Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

January 29, 2014
Poll finds Californians not thrilled with Obama, health care law


As the federal health care overhaul continues to divide Californians, President Barack Obama's approval here plunged to a record low, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California.

The president's job approval dropped to 46 percent among likely voters while state residents gave a collective shrug to the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislative achievement. Some 46 percent view the law unfavorably, 44 percent favorably.

Still, a large majority of residents say they plan to comply with the law, which requires nearly everyone to obtain insurance coverage or pay a penalty. Among the uninsured, 72 percent say they plan to acquire health insurance this year, 18 percent indicate they will not, and 9 percent remain unsure. Among those covered, 6 percent obtained it on their own, with the remainder receiving it from another source, such as their employer.

Despite California's comparatively smooth roll-out, fewer than half of the state's adult residents believe their online marketplace is working well, with the uninsured more likely to say it's not working (50 percent) than those with health care coverage (36 percent).

Covered California has struggled to attract certain demographics, namely young people and Latinos. Among racial and ethnic groups, African Americans (62 percent) were more likely than Latinos (52 percent), Asians (45 percent) and whites (39 percent) to say the program is working well.

The health care act is expected to play prominently in the midterm elections, where Republicans are harnessing disapproval for the law to retain their House majority and possibly regain control of the U.S. Senate.

While slightly more than half of the state's adults approve of their own congressional representative, likely voters are more divided: 48 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer draw the approval of 49 percent and 48 percent of likely voters, respectively.

Californians' faith in a year of action described by Obama in his State of the Union Address Tuesday appears low. Roughly 60 percent believe Obama and Congress will not be unable to work together to accomplish a lot. At the time of Obama's inauguration, more than 80 percent believed there would be successful collaboration between the executive and legislative branches.

The survey, conducted with funding from The James Irvine Foundation, is based on interviews with 1,706 adult residents from Jan. 14 to Jan. 21. The margin of error is 3.8 percent to 4.6 percent in either direction.

January 29, 2014
Barack Obama calls Jerry Brown for drought update

OBAMA.jpgPresident Barack Obama called Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday to discuss California's drought, as the governor prepares to meet Thursday with water officials in Los Angeles.

The White House said in a release that Obama called Brown "to receive an update on the situation in California and express his concern for the citizens impacted by the historic drought conditions facing the state - conditions that are likely to have significant impacts on the state's communities, economy and environment in the coming months."

Brown's office said the governor will meet privately "with more than a dozen water leaders from across Southern California" on Thursday. The Democratic governor announced a state of emergency earlier this month and urged Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent.

California is suffering through dry conditions for a third straight year, depleting reservoirs and leaving streams and rivers running low.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated parts of California as primary natural disaster areas due to the drought. The designation makes certain farmers eligible for low-interest emergency loans to cover losses.

Among other measures, the White House said Wednesday that the Department of Agriculture is working with farmers and ranchers to "increase their irrigation water efficiency, protect vulnerable soils from erosion, and improve the health of pasture and range lands."

PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks about the new health care law during a White House Youth Summit, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster

January 29, 2014
California sees sharp drop in school expulsions, suspensions

willful.JPGA campaign by civil rights groups and their political supporters to reduce suspensions and expulsion of public school students due to their disproportionate effect on black and Latino youngsters may be paying off.

The state Department of Education reported Thursday that there were sharp drops of both kinds of disciplinary actions during the 2012-13 school year - 14.1 percent in the former and 12.3 percent in the latter - from the previous year.

State schools chief Tom Torlakson hailed the trend, saying in a statement, "Educators across California work hard to keep students in school and learning. It can be a challenge to find the balance between maintaining a safe learning environment and giving young people the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. But we're working with schools and districts throughout the state to do exactly that."

While the declines were similar among all ethnic groups, black and Latino students still had suspension rates higher than their proportions of the state's six million K-12 students, while those of white and Asian students were lower.

Critics have said that school officials are too quick to rid themselves of troublesome students, often by citing "willful defiance" as the cause, and have pushed legislation to make such discipline more difficult. "Willful defiance" suspensions dropped 23.8 percent in 2012-13 while expulsions for that rationale declined by 18.6 percent.

Overall, suspensions decreased from 709,596 to 609,471 and expulsions from 9,758 to 8,562.

A bill making it more difficult to expel students for willful defiance, Assembly Bill 420, cleared the Assembly last year and is pending in the Senate. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed two bills on the topic in 2012.

