- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

June 12

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise on traffic ticket fines:

Honk if you want traffic tickets to be more fair. The California Judicial Council ordered last week that drivers challenging traffic infractions don’t have to pay fines until they’ve had their day in court. Headed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the council is the policymaking body for state courts.

According to The Associated Press, 20 years ago, running a red light on average cost $103. It’s now “as much as $490 as the state has established add-on fees to support everything from court construction to emergency medical air transportation. The cost can jump to over $800 once a person fails to pay or misses a traffic court appearance.”

For poor people trying to make ends meet in this expensive state, being forced to pay a fine before a court date was punitive, especially if they needed to drive to work.

The Judicial Council acted after the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sent letters to the courts of eight counties in their area, asking for a policy change. In a statement, ACLU-NC Associate Director Christine B. Sun blasted the old policy as “a hidden tax on poor people. … This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we urge the Judicial Council to continue looking into the practices of local courts that harm low-income people and communities of color.”

Although its complaint dealt with Northern California, the ACLU-NC checked local court websites for us. “We identified Riverside, but not Orange (County), as having an illegal policy,” said the ACLU’s Bethany Woolman. As to San Bernardino County, it “was not clear from their website what their practices were.”

It’s just such confusion the Judicial Council is clearing up. “I am proud of the rule that has been developed,” Ms. Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement. “This is an important first step to address an urgent access-to-justice issue.”

Last month Gov. Jerry Brown urged the Legislature to enact an amnesty under which, as AP reported, “(D)rivers with lesser infractions would pay half of what they owe, and administrative fees would be slashed from $300 to $50.” We urge the Legislature to act promptly on the governor’s idea.

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June 14

The Fresno Bee on increasing voter turnout:

Voter turnout is so abysmal in California that something has to change.

So while it may not be the ultimate or perfect solution, legislators ought to seriously consider Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s proposal to overhaul how Californians vote.

Padilla does not envision a statewide edict. Instead under Senate Bill 450, counties would be allowed to use a new election system starting in 2018. If all goes well, it could be expanded.

Under the plan:

-All voters would be sent a ballot that they could return by mail, or drop off at secure 24-hour boxes or at new voting centers.

-The new centers would be open at least eight hours a day for 10 days before Election Day.

-On Election Day, voters could cast ballots at any voting center. There would be fewer of these larger centers - one for every 15,000 registered voters or so - instead of numerous polling places scattered across counties.

This plan would adapt elections to how most Californians already prefer to cast ballots - by mail, which 61 percent used last November.

The proposal also has the advantage of actually having been tried in another state - Colorado, where Padilla observed it in action last month. Colorado’s voter turnout has outpaced California’s even more since its system went into wide use in 2012.

In California, policymakers and reformers have been wringing their hands over declining turnout in statewide elections, particularly in non-presidential years. It hit an all-time low for midterms last November, barely topping 42 percent. In the primary last June, turnout was a record-low 25 percent.

While the state is trying to make it easier to register to vote - online registration started in 2012 and same-day registration is set to start as soon as 2016 - some experts say those changes are unlikely to significantly boost turnout.

The mechanics of voting need to be modernized. Political consultant Paul Mitchell estimates the new system could increase turnout by 10 percent statewide and more in places, such as Los Angeles, where fewer voters now vote by mail.

County election officials would have to agree to put in the new system.

More mail balloting and fewer voting precincts should save money, but if necessary, the state should chip in so that a broad selection of counties can test the new system. Fresno County, with its anemic voter turnout, should be a prime candidate for state funding - if state monies are allocated.

Padilla’s office says that while this bill doesn’t include any state funding, it expects to seek some in a future budget. Surely, making it easier to vote is worth a little money.

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June 15

Los Angeles Times on increasing bee populations:

The European honey bee was brought to this continent in the early 1600s, but not to pollinate crops. Rather, early settlers sought beeswax to make candles. Native bees, which are mostly solitary ground-dwellers, were effective pollinators but did not provide significant quantities of wax or honey.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when large-scale industrial farming began to replace family farming, that the honey bee became important to agriculture. Instead of a mix of crops grown on smaller plots, often separated by hedgerows, a single crop would be grown on vast stretches of land. Masses of flowers were blooming all at once, requiring an influx of pollinators.

Enter the honey bees, a convenient fit for this sort of farming. They form huge colonies that can be transported into the middle of a field while a particular crop is blooming.

