California budget epitomizes the ‘throw money at it’ approach

In a Politico interview this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed themes that the state’s Democrats have been touting for years. They say California is leading the nation in bold new policy directions, such as toward universal healthcare. “That’s the real story coming out of California,” said Newsom. “A lot of the think tanks that are informing these presidential candidates, are informing their policies. But California is doing. We’re implementing.”

One need only go back to the previous week to see exactly what the governor is “doing” and “implementing.” That’s when Newsom and lawmakers agreed to a new budget, which spends a record $215 billion. Given the size of Democratic legislative supermajorities and the power of the party’s progressive wing, the budget was viewed as fairly restrained because it didn’t significantly raise taxes or include any monumental new programs, such as single-payer healthcare.

But disappointment from the Left does not obscure reality. The budget more than twice the size of the first budget Jerry Brown passed after he took over as governor eight years ago. It includes some fiscally responsible elements – boosts in the rainy day fund to help weather an eventual downturn and extra payments to pay down soaring pension debts – but no new ideas.

Actually, the budget epitomizes one of the oldest approaches known to government. That is spending as much money as possible on every conceivable program – except perhaps on fundamental ones such as roads, which receive a tiny percentage of the budget. There’s nothing creative or innovative within its fine print and nothing worth emulating elsewhere.

Progressives control the state’s politics. Reducing poverty and inequality are the highest priorities among proponents of that political philosophy. Sadly, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, at a dispiriting 20 percent using the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living-adjusted standard. The state’s income inequality is “on display in the Bay Area, where the riches of Silicon Valley … sit uneasily next to growing encampments,” as Politico put it.

What does the budget offer to help fix that problem?

There’s a modest plan to allow housing development on state-owned surplus parcels to help boost housing supply and more state funding for low-income housing. There’s a plan to let young, low-income people, regardless of immigration status, sign up for Medi-Cal. There’s more money for early education, preschool, college tuition, mental-health programs, police training. There’s a mandate for people to have health insurance or face a fine.

California has been implementing such spending policies for years, but its poverty rates, debt levels, poor schools and crumbling infrastructure never get noticeably better. That’s because California rarely tries competitive, innovative or reform-minded strategies. Its top officials are stuck in a time warp where higher taxes, more regulations and bigger state bureaucracies are the only imaginable approaches.

Newsom’s budget expands services for the poor and “may alleviate (poverty’s) symptoms,” noted CalMatters columnist Dan Walters but “ignore(s) root causes of California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty.” That’s spot on.

If California’s Democratic officials really want to offer model for the nation, they ought to try something that addresses those root causes. Instead we get yet another round of stale and costly spending programs that, if copied throughout the country, will only make the nation poorer and lead it more deeply into debt.

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Boos for a slam on socialism spotlight Democrats’ problem

Sometimes a minor political fracas can define a party in a way that comes back to haunt it.

That surely was the case last weekend during the California Democratic Party’s convention in San Francisco, where several presidential contenders wooed the party faithful. The party is united in its loathing of the president, but faces deep divisions over the best way to win the 2020 election.

“If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” said former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Although a little-known candidate with polling numbers in the single digits, he seemed to have struck a nerve. Hickenlooper’s words would be a no-brainer for most Americans, but were met with a loud chorus of boos. That reaction headlined news stories across the country.

It’s hard to know the depth of such sentiment among Democratic voters, but easy to understand why the skirmish garnered so much attention. Even the most liberal politicians have eschewed the socialist label given its association with authoritarian regimes and its incompatibility with our nation’s freedom-oriented political and economic systems. No matter how one tries to sugarcoat it, socialism is about empowering government at the expense of the individual.

That’s true even if you term it “democratic socialism,” as some progressive politicians such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have done. Hickenlooper didn’t use that watered-down term — and yet activists in the country’s most delegate-rich state were upset. No wonder people took notice.

Democrats could have a problem, given that the 2020 election may be decided in relatively conservative rust-belt states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where socialism remains as popular as dysentery. As the Democrats’ progressive wing has become more powerful, Republicans have been setting a trap: You might not like Trump, but look at how far left Democrats have gone.

Other convention events reinforced that narrative. A young animal-rights activist jumped on stage during a MoveOn gender-equity event and grabbed Kamala Harris’ microphone. The California senator and presidential candidate handled the disturbance with nonchalance – and her fans blasted the man on social media for his mansplaining —  but it reinforced the convention’s tone.