PHOTO: Actors Marcenus Earl as Principal Burton, left, and Donald Calhoun as Thomas play out a scene from a production called, "Willfull" in a hearing room at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. The people in the play are students, community members and actors who are supposed to have had personal experience with harsh discipline. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton

January 29, 2014
CSU chancellor tackles California's expected degree shortage

Timothy_White.jpgDelivering his first "State of the CSU" address Wednesday morning, California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White said the system would focus on closing the state's expected degree shortage over the next decade.

Speaking at the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach, White said that California's economy will need 1 million more college graduates by 2025, a rate of degree production about 40 percent higher than current levels.

"That outcome weighs heavily on our shoulders," White said, noting that CSU grants nearly half of the bachelor's degrees handed out each year in California.

White announced a $50 million project designed to boost graduation rates over the next ten years by 10 percent among undergraduates who started at CSU and 5 percent among community college transfers. (The current six-year graduation rates for those groups are 51.4 percent and 71.6 percent, respectively, according to the chancellor's office.)

Though light on specifics, he said the plan would invest in seven key areas to "advance student achievement and high-quality degree completion," including increasing the number of tenure-track faculty rather than relying on adjunct professors, offering more cross-campus online courses to deal with bottleneck scheduling and bolstering the Associate Degree for Transfer program at the community colleges.

"We care about the public good of the university through the success of our alumni and our overall economic and social impact," White said. "For us to meet our state's projected workforce need and grow the state's economy, it requires all of us to work together."

PHOTO: California State University Chancellor Timothy White speaks during the University of California, Riverside commencement ceremony on June 12, 2011. Riverside Press-Enterprise/Stan Lim

January 29, 2014
Consumer Watchdog clashes with Dave Jones over auto insurance

davejones.JPGAutomobile insurance companies would be banned from using motorists' occupation and education levels in establishing customer premiums under a rule change sought by consumer advocates Wednesday.

Consumer Watchdog formally requested that California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, the auto insurance industry's chief regulator, bar companies from engaging in the practice.

The so-called "affinity groups" -- including lawyers, doctors and college graduates -- are getting special premium benefits from the insurance companies at the expense of others, Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield said from Los Angeles.

"It's middle-income and low-income people, who don't have fancy jobs and didn't get a fancy education, who end up subsidizing the rich folks who get these special breaks," Rosenfield said.

The case pits the state's preeminent consumer groups against one of their staunchest political allies. Consumer Watchdog and Jones have teamed up on a November ballot measure to give insurance commissioners the authority to regulate proposed health insurance rate hikes.

Insurance commissioners already have rate authority over auto, property and casualty insurance based on 1988's Proposition 103 written by Rosenfield. On Wednesday, he said the group's only recourse should Jones refuse to take up its request is to take legal action against his department.

Jones' Department of Insurance issued a statement saying it would consider the petition once it is received. The department noted that in several previous rate applications, Consumer Watchdog agreed to settlements that included affinity groups "and are aware that no group subsidizes any other group."

In December, Jones allowed Allstate Insurance Company to use occupation and education level in establishing auto insurance rates.

"After a public hearing in which Consumer Watchdog was given the opportunity to present its arguments to an administrative law judge, the judge upheld the settlement allowing Allstate to have separate rates for affinity groups and found that the settlement was fundamentally fair, adequate, and reasonable," the insurance department said in its statement.

The agreement called for the company to institute an overall .2 percent rate reduction rather than the originally proposed 6.1 percent rate increase.

Consumer Watchdog then filed a request for reconsideration with Jones' office. The group argued that allowing the affinity groups was unfairly discriminatory and constituted ratings factors that were never adopted by regulation and violate the insurance code.

PHOTO: Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones speaks at a candidates forum at Sac State organized by the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association in 2010. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

January 29, 2014
Drone, commercial space flight bills passed by Assembly


The transformative potential of new aerospace technologies repeatedly became the focus of debate for the California Assembly on Wednesday.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed bills to cultivate California's burgeoning private spaceflight industry and to give more clarity to local agencies hoping to use unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, commonly referred to as drones.

"The right answer is to embrace this technology because it is the future," said Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, after noting that other states have weighed outright bans on drones.

Assembly Bill 1327, sponsored by Gorell and two others, establishes the situations in which sheriff departments and state agencies can deploy drones. Law enforcement could use drones to monitor parks and forest fires without a warrant, for example, and non-law enforcement entities could obtain and use drones as long as they notify the public.

"Drones are going to be extremely important for hot pursuit, which is allowed in this bill, for search and rescue and, when you get a warrant, for continuous surveillance" of a location, said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, a joint author.

