The Conversation

A weekly discussion of a topic important to Californians

October 4, 2008
Drawing fair political boundaries
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This week's topic: redistricting.

Should legislators draw their own political districts, or should that job be given to an independent citizen's commission?

Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, favors Proposition 11, which would create a 14-member commission to draw district lines, following a strict set of guidelines that would prohibit lines that favor or discriminate against any politician or political party.

Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from Monterey and former chief of staff to Bill Clinton also supports Proposition 11. Panetta says it would reduce partisanship by creating districts more likely to elect independent-minded moderates.

Steven Reyes, a Los Angeles lawyer and former counsel to the Mexican American Legal and Educational Foundation, agrees. Reyes helped write Prop. 11 and says it would help minorities by preventing the Legislature from splitting up communities to protect incumbents and party interests.

But Arturo Vargas of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says the measure would hurt minorities because the commission would not necessarily be diverse. Vargas also says the process, by allowing legislators to continue to draw congressional lines, would force watchdogs to monitor both the commission and the Legislature at the same time, spreading them thin.

And Eric McGhee, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, shares the results of a recent PPIC report concluding that California's gerrymandered districts are not to blame for the partisan polarization in the Legislature. That trait, McGhee writes, was there before the current districts were drawn and would likely remain even if Prop. 11 were to pass.

Who should draw the lines?

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September 28, 2008
Fundamental reform -- does California need an overhaul?

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The topic: reforming California government.

For this week's pieces, see the links on the right under "latest stories."

With disgust toward state government rising to new levels, it's a good time to ask if the moment has arrived for fundamental reform in the way California does business.

I've written the lead piece, an overview of the situation and a quick look at three possible approaches to enacting comprehensive change in California government. We've also got four writers opining on three of those potential avenues of reform.

Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, advocates a constitutional convention. The Bee's Stu Leavenworth also takes a look at the mechanics of how such a confab might work.

Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, was chairman of California's most recent constitution revision commission. He discusses the potential and pitfalls of that approach.

Steven Hill, director of political reform for the New America Foundation, writes on the idea of a Citizens Assembly.

I've also compiled a summary of ten possible reform ideas that might find their way into a package of comprehensive change submitted to California voters.

Thanks for reading.

Does California government need fundamental reform? If so, what kind?

Please join the conversation by commenting below.



September 21, 2008
A carless California
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This week's Conversation is about the future of the automobile in a carbon-stressed world.

carlesscali.JPGThe lead essay is by Daniel Lerch, author of "Post Carbon Cities" and program manager at the Post Carbon Institute. Lerch says our entire environment is built around the car and it won't be going away anytime soon. But he believes we could quickly adapt to a much more intensive use of public transportation, bicycles and walking if we want to. And he points to examples in Europe and the United States where people are doing just that. An excerpt:

With a peak oil conference in Sacramento this week and the 100th anniversary of the first mass-market automobile coming up, it's a perfect time to re-visit our relationship with that most ubiquitous icon of the American (and California) Dream: The Car.

Ford's 1908 Model T didn't just mark the start of widespread private automobile ownership. It heralded the complete restructuring of America around petroleum-powered cars and trucks. By mid-century we had discovered massive oil fields in Texas and the Middle East, and World War II had effectively modernized our industrial base. The stage was set for the true mass consumption of the car, a shift that would fundamentally change our economy, our landscape and even our culture.

These days it's pretty well accepted that we can't all drive everywhere. California was home to some of the earliest suburban sprawl, so its metropolitan areas experienced early on what happens when everyone tries to drive everywhere: unending congestion (despite more and bigger highways), more sprawl and overall greater dependence on oil.

For years we've tried to limit sprawl and promote transit, bicycling and walking - first in the name of conservation and quality of life, more recently to fight global warming. Today peak oil (the looming high point of global oil production) and the end of cheap oil make it more urgent than ever to reduce our dependence on cars.

There's a problem, though. We're stuck with the landscape we've built over the past 60 years, much of which is literally uninhabitable without a car. Trying to make our communities less car-dependent simply by adding more buses, streetcars and light rail is like trying to make a bowl of chicken soup vegan simply by picking the chicken out. It's just not that simple: like the chicken broth in my chicken soup, car dependence is an inherent property of nearly every city, town and suburb in this country and especially so in car-loving California.

To read the rest, go here.

Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy for the Reason Institute, writes a brief rebuttal. He thinks it would be a mistake for the government to adopt policies discouraging the use of the automobile. An excerpt:

Adopting a policy objective to reduce automobile use would be poor public policy, reflecting little more than a knee-jerk political reaction to a long-term environmental problem.

True enough, the passenger automobile is an important source of carbon emissions, but it's not the most important contributor. Industry takes that spot. More importantly, cars emit carbon because of the fuel they use, and that fuel source will likely change dramatically over the next several decades even without interventions from government.

