Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

By By The Associated Press

Dec. 9.

U-T San Diego: "State lawmakers without consciences"

If you can legally exploit an institution, and choose to do so, that is a comment on your character. An Associated Press report last week out of Sacramento suggests quite a few state lawmakers failed this character test.

The report detailed how after lawmakers lost a costly perk in 2011 — the provision of a free vehicle for unlimited use — 37 had their vehicles repaired, cleaned or upgraded using state funds before purchasing them for their own use. Some of the repairs were minor and defensible. But many cost $500 or more.

Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, had $2,037 of work done on her 2007 Toyota Prius Hybrid in the final months before she had to give up her vehicle, including $827 for a new drive belt, water pump and upgraded GPS system in her last week of using the Prius for free.

Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, had $5,984 of work done on his 2005 Chevy Tahoe in his final months of free use, including having the brakes and power steering replaced.

Dutton may face a probe over his use of campaign funds to buy the vehicle, which was registered in his name, not his campaign account's. But the other lawmakers are home-free.

None of what appear to be the worst offenders are from San Diego County. That's only a small consolation, though, given what this story says about our Legislature.

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Dec. 12

Los Angeles Times: "Why not expand Medi-Cal in California?"

California's Democratic-controlled Legislature has been an enthusiastic supporter of the 2010 federal healthcare reform law, but it has yet to take advantage of one of the most important provisions: the opportunity to offer Medi-Cal, the state's version of the Medicaid insurance program for the poor, to more Californians largely at the federal government's expense.

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn't committed mainly out of concern about the potential cost to the state. There's little doubt that the expansion would increase Medi-Cal costs over the long term, but the amount would be small in comparison to the state's total Medi-Cal budget — and to the billions of dollars in new federal aid flowing to doctors and hospitals. The benefits to the public — including higher productivity, better health and fewer unpaid bills at county hospitals — more than justify the investment.

As part of a multilayered effort to make healthcare more efficient and effective, the 2010 law sought to extend insurance to millions of Americans without coverage. To reach the poorest uninsured, it called on states to extend Medicaid at least to those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line — including able-bodied adults without children, who'd previously been ineligible no matter how low their incomes — starting in 2014. The feds' share of the cost of the expansion would start at 100 percent for three years, then drop gradually to 90 percent by 2020. But as the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday, that extra aid for any of the newly eligible would flow only if states expanded their Medicaid programs to the full extent called for by the 2010 law.

Expanding Medi-Cal would be a boon to providers that treat a large number of the uninsured and to county health programs, which now provide insurance (with federal help) to indigent adults without children. But the entire healthcare system would benefit too. Fewer uninsured patients mean fewer costly trips to the emergency room. Doctors and hospitals would have fewer unpaid bills, and those with insurance would absorb less of those costs. And giving more people access to immunizations and other preventive care should improve public health and productivity.

According to the California Healthcare Foundation, more than 7 million Californians, or 22% of the state's residents, were uninsured in 2011. That's a higher percentage than in all but six states. Of that number, more than half would qualify for Medi-Cal if eligibility were extended to 138% of the poverty line. Make no mistake: The public pays the healthcare costs of this group one way or another. It makes sense to treat them in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, and insurance coverage is a crucial element of that. The Brown administration's caution is understandable, but if it properly weighs the costs and benefits, the case for expanding Medi-Cal seems overwhelming.

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Dec. 11

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise: "Rail roadblocks"

California's bullet train project has not become more realistic since July, when state legislators approved money to start construction. A congressional hearing this month showed that the financial and operational plans for the rail line remain risky and speculative. So California legislators should halt this train, before the project becomes a runaway boondoggle rolling over taxpayers.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Dec. 5 hearing on high-speed rail did little to reassure Californians that the state's bullet train project was feasible. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the administration's commitment to high-speed rail, including California's line. But that official support did nothing to erase the enormous fiscal and practical challenges facing the project, as Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, noted. He suggested the federal government should "cut our losses" because of serious doubts about the plan's viability.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority peddles a $68.4 billion project that would link Los Angeles and the Bay Area by 2029, whisking passengers along at speeds of up to 220 mph. The state has $6 billion in state bond money and federal funds to start construction next year on the first stretch of track between Bakersfield and Merced. But plans beyond that initial step depend largely on wishful thinking and blind optimism.

