May 2013


California Fracking Oversight Agencies Lack Inspectors, Knowledge, Says EPA

Dan AielloBy Dan Aiello

As more than 100 environmental groups launched a massive anti-fracking campaign yesterday in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, California Progress Report's review of the agencies charged with oil industry oversight and protecting the state's groundwater supplies has found troubling signs that California is woefully unprepared to manage a proliferation of fracking wells anticipated to tap into the newly discovered Monterey Shale Deposit.

The deposit, stretching along the Golden State's ecologically fragile coastline from Los Angeles to San Francisco and through some of the most densely-populated regions, is said to contain up to 15.4 billion barrels of oil some 11,000 feet deep, and oil companies are keen to exploit the huge deposit in the only state that lacks any kind of oil severance tax.

Time for California Lawmakers to Ban the Bag

Jenesse MillerBy Jenesse Miller

"But they're so convenient." Really?

The main, lame argument I hear in favor of the ubiquitous single-use plastic bag is that it's convenient. And that it's difficult to remember to bring your own reusable bags when you're out shopping. Even the most responsible environmentalists among us have occasionally arrived at the grocery store and realized we've forgotten our trusty reusable bag (you know, the ones with the logo of our favorite public radio station proudly displayed) and had to juggle a few items on the way home on our bikes or in our electric or biodiesel cars.

California Enterprise Zones: Just a "Big-Business Tax Grab"?

By Gary Cohn

John Thomas and Hans Burkhardt have a lot in common. For more than 17 years each man had a good paying union job, with health and pension benefits, near San Francisco Bay. Thomas worked as a warehouseman for VWR International, a medical supply company with a warehouse in Brisbane, south of Candlestick Park. Burkhardt also worked as a warehouseman, for BlueLinx, a building products company with a facility across the bay in Newark.

The similarities don't end there. Both Thomas and Burkhardt are now collecting unemployment, having lost their $22-an-hour jobs after their employers moved to take advantage of California's enterprise zone plan, a controversial state program that is supposed to create jobs.

The IRS's Real Scandal

By Robert Reich

"This systematic abuse cannot be fixed with just one resignation, or two," said David Camp, the Republican chairman of the House tax-writing committee, at an oversight hearing dealing with the IRS. "This is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too intrusive, too abusive."

No "Sticker Shock" for Covered California Health Care Consumers

By Anthony Wright

Covered California held a press conference last week announcing plans and rates that will be available to consumers starting January 1. This is one of the most significant steps yet toward being ready to serve consumers by the federally mandated 2014 deadline for health exchange availability under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. You can watch the press conference on the Covered California website, where you can also download a booklet with a description of all the plans that will be offered and sample rates.

California Anti-Fracking Bills Move Forward, Now Face Appropriations Vote

By Dan Bacher

Despite intense political pressure by the oil industry, the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on April 29 approved three bills proposing to halt fracking (hydraulic fracturing), a controversial method of oil and natural gas extraction, in California.

Fracking opponents fear that increased water diversions destined for the peripheral tunnels proposed under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) will be used for expanding fracking in Monterey Shale deposits in the San Joaquin Valley and coastal areas. The construction of the tunnels is expected to hasten the extinction of Central Valley Chinook salmon, Delta smelt and other fish species.

Governor Brown, Counties Need Money to Keep California Healthy

Viji SundaramBy Viji Sundaram

Under California Gov. Jerry Brown's revised budget, counties stand to lose crucial health care funding that would leave millions of people without access to care.

An estimated 3 to 4 million, or 10 percent of the state's population, the majority from ethnic communities, will remain uninsured in 2014, according to a study by UCLA and UC Berkeley. Some of them - an estimated 1 million - will be excluded from public health programs by federal law because they are undocumented. Some will not be eligible for Medi-Cal, the federal-state funded health care program for low-income people. Others who may qualify to buy coverage on the health insurance marketplace could miss the open enrollment period or simply not be able to afford it.