But how has the European honey bee - a non-native species associated with industrial agriculture - become a darling of the U.S. environmental movement? Credit the drastic increase in colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which most of the worker bees disappear from a hive. It has raised farming costs, caused consternation among scientists and government agencies, and given rise to a back-to-nature movement of people trying to save the bees by establishing hives among high-rise rooftops and suburban backyards, including in Los Angeles.

But the European honey bee is not facing extinction. Yes, too many hives are lost each year and no clear solution is in sight, but beekeepers are able to replace those colonies through a process called hive-splitting. Bee losses have actually declined significantly in recent years, though they rose again this year. In any event, amateur hive-tending isn’t likely to make a big difference to the honey bee’s future, experts say; backyard hives are twice as likely to fail as commercial ones.

Unfortunately, the single-minded focus on European honey bees - on banning certain pesticides, for instance, or allowing backyard beekeeping in Los Angeles, which the City Council is on the verge of doing - has obscured the importance of native bees. Few people are even aware that they exist, yet there are 1,500 species in California alone. Provided with the right habitat - a variety of flowering plants that aren’t sprayed with pesticide - they’ll thrive in the ground or in holes in pieces of wood. They’re easy neighbors: prolific pollinators that don’t swarm. Most of them don’t sting, and they don’t suffer from colony collapse disorder. They come in all kinds, from the metallic emerald of the ultra-green sweat bee to the fuzzy black-and-yellow California bumblebee that excels at pollinating tomatoes. And they need help; dozens of species nationwide are in danger of extinction from loss of habitat.

Because these bees are largely solitary ground-dwellers, they can’t be shipped en masse to a flowering agricultural field. Yet they can help solve the honey bee problem. Research has shown that farms would need to make only modest changes to attract healthy numbers and varieties of the local pollinators. Bees, both honey and native, need continual sources of food - i.e. flowers - while monocrop agriculture provides flowers for only a short period. Planting a few different crops with different flowering times would make a major difference, research has found. Better yet, planting the perimeters of those fields with old-fashioned hedgerows - narrow rows of wild shrubs - has been found to provide ample habitat for native bees.

Such changes would be good for honey bees as well. If they feast on only one crop, says UC Berkeley bee researcher Claire Kremen, they are more likely to have nutritional deficiencies that contribute to hive collapse. An analysis of crops worldwide found that when native bees coexist with honey bees, production increases substantially.

As Los Angeles moves toward its own beekeeping ordinance, the council should consider this: If the goal is to strengthen the bee population - both native and European - the best strategy is to give residents incentives to grow more flowers and avoid treating them with pesticides, entomologist Marla Spivak says. It’s the perfect message for these drought-troubled times anyway, when homeowners are replacing lawns with native plants. It won’t provide artisanal honey, but it will promote healthy bee populations, including hundreds of species that won’t swarm or sting.

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June 15

The Sacramento Bee on family grant law for low-income families:

Poverty is an intrinsically humiliating condition. And nobody rises from hardship by being humiliated some more.

Yet California routinely belittles impoverished women in ways that have long since proved to be counterproductive, forcing them to prove that any child conceived while they were on CalWORKs was the product of rape, incest, or a failed long-term birth control or sterilization procedure.

Think about that: In order to get a measly $122 or so extra a month to feed and clothe your newborn, you have to have long conversations with government workers about your sexually abusive father or your rape or your IUD that didn’t work for whatever reason.

Even if the “maximum family grant” policy, as it is known, made sense - and it doesn’t - the walk of shame that women are put through in the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program is reason enough to change the law.

Democratic legislators want to write the longstanding limitation out of the state budget, and for that, they deserve kudos. Doing so is expensive - close to an estimated $210 million more a year to cover all the children not covered by CalWORKs.

But limiting benefits to children creates problems that cost taxpayers more later. The grants are small - more a stopgap than anything approaching a living. And once all eligible kids are included, the state’s obligation isn’t likely to grow.

Why? Because average family sizes are shrinking, nationally and in California. And, contrary to the archaic assumptions of those who came up with the maximum family grant law, poor women don’t walk around pregnant for 10 months just to squeeze the welfare system. Motherhood is an achievement; even to those who can’t really afford it, it’s alluring because it’s a fundamental way to connect and have a place in the world.

In fact, the maximum family grant is worse than archaic; it’s based on actual misinformation. It arose from a 1970s crime story that was seized upon by Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on the tale of a Chicago “welfare queen” to prove that the welfare system was broken.

The welfare queen did exist, but, according to a 2012 exposé in Slate, the crimes of Linda Taylor scarcely exemplified any broad social issue. A sociopathic con artist, she specialized in identity theft and in marrying servicemen who later died, leaving her to collect their pensions.

