Reduce Wildfire Damage and Lower Energy Bills by Freeing Up Markets

Power electricShortly before wildfires such as the Camp and Woolsey fires ravaged Northern and Southern California, respectively, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a contentious bill making it easier for the state’s investor-owned utilities — primarily, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric — to recover wildfire costs from ratepayers, but don’t expect the flames to die down anytime soon.

The legislation arose out of the calamitous wildfires the state has experienced the past couple of years and utilities’ fears about their abilities to cover potentially billions of dollars in damages. PG&E faces a possible $15 billion liability for wildfires that wreaked havoc on Northern California’s wine country last year, and contends that it might be forced into bankruptcy if the California Public Utilities Commission does not allow it to cover the costs with rate increases on consumers. Senate Bill 901, authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), largely sidestepped the broader reforms Gov. Brown had sought to reduce liability exposure for the utilities.

California law is unusual in that utilities may be held liable for fire damage caused by their equipment even if they were not negligent in maintaining it and followed all safety rules (such as wind blowing a tree down onto power lines and sparking a blaze). SB 901 did, however, direct the CPUC to consider PG&E’s financial status in deciding its liability for the 2017 fires, and may allow the company to pass along costs it cannot financially bear (however that is determined) in the form of bonds to be paid by ratepayers over time.

The legislation also requires utilities to beef up protections of their equipment, and provides some much-needed relaxing of logging restrictions on private land. A greater focus on wildfire prevention efforts such as removing excess fuel through vegetation clearing and controlled burns is also long overdue, and will be funded to the tune of $200 million a year for five years from the state’s cap-and-trade fund. Environmental policies preventing thinning to keep forests in a “natural” state, as well as drought conditions and a bark beetle infestation that have killed millions of trees, have created tinderbox conditions and significantly exacerbated wildfire damage. The money would go a lot farther, though, if the forest-thinning services were competitively bid instead of just doled out to Cal Fire.

In fact, privatization of wildfire services in general would likely substantially reduce costs. Approximately 40 percent of all wildfire services are already provided by the private sector, according to the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which represents more than 250 companies in 27 states employing about 10,000 private firefighters and support personnel.

The state should also stop interfering in insurance markets. An August study prepared for the California Natural Resources Agency by the RAND Corporation and Greenware Tech noted that insurers complain that the California Department of Insurance prevents them from using probabilistic wildfire models to project future losses and has not allowed them to raise homeowners insurance rates high enough to cover the full risk-based cost of policies in high-risk areas, which would discourage building in the most fire-prone locations.

Despite the significant risk to which it exposes investor-owned utilities in the state, strict liability is probably appropriate under the existing regulatory system. It is the same compensatory standard to which governmental agencies are held, and, as the state courts have noted, the eminent domain powers granted to electric utility companies under the Public Utilities Code and the government-protected monopolies under which they operate make them more akin to public agencies than unfettered private companies. Under such a system, where utilities face no competition and property owners cannot opt out if they are targeted for eminent domain action, it makes sense to spread the costs of wildfires among the utilities and their customers, who all share the benefits of the utilities’ electricity generation and transmission infrastructure.

That said, the existing regulatory system is at fault for creating “too big to fail” regional utility monopolies in the first place. A central planning commission that grants monopoly rights and dictates prices and “acceptable” profit levels sounds more characteristic of a socialist or totalitarian state like North Korea or the Soviet Union, but that is the state of energy markets in California.

A better solution would be to open up competition by eliminating regional government-granted energy monopolies with eminent domain powers and treating the provision of electricity like other goods and services. Fully privatizing the energy and insurance markets and eliminating government monopoly protections would do much more to reduce energy costs, increase innovation and reduce losses from wildfire damage than any measures currently being discussed in Sacramento.

esearch fellow at the Oakland based Independent Institute.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Hints of California’s Democratic Agenda to Come

CapitolIt’s just the beginning.

California lawmakers kicked off a new two-year session Monday, a day full of pomp and ceremony and not a lot of substance. But a few eager legislators began putting bills across the desk, giving an early indication of some key policy fights that will shape 2019.

