- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Feb. 24

Orange County Register on raising the minimum wage:

More data are amassing showing how a higher minimum wage kills jobs. Yet the two Democratic candidates to replace California U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer are engaging in a bidding war over how much to raise the federal minimum wage above the current $7.25 an hour.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Anaheim, just introduced legislation to raise it to $12. Not to be topped is her Democratic rival, California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “She would be for going higher - even $15 - but she supports the $12 plan,” Harris campaign spokesman Nathan Click told the Register.

California’s state minimum wage is $10.

As the Register noted, the Republican Senate candidates, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro and Al Ramirez, all oppose minimum wage hikes above the inflation rate, which is close to zero. “The minimum wage is the least-effective tool in the tool kit,” Mr. Sundheim told us Tuesday. “There are better ways to help working people prosper,” such as providing a better climate for creating jobs.

Rep. Sanchez and Ms. Harris say the higher minimum wage will give poor workers more money to spend on their families. The opposite results are coming in from Seattle, where a 2014 law raised the wage (with slightly lower levels for small businesses) to $11 in April 2015, to $13 this year and to $15 by 2021.

Based on numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute found that, from April to December 2015, “a) the city’s employment has fallen by more than 11,000; b) the number of unemployed workers has risen by nearly 5,000; and c) the city’s jobless rate has increased by more than 1 percentage point.”

Those job losses are bad enough. But, like coastal California, Seattle is a high-wage, prosperous area. A federal minimum wage boost would be even more devastating to such low-wage (but low-cost-of-living) areas as inland California. More than doubling the federal wage, to $15 an hour, in such areas as rural West Virginia and Alabama would turn them into economic wastelands. To advocate for that is just irresponsible.


Feb. 20

San Francisco Chronicle on the high-speed rail project:

California’s high-speed rail proponents need to start delivering. Quick.

It’s no secret that the high-speed rail project is having problems. Since 2008, when voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for a bullet train that would link Northern and Southern California, the project has run into local political opposition, (far) higher-than-expected cost estimates, and two years’ worth of delays in its initial construction.

Now it’s facing a money grab from California’s powerful agricultural industry.

The California Water Alliance, a nonprofit backed by Central Valley farming interests, has launched a signature-gathering campaign for an initiative that would reallocate the bullet train funds remaining as of the November 2016 election (about $8 billion) and $2.7 billion previously approved for water storage projects under 2014’s Proposition 1.

About half of the money would go to specific water projects, with an emphasis on storage: raising Shasta Dam, building a new reservoir near the Sacramento River and new storage on the San Joaquin River.

Water for All initiative spokesman Hector Barajas said that the other half of the money would be set aside for water capture and reuse programs, which are popular in Northern California.

“They still haven’t laid a single track,” Barajas said. “In the meantime, there are small communities in California that have been without drinking water for the past two years. For most people, if they’re asked to choose between a high-speed rail and safe, reliable drinking water, they’ll choose reliable drinking water.”

We don’t agree with the alliance’s emphasis on water storage, and we certainly don’t agree with the idea of clawing back bond money.

But California voters are exhausted by the drought and demoralized by the bullet train’s problems.

The alliance could have a powerful argument at the ballot box if high-speed rail doesn’t find a way to get back on track very soon.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority recently announced that it will build the first 250-mile section from Kern County to San Jose instead of from Fresno to Burbank. The change is expected to save money and to expedite construction, both great aims given the pressure. Nothing persuades naysayers like smart action, so we urge the Rail Authority to get going.


Feb. 21

Marin Independent Journal on taxing medical marijuana:

State Sen. Mike McGuire’s proposal to levy a 15 percent tax on the sale of medical marijuana seems to be a reach for revenue at the expense of those who need prescribed pot.

In 1996, California voters endorsed the “compassionate use” of marijuana prescribed for medical needs. There already is a sales tax on medical cannabis, but McGuire wants to increase it.

Last year, McGuire, Marin’s representative in the Senate, helped pass long-needed legislation that brought legal clarity to the enactment of Proposition 215.

His follow-up legislation for a pot tax looks less like a solution than another Sacramento cash grab.

The timing comes as an initiative gathers signatures to ask voters to make California the latest state to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Taxation of pot sales and the revenue it would generate are among the political selling points to the initiative.

McGuire’s plan follows the lead of the initiative, setting a high tax rate and dictating that the revenue would go to neighborhood improvement programs, drug and alcohol treatment, state parks and environmental rehabilitation.

McGuire can easily make a good point for each one of these beneficiaries. There is a nexus for each, but they also raise the question of the state’s continual earmarking of tax revenue for specific projects. These legal links help sell them to taxpayers, but they also further complicate necessary budget balancing in Sacramento.

In addition, passage of last year’s SB 643 also allowed local cities and counties to charge local tax on the sale of medical marijuana.

