- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Feb. 11

The Press-Democrat on retirement security:

Americans are getting older and living longer, yet too many of us are woefully unprepared for retirement.

Consider these numbers from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research: 52 percent of U.S. households are at risk of running out of money during retirement - up from 31 percent in 1983. And 45 percent of all households have no retirement savings to augment Social Security payments.

Is Congress doing anything about this crisis in the making? Yes. Republicans in the House are poised to make it worse.



California is rolling out an IRA-style savings plan for people whose employers don’t offer pensions or retirement savings programs. That’s no small number. Barely half of California workers have access to 401(k) accounts or other employer-sponsored retirement plans, according to a study published last year. The national average is 58 percent.

Planning for the California Secure Choice retirement savings plan began in 2012, and it received authorization last year from the U.S. Department of Labor. Several other states are working on similar plans in which a small percentage of an employee’s income is placed in a state-sponsored retirement savings account.

Employers aren’t required to contribute any money, and employees are free to opt out. Employees will determine how much money is withheld and will be allowed to direct how their money is invested.

But with Oregon about to launch the first of these programs, House Republicans, acting at the behest of Wall Street investment banks, are moving to overturn the Labor Department’s authorization.

The investment banks contend that Secure Choice and similar savings plans will compete unfairly with their products. That claim seems specious, as the state-sponsored plans will be available only to people whose employers don’t offer retirement benefits. And there isn’t much money to be made selling retirement programs to small companies and low-wage workers.

With the Trump administration seeking to delay, and probably rescind, an Obama administration regulation requiring financial advisers to put their clients’ best interests first when advising them on retirement savings, killing off Secure Choice would be an enormous disservice to millions of hardworking people who want - and need - to set aside money for retirement.

But news accounts say the House could vote to do so as early as next week, even though there has yet to be a single public hearing on the proposal.

As many as 6.8 million people will be eligible for California’s Secure Choice program, which is expected to start next year. Saving money isn’t easy, and this program won’t change that. But it would help improve the quality of life in retirement for some Californians.

Justice Louis Brandeis described states as laboratories of democracy, capable of trying “novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Republicans embraced the philosophy for generations. They shouldn’t forget it now that they control Congress and the White House.

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Feb. 14

The Fresno Bee on the electric vehicle industry:

It was nearly a year ago when Elon Musk, basking in the adulation of several dozen screaming fans, took the stage in Southern California to unveil his company’s newest electric car, the sleek Tesla Model 3 sedan.

“You will not be able to buy a better car for $35,000,” he promised, “even with no options.”

It was a bold assertion coming from an entrepreneur whose company leads a still-fledgling industry with consistently sluggish sales. Gas prices remain so low, the network of charging stations so sparse and the price of electric cars so high that even with government rebates, few Americans are switching to zero-emission vehicles.

Even in California, where the plan is to put 1.5 million electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road by 2025, only about 71,000 of them are being sold every year. That’s far short of the annual sales goal of 175,000 cars, even though the state is home to about half of all electric vehicles registered in the country.

Something has to change, and chances are, that change will start with Tesla.

The Model 3 will get more than 200 miles on a charge, fit five adults, go zero to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds and come with Tesla’s autonomous driving feature, Autopilot.

After Musk’s speech last year, more than 370,000 people put $1,000 deposits on the Model 3. For comparison, consider that only 84,275 electric vehicles were sold all of last year in the United States, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

If the sedan proves to be a hit, then it’s likely to solidify Tesla - and California - as a leading maker of electric cars.

Work on prototypes will start this month and could be unveiled soon. By 2018, the company expects to churn out 500,000 of the sedans a year, in addition to its luxury Model S and Model X cars. To do that, Telsa expects to add more than 3,200 employees to its workforce of more than 6,000 in Fremont.

Tesla has become a successful, next-generation manufacturing company, along the lines of what President Donald Trump has said he wants to create in the United States. Concerns remain about how Tesla treats its workers - some have complained they aren’t paid enough and that efforts to unionize have been thwarted - but, on balance, what Musk is doing is a model worth replicating.

If the Model 3 ends up being a dud, then the industry could shift to companies such as General Motors, which sells the Chevy Bolt EV, and international automakers such as Nissan, which makes the Leaf. Other companies, including Ford, Toyota and Volvo, are entering the market, too, banking on the coming era of electric autonomous vehicles operated by Uber, Lyft and Google.

Questions remain about how the electric car industry will take shape under a Trump administration that’s openly skeptical of how man-made carbon emissions affect climate change. But for now, California and Tesla have the fast track on building the nation’s next transportation network.

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Feb. 11

Pasadena Star-News on education secretary’s impact on California teacher unions:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ nomination and approval certainly riled up teachers unions across the country, causing panic that their power over education policy may finally be challenged.

DeVos has made clear that advocating for school choice will be a central part of how she approaches her job, something that evidently unnerves the education establishment.

“DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, upon DeVos’ confirmation. Similarly, the National Education Association took the occasion to call for “resistance” to the “Trump-DeVos agenda.”

What precisely constitutes this agenda isn’t clear, but most of the rhetoric flung around involves fear-mongering that public education is suddenly at risk, that corporate profiteers will be let loose to exploit students and that poor and minority students are at risk of not getting the sort of education they need.

The panicked rhetoric seems to stem from DeVos’ long history of advocacy for charter schools and school vouchers. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos and her husband have championed charter schools - to positive effect.

