- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jan. 16

The Fresno Bee on Gov. Brown’s budget:

Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget offers a rather droll assessment of California’s unfair system of levying traffic fines, and a smart solution.

First, the problem: When the state and local governments needed money over the years, they would jack up penalties for traffic infractions.

People cited for a minor infraction might face a base $100 fine. But with various add-ons, the actual cost of clearing the ticket would rise to $541. And if people fail to pay the fine by the deadline, the cost would rise to $815.

The fees and penalties became so high that many poor people couldn’t afford to pay. As a result, the uncollected debt, which had been $5.5 billion in 2009, had grown to $9.7 billion this year, the governor’s latest budget notes. The supposed debt is a fiction; it will never be collected.

People who can’t pay often skip court. Judges will issue warrants for their arrest and will notify the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV then will suspend the individual’s license. That happened to 4.2 million people in an eight-year period ending in 2015, a legislative staff report said.

It’s all part of the price of being poor, and it’s counterproductive.

Without a driver’s license, people who owe fines can’t legally drive. If they can’t drive, they can’t work. And if they aren’t working, they will have no money to pay their bills. But of course many of them still drive. If they are caught driving without a license, they would face a misdemeanor, which could land them in jail and place them in an even deeper hole.

In his new budget, Brown is proposing decoupling the inability to pay traffic fines with the potential loss of driver’s licenses. In the interest of fairness, that makes a great deal of sense.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty has made the problem a cause, pointing out in multiple reports that the burden falls most heavily on blacks and Latinos. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has been advocating an overhaul of the system of traffic penalties and the related bail system, which also falls heaviest on poor people.

As a result of 2015 legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, the state granted amnesty to people who owed hefty traffic fines, allowing them to pay a discounted amount. In its first seven months, the bill allowed 100,000 people to reclaim their licenses and helped 132,000 clear their debts.

That was a good start. Decoupling the loss of a license from a person’s inability to pay would be a smart next step. And the state should study cutting the size of the fines and penalties to a level that people can actually pay.

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Jan. 16

The Press-Enterprise on a sustainable housing project:

A housing developer is trying to do a sustainable development the right way.

State and local officials should recognize it and swiftly approve the project.

It’s no secret that Southern California has a housing shortage and badly needs new housing units. It should be a simple problem to address but building here takes an abnormally long time because of ever-changing rules, regulations and constant lawsuit abuse typically funded by special-interest groups. These efforts are meant to slow down or kill any and all development.

The chief complaint against development is that it hurts the environment. But the master-planned Newhall Ranch housing development in unincorporated northern Los Angeles County near Valencia is poised to both help with our region’s housing shortage while at the same time creating a revolutionarily sustainable community that offsets its environmental impacts with “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions.

The $12.7 billion “Net Zero Newhall” project, which FivePoint Chairman and CEO Emile Haddad refers to as “the first Tesla community,” will consist of up to 21,500 homes (including more than 2,000 affordable units) and 11.5 million square feet of commercial space expected to create 60,000 permanent jobs. Every home will have solar panels and an electric vehicle charging station, and privately-funded transit subsidies will be available to those in affordable housing.

In addition, the developer is setting aside $13 million to manage 10,000 acres of open space and providing $250 million for local and countywide infrastructure improvements.

The project is awaiting final state and county approval. Sadly, though, the first iteration of the project was approved way back in 2003 by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. After the initial approval, lawsuits ensued and in 2015 the California Supreme Court ruled that the developer’s environmental impact report did not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions or the fate of an endangered fish.

Since then, the company redesigned bridges to avoid affecting the fish’s habitat, and the new plan calls for “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions. Such a standard has been achieved for individual homes, but would be rather revolutionary for an entire community.

Government officials should undoubtedly see the game-changing merit in this project and approve it, but simultaneously should address the bigger challenge of lengthy delays and constantly changing rules and regulations around development more generally. We need to make it predictable. As Haddad noted, it is problematic “that you play by the rules and you think you reach the finish line and the finish line is moved.” It is “as if you are apologizing for something” when you do a project like this in California, he said, even though it solves many problems, from housing to transportation to the environment.

