San Jose Mercury News: "BART board-union compromise is all one-sided"
Bargaining toward a compromise makes sense only if both sides put reasonable proposals on the table. In the BART labor negotiations, workers' demands are ridiculous, and management has already offered too much.
The longer negotiations drag on, the more BART directors give away -- and the more some meddling politicians demand that they give even more. That's why the 60-day cooling-off period sought by BART directors and Gov. Jerry Brown, and approved by a Superior Court judge on Sunday, doesn't make sense.
It will drag out negotiations, providing labor even greater leverage because the 60 days will expire after summer vacations have ended and could come as Caltrans is looking to shut down the Bay Bridge to switch over to the new span. It would have been much better to endure a strike now.
Despite all the protestations of labor, they won this round -- unless BART directors develop a backbone. That appears unlikely. Even when it was clear last weekend that there would be no deal before the cooling-off period, BART further sweetened its offer.
Remember, BART's train operators already receive some of the best wages in the nation. They contribute nothing toward their generous pensions. Most pay only $92 a month for health care, regardless of the number of dependents, and they work only 37?1/2 hours a week.
Now BART is offering a 10.4 percent salary increase phased in over four years. In exchange it's asking workers to start contributing toward their pensions, beginning at 1 percent of salary the first year and ratcheting up to 4 percent by the fourth year. That's much less than most public employees pay and still leaves BART paying most of the cost. As for health insurance, little would change for most workers.
In other words, the sweet deal, funded by taxpayers and riders, would get even better. But for the unions, it's not enough. The president of one of the unions said BART negotiators haven't presented a "meaningful" proposal.
The unions are seeking a 15 percent wage increase over three years and a pension contribution of just 0.5 percent of their salary. They say they want the three-year deal rather than one for four years so that the next contract expiration will fall in the middle of a BART board election year. That's the last thing we need -- more politics in the mix.
The three-year expiration would also line up with the end of the newly negotiated AC Transit contract, once again leaving the East Bay vulnerable to a walkout by workers at both agencies.
Thanks to the recent daylighting of the two sides' positions, everyone can see how far apart they are -- and how unreasonable the union position is.
Sacramento Bee: "Why are celebrities doing bidding of prison gang leaders?"
Civil libertarians and Hollywood celebrities recently signed a letter voicing support for prisoners engaged in a hunger strike over conditions in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison.
They ought to save their outrage.
Inmates fomenting the hunger strike claim human rights are being violated. But they include killers and leaders of the most brutal gangs in the prison system. They are from the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia. One shot-caller was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in federal indictments returned last week in Los Angeles seeking to disrupt Mexican Mafia operations.
Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board that the hunger strike has nothing to do with conditions and everything to do with gang leaders wanting to get into the general population so they can more readily conduct their gang business. We see no reason to gainsay his statement.
California prisons are monitored closely by the federal courts, a court-appointed special master, and a receiver who oversees health care, plus aggressive prisoner rights attorneys from the Prison Law Office in Berkeley.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento have issued orders that have forced California to spend billions to vastly improve health and mental health care in the prisons. The judges' orders led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision prompting the state to reduce the number of inmates from 174,000 to 119,000.
There was a time when The Bee's editorial board urged strict oversight of Pelican Bay's security housing unit, for good reason. In its first years of operation, there were instances of terrible abuse by guards of inmates. Health care clearly was inadequate, and prison officials inhumanely housed severely mentally ill prisoners in the units. Isolation exacerbated their illness.
In 1990, the Prison Law Office filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that conditions in the unit amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. In 1995, Henderson issued a scathing decision upholding much of what the Prison Law Office sought and appointing a special master to oversee the unit. The judge lifted that oversight in 2011, after becoming convinced that the prison was adhering to his decree.
Henderson left unanswered the question whether a decade or more in security housing is so detrimental to inmates' mental health that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights has raised that claim in a suit on behalf of inmates including the hunger strike leaders. The matter is pending before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.
In the past, gang members could get out of the units only by agreeing to inform on their fellow gangsters, which was tantamount to a death warrant for the informant. Prison officials last year modified the policy and now offer inmates ways to get out of security housing units short of informing on fellow gang leaders.
Beard made clear that he is trying to move away from long-term segregation, while reserving long-term housing in the units for truly hard cases.
Security housing units are stark. But it's not as if they are rat-infested, medieval holes. Many inmates have cellmates and can talk through the locked doors to their neighbors. Pelican Bay inmates have televisions, with 23 channels, including the four broadcast networks, PBS, BET and ESPN, plus educational and self-help channels and Bible channels in English and Spanish.