Some of the early legislation reflects policy priorities Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom championed on the campaign trail — calling for more housing, health care and early childhood education. (Newsom will be sworn in on Jan. 7.) Other bills amount to a take-two for lawmakers who saw their policies stall out or get vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

It’s too soon to say how these proposals will fare—a long road of compromises often separates a bill’s introduction from the gubernatorial signature that turns it into a law. But here are a few themes emerging in this first day of legislative action:

Disaster

California’s recent wildfires are clearly a preoccupation. Both chambers opened with a moment of silence for victims of the Camp and Woolsey fires. In one of the more gripping moments of the morning, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon listed, name by name, the many California counties that, just at the moment, are recovering from climate-driven natural disasters, and what Gov. Jerry Brown termed “the new abnormal” figured heavily into his and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ opening remarks.

On Monday, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, who represents fire-scarred Santa Rosa—and who, as a forensic dentist, has been helping to identify remains in the Camp Fire — introduced legislation to hasten, broaden, subsidize and better codify local fire preparedness. As last session’s hard-fought wildfire bill demonstrated, though, the costs and liabilities associated with wildfires can politically be a hard sell.

Critics of Pacific Gas & Electric, whose equipment has been linked to many of last year’s fires, have been adamant in their demand that the state not give the massive utility a bailout. Assemblyman Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, had planned to introduce language on Monday that would have expanded last year’s wildfire bill to give PG&E relief for potential liability for the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people, but over the weekend, Holden said he would wait.

Housing

Lawmakers introduced several bills aimed at alleviating the state’s housing crisis on the first day of the legislative session, including twin efforts to revive a controversial funding source for affordable housing.

Assemblymember David Chiu, Democrat from San Francisco, reintroduced a bill that would revive and reform redevelopment agencies across the state. Eliminated by Gov. Brown in 2011 to close the state’s yawning budget deficit, redevelopment agencies provided about $1 billion annually for the construction and preservation of low-income housing. Loathed by Brown, tax funds raised by these agencies were frequently used for questionable purposes.

Two of Chiu’s colleagues in the state senate unveiled their own version of “Redevelopment 2.0” on Monday. Senator Jim. Beall, Democrat from San Jose, and Sen. Mike McGuire, Democrat from Marin, announced they will be introducing a series of bills in the coming weeks to ease the state’s housing crisis, although the specifics of their redevelopment bill or other pieces of legislation were not yet made public. On the campaign trail, Gov.-elect Newsom made restoring redevelopment funding a cornerstone of his housing plan.

Lawmakers introduced a handful of other housing bills, including efforts to increase emergency funding to renters on the brink of homelessness and a major expansion of tax credits to low-income housing developers. But the biggest housing bill of the session will likely be announced tomorrow.

Sen. Scott Wiener, Democrat from San Francisco, plans to reintroduce his controversial bill that would allow taller, denser buildings around public transit, a measure that was widely admired and summarily trounced last year.

Preschool

If there is a sure bet this legislative session, the expansion of early childhood education is as close as it comes.

Stymied for years by Gov. Brown, who was wary of putting the state on the financial hook for an obligation as long-term and expensive as, say, universal preschool, Democrats have come to the table well-armed. Earlier this year, a Stanford-led team of academicians issued a massive study recommending that California spend much more on pre-K education. And Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who has four young children, has been touting early childhood education for years.

On Monday, Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento was first out of the gate, with a package of bills worth nearly $2 billion that would add about 84,000 full-day preschool slots, mostly for students living in poverty; put a $500 million bond on the 2020 ballot for the construction of new preschool facilities; and increase reimbursement rates for private childcare and preschool providers that contract with the state.

The legislation effectively would increase the pool of eligibility for subsidized preschool to include more 3- year-olds and all 4-year-olds living in school attendance areas where at least 70 percent of kids are on free or reduced lunch, a poverty indicator. One of the bills also would raise preschool learning standards to align them better with K-12 curriculum. “

Take Two

Or three. For the last two years legislative Democrats have proposed expanding government-funded health care to undocumented adults, the largest segment of Californians who lack access to insurance. Doing that is expensive, and the proposals failed to make it into the final budget Brown signed in 2017 and again this year.

