California’s Socialist Oligarchy: Making the State Unaffordable

Touted as the “fifth-largest economy on Earth,” and recently heralded as delivering the “greatest increase in average income,” these statistics obscure an alarming reality. California has become a feudal state, where the benefits of prosperity are unequally distributed, rewarding corrupt plutocrats and punishing ordinary working families. Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, California, characterized California’s current political economy as “Oligarchical Socialism.” This is a perfect description of a system that destroys the middle class at the same time it protects the ultra rich.

California’s leftist oligarchy benefits financially from precisely the depredations they accuse conservatives of committing. They have enacted policies that are designed to make California unaffordable to all but the wealthiest residents, and hostile to emerging small businesses, at the same time as their preexisting wealth and politically connected corporations reap enhanced returns and profits.

Plenty of Land, Impossible to Build

Nowhere are the consequences of California’s oligarchical socialism more evident than in the cost of housing. State legislation has made it nearly impossible for developers to construct new housing outside the so-called “urban growth boundary.” Instead, development is redirected into the footprint of existing urban areas.

While there is a natural tendency as population increases to see higher density redevelopment in urban cores, by restricting outward expansion of urban areas, the value of the limited remaining eligible land becomes artificially inflated. But established landowners and large development firms benefit from these restrictions. They are able to withstand years, if not decades, of expensive permitting delays and endless litigation. They are able to afford millions in permit fees because these costs are offset by their ability to sell residence units—from high-rise condos to detached single family dwellings—at prices far beyond what they would cost in a normal market.

These billionaire business interests get richer, while ordinary Californians who want to own or develop land cannot afford to go through the permit process. Meanwhile, the median cost of a home in California is $539,400 — nearly 2.5 times the national average of $216,700. And that’s not even in the tougher markets.

With all land development, environmentalist laws such as California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) create additional barriers. California’s legislature has now made it necessary for new home construction to be 100 percent “energy neutral” by 2020. Not only does this require installation of photovoltaic roof panels, but also more expensive insulation, as well as more expensive appliances that use less energy (and also happen to be less durable and don’t work as well). These mandates make homes less livable, for example, requiring smaller windows in order to make the homes easier to heat and cool.

The amazing fact that California’s legislators willfully ignore is the incredibly abundance of expanses of land that remain virtually empty in this vast state. California is only 5 percent urbanized. According to the American Farmland Trust, of California’s 163,000 square miles, there are 25,000 square miles of grazing land and 42,000 square miles of agricultural land; of that, 14,000 square miles are prime agricultural land. In other words, you could put 10 million new residents into homes, four per household, on half-acre lots, and you would only consume 1,953 square miles. If you built those homes on the best prime agricultural land California’s got, you would only use up 14 percent of it. If you scattered those homes among all of California’s farmland and grazing land—which is far more likely—you would only use up 3 percent of it. Three percent loss of agricultural land, to allow 10 million people to live on half-acre lots!

Instead of allowing land owners to build millions of inexpensive homes on, say, just a small fraction of California’s 25,000 square miles of grazing land, California’s lawmakers want to have “smart growth.” And as prices rise, the solution? On the ballot this November, propositions to enforce statewide rent control, borrow $4 billion to build “affordable housing,” and use state tax revenues to build more government-run homeless shelters. After all, expanding the private sector threatens the oligarchy. Best to expand the public sector.

Plenty of Energy Resources, Unaffordable Energy

While the cost of housing is an obvious example of how California has been turned into an enclave for the super rich and an expensive ordeal for ordinary Americans trying to live there, it is not the only example. California’s legislature has curtailed, if not completely shut down, development of oil, natural gashydroelectric and nuclear power.

In the summer of 2000, during California’s energy crisis, as brown-outs were rolling up and down the state, total disaster was averted because two nuclear reactor complexes, San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, were continuously pumping 4.2 gigawatts of electricity — more than 10 percent of California’s peak demand at the time — into the power grid. But instead of retrofitting, San Onofre was shuttered in 2013 and Diablo Canyon is set to shut down by 2025.

And what’s replacing these power plants? Wind and solar farms, with their intermittent output backed up by natural gas power stations.