Start with financing for the bullet train, which remains largely a blank canvas. The Government Accountability Office reported at the hearing that the rail authority is nearly $57 billion short of the money needed to complete the line. The plan counts on an additional $38.7 billion in federal funds — or an average of more than $2.5 billion a year from the federal government for the next 15 years. That prospect seems remote, given the federal government's need to slash $1 trillion-plus annual deficits and preserve more vital federal programs.

Just landing the additional $20 billion in federal money needed to connect the Central Valley stage to the San Fernando Valley looks increasingly farfetched. But without that extension, the rail line could not begin high-speed service. And the $13 billion in private investment the project counts on would be unlikely to emerge until the bullet train started running — if even then.

Nor are those numbers necessarily reliable. The GAO report, like others before it, questioned the rail authority's construction cost estimates and ridership projections — data crucial to knowing whether the price tag is realistic or whether high-speed operations could be self-supporting.

California faces all of those hazards for a project that serves no pressing public need. The state's big transportation challenges include urban/suburban traffic congestion and goods movement, as well as upkeep and maintenance of existing infrastructure — none of which a bullet train would help.

The danger is that taxpayers will be saddled with an expensive stretch of Central Valley track unusable for high-speed travel — or faced with a decision about whether to eat a sunk cost or find billions more public dollars to try to rescue the broader project. Neither option is acceptable and legislators have no business even risking those outcomes.

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Dec. 7

San Jose Mercury News: "Supreme Court decision on gay marriage less important that trajectory of public opinion"

Supporters of marriage equality will be on tenterhooks until June, when the Supreme Court is expected to decide on two cases: one challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, and the other challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal marriage benefits to legally-married gay couples.

We hope the Supreme Court will affirm the rulings of lower-court judges who have reversed both of these discriminatory laws. A decision upholding state-sponsored discrimination against gays and lesbians would be viewed widely as the Dred Scott ruling of our time.

But whatever the decision, the court of public opinion soon will render it moot. The trajectory of changing attitudes on same sex marriage is inexorably headed toward full acceptance and legal status — something this newspaper has advocated for 20 years.

The trend is clear in California, where 52 percent of voters supported Proposition 8 just four years ago. In a May survey, 54 percent said they now support legal same-sex marriage, while just 40 percent were opposed. Even if the Supreme Court upholds the ban, voters here will overturn it themselves before long and join the nine states that now allow gays and lesbians to marry.

Nationally, 49 percent of respondents to an October Pew poll said they supported legalizing gay marriage, while 40 percent said they were opposed. That is essentially the reverse of poll numbers four years earlier. And the reason is obvious. Young people overwhelmingly support equality: An October Gallup poll found three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds in favor. Even in the conservative South, a more accepting younger generation eventually will overtake the old guard, even if it takes a bit longer.

Testimony in the Proposition 8 trial two years ago exposed the emptiness of the arguments against same-sex marriage. Supporters of the proposition presented just two witnesses, neither of whom could offer a shred of credible evidence that preventing gays from marrying promotes any legitimate state interest.

David Boies, the lead lawyer on the team seeking to strike down the gay marriage ban, explained the predicament faced by his opponents: "They didn't fail because they're bad lawyers; they failed because there isn't any evidence to support the argument they're advocating."

That's the reality in both cases the Supreme Court will hear in the coming months.

It will be far better for the country if the high court comes down on the side of equal rights in a way that settles the matter quickly and cleanly and allows divisions on social issues to begin to heal. But the battle for marriage equality has been won. Now it's just a matter of how the war will end.

