The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

March 29, 2011
How California government can be more transparent

During the recent Sunshine Week activities, USPIRG issued a report card giving California a "D+" for its dismal record of government transparency. The Pacific Research Institute also weighed in with an in-depth study, Bringing More Sunshine to California: How to Expand Open Government in the Golden State.

To understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of this state's current transparency rules, PRI researchers compared California's open record and open meeting regulations with those in other states. After careful quantitative analysis, they found that California ranked 17th in open record laws (p. 49) and 45th in open meeting laws (p. 46).

Based on their detailed study, PRI developed a concrete set of recommendations (p. 57) for improving transparency. These include:

* Tightening the legal definition of a public meeting and tighten the rules regarding informal or chance gatherings of officials.

* Abolishing exemptions for certain types of meetings, such as those dealing with agency executive hiring, public employee salaries/benefits, collective-bargaining with unions and eminent domain.

* Requiring online notice of upcoming public meetings and online posting and archiving of meeting minutes.

* Making public police disciplinary proceedings/actions. Open police misconduct files after one year.

* Requiring all agencies to develop and make public guidelines and procedures (including fees) for citizen access to records.

* Expediting appeals for public access to meetings/records. Strengthen criminal penalties and establish civil penalties for violations of open meeting/record rules.

March 28, 2011
A federal tax receipt

As the calendar creeps toward the April 15 tax filing deadline, many Americans might wonder just how all their federal tax dollars are being spent. Proposed bipartisan legislation intends to make that information very easy to get. The Taxpayer Receipt Act (S. 437) would "require the Secretary of the Treasury to provide each individual taxpayer a receipt for an income tax payment which itemizes the portion of the payment which is allocable to various Government spending categories."

The idea has been discussed and promoted by David Kendall and Ethan Porter of the center-left Third Way think tank and the liberal Democracy journal. The authors hope that if Americans really understood where their money is going, there would be much less ideological conflict over government spending, taxation and deficit control.

Here's how it would work: every year after filing your taxes, the IRS would send you a short summary (no more than a page) showing what you paid in income taxes/FICA and how that money is allocated among major government programs. See a mockup receipt here.

The Third Way web site provides an online calculator where you can plug in your annual tax liability and see exactly how the federal government spends it. Let's say you paid $10,000 in income and FICA taxes. $2,044.94 goes to Social Security and $1,306.74 to Medicare (that's for current payments to those programs, not for future obligations). $2,017 of your $10,000 goes to defense. $928,48 and $789.22 go to low-income assistance and Medicaid, respectively. All the above constitute nearly 71 percent of the total. The rest is allocated to things like interest payments, unemployment, veterans, education, etc.

March 24, 2011
Government and construction workers not seeing income bump

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis revealed this week that personal income across the state rose by 2.5 percent during 2010. That's great news for the state economy, but little comfort to workers in the government and construction sectors. They saw another compensation drop last year.

Construction compensation has plunged every year in California since start of the 2007 recession. State and local government pay has dropped each year since 2008.


Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
Note: "Government" in chart shows state and local government compensation; "Technology" in chart is short for professional, scientific, and technical services.

March 23, 2011
The growing U.S. nuclear waste problem

ranchoseco.JPGThe continuing battle to cool spent fuel rods at Japan's Fukushima's nuclear power station puts a spotlight on the growing amount of radioactive waste accumulating at American nuclear power plants.

Because there is yet no permanent storage facility for spent fuel, this very hazardous material is kept near the reactors which generated it. According to a new Associated Press investigation, the nation now maintains nearly 72,000 tons of nuclear waste. And this amount is growing by about 2,200 tons every year.

Nuclear fuel waste -- which stays toxic for thousands of years -- is currently housed in two types of temporary storage: cooling pools and dry casks. Fuel rods must first cool in the pools for at least five years before transfer to the casks that keep the material safe for about 100 years. AP reports that many of the pools are overloaded, some with four times what they were designed to hold. Almost 55,000 tons of waste are still in pools.

U.S. commercial nuclear waste is housed at 119 power plants in 31 states. (Fifteen of these plants are no longer operating.) California has four such facilities. (Two are producing electricity, two are closed.) California's current waste totals 3,186 tons (2,180 in pools, 956 in dry casks). See AP's interactive map for statistics on other states' inventory.

PHOTO CREDIT: A SMUD technician walks over the pool where the first fuel rods are being kept before being loaded into the new Rancho Seco nuclear reactor. 1974 Sacramento Bee photo by Andrew DeLucia.

March 23, 2011
Interactive: See school districts in worst financial shape

Almost 2 million students--roughly 30 percent of pupils in California--now attend school in a district facing serious financial jeopardy, state Department of Education officials said this week.

