- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Oct. 7

The Sacramento Bee on abolishing the death penalty:

Californians face a life-or-death choice on Nov. 8: Pass an initiative that promises to make capital punishment more efficient, or join the march of human history by abolishing the death penalty.

We urge abolition. Although Proposition 62 would end the death penalty in California, a “yes” vote would not imply a scintilla of sympathy for the 747 condemned murderers in California. Instead, it acknowledges the reality that the death penalty is dysfunctional and beyond repair.

Even if voters approve Proposition 62, death row inmates would never take a breath outside prison walls, nor should they. Their sentences would be converted to life in prison without parole. The most serious penalty for the worst murderers in the future also would be life in prison without parole.

The alternative, Proposition 66, was written by prosecutors and promises to speed executions. In time and after much litigation, it might succeed to some extent. But given California’s generally liberal bent, this state will never become one where executions are common.

To predict a future under Proposition 66, look at the past and present. California reinstated the death penalty first by legislation in 1977, and by initiative in 1978. John Briggs, a state senator who promoted that 1978 initiative, paid a young lawyer $5,000 to write it. That attorney, Don Heller of Sacramento, became an opponent of the death penalty, as did Briggs’ son, former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs.

John Briggs’ vision of expanding the death penalty failed. Of the 930 people sentenced to death since 1978, 15 have been executed, two of them by other states. Another 104 died of natural causes, suicide or drug overdoses, and 64 had their sentences reduced.

Nationally, capital punishment has become uncommon. Courts and governors in a half-dozen states have imposed actual or de facto moratoriums, California included, and the Nebraska Legislature abolished capital punishment last year, though voters there are contemplating a referendum to reinstate it.

The Death Penalty Information Center counts 16 executions this year, down from 28 in 2015, and 98 in 1999. All of the state-sanctioned killings were in Southern states, seven of them in Texas and six in Georgia. Jurors nationally have imposed fewer death sentences, 49 last year, down from 114 in 2010.

Proposition 66 pledges would counter that trend by compelling completion of death penalty appeals within five years, and limiting collateral appeals, or habeas corpus petitions. The measure would relieve the California Supreme Court of some death penalty work by shifting aspects to trial and appellate courts, and increase the number of lawyers who represent death row inmates. As it is, inmates must wait years to get an appellate lawyer.

It makes sense on paper. But lawyers cannot be compelled to handle death cases. And the death penalty defense bar is a tenacious, creative and determined group. Although the initiative might shorten state court appeals, California voters have no direct impact on the federal court system where lifetime tenured judges decide cases on their own terms, or don’t.

Nothing in the initiative forces the Legislature and governor to increase funding to pay for the additional appellate costs - estimated by the legislative analyst to be in the tens of millions annually. Politics being what they are, lawmakers would find many more popular places to spend money.

“It will spawn years and possibly decades of litigation,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

California’s method of execution is lethal injection, adopted in 1992, supposedly as a more humane alternative to the gas chamber. In 2006, a federal judge ruled that California’s three-drug lethal injection was deficient. Since then, the state has been revising the method, or, more accurately, slow-walking the revision. Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who morally oppose capital punishment, are in no hurry to hasten executions.

Proposition 66 might resolve that lethal-injection issue by embedding into law a method that courts have deemed to be constitutional. But even if it all works, Californians must ask themselves whether they want an efficient death penalty system, and all that would entail.

There would need to be more than an execution a day, every day, for two years to empty death row. The cost of administering the system would be huge, and no governor, attorney general, warden or correctional officer would want that many deaths haunting their conscience.

If the state were to become efficient at carrying out executions, the time inevitably would come when one of the men - they’re almost all men - who is put to death would be severely mentally ill or intellectually deficient, would have been represented by incompetent lawyers, or, worst of all, innocent.

Sooner rather than later, questions of equal treatment would come to the fore. African Americans account for 36 percent of the condemned population, far surpassing their percentage of the state’s population. Riverside County represents less than 6 percent of the state’s population, but has sent 89 people to death row, almost 12 percent of the total. San Francisco, by contrast, has just one person on death row.

Whether the death penalty is a deterrent or not - the weight of the evidence says it’s not - thoughtful supporters can muster powerful arguments for capital punishment. Vengeance and retribution are among them, as many survivors of murder victims can attest. Ask any homicide detective or career prosecutor, or even many social workers, and you will hear details of depravity beyond comprehension.

Their arguments, all heartfelt, are not without merit. We understand them. For most of this newspaper’s history, The Sacramento Bee supported capital punishment. But there also are good reasons why so many oppose it, not least the extent to which state-sanctioned killing makes all of us complicit. We changed our position in 2012 when California faced the question of abolition in the form of Proposition 34.

Since voters narrowly rejected that initiative, little has changed, except that 20 more condemned inmates beat the executioner by dying of natural causes or suicide. And the questions persist about our collective willingness to carry out the ultimate penalty, about the vagaries of an imperfect justice system, and the fundamental principle we learned as children: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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Oct. 10

Ventura County Star on the cost of health care:

America needs to tackle the issue of health care costs. One of the leading factors in that is the cost of prescription drugs.

