- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Feb. 18

The Sacramento Bee on providing funds to shore up levees and dams:

No disaster is entirely natural in our re-engineered state and valley. Owing to our hubris, we humans have a direct hand in them all.

We have built cities on earthquake faults, balanced mansions on hillsides that burn in one season and slide into the ocean in the next, and moor boats in marinas where tsunamis are known to strike.

Having dammed almost all major rivers in California and many tributaries and creeks, we have constructed entire cities in what a century or 150 years ago was swamp, and made islands of rocks piled on peat.

And then the bill comes due.

The most immediate bill is for the shattered concrete spillway and eroded emergency spillway at Oroville Dam. Reconstruction will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a debt that must be shouldered by us all.

Direct beneficiaries of the 3.5 million acre-feet of water stored in Lake Oroville will surely pay much of the cost. Altogether, 27 public water agencies serving 26 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland depend on Lake Oroville.

They include the huge Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Kern County farmers, and 3 million people living in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. But they should not bear the entire burden.

All California taxpayers benefit from the dam and the flood control it provides. In December, when Californians were most worried about the drought, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon introduced Senate Bill 5, proposing a statewide vote on a $3 billion bond for water projects and parks.

Parks always are in need and must not be forgotten. But with climate change upon us, we seem destined to toggle between searing drought and raging atmospheric rivers.

De Leon’s staff is amending the bill to include hundreds of millions of dollars for flood control. Local reclamation districts should be called upon to turn to property owners to come up with matching funding.

The nation has a stake in California’s plumbing, too, and the Trump administration opened the way for federal disaster aid last week, appropriately so.

To underscore the urgency of Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for disaster assistance, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose district includes Oroville, sent a letter to the president signed by 10 other California congressional Republicans including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

In California, the aqueducts, like the freeways, make clear that red and blue California are one. McCarthy’s conservative Kern County district relies on Feather River water, as does the Democratic-dominated Silicon Valley.

The ultimate cost of the damage caused by the storms might not be fully known for weeks or even years. Levees could fail when the sun comes out, as happened 21 years ago, almost to the day.

On Feb. 21, 1986, after nine days of rain, a 150-foot section of levee on the Yuba River gave way, flooding Linda and Olivehurst, as reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2005. Why 2005? That was the year the bill came due.

Having lost an inverse condemnation lawsuit, the state of California in 2005 paid $464 million to about 3,000 landowners whose property was damaged in the 1986 deluge. It was a breathtaking, budget-busting sum. As the article noted, the total was more than the annual budgets of the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Fish and Game, or Energy Commission.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger responded with a package of bills to limit future liability and upgrade levees. The main legislative author was then-Assemblyman John Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat who, as Brown’s resources secretary, now is responsible for Oroville and its repairs.

Although that package ended up getting pared back, the effort led in part to a $4 billion bond, approved by voters in 2006, to carry out flood control work. That money has been spent, which probably is one reason there hasn’t been widespread flooding so far in 2017. But it’s only a matter of time.

Ever since the Gold Rush days, Californians have known what a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer so bluntly explained: The intensity of flood conditions in the Sacramento Valley was greater than in any other American river system. That assessment was made in 1927, as recounted in “Battling the Inland Sea,” by the late Robert Kelley, a book that should be read by any policymaker who professes to represent this state.

A century and a half ago, Kelley wrote, rivers would spill from their channels, turning the Central Valley into a sea, which would turn into a swamp in summer months. To hold back the water, we have built 1,500 dams and 20,000 miles of levees.

The Department of Water Resources has estimated as much as $52 billion is needed to shore up levees and dams. There’s another $57 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, the focus of much legislative debate. Billions more are needed for school and university construction and maintenance, another form of infrastructure.

They are impossibly large numbers. But this state and its historic ambitions are impossibly large, too. If we are to maintain the lives we have, literally, built for ourselves here, we must ante up, all of us.


Feb. 21

Mercury News on the state’s retirement plan:

Oh, the irony. Conservatives have led the charge to do away with traditional pensions, especially for public employees, advocating that they should be funneled into retirement savings accounts instead.

Now, along come California and seven other states with plans to offer all private-sector workers the chance to participate in a retirement savings account. And congressional Republicans don’t like that either.

Wake up, GOP. We get it that you don’t want your Wall Street donors to face more competition for their profitable individual retirement account business and 401(k)-style plans. But we have a crisis that needs to be fixed more critically than your friends need to make more money on fees.

The nation isn’t adequately served under the current system. Workers should be encouraged to save for their retirements and not rely only on Social Security.

Yet, roughly six in 10 private-sector workers are not enrolled in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Most of these people will struggle financially after they stop working, or won’t be able to retire at all.

Many will become dependent on taxpayer-funded public services to survive. Thus, it’s in everyone’s best interest to encourage them to save before retirement. You know, take care of themselves. Republicans usually like that.

California’s fledgling Secure Choice plan is a good first step. Scheduled to launch in 2019, it would require employers with five or more employees who do not offer retirement savings accounts to enroll their workers in a state-run plan.

Employees could opt out if they choose. And unlike with public-sector pension systems, neither taxpayers nor employers will be on the hook to make up for investment losses. Employees will bear the risk.

But House Republicans just passed a resolution to block these state-run plans, and the Senate might soon follow. Among all the technical points and diversionary arguments, the main one is that Wall Street investment firms don’t like the state competition.

We would be more sympathetic if those firms were serving all workers. But they’re not even close. That’s in part because the unserved are often lower-wage earners whose retirement accounts would be smaller and less profitable.

