The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

July 20, 2010
Sacramento council panel moves ahead on 'crash tax'

The "crash tax" lives.

The Sacramento City Council's law and legislation committee agreed late this afternoon to forward to the full council a proposal to charge out-of-town motorists who have wrecks inside the city limits.

The Bee editorial board has come out against the idea. It could gouge unfortunate drivers and make Sacramento an unwelcome place for visitors.

But the council committee called it a cost recovery vehicle for the fire department, though some council members had questions about how it would be implemented. The full council is expected to take up the issue in early August, said Interim Assistant City Manager Patti Bisharat.

The fees would be on a sliding scale, based on the type of services provided and the cost of personnel and equipment at the scene.

Any time the fire department shows up, the charge would be $435. If oil or radiator fluid is cleaned up, it would another $60. If there's a vehicle fire, it would be $680 total. If firefighters have to use the "jaws of lie" to get people out, the charge would be $1,875 total. And if a helicopter is called in to transport someone injured, it would be $2,275.

The city hopes to reap about $1 million a year.

July 19, 2010
Clean energy program backers ask Obama for help

California members of Congress are going all the way to the top -- the White House, that is -- in defense of a clean energy program that has hit a major roadblock.

In a letter today, they urge President Barack Obama to fight for Property Assessed Clean Energy program, under which homeowners get financial assistance to install solar panels or make other energy efficiency improvements and the repayments are tacked on to property tax bills. California is the national leader, with programs underway in places including Placer and Sonoma counties and planned expansions in much of the rest of the state.

Of course, they're preaching to the choir -- the Obama administration supports the program and put millions in stimulus money behind it.

It's the Federal Housing Finance Agency that has put the kibosh on it, saying that the program raises too much risk for mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The ruling "will have a severe impact on our economy, our local communities and our goal to move to a clean energy economy and establish energy independence," says the letter, signed by 60 members of Congress, led by Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued last week to protect PACE, and the letter urges Obama to "explore all of your available options to quickly restore and resolve the uncertainty surrounding the PACE program."


July 14, 2010
California officials go to the ramparts for solar program

California officials, who have been out front on helping homeowners install solar panels, are not giving up without a fight.

The programs, which give low-interest loans that are repaid through property tax bills, are in jeopardy because mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have announced they won't guarantee loans for participating homes.

Placer and Sonoma counties have been leaders, but officials hoped to expand to Sacramento and much of the state.

The Bee editorial board has urged California officials to go to court or Congress if necessary to protect the clean energy initiative, which also promises to create green tech jobs.

Today, Attorney General Jerry Brown filed a lawsuit against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for blocking the Property Assessed Clean Energy programs. "As the nation struggles through the worst recession in modern times, California is taking action in federal court to stop the regulatory strangulation of the state's grass-roots program that is spreading across the country," Brown said in a statement.

The full news release is here, including a link to the lawsuit.

Jenine Windeshausen, Placer's treasurer-tax collector who runs the county's PACE program, applauded the lawsuit to overturn what she called "an example of bureaucracy at its worst."

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "have effectively derailed what is one of America's most innovative and effective job creation and conservation initiatives," she said in a statement, adding that "federal bureaucrats -- unelected and unaccountable to taxpayers -- have acted against the stated goals of the Obama administration and Republicans and Democrats across America."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also added his support to the lawsuit.

"By making it more affordable for Californians to invest in energy efficiency, PACE programs offer great benefits to California," he said in a statement.

"Achieving energy independence has always been a top priority in my administration, and it would be preposterous to do away with a program that will create jobs, provide energy savings and benefit our environment. That is why I urge a quick resolution to this lawsuit to allow the continuation of PACE programs in California."

At the same time, Congresswoman Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat, signed a letter calling on the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to preserve the PACE programs -- or resign.

"We stand ready to work with you to help fulfill the promise of PACE financing and to do so in a manner that helps our nation [and] homeowners and that provides the proper safeguards for mortgage lenders. However, if you fail to do so, we ask for your immediate resignation," says the letter, which was also signed by California Reps. Mike Thompson, Michael Honda, Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo.

UPDATE: The feds are not backing down either.

"In keeping with our safety and soundness obligations, the Federal Housing Finance Agency will defend vigorously its actions that aim to protect taxpayers, lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," FHFA Acting Director Edward J. DeMarco said in a statement today.

"Homeowners should not be placed at risk by programs that alter lien priorities and fail to operate with sound underwriting guidelines and consumer protections. Mortgage holders should not be forced to absorb new credit risks after they have already purchased or guaranteed a mortgage."


July 14, 2010
How would you make the State Fair bigger and better?

The California State Fair started its 19-day run today under brilliant sunshine, but it's future is somewhat cloudy.

It is facing some big challenges to stay relevant and financially viable in the 21st century. This year, fair officials have moved up the schedule by a month and slashed food prices by 25 percent in hopes of reversing a slide in attendance.  

Here's a reminder that you can join the Conversation on your ideas to make the fair more exciting and inviting.

July 14, 2010
K Street vote another reason to break ad hoc addiction

The City Council's vote Tuesday night on K Street redevelopment provided yet more evidence why the council should break the habit of resorting to ad hoc committees to tackle controversial issues.

The four members of the ad hoc panel on K Street -- Mayor Kevin Johnson and council members Steve Cohn, Rob Fong and Ray Tretheway -- all supported a more sweeping, costly proposal from Rubicon Partners for the blighted blocks in the heart of downtown Sacramento.

