The November 2020 Election

October 12, 2020

Part 1 – candidates (Yeah, I know, I already published Part 2.)

November 2020 is a Presidential election. That in itself makes it special. This is a particularly crucial presidential election. We are just finishing four year that have almost literally turned the country on its head. We’ve gone from a president who insisted that the U.S. be a world leader in turning back climate change to one who doubts its very existence. We’ve gone from a president who endorsed diplomacy as the way countries solve their disputes (even though he engaged in undeclared wars and extrajudicial assassinations) to one who insists that the U.S. pull back from international involvement (while he continues to engage U.S. troops in a variety of overseas military operations – mostly begun by his predecessors – and threatens military and economic warfare on almost a weekly basis.

In short, we’ve gone from an administration that talked the talk of international cooperation while not always walking the walk, to one that doesn’t even make a pretense in believing in it, and wants to bring the U.S. domestic economic policies back to those of the laissez-faire 19th century.

I can hardly call myself an enthusiastic supporter of Joe Biden and his brand of Democratic (large D) government. As Obama’s vice president, he went along with numerous questionable choices that administration made. Nor, since becoming a presidential candidate, has he shown that he was artificially held back from taking stronger steps to address the many problems facing this country and the world. In short, he’s the kind of milquetoast, corporatist Democrat that I’ve voted against for many years.

However, this year is different, and I have to reluctantly endorse Joe Biden. I’d love to be able to think that either Green Party or Peace and Freedom Party candidate could win, but we know that’s not possible. Sadly, the voters of this country aren’t ready for any kind of radical change. Maybe in four years? I’m not optimistic.

Yes, it’s once again a choice for the a lesser of two evils; but Biden is so much less evil than his opponent that he looks almost angelic by comparison with Mr. Trump.

So much for the federal level. Being in Barbara Lee’s congressional district, there’s hardly any contest. Her Republican opponent has a platform of Puerto Rican statehood (It’s not even popular in Puerto Rico. Why is a Californian candidate making it his top priority), lower taxes (for whom? And if we lower taxes even further, how will anything get paid for?), and establishing a space force (with what money, when he wants to cut taxes? A space force is even more of a boondoggle that the High-Speed Rail Authority!)

At the state level, there’s not much choice either. To be blunt, I am notably unenthusiastic about either our state senator, Nancy Skinner, or our assembly member, Buffy Wicks. However, the only opposition to Skinner is a Libertarian whose ideas are little short of nonsense, and the only opponent to Wicks is Sara Brink – a film maker who has mounted virtually no campaign at all. I may vote for Sara Brink, if only as a protest vote. I will leave my ballot blank on state senate.

At the local level, things are more competitive and interesting. There is one uncontested office – BART Director – where the incumbent is running unopposed. However, there a two contested AC Transit Board seats, an Oakland Unified School District board seat, two Oakland City Council seats, one county superior court judge position, and the Oakland City Attorney seat.

Let’s start with City Council. For the at-large seat (city-wide), there are three candidates: Rebecca Kaplan – a three-term incumbent; Derreck B. Johnson, a “small business owner;” and Nancy Sidebotham; a tax preparer and perennial city council candidate. Johnson is running with backing from much of the East Bay political establishment, including Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, Board of Equalization member (and long-time San Francisco politician) Malia Cohen, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, assembly member Buffy Wicks, former state senator Don Perata, and a number of former Oakland city council members. Rebecca Kaplan has the endorsement of the Alameda County Democratic Party, Our Revolution East Bay, and many of the local labor unions, as well as the Sierra club and Oakland Rising – i.e., much of the progressive wing of the local Democratic Party. Sidebotham has no organizational endorsement and 24 individual endorsers.

As for platforms, Sidebotham’s platform focuses on a few specific narrow issues – like being a watchdog a the newly-established city redistricting commission and getting audits done of city departments. Not what I’d call an ambitious platform. Johnson’s platform reeks of generalities – fighting COVID and supporting the City’s economic recovery, addressing housing & homelessness, and “racial justice and equality” – really – that’s what he put up on the LWV Voters Edge website! Kaplan lists a number of initiatives, ranging from ending disparities in the city’s treatment of its citizens in hiring, contracting, and policing to addressing homelessness and public health issues to promoting civilianization of the the police department. In short, a pretty wide-ranging progressive-oriented platform. Her three terms in office reflect that progressive stance. (It’s no wonder the Mayor would like to replace her.)

If you can’t tell, my choice is Kaplan. This is a battle between the old guard and the progressives. I’m siding with the progressives.

Oakland City Council – District 1.

This is also a three-way race, and again it’s an incumbent against two challengers. Let’s start with the challengers:

Steph Dominguez Walton calls herself a businesswoman and mother. She doesn’t say what her business is, though. (She’s been in TV in various positions, but not any more.) Her husband, by the way, is described as “an environmental attorney.” He’s a partner in SSL, LLP – a law firm that represents – according to their website – developers, property owners, investors, contractors, and financial institutions in a wide variety of development and construction projects. That doesn’t say that Ms. Walton is automatically pro-developer, but when you look at her biggest campaign contributors, they’re mostly construction unions.

One of her primary platform planks is to eliminate single-family zoning throughout Oakland. She claims it’s the result of racism – exclusionary zoning. In some parts of Oakland, particularly the Oakland Hills, there’s some truth to that. Housing tracts in Upper Rockridge, for example, developed around the time of World War I, included restrictive covenants prohibiting the sale of properties to blacks, asians, or Jews. On the other hand, given that most houses were built on steep, narrow streets because of the hillsides, single family homes were probably the only thing practical, and with the steep hillsides, streetcars weren’t practical, unlike lower parts of Oakland where they, along with small multi-unit buildings, were prevalent. In other words, yes, there was racism in Oakland, but no, it’s not what caused single-family housing.

Ms. Walton also says that requiring all housing to be multi-unit will make solve Oakland’s affordability problems. I don’t think so. Look at San Francisco. The eastern half of San Francisco is almost entirely multi-unit buildings, and it’s got some of the highest housing costs in the country. Housing pricing is not a nut that’s easily cracked, and simple-minded thinking won’t crack it. Perhaps because she’s opposed to single-family zoning, she’s been endorsed by California YIMBY. I’m afraid that endorsement doesn’t impress me positively.

A second major plank in her platform is “reforming” the police dept. What that means is unclear. She’s for prohibiting the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, or flash-bank grenades. Fine, but all three candidates say that. She wants accountability – but what does that mean? She said police should “protect the community from violent crime.” OK, but how? She says Oakland should fund departments “better suited to address mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness, among other critical services.” OK, but where’s the money going to come from when roughly half the City’s budget goes to policing? Sorry, but I don’t see ideas that give me confidence here.

She says she wants to see more money spent on education – then why isn’t she running for school board, not City Council?

In short, I’m not impressed. (Update October 9th – I heard all three candidates on an Oakland League of Women Voters Candidates’ Forum for District 1 Council and School Board races. The candidates answered audience-supplied questions posed by the moderator. The recorded program should be up on the league’s website. As of today, it’s not up yet. check back next week. Bottom line, while she’s a very slick talker, I didn’t here a lot of substance. I’m still not impressed.)

Well, it’s a few days later, and the vote by mail ballots have dropped – and this year they’ve dropped on everyone, so I need to hurry up and finish my recommendations before they become useless!

Short take on Mr. Ngo, he’s got a few good ideas – like allowing people in District 1 vote on issues before the Council so he’s got direct input from the community. However, there’s a lot of kinks that would need to be worked out to prevent fraudulent voting. Overall, he impresses me as idealistic, but very inexperienced. I’d worry about turning a council seat over to him at this point.

Bottom line, my recommendation is to stick with Dan Kalb. While I don’t always agree with him – I often feel he’s too timid and too worried about getting people made with him. (You’d think he’d have realized by now that if you want to make and omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs.) Nevertheless, his instincts and heart are in the right place, and on important things, he usually comes down on the right side – or at least on on the wrong side. I realize that’s not an enthusiastic endorsement, but, as with Biden, he’s still head and shoulders above his opponents.

For District 1 school board, it’s again a 3-way race. My thumbnail evaluations: Stacy Thomas – she’s basically mad because OUSD has been closing down some of the smaller schools as uneconomical. I understand her concern, but OUSD is in serious financial trouble, so something had to give. She’s running on a “progressive” slate (Action2020Oakland). The slated opposes school closures and charter schools. I certainly agree with the latter. I’d say she’s my second choice.

Austin Dannhaus – he’s pretty slick, and uses lots of jargon. He claims he’s been a third grade teacher, but doesn’t say where or for how long. He’s supported financially by Michael Bloomberg -who’s big on charter schools, but Austin says nothing about his position on that issue. To be blunk, I trust him about as far as I can throw him. NO WAY.

Sam Davis – like Austin, he’s been a teacher, but he seems much more down to earth. He’s also been a local school volunteer and has lots of support – including most progressive organizations. I’m picking him as my first choice.

City Attorney – this is a battle between the current city attorney – Barbaqra Parker , and a deputy city attorney, Elias Ferran. I have been very unimpressed with Ms. Parker. I think she blew it on the Oakland Coal Ordinance, and I don’t see her addressing the problems of OPD at all. I feel she’s been ineffective. I am voting for Mr. Ferran as a vote for change.

AC Transit – we get to vote for the At-Large seat and the Ward 2 seat. I know both the incumbents, and while they don’t always agree, they both have good heads on their shoulders and put their hearts into the job. I recommend Chris Peeples for at-large and Greg Harper for our district director.

Alameda County Superior Court – this is an open seat, and there are two candidates: Mark Fickes and Elena Condes. This is a run-off after neither got a majority in the primary. While they’re both decent candidates, I like Fickes’ views on the issues better, so that’s who I’m going for.

Finally there are the local measures. There are two county measures, one school district bond, and three city measures. Here they are:

Measure V – Utility tax for unincorporated areas – this will help the County have money to address needed county services. YES

Measure W – a countywide sales tax measure, also to help pay for county services, especially social services that have been stretched by the pandemic – YES

Measure Y – Oakland Unified School District bond for classroom repairs and school safety improvements – YES

Measure QQ – would allow the City to pass an ordinance allowing residents aged 16-18 to vote for OUSD school board members. – NO (I don’t think high school juniors have the maturity to understand what they’d be voting for. I know I didn’t when I was in high school, and I was probably more mature than most.)

Measure S1 – provides more oversight for Oakland Police Dept. by civilian review board. – YES

So there you have it!!


Statewide Ballot Measure Recommendations

October 7, 2020

So, my ballot came today in the mail – and my brother called me last night to ask my recommendations. Guess it’s time I put them up on this blog.

I already started going through the candidates, but that’s taking a while, so I’ll start with the state ballot measures. There are twelve of them – more than some years but not as many as some others. A lot of issues; some pretty minor, others huge. I’ll take them in numerical order.

Prop. 14 – Stem Cell Research Bonds – We voters approved an earlier set of bonds, and a research center was set up using them. It’s now churning out results – including results that led to one of the COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Should voters approve a second round of bonds? Well, maybe. I think most thinking people agree that stem cell research (using cells often derived from discarded human embryos produced using in vitro fertilization for later implantation, but then not used) is not immoral, and can give important medical results. The real question is whether it still needs more public money to keep going. (This measure would provide 1.5 billion – roughly one sixth the amount of the 2008 high-speed rail bond.) I’d like to see some “strings” attached to research coming out of this – like it can’t be used to give the pharmaceutical industry huge profits. But we don’t currently have that choice. I’m going to vote yes, because the benefits outweigh the “should haves.”

Prop. 15 – “Split roll” Property tax. This would modify Prop. 13 to allow different treatment of commercial/industrial versus residential property. Right now property only gets reassessed on sale; but commercial properties are rarely sold. (When was the last time Chevron’s Richmond refinery changed hands?) This would say that commercial property gets reassessed regularly. That will greatly increase property tax revenue – meaning more funding for schools, public hospitals, and other public needs. YES!!

