The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

June 23, 2011
New national, state statistics on the uninsured

Fresh data from the Centers for Disease Control shows 48.6 million Americans of all ages (16.0 percent of the population) lacking health insurance at the time of the survey in 2010. Also at that point in time 7.8 percent of children under 18 and 33.9 percent of young adults (19-25) were uninsured.

CDC researchers also crunched the 2010 numbers for the 20 largest states. The percentage of uninsured people ranged from 4.0 percent in Massachusetts to 26.1 percent in Arizona. California came in bit above the national average at 18.6 percent.

In 2010 60.2 percent of Americans had health insurance coverage provided by private (non-governmental) sources; 31.4 percent had coverage provided by government -- including Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), state-sponsored or other government-sponsored health plan, Medicare (disability), and military plans. In California the private/public split was 56.1 and 28.8 percent, respectively.

June 16, 2011
Hate crimes decreasing in nation

A new federal report shows the number of hate crimes falling from 239,400 in 2003 to 148,400 in 2009. In addition the rate of violent crime victimizations dropped from 0.8 to 0.5 per 1,000 persons over the same period. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics about 87 percent of hate crime victimizations involve a violent crime, the rest involve property.

In nearly 90 percent of hate crime victimizations, victims judged the offender was motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice or both. Overall, motivation for hates crimes breaks down this way:

Race: 58 percent
Ethnicity: 30 percent
Association (with a particular group): 25 percent
Sexual orientation: 15 percent
Perceived characteristics: 13 percent
Religion: 12 percent
Disability: 10 percent.

In 54 percent of such crimes, the offender was not known to the victim. The offender had a weapon in about 20 percent of cases. And the victim suffered an some type of injury in 23 percent of cases.

June 14, 2011
Ambulance diversions impacting heart attack mortality

The practice of rerouting ambulances away from crowded emergency rooms is tied to higher mortality of heart attack victims. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that frequent diversions are correlated to an increase in avoidable patient deaths.

ambulance.JPGThe number of emergency rooms has dropped in the past 20 years and hospitals now are often forced to temporarily divert ambulances when facilities are crowded with patients waiting for beds.

Researchers studied 14,000 elderly patients in four California counties and found a three percent difference in death rates (15 versus 18) between ERs that did not divert and those that diverted at least 12 hours out of the day.

They also warn that high ambulance rerouting is symptomatic of the bigger problem of providing care to a growing number of patients with finite medical resources.

In 2002 The Bee reported on efforts to reduce the chronic overcrowding that caused routine diversions at Sacramento-area hospitals at that time. See attached articles.

PHOTO CREDIT: A patient arrives by ambulance at Sutter General Hospital. 2002 Sacramento Bee photo by Dick Schmidt

June 8, 2011
Economy of most states grew in 2010

Driven by gains in durable goods manufacturing, retail trade, and finance and insurance, U.S. real GDP grew 2.6 percent in 2010 following a 2.5 drop in 2009.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis also reported yesterday that GDP grew in 48 states and Washington, D.C. North Dakota lead the nation in percent change (7.1). New York (5.1), Indiana (4.6), Massachusetts (4.2) and West Virginia (4.0) trailed behind. California ranked near the bottom with a modest 1.8 percent increase.

The Golden State saw the biggest growth in the durable-goods manufacturing and information sectors (0.76 and 0.53 percent, respectively). Sectors that suffered during this period include non-durable goods manufacturing (-0.35) and construction (-0.20).

May 26, 2011
U.S. Hispanic population grew four times faster than nation in past decade

A study by the Census Bureau found that Hispanics accounted for more than half of the growth of the U.S. population from 2000 to 2010. In that decade, the Hispanic population grew 43.0 percent compared to 9.7 percent for the overall population.

The Bureau also found that the percentage of U.S. Hispanics citing Mexican ancestry increased from 58.5 percent to 63.0 percent over the same period.

In California Hispanics accounted for 90.0 percent of the state's increase, the Hispanic population growing 27.8 percent compared to an overall 10.0 percent change.

In the four-county Sacramento region Hispanics accounted for 44.1 percent of the increase, with the Hispanic population growing 55.9 percent compared to an overall 19.6 percent change.

May 24, 2011
California prisoners: the stats

The U.S. Supreme Court's order to reduce the California prison population by 33,000 prompts the question: just who are the men and and women housed in these facilities?

For comprehensive inmate demographics, we can turn to the most recent California Prisoners & Parolees 2009, the annual "compendium of tables, graphs and charts detailing the inmate and parole populations supervised by the California Department of Corrections." The 132-page report contains dozens of tables broken out by age, gender, race, offense and other factors going back 20 years.

As of Dec. 31, 2009 the institutionalized population looked like this:

Total number: 168,830 (reflecting a state inmate rate of 436.4 per 100,000 population).

Gender: Male, 158,018 (93.6 percent); female 10,812 (6.4 percent).

Mean age: 37 (male and female).

Race/ethnic group: White, 43,226 (25.6 percent); Hispanic, 66,374 (39.3 percent); Black, 48,990 (29.0 percent); other, 10,240 (6.1 percent).

Offense: Crimes against persons, 93,674 (55.5 percent); property crimes, 32,677 (19.4 percent ); drug crimes, 28,736 (17.0 percent); other crimes 13,743, (8.1 percent).

May 17, 2011
Latest U.S. crime victimization stats

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its annual compendium of data on the victims of crime. The 110 tables in Crime Victimization in the United States, 2008 cover virtually all angles of the subject: types of crimes -- violent, property, etc.; demographics of victims -- age, gender race, etc.; circumstances of crimes -- time, place, weapons used, etc.; reporting/non-reporting of crimes, police response time, etc.

It's a lot of numbers. Some bullet points:

* There were 21.3 million crime victimizations in 2008. 23.4 percent were personal crimes (assault, rape, robbery, etc.). 76.6 percent were property crimes (burglary, theft, car theft, etc.).

* Younger people are more likely to be victims of personal crime. The personal crime rate for children 12-15 is 43.6 per 1,000 people. Other age groups: 16-19 (37.4), 20-24 (38.4), 25-34 (23.8), 35-49 (17.4), 50-64 (11.1), 65 or older (3.5).

* African Americans are more likely to be victims of personal crime than other racial/ethnic groups. White only (18.6 per 1,000 people), Black only (26.6), other race only (15.5), Hispanic (17.1).

* Men (21.9) are more likely to be victims of personal crime, compare to women (17.8).

May 10, 2011
Divorced after 25 years of marriage: some stats

Today's announcement that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are separating after 25 years of marriage prompts the question: how many couples are still married on their silver anniversary?

The Census Bureau tracks the percentage of Americans still married at various milestones. The latest data available -- for couples wed between 1974 and 1979 -- shows that less than half of this group will still be married at the 25-year mark. Only 46.4 percent of women and 49.5 percent of men will still be in their first marriage. (The numbers are naturally less for second marriages: 36.7 and 42.0 percent, respectively.) Couples married in earlier years display more longevity in marriage.

The divorce rate varies a lot among the states. And surprisingly the divorce rate is generally lower in cosmopolitan coastal states than in many heartland states. Oklahoma leads the country with 16.5 divorces per 1,000 women over 15 (i.e., divorces in 2007 per 1,000 women). Kentucky (15.0), Idaho (14.5) and Arkansas (14.1) are next in line. North Dakota has the smallest rate of divorce, 6.0, followed by New York (7.1), Hawaii (7.7) and Pennsylvania (8.0). California does better than the national average, 9.9 compared to 10.5.

May 9, 2011
Food deserts in Sacramento

One aspect of Michelle Obama's fight against obesity is an initiative to eliminate so-called "food deserts" in urban and rural areas across the country. A food desert is a low income neighborhood whose residents have little access to healthy and affordable food. Specifically this is a census tract with a significant number of families living in poverty who -- because of distance and lack of transportation -- cannot easily get to a grocery store that sells fresh, nutritious food items. Often the only accessible outlets are fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled its Food Desert Locator, an interactive map that allows you to zoom down to the census tract level. Areas in pink are considered areas with limited access to supermarkets or large grocery stores.

Sacfooddesert.JPGSource: USDA Economic Research Service.

May 4, 2011
Where do you stand in Pew's "political typology?"

The American electorate is increasingly "doctrinaire and ideological" in their political convictions, says a new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Although many voters have gravitated from the political center toward the partisan extremes, there is still a sizable percentage of independents.

To better understand current political attitudes among voters, Pew devised a typology that "sorts Americans into cohesive groups based on their values, political beliefs and party affiliation." These nine groupings range from Solid Liberals on the left to Staunch Conservatives on the right. Generally those on the extremes show considerable consistency in their views along with strong allegiance to the Democratic or Republican parties, as the case may be. But rather than being wish-washy in their beliefs, independents do have strong opinions about issues, but "they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy."

According to Pew. "Mostly Republican" groups constitute 25 percent of US. voters. "Mostly Democratic" ones, 40 percent. And "Mostly Independent" 35 percent. In the full report, you can see how these types correlate to a large number of social, economic and demographic characteristics.

So where do you fit in Pew's political schema? Take this brief quiz to find out.

April 29, 2011
State releases newest population, housing estimates

Another indication of the recession's impact on the state: California's population grew just 0.8 percent to 37,510,766 between Jan. 2010 and Jan. 2011. Sacramento County increased 0.8 percent to 1,428,355 over the same period. Compare that percent change to the boom year 2000-2001 when the state and county grew 1.97 and 3.13 percent, respectively.

More factoids gleaned from statistics released today by the Demographics Research Unit of the state Department of Finance:

* Riverside continues to be the fastest growing county (1.7 percent), having taken the top spot from Placer (1.5 percent) two years ago.

* Lassen (-0.6), Amador (-0.3), Alpine (-0.2), Mariposa (-0.1), Plumas (-0.1) and Tuolumne (0.1) Counties all lost population between 2010 and 2011.

* Desert Hot Springs (Riverside County) is the fastest growing city in the state (5.9 percent). Twenty-seventh ranked Rocklin is the fastest growing town in the region (2.1 percent).

* Sacramento (469,566) moved ahead of Long Beach (463,894) to become the 6th largest city in the state as of Jan. 2011.

* California added only 44,649 housing units in 2010, compared to 197,477 new ones in the peak year of 2005. Sacramento County added 1,041, compared to 11,188 in 2005.

April 27, 2011
Maternal mortality rising in California

Back in December this blog noted the steady increase in U.S. maternal mortality (pregnancy-related deaths) since dropping to its lowest point in 1986. Now the California Public Heath Department is reporting that the mortality rate in the state has almost doubled between 1999 and 2008 (8.0 to 14.0 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Maternal mortality is rare, but the rising rates are a warning sign of increasing health risk factors among women (obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc.) and of problems with maternal health care.

The CDPH report found disparities in mortality related to race, income and education:

* The risk of maternal death was four times higher for African American women than for other groups in 2002-03 (46.1 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 12.8 for Hispanic women, 12.4 for White women, and 9.3 for Asian women).

* Low-income women in the state died at a higher rate than others. Fifty-seven percent of maternal deaths involved Medi-Cal recipients, though this group constituted only 45 percent of all women giving birth.

* Although women with less than a high school diploma constituted 11 percent of women who gave birth in the state, 31 percent of all maternal deaths occurred within this group.

April 26, 2011
Hispanic voter clout lags population gains

Although the number of Hispanics in America increased from 35.3 to 50.5 million between 2000 and 2010, their participation in elections continues to lag behind. An analysis of Census data by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while Hispanics are 16.3 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 10.1 percent of eligible voters and only 6.6 percent of the total casting ballots in 2010.

According to Pew, the relatively small proportion of eligible voters who are Hispanic is due to the larger number of children and non-citizens in that group. In addition, eligible Latino voters go to the polls at a lesser rate than other groups (a 31.2 percent voter turnout compared to 48.6 percent for whites and 44.0 percent for blacks).

California is home to 13.4 million Hispanics (37 percent of the state's population) and 5.4 million eligible voters (24 percent of the electorate). But again, due to the "youth bulge" and non-citizenship, only 40 percent of Hispanics are eligible to voter, as opposed to 79 percent of whites.

As the Hispanic population ages, it's expected that the influence of Latino voters will increase in both the state and national elections.

April 22, 2011
Personal income falls in the region

Personal income (the aggregate amount of money individuals receive from all sources) fell 1.3 percent in the Sacramento region between 2008-09. In its latest data release, the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that personal income decreased from $86.9 to $85.7 million in the 4-county area. Given the economic hit Sacramento has suffered during the current recession, this drop is not so surprising.

After a steady climb since the early 90s, per capita income in the region (adjusted for inflation) fell for the past two years, 2007-09, from $41,924 to $40,306.

The BEA provides some very handy interactive tools for retrieving income data for states, counties and MSAs over the long term. They also allow you to break out the various sources of income, such as wages, unemployment compensation, welfare, etc. In a prior Public Eye blog posting, Phillip Reese used the BEA data to show the growth of Medicare/Medicaid payments in the Sacramento region.

April 20, 2011
California lags nation in "wireless" households

landline.JPGMore than a quarter (26.6 percent) of U.S. households use no landline telephones, relying solely on wireless (cell or mobile) phones. In addition, people in 15.9 percent of homes with landlines report that they use wireless phones for all or nearly all of their calls.

Those figures were compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, which has been tracking telephone equipment preferences since 2007. Why does a federal health agency care what phone you use? Well it matters a lot to people who conduct health (and political) surveys, since up to recently these were directed only at people with wired phones, thereby missing a growing segment of the population. Consider that the percentage of wireless-only households has increased significantly in just four years, from 13.6 percent in Jan-June 2007 to 26.6 percent in Jan-June 2010.

Surprisingly, tech-savvy California in 2010 ranked low in terms of the proportion of U.S. adults living in wireless households. Arkansas was tops with 35.2 percent. Rhode Island was at the bottom with 12.8 percent. And the Golden State was 41st with 18.2 percent.

PHOTO CREDIT: Dorothy Hawkinson is one person who doesn't even have a cell phone. She holds her rotary dial, ivory with gold trim phone, she bought in 1981. 2009 Sacramento Bee photo by Paul Kitagaki.

April 18, 2011
Immigrant population in California growing sharply

The percentage of foreign born people in California grew from nine percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2009, according to a new analysis of Census data by the Public Policy Institute of California. In raw numbers that's an increase of 1.8 million to almost 10 million. Currently, 46 percent of immigrants are citizens.

Crunching figures from the 2009 American Community Survey, PPIC researchers also found that California's share of the foreign born was the highest in the country. Most California immigrants come from Latin America (55 percent) and Asia (35 percent). Mexico leads the originating countries with 4.3 million, followed by the Philippines (783,000), and China (681,000).

About one quarter of all U.S. immigrants live in California. Although California still leads the states as the first destination for new immigrants, that percent has dropped from 31 percent (1985-90) to 17 percent (2008-09).

Last year the PPIC estimated that California is home to roughly 2.6 million undocumented people.

April 7, 2011
Antimicrobial resistance is a growing health threat

Antibiotics and other medicines that fight bacterial, viral and fungal infections have saved a lot of lives since their introduction in the 1940s. But some bugs are becoming resistant to antimicrobial drugs making them increasingly ineffective. The threat is serious enough that international health officials made antimicrobial resistance the focus of the recent World Health Day.