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Dec. 11

San Francisco Chronicle: "What's in UC's logo? Nothing"

What's in a logo? Quite a lot, it turns out. Just ask the geniuses at the University of California.

A logo means more than that little image on your stationery or website. It's a symbol of what you stand for, a visual representation of your values and goals.

UC's new logo is none of those things. So what was the university thinking? It recently sprang this new, modernistic but odd design on the public, many of whom are UC students or alums. And many of them are not amused.

The old logo, admittedly old-fashioned, speaks to old-school values: scholarship, education, tradition. "Let there be light," it has proclaimed since 1868. What's wrong with that?

The new one looks like an ad for an agribusiness company. It has no class, no meaning. It's a bit of advertising that doesn't befit one of most prestigious university systems in the world, and it's generating a wave of criticism. It has been likened to a bidet and a label on a banana.

Whether you like it or not, the image you project to the world helps define you. Is this simplistic, ill-conceived emblem supposed to represent the UC of the future? Flunk this logo, UC. If you want a new image, retake design class.

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Dec. 12

The Sacramento Bee: "California's conflicted stem-cell agency must look inward"

For years, numerous outside critics have urged lawmakers and the state's stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, to take a hard look at CIRM's internal structure and revamp it to avoid conflicts of interest and possible misuse of taxpayer funds.

Instead of listening, leaders of this institute — a poster child of how ballot initiatives can be manipulated to create quasi-public institutions with little public oversight — have been consumed by a siege mentality that has prevented any real introspection.

There's a chance that may change today. A blue-ribbon committee of the National Academy of Sciences is scheduled to formally present CIRM's oversight board with a report examining the agency's internal workings. Although the report by the academy's Institute of Medicine commends the agency for raising the profile of stem cell research nationally, it warns that the appearance and reality of built-in conflicts could undermine future support for CIRM's mission.

California should be concerned about this for at least two reasons:

(1) Stem cell research still holds the promise of potential cures and treatments for diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's and other diseases.

(2) The agency will soon run out of money, limiting the potential from transforming basic research into real-world therapies.

A creation of Proposition 71, a 2004 ballot initiative that authorized $3 billion in state bond funding for stem cell research, the institute was the brainchild of Robert Klein, a bond financier and patient advocate. Klein, who served as institute chairman until 2011, wrote the initiative so CIRM would be insulated from political interference, whether it be opponents of stem cell research or taxpayers looking out for how their money is being spent.

Under the structure that Klein designed, ultimate decisions about researching funding are made by a 29-member governing board largely made of up representatives from California universities and hospitals seeking stem cell research funding. To date, this oversight board has doled out about $1.7 billion, with roughly 90 percent going to institutions with representatives on the board.

Over the years, the built-in conflicts have become all too apparent. In 2007, the CEO of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego, a member of CIRM's oversight board, intervened to endorse a grant application to his institution. The incident — brought to light by David Jensen, the dogged author of the California Stem Cell Report blog — eventually led to the disqualification of grant applications from 10 institutions that were the focus of improper lobbying by oversight board members.

Although the Institute of Medicine report didn't go into specifics about conflicts, it recommended that oversight board members not be allowed to decide on specific grants. It also urged CIRM to create a new scientific advisory board - composed of experts who do not have a stake in the funding — to advise CIRM staff on scientific priorities.

In addition, the report also recommended a clear division of responsibilities at the agency, with the oversight board focused on policy and day-to-day operations handled by the agency's president and its senior management.

It is to CIRM's credit that it solicited the Institute of Medicine report last year. Although some taxpayers may blanch at the report's $700,000 price tag, it will be worth the cost if it leads to a restructuring of how CIRM operates.

Of course, if it fails in that task, it will only affirm the view of many voters that they should never again endorse a California research initiative, especially one like Prop. 71 that lacks proper controls and accountability over taxpayer dollars.

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