All posts by Mark Leno

Reforming Corrections: We’ve Only Just Begun

(This originally appeared in Capitol Weekly last week, but I thought it was worth reproducing here. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

The Legislature finally broke through nearly impassable political barriers and in September enacted a set of evidence-based reforms to California’s correctional system.  These reforms make common-sense revisions, like updating some property crime thresholds to reflect the cost of living, many of which had not been changed since 1982.  They refocus parole to apply limited resources on higher-risk offenders, and will improve how parolees are supervised, including the use of a “Parole Reentry Court” for parolees with substance abuse or mental illness histories.  Prison credit laws have been retooled to create incentives for inmates to follow prison rules and programs.  

Legislation enacted this year will launch an innovative system of performance-based funding for supervising adult felony probationers.  About 40 percent of new prison admissions are offenders who failed felony probation.  SB 678 (Leno – Benoit) provides a formula for sharing state savings with probation when those savings are achieved because of reduced prison admissions attributable to better felony probation outcomes.

While immensely worthwhile, these reforms will not be enough to achieve the savings and public safety improvements California needs.  (EDIT by Brian: There’s more over the flip…)

While immensely worthwhile, these reforms will not be enough to achieve the savings and public safety improvements California needs. The Senate version of prison reform, ABx3 14 (Arambula), included these reforms and more.  The Senate-approved bill gave the prison secretary the authority to order home detention with electronic monitoring for certain risk-assessed inmates — the same authority sheriffs have now to manage their jail populations.  Significantly, the Senate version included a sentencing commission, which has been recommended by many experts over the years.

California courts have referred to our sentencing laws as “labyrinthine procedures,” “mind-numbingly complicated,” and “a legislative monstrosity, which is bewildering in its complexity.”  Over 30 years ago, California changed from indeterminate sentencing to determinate sentencing.   Since then, over 1,000 crime bills have been enacted into law.  Crime du jour sentencing laws have supplied grist for the political mill and eroded coherence to our sentencing system.    

Regrettably, these much-needed reforms were not achieved in 2009, but they must be attained in 2010.  California’s prison overcrowding crisis has created conditions that are unsafe, and overloaded prisons have become a crushing financial burden on the taxpayers.  According to the Legislative Analyst’s office, state spending on corrections has increased by roughly $8.4 billion, or 450 percent, between 1988-89 and 2008-09, an average annual increase of about 9 percent.  Corrections takes up about twice as much of the state budget than it did 20 years ago, increasing from about 5 percent to 11 percent of general fund spending – the highest in the nation.  The prison population has increased by 125 percent over the past 20 years.  California is now spending more on corrections than on higher education.  

The federal court has taken over a state prison health care system which has cost California taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.  As the number of inmates imprisoned under “tough on crime” laws continues to grow and those inmates age, the cost of incarcerating this elderly prison population will continue to drive health care costs at an unsustainable rate.  

These unfinished reforms are not the only changes California’s criminal justice system needs to produce better public safety outcomes.  At a cost of nearly $250,000 annually per ward, California’s state-run juvenile institutions need to be revamped.  The recommendations of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice should be enacted to ensure that those in prison are there because they are guilty, and not because of bad science or unreliable evidence.  The Legislature should evaluate whether the special circumstances allowing for the imposition of capital punishment in this state are too broad and too inconsistently applied, and how the costs of the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to life without parole impacts the budgets of the prison system, the courts and the counties.  Court and confinement costs in death penalty cases are estimated to be approximately $137.7 million a year, and that number increases as death row grows yearly.  Alternatively, life without parole cases would cost the state approximately $11.5 million a year.  These are the kinds of policies that warrant legislative scrutiny in the coming months.  

In 2009, thanks in large part to the “perfect storm” of prison overcrowding and the state’s fiscal crisis, the Legislature enacted a first set of corrections reforms.  These reforms, however, will not be enough to achieve the whopping $1.2 billion in cuts to the corrections’ budget this year, or the public safety outcomes Californians deserve.  Indeed, we have only just begun the process for meaningful reform.

Who increased state spending in California?

(This originally appeared in the SF Chronicle, but it’s worth noting as we look forward to another vote in a few minutes. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, was quoted in reference to Washington’s stimulus benefit to California, saying, “It doesn’t matter if the federal government gave us $100 billion. We’d spend it and we would be broke next year.” One would like to believe that Villines was exaggerating to make a point.

Villines has been one of the strongest advocates for a more severe spending cap for state expenditures. Our current cap, which was passed by voters in 1990, was promoted by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, and was itself a response to a more rigid cap passed at the ballot in 1979, the Gann Limit.

Without getting into the details of our present spending cap or the proposals to tighten it, good sense would dictate that we determine whether our state spending is as profligate as Villines suggests before taking further action.  

