- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

July 13

Redlands Daily Facts on problems with the state’s pension system:

The beleaguered California Public Employees’ Retirement System has been plagued by exceedingly generous retirement benefits for government employees, overly optimistic actuarial assumptions and some years of poor investment performance - exacerbated by excessively risky, politically driven and otherwise bad investment decisions, including the questionable use of private equity firms with large fees.

It now has only about 73 percent of the assets needed to cover its liabilities.

Unfortunately, the news is not getting any better, as the pension fund lost 2 percent of its market value during the just-ended fiscal year. That is significantly below the pension system’s 7.5 percent assumed annual investment return and discount rate. If the pension fund underperforms, or other actuarial assumptions turn out to be overly optimistic, taxpayers have to make up the difference.

And it looks to be much more than the case of just a bad year or two. In fact, the next three to five years are expected to be “a challenging market environment, not just for CalPERS, but for all investors,” CalPERS chief investment officer Ted Eliopoulos said during a committee meeting. “It’s going to test us.”

State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, knows a thing or two about failed government investments, having gained fame - and public office - after predicting Orange County’s bankruptcy in 1994. “What has me baffled is that this is causing me great anxiety, but it does not seem to have the same impact on my colleagues in Sacramento,” Mr. Moorlach told the Orange County Register. “The governor has just signed the largest budget in state history, but he is not making any effort to prepay CalPERS, a 7.5 percent interest-rate charging debt.”

“CalPERS, like virtually all of its peers, is in deep denial about its fix,” writes Yves Smith on the nakedcapitalism.com blog. “While CalPERS is effectively accountable to no one, by virtue of having a protected status in the state constitution and an exceptionally weak and cronyistic board, if it continues with its delusional posture that it can earn its way out of its underfunded position, pushback is inevitable.”

More realistic assumptions would be welcome, but real reform will necessitate reining in government pay and benefits to private-sector levels and replacing the current pension system with 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement plans for employees.

Some defenders of the status quo, particularly public employees unions, pooh-pooh the dire pension fiscal warnings. Those beating the drum for public pension reform are merely “crying like Chicken Little about how the sky is falling,” Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a coalition of unions representing 1.6 million active and retired public employees, insisted to the Register.

But the tales of financial ruin have proven all too true for many governments. For examples of the results without reform, just look at Vallejo, or San Bernardino, or Detroit. Or just ask Sen. Moorlach, who heard the derisive Chicken Little claims more than a few times before Orange County went bankrupt. His license plate, as he related in his recent e-newsletter, says it all: “SKY FELL.”

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July 15

San Jose Mercury News on doing away with the death penalty:

California’s death penalty has been a failure on every level.

Capital punishment is barbaric, unfairly applied and does not prevent crime any more effectively than the prospect of life in prison. Since 1978, the state has spent more than $4 billion on just 13 executions: Imagine if, instead, the money had been spent on education, on rehabilitating young offenders or on catching more murderers, rapists and other violent criminals.

That’s how to reduce crime and prevent more people from becoming victims.

Proposition 62 in November would make California the 20th state to abolish the death penalty in favor of life in prison with no chance of parole. It’s time. No, past time. Vote yes.

A competing ballot measure, Proposition 66, aims to remedy some of the costs and delays in the current system by speeding up the process of killing convicts. Speed is the hallmark of places like China, where the average length of time on death row is estimated at 50 days. It is the opposite of what nations concerned with actual justice would do.

In the United States, for every 10 prisoners who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one person on death row has been set free. One in 10. California has 748 inmates on death row, and the likelihood of uncovering mistakes continues to grow with advances in DNA and other forensics.

Why not just lock up killers for life? Costs will plunge. The guilty will never see the daylight of freedom again.

District attorneys throughout the state argue that the death penalty is a tool to condemn society’s most vicious criminals. But this claim flies in the face of actual evidence: For every year between 2008-2013, the average homicide rate of states without the death penalty was significantly lower than those with capital punishment.

Those same district attorneys have unfairly applied the death penalty in California.

In the past 10 years, Riverside County has condemned murderers to death row at more than five times the statewide rate. Residents of Alameda County are nearly eight times as likely to be sentenced to death than residents of Santa Clara County. And juries in California are much more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than a white defendant.

The independent Legislative Analysts Office estimates that abolishing the death penalty would reduce state costs by $150 million every year. The money could be used to prevent crime by, as one example, solving more homicide and rape cases, putting away predators who otherwise would claim more victims. It could be used for education — lack of a high school diploma is one of the best predictors of a life of crime - and for addiction and mental health programs that keep people out of the penal system, giving police more time to deal with serious crime.