If the massive amounts of surplus electricity produced when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing could be stored, it might make sense to decommission clean nuclear power plants and ban development of fossil fuel. But despite decades of research, and dozens of promising but failed attempts, grid-scale electricity storage remains prohibitively expensive. But that’s OK. According to the state legislature, Californians can just pay more. And of course, when consumers pay more, utilities — whose percentage profit is limited by regulation — make far more in absolute profits, since they get to charge so much more per kilowatt-hour. The average cost for electricity is 19.7 cents per kilowatt-hour in California, compared to 13.1 cents per kilowatt-hour nationally.

And there’s no end in sight. True to form, California’s state legislature just passed a law that calls for 60 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045. With hydroelectric and nuclear power off the table, that’s going to be a neat trick.

With oil, it gets worse. We’re not talking about California’s aggressive formulation requirements that make tailpipe emissions cleaner. Perhaps California’s geography justifies this, as offshore winds blow the entirety of coastal city smog into the inland valleys where it is trapped and accumulates. But the reason gas is so expensive in California has little to do with that. It is nearly impossible to maintain refinery output in California, and California’s state gas taxes are among the highest in the nation. Gasoline in California costs around $3.87 per gallon, compared to $2.87 nationally.

While ordinary Californians suffer, left-wing oligarchs prosper.

Green technology entrepreneurs flourish, selling products that consumers are required by law to purchase. Not just solar panels and the related “balance of plant” systems. There are also “negawatts,” a good concept that is being taken to extremes. Sensors and chips designed to make appliances more “energy efficient” are designed by Silicon Valley companies whose prosperity depends on legislative mandates that compel Californians to purchase their products. Promoting the “internet of things” is purportedly justified on environmentalist grounds, while in reality it is a lucrative source of income for high-tech manufacturers, as well as a lucrative means of surveillance and data mining. These new appliances save some electricity. But are they durable? Easy to operate? Do they work as well as conventional appliances? Are they easy to use? Are they inexpensive? No to all.

Plenty of Water, Yet Water Is Rationed

Water is another area where ordinary Californians needlessly suffer inconveniences and pay more.

California receives between 150 and 300 million acre feet of rainfall per year, depending on whether it’s a drought year or a wet year. Regardless of the year, most of that water either evaporates, percolates, or runs off into the Pacific Ocean. And of the roughly 65 million acre feet that are diverted, fully half of it is saved for re-release into the environment, to maintain river flow and to prevent saltwater intrusion into the Sacramento Delta. Of what remains, almost all of it is used for agriculture. Less than 4 million acre feet of water each year are used by California’s households, and less than half that much is for indoor use.

You wouldn’t think that were the case if you reviewed California’s new laws regarding water, and the ways they’re going to be implemented. This year California’s state legislature passed a law requiring average daily indoor water use by California residents to not exceed 55 gallons per day, an amount that lowers to 50 gallons per day by 2030. Maybe you’ve encountered the “solutions” that will effect this reduction: Water faucets that spray eight tiny concentrated, 1.0 mm thick jets of water onto your hands, making it difficult to get them wet and nearly impossible to rinse off soap. Or “low-flow” shower heads with the same problem, magnified for anyone who wants to rinse shampoo out of long hair. What about “smart” laundry machinesthat start and stop randomly, ostensibly to save energy and water, that do a poor job of cleaning your clothes. Or supplemental “tankless” water heaters positioned close to your kitchen sink, that cost thousands of dollars and don’t work all that well, in order for residents to avoid running unnecessary gallons down the drain as they wait for the hot water to flow through their pipes.

All this expense and bother, to save what, at a statewide level, amounts to a trivial amount of water. California’s total residential indoor water use represents less than three percent of California’s total water diversions.

And California’s bureaucrats still aren’t done. In a hearing postponed till just after November 6—no coincidence there—California’s State Water Resources Board is expected to mandate increased “natural flows” in California’s rivers, which will create additional water scarcity, especially for farmers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Californians could easily escape water scarcity by investing in additional reservoirs, desalination plants, and wastewater recycling. But environmentalists torpedo all of these projects, successfully lobbying for laws that tie every project up in permitting delays that cost millions, if not tens of millions, and take years, if not decades, to overcome. When permits are finally granted, along come the lawsuits.

