- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

April 18

The Fresno Bee on bills supporting the public’s right to know:

Legislators give lip service to the public’s right to know about government operations. But too often, for the right special interest, they will limit access to information. Right now, two bills addressing this tendency are pending, one involving an entrenched special interest, the other a shiny new one. One should pass. The other, not so much.

First, the old. Unlike Texas, Florida and a dozen other states, California exempts records of police misconduct from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. In Senate Bill 1286, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, seeks to open records of completed investigations into officers who have been found to have committed wrongdoing, so the public can see what discipline, if any, was imposed.

He rightly contends that one way to deter abuse and restore confidence in law enforcement would be to shine light on officers who unjustifiably resort to force.

Supporters include civil libertarians, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and criminal defense attorneys. Opponents include virtually every law enforcement group, including district attorneys, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, a union representing college cops and many more.

Police unions give campaign money, unlike SB 1286’s backers, and candidates covet law enforcement endorsements. In other words, Leno’s bill faces long odds. It shouldn’t. Disclosure is fundamental to democracy.

Politicians also like to be seen as being on the cutting edge, as evidenced by Healdsburg Democratic Sen. Mike McGuire’s SB 1102. This bill would restrict access to information about Airbnb and other Internet-based competitors to traditional hotels.

As envisioned by the bill, Internet hoteliers would pay hotel taxes to cities and counties without disclosing any information about the owners of the homes being rented. Cities could request that the state controller audit tax payments, but otherwise would be bound by concerns that data “is not used for improper purposes.”

What “improper purposes” includes is anyone’s guess. Internet companies might define as improper any information about their operations. Perhaps it’d be improper to let neighbors know that an owner was violating local zoning ordinances by turning a home into a business, or causing undue traffic and noise, or that a corporation was buying up property for use as short-term rentals.

What is clear is that SB 1102 is not in the public interest. Whatever his reason for this exemption, McGuire is, in our view, using the legislative process for improper purposes.

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April 19

San Jose Mercury News on the impact of the $17 billion Delta tunnels project:

Predictions that La Nina conditions may deepen the drought in California this winter would be more alarming if the results of a Field poll released last week had been different.

Fortunately, the poll showed an overwhelming majority of Californians continue to believe that the state faces an extremely serious water shortage and are continuing to conserve water.

With two notable exceptions: Los Angeles and San Diego. They’re failing to do their part.

While Bay Area residents cut their residential water use in February by 18.3 percent compared with the same month in 2013, Los Angeles and San Diego residents only reduced theirs by 6.9 percent. What’s puzzling is that Southern California urban dwellers, along with Central Valley farmers, have the most to lose by failing to conserve.

Oh wait. Maybe they’re not worried because they’re confident the twin tunnel water grab will go through and keep them swimming.

The Metropolitan Water District’s $175 million purchase of four islands and part of a fifth in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta certainly furthers that notion.

Metropolitan Water serves about 19 million people across six Southern California counties. It has zero interest in the Delta islands except as a means to access more water for its customers. The purchase is seen as a strategy to jump-start the controversial $17 billion Delta tunnels project, which will be able to send lots more water from the Delta to Central Valley farmers and Southern California cities.

Buying the land makes Metropolitan a powerful landowner in favor of the tunnels. The vast majority of other Delta landowners strongly oppose the project and are actively fighting it.

Water experts expect that even if the tunnels aren’t built, Metropolitan will simply use the levees surrounding the islands to create “bowls” that would work as reservoirs for the water district. The bowls could hold as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water, making the purchase a sound long-term investment.

Opponents of the purchase, including San Joaquin County and Contra Costa County, are suing to block the sale, arguing that it should have to be reviewed under California’s Environmental Quality Act.

The entire Bay Area has a strong interest in preserving the health of the Delta, the largest estuary west of the Mississippi. Silicon Valley, for example, draws about half of its water from it.

Every serious scientific study shows that the Delta’s health is continuing to deteriorate because too much water is already being drawn and sent south. A dead Delta will help no one.

Stockton Assemblywoman Susan Eggman’s AB 1713, which would require a statewide vote on the project, went before the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee Tuesday. Voters should have the opportunity to decide whether this project should succeed. In the meantime, we hope the lawsuit over the proposed sale will prevent Metropolitan’s purchase of the Delta Islands.

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April 16

San Francisco Chronicle on job protections for teachers based on performance:

After two years in the classroom, a California teacher can count on ironclad job protections even if kids aren’t learning and the job’s a bad fit. But dismissing a poor performing teacher takes years and steep legal bills, with administrators often dumping lackluster instructors in low-income schools that teachers with seniority tend to avoid.

These constricting work rules - and the results that punish students - powered a challenge that a Los Angeles judge supported. That jolting decision two years ago upended tenure and other seniority protections with the judge calling them unconstitutional. But now an appeals court has stepped in to cancel that hopeful direction.

It’s a big win for teacher unions and their worship of the sanctity of seniority, but a setback for the rest of the schoolhouse world: parents, taxpayers and - most of all - students who live in the most challenged districts. The plaintiffs, who include nine students and a wealthy Silicon Valley backer, are indicating they’ll continue their fight upward on the appeals ladder.

The stalled case puts the onus on the state Legislature to overhaul the balky rules that are basically in the hands of union leaders, who provide ample money and troops in every election. Thus, the prospect for a legislative fix is bleak. These long odds were a factor for educational reform groups who hoped the courts would act where the Legislature’s ruling Democrats feared to tread.

