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Daniel Weintraub

California Insider

A Weblog by
Sacramento Bee Columnist Daniel Weintraub

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« February 2005 | | April 2005 »
March 30, 2005

Confirmation

Bruce McPherson has been confirmed by the state Assembly as California's new Secretary of State.

Posted by dweintraub at 2:28 PM



March 28, 2005

California on the Cusp

The next piece in California on the Cusp, my series on the future of California, will focus on education. I'm trying to assess the conditions of public education today, look down the road to see what's coming, demographically speaking, and explore novel ideas for improving the schools. If you have any ideas on any of these topics, please email me at dweintraub@sacbee.com.

Thanks!

Posted by dweintraub at 11:33 AM



March 24, 2005

Angry nurses

780-nurse.jpg

I've got no problem with a healthy debate about nurses' salaries and benefits, and I've said before that I wouldn't want the job for twice what we're paying them now. But do we really need people making $70,000 a year screaming in rage in the streets, demanding that their fellow citizens, almost all of whom make less than that, pay more of their taxes to raise the salaries of nurses in public hospitals?

The protest the other day at UC Davis also featured an attack on Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to change the pension system for public employees. I understand why low-wage clerks with little education might fear for their retirement security when considering the proposal. But I don't get why highly trained people earning $70,000 a year insist on being treated like children when it comes to managing their money.

A nurse making $70,000 today who opts into the governor's plan, deposits the maximum 6 percent, gets annual raises averaging 3 percent, and earns an average of 8 percent on his money would retire in 20 years with more than $500,000 in his investment fund. And that's before Social Security, and it assumes that the nurse saved nothing before this point. A nurse who's already worked 10 years, moving up from say $50,000 to $70,000, and saved all along, would probably have a nest egg in the range of $1 million after 30 years on the job.

Sure, the proposal is worth arguing over, and I guess some people don't want to manage their own money no matter how big the upside might be. But public protests over this? Strange.

Posted by dweintraub at 3:27 PM



Pensions and wages

Today's column provides a little background on San Diego County's expensive, debt-ridden pension plan, which its managers have held up as an example of the superiority of defined benefit programs versus defined contribution plans.

One interesting item I came across in my research but didn't fit into the column:

Since San Diego County increased pension benefits by 25 percent to 35 percent three years ago, the average salary of county employees has climbed by 23 percent.

Doesn't this call into question the argument that sweet pensions are necessary to make up for the lack of competitive salaries in the public sector? If pensions and wages were a trade-off, you wouldn't expect to see them both soaring at the same time.

Posted by dweintraub at 6:47 AM



March 23, 2005

Government employees v. gov

The California State Employees Assn. has helped launch a series of radio ads blasting Schwarzenegger for seeking to change public employee pensions from a defined benefit plan to the kind of defined contribution plan increasingly common in the private sector. The union is also rallying its members to inundate the governor's office with phone calls protesting his plan. They also plan to collect "nest egg" stories about what public employees plan to do when they retire, though this is odd since a generous 401(k)-style plan like the one the governor is proposing could actually provide more of a nest egg than the current defined benefit plan. Anyway, the union's aggressive posture on this issue should help frame it for the public.

Posted by dweintraub at 7:40 AM



March 22, 2005

Fiscal conservatives v. governor

Conservative author William Saracino rips Schwarzenegger -- and his advisers -- for endorsing a modest spending control measure rather than a more far-reaching proposal that would have limited the growth in government as a share of the economy over time. Saracino suggests that perhaps the governor was hoodwinked by his advisers into endorsing the plan without really knowing what was in it. But I doubt it. The governor has made it clear for more than a year that he wants a measure that will require a balanced budget and help prevent deficits. He has not said he wants to shrink government. In fact, he has said often that he wants to get the economy rolling again so that the economic growth will generate more taxes to fund programs that he and his allies support.

Posted by dweintraub at 4:23 PM



Good idea, bad approach

The trend toward people "spending down" their assets in order to qualify for subsidized long-term care is a big problem that's only going to get bigger. I love the fact that the state is moving against it. But I don't understand why, once again, the Schwarzenegger Administration is trying to tackle a problem with emergency regulations, which not only circumvent public comment but give opponents a chance to focus on the process rather than on the substance of the issue.