Electric hybrid technologies already have the capability of cutting carbon emissions in half within certain classes of vehicles (e.g., four-door sedans), and more than 65 hybrid models will be available on the American auto market by 2010. Plug-in electric technology is close to becoming commercially viable at today's energy prices, and an electric power system that relies increasingly on nuclear energy, wind, and hydroelectricity means we can reduce carbon emissions without sacrificing the mobility provided by the automobile.

More fundamentally, public policy focused on significantly reducing automobile use in favor of other travel modes - whether it is mass transit,bicycling, or walking - betrays a stunning naivete about travel or a brazen disregard for the needs of everyday Californians.

To read the rest of Sam's comment, go here.

Tim Holt, a freelance writer who lives in Dunsmuir, explores one technique cities are using to encourage a new way of looking at the urban landscape: the temporary closure of streets to vehicles. An excerpt:

There's an easy, inexpensive way for Sacramentans to experience car-free streets. It's called a "ciclovía," or "cycle way" in Spanish. Every Sunday, Bogota opens up 81 miles of its streets to pedestrians and cyclists. It's a healthy exercise in open-air democracy: Families from the city's richest to its poorest neighborhoods mingle together in this year-round event.

Bogota pioneered the event 30 years ago as a way to promote public health. With record levels of obesity in the U.S., it's welcome news that the ciclovía is starting to gain a foothold here. This summer Portland, New York, and San Francisco have all had their own ciclovías, each one six or seven miles long, with Chicago and Baltimore ready to follow suit.

Imagine folks from Meadowview, the Pocket area, Curtis Park, and Land Park enjoying a car-free Freeport Boulevard, linked to midtown, and pedal-powered folks in east Sacramento cruising down Folsom Boulevard. The U.S. ciclovías have generally steered away from a "street fair" approach, avoiding the vendors that can take business away from neighborhood shops and restaurants. Instead, they've emphasized free activities for adults and kids - including free tango, yoga, and bike repair classes.

To read the rest of Tim's comment, go here.

What do you think? Should the government try to get us out of our cars?

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September 13, 2008
Dropping out, adding up
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grads.JPGThis week's topic: high school dropouts.

Nearly one-quarter of California students never make it to graduation, creating what might be the state's biggest social problem. High school dropouts are more likely to commit crimes, lead unhealthy lives and need public assistance, hurting themselves and costing society billions of dollars a year.

The lead piece is by one of the state's top experts in the subject: UC Santa Barbara Professor Russ Rumberger. Among other things, Rumberger points out that over the past five years, the number of dropouts in California has increased nine times faster than the number of graduates. Much of that is thanks to a new, more accurate way of counting dropouts, but the overall number - 24 percent - is a huge cause for concern. Rumberger, who heads the California Dropout Research Project, also offers four ideas for stemming the tide.

We've also got four guest commentators to get the conversation started:

dropoutrates.gifSeetha Ream-Rao is a junior at a Sacramento charter school. She gives a student-eye view on why so many kids drop out and what can be done about it.

Samuel McKissack was a dropout himself, mainly due to drug and alcohol abuse. But he cleaned himself up, got a high school diploma and is now working full time. He suggests kids need an "emotional education" in addition to their academic work.

Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, says county continuation schools are the unnoticed dropout factories in California, and their existence allows regular schools to artificially reduce their dropout rates by sending kids to the county for a quick stop on their way to dropping out for good.

Finally, Mark Wardlaw, a Santa Rosa music teacher, says the state's one-size-fits-all academic standards and expectations are a major cause of the problem. Students who are not college-bound, he says, give up in frustration.

What do you think is at the heart of the problem, and what should we do about it? Please comment below.

Do you have questions about this topic? If so, email me and I will try to run down the answers.

Daniel Weintraub
September 6, 2008
Food fight
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This week's Conversation topic: Mandatory nutrition labeling. Should the state require restaurants to disclose the number of calories in every item on the menu?

Do you know how many calories are in what you eat? Answer these four questions to test your knowledge. Of 523 Californians surveyed, none got them all right, and nearly 70 percent missed all four. Can you do better?

Read my take here on SB 1420, a bill that the Legislature has passed and sent to the governor's desk. It would require restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie information in menus or on menu boards. The bill seems certain to raise awareness about calories. But will it change behavior?

Read our guest commentators:

Harold Goldstein, director of the Public Health Advocacy Center and a major backer of SB 1420:


"Calorie sticker shock." That's what people are experiencing in New York City since a new ordinance went into effect there in July requiring chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. For the first time people can easily see, for example, that a cheeseburger and large fries at McDonald's has fewer calories than a blueberry muffin and a Venti Mocha Frappucino at Starbucks.