Garcetti, Backed by Tenant Groups, Wins L.A. Mayor's Race

By Randy Shaw

Eric Garcetti has won a 53%-46% victory in the Los Angeles mayor's race following a tough campaign against Wendy Greuel. Greuel sought to become the city's first female mayor, but was a bland candidate from the Valley who failed to energize women voters. Although the media framed the candidates as ideologically similar - the New York Times claimed they "did little to differentiate themselves on major issues like jobs and the city budget" - the city's big landlord and realtor groups backed Greuel, while tenant groups like the Coalition for Economic Survival supported Garcetti. Greuel pledged to decimate the city's vastly improved housing code enforcement program, while Garcetti has long backed tenants and affordable housing. I wrote on April 3 that Greuel faced an "uphill battle," and that New York City's Christine Quinn, another real estate-backed moderate woman candidate, had a greater chance of success. Quinn's chances still look good, particularly because she does not face an opponent as strong as Garcetti.

California Farmer Warns: "Don't Trust Oil Industry, State or Courts" to Protect Water

By Dan Aiello

Kern County almond farmer, Fred Starrh, is an unlikely darling of the anti-fracking movement in California.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an environmentally risky oil production method of pumping under pressure large volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to bubble to the surface heavy tar-like oil left in depleted oil wells and to reach deep deposits of oil and natural gas.

Fracking is the method oil companies seek to employ to proliferate drilling in California where the discovered Monterey Shale Deposit is estimated to contain as many as 15.4 billion barrels of crude 11,000 feet deep.

Delta Stewardship Council Adopts Plan Despite Massive Opposition

By Dan Bacher

In spite of overwhelming opposition from environmentalists, fishermen, family farmers, elected officials and the majority of Californians, the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) on Thursday, May 16 unanimously adopted what it described as a "comprehensive management plan" for the Delta.

The Council also certified the final Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR), despite opposition to the report from every single person who spoke during the public comment period, ranging from Delta farmers to a representative of the Metropolitan Water District. In addition, the Council adopted regulations that will implement the policies of the Delta Plan.

Governor's "May Revise" on Health Care: Progress, but with Continued Cuts

By Anthony Wright

Governor Jerry Brown announced his May Revision of the California State Budget on Tuesday, declaring for the first time in decades a multi-year balanced budget. In his brief remarks unveiling the proposal, the Governor highlighted planned investments in education, as promised in the campaign for Proposition 30 last fall, as well as the work to implement the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In the May revision of the budget, Governor Brown moves towards a resolution for a timely Medi-Cal expansion as required under the Affordable Care Act. But the budget seeks a greater than 75 percent cut to county safety net funds, and would continue cuts to Medi-Cal provider rates and Denti-Cal.

FEMA Plans Clear-Cutting 85,000 Berkeley and Oakland Trees

By Randy Shaw

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is moving to chop down 22,000 trees in Berkeley's historic Strawberry and Claremont Canyons and over 60,000 more in Oakland. This destructive plan is rapidly moving forward with little publicity, and FEMA cleverly scheduled its three public meetings for mid and late May while UC Berkeley students were in finals or gone for the summer.

Paying the Debt of War

By Rev. Jim Conn

Some 53 percent of Americans say that the second Iraq war was a mistake. A recent Los Angeles Times article asked if the war brought change for the better. But no one asks what that war cost this country. The first trillion dollars we spent on it was only a down payment on what experts have estimated to be probably two trillion or more that we will spend over the next few decades to take care of America's wounded and maimed. Our taxes provide care for those veterans, but both parties regularly propose cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs as a quick fix to balance the federal budget.

State Commissioner Cracks Down on Employers for Labor Law Violations

By Mitch Seaman

No one wins when employers break labor laws, but whenever California's star Labor Commissioner Julie Su announces the latest round of enforcement actions, it sure feels like a victory.