Donald Heller wrote the 1978 proposition that brought back capital punishment. He now favors abolishing it. He knows that it costs California $90,000 a year more per prisoner on death row than it costs to jail our worst criminals for life.

No other Western nation has the death penalty. California shouldn’t share the values of places such as North Korea, China, Pakistan, Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It should shed this dehumanizing and costly practice - and not speed it up, as Proposition 66 aims to do. That would actually magnify the inequity and sometimes outright injustice in the death penalty’s application.

Vote no on Proposition 66 - and vote yes on Proposition 62. Abolish the death penalty in California.

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July 19

San Francisco Chronicle on reforming the foster care system:

Years of painstaking reforms have gone into California’s foster care system. One of the major victories of this reform has been the California Continuum of Care act, enacted in October 2015 to increase standards of care for foster children, add support for their caregivers, and reduce the number of children held in group home placements.

Unfortunately, Congress may undo much of California’s hard work.

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed S3065, known as the Family First Prevention Services Act. The bill, which has its benefits, would be a major overhaul to federal funding for foster care. But the bill would also create some very serious challenges for states that have already started moving in the right direction. That’s why states like California and New York are urging the U.S. Senate to give S3065 the scrutiny - and amendments - the bill deserves.

The bill would limit group home placements to children who have been diagnosed with serious emotional or behavioral disorders. The idea is to reduce the use of group homes, which is a major goal of most child advocates. (Overwhelmingly, children have better outcomes in settings with family members or with foster families.) The problem is that the bill doesn’t replace group homes with an alternative option or additional services for children who have major behavioral challenges.

“The question is, where do they go?” said Amy Lemley, executive director of the John Burton Foundation.

As of January 2016, California had just over 5,400 children and young people living in group homes. That’s about 9 percent of our total foster care population. California is actively attempting to reduce the number of children in group homes with its current law, but this goal must be achieved with care - not in a willy-nilly fashion.

Part of the reason for reducing group homes in S3065 is that the bill would redirect spending toward providing support for families before children are removed from their homes, not after.

This a positive policy change. Providing supportive services to struggling families can prevent the need to remove a child from her home in the first place. That’s a win for the child, the family and the entire community.

But S3065 focuses the supportive services on families where children are at “imminent risk” rather than “moderate” or even “high” risk. Many child advocates are concerned that the services will be given to families where the children are already in danger - in lieu of foster care services to protect the child.

These are not insurmountable issues. The Senate just needs to amend S3065 instead of rushing to pass it. The nation’s foster youth - our children, our collective responsibility - deserve no less.

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July 15

Los Angeles Times on banning the use of Styrofoam products:

San Francisco county supervisors recently adopted the nation’s strictest ban on polystyrene foam, prohibiting its use in takeout containers and shipping materials and barring the sale of foam retail products. No more packing peanuts or cheap picnic coolers for sale in the City by the Bay.

The new law is entirely in step with San Francisco’s uber-progressive and sometimes unusual policies, but it’s extreme. By contrast, the other 90 or so California cities and counties that have adopted polystyrene bans in the last decade have appropriately focused on the most troublesome form of the plastic foam: single-use takeout food and beverage containers. After cigarette butts and scrap pieces of hard plastic, soft polystyrene foam - known popularly, if incorrectly, as Styrofoam - is the third most-common source of trash washing up on local beaches, according to Heal the Bay. Not surprising, given that Americans discard 2.5 billion foam cups every year and rarely recycle their used polystyrene takeout containers.

But it’s the stuff that doesn’t wash up on the beach, and remains in the water, that causes the biggest environmental concern. Polystyrene foam doesn’t biodegrade like organic material. Instead, it breaks down into small pellets that are hard to clean up - and are nicely bite-sized for fish and fowl. That’s not just icky; it’s potentially poisonous for marine creatures and the humans who eat them. Polystyrene absorbs toxins in the water, such as DDT, a carcinogenic pesticide still in use outside the United States, and PCBs, which are also suspected carcinogens.

Polystyrene pollution is a real problem that is getting worse, despite intense recycling and trash-reduction efforts. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch keeps growing, fed by a steady stream of disposable-plastic waste. One report by the World Economic Forum warns that if plastics continue to be dumped into the ocean at their current rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

It’s time for the state to turn off the trash tap. That effort has been underway at the local level for the last decade; Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and other coastal cities have passed laws prohibiting food service businesses from using to-go containers made of polystyrene foam. The Pasadena City Council on Tuesday voted to do the same, and Culver City, which sits along the storm drain-fed Ballona Creek, is considering a ban of its own. The city and county of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Unified School District have prohibited the use of polystyrene in their facilities and schools. And more cities and counties may be inspired by San Francisco’s bold action to adopt their own version of a ban.

