Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: California

Gov. Brown's tax-the-rich pitch looks like a winner

California Gov. Jerry Brown
Californians don’t actually hate taxes. They just don’t want to pay taxes.


No, that’s not a contradiction. As my colleague Anthony York reported in Sunday’s Times:

California voters strongly support Gov. Jerry Brown's new proposal to increase the sales tax and raise levies on upper incomes to help raise money for schools and balance the state's budget, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said they supported the governor's measure, which he hopes to place on the November ballot. It would hike the state sales tax by a quarter-cent per dollar for the next four years and create a graduated surcharge on incomes of more than $250,000 that would last seven years. A third of respondents opposed the measure.

Brown's new plan, rewritten recently amid pressure from liberal activist and union groups that had a competing proposal, relies on a larger share of revenue from upper-income earners than his original measure. Correspondingly, it leans less upon sales taxes, which are paid by all California consumers. The poll shows that taxing high earners is overwhelmingly popular.

You see: Californians aren’t opposed to tax increases — as long as it is someone else being taxed.

You want to raise my taxes?  Over my dead body!

You want to raise taxes on the rich?  As Oliver Twist might say, “More please.”

Or, as The Times story said:

"These poll results illustrate that Brown was very smart to put together this initiative the way he did," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Well, yes. Go ahead with all those “Gov. Moonbeam” jokes if you want, but Brown is no dummy. The state needs money. Republicans in the Legislature act as if raising taxes violates one of the Ten Commandments. Californians believe, wrongly, that they are taxed to death (or rightly, that the Legislature needs to get a grip on how it spends tax dollars).

The solution?  Pick on the rich. Because here’s what that strategy buys you:

Shirley Karns, 74, an independent voter from the Northern California town of Lakeport who backs the governor's new plan, said the wealthy should pay more.

"Those who have an unbelievable amount more than those who do not should contribute more," she said. "And on the sales tax, the more you buy, the more you pay. It's pretty tough on low-income people who have to pay an extra nickel here and there, but we've got to get the money from somewhere."

Shirley, we can safely assume, does not qualify for membership in the California millionaires club. (Nor, apparently, does she buy a lot of big-ticket items.)

Of course, these are just poll results. Poll results don’t matter as much as what happens when people step into that private little place called a voting booth. (See: L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, governor’s race, 1982.)

But with the state’s education system crumbling, its infrastructure eroding and its budget bathed in red ink, a tax increase certainly appears to be at least one part of the solution.

And here’s betting that most Californians will agree in November — especially if they’re not the ones who’ll feel the pain.


Dick Cheney's new heart awakens Times' letter writers

Justices take on healthcare reform law's 1st issue: What's a tax?

Mankind's great mysteries -- baldness and Amelia Earhart -- solved? 

— Paul Whitefield

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference at a Boeing plant in Long Beach. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

How much is enough for a Cal State president?

Cal State Los Angeles
The California State University trustees reportedly approved pay increases for the presidential posts at two campuses, in each case boosting them above $300,000. It seems an odd choice just as the university is talking about freezing enrollment and nixing practically all spring admissions next year. Not because the university could accept 20,000 more students with the money it could have saved on pay raises -- more like five of them -- but because the message to the public is apparently supposed to be that the university simply doesn't have an extra cent to spare, except when it wants to.

Executive pay at public colleges and universities has been a continual topic of discussion recently. Cal State trustees say their system already pays less than comparable schools across the nation, but the state Legislative Analyst's Office has reported that CSU compared itself with universities that were out of its league.

Another valid question is whether Cal State has to compete very hard with those other schools. The new president of Cal State Fullerton was picked from Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she earned $295,000 a year plus perks. And no one has offered a reason for her 10% raise to almost $325,000 for shifting to a campus a few miles east. Seeing how broke Cal State is, would she leave the system altogether because $295,000-plus just isn't enough money?


