- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Oct. 2

The Vallejo Times-Herald on Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House of Representatives:

If, as expected, Kevin McCarthy is chosen to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House of Representatives, it should be good news for McCarthy’s home state of California. It can’t hurt to have your own in high places.

Beyond that, we’ll see. An optimist would say Rep. McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, might have a useful perspective on the needs of his party since he has seen up-close the damage hardliners did to Republican power here.

Last year, when he ascended to the position of House majority leader, it was hoped by those same optimists that McCarthy would be open to pushing through some form of balanced immigration reform since life in an agricultural district has given him a practical grasp of the economics of the issue.



We’re still waiting.

Now the question is whether Americans looking at the prospect of Speaker Kevin McCarthy should expect him to be the solution to the problems in Washington, D.C., that have Congress wallowing in a 15 percent national approval rate.

Don’t hold your breath.

Of course, becoming the favorite to win the House-wide election for speaker is not the achievement of a lightweight. McCarthy, 50, has big-league political skills. But could be considered damning with faint praise.

As Associated Press congressional reporter Andrew Taylor noted pointedly: McCarthy “has risen to the upper reaches of House leadership mostly on the basis of his people skills and political smarts rather than his policy chops.”

And therein could lie the problem.

He is a prodigious capitol networker - first in Sacramento, where he was chosen as Republican Assembly leader as a freshman, and Washington, where he joined the House leadership in his second term. There is no doubt he is a political climber. The face of politics for politics’ sake.

What he hasn’t been - maybe he just hasn’t had time to be - is much of a legislator. His official, online biography doesn’t even credit him with a single specific bill.

This may not make McCarthy worse than many in Congress, in fact, it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t necessarily make him better for the nation.

Boehner was pushed out by arch-conservatives whose obstructionism has hurt the GOP and the governing process. McCarthy will need at least some support from the “Freedom Caucus” to become speaker and to do anything productive once he gets there. In exchange for that the hard-line bloc will expect him to do their bidding and will likely be furious if he doesn’t.

McCarthy will have to apply the lessons of California and show the nation that his political skills are good for something more than his own advancement.

____

Oct. 2

Redlands Daily Facts on campaign contribution laws:

We’re seeing more evidence this year that voters take a very dim view of the way campaigns are paid for, the way money influences elected officials.

Many voters think the current way is so bad, they’d prefer the Donald Trump way.

One of Trump’s boasts is that, being megarich, he “can’t be bought.” No special-interest campaign donors can tell him what to think. As president, he’d be free to say and do what he deems correct. And a fair number of people like this notion. It seems to be one reason Trump leads the Republican polls.

But relying on public-spirited billionaires to run for every high office and pay for their own campaigns is a risky strategy for cleaning up political corruption. Sure, they’d be immune to the persuasion of selfish, big-money contributors, but they’d also be immune to the moderating force of thousands of common-sensical, everyday donors and party regulars. Such immunity, or impunity, sounds great unless the candidate who can’t be bought isn’t your candidate - in which case he or she sounds dangerously like a nutcase who can buy attention.

No, the answer to the problems with money in politics is not to have more candidates with money. The answer is to fix the campaign-finance laws.

It appears that Californians will get a chance to do just that.

A group of reformers is working to put an initiative on the November 2016 ballot to fix a few of the problems with the campaign contribution laws.

As its working title suggests, the “Voters’ Right to Know Act” proposes to make it harder for big campaign donors to remain anonymous and easier for the public to see who’s giving what to whom. One change would require that when political groups give money to candidates or proposition campaigns, the groups identify their own individual contributors of $10,000 or more. Another change would aim to improve the state’s online campaign-finance database, making it more helpful for voters.

Among other goals of the initiative: banning lobbyists and their employers from giving gifts - like concert and game tickets - to government officials; and putting a $200 annual limit (down from the current $460) on the value of gifts anyone can give to a public official.

There would be no change in the limits on campaign donations. Just much-needed steps to make donations less secret, the powerful more accountable.

The authors see this as one state’s push-back against the U.S. Supreme Court’s series of rulings loosening campaign finance regulations. Also, as a way for voters to go over the heads of the California lawmakers who have headed off reform efforts in Sacramento.

The initiative is backed financially by a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur named Jim Heerwagen. Bob Stern, one of the government-watchdog types who wrote it, was quoted by The Sacramento Bee saying it’s probably the most significant measure of its kind since California’s post-Watergate Political Reform Act. Stern should know - he wrote that act.

Despite perennial efforts to bring light to the political system, “dark money” is as big an impediment to clean government as it has ever been. The rhetoric of the 2016 race shows politicians and voters know it.

As this initiative moves forward, it may give voters a worthy place to channel their frustration.

___

Oct. 5

The Riverside Press-Enterprise on Gov. Brown’s vetoed bills:

We’re pleased that this year Gov. Jerry Brown might get carpal tunnel syndrome from vetoing a good number of the 338 bills the state Legislature never should have passed in the first place. He did sign some worthy bills, but on many, he was in a vetoing mood.

In his veto message for almost a dozen criminal justice bills, he objected that “each of these bills creates a new crime - usually by finding a novel way to characterize and criminalize conduct that is already proscribed. The multiplication and particularization of criminal behavior creates increasing complexity without commensurate benefit.”

Among those was Senate Bill 333. It would have brought back tougher penalties for the possession (not use) of date-rape drugs in a runaround of voter-backed Proposition 47, which reduced the penalties for some non-violent crimes last year.