One of the state propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot attempts to do just that. Proposition 61 is an attempt to lower the cost of drugs for some Californians who receive their health care through state-run programs.

The proposition would limit the cost of drugs for people in those programs to no more than the cost that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for the same drugs.

But no one knows if this complex idea would work, or if it might even backfire and result in higher drug costs for those in the VA program. It is an example of bad ballot box legislating and should be rejected by voters.

Even if it does pass, in all reality it would have no impact on the drug prices that most of you pay.

We strongly believe there needs to be a national effort to address the issue of prescription drug prices in this country. Drug manufacturers set an arbitrarily high price for each drug they produce. It is like the manufactured suggested retail price you see on cars, or the per-night charge you find on the doors of hotels - a price hardly anyone ever pays.

The actual price is dependent primarily on how, and who, pays the bulk of your health care costs. The bigger the group you affiliate with and the stronger its might, the lower the possible costs.

If the drug manufacturer can work out a deal where your insurer will buy its green pills as opposed to someone else’s green pills to treat the same illness, it sells more green pills and will agree to lower the price (which means it sees reduced profits for each pill but still makes a profit through the higher volume).

Veterans Affairs has negotiated lower prices for many drugs. Proposition 61 would prohibit state agencies from paying more for a prescription drug than the lowest price paid by the VA for the same drug.

Even though there is a public database of the lowest price the VA pays for drugs, it does not include all drugs because the agency is allowed to exclude those where the manufacturer - as part of the price deal - wants the pricing to be secret.

So even if the state were to try to implement Prop. 61, it might not even be able to get the VA price for all drugs because there is no guarantee the state could find out the actual price for all the drugs.

Then there is the reaction from the drug companies.

They have built a $54 million campaign war chest to fight this proposition (including $5.6 million from Thousand Oaks-based Amgen Inc.). Their efforts are producing those television ads that many of you have seen that say Prop. 61 “would raise” the price of drugs for veterans.

That is not accurate. The price of drugs for veterans would only go up if the drug companies themselves - the same people who are creating the ads to warn you of this eventuality - decide to raise their prices. They would do that to prevent California from getting the same price deal now given to the VA.

In the end, this legislation would impact the price of prescription drugs for only about one in 10 Californians. It would only affect those individuals who are in the Medi-Cal fee-for-service program (which is about 25 percent of Medi-Cal recipients), plus those who receive health coverage through the state retirement plan, some state college students and some other state employees.

In all probability, it would create a new state bureaucracy that would be charged with trying to figure out the lowest VA price and negotiating those prices with the drug companies.

No one knows if that would work.

Drug costs are a complex issue that is not easily understood by experts and should not be determined at the ballot box. Vote no on Proposition 61.

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Oct. 11

Fresno Bee on funds for school construction and repairs:

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown has embraced the responsibility for paying down debt and saying no to unnecessary state spending.

And so voters should take heed of Brown’s flinty stand on Proposition 51, the $9 billion bond to build and repair public schools, with $2 billion of the total earmarked for community colleges.

The California Democratic and Republican parties endorse the measure, as does the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Labor Federation and many elected leaders including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. But Brown is correct, and we side with the governor, with a caveat.

Voters should reject Proposition 51, but Brown should engage in a serious effort with legislators to fashion a smaller school construction bond, while updating the nearly 20-year-old formula for allocating school bond money.

Without doubt, many aging schools need to be remodeled, and some schools should be built to accommodate shifting population. Certainly, community colleges, the second chance for so many people, are vital to our collective future.

But California’s existing $85 billion in bond debt takes a 5 percent bite out of the state’s general fund each year, $5.4 billion this year. The $9 billion debt that would be authorized by Proposition 51 would cost an additional $500 million a year, for the next 30 years.

Voters in local school districts across the state have authorized another $64 billion in bond debt; several districts, including some in the Sacramento region, are seeking voter approval of more bonds on Nov. 8 in anticipation of the all-important state match.

The editorial board generally supports local school bond measures. And even if voters reject Proposition 51, most local measures still would make sense, in anticipation that the governor and legislators will fashion a more thoughtful, slimmed-down version of the current $9 billion proposal.

An alternative - raising local developer fees to pay for schools - is far less desirable. Higher fees jack up housing prices, which already are exorbitant in much of California. And all Californians benefit from clean, well-lit and modern schools, not just the children of people who buy new homes.

Brown raised important concerns earlier this year in his budget proposal, when he said the proposed school bond would not alter the existing allocation system, which was established in 1998 when enrollment was projected to increase. Now, demographers believe enrollment will be flat in the coming years.

The current system allocates money on a first-come, first-served basis, which rewards districts with sophisticated lobby arms, not necessarily districts that have the most need. It also “creates an incentive for districts to build new schools when they already have the capacity to absorb enrollment growth,” the governor’s budget notes.