Jerry Brown, tax realist

Another 'parent trigger' mess

Santa Monica College's two-tier trap

--Karin Klein 

Photo: Students walk past the Music and Theatre Hall at Cal State Los Angeles. Facing uncertain budget prospects, Cal State officials announced plans to freeze enrollment next spring at most campuses. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Jerry Brown and the ghost of Proposition 13

Prop. 13
The year is 2012, all right, but what Gov. Jerry Brown has managed to do by turning two potential tax ballot initiatives into one makes it feel like 1978 all over again.

Brown had his own tax ballot measure planned for November, one that would have added a half-cent to the sales tax statewide for four years and raised taxes on the wealthy. But the Courage Campaign, the California Federation of Teachers and some others had their own "millionaires tax" ballot measure heading for the same election.

The compromise cuts the sales tax hike to a quarter-cent over four years and tweaks the upper-income tax to apply graduated increases for seven years to some six- and seven-figure brackets. All this depends on getting enough signatures to get it onto the ballot. (A third measure, a millionaires tax for education promoted by L.A. civil rights attorney Molly Munger, is evidently going forward.)

So, why a compromise? Why not let both go to the ballot and duke it out with voters?

Because over decades, both the research and the political gut-checking show that the more similar measures appear on the same ballot, the smaller the chances that any one of them passes. 

If anyone knows this by hard example, it's Brown.

By 1978, some California homeowners' property taxes were going through the, well, roof. Assessments varied wildly, and the elderly -- some of whom were living in houses they'd already paid for -- worried they would lose them to taxes.

Enter Howard Jarvis, who worked for Proposition 13 in part as a lobbyist for a landlords' association.

Brown, then as now the governor of California, came way late to the game. So did the Legislature.  Incredibly, California had a nearly $5-billion surplus, most of it, paradoxically, from income tax, not property tax. (It would have one right after Proposition 13 passed too, but it had to give it to schools and cities to make up the difference after property tax revenue tanked.)

What they came up with -- Proposition 8 -- would have limited property tax increases  but only for owner-occupied homes. 

It seemed like a plausible option to Proposition 13. After all, it was ostensibly the concerns by homeowners that started the tax revolt in the first place. And a Times poll about a month before the election found that voters didn't know much about Proposition 8, but when they did, they preferred it to Proposition 13 by double digits. As my Sacramento colleague George Skelton wrote then, "In the minds of most voters, Proposition 8 still is a mystery."

On the heels of that poll, Brown and other Proposition 8 supporters launched a TV ad campaign to persuade voters to abandon Proposition 13 in favor of 8; otherwise, Brown warned, the effect would be "devastating" to state services.

It's worth noting that in the nearly 35 years since Proposition 13 passed, commercial property owners have generally fared better than homeowners because such property changes hands less often, which means that some business owners are paying taxes far below the market rate.  Homeowners now shoulder more than two-thirds of the state's property tax burden.

Proposition 8 was too little, too late.  People were already fired up over Proposition 13.  Yet even with all the voter fury, Proposition 13 paradoxically got 64.8% of the vote. If Proposition 13 had been subject to the very rules it would itself set in stone -- requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote for all future taxes, from the legislature to city hall to the state ballot -- it would not have passed.

Lesson very painfully learned, and remembered, 34 years later. 


Could Prop. 13 fall?

Why should Prop. 13 be sacrosanct?

The reply: Prop. 13 and the issue of Amador Valley

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: A 1978 photograph was snapped in Manhattan Beach. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Big government won't build you a snore room, that's for sure

Del Webb home offers snore roomWhen it comes to domestic issues, Americans should trust the private sector.

That's a Republican Party mantra, and two stories in The Times this week have me convinced as well.

Now, I know you think one concerns gasoline prices. Really, though, who cares about that? Snore.

That's right: I'm talking about snoring.  As The Times' Lauren Beale reported:

A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older.