Now Democratic Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula of Fresno and Sen. Ricardo Lara are trying again, introducing bills on Monday to expand Medi-Cal to cover adults over age 19 who are in the United States illegally.

Also getting another go are some high-profile bills Brown vetoed last year, including one inspired by the #MeToo movement to stop sexual harassment. Assembly Bill 9 by Democratic Assemblywomen Eloise Gomez Reyes and Laura Friedman would give victims more time to file a claim—extending the deadline from one year to three years after an incident.

Brown vetoed the same policy this year, saying the one-year deadline “ensures that unwelcome behavior is promptly reported and halted.” Supporters counter that more time gives workers who are unfamiliar with the legal system enough time to hold predators accountable.

Brown also vetoed legislation to require colleges to provide abortion pills at campus health clinics, saying “the services required by this bill are widely available off campus,” and that students, on average, only have to travel a few miles to get it. Newsom quickly told reportershe would have signed the bill, so it was little surprise Monday when Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva came out with a second go in the form of Senate Bill 24.

Gig Economy

A major source of angst or ebullience—depending on your view—at the end of the last session was a state court decision that threw a monkey wrench into a legal pillar of the gig economy.

The so-called “Dynamex ruling” makes it harder for employers to classify workers as independent contractors. Cheered by organized labor, it impacted workers from Uber drivers to businesses to emergency room doctors, and sent Chamber of Commerce lobbyists scrambling for relief, or at least clarification.

On Monday, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat and labor ally, said she will introduce a bill to put a statutory bulwark around the ruling. Business interests, meanwhile, are hoping to soften the blow. Touching on competing goods from across the political spectrum—jobs, tech, small business, fair pay—this is one of those vexing issues that could challenge even a super-duper-mega-majority.

CALmatters’ Ricardo Cano and Matt Levin contributed to this report.

 

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Even California Cannot Defy Nature Forever

A wildfire rages in Buck Meadows, in the Yosemite National ParkCalifornia has been clouded under a blanket of smoke for weeks. Stanford University, where I work, sent students and faculty home early for Thanksgiving. The campus is more than 200 miles southwest of the 150,000-acre Camp Fire that just incinerated the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Paradise, and yet the entire Bay Area has been buried under collateral haze for days. I am a fifth-generation native Californian and remember many horrific Sierra Nevada fires, but never anything remotely comparable to the blazes of 2018.

Here in Fresno County, in the San Joaquin Valley, positioned between the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada mountains, the stagnant air for weeks has remained as polluted as China’s. When the normal northerlies blew, we were smoked in from the Camp Fire, 250 miles to the north. When the rarer southerlies took over, some of the smoke from the 100,000-acre Woolsey fire in the canyons of Malibu arrived from 230 miles distant.

July and August were nearly as incendiary as November. The huge, 450,000-acre Mendocino County conflagrations, the horrific Shasta-area Carr fire (nearly a half-million acres), and the nearby Ferguson fire in the Madera foothills all combined to make the air nearly unbreathable for two months throughout the Central Valley. Yet Californians in the irrigated center of the state were the lucky ones, breathing smoke rather than seeing fires overwhelm their homes and communities.

What is going on in California? Governor Jerry Brown, most of the Democratic-majority state legislature, the academy, and the administrative state have rushed to blame man-made global warming for the undeniable dry spell from May to mid-November that turned mountain canyons into tinderboxes. Usually autumn rains keep hillsides wet enough to prevent sudden combustions when the late autumn winds kick up. Not this year. Yet, if California has been arid and rainless these past months, two years ago we experienced near-record snow and rain that started in early fall and continued into late spring. Last year, we saw near-normal levels of precipitation.