According to studies conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Michigan charter school students, on average, “make larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics” than Michigan students in traditional public schools. Similar findings were identified in Detroit charter schools, with African American, Hispanic, low-income and special education students making larger gains in both reading and mathematics than students in traditional schools.

With respect to vouchers, the experience of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program has demonstrated that voucher programs can yield positive educational outcomes, including higher graduation rates.

Notably, DeVos has repeatedly stressed that education policy is better made at the state and local level, which, if she sticks to her word, should allay any rational concern that what we’ll see is expansive federal overreach into education, which certainly should be avoided.

Of course, the hyperpoliticized teachers unions can’t resist appealing to manufactured fear over DeVos to advance their own agenda. The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, for example, are asking Californians to take a pledge in support of “the public education all California’s students deserve.” According to the unions, attaining public education that students deserve requires one to support sanctuary cities and the belief that “social justice for all begins with a quality, free public education,” whatever that means.

Are California students receiving a quality public education today? Less than half of California students met statewide reading and math standards last year, with just 48 percent meeting or exceeding reading standards and only 37 percent doing the same in mathematics. Minority and low-income students fare even worse under a status quo that has seen consistent growth in school budgets, bond funding and teacher pension obligations, but abysmal educational outcomes.

Perhaps what threatens teachers unions the most is the prospect of a renewed focus on accountability, competition and choice in education. Parents want the best education for their students. Whether education is made available via traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools, what ultimately matters is whether students actually receive the best education they can get.

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Feb. 13

San Diego Union-Tribune on state reservoirs and public safety:

The end of the latest in a series of storms to hammer Northern California has at least temporarily eased the crisis conditions at the Oroville Dam, 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, but the situation became dire quickly this weekend. Late Sunday afternoon, fears that Lake Oroville - the state’s second-largest reservoir - would overflow and send billions of gallons of water down the dam’s damaged spillway were so strong that authorities ordered the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people in neighboring towns.

An unlined emergency spillway that had never been used since construction of the 770-foot-tall dam was completed in 1968 was rushed into service after the main spillway was found to be gouged in recent days by a hole that has grown to be an estimated 45 feet deep and more than 200 feet across. The dam itself is in strong shape, but spillway repairs are expected to cost $100 million to $200 million. The sudden erosion amounts to a wake-up call for state officials to upgrade their maintenance efforts at Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States, and the nine other large reservoirs built in California from 1927 to 1979.

“A 50-year-old person isn’t as robust as a 16-year-old,” Bob Bea, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at UC Berkeley, told the Bay Area News Group. “And neither is a 50-year-old dam. Most of our infrastructure dates back to this time period. It’s now in its old age - the geriatrics phase - and we are still using a reactive approach to manage these systems. We wait until we have a big problem. It is much more cost-effective and safe to be proactive than waiting to fix something after an infrastructure disaster.”

A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown says “public safety, sound engineering and smart water management will continue to guide decision-making.” With a deep snowpack and more wet weather ahead, Brown and his administration must seize this opportunity to check all the state’s reservoirs.

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Feb. 10

San Francisco Chronicle on the electrification of Caltrain:

The long-awaited Caltrain electrification project is at risk of falling victim to congressional Republicans’ skepticism about high-speed rail. It’s an unacceptable situation that could cost Bay Area commuters dearly over the next generation - and nothing about it is necessary.

On Jan. 24, the 14 GOP members of California’s House delegation sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, asking her to block a pending $650 million federal grant that the Transportation Department could make to the Caltrain rail agency.

The grant was originally processed by the Obama administration, which executed it shortly before President Trump took office.

Under federal law, the grant has to go through a congressional vetting before it can be approved. That process has a 30-day window, which means that Chao’s decision could make or break the grant. The grant will be matched with local, regional, and state financial commitments.

The Caltrain electrification project has been in the works for many years.

Replacing the system’s diesel equipment with electric trains will allow for higher system performance, increased capacity, and better service on a crucial commuter corridor between San Francisco and the South Bay.

The region’s economic growth depends on giving people access to transportation, and the rail system is already over maximum rider capacity at peak hour service. Thousands of jobs will be created by the electrification project; Caltrain officials have estimated that it will generate more than $2.5 billion in economic value for the region.

For all of these reasons, both transportation and elected officials have spent years crafting a program to modernize Caltrain. But an electrified Caltrain corridor is also necessary for any statewide high-speed rail project - and California’s House GOP members see high-speed rail as a boondoggle.

We don’t believe this belief is a fair one - high-speed rail will bring long-term economic and environmental benefits for California. But when it comes to the matter of Caltrain’s electrification, the debate over high-speed rail shouldn’t derail it.

The electrification project will be a boon to not only California’s economy but the nation’s economy, regardless of whether or not high-speed rail gets built.

There is no reasonable explanation to hold the electrification project hostage to politicians’ skepticism about a different project.

Perhaps it won’t be. Trump has promised to increase infrastructure spending in the U.S., and this would be a fine opportunity. The electrification project would also provide hundreds of American jobs - another priority of this administration.

Trump has even signaled support for high-speed rail in general, so he may not be as skeptical as California’s House GOP members are of a badly needed project that could one day lead to a bullet train. Signing off on this funding would be an excellent way for the Trump administration to make progress on a campaign promise.

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