Removing bad teachers, who may only number a few thousand among some 277,000 public school teachers in California, is an essential part of improving schools and student performance.

The three appellate judges touched on the variables underlying the arguments against extensive job protections. In their ruling in the case known as Vergara, they weren’t convinced that ineffective teachers were more likely to end up in low-income schools, a claim that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge sided with. If there was fault, it lay with administrators who made “deplorable staffing decisions” in reassigning subpar teachers.

The case follows another major win for teachers, who prevailed last month in a Supreme Court case allowing public employee unions to collect mandatory dues. That challenge took aim at the California Teachers Association, just as the latest case did, and it was a justifiable outcome on a test of basic fairness for labor.

The ruling leaves a powerful union in charge of the rules on hiring and firing, a recipe for ineffectiveness. Voters should watch to see which candidates are willing to speak plainly about tenure and seniority when the topic of public education floats up.

A dogmatic system that leaves districts unable to match teachers with the skills and will to take on the most challenging schools disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos. It is a civil rights issue our elected leaders have been unwilling to confront.

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April 18

The Press-Enterprise on improving transportation infrastructure:

Last month, these pages discussed a State Auditor’s report that criticized the California Department of Transportation’s maintenance division for its “weak cost controls,” lack of financial planning, inefficient funding allocations and inability to track responses to service requests. Now a Legislative Analyst’s Office assessment of highway repair needs similarly decries a lack of accountability and performance measures.

The LAO’s analysis also acknowledges the persistent underfunding of the state’s road infrastructure. “We estimate that the state has ongoing highway repair needs of about $3.6 billion annually, as well as an existing backlog of needed repairs totaling roughly $12 billion,” the LAO concluded. “This is significantly higher than can be addressed through the existing funding of about $1.6 billion annually for these purposes.”

The immediate needs are even greater, as the LAO estimated the state would need to spend roughly $5.5 billion for highway repair programs in fiscal year 2016-17, including contributions to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Despite having among the highest gas taxes in the country, California’s highway system ranked 45th among the states in the Reason Foundation’s 2014 Annual Highway Report. According to the report, the state has the second-highest maintenance spending per mile of state-controlled roads and the fourth-highest administrative spending rate.

California’s transportation system, and particularly its roads, are consistently given short shrift in favor of fanciful environmental projects and other legislative pet projects and boondoggles like the high-speed rail project, which, incidentally, just won the Oakland-based Independent Institute’s first California Golden Fleece Award “for its lack of transparency and history of misleading the public about key details” of the project.

As with innumerable other services, privatizing the roads would be the best way to offer them the most cheaply and efficiently. We don’t expect the state to agree, but it should at least competitively bid highway maintenance to the private sector to save money, minimize bureaucratic bloat and maximize accountability. Barring this, Senate Bill 1141, by Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, creates a pilot program to allow two counties, selected later, to control road maintenance funds now handled by Caltrans. It would offer greater flexibility to local governments, who are more accountable to their citizens than far-removed state bureaucracies.

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April 13

Pasadena Star News on changing punishments for traffic violations:

For most people, flashing police lights in the rearview mirror mean an unwanted traffic ticket and fine.

But if you can barely pay the rent, or the baby sitter or even the light bill, that ticket has another meaning.

It could cost you your job, or even get you thrown in jail.

The system needs to be fixed.

Say, for instance, you get pulled over for making a so-called California stop.

The ticket is $35 but with court fees and other costs tacked on the final price tag is $238 (up from $155 about a decade ago).

If you can’t pay or don’t show up for your court date, it can be disastrous.

In California, that’s a misdemeanor - even if your excuse is that you can’t pay. Your license is automatically suspended.

Worse, if you get caught driving while it’s suspended, say, to get to work, you could be arrested.

That means there’s a real possibility you could lose your job - either because you can’t get to work, or because you drive for a living. One study found that among those receiving welfare, a driver’s licence was a better predictor of whether you had a job than a GED.

This may sound extreme to somebody who can afford to pay $300 or so per ticket, but in the poorest areas of Southern California this is a fact of life.

When your financial stability is that shaky, it’s easy for things to snowball.

California Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, estimates about 600,000 people had their license suspended for either not paying traffic fines or not showing up for court dates.

The people who tend to suffer the worst consequences are blacks and Latinos.

The disparity is startling, shows a recent report from a civil rights association. When license suspensions are overlaid on a map of poverty and race, it’s clear who is hurt most by this system.

Between 2013 and 2015 the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arrested and charged 20,000 for suspended licenses. Only 15 percent were white. Overall, a third of those who were arrested in the county for a suspended license are black, yet they make up only 9 percent of the population.

Hertzberg’s Senate Bill 881 seeks to remove the automatic suspension of licenses for failure to appear or pay.

It’s a companion to his bill last year which allowed drivers to contest tickets without having to pay the fine and complements a ticket amnesty program by Gov. Jerry Brown.

But it doesn’t get violators off the hook for the fine. Agencies can still collect, and wages can be garnished.

The bill also excludes cases where drugs or alcohol are involved.

There are administrative issues that the legislative analyst raised flags about. For instance, the Department of Motor Vehicles assigns points to traffic violations. Each offense brings a certain number of points; too many points, and your license is suspended. That system should stay intact so that repeat offenders don’t get off without penalty.

This can’t be a free ride for anyone. Rather it should create a more equitable and fitting punishment for a traffic violation.

The bill has passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and should get to the full floor where, if the point system is preserved, it deserves support.

Trapping people into a debt spiral by taking away their keys doesn’t help the economy or communities.

This legislation could be the fix-it ticket.

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