If our life-giving reservoirs of the state’s vast California Water Project and federal Central Valley Project are currently not full, it is mostly because millions of acre-feet of stored water were released to flow into the San Francisco Bay estuaries and the delta—contradicting most of the original mandates of the water projects of providing flood control, power generation, lake recreation, and irrigation for California residents. Our ancestors rightly had assumed that two-thirds of the state’s people would continue to live where one-third of the state’s precipitation fell, requiring vast water transfers aimed exclusively for municipal and irrigation needs, admittedly at the expense of nineteenth-century whitewater rivers, flood plains, and riparian landscapes. Protecting the delta smelt population in San Francisco Bay, or restoring ancient salmon runs in the San Joaquin River, were not the concerns of these farseeing water engineers, who never imagined that their envisioned third-generation water projects would either be cancelled outright or would fail to keep pace with California’s burgeoning growth.

Left unsaid is that more than 130 million trees died throughout the state’s foothills and mountain ranges during the drought of 2011–2016 and were not removed from the forest floor, providing an immensity of natural kindling for fires. To walk in a Sierra Nevada forest during summers requires navigating not just over fallen limbs and branches, but also rotting trees—all amid dead brush and dead but still-towering brown pines. Gone are the periodic meadows and open spaces of the 1960s and 1970s, when logging companies harvested trees, thinned out the forests, replanted what was cut, and cleaned up the forest floor. Yet given California’s stringent anti-logging regulations of the last 20 years, there is no real California timber industry left, at least as it once was. And scavenging even dead trees prompts a great debate, as environmentalists lecture on the advantages of letting the dead wood be. Or, as Sierra Club organizer Daniel Barad put it in a January 2018 Sacramento Bee op-ed: “Dead trees are vital components of the forest ecosystem and should be removed only when necessary.” He added of the state’s millions of dead conifers: “Most are in remote areas, and removing them would be extremely costly and ecologically devastating. The black-backed woodpecker, northern fisher and northern spotted owl are among the species that rely on dead tree habitat . . . Also, dead trees store carbon for decades. As they decompose, much of their carbon returns to the soil, where it is held for thousands of years. In a large-scale removal, all that carbon is disturbed.” Perhaps Sierra Club environmental sensitivity is well-meant, but such orthodoxy ensures that the summer and autumn air that 40 million residents breathe, along with the lives of thousands living in the mountains, become secondary concerns to beetles and woodpeckers.

Other force multipliers combined with the drought and poor forest management to ensure that California’s fires were especially destructive to human habitats. One, California is no longer a state where most live along a coastal strip or in the flat, irrigated Central Valley. For a variety of economic, political, and cultural reasons, millions have flocked to the Coast Range canyons near the ocean that offer cheaper home sites and less chilly morning and evening weather. Looking down from a plane at night over the California Sierra Nevada foothills no longer reveals a sea of darkness, but rather millions of lights sparkling from private homes. Again, for many such rural refugees, Sierra Nevada foothill living is cheaper and quieter than the sprawling, congested metropolises of Sacramento, Fresno, and Bakersfield. Fifty years ago, many of these fires would have taken out isolated cattle ranches, power stations, and a few homesteaders. Now they threaten entire communities.

Two, given its length and long parallel mountain ranges, California is a longitudinal state, with its rails and freeways mostly running north and south, such as the 101, I-5, and 99 corridors. It’s difficult to travel latitudinally across California. Environmentalists and no-growth activists cancelled many of the envisioned auxiliary trans-Sierra and trans-Coast Range routes long ago. Few good highways exist into and out of the coastal and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges that might allow quick and safe access for firefighting and evacuation teams.

Roads between mountain communities are windy, narrow, and often potholed and crumbling (California remains near last in state-by-state infrastructure ratings, though it will soon have the nation’s highest gas taxes). For many foothill residents, the ensuing lack of traffic and easy mountain access is seen as a sort of blessing, ensuring privacy and a lack of tourism. Unfortunately, the net result of both poor and too few roads was that when wind-swept fires leapt through canyons and up hillsides, it was almost impossible to escape rural communities and private residences with any rapidity. And so, homes burned down and people died.