A good example of a project that makes compelling economic sense, but is bitterly opposed by environmentalists, is raising the height of the Shasta Dam. In exchange for construction costs under $2 billion, an annual yield of a half-million acre feet would be added to California’s water resources. Not only does this amount of water exceed how much water could be saved by additional household rationing, there’s even an environmental benefit, because summer releases of this water from Shasta’s deep, cool reservoir would improve fish habitat on the Sacramento River.

Roads Are Congested, And the State Builds a Bullet Train

traffic-los-angelesThere is nothing more versatile than the common road. On a road, anything on wheels, from bicycles to 80-ton trucks, can get from their point of origin to their destination. The simple flat surface delivers transportation options that nothing requiring rails or runways can hope to match. Moreover, cars and trucks are becoming cleaner and greener every year. One may argue vehemently over how exactly clean energy abundance will be achieved, but only the most pessimistic Luddite might cling to the notion that it will never happen.

Meanwhile, Californians urgently need new roads, wider roads, and upgraded roads. Californians may supplement these new roads with hyperloop technologies, or flying cars and other next generation vehicles, but what California does not need is the much criticized but seemingly unstoppable “bullet train,” a project that fails any rational cost-benefit analysis.

Using the California High Speed Rail Authority’s own projections, the system will not be profitable for 10 years. And what projections! The CHSRA assumes an average ticket price of $60, and average daily ridership of 120,000 people. Will 120,000 individuals actually be willing to spend $600 per month (and that’s only $30 per round trip, half what the High Speed Rail Commission is projecting) to commute from California’s less expensive Central Valley, into their jobs in coastal Silicon Valley and Los Angeles? And so what if they did? California has a workforce of more than 19 million people. How does spending around $100 billion on high speed rail help these other 18.9 million commuters?

To build a road in California takes years of permitting and litigating, then costs far more than it would in other parts of America. Environmentalist restrictionsproject labor agreements, and a bloated, inefficient State Department of Transportation are all contributing factors. Meanwhile, in comparison to other states, California consistently ranks at or near the bottom in terms of pavement conditions and traffic congestion. There is no end in sight.

Housing. Energy. Water. Transportation. These are the basic necessities of civilized life. And for power and profit, California’s socialist oligarchs have made them all prohibitively expensive. The social agenda of California’s Left is well understood. But the punishing economic agenda, engineered by California’s socialist oligarchy, is equally disturbing. It represents a devastating threat to the American way of life.

The second part of this report will identify the special interests that constitute this coalition of scarcity profiteers, and how they might be stopped.

Elected Officials to Blame for California’s Homegrown Housing Problem

house-constructionWe see the headlines daily — California has an affordability problem when it comes to housing. People have to live further and further away from their jobs, and even a median-priced condo is out of reach for many. Since this affects so many of us, and since California now has about a fourth of the nation’s homeless population, compassionate people want to do something. But that something could make a bad situation even worse. As former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, says, “the best way to make something expensive is for government to make it affordable.”

After emigrating from Jamaica as a child and settling in Florida, I came to California as soon as I could. Our amazing state — with its lack of humidity and flying bugs — has always been attractive to aspiring actors, creators and entrepreneurs, so a higher cost of living was expected as a down payment on living the California Dream. What’s happening now, however, is causing sleepless nights for many.

First, we need to understand how we ended up with this problem. California has lots of people willing to build, so how did we not keep up with the clear demand for so long? For years, the state has consistently added about half the housing needed to keep pace with the population. Our elected officials shoulder much of the blame, by constraining supply due to mandates and regulations. Now, of course, they’d like to be part of the solution. Central planning, however, has never worked, even though it’s been tried in myriad ways and in many different variations.

The first hurdle that politicians enacted was the California Environmental Quality Act. Instead of being used to address real environmental concerns and protect our unique topography, it’s often used as a cudgel to enact wage and other concessions from developers. Over a third of the lawsuits filed under CEQA have to do with housing. This, of course, adds costs and delays to development, and gives pause to anyone considering building in the state. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Ten Questions for Jerry Brown

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 27: California Governor Jerry Brown announces his public employee pension reform plan October 27, 2011 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California. Gov. Brown proposed 12 major reforms for state and local pension systems that he claims would end abuses and reduce taypayer costs by billions of dollars. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Tomorrow, Jerry Brown will deliver his 15th and final State of the State Address. It’s too bad California legislators can’t ask questions like our counterparts in the United Kingdom, who query their head of government during “Prime Minister’s Questions.” If we could, here are 10 questions I’d ask Governor Brown:

1.)     You recently chided Congress, “It’s never good to have one party vote one way, and the other party vote 100 percent the other way. That’s dividing America at a time when we need unity.” Does this mean you’ll no longer sign legislation that is supported by only one party in the Assembly, as you did with the Gas Tax and 20 other bills last year?