Here are some facts:

Between 1998 and 2008, General Fund annual spending in California increased by about $46 billion. Of that, $31 billion is due to inflation and population growth. How did we spend the remaining $15 billion? Vehicle owners were spared, on average $200 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced vehicle license fees in 2003, which voters then approved in 2004. The state had to make up the loss of those revenues, which fund local government programs, with monies from the general fund. This now costs the state more than $6 billion each year.

The next largest increase in spending is in our Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Beyond population and inflation growth rates, spending increased $3.5 billion. Again with voter support, California has the only “three strikes” law in the country that does not require that the third strike, which puts an offender in prison for life, be a violent or serious felony. As a result, our inmate population is quickly aging. Whereas the cost of housing a prisoner is around $42,000 annually, the price nearly doubles for those over the age of 50 and triples for those over age 60.

That leaves about $5.5 billion of annual spending increases over the past 10 years. Of that, about $2 billion is payments on budget-related debt, represented mostly by debt service on the Economic Recovery Bonds approved by voters in 2004. Another $2 billion is related to debt service on infrastructure bonds approved by voters in 2006 and prior years to rebuild our dilapidated transportation systems, hospitals and schools. Finally, in 2002, Californians overwhelmingly supported Proposition 42, which requires that about $1.5 billion of gasoline sales tax revenue be spent on state and local transportation projects.

Add to this spending the uncapped and growing cost of health care (one-third of our General Fund expenditures), California’s aging population and epidemics of childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes and ever-increasing rates of autism, and one can easily see how state spending has grown. Due to climate change, we now live with a year-round fire season, which is costing us hundreds of millions of dollars to confront.

In our 2009-10 budget, we may be as much as $18 billion under our current spending cap, which further suggests we are struggling with a revenue problem, not a spending problem. If we cut much further into our K-12 public education system, we may see class sizes increase by 11 students and thousands of teachers fired. Be mindful that we currently rank 47th of 50 states in per-pupil spending.

While tough talk about reining in state spending may play well to a rightfully upset electorate, let’s not allow emotion to overrule facts, data and thoughtful deliberation. Ballot- box budgeting has led us down this road of fiscal jeopardy.

Republican Antics Push State Further Adrift

Having spoken out numerous times on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Republican colleagues’ inability to deliver on their promises to solve California’s budget problems, I was further outraged by their recent opposition to closing a loophole that gives tax breaks to wealthy yacht owners. At a time when California is considering drastic cuts to education, health care, state parks and the poor, this unconscionable position only underscores the Administration’s inability to deal with our budget crisis in an honest manner and their willingness to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable.

Currently, it’s possible for new yacht owners to avoid paying state sales tax by parking their new purchases out of California for 90 days.  In February, the legislature considered closing the loophole that gives the wealthiest in the state a tax exemption for their extravagant toys. The proposal was simply to adjust this loophole in the tax law and increase the waiting period to a year–an action that is estimated would have netted the state $26 million.  No-brainer, right?  Well, not to the Republicans in the legislature.

Because Republicans in both houses voted against the bill, it failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed for passage.  Republicans in the legislature have taken a pledge to never, under any circumstances, consider tax increases, even during budget deficits like the $16 billion one we currently face. This unwillingness to compromise to save California from possible insolvency is the latest example of the fiscal irresponsibility that has plagued Republicans in the State House and the Governor’s mansion.  

By way of review, during the 2003 recall election, Mr. Schwarzenegger promised to be the “Collectinator.”  He said that his friendship with President George W. Bush and the Republicans in Washington, DC would allow for him to bring home federal dollars that were missing from the state’s coffers.  Subsequently, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, identified tens of billions of federal dollars owed to California.  She and the California Democratic congressional delegation tried to get the Governor to live up to his pledge by working with him and the Republicans in a bi-partisan manner.  Unfortunately, his promises have continued to yield little results.

In his first “State of the State” address in 2004, the Governor said that he would bring great change to Sacramento by “blowing up the boxes” of government bureaucracy.  Unfortunately, this translated into dismantling essential local governmental services including police and fire safety and health programs.   One of his first actions in office was to spend over $4 billion in revenue the state did not have by rescinding the vehicle license fee.  The fee, which had been in place for 63 years, went to local governments throughout California.  Today it costs the state $6 billion a year in revenues according to Elizabeth Hill, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.

In 2005, the Governor spent $80 million of the state’s money on his unnecessary ‘Special Election’ to benefit his corporate, special interest agenda instead of working with the Legislature in good faith to soundly address the complex issues facing California.  The measures he put forward on the ballot were soundly defeated and he succeeded in wasting a year of the taxpayers’ time and millions of state dollars.