According to the World Health Organization, some 440,000 cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis occur every year, killing at least 150,000 globally. Further, resistance to older generation antimalarial medicines in growing in countries battling the disease. And a high percentage of hospital-acquired infections are now caused by resistant bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). (More than 12,000 Californians die from hospital-borne infections annually.)

The Centers for Disease Control warns that overuse and inappropriate use of antimicrobials contributes to germ resistance, leading to undue medical complications and deaths. Patients can protect themselves by:

* Talking with your doctor about the best treatment for you or your child's illness.
* Not demanding antibiotics or other medications when a doctor says they are not needed.
* Not taking medications prescribed for someone else.
* Taking medications as directed.
* Not skipping doses of prescribed medicines.
* Not saving medicines for a future illness.

April 4, 2011
"Do Not Track Me" laws seek to protect consumer privacy online

Privacy advocates are backing legislation that requires Internet companies doing business in California to provide consumers with a mechanism to prevent their online activities and information from being monitored. SB 671, the so-called "Do Not Track Me" law, would allow people to opt out of the "collection, use, and storage" of personal data by any firm.

Consumer Watchdog, a backer of the bill, has challenged Google to support such privacy protection. Google recently agreed to a comprehensive privacy plan and independent auditing as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the company's mishandling of its Buzz social network.

The California legislation is modeled on the federal Do Not track Me Online Act sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). That bill would "direct the Federal Trade Commission to prescribe regulations regarding the collection and use of information obtained by tracking the Internet activity of an individual." In introducing the law, Speier cited the recent Wall Street Journal investigation which exposed the extent to which companies track, aggregate and sell consumer data.

April 1, 2011
Workplace violence is declining

Good news for those of us who toil in cubicles: the number of violent incidents in workplaces has decreased in the past decade.

In a new publication Workplace Violence, 1993-2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that nonfatal violent crimes against employees (rape, robbery and assault) fell from 2.1 million in 1993 to 572,000 in 2009. The number of homicides dropped from 1,068 to 591 over that same period.

In terms of occupation, law enforcement personnel, security guards and bartenders suffered the highest rates of nonfatal workplace violence between 2005 and 2009. Preschool, elementary school and college teachers enjoyed the lowest rates.

The majority of offenders in workplace homicides are robbers and other assailants (70.3 percent), followed by work associates (21.4 percent), relatives (4.0 percent) and other personal acquaintances (2.3 percent).

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 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 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 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.

February 28, 2011
The unionized workforce, some national and state statistics

The battle in Wisconsin over proposed curbs on public-sector bargaining puts a spotlight on the organized labor in general.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released last month, U.S. union membership has declined steadily over the past three decades, dropping from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 11.9 percent in 2010. Last year, public-sector unionization far exceeded that in the private-sector, 36.2 percent to 6.9 percent.

On the state level, 2010 union membership ranged from 3.2 percent in North Carolina to 24.2 percent in New York. California is fifth with 17.5 percent of wage and salary workers belonging to a labor union.

California has defied the national trend by showing an increase in membership rate from 15.5 percent in 2000 to 17.5 percent in 2010. In comparison the U.S. rate fell from 13.4 percent to 11.9 percent over that period.

February 24, 2011
Metro GDP data shows recession's targets

New data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows vividly the toll the recession has taken on urban areas. Overall, U.S. metropolitan areas experienced a 2.4 percent fall in real GDP in 2009 after dropping 0.4 percent in 2008. (Real GDP is adjusted for inflation.) Declines occurred in 80 percent of the nation's 366 Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

U.S. metro GDP peaked in 2007. For all industries, the percent change in real GDP from 2007 to 2009 was -2.9 percent. The hardest hit sectors were construction (-20.63), accommodation and food service (-14.40), non-durable good manufacturing (-13.82) and leisure and hospitality (-13.07).

The Sacramento MSA was hit harder than the country as a whole. Its GDP fell -5.16 percent from 2007-09. The biggest losers were construction (-27.60), accommodation and food service (-18.45), leisure and hospitality (-15.91), retail trade (-14.52).

You can easily compile your own GDP tables for any metro area, by using BEA's online interactive database.

February 16, 2011
Latest CDC annual report on the nation's health

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services today released its 34th annual report to Congress on the nation's state of health. Health, United States, 2010: With Special Feature on Death and Dying is a large compendium of statistics on disease, mortality and medical care.

Among the report's highlights:

* Heart disease continued to be the leading cause of death in 2007, accounting for 25 percent of all deaths. Cancer followed closely behind with 23 percent.

* Between 2000 and 2007, life expectancy rose 1.3 years for males (to 75.4) and 1.1 years for females (to 80.4).

* The prevalence of obesity increased in all age groups over the past two decades. About 33 percent of adults over the age of 20 were obese in the period 2007-08.

* The percent of adults who smoke cigarettes has stayed flat at 21 percent for several years.

* Total visits to hospitals and doctors' offices increased from 861,000 in 1995 to 1.2 million in 2008. The number of visits per 100 persons rose from 329 to 405 over the same period.

* In 2007 health care spending accounted for 16 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (compared to 11 percent in France). Between 1990 and 2008, per capita health expenditures rose $2,814 to $7,681 (in current dollars).

February 15, 2011
American consumers continue to pay down their debt

Aggregate U.S. consumer debt -- which reached a peak of $12.5 trillion in 2008Q3 -- has been steadily falling. In its newest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, the Federal Reserve of New York says total consumer indebtedness dropped to $11.4 trillion as of Dec. 31, suggesting that Americans are getting a better handle on their finances.

Total mortgage debt -- by far the largest part of family borrowing -- declined 9.1 percent from its peak in 2008Q3. Debt from home equity lines of credit also fell, 6.5 percent from its peak in 2009Q1.

The NY Fed estimates that 211 million credit accounts closed during 2010, compared to the 164 million that opened during the same period. The number of open credit card accounts fell 23 percent in 2010Q4 from its high in 2008Q2.

Debt delinquency rates have also been dropping. At the end of 2010, 10.8 percent of loans were in some stage of delinquency, compared to 11.1 percent at the end of the third quarter and 12.0 percent at the end of 2009.

Hat tip: The Washington Post.

February 10, 2011
PPIC: slight majority of Californians support Obamacare

Californians support the national health care reform bill by a margin of 51 to 36 percent. That's one of the findings of a state survey of health-related issues by the Public Policy Institute of California.

PPIC also reports that overall 81 percent of Californians judged their own health as "good," "very good" or "excellent." But there are significant demographic differences in that perception. Respondents were more likely to rate their health as "fair" or "poor," if they are low income, have less education, lack health insurance or are a member of a minority group.

Those surveyed generally rated local health and medical services as "good" or "excellent." But when asked if local services struck the balance between treatment and prevention, 60 percent wanted more focus on prevention.

Read the full report here.

February 3, 2011
Survey: adults often get unnecessary heart screening tests

Recently this blog noted a CDC study that found many Americans with hypertension and high cholesterol --risk factors for heart disease -- are not receiving proper treatment. Of course proper treatment is based on early discover for these conditions and accordingly doctors do recommend regular blood pressure and cholesterol screening tests.

But according to a Consumer Reports survey, many individuals are seeking and getting additional tests that experts say are unnecessary, even harmful, for adults with low or normal risk for heart disease. The CR poll shows 44 percent of healthy people getting ill-advised screenings, such as an electrocardiogram (EKG), a blood test for C-reactive protein (CRP), and an exercise stress test.

To help you understand the appropriateness of various tests, CR provides a free online health calculator which takes factors such as age, gender, BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol level, and figures your overall risk of heart problems. Then you can consult a handy table listing each test, its benefits, liabilities, costs and who should get it, based on age, gender and disease risk.

February 1, 2011
Most people with hypertension and high cholesterol aren't properly treated

High blood pressure and cholesterol are major risk factors for heart attacks, strokes and related diseases, which kill more than 800,000 Americans annually. Despite the relative low-cost and effectiveness of treatment, the majority of people with these conditions aren't getting proper care, reports the Centers for Disease Control in a new report.

Individuals lacking health insurance are most likely to lack treatment. But even among those who are insured, many aren't controlling their hypertension and cholesterol adequately.

By the numbers:

High Blood Pressure
1 in 3 Adults has high blood pressure
1 in 3 Adults with high blood pressure does not get treatment
1 in 2 Adults with high blood pressure does not have it under control
High Cholesterol
1 in 3 Adults has high cholesterol
1 in 2 Adults with high cholesterol does not get treatment
2 in 3 Adults with high cholesterol do not have it under control

January 26, 2011
Top ten jury verdicts of 2010

A $505 million judgment in a Las Vegas civil case lead the 2010 ranking of U.S. jury awards.

Lawyers USA publishes the annual Top Ten list. The web site notes that the average size of the top ten verdicts grew from 2009 to 2010 ($145 to $157 million), but not as sharply as between 2008 and 2009 when the average jumped $33 million.

This ranking considers only verdicts in cases brought by individuals, families or small groups of people -- not large business or class-action suits. The Nevada lawsuit involved a man who contracted hepatitis C after a routine colonoscopy. He sued two pharmaceutical companies which made the anesthetic that carried the disease The jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 million in compensatory damages and $500 million in punitive damages.

A southern California jury gave the second largest judgment of the year to a woman who developed mesothelioma cancer. She claimed the asbestos exposure resulted from washing clothes her husband wore while working with asbestos-cement water pipes. The jury agreed and awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages.  

January 25, 2011
State of Homelessness in America 2011

RB Tent City.JPGThe National Alliance to End Homelessness has updated its census of the homeless population. The headline is that nationally this group increased in size by 20,000 between 2008 and 2009, a 3 percent rise. Thirty-one of 50 states saw increases with Louisiana leading the way with 100 percent growth. California grew 3.4 percent -- 128,785 to 133,129 -- during that period.

Broken out by sub-populations, the data shows the largest percentage growth among family households (4 percent).

In 2009 most homeless people lived in some type of shelter, but "nearly 4 in 10 were living on the street, in a car, or in another place not intended for human habitation."

Homelessness affects people of all ages, races, ethnicity and geography, say NAEH researchers, but some groups are at high risk: "people living in doubled up situations, people discharged from prison, young adults aged out of foster care, and uninsured people." California, Florida and Nevada are three states with high multiple risk factors, especially foreclosure and unemployment.

PHOTO CREDIT: Homeless people living in tents along the river parkway northeast of the Blue Diamond Almond facility in Sacramento, 2009. Sacramento Bee photo by Randall Benton.

January 21, 2011
CDC: past rise in childhood obesity leveling off

Obesity affects some 12.5 million U.S. children and teens, or about 17 percent of that population. The incidence of childhood obesity as been rising steadily since the 1960s, when it was around 5 percent.

But according to a new report issued by the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity rates appear to have leveled off in the few years. That's the good news. The bad news is there is a significant increase in obesity among the heavier boys, with the heaviest getting heavier. In addition, there are significant differences between racial, ethnic and age groups. Hispanic boys and non-Hispanic black girls, for example, are more likely to be obese. So are older children and teens, compared to preschoolers.

CDC researchers warn that severe overweight in youngsters can lead to psychological problems and medical risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and abnormal glucose tolerance or diabetes. They point to a decline in healthy eating and exercise as primary determinants of obesity. So they recommend a multipronged strategy of encouraging more exercise, less television watching, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables and less of high-caloric foods.

January 19, 2011
New site allows citizens to monitor state legislators

Though we take it for granted, the Internet has greatly increased government transparency -- especially at the federal level. Now a new web site expands the potential of citizen scrutiny of government at the state level.

OpenGovernment.org, a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and Participatory Politics Foundation, aggregates many types of information on state lawmakers: brief biography; contact info; sponsored bills; key votes; committee memberships; campaign contributions; interest group ratings; news, blog and social media mentions; and videos.

OpenGovernment.org hopes to eventually cover all state and municipal governments, but initially the site is limited to five state legislatures: Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin and California.

January 14, 2011
Cost of cancer projected to rise 27 percent in ten years

Although cancer incidence is declining and cancer survival is increasing, the cost of treating cancer in the United States is expected to jump from $125 billion in 2010 to at least $158 billion in 2020. That's due in large measure to an aging population, say the authors of a new National Cancer Institute study.

NCI researchers note that cancer strikes older people disproportionately and so they project the number of cancer survivors rising 13.8 milion to 18.1 million in the next ten years. The biggest contributor to the overall cost in 2020 is care of prostate and breast cancer patients which will grow 42 and 32 percent, respectively.

Hat tip: Los Angeles Times Booster Shots blog.

January 11, 2011
Feds to launch consumer product database

Wouldn't it be nice if the average consumer could know about a harmful or potentially harmful product before it's eventually recalled?

That's the goal of a new government database set to debut on March 11. In November the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to establish an online system to house reports of unsafe or potentially hazardous merchandise. The database won't include mere complaints about product reliability or quality -- only information about serious defects that can lead to death or injury. It's also limited to CPSC-regulated goods, so excludes cosmetics, food, tobacco, and other items handled by other federal agencies.

Advocates of the system say it will provide consumers, government regulators, health professionals and others with an easy way to file incident reports. It will also allow consumers to quickly and easily research products they are considering for purchase.

Manufacturers have expressed concerns about the project, saying it invites false and possibly fraudulent product reports. In response, CPSC rules allow companies to challenge complaints and to post rebuttals alongside complaints in the database.

Once launched, consumers can go to the SaferProducts.gov to use the database.  

Hat tip: Washington Post.

January 10, 2011
How much will you make in lifetime Social Security, Medicare benefits?

The President's fiscal commission has issued its recommendations for controlling federal spending and deficits. Its report includes suggestions for reining in future costs of Social Security and Medicare, and it's likely we'll see cutbacks in future benefits. But that prompts the question, what would you receive in total Social Security and Medicare benefits if nothing changes?

The non-partisan Urban Institute tries to answer that question in a new study, Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime. It estimates the total taxes paid and the total benefits received for a hypothetical worker who began working at age 22, earned an average wage ($43,100 in 2010 dollars) and stopped working at the normal retirement age.

The results vary widely depending on marital status and when you reach age 65. A single man, for example, who turned 65 in 1960, paid in $17,000 for a total of $125,000 in lifetime benefits. That same man hitting 65 in 2030 would pay $476,000 in taxes for $569,000 in benefits. (All these figures are in 2010 dollars.)

January 6, 2011
States' revenue dropped nearly 31 percent in 2009

A stark indication of the impact of the recession on state budgets: state government revenue in the country plummeted 30.8 percent between 2008 and 2009. The U.S. Census Bureau, which annually tracks state finances, reported yesterday that total revenues fell to $1.1 trillion from $1.6 trillion. 

Much of this decrease was caused by declining "social insurance trust revenue," defined as "public employee retirement, unemployment compensation, workers compensation and other insurance trusts (i.e., Social Security, Medicare, veteran's life insurance)."

Total state taxes collected in the U.S. fell 8.5 percent from $781.6 billion in 2008 to $715.1 billion in 2009.

In California, total revenue dropped 43.6 percent from $201.1 billion to $113.3 billion over the same period. State taxes collected declined 14.0 percent from 117.4 billion to 101.0 billion. See this Census table for a full breakdown of California's revenues and expenditures in 2009.

January 5, 2011
Retiring doctors could cause health care shortage in rural areas

As the eldest baby boomers hit 65 this year, California's older doctors will being to retire in troves -- and that could cause a health care crisis in sparsely-populated areas if these retirees aren't sufficiently replaced by younger professionals. That's the warning in a new investigation by the Center for Health Reporting, the nonprofit journalism team sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation.

Statistics complied in the 2009 CHCF report, Fewer and More Specialized: A New Assessment of Physician Supply in California, bear out the problem. Not only does the doctor-patient ratio tend to be lower in rural counties, but the relative age of doctors tends to be higher in those areas. Trinity County leads the state in the percentage of active physicians over the age of 55 (73.3 percent). It's followed by Modoc (68.6 percent), Lassen (52.6 percent), Amador (52.1 percent) and Inyo (51.2 percent).

January 3, 2011
Disabled people have greater risk of dying in a home fire

Every year an estmated 2,655 people die and 13,025 are injured in residential fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The agency warned recently that people with physical, mental and sensory disabilities are especially at risk of death and injury. A 2009 study found that physical disability played a factor in 13 percent of home fire fatalities. Further, the mortality rate for residential fire victims is 1.4 times higher for the physically disabled as compared to the overall victim population.

The USFA reminds disabled people, their families and caretakers that diminished health, mobility, sight, and hearing may limit an individual's capacity to act in a fire emergency. Therefore, it's vital that persons with disabilities develop and practice escape plans. This involving knowing your exit routes and insuring that you and your wheelchair/walker can pass through them. It's also essential to properly maintain smoke alarms that accommodate your particular sensory limitation. See the USFA Focus on Fire Safety for more helpful advice. 

December 30, 2010
Report: dialysis oversight in California weakest in nation

Almost 40 years ago Congress expanded Medicare to cover dialysis treatment for all Americans suffering from kidney failure--regardless of age or income. Today taxpayers shell out $20 billion annually to provide the life-saving procedure for some 400,000 patients. Although the United States spends more per patient than virtually every other country, its mortality rate for dialysis care is among the highest in the industrialized world, according to the watchdog group ProPublica.

In an ongoing investigation, ProPublica discovered an alarming number of clinics that provide substandard care in unsanitary conditions. The result are needless hospitalizations and avoidable deaths. Equally troubling is the weak oversight of the dialysis industry. Checks of clinics, known as recertification surveys, are supposed to be conducted by state regulators every three years. But the frequency of government inspections of these 5,000+ facilities varies widely by state. In California--which has the biggest backlog in the nation--at least half the dialysis clinics haven't been inspected in five years or more. And some 10 percent haven't been checked since 2000.

Federal authorities have pressed California to boost its inspections or face withholding of funds. But federal money for recertification hasn't kept up with the growing number of clinics. That and the state's budget crisis has hampered oversight. And so the backlog continues to grow.

December 30, 2010
Top ten Public Eye items of 2010

It's a journalistic tradition this time of year: top ten lists covering everything from local news to celebrity gossip. At The Public Eye we're looking back at the year's most significant blog entries -- as determined by reader interest. Here are 2010's top ten items. Most of these were written by The Bee's lead data cruncher Phillip Reese, who often showcases statistics with interactive maps.

10. Study: Sacramento residents smoke pot often, see no great risk.

9. Interactive: California's most troubled schools.

8. Local government workers earning $250,000+.

7. Five horses dead in San Joaquin County. Did heat kill them?

6. Map: Where local fatal car wrecks happen.

5. Most city, county leaders earn $200,000+ each year.

4. Interactive: Areas where Sacramento cops spend the most time.

3. Interactive: California's biggest tax dodgers.

2. California's budget deficit compares poorly to other states.

1. Interactive: Gang activity in Sacramento.
December 28, 2010
State data shows drop in preventable hospitalizations

New statistics by the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development show a significant decline in preventable hospitalizations over the period 1999-2008. The OSHPD report looked at 14 medical conditions "for which quality outpatient care or early intervention can potentially prevent the need for hospitalization or complications leading to a more severe illness."

Ten of these conditions, including chest pain, pediatric gastroenteritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, showed decreases in hospitalization rates. The rate for diabetes (short-term complications) stayed the same. Diabetes (long-term complications), urinary tract infections and hypertension increased. 

The OSHPD study examined the hospital data at the county level and the results are displayed in color-coded maps for easy comparisons. Of particular concern are the hospitalization rates for childhood asthma in Alameda County, which 2.5 times that of the state's, as well as hypertension rates in South Central Los Angeles, which are 3.3 times that of the state's.  

In general, the four counties of the Sacramento region show average or below average hospitalization rates for the 14 preventable conditions.

Hat tip: HealthyCal.

December 27, 2010
The Center for Health Reporting, state medical care watchdog

Today The Bee published the last of a 2-part series on baby boomer medical care produced by the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. CHR is a non-profit journalism team based at the USC Annenburg School, which "partners with news organizations across the state to produce in-depth reporting on health-care issues of importance to consumers and policymakers."

The Center began operation in October 2009 and has shared some 20 news investigations with over 30 California news outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Bakersfield Californian, Modesto Bee and Fresno Bee. Here are the latest projects published by CHR:

At Last, California Fights Infections With Disclosure. "Hospital infections kill an estimated 13,500 Californians a year, but critics say the state's hospitals and health department remain far behind other states in waging war against this largely preventable scourge."

Riverside County: Medi-Cal's Worst. "No county in California has a worse record than Riverside County for processing Medi-Cal applications."

Medicare Testing Ground: Lower Prices, Rising Concerns. "The Inland Empire is a new testing ground for whether the federal government and health consumers can finally do something about rising health costs."

Young Adults Get a Break with Their Parents' Insurance. "Health reform offers up a big benefit for young adults who haven't been able to get their own health insurance."

Broken Hearths: How the Economy is Endangering the Health of Our Families. "Joblessness is a scourge that hits hard at workers trying to make a life for their families. But it also hits hard at the families themselves, including the children."

Clinic Shutdowns Hit Tiny Towns Hard. "Kern County, with some of the state's highest rates for diabetes, heart disease and obesity, is home to a test case for the federal government's new Health Care Coverage Initiative."

December 21, 2010
2009 teen births drop to record low

The birth rate for U.S. girls aged 15-19 fell to 39.1 births per 1,000 in 2009. That's the lowest it's been since recordkeeping began in 1940, says the Centers for Disease Control. Birth rates for teens of all ages, races and ethnic groups dropped to historic levels.

In its new preliminary report, the CDC also found the first decline since 2002 in total births to unmarried mothers. But since total U.S. births declined even more, the percentage of births attributed to unmarried mothers actually rose to 41.0 percent in 2009 from 40.6 percent in 2008.

Married or not, women in their early 20s showed a 7.0 percent drop in birth rate in 2009. It's the biggest decrease for that age group since 1973. The birth rate also fell for women in their late 20s and 30s, but increased for women in their 40s. 

December 20, 2010
DOJ: estimated 11.7 million were victims of identity theft

An estimated 11.7 million Americans (aged 16 and over) were victims of identity theft, according to a 2008 U.S. Justice Department study whose results were released last week. The survey of 56,500 household residents is the first time the Bureau of Justice Statistics has collected data on these types of property crimes.

BJS estimates that only 23 percent of those victimized suffered some financial loss, but the total cost to society came to $17.3 billion during the two-year period of the study. It also calculates that 6.2 million people were victims of the unauthorized use of credit cards, the most common variety of identity theft.

A demographic breakdown of victims (p. 3) shows that wealthier people (i.e. those living in households making $75,00 and over) are more likely to experience at least one attempted or successful identity theft incident.

December 15, 2010
Teen pot use takes a jump

Illicit marijuana use by teens is increasing according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That conclusion is based on the 2010 Monitoring the Future survey of eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders.

Eighth graders who reported illicit use of any type of drug in the past years rose from 14.5 percent in 2009 to 16.0 percent in 2010. That bump was largely due to an increase in pot smoking by this age group, whose daily use percentage rose from 1.0 to 1.2. Daily pot use also increased among high school sophmores and seniors, 2.8 to 3.3 percent and 5.2 to 6.1 percent, respectively.

Researchers also found a bump in the use of Ecstacy (MDMA) among youths. Reported use by eighth-graders rose 1.3 to 2.4 percent from 2009 to 2010. Tenth-grade use rose 3.7 to 4.7 percent.

December 13, 2010
Economic 'stress index' improves in nation, state and region

The nation's economic condition in October, as measured by the Associated Press' Stress Index, improved to its best level in 18 months.

AP launched the index in 2007 to track the overall effect of the recession on states and counties. It takes into consideration unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies. Scores run from one to 100, and the higher the score, the greater the economic stress. A place with a rating of over 11 is considered financially challenged.

In October California (16.01) fell to third place in the list of the most stressed states, giving up the second place slot to Florida (16.56) which struggles with a rising foreclosure rate. Nevada (21.68) continues to lead the pack by a large margin.

The most stressed county in the United States was California's Imperial County (33.26). It did show a 2.39 point improvement since September. In our region, all but Yolo County saw a monthly lessening of economic stress. The table below displays the latest figures, the monthly change and the pre-recession levels.

Associated Press Stress Index
Place Oct-10 Change from Sep-10 Oct-07
California 16.01 -0.13 7.23
Sacramento Co. 17.81 -0.33 9.20
Placer Co. 16.30 -0.39 7.37
El Dorado Co. 15.97 -0.23 6.82
Yolo Co. 14.80 0.13 6.86

 

AP's color-coded stress map provides comprehensive data for all states and counties and gives a good visual overview of which regions continue to be hit the hardest by the economic downturn.  

December 8, 2010
Debit card use up as Fed mulls fee controls

debitcard.jpgDebit card use has jumped in the United States, according to the Federal Reserve in a report on non-cash payments issued today. The Fed says debit card transactions grew 14.8 percent between 2006 and 2009. During the same period check transactions fell by 7.2 percent. For many consumers debit cards have become the dominant form of non-cash payment.

Legislation passed earlier this year will impose limits on "interchange fees," that is, the fees banks charge merchants for debit card transactions, which many believe are excessive. Next week the Federal Reserve will unveil its rules for such fees and the banking industry anticipates the loss of millions of dollars as a result of the new restrictions.

Major banks are reportedly shifting their marketing to reloadable prepaid cards that are not subject to Fed regulation. These cards are used increasingly by low-income families who don't have bank accounts. But Consumers Union and other advocacy groups warn that prepaid cards harbor a bevy of hidden fees buried in fine print. A CU report details the complicated fee structure of specific products, such as the WalMart Money and Account Now cards (p. 13). 

PHOTO CREDIT: A shopper swipes his debit card at a supermarket in Omaha, Neb., in 2007. AP Photo/ Nati Harnik

December 6, 2010
Pregnancy-related deaths creeping up in U.S.

Although it's rare for U.S. women to die of complications in pregnancy, a Centers for Disease Control study shows that such deaths are increasing in this country.

Researchers found that between 1998 and 2005 the national pregnancy-related mortality rate was 14.5 deaths per 100,000 live births. In 1986, the rate fell to a low of 7.4 per 100,000 before experiencing a gradual rise. (A pregnancy-related death is considered any death occurring during, or within a year after pregnancy, that is caused by a complication of pregnancy.)

The study doesn't identify a precise cause for the increase in these materal deaths. But it notes that in recent years more women of child-bearing age are dealing with obesity and chronic health issues such as hypertension and diabetes.

Back in February, California Watch reported that the rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the state tripled over the past ten years.

December 3, 2010
Nurses continue to dominate Gallup's 'honesty and ethics' ranking

Gallup, the public opinion research company, has been polling Americans since 1976 about their perception of the ethics and honesty of various professions. The survey covers such diverse jobs as pharmacists, politicians, car sellers, firefighters, teachers and lawyers.

But there's one profession that has ranked number one in all but one year since 1999. That's nursing. Nurses' honesty and ethical standards were judged "very high/high" by 81 percent of those Gallup polled last month. Nurses were trailed by military officers who were rated very high/high by 73 percent. At the bottom of the list are lobbyists with a score of just seven percent very high/high (61 percent rated them very low/low).

Television and newspaper reporters fall in the middle of the pack with scores of 23 and 22 percent very high/high in honesty and ethics.

December 2, 2010
Study: percentage of fatal accidents involving drugs is growing

In a first-time study of drug use and accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found the percentage of fatalities involving legal and illegal drugs has grown over the past five years.

The NHTSA looked at post-mortem drug tests of drivers who died in vehicle accidents. Of the 27,491 drivers killed in 2005, 56 percent were tested. Of those tested, 3,710 or 13 percent tested positive for some type of drug. (Drug categories tested include: "narcotics, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, cannabinoids, phencyclidines (PCPs), anabolic steroids, and inhalants".) That percentage rose in 2009 when 18 percent of drivers tested positive after fatal accidents.

Authorities caution that positive test results do not mean the driver was impaired or that drug use was the main cause of the crash.

November 30, 2010
CDC: foodborne diseases cause 5,000 U.S. deaths a year

In a strong bipartisan showing, the U.S. Senate today passed legislation bolstering the nation's food safety laws. The Food Safety and Modernization Act, among other things, gives the Food and Drug Administration greater authority to respond to disease outbreaks such as those affecting beef, spinach, peanuts and other products in recent years.

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, take a look at the CDC statistical report Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States. Drawing from multiple data sources, the authors estimate that "foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year." According to the tables, the biggest causes of illness are the Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria, Giardia parasite and Norwalk-like viruses. The deadliest agents are Salmonella, Listeria and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in undercooked meat.

November 11, 2010
Industry winners/losers in November election

As the postmorten on the November voting winds down, the campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics wonders which special interests emerged as winners (and losers) this cycle. But how do you measure success (or failure) in this arena? Well, if every member of Congress represents the industry or special interest that contributed the most to his or her campaign, as CRP suggests, then one can count the net number congressional seats each group gained (or lost) this time. 

The biggest winner in 2010 -- as a group -- were people who identify themselves as "retired" in campaign finance disclosure. They tend to favor Republicans, giving $60 million of their $109 million donations to GOP candidates this year. Retired donors gained two seats in the U.S. Senate and a whopping 20 seats in the U.S. House. Coming in second were leadership PACs (political action groups founded by prominent political figures) which gained a net 12 House seats.

The big losers in 2010 were lawyers and law firms. They suffered net losses of 15 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

November 8, 2010
Authorities not tracking hospitals with potential quake risk

More than a dozen hospitals in the state run the highest risk of collapse during a severe earthquake, according to the investigative reporting group California Watch. And further, state authorities and hopital officials have done little to alert the public to these hazards. Nor have they determined the quake risk for many of the of the 700 hospital buildings identified in the 1990s as being potentially dangerous.

Under law the state can shut down hospitals that don't address serious seismic issue by a certain deadline. But knowing which face the biggest risks is problematic. Only 90 structures have been evaluated for "collapse risk" (i.e., the probability of collapse -- based on the building's condition, distance from a fault and likely ground motion -- during the biggest potential quake for that region).

The facility on the list with the greatest risk is Kindred Hospital in Ontario (31.75 percent), followed behind by Citrus Valley Medical Center in West Covina (30.36 percent). Closest to Sacramento is Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville. Its West Wing and Nouth Wing buildings have modest risk indices of 2.56 and 1.81 percent, respectively. 

November 5, 2010
Brookings: could take 12 years for job recovery

The good news: the U.S. economy added a net 151,000 new jobs in October. Private sector employers added 159,000 positions. The public sector lost 8,000. The bad news: the national unemployment rate has been essentially flat since May, holding at 9.6 percent. That's about 14.8 million unemployed people. About 6.2 million (41.8 percent) of the jobless have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. (Some 1.01 million Californians are struggling with long-term unemployment, as reported in September by the state Employment Development Department.)

The Brookings Institution has been tracking the national employment situation through its Hamilton Project. In particular, it makes monthly estimates of the U.S. job gap, i.e."the number of jobs the economy needs to add in order to return to pre-recession employment levels while absorbing the 125,000 people who enter the labor force each month." Brookings researchers say the gap fell slightly from 11.9 million jobs in September to 11.8 million jobs in October.

Unfortunately the current job gap won't close any time soon. According to Brookings, if employment grows at a realistic 208,000 jobs a month (the average rate of growth during the best year of the 2000s), it would take 142 months (about 12 years) to recover to levels prior to the recent economic downturn.

October 29, 2010
See TV ads produced by outside election groups

 

Outside political groups (i.e. organizations not directly affiliated with candidates) have come under a lot of scrutiny during this mid-term election cycle. That's because they are spending millions fo dollars to sway voters in state and federal races. The watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics says outside groups spent nearly $463 million so far. And a good deal of money is flowing into California. More than $45 million has been spent in the state by political committees formed by special interest groups.

Much of this funding pays for television advertising that expressly call for the election or defeat of specific candidates. In addition to posting data on campaign spending (broken out by type of group, ideology, race, candidate and other factors), the CRP web site now features video recordings of ads created by outside groups -- both liberal and conservative. Browsing these commercials provides a quick education into the aims and strategies of such organizations this year.

The majority of TV commercials posted by CRP are directed against candidates and generally play on the fears and outrage of average people. Typical are the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees -- the top two groups making outside expenditures. Also high on that list are the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads (the Karl Rove group) and the liberal Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

To get a taste of how outside advertising plays in California, check out the ads directed against Senate candidates Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer produced by Emily's List and the U.S. Chamber respectively.

October 28, 2010
BJS releases prison/jail/arrest mortality stats

The Bee today reported the death of a man shot by Sacramento police after he charged them with a knife. By coincidence, the Bureau of Justice Statistics just updated its "deaths in custody" statistics. These cover "mortality in state prisons, local jails, and during the process of arrest by state and local law enforcement officers". The data is sliced by such factors as gender, race, age, offense and cause of death.

Nationally, there have been 2,686 arrest-related deaths between the years 2003 and 2006. Of these, 1,540 (57.3 percent) were killings by law enforcement officers and 289 (10.8 percent) were suicides. California lead the states in the overall number of arrest-related deaths (465).

Mortality in U.S. state prisons totalled 21,936 deaths between 2001 and 2007 (all causes). Illness accounted for 18,193 of the fatalities, homicide caused only 365. California trailed Texas in the overall number of prison deaths (2,491 to 2,811).

Local jail deaths totalled 8,097 in the United States between 2000 and 2007. Of these, illness caused 3,871 fatalities, suicide 2,361. According to the BLS, there were 2,851 deaths in the 50 largest jail jurisdictions. Los Angeles lead all counties with 273 deaths (178 per 1000,000 inmates). Sacramento County had 50 (170 per 100,000 inmates).

October 26, 2010
Early voting option depresses turnout?

A study of voting patterns in the 2008 presidential election has a counterintuitive finding. The early voting option -- intended to increase turnout by reformers -- actually decreases it. University of Wisconsin researchers who looked at the data and who factored in things like education, race, geography and political leanings, discovered "the availability of early voting reduced turnout in the typical county by three percentage points."

The paper's authors speculate that early voting doesn't address the larger problem of election laws which require citizens to register well in advance of the election. Many people simply miss the registration deadline. In addition, absentee voters aren't susceptible to the enthusiam, social pressure -- and party get-out-the vote efforts -- that stimulate voting on Election Day. So they tend to procrastinate until it's too late.

The Bee's Rob Lewis today reported that more and more Sacramento County voters are choosing to vote by mail. Half of the county's 680,000 registered voters have requested absentee ballots for the November election. About 79,000 of these have returned ballots so far. In California 44 percent of the state's 17.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots. So far, 1.4 million of these have been returned.

October 24, 2010
Penalties against inmates at North Kern rescinded

Following a Bee report that described evidence of violations of due process rights in California prisons, North Kern acting Warden Maurice Junious recently rescinded all 77 guilty findings and penalties imposed on prisoners convicted in April of obstructing officers. Instead, the inmates were counseled.

The Bee reported in August that a North Kern State Prison official had prejudged inmates as guilty and assigned penalties before required disciplinary hearings meant to determine culpability.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton called the reversal of guilty findings "unusual." Junious declined to comment.

Administrative hearings allow inmates to defend themselves and present mitigating evidence. North Kern's acting Associate Warden Steven Ojeda had sent an e-mail to Junious laying out guilty findings and penalties ahead of the hearings.

In late July, Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for operations, called Ojeda's e-mail "improper" but defended the department's due process system.

The Bee report described a pattern of failures in procedures designed to let prisoners dispute charges or press claims of mistreatment. Daniel Johnson, a retired research analyst for the department, reviewed 10,000 appeals involving allegations of misconduct by officers. Virtually none, he said, were ruled in favor of inmates.

On Aug. 1, the day The Bee story appeared, Lt. John McClellan of High Desert State Prison in Susanville sent a memo to inmates of the "Z Unit" - a prison within the prison to segregate recalcitrant inmates, such as alleged gang members. The memo laid out the consequences if an officer would have to forcibly take an inmate from his cell: loss of time off for good behavior, prison canteen privileges and exercise breaks - all before any rule violations took place.

"From now on if you participate in a cell extraction the consequence for that will be at a minimum; 90 days loss of credit, 90 loss of canteen and 10 days loss of yard," he wrote.

Nine days later, Associate Warden David Davey rescinded the order.

- Charles Piller

October 24, 2010
Many doctors shun e-mail

Before shooting off an e-mail to your doc, think again.

A new study shows that only 6.7 percent of office-based physicians routinely e-mail patients. "While patients appear ready to embrace e-mail, physicians are markedly less ready," says the Center for Studying Health System Change. About two-thirds of the doctors it surveyed said they did not have access to e-mail systems at their practices.

Billions of dollars are being invested on electronic medical records as part of a national drive to improve safety and efficiency. The doctor-patient relationship was supposed to be enhanced by electronic communication: no need to visit the doctor's office, and no more phone tagging when you can e-mail.

Doctors who have access to electronic medical records and those who work for HMOs are more likely to use e-mail, the center says. About half said they regularly used e-mail with their patients.

Impediments are: cost of acquiring office e-mail systems, heavy e-mail concerns, privacy, data security and medical liability.

- Bobby Caina Calvan

October 15, 2010
Election polls skewed by landline bias?

Political polling is ubiquitous this election season, but such polls may be skewed because of how respondents are contacted. With 25 percent of American households only using using cell phones for telephone service (according to the CDC), surveys directed only at Americans using wired service may be subject to what experts call "landline bias".

Just how big is landline bias and how does it affect current election polling? The Pew Research Center attempted to find out. In a recent report, Pew estimated the bias this year is as large, or larger, than in 2008. The researchers compared 2010 Congressional polls aimed at both landline and cell phone users versus those targeting only landline users. The difference is striking. For polls conducted between Aug. 25-Sept. 6 among likely voters, the spread is: Republican preference 50 percent, Democrat preference 43 percent (landline and cell sample) and Republican 53, Democrat 41 percent (landline-only sample).

You can get a sense of the demographics of the cell-only crowd in this CDC report on the "wireless substitution," published in May. In general, younger adults are more likely to live in homes with no landline service. In addition, those more likely to go wireless are renters, the poor, and those living alone or in households comprised of unrelated people.

UPDATE: Field Research -- whose California Polls are often cited in The Bee -- samples both landline and cell populations in its surveys. That's because it takes random names from voter registration records where people are increasingly listing their cell phone numbers. Mark DiCamillo of Field Research says the percentage of cell numbers his group finds in voter records has risen from eight percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010.

October 15, 2010
Undeliverable ballots cost the county money

The Sacramento County election's office recently began sending out vote-by-mail ballots, and hundreds are already returned - as undeliverable mail.

The rising count of returned ballots - expected to reach about 15,000 for the Nov. 2 election - is adding to the county's red ink.

Each ballot costs about $1.50 to produce and mail. If you do the arithmetic, you see how costs add up: $22,500, perhaps more.

It doesn't seem like a lot of money, but every penny counts as government agencies look to find savings.

"That's less money needed from the county's general fund," said Brad Buyse, local elections spokesman. The general fund is the pool of money the county uses to pay for county services.

Most of the returned mail stems from voters failing to notify the agency of a change of address.

"People need to keep their registration information up to date, " said Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar.

As of Thursday, about 1,800 ballots had been sent back to the county's election headquarters on 65th Street in south Sacramento.

To see if your registration is current, call (916) 875-6451 or see: http://www.elections.saccounty.net

The deadline to register to vote or change your address is Monday.

- Bobby Caina Calvan

October 15, 2010
Natomas road near airport is dumping ground

The Problem: North Natomas resident Terry Palmer said he and neighbors repeatedly complained to the city over the past two months about illegal dumping at Airport Road and Natomas Crossing Drive.

Everything from abandoned vehicles to furniture and TV sets were dropped off at the dead-end street, creating an eyesore and a fire hazard.

He called the city's 311 service line, as well as his City Council representative and the Police Department.

The Solution: After Public Eye called, the site was cleaned up this week.

Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the Department of Utilities, said the city received 14 calls about the Airport Road-Natomas Crossing Drive since July 1.

The city has one crew to respond to an average of 400 calls per month regarding illegal dumping. She said the crew typically cleans up about 40 sites a day and responds to illegal dumping reports within two to three weeks.

"While we are sympathetic to Mr. Palmer's concerns, illegal dumping is a chronic problem in Sacramento and illegal dumping is a crime," Hess said in an e-mail.

The community can help by reporting incidents in progress, she said. The city offers a $500 reward for those caught and convicted of illegally dumping.

Residents hiring someone to haul waste from their property also can help by using licensed and bonded haulers, who are more likely to take material to the dump or transfer station instead of depositing it in a vacant lot.

People who observe someone illegally dumping material in the city are asked to call the Sacramento Police Department at (916) 264-5471, and to jot down the vehicle's license number and a description of the suspects in case they leave before police arrive.

- Cathy Locke

October 14, 2010
VoteEasy matches your political outlook to November candidates

The good folks at Project Vote Smart have developed an interactive feature that quickly matches your opinions on critical issues to congressional candidates you'll be choosing in the November election. Think of VoteEasy as the eHarmony of political web sites.

First you enter the ZIP where you live. (You may have to enter your address to determine your U.S. House district.) Then you answer a set of 12 yes/no questions covering the important national issues of the day -- abortion, Afghanistan, immigration, gun control, etc. -- as well as how important each issue is to you. At each step the system updates the results, assigning each House and Senate candidate a matching score, (i.e. some percentage similar to you). When finished the system flags the politician that best matches your outlook. Click on the candidate's picture to see a profile comprised of biographical details, interest group ratings, campaign donations and voting record (if available).

Cool as VoteEasy is, you'll also want to consult The Bee's online Voter Guide. It contains biographical profiles of federal, state and local candidates running this November, plus their answers to specific issue questions posed by Bee reporters and editors.

October 8, 2010
The most politically generous ZIP codes

Out of the 44,000 ZIP codes in the United States, which one gave the most money to congressional candidates and PACS in 2010? (Drum roll.) According to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, it's 10021 (the Upper East Side of New York City), whose donors gave a total of $6.6 million.

Using federal campaign finance data, CRP built a donation database showing aggregate giving by state and ZIP and breaking out the figures by top recipients and contributors. It also calculated the relative proportion of money going to the two major parties. 10021, for example, gave 77 percent to Democratic candidates and groups identified with the Democrats. Twenty-three percent went to Republican ones.

On the state level, Beverly Hills 90210 lead California with total contributions of $3.13 million (76 percent Dem, 24 percent GOP).

On the regional level, the top ZIP turns out to be tiny Brooks 95606 giving a total of $467,050 (55 percent Dem, 45 percent GOP). (Not surprising, considering it includes the Cache Creek Casino.) Second in the Sacramento region is 95864 (home to a number of very politically-active business people). It gave $421,687 (60 percent Dem, 40 percent GOP). Coming in third is 95814 (center of state government and lobbying), which gave $308,225 (80 percent Dem, 20 percent GOP).

October 8, 2010
Chief cites crimes stats, but what do they show?

In a recent Washington Post article on the recession's effect on crime, Police Chief Rick Braziel said after years of declining crime rates in Sacramento, "The trend line is starting to go back up." He cited service cuts imposed by government belt-tightening.

But his agency's crime statistics are less clear-cut, showing year-to-year decreases in most major crime categories. Rape, robbery, motor vehicle theft, larceny and burglary are all down through August compared with 2009, the data show.

Property crimes such as auto break-ins that residents are most likely to encounter are down about 3.4 percent.

Aggravated assaults are up about 5 percent. Murders are up 43 percent in Sacramento from last year, rising from 16 to 23 through August. But last year marked a near-historic low for murders in the city.

The increase in murders so far this year is almost identical to the decrease in murders the city saw from 2008 to 2009.

Update: Sacramento Police Department spokesman Norm Leong says that while many types of crime are still down for the year, shorter-term trends are indicating a shift. "What we show is a current loss of ground on violent crime and some increases in property crimes. It is true that we have still decreases in some crime categories but the numbers show we are losing some gains we have made."

-- Phillip Reese

October 8, 2010
State pays recycling firm 8 percent of its claim

SIMS Recycling Solutions has settled a dispute with the state of California over public funds it had sought for recycling electronic wastes.

According to an agreement reached quietly in August, SIMS will receive 8 percent, or $265,000, of $3.3 million it claimed for recycling 8.3 million pounds of monitors and televisions under California's pioneering 2005 e-waste legislation.

In order to qualify for payment, recyclers must prove e-waste is from California by documenting where it was collected. But 79 percent of the collection addresses SIMS provided to the state were invalid, records show.

Jeff Hunts, manager of the e-waste payment program for CalRecycle, called the agreement a "profound win" for the state.

"It is a recognition of the importance of source documentation to demonstrate the eligibility of the material," Hunts said.

In appeal documents, SIMS maintained the e-waste was, in fact, from California and blamed the problem, in part, on sloppy and fabricated documentation from e-waste suppliers.

"It is now clear ... that there is a likelihood that (e-waste) handlers may, in some cases, have provided deliberate false data," SIMS manager Andrew Mason wrote in a June letter to the state.

SIMS Recycling Solutions, which calls itself the world's largest electronics recovery and recycling company, has facilities in northern and southern California. Its state headquarters is in Roseville.

--Tom Knudson

October 8, 2010
Reader says sample voter ballot's type is too small

The Problem: A Citrus Heights reader objects to the tiny print on Sacramento County's sample ballots, and to the note in the margin advising anyone wishing to view the ballot in larger text to visit the county Elections Office website. What about people without computers or Internet access? she asked.

The Answer: Brad Buyse, county elections spokesman, said the county has 177 different ballots, based on the different races and measures in different parts of the county.

To avoid the costs of reformatting the sample ballot booklet for each type of ballot, elections officials opted to shrink the image of the 19-inch ballot to fit the 10.5-inch sample ballot page, for a savings of about $100,000, he said. For voting, the actual two-sided, 19-inch ballot will be much easier to read, Buyse said.

- Cathy Locke

October 6, 2010
Projected doctor shortage bigger than previously reported

The Association of American Medical Colleges has revised its physician shortage predictions, and the figures are pretty grim. Instead of a shortfall of 39,600 doctors in 2015 as previously thought, the AAMC now estimates a deficit of 63,000 physicians in five years. In addition, the nation will face a shortage of 33,100 specialists in cardiology, oncology and other non-primary care fields. The AAMC reports that one-third of today's physicians will retire within 10 years.

The situation is made worse by the aging of the American population which will see a 36 percent increase in people over 65. The expanding elderly cohort will greatly increase the demand for medical care, especially specialist care. Demand will also rise as an estimated 32 million more people get insured as a result of federal health care reform.

The doctor shortage will be felt by everyone, but especially underserved groups in rural and inner-city settings.

Hat tip: Los Angeles Times Booster Shots blog.

October 5, 2010
A quarter of high school students, young adults binge drink

According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control, 25 percent of high schoolers and young adults, 18-34, indulge in binge drinking (as defined as consuming multiple alcoholic drinks -- four or more for women, five or more for men -- in space of a few hours). Further, some 60 percent of those youths who drink alcohol have engaged in binge drinking at some time in the 30 days prior to the survey.

Among adults, men binge drink more than women do, 21 versus 10 percent. Such behavior, says the CDC, increases the risk of accidents, violence, drug overdose and sexually-transmitted disease. Binge drinking causes more than half of the 79,000 deaths attributed to excessive alcohol use during the period 2001-2005. 

The prevelance of binge drinking among adults varies among the states. It ranges form 6.8 percent in Tennessee to 23.9 percent in Wisconsin. California is in the middle at 15.8 percent.

October 1, 2010
A child well-being scorecard for California counties

kids.JPGThe Children Now advocacy group released its new 2010 California County Scorecard of Children's Well-Being, a collection of 26 data indicators reflecting the well-being of youngsters in California's 58 counties. The scorecard covers specific measures of health, safety, crime, abuse and education.

County rankings can be easily browsed using CN's color-coded table. The counties are grouped by their rural/urban and low/middle/high income status. Performance in each of the 26 indicators is illustrated by color: red for bottom third of county rankings; yellow for middle third; and green for top third.

You can also view the specific data for individual counties. Sacramento County, for example, falls in the middle tier for most indicators, but ranks in the bottom third in seven measures, including road safety, truancy and 8th-grade Algebra enrollment.

PHOTO CREDIT: Students and their parents arrive for the first day of school at the newly-built Cosumnes River Elementary School in Sloughhouse, August 2010. Jose Luis Villegas / Sacramento Bee

September 30, 2010
Substance use is up in the U.S., lead by marijuana

As Californians mull the pros of cons of marijuana legalization, the US. Health and Human Services Department released a national survey which shows illegal drug use rose between 2008 and 2009 from 8.0 to 8.7 percent of the population (over 12 years old). The report -- which also covers "past-month" use of alcohol and tobacco -- says the hike in marijuana consumption (6.1 to 6.6 percent) largely drove the overall increase in illicit substances.

In 2009 21.8 million people took some type of illegal drug (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, and inhalants, and the nonmedical use of prescription-type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives). Of these, 16.7 million used pot. Among young adults (18-25), the percentage using illicit drug grew 19.6 to 21.2 percent between 2008 and 2009. The percentage using marijuana increased 16.5 to 18.1 percent over the same period. Among youth (12-17), overall illicit drug use rose 7.3 to 8.3 percent, and marijuana use rose 6.0 to 6.3 percent.

September 28, 2010
Latest Census release shows interesting trends in the Sacramento region

The U.S. Census Bureau today released the results of its 2009 American Community Survey. The ACS -- which replaced the 10-year "long-form" Census questionnaire -- annually collects a variety of socioeconomic, demographic and housing data from a large sample of Americans.

The Bee this morning reported on the significant drop (6 percent) in household income in the Sacramento MSA between 2008 and 2009, as well as the hike in the poverty rate (12.1 to 13.4 percent). There are other interesting changes that happened in the 4-county region in the past two years. You can browse them on this comparison chart. (An asterisk indicates a statistically significant change.) Among the 2008-09 changes:

-- The number of grandparents living with and taking responsibility for their grandchildren under 18 fell 33.9 to 26.8 percent.

-- The percentage of the foreign-born population coming from Asia decreased 43.4 to 41.2 percent, whereas the percentage born in Europe increased 14.2 to 16.4 percent.

-- The percentage of workers employed in the construction industry dropped 7.7 to 6.6 percent.

-- The percentage of people with no health insurance coverage rose 11.4 to 12.6 percent.

-- The median value of owner-occupy housing units tumbled from $350.500 to $298,000.

-- The median age of the region's population increased from 34.9 to 35.9.

-- The percentage of people identifying two or more races rose 4.3 to 5.0 percent.

September 27, 2010
Track congressional races with this handy interactive map

election.JPGThe fall election just five weeks away, political junkies are watching for signs of a political shift in the control of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. To help them OpenSecrets.org and the New York Times have launched an impressive online map that brings together much useful information on every congressional race. The main map color-codes states and House districts to show which are solidly (or continuing) Democrat or Republican and which ones are in play this November. (19  Senate seats and 101 House seats are in play.) Clicking on a race brings up a data profile on each candidate that includes:

Campaign finance: a general breakdown of donations by PAC, individual and self-financing sources, as well as an analysis of donations by top contributors, sectors, industries and geographies.

Legislation: bills sponsored and co-sponsored by the candidate.

Voting record: individual vote on major bills, plus the total chamber vote broken out by party. 

Demographics: a statistical snapshot of the state or House district that includes race, age education, income breakdowns.

September 24, 2010
'Super PACs' proliferate, spend big money on elections

Federal court decisions, Citizens United and SpeechNow.org, opened the door for political organizations to spend huge sums on advertising explicitly supporting or opposing candidates for office. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Federal Elections Commission has so far authorized 33 "independent expenditure-only (IE) committees" that are legally allowed to raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups. CRP has been tracking the proliferation these so-called super PACs which advocate from both sides of the political spectrum. You can see the complete list here.

You can also browse the latest campaign spending of all IE groups with a searchable database created by the government watchdog The Sunlight Foundation. The data is sortable by committee, candidate and race. To date independent expenditures total some $57 million in the 2010 federal election cycle.

California races targeted by IE groups include the U.S. Senate and House districts 3, 10, 11, 19, 32, 36, 44, 45 and 47. Barbara Boxer's candidacy, for example, attracted $57,614 in IE funds ($3,484 in support; $54,130 in opposition). Carly Fiorina, in contrast, prompted $274,065 in independent spending ($235,362 in support; $38,703 in opposition). Boxer's biggest IE supporter is NARAL Pro Choice America. Fiorina's biggest is the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life political organization. 

September 22, 2010
California losing millions from illicit cigarette trade

cigs.JPGNational Public Radio last Sunday reported on the big bite the black market in cigarettes is taking out of state excise tax collection. Criminal trade in tobacco is incentivized by the disparity in tax rates across the country. Taxes on a 20-pack carton range from 17 cents in Missouri to a whopping $4.35 in New York. Smugglers make a lot of money buying up large quantities of cigarettes in low-tax states, such as North Carolina or Virginia, and transporting them to a high-tax states, such as New York or Rhode Island.

California's tax rate is relatively small at 87 cents a carton. Even so, tax evasion is active in the state where "$182 million a year is lost in unpaid excise taxes on cigarettes," according to BOE's Anita Gore, quoted in the NPR story. In August, for example, The Bee reported federal indictments in Los Angeles and Sacramento involving 21 people and five businesses who were charged with robbing the California of $35 million in unpaid tobacco taxes.

At the same time authorities battle tax cheats, state government is losing tax revenue just because people are spending less on tobacco. Last year cigarette sales plunged 8.1 percent, the biggest year-over-year drop since 2000. That was good for public health, but bad for state health programs which lost $74 million in funding.

PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Ilagan, owner of Joe's Discount Cigarettes + More shows the Benson and Hedges cigarettes that sell for $6.16 a pack plus tax at his store in South Sacramento. Manny Crisostomo / The Sacramento Bee

September 21, 2010
Drive-by shooting data hard to come by

Drive-by shootings seem to be a regular occurrence in Sacramento -- the last reported one happening in Oak Park on Aug. 31. Surprisingly, there is no national count of such crimes, as defined by the U.S. Dept of Justice as "an incident in which the shooter fires a firearm from a motor vehicle at another person, vehicle, building, or another stationary object".

But one non-profit group has tried to get a statistical handle on the problem. The Violence Policy Center tracked news accounts of drive-by shootings from July 1 through Dec. 31, 2008. The study reports 733 incidents, resulting in 631 injuries and 154 deaths. California led the nation with 148 incidents, 40 dead and 129 injured.

The VPC further analyzed the shootings in terms of victim age, time and location. The researchers found:

* Most of the victims were 18 or older. 145 of the 785 victims were identified as under 18.

* Nearly half of the incidents happened at a residence (314 of the 676 shootings where location was reported).

* 17 percent of the incidents involved shots at another vehcle.

* Most of the crimes happened between the hours of 7 p.m. and 12 am.

* Possible gang-involvement was mentioned in 17 percent of cases.

Hat tip: The California Research Bureau.

September 17, 2010
Lobbyists not as powerful as you think?

Miller-McCune magazine held a conference yesterday on the influence of lobbying on federal policy-making. Panelists discussed the non-intuitive findings of a 2009 book that found that lobbyists who spent the most money on a given issue prevailed only half the time. The authors of Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who loses, and Why examined 100 randomly-selected issues in recent history that provoked interest group involvement. In most cases, the opposing sides cancelled each other out.

"Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens," said Frank Baumgartner, co-author of the study. "What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs." So the result of lobbying is usually maintenance of the status quo.

That's not to say that money doesn't sway policy over the long run, Baumgartner observed. Power in Washington is tilted toward the wealthy, who through the years have accumulated many advantages written into law. The status quo reflects that reality.

September 14, 2010
Brookings: obesity costs the U.S. $215 billion annually

Obesity is said to have researched epidemic proportions. According to the World Health Organization, "Globally, there are more than 1 billion overweight adults, at least 300 million of them obese." In the United States, 27.6 percent of adults are obese (as self-reported to the Centers for Disease Control in 2009).

In a new report, the Brookings Institution attempts to calculate the direct and indirect costs of obesity to the U.S. economy. The authors analyze the economic impact in terms of four major categories: "direct medical costs, productivity costs, transportation costs, and human capital costs." Direct costs relate to the elevated risk of serious medical conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, etc. Productivity costs refer to employment problems such as absentism or presenteeism, shortened work life, increased disability claims, etc. Transportation costs point to to bigger vehicles, increased fuel consumption, etc. due to elevated body weight. Human capital costs consider the measurable negative impact on educational attainment and quality of schooling of obesity.

The bottom line for Brookings? Taken all together these factors point to an economic impact of more than $215 billion a year.

September 13, 2010
Report: for-profit hospitals doing more c-sections than non-profits

The investigative reporting group California Watch analyzed state birth data and found that for-profit hospitals are performing more cesarian sections that non-profit institutions in the state. All things considered, a woman has a 17 percent greater chance of a surgical birth versus a vaginal delivery at profit-making facility. Cesarians bring in up to 100 percent more revenue for hospitals than normal births. CW also found some hospitals have increased the number of cesarians performed for "non-medical" reasons, including the impatience of staff.

You can browse the data for individual hospitals here. The hospitals are ranked by the average number of cesarians per 100 "low-risk" births. Los Angeles Community Hospital is tops with 48.4 in 2007. St. Helena Hospital Clearlake is at the bottom with 6.7. Sacramento County's eight hospitals tend to rank in the middle, ranging from Kaiser South (9.2) to Mercy General (17.4).

September 10, 2010
CDC: prescription drug use continues to rise

pharm.JPGAnother stat that bodes ill for the effort to contain health care costs is this recent datum from the Centers for Disease Control: in the past decade the percentage of Americans taking at least one prescription drug per month rose 44 to 48 percent. Those taking two or more grew 25 to 31 percent. And those taking five or more increased 6 to 11 percent.

Of course the aging population contributed to the trend. In the period 2007-2008, 88.4 percent of people 60 and over were taking at least one prescription. Compare that to people aged 20-59 (48.3 percent), 12-19 (29.9 percent) and children 0-11 (22.4 percent).

According to the CDC, asthma medications are the most commonly prescribed drugs for children. For adolescents: nervous system stimulants (as treatment for attention deficit disorder). For adults: antidepressants. For older adults: cholesterol-lowering medicines.

PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Cable is a long time independent pharmacist at Leader Pharmacy in South Sacramento. Drug stores are expanding even in a bad economy. Sacramento Bee / Lezlie Sterling

September 9, 2010
Did drug company promote HRT with journal ghost writers?

A Georgetown University researcher asserts in a study published Tuesday that phamaceutical firm Wyeth employed ghost-written material in medical journals to "to promote unproven benefits and downplay harms of menopausal hormone therapy". The author, Adriane Fugh-Berman, claims that Wyeth (now owned by Pfizer) paid the medical communications company DesignWrite to produce reviews and commentaries that would counter research that HRT increases the risk of breast cancer. This material, published under the names of various physician-researchers, also touted the uproven benefits of HRT in preventing heart disease, dementia, Parkinson's and other illnesses.

According to Fugh-Berman medical ghost-writing has been used to manage perception of other drugs and "may infest articles in every medical journal". She calls on journal publishers, authors and academic institutions to renounce the practice.

September 8, 2010
RAND: diverting ER patients to clinics could save big bucks

urgent.JPGIt's no secret that too many people seek medical care unnecessarily at hospital emergency rooms. Those visits are not only costly -- to patients and the health care system as a whole -- they also lead to longer wait times at ERs. (A recent story from the Merced Sun-Star reported that wait times in 2009 rose to an average of four hours, seven minutes nationally and four-and-half hours in California.)

Yesterday the RAND organization released a study asserting that 16.8 percent of ER visits could have been handled by retail medical clinics or urgent care centers, saving the nation some $4.4 billion annually. Retail clinics can treat non-emergency conditions such as colds or urinary tract infections. Urgent care facilties can respond to more significant problems, such as minor fractures and serious cuts.

Limited hours at clinics and urgent centers restrict the percentage of ER visits that can be diverted. RAND researchers estimate that 27.1 percent of visits could be handled at alternative venues, if the latter were open longer hours.

PHOTO CREDIT: Viorica Bantea sees Lucille Cannon of Sacramento for her broken ankle at an after-hours urgent care clinic for the Family Medical Clinic office on L Street in 2008.  Autumn Cruz / The Sacramento Bee

September 7, 2010
Nightspot's throbbing beat is annoyance to neighbors

By Ryan Lillis
rlillis@sacbee.com

Oshima Sushi in Natomas has become a popular nightspot for those wanting to avoid the downtown scene. But that doesn't mean everyone in the area is thrilled with the place.

Neighbors who live behind the restaurant on Natomas Crossing Drive are complaining that they can hear – and feel – the beat of live music at Oshima's Fugu Lounge inside their homes. They also say they can hear the crowds outside the restaurant late into the evening.

You may remember Oshima as the place where city development department employee Dan Waters was the registered owner of a cigar stand. City records showed that Waters, son of Councilman Robbie Waters, also worked on a permit for the restaurant's patio days before opening the cigar bar and that he was identified in e-mails as the restaurant owner's business partner.

The city recently renewed Oshima's entertainment permit, with new restrictions on security and outdoor music. Maurice Chaney, a spokesman for the city's Community Development Department, said the revamped permit, renewed Aug. 11, was a compromise between nearby residents and the business.

The new restrictions have erased some of the neighbors' concerns, but not all of them. "It's still too loud on weekends, which will always be the concern," said David Mayer, who said he lives 50 feet from the back of Oshima in the Carriage Lane condominium complex. "We can't have peace in our own homes."

The restaurant hosts live music on many weekday and weekend nights and is open until 2 a.m. on weekends. The restaurant's owners did not respond to several requests by The Bee for comment.

September 7, 2010
Vacant areas full of weeds are hot-weather fire hazard

By Loretta Kalb
lkalb@sacbee.com

The problem: Weeds and more weeds. They carpet two areas of land in south Sacramento. One is an eight-parcel stretch in the 4900 block of 47th Avenue. The other is adjacent to Clayton B. Wire Elementary School on El Paraiso Avenue. The weeds triggered a call to The Bee from a resident who said the county, once alerted, had failed to address the problem.

The solution: The Sacramento County Municipal Services Agency is within 10 days of having the El Paraiso site cleared, said Zeke Holst, spokesman for the agency. Cleanup of the 47th Avenue site was to have begun late last week.

Holst said when the agency gets complaints, it alerts the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District for feedback.

If the site poses a fire hazard, the county calls in a contractor. For rubbish or serious debris, other enforcement action may be needed. Either way, the process takes time, Holst said.

Residents in the incorporated areas with complaints about similar problems should call the county's main complaint line at (916) 875-5656.

To report fire hazards at undeveloped lots or overgrown pastures, call the fire district's weed abatement line at (916) 851-8934.

Or visit the fire district website, www.sacmetrofire.ca.gov, and choose "nuisance complaint" via the business/fire prevention tab.

Send Fix This tips to publiceye@sacbee.com

August 26, 2010
Commemorate the 19th Amendment with these voter stats

womenvoter.jpgNinety years ago today, women gained the right to vote with passage of the 19th Amendment. Despite gains made in the political arena, there remains a gender gap in the election of women to highest public office, including the U.S. Congress where women occupy only 17 percent of the seats.

In general, women register and vote at a great rate than men. According to Census statistics of the voting age citizen population from the Nov. 2000 election, 72.8 percent of American women were registered to vote, compared to 69.1 percent of men. In California, the registration gap was 70.5 to 65.8 percent in favor of women. As for actually casting a vote, nationally registered female voters cast ballots at a rate of 65.7 percent, males 61.5 percent. In California, registered women outvoted men, 65.7 to 60.9 percent. See the attached spreadheet with additional voter data broken out by gender and race.

A 2009 Gallup report reveals a considerable gender gap in terms of party affiliation. Regardless of age, race, ethnicity and marital status women more often identify themselves as Democrats than men of similar demographics. In a poll conducted between January and May of 2009, 41 percent of women identifed as Democrats, compared to 32 percent of men who identified as Democrats. On the GOP side, the spread was 28 percent for men and 25 percent for women of voters who identified as Republicans.

PHOTO CREDIT: Voters cast their ballots early on electronic voting terminals at a polling place inside the Westfield Main Place mall in Santa Ana, Oct. 2006. (AP Photo/ Damian Dovarganes)

August 25, 2010
Household health care spending leveling off?

It's a little counterintuitive. Although the portion of an average family's budget devoted to medical expenses rose from 1998 to 2003 (6.2 to 6.8 percent), the share fell slightly in 2008 (to 6.7 percent). That factoid comes from a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Focus on Prices and Spending report analyzing consumer health care spending during years 1998, 2003 and 2008.

Between 1998 and 2008 the proportion of household health care dollars going to medical services versus medical insurance flipflopped. Medical services, as a percentage of total household health spending, fell from 31.1 to 25.9 percent, whereas insurance costs rose 51.5 to 57.9 percent of the total.

Not suprisingly, older people tend to spend much more of their money on health care. Households, whose "reference person" (head of household) was older than 65, spent on average 12.9 percent of their budgets on health expenses in 2008. Compare that to households with a reference person aged 35-44 that spent only 4.7 percent on average.

August 24, 2010
Study suggests UC Davis administration is bloated

Between 1993 and 2007, UC Davis quadrupled the number of administrators on its payroll while reducing its share of instructors and researchers, according to a study of personnel patterns at nearly 200 universities across the nation.

UC Davis officials disputed the findings, saying it mistakenly classified some teachers as administrators.

The Goldwater Institute, which advocates for small government, analyzed the number of employees per 100 students at the top public and private universities.

Overall, it found that even though student enrollment grew, universities did not become more efficient. Instead, most increased the number of employees they had per 100 students, particularly in managerial ranks.

The trend was especially true at UC Davis, says the report, "Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education."

Among the universities studied, UC Davis had the third-highest growth rate in its number of administrators. Administrator ranks grew by 318 percent during the period studied, while the number of instructors and researchers per 100 students shrank by 4.5 percent and the number of clerical workers went down by 38.8 percent, the study shows.

Across all the universities studied, tuition during the period analyzed grew by 66.7 percent, when adjusted for inflation. "The most striking point here is that university spending per student is increasing in real terms, most rapidly in the area of administration," wrote authors Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Jonathan Mills.

"It is not clear why it has cost nearly two-thirds more to administer each student over this 15-year period. We know that universities are hiring many more administrators per student and that they must also be paying those administrators higher salaries."

UC Davis officials responded by saying the university is working on streamlining its bureaucracy. Chancellor Linda Katehi has directed five administrative units to consolidate operations into three shared service centers, Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor Robert Loessberg-Zahl said in a statement. Those changes will save UC Davis between $9 million and $16 million over the next two to four years, he said.

University officials took issue with the Goldwater Institute's definition of "administrator." Loessberg-Zahl said the report wrongly counts computer programmers, engineers, veterinarians, librarians, physicians, nurses and coaches as "administrators."

"Many of the employees that the report classifies and counts as 'administrators' actually are staffers in direct service to UC Davis' core academic mission of teaching, research and public service, and who work in academic departments," said Loessberg-Zahl's statement.

The salaries of many of those employees are paid by research grants from outside funding sources, he said.

"That means that neither the state nor student fees support these employees, who in fact are central to the service and research missions of the university," Loessberg-Zahl said.

- Laurel Rosenhall

August 24, 2010
Data on the unemployed by race, ethnicity

Just as California and Sacramento regional jobless rates (12.3 and 12.7 percent, respectively) were released last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a new study that fleshes out the demographics of the unemployed. Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2009 describes the continuing decline of employment in all major racial and ethnic groups.

In general Blacks and Hispanics suffered higher joblessness than Whites and Asians last year (14.8 and 12.1 percent compared to 8.5 and 7.3 percent). Of course, unemployment also varies with such factors as education, age, gender, family status. occupation and industry. The BLS report also considers these. Here are some highlights:

Between 2008 and 2009 the overall employment rate dropped 0.6 percentage points to 65.4 percent. Black employment fell 1.3 points to 62.4 percent. Asian employment declined 1.0 to 66.0 percent. Hispanic and White employment both fell 0.5 to 68.0 and 65.8 percent, respectively.

Between 2008 and 2009 employment rates fell faster for men than women across all racial/ethnic groups. The drop was biggest for Black men, 59.1 to 53.7 percent.

Generally speaking, workers with more education were more likely to be employed in 2009. But at every educational level, Blacks and Hispanics were less likely to be employed as compared to Whites and Hispanics.

Unemployed African Americans tended to be out of work for longer periods than the other demographic groups. In 2009, the median length of joblessness was 19.7 weeks for Blacks, compared to 16.6 weeks for Asians, 14.2 weeks for Whites and 13.5 weeks for Hispanics.

August 21, 2010
Wall Street Journal tracks the web trackers

Thursday's NPR Fresh Air interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin should be of interest to anyone concerned about their privacy on the Internet. Angwin is the lead writer of a disturbing investigation into the high tech ways advertisers and marketers monitor activities of people browsing the web. The Journal looked especially at tracking software -- "cookies" and "beacons" -- that records consumer activity across the Net. Companies compile that data to build up profiles (dossiers) based on people's online interests and purchases. These dossiers are then used to customize advertising and other content a person sees on particular web sites.

Angwin and her team set up a dummy PC to track the tracking files typically installed on people's computers by the top 50 most visited web sites. They found as many as 234 distinct "trackers" on one site, Dictionary.com. Other prominent web destinations also hosted many such files:  Merriam-Wester.com (131); Comcast.net (151); Careerbuilder.com (118); Photobucket.com (127); and MSN.com (207). Even the Wall Street Journal plops 60 trackers on users' computers.

Tracking technology has grown in number and sophistication, but consumers can fight back. There are ways to block commercial tracking and "opt out" of so-called behaviorial advertising.

August 18, 2010
California per pupil spending is 32nd in nation

New school finance data from the National Center for Education Statistics ranks states and the District of Columbia in terms of per pupil spending (median current expenditures) for the school year 2007-08 (fiscal year 2008). Alaska is far ahead of the pack with $21,730. New York is second with $16,183. California ranks 32nd with $9,015. That's slightly below the national median of $9,509.

The NCES report includes finanical data for the largest 100 public elementary and secondary school districts in the United States. Boston City Schools tops the list with current expenditures per pupil of $20,324. New York City School District follows with $17,923. Three local districts are included: Sacramento City Unified ($10,051, rank 29); San Juan Unified ($9,141, rank 44); and Elk Grove Unified ($8,554, rank 64). 

August 17, 2010
ESPN investigates health violations at sport venues

VLADE.JPGESPN reporters recently examined 2009 health inspection reports for food concessions and restaurants at all 107 major league sports stadiums and arenas in North America. They found that at 30 venues, more than half of vendors had been cited for at least one "major" violation. The problem, say experts, is the sheer quantity of food and drink sold to fans at such places where conditions are less than ideal.

The ESPN report What's Lurking in Your Stadium Food? includes an interactive map that ranks each stadium/arena in terms of the percentage of vendors found with serious violations. The most troubled venue is the Verizon Center (home of the Washington Wizards) with a score of 100 percent. All of the other 75-100 percent venues are located in Florida.

California ranks relatively well in the statistics with scores ranging from 4 percent (AT&T Park in San Francisco) to 34 percent (McAfee Coliseum in Oakland). Our own Arco Arena comes in at 25 percent of vendors with "critical" violations. You can read health inspection reports of individual Arco vendors with the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department's online database. (Just enter "Arco Arena" in the Facility Name search box.)

PHOTO CREDIT: Vlade Divac, of the Sacramento Kings, helps sell water at one of the concession stands in Arco Arena during the Kings Fandemonium in October 2001. Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee

August 17, 2010
What's on the freeway: Everything, including the kitchen sink

The problem: Hazards on roadways involve plenty of items that don't belong in traffic lanes, including a kitchen sink. The sink was reported recently on the eastbound Highway 50 off-ramp at Zinfandel Drive in Rancho Cordova, officials said.

The California Highway Patrol said objects left by motorists who fail to properly secure a load of household items or construction equipment can do plenty of damage to a vehicle, or cause collisions.

The solution: CHP's Valley Division spokeswoman, Officer Jeanie Hoatson, said the Vehicle Code requires that vehicles be constructed, covered or loaded so that the contents don't drop, sift, leak, blow, or spill. If something falls out, she said the driver is required to either remove it from the roadway or immediately report it to the CHP or other agency that can handle the removal.

"For safety purposes, I couldn't recommend that someone run out in the middle of the freeway to get it," Hoatson said, "but they are required to at least call."

The CHP can arrange for a traffic break to move items to the side of the road for pickup by Caltrans or local road crews.

People hauling items can be ticketed for failing to properly secure a load. And motorists who come upon a stationary object in the road are deemed at fault if they hit it. Hoatson said drivers should be traveling at speeds that allow them to stop or change lanes in time to avoid the object.

- Cathy Locke

August 17, 2010
Audit of EdFund finds questionable spending

A recent audit found that EdFund, the student loan guaranty agency that federal authorities want to close, inappropriately spent nearly $8,000 on coffee, gift cards and lunches and $71,000 on prohibited political lobbying.

"These types of expenditures do not benefit students, and thus are inappropriate uses of state funds," wrote the state Finance Department's Fred Klass of in a July 16 letter to the head of EdFund's board.

Finance audited EdFund's expenditures from November 2008 through October 2009. It found EdFund billed the California Student Aid Commission for unallowable expenses. Among them:

• $70,891.60 to a lobbying firm to urge Congress to maintain the role of guaranty agencies in legislation meant to change the student loan industry.

• $4,334.25 for Starbucks coffee service in the office, including coffee, tea, hot chocolate and condiments.

• $1,598.19 in employee appreciation lunches.

• $1,475 in gift cards for employee recognition.

• $562.02 for condolence flowers, pre-paid parking for an employee event, an ice machine repair and unallowed travel expenses.

EdFund, a quasi-public agency in Rancho Cordova, insures a $38 billion portfolio of federal student loans made by private banks. When students default, EdFund repays the banks, then gets reimbursed by the federal government. Last month, citing EdFund's problems, the U.S. Department of Education said it wants to close it this fall.

- Laurel Rosenhall

August 12, 2010
Studies reveal minority graduation gap at nation's colleges

The Education Trust just published two reports examining graduation rates of white, black and Hispanics students at U.S. colleges and universities. Overall an average of 57 percent of all students enrolled in a 4-year program earn a degree within six years. But only 40 percent of African Americans and 49 percent of Hispanics graduate -- compared to 60 percent of whites. This "graduation gap" varies widely from institution to institution. Some do well at keeping the gap small between white and blacks, whites and Latinos. Others not so much.

California universities are represented in lists of both the biggest and smallest white/minority gap schools. UC Riverside, for example, graduates 66.9 percent of black students compared to 62.4 percent white (a gap of -4.5). Similarly, UCR awards degrees to 63.4 percent of Hispanic students compared to 62.4 percent of whites (a gap of -1.0). CSU Chico, on the other hand, shows a large black-white gap of 26.7 (30.8 to 57.5 percent) and a Hispanic-white gap of 16.0 (41.5 to 57.5 percent).

Here's the breakdown for the two local universities. The figures are six-year graduation rates for 2008, the latest year available.

UCD CSUS
White Grad Rate 82.5 45.7
Black Grad Rate 73.1 29.5
Hispanic Grad Rate 73.5 36.2
All Students 81.4 41.5
Source: College Results Online
August 11, 2010
Dueling polls disagree on who's ahead in the congressional elections

Recent polling for the November congressional races shows a very close contest between Republicans and Democrats. In fact two major pollsters, Pew and Gallup, disagree on who's ahead right now.

The Pew Research Center says "45% support the Democratic candidate or lean Democratic, while 44% favor the Republican or lean Republican" in the mid-term elections. (Compare that to the Pew survey conducted in August 2006 when Democrats had an 11-point lead of 50 to 39 percent.)

Gallup, on the other hand, reports a six-point advantage for the GOP this month, 49 to 43 percent. The parties have been see-sawing the lead since Gallup began polling on congressional races in March. Republicans also lead now in "voter enthusiasm," 44 to 28 percent. They've maintained this lead consistently since March.

August 10, 2010
Conservation consultant may get $1 million school district contract

The Rocklin Unified School District may spend $1 million to hire a company to show it how to save money on energy - a step another district has taken for free.

The 16-school district in Placer County may sign on with Energy Education, which specializes in energy conservation at school sites.

The cost of the contract - $24,700 a month for four years - does not include the salary of an "energy specialist" and the cost of computer software. The software will cost $13,950 the first year and $2,000 each year after that.

The energy specialist is likely to be a teacher earning additional hours for the work, said Larry Stark, assistant superintendent.

The district hopes to reap $800,000 a year in energy savings with the consultant's help. The contract comes with a money-back guarantee that the program will save money.

Rocklin Unified has to cut $18 million from its budget over three years. The cuts have meant furloughs, layoffs and the elimination of programs, Stark said.

The consultant's price tag seems steep to some. "It seems like a lot of money to come up with," said Kathy O'Keefe, a district employee and parent. "I've had teachers tell me they can't buy books this year."

Elk Grove Unified recently reported saving $1 million in an energy conservation program at its 63 schools last year. District staff designed the program with the free help of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and a committee of staff and parents.

Stark acknowledges that the Rocklin district's energy provider - Pacific Gas & Electric - has a similar program but said the district can realize greater savings with the help of Energy Education.

He said districts that go it alone generally save 7 percent to 10 percent in energy costs. He said that Energy Education can cut energy costs by 20 percent to 30 percent. "They are professionals at doing this," Stark said, noting that the company works with 1,200 districts nationwide.

The contract likely will be on the Aug. 18 board agenda, said Wendy Lang, school board president.

The Sacramento City Unified School District signed a 4.5-year contract with Energy Education in 2009, said Gabe Ross, district spokesman. The district paid $26,500 a month the first year. Ross said that amount doubled when the district started paying incentives as it began to realize savings. He said the program reduced energy costs by $1 million the first year.

The San Juan Unified School District recently negotiated a slightly different contract with the company, paying nothing up front but paying it 50 percent of the energy savings on the back end. And unlike most districts, which hire an energy specialist on their own dime, San Juan has two employees paid by Energy Education.

The projections call for $1.7 million in savings during the first year, said Trent Allen, district spokesman.

- Diana Lambert

August 10, 2010
Family economic insecurity balloons

It's no secret that many Americans are feeling insecure about their finances. But so far there hasn't been an objective measure of actual economic crisis in families. Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies has developed the Economic Security Index to track the percentage of people experiencing a major financial loss -- at least a 25 percent drop in available family income caused by a drop in pay, large medical bills or a combination of both.

The ESI lets users compare economic security over time and across different demographic groups. Data is available back to 1985 and projected to 2009. With some hills and valleys, the ESI has grown in the past 24 years from 12.2 percent to a high of 20.4 percent in 2009. Not surprisingly, economic risk affects groups disproportionately. Low-income, less educated, African American and Hispanic people are more likely to face major economic loss.

CHART CREDIT: Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

August 5, 2010
CBO: foreign-born a growing part of the U.S. workforce

The proportion of U.S. workers who are foreign-born has grown from 1 in 10 in 1994 to 1 in 7 in 2009. That statistic comes from the recent update of The Role of Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market, a report by the Congressional Budget Office. CBO analyzes the immigrant workforce in terms of birthplace, age, gender, educational attainment, occupation, industry and residence.

In 2009, 40.2 percent of foreign-born workers came from Mexico and Central American; 26.3 percent came from Asian countries. Immigrant workers completed an average of 12.5 years of education -- compared to 13.9 years for the native born. The foreign-born labor force resides disporportionately in a handful of states: 6 million in California and another 9 million distributed between New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. About 34 percent of all California workers in 2009 were born outside the United States.

August 4, 2010
State agencies paid overtime to managers during furloughs

California Watch (the state offshoot of the The Center for Investigative Reporting) reviewed Controller's Office records and found that "rather than receiving a 15-percent pay cut as intended, hundreds of state managers and other high-level workers brought home more money than usual during some furlough weeks thanks to an obscure federal labor law." CW estimates that up to $1.6 million in overtime payments went to salaried state employees who typically aren't eligible for them. At least 14 people received more than $10,000 each.

The reason this happened is that federal rules require most salaried workers to be reclassified as hourly workers during the furlough period. Such a change allows these exempt workers to receive overtime pay. Thirty-six state agencies and departments paid out the extra cash between Feb. 2009 and April 2010. They were lead by the Employment Development Department, which coughed up $488,007. It's followed by the Office of the State Chief Information Officer ($327,686) and the Public Employees Retirement System ($186,895).

August 3, 2010
Corrections officials say budget woes affect weapons training

The state Office of the Inspector General has found that some state prisons are refusing to implement weapons training recommendations - leading to alarming safety concerns.

At Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad and the California Institution for Men in Chino, prison officials "allow custody officers who have not fulfilled quarterly weapons proficiency requirements to work in armed posts," including regular employees, guards providing vacation or sick relief, or those swapping assignments.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate responded in a letter that budget shortages have made such training infeasible.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation "opens itself to potentially costly lawsuits in the event of a questionable shooting," says the report, "and creates a situation that may lead to tragedy." The agency found 23 percent of Salinas Valley officers it reviewed hadn't met weapons requirements.

Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, said officers without sufficient training in armed stations could be "potentially a serious problem."

The Inspector General's Office, which provides some oversight on corrections operations, prepared the report (available at www.oig.ca.gov) to follow up on audits that took place between 2000 and 2008.

About two-thirds of problems identified in the audits were fixed. Folsom State Prison implemented all applicable recommendations. In contrast, Salinas Valley complied with just eight of 21 recommendations, neglecting educational opportunities for inmates, conducting improper cell searches and failing to document use-of-force incidents in a timely manner, the report says.

- Charles Piller

August 3, 2010
If food is tainted, notify your doctor, health officials say

The latest E. coli scare last month prompted Bee readers to express disbelief that state public health officials had not received any reports that anyone had gotten sick from potentially tainted bags of pre-packaged salad mix.

One Sacramento woman said she and her son were hospitalized after eating the salad, which was the subject of a recall. Several other callers also said that, without a doubt, they had eaten from a bag of bad product.

But none of those who contacted The Bee said they had taken the time to call local health officials.

If consumers suspect that tainted food has made them ill, they should contact their doctor, said state Public Health Department spokesman Ralph Montaño. A doctor can help determine whether tainted food was potentially the cause and if necessary contact the county public health department.

"The county is the first line of defense in these cases," Montaño said.

Robert Schlag, chief of the state agency's Food, Drug and Radiation Safety Division, said local departments need the reports "so that officials are alerted to a potential problem that may exist in the food supply or with practices at a retail food facility."

--Bobby Caina Calvan

July 27, 2010
Hate crimes declined in state in 2009, AG says

Reported hate crimes in California dropped more than 20 percent last year, the AG's office says.

"While the drop in these crimes is encouraging," Attorney General Jerry Brown said in a statement last week, "hate has certainly not been banished from California. The sheer total of incidents motivated by hate is a reminder of how much harder we need to work to overcome prejudice, bigotry and ignorance."

Hate crimes include those motivated by the victim's race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or physical or mental disability.

Hate crimes dropped from 1,397 cases in 2008 to 1,100 last year. Hate crimes have declined by half since 2001, dropping from 2,261 cases.

There was a decline in anti-black crime (17.7 percent), anti-Jewish crime (13 percent) and anti-gay crime (22.1 percent) - categories accounting for about 60 percent of the state's hate crimes. Though violent offenses accounted for 63.5 percent of all hate crimes in 2009, last year marked the largest year-over-year decline in violent hate crimes (down 22.8 percent) this decade.

A total of 479 hate crime cases were referred to prosecutors in 2009. Of those, 363 criminal cases were filed, 283 as hate crimes. Of the 257 hate crime cases with dispositions in 2009, there were 223 convictions - 131 hate crime convictions and 92 other convictions.

- Stephen Magagnini

July 27, 2010
Locals defend SHRA's spending on four-plexes

Nice work, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

That was essentially the finding of a special committee the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission convened to review an inspector general's report alleging SHRA had misused millions in federal funds for redeveloping neighborhoods hit by the foreclosure crisis.

The HUD's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of the Inspector General released a scathing report questioning SHRA's use of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to rehab four-plexes at Norcade Circle near Folsom Boulevard and Highway 50, and at Lerwick Road near Watt Avenue and Auburn Boulevard. The IG found the $500,000 SHRA budgeted per four-plex to be exorbitant.

The panel - made up of members appointed by the City Council and Board of Supervisors - heaped praise on agency staff last week and explained that much of the high cost is due to sensible design features.

"All of the air conditioning units were roof mounted as opposed to ground level," commissioner Cyril Shah said. Several others also used that example for why the rehabs cost $500,000 per property as opposed to the $100,000 per property the IG's office said would have been more reasonable.

Commissioners said they feel good about the project and were hopeful the regional HUD office would, too. In mid-September, HUD will issue a response to the IG's report. The IG has recommended SHRA be forced to repay more than $1 million in federal funds and re-budget more than $3.8 million currently budgeted for the Norcade Circle and Lerwick Road properties.

_ Robert Lewis


 

July 22, 2010
ACLU: authorities continue spying on political groups

Local, state and national law enforcement agencies continue to spy on, harrass and infiltrate law-abiding citizen groups who organize, advocate and protest. That's the assertion of the American Civil Liberties Union in a recent report, Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity. The ACLU based its claim on a study of FOIA requests and news accounts of purported surveillance and harassment by police and other authorities in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

The report includes a state-by-state compilation of such incidents. There are 22 references for California. These include: infiltration of an Islamic Center in Irvine by the FBI; monitoring of a Mother's Day peace protest by the California National Guard; infiltration of a labor union demonstration by the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department; and videotaping of protesters at a 2003 peace rally by Sacramento Police.

July 20, 2010
Fresh data on the well-being of seniors

elderly.JPGAs the demographic bulge of baby boomers moves toward retirement, there's increasing interest in the physical, emotional and economic condition of seniors as they age. To help academics and public and private service providers understand the challenges ahead, a coalition of federal agencies published a new compendium of statistics on people aged 65 and up. Older Americans 2010: Key Indicators of Well-Being contains the latest data on 37 measures that best describe the status of seniors today. The volume is divided into five sections: population, economics, health status, health risks and behaviors, and health care. Some highlights:

The older population is projected to grow from 35 million in 2000 to 72 million in 2030, with their portion of the total population increasing from 13 to 20 percent.

The percentage of seniors (65+) with "functional limitations" (e.g., inability to walk a few blocks or lift a moderate weight) fell from 49 to 42 percent between 1992 and 2007.

Life expectancy among U.S. seniors has increased but has trailed behind other industrialized countries.

Obesity among seniors has increased 22 to 32 percent between 1988 and 2008.

Health care costs for seniors, adjusted for inflation, grew significantly from $9,224 in 1992 to $15,081 in 2006.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mavis Spotts raises her arms during exercise at the Sutter Respite and Recreation program held at the Twelve Bridges Library, July 15, 2010. Sacramento Bee / Randy Pench.

July 19, 2010
American Eagle leads airlines in involuntary passenger bumps

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics collects information on "passengers denied confirmed space". This includes airline-level data on the number of travelers bumped voluntarily and involuntarily. Recently, BTS released 2009 Q4 figures for 19 airlines. In absolute terms Southwest for and away lead the industry in involuntary bumps: a total of 13,113 in 2009. US Airways and Delta Air Lines followed with 7,297 and 6,774, respectively. But considered in terms of total boardings, American Eagle was number one in passenger bumps per 100,000 boardings.

Carrier Boadings Involuntary Bumps Bumps per 100,000 boardings
American Eagle 15,485,727 5,828 37.6
Comair 6,131,756 1,610 26.3
Atlantic Southeast 12,952,513 2,937 22.7
Alaska Airlines 14,692,489 2,980 20.3
ExpressJet 12,394,332 2,386 19.3
Frontier Airlines 9,419,052 1,769 18.8
Continental Airlines 37,524,185 5,893 15.7
Mesa Airlines 10,984,365 1,618 14.7
US Airways 51,741,773 7,297 14.1
United Air Lines 50,971,409 6,645 13.0
Southwest Airlines 101,770,164 13,113 12.9
Pinnacle Airlines 10,509,282 1,223 11.6
Delta Air Lines 60,431,943 6,774 11.2
SkyWest Airlines 20,721,633 2,134 10.3
Northwest Airlines 35,599,219 2,123 6.0
American Airlines 76,245,981 4,304 5.6
AirTran Airways 23,997,810 569 2.4
Hawaiian Airlines 8,344,628 22 0.3
JetBlue Airways 22,267,349 9 0.0
 

July 15, 2010
Report: not enough primary care physicians in parts of state

doc.JPGThe number of physicians in California has grown faster than the population since 1998. But with baby boomers aging, health reform opening insurance to more people and many doctors approaching retirement, the state may face a shortage of doctors in the future -- particularly a shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs) in certain parts of the state and among certain population groups. That's the conclusion of California Physican Facts and Figures, a new report by the California HealthCare Foundation.

Even now, most areas of Califoria barely meet national standards for primary doctors per 100,000 population, says the CHCF. Only the greater Bay Area, Orange County and the Sacramento region have the recommended supply of PCPs. In addition, the ethnic makeup of California physicians doesn't mirror the state's diversity. The biggest disparity is among Latinos, who comprise 40 percent of the population, but only five percent of doctors.

Hat tip: Healthy Cal

PHOTO CREDIT: Dr. Miguel Lizarraga looks at the knee of patient Traci Lucia at the Oak Park Primary Care Center. The Sacramento Bee / Anne Chadwick Williams.

July 14, 2010
California is second in closing the wage gap

The wage gap between men and women has been steadily closing over the years, according to a new report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1979 (the first year such data was gathered) women on average earned 62 percent as much as men. In 2009 full-time working women earned a median income of $627 per week compared with $819 per week earned by male counterparts -- a gap of 80.2 percent. In general pay disparity is less acute among younger and professional/managerial workers.

The smart foks at the New York Times Economix blog have taken 2009 state-level figures from the BLS and prepared an interactive map showing the wage gap across the United States (reproduced below). The District of Columbia had the narrowest gap (96.5 percent), followed by California (88.7 percent).

July 13, 2010
Computer software scams target whatever it hot in the news

It's an Internet scam that really sucks. At least that's how computer security officials describe a new online threat tied to the latest "Twilight" vampire movie.