State regulations and court actions delay much-needed projects for more than 10 years. This is unacceptable.

Newhall Ranch is raising the bar for development in California. But now it’s time for state and local government to rise to the occasion so that development is accelerated. We can improve housing options, affordability and innovation; protect the environment and encourage sustainability while promoting development. Now is the time to reform state and local laws and regulations that unnecessarily limit development, inflate costs and hurt progress.

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Jan. 16

East Bay Times on recent flooding and the drought:

The drought is over - and we’ve wasted a good crisis.

OK, the drought isn’t over in the bottom half of the state. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the state is still considered to be in a drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor.

But those folks know how to read, watch TV and share Facebook videos. They see dams spilling, the Sacramento Valley flooded, almost every highway over the Sierra Nevada closed by snow. They see headlines like: “Wow! Sierra snowpack doubles in 10 days.”

The five-year drought should have been a lesson; unfortunately, the wake-up call went unanswered overall.

Not much has changed. The old political saying “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has been ignored.

The state has not made any meaningful changes to help survive the next drought - even though we all know there will be a next drought.

Has the state built a single reservoir to help store water? No. Voters passed a water bond more than two years ago, authorizing $2.75 billion for “water storage.” Not a penny has been spent.

Two years in, the California Water Commission, an unaccountable collection of governor appointees, is still plotting how to spend the money, as if the problem was just invented.

A reservoir in the Colusa County foothills that has been discussed for 20 years should have received that funding. Many are advocating for it. In fact, north state Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake, brought a load of legislators to the area Thursday.

Congressmen Doug LaMalfa and John Garamendi have hosted similar show-and-tell outings.

Although many insist progress has been made toward Sites Reservoir, we’ve been watching that progress for 20 years and it’s hard to see. Other than politicians’ field trips, not much is happening in that valley.

Politicians had a chance to get something done. They did nothing. Blame for that goes to the Democratic Party. They’re in charge in Sacramento and the word “reservoir” is a vulgarity in their party. As this drought ends, in these parts anyway, our state can store exactly the same amount of water during times of high runoff as it could five years ago when the drought began. That’s a wasted opportunity.

Politicians aren’t the only ones who haven’t changed. Water users haven’t either. Not enough anyway. Although most farmers have improved water efficiency, San Joaquin Valley farmers still make odd crop decisions. Many are planting orchards instead of row crops despite an unreliable water supply, then complaining when they don’t get their water.

At the same time, residential customers in Southern California, the area worst hit by drought, usually are the worst at saving water, according to the state’s monthly conservation statistics.

No worries, though. The drought is over, right?

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Jan. 14

San Francisco Chronicle on state’s license suspension program:

Buried deep within the pages of Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget plan is a proposal that could have a big impact on the lives of California’s many low-income motorists. The governor wants to eliminate the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists who fail to pay traffic tickets and related court fees.

At least 600,000 California drivers have their licenses currently suspended because they failed to pay traffic fines or to appear in court.

The governor’s move has been heralded by legal aid and civil rights advocates and some Democratic state legislators.

The license suspension program can be unfairly devastating to lower-income people.

Over the past several years, the cost of most traffic tickets in California has skyrocketed even as base fines have remained the same. That’s because local governments have seen the tickets as an important revenue source - and padded them with fees and fines.

The result has been an explosion in the cost of traffic tickets and an unfairly harsh punishment for those who can’t pay them.

Since the loss of a driver’s license for a low-income person can mean the loss of a job, the driver’s license suspension program has launched a vicious new cycle of poverty. There’s no reason why someone should lose their job because of a broken taillight.

In addition to the overly harsh impact that these license suspension programs can have on people’s lives, there’s another good reason to suspend them: They don’t work.

“There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s driver’s license and collecting their fine or penalty,” Brown’s office wrote in his budget proposal.

That message was underscored when the state launched its traffic amnesty program last year, allowing low-income drivers with minor violations to get their traffic debt reduced by up to 80 percent, so they could get their licenses reinstated. The response was enormous - more than 100,000 Californians resolved their cases within the first seven months of the program.