In 2006, the Governor told the state he was working across both sides of the aisle and proclaimed a new era of ‘post-partisanship.’ Unfortunately, instead of offering real solutions to our structural budgetary deficit, the Governor pulled out the state’s credit card again and borrowed billions of dollars- essentially taxing our children’s future.

Last year, in 2007, fresh off the campaign trail, the Governor, unable to get his Republican colleagues to support the agreed-upon state budget priorities for the new fiscal year, led us once again into a budget stalemate.  The months-long stand off stymied critical state functions and stalled payments to millions of children, elderly, poor and disabled Californians.  Medi-Cal funds were frozen, hospitals and care providers had to function using IOUs, and our community college districts stretched their dollars to the breaking point until the state finally agreed on a budget.  

Now in 2008, we find ourselves straddled with a $16 billion shortfall.  Amazingly, just a few months ago the Governor proclaimed that the “budget deficit is zero.”  Fast forward a few months later and he told us that we must make draconian cuts to deal with this amazing turn of economic events. He is now proposing that we cut more than $4.5 billion from K-12 education; decimate our AIDS Drug Assistance Program; further reduce reimbursement rates for health care providers; put the children of mothers on state assistance at risk of homelessness; deny the blind, the elderly, and the disabled even a minimal cost-of-living adjustment; slash funding for our court system; virtually close down our state parks system; and continue to under-fund our higher education systems.  Part of the Governor’s plan is to make it harder for people on Medi-Cal to get reimbursed for their health care by simply creating more paperwork for them to fill out.

For nearly five years of the Schwarzenegger Administration in Sacramento, we’ve seen this movie over and over again.  It’s time to get real.  We must have an honest conversation with the people of California about the priorities we have for our families and how we’re going to pay for them with a balanced approach of spending cuts and revenue enhancements, like closing the yacht tax loophole. The Governor’s script always promises real budget solutions, but fails to deliver time and time again.

Solar — A Quick Email to Your Local Elected Officials

(I was actually going to write something up about this. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Today’s Chronicle had a front page story on Berkeley’s new innovative solar energy program. It appears this could be easily replicated in other municipalities across California.

Since there are readers across the state, I’d appreciate it if Calitics readers could send an email with this story to your local officials. Let us all know in the comments the responses you receive. Thanks!

California GOP’s Election “Reform” Measure Reeks of Rove

(Good to see our electeds jump aboard in fighting this dirty trick. – promoted by David Dayen)

This is one straight out of Karl Rove’s political playbook. A group of Republican political operatives and their powerful special interests have hatched a desperate scheme to rig California’s electoral process to their advantage. They’re proposing a statewide ballot initiative to change how California casts its electoral votes for President. They’ve cleverly labeled it the “Presidential Election Reform Act,” which would sound credible if it weren’t so cynical.

But make no mistake, this wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing has nothing to do with reform or protecting voters’ interests or preserving the integrity of our Constitution. It’s an audacious power grab by the GOP as it spirals into irrelevance leading up to the 2008 Presidential race.

The Republican Party is in complete disarray. Wracked by scandal and corruption, the GOP has apparently concluded that it has little chance of appealing to voters on the merits. President Bush’s poll numbers are melting faster than an Alaskan glacier and a recent nationwide poll showed that two-thirds of young voters surveyed believe that Democrats do a better job than Republicans of representing their interests.

Add to that reports of the state Republican Party’s serious financial woes and the resignation in June of its embattled chief operating officer and it’s easy to see why state GOP leaders figured it was time for a little election reform.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of the same Republican forces behind this bogus reform effort were responsible for the despicable Swift Boat ads attacking Presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Bob Perry, who contributed $4.5 million for the Swift Boat ads, is so far bankrolling the GOP electoral reform initiative to the tune of $50,000. 

There’s no question that our nation deserves a meaningful discussion about improving the way in which we elect our chief executive officer. The 2000 Presidential election showed us that our current system is far from perfect. But that’s not what this is about and it’s not what the GOP has in mind.

No, this Karl Rovian scheme is a slick GOP effort to steal as many as 24 of California’s 55 electoral votes and deliver them to their party’s 2008 Presidential nominee. Under our current system, whatever candidate wins the majority vote in California gets all of the state’s electoral votes. Republicans, out-of-step with California’s progressive values and unwilling to change their message, haven’t had much success.

Although I am running for on the same ballot, I will be joining the “all hands on deck” effort to stop this dirty trick and I urge you to join me. Here’s how you can help:

1.  The California Democratic Party has set up an effort dubbed “Fraud Busters” to track how the GOP is waging their battle. This is a big state, but with your help Democrats can have eyes and ears on the ground state-wide: 

2.  California bloggers have partnered with the Courage Campaign to run a nation-wide online campaign against the initiative. No matter where your friends and family live, they can get involved in this effort:

With all of the serious issues we are facing in this state, from health care to education to our crumbling infrastructure, is this really the issue that Republican leaders believe California should be focusing on? More likely, it’s the one that fits their national agenda for keeping us in Iraq indefinitely, ignoring global warming and
giving tax breaks to the rich while burdening future generations with unprecedented debt.