The party elected a new chairman, Los Angeles labor leader Rusty Hicks. “Coming out of the labor movement, I believe in the collective. I don’t believe in the individual,” he said. It’s one thing to support union organizing, but quite another to use brazenly collectivist language. By the way, Hicks was the more centrist establishment candidate who edged out a Bay Area progressive.

The convention highlighted the party’s divisions at every turn. Progressives booed another down-in-the-polls moderate presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, when he criticized Medicare for all. But Sanders pleased the left when he took a veiled jab at former Vice President Joe Biden by arguing a “middle ground” and bipartisanship won’t defeat Trump. Biden wisely skipped the confab to give a speech in Ohio. If Democrats hope to win in 2020 they need to stay far from activists who think that criticizing socialism is a boo-worthy event.

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Ramped up trade war will mainly hurt U.S. consumers

President Trump this week surprised trade officials here and in China as he vowed, in a tweet, to boost tariffs to 25 percent on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports. The move has alarmed American business groups, but is viewed by others as a negotiating tactic and still others as a welcome “get tough” approach.

For instance, Fox News host Lou Dobbs saw it as a rebuke of “globalists and elitists,” who he believes are driving the U.S. into economic decline. But nationalistic tropes ignore reality. Trade isn’t the cause of the despair, but a key reason for our sustained growth and unparalleled wealth. More than 11 million jobs – many in the blue-collar heartland – are dependent on exports.

Those jobs are just one example of international trade’s wide-ranging benefits. The growing economy makes it easier to ignore the ill effects of the administration’s policy, but they are inflating prices on many goods and limiting choices for consumers. Putting government, rather than individuals, in charge of economic decisions is never a sound idea.

Recent research from economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and elsewhere found that “the full incidence of the tariff falls on domestic consumers, with a reduction in U.S. real income of $1.4 billion per month by the end of 2018.” Other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own, which harms their economies and negates any benefits to U.S. firms.

There are anecdotal stories of farmers and manufacturers who are losing business and laying off workers. Companies that are negotiating deals in China do so based on existing rules, but then are blindsided when the president abruptly changes course. That breeds uncertainty, which is why the stock market usually falls at signs of a trade war – and gains when we’re nearing a deal.

Tariffs are tax increases, albeit large ones that allow federal bean-counters to dictate winners and losers. What would Republicans, who mostly back the president’s tariff plans despite some internal dissension, think if a Democratic president could unilaterally impose tax hikes on businesses?

The president’s backers send mixed messages about the end game. Some claim tariffs are a means to rebuild old-line domestic industries and stand up to potentially hostile nations. Others say the president wants freer trade and is issuing threats as leverage to cure a trade imbalance. It’s hard to hit a moving target, but it’s wise to keep in mind the history of freer trade, which benefits the rich and poor alike.

Tariffs protect politically powerful industries, but never for long. When the feds shield, say, steel companies, it raises prices for auto makers and others that rely on steel products and encourages them to seek alternatives. It creates complacency among the government-protected industries, who no longer have to innovate to fend off competition. They end up in worse shape down the road.

Trade also promotes peace. Countries are less apt to fight wars when their economies are interdependent. It’s legitimate for U.S. officials to pressure China over intellectual property-rights violations – but not to imperil our complex system of trading. To do so threatens the long-term health of the economy, imposes stiff taxes on American consumers and quashes their freedom to buy and sell the products that they choose.

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Dueling use-of-force bills spur heated Capitol debate

Community activists packed the state Capitol on Tuesday as an Assembly committee mulled a controversial measure that would require police officers to conform to a stricter standard before using deadly force.

Assembly Bill 392 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is one of two high-profile police use-of-force bills making its way through the Legislature.

Police and activists don’t agree on much, except that the issue has become highly emotional and is in need of legislative action. Police organizations argue that AB392’s changes could endanger officers as they make split-second decisions. Reformers say that too many Californians — especially African-American and Latino men and mentally disabled people — have been unnecessarily killed by officers in recent years.

It is a life-and-death issue that hasn’t been reviewed for eons. In fact, California’s lethal-force law dates back to 1872. The Assembly Public Safety Committee ultimately voted 5-2 to approve the Weber bill, but it faces a rocky road given the opposition from some of the most powerful political forces in the state. Indeed, a couple of lawmakers supported the bill not because they necessarily agree with its content, but because they want to keep the conversation alive.

Specifically, the Weber bill “Limits the use of deadly force by a peace officer to those situations where it is necessary to defend against a threat of imminent serious bodily injury or death to the officer or to another person,” according to the Assembly analysis. It’s the same bill she introduced last year, but it has garnered more momentum this year after police shot to death a Sacramento man whose cellphone they mistook for a gun.