2.)     For children living in poverty, California is the worst place in America to get an education, ranking near the bottom for every academic performance measure. Your education plan has added almost $30 billion in yearly spending, yet our schools have if anything gotten worse at educating poor children. How do you explain this?

3.)     Shortly after taking office, you called reforming the much-abused California Environmental Quality Act “the Lord’s work.” Yet no CEQA reform has happened during your tenure even as the cost of housing has soared to the point that 1 out of 3 Californians is “seriously considering” leaving the state because of it. With less than one year left in your term, when is the Lord’s work going to begin?

4.)     While campaigning for Governor, you promised you would not raise taxes without voter approval. Yet last year you signed a $52 billion tax increase without giving voters a say – and now, you’re opposing an effort by voters to undo that tax hike. How should ordinary Californians respond when elected officials break their promises?

5.)     In California, the cost of building a mile of road is triple what it is in other states. One reason, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, is that Caltrans is overstaffed by 3,500 positions. Yet you are proposing 400 new positions in this year’s budget. Why not learn from other states that build better and cheaper roads before making Californians pay higher taxes?

6.)     Under your watch, California’s unfunded pension liability has grown by over 100 billion, with public employees generally receiving greater benefits than workers in the private sector. You clearly recognize this as a problem, having just filed a commendable opening brief in what could be a landmark state supreme court case. So why did you allow this problem, which threatens vital services and future generations, to get so much worse?

7.)     You claim California is prosperous because it is the world’s “6th largest economy.” Yet adjusting for cost of living and population size, our economy actually ranks 37 out of 50 states in the country. Which statistic do you think more accurately reflects the well-being of ordinary Californians?

8.)     Since you became Governor, the State Budget has grown from $129 billion to $191 billion. What evidence can you point to that this new spending has improved the quality of life for ordinary Californians? Feel free to cite, for example, health outcomes, student achievement, housing affordability, infrastructure quality, workforce participation, poverty rates, family stability, or any other metric.

9.)     The projected cost of High Speed Rail now exceeds $67 billion, with new delays and cost overruns reported almost monthly. And many are doubting the bullet train will have any useful purpose. In the words of Elon Musk, “The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?” Why would anyone?

10.)     You recently accused others of “ripping the country apart” through partisan actions. Yet in the last few months you’ve called your political opponents “mafia thugs,” “political terrorists,” and “evil in the extreme.” Is this rhetoric bringing the country together?

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley represents the 6th Assembly District, which includes parts of El Dorado, Placer, and Sacramento counties.

This blog post was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

John Moorlach: Sacramento has no clue how to solve housing crisis

Sacramento just doesn’t get it. A housing crisis is not solved with new fees, bonds and local government process overrides.

Let’s talk about housing. KQED provides some of the gory details in a recent piece. But, allow me to elaborate. A quick tip, KQED provides the last act first.

For Senate Bill 3 (and 5), I provided the following abbreviated concerns on the Senate Floor:

  1. Let’s review the housing market over the last 11 years. In Orange County, the median price for a home in 1996 was $221,800. Ten years later, after the subprime mortgage boom (for fun, watch “The Big Short”), the median rose to $739,000. With the Great Recession, the median went down to $498,200 in 2011. And, as of June 2017, it is back to $734,200.
  2. Why the recent resurgence?
    • A slow, but steady rise in job growth.
    • Foreign investors. They came in at the market low as a safe haven.
    • Explaining an increase of all-cash transactions; more than 50% in 2013.
    • This has caused a decrease in home ownership and more renters.
    • Difficulty for developers to obtain entitlements and to build.
    • The other usual suspects, like NIMBYism, CEQA and open space demands.
    • For those lucky enough, try working with the California Coastal Commission.