In a larger sense, twenty-first-century California is starting to confront the real-life consequences of its own abstract ideologies—on several tragic fronts. The nearly five-year drought taught us that entire communities and vast irrigated acreages could disappear if we ignored our forefathers’ warnings to keep building reservoirs, aqueducts, and dams commensurately with population growth, and to abide by the original rationale of these multi-billion-dollar projects. Open borders and sanctuary cities appear humanitarian, but when the result was the arrival of millions of impoverished immigrants without legal status, English fluency, and high school diplomas, state resources once prioritized for roads, bridges, canals, reservoirs, and airports were directed to accommodate vast expansions of social-welfare programs. The idea of ending close state supervision of those suffering from psychological disorders and mental illnesses, when combined with strict zoning and environmental laws that stymied new low-cost housing construction, led to hundreds of thousands of homeless living on the sidewalks of the state’s temperate coastal cities, from San Diego to Berkley. Medieval plagues like typhus and infectious hepatitis are often the result.

These same paradoxes help explain the 2018 epidemic of destructive forest fires, a tragic consequence of ideology trumping reality and common sense. Once upon a time, the architects of state governance understood that living in paradise required constant investments and vigilance against the vagaries of both Mother Nature and human nature, whether that meant managed forestry, road construction, reasonable building codes, or water storage and transfers. In theory, at least, millions of dead trees may have been ecological assets for a near pristine, mid-twentieth-century California of 10 million people. But such natural kindling can pose an existential danger to a complex civilization of 40 million twentieth-first century state residents.

Californians are being tragically reminded that the abstract ideologies of a few impose life-and-death consequences on millions.

Jerry Brown gets OK to pardon convicted politician Roderick Wright

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2013, file photo, state Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Wright, who was convicted on eight counts of perjury and voter fraud by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury, is expected to be sentenced Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The California Supreme Court gave the green light Tuesday for Gov. Jerry Brown to pardon former state Sen. Roderick Wright, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who was convicted four years ago of perjury and voter fraud.

The state’s high court does not take a position on whether Brown should grant clemency. Instead, justices decide whether there is sufficient support for a pardon should the governor decide to grant one. In Wright’s case, the justices said there was.

Brown sought the court’s opinion, with his attorney Peter Krause writing: “Sen. Wright has devoted much of his life to public service, including serving six years in the California state Senate and six years in the California Assembly.”

Wright was convicted in 2014 of perjury and voter fraud after prosecutors said he lied about living in the Senate district that elected him in 2008. He served an hour in jail and 2½ years of probation. In addition, he was barred from running for office because of the felony convictions. …

 Click here to read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle

End of Brown Era – Pat & Jerry

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, flickr

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, flickr

At the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs post election conference yesterday at Cal State L.A., political consultant Mike Madrid declared that the Brown era of politics focused on building and infrastructure is over with the end of Jerry Brown’s fourth term as governor. He wasn’t referring to just the current governor but to his father, Pat Brown, as well. Both Browns focused on building from water works and highways to the bullet train.

Darry Sragow, editor of the California Target Book echoed that thought, calling Jerry Brown brilliant, but as governor, he “replicated” his father as a builder of things and didn’t move too far on social programs. Sragow predicted that would change under new governor, Gavin Newsom.

Sragow argued that Newsom would have to do something positive to establish his governorship and create a vision for the future. Making a statement by blowing up the high-speed rail is not the way for Newsom to begin his new administration, Sragow suggested.

Madrid concurred saying Newsom will need to do something big and bold. “That takes money,” Madrid said, “and he’s got it.”

A newly released report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office declared that California’s budget is flush.

Politico California Playbook’s Carla Marinucci, the third panelists, argued that Newsom must be concerned with the jobs picture that would change dramatically as technology and automation advances.

Madrid said the new governor would be defined by how he deals with social problems. He noted that the state’s problems with poverty, income inequality, and housing all happened with Democrats in charge. However, he gave credit to Newsom for raising these issues in the campaign and said he believed Newsom is prepared to address them.

Long time Los Angeles journalist and moderator of the popular “To the Point” radio program, Warren Olney, moderated the panel.

Whatever course Newsom lays out, he will have to navigate the legislature that despite having a supermajority of his own party will have their own ideas how to spend the state’s surplus dollars. Sragow predicted the legislative would be “headstrong” in dealing with the new governor.