Buyers whose marriages are plagued by a spouse who snorts, grunts and wheezes while he or she sleeps can opt for an adaptable bedroom plan marketed as the "owners retreat" at Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio. Designed for couples who start out in the same bed but end up apart because of ear-piercing snoring, insomnia or late-night TV viewing habits, this secondary bedroom is connected to the bathroom of the master bedroom.

See?  Big problem; private-sector solution. You leave that to government, and pretty soon you've got government-run snore insurance instead.

Still, even the private sector can stumble. For example, I'm a bit puzzled by Del Webb's logic:

"A nice enclave that shares the master bathroom provides a civilized alternative to the family room sofa," said Jacque Petroulakis, corporate communications spokeswoman for PulteGroup Inc., the parent company of Del Webb.

About a quarter of couples in the 55-and-older age group sleep apart to get a good night's rest, according to PulteGroup, which got the data from a third party but also conducted focus groups and interviews as it developed the bedroom plan.

Now first of all, the sofa isn't for snoring husbands; it's for misbehaving husbands, or came-home-late-drunk husbands -- which, come to think of it, is redundant. (It's never for wives, of course, who are too savvy to choose the sofa, regardless of their transgressions.)

Second, if you're 55 or older and still married to someone who snores, isn't it a bit late to be dealing with the problem? Seems to me the snore room should be marketed at 30-year-olds, who need all the help they can get keeping their marriages together.

But, staying true to the private sector's can-do spirit, in addition to the snore room, Del Webb is offering other conveniences:

Among other new life-easing features the builder is offering are pass-throughs from the closet to the laundry room. A door large enough to push a hamper through connects the two spaces.

Which brings me to my second domestic issue story of the week: widespread thievery of Tide detergent.

The Times Dalina Castellanos reported:

Thieves seem to be embarking on an anti-grime spree, some media outlets are reporting, saying thousands of dollars in Tide detergent is being swiped from shelves across the country.

One Minnesota man stole about $25,000 worth of the liquid laundry detergent from a West St. Paul Wal-Mart over 15 months, authorities there say.

And who's to blame for this crime wave?  Sadly, dear liberals, it appears that Rush and Sean and Glenn are right: It's the government -- or, in this case, at least one peson who apparently has fallen prey to the liberal-nanny-state mentality.  

Lt. Matt Swenke of the West St. Paul Police Department said in an interview with The Times that Patrick Costanzo, 53, was the suspect in the Minnesota thefts.

"He told [police] he didn't have a job and the state didn't help him in any way so he did what he had to do to get by," Swenke said.

Yes, it's true, liberals: You do a man's laundry, he's clean for a day. You teach him to do his own laundry, and he won't steal Tide.

Which doesn't make a lot of sense, I'll admit. But then again, my wife keeps me awake a night -- either snoring or doing the laundry.

Speaking of which:  Why do we have so much Tide?


Red meat will kill you? Stick a fork in me, I'm done!

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world 

Poll: What does Newt Gingrich need to do to stay in the race?

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older. Credit: Handout

The CEO for Silicon Valley's CEOs

Carl Guardino
Carl Guardino is a CEO, but perhaps like no other -- head of a group of more than 350 CEOs. That may not sound out of the ordinary, but these CEOs head some of the most important companies in Silicon Valley.

In a place where the really important people are in "cutoffs and flip-flops," Guardino is the guy in the suit, the guy with a degree in political science -- "the only true science" -- not in engineering.

But he grew up in Silicon Valley when the area was still the "Valley of Heart's Delight" and full of orchards, not start-ups. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group he heads is a business organization like few others. It endorses many business-friendly reforms in governance and tax matters, but it is also committed, like its founder David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, to making Silicon Valley livable for the have-nots as well as the super-haves. His board members are on board with measures that put housing and transit within reach for teachers and police officers and firefighters and waitresses and car repair shop employees who live and work there too. "The fabric of the valley," he says, "is contingent on all of those people's success."