It makes you wonder, what has Sacramento done to address foreign buyers and entitlement restrictions? And, I can see now why SB 714 (Newman) was removed from the calendar this last week, as it doubles down on taking entitled property for building new homes in the city of Brea and requiring total open space. Boy, this bill was so out of touch, the Democrats had to save the author from himself.  But, I digress.

  1. What is the current dilemma?
    • Americans find the home buying process too overwhelming.
    • They find it too difficult to come up with the down payment.
    • More than other generations, millennials value experiences over ownership.
    • Americans change jobs more often than in previous generations.

With SB 2, Sacramento will be adding to the burdens. Within minutes, the Democrats also voted for AB 166 (Salas), which provides exemptions from the new SB 2 fees. You can’t make this stuff up. And those who qualify are not those going through a foreclosure!

Then I warned them about issuing more debt by sharing the following disturbing data from Moody’s Investors Service. Among the 10 largest states in the nation, California joins Illinois and New York as the three worst in all of the following categories:

  1. Debt to personal income – 4.70%, when the median for all states is 2.50%.
  2. Debt per capita – $2,323, when the median is $1,025.
  3. Debt as a percentage of state GDP – 3.94%, when the median is 2.21%

And the state’s own bond credit rating is a measly AA-, just above Illinois, at BBB+. This means that California will be paying higher interest rates than issuing states with top credit ratings.

If this wasn’t enough of a reason to vote against the bond measures, I also gave a lecture on future budget and balance sheet concerns – a “what’s up?” listing:

  1. A $4 billion bond translates into $225 million per year in payments! Where will this come from?  The Senate approved two such bond bills on Friday.
  2. The annual contributions for CalPERS and CalSTRS are also rising.
  3. The Proposition 98 school funding threshold into the General Fund is also rising.
  4. The minimum wage is rising and will impact the budget by $4 billion per year.
  5. The recent voter approved $9 billion bond for school improvements will impact the General Fund by $500 million per year (no wonder the Governor hasn’t released any tranches).

What does all this mean? In a few short years, the General Fund is screwed. But I put it more politely on the Senate floor, stating that “it will be dramatically impacted. Good luck with that.”

Sacramento so much wants California to be like other blue states that are heading for the fiscal precipice, such as Connecticut, Illinois and New York. And quickly. But, this is the wrong race to be in.

You can bet the governor will sign these bills and the monopoly party will pat themselves on the back for once again dealing with a problem with inappropriate solutions. Tragic.

California’s Next Climate Policy That Won’t Help

Global WarmingYou wouldn’t expect a document titled “Vibrant Communities and Landscapes” to make so many people this angry.

“We are writing to express our concern and dismay over the draft ‘Vibrant Communities’ document,” wrote the Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed) on behalf of more than 163 business groups, 325,000 employers and 3 million jobs.

“Radical and without precedent in California public policy,” wrote Michael Lewis, senior VP of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition (CIAQC).

These comments were sent to Ken Alex, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, on Sept. 28. That was the final day of the public comment period for the draft of “Vibrant Communities and Landscapes.” It was only two weeks long.

“We strongly object to this inadequate amount of time to process a piece of policy this large and its potential impacts on the business community across not only L.A. County but the entire state,” wrote BizFed.

“We recommend that the document be scrapped,” wrote Lewis.

The “Vibrant Communities” document has cheerful photos of redwoods and sunflowers on the cover, but inside is a five-page plan to “consider land use in the context of California’s climate change policy,” and to ensure “that all Californians have equitable access to housing, health care, jobs, and opportunity.“

What does that mean, exactly?

According to the CIAQC, it’s “a new set of policies to govern every aspect of land use, transportation and air quality planning in California” written by eight state agencies without adhering to legally required procedures for new regulations.

The plan calls for policies that would allow new developments in previously-developed areas while discouraging “conversion” of open land. It envisions toll lanes (“priced express lanes”), fewer parking spaces (“reduced parking requirements for development”), and incentives for using transit in order to reduce “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT).

Driving, it seems, is the enemy of vibrancy.

But how is the government going to control how much people drive?