Voters can be forgiven if they’re confused by the Nov. 8 ballot. Among the 16 other measures is Proposition 53, Stockton-area farmer Dean Cortopassi’s brainchild, which would require statewide votes on a different type of bond, revenue bonds, for public works projects costing $2 billion or more.

Proposition 53, like most quick fixes, is bad idea, though one of Cortopassi’s arguments - that California is too deeply in debt - is not wrong. Debt, in itself, is not terrible, but California needs to be smart about the debt it takes on.

Public schools and community colleges deserve support. But Proposition 51 is inflated and relies on an outdated formula.

Brown should have negotiated more directly two years ago when legislators from both parties were poised to approve a school construction bond. He should not repeat that mistake. Legislators and Brown - especially the governor - need to fashion a smarter bond that will help educate the next generation.

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Oct. 11

Orange County Register on taxing tobacco products:

Tobacco use is a potentially harmful activity associated with many unfortunate outcomes, especially for those who choose to partake. To help offset some of the harms of tobacco use, it can be appropriate to impose taxes to address those harms.

Proposition 56 calls for a $2 tax on tobacco products, purportedly to curtail tobacco use and “save lives,” as the yes on 56 campaign proclaims. If it could be demonstrated not only that such a tax is truly geared toward reducing the harms of tobacco use, but also that the more than $1 billion in expected revenue would be prudently devoted toward that goal, it could merit support.

Prop. 56 fails to meet these basic expectations, however. In addition to taxing demonstrably harmful products like cigarettes, the initiative imposes a new $2 tax on electronic cigarettes, which are not tobacco products and which might actually serve as a less harmful alternative to real cigarettes. Even more troublingly, the initiative does not allocate funds in manner consistent with its promise to “save lives.”

Whereas existing cigarette taxes allocate most revenue toward smoking prevention and breast cancer screening and research programs, this initiative instead allocates most of its funding to increasing reimbursement rates to hospitals and doctors participating in the Medi-Cal system, and relatively little to smoking prevention and research.

It’s improper to conflate Medi-Cal reimbursement with a tobacco tax promoted as a life-saving measure, when the two aren’t related. Moreover, papering over arguably low reimbursement rates with a diminishing revenue stream like a tobacco tax doesn’t seem particularly sustainable.

While there might be justification to raise the tax, this isn’t the right way to do it. A tobacco tax should be geared toward reducing the harms of tobacco use, not bailing out the state from having to discuss complicated issues.

The Editorial Board recommends a no vote on Proposition 56 on Nov. 8.

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Oct. 10

The Pasadena Star-News on keeping temporary taxes temporary:

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program,” economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman used to say. We would pose, as a corollary: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary tax increase” - especially if proponents of Proposition 55 get their way.

Four years ago, California voters approved Proposition 30, which raised sales tax rates by one-quarter cent for every dollar of goods purchased for four years and increased the top marginal income tax rates for those earning more than $250,000 (or $500,000 of household income). This is why California has not just the highest marginal tax rate in the country, but the four highest tax brackets in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation.

Prop. 55 would extend the income tax increases for a whopping 12 years, costing taxpayers between $4 billion and $9 billion a year, or a total of $48 billion to $108 billion over the period. As with Prop. 30, the measure would allocate 89 percent of the tax revenue to K-12 education and 11 percent to community colleges, although under Prop. 55 up to $2 billion per year could also be dedicated to health care programs under certain conditions. Thankfully, it would at least allow the sales tax increase to expire at the end of this year as scheduled.

A major selling point of Prop. 30 was that the tax increases were just a temporary step to get the state through the fiscal crisis caused by the recession. It was even in the title of the measure put before voters: “Temporary Taxes to Fund Education.”

“Prop. 30’s taxes are temporary, balanced and necessary to protect schools and safety,” asserted the ballot argument for the measure. “All new revenue is temporary: Prop. 30’s taxes are temporary, and this initiative cannot be modified without a vote of the people.”

Yet, now that the economy has largely recovered and the state’s coffers are flush, we are presented with . still more taxes.

“Temporary should mean temporary,” John Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, told us. To extend such a “temporary” tax increase would “break the trust” of voters, he added.

During our meeting with Prop. 55 proponents, they noted that, adjusted for inflation, the state has only recently surpassed the prerecession education funding levels, and argued that those levels should be maintained. But it would be foolish and unsustainable to peg spending levels to those at the very apex of the asset bubble, rather than to a point in the middle of the economic cycle.

While Silicon Valley has experienced strong growth since the recession, the same cannot be said for most of the rest of the state. California will not be able to tax its way to prosperity, and imposing more taxes, particularly on those most capable of making investments here (and most capable of leaving or shifting their investments to more business-friendly states) will only reduce job opportunities and suppress economic growth. As Coupal quips, “California’s biggest export is the middle class.”

Let’s put an end to that shameful tradition - and never-ending taxes.

The editorial board recommends a no vote on Proposition 55 on Nov. 8.


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