This map shows school districts in California with a "negative" or "qualified" certification. A qualified certification is assigned when a district may not meet its financial obligations for the current or two subsequent fiscal years. A negative certification is assigned when a district will be unable to meet its financial obligations for the remainder of the current year or for the subsequent fiscal year.

March 21, 2011
Unemployment down slightly in Sacramento region

New data released for the nation's urban areas shows unemployment down in Jan. 2010 compared to Jan. 2009 in 282 of 387 MSAs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found joblessness going up in 73 metros and staying the same in 17 others. Sixteen areas had unemployment rates of at least 15.0 percent.

Twelve of the fourteen regions with the most unemployment are located in California, lead by El Centro with 25.1 percent. Lincoln, Neb. looks the best with a mere 4.1 percent. Most of the other MSAs at the bottom are also in the nation's middle.

Joblessness in Sacramento region decreased very slightly over than same 12-month period: 13.0 to 12.9 percent. In Jan 2010 the region ranked 65th in unemployment among all MSAs and third (behind Riverside and Las Vegas) among large MSAs (with populations of a million or more).

March 18, 2011
Survey: 22.4 percent obesity in Sacramento region

More than a fifth of adults are obese in almost all the metropolitan areas surveyed by Gallup in 2010. The survey company found that 177 of 188 MSAs have at least 20 percent of residents who are seriously overweight. Evansville, Ind. leads the way with 38.7 percent. Boulder, Colo. has the least with 12.9 percent. Sacramento is about average with 22.4 percent.

The obesity data is part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a collection of indicators that includes: diabetes, frequent exercise, frequent consumption of produce, city optimism, and the uninsured. There's also an overall well-being score which is calculated from "an average of six sub-indexes: life evaluation, physical health, emotional health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access."

In terms of overall well-being, Boulder leads again with a score of 73.7 in 2010. Bringing up the rear is Huntington-Ashland, W.Va. at 58.1. Sacramento lands in the top third of metropolitan areas with a score of 67.0.

You can easily see detailed health stats for each of the MSAs with Gallup's interactive tracking chart which has data from 2008 and 2009, as well as 2010.

March 17, 2011
Gap between California public, private union membership grows

For decades, the number of workers in California's private sector covered by unions has shrunk while the number covered in the public sector has grown.

That gap widened significantly during 2010. Public sector workers covered by unions now outnumber their private sector counterparts by 300,000, even though the public sector only comprises 15 percent of workers in California.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey via unionstats.com

March 16, 2011
California gets a D+ for government transparency

When it comes to openness about government spending, California ranks low among the states according to a new study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Despite the creation of a government transparency web site, California still has "serious deficiencies" in providing public online access to spending data.

"If Californians look hard enough at the budget voted on today they'll notice some serious holes in their ability to follow the money. Billions of dollars in tax breaks and economic development subsidies are spent every year with no disclosure to the public of who gets them or how much they get," said Pedro Morillas CALPIRG Consumer Advocate in a press release.

California earned 62 out of 100 points in the USPIRG's scorecard of state budgetary openness. You can see a detailed breakdown of the criteria used to rank all states in the interactive Follow the Money Map.

PIRG's report arrives in the middle of Sunshine Week, the annual national review of open government. Locally, SW will be celebrated with a panel discussion at McGeorge School of Law on March 23. See also The Bee's story advancing Sunshine Week and profiling area activists who have championed open meetings and records.

March 14, 2011
Prescription drug costs rising faster than other health sectors

The cost of prescription drugs is increasing at a much faster rate than that of other medical services, according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Administration.

The GAO today released a report estimating that a "basket" of "100 commonly used prescription drugs increased at an average annual rate of 6.6 percent from 2006 through the first quarter of 2010 compared with a 3.8 percent average annual increase in the consumer price index for medical goods and service."

Escalating drug prices have significant implications for efforts to control the U.S. budget deficit, since the federal government spent $78 billion, or 31 percent, of the total $250 billion spent on prescription medicines in 2009.

March 11, 2011
Wrongly imprisoned often are denied compensation

Individuals who are wrongly convicted and incarcerated in California are entitled to receive restitution from the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.

But an analysis of such cases by California Watch found only that of the 132 people who filed claims since 2000, only 11 have been compensated. 56 claims have been rejected without a hearing. Others are either waiting for a hearing or waiting for a decision after a hearing.

California is one of 27 states which pays restitution for the wrongly imprisoned. But according to CW, it's not enough for a judge to declare a inmate innocent. He must prove three things: "that they did not commit the crime or that the crime did not take place; that they did not intentionally contribute to their own arrest by 'voluntarily' or 'knowingly' pleading guilty to the crime; and that they experienced financial losses as a result of their incarceration." Advocates for the wrongly accused say these requirements are often impossible to meet.