Silicon Valley is a model many other places would like to copy. "A friend once designed a map of the U.S. called 'the Siliconia of the United States,' all the regions wanting to capture the magic and imagination [of] Silicon Valley." To make that happen, says Guardino, those places too will have to care about the quality-of-life issues for all of the local population, not just the CEOs' employees.


Patt Morrison Asks:Carl Guardino, Silicon Valley's big wheel

Patt Morrison Asks:Tiffany Shlain, wired in

Patt Morrison Asks:The Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Carl Guardino talks with reporters after meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown in March 2011. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

War on drugs' big catch -- 'Viagra man'

The U.S. is spending vast sums and still can't effectively stem the flow of drugs from Latin America, but we are managing to protect the country from the evils of counterfeit erectile dysfunction pills
These just in -- two dispatches from the front of the war on drugs:

"U.S. fails to catch two-thirds of drug boats, general says," and "Man charged with smuggling 40,000 erectile dysfunction pills."

One is about being stupid. The other is about being caught.

I'll let you decide which is which.

First, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters Wednesday that military efforts to stem drug smuggling from Latin America are being hampered because planes and ships have been diverted to combat operations elsewhere.

It's certainly not a problem of funding, though. As The Times' story says:

The military has spent $6.1 billion since 2005 to help detect drug payloads heading to the U.S., as well as on surveillance and other intelligence operations, according to a report last year by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

At prices like that, it might be cheaper for the government to just buy the cocaine from the cartels.

And, of course, there's this little Catch-22:

"Any drug interdiction strategy is a Band-Aid, a temporary fix," said Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counter-narcotics efforts at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Fla. "It may reduce the supply for a short time, but what does get in is worth more."

Well, yeah, there's that. Otherwise known as the 800-lb. gorilla of the whole war-on-drugs policy. Drugs are illegal, but people still want them.  So someone supplies them. So we spend a fortune to try to stop them. And whatever we catch just makes the stuff we don't catch more valuable, which makes the guys who supply it richer. 

Legalization, anyone?

Naw, then people might use more drugs, and that would mean more addicts, and that would mean we would have to spend money on treatment. Instead of, uh, spending a large fortune trying to fight cartels that corrupt governments and kill people and -- well, OK, it's a mess.

Honestly, I don't know if legalization would work. But I'm pretty sure that what we're doing now isn't working.

Still, I'll admit that the current system did manage to get its man, one Kil Jun Lee, 71, of Westlake, Calif. 

Lee allegedly tried to slip 29,827 counterfeit Viagra tablets, 8,993 counterfeit Cialis pills and 793 counterfeit Levitra tablets past authorities at LAX by hiding them in his golf bag and luggage. (Which, of course, was his first mistake, because as any wife who's been abandoned for five hours on a Sunday by her golf-addict husband can tell you, golf and sex never mix.)

And it's not as though the law enforcement guys didn't have a sense of humor:

According to the criminal complaint, Lee concealed the tablets in aluminum-foil-wrapped packets, and was questioned by authorities about whether the pills were all for personal use. He responded that he had a heart condition, and using all the pills would kill him.

Oh, ha ha -- "all for your personal use."

Also, Lee didn't come across as your typical hardened drug smuggler:

He also said he "did not believe the pills were genuine," adding that "he was sorry" for bringing the pills and "will not do it again."

Which, really, is good enough for me. A sincere apology and a promise not to be a repeat offender for what is, in a sense, a victimless crime. (Unless, of course, you paid good money for the counterfeit stuff -- but then again, caveat emptor!)

So the Navy and Coast Guard will continue their futile efforts to stop Latin America's cartels. 

And the good folks at LAX will continue to protect us from the evils of phony Viagra.

And we taxpayers will keep paying for it all.

And that's no joke.


Holder's troubling death-by-drone rules

McCain: Bomb, bomb Iran.... Oh, and Syria

$3 billion in U.S. humanitarian aid buys little respect 

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Colombian police at a cocaine production laboratory in the jungle. Credit: Mauricio Duenas / EPA

Are immigrants deported despite court orders halting their removal?