Prop. 16 – Cancel the prohibition on affirmative action. A while back, a ballot measure (pushed by Ward Connerly) got passed prohibiting affirmative action for public agencies in California. That means we can’t take into account past discrimination in making personnel decisions. Arguably, if everyone had equal opportunity, affirmative action would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, we know that’s not true. True, affirmative action can be subject to abuse, but we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. YES

Prop. 17 – Restores voting rights to parolees. California is a state that allows ex-felons to vote once they’ve totally finished their prison term. But technically, parolees can still go back to prison. Of course, if the do, they’d lose their voting privilege, but that gives them an incentive (perhaps not a big one) to stay on the “straight an narrow.” YES

Prop. 18 – This would allow a 17 year-old to vote in the primary election if they’d be 18 by the time of the general election. Right now, if you’re 17 1/2 in the spring before a general election, you’re limited to choosing between two candidates that you had no say in selecting. This measure would bend the 18 year-old voting age a little to give those about to turn 18 a say in who they get to vote for when they turn 18. YES

Prop. 19 – Property tax preference for seniors – Right now, senior (over 15) homeowners get to transfer their Prop. 13 “privilege” of lower taxes to a new home, but usually only within the same county, and only once. The rule also applies to severely disabled people and those displaced by a natural disaster or a contamination event. This measure would allow eligible homeowners to transfer the assessment up to three time to any county in the state. The measure would also narrow the rules that tax-advantage intergenerational property transfers. It would increase taxes on the latter transfers. It would also reduce the disincentive for elderly or disabled to move, and the new owners would pay an increased tax. Of course, the tax on the replacement property would be lower than if it was sold to a non-qualifying homeowner. Overall, I think the narrowing of intergenerational transfer rules is a good thing, and for the rest, it’s probably a wash. YES

Prop. 20 – This would tighten up sentencing and parole rules and generally reverse the loosening of rules putting people in prison done by the Legislature in the past few years. Generally, I think we’re putting too many people in prison, and it’s not working. Prisons are often training schools for criminals. We need to come up with better solutions, and this isn’t one of them. NO!!

Prop. 21 – This would reverse the Costa-Hawkins law, passed in the mid 1990s, that restricted the application of rent control. Now, any housing built after 1990 can’t be rent controlled. As a result, new housing is increasingly unaffordable, especially in areas with a shortage of housing. This would undo Costa-Hawkins and allow cities and counties to apply rent control to newer housing, once the housing is at least 15 years old. Rent control would continue to not apply to single family homes. Rent control would still need to allow landlords and fair return on investment, and owners of two or less rental properties would still fall under Costa-Hawkins. Consta-Hawkins has allowed rents to skyrocket. Enough is enough! YES!

Prop. 22 – The Uber-Lyft Ballot Measure. This measure, mostly funded by Uber, Lyft, and other “Gig” companies, would reverse a recent state law that called for people who work for such companies to be employees, not independent contractors. The difference? employees get employee benefits – like minimum wage, sick leave, paid time off, etc. independent contractors get NADA. Maybe some people like the flexibility of part time work, but these company get away with screwing the “employees.” NO!!

Prop. 23 – This measure, put on by a union trying to force unionization of employees at dialysis centers, would mandate that dialysis centers have a physician on duty full time. My wife, who’s a geriatrician, says it’s unnecessary and expensive. It will make dialysis more expensive without really improving care. NO

Prop. 24 – amending consumer privacy rights law. The Legislature had gradually been enacting more laws to protect consumers’ privacy. However, the Legislature is subject to pressure from businesses, and organizations like the state chamber of commerce, to keep the rules favorable to businesses. This measure would lock in stronger protections in some area, including a new consumer privacy protection agency, (but it appears it could weaken other provisions recently enacted by the Legislature) and those couldn’t be changed except by another ballot measure. What this measure is really about is how much you trust the Legislature to do the right thing. Conversely, do you trust the people who write this measure? (Perhaps significantly, the ACLU opposes the measure.) If you trust the Legislature, you should vote this measure down and rely on the Legislature to add protections as needed. For now, I’m undecided. I need to look at the campaign donor lists.

Prop. 25 – Referendum of new law replacing cash bail with a system of pre-trial detention based on risk of flight or danger to the public. Our bail system is really unfair. People stay in jail or go free based largely on their financial status. The new law replaced cash bail by a system based on the judge’s evaluation of risk of flight or danger to the public; not ability to “make bail.” (Under the new system, those arrested for misdemeanors would almost never be detained.) However, the new law opened the door to computerized systems that analyze the risk of flight or danger based on the person’s past criminal record. Some civil libertarians say the new system is also unfair and biased. They don’t trust the computer-assisted assessment process (or judges and court staff) to be fair. In my humbe opinion, the new system’s an improvement, and the Legislature can still “tweak” it if there are problems. YES (meaning the new law takes effect)

October 9th update:

Update on financing – As “Deep Throat” said during the Watergate era, “Follow the money.” (If you don’t know who deep throat was, go watch the movie “All the President’s Men.” It’s a great movie, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as co-stars, and it couldn’t be more relevant during the current presidential election.) For some of the propositions, the sources are obvious. For Prop. 22, the money’s mostly coming from Uber and Doordash. I find that revolting. For Prop. 24, the money flowing into the yes side is huge, but the source is obscure. It’s not coming from big tech – at least not directly. According to the Secretary of State’s records, most of the money’s coming from a San Francisco real estate developer – The Emerald Fund. What they have to do with information privacy, I can’t figure out. Maybe they’re just a conduit, but if so, it’s running pretty deep. Emerald Funds reports no recent donations to it. Go figure. It smells fishy to me.


First Post-election Thoughts (November 2018)

November 7, 2018

While the dust has not yet settled on the November 2018 general election – With the increasing prominence of vote-by-mail ballots in California, it may be a month before some contests have a clear winner [and that’s not counting recounts!] – nevertheless, I think one can identify some general take-home lessons from this election.

1.  There was a “blue wave” but it was only about six inches high, and felt primarily in “purple” states.

The Democratic Party had entered this election campaign with high hopes of a “blue wave” that would sweep across the country, throwing out Republicans and installing Democrat replacements.  For the most part, it didn’t happen.  Blue states generally stayed blue, and the hue of blue maybe got a little bit deeper.  On the other hand, red states generally stayed as red as ever, and in some cases (like North Dakota and Indiana) maybe even took on a slightly deeper shade of red, with outlier Democrats being picked off by Republican adversaries.

If there was any blue wave, and there probably was, what with the majority of the U.S. House of Representives shifting to the Democrats, it was pretty restricted and not very big.  It semed to show up most strongly in states that might be labeled “purple” – meaning that they were not dominated by either of the two major parties.  That includes as notable examples the states of Virginia, Maine, Nevada, and New Mexico.  In each of those states, some Republican House incumbents either lost or are on life support.  Likewise for some purple state Republican governors.  However, even this trend is not all that strong.  Republicans appear to have retained the governorships of Florida and Georgia – state that are though to be shifting toward Democratic control,

Here in California, a few Republican-held seats shifted to Democrats, and there are still several seats that are still too close to call.  In that regard, the increasing trend of voters to use vote-by-mail ballots, and to often not turn them in until elecion day, means that the “Final” results (100% of precincts reporting) are nowhere near final.  In many California counties, there will be a significant percentage of votes that won’t get counted for days, or even weeks.  This, for example, the Denham/Harder race, where the two candidates are separated by a little more that 1%, could well reverse itself.  (As an aside, the traditional rule has been that vote-by-mail ballots turned in early tend to trend more Republican, while those turned in on election day tend to reflect the actual election day voters at the polls.  I don’t know if those “rules” have been re-examined with the big increase in vote-by-mail ballot usage.)

2.  The election results do not show any major change on the “mood of the voters.”  If anything, they show a further hardening of attitudes.

As I noted, blue states may have gotten a little bluer, and red states, a little redder.  I don’t detect any major trend in the “purple” states, except a slight tendency towards “bluing” in urban and suburban areas.

3.  Democrats, at least at a national level, don’t appear to have any effective strategy for talking to those disaffected former Democrats who have shifted to Trump.

I haven’t examined every race in the industrial Midwest, where it appeared that disaffected Democrats, or former Democrats, shifted to Trump.  However, the general results seem to indicate that a lot of those folks aren’t shifting back to voting for Democrats yet.  The Democratic national strategy still seems focused on addressing voters on the traditional Democratic issues – many of  which are a combination of liberal economic and liberal social issues (e.g., Medicare for all, protecting abortion rights, promoting civil, political, and social rights for women and minorities, helping the poor, etc.).  Republicans seem to have a firm lock on the evangelical Christian voters, as well as on rural voters.  In many red states, that’s all that’s needed for them to keep control.  Untill/unless the Democratic Party can figure out how to pry some of those groups away from the Republican Party, I think we’re destined to see a continued divided Congress, based on the fact that the lower population states have as many senators as do states like California an New York.  No Democrat seems to have found a way to reassemble the “New Deal” coalition that elected Democratic majorities from the 1930s through the 1950s.  Certainly, the Democratic Leadership Conference strategy espoused by centrist Democrats like the Clintons and Obama doesn’t appear to be a winning strategy any more.  Nor, for that matter, has Bernie Sanders’ “left populism” shown itself effective in Florida or Georgia gubernatorial races.  Perhaps a more detailed analysis can point the way?


November 2018 General Election – Part IV – Local/Regional Ballot Measures

October 29, 2018

OK, so you’ve gone through all the statewide candidates and measures, and the regional/local candidates. Now, all that’s left are the local/regional ballot measures. You’re almost there! Bear with me while we go through them. I promise it won’t take too long.

Regional Measures

Measure FF – East Bay Regional Park District Parcel Tax Extension.

This measure would extend for 20 years an existing parcel tax to fund the East Bay Regional Park Districts ongoing maintenance expenses, as well as improvement expenses. It would NOT pay for new capital expenditures (e.g., new land acquisition). The parcel tax is $12 per year (for a single family dwelling, $8.28 per year for multifamily [i.e., condo or apartment] units), and is put on your annual property tax bill.

This time around there is vocal and well-funded opposition by the folks who don’t want to see any eucalyptus cut down. In reality, the Regional Park District program is aimed at thinning, not removing eucalyptus groves. If the measure fails, eucalyptus seedling will continue to germinate and grow, making the groves thicker and larger – and also a far greater fire hazard. the Park District has tried to stake out a middle-ground in the eucalyptus debate, pointing out that while eucalyptus may be beautiful, smell nice, and provide some wildlife habitat benefits, overgrown groves accumulate highly combustible shedded leaves and bark. Further, while older trees drop their lower branches, isolating their flammable crowns from the ground, if there are smaller trees between them, the combination gives a wildfire a “fuel ladder” to climb up into the towering crowns of older trees, where the burning leaves and branches will generate embers that the wind can carry for literally miles. As a result, the embers can ignite new fire areas, making the fire far more difficult to get under control.

You’d think that, having lived through the 1991 Tunnel Fire that burned over 2,000 homes in the East Bay Hills, East Bay residents would have learned that beauty and safety sometimes need to be balanced. Apparently not. So go ahead, listen to the “euc lovers” and vote this measure down, but don’t come crying when the next big fire – and there WILL be a next big fire – is even more dangerous and damaging that the last. YES!!!

Peralta Community College Funding Measures.

Measure E – Peralta Community College Parcel Tax Extension.

This measure would extend an existing $48 per parcel tax for an additional eight years. The tax proceeds would be used to provide support for academic programs and student support such as tutoring. The Peralta District provided the lowest cost higher education option for East Bay students, and serves as a gateway to the Cal. State and U.C. system for those who might not otherwise be able to make the transition. I know several kids on my street alone who’ve used Peralta courses to pave their way to entering a four-year degree program. $48 a year is a small cost to keep this important part of our public higher education system running. YES.

