The Conversation

A weekly discussion of a topic important to Californians

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?

Please comment by clicking here now.

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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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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