The answer can be found in a document released by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research last January. Thrillingly titled, “Revised Proposal on Updates to the CEQA Guidelines on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA,” the guidelines replace concerns about a project’s impact on traffic speed with calculations about the number and distance of vehicle trips it would generate. …

Click here to read the full article published by the L.A. Daily News

Special Transportation Session Stuck in Legislative Gridlock

road_blockMuch like much of the state’s traffic, the legislative special session on transportation/infrastructure is stuck in gridlock. Democratic legislators have a plan to provide $7.5 billion a year in new tax revenue. The governor’s plan also includes tax increases. Republicans want to use current tax revenue more efficiently, cap and trade funds for roads or direct some of the road related monies like truck weight fees directly into road improvements. Neither side budges.

Could this gridlock be altered by the results of November’s elections?

If the Democrats secure the two-thirds majority that would allow them to raise taxes without Republican support, then its game over, right? The Democrats will pass a tax increase and the governor will sign it.

Not necessarily.

While many Democrats are happy to blame the Republicans for the gridlock over the special session because the GOP won’t okay taxes, the scolding Democrats conveniently overlook a good portion of their own caucus, which is wary of raising gasoline taxes on constituents.

Recall that the piece dropped from the controversial SB 350 last year had to do with cutting gasoline use, which in turn would have increased gas prices, something Democrats particularly representing poorer or inner valley areas of the state did not want to do. Raising gas taxes will also add to the cost of gasoline.

Given the demands of voters to relieve gridlock on roads, the advocacy of the business community to spark the economy with a better transportation system, and the support of labor forces to get good construction jobs, you would think a compromise would be attainable.

But environmentalists and public unions don’t want to give on CEQA reform or restructuring CalTrans as some Republicans have suggested, and Republican legislators are concerned about a backlash if they raise taxes.

In the meantime, there are discussions about the possibility of a ballot initiative backed by the business community modeled after the school-funding plan, Proposition 98, which would dedicate money to transportation infrastructure and the roads.

If nothing comes out of the special session soon, other forces could attempt to deal with this crucial issue.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Proposition 54 and the “We Can Do Whatever We Want Act”

TransparencyAmid the ballot initiatives gifting Californians with a 200-plus page voter guide is at least one sensible idea. Proposition 54 targets “gut and amend” (Ganda) bills, which are diametrically opposed to responsible legislative deliberation.

Ganda legislation takes “how a bill becomes law” civics book descriptions, then adds “not” at the beginning. In the race to beat the legislative end-of-session deadline, power brokers take bills that have cleared most legislative hurdles and replace them with completely different bills. Then they rush them through the minimal scrutiny of the last-minute frenzy (e.g., with multiple committee hearings in a single room in an hour).

This year’s appropriation of nearly $1 billion in pollution fee money is one example. Earlier illustrations include transforming a Silverlake Reservoir bill into requiring that gun buyback programs test weapons for criminal involvement (2014), California Environmental Quality Act exemptions for housing projects into increased alternative vehicle technology funding (2013), and pension reform into a fire prevention fee repeal (2012). The last three weeks of 2011’s session included 48 Ganda bills (my favorite: morphing a measure allowing tuberculosis information disclosure into one preventing local government bans of project labor agreements).

Unfortunately, bills sensible enough to command sufficient consensus can pass in daylight. Only legislation failing that test requires Ganda evasions.

That is what Proposition 54 addresses. It would require any bill to be both in print and available on the internet 72 hours before it could be enacted (with a ‘public emergency” escape clause). It would also intensify the sunlight on the sausage-making by mandatory videotaping of all public meetings, to be posted online within 24 hours, and by allowing any citizen to record any public meeting and use it without restriction.

Despite Proposition 54’s potential to protect Californians from legislative back-room bullying, it has opponents, particularly among power brokers. One rebuttal is, in essence, that despite missing deadlines or failing to get approval, sometimes legislatures “just need to act.” But that is not a reason; it simply assumes its conclusion — the powerful must be allowed to circumvent the rules whenever they decide it is necessary. That is why the Democratic Party opposes Proposition 54 with a preposterous rhetorical Ganda, twisting its protections against unwarranted legislative abuses into a claim that it would better allow “special interests” (i.e., those targeted for harm to fund legislative presents for others) to “block timely legislative action.”

The core problem is that for Ganda bills to benefit Californians requires several false things to be true.

The bill would have to be the Legislature’s business. Unfortunately, despite injecting itself everywhere, very little legislation can actually advance our general welfare. Benefiting some at others’ expense is another matter, but such bills deserve destruction, not greasing through.