Measure G – Peralta Community College District Facilities Improvement Bond.

Unlike Measure E, which funds ongoing school expenses, Measure G is a bond measure to fund capital improvements. While some of Peralta’s campuses are relatively new, they’re still aging, and with technology moving forward rapidly, even newer classrooms and facilities need updating to be able to have the kind of electronic resources students and teachers need. The bond, which would be for $800 Million (a small amount compared, for example to the $9.95 BILLION bond measure voters approved for high-speed rail in 2008), would be paid off through property tax assessments of $24.50 per $100,000 of valuation over 40 years. YES.

City of Oakland Measures

Measure V – Oakland Cannabis Business Tax Modification Measure (Council Initiated)

This measure, which must be approved by the voters under Prop. 13, makes changes in how the City collects business tax from cannabis sales businesses to make it easier for those businesses to manage, and to give the City Council flexibility in making further changes, so long as those changes don’t increase the tax rate.

Cannabis businesses are now a fact of life for California and for Oakland. From the City’s standpoint, if cannabis businesses are going to operate, it’s to the City’s benefit that they do so successfully. The alternative is that cannabis sales go back to being an underground criminal activity – profiting gangs instead of the City treasury. YES

Measure W – 20 Year Sunset Vacant Property Tax. (Council Initiated)

This proposed tax has two purposes. One purpose is to provide funds for homeless services, affordable housing, code enforcement against blight and illegal dumping, and administration of the tax. The other, perhaps equally important, purpose is to provide a disincentive to property owners leaving their property vacant and unused. We all know of properties – either buildings, apartments, storefronts, houses, or vacant lots, that have sat idle for years – fulfilling no useful function and often contributing to an atmosphere of blight in the community. There can be various reasons for this, but one of the ones that’s become more common lately is speculators who don’t want the property occupied because they’re waiting to sell it at an increased price. It’s not clear how big a problem this is in Oakland, but in San Francisco it’s been estimated that there are as many as 60,000 vacant apartment and condos being kept off the market by speculating investors. While the proposed tax is not exorbitant ($6,000/year for vacant property, $3,000 per year for a condor ground floor commercial space)– especially given how much Oakland property is sometimes selling and renting for – it would give property owners a prod to DO SOMETHING with their property. YES

Measure X – Graduated Real Estate Transfer Tax (Council Initiated)

Oakland, like most cities, has a real estate transfer tax – essentially a tax on the purchase of real property in the city. This measure would amend Oakland transfer tax so that the tax rate would be graduated, so the rate would be higher on property selling for higher values. The current rate is 1.5% for all properties. For properties valued at less than $300,000, the rate would drop to 1% . For properties from $300,000 to $2, million, it would remain at the current 1.5%; for properties valued from $2 million to $5 million, it would rise modestly to 1.75%; and for properties over $5 million, it would rise to 2.5%. Further, for first-time low or moderate income homebuyers, the rate would be decreased by ½% from the otherwise-applicable rate, but only for property valued at $2 million or less. The measure would also rebate up to 1/3 of the transfer tax to low/moderate income homebuyers for the value of improvements to their newly-bought home to install solar power generation or to make earthquake retrofits within six months of purchase. However, these rebates would also only apply to homes valued at less than $2 million.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. Those buying higher priced homes can presumably afford to pay a bit more for city services.   (The tax proceeds would go into the City’s general fund.) The tax may also, incidentally, get sellers to price their properties below the various breakpoints for the tax.] The tax gives a break to first-time low & moderate income home buyers, which makes sense, because home ownership usually brings with it a more stable and more active relationship with the City. Likewise, the rebates for adding solar power & earthquake retrofits are incentives to do things that help the community as well as the homeowner. YES.

Measure Y – Extending Just Cause Eviction provisions to landlord-occupied duplexes and triplexes. (Council Initiated)

Up until now, Oakland’s Just Cause Eviction ordinance has had an exemption for landlord-occupied duplexes and triplexes, on the theory that these are small landlords who’ll generally do well by their tenants. Well, it turns out that landlords have learned how to “play” this exemption. The landlord [temporarily] moves into one unit of the building and then promptly evicts the tenants in the other unit(s). That’s not fair. Further, the just cause eviction provisions aren’t all that burdensome. It just means that the landlord needs to have a good reason for evicting a tenant – like non-payment or rent or violation of lease provisions. There’s no good reason why those reasons shouldn’t be needed for duplex or triplex owners, especially when there’s far too strong incentives to boot out current tenants and then raise the rent.

Opponents argue that landlords will take the units off the market. Sure, and then do what with them? Leave them vacant? If landlords think they have a better idea, let them bring it forward and have it put on the ballot. YES.

Measure Z – Minimum Wage for hotel workers, plus establishing employee rights and a new city department to enforce those rights. (Council Initiated)

This measure starts off with a good idea – raising the minimum wage in Oakland’s (larger) hotels [50 room minimum]. The large hotels play to the tourist and convention clientele, and consequently charge fairly hefty room rates. Yet they pocket most of that money. However, it’s possible that raising the wages uniformly may force poorer-performing hotels out of business. Seems like there ought to be a way for a hotel to claim hardship and temporarily pay lower wages – if they can substantiate their hardship. Also, why focus on just the hotel business? What about restaurants and conference centers? What about large employers, like UPS and Fed-Ex?

Another concern is establishing an entirely new City department to enforce this ordinance. One can easily see that department proposing more ordinances so it’ll have justification for hiring more employees. To me, this looks like it could easily turn into trying to expand Oakland’s bureaucracy and then figuring out ways to justify the expansion. NO.

Measure AA – Establishes $198 per year parcel tax for early childhood education and programs to promote college entry and completion and workplace readiness. (Initiative Measure)

I get worried about the various taxes and bond measures that get put onto the ballot without an adequate explanation of why they’re needed. This is a case in point. While the measure claims there will be accountability, it doesn’t identify how it’s going to measure the adequacy of progress towards reaching its lofty goals, and what will happen if it doesn’t. This looks far too much like a “throw money at a problem and see if it does anything” approach. I’d like to see something with more back-up, like being able to point to similar projects that have had demonstrable success in improving outcomes. NO

 


November 2018 Election Ballot comments – Part III – Local/Regional Candidates

October 28, 2018

As election day closes in, if you haven’t already filled in your mail-in ballot, or if you’re a traditionalist who likes to actually got to your polling place on election day, here’s part 3 of my election comments, local/regional candidates. Part 4, local/regional ballot measures, will hopefully follow shortly. I might add that unless you live in the Bay Area, you can pretty much ignore these last two parts unless you’re curious about what’s on the ballot here. Also, some candidates and measures get pretty darned local, so unless you actually live in Oakland, Not all my comments will apply to your ballot. If you’re wondering about someone or something I didn’t discuss, feel free to leave a comments and I’ll get back to you shortly with a response, although in some cases, that response may be less than fully informed – in which case I won’t be ashamed to say so. It’s hard enough to try to be fully informed about what’s on your own personal ballot!

Local/Regional candidates.

California State Assembly District Fifteen.

If you’ve read my comments on statewide candidates, you already know I have a dim view of California’s “top two” primary election rules. Those comments apply equally to local candidates.

In the case of the state Legislature, again there may have been more than two candidates in the primary (there were six in this district), but now it’s down to the two top vote-getters in June. Further, because only a few local jurisdictions use “ranked-choice” voting, in the legislative contests you only got to vote for one candidate in the June primary.

While narrowing things down to two candidates in the final election makes the final choices simpler, it doesn’t necessarily make them better. Further, with lots of candidates in the June primary, and, more often than not, a less engaged electorate, those primary choices may have been less informed than they could have been with a better system.

I’d again prefer it if we had two rounds of voting; both using ranked-choice. For the Legislature, I’d also like to see proportional representation provided for, so that minor parties aren’t automatically shut out. In California, the system practically guarantees (exept in very rare cases) that there will be no minor party representation in the Legislature. I think that’s a shame. Minor parties are often how new ideas bubble to the surface. With no representation in the Legislature, that creativity gets stifled. Further, because neither major party rewards creativity and diversity in opinions – quite the opposite – the effect of the lack of minor party representation is even more damaging. Because the two major parties totally control the Legislature, the only way we’re going to make change happen is by a statewide initiative. Unless some well-financed reform group (like maybe Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, a reform-minded billionaire, or perhaps a coalition of minor parties – or some combination of these) jumps into the fray, I’m afraid it ain’t going to change any time soon. (sigh.)

On the specifics of this race, at least the top-two process has given us two viable candidates, rather than the older format where, in much of the Bay Area, a Republican candidate was often automatically an also-ran. [Not to mention that the ideology of the California Republican party being what it is, Republicans are generally also almost automatically an also-rans in the Bay Area.] Given that the 15th A.D. is one of the most liberal in the state – including as it does the major left-oriented cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond – the two candidates that emerged from the primary both represent the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Actually, in many respects, this election is, at the local level, almost a replay of the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary. One candidate, Buffy Wicks, represents the traditional or establishment liberal Democratic Party ideology, while the other, Jovanka Beckles, represents the more radical and insurgent Bernie Sanders (dare I say it, Social Democrat or Democratic Socialist] ideology.

In some other respects, the two candidates don’t precisely hew to the 2016 primary candidates.   Unlike the 2016 presidential candidates, only one – Beckles – has previously held elected office. She’s now in her second term on the Richmond City Council, where she’s part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a group that arose in opposition to Chevron’s long-standing domination of that city’s politics. It’s not surprising, therefore, that she’s a pretty strident opponent of corporate dominance of politics. Also, while both candidates have spent a lot of time in California, Buffy has bounced around between different parts of the state, as well as spending a considerable time in Washington DC as an operative in the Obama administration. She’s consequently far more tied in to the state and national Democratic Party leadership and establishment.

These differences show in how the look at issues. They also help predict how they’d likely behave in the Legislature. Buffy reflects a cautious incrementalist approach. While both candidates claim to espouse a single-payer government run medical system – perhaps similar to Canada’s – Buffy was highly involve in the Obama Affordable Care Act’s formulation, and can be expected to focus, like the state Democratic Party leadership, on protecting Obamacare in California and trying to strengthen and expand its provisions, while Jovanka supports having California try to move forward towards its own single-payer system regardless of Washington’s current opposition.

Perhaps similarly, they differ significantly on housing policy. Buffy can be expected to support Democratic Party efforts, currently spearheaded by Senators Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner, to promote more and denser private sector housing construction regardless of the income level being served. In practice, this approach has led to huge amounts of market-rate housing being built, but little progress in addressing the continuing disappearance of affordable low & moderate income housing. Jovanka, by contrast, supports the state (and perhaps local entities) making a big push for publicly financed and publicly owned affordable housing. She wants to see the addition of over 100,000 public housing units statewide in the next couple of years.

Given the Legislature’s current dominance by what might be called corporate liberal Democrats – who pay at least as much attention to the lobbying of groups like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council as they do to grassroots Democratic Party constituents, The chances of any of Jovanka’s “Berniecrat” ideas being enacted as proposed in the next two years is virtually nil. However, she would become part of an emerging populist progressive caucus within the Legislature’s Democrats, and could influence the long-term direction of the party and the Legislature. Buffy would fit right into the current Democratic legislative leadership (which helps explain her endorsement by most of that leadership). Don’t expect her to be a primary author of almost any enacted legislation in the next two years. Instead, expect her to be a dependable co-author of legislation introduced by Senators Wiener and Skinner, as well as pitching in with the rest of the Democratic leadership’s legislative agenda.

My personal opinion (if you haven’t already guessed) is to prefer Bernie Sanders’ progressive populist approach. For that reason, I’m supporting Beckles.