Posted by dweintraub at 3:06 PM



Investigate gov, not newsies

I'm no fan of the phony news stories the governor has produced to promote his agenda, but much, much worse, I fear, would be a government investigation of the news judgment of local broadcasters who aired the pieces. And that's exactly what the Assembly speaker is calling for in his latest attempt to make political hay out of Schwarzenegger's public relations practices. I would rather stomach 100 fake news stories from the governor than one federal probe into how news outlets go about their business.

Posted by dweintraub at 2:58 PM



February revenues down

State revenues in February were $389 million below the forecast for the month, mainly because personal income tax and sales tax revenues slipped below projections. For the fiscal year, revenues are still $359 million above what was projected in the governor's January budget proposal. The full report is here.

Posted by dweintraub at 2:50 PM



March 21, 2005

Tag team

The California Nurses Assn. and the California Teachers Assn. have teamed up on a new radio ad hitting the gov for describing them as "special interests" even as he raises millions from big business. More here, at the CTA Web site.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:12 PM



Exit exam

This story from the Chronicle suggests that a new research report backs the case of thousands of disabled students who are suing to prevent the state from fully implementing its high school exit exam for the class of 2006. The argument is that students with disabilities cannot pass the test and thus should not be denied a diploma.

I don't doubt that there are students who, no matter what they do, no matter what the schools do, cannot pass the test. But I also note that the disabled category includes, among others, students who are blind, dyslexic or have "emotional problems." I think you can see where this is heading. If we exclude students with emotional problems from the test, students with attention deficit disorder will surely also be excused, and why not just students who simply, for whatever reason, are not able to learn? Soon the whole thing becomes circular: you can't deny a diploma to anybody who hasn't learned the material, thus you have to give a diploma to all. The funny thing is that if you give a diploma to everyone, the diploma means nothing, which means it ought not be a problem to deny it to someone, and around and around we go.

Maybe it would be easier to just hand out diplomas to every student who attends school for 12 years, and add a designation for those students who actually learn the material that we, through our representatives, have decided every student should master before leaving high school.

Posted by dweintraub at 7:02 AM



March 20, 2005

Immigration futures

image002.jpg

This graphic (View full image here),
based on data crunched by USC's California Demographic Futures project, captures the theme of my Sunday column today, which explores the future for immigrants, their children and grandchildren in California. Challenges abound, but the news might be better than you think. See the whole piece here. It's the first in a series I will be doing throughout the year on the future of California.

Posted by dweintraub at 9:28 AM



March 18, 2005

$54 million and fight?

Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency, who usually has his finger correctly on the pulse of the California Teachers Assn., says the CTA plans a dues surcharge and other moves to raise $54 million to fight Schwarzenegger's initiatives.

Posted by dweintraub at 3:37 PM



State adds 27,000 jobs

The state's unemployment rate was unchanged in February at 5.8 percent as California added about 27,000 jobs, says the EDD. The release is here.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:52 PM



March 17, 2005

Brown on the OSA

Jerry Brown, on his blog, touts the success of the the Oakland School for the Arts, a relatively new charter school that is scoring high on the state's performance index.

Posted by dweintraub at 4:41 PM



Gov airs ad on ed funding

Schwarzenegger is on the air (including on March Madness) with a television ad defending his education budget. Three teachers say they're disappointed in the union's attacks and they point out that the governor is proposing a $3 billion boost. Then Schwarzenegger appears and says he's giving half the state budget to schools, he just wants to make sure the money gets to the classroom.

You can view the ad at the Republican Party website.

Posted by dweintraub at 12:00 PM



March 16, 2005

"The Governator"

Jamie Court and friends at ArnoldWatch.org, the people behind the traveling protests that are dogging Schwarzenegger wherever he goes, provide this link to a slick new rap song that rips the gov for his relationship with his own very special interests.

Among the lyrics:

"I said I don't take money cause I'm plenty rich/ I didn't mean it -- it was just a campaign pitch/ And if you want me, I'll be waiting for your next donation... (All hail the Governator!) You want to feel my muscles? Write me another check."


Posted by dweintraub at 4:22 PM



Confrontation, or compromise?