Three drone bills were also grounded. One was SB168, intended to prevent drones “from interfering with firefighting and other emergency response” by increasing fines for doing so. And it would have granted “immunity from civil liability” to authorities who shoot down offending drones.

And SB722 would have increased the penalties for those who “willfully remove or disable” a GPS device on a parolee.

On an odder front, SB716 would have made illegal the “use of a bullhook, ankus, baseball bat, axe handle, pitchfork, or similar device” by elephant handlers. Not just circuses, but zoos opposed the bill, saying these devices can be used humanely. Harming elephants remains illegal.

This plethora of excess bills reminds us that before 1966 California had a part-time Legislature. Somehow the current governor’s father, Gov. Pat Brown - elected in 1958 and serving two terms - built much of the state’s infrastructure with a part-time Legislature: freeways, the State Water Project, universities and K-12 schools.

A shorter time under the Capitol dome, say six months every two years, again would concentrate legislators’ minds on the essential instead of the frivolous. They also could spend more time back in their home districts finding out what is needed by those they claim to represent.

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Oct. 6

Contra Costa Times on the End of Life Act:

Gov. Jerry Brown reinforced California’s reputation for being a compassionate, progressive state Monday when he signed the End of Life Option Act, allowing physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to Californians diagnosed as having less than six months to live.

The late Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Bay Area resident, inspired the law and put a spotlight on the issue last year when she moved to Oregon to escape an excruciating death from cancer. Sens. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, and Lois Wolk, D-Davis, stepped up with tireless and clearly heartfelt efforts to keep the bill moving forward in the Legislature.

Countless volunteers from the Bay Area and throughout the state, organized by the group Compassion and Choices, worked all but full time on this, trying to show the strength of public support in person, not just poll numbers.

The bill posed an ethical challenge for the governor, a former Jesuit seminarian. But Brown hit exactly the right tone with his signing message:

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown wrote. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Those who oppose this newly won right can follow their personal or religious convictions and choose not to exercise it. They also can be vigilant for terminally ill individuals they fear might be coerced into an early death. They have influenced the legislation substantially, increasing safeguards for the disabled, for example.

In the majority of cases, doctors can manage the pain of those in the last months and days of their lives. But for about 5 percent of the population, no amount of medication can ease the agony. The End of Life Option Act provides those Californians with the opportunity to die with dignity.

It’s a relief that the Legislature and governor were able to reach accord. If Brown had vetoed the act, a far more permissive initiative would have been floated and almost certainly approved by voters. And the Legislature would have had no ability to tweak it if problems arise, as it does now.

The bill was modeled after Oregon’s successful law but adds provisions to prevent abuse. Patients must receive two separate diagnoses from doctors that they have less than six months to live, for example, and they must attest 48 hours before taking life-ending medication that they are doing so of their own free will.

Perhaps this more protective model will become the norm in other states now that California has joined the vanguard.

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Oct. 6

The Pasadena Star-News on California environmental standards and the Volkswagen scandal:

Wannabe-green Californians are in a rock and hard place situation when it comes to the Volkswagen software-cheating scandal - and so are the state environmental regulators we trust to make our air cleaner.

Not that it excuses by any means the nefarious software workaround that VW engineers came up with to make their new-era turbocharged direct injection diesel engines meet and then exceed California standards, which after 2009 became dramatically more stringent. But it was precisely this state’s desire to have greener cars, as the nation’s longtime leader on the road to cleaner air and less production of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, that forced the German automaker to come up with cleaner engines.

It’s early days yet in the investigation into what led either the company’s top brass, or some mid-level managers trying to please them and thereby hold onto their jobs, to create an evil if nonetheless rather ingenious fix in order to meet first California’s and then the rest of the United States’ new standards.

You remember the scam: Since the TDI engines couldn’t hit the right emissions numbers to please regulators, and the miles-per-gallon and fast-acceleration numbers to please consumers, Volkswagen created a software patch that let its highly computerized engine know when it was in the testing environment, attached to sensors. Then, it ratcheted down emissions in order to hit the right number. Once on the actual road, all bets were off, and the bad fumes were up to 40 times higher than when the engines were tested in the shop.

There are fascinating questions about how many people in one of the largest automotive companies in the world knew about the cheating. It’s almost impossible to believe that the company could keep the number of those in the know small, though there is at least the theoretical possibility that the scheme was conceived on high and then implemented by a very small team on the assembly line.

Meanwhile, one of the most important questions for California is this: How is it that our expert regulators didn’t find the software cheat until just the last few months? Were they, as perhaps consumers were, simply all too eager to believe that diesel engines that had been known as big polluters could miraculously be transformed almost overnight into the greenest internal-combustion power sources in the world?

That question is amplified by the revelation this week that staff from the California Air Resources Board, in charge of enforcing the state’s tough emissions standards, had recently visited Volkswagen’s own supposedly state-of-the-art testing center in Oxnard in hopes of using some of the company’s ideas to update the agency’s own aging testing center in El Monte.

The Oxnard facility was built with the help of a $10 million, tax-exempt public bond and opened in 2012 - so perhaps all California taxpayers were part of helping finance Volkswagen’s scam. And what about local VW dealer mechanics - did they, too, get tricked into believing what they were told about the supposedly green technology?

The cheat is yet another object lesson for regulators, who should return to President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War doctrine: Trust, but verify.

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