When she died in 2002, she was linked with crimes far more serious than ill-gotten food stamps. But over the years, the Caucasian grifter somehow became a black ghetto mom in a Cadillac who pumped out babies for money.

By 1994, when congressional Republicans drew up the Contract with America, the welfare queen was a full-blown stereotype, and the maximum family grant, or “family cap,” was the GOP policy prescription to stop her. By 1996, states had bought into it all over the country. In California, the policy dates to Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration.

It’s time to do what many other states have done - unload it. Studies have shown it has no discernible impact, one way or another, on the size of low-income families. But more importantly, it doesn’t reflect our core values. This is California. Humiliation isn’t how we do poverty.

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June 15

The Oakland Tribune on decreasing the teen pregnancy rate:

California’s remarkable success in curtailing its out-of-control teen pregnancy rate illustrates what the state is capable of doing when it focuses its resources on measurable results.

In 1991, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, California had the worst teen pregnancy rate in the nation, with 160 out of every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 becoming pregnant, more than double the national average. Twenty-four years later, it has cut that rate by 60 percent, transforming what was perceived as an insurmountable problem into one of the state’s most stunning social policy success stories. Abortion rates are down as well, even though the state has not compromised a woman’s right to choose.

While California’s progress has greatly contributed to the United States attaining its lowest teen pregnancy rate in nearly 40 years, it’s no time for complacency: We still have the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country in the world.

To continue improving, California has to raise its Medi-Cal reimbursement rates to make sure teens get the health care they need, and the federal government has to fund preventive teen pregnancy programs.

“It’s absolutely without question that preventing teen pregnancy is infinitely less costly in terms of money and misery than having to deal with the alternative,” says Linda Williams, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, the organization’s largest affiliate in the nation spreading over 42 California and Nevada counties.

Williams says teen moms are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to live in poverty, forcing them to rely on welfare to make ends meet. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimated in 2011 that the annual cost to society of teen pregnancy is nearly $11 billion. Reducing teen pregnancies has also led to welcome progress in reducing the number of abortions in the state.

The idea for solving the problem was remarkably simple: Provide teens with quality sex education and access to contraceptives. California leads the nation in strategies to help teenagers, male and female, make more responsible choices. No other state comes close.

But implementing those solutions was anything but simple. The Legislature and governors - including Republicans Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger - showed courage by rejecting abstinence-only programs favored in other states. They instituted comprehensive sex education programs that taught abstinence but also an objective, medically accurate, age appropriate sex education curriculum.

This is how California reduced its teen pregnancy rate to 59 per 1,000 teens age 15-19. But other countries do much better, including Switzerland (8 per 1,000 teens), Netherlands (14 per 1,000 teens), Sweden (20 per 1,000) and England (21 per 1,000). So the bar remains high.

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June 17

The San Francisco Chronicle on affordable housing mandates:

Affordable housing - increasingly an oxymoron in California - can be a mandate for developers, the California Supreme Court ruled on Monday. The decision, which concerned San Jose’s 2010 ordinance requiring that builders of new residential development set aside 15 percent of units at below-market prices, preserves local ordinances like San Francisco’s and opens the door for other cities to require affordable housing as a cost of doing the housing business.

The building industry had argued that this was the problem - that local governments were trying to transfer the cost of affordable units from the public to developers.

But after decades of federal disinvestment in housing, and the elimination of redevelopment, the court has decided that there may be no other choice.

The decision was unanimous, with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye writing that the scarcity of affordable housing in California is a problem of “epic proportions.”

There’s been a recent avalanche of studies about California’s expensive housing market, and the state legislative analyst recently reported that California’s housing is some of the nation’s costliest. The coastal areas are the worst, as those of us who live here already know.

The reasons for the shortage are multiple (local laws restricting development, high land costs and long environmental reviews all play a factor), but the decision is an emphatic win for cities and counties looking to do something about it.

The interesting thing is that it really does shift the onus for affordable housing from government entities who once tackled these projects to business interests seeking to make a profit. That’s likely the argument that they’ll make if they decide to continue fighting.

The decision didn’t cover the question of whether builders of rentals have to set aside some affordable units, which is the real issue for an ever-growing number of Californians.

But legal analysts expect that it will encourage more California cities to adopt affordable housing mandates for new buildings, and to further drive the discussion about how the state can create more options that its residents can afford. As the last several years have shown, there aren’t any easy answers.

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