Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

By

Feb. 27

Los Angeles Times: "Critiquing the stem cell board"

After years of resisting all criticisms of its operations, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is finally listening — a little. It spent $700,000 for an outside, high-level review that complimented the stem cell agency for funding an excellent portfolio of research projects, but also raised serious objections to the agency's structure, which the review said was likely to lead to financial conflicts of interest.

The criticisms were nothing new — many of the same points have been made since the agency was created by Proposition 71 in 2004 — but the positive response by the chairman of the agency's board was. The governing board is now making changes to address some of the long-standing issues.

Yet the agency isn't exactly embracing an ethical overhaul. It's doing just enough to address the criticisms without triggering any oversight from the Legislature. The modifications are more a bandage than a cure. Like a bandage, they will probably do, but only for a limited time.

The single biggest problem identified in the report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, was that the large governing board, which approves all of the grants made from the $3 billion bond that funds the stem cell agency, includes 13 representatives from institutions that apply for the grants, such as the state's large research universities. And even though they can't vote on applications from their own organizations, the concern has been that some mutual hand-washing might be taking place, especially considering that during the first several years, 90 percent of the grants went to those organizations. The report advised the stem cell agency to have grant decisions made by outside experts who had no stake in the outcome.

The agency isn't going that far. Instead, it adopted a voluntary policy under which the grant-eligible board members are supposed to abstain from voting on all funding applications.

Why not just change the board's makeup? The current structure was built into Proposition 71, so any change would require a bill passed by 70 percent of the Legislature. It seems clear that the agency, which has enjoyed extraordinary freedom from government oversight, wants to keep things that way. Any reform bill has little chance of gaining a 70 percent vote without the agency's support.

If the stem cell institute is just a temporary agency that will last until its public funding runs out — it plans to give its last grants with existing funds in 2017 — its planned reforms will probably be enough. But if the institute wants to be a permanent part of the research landscape — and possibly ask for more public funding — voluntary recusals are an inadequate patch. The agency's leaders should admit that the original setup was flawed and seek a true fix.

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Feb. 26

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise: "Tie college funding to systemic improvements"

More money without additional accountability is not a prescription for improving California's higher education system. Legislators should back the governor's call for changes in the state's college and university operations. But the Legislature should tie funding to requirements for a more productive and cost-effective approach to education, not just hand out more taxpayer dollars.

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget plan proposes to spend $11.9 billion in general fund money on higher education next fiscal year, an increase of $1.4 billion over the current year. Other sources of funding, such as tuition and federal money, would bring the total budget for basic community college and university operations to $18.4 billion in 2013-14.

But Brown also proposes transforming a higher education system that he says "relies on a model that is not sustainable." The cost of delivering public higher education in California is high and growing steadily, yet often without "adding productivity or value," the governor says. Brown wants to cut the expense of providing higher education, by improving graduation rates, using existing funds more effectively and embracing online courses, among other steps.

Pressing for changes is not the same as actually making reforms, however. The state's legislative analyst this month said that the governor's budget approach is unlikely to result in improvements. Brown would just give higher education additional tax dollars without any requirement that the higher education systems change their practices in return, which leaves the college and university systems free to continue operating as they have been. "Why the state would invest more in a system that is high cost and has poor outcomes without requiring explicit improvement is unclear," the analyst notes.

Nor would the governor's plan do much to reduce overall costs. The University of California, for example, already spends about $166,000 for each degree, compared to $140,000 at similar institutions nationwide, the analyst reports. But based on the university systems' own budget plans, more tax dollars from the state not tied to any reforms would probably go toward higher pay, which would actually increase the cost per student.

The analyst points out that the universities could make some crucial improvements by using existing resources more productively. Capping the number of state-subsidized courses each student could take would encourage prompt graduation, which would reduce costs and free up space in high-demand classes. Likewise, using more online education could ease classroom bottlenecks without the need for a massive state taxpayer investment.

But simply expecting systemic change to somehow occur is wishful thinking. The Legislature should link any additional state taxpayer funding to specific improvements, such as better graduation rates and lower costs. Without that leverage, the state's colleges and universities will have little incentive to alter longstanding habits.

Higher education is a top priority, because the state's prosperity depends on a ready supply of well-trained workers. But the state needs a more effective approach to meeting that goal than just throwing more tax money at colleges and hoping for the best.