Furthermore, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has urged state legislatures to narrow the use of license suspension programs. Its 2013 best-practices report stated: “Not all suspended drivers behave the same and therefore can, and perhaps should, be treated differently by driver licensing authorities, law enforcement, and the courts.”

But ending the program will be controversial.

Law enforcement, which relies partially on traffic tickets to fund police trainings, has historically been opposed to attempts to roll back the automatic suspension penalty. So have many courts and judges. State Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, faced insurmountable opposition last year for his bill, SB881, which would have allowed the DMV to restore driving privileges to potentially millions of Californians with unpaid tickets for minor violations.

But this program has created more of a cost than a benefit for California, and it’s time to end it.

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Jan. 16

Los Angeles Times on UC tuition tikes:

The price of attending the University of California wasn’t going to stay the same forever. After keeping a lid on tuition and fees for six years, UC leaders are now seeking to raise tuition by 2.5 percent, or $282, and the student service fee by 5 percent, or $54.

The money will be used to maintain and improve undergraduate education, UC President Janet Napolitano told the Los Angeles Times editorial board, by hiring faculty and increasing the number of classes available to the growing student population. UC is ahead of schedule on its promise to enroll 10,000 more California students by 2019.

Those thousands of students require classrooms and dorms, support services and spots in classes. Of course, UC could just pack them in endlessly, raise class sizes and have students on interminable waiting lists to get into the courses they require. But then it would cease to be the University of California everyone knows, the respected research university encompassing some of the most highly regarded schools in the world. As important as educating more Californians is, it’s equally important to make sure that the quality of their education isn’t diluted.

No one likes to see the price of higher education rise, but if Napolitano is true to her word and this money is used solely to improve the education of those who pay it, the price hike is justified. There are valid concerns about the long-term funding of the university, but for the short-term, preserving UC’s quality in exchange for a small increase in tuition and fees is the right move. The Board of Regents should approve the price hike when it meets next week.

Besides, the increase won’t affect most of the students who attend, at least not for a few years. The university’s financial aid system assures that families of four earning less than $80,000 a year pay no tuition at all. And the state’s new middle-class scholarship program, launched three years ago but still being phased in, will more than cover the increased cost for many more families. Only those making more than $150,000 a year will pay the higher tuition, and spending a little more than $300 extra is something that most of them will be able to afford.

That’s all well and good for the next few years, but there is a nagging and far more important issue that state leaders have yet to address satisfactorily. It’s nothing less than defining the very identity of the University of California going forward.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Napolitano clashed over this a few years ago. The governor, who has never been a major supporter of UC, basically resisted anything that would help the university bring in more money - higher tuition, better funding from the state or admitting more out-of-state students, who bring geographic diversity to campus in addition to paying a higher tuition that helps fund financial aid for low-income Californians. Instead, Brown expressed his preference for a more austere UC, one that saves money by pushing more online courses and prodding professors into teaching more classes while engaging less in research and other academic pursuits.

That’s not a vision, though. It’s short-sighted frugality that would strip down one of the state’s best-run and most admired institutions.

Brown didn’t create the funding problem that has bedeviled UC and its students in recent years, in which the state has paid a smaller share of the cost of higher education and families have shouldered a higher burden. But he hasn’t done much to reverse it, either. In 2000-2001, the state general fund paid 72 percent of the cost of tuition and fees; this year, that share has fallen to 38 percent.

And sadly, no sooner had Brown announced that the state might face a budget deficit this year than he targeted UC again by proposing to phase out the middle-class scholarships. Phase in, phase out, just like that. So much for greater access to higher education for middle-class families.

Realistically, UC will never return to the glory days when higher education was nearly free. But California can do better than make a public university education a strain on its own middle class, and it cannot afford to let mediocrity overtake an institution that draws great minds and tremendous investment to the state. The state needs a true vision, one that is realistic yet as bold as that outlined in the Master Plan for Higher Education, and which includes major reinvestment in California’s jewel of higher education.

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