Honduras prison fire

Nelson Javier Avila Lopez was deported by the U.S. to Honduras in October despite a court order barring his removal. Now it turns out that  Lopez, 20, was among the estimated 360 trapped inmates killed in a massive Honduran prison fire last month.

His case has raised an important question: Are immigration officials notified immediately about court orders blocking deportations? 

Lopez's attorney told The Times that he faxed a copy of the stay order to federal immigration officials. But Viriginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the agency didn't receive any indication of the stay until after Lopez was out of the U.S.

Lopez was detained on an outstanding deportation order. His lawyer went to Immigration Court in September and obtained a temporary restraining order pending review of his appeal. But over the next two weeks, Lopez was transferred from a Los Angeles-area detention center to Arizona. Word of the court order never reached immigration officials, Kice said.

This isn’t the first time immigration agents have moved to deport immigrants with court ordered stays. Amadou Diouf, a Senegalese national, was nearly deported from Los Angeles several years ago despite a federal court order temporarily blocking his removal. At the time, Diouf said he repeatedly told guards and immigration officials that he had been granted a stay but was ignored.

Kice this week said the agency “takes great care to confirm that no legal actions are pending in a case before affecting an alien’s removal,” and would never deport someone if officials had knowledge of a court order.

So are these isolated incidents or a systemic problem? Clearly, it requires at least a review to ensure that those who are still fighting their cases and have a stay aren’t mistakenly deported.


Make California's courts look like us

Holder's troubling death-by-drone rules

Immigration, deportation -- and no right to return?

-- Sandra Hernandez

Photo: A coffin bearing a victim of last month's fire at the Comayagua prison in Honduras is carried into a morgue in Tegucigalpa. Credit: Fernando Antonio / Associated Press

California's phone ban: Maybe not such a bad idea after all

We may owe state Sen. Joe Simitian an apology.The Palo Alto Democrat, who sponsored the 2008 bill that banned driving with a handheld cellphone in California, introduced a bill two years ago that would more than double the fine for the infraction. We asserted in a 2010 editorial that it was a bad idea because it would have little or no impact on public safety and looked a lot like a backdoor way of raising state revenues. The bill was approved, but we were thrilled when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it under the rationale that the fine is already high enough to discourage people from dialing while driving.

A study released Monday by UC Berkeley's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center suggests we may have been wrong, at least about the safety part. Contradicting nearly all of the other research on the issue, it found that traffic fatalities have dropped significantly since the 2008 ban went into effect.

In our defense, our beef with the phone ban was based on voluminous research that showed no difference in the number of accidents involving drivers using handheld cellphones as opposed to hands-free devices such as Bluetooth. There was, for example, a 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute that found no reductions in crashes in states that passed laws like Simitian's. Other studies before that had concluded that although talking on a cellphone while driving is indeed dangerous -- the equivalent of driving while legally drunk-- it's the conversation that distracts drivers, not the fact that one is holding a phone to one's ear while having it. Theoretically, then, banning handheld phones should make no difference; the only way to reduce the danger would be to forbid all cellphone use by drivers.

But the Berkeley study points up a phenomenon we hadn't anticipated. It compared traffic deaths in the two years preceding the 2008 ban and the two years following it, and found that overall deaths dropped 22% and that deaths of drivers using handheld cellphones dropped 47%. Unrelated research might explain why this happened: A survey by the state Office of Traffic Safety in 2010 found that in states with handheld phone bans, 44% of drivers reported they didn't use a cellphone at all while driving -- handheld or hands-free -- compared to 30% in states without such laws. In other words, it's still quite possible that Bluetooth has no impact on safety but the handheld ban discouraged people from talking on their phones at all. Maybe that's because they're too cheap to buy a Bluetooth device, or maybe it's because the ban itself raised awareness that driving while dialing was dangerous. Either way, it seems that the ban has made a difference.