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Feb. 26

Ventura County Star: "Yahoo goes back to the future as it orders telecommuters back to office"

Telecommuting — working at home or some other location outside the traditional office — was to be the wave of the future in workplaces, and it may still be.

Made possible by technology such as video conferencing and instant messaging, telecommuting had obvious advantages.

According to proponents, employees reported spending more time working and less time commuting. If they were looking after young children or aging parents, they were free of the worry of receiving a sudden distress call at the office. And some could work whatever hours they liked, the ultimate in flextime.

Employers saved on office space and workplace amenities. In some cases, productivity rose measurably. Telecommuting was quick to catch on, a function of a white-collar, knowledge-based economy whose workers weren't required to show up at a factory or a construction site.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics study last year said that 24 percent of employees reported working from home at least one day a week. A study by the Families and Work Institute, a think tank and advocate of telecommuting, said that last year 63 percent allow at least some to work from home occasionally, up from 34 percent in 2005; only 6 percent allowed all or most to work from home occasionally.

But, now, one big high-tech company, Yahoo, is rethinking the advantages of telecommuting, and other companies seem prepared to do likewise.

New CEO Marissa Mayer believes that what the company gained in productivity, it lost in innovation. She is seeking to rekindle the freewheeling spirit of creativity that made Yahoo an Internet pioneer. On Friday, disgruntled Yahoo workers leaked the company's memo ending the work-at-home policy.

The reaction from the workers was summed up in a USA Today headline: "Telecommuters to Yahoo: Boo."

The reaction may be quite different if Ms. Mayer turns around the struggling company.

In some ways, she is going back to the future. The entrepreneurial startups of Silicon Valley offered free snacks, video and other games, gyms and lounges, the idea being to make the workplace so attractive the employees wouldn't want to leave.

Indeed, one might say, much like home.

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Feb. 26

San Francisco Chronicle: "State Legislature has too many bills"

This is what passes for restraint in Sacramento: California's 120 legislators introduced fewer than 2,200 bills before Friday's constitutional deadline. It was the smallest number in a decade or more in both the Senate and Assembly.

It is still far too many for lawmakers to consider before the May deadlines for legislation to clear its house of origin.

Over the years, our editorial board has met with many legislators who are eager to share their list of bills for the session. We haven't seen any lawmaker's list that could not be sliced at least in half.

A reasonable limit of a half-dozen bills per legislator would force our elected officials to focus on real priorities. Lawmakers might not have to spend any of their valuable time thinking about whether "animal shelter" should replace the word "pound" on government documents and whether "humanely euthanized" should replace the words "killed" or "destroyed" for "surrendered" (not "unwanted") pets (Assembly Bill 1045, submitted last week by Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills).

A tightened limit also would reduce the duplication of bills on the same subject by multiple authors. It would force them to say no to some of the special interests who come knocking with ready-to-file legislation. It is no secret in the Capitol that many lobbying groups - from environmentalists to prosecutors to oil companies - actually write the bills.

In the Sacramento lexicon, the "sponsor" of the bill is the group that is pushing - and usually writing - the legislation. The legislator who introduces it is known as the "author."

The glut of legislation has a number of effects on the process, all negative. The sheer volume assures that lawmakers have at best a perfunctory understanding of most bills on which they vote. It also leads to a traffic jam at deadline times, when bills get rushed through the system as the "sponsors" and "authors" add and subtract provisions.

The other disturbing pattern of the state's legislative process is that bills get too little critical scrutiny in their houses of origin. Senators and Assembly members tend to give the benefit of the doubt to legislation by colleagues in their own house - leaving it to the other house to do the dirty work of killing or overhauling a half-baked measure.

The flood of introductions also included the usual array of "spot bills." Those placeholder bills are basically an open pallet - or "vehicle," in the Capitol vernacular - that can be completely rewritten after the legislative deadline.

Granted, there might be times when an unanticipated issue arises in the course of the session. But all too often, those "spot bills" are focused on inconsequential matters, leaving them available to strip out the language and replaced with an entirely different subject at the end of session. The practice is known as "gut and amend," and it has been used to slip through special-interest measures with little or no chance for public input.

Lawmakers like to complain about their overcrowded schedules. We have reported on the drive-through committee-hearing process in which public input has been limited to two minutes for two witnesses on each side of an issue.

The source of the madness is the number of bills. There are still far too many.

As Gov. Jerry Brown so famously declared in vetoing a batch of bills in 2011: "Not every human problem deserves a law."