Alameda County Assessor

This is a nonpartisan and really nonpolitical office. What’s needed is someone who’s very honest, hard-working, and has accounting, managerial, and these days probably computer skills. Both candidates, Jim Johnson and Phong La, appear well-qualified. Because the office should be apolitical, I think I tend to favor the person with the most experience in the office, which would be Jim Johnson.

AC Transit Director – At-Large

AC Transit fulfills an important and probably underappreciatd role in our regional transportation system. It fills in the gaps between what BART covers in the East Bay, as well as supplementing BART’s transbay service and providing affordable transportation for those who don’t have cars. Over the years, financial cutbacks (probably due as much to Prop. 13 as anything else) have starved AC Transit and forced it to cut its service to the bone and beyond. As a result, AC Transit’s service is much less comprehensive than it was 30 years ago, and getting where you want to go can take two or even three transfers, if you can get there at all.

Of course it hasn’t helped that much of the development since World War II has been auto-oriented and consequently not well-suited to public transit service – what with winding streets, many non-through streets, and low density (typically 4 units per acre) single family housing. The development in the East Bay Hills, as well as suburban-type developments in Southern Alameda County, are all not well-suited to good and financially sustainable bus service. That’s the background the current AC Transit board has to cope with. From all I can tell, Joel Young, the incumbent, has been doing a decent job as an at-large member. I especially like that Mr. Young want to try to integrate AC Transit with newer services like Uber and Lyft to attempt to re-establish comprehensive transit services. His opponent didn’t even bother to put a candidate statement in the voter handbook. Young.

Mayor of Oakland.

There are ten candidates for Oakland mayor this election!! That’s too many to give every candidate serious consideration in a final election. While ranked choice voting helps, with this many candidates more than one round of voting is really needed. Oakland’s voting system needs to be revised to make the filing deadline much earlier earlier, so there’s time for a primary election. If more than five candidates seek an office, the City should run a primary election to winnow the pool down to five, as I outlined in my discussion of the gubernatorial election.

That having been said, and with awareness that I have not been able to give each candidate the kind of scrutiny I’d like, here are my thoughts.

Obviously, with an incumbent running for re-elections, other candidates need to be measured against the incumbent’s performance. Our present mayor, Libby Schaaf, has, in my humble opinion, not done a great job as mayor. For one thing, she set up a new department of transportation. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, but really transportation planning and transportation maintenance need very different skills. The former really ought to be closely coordinated with land use planning, and the latter is probably best left in the public works department where it was. Libby’s department pulled in people from a variety of other places and has not gelled well. It’s administration appears heavy-handed and not very open to public input. Indeed, there is no body occupying a position parallel to the planning commission to receive public input and provide a counterpoint to the staff bureaucracy. As a result, we have a technocratically-focused department that has been ham-fisted in dealing with politically sensitive topics. Nor has the department improved functions that badly need improvement – like the residential permit parking program and integrating pedestrian, bicyclist, and driver concerns.

I haven’t seen any better changes in other departments. The planning department was leaderless for quite a while, and doesn’t seem to be able to recruit and keep good quality staff planners. The Planning Commission has become more and more pro-development in its orientation, and the Mayor’s program to promote providing more affordable housing consists of one person (a good person, to be sure, but what can one person accomplish in a bureaucracy the size of Oakland’s?

Nor has she proved able to work effectively with the City Council which appears to be as divided and unwieldy as ever. In short, if I was to grade her performance, it would be a C- or D.

Against that, there are a raft of candidates, but nobody coming forth from the City Council, which is where one might hope for a better alternative. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps because Oakland’s politics are so divisive and toxic that current council members feel it’s not something they’d wish to do. At any rate, we’re left with a range of outsiders wanting to take the wheel. In fact, not a single one has ever held public office before. Few of them give me much confidence that they’d do better than the incumbent.

Perhaps the candidate that gives me the most hope is Cat Brooks. She’s apparently had a fair amount of experience running organizations, and has some specific ideas of what to do about some of Oakland’s festering problems, like its difficult to control police department and doing a more effective job of addressing homelessness and promoting affordable housing [Yes, Mayor Schaaf can claim credit for a building boom in housing, but very little of what’s being built is affordable, and she’s shown no perceptible leadership there]. I also note that she’s supported by an impressive list of Oaklanders who have, for years, pressed the city to do more in the progressive side. I’d place her as #1 on ranked choice.  Cat Brooks

Of the remaining candidates, Pamela Price and Saied Karamooz both propose comprehensive programs to address many of Oakland’s major problems. However, neither suggests how they’re going to pay for all the big-ticket programs they propose. Oakland already has some major financial liabilities hanging over it, notably unfunded pension liabilities for current city employees. While there are some ways to pull together some additional resources, such as requiring large new employers to pay a housing impact fee to help maintain and build the city’s supply of affordable housing and passing a property transfer tax that is time-dependent, so that “flipping” properties is strongly discouraged, none of the candidates’ says much about where the money’s going to come from for all their new programs. I can’t in good conscience wholeheartedly recommend either of these two candidates, but if you want to pick as second and third choices someone besides Ms. Schaaf, I’d suggest one or both of these two candidates.  Pamela Price/Saied Karamooz

City Auditor. This race pits the current city auditor against her predecessor.   Each of the candidates says they’ve done a good job as auditor. I must confess, however, that I saw a lot more meaningful and incisive audits coming out when Courtney Ruby was auditor than I have since Brenda Roberts took office. Do I really believe Oakland government had cleaned up its act well enough that there are no problems needing daylighting? I think not. Rather, I suspect that while Roberts may be more “efficient” in putting out audit reports, those reports may not be digging as deeply. I would go for Ruby.

 

 

 


November 2018 Election Comments – Part II – State Ballot Measures

October 23, 2018

Introduction

As I indicated at the beginning of Part I of my comments, I’ll be posting four segments: one for Statewide office candidates, one for Statewide ballot measures, one for local and regional office candidates (including state Legislature), and one for local and regional ballot measures.  This section covers statewide ballot measures.

As usual in California, there’s no paucity of statewide measures for us voters to consider – no less than eleven measures (Proposition 9, which would have started the process of dividing California into three states, was removed from the ballot by the California Supreme Court, on the grounds that it was a constitutional revision – which is beyond the voter’s constitutional power of initiative.)  Of those, two are bond measures placed on the ballot by the Legislature, two are bond measures placed on the ballot by initiative, two are initiative constitutional amendments, and the remainder are statutory initiatives.

Proposition 1. – Legislative General Obligation Bond Measure to fund housing programs.

This is a $4 Billion legislative bond measure to fund a variety of housing programs – $1.8 Billion for affordable multifamily housing programs (both building & renovating), $450 Million for housing and associated infrastructure [water, sewers, parks, transportation facilities, etc] in existing cities, $450 Million for low & moderate income home loan assistance – mostly to assist in down payment or build-it-yourself programs, $300 Million for loans & grants for farmworker housing, and $1 Billion towards the state’s veteran home loan assistance program [with full repayment by borrowers].

As anyone except Rip Van Winkle would know, California is suffering from having too little affordable housing.  People keep moving to California for various reasons, but the growth in housing hasn’t kept up.  As a result, the supply/demand imbalance has caused inflation in housing costs, causing displacement, particularly for lower income renters.  It’s also cause a huge increase in the homeless population.  Will this bond measure solve the problem?  NO, but it’s perhaps a step in the right direction.  (You may remember that last year both Oakland and Alameda County passed local housing bonds, and the Legislature has been very active in applying pressure for more residential building.)

Why not approve it?  Because it will increase California’s overall bond burden, which means we have to pay more taxes to pay bondholders interest on the bonds.  On the other hand, with Prop. 13, it’s far easier to pass a bond than it would be to approve a new statewide tax to fund housing assistance.  If anyone complains to you about the cost of these bonds, ask them if they’re willing to relax Prop. 13 for a housing tax.  YES.

Proposition 2. – Authorize use of Prop. 63 funds to provide housing for the mentally ill and sell $2 Billion in bonds, to be paid off with mental health services funds.

Essentially, this measure would rob Peter to pay Paul.  In 2004, voters passed an income tax increase for high-income individuals to fund mental health services.  The state has tried to use some of those funds to build housing for the mentally ill, but that’s been challenged in court.  This measure would authorize that use.  It would also allow issuance of $2 Billion in bonds specifically for housing for the mentally ill, but those bonds would be paid off using mental health services funds, decreasing the availability of those funds for treating mental illness.

This measure, while it looks good at first glance, bothers me.  it doesn’t commit any additional money overall for assisting the mentally ill.  What it does is shift money from treating mental illness to providing housing for the mentally ill.  While there’s certainly a need for housing, especially for severely mentally ill people, that needs to be coupled to providing services to treat those people’s illness.  However, this measure would DECREASE the money available for treatment.  To me, this doesn’t make sense.  I note that the Contra Costa County chapter of NAMI  (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), a group that I have a lot of respect for, authored the argument against the measure.  While I agree we need money to house mentally ill people, it shouldn’t happen at the expense of providing treatment.  NO.

Proposition 3. – $8.9 Billion  general obligation bond for various water supply/water quality, watershed, fish, wildlife, water conveyance, and groundwater sustainability projects.

This is yet another bond to try to improve California’s overall water situation – which is seriously out of balance and getting worse by the year.  This is NOT to fund Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels proposal.  The projects funded by the bond are a mixed bag – they include categories that could be used to build or expand dams, but also projects for groundwater storage and replenishment, as well as projects to restore and improve watershed areas [the areas where rain runoff feeds into creeks & rivers] and improve drinking water quality.

Water agencies generally support the measure, but the environmental community is split.  Save The Bay and the Planning and Conservation League support the measure, but the Sierra Club opposes it.  I note that a Solano County Taxpayer group wrote the arguments against – because the measure doesn’t fund new dams.  For me, that’s a good argument in favor.  YES.

Proposition 4. – $1.5 Billion General Obligation Bond to fund construction of children’s hospitals.

So, yet another General Obligation Bond – this one for $1.5 Billion to fund construction for various public and nonprofit-operated children’s hospitals around California.  The majority (slightly over $1 Billion) would go to hospitals operated by private nonprofit organizations.  The rest would be split between U.C. hospitals ($270 Million) and various other publicly and nonprofit-run hospitals ($150 Million).  We, California taxpayers, would pay the estimated $2.9 Billion needed to pay off the bonds.  Wouldn’t it be cheaper to fund this directly out of tax revenue?  Undoubtedly; but the sponsors of the measure preferred a bond – perhaps because of Prop. 13 or perhaps because it’s less subject to scrutiny?  I might feel better about this if the hospitals involved were all publicly run in a transparent manner.  Further, I don’t know that there’s any study indicating that this is a high priority use of public funds.    Call me Scrooge, but ever since the High-Speed Rail Bond Measure, I’ve become more and more reluctant to support general obligation bonds.  NO.

Proposition 5. – Allows transfer of property tax assessments for elderly or disabled property owners.

This constitutional amendment initiative lets a small group of property owners off the hook when they sell their property and move somewhere else in California.  Right now, those who are disabled or over 55 years old can, on a one-time-only basis, transfer their property tax assessment to a new home in the same county [or another county that permits it] and  keep their current tax assessment, so long as the new home costs the same or less than their old home.  Under Prop. 5, the rule would:  1) apply to all counties in California, 2) also apply to homes lost through contamination or a disaster, 3) apply proportionately to any replacement home, whether of the same, greater, or lesser value, and 4) could apply an unlimited number of times.

Essentially, this might be called a “get out of tax free” card that could have unlimited use for those eligible.  The argument in favor is it would allow aging or disabled people (or those losing their home due to circumstances beyond their control) to shift to a new home without losing their tax benefit, and would therefore increase these owners’ mobility and get more homes on the market.  Of course, it would do this at the expense of local governments’ loss of tax revenue.  Why give this one subset of property owners this kind of unlimited tax benefit at the public’s expense?  Why?  Because realtors want the extra business!  If you like seeing local government’s funding continue to shrink, go ahead and vote for this.  NO.

