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Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

Wed, 06/01/2011 - 6:45pm
The Associated Press

May 29

San Diego Union-Tribune: "Harvest the wind with Tule project"

It's easy to support California's mandate for 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. It's also easy for some to pick apart the details of any project to accomplish that shift away from polluting fossil fuels.

San Diego has the opportunity for a wind farm producing 10 percent of the region's electricity needs, at rates cheaper than solar, and closer to the local grid than many alternatives.

The project is the proposed $500 million Tule Wind Farm near Interstate 8 where mountains meet desert close to Boulevard. One hundred turbines would produce 200 megawatts of electricity, enough for 130,000 households.

A vocal minority has raised a host of arguments, many dubious or untrue: It's noisy, unsightly, the turbines will catch on fire or break with parts flying off at cars on the freeway, nearby residents will suffer health disorders, property values will dip, peak winds are at night and there are better sites in someone else's back country.

Unfortunately, such a shotgun approach diverts attention from issues that do merit attention or mitigation. We sympathize with those who desire a rural lifestyle far from civilization. However, the biggest challenge to them or others in enjoying the serenity of a Boulevard, Campo, Julian or Borrego is a dearth of economic activity.

This project will provide $1 million a year in royalties to landowners and $5 million annually in county taxes. Jobs during construction will average 150 and peak at 325. Permanent jobs will be modest, 10 to 12, for a wind farm monitored remotely 24/7.

Wind energy has significant environmental advantages, but many regions lack sufficient wind. This site has all five necessary elements: strong winds, access to transmission lines, landowner interest, minimal environmental impacts and customers for the power.

The developer is Iberdrola Renewables, the largest wind energy producer in the world. The company is in the midst of the environmental review process and must obtain permits from the county and the federal Bureau of Land Management. It hopes to begin construction in 2012.

If public vetting is instructive of anything, it is the need to be a good neighbor. Iberdrola is voluntarily retrofitting its transmission lines to prevent raptors from electrocuting themselves. We encourage the company to be supportive of local conservation causes as well.

Wind energy is relatively new, an unknown unsettling to some. Yet 25 turbines already are running at nearby Campo Indian Reservation and the world did not end.

"At some point," Randy Lemac of the Mountain Empire Business Association has said, "we must decide what provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people."

Six years after Tule's conception and 18 months into public vetting of specifics, we've reached that point. This is a renewable energy project the region needs. We endorse building the Tule Wind Farm.

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May 30

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise: "Rail delusions"

Washington's refusal to let California rework high-speed rail plans is a clear signal: The Legislature should derail a poorly conceived project that threatens to become a hugely expensive boondoggle. California does not need to pour billions of public dollars into a train system built on fiscal fantasy.

The state's legislative analyst this month offered sharp criticism of the state's bullet train project, and a issued a stern warning: The state should only proceed with the line if the federal government lets the state push back construction deadlines and relocate the initial stretch of track. Otherwise California risks ending up with half-finished system that would be a big drain on public finances.

The federal government has committed about $3.6 billion to the project. But $3 billion of that money comes tied to the state to starting construction next year on a stretch of track between Bakersfield and Fresno.

California received its answer last week. The U.S. Department of Transportation said it would not budge on either the 2012 deadline for starting construction or the requirement to build the first phase in the Central Valley.

That response should end any question of pouring more public money into this half-baked proposal. The rail line already faced serious questions about finances that should have scared away even the most blindly optimistic legislator. The federal government's refusal to provide the state any leeway makes the rail line's success even more improbable.

The analyst points out the clear danger in proceeding with current plans unaltered: The remote Central Valley stretch would not serve a high-traffic corridor. And if the project does not find money to finish the entire Los Angeles to San Francisco system, the state would be stuck with a segment of rail line that could not possibly be self-supporting.

And insufficient funding is a real threat. The financing plan for the $43 billion high-speed rail proposal counts on $17 billion to $19 billion in federal funding — an assumption the legislative analyst bluntly terms unrealistic. The federal government is running trillion-dollar deficits and faces enormous long-term financial challenges. Congress is unlikely to supply anywhere near the amount of money California's rail plans require. And that assessment does not even begin to consider the likelihood of a financially risky train project attracting the $10 billion to $12 billion in private investment the project needs.

