mismanaged its pension and retiree health care programs.

UC has compensated by rapidly increasing tuition, especially for out-of-state students, to offset the loss of state funds. And some help is coming from the state: UC will get a 4 percent increase in state funding this fiscal year and another next year, plus an additional $96 million to help retire some of its retirement debt.

The state’s 1960 education master plan called for UC to admit the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates in California. UC claims to still be meeting that goal, but it seems that fewer of the top students are gaining admission to the top campuses.

These trends must be corrected. Our best California high school students should have access to our best UC campuses.

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July 31

The Santa Maria Times on California’s economic rankings:

We always get a kick out of those best-of and worst-of lists. Scouring the internet for information is a great way to spend a rainy weekend afternoon - if you are in a place where it actually rains.

We were in the midst of such a search recently and came across the encouraging news that California has regained its position as the world’s eighth-largest economy, with a gross domestic product of just more than $2.3 trillion last year.

The United States is No. 1 - no surprise there - with a GDP of more than $18 trillion, followed by China at about $11 trillion. California is the only non-nation in the top 10, which really should come as no surprise, when you consider that this state has the biggest economic output of all the states in America.

Kind of makes you proud to be a Californian, don’t you think.

But that’s not the complete story.

Not much longer in our web rambling we came across a site claiming to identify the 10 worst states in which to make a living, and - woe is us - California was there in sixth place.

The rankings were based on comparisons of average wages, state tax rates, cost of living and other factors. Frankly, given the stated parameters, it’s not difficult to imagine California being in a less-than-perfect position on such a compilation.

The 10th-worst on the list is Connecticut, while perched ignominiously in the top spot is Hawaii - for obvious reasons, not the least of which is you have to have more money than Trump or Gates to be able to afford to live on one of those charming islands.

The source of the survey, an organization called Thinkstock, had this to say about California’s sixth-place ranking:

“There’s a steep price to pay for sunshine and ocean waves all year long. California has one of the biggest economies in the world, but managed to rank as the No. 6 worst state to make a living. The average income of $53,890 does not go far with a cost-of-living index of 138.2, the second-highest in the nation. Furthermore, unemployment is high and workplace safety is poor. The estimated state tax on average income is $2,523, respectable when compared to other high-cost states.”

The group is likely making a comparison to No. 1 Hawaii, where the cost-of-living index is a staggering 170.8, mostly due to housing costs, the average yearly income is just more than $46,000, but state tax takes more than $3,000 of that.

None of this should come as a great surprise. It’s been abundantly clear to us that while California’s economy is vibrant when compared to most of the world’s nations, this has become an increasingly difficult place to do business, which has resulted in an outflow of good jobs. California’s overall economy may run into the trillions, but most communities - including the ones where readers of this newspaper live - are badly in need of more and higher-paying jobs.

And because economic progress is best made one step at a time, we need to come together on strategies to attract the kinds of commerce and industry that will provide the jobs California needs to dig its way out of that worst-states-to-make-a-living hole.

How about a summit conference for all Central Coast stakeholders, one at which a blueprint for our economic future would be created? Working alone may be noble, but it won’t get the job done.

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Aug. 2

The San Diego Union Tribune on tobacco legislation:

Six tobacco-related bills were shifted last month from the Legislature’s regular session to the special session on health care called by Gov. Jerry Brown, scheduled to begin Aug. 17. The shift was less a reflection of the bills’ import than a tactical maneuver needed to keep a couple of them alive. Only one of them can be considered a major policy change. Still, all six merit ultimate approval.

Of the six bills, SB 7 X2, is easily the most significant. It would increase the minimum legal age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. This is key because an estimated 90 percent of tobacco addicts start smoking before the age of 21. The hope is that raising the minimum age will prevent some young people from starting to smoke at all.

The other bills seek to put electronic cigarettes under the same statewide regulation as regular tobacco products; close loopholes in smoke-free workplace laws; require all public schools to be tobacco-free; allow local governments to tax tobacco, subject to two-thirds voter approval; and establish a new tobacco licensing fee program under the state Board of Equalization.

Other than the minimum-age bill, the proposals hardly represent the “historic opportunity to save lives” that legislative leaders declared them to be in a joint news release. Many cities, for example, including San Diego, already treat e-cigarettes the same as regular tobacco products. And are there really any public schools now that are not tobacco-free?

So why the special session?

Because two of the bills, the e-cigarette regulation bill and the increase in the minimum age for tobacco, were either gutted or about to be killed in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee.

According to the California Healthline, a daily digest published by the California Healthcare Foundation, the e-cigarette bill was so heavily amended by the committee on July 8 that its author, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, disassociated himself from the amended legislation. The same day, Hernandez pulled the minimum-age bill from the committee docket when it became clear the panel would kill it.

A week later, Senate and Assembly leaders announced that Leno’s original e-cigarette bill, the minimum-age bill and the four others would be taken up during the special session. On the verge of death, they magically sprang back to life.

The process was hardly pretty. But in the end, ugly process is trumped by the benefit, however limited, they could produce.

As is often said - because it’s true - tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. It kills more than 480,000 Americans every year, puts many others into a down spiral of disease, and raises the public costs of health care.

If these bills can help reduce the problem, and they can, they deserve passage.

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Aug. 2

The Victorville Daily Press on California wildfires:

Fire season in California used to start in June, and in normal years lasted into late fall. But since the record drought began, many state fire officials say fire season now is year-round.

That’s because the brush that so easily becomes fuel for wildfires is dryer than ever. And it will likely take the predicted El Nino season of storms this winter to change that even a little.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services branch, the fire danger throughout California - but particularly in Southern California - will remain above normal through October and November.

We’ve already seen locally and throughout the state how easily wildfires can start when fuel is dry, as most of California is because of the drought. Adding to the equation is the damage to trees in the forests from bark beetles.

The Lake Fire near Big Bear Lake, which started June 17, provided an example of what drought and damage from bark beetles can lead to. That massive blaze raged through the San Bernardino Mountains almost all the way to Yucca Valley, consuming more than 31,000 acres and taking more than a month to fully contain. It cost millions of dollars and required millions of gallons of water to fight this fire, which was human caused.

More recently, the North Fire in the Cajon Pass that started July 17 burned more than 4,200 acres, as well as seven homes, 16 outbuildings and 44 vehicles. Its cause remains under investigation.

Now more than a dozen fires are active in the northern part of the state. One firefighter has been killed and thousands of acres have burned as drought conditions make these blazes easier to start and harder to contain.

With the risk of fire greater than ever, it is imperative that we all take precautions. Just two days before the North Fire, a Caltrans official urged motorists not to discard cigarette butts on Interstate 15 because of the risk of fire. That’s true not just in the Cajon Pass, but all over the state. With dry brush so close to numerous freeway lanes, it takes little for still burning cigarettes to roll off the side of the road and ignite brush.

Off-road enthusiasts also should stick to state-authorized Off Highway Vehicle areas, where there is less fuel for fires and they often are surrounded by miles of desert.

And those towing trailers should always double-check to make sure all chains stay clear of the pavement. Sparks from chains dragging on pavement, even on freeways, have been blamed for fires in the past and remain a concern.

California firefighters remain on alert, ready to spring into action when needed. They all expect we haven’t seen the last fire this summer.

But if we all do our part, perhaps we can lessen the risk of more dangerous wildfires this year.


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