Only the Legislature must be competent to deal with the issue. Where people can work things out for themselves, no legislation is needed, except repeal of what prevents voluntary private solutions. Those lauded by politicians for their wisdom during campaigns deserve the power to use it in their own affairs.

The problem must be too urgent to wait for ensuing terms. The sponsor must know how to implement an efficient and equitable solution. It must also come as a sudden surprise. But it is laughable to think of our legislators quickly developing real solutions to serious problems unrecognized just weeks before, and still needing to sneak them through.

Gut and amend survives only because it lets urgency insulate legislators from accountability. Capitol power brokers may “need” it for their purposes, but it harms citizens. That is why eliminating Ganda is important and also why all such legislative attempts have been killed. Proposition 54, which the legislature would morph into the “We Can Do Whatever We Want Act” at the last minute, given the chance, deserves support, in order to take such chances away.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and member of the FEE faculty network. His most recent books are Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Lines of Liberty (2016) 

In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement

UnionSarah has worked for a major grocery store chain for the past 25 years. Adjusting for inflation, she makes less now than she did over a decade ago, especially since her hours were cut in order for her employer to avoid being required to offer her health insurance. Even more difficult, she is “on call” most of the week, without a reliable schedule, which makes it impossible for her to take on a 2nd part time job to help make ends meet. Including benefits, Sarah is lucky to make $30,000 per year. Now in her early 50s, she will need to work for as long as there is strength left in her body to do the job.

George works for a fire department serving an affluent suburb on the California coast. Taking into account the vacation time he earns as a 25 year veteran, he works less than two 24 hour shifts per week before qualifying for overtime. Since five-day weekends are overkill, he often works one or two extra shifts a week, doubling his pay. When he goes on calls, 98 percent of the time they are medical emergencies, not fires. Including moderate amounts of overtime and the employer’s payments for his benefits, George makes about $250,000 per year. Now in his early 50s, he will retire in a year or two and collect a pension and health benefits package worth well over $100,000 per year.

Both of these individuals are hard working, honest and conscientious. Both of them perform jobs that have a vital role to play in our society. Both of them deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Neither of them wrote the rules. And both of them are represented by unions.

While these individuals and the work they do is beyond reproach, the unions that represent them leave much to be desired. In Sarah’s case, typical of tens of millions of private sector workers, the unions who represent her have ignored economic reality in pursuit of ideological fantasies. Almost universally, to cite a particularly wounding example, these private sector unions have supported immigration policies that increase the supply of semi-skilled workers who compete with Sarah for work hours. Also common are the pragmatic alliances these unions form with extreme environmentalist organizations who have bottled up development of land and energy, driving the cost of living beyond the reach of an ordinary worker. One may cogitate endlessly over what constitutes optimal and humane policies with respect to immigration and the environment. But to agitate for higher wages and benefits in a society awash in cheap labor and artificially inflated costs for basic necessities is a fool’s errand.

In George’s case, which is equally typical, at least in California, the unions that represent him should not even be permitted to exist. Associations of government workers who engage in collective bargaining are not unions in any traditional sense of the word. They elect their own bosses, they take money from taxpayers instead of competing for consumer spending, and they operate the machinery of government which lets them intimidate or co-opt any special interest that might oppose them. They have priced normal government services beyond the capacity of ordinary taxpayers, and bred cynicism about government into the heart of any financially literate American. And government unions have even less interest than private unions in acknowledging the complexity of issues such as immigration or environmentalist overreach. In both cases, policies that harm the aspirations of private workers have the opposite effect on them, enhancing their job security.

A legitimate labor movement is easy to justify in the abstract. If not unions, what sort of movement will speak for ordinary workers in an era when jobs are being relentlessly automated, global competition is tougher than ever, and the cost of living is punitive? What sort of movement can speak for ordinary workers if, along with these challenges, the nation is gripped by a deep recession brought on because interest rates can’t go any lower and stimulative debt can’t go any higher?