The bill also addresses some of the privacy concerns spurred by the increasing prevalence of unmanned systems by requiring agencies to destroy drone-collected data within six months if it is not part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation. It would ban weaponized drones.

A separate measure by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, would codify a ten-year tax break for properties used by the private space flight industry.

"With this bill California can grow and permanently establish this exciting new industry in our state," Muratsuchi said.

While members from both parties overwhelmingly backed Muratsuchi's bill, it drew criticism from Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who warned about enshrining a tax break that could become difficult to dislodge.

A former San Francisco assessor-recorder, Ting referenced California's 1972 decision to offer tax relief to the then-nascent software industry, a decision Ting says has come back to haunt policymakers. He noted that removing tax exemptions require a two-thirds majority.

"I'm not saying that we shouldn't help SpaceX or the space industry," Ting said, referencing a Hawthorne-based firm, but he warned about setting a precedent in which "we'll be back here for some other giveaway for some other industry."

PHOTO: The Yamaha RMAX remote controlled helicopter sprays water over a vineyard at UC Davis' Oakville station in Oakville on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/ Randall Benton.

January 29, 2014
Jerry Brown names Michael Picker to California Public Utilities Commission

Picker.JPGGov. Jerry Brown has appointed Michael Picker, a senior adviser to the governor on renewable energy, to the powerful California Public Utilities Commission, Brown's office announced Wednesday.

Picker, of Sacramento, will resign his position with the administration before joining the regulatory board, Brown's office said. He will also resign from his seat on the Sacramento Municipal Utility District board, which he won in 2012, the administration said.

Picker, 62, was chief of staff to former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr. in the 1990s and worked as an adviser to both Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Like Brown, Picker is a Democrat. He will fill the vacancy left when former Commissioner Mark Ferron announced his resignation due to health reasons earlier this month.

The position requires Senate confirmation. It pays $131,952 a year.

PHOTO: Michael Picker, 2012. Courtesy Michael Picker.

January 29, 2014
California Supreme Court moves high-speed rail request to lower court

HSRail.jpgThe California Supreme Court, which had been asked by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration to intervene in litigation challenging California's high-speed rail project, referred the case to a lower court Wednesday and ordered its expedited review.

The court transferred the case to the 3rd District Court of Appeal and ordered both sides to submit filings by Feb. 10.

The action comes after a Sacramento Superior Court judge in November ordered the California High-Speed Rail Authority to rescind its original funding plan for the $68 billion project. The court found the plan failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved the project in 2008.

The Brown administration said in an appeal to the Supreme Court on Friday that lower court rulings "imperil" the project, threatening state and federal funding.

The troubled project is proposed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project has been delayed, with state officials now hoping to begin construction in the Central Valley this year.

PHOTO: A view of a high speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network. Rendering by Newlands and Company Inc.

January 29, 2014
Conservative Ron Unz pushing to increase California minimum wage

UNZ.JPGAfter a decade away from politics, Republican Ron Unz is plotting his return to the campaign trail.

Unz, the multimillionaire former gubernatorial candidate, credits as the inspiration for his comeback an unlikely figure: former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Then a Democratic state senator, Solis was the public face of a 1996 ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $5.75 an hour. Despite closely following a federal increase, the California measure passed with 61 percent of the vote.

"The numbers were so strong there really wasn't any opposition," Unz recalled in an interview.

Now, he's working to qualify a ballot measure of his own to lift the minimum wage to $10 per hour in March 2015 and $12 per hour a year later. The minimum wage is set to increase from $8 an hour to $9 an hour on July 1, and to $10 by 2016, under a bill signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Unz characterized his more rapid timeline as a win for taxpayers.

"What we are seeing is the classic case of businesses privatizing the benefits of their low-wage workforces and socializing the costs," he said.

His push comes amid renewed focus by both major political parties on income inequality ahead of the midterm elections for Congress. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama through an executive order said he would raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour -- "because if you cook for our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty," he said in his State of the Union Address.

Obama said he would continue to urge Congress to extend the hike to all workers, arguing that the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan made the first of several annual addresses as president.

January 29, 2014
Assembly Democrats urge California teacher retirement fix

Bonta.JPGWith California facing a massive teacher pension shortfall, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, unveiled an effort Wednesday he hopes would fully fund the system.

An influx of revenue has allowed California to emerge from years of yawning deficits and protracted budget fights, and the pressure is mounting for the state to do something about an avalanche of liabilities that runs into the hundreds of billions.