The five council members not on the ad hoc -- Lauren Hammond, Kevin McCarty, Bonnie Pannell, Sandy Sheedy and Robbie Waters -- voted against that proposal --and several of them groused that they felt sidelined from the debate.

The last thing this council needs is another reason to be divided.

The mayor acknowledged that the K Street ad hoc, which he appointed in May, muddled the process. He urged the council to reconsider how it uses ad hocs.

The ad hoc panels are also bad for open government because unlike standing committees, they are not required to meet in public.

If the K Street vote is the impetus for reining in ad hocs, that would be more than welcome.

July 8, 2010
For LeBron James, more cold cash in hot Miami




The rumor mill is churning with reports that NBA superstar LeBron James will end the suspense that's killing us by announcing shortly after 6 p.m. today that he's going to the Miami Heat.

US magazine is reporting that James has already reserved cabanas at a swanky South Beach hotel for a blowout celebration this weekend. If he picks Miami, James would get to enjoy that breezy South Florida lifestyle, could build his worldwide brand among the celebrity set and would complete a rather imposing on-the-court trio with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

The Tax Foundation says James (shown in a Getty Images photo above) has another prime motivation: cold, hard cash.

Because Florida does not have a state income tax, James would actually come out ahead, even though his current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, could offer a bigger contract for more years, writes Aaron Merchak, a visiting scholar at the foundation. (His full article is below.)

So no matter how James explains his decision -- and particularly if he says it's not about the money -- it's about the money.

July 6, 2010
Lungren: Obama suit against Arizona immigration law 'dumb'

AA_LUNGREN6.JPG It's fair to say that Rep. Dan Lungren is no fan of President Barack Obama's approach on immigration.

Actually, that would be an understatement.

The Republican from Gold River (shown at left at a forum in Rancho Cordova last August) says he wants comprehensive reform that accelerates citizenship for those who entered the U.S. legally, that increases the number of visas for highly skilled workers and that strengthens border security.

But he says the president has "poisoned the well" by talking about a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants already in the country -- what many in the Republican Party consider amnesty.

Obama's first major speech on the subject last week was very disappointing, and makes it virtually impossible for any action this year, Lungren says.

And Obama's Justice Department filing suit today against the state of Arizona over its new law targeting illegal immigrants?

"I think it's wrong. I think it's dumb," Lungren told The Bee's editorial board this afternoon.

The Arizona law, which is to take effect July 29, requires law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people they stop -- if they have a reasonable suspicion the person might be in the country illegally.

The federal lawsuit says the law usurps authority reserved for the federal government, will create a patchwork of immigration law and will divert federal resources. Critics also say the law will inevitably lead to racial profiling.

But Lungren -- who says that unlike many opponents he's actually read the law -- says there are enough protections written into it to prevent such abuses. While supporting Arizona's law, he said that a federal solution would be much better.

Obama's strategy won't lead to one, however, Lungren said. And he can't see how it will help Democrats in the November election, especially moderate and conservative "Blue Dogs" who have already stuck their necks out on health care reform.

"They're not taking my political advice," Lungren said.

Lungren refused to offer any advice to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, tiptoeing around whether he should step down over highly controversial remarks he made about the war in Afghanistan.

Some other big-name Republicans have called on Steele to resign after he said that Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing."

There's bipartisan agreement that the war in Afghanistan, started under President George W. Bush, was in direct response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which were plotted by Osama bin Laden while under the protection of the Taliban in the lawless nation.

Lungren called the remarks "very disappointing" and said that Steele owed it to the troops to get his facts right.

But he said that since he's no longer on the Republican National Committee, he wouldn't voice his opinion on Steele's future. The controversial party chairman has refused to stand down so far.


July 1, 2010
Obama pushes immigration reform, finally


In his first major speech on immigration reform as president, Barack Obama said today what he had to say. In keeping with his cool persona, he brought some welcome reason and rationality amid the overheated rhetoric and overreaction to Arizona's new law.

Almost everyone agrees the immigration system is broken. But in noting the political gridlock on the issue, Obama also acknowledged that there is no bipartisan consensus on the solution.

The president blamed "political posturing and special interest wrangling" and faulted Republicans he said had succumbed to the "pressures of partisanship and election-year politics."

"I'm ready to move forward, the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward. But the fact is that without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem," Obama (shown in the Associated Press photo above) said at American University in Washington, D.C.

"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes," he added. "That is the political and mathematical reality."

That moment Obama referred to was in 2007, when Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona proposed a sweeping immigration reform bill. President George W. Bush was on board.

But opponents, including especially vociferous foes on the right wing of the GOP, stopped that momentum cold. By calling such proposals "amnesty," they made it political suicide for a Republican with national ambitions to sign on to such a measure.

Three years later, the situation is, if anything, worse. And frustrations have led to measures like the Arizona law, set to take effect later this month, which calls on law enforcement to check the immigration status of residents if they have a reasonable suspicion they might be illegal. Critics call it a recipe for racial profiling, and Sacramento and other California cities have announced boycotts in response.

Obama supports a plan similar to the : Further secure the borders, penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants and offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already living here -- if they pay fines and back taxes and learn English.

The president has been criticized by reform advocates for not more aggressively pushing their cause. His administration made the political calculation that it wanted to first pass an economic stimulus, health care reform and a financial regulatory overhaul. The first two are law, and the third will almost certainly win final passage when the Senate returns from its July Fourth recess.

So now it's time for immigration reform. But that one may turn out to be the toughest to pass of all.

About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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