Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

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Entertainment,Travel

April 1

Los Angeles Daily News: "California's bullet train loses important fan"

There's bad news for California's high-speed rail project: Even some of its biggest backers are now backing away.

Quentin Kopp, the former state senator who was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of a high-speed rail system, calls the project as it stands now "the great train robbery."

That's been the feeling all along of many of the project's detractors, including this editorial board. Kopp comes to that conclusion from a different angle.

He chaired the Senate transportation committee for years and co-wrote the bill that started the rail project. After he left the Senate, he was chairman of the state agency overseeing the rail line's construction.

But now in a civil suit by Central Valley farmers and officials aimed at halting the project, Kopp has filed a legal declaration that the current business plan violates the ballot measure passed by voters in 2008.

Kopp opposes the project because so many compromises have been made in the planning that he's afraid the term "high-speed" will no longer apply to the finished product. If that's the case, it won't draw enough riders — despite the federal Government Accountability Office's finding that its ridership and revenue forecasts are reasonable.

The whole idea is to be able to move passengers between major population centers more quickly than air travel. But Kopp says the California High Speed Rail Authority's agreement to share tracks with local commuter trains from Gilroy to San Francisco will slow the bullet trains so much that they won't satisfy the legal requirement that at least some L.A.-to-San Francisco runs take two hours and 40 minutes or less.

That means, there won't be much bullet-like about the bullet train,

Lynn Schenk, a board member of the rail authority and a longtime backer of the bullet train, opposed that deal with Bay Area transit agencies for the same reason. The agreement was struck to keep rich Silicon Valley residents from trying to stop bullet trains from running through their cities.

Kopp helped write requirements that the rail line be built in "usable segments" and that the state have the funding lined up for each such segment before it starts building it. He says the initial 130-mile track, connecting Bakersfield and Madera, does not qualify as a usable segment, and the state doesn't have the money to build a segment that would qualify.

Kopp is not the only "yes" to drop into the "no" column on the high-speed rail project — he's just the most prominent. The state's voters, who approved a project that was sold to them in a different form five years ago, now oppose the project by a 54-43 margin, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Voters approved $9.9 billion in bonds to start the project, but its projected cost has ballooned to $68 billion since then. Plus, the economic good times of 2008 are long gone, and voters would rather see the money spent on more essential needs like schools and colleges.The train has a long pull up a steep hill ahead of it, with not only the state's voters but even some of its erstwhile proponents wanting to hold it back.

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March 25

Orange County Register: "Audit should dive deeply into state's books"

How much does the state government waste? Especially given that taxes in California went up by $7 billion this year, Californians want to know. This month, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the Legislature tasked state Auditor Elaine Howle with auditing state funds, which she said could take up to five months.

The audit request comes after several scandals involving state funds. In January, reported the Los Angeles Times, "The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hid $3.6 million rather than depositing it into the state's cash-strapped general fund as required, interviews and documents ... show."

In December, the Sacramento Bee reported, "State officials overseeing construction of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge agreed this year to pay a public-relations company nearly $10 million for services the Brown administration says it knew nothing about, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct tours and to produce a video and commemorative book." Gov. Jerry Brown canceled the waste.

And, last summer, the Department of Parks and Recreation sat on "more than $54 million in unreported funds at the same time it had been soliciting private donations to keep 70 parks open," the Register reported. The scandal led to the resignation of parks chief Ruth Coleman.

"We very much agree with the audit," Jon Coupal told us; he's the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which opposes tax increases. "We hope the auditor is given the tools to perform the job that needs to be done. And we hope that when waste and fraud has been revealed, that there are consequences for those involved. There are two problems with waste and fraud in California: finding it and doing something about it."

He added that he was "encouraged that the Legislature itself has begun to take its oversight responsibilities seriously." This also is happening after the Democratic Party gained supermajority status in both houses of the Legislature. Democrats seem to understand that Republicans no longer can be blamed for everything, so the money needs to be spent more prudently.

Mr. Coupal also urged other responsible government officials to go after waste and fraud, in particular Attorney General Kamala Harris and local district attorneys and grand juries.

Gov. Brown's fiscal 2013-14 state budget update in May will show whether his projection of a balanced budget from the tax increases still holds. But whether that happens, spending money frugally is an essential practice of government.