San Francisco’s rule may not be the best model, at least at the moment, because of its scope. Foam packing material is not as likely to be tossed in the street, and in some cases, there is no reasonable substitute. In addition, polystyrene is 98 percent air and so lightweight that replacing it with cardboard or other packing material could raise shipping weights. If more fuel is required to transport the same goods, that would increase greenhouse gas emissions. Simply swapping one environmental ill for another is no solution.

Regardless, the spread of local restrictions on polystyrene use is fast becoming a nightmare for businesses, such as food trucks or chain restaurants, that operate in more than one California city. And that’s a good thing, because it may take a critical mass of cities adopting different versions of plastic foam bans to generate a comprehensive statewide ban. It wasn’t until local governments created a messy patchwork of plastic-bag ordinances that the Legislature found the courage to take on the powerful plastic bag lobby and ban single-use plastic bags throughout California.

At the moment the top priority for environmentalists is getting voters to support a ballot measure to ratify the ban on single-use plastic bags. (The anti-trash measure that lawmakers adopted nearly two years ago was put on hold until a ballot challenge by plastic bag makers is voted on in November.) After that, they should prepare for the next big trash fight.

It won’t be easy. The polystyrene lobby and business groups will fight hard to try to stop such a ban, as they did unsuccessfully in San Francisco. They will argue that the bigger problem is litter and that the real solution is doing a better job of recycling foam, or maybe even finding a way to turn plastic trash into energy. If the industry can get those things going soon, more power to them. For now, however, we need to stop the flow of polystyrene foam trash into the ocean.

In some ways, polystyrene foam is worse than single-use plastic bags. Both are recyclable, but about three times as many single-use plastic bags are diverted from the landfill in California than the approximately 1 percent of plastic foam that is recycled. Many cities do not accept polystyrene when collecting recyclables at the curb. (Los Angeles does, so long as it is clean.)

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July 15

The Press-Democrat on gun control laws:

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a significant expansion of California’s gun control laws.

You’re excused if you missed it. The governor signed six bills and vetoed five others, acting without fanfare at the start of a holiday weekend and just before he left on vacation.

People will quibble with his choices. Some are vowing to defy the new laws, which take effect Jan. 1. On balance, we believe these laws will promote public safety, and they won’t trample on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.

The new laws will:

-Prohibit the sale or possession of semi-automatic rifles equipped with “bullet buttons,” a feature allowing rapid removal and replacement of ammunition magazines.

-Prohibit the sale or possession of ammunition magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds.

-Require anyone purchasing ammunition to show ID and have their name checked against a list of felons and others prohibited from owning firearms.

-Increase penalties for filing false theft reports for firearms.

-Require a background check to lend a weapon to anyone other than a close family member.

Brown vetoed bills that would have required people to report lost or stolen guns within five days, required registration of home-made firearms, limited Californians to buying one rifle or shotgun per month and allowing co-workers or school officials to ask a court to declare someone dangerous and confiscate their firearms for a year. (Family members are allowed to seek such an order under a law that took effect this year.)

The governor’s actions came about a week after he signed a state budget that includes $5 million for a UC-based institute to research gun violence - which Congress has effectively prohibited at the federal level.

Sacramento lawmakers are accustomed to criticism. But it’s worth noting that by enacting these laws, the Legislature responded to public demands to address gun violence, which were amplified by a mass shooting that killed 14 people at a Christmas party in San Bernardino and another that left 49 dead in a Florida nightclub. Congress remains stalemated, with the Republican leadership in the House unwilling to even schedule a vote, despite approximately 30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. every year. Even the massacre of five police officers in Dallas doesn’t appear to have altered the views of gun control opponents in Washington.

California voters could tighten gun laws even further by approving an initiative on the November ballot that covers much of the same ground as the legislation and also would make gun theft a felony, require ammunition dealers to be licensed and establish a process for seizing firearms from felons.

No law will prevent every shooting, and millions of firearms remain in circulation. Moreover, California has no control over permissive laws in Arizona and Nevada. But the state’s new laws still should slow the proliferation of arms designed for rapid killing and give law enforcement additional tools for keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals.

With recent research indicating that the percentage of American households that own firearms has fallen to a 35-year low, California’s new laws might mark a shift in public views that Congress should consider as it avoids voting on gun safety legislation.

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