Proposition 6. – Repeal of gas tax increase and requirement that all future increases go on the ballot.

Last year, the Legislature passed SB 1, which raised the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 4%.  It also set a fixed rate for a second fuel tax and created an annual fee for zero emission vehicles (since they don’t pay gas tax).  All fees are adjusted annually for inflation.  This year, those increases are expected to raise $4.4 Billion.  Almost all of that money must be used for transportation, with about 2/3 dedicated specifically to street & highways repairs/maintenance.  (The Legislature decides how the rest gets spent.)

Prop. 6 would repeal those increases.  It would also require that any future increase in vehicle or fuel taxes (including not only gas tax but vehicle sale and use taxes) would have to be approved by the voters.  Obviously, this would force cuts in the state transportation budget.  For that reason, most transportation-related groups oppose the measure.  Groups opposed to tax increases support the measure.  I have mixed feelings.  Certainly California street & highway maintenance has been underfunded.  With SB 1, there’s far less excuse for that continuing.  Also, there are useful and valuable transportation improvements – like expanding public transit – that can be funded by SB 1.  On the other hand, the High-Speed Rail Project is a poster child for how transportation funding can be misused and wasted – especially with the Legislature making the decisions, and much of the extra money can be expected, based on the Legislature’s past record, to be thrown at projects that benefit construction unions and major highway contractors, without necessarily moving California in the direction it needs to go – with less automobile use and a more efficient and effective public transit system.  In short, it comes down to how much you trust the Legislature to do the right thing.  For me, that’s not very much these days.  Hence,  YES.

Proposition 7. – Conforms California’s daylight savings time to federal law and allows the Legislature to change it.

This one’s a puzzler.  What it goes back to is that daylight savings time was adopted by initiative in 1949.  Hence, any change in daylight savings time must be made by the voters.  This initiative would allow the Legislature to make changes in daylight savings time (consistent with federal law) by a 2/3 majority.  It would also allow the Legislature to drop daylight savings time altogether, since that’s allowed under federal law.

What it boils down to is this measure would open the door to getting rid of daylight savings time.  If you like daylight savings time, you should vote no.  If you don’t you should vote yes.  I’m neutral.  NO RECOMMENDATION.

Proposition 8. – Regulates charges for kidney dialysis centers.

Right now, there are basically only two operators of kidney dialysis centers in California.  What they charge is, to some extent, up to the operators.  For most dialysis patients, dialysis costs are paid by public (Medicare, Medi-Cal) or private insurers.  For each of these, the insurer defines a reimbursement rate for treatment.  For the public insurers, that rate is set by regulation, and is pretty close to the cost of treatment.  For private insurers, it can be higher.

This initiative would essentially require that dialysis providers charge everyone the same price the government insurers pay.  Any excess would be rebated.  It could substantially cut providers’ profit margins.  That might cause some dialysis centers to close, and perhaps sue California for a “taking” of their business.  In other words, there are risks to trying to lower costs via an initiative.

It’s not clear to me what’s going on with this measure.  I’ve been told that a union that was trying to unionize the dialysis center workers pushed the measure as retribution to the companies’ anti-union efforts.  I don’t know if there’s any truth to that.  At any rate, this seems a weird thing to try to do by initiative.  NO.

Proposition 10. – Repeal of Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act

In 1995, the Legislature, with urging from the housing industry, passed the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act.  The argument for its passage was that rent control laws were reducing chargeable rent to a point where landlords were taking rental properties off the market, or converting them to condominiums.  In addition, developers claimed that rent control was artificially depressing construction of new rental housing and creating an artificial shortage of rental housing.

Costa-Hawkins “solved” this problem by putting stringent limits on what rent control laws could do.  For example, when a tenant vacated an apartment, the rent was “decontrolled.”  The landlord was free to set any rental rate for the new tenant.  It also made it easier for a landlord to evict a tenant, and, perhaps most importantly, it said that no housing units built after 1995 could be subject to rent control.  as a result, cities that have rent control have a two-tiered rental market – post-1995 and pre-1995.

While we’re now seeing a jump in building new rental units, for a long time Costa Hawkins has not resulted in producing anywhere near enough units to avoid skyrocketing rents on new units.  The “invisible hand of the market” hasn’t done particularly well at providing reasonable rents in California.  With the current housing crisis, tenant groups feel it’s time to throw out Costa-Hawkins and let cities attempt to keep rental housing affordable through rent control.  Hence the attempt to repeal Costa-Hawkins.

Opponents argue that if Costa-Hawkins is repealed, we’ll go back to the problems of the early 1990s, with units being taken off the market and no new rental units being built.  Supporters say that a desperate situation requires strong solutions, and that cities can figure out what works best without a state “handcuff.”

To me, Costa-Hawkins is an example of the Legislature attempting “one size fits all” control of the housing problem.  I think if rent control doesn’t work well, cities are smart enough to change it themselves.  YES.

Proposition 11 – Makes private sector ambulance co. employees stay on-call during work breaks.

Under California law, employees have to have periodic breaks for rest and meals.  ambulance company employees are generally required to be “on-call” – i.e., available to answer a call for service – even during breaks.  The California Supreme Court recently ruled that the work breaks need to be provided regardless of calls for service.  To not give breaks would violate state labor law.   Faced with this new potential liability, ambulance companies hope this measure will get them out of the jam by legalizing the current situation, where ambulance workers remain on call during breaks.  (In other professions with a similar problem, such as fire fighters and police, it’s dealt with by having enough employees available so that those on break are not on call.)  The ambulance companies feel this would essentially require them to be overstaffed.

To me, the most significant thing about this initiative is that no opposition argument was submitted.  One would think that if ambulance company employees didn’t want to be on-call during their breaks, at least some of them would have submitted an argument.  (If they felt too intimidated, a former employee could have been asked to submit it.)  Since there’s no opposition, I guess even the employees are OK with it.  YES.

Proposition 12 – new standards for caged farm animals.

I’m also puzzled by this measure.  A few years ago, California voters passed an initiative that set standards for caged farm animals.  The standards were pushed by animal rights groups that argued that current conditions were inhumane and cruel.  This measure would change those standards.  Some of the new standards would provide more space; some would apparently provide less.

The measure is being supported by the American Humane Society, some veterinarians, and – peculiarly – by an egg producer “Central Valley Eggs.”  The opponents are members of animal rights groups, who presumably support the current law instead.  I confess that I’m at a loss to figure out which group has the better argument.  Each side seems to claim that the people on the other side are against animal welfare.  NO RECOMMENDATION.


Assessing the November 2018 Election Ballot – Part I – Statewide Offices

October 21, 2018

I usually try to put up a post before each general election giving my opinions on the various candidates and ballot measure.  The post is focused on my ballot – not yours, so depending on how closely your ballot resembles mine, you may find it more or less relevant; and, depending on your political preferences, you may find it more or less useful.

As is often the case with general elections, the ballot is long and complicated.  There are many candidates and many ballot measures.  Consequently, I’m splitting my comments into four parts:  Statewide Offices (Part I). Statewide Ballot Measures (Part II), Regional/Local Offices (Part III) and Regional/Local Ballot Measures (Part IV)

This is the first part – statewide offices.  As the old saying goes, “Caveat emptor!” [let the buyer beware!]

Candidates

Statewide (California)

U.S. Senator

This is the first place, at the top of the ticket, where we see the impact of California’s new “top two” primary election.  Frankly, I don’t like it.  It forces voters to make a binary choice in the final election, and ignores the fact that voters may have preferences that extend beyond two candidates.  To my mind, it would be far better if California switched to a two-step “ranked choice” system.  The first, primary, election would allow voters to rank their top five choices among the candidates.  Through a process of eliminating low-ranked candidates, the primary would narrow the final field to the five top-scoring candidates.  (If the field started out with five or let candidates, the first election would be the final one.)  In the final election, voters, after a more focused campaign, would rank their final choices among the five, and again a process of elimination would select the most-favored candidate, who’d be elected.  If you like this idea, please spread the word.  In my humble opinion, California could and should do better than its current system.

Instead, this year we had a host of candidates from a variety of different parties in the primary, but only the top two vote-getters made it to the final election.  Since the Democratic Party has more California voters than does any other party, it’s not too surprising that in many cases both top candidates were Democrats, and so it was here.  As a result, we have two candidates who don’t differ enormously in their stances on issues.  A lot of voters may find there’s little to choose from – and they may be right.

Diane Feinstein seems like she’s been in the U.S. Senate forever, and it has been a long time – since 1990.  That’s 28 years – longer than many California voters have been in California, and more than a lot of them have been alive.  For that whole time, she’s been one of the more “centrist” Democratic politicians in the state.  That means she probably gets more “crossover” votes from centrist Republicans and no-party-preference voters, and that may be her secret to keeping getting re-elected.

Her opponent this election is the former President Pro Tem of the State Senate, Kevin De Leon.  While the two candidates are not hugely different in their policy positions – especially when compared to the current Republican administration and its supporting Republican Senate majority – De Leon is definitely to the left of Feinstein politically.  Arguably, he’s more aligned with the politics of California’s somewhat left-of-center Democratic Party “base.”  For example, he supports a “Medicare for All” single-payer healthcare system, while Feinstein does not.  Feinstein apparently has a big lead in the polls, but I will stick with my preference for populist candidates and recommend De Leon.

Governor

So, here’s another place where I find myself between a rock and a hard place due to the “top two” primary.  IMHO, Gavin Newsom is a showboat politician whose knowledge of issues is about 1/2 inch deep.  What he does have is lots of connections, a handsome face, and a facile manner that can usually hide his ignorance.  Not the sort of person who I feel comfortable putting at the wheel of California’s ship of state  – Too many potential icebergs to hit.  On the other hand, while John Cox has more real-world experience running a company, he’s also a California Republican, which brings with it a lot of very heavy baggage that he’s not willing to let go of.  In short, I wish I had another candidate I could choose – if only as a protest vote.  With “top two,” there is no third choice.

Happily, Newsom is far enough ahead in the polls that I think I can safely follow a variant of “Ivins’ Rule,” named for the late political columnist Molly Ivins.  Speaking about whether to vote for a third party in a presidential election, she said that you should wait until a week before the election and then look at the polling for your state.  If more than 5 percentage points separate the top two candidates, you can vote your conscience, because your vote is very unlikely to matter.  If they’re closer than that, you better vote for the candidate you dislike less.  Here, Newsom’s ahead by way more than five points, so I’m probably going to leave this race blank in protest of the “top two” process/

Lieutenant Governor

This is another race where I’d be very annoyed with where “top two” has left us – IF the lieutenant governor position meant much.  It doesn’t.  The only meaningful thing the lieutenant governor does (other than wait for the governor to die, resign, or be found legally incompetent) is sit on a few committees/commissions.  Of these, the State Lands Commission is probably the most important, because it’s the smallest, so one vote could occasionally make a difference.  Both candidates are conventional state Democratic Party players.  I expect they’d vote very similarly on their committees/commissions.  My recommendation – flip a coin.

Secretary of State

This position – unlike lieutenant governor – actually does mean something.  The Secretary of State not only keeps track of lots of records for the state – like corporate papers and corporate officers and the like, he/she is also the state’s chief election officer.  If you want to see what kind of mischief that can involve, look at Florida, where the secretary of state (also the Republican candidate for Governor) is pretty clearly engaged in trying to keep Democrats from voting.  The Republican here, Mark Meuser, has made some statements suggesting he’d like to do the same.  Alex Padilla, the Democratic candidate, is no prize either.  Recently he embarrassingly mishandled the DMV’s voter registration efforts, leading to erroneous misregistration of thousands of voters.

Still and all, I’d rathere have someone who’s less than fully competent than someone who may have nefarious purposes.  A reluctant vote of Padilla.

Controller

To read Republican Candidate Kostantinos Roditis’ candidate statement, you’d think the Controller has amazing powers to institute taxes and fees.  He/she doesn’t.  While the Controller does somewhat play the role of gatekeeper on the state’s finances, and couldin theory “blow the whistle” on improper financial shenanigans, that almost never happens.  They get sued whenever someone believes there are illegal expenditure occurring, because they’re the person the court would order to stop writing checks.  But all they really do is almost literally write the checks.  The don’t generally decide what checks get written.  (Yes, in theory, if the controller felt an expenditure was improper or illegal, they could refuse to write the check.  In that case, someone else like the Governor or Legislature would ask the court to order them to issue the check.  Almost never happens.)

Because Roditis appears totally clueless about what the Controller actually does, and because Betty Yee, the Democratic candidate, does seem to understand the office and hasn’t been implicated in any major scandal, I’d recommend a vote for Yee.

Treasurer

This, like the Secretary of State, is a position with some potential real power.  The Treasurer is responsible for the state’s finances and, with the Governor and Director of Finance, prepares the state’s budget for presentation to the Legislature.He/she also sits on various state committees, notably the committees that authorize issuance of state bonds and the committees controlling state pension funds.  (When Bill Lockyer was Treasurer, he said he’d refuse to issue bonds for the high-speed rail authority until it could show it had some reasonable chance of being able to pay them off.)

Unfortunatey, I have qualms about both the candidates.  Fiona Ma, from what I’ve seen of her, first on the S.F. Board of Supervisors, then in the Legislature, and then on the Board of Equalization [which had a major scandal while she was on it], may have financial trining, but she’s never been one to buck the powers running whatever show she’s in.  To put it bluntly, she appers to be an obedient flunky.  Greg Conlon, the Republican candidate, is like Ma in having appropriate finaial background and training.  He has the misfortune, however, of being a Republican, which means he may try to be improperly obstructionist.  That would be unfortunate.  However, given the choice between someone who may be too loose with the purse and someone who’d hold it too tightly shut, I think, with a Democratic Governor and a heavily Democratic Legislature, I’d prefer the latter.  A reluctant nod to Conlon.

Attorney General

This is another important state constitutional office.  as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, he/she is responsible for both criminal prosecutions at the state level and a wide range of civil litigation responsibilities.  The Attorney General usually represents state agencies in court, but also can pursue civil actions against state agencies if they appear to not be behaving properly.  The latter, however, rarely happens – at least when the Governor and attorney General are from the same party.  Steven Bailey, the Republican candidate, is a retired judge (El Dorado County).  His candidate statement places strong emphasis on his work addressing criminal trials.  unfortunately for him, he’s also the subject of an investigation for possible misuse of his judicial office, including nepotism. (His son works for a firm that sells a monitoring system that he often required convicted criminals to wear).  The invrstigation certainly places a cloud over someone who, as attorney general, would have to be totally above reproach.  It would certainly be an enormous embarrassment to have California’s Attorney General found to have violated his duties as a judge.

The Democratic candidate, Xavier Becerra, was appointed to the position from being a Congressman from Los Angeles.  He did also serve a stint (from 1987-1990) as a Deputy Attorney General under John Van de Camp, an Attorney General for whom I had a lot of respect.   Since being in office, he has led opposition to Trump’s federal policies on behalf of a group of Democratic state attorneys general, filing numerous suits in federal court.  One would not expect Mr. Bailey to continue that behavior.

Given where we are right now, I think that challenging some of the Trump Administration’s more outrageous positions – such as his originally proposed Muslim ban, is very appropriate.  I recommend a vote for Becerra.

Board of Equalization (District 2)

As noted earlier, the Board of Equalization recently had a major scandal involving misuse of government funds.  In fact, the very necessity of continuing this board has been called into question, since many if not all of its duties could be performed by the Franchise Tax Board.  [Interestingly, the Democratic candidate in District 1 advocates exactly that position.]

On the one side, we have a Democratic candidate, Malia Cohen, who has been termed out of office on the S.F. Board of Supervisors.  She says little about why she’s especially qualified for this position, or even why the position is still necessary.  On the Republican side, we have a residential real estate agent from Silicon Valley who clearly has a vested interest in property values.  Is this who we want to ensure that real estate valuations are fair and equitable?

I’d prefer to see this office abolished, but if it’s going to continue, I don’t think I want a Republican advocate of Prop. 13 running it.  Cohen.

Superintendent of Public Instruction

This office is the titular head of California’s public school systems.   It is explicitly a nonpartisan office.  The two candidates represent two polarities on how that office should function.  Tony Thurmond  is currently a State Assembly member representing a district (District 15) made up of parts of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties – one of the most liberal districts in the state.  His background includes being on the Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Trustees.  As a legislator, his focus has been on legislation to support and improve public schools.

Marshall Tuck has had a career focused on looking for alternative organizing principles for public schools.  He worked along with Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles on a jointly funded effort between the city and the school district to improve quality in low income schools.  Progress was made, but the teachers in many of the schools expressed strong antipathy for Mr. Tuck.  He also served as president of charter school organization that established ten charter high schools in L.A., eight of which have been recognized for academic excellence.

The two candidates epitomize two very different ways of running public school systems.  Thurmond supports the traditional approach, with a central administration working with a local school principal and its teachers, while Tuck supports the charter school approach, which favors schools run by groups outside of the public school establishment.  Since many charter schools employ nonunion teachers, the teachers unions strongly oppose the charter school movement, arguing that it skims the “cream”  – i.e., the top-performing students – off of low-income and minority areas, leaving the conventional schools with the most difficult students to deal with.  It also has been accused of siphoning off funding from traditional public schools, leaving them even more underfunded.

As a product of traditional public schools (the City of Boston School System), I recognize that public schools can have major problems.  Haveing had a daughter in the Oakland Unified School District and volunteered in her and another school, I also recognize that there are pluses and minuses to haw traditional schools function [or don’t] here in California.  That being said, I find the charter school approach disturbing for encouraging a “two tiered” system.  For that reason, I support Thurmond over Tuck.

Judicial Candidates

California has an unusual system where appellate justices are appointed by the Governor, but then must be periodically confirmed by a public vote.  As an attorney who deals a lot with the courts, my problem with the system is two-fold.  First, most citizens have neither the background nor experience with the courts to be able gauge the quality of appellate justices.  Being an appellate court justice requires a superior understanding of the principles of the law, as well as being able to figure out what the Legislature intended in its statutes and how the state constitution should be interpreted and applied.  Those are not things the general public is in a good position to evaluate.

While attorneys who practice before appellate judges are in a pretty good position to evaluate justices’ qualities, they are strongly discouraged by attorney regulations from publicly criticizing a sitting judge, because it could be seen as undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial system.  e.g., comment on rule of professional conduct 8.2 “Lawyers also are obligated to maintain the respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers.”

Perhaps more disturbing is that political factors can become a major focus of campaigns against sitting justices.  This was most evident in the concerted 1986 conservative campaign to unseat the liberal Supreme Court justices headed by Rose Bird.  Admittedly Rose Bird had made some controversial rulings, particularly in regard to death penalty cases.  Nevertheless, the strongly political campaign to remove Bird and three other justices shifted the court strongly to the right and, by its highly partisan nature, damaged the court’s reputation.  (It can be argued that Governor Jerry Brown, by making appointments far to the left of the political spectrum, helped precipitate this crisis.)

At any rate, in this election, two Supreme Court justices, Carol Corrigan and Leondra Kruger, are up for confirmation, as well as eight justices of the First District Court of Appeal. While I have had the opportunity to read many decision of the two Supreme Court justices and listen to oral argument before them, and have argued cases before many of the court of appeal justices up for confirmation, I will resist the temptation to express any public opinion on their confirmations.  Suffice it to say that I believe a public vote is not an appropriate method to evaluate sitting judges or justices.


The June Primary is almost here!

May 20, 2018

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Gosh!  It’s election time again already.  What fun!  [Ha HA].  As usual, I’m putting up my opinions and recommendations for anyone who’s interested.  Take them for whatever they’re worth.

This isn’t a presidential election, but there’s still a lot to vote on.  A whole bunch of offices and eight ballot measures are on my ballot. (There may be more or fewer on yours, depending on where you live.)  As usual, I’m going to start “at the top”, both in terms of candidates at the top of the ballot and those representing the largest constituencies.  The closer where you live is to where I live, the further down the ballot you’ll get before our ballots diverge.  However, don’t forget to look at the ballot measures after the candidates, as these are often the most important decisions you’ll make.

Starting with statewide offices:

Governor 

Can you believe there are twenty-seven candidates on the ballot!!? I can’t recall an election with that many that everyone could vote for.  I’m not sure if this is a plus or a minus of the new “top two” approach, where the primary allows everybody to vote for any candidate.  The candidates aren’t even separated out by party preference.

I got my official statewide voter information guide last week. Not as huge as I expected it to be, with all the candidate statements to be included.  One problem with having this many candidates, and only one vote, is that the likelihood of any random candidate getting to the November ballot is extremely low.  The elections becomes as much a matter of name recognition as anything else.  If you ask me, it’s a pretty stupid way to run an election.  At the very least, we should be able to rank, for example, our top five candidates, and then narrow the number of candidates on the November ballot to no more than five.  Ranked choice voting would also make sense in November.  However, it is what it is, so you just get your one shot per race.  Maybe someone will put up an initiative to change this disaster.  [I hope]

Unfortunately, given the lack of name recognition, there may well be numerous very worthy candidates who won’t get to the November ballot.  Consequently, since I presume many people would like their vote to mean something – in terms of actually helping to choose who’s on the November ballot, I’m going to limit my initial comments to the more high-profile candidates.  I will probably add some more before election day, if I get time.

Among the main candidates, the Democrats clearly have a strong edge in getting to November.  In fact, it’s not at all unlikely, given the low name recognition of the Republican, minor party, and unaffiliated candidates, that the top two candidates will both be Democrats in most if not all races (at least for the Bay Area).  The same may well be true for all statewide races, especially given that California is a “bright blue” state.  Consequently, I’m going to focus my comments on the major Democratic candidates.  Late update (5/28/18) – it appears the top Republican gubernatorial candidate is currently outpacing the second-ranked Democrat, so at least in that race, November may be one Republican vs. one Democrat.  Still not a lot of options!

Here’s my rundown:

Gavin Newsom – current Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor.  He’s clearly the highest profile candidate.  He’s also raised by far the most campaign funds ($14 M thus far!).  One of my rules of thumb is “follow the money.”  Contributors may not necessarily “buy” a candidate (although it’s been known to happen), but who the major contributors are tells a lot about where a candidate is coming from.  Reyes Holdings is Newsom’s biggest contributor ($146K).  They own beverage bottling and distribution companies around the U.S.  What’s their interest in Gavin?  Maybe they just like him, but more likely they think he’ll go light on taxing big corporations.  Next is Creative Artists Agency ($127K).  According to Wikipedia, it’s “is an American talent and sports agency based in Los Angeles, California. It is regarded as a dominant and influential company in the talent agency business and manages numerous prestigious clients.”  Maybe they like Gavin because of his “star” qualities?  Or maybe they think he’ll be sympathetic to Hollywood’s interests?  After that comes Hueston Hennigan LLP, a big law firm specializing in commercial litigation and white collar defense.  Why do they like Gavin, well, for one thing, they’re defending Southern California Edison in this winter’s Southern California wildfires.  Maybe they think he’ll be sympathetic to that utility’s interests?  Number four is Winklevoss Capital Management ($117K) – a big investment company and venture capital firm.  I guess they figure Gavin will be good for big business.  Rounding out his top five is Social Finance ($116K) – a big finance company (i.e., student loans, mortgages, commercial loans, etc.)  One can guess that they’re hopeful that Gavin will NOT be doing something to ease student debtors burdens.  Perhaps significantly, Gavin hasn’t put up any policy positions on the Voters Edge website; nor did he bother to put a statement in the voter information guide.  Shows how much he respects California voters’ interest in issues.  While Newsom has supported some liberal positions, notably on gay marriage, he’s become pretty establishment Democrat as Lieutenant Governor.  He’d probably be a bit to the left of Jerry Brown, but for a Democrat, that’s not saying much.

Antonio Villaraigosa – Former Mayor of Los Angeles, and currently titles himself a “public policy advisor” (whatever that means – maybe lobbyist?).  He’s raised just over $7M in funds, with major contributions by contractor Tudor Perini ($87K), various pipetrade unions and locals (just under $117K) and Harborview Capital Partners ($just under $117K), which describes itself as ” a full service commercial real estate finance, equity and advisory firm.”  Let’s just say it’s representing real estate and development interests.  So, I think one can safely say he’s well-liked by the real estate and development community – at least in Southern California.  Like Gavin, he also hasn’t put up any policy positions on the Voters Edge, or in the voter guide, but one could safely say he’d be pro-business and pro-development – probably not all that different from Jerry Brown, although again maybe a little more liberal on social issues.

John Chiang – current California State Treasurer – rounds out the top Democratic candidates (at least by $ contributions).  He’s collected about $5M, with major contributions from Northern California Carpenter unions ($58K), California United Nurses Union ($58K), and MWM Global Holdings, a financial consulting firm that “offers trust, wealth management, legal, corporate consulting, audit and accounting services” from its headquarters in the British Virgin Islands.  One might guess that the firm has done a fair bit of business with the treasurer’s office.  Mr. Chiang’s contributors suggest links to construction and other unions as well as financial management interests.  That would fit with his history of public finance (he was State Controller before he became State Treasurer.  Unlike Newsom and Villaraigosa, Chiang has put up some policy positions on voters’ edge, but not in the voter pamphlet.  He emphasizes housing, public education, and generally opposing the policies being put forward by the Republican Trump Administrations.  His platform appears considerably to the left of Villaraigosa’s and Newsom’s but there’s not a lot of policy history behind that.

Delaine Eastin – former Superintendent of Public Instruction – it’s an open question whether she should be considered a “main” candidate.  While her fundraising has been significant – just under $1 million, it’s far below any of the other major candidates – even the main Republican candidates.  However, she’s the only well-known candidate who’s a woman, and she has enough name recognition to possibly stage an upset and reach the November election.  I actually like he platform far better than any of the other main candidates, (and she’s the only major Democratic candidate to bother putting information into the voters’ guide), so she’s my long-shot recommendation.  Shame on the California establishment Democrats for their disdain for California voters!

John Cox (Republican) – added info (5/28/18) – Cox is a “mainstream” Republican – which at this point means he generally supports Trump, and Trump has endorsed him.  According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, the charter school movement is funding a major campaign effort against Cox, in the hopes it will allow Villaraigosa – a charter school supporter – to bump him out of second place, and bump Villaraigosa into the November election.  (Maybe if you really hate Villaraigosa, you should vote for Cox in June??)  He’s got a reasonably hefty campaign war chest (almost $6 million), but most of that is self-funded.  (Cox is, perhaps not surprisingly, quite wealthy.)  He’s anti-immigration, anti-regulation, pro-gun, and pro-Prop 13.  In other words, if you’re anything close to a Democrat, he’s a total anathema.  If he does make the November ballot, he’ll almost certainly continue the string of Republicans who lose resoundingly.

Lieutenant Governor

There are still a lot of candidates here, but nowhere near as many as for Governor or U.S. Senator.  Because time is growing short, I’m going to just cut to the chase and give you my pick – Gayle McLaughlin.

This is a rather insubstantial office.  The Lieutenant Governor does, however, get to sit on a number of significant boards, notably the State Lands Commission, the U.C. Board of Regents, the Cal State Univ. Board of Trustees, and the Economic Development Commission.  Gayle, as mayor of Richmond, led a progressive city council majority (which she helped elect) to make some major reforms, including hiring a top-notch police chief who made major changes in improving the police dept.’s sorry reputation.  She was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders and carries his endorsement.  None of the other candidates are anywhere near as impressive.

Secretary of  State

This office is also considered a “minor” statewide office, but the office’s duties are considerable.  The Secretary of State is the state’s chief elections officer, responsible for setting up and running the state’s formidable elections apparatus.  The Secretary of State also maintains the state’s records of corporations and other legal entities, and maintains the state’s archives of historical materials.

Because the Secretary of State has a statewide platform, it’s a good place for someone to push for electoral reform, and as you can tell from my comments about our “top two” primary system, I think we badly need reform.  That’s why I’m supporting Michael Feinstein, Green Party candidate and former mayor of Santa Monica.  Will he get elected?  Not likely, but he’s pushing reforms that ought to be taken seriously; notably proportional representation in the Legislature, which would give us a more diverse and representative Legislature, as well as campaign finance reform.  While C.T. Weber (Peace & Freedom Party) supports much of the same platform, I think Feinstein has more visibility and credibility as a former elected official.

Controller

Another “minor” office.  There are only three candidates.  The Controller essentially is responsible for writing the state’s checks and ensuring there’s money to pay the bills.  If there’s illegal state spending going on, the Controller’s who you sue.  arguably, the Controller could refuse to write a check for something he/she felt was improper.  That, as far as I know, has never happened.  The Republican candidate says he’d make state spending more effective and efficient.  I don’t think he has that power.  The Democrat, Betty Yee, has been a loyal Democrat in various minor positions for many years.  Don’t expect her to do anything revolutionary, or even reformist.  The Peace & Freedom Party candidate says she’ll do things that I don’t think she has the power to do.  No endorsement for any of these candidates from me.  Maybe I’ll write in Bill Lockyer?

Treasurer

Yet another minor office, although the Treasurer does have the ability to refuse to authorize bond issuance if he thinks it would be unwise.  (As Treasurer, Bill Lockyer at one point said he wouldn’t issue bonds for the high-speed rail system because he felt that, with the lack of investor trust, the interest rate would be too high.  He eventually relented.)  I emphatically would NOT vote for Fiona Ma.  While she was on the State Board of Equalization, there were major scandals involving misspending of funds.  Was she involved?  She claims she wasn’t.  I’m not so sure.  In the Legislature, she voted in lockstep with the Democratic Party leadership.  I think she’d be a well-oiled cog in the Democratic state party machine.  I’d like to throw a shoe or two into that machine.  Maybe Greg Conlon??  Yeah, I know, he’s a Republican, and has about a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting elected, but he does seem well-qualified and less likely to just be a rubber stamp on the Democratic leadership’s checks.

Attorney General

While a “minor” office, it’s probably the most important of them.  Not only is the AG the state’s chief law enforcement officer, but he also heads up the state’s legal team, which both advises most state government entities and defends them in court.  When a state entity seems to be doing something that’s “not quite right”, it’s supposed to the the AG’s job to set them straight.  That hasn’t been the case for a long time, with the AG being filled by people with political aspirations who follow their party’s line.  Sadly, I don’t expect that to change in a major way with any of the candidates, but Dave Jones may have the best shot at doing it, as he’s running against a Democratic incumbent and bucking the system by doing that.  He’s also done a fairly credible job as insurance commissioner.

Insurance Commissioner

Speaking of Insurance Commissioner, this is one place I would NOT want to elect a Republican.  The last time we had a Republican in the office, it was a mess.  My choice would be Ricardo Lara.  as one of the co-authors of the proposed state single-payer health insurance bill, he showed he was willing to take on some powerful opponents.  The bill didn’t get very far, but maybe as Insurance Commissioner, he can do some good things with other insurance issues.

State Board of Equalization

This office really needs to be abolished!  There’s no reason why its duties couldn’t be absorbed into the Franchise Tax Board.  I frankly don’t trust ANY of the candidates particularly.  I may leave my ballot blank.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Tony Thurmond – This is where he should have been in the first place, instead of the State Assembly.  His heart is in educational issues.

Federal Offices

U.S. Senator

Lots of candidates again here, but it’s basically a two person race – Diane Feinstein versus Kevin De Leon.  Of the two, I’m going with Kevin De Leon, even though the polls seem to show that Feinstein’s the runaway favorite.  Feinstein’s middle-of-the-road stance has bothered me ever since she was San Francisco Mayor.  I think it’s time for her to be moved aside.

U.S. Representative

Barbara Lee – this seat is uncontested.

Local Offices

State Assembly 15th District

There are twelve candidates here.  There are three that seem to me worth voting for:  Dan Kalb, Ben Bartlett, and Jovanka Beckles.  Each of them is currently a city council member and thus has some legislative experience, although at the local level, and each has what appear to me to be some good ideas.  Unfortunately, all three may be swamped by the deluge of outside money pouring into Buffy Wicks’ campaign.   She has NO legislative experience and her money and endorsements come from having been a political flack in Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign.  She also worked on setting up Obamacare, and we all know all too well the flaws in that system.  (Yes, it’s better than nothing, but it was not well thought out and really needs to be replaced by something better and more inclusive.)  PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, Don’t vote for Buffy!

New information (as of 5/28/18) Follow the money.  As I said earlier in this post, who’s contributing to a candidate can be more telling than what they say they will do, or even who endorses them.  Here’s more information (from the Secretary of State via the groups – and websites – Maplight and Votersedge).  Summary of major donor info and classifications of donors (large vs. small, in-state vs out-of-state, individuals vs groups) for some of the major candidates:

Buffy Wicks:

Wicks contributions     Dan Kalb:

Kalb contributions

Jovanka Beckles

Beckles Contributions

Ben Bartlett:

Bartlett Contributions

Take-home lesson – Buffy Wicks has gotten much more $$ than any other candidate [and it shows in how many mailers she’s sent out and other campaign expenditures], a much higher proportion of out-of-state donors, and a high percentage of large corporate donors.  Draw your own conclusions!  For the others, lots of union donations – with the type of union varying by candidate (again, what unions are donating says a lot about how you can expect the candidate to vote), and almost nobody getting a lot of money from small donors.  (Jovanka Beckles has the highest percentage.)  None of this is good news, but none of it is unexpected either, given how the courts (especially U.S. Supreme Court) have emasculated campaign finance reform laws.

Superior Court Judge

No Opinion – I don’t think we should be electing judges.

Board of Education – 1st Trustee Area

Thus seat is uncontested.  It’s unclear to me what the County Board of Education does in incorporated areas of the county that have their own school board.  At any rate, the seat is uncontested, which says either that the incumbent is doing a good job or nobody cares enough about the position to run for it.  Since it makes no difference, I may leave this one blank too.

County Assessor

This is basically a technical job – the assessor doesn’t decide what gets assessed or for how much, just supervises the operation of getting the data.  That may change if we go to a split roll in November.  Given that, I’d go for John Weed, who’s the only candidate supporting a split roll.

County Auditor-Controller/Clerk-Recorder

This office is a peculiar mix of clerical and analytical responsibilities.  To my mind, the most important responsibilities are as auditor.  The auditor is supposed to look for honesty and efficiency in government.  I’d go for Irella Blackwood, who emphasizes that aspect of the office, while Melissa Wilk emphasizes the more routine duties that really hardly need an elected official to do.

County District Attorney

To my mind, this is the most important county office on the ballot this election.  While the District Attorney’s role in criminal prosecutions gets the most attention, the District Attorney also superintends the county civil grand jury, which studies and makes recommendations about county government.  The DA can also prosecute “political” crimes, like violations of campaign reform laws, conflict of interest laws, or Brown Act violations.  Usually, DAs are closely tied to the county’s political establishment, so these laws only get enforced against disfavored officials.  I’d expect Nancy O’Malley, a very well-connected Democrat, to continue that tradition.  My recommendation is Pamela Price.  She’s definitely looking for reform of the criminal justice system in the county – which IMHO it badly needs.  However, she’s also not tied in with the political establishment, which IMHO is another big pllus.

Ballot Measures

Prop 68 – YES –

while I distrust bonds these days, this one will do good things.

Prop. 69 –  YES –

Well, Duh.  You mean you want your transportation money frittered away?  (Not that it won’t be even if it’s spend on some state projects)

Prop. 70 – YES –

Case in point – 1/4 of the cap & trade funds are now going to high-speed rail construction, a project that is NEVER going to get completed and, in the meantime, is INCREASING GHG emissions!!  Here’s a link to a recent article about the debacle.  This one-shot at demanding more accountability in what gets funded isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing.  IMHO, cap & trade is a classic demonstration of the flaws in California’s Democratic Party establishment.  Decisions get made based on political pull, rather any rational consideration of public policy.  Shame on Jerry Brown and the Democratic legislative leadership!

Prop. 71 – YES –

very common sense measure.

Prop. 72 – YES –

water conservation measures like this should be incentivized, not disincentivized.

Regional Measure 3 –

NO,NO, NO – This is throwing bridge toll money at a laundry list of projects chosen to satisfy political and special interests.  As U.S. Representative DeSaunier says, it won’t solve our transportation problems.  MTC should be told to go back and start over!

Alameda County Measure A – YES –

childcare for low income families – badly needed

Oakland Measure D – YES –

library parcel tax – do we really want libraries to close???

 


Of Climate Change, Tipping Points, Paris, and Trump

June 4, 2017

The news about climate change these days is anything but good – at least if you’re rooting on the side of the long-term survival of species, ecosystems, and human civilization.  President Trump has announced that the U.S. Government will be rescinding its acceptance of the Paris Accords, which had committed the U.S. to making steep reductions in its Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions over the next ten years.  The quick analysis by climate scientists is that the loss of that commitment would mean a 0.2-0.3 degree Celsius increase in the 50-year worldwide average temperature rise – from about 3.5 degrees to 3.7 or 3.8 degrees.  When one considers that, in order to avoid drastic consequences, most climate scientists figure that a 1.5 degree increase is all that can be tolerated without major repercussions, It means we’re all that much deeper in hot water (so-to-speak).

Interestingly, Trump did not say the U.S. would ignore climate change.  Instead, he said that the U.S. commitment was a bad deal for us, compared to what other countries had committed to, and he wanted to see something fairer.  To some extent, that’s a supportable position.

The Paris Accords were the result of a desperate last-ditch effort by the international community to avoid having to admit abject failure in addressing human-caused world climate change.  Previous efforts had either been ineffectual or run aground on disagreements between nations with differing national interests.  This time, rather than face failure, the world community opted to accept a “lowest common denominator” – something pretty meaningless that at least everyone could agree upon.  The result was a voluntary agreement, with no real teeth, that allowed each country to decide for itself what it was willing to commit to.  In some cases, like the U.S., the E.U. countries, and China, those commitments were fairly impressive – not good enough to reach the 1.5 degree goal, but at least a significant reduction in GHG production compared to staying with the status quo. In other cases, notably India, the promised effort was little more than eyewash – a token effort that promised little if any reduction in GHG production.

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that one of the two countries not to sign the accords, Nicaragua, did so not because the Agreement was too strong, but because it was so weak as to be practically meaningless.  (Nicaragua, by the way, is already way ahead of most countries in lowering its GHG production.)  To the extent the U.S. was committing to major reductions in GHG production while some other countries’ commitments were so minimal as to be laughable, Trump might have had a point, if he had demanded, as a condition for the U.S. staying in, that there be a minimum threshold of GHG emissions reductions to which all signatory countries would have to commit.  That would have been a principled statement, and might have actually gotten at least some other countries to follow suit.

Instead, however, he put the U.S. withdrawal in the context of the narrow self-interests of U.S. businesses that might be put at a disadvantage compared to companies based, for example, in India.  That’s neither an enlightened or principled position.  If other countries were to follow Trump’s example, the Agreement would very quickly collapse.

What are the repercussions’ of President Trump’s decision?  Well, to begin with, pulling out of the Paris accords is not simply a matter of tearing up a document.  Withdrawing from the Paris Accords, like Brexit, is a complicated multi-year process.  There is plenty of time for second thoughts, in addition to the 2018 Congressional elections and the 2020 Presidential election, before the U.S.’s exit becomes final.  Meanwhile, if Trump is serious about caring about climate change and the environment (which  he still claims to be), he ought to be pushing the U.S. forward on efforts at addressing climate change that don’t put U.S. businesses at a serious disadvantage.  (Yes, there are such things, like putting a serious effort into developing cost-effective carbon sequestration methods.)

All that having been said, the worldwide temperatures are continuing to creep up, year by year.  Some time in the not-very-distant future, they’ll very likely pass the 1.5 degree increase that scientists are warning about.  What happens then?

Well, the Paris Accord negotiators were well-aware that the agreement they had reached wouldn’t get the world to where it needed to be on climate change.  However, the agreement included a requirements that the commitment made be revisited every five years.  The negotiators expected that in five years, the effect of climate change would be more evident, indisputable, and severe; and disregarding them would be less politically acceptable.  As a result, the reasoning was that five years down the road, the commitments would become more meaningful, and perhaps the worst effect could still be avoided.

However, climate scientists have warned that at some point, we will reach a “tipping point” in climate change.  As average temperatures continue to rise, there are numerous effects that will, in themselves, increase the rate of GHG emissions.  In cybernetics, this is called a positive feedback loop.  With public address audio systems, the result is the squeal you hear when a microphone is placed too near a loudspeaker.

Right now, the earth has natural mechanisms for sequestering – i.e., keeping out of the atmosphere – GHG.  For example, the ocean’s waters contain vast amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide (or technically, carbonic acid).  Further, as the atmospheric CO2 concentration rises, more of it gets dissolved.  However, as water warms, its ability to hold dissolved CO2 decreases.  Thus, as the oceans warm, along with the rest of the planet, they’ll release a huge amount of dissolved CO2 into the air.  Similarly, as the permafrost – permanently frozen ground in the vast arctic tundra of Russia and Canada – warms, there is a huge amount of methane, generated from decayed prehistoric vegetable matter, that will likewise get released.  This happened before, at the end of the Permian geological era, and resulted in a sharp temperature increase.  Accompanying that was a huge mass extinction that eradicated a majority of then-existing life on earth.  (This is shown in the fossil records from that time.)

Another way in which climate change is likely to affect sequestration is that vegetation is continually removing CO2 from the atmosphere and converting it to organic matter through photosynthesis.  While a lot of this matter later decays – re-releasing the sequestered CO2, trees sequester massive amounts of CO2 as wood.  A lot of this happens in tropical rain forests, located near the equator.  However, as global temperatures keep rising, some parts of the Earth’s equatorial area will become too hot for rain forest trees.  Those trees will die, and then rot.  Not only will sequestration decrease, but lots of sequestered CO2 will be released.

Yet another damaging positive feedback loop is already being seen in the melting of the arctic sea ice.  The two polar icecaps are vast areas of white snow and ice.  They reflect back into the atmosphere most of the sunlight that reaches them, meaning that the radiant heat carried by that sunlight goes back out into space.  Even with the current level of global warming, more and more of the north polar icecap is melting in the summer months, exposing the much darker seawater underneath.  That exposed seawater absorbs far more of the heat from sunlight, increasing the warming of the Arctic Ocean, which, in turn, further accelerates the melting of the polar icecap.  The result of this cycle could soon be the total loss of the north polar icecap, with more warming and a huge increase in sea level.

At the South Pole, warming will also mean the melting of polar ice, which will expose the bare rock of Antarctica.  Again, the result will be much more absorption of solar radiation, faster global warming, and more sea level rise.

Add all these feedback loops together, and at some point climate change will reach a “tipping point” – a point where temperature increases begin to accelerate.  Once we reach that point, it will matter very little whether humanity has started making more serious efforts to reduce its GHG emissions, or even to sequester some existing emissions.  It may well be “game over” for human civilization, and for many of the Earth’s plant and animal species.

Even after the tipping point, humans might be able, using drastic means, to reverse the course of climate change.  Some people have proposed that we begin to engage in “geoengineering” – intentionally attempting to influence the Earth’s climate by, for example, putting large amount of reflective material into the polar upper atmosphere to replace the icecaps’ reflective effect.  That, however, would come with its own huge risks.  We would, in essence, be “playing God” with our own planet.  We would be doing, however, without, the omniscience and  omnipotence by which God would avoid unintended consequences.  Moreover, the Earth is not like a computer game.  There is no “Reset” button to punch if a particular experiment goes awry.  It would be a “game” we’d be playing “for keeps,” and with all the planet’s life at stake.


DON’T PANIC!

November 9, 2016

OK, So the election is [almost] over, and at a national level, there are a lot of folks (by the latest results a [small] plurality of the nation’s voters) who are feeling everything from glum to despondent to suicidal — and with some reason perhaps.  Our country remains very sharply divided based on race, religion, culture, education, and income.  Each of those carries with it a portion of each person’s worldview, and those worldviews are sharply divergent.  Perhaps even more to the point, it is increasingly difficult to see how one brings those divergent views together into any sort of consensus that can move us – the collective us in the largest sense of all of humanity – to come together and take effective action on the pressing problems that demand our attention.

Those problems are numerous; ranging from climate change to income and wealth maldistribution to hunger, disease, (sounds a little bit like the four horsemen), war, crime, poverty, etc.  In this country, we have people who believe that we need to open our gates to immigrants fleeing war, oppression and poverty and those who believe we need to tightly secure those gates against the risk of terrorists and criminals.  We have those who believe that we need to let the free market loose from government shackles and those who believe those shackles need to be tightened far more to avoid the risk of another financial debacle.  We have those who believe Obamacare has helped millions of people to improve their healthcare and those who believe it is taking many Americans on a road to ruin, both financial and physical.

While the Republicans have now take control of both the Presidency and the Congress, they have not erased those divisions.  All you need to do is look at the electoral map of the country state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city, and even neighborhood-by-neighborhood to realize that the country is and will probably remain, at least for a while, very divided against itself.

Some of the checks and balances in our constitution have now be come less effective, but they have not disappeared.  The Republicans may “control” Congress, but they remain divided internally, as demonstrated by the many party leaders who divorced themselves from Donald Trump’s candidacy.  Whether they can unite behind a legislative agenda remains to be seen, as does the long-term effect of whatever legislation they succeed in getting enacted.  The Supreme Court remains, at least for the moment, a deterrent to any proposal that is so radical that it would violate the Constitution’s basic principles.  While Trump will probably appoint a conservative justice, that will only restore the tenuous balance that has been maintained for quite a while.  Even if that balance shifts to the right, it would not be the first time.  Under Reagan, the Rehnquist Court undid many of the precedents the Warren Court had set.  It did not, however, destroy the country.  Set it back, perhaps, but not destroy it.

There’s also the view that U.S. politics tends to “pendulum” over time.  Every time there’s a move to the left, there’s a countervailing move to the right, which is, again, followed by a move to the left.  We can’t predict right now how a Trump administration will work (or not), but chances are that two years from now at least some voters will be unhappy enough to want to change direction again.  Especially if Trump and his Republican allies succeed in their plans for tax and federal budget cuts, we may see ourselves moving into a major recession, which is likely to sour many voters on leaving the Republicans in charge.

In short, as the title of this blog post suggests, it’s not time to panic and start looking for another country to emigrate to.  Besides, there are few issues that respect national boundaries any more.  The economy, disease, and, of course, climate change, don’t stop at national boundaries.  If the U.S. is heading into a minefield, the rest of the world is close behind – or in some cases in front of us.  We’re just as likely to affect the direction humanity takes here as somewhere else.

So, I guess my take-home message in this post is perhaps best stated by paraphrasing alternative radio newscaster “Scoop” Nisker’s closing comment in his news reports:  If you don’t like the news, go out and do something to change it; and that can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors, friends, and relatives about your disagreements.

 


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