We encourage Ms. Howle to do a thorough job.

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April 1

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise: "Don't tinker with enterprise zones; scrap them"

The desire to spur job growth in California is not a justification for retaining a poorly structured and ineffective tax break. A new legislative proposal offers to patch some of the biggest holes in the program. But California would be better off eliminating enterprise zones and finding better ways to encourage job growth.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, last week proposed legislation that would close loopholes in enterprise zone law. Hill offered a similar, and unsuccessful, bill in 2011.

State law authorizes 42 enterprise zones intended to stimulate business and job growth in economically depressed areas. The zones provide companies with tax credits for hiring and equipment purchases. The Franchise Tax Board says the program trimmed receipts to the state general fund by $732 million in 2010, the latest numbers available. The Inland region has two zones, one in San Bernardino and one in the Coachella Valley.

The new proposal targets the rules governing the hiring tax credit, which offers businesses up to $37,440 over five years for each new hire. Companies do not have to create new jobs to claim the break; they can get the tax benefit for filling existing positions. Hill points to the example of a San Mateo County laboratory supply company that moved its operations to Visalia's enterprise zone last year — where the company could get tax credits for the 150 jobs that moved with it.

Hill wants the credit only to apply when companies create net new jobs in the state. State numbers from 2011 show that companies claimed the hiring credit for filling more than 90,000 existing positions, versus only about 16,500 new ones. Hill also proposes that companies would have to claim the tax break within one year of the hiring, instead of getting a credit for hiring they did years earlier.

Such changes focus on a crucial flaw in the enterprise zone program: Rewarding businesses for hiring decisions they likely would have made anyway is poor policy and does little to provide any economic stimulus.

The proposal also calls for regular legislative review of the program, to make sure the tax break actually accomplishes its goals. Good idea. Some of the zones have existed for decades. How effective can the program be if those areas are still struggling economically?

One other part of Hill's reform plan deserves quick dismissal: It would allow the hiring credit only for jobs that pay at least $16 an hour. An arbitrary salary benchmark would do nothing but limit job creation — which would conflict with the whole rationale for the tax break. This provision would merely make an already muddled program more incoherent.

The state's legislative analyst reports that most research shows the zones do not so much create new jobs as shift existing employment from one part of the state to another. The analyst has recommended junking the program.

Indeed, cutting needless regulation and creating a tax code that encourages hiring and expansion would achieve more than additional tinkering with enterprise zones. Fixing a few shortcomings is not enough; legislators should instead look for policies that actually support job growth.

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March 29

San Jose Mercury News: "California must put environment before fracking"

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's new fracking regulations for the oil and gas industry have been hailed as a model for other states. The Colorado Democrat is so convinced that drilling will be safe that he actually drank fracking fluid. It wasn't "tasty," he said, "but I'm still alive."

Colorado's model may work along the geologically stable Rocky Mountains, but California's seismic issues set it apart from Midwest and East Coast states where oil companies use fracking — shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — to free oil from rock formations thousands of feet below the Earth's surface.

The Legislature is considering eight new measures this spring to regulate fracking. The priority has to be protecting communities' water supply — Hickenlooper's beverage choices aside — and reducing the risk of triggering a major earthquake. To date, SB4 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, does the best job of providing for safety, transparency and accountability.

New fracking technology has oil companies giving a fresh look at the Monterey Shale, a huge Central Valley geologic formation stretching from Modesto to Bakersfield. It's believed to be the richest oil deposit in the United States, with about 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That's just a three-year energy supply for this country, a blip in history, but important at a time when foreign oil supplies are dicey.

Gov. Jerry Brown, his green cred notwithstanding, is practically drooling over the bonanza for the Golden State, potentially creating thousands of jobs and contributing billions to the state budget. But Brown's draft regulations leave water quality and other safety factors in doubt. They offer opponents of a fracking operation no avenue for appeal.

Brown doesn't even call for Colorado's standard requiring oil companies to disclose the pressurized chemicals they pump underground. At the other extreme, environmentalists want fracking banned outright.

Pavley's compromise bill calls on the state to complete an independent scientific study on fracking by Jan. 1, 2015. No fracking permits would be issued after that date until the study is completed.