With the announcement by the "Citizens Committee" that it will be backing a moderate budget reform measure rather than a strict spending limit -- and the governor's parallel announcement that he will do the same -- Schwarzenegger's policy agenda for 2005 is finally coming into clearer view. And as it does, I still think there is a decent chance that he and legislative leaders will ultimately reach agreement on a compromise package of measures to go before the voters, either this year or next. I'm not saying it will happen. But I definitely think it could. Why?

Look at the issues one by one, and the differences between Schwarzenegger and the Democrats:

--Redistricting. There already appears to be a consensus that giving the job to an independent commission is ok. The question is over the timing. Schwarzengger wants to do it now, while the Democrats (and Republicans in Congress) want to wait until after the next census. But Schwarzenegger also knows that it will be very difficult to get the job done before the 2006 elections. If he has to wait until 2008, maybe waiting until 2012 won't seem that much worse. He can bank that solid reform and leave it as a legacy.

--Budget. The governor's latest proposal employs a revenue averaging mechanism that seeks to smooth spending over time but does not actually limit spending. All the revenue that comes in can eventually be spent, just not until it is clearly part of the ongoing revenue base. The proposal also gives the governor new powers to cut spending when revenues fall short in the middle of a fiscal year, which will be controversial but, in practice, probably rarely used. Finally, the measure states that when a budget is not passed by July 1, the current budget is continued until a new one is adopted.

Beyond that, the measure would return Proposition 98's protections for schools to a format similar to the way they were in the original proposition, before it was amended when voters passed a gas tax increase in 1990. That means there would be no "borrowing" and payback from the guarantee in bad years, unless the guarantee was suspended altogether. And in good years, when the Legislature votes to give the schools more than the minimum guarantee, that money would not be built into the base for future years.

There are more details, but none of this seems beyond the pale, so deeply partisan that a compromise could not be reached. The biggest problem from a partisan perspective probably involves the late-budget provisions, since they would appear to give Republicans an incentive to walk away from the table and force the state to live for an indefinite period with the last budget adopted. The move to overhaul Prop. 98 will also be contentious, though Senate Leader Don Perata has expressed an interest in doing something similar. And on the bigger issues of smoothing out the revenue, building reserves and adopting mid-year corrections, surely there is basis for agreement here.

--Education. For now Schwarzenegger is backing two measures to limit tenure and promote merit pay for teachers. But this field still seems wide open and, as I wrote earlier this week, the governor and Perata have both been talking a lot about promoting local control in education and getting the state out of the business of micro-managing the schools. Seems like there is potential for agreement there, for something far more significant than tinkering with the way teachers are paid.

--Pensions. Probably the most difficult issue to resolve. But at least a handful of Republicans have been reaching out to Democrats with the idea of a hybrid plan for new employees that would combine a basic defined-benefit plan with an optional 401 (k)-style plan on top of it. Unless Democrats are going to simply refuse to talk about this issue, that would seem to be a reasonable starting point for discussion.

So, all in all, despite the bombast, the charges and countercharges, I still think there is room for agreement here, if the parties are willing.

Posted by dweintraub at 4:08 PM



Biz group picks spending measure

The "Citizens" committee -- the business-backed allies of Gov. Schwarzenegger -- is set to announce this morning that it will endorse a budget process proposal that seeks to smooth out revenue fluctuations and would give the governor more power to cut spending when revenues fall short. The committee has rejected a more stringent spending limit that would have limited the growth in government to inflation plus population growth.

Posted by dweintraub at 6:43 AM



March 15, 2005

The anti-Arnold

philangelides.jpg

Treasurer Phil Angelides, wife and daughters. At his campaign kickoff, Angelides was introduced by a video featuring his daughters in a presentation eerily reminiscent of the Kerry clan. It had everything but the drowning hamster. It was sweet, but it would be nice if we'd drop this expectation that every candidate's kids have to be a public part of their campaign.


Just back from watching my neighbor, Treasurer Phil Angelides, kick off his campaign for governor in the auditorium of the elementary school he attended a few blocks from my home. If Angelides can win the Democratic nomination, and that’s still a big if, he would be a worthy opponent for Schwarzenegger, assuming Schwarzenegger decides to run for reelection next year.