March 9, 2011
Report: most nursing facilities employ employees with criminal backgrounds

Ninety-two percent of nursing facilities studied in a new federal report have employed at least one individual convicted of a crime. Nearly half of the facilities employed five or more people with at least one conviction.

U.S. Health and Human Services Department inspectors used FBI criminal history records to examine the backgrounds of workers at a sampling of Medicare-certified nursing facilities. Even though most states require some type of background check, HHS found that overall five percent of employees had at least one criminal conviction.

Most of these convictions--43.6 percent--involved crimes of property (burglary, shoplifting, A much smaller number--13.1 percent--were for crimes against persons (homicide, rape, assault, etc.). Most convictions--84 percent-- occurred prior to the start of employment at the nursing facility.

March 7, 2011
Report: hospital costs higher in northern California than in southern counties

Hospital stays in northern California tend to be higher than those in the southern half, according to a new analysis by the Los Angeles Times. Using data from the Office of Statewide Health Planning, the Times found that cost per patient per day was 56 percent greater in the north's largest counties than in the south's.

Leading the way were San Francisco and Santa Clara with an average of $7,300, followed by Contra Costa with $6,900. Sacramento is the fourth highest county at $6,700. In contrast, San Bernardino is the most economical at $3,900.

Times writers attribute the difference to greater consolidation and relative lack of competition in hospital services in the north. For example, Sutter Health, with its huge system of 24 hospitals, 500 doctors in 100 cities, is one of the big players which tends to negotiate higher reimbursements from insurance providers.

Back in April, a Bee investigation concluded that California hospitals overall "are charging insurance companies, and by extension their customers, billions of dollars for expenses not directly related to care. These include new hospital wings, new technology and services for the uninsured."

March 4, 2011
Third of U.S. adults have sleep problems

Can't sleep? You're not alone. A new Centers for Disease Control study estimates 50-70 million American adults get less than the recommended 7-9 hours a night.

Researchers asked nearly 75,000 people in 12 states about their sleep habits and found "48.0% reported snoring, 37.9% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least 1 day in the preceding 30 days, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving in the preceding 30 days.

Sleep issues vary by age group. Adults, 25-34, are most likely to not get enough sleep (39.4 percent) and to fall asleep at the wheel (7.2 percent). Snoring most affects those 55-64 (62.4 percent). Seniors over 65 are most likely to fall asleep during the day (44.6 percent).

Of the 12 states studied, Hawaii has the highest percentage of people who lack proper sleep (44.6 percent) and Minnesota, the lowest (27.6 percent). California is about average (34.5 percent).

Aside from difficulties with concentration and memory, the CDC warns that sleep problems are correlated with chronic diseases, mental disorders, health-risk behaviors, limitations of daily functioning, injury, and mortality.

The National Sleep Foundation provides helpful information on all aspects of sleep disorders and their treatment. 

March 3, 2011
New statistical report describes status of U.S. women

There's still a wage gap, but the overall condition of women has improved in terms of employment, education, income, family, health and safety. That's the message of a new report, Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, the first comprehensive statistical compilation from the federal government in 50 years.

Some highlights:

* Women are attending college at a rate on par with men, and the percent of younger women earning degrees has now surpassed that of younger men.

* The wage gap has improved, but in 2009 women at all educational levels earned about 75 cents for every dollar earned by men.

* Women continue to live longer than men, But they face special health challenges: mobility problems, arthritis, asthma, depression and obesity. The proportion of adult women, 18-64, without health insurance has been rising. In 2009, 18 percent of this age group lacked coverage.

* In terms of violent crime, women are less likely to be victims than men. But women continue to be victims of certain crimes, such as domestic violence and stalking, at a higher rate than men.

March 2, 2011
Tracking ex-lobbyists among top congressional staffers

At least 130 top congressional staffers serving currently are former lobbyists. That's according to new research by two government watchdog groups, Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate.

Investigators have tracked the prior employment of the 990 Chief-of-Staffs and Legislative Directors and found 130 who held lobbyist jobs before taking their current positions. Most of their lobby group employers represent corporations or trade associations.

The information on these staffers is complied in an online interactive table which you can browse by name, congress member, district, lobbying firm and other data. Ten staffers work for California lawmakers. Closest to home are these three:

* Anne Steckel, Chief of Staff for Rep. Mike Thompson. Previously employed by American Farm Bureau and Growth Energy.

* Julie Eddy, Chief of Staff for Doris Matsui. Previously employed by Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

* Robert Mosher, Legislative Director for Doris Matsui. Previously employed by Armenian Assembly of America.



About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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