But even the full $17 billion to $19 billion in federal money would probably not be enough to pay for the line. The legislative analyst estimates the total cost of the project at closer to $67 billion, and maybe even higher.

The state invites disaster by rushing ahead with a stretch of track that serves no real need and will not pay for itself, with no credible guarantee that the state will ever find enough money to do more. Bullet train proponents call the project visionary, but the practical details suggest a more apt description: delusional.

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May 31

Los Angeles Times: "Too costly for prison"

Steven Martinez was sentenced to 157 years in prison after abducting, beating and raping a San Diego woman in 1998. Three years later, during a prison knife attack, he was stabbed in the neck, his spinal cord was severed and he was left a quadriplegic.

Though he cannot eat, bathe himself or move his arms or legs, Martinez remains an inmate in the state prison system, and his medical treatment costs taxpayers about $600,000 a year. He has also had to spend long periods in an outside medical facility, which costs the state an additional $800,000 a year for round-the-clock guards.

Martinez is just one of dozens of sick, aged, infirm and even comatose inmates who authorities say pose no further threat to the public, yet who together cost state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually because of their medical treatment and security requirements. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling such expenditures a waste, signed a "medical parole" bill into law under which inmates who are deemed "permanently medically incapacitated" may be released and their medical costs shifted to themselves or their families. If for some unanticipated reason an inmate's condition were to improve, he or she could be sent back to prison.

It is a reasonable law. But last week, when Martinez became the first inmate to come before the parole board under its provisions, his release was strongly opposed by the San Diego district attorney, and the board ultimately voted to keep him behind bars.

It's understandable that there's resistance to the new program. Prison serves many purposes in the view of the public. One, of course, is to keep society safe. But another is punishment. Just because Martinez can't commit further crimes (assuming he can't, and the D.A.'s office is not entirely conceding that point), it still seems wrong to many people to free him before his term is up. "I don't think this guy has the right to see another sunset, to sit in front of a TV, to be with his family or to be able to enjoy anything," Rick Bulette, the San Diego police officer who arrested him, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He's a monster."

No one is eager to release brutal criminals. But given California's extraordinary budget crisis and last week's U.S. Supreme Court order that the state reduce its inmate population by at least 33,000 (because the current overcrowding constitutes cruel and unusual punishment), it defies common sense to continue holding inmates who are permanently incapacitated. Officials say they can save more than $10 million a year by releasing these prisoners (although some would no doubt end up on public assistance somewhere else).

Releasing a prisoner who no longer poses a threat doesn't mean that he has been forgiven or that the state is no longer repulsed by his crimes. It reflects the reality that California's prisons must reduce overcrowding and cut costs in a manner that is safe and sensible.

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May 31

San Jose Mercury News: "Health insurance rates need a watchdog in California?"

Health insurers know a thing or two about maximizing profits.

In 2010, the five largest health insurers in the United States made $11.7 billion. In that same year, medical costs increased by less than 10 percent. So what did Anthem Blue Cross, owned by the nation's biggest insurer, WellPoint, decide was a fair rate increase for Californians that year?

How does 39 percent sound?

That's the sort of outrage that led Assemblyman Mike Feuer to introduce AB 52, giving the state's insurance commissioner the power to review premium rate hikes by insurers.

The bill is heading for a floor vote Thursday, and it's a further outrage that the outcome is in doubt. It demonstrates once again the power of the health insurance lobby, which spent millions trying to influence the Legislature last year.

To hear the industry tell it at a recent hearing, California is a "success story" in providing affordable insurance. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who had their coverage dropped last year — or the millions who can't afford any kind of coverage.

Thirty-seven states already require a review of insurers' proposed rate increases before they go into effect. California, through Proposition 103, implemented a similar law for auto insurance, and at the time insurance companies predicted disaster — but none of their fears materialized. In fact, the number of auto insurers in California grew significantly in the following decade, indicating that predictable regulation improved the business climate.