None of this is to say that Simitian's proposal to raise the fines -- and, undiscouraged by Brown's veto, he's back with another bill, SB 1310,to do just that -- is a good idea. With assorted state and local fees tacked on, a cellphone ticket costs drivers $159 for a first offense, and if that isn't enough to persuade them to put their phones down, I don't see why Simitian's plan to boost the total would make much difference. But it appears that cracking down on handheld phones wasn't as lousy an idea as we'd thought.


Sexual abuse, and LAUSD's overreaction

Get the federal government off public lands

Making California's primary matter -- it takes more than luck

-- Dan Turner

Photo: Drivers enjoy the freedom to hold phones to their ears, just before California's ban on the practice was enacted in 2008. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Making California's primary matter -- it takes more than luck

Will the Golden State matter to Republicans after all? This morning, after Rick Santorum's strong Super Tuesday showing, and Newt Gingrich's win in Georgia and his vow to press on through the Texas primary in May and the California vote on June 5, it's possible that this state may finally enjoy the clout it deserves.

Except -- don't hold your breath. Mitt Romney may not have sealed the deal, but he is inching closer. By the time it's our turn to vote three months from now, chances are we'll still just be going through the motions. The candidates love us for our money, but they spend it in states with earlier primaries.  June may be just too late.

That makes California a poster child of sorts for the issue that troubles so many citizens about U.S. politics: Even in the states where candidates have spent so much money to reach the hearts, minds and voting fingers of the people, the basic unit of electoral choice often appears to have become the dollar instead of the vote. How much more true does that seem, then, in California, where so much of the money is raised but where primary voters are likely to weigh in after the race is effectively over?

It wasn't like that four years ago -- for the Democrats. California moved its traditional June primary to February, which the parties decided would be a new, early Super Tuesday. Voters here mattered. Democrats went for Hillary Rodham Clinton; Republicans picked John McCain. Clinton didn't end up with the nomination, but California voters had a voice.

But the 2008 primary was an anomalous election year precisely because Democrats are in charge here. They moved up the election not so much because they wanted their constituents to be able to make a difference but because several top Democratic incumbents in the Legislature were about to be termed out. They hoped that while nominating a presidential candidate in February, voters would also approve a measure loosening term limits -- allowing those same incumbents to run for another term in the second primary election in June. The ploy failed, but both parties (especially the Democrats, because they are the majority here) too readily make elections their playthings.

We were on course to have another February primary this year, but Gov. Jerry Brown -- a Democrat -- signed a bill sent to him by Sacramento's Democrats to move the election back to June, on the same day as the legislative primary, ostensibly to save money. So Republican voters here may lose out on their king-making power.

Isn't there a middle way? California does not have to go through another expensive double primary to be heard at the ballot box. Nor do we have to try to have the first-in-the-nation vote, jumping ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest. There's no reason that California couldn't combine its legislative primary and its presidential primary on Super Tuesday in 2016 -- giving Republicans and Democrats a chance to name their nominee. If Californians without big checkbooks don't like sitting on the sidelines until the game is virtually over, they should say so, loudly and clearly, to their parties.


Super Tuesday results: Live commentary

Romney won't be a pushover in November

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

--Robert Greene

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves after speaking to supporters on a campaign stop in Los Angeles on July 20, 2011. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Where will lion hunter Daniel Richards go next? [Rall cartoon]

California Fish and Game Commission President Daniel W. Richards shot and ate a mountain lion in Idaho, where it's legal. Cartoonist Ted Rall wonders: Where will he go next?


Fish and Game's lion hunter

Photo gallery: Ted Rall cartoons

Mountain lions like their fast food in the forest

Controlling wolves: War on wildlife or basic necessity?

Florida's Burmese pythons: Will they make a meal out of (gulp) us?

Cartoon: Ted Rall / For The Times



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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