Pavley wants an existing industry production fee to be increased to include the costs of air and water monitoring, which is critical to maintaining public trust. Her bill requires disclosure of the chemicals to be used and 30-day notification to property owners before fracking could begin.

The Legislature should also require that the independent scientific study to the impact on the state's fault lines.

California needs to move toward renewable energy sources, but it will need oil for years to come. We're confident it's possible to safely extract oil from the Monterey Shale, but safety will not be assured unless the governor and lawmakers set regulations to disclose and reduce the risks, particularly to water.

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March 30

The Record Searchlight: "Proposition 8 deserves ruling on the merits"

Will the U.S. Supreme Court throw out California's 2008 voter-approved constitutional amendment barring gay marriage? Your guess is as good as ours.

But we hope the justices actually rule on the merits of the question, instead of ducking the hard question by tossing out the appeal on a technicality — especially a technicality that would undermine California's initiative system.

Yet much of last week's Supreme Court arguments suggested the justices might take the easy way out. Rather than talk about the awkward subject of the day, Chief Justice John Roberts and others reopened the seemingly settled question of whether the initiative's proponents even had the right to defend their measure in court. California officials — including Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris — declined to argue on Proposition 8's behalf in federal court, leaving that job to private political advocates.

We opposed Proposition 8. We think same-sex marriage will cause no harm to society and is ultimately nobody's business but those who want to tie the knot. But Californians voted for it. If state officials abandon a measure when it's challenged in court, and the organizers of a ballot drive are barred from hiring lawyers to defend their own work, it would make a mockery of direct democracy as we know it. After all, the whole point of initiatives is to give the people the direct authority to enact laws, while bypassing officials in Sacramento. If those same officials' opposition or apathy can orphan a controversial initiative in court, the people's power is a sham.

Yanking the standing to defend their measure from Proposition 8's proponents would, in effect, throw out the measure and allow gay marriage. Those who want to marry could celebrate.

But we hope the justices find the backbone to make a decision on the heart of the issue, and don't wiggle out of a politically charged case at the expense of California's flawed but vital initiative system.

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March 28

Marin Independent Journal: "Charging to view court files a poor budget remedy"

Government is big business in California.

It is so big that officials often look for ways they can make money on what government produces.

In some cases, that product is paper — public records.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget calls for letting state courts — which have been hit hard by state budget cuts — start charging the public, businesses and the media a search fee for looking up criminal and court filings.

The proposed fee would be $10 per search. On top of that, Brown's budget plan would double the existing photocopying charge from 50 cents to $1 a page.

Court officials say the fee would help them recoup their costs in meeting public-record demands of so-called data miners, commercial enterprises that ask for large numbers of files, extract commercially viable information and then sell that information.

The proposed fee replaces a charge of $15 for searches that take longer than 10 minutes. It's unlikely that charge covers the cost of having a clerk track down dozens or hundreds of files for data miners.

It also sounds as if the state, as the producer and provider, wants a bigger piece of that action. Brown and the courts are looking for ways to reverse a recent trend of budget cuts that have led to closing courtrooms, shortening hours and laying off workers.

While officials say the fee is needed to recover costs associated with large-volume requests, the charge does not differentiate between users.

That's the problem Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley has with the proposal. She calls it another step toward "a fee-for-justice system," where people who cannot afford the fee don't have access to the information they need in their pursuit of justice.

The same goes for the media. Reporters, including IJ staffers, often comb through courthouse records in their reporting of local news. The proposed charge puts a chill on access to public records, especially hampering smaller papers that have to work on smaller budgets.

For the IJ, the charge, as presented, could run $800 or more every week.

In its current iteration, the charge would not apply to people seeking files regarding cases in which they are personally involved.

But the question of fair and open access to public records looms heavily over this proposed fee. In addition, there's a question about the fee being commensurate with the cost of the service, whether someone is asking for one file or hundreds.

Lawmakers, who have to approve the proposed fee, should demand the courts detail the dollars-and-cents costs of handling requests for files, both for small and large searches.

In a recent speech, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, "What we once counted on — that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice, is no longer the case in California."

That is a sad indictment of the state of California's courts. But making court records — public information — less accessible by making them more costly to review and copy doesn't seem to be a logical remedy to fixing what's wrong with our courts.

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