By the way, these wouldn’t really be state savings plans. Secure Choice would pool employees who currently lack a plan and solicit bids from a private firm to administer their retirement savings accounts and invest their money.

If the private funds are so concerned about the competition, they should jump on board by bidding to run the program. Or, they could jump out front and compete by offering employers equally good options.

You know, good old market competition. Let the best firm with the best price win.

It’s what the GOP preaches - until it doesn’t.


Feb. 21

Santa Maria Times on balancing local, state and federal regulation of marijuana:

California voters expressed in November the will to make marijuana use recreational, now local governments are left with the problem of finding a way to do that.

City governments have been wrestling with creation of new regulations on growing, selling and using marijuana products, and now the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has stepped into the fray, albeit not unanimously.

The board voted 4-1 at a recent meeting in Santa Maria directing staff to come up with recommendations on guidelines for licensing, permitting, taxing and other fee schedules.

The lone dissenter was 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who expressed concern about the marijuana industry in general, and the momentum legalization has gained in recent years.

Wolf has been active in her support of health and youth organizations, so her concerns seem entirely reasonable. While the medicinal benefits of marijuana have generally been quantified, there remain questions about the weed’s ill effects, especially on children.

The Board of Supervisors asked staff to come back with recommendations on regulations by January of next year, which is the deadline for local jurisdictions to have rules in place, and if they don’t have those policies set up, the county could lose control of marijuana, and the state would regulate the industry.

That seems unlikely, because state policy makers are in just as much of a quandary as their local counterparts.

One might reasonably assume that, given the wave of favorable public sentiment for decriminalizing the medical and recreational uses of marijuana, governments at all levels would have created at least templates for rules and regulations long ago. That’s not how governments roll.

In fact, local governments should get a move-on because losing local control on the marijuana industry could turn out to be a very costly mistake. And besides, when is the last time the California Legislature did something to actually help county governments?

The whole marijuana issue sort of floats above the real world, a fitting analogy if ever there was one. State and local governments can respond to voters’ wishes, but the big question should be asked at the federal level, and that question is - just how much longer will marijuana remain a Class-1 controlled substance? Until the feds provide an answer, research into the weed’s benefits and/or liabilities will remain in limbo.

With that federal restriction hanging over local policy makers’ heads, creating local regulations becomes a guessing game. One participant in last week’s board meeting characterized it as “trying to fly an airplane while building it .” A better comparison might be, fixing an airplane while it’s in flight.

County officials expressed skepticism about their ability to come up with an entire set of permanent regulations by the January 2018 deadline, another clue that the county really didn’t recognize the potential for decriminalization, which suggests haphazard policy making procedure.

What may save counties in that regard is the fact that there is plenty of skepticism about the state’s ability to come up with a set of cogent regulations, an assumption we base on the Legislature’s past performances.

Speakers at last week’s board meeting expressed the need for local regulations being in place, if for no other reason than having the county be in position to collect fees and taxes, thus helping cover enforcement costs.

In fairness to governments struggling to cope with this new marijuana paradigm, there are still too many unknowns, a situation exacerbated by the federal government’s foot-dragging on marijuana research.

Everyone needs to get moving on finding answers, figuring out the unknowns and preparing for the future.


Feb. 17

San Diego Union-Tribune on infrastructure improvements:

There appears to be growing bipartisan momentum in both Washington and Sacramento to approve major infrastructure improvements and repairs. It may be the only thing that President Donald Trump and Gov. Jerry Brown agree on. During his campaign, Trump said he wanted to “build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, sea ports and airports,” and spend up to $1 trillion to do so. That led Brown to send Trump a $100 billion wish list.

Whatever happens, this initiative should not turn into a Christmas tree bill. Every federal project must be vetted to be certain it would boost the economy by making transportation easier or significantly improve public safety or quality of life. On projects where specific industries would benefit, public-private partnerships make sense. An ambitious but smartly crafted and managed program has the potential to win over even some fiscal conservatives. The state’s and the nation’s needs are that real.

But given this larger picture of needs, it is noteworthy that the most prominent project on Brown’s wish list - the state bullet train project - is one that independent vetting would quickly reject. Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in state bonds toward a project then estimated to cost $43 billion, bans operating subsidies for the state bullet-train system. Yet as the Legislative Analyst’s Office pointed out way back in 2010, the rail authority was counting on such subsidies to attract private investors. Potential state partners want guarantees of ridership or revenue to reduce their vulnerability if projections don’t pan out. Seven years later, the state still can’t provide such guarantees and thus still has no project investors and thus still doesn’t have remotely enough money to finish the $31 billion initial segment of a project now estimated to cost $64 billion.

But beyond the basic lack of money and beyond the evidence that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has been poorly managed, a strong reason to oppose the bullet-train project has emerged over the years: ever-increasing doubt about the state’s cost estimates. A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis obtained last month by The Los Angeles Times projects that the cost of building the rail line from Merced to Shafter in the Central Valley would be at least $9.5 billion, contrary to the rail authority’s assertions that it is on budget and that the link will cost $6.4 billion.

That lowballing is nothing new. In 2015, the Times obtained a 2013 analysis from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project’s main contractor, that predicted the $31 billion initial segment would instead cost $40 billion. The authority continues to use the $31 billion estimate.

And in 2014, the San Francisco-based engineering firm URS Corp. complained that it was being “instructed” by the authority to shift projected cost increases to a contingency account to hold estimates down.

This pattern of duplicity shouldn’t just give everyone pause. It should bring the project to a halt so a full audit can be conducted.

A case can be made in both Sacramento and Washington that the time has come for a massive infrastructure measure that is well-crafted, well-budgeted and well-managed. California’s bullet-train project could never qualify for such a program.

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