Of those looming obligations, a substantial chunk comes from the gap between how much the California State Teachers Retirement System takes in and how much it will owe retired educators. Gov. Jerry Brown estimated in his budget this year that the liability has grown to $80.4 billion and would require a $4.5 billion annual infusion to balance the books.

"While we know our revenues will fluctuate up and down, our long-term liabilities are enormous and ever growing," Brown said in his State of the State speech earlier this month.

Pérez calculates the liability at $71 billion, somewhat lower than Brown. And on Wednesday, the speaker called for a plan that potentially includes increased contributions from all three contributors to the system -- the state, school districts and individual teachers.

"Further delays only mean further costs and further exposure for the state's General Fund," Pérez said. "The fix," he added, "must begin this year."

The process will likely get underway with a February hearing, said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, chair of the Assembly Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee.

"Since the contribution rates for CalSTRS are set by the Legislature and not the retirement board," as is the case with the California Public Employees Retirement System, "it is the responsibility of the governor and the Legislature to determine the best way to address the funding shortfall," Bonta said.

Regardless of how contributions from teachers and districts might change, Pérez said, California retains an obligation to support the retirement fund,

"The state created this fund in the first place," Pérez said, adding that "for us to suggest that we back out at this point would create an undue toll on those other funding sources.

PHOTO: Assemblyman Rob Bonta D-Alameda, in Assembly chambers in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, March 11, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

January 29, 2014
AM Alert: Assembly Dems talk about unfunded teacher pensions

CalSTRS_building.JPGGov. Jerry Brown's "Wall of Debt" doesn't include a big brick known as unfunded teacher pensions. Obligations to current and future retirees total $80.4 billion more than the California State Teachers' Retirement System has assets to cover.

Brown's budget summary earlier this month promised that his administration would begin working with the Legislature, teachers and CalSTRS to create a plan that would fully fund the pension system within 30 years. That will require at least $4.5 billion per year--and much more as the obligations continue to grow.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, take a first stab today during a news conference at 10 a.m. in Room 317 of the State Capitol. Pérez and Bonta, chair of the public employees, retirement and social security committee, will discuss ideas on how to address CalSTRS' unfunded liability.

VIDEO: If state Sen. Rod Wright loses his seat after being convicted of voter fraud, it will be a huge loss to the Legislature, Dan Walters says.

SOCAL CHRONICLES: Gov. Brown swings south today, attending the California State University Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach before heading over to Beverly Hills to deliver remarks at a dinner hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

Speaking of the CSU, Chancellor Timothy P. White will deliver his first "State of the CSU" address at 11 a.m., sharing system-wide policy priorities and his vision for the next school year. The speech will be webcast.

ADULT ED HEARING: The Senate Education and Assembly Higher Education committees will hold a joint informational hearing on adult education, covering its recently history, current landscape and unmet needs in both community college and K-12 districts. Representatives from the California Department of Education, the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and the Legislative Analyst's Office, among others, are scheduled to testify at the 9 a.m. hearing in Room 4203 at the Capitol.

FREE CLINIC: As the flu season kicks into high gear, Anthem Blue Cross is sponsoring a free flu vaccine clinic in Room 127 of the State Capitol from noon to 4 p.m. The shots are available to the general public.

PHOTO: A bicyclist keeps her sweater handy with dark clouds looming as she rides in the shadow of the CalSTRS headquarters building on Riverwalk Park in West Sacramento on September 30, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Manny Crisostomo

January 29, 2014
Dan Walters Daily: Rod Wright's conviction could be blow to state Senate

Rod_Wright.JPGIf state Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, loses his seat after being convicted of perjury and voter fraud, it would be a major loss of knowledge and common sense, Dan says.

Have a question you'd like Dan to answer? Post it on our Facebook page.

See other Dan Walters Daily clips here.

PHOTO: Senator Rod Wright, D-Inglewood listens to the vote on the budget plan on Feb. 18, 2009. The Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer


Capitol Alert Staff

Amy Chance Amy Chance is political editor for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @Amy_Chance

Dan Smith Dan Smith is Capitol bureau chief for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @DanielSnowSmith

Jim Miller Jim Miller covers California policy and politics and edits Capitol Alert. Twitter: @jimmiller2

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. Twitter: @davidsiders

Christopher Cadelago Christopher Cadelago covers California politics and health care. Twitter: @ccadelago

Laurel Rosenhall Laurel Rosenhall covers the Legislature, the lobbying community and higher education. Twitter: @LaurelRosenhall

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers the Legislature. Twitter: @capitolalert

Koseff Alexei Koseff edits Capitol Alert's mobile Insider Edition. Twitter: @akoseff

Dan Walters Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @WaltersBee

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