The reality today is that much of America’s labor movement has gone astray. Private sector unions often put ideological goals ahead of the economic interests of their members. And public sector unions, which are not unions in any traditional sense of the word, and which represent the economic interests of their members all too well, are an abomination. They have corrupted our democracy, they are a corrupting influence on government workers because they have exempted them from the economic challenges facing private American workers, they are driving our governments at all levels towards authoritarianism, they are bankrupting our cities and counties and states, and the pension funds they control epitomize the most corrupt elements of America’s grotesquely overbuilt financial sector. Maybe what would remain after abolition, still very powerful voluntary associations, could start fighting for CEQA reform, for example, to benefit all workers instead of just themselves. Before unions infested our governments, that’s what public service meant.

Envisioning exactly how the labor movement might best operate in the interests of the American worker is difficult but necessary. It requires balancing libertarian and mixed-capitalist economic world views. But two reforms would be a very good start. First, outlaw collective bargaining in the public sector. Second, the leaders of the private sector labor movement need to starting caring more about American workers, and less about their elitist ideological fantasies.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

High-Speed Rail Takes Two More Swipes at CEQA

In his 2013 State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown quoted “The Little Engine That Could”: “I think I can. I think I can.”

One thing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which runs the project, thinks it can do is get around the California Environmental Quality Act. As noted in the first article in this series, it started with two attempts:

  • Attempt 1: During the California Legislature’s closing days in August 2012, the CHSRA tried to pass more lenient measures to comply with CEQA. The Legislature didn’t cooperate.
  • Attempt 2: In June 2013, the CHSRA filed a request with the 3rd District Court of Appeal in the city of Atherton’s suit against the project. The CHSRA wanted the court to recognize the federal pre-emption of jurisdiction, getting around state laws, such as CEQA. The court refused.

Attempt 3

Attempt 3: De-publication. Now, in its third attempt to get around CEQA, on Sept. 22 California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked the California Supreme Court for the de-publication of the 3rd District’s decision in the Atherton case. If granted, it would have meant future cases would have been restricted in using this case for precedent. Harris is representing the CHSRA.   

Basically, what Harris and the CHSRA said was that, regardless of the language in Proposition 1A in 2008, they instead wanted to put the project into federal jurisdiction. And that, any interpretation to the contrary, such as that by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, had “misinterpreted” those facts, and ought to be de-published.

De-publication would have offered a quick way to minimize the damage of the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision. If the Supreme Court had agreed to de-publish the decision, it would have blocked that decision from being used as a precedent for other cases.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney for Kings County and two residents who have brought suit to stop the project, filed a brief against the de-publication, arguing:

“If the Attorney General wished to press these points, her proper recourse was to petition for review, and the other agencies could have supported review….

“If the parties seeking de-publication feel that major state transportation projects should not be subject to CEQA review, that argument should be addressed to the Legislature, which clearly knows how to exempt classes of projects from CEQA review when it feels such exemption is warranted.”

On Oct. 29, the Supreme Court denied the de-publication request. Therefore, the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision is now final and conclusive.

Attempt 4

Attempt 4: the Surface Transportation Board. Private attorneys Nossaman LLP have a $17 million contract to represent the CHSRA. An Oct. 9 petition by Nossaman asked for declaratory relief, that is, an official declaration of the status of a matter in controversy to expedite a court case.

In this case, the CHSRA is specifically asking the STB to take off the table any request for a injunction against construction for any party suing under CEQA. The CHSRA want federal laws to preempt state laws.

(The STB is a federal agency under the Department of Transportation. A year ago, on Dec. 3, 2013, the STB declared it held federal jurisdiction because California’s tracks would also be used by Amtrak; and the tracks cross state lines.)

The CHSRA wants to prevent the chance of a construction injunction being granted for a Central Valley case represented by  Attorney Doug Carstens from Chatten-Brown & Carstens LLP. He represents  Kings County, Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability and the Kings County Farm Bureau.

The reason his clients are suing is because of alleged CEQA improprieties in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment. The CHSRA said that, if the injunction was granted, it could endanger the start of building the high-speed rail system; and the CHSRA has a tight time frame on the use of $3.5 billion in federal funds.

But there is no emergency. The actual case is not expected to be heard until mid-summer 2015. Moreover, there are six other CEQA cases filed against the project and not one of them is ready to go to court this month.

A decision from the STB is expected soon. If the STB grants declaratory relief, basically preempting CEQA with a federal supremacy claim, the next step will be the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This piece was originally published at CalWatchdog.com


Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases.