December 2012

Good News for Our Neediest Workers

By Dick Meister

Here's some good news for the new year: Ten states are set to raise their minimum wage rates on January first.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) calculates that the increased rates will boost the pay of more than 850,000 low-income workers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The rates, raised in accord with state laws requiring automatic adjustments to keep pace with the rising cost of living, will go up by 10 to 35 cents an hour depending on the state. NELP figures that will mean $190 to $510 more a year for the four million workers who are paid at the minimum in those states.

Birth and Taxes: A Holiday Accounting

By Rev. Jim Conn

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."

Those are the opening lines from the Christmas story according to St. Luke, as written down by the team of scholars working under the direction of King James of England 500 years ago. Different translators have used different phrases over the centuries, but the frame for telling this story has always been taxes.

The Roman Empire wanted to make sure everyone paid their taxes, so Rome required its subjects to return to their towns of birth to sign into the national registry as part of a census, which allowed the keepers of the treasury to know who had paid and who had not. And that's how Jesus got to be born in Bethlehem.

High Speed Rail Should Stay in Central Bakersfield

By Robert Cruickshank

Some Bakersfield residents, opposed to the current plan to bring bullet trains into central Bakersfield, are arguing for pause on the EIR for that portion of the route. Their argument is that the planning is flawed – but they’re only saying that because they just don’t want a downtown train station:

A kind of “time out” was proposed last week as a way to forestall lawsuits and rethink options on the proposed high-speed rail route into and through Bakersfield.

Brown Announces New Oil Industry Regulations Ahead of "Promised Land" Release

By Dan Aiello

The Brown administration Tuesday proposed new draft regulations that would require the oil industry to disclose where in California its oil extraction operations are using hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as "fracking," in advance of a new movie starring Matt Damon meant to bring public awareness to the environmental destruction caused by the practice.

Michigan is Just the Beginning

By Dick Meister

Be alert, American workers: The passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan means serious trouble for unions and their supporters everywhere. Yet there's legitimate hope that it also could lead to a revitalized labor movement.

You can be sure the action by Michigan, long one of the country's most heavily unionized states, home of the pioneering and pace-setting United Auto Workers and iconic labor leader Walter Reuther, will inspire anti-labor forces in other states to try to enact right-to-work laws.

Tougher Gun Control Laws on the Horizon in California

By Christopher Allen
California Progress Report

Following the horrific mass-shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a number of California lawmakers are pressing forward with legislation to clamp down on the regulation of certain types of firearms, ammunition or gun magazine technology in the Golden State.

Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has reintroduced legislation that would ban the use of "bullet button" or "mag magnet" magazines that allow the rapid replacement of empty gun magazines with full ones by the pressing of a button. The bill would also prohibit the sale and use of add-on kits that would enable the use of high-capacity magazines.

"Covered California" Health Benefit Exchange Wraps Up Productive Year

By Linda Leu

The Board of Directors of Covered California, the state's new Health Benefit Exchange, met yesterday in Sacramento to continue its work implementing a reformed healthcare market in compliance with the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010. The 15th and final Board meeting of 2012 wrapped up a productive year with little sign of slowing down as we race toward the January 1, 2014 mandate.

President Endorses Reinstatement of Assault Weapons Ban, Other Gun Safety Legislation

By David Dayen

The President will support a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He will also "consider" legislation limiting extended magazines that carry a high capacity of bullets, as well as legislation closing the "gun show loophole," which enables gun purchasers to avoid background checks by buying them at gun shows. Press Secretary Jay Carney also emphasized the importance of improving the nation's mental health system as a way to prevent more mass shootings. This is certainly further than the President had been willing to go after other similarly situated mass shootings over the first term. Vice President Biden will lead a task force that will presumably come up with legislative and administrative steps to curtail gun violence.

New Political Terrain Holds Promise for California Schools

By Lisa Schiff

My daughter came home from school the other day frustrated and angry. She had been excited the evening before because she'd learned that having finished The Odyssey her ninth-grade English class was now going to tackle Beowolf. We discussed the different translations and decided to compare the version we had at home with the one her class was going to read once she got the book. The next night she handed me, with a gesture of disgust, a used double-sided photocopy of the classic; no "real" book, just a set of rather worn stapled pages.

Take Action: End the Bush Tax Cuts for the Wealthiest Two Percent

By Pablo Rodríguez

Thanks to Speaker John Boehner and Congressional Republicans holding the U.S. economy hostage during the debt-ceiling debacle in the summer of 2011, a package of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as the 'fiscal cliff' are less than three weeks away. And once again, Speaker of the House John Boehner insists on fighting for billionaires and once again holds our families hostage while he lectures on the virtues of tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.

But allowing taxes to go up on middle class Americans would be devastating - both for families who are already struggling to make ends meet and for our economy.

Democrats to Balance Supermajority Power and Budget Needs with Voter Scrutiny

By Christopher Allen
California Progress Report

A piece in the Sunday New York Times by Adam Nagourney highlighted the new supermajority status of California's Democratic Party, and the fact that lawmakers and the executive branch are wary of the potential voter backlash if Democrats flex their new political muscle too aggressively on issues of new taxation aimed at closing the state's still-considerable revenue gap. Despite a legislature long-dominated by the Democratic Party, this degree control by one party has not been seen in the state for over three-quarters of a century. As Nagourney notes:

This does not appear to be a passing advantage. Even Republicans say that changes in electoral demographics mean that, with the exception of a few brief lapses caused by vacancies, Democrats could hold a supermajority at least through the end of the decade.

Yet in the "be careful what you wish for" department, Democrats are beginning to confront the struggles and complications that come with being in charge of the store. This authority came at least two years earlier than most Democrats had projected. And it is unleashing years of pent-up Democratic desires - to roll back spending cuts, approve a bond issue to rebuild the state's water system, amend the state's tax code, revamp California's governance system - that had been largely checked by the Republican minority.

Feinstein Plans to Reintroduce Assault Weapons Ban Next Year

By David Dayen

Dianne Feinstein, author of the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired under President George W. Bush in 2004, told Meet the Press that she plans to reintroduce the law on the first day of the new Congress in 2013. The bill seeks to respond to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, one of several this year.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D, said she intended to introduce a gun control bill on the first day of the next Congress. Paired with a twin version in the House, Feinstein's law would take aim at limiting the sale, transfer and possession of assault weapons, along with the capacity of high-capacity magazines.

"It can be done," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press." The senator, a proponent of gun control, said she expected Obama to offer his public support for the law.

Sacramento Bee Slams Valley Republican HSR Opposition

By Robert Cruickshank

Central Valley Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham have been leading a renewed attack in Congress on the California high speed rail project in recent weeks. McCarthy's hometown paper, the Bakersfield Californian, has already editorialized that electeds should support HSR. Now they're joined by the Sacramento Bee:

No place in California stands to reap the rewards of high-speed rail more than the San Joaquin Valley.

That is why the opposition of U.S. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, is so puzzling.

Givers, Takers, and Voters

By Steve Hochstadt

In May, Mitt Romney told an audience of big donors in Florida that 47 percent of Americans would vote for President Obama because they pay no income tax, are dependent on government, believe they are victims, and feel “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Romney said these people are hopeless: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

When a video of this speech was made public in September, Romney stood by his remarks. After he lost the election, he repeated this claim by attributing his defeat to the big “gifts” that Democrats had given and promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

California Higher Education: Diminishing Opportunity and Competitiveness

By Patrick M. Callan

Any Californian with a modicum of concern about the future of the state should be dismayed by the state's massive disinvestment in one of its major public assets. Since 2008, state and local support for public higher education has been reduced by $2.4 billion, a cut of nearly 20 percent. The passage of Proposition 30 creates a plateau on this downward path, but it will neither restore lost college opportunity to thousands of Californians nor assure the future availability of college access. It could, however, buy time and space for state and college leaders to undertake a long overdue reexamination of California higher education in the context of current and prospective state needs for a competitive workforce and for college opportunity.

Medi-Cal Expansion Floated as New Policy Shift for California

By Christopher Allen
California Progress Report

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial on expanding the Medi-Cal program as a way to help California meet, or exceed, the requirements of the 2010 health care reform law now being phased into effect. Since part of the Affordable Care Act's primary purposes was to extend health coverage to the uninsured, the 2010 law requires states to find a way to add low-income individuals to the rolls of the insured. In most states, this would be done through the federal Mediaid program, with individuals earning less than 133% of the federal poverty line - or, effectively, 138% due to new methods of calculating eligibility - being covered under the new system.

Health Law Doesn't Protect Californians from Rate Increases

By Carmen Balber

Reporters largely missed the point of a Commonwealth Fund study released last week, that looked at consumer savings under Obamacare's 80-20 rule, the rule making insurance companies spend at least 80% of your premiums on health care, not overhead.

The authors started with a fact we already knew - that health insurance companies had to pay $1.1 billion in rebates for missing the MLR requirement in 2011 - and that big shiny number distracted the news media. But the authors zeroed in on a much more important fact. Insurance companies successfully reduced administrative costs by $1.184 billion in 2011, but they used those savings to increase profits instead of passing them on to consumers.

Two-Thirds Rule Makes Transit Funding Proposals Worse, Not Better

By Robert Cruickshank

Last week I made the case for restoring democracy to transit funding decisions in California. A Democratic State Senator is proposing exactly that, offering a constitutional amendment that would reduce the requirement for passing a transit tax from 66.7% to 55%. But apparently some folks still seem to believe that a two-thirds requirement is somehow good for transit funding initiatives.

Reform Cuts Marijuana Possession Arrests 86% in 2011, Upends California Drug Policing

By Mike Males

Just-released 2011 arrest statistics from the state Criminal Justice Statistics Center show that pioneering legislation downgrading simple marijuana possession from a criminal offense into an infraction - an effort to deter passage of Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana outright - has detonated a revolution in California drug-law enforcement.

California's new arrest figures read like something out of a drug policy reformer's dream - but with unexpected twists (see graphics). Arrests for marijuana possession plummeted by 86%, from 54,900 in 2010 to 7,800 in 2011, abruptly reversing a two-decade trend of increasing marijuana misdemeanor arrests and returning numbers to levels not seen since before the Summer of Love.

MWD to Vote on Support for Raising Shasta Dam, Tribal and Conservation Groups Opposed

By Dan Bacher

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California will vote December 11 on a proposal including the raising of Shasta Dam as a "state legislative action priority."

The MWD staff recommends support for "administrative/legislative actions to remove existing prohibition for state funding to raise Shasta Dam."

I am not aware of any state legislation that has been already introduced to facilitate the raising of Shasta Dam.