Feuer's bill simply calls on insurance companies to justify their rate increases. It could not be more reasonable. Assembly members need to remember the success of auto insurance oversight and approve AB 52.

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May 27

The (Salinas) Californian: "State parks don't have to close"

A year from now, our choices for spending Memorial Day weekend at one of California's wonderful state parks will be cut by one-fourth.

The state plans to close 70 state parks beginning in September. Four are in Monterey County: Limekiln and Garrapata in Big Sur, and Moss Landing and Zmudowski beaches off Highway 1 in north county. The state says it is closing the parks with the lowest number of visitors.

For the past decade, California has slowly choked the state park system into submission, trimming its budget year after year. State parks have cut their hours of operation, closed campgrounds, visitor centers and restrooms. Additionally, the state says it has a backlog of $1 billion of deferred maintenance in its parks system.

So if you think the state will stop at closing 70 of 278 state parks, think again. The next two budget cycles call for more cuts to the parks system. Translation: more closures and fewer choices for the public.

The closures present a host of problems. For one, state laws protect public access to coastal lands and beaches.

In the case of Moss Landing and Zmudowski, the state can lock the gates, but realistically, people can't be kept from using the beaches. Closure actually means a halt to maintenance and laying off park rangers.

And with no state oversight, it's an invitation to vandals and other despoilers to have their way with our natural resources.

Moss Landing State Beach is a favorite of anglers and nature lovers alike. Locking the parking lot entrance won't discourage many from using the beach. Responsible visitors — those who'll clean up after themselves and haul out their trash — should be given a way to access the parks with the blessing of the law.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature has come up with a creative and reasonable short-term fix: Assembly Bill 42.

While a long-term solution is sought, this bill would allow the state parks system to enter into an agreement with nonprofits to take over park operations.

This is a good idea and should be extended to other groups — even those in the private sector who are philanthropic-minded. What land-use and environmental groups and tourism-driven businesses?

They can step up and share the goal of keeping our treasured parks open.

This can work. Consider the outsourcing and public-private partnerships that local governments have used to keep some programs and services going. Salinas has outsourced the city swimming pool and Sherwood Hall to nonprofits that have kept those two valuable services open. The local trash collector has taken over the duty of graffiti abatement as well.

Allowing nonprofits to run the parks can help minimize the neglect closure would invite and maintain public access.

In fact, according to a summary of AB 42, some nonprofits are already on the job:

"Currently, there are 86 nonprofit ... associations that provide varying levels of support for state parks. The associations assist with educational activities, provide trained docents, raise funds, and volunteer in other ways to support the operation of state parks. Qualified nonprofit organizations could provide greater assistance with the operations of a state park."

AB 42 has passed the Assembly and is now in the Senate. We urge the Senate to pass it and send it on to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. There is no time to lose if we want to keep more of our state parks open.

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May 27

Merced Sun-Star: "Politics as usual in Sacramento

The way Gov. Jerry Brown rescinded the appointment of Madera resident Isabel Barreras to the state community college Board of Governors can only increase public cynicism about government service. Brown's move was tacky.

Barreras, a trustee of the State Center Community College District, was about to have her Senate confirmation hearing when a representative of the governor's office called her to say she was out. Brown wanted to give the post to the wife of a San Francisco political pal and campaign contributor.

Brown could legally rescind the Barreras appointment, which had been made by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters reported Wednesday, the maneuver "appears to be a gratuitous insult not only to Barreras but to a region that sorely needs more, not less, official attention."

We are troubled by the message the governor sent with his decisions. The valley is under- represented on state boards and commissions and Brown made it worse. The governor should be trying to build trust in state government, but he showed that politics trumps policy.

In replacing Barreras, Brown chose Natalie Berg, the wife of San Francisco lobbyist and political activist Peter Finnegan. The two have raised money many times for Brown. Berg's family controls Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, which also was a big contributor to Brown.

Barreras didn't have a chance. The only things she could contribute were a passion for community college education and public service.

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