Case in point: This week, Commissioner Su hit three of the worst violators with over $1.8 million in backpay and penalty assessments for stealing employees' wages, defrauding the workers' comp system and willfully breaking a variety of other workforce protection laws.

Statewide Tour to Close the "Walmart Loophole" Kicks Off in West Sacramento

By Steve Smith

Walmart shoppers probably didn't expect to be greeted Friday morning at 5 AM by a lively group of taxpayers protesting the "Walmart Loophole," which allows large companies like Walmart to avoid their responsibilities to pay their fair share for their workers' health care. But that's exactly what they encountered in West Sacramento.

About 30 demonstrators launched a statewide tour aimed at educating shoppers and the media about Walmart's practice of paying its workers so little that they are pushed into taxpayer-funded programs like Medi-Cal. The group also handed out information about AB 880 (Gomez), which would mandate that the state's largest and most profitable companies pay their fair share when their workers end up on taxpayer-funded Medi-Cal.

Pharmacist Kickbacks Put California Patient Health at Risk

By Hollaine Hopkins

Health care cost containment is a critical issue facing every participant in the health care system. Efforts to contain costs, however, appear to have given rise to dangerous financial arrangements between health insurers and pharmacists that may be jeopardizing the health of California patients.

A loophole in California law allows your health insurer to give a financial kickback to your pharmacist every time the pharmacist switches your medication to older, cheaper, non-chemically equivalent drugs from those originally prescribed by your doctor, even without your knowledge.

Building Transportation Infrastructure in a Broken Political System

By Robert Cruickshank

Over at his blog, Alon Levy has an interesting post calling for more democracy in the planning and authorization of transportation infrastructure. Levy points to Switzerland as an example of a political system where transportation projects are routinely put to a referendum and the results are generally positive. He contrasts that with the California high speed rail project, which he argues was the product of a flawed political process:

I've begun to believe that California's original sin with its HSR project is that it refused to do the same. Prop 1A was a referendum for what was billed as one third of the cost, $10 billion. In reality it was $9 billion and $1 billion in extra funds for connecting local transit; in year of expenditure dollars the estimated budget then was $43 billion, so barely a fifth of the project's cost was voted on. The HSR Authority planned on getting the rest of the money from federal funding and private-sector funding. Prop 1A even required a 1:1 match from an external source, so confident the Authority was that it would get extra money.

"Other People's Children": The Corollary of Bad Policy

By Mark Naison

For some time, I have argued that School Reform is the most destructive bi-partisan initiative we have suffered in the United States since the Vietnam War, a policy which has, and will continue to inspire mass movements to limit the damage it inflicts through universal testing of the nation's children, and the humiliation and micro-management of the nation's teachers.

Some have argued, correctly, that people have not lost their lives as a result of School Reform even when schools are closed, teachers are fired, communities destabilized, instruction has been reduced to test prep, and young people's minds have been reduced to mush by relentless testing. That is certainly true. But one thing does seem similar. Both produced PTSD.

The Hollowing Out of Government

Robert ReichBy Robert Reich

The West Texas chemical and fertilizer plant where at least 15 were killed and more than 200 injured a few weeks ago hadn't been fully inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. (A partial inspection in 2011 had resulted in $5,250 in fines.)

OSHA and its state partners have a total of 2,200 inspectors charged with ensuring the safety of more than 8 million workplaces employing 130 million workers. That comes to about one inspector for every 59,000 American workers.

There's no way it can do its job with so few resources, but OSHA has been systematically hollowed out for the years under Republican administrations and congresses that have despised the agency since its inception.

Assembly Committee Votes to Curb California Marine Pollution

By Leila Monroe

Good news came last week when the California Assembly Natural Resource Committee passed Assembly Bill 521, a bill that would protect our oceans, coasts and communities by adopting a statewide goal of reducing marine plastic pollution by 75 percent by 2020, and by 95 percent by 2025.