When challenged that the supermajority Democrats could splinter into ideological camps and even break apart, Sragow pushed back on the idea saying that the Democratic coalition, despite a wide range of views, would hold.

Republicans, however, are a different story according to the panel.

In reviewing the election results, Marinucci talked of two important groups that deserted Republicans: suburban women and college educated women and men.

Republican consultant Madrid was tougher on his party. He said Republican prospects in California were “nil!” He said conservatism was designed to lift people up through economic policy but that the GOP, which complains about Democratic identity politics, is now a party of white identity politics. He emphasized the point claiming that anyone who is against the boondoggle high speed rail because it would hurt the economy but is for building a wall which would also hurt the economy does so for one reason—unspoken was the issue of race. He predicted the collapse of the GOP coalition of coastal white color Republicans and inland blue collar workers.

*          *          *

Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, delivered the program’s keynote address. In a post speech Q&A, the Pat Brown Institute’s executive director Raphael Sonenshein asked Garcetti, what criteria he would use in deciding whether or not to run for president. Garcetti’s travels to other states and support for Democratic candidates in the recent election have been interpreted as laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

Garcetti said mayors should consider running for the presidency because as chief executives they deal with major issues that a president would face such as security and trade but also gain unique perspectives from local, hands-on issues. He said the key decision point is whether he feels he can add something that is different than other candidates, including new ideas.

If he decides to run he will have lots of company.

ditor and co-publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily.

Jerry Brown picks a new California Supreme Court justice

CA Supreme CourtGov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday nominated his senior adviser for judicial appointments to a seat on the California Supreme Court that has been vacant for more than a year.

Joshua Groban, 45, of Los Angeles, served as the legal counsel for Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and oversaw the appointment of approximately 600 state judges over the past two terms, according to a release from Brown’s office.

“Josh Groban has vast knowledge of the law and sound and practical judgment,” Brown said in a statement. “He’ll be a strong addition to California’s highest court.”

Former Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar retired in August 2017, giving Brown a fourth pick on the seven-member court and an opportunity to shape its direction for years to come. This will be the first time in more than three decades that a majority of the court is comprised of Democratic appointments. …

Click here to read the full article from the Sacramento Bee

Gov. Brown Will Defend Public Pension Reform Dec. 5

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)

As he requested, Gov. Brown will get a chance before leaving office to defend a public employee union challenge to his pension reform that some think could result in a ruling allowing pension cuts.

The state Supreme Court yesterday announced oral arguments scheduled Dec. 5 in Los Angeles on a firefighter appeal to allow employees to continue boosting their pensions by purchasing up to five years of “airtime,” credit for years in which they did no work.

If the court finds airtime is a vested right, the court could modify the “California rule” that prevents cuts in the pensions of current workers, limiting most cost-cutting reforms to new unvested hires, which can take decades to yield significant savings.

The airtime case, Cal Fire Local 2881 vs. CalPERS, one of five similar challenges to the pension reform, was fully briefed last January. Brown’s legal office replaced the state attorney general in the defense of the airtime ban.

“As the end of Governor Brown’s term in office draws closer, we respectfully urge the Court to calendar this matter for argument as soon as possible,” the governor’s legal affairs office said in a letter to the Supreme Court last July 6.

The Supreme Court said in September that Cal Fire oral arguments might be held as soon as November. The arguments on Dec. 5 are during the last regularly scheduled week of oral arguments before Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is sworn in Jan. 7.

“This move was animated in large part by Governor Brown’s deep concern for the fiscal integrity and solvency of public pension systems throughout the state,” said the governor’s legal office letter in July, referring to taking over defense of the reform.

“It was the same concern that motivated him to help develop the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013, and sign it into law,” said the letter.

Brown has left a seat vacant on the seven-member Supreme Court for a record 14 months. Former Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Werdegar gave notice in March last year that she would retire in August.

If no appointment is made before Dec. 5, a key vote on pension reform could come from one of the rotating appeals court justices brought up to hear more than 100 cases so far.

The six current members of the Supreme Court are evenly split between three appointees made by Brown, a Democrat, and three appointees made by former Republican governors.