Angelides is smart, driven, and, at his best, inspirational. Today he also showed that he’s prepared to be a street-fighter, dishing out personal insults every bit as biting as the governor he accused of being so mean-spirited.

Even in telling his personal bio, Angelides took a shot at Schwarzenegger. Angelides said his own father didn’t attend the University of California to “glorify himself.” His parents, he said, didn’t work all their lives “to drive fancy cars or see their names on a marquee.”

“We have a governor,” Angelides said, “who thinks it’s fine to cut assistance to children, to the poor – that somehow, if we just shower more fortune on the fortunate, the crumbs will reach the rest, like the leftovers of a Hollywood dinner party.” Schwarzenegger, Angelides said, believes that life is like an “athletic endurance contest, where only the strong should survive, where we just lavish more on those who have the most.”

Former Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, who introduced the candidate, said Angelides had “the guts” to level with the California people and tell them that we have to pay for what we want. I wouldn’t say the treasurer exactly did that, mentioning tax loopholes once and another time hitting Schwarzenegger for not asking “the most fortunate among us to shoulder one ounce of budgetary burden.” Afterward, in a brief encounter with the press, Angelides ducked my question on how much more revenue the state budget needs, but did make a reference to former Govs. Reagan and Wilson, suggesting that he believes the state’s budget gap should be closed in part by raising taxes on the wealthy.

But Angelides also proposed offering free pre-school to all four-year-olds, an idea that would add another $2 billion to the budget. If he is to close the gap without the cuts Schwarzenegger has proposed, without the borrowing he deplores and while expanding pre-school, he is going to need many billions more than can be found by restoring the higher top rates on the income tax that Wilson put in place temporarily during the 1990s.

Despite the harsh words, despite the vivid personal differences, I am not sure Angelides and Schwarzenegger are that far apart on policy, on their vision for the future of the state. Angelides clearly supports higher taxes and more government, but I suspect, when it comes down to it, he will embrace at most a few billion in tax increases in a trillion-dollar economy and a $100 billion budget. Is that really the difference between someone who favors the most fortunate and someone who cares about the poor, between someone who would tear apart the state and someone who claims to want to build it? What if, as happened with Wilson, you raise the tax rates and the money doesn’t come in as you expect it to? Does that make you mean-spirited toward both the rich and the poor?

I’ll have more on this potential race in my Thursday column.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:24 PM



Registration coming

As many of you have probably noticed, the Sacramento Bee is phasing in an online registration system. The California Insider goes behind the wall on Wednesday. Please register if you want to continue reading my dispatches.

Posted by dweintraub at 11:01 AM



March 14, 2005

CTA launches TV ads

Upping the volume on its campaign against Schwarzenegger, the California Teachers Assn. is launching a new series of radio and television ads attacking him for going back on a pledge not to tinker with Proposition 98 again after the schools gave up $2 billion in anticipated funding a year ago.

Posted by dweintraub at 3:21 PM



Angelides unveiled

Democrat Phil Angelides kicks off his campaign for governor with a three-city tour Tuesday, stopping in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Then he does nine more stops by the end of the week.

Posted by dweintraub at 2:16 PM



Court strikes down gay marriage ban

A San Francisco Superior Court judge has found the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. Full story here.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:40 PM



Pension reform ideas

Some pretty good ideas from a reader on a possible route to compromise over public pensions:

I strongly believe that, whether in the Legislature or through the initiative process, the pension reform proposals will fail, especially because no one wants to mess with widows and children of police officers and firefighters. However, there is one place where it might succeed: at the bargaining table. Here are some things that unions and the administration might agree upon, as a compromise: (1) For the first 6 months after a new employee is hired following July 2007, a new employee would not be entitled to any benefits whatsoever. Prior to the expiration of the initial 90 days, a new employee shall make an irrevocable election to either join a defined benefit plan or enroll in a 401k plan. At any time prior to July 2007 all existing employees may make an irrevocable election to transfer to a 401k plan retirement plan. In exchange, DPA drops its demand that employees pay more toward retirement. This way, the State still achieves some short and long term savings. (2) State employees shall give up two state holidays and agree that any hours of vacation leave accumulated after a contract is approved shall be paid, upon termination from state employment at 50 percent of their value. Any hours accrued prior to the date of contract approval shall still be paid out at 100 percent. In exchange, employees are allowed to continue to accrue vacation leave beyond the contemplated 640 hours. The State saves money in the long run. (3) Instead of a fixed percentage of health premium contributions, there shall be an agreement to a fixed dollar amount. However, employees shall be entitled to "longevity pay" whereby the State contributes $25 for employees with 10 years with the State, $50 for 15 years, $75 for 20 years and $100 for 25+ years. (4) State employees shall have the right to use accrued or ongoing vacation and sick leave hours to pay for a portion or all of their share of health premiums. Given item #2, it might be beneficial for state employees to use their leave for this purpose than to accrue leave credits. (5) The State shall reimburse all state employees for a gym membership. I am joking with respect to this item, but it's probably the one item with which the Governor might go along without blinking an eye. These are all items that have a win-win outcome. There are probably more items which can be negotiated. Even if only one of the 21 unions agrees to such reforms, it might give the Governor one of 2 benefits: (1) traction with the other 20 unions or (2) political capital to regain a foothold with voters and/or legislators. Obviously, the one union that folds first would have to be one which is in current contract negotiations and one that has not joined the coalition fighting the Governor against the pension initiative.

Posted by dweintraub at 11:28 AM



March 11, 2005

GOP cat fight? Nope

Congressional Republicans have title and summary on a redistricting initiative that exempts them -- but not the Legislature -- from its provisions until after the 2010 census, but at this point they do not intend to circulate it as an alternative to the Ted Costa initiative backed by Schwarzenegger. So says their political consultant, David Gilliard.

If they'd been smart and slightly sneaky, they would have at least started collecting signatures, giving Schwarzeneggere a foil at which to rail and boost his bipartisan cred.

Courtesy of Atty. Gen Bill Lockyer, the initiative's title is "Reapportioning Election Districts. Congressional Exemption."

Would that have been a big fat target, or what?

Posted by dweintraub at 11:17 AM



March 10, 2005

No pain, no gain

I was talking this week with a Republican strategist who worries that Schwarzenegger may be risking too much with his ballot gambit, and he suggested that instead of taking his agenda directly to the voters, the governor should have spent this year pushing his proposals in the Legislature while promoting them vigorously in public with appearances around the state.

That’s a common sentiment (more common among Democrats than Republicans), but it misses a crucial point: the strategy would have almost certainly failed. Without the threat of initiatives going to the ballot, Democrats in the Legislature would never have dealt with Schwarzenegger about the issues he is pressing now. Instead, he would have pushed and pushed and come up empty. At that point, he would have been portrayed in the press as a failure. And his numbers with the public would likely have eroded further.

So, yes, the risk of catastrophic failure is there with the ballot gambit. But without it you would have almost certainly had incremental, grinding failure. At least with this strategy Schwarzenegger also has the chance for spectacular success. And there still remains the possibility that, when the pressure builds, we’ll see some last-minute deals with the Legislature.


Posted by dweintraub at 9:05 AM



March 9, 2005

Phil dips a toe in

The Times reports that Treasurer Phil Angelides is preparing to announce that he will be a candidate for governor in 2006. That he is running will surprise no one. That he is jumping in so soon is a bit unusual. You can read the full story here if you are registered and don't mind The Times' pop-up ad bombardment.

Posted by dweintraub at 10:08 AM



Inside advantage?

From The Mercury News:

Two top campaign consultants who helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor by casting him as a political reformer are taking new steps to profit from their ties to the administration.

One year after the Republican governor sought to create a firewall between his administration and his political team, Schwarzenegger advisers George Gorton and Bob White have launched new Sacramento lobbying operations designed to influence state policy.

Read the full story herehere, if you're a registered reader of the Mercury News. The story notes, among other things, that Schwarzenegger supports legislation that would prevent the firms from lobbying the administration.

Posted by dweintraub at 10:04 AM



March 8, 2005

Widows and orphans and more

For a sneak preview of what a campaign against Schwarzenegger's pension initiative might look like, see this pdf file of a flyer circulated by the California State Employees Association to its members.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:49 PM



Fortune to head schools effort

In a smart move, Schwarzenegger has named Margaret Fortune to oversee his awkwardly named Initiative to Turn Around Failing Schools in the Office of the Secretary of Education. Fortune was a force behind former NBA star Kevin Johnson's controversial move to turn Sacramento High School into a charter school. She is savvy and tough and creative. A very good fit for the job.