Security housing units are not country clubs. But inmates have to work to get there. For the safety of other inmates, that's where some of them should remain. Celebrities such as Peter Coyote, Jay Leno and Susan Sarandon and civil libertarians diminish their credibility by embracing the cause of gang leaders who masquerade as human rights advocates
The Fresno Bee: "Pot growers must obey environmental laws"
For decades, California lawmakers have imposed ever tighter restrictions on logging, farming, and other activities that can foul water and damage the environment.
But they aren't showing the same aggressiveness about halting damage being done by marijuana farmers. That timidity needs to end.
Proponents of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization want their harvest to be treated like other commercial products. However, too often they ignore the most basic rules that other farmers follow.
Too many growers overuse fertilizers and pesticides, and spill the toxic chemicals into waterways. Increasingly, they denude mountainsides so they can grow their quasi-legal crops in the fullest sun, with no concern about erosion.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, always interested in combating crime against the environment, should use her position to bring civil suits against growers who would reap profits at the expense of the land.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is carrying legislation to regulate marijuana dispensaries. If he wants to further legitimize marijuana, he should consider amendments to ensure that further cultivation doesn't threaten water quality or the environment.
The state has significant authority over timber harvests. Marijuana growers avoid regulation that applies to lumber companies by not selling the trees they fell as they clear forestland for their farms. That needs to change.
In June, the Department of Pesticide Regulation found residue of an illegal pesticide on strawberries and ordered the Santa Cruz County grower to destroy the crop and pull berries off store shelves. Perhaps pesticide regulators should check for pesticide residue on marijuana sold as medicine in dispensaries, and act accordingly.
The Department of Pesticide Regulation is proposing to restrict some of the most problematic rodenticides used by marijuana growers. Second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides kill mice and rats by causing them to hemorrhage. But the products also kill pet dogs and cats, and wildlife including endangered species that eat the pesticide or animals that already have eaten it. The time to comment about the proposed regulation will end on Sept. 3. The department cannot act fast enough.
California's regional water quality control boards clearly have a role. They can issue fines for pollution and erosion that fouls waterways. However, as Pamela Creedon, executive director of the Central Valley board recently noted, water board investigators aren't first-responders.
While no one should blame environmental regulators for not wanting to confront potentially armed and dangerous marijuana growers, there are ways inspectors can do their jobs. They could request assistance from Attorney General Harris or sheriff's departments. The worst message to send is there will be no penalty for disregarding environmental laws.
U-T San Diego "Fixing California: Archaic law sandbags state's pension reform"
Ready for a story that will make you want to tear your hair out, at least if you support pension reform? Here goes.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy and many in Congress were keen on using federal funds to improve decaying mass-transit systems in urban areas. But transit unions, worried about the sharp decline in transit jobs after World War II, were strongly opposed. According to an analysis commissioned by the Federal Transit Association, the workers feared that automated, driverless cars and buses could wipe out scores of jobs, and that the federal effort might lead to government takeovers of private transit firms and an abrogation of their workers' collectively bargained contracts.
To win union support, Kennedy, Congress and Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's successor, agreed to include protections for transit workers in what became the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. The most significant: Federal transit funds shall not go to governments that have not preserved the "rights, privileges and benefits under existing collective bargaining agreements" of all transit workers in the area where the funds are to be spent.
Nearly 50 years later, this arcane provision not only threatens to cost California billions of dollars in federal funds; it could hamper pension reform efforts across the nation.
That's because in an Aug. 1 letter, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez told state officials that he had concluded the modest but constructive pension reform adopted by the Legislature last year circumvents the collective-bargaining rights of the state's 20,000 transit workers.
The reform requires the use of a less-generous retirement formula for public employees hired starting Jan. 1 of this year. It also requires all governments to steadily adjust pension-funding formulas until the employer and employee share the cost burden equally.
In his letter, Perez expressed sympathy for the fiscal bind that led California to seek pension reform. But he said he has concluded that he has no choice but to withhold funds — starting Friday — unless state transit workers are exempted from the 2012 pension reform. The labor secretary notes that a bill before the Legislature, AB 160, would do just that.
This is preposterous. A 1964 legal provision addressing concerns that may have been valid then but are now moot has morphed into a powerful protection for the pensions of all mass-transit workers — even those not yet hired.
But it is a reality, one that imperils $1.6 billion in federal funds for 83 state projects in fiscal 2013 alone. As a result, we urge the Legislature to quickly pass AB 160 and minimize the fallout. After that, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown should collectively bargain with the unions representing the 20,000 transit workers and try to salvage whatever pension reforms it can.
But in the big picture, Congress and the Obama administration must revise the 1964 law. Local and state governments everywhere are reeling from pension costs. They should not face federal threats of any kind for trying to address their problems — especially threats mandated by a 49-year-old political payoff to unions.
