- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Feb. 1

San Francisco Chronicle on regulating California’s natural gas supply:

At opposite ends of California, nervous residents are experiencing different problems with a common thread. This state’s regulatory rules aren’t up to the job of protecting the public when it comes to dangerous but essential natural gas supplies.

In the Bay Area, the problem of faulty or missing repair records on buried gas pipelines is once again showing up. The 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno that killed eight pressed the state Public Utilities Commission to improve its woeful oversight policies. In the process, its investigation of much smaller accidents in Mountain View and Carmel has led to an admission from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that years of records can’t be found.

The problems were spotted in recent PUC hearings that could lead to sizable fines for the utility. The scale of the negligence is sizable with up to 12 years of repair records missing or incomplete for a sizable part of the South Bay map. PG&E; claims its gas distribution system is safe, but the lack of documentation is troubling and remains at the heart of the disastrous San Bruno blast. The revelations of lost or haphazard records should lead state regulators to sanction the utility and demand safer policies.

In Southern California, a massive, multimillion-dollar repair job may finally plug methane leaks seeping for months from an underground storage well used to supply the Los Angeles area. The smelly fumes have forced 3,000 people from homes in the Porter Ranch area near Aliso Canyon.

The resulting mess is unleashing a wave of overdue action. The local smog board is weighing a shutdown of the well and surrounding ones. The PUC is launching a review. In Sacramento, the state Senate voted to ban pumping more gas supplies into the storage wells. Welcome as these moves are, they come too late and point up the fact that no one was really watching Southern California Gas Co., which runs the wells.

While California moves to renewable energy, it’s based its needs on natural gas, considered cheap and clean burning. But gas leaks are also lethal and harmful to humans and the environment. Switching to other sources will take years, and in the short run, safety must be a priority.

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Jan. 30

Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times on requiring doctors to reveal their probationary status:

The California Medical Board should stop shielding bad doctors and instead require that those on probation tell their patients.

Last fall, after prodding by Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, the medical board formed a committee to examine the issue of public notification.

But last week, David Serrano Sewell, president of the board and chairman of the committee, made clear that he has no intention of making the change. Instead, he only wants to tweak the agency’s website.

That’s not an answer.

Serrano Sewell said that requiring patient notification could place too much of a burden on doctors, prompt more to demand administrative law judge hearings rather than agreeing to probation and - here’s our favorite - affect the patient-physician relationship.

Of course it will affect the relationship. That’s a good thing. Patients who keep going to the probationary doctor will have valuable information so that they can take more responsibility for decisions about their own care.

We’re not talking about minor transgressions. Probation usually is the last step before revocation of a license.

As for Serrano Sewell’s concern about clogging the administrative review process, doctors already have incentives to demand hearings. If placed on probation, they are required to notify their employers and the hospitals where they practice. Just not the patients whose health or even lives could be at risk.

Instead, the 15-member board, on which doctors comprise a majority, has focused on improving its clunky website and trying to tell the public about it so patients can research physicians more easily.

That’s no answer.

Even if the board had the money to effectively spread the word about a spiffy new website, it’s ridiculous to expect most patients to check on their regular doctors online before each appointment to make sure their records are clean. And it assumes patients are well enough, and have the computer skills, to do it.

Besides, only about one of every 200 doctors, or half of 1 percent, is on probation. Patients of the other 99.5 percent of doctors would be wasting their time.

There is one glimmer of hope. The governor recently appointed attorney and former Walnut Creek Councilwoman Kristina Lawson to the board.

She says she wants to be careful not to unnecessarily punish doctors who might be on probation for minor transgressions. That’s fine, although that’s not the situation in most cases.

Beyond that, she says, “if there’s something serious or significant, we should find a way to require some sort of notification. I think we will get there.”

Let’s hope so.

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Jan. 30

Victorville Daily Press on Gov. Brown’s prison proposal:

Gov. Jerry Brown announced last week that he plans to place an initiative on the November ballot that would ease prison terms for nonviolent offenders.

Brown appears remorseful that he signed a law mandating strict prison sentences for criminals nearly 40 years ago. He also seems to be trying to find yet another way to ease California’s prison overcrowding problem, as he has been ordered to do by federal courts.

His plan is to allow corrections officials to decide if prisoners deserve to be freed early, based on their behavior in prison as well as their participation in educational programs. In other words, if they’re truly making an effort to change their ways, to be rehabilitated and to prepare for a new life after incarceration, give them a break.

The proposal will need nearly 600,000 registered voters’ signatures to qualify for the ballot, but Brown has millions of dollars in his campaign war chest that he can put toward the cause.

The plan is intriguing. There’s no doubt we’d all like to hope that criminals, at least some of them, could use their prison time constructively and become valued members of society when their terms are up. Who wouldn’t like to see these men and women turn their lives around, find jobs on the outside and make a contribution to the society they once victimized?