The alternative law enforcement-backed measure is Senate Bill 230, which would leave the use-of-force standard the same, but would require local agencies to adopt new policies. It also calls on a state agency to establish new standards and guidelines. The bill includes some attorney general-recommended reforms, but is the epitome of a “do little” bill, given that it punts on the toughest issues, mainly calls for more training and gives agencies a pretext to ask for more taxpayer money to do what they already should be doing: training officers to de-escalate situations and deal with difficult encounters.

Under current law, police officers may use deadly force if it is deemed to be “reasonable.” In reality, officers almost always say they feared for their life and that using their weapon was reasonable under the circumstances. That’s often true, but not always. District attorneys are reluctant to press charges given the broad nature of the standard. Even when video footage reveals a troubling decision by the officer, that decision usually is deemed “reasonable.” Changing that standard to “necessary” would be a substantive change.

Police have to make quick decisions, but so do members of the public in some police interactions. “They can be in the right place, they can say the right thing, they can have the right attitude when approached by an officer, and still find themselves in situations that take their lives,” Weber said.

We’re not sure her bill is the ideal approach, but its specific and substantive proposals are far more likely to keep a real and necessary conversation going than a superficial alternative designed mainly to give nervous legislators political cover.

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Decriminalize Southland carpool lanes

The one vast place that is California is all car country, whether your ride is a tiny urban electric you can park sideways or a monster farm truck with knobby tires higher than all of that tiny Fiat.

So why do the rules of the road change when you drive different parts of the Golden State?

In the Bay Area, for instance, a driver with the right to do so can enter and exit carpool lanes at will and wherever, not just when the striping changes from yellow to white.

Not down here, you can’t.

But here in Southern California there are also county-to-county discrepancies, especially when it comes to those carpool lanes — and their siblings, whether known as diamond lanes or the Los Angeles County-dubbed Express Lane, or their second cousins once removed, Orange County’s toll roads.

It’s confusing enough for a native driver. What about our tourists and other visitors?

The whole system needs to be regularized and de-red taped.

And especially, as L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn has been on a proper crusade about last week and this, the roads in her county need to be de-criminalized.

Say you’re late for a flight at LAX, driving on the 10 or the 110, it’s red tail lights as far as you can see down the road — but in the lane right next to you, traffic is flowing. You’ve got a passenger. Can’t you just pop into the carpool lane and make the plane?

You ought to be able to. But if you haven’t bought a fancy transponder gadget for our front windshield and you do so, you’re breaking the law. And that’s a really lousy way to run a freeway.

Fines are $25 for the first violation. If not paid on time or ignored, a $30 delinquent penalty is added, bringing the fine to $55, plus the cost of the toll. If a motorist is pulled over by the CHP for illegal use of the toll lane, the fine is $341.

Hahn rightly says that the occasional user in Los Angeles County, just as in Orange County and Bay Area pay lanes, ought to be able to jump into the fast-fast lane and get to the airport or the church on time and simply get a bill in the mail based on a photo taken of the license plate.

But, as our transit reporter Steve Scauzillo uncovered last week after filing a public records request, there’s a powerful bureaucratic incentive within Metro to maintain the status quo: The Express Lane “crimes” have created a cash cow for the agency. The fines for illegal use of Express Lanes represented 36.4 percent of the revenues collected by Metro from 2014 to 2016, according to an audit. Total revenues for the lanes were $130.9 million, with $47.3 million from fines and $83.6 million from the actual paid tolls.

“I would like to decriminalize our Express Lanes,” Hahn told Scauzillo. “It’s this whole shaming thing just for jumping into an Express Lane that bothers me. I think people in L.A. feel like driving and parking have become a criminal activity.”

Hahn rightly says the “pay-as-you-use” model for all motorists is the ultimate goal. Those who want to get a transponder can still be offered discounts or easier billing. But stop making us criminals when there are enough real crooks out there to worry about.

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Voter intent on Proposition 1 was clear as water, but the state’s bogged down in mud

Nearly four years ago, in the midst of the worst drought in recent memory, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond measure that allocated $2.7 billion for water storage — dams and reservoirs, for example.

Yet the funding for projects has been held up. The staff of the California Water Commission doesn’t think the projects submitted provide “public benefits” of sufficient value to justify their cost. File this under “Only in California,” and not in a good way.

Proposition 1 contained fine print requiring proposed water storage projects to offer specific benefits to the public, which is fine, but “water” isn’t counted as one of the benefits.