Los Angeles Times: "Reining in Immigration Scammers"
In California (and elsewhere), immigrants have long been targeted by predatory lawyers and consultants who exploit their clients' lack of English and status as noncitizens, charging exorbitant fees and in some cases failing to do the work expected of them. With dramatic changes to immigration laws looming in Washington, some states are already anticipating an increase in scams and victims.
In California, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), with the help of the California Bar Assn., have introduced legislation to protect immigrants from unscrupulous lawyers who commit fraud. That's a good idea, given that immigration fraud is among the top 10 issues the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs deals with.
Unfortunately, the bill fails to adequately address the problem and should be shelved, at least for now.
AB 1159 would require immigration attorneys to deposit clients' retainers into trust accounts and would prohibit them from collecting any further payments until their cases are filed with federal authorities. Additionally, it would prohibit those attorneys from soliciting clients or taking money to begin the legalization process before Congress approves immigration reform legislation.
Those provisions are fine, but the bill would also require attorneys to carry malpractice coverage or post bonds of $100,000. That sounds like a sensible approach until you consider that many lone practioners — reputable lawyers, not scammers — would be forced to increase their fees dramatically to pay for such bonds and other mandates imposed under the bill. That, in turn, would likely drive up the cost of legitimate legal representation and push more immigrants into the arms of notarios, who are not lawyers and who too often promise to provide legal assistance at discount rates but end up filing frivolous paperwork damaging to cases.
The bill also requires attorneys to provide non-English speaking clients with official translations of any contracts. Surely, clients should be informed of what they are signing in a language they understand. But that can be achieved in far less expensive ways. Another onerous provision would require attorneys to provide clients written status reports every two months detailing what work has been done. Lawyers are obligated to keep clients informed, and most do. But requiring written updates would only drive up costs.
There is still time, however, for lawmakers to rethink their approach. Congress is unlikely to approve an immigration bill before October, if at all. And any new law is unlikely to kick in for at least a year. The Legislature ought to use that time to devise new legislation that protects immigrants without driving up fees prohibitively.
In the meantime, if the state bar and the Legislature are concerned about new scams, they ought to consider far more limited legislation that bans attorneys from receiving fees in anticipation of immigration reform.
Orange County Register: "An inappropriate use of land-grab law"
California cities are coming up with novel ways to deal with budget shortfalls. Richmond's City Council voted in March to work with Mortgage Resolution Partners of San Francisco to seize the loans of homes that have been under water for years. The city would use its powers of eminent domain, which normally allow a government to take property - with "just compensation" - for public uses, such as a school or road.
For example, a home bought with a $450,000 loan in 2006, at the top of the real estate market, might be worth $200,000 today. Reported the San Francisco Chronicle, "MRP would line up investors to lend Richmond the money to acquire the mortgages - at current values - and then would help refinance them into Federal Housing Administration loans, earning a flat fee of $4,500 per mortgage."
The original lender would be paid off for much less than the loan balance.
On Aug. 7, Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank sued Richmond and MRP. John Ertman, an attorney for the lenders, charged the city and MRP with "threatening to seriously harm average Americans, including public pension members, other retirees and individual savers, through a brazen scheme to abuse government powers for (their) own profit."
MRP Chairman Steven Gluckstern denied the banks' accusations.
Richard Epstein, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and one of the country's top property-rights legal scholars, analyzed the dispute during a conference call with journalists.
"Many of these mortgages are performing; they're not in default," he said. Although the value of the home is less than the mortgage value, the owners are perfectly happy to keep paying the higher mortgage cost. For one thing, home prices have been surging in California, so the homeowners may just be waiting for the restoration of value.
Indeed, according to Zillow.com, home prices in Richmond have surged about 30 percent in the past 18 months.
The Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision gave governments wide latitude in implementing eminent domain. It even allowed seizures of private property to be given to other private parties, such as shopping mall developers. But Mr. Epstein pointed out that the Richmond seizures would not involve taking actual, physical homes, but the financial instruments used to finance the homes.
Another problem involves the Constitution's interstate commerce clause, which gives the federal government, not the states, regulatory control over economic matters involving more than one state. Although the homes are in one state, the mortgages are held by large financial firms located in other states or countries. "In this case, it's just money," he said, not the physical property, that's at issue.
Moreover, he said, by interfering in the usual mortgage process, the Richmond plan could lower the value of other mortgages in the city, including those held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-backed federal mortgage agencies.
We asked if it would help for Congress and the California Legislature to ban such creative mortgage strategies. "Yes," he replied. This would be a good time for bipartisan action to ban this too-clever attack on property rights.