It's what's known as "headline malware" - malicious computer software that pounces on current hot topics circulating on Internet search engines, whether it's World Cup matches, Michael Jackson's death or scandalous celebrity news.

"There's no end to the number of scams," said Stephanie Edwards,of PC Tools, a computer security software company. She called the recent Twilight scam "vampire bytes."

"When you go online to search for the latest gossip of your vampire heartthrob, underneath that search is a very nasty fake anti-virus threat that tells you to download a fake fix - and pay for it, no less," said Edwards.

Headline malware is typically a ruse to infect your computer, steal passwords or dupe you into buying phony anti-virus software. Sometimes it infects Facebook accounts, using malicious software known as "koobface" that sends out phony messages to your Facebook friends.

David Marcus, director of security and research for McAfee, said the massively popular appeal of the "Twilight" movie makes it "a very attractive lure" that attracts cybercriminals.

He advises being cautious of any unsolicited e-mails, such as invitations to download movie clips or vote for your favorite Twilight actor.

Make sure your computer's security software is updated and scans daily for viruses, he said.

- Claudia Buck

July 13, 2010
Natomas property owners undercharged $1.3 million

More than 1,000 properties in North Natomas are about to get tax bills from the city because they were undercharged for two years.

From 2007 to 2009, businesses and homeowners were undercharged special taxes earmarked to pay off bonds issued to help construct drainage facilities in the area. The total underpayment: $1.3 million.

A total of 1,075 property owners were undercharged, including a business that owes roughly $215,000.

Budget officials recently discovered the underpayments and sent out bills Friday. Most home and property owners were charged the wrong rates in fiscal years 2007-08 and 2008-09, officials said, but the error was fixed in time for the current fiscal year.

It won't be all bad news as the bills hit: 107 property owners actually overpaid.

The money will be used to pay back the debt secured to pay for the drainage facilities in what is called a Mello-Roos bond district. Community Facilities District No. 4 is most of the area north of Del Paso Road and east of Interstate 5.

The city will offer help to those who owe more than $400 and are not delinquent with their payments. One option will be to pay off the taxes over two years without interest or penalties.

In an e-mail, city spokeswoman Amy Williams said staff will "run audits and fix problems as they arise to help ensure that this does not happen again."
- Ryan Lillis

July 12, 2010
Hold the salsa and guacamole, please. It may be tainted.

GUACAMOLE.JPGHere's a depressing finding for Mexican food lovers. Research from the Centers Disease Control suggests that "nearly one out of every 25 restaurant-associated foodborne outbreaks with identified food sources between 1998 and 2008 can be traced back to contaminated salsa or guacamole." That's more than double the rate of the previous decade.

Apparently the likely source of the contamination in fresh salsa and guacamole is diced raw tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro -- each of which has been connected to past outbreaks. Improper storage and refrigeration aggravates the problem and was reported in 30 percent of such cases originating at restaurants and delis. Food workers are thought to be the source of contamination in 20 percent of cases.

The CDC says awareness of the health risk associated with fresh salsa and guacamole will help remind cooks at restaurants and at home to follow guidelines for safe preparation and storage. This will go a long way in reducing the incidence of contamination and pathogen growth.

July 9, 2010
Mandate voting to moderate the electorate?

Off-year elections attract fewer voters as rule. About 34 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the June primary. And if history is a guide, somewhere between 50-55 percent will vote in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election. Some observers worry that those who participate in off-year elections are often positioned on the extremes of the ideological spectrum and so tend to elect candidates on the extremes. The result is a polarized, disfunctional government.

Electing more moderate people was the motive behind California's recently approved Proposition 14, the Top Two Open Primary Act. But one Brookings researcher has an even more radical solution to the problem of a polarized electorate: simply mandate voting for all eligible adults. William Galston argues that non-voters tend be more moderate than the "passionate partisans" who dominate many elections. Increasing voter turnout, he says, evens out the politics and prompts candidates "to appeal broadly beyond their partisan bases". 

Galston acknowledges that mandatory voting runs counter to the libertarian streak in American culture and wouldn't be popular in the U.S. Even so, it has been used in a number of countries, including Belgium, Austria, France and Greece. Australia, for example, passed such legislation in the 1920s when voter turnout fell to 60 percent. Today -- spurred by a modest fine -- Australians go to the polls at a rate of 95 percent.

July 6, 2010
Characteristics of identity theft victims

The U.S. Justice Department last week published a statistical profile of identity theft as reported by households in 2007. Though the data is a bit old, we get a sense of the problem: the rate and types of theft as well as the demographics of the affected families. In 2007 about 7.9 million households (6.6 percent of all U.S. households) had at least one member who was a victim of identity theft. According to the DOJ, the number of victimized households increased 23% from 2005 to 2007. Also during that period the number of households which experienced credit card theft increased by 31%.

In general, households headed by individuals over 65 were less likely to be victims. Households earning $75k and above were more likely to be victimized. Hispanic households were less likely than non-Hispanic ones. One-person households were victimized less than ones with two or more people over 12. The average amount lost per household in 2007 was $1,830.

Identity theft can happen to any of us. For a good overview of the crime, how it works, how to prevent it and what to do if you fall victim, see the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Site. The California Attorney General also has a helpful web site with tips and instructions for submitting information to the ID Theft Registry.

July 5, 2010
Feds revamp citizen portal USA.gov

usagov_logo.gifLast Friday the General Services Administration unveiled its revamped USA.gov, the one-stop gateway into vast array of online federal resources and services. Improvements in the 10-year-old web site make it easier for citizens to link to the most requested information (such as passport application, post office address change and federal job openings). In addition there's also a handy index of federal, state and local government agencies, as well as a contact listing for federal and state officials.

Also new on the site are descriptions of a growing number of government applications that run on Apple iPhones and other mobile devices. They range from a BMI Calculator and Product Recalls to FEMA Mobile and FBI's Most Wanted.

Readers of this blog will be interested in links to so-called Performance Dashboards, searchable databases that allow citizens to track federal spending, stimulus projects, medicare fraud prevention and agency rule-making.

July 2, 2010
CPB: California funding of schools ranks near bottom of U.S.

Is California racing to the bottom in its support for schools? A new analysis by the California Budget Project (a non-profit that advocates for the poor) says the state's funding of public education generally lags the rest of the country. CPB crunched data from the National Education Association and the National Center for Education Statistics and found:

* California ranked 44th in state spending per K-12 student in 2009-10 (Calif - $8,826; rest of nation - $11,372).
* California ranked 46th in state spending as a percentage of personal income in 2008-09 (3.28 percent versus 4.25 percent).
* California ranked 50th in the number of students per teacher in 2009-10 (21.3 versus 13.8).
* California's spending on schools as a share of the state economy trailed the rest of the country for at least 40 years and the gap grew to a record high in 2009-10 (3.3 percent versus 4.3 percent).
* California trailed the rest of the nation in per student spending since the early 1980s (inflation-adjusted dollars). The gap ballooned to $2,400 in 2009-10. 
* Largely due to Proposition 13, California schools after 1977-78 began receiving a much larger portion of funding from state versus local sources (55 percent versus 30 percent in 2009-10).

June 30, 2010
$120 million in federal transit earmarks went unspent

Almost $120 million in federal funding approved by Congress for mass transportation projects has gone unspent. The money sat in Federal Transit Administration accounts for years, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group which obtained and analyzed over 150 earmarks from 2006 and 2007 that have all lapsed.

The largest earmarks include $19.6 million for a light rail system North Carolina's triangle region, almost $10 million to help build a bus terminal-performing arts complex in Rochester, N.Y. and $4.9 million for a proposed commuter train between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich. 

The Sunlight web site provides details of other transit "disappearmarks" in a handy searchable spreadsheet. There is one local item among the 23 California projects listed. That is $190,357 to "improve entrance to the [Davis, Calif.] Amtrak Depot and parking lot, provide additional parking and improve service." The Davis earmark was approved for fiscal year 2006. One wonders what became of the project.

June 29, 2010
President Gonzalez's brother plays CSUS gig

By Laurel Rosenhall
lrosenhall@sacbee.com

The family of Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez has been in the news before.

In 2005, the university hired Gonzalez's son, Alex Jr., for a $72,000-a-year fundraising job. By last year, he was earning more than $81,000 a year and had moved to a position in the public affairs office.

Now, a family member has been compensated by the university's nonprofit foundation, whose board of directors is headed by Gonzalez.

The University Foundation at Sacramento State paid the president's brother $4,500 to perform a Mexican harp concert, hold a student workshop and buy 100 of his CDs, according to foundation documents.

Francisco Gonzalez is a Tucson musician. Last year, he was touring California to promote a CD and stopped in Sacramento in October to play at the university's alumni center.

No taxpayer money was used to pay him. Funding came from the university foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to support the school, said Carole Hayashino, who heads university fundraising. The performance was an event to thank donors, and attendees received Francisco Gonzalez's CD, "The Gift."

The foundation paid him $3,000 for the concert and $1,500 for the CDs. It covered his two-night hotel stay for $190.78. Hayashino said Francisco Gonzalez and an accompanist shared the concert fee.

A sampling of contracts in the last year shows many musicians who played at Sac State earned $1,500 to $2,000. Because Francisco Gonzalez's pay was comparable, his contract did not violate the foundation's conflict of interest policy, Hayashino said.

Still, the performance was a sore point for some professors who have a history of strained relations with the president.

"I see this in a string of scenarios or situations that sound a lot like nepotism," said Kevin Wehr, a sociology professor active in the California Faculty Association.

President Gonzalez said he played no role in his son's hiring and wasn't involved in planning his brother's show. The president said his brother told him he would be touring and offered to stop at Sac State. The president said he mentioned the offer to the ethnic studies department and to Hayashino, who took the lead in planning the concert.

"In my view there's nothing unethical," Alexander Gonzalez said. "I'm not the one who paid him. I'm not the one who engaged him."

Hayashino said the foundation has to spend money to raise money and that the concert was one of many events it does to that end. The foundation has raised $18 for every dollar it's spent on fundraising activities, she said.

See video of Gonzalez's performance here.

June 28, 2010
How effective are self-funded campaigns?

Meg Whitman contributing some $91 million of her own money in her bid for California governor prompts the question: just how successful have self-funded candidates been in the past? The National Institute on Money in State Politics examined the data for the past decade and concluded that candidates who bankroll their own campaigns win elections at a lower rate than candidates who do not. The Institute tracked 6,171 candidates between 2000 and 2009 who financed the bulk of their races (collectively contributing some $700 million of the total $850 million spent). Only 668 of these self-funded candidates (11 percent) were successful. Compare that to candidates who did not contribute much of their own money to campaigns (but who enjoyed a fundraising advantage). They won 87 percent of the time.

June 25, 2010
How does your time use compare to the rest of America?

Another weekend coming up. What do you have planned? Chores, gardening, watching TV, sleeping late? Every wonder how the average person spends her time during the week? The federal government wonders, too. Conducting the annual American Time Use Survey, BLS demographers attempt to quantify time devoted to just about every activity you can think of: personal care, sleeping, eating, job, housework, child care, shopping, education, entertainment, outside organizations, etc.

Of course, the mix of activities varies with factors like gender, age, educational attainment and employment status. But there are overall trends. Here are average weekday/weekend breakdowns for select activities taken from the recently released 2009 report:

Average time (hours per day)
     Activity  Weekdays  Weekends/holidays
sleeping 8.40 9.34
eating 1.22 1.39
housework 1.55 1.87
lawn-garden care 2.02 2.30
shopping 0.84 1.15
child care 1.94 2.10
job 7.88 5.00
television 3.21 4.00

 

June 24, 2010
CDC releases new stats on health risks and health care

fitness.JPGEarly Release of Selected Estimates Based on Data From the 2009 National Health Interview Survey is a large compendium of new data on American health and health care posted last week by the Centers for Disease Control. The report presents 2009 updates of 15 health measures along with prior data from 1997 through 2008 for comparison. Categories cover medical insurance, chronic disease, health risks like smoking and lack of exercise, vaccination and other factors affecting individual health. Some highlights:

Between 2008 and 2009, the percentage of uninsured Americans of all ages rose 14.7 to 15.4 percent. Hispanics in 2009 led non-Hispanic whites and blacks in the the percentage of uninsured (30.7 percent versus 11.1 and 17.0 percent, respectively).

Percentage of people who failed to obtain needed medical care due to cost rose from 4.5 percent in 1997 to 6.9 percent in 2009.

Smoking among U.S. adults generally declined from 1997 to 2009 (24.7 to 20.6 percent).

Percentage of adults who engage in regular leisure-time physical activity ranged from 29.8 percent in 1998 to 34.7 percent in 2009.

Prevalence of diagnosed diabetes among adults rose from 1997 to 2009 (5.1 to 9.0 percent).

PHOTO CREDIT: John Goddard of Sacramento trains at 24 Hour Fitness in this 2008 photo by Renee C. Byer.

June 22, 2010
Cherry Island bottleneck finds itself still bottled up

The Problem: Back in 2005, Mike Pundyk of Elverta contacted us about traffic issues on Elverta Road near Cherry Island Golf Course.

Pundyk cited a big bottleneck around the antiquated, two-lane Dry Creek Bridge and a traffic signal he called "the dumbest light in Sacramento County."

Improvements were due to get under way in 2007, but by 2008 - when Pundyk moved to Oregon to get away from the traffic, crime and crowding in his old neighborhood - nothing had changed. He contacted us to find out whether anything had been done yet.

The answer? Nope.

The Solution: The discovery of American Indian artifacts was the initial holdup, said Stephen White, with the county transportation department.

That was resolved a few months ago. "Now our problem is no money," White said.

Developer fees were supposed to pay for the fix, but development pretty much stopped. Of course, that means traffic "hasn't gotten any worse," he said.

The county wants federal transportation money to widen the bridge to two lanes in each direction and the bridge to be raised out of the 100-year floodplain.

No start dates are planned, however.

- Carlos Alcalá

June 22, 2010
Grant works wonders until teachers get pink-slipped

A $400,000 grant from the California Department of Education meant fourth- and fifth-grade kids at three Elk Grove Unified elementary schools could learn to use technology to improve their language art skills.

It paid for projectors and 20 laptops for each grade level at Prairie, David Reese and Mary Tsukamoto elementary schools, said UC Davis' Carl Whithaus, the project evaluator.

A quarter of the money had to be used for teacher training, officials said.

The teachers started video blogs, taught how to put together digital videos and hooked students up with cyber pen pals to talk about books.

Tight budgets, however, resulted in many of the teachers being laid off or being sent to other campuses as the district reshuffles its staff, Whithaus said.

Six of the 18 teachers remain on the layoff list, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman. She could not say how many of the remaining 12 would be moved to other schools from reorganization.

"Just because the teacher moves to another school doesn't meant they can't assist at another school," Graswich said.

"It's definitely tough," Whithaus said. "If you have a sixth-grade teacher reassigned to fourth grade, you have had none of the professional development related to writing or the technology to be really effective."

Before the personnel reshuffling, the program was actually working. Whithaus said that two of the three schools had higher test scores and the third met other goals.

"It's almost like hitting the ball out of the park," Whithaus said. "They hit the top of the wall."

- Diana Lambert