The apparent strategy of the GOP operatives who are advancing this initiative further reveals their sinister and cynical intent. They are looking to place it on the June 2008 ballot and exploit low voter turnout to sneak it through. Beating back this GOP power grab will take an aggressive education effort. As a recent New York Times editorial concluded, “If voters understand that the initiative is essentially an elaborate dirty trick posing as reform, they are likely to vote against it.

Let’s make that happen!

California’s standard is poisoning the whole nation, one sofa at a time.

(Wow, 3 electeds in one day. Cool! (bumped) – promoted by Lucas O’Connor)

Soon the decision of whether California will continue to poison our kids and the rest of the nation will be made by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thus far, state agencies have been directed from the top to oppose AB 706. The question for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is, how loudly must our babies cry before toxic, cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are removed from our furniture?

If your sofa was purchased in California after 1975, chances are its interior foam and cushions contain either brominated or chlorinated fire retardants. These toxic chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, reproductive problems, learning disabilities, and thyroid disease in laboratory animals and house cats. At the same time, these chemicals are climbing the food chain in increasing concentrations and are found in fish, harbor seals in San Francisco Bay, polar bears, bird eggs, and the animal at the very top of the food chain – breast-fed human babies.

A little-known California regulation known as Technical Bulletin 117 requires that the polyurethane foam in furniture withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. This 30-year-old regulation is well intended, and upholstered furniture fires are a serious concern. However, since 1975 no other jurisdiction in the world has followed California’s lead, and other states have achieved similar or greater reductions in fire-related deaths without this standard.

Because brominated and chlorinated fire retardants don’t react chemically with foam, their molecules have a tendency to attach to dust particles in furniture. Each time someone sits on a sofa cushion, the dust particles escape into the air and can be inhaled or settle on the floor, where toddlers and house cats live and play.

These fire-retardant molecules mimic thyroid hormone, which in pregnant women regulates the sex and brain development of the unborn child. This mimicking is called endocrine disruption, and brominated and chlorinated fire retardants in even infinitesimal amounts can cause harm to human and animal health through this process.

Many national furniture manufacturers distribute only California-compliant furniture, which means that up to 10 percent by weight of foam cushions are composed of toxic chemicals. California’s standard is poisoning the whole nation, one sofa at a time.

The good news is that there are safer chemical and construction-based alternatives already in the marketplace that can provide an equivalent level of fire safety without the use of brominated and chlorinated fire retardants. The institutional-furniture industry and the mattress industry already comply with tough fire standards and do so without the use of these toxic chemicals.

Residential-furniture manufacturers could do so as well, except that state law and TB 117 prevent it. That’s why I have authored Assembly Bill 706, which would modify our outdated foam test. A modern residential-furniture standard, such as the one developed in California for mattresses, should address how the various components of furniture can together achieve equal or better fire safety without using the most toxic fire retardants.

AB 706 would establish a comprehensive process for weighing the issues of fire safety and chemical exposures. It would rightly rest the responsibility for assessing toxicity with state toxicologists, require the fire-retardant industry to prove that its products are safe, and leave the final decision on whether to prohibit a particular chemical to the state’s fire-safety scientists.

Food Stamp Challenge Diary

(Wow, this really does sound like a challenge. – promoted by atdleft)

I truly appreciate the support and encouragement I have received from colleagues and friends as I started this week to learn for myself if food stamp benefits are enough to eat adequately and nutritiously, while balancing a busy life.  I can already tell you that the experience has truly lived up to its name— it really is a challenge.

Yesterday I began the day with a bowl of cereal, which isn’t a huge departure from what I usually eat.  But as the day wore on, I began to notice the many food choices that were available to me before the challenge, but are no longer.  A generous staff member happened to bring in four dozen hand-dipped chocolate strawberries.  An array of cheeses and fresh fruits tempted me in the Assembly member’s lounge.  All of it was off limits. 

At lunchtime I prepared a bowl of chicken noodle soup.  The afternoon didn’t get much easier as directly following session I made a quick stop at an event overflowing with delicacies that a person on food stamps certainly couldn’t afford. 

Having not eaten since my lunch soup, I headed back to work for a 7 p.m. continuation of our Budget Conference Committee.  A glass of water carried me through to it’s conclusion at 9:30 p.m. 

When I arrived home at 10:30 p.m., the evening’s bowl of cereal could wait no longer.  The temptation to have a second