Posted by dweintraub at 10:07 AM



March 7, 2005

Exit exam debate

My exit exam correspondent -- Professor Jill Kerper Mora at San Diego State (my alma mater) -- responds to my sniping with a further defense of her position. Here it is in full, followed by my additional comments:

It's not as simple as whether or not a high school student speaks English. The question here is whether or not a test in English accurately and fairly measures his or her knowledge and ability to do math or read and write English at a tenth grade level. For example, the CELDT results tell us that 47% of our English Learners are at the early advanced or advanced level of English proficiency. Technically these students "speak English." However, these students may not be able to pass the HSEE because their academic English is not developed to the level of a 10th grade native English speaker, the linguistic ability required to pass the test. This student may speak English almost as well as his or her native English speaking peers and may read and write English at a 4th-6th grade level, which is certainly enough to "survive" in our society and be gainfully and productively employed in many societally beneficial occupations. Is it fair to deny this student a diploma when he or she has completed all the other requirements that his or her NES peers have completed based soley on a test that only shows what the student doesn't know and can't do rather than what he or she does know and can do? (Perhaps this student can read and write and do math at a 10th grade level in Spanish or Punjabi or Mandarin or Vietnamese.) (Emphasis added)

The issues involved in the fairness of high stakes testing for English language learners are complex. They are bound to get a hearing in the legal arena in light of the lawsuit to be filed by the Coachella Valley USD. I hope the legislature will listen to the language minority community's concerns and do the right thing by cancelling the CAHSEE requirement for earning a diploma.

Thanks.

JKM

My take: I have no doubt that Professor Mora is accurately assessing the likelihood of the exit exam being challenged in court and possibly thrown out. Anything can happen these days, and similar challenges have been successful elsewhere. But that doesn't answer the question of whether it is right or wrong for the state of California to say that no matter where you were born, no matter who your parents are, no matter what language you speak and when you came here and started school, we want you to demonstrate that you can read, write and speak English at a 10th Grade level before we'll give you a diploma. Not Spanish or Punjabi or Mandarin or Vietnamese. English. The courts may rule that it is unfair to require every child to fulfill this requirement before earning a diploma. But in my judgment they would be wrong to make such a finding, and in doing so would be harming the very children they would claim to protect. The end result, I predict, would be fewer graduates mastering English, and more of them destined, as immigrants disproportionately are today, to a life of poverty.

Posted by dweintraub at 5:57 PM



Acting secretary

Until a successor is confirmed, the second-in-command at the Secretary of State's office will take the reins as acting secretary. That person is Cathy Mitchell, and she is now on the job. A short version of her bio, via the office:

Ms. Mitchell, 52, is a veteran Secretary of State employee. She came to the office in 1981. She has most recently served as Undersecretary, having stepped into the role days before the November 2004 Presidential Election. Formerly, she was the Chief of the Business Programs Division, the largest program within the agency.

Ms. Mitchell has held many positions within the office, including stints at the Archives, the press office, and ten years in the elections field. Although she also served as Deputy Chief during her tenure in the Elections Division, Ms. Mitchell’s field of expertise is California’s initiative and ballot measure processes.

Posted by dweintraub at 11:39 AM



Exit exam

In response to this column Sunday defending the state's high school exit exam, I got an interesting note from an education professor at one of our state universities. She opposes the exam, she said, because only 19 percent of students who were not fluent in English passed the test in 2004. Further, she said, only about 60 percent of students who begin school in California after kindergarten and don't speak English as their native language will be fluent by the 12th grade.

"In other words," she writes, "if a student is a second language speaker of English, his or her chances of failing the HSEE are somewhere between 40%-80%. This is not fair."

Is this a matter of fairness, or simple fact? Perhaps the situation the professor describes is a reflection of a simple and deliberate policy: if you can't speak English by the 12th grade, you don't get a diploma in California schools.

That not only seems reasonable, it also is in the best interests of those very students. Insisting that they learn English is the single best way to ensure their success at integrating into society and moving up from the poverty that disproportionately plagues immigrant families.