A competitive process is used to award the funding, and the decision-making process is controlled by the governor’s nine appointees to the CWC. The first hurdle to overcome is the “public benefits ratio,” based on the staff-determined value of “ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements, flood control, recreation and emergency response.” The dollar value placed on those ancillary benefits must be great enough to justify the spending of bond money to build the water-storage projects.

The California Water Commission’s website lists the water-storage projects under consideration and the “public benefit” scoring of each. Public comments are invited at

So far, the California Water Commission’s scoring process has identified a total of only $1.7 billion in “public benefits” in the 11 projects under consideration, meaning $1 billion of the money the voters authorized for water storage will not be spent.

This is the kind of thing that makes voters look askance at bond measures and public infrastructure generally. When voters approve $2.7 billion for water storage, the public benefit they’re seeking is water storage. To bury misleading language in the small print is to invite cynicism and drive future voter participation even lower. The Legislature should act immediately to pass clean-up language for Proposition 1 to make the law line up with the voters’ intent.

That measure should be placed on the November ballot for voter approval, and the water storage projects should go forward before we find ourselves in a crisis of our own making.

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Plots thicken in the FBI Russia investigation

The allegations of Russian collusion in the last presidential election are serious, and our country is right to have the FBI investigating them.

But at the same time the FBI has to be trusted, or its findings won’t be seen as credible. Recent reports of outspokenly anti-Donald Trump agents formerly serving the bureau in the investigation aren’t helping. Some GOP lawmakers are calling for a second special counsel to investigate the FBI and the Justice Department following the revelation of anti-Trump bias on the part of an FBI agent who worked on both the Hillary Clinton and Trump investigations.

It would be unfortunate if a new special counsel investigation sealed the story in secrecy for months or years longer, just as the final report of an investigation into the DOJ and FBI is about to be made public.

Eight days before Trump was sworn in as president, the inspector general of the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the actions of the Justice Department and the FBI in the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his inquiry would look into FBI Director James Comey’s public announcements about the Clinton email investigation and whether some decisions and releases of information were based on “improper considerations.”

It’s the role of an inspector general to investigate possible wrongdoing by government agencies and officials and make the findings public in a report. That’s different from the role of a special counsel, who is a criminal prosecutor conducting an investigation in complete secrecy.

Even after Comey was fired by the president in May, the inspector general’s investigation into his actions as FBI director continued, along with a broader investigation into the decisions and actions of other employees of the Department of Justice and FBI.

The IG’s probe turned up thousands of personal texts between two FBI employees that showed intense anti-Trump bias. Peter Strzok, a former counterintelligence agent who had worked on the Clinton email investigation, had written to his friend, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, that Trump was “an idiot,” “a douche” and a “loathsome human.”

At the time of this discovery, Strzok was working on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that Mueller removed Strzok from the case in July, as soon as he heard about the anti-Trump texts. One text in particular, in which Strzok wrote that “we can’t take that risk” of Trump possibly being elected president, drew the attention of GOP lawmakers.

Separately, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said he obtained an internal FBI copy of Comey’s July 2016 statement in which he declined to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for the mishandling of classified information. Johnson said the statement showed evidence of edits that watered down the language — the term “grossly negligent” in the original document was changed to “extremely careless,” a crucial legal distinction. The inspector general’s report is expected to be completed and released to the public in a matter of weeks, and it may shed some light on what was happening inside the FBI and DOJ while voters were casting ballots in primary elections.

If the report shows that individuals in the Justice Department and the FBI engaged in illegal conduct, criminal charges may follow. But first, the public deserves to know what the government has been doing. That shouldn’t be secret any longer.

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No-growth NIMBYism comes to Irvine

This notion of “if you don’t build it, they won’t come” that has seemingly permeated local residents and their representatives is a fallacy. The state, and county, are in the midst of a housing crisis that NIMBYism won’t solve. They’re already here. We need housing.

But NIMBY no-growth measures continue to be pushed across Orange County. Irvine, a national model for meticulously planned development, is apparently not immune.

According to the Register, “Karen Jaffe and Arthur Strauss, on behalf of Irvine for Responsible Growth, recently submitted to the city ‘An initiative to give the people of Irvine control of their future.’”

“If this initiative passes, developers would have to get voter approval for any project that adds significant traffic, 40 or more housing units or 10,000 square feet of non-residential use and requires general plan or zoning changes,” the Register wrote.

To be sure, no one likes sitting in traffic and the peaceful enjoyment of your home is certainly something worth protecting. But initiatives like these don’t promote “responsible” growth. They promote no growth at all. They add months, if not years, to the development process, increase costs, add uncertainty and perhaps drive away new development — even where it is not opposed.