McGuire’s bill comes down to a question of whether it is appropriate, or “compassionate,” to put such a costly tax on medical marijuana.

This is not a matter of how much the public would tolerate. In fact, 15 percent might be appropriate for recreational use if approved by state voters. But is it right to impose such a high tax on a substance that is supposed to be limited to people with prescriptions and medical needs?

McGuire deserves credit for his work in unraveling Proposition 215. His predecessors in Sacramento should have handled that task years ago, but they failed to do so.

But McGuire’s proposal for a 15 percent state tax on the sale of medical marijuana is questionable, not so much in intent, but in practice. A special and higher tax on a medical need does not seem to abide by the “compassionate” intent of Proposition 215.


Feb. 23

Oakland Tribune on bringing transparency to California’s commissions:

Every California commission or agency should be forced to fully disclose their interactions with lobbyists in a readily accessible way. That’s especially true for the California Coastal Commission and the Public Utilities Commission, which are turning their backs on that basic principle of good government.

The Legislature needs to send the agencies a strong message. It should quickly approve Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins’ bill, AB 2002, making the Coastal Commission subject to similar laws governing lobbyists’ interactions with legislators.

The Legislature should also pass two Senate bills, Sen. Ben Hueso’s SB 215 and Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 210, that will bring similar transparency to the PUC following a series of embarrassing revelations about the agency’s willingness to side with utilities at ratepayers’ expense.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been slow to embrace the effort to bring needed sunshine to both agencies, especially when it comes to the PUC.

Four years ago the governor said that greater transparency is the key to increasing voter trust in government. But the governor has refused to disclose emails between his office and the PUC that would answer questions about his role in the decision to determine who should pay the costs for shutting down the San Onofre nuclear plant. The PUC ultimately ruled that ratepayers should pay 70 percent of the $4.7 billion in costs, leaving Southern California Edison responsible for the remaining 30 percent. Last fall he vetoed a package of proposed reforms after they received unanimous support from both the House and Senate.

Brown also has been uncharacteristically quiet about the controversial 7-5 vote earlier this month to fire Coastal Commission director Charles Lester. All four of his appointees voted to oust Lester in what is widely being seen as an effort by commissioners to cozy up to developers wanting to build more projects along California’s coastline.

Brown’s commitment to restoring the public’s trust in government is at stake.

Atkins’ bill would go a long way toward bringing sunshine to the Coastal Commission. AB 2002 would force consultants trying to influence the commission to register as lobbyists and disclose whom they work for. The bill would also require the commission to report ex-parte communications with lobbyists in a simple, easy-to-access manner. It may be necessary to eliminate ex-parte communications altogether, if the Coastal Commission can’t demonstrate its commitment to protecting California’s beloved beaches.

The Senate has already passed Hueso and Leno’s effort to rein in the PUC, including a provision that would completely eliminate ex-parte discussions in ratesetting cases.

The vote again was unanimous. The governor should heed this clear signal of bipartisan support and bring desperately needed transparency to the PUC and Coastal Commission.


Feb. 24

The Press-Enterprise on the state’s farming industry:

The California farming industry received a bit of a reprieve from liability for back pay for employees, stemming from a couple of court decisions, with the signing of Assembly Bill 1513 in October - but some were explicitly cut out of the deal for political reasons.

It is common in the farming industry for workers to earn “piece-rate compensation,” in which workers are paid per unit, such as by the amount of crops picked or trucks unloaded, instead of an hourly wage. The legislation arose to protect the industry from potential punitive penalties in the wake of a pair of 2013 California Court of Appeal decisions. The rulings clarified that, in addition to their piece-rate compensation, employees must be paid at least the minimum wage for meals, rest breaks and other unproductive time while they are on the clock. These rulings instantly created a liability that some industry officials estimated at $1 billion or more.

Gerawan Farming and Fowler Packing Co., which have each had some high-profile battles with the United Farm Workers union, cried foul, however, due to provisions that would exempt them from the bill’s protections.

“AB1513 was passed under the cover of darkness and in the final hours of the session without any discussion, and we all know why,” Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, said in a statement. “It was rammed through to hide the fact that Fowler Packing, Gerawan Farming and other companies were unfairly targeted by the UFW and their cronies in the Legislature.”

Fowler and Gerawan are suing the state for its “intentional and arbitrary legislative targeting.” ”AB1513 was reverse-engineered via a last-minute legislative ‘gut and amend’ designed to punish Fowler and Gerawan,” the complaint contends. “The targeting was in response to demands by the United Farm Workers of America that these growers be excluded from AB1513’s ‘safe harbor’ provisions as the price for the UFW’s nonopposition to this legislation.”

We are a nation built on equal protection under the law. The Legislature was established to serve all Californians, not to serve as the attack dog for special interests. Legislative carve-outs like those in AB1513 are an affront to those noble ideals and should be swiftly struck down by the courts.

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