The fact that it's controversial to require students to speak, read and write English before graduating from high school shows just how dysfunctional our education system has become.

Posted by dweintraub at 7:52 AM



March 4, 2005

Death benefits

The theory that by prohibiting defined benefit pensions the voters would also be banning death and disability benefits for (among others) the survivors of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty seems to have been shot down. Legislators, after all, were banned from getting any kind of pension in 1990, but they still have a death and disability plan, apparently a pretty generous one. Something tells me that if this issue were opened up by the voters and lawmakers were asked to create a new system for public safety workers there would be a bidding war on behalf of future widows and orphans. Maybe someone should float a bill now proposing that, for starters, no matter what happens in November, survivors of fallen officers should do no worse than legislators' families. Would anyone vote against it?


Posted by dweintraub at 2:03 PM



McPherson hearing set

With Kevin Shelley leaving office today, the state Senate has set a date for the Rules Committee hearing on Bruce McPherson's confirmation: March 16.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:06 PM



March 3, 2005

Judge leaning nurses' way

The judge who is hearing the nurses union case against Schwarzenegger on nurse-patient ratios in hospitals has issued a tentative ruling in favor of the nurses. The case will be heard Friday morning. Here's an AP story.

Posted by dweintraub at 4:36 PM



Death benefits

Everybody who follows ballot battles in California knows that the best way to beat an initiative is to find one fatal flaw, possibly tangential to the main purpose of the measure, and hammer away at it. Opponents of Schwarzenegger’s pension reform plan think they’ve found that in death and disability benefits. But have they?

Under California’s current system, death and disability benefits for public employees are provided through CalPERS as part of the pension plan. The measure Schwarzenegger is backing, which was drafted by Assemblyman Keith Richman, scraps the current system for new employees and requires public agencies to draft new plans for workers hired after July 1, 2007.

The Richman plan gives state and local agencies discretion in designing those new benefits, within limits. For instance, the maximum contribution from the taxpayers for general employees who are part of Social Security is 6 percent. New death and disability benefits would also be part of those new laws. They’re not laid out in the proposal, but instead will be left to discretion of the Legislature and local governments.

In some cases, perhaps many, the defined contribution plan by itself would actually be superior to what public employees’ survivors get now. Today, the survivors of employees who die before they are eligible to retire get pretty skimpy benefits: a return of their contributions plus interest and the equivalent of six months pay. Under the new plan, survivors would get the entire retirement savings, which would include the employer’s contributions and the investment gains, not just a pre-set interest rate.

For employees who are eligible to retire, it would depend on the circumstances, since their survivors are eligible now to receive a limited survivors’ pension benefit. For some this would be better than what they would get from a retirement savings plan. For others, the new plan would be better.

Finally, for safety employees killed in the line of duty, survivors today are eligible for benefits of 50 percent to 75 percent of the deceased employee’s final salary, depending on the circumstances of their death. In most cases, especially for younger officers, this would be better than the balance of a savings plan alone. But this brings us back to what really happens if the proposal passes.

Any public agency that wants to retain the current death benefits can simply do so by passing a statute or local ordinance. Those agencies could also offer a superior benefit if they choose, or a choice of the savings plan or a specified death benefit, at the survivor’s option. This flexibility is not a defect in the proposal, as the opponents would like to have people believe. It is an advantage. And when it comes to disability benefits, which have long been due for an overhaul, it’s a huge opportunity for needed reform.

Posted by dweintraub at 10:35 AM



Faking it

Weeks after sacking the former president of the state Board of Education because he was too supportive of teaching kids in English, Democrats in the Legislature are now taking aim at the state's High School Exit Exam.

The move, unfortunately, exposes the party's fuzzy-headed thinking about standards. They believe the most important thing about clear standards is that they penalize kids who don't meet them. In fact, the standards reveal which schools and districts (and parents) are letting those very students down, and they create public and political pressure for improvement. They are the single best hope for poor kids. Kids from wealthy families will do fine even if the public schools go down the drain.

The exit exam already has been delayed once, and is scheduled to take effect for good with the class of 2006. Students who can't demonstrate a minimum level of proficiency -- about 7th grade for math and 10th grade for English -- won't get a diploma. They can take the test over and over starting in the 10th grade, working on what they don't get until they master it.