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Feb. 27, 2013

The Sacramento Bee: "Big banks aid unscrupulous payday lenders"

In theory, any entity that lends money to a California resident — whether operating from a physical storefront or online — has to be licensed and follow California laws. In theory, too, the California Department of Corporations and California's attorney general can go after unlicensed lenders and shut them down. In theory.

In practice, however, as the New York Times reported on Sunday, payday lenders are setting up online operations - sometimes in foreign countries or on Indian land - to evade state laws, and are being aided by large banks.

Certainly, limits on payday lending are needed. As The Bee's editorial board has said many times, payday lending amounts to modern day usury. In California, the average payday borrower pays $450 in fees to get $255 in cash.

Other states are better. Some states limit annual interest rates to 36 percent — following the federal limit for payday loans to people in the U.S. military. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia ban payday lending altogether.

State limits are thrown to the wind, however, with unlicensed online payday lenders. That is the new frontier that state and federal regulators must address.

Unlicensed online payday lenders require borrowers to give their bank account information, so they can make automatic withdrawals from the borrower's account to pay back the loan.

The banks processing these transactions - including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase - are licensed and regulated. Regulators should aggressively pursue banks that allow unlicensed online payday lenders to plunder customer bank accounts.

The state and the federal government also should do more to educate the public. Consumers don't often know who is licensed in California. And when unlicensed online lenders take customers to court to collect on usurious loans, judges may not be aware they are dealing with an unlicensed entity — which has no right to collect on an illegal transaction.

Consumers and judges can check if a payday lender is licensed by the Department of Corporations: www.corp.ca.gov or (866) 275-2677. But that is not the same as shutting unlicensed operations down.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly Banking Committee, is holding an informational hearing on Monday to shed light on payday lending practices. That hearing should ask: What are the obstacles to shutting down unlicensed online lenders? What tools do state regulators need?

At the federal level, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has introduced legislation (S. 172) to cap payday loan interest rates, as the federal government already does for payday loans to military personnel, and close loopholes on online and offshore payday lending sites.

We should not throw up our hands and say, "Borrower beware." Online lending must be brought to heel. If traditional banks refuse to act responsibly, the Legislature and Congress should force the issue.

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Feb. 27

San Jose Mercury News: "Parolees who remove GPS trackers need to go back to jail"

A Los Angeles Times investigation has uncovered an alarming trend of state parolees removing GPS monitors and fading back into communities unsupervised — a damning revelation that demands changes in parole policies. Now. The danger is obvious and immediate.

The Times found that since October 2011 more than 3,400 arrest warrants have been issued for parolees who tampered with their state-issued GPS monitoring devices. Most of the warrants are for sex offenders, who make up the vast majority of parolees fitted with GPS devices to track their whereabouts. The implications are chilling.

The October 2011 date is significant. That's when Gov. Jerry Brown's "realignment" program began sending state parole violators to county jails instead of returning them to state prisons. It's part of the state's strategy to reduce its prison population, which it is doing under court order; overcrowding and poor health care in the insanely expensive system were an embarrassment to California. But if the new procedures are found to create real dangers to public safety, the state has to respond quickly, or we'll end up with another wild and expensive swing of the pendulum.

The parolees who disable tracking devices are gambling that state prisons are too full to take them back. It is apparently a good gamble. And, according to the Times, many counties are under their own court orders to reduce their jail populations, so they release parole violators quickly. Some counties have refused to accept parole violators in their jails at all.

In the past, sex offenders who violated parole through GPS manipulation or for any other reason would go back to prison and, pending a hearing, could stay in custody for a year. Since realignment, the maximum penalty is six months in jail, and many violators never serve that time.

That's got to change.

Realignment seemed reasonable because at least at the start, the state was providing money to the counties, which could better supervise and rehabilitate returning prisoners. Santa Clara County planned extensively for the shift, and many officials felt optimistic about the results. The GPS trend obviously was an unforeseen consequence that now has to be dealt with. It's an urgent matter of public safety just waiting for some high-profile case to bring tragedy to victims and embarrassment to state officials.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Los Angeles, has begun the debate with a bill requiring parolees who tamper with their GPS monitors to be sent back to prison for up to three years. There may be better approaches, but there's no time to waste. Now that the danger is clear, lawmakers and the governor need to act decisively in this legislative session to protect the public.

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