“It’s not something I want to do too quickly,” Brown said in January, one of his few publicly reported remarks about the vacancy. “It’s very important now. I have appointed three. The fourth could be very decisive. So I want to understand how that decisivness should work.”

Among the speculation is that Brown may appoint an aide he wants to retain as long as possible, wanted a four-year delay in a retention election for the new election by waiting past the September deadline for the ballot this month, or may appoint his wife Anne Gust Brown.

The California rule has been cited as courts overturned several cost-cutting pension reforms approved by voters. For example, a Pacific Grove limit on payments to CalPERS in 2010 and a San Francisco ban on supplemental pension payments in 2011.

In 2012, a superior court overturned a key part of a San Jose measure approved by 69 percent of voters that would have cut the cost of pensions that current workers earn for future work, while protecting pension amounts already earned.

The plan pushed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, would have given current workers the option of paying more to continue earning the same pension, up to 16 percent of pay, or choosing a less costly pension that would pay less in retirement.

A superior court overturned the option citing the California rule, a series of state court decisions believed to mean the pension promised at hire becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that can only be cut if offset by a comparable new benefit, erasing cost savings.

Reed, now on the board of the bipartisan Retirement Security Initiative pension reform group, said pensions have been losing ground. CalPERS had a debt or funded liability of $90 billion in 2012, when the Brown reform legislation was approved, and $138 billion in 2016.

He said five different lawyers have filed five friend-of-the court briefs outlining five different approaches to modifying the California rule. One of the questions in the Cal Fire case is whether the Supreme Court will rule on vested rights and the California rule.

The Supreme Court summary says the Cal Fire case presents two issues: 1) Was the option to purchase airtime a vested pension benefit (2) and if so, did the legislation ending airtime purchases violate the contracts clause of the state and federal constitutions?

If the court finds that airtime is not a vested benefit, the court might also decide there is no need to rule on whether the airtime ban violates the contracts clauses and the California rule.

“This is the California State Supreme Court and this is a real big issue, and I would be very surprised if they didn’t take the opportunity to be more expansive than narrow,” Reed, a lawyer, said yesterday. “But I’m only guessing.”

Gregg Adam, a Messing Adam & Jasmine attorney for Cal Fire, said “our client is excited that oral argument is scheduled,” and the case has been extensively briefed by the parties and friends of the court.

“A narrow ruling is certainly possible,” Adam said in an email. “The Governor argues additional retirement service credit is not the type of pension benefit that the California Rule protects. If the Court agrees with him, the opinion will be short.

“We hope the Court reaches the larger issue. The benefit was integral to employees’ retirement security. It also encouraged diversity and education in state service. So we think it falls squarely within the category of benefits protected by the California Rule.

“The California Supreme Court has led on this issue and, especially at this time, we’re going to encourage it to continue to do so.

“With respect to Alameda, the Court will determine when it is ready to resolve the issues in that case, which may or may not be affected by any ruling in Cal Fire.”

Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Assn. v. Alameda County Employees’ Retirement Assn. was consolidated with similar Contra Costa and Merced county cases challenging a part of the reform that prevents “spiking” by boosting the final pay on which pensions are based.

The Supreme Court designated the Alameda case as the lead for three other similar cases challenging parts of the governor’s reform. The governor’s office had no comment yesterday on the pension cases.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

How Gov. Jerry Brown Made Juvenile Criminals a Privileged Class

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)

On September 30, 2018, California governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1391, which bars prosecution of those as young as 14 as adults, whatever the gravity of their crimes. The next day, in Yolo County juvenile court, public defender Andrea Pelochino requested that Judge Samuel McAdam advance case JD-18-332—that of Daniel Marsh—to January 1, 2019, when SB 1391 would take effect. The request was unusual in that the offender was not on trial, because Marsh, 21, had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced for torturing, murdering, and mutilating Oliver Northup, 87, and his wife Claudia Maupin, 76, in their Davis home in April 2013. Marsh drew a sentence of 52 years to life, but with a possibility of parole in his early forties.