As such, many of our top law enforcement and prison officials have instituted educational and job-training programs. It’s the old “teach-a-man-to-fish” mentality. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, either. The goal is to reduce recidivism, and that’s always a worthy goal.

We’re just not sure Brown’s plan will really work. Most of our courts already reduce the sentences for most men and women convicted of crimes - even violent crimes. There are reductions for time served and good behavior - even though we all know “good behavior” is a farce. Criminals wouldn’t be in prison if they had exhibited any good behavior on the outside, would they?

AB 109 and Proposition 47 already have helped reduce our prison population, but neither has made things better. They’ve only freed criminals who could stand a few more years in prison. Many of those we’ve freed were so-called nonviolent offenders, but that hasn’t stopped them from committing more crimes. Instead, we’ve seen local crime rates increase for the first time in years.

We’re all for trying to rehabilitate prisoners, but excuse us if we’re wary about early releases. Really, we think a better approach would be for Brown to work to overhaul Proposition 47 and to propose even tougher sentences for criminals as well as an end to early release or reduced sentences via plea bargains.

Tougher penalties might be more of a deterrent to all criminals, violent or nonviolent. In the end, all criminals should know if they commit the crime, they’ll do the time.

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Feb. 3

Orange County Register on health care costs for retirees:

California has rightly received a good deal of attention for the unfunded pension liabilities - estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars - that current and future taxpayers will have to pay, but far less attention has been paid to its retiree health care obligations, which have also increased markedly.

The state’s retiree health care liability stands at $74.2 billion - up $2.4 billion from last year - according to a report published by State Controller Betty Yee’s office. That is up from $59.9 billion (a 24 percent increase) just five years ago. Without changes, this deficit is expected to rise to $100 billion in five years, and $300 billion by fiscal year 2047-48.

“California has a duty to ensure it can meet obligations to workers who earned these retirement benefits,” Ms. Yee said in a statement. “We need to assure through collective bargaining that we set aside money to meet this obligation and keep the state on sound fiscal footing.”

Unlike pensions, other post-employment benefits, such as retiree health and dental care, are funded on a pay-as-you-go system, which does not account for the full cost of the benefits earned each year. “While the current fiscal year’s budget sets aside $1.9 billion to cover just actual costs, a true accounting of existing and future costs would have required more than $5 billion,” Ms. Yee reported. “To take advantage of the hefty reduction in liability from full prefunding, the state would have needed to contribute $3.99 billion” in the current fiscal year - more than twice as much as the state actually contributed.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to fully prefund future benefits (via collective bargaining with the state’s employee unions) over the next 30 years, which he projects will save $240 billion.

In light of mounting liabilities and the fact that retiree health care is a lucrative benefit unavailable to the vast majority of private sector workers, California should join most other states in starting to prefund these benefits, in addition to making necessary benefit reductions and requiring employees to share a greater portion of the rising costs.

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Jan. 29

Press-Enterprise on the state’s economy:

In government-burdened California, any break is welcome. And we got it. The outlook for California’s economy improved against the other states, according to the eighth edition of “Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index,” just out from the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The authors aggregated 15 economic variables, including tax rates, unemployment, debt service and the statewide minimum wage. Those authors are three economists: Arthur Laffer, who helped craft President Reagan’s tax cuts, staff opinion columnist Stephen Moore and Jonathan Williams.

Among the 50 states, California ranked 44th in 2015 in Economic Outlook, which anticipates future economic performance. Not great, but better than last year’s 47th place. Two states from a year ago remain below us, New York and Bernie Sanders’ Vermont. Illinois, under new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and his plan “to grow jobs and lower taxes,” jumped over California, from 48th place to 40th.

Dropping below California as of 2015 were Oregon, Connecticut, Minnesota and Gov. Chris Christie’s New Jersey.

The main causes of California’s low ranking are the nation’s highest top personal income tax rate, 13.3 percent. By contrast, No. 1 Texas has no state income tax. Average workers’ compensation costs here were a shocking $3.48 per $100 of payroll, indicating the 2004 reform needs to be revisited. And the jobs-killing state minimum wage of $9 per hour last year was sixth-highest. It just rose to $10.

On the positive side, the Golden State has no state inheritance tax, and its tax limitation initiatives, especially Proposition 13 from 1978, rank third-best. Proposition 13’s limits on property taxes often are blamed for the state government’s financial problems. But the state still ranks 25th for property taxes collected. The reason is that California real estate has soared so much in value, boosting property tax revenue.

We would add that the Proposition 30 income tax increase from 2012 has a good chance of expiring on schedule after 2018, which would further improve the state’s ranking. Any relief from excessive government burdens would be welcome.

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