They are an excuse to make our housing crisis someone else’s problem, and many of the problems that the anti-development crowd hopes to solve by not building actually seem to exacerbate the issue. It artificially reduces housing stock and inflates prices, incentivizing building and density, and puts more cars on the road, and for longer, as people must buy homes farther and farther away from their places of employment.

Even Councilwoman Melissa Fox, who in past years ran on a “slow-growth” ticket and pledged to instate a moratorium on development in 2014, worries the measure will stifle affordable housing, child care facilities and developing the Great Park.

“It goes so far that I can’t support it,” she told the Register.

We shouldn’t shut the door on newcomers to protect those who already have theirs. We should grow in a way that makes sense. This measure doesn’t make sense — it’s NIMBYism to the extreme.

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Remilitarizing police not the way to be tough on crime

On Monday, President Trump lifted Obama-era restrictions on the federal 1033 Program that distributes surplus military equipment to local police departments.

Trump’s executive order speciously characterizes the move as merely “restoring state, tribal, and local law enforcement’s access to life-saving equipment and resources.” In reality, Trump’s action will primarily encourage and subsidize the trend of militarized law enforcement, which does more to undermine public trust than keep police or the public safe.

In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order banning the transfer of certain types of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies and imposed strict requirements for accessing other types of military equipment. In the aftermath of heavily militarized police crackdowns on protestors in Ferguson, Mo., Obama rightly observed that “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.”

Nationwide, according to a 2014 Obama White House review of federal programs providing military equipment to local law enforcement, 460,000 pieces of “controlled property” — items on the Department of State Munitions Control List or Department of Commerce Control List — were in possession by local police. This included 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night vision devices, 617 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and 616 aircraft.

The types of equipment banned from transfer under Obama’s order included things like bayonets, grenade launchers and tracked armored vehicles. For access to other types of surplus property, like Humvees and drones, Obama’s policy required local police to first obtain approval from their respective governing body — city council, county supervisors — and provide clear reasons to the feds for why the equipment was needed.

These reasonable restrictions have now been undone, for erroneous reasons.

Arguing that the restrictions were based on “superficial concerns,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech Monday at a Fraternal Order of Police conference that Trump’s removal of restrictions was necessary to “send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal.”

The idea that it is necessary to uphold the rule of law by making grenade launchers available to school districts — as happened with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which at one point had three of them — or other military equipment to local police might make sense in an authoritarian society, but it shouldn’t in the United States.

At a time when reducing police uses of force ought to be the goal, Trump has chosen to disregard concerns over police militarization in favor of appearing tough on crime.

Practically, with the issuance of Trump’s executive order rescinding President Obama’s, it is now the responsibility of state and local governments to impose and abide by their own restrictions. The militarization of local police isn’t something that should be subsidized by the federal government, nor is it something that should be tolerated by the American people.

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San Juan Capistrano finally gives Ortega Highway widening the green light

After years of foot-dragging, the San Juan Capistrano City Council voted 4-1 to support the widening of a 0.9-mile stretch of the Ortega Highway. The reversal on Aug. 15 came two months after an Orange County Grand Jury report blasted the city for its resistance to expanding the two-lane segment of highway. At the very least, we are glad that most council members have finally come around.

“I think it’s not a bad idea at this point,” said Mayor Kerry Ferguson, who, the Register noted, voted in 2016 to cancel the project.

With at least 43,500 vehicles using the highway every day, and more expected with growing populations and thousands of homes added with the Rancho Mission Viejo development, it has been obvious for a long time that the segment of the Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano needed to be widened.

In 2011, an agreement was reached between the California Department of Transportation, the city and the Hunt Club Community Association explicitly laying out the aesthetics and the scope of the widening. Caltrans permitted the city to assume the role of lead agency, which proved to be a mistake, as the city proceeded to complicate matters.

After securing millions of dollars in grants from the Orange County Transportation Authority, as well as funding from developers, the council reversed itself in 2014 and sought to oppose the project, pandering to the interests of a few who didn’t want to make it easier to drive through the city. Further reversals followed, prompting the county Board of Supervisors to designate O.C. Public Works as the lead agency in 2016.

This series of events, according to the grand jury, caused an unnecessary delay in the project, held up millions of county funds that could have been used elsewhere, and drove up the estimated costs of the project from between $25 million and $30 million in 2011 to $52 million today.

Alas, despite finally realizing the futility of opposing the inevitable widening, the council disputes the idea that “the delay was unnecessary or that it cost the county millions of dollars” in its official response to the grand jury.

We think the record of the project speaks for itself, and speaks to the folly and high cost of catering to NIMBYs for political convenience.

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