Two years into his sentence, Marsh caught a break. In November 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, also championed by Brown, which barred prosecutors from filing juvenile cases in adult courts. California’s Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 57 could be applied retroactively, and California’s Third Court of Appeals “conditionally reversed” Marsh’s conviction pending a “transfer hearing” to determine if he was suitable for adult court. If not, he would be released when he was 25, a prospect that Northup and Maupin’s surviving families found chilling. As Northup’s daughter Mary noted, that would amount to only nine years served, for two murders.

At the Donovan Correctional Center near San Diego, Marsh began to prepare for what amounted to a new trial, with no new exculpatory evidence. The burden of proof would be on the prosecution to show that he was suitable for adult court. “I see myself as a resilient, loyal and kind-hearted individual who may not always say the right thing but always means well,” Marsh said in a TED talk put up on YouTube in May, but since removed. He showed no remorse for the murders and portrayed himself as a victim of sexual abuse. “There is no such thing as evil people in this world,” Marsh explained, “only damaged people.” In effect, this was advance testimony for his hearing, with no possibility of cross-examination.

In a surprise move, attorneys put Marsh on the stand. “I’m not who I used to be,” the convicted killer claimed. Asked if he had anything to say to the families of the victims present in the courtroom, Marsh protested that “nothing I can say will be enough.” He continued: “I’m sorry I took them away from you. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. I can’t give you the apology you deserve. I can’t look at you.” Indeed, he didn’t look at them, and the words came out as mechanical and soulless as those uttered by the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Marsh grew more animated when grilled on details of the crime. Asked if he identified as a murderer, he said “I did,” adding, “I tried to kill more people.” Did he research psychopaths? “I wanted to be one,” he answered. Did he research serial killers? “I wanted to be one. I admired them for killing people.” His testimony recalled the first police report, which said that the murders had been committed with “exceptional depravity.”

Last week, McAdam ruled Marsh suitable for adult court, reinstated the original conviction, and sent him back to prison. The ruling represented a triumph in California judicial history: a convicted double murderer and aspiring serial killer would serve his original sentence. Victims’ families found some relief, but with SB 1391 soon to become law, what lies ahead is uncertain. As McAdam conceded in his ruling, “it will soon be the law of California that even a 15-year-old who commits a brutal double murder of strangers in his neighborhood will be adjudicated in juvenile court and not adult court, without any weighing of factors.” And that could make Daniel Marsh, an exceptionally depraved double murderer, the poster child for California’s criminal-justice system after Jerry Brown.

Emails show California transportation agency’s cozy ties to gas tax backers

Gas TaxSACRAMENTO — As the political battle to overturn California’s gas tax increase intensified, the state transportation agency coordinated frequently with the public affairs firm working to block the repeal on behalf of unions, construction companies and local government groups, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.

The California State Transportation Agency and Sacramento-based Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks organized news conferences and other efforts to promote legislation to raise the tax to fund road and bridge repairs, which passed the Legislature in April 2017. After Gov. Jerry Brown signed it, the agency and firm continued planning events and coordinating social media posts as opponents gathered signatures for repeal.

Three ethics experts interviewed by the AP said the emails raise concerns that the agency’s relationship with the firm was too close, but none saw a clear violation of campaign laws, which prohibit the use of public resources for political campaigns. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Jose Mercury News

Time to hit the pause button on high-speed rail

High speed rail constructionJerry Brown did not invent the idea of a high-speed rail system to connect Northern and Southern California.

It was voted on by the state Legislature and ratified by voters years before he returned to the governor’s office in 2011. But for the last eight years, as cost estimates have skyrocketed and federal and private sector funding for the project has evaporated, Brown has become high-speed rail’s most persistent defender.

Only weeks away from the election to replace him, neither candidate for governor appears to share the depth of Brown’s commitment to a statewide rail system.

Fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom only talks about it under duress, and has indicated that he would adopt a much more gradual and incremental approach. Republican John Cox wants to scrap it altogether. Polling shows that public support has dropped considerably since Californians voted to authorize the project 10 years ago. …

Click here to read the full article from the Sacramento Bee