Californians will see that same simple, straightforward information at fast food and other chain restaurants if Gov. Schwarzenegger signs SB 1420. Right next to the price on the menu board, customers will be able to compare the calorie content of their food and beverage choices.

In recent years a number of fast- food chains have begun to promote healthier items. Requiring calorie information on menu boards will support those marketing efforts and allow consumers to make informed choices. Chains that sell good-tasting, lower-calorie foods will thrive; chains that don't will watch their sales decline. That's how the free market is supposed to work.

Read the rest here.

John Graham, director of health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. He opposes nutrition labeling:

The latest deployment in the war on obesity is upon us. SB 1420, sponsored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, will require California fast-food restaurants to post the amount of calories in every item on their menu boards. SB 1420's backers believe that when we're forced to see the numbers, we'll do the math and change our eating habits.

Two scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, put on their rose-colored glasses and concluded that SB 1420 could cause California to avoid 50 million pounds of extra weight a year. That best-case scenario includes people who eat fast food seven times a week losing 5.4 pounds a year. Earth to Berkeley: Someone who eats at Burger King seven times a week is not going to pay attention to these numbers.

SB 1420 is likely more about junk lawsuits than junk food. The trial lawyers have been busy developing a business strategy to profit from fast food since an infamous New York case five years ago, where a couple of obese girls sued McDonald's.

Read the rest here.

Last year Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill. But he is expected to sign SB 1420 because the restaurant industry has joined the coalition backing the proposal. Read his veto of last year's bill here.

Should the government require restaurant to post calorie information for every menu item?


The American Heart Assn. was listed as a supporter SB 1420 in the final Senate staff analysis before the vote, but a rep for the association tells me that the group now opposes the bill as it sits on the governor's desk. Here is why: 

"While we are indeed champions of menu labeling, I write to inform you that we recently pulled our support and now oppose the bill.

As one of the original co-sponsors of SB 1420 it was difficult for us to remove our support, but amendments taken during the final week of the session prompted us to make this decision.  Specifically, the preemption language mentioned in your article "This prevents local governments from implementing their own local provisions," caused us to change our position.

We have learned from our long history with tobacco legislation that local preemption is bad policy and cannot be permitted to take root in state law.  To have a flawed bill used as a model to be replicated over and over with preemption language was something the American Heart Association decided that it could not condone. It was our vision all along that SB 1420 would be a floor, and not a ceiling, that would preclude local governments from implementing potentially stronger menu labeling laws in the future.


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August 30, 2008
The Budget: Assessing the governor's middle way

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Today's Conversation topic: the state budget impasse, and Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to end it it.

Schwarzenegger has proposed a temporary, one-cent increase in the sales tax to be followed by a quarter-cent cut in that same levy. He also proposes $2 billion less in spending than the Democrats who control the Legislature. And he wants an expanded rainy day fund that he says would smooth the ups and downs in the state's budget cycle by banking money in boom years and then drawing it down when the economy slows.

You can read my take on that plan here. My bottom line: Yes, it's a compromise, but it wouldn't solve the state's ongoing fiscal problems because much of it rests on temporary solutions.

Read Schwarzenegger's take on his own plan here.

Schwarzenegger's proposal is opposed by all four leaders in the Legislature. The Democrats say it spends too little, the Republicans say it spends too much. The Democrats say it taxes too little, the Republicans say it taxes too much. And the Democrats don't like the rainy day fund because, they say, it restrains the growth of government too much. The Republicans don't like it because, they say, it doesn't restrain government enough.

Here is Senate Leader Don Perata's take.

Here is Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill's opinion.

Here is Assembly Speaker Karen Bass on the governor's plan.

And here is Assembly Republican leader Mike Villenes.


August 29, 2008
Sunday topic: Guv's latest budget plan
This Sunday's Conversation will focus on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest budget plan. We'll parse the plan and its potential impact, then let the four legislative leaders go at it. Please come back Sunday morning and join the Conversation.
August 27, 2008
Juvenile crime in California -- less than meets the eye?
I have been corresponding with Mike Males of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, who believes the public is probably unaware of the general trend toward a reduction in juvenile crime over the past couple of decades. Here is his latest email to me with some new numbers that are pretty startling:

The state Department of Justice just sent me the new, 2007 crime statistics, and here is what they show:
--235 juveniles were arrested for murder, 5.0 per 100,000 population age 10-17, the same rate as in 1958 (and lower than any year in between).
--241 juveniles were arrested for rape, the lowest level since that offense was first tabulated in 1957 (when 331 juveniles were arrested for rape in a population less than one-third today's).
--6,880 juveniles were arrested for robbery, the lowest rate since 1968.
--10,607 juveniles were arrested for aggravated assault, about the same rate as in 1973, when assault was defined much more narrowly.
--66,191 juveniles were arrested for felonies, the lowest rate since the first statewide crime report in 1954.
--200,820 juveniles were arrested for all criminal offenses, the lowest rate since 1966, when many fewer juvenile offenses were subject to criminal arrest (most were then defined as "status" offenses)
Are readers and viewers of California's news media aware that juvenile crime, especially serious crime, is at an historic low? You can ask around, but I'm betting that the answer is "no." In fact, I'd bet that far more think juvenile crime, violence, and murder are rising to record peaks. Isn't that the impression many interest groups and the news media constantly present?
Suppose the news media were to present these facts, easily documented and checked, to citizens. Imagine the impact of the statements: "Youths today are no more likely to commit murder and other serious crime than youths of the 1950s...In fact, middle-aged crime rates have skyrocketed to the point that 40-agers actually present a bigger crime problem now than juveniles do..."
If believed--a big if--California's entire crime debate would be turned upside down. Which, if I may be cynical, is exactly why the truth about crime trends will not be presented in the media. There are too many interest groups invested in lending the opposite impression, and the news media simply goes along.
best regards,
Mike Males
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

August 24, 2008
Gang violence: Is a tax hike necessary?

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This week's topic: gang violence.

San Jose has found some success with a community-based program focused on reaching kids where they live, go to school and hang out. The city awards about $4 million in grants each year to two dozen or more non-profit community groups that offer counseling, education and intervention programs.

The program might be an alternative to the $50-million a year tax increase proposed by some Sacramento leaders, or it could be a model for how to spend a big chunk of that money.

You can read my piece on this program here.

A Sacramento youth organizer and a drug and alcohol counselor offer their views here.

For what it's worth: San Jose, while twice the size of Sacramento, is a far safer place:


UPDATE. I just got this response from Don Meyer, the president-elect of the Calfiornia Probation Officers Assn:

The Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) has supported and continues to support rehabilitative programs that work effectively to reduce re-offense.  So it was with great appreciation that we read your August 24, 2008 article, Gang Violence and the way in San Jose, which acknowledges our collective experience:  evidence based programs with measurable outcomes, delivered with fidelity and fiscal accountability reduces recidivism.

Of particular interest was the data supplied in the article "About 20 percent of the youths served were gang members, an additional 31 percent were gang supporters and the rest were described as 'high risk'."  There is ample scientific evidence that several programs, when delivered with fidelity, reduce recidivism in both delinquents and adult offenders. Some examples are Aggression Replacement Training (ART) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT), to name a few. A great deal of research on correctional programs has been conducted over the past thirty years that validates effectiveness of some programs and destructiveness of others.  Significant and encouraging information can be reviewed at the Washington State Information of Public Policy website (WSIPP), which confirms my previous statements. 


We know the following:  Risk to reoffend is directly related to at least eight criminogenic indicators.  These include a history of anti-social behavior, anti-social personality pattern, anti-social attitudes, anti-social associates, family/marital issues, education/employment issues, substance abuse, unproductive use of leisure/recreation time. 

For a community to address crime (including gang issues), research indicates you must adhere to three principles.  Risk principle:  To maximize effect on recidivism, treatment should be targeted toward higher risk, rather than lower risk offenders and the population of treatment groups should not be aggregated by risk (one size does not fit all).  Need Principle:  Treatment should be targeted toward dynamic risk factors, also known as criminogenic needs.  These are risk factors that can be changed (e.g. substance abuse, gang involvement, anti-social thinking) as opposed to those that are static (e.g., prior record) Responsivity Principle:  Treatment should use behavioral and structured social learning rather than unstructured, nondirective, or "getting tough" approaches. 

One of the ongoing sources of frustration for community corrections has been the lack of a dependable revenue source, funds that are held hostage by budget crises, and a general lack of understanding about how to address crime reduction scientifically and effectively.  It is clear that consistent funding needs to be provided to local community corrections which includes probation, community-based organizations, treatment providers, jails, juvenile institutions and the entire law enforcement component. 


What is also increasingly clear is that the community and the taxpayers should demand accountability and results for the funding it provides. 





August 22, 2008
Sunday's Conversation: street gangs

This week's Conversation topic will be street gangs. I'll be taking  a look at a program in San Jose that emphasizes community action to help kids stay out of trouble. The San Jose approach uses grants to community-based nonprofit groups to reach troubled kids where they live, go to school and hang out.

That $4 million program stands in contrast to the the $50 million-a-year anti-gang program that some Sacramento leaders propose, which would be financed by a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax.

Please return to this space Sunday for links to my piece and other comments on this topic, and to join the conversation.






About The Conversation

Welcome to The Conversation, where our goal is to provoke and sustain spirited and civil debate on issues central to life in California. I'll offer a topic and starting point for a discussion each week, but we need you to carry it forward from there. Please dive in and join the conversation.
-- Daniel Weintraub

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