But some Democrats just can't stand the idea of saying, in simple terms, I'm sorry, you haven't learned the material we expect of every high school graduate, and we're not going to fake it anymore. We're not going to keep telling you, and the world, that you've been educated when you have not been. The argument of those who would kill this test is that failing to obtain a diploma leaves these kids with a stigma that hurts their chances of suceeding in society. Do they ever wonder what failing to learn basic math and English does to their chances?

Adoption of the exit exam in 1999 was arguably former Gov. Gray Davis' finest achievement. It would be ironic if Democrats seek to kill it now and Republicans have to come to its rescue.


Posted by dweintraub at 7:32 AM



March 2, 2005

Win for low-income housing

One of the more interesting policy battles of the past couple of years has been the low-income housing advocates' efforts to block application of prevailing wage rules to their projects. Democrats and their labor union allies, during the Davis Administration, enacted provisions extending the wage laws, which used to apply only to public works, to all projects that get any public money. That swept up low-income housing, even, for a time, Habitat for Humanity-type projects where much of the labor was sweat equity from the former owners. After an uproar, the policy was pared back a bit, but still generally applies to the field, meaning that low-income, first-time homebuyers are being charged more, or are finding it harder to get a house, so that the middle-class carpenters, plumbers and elecrtricians who work on the houses can be paid a higher wage.

Now the Schwarzenegger Administration has stepped in and rolled back the rule, a bit. The Department of Industrial Relations, which administers the wage laws, says in a new ruling that low-income rental housing funded in part by federal tax credits or tax-exempt bonds and with no state or local money will not be subject to the prevailing wage. That means tradesmen who work on these projects will have to accept whatever the local market will bear, and in most cases, the housing will be less expensive.

Strange when it takes a Republican administration to fix a problem created by Democrats that made it harder for poor people to buy a house.

The full ruling is here, in a pdf file. It is being hailed by low-income housing advocates but will likely be challenged by the unions.

Posted by dweintraub at 2:50 PM



Fund raising for ballot measures

Election Law blogger Rick Hasen has some interesting observations here on the Schwarzenegger campaign finance case and Tony Quinn's position on it.

Posted by dweintraub at 11:32 AM



Where's Arnold?

Schwarzenegger is heading to Bakersfield and Hayward today to spread the word about the initiatives he is backing on teacher tenure, redistricting and public employee pensions...

Posted by dweintraub at 9:56 AM



March 1, 2005

And they're off

As expected, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this morning hit the Legislature for failing to act on his reform agenda and kicked off the signature drive for three measures covering tenure for school teachers, redistricting and pensions. Senate Leader Don Perata, meanwhile, said lawmakers had little to act on while promising that Democrats would soon offer some counterproposals and saying he looked forward to an up or down vote this fall on the governor's plans.

After a brief press conference in his office, Schwarzenegger went to the east entrance of the Capitol where he hopped into a military-style Humvee with a fake "Reform One" license plate and left the Capitol, re-appearing a few minutes later at a suburban diner where he began gathering signatures for his measures.

Still to be determined is which budget control proposal Schwarzenegger will eventually support, and whether he is open to further talks on education reform. He and Perata seem to be of one mind on cutting the strings on much of the money the state now sends to schools. If they sat down and talked about it, they could probably reach a deal in a week. As it stands, the tenure reform measure the governor is backing (wait five years to make teachers pemanent instead of two) seems incredibly narrow.

Posted by dweintraub at 1:07 PM



Action...action

Lots of movement on Schwarzenegger's reform agenda today. The governor has scheduled an 11:30 a.m. press conference at which he is expected to announce his endorsement of at least a couple of the ballot measures reflecting his proposals. Probably the same ones that his allies in the "Citizens Committee" backed late yesterday: the pension overhaul and another to prevent teachers from gaining permanent status until they have taught for five years. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say they are willing to support an independent panel to draw district lines as long as it doesn't do the job before the next census in 2010. Senate Leader Don Perata has his own press conference scheduled to discuss these and other matters at 11 a.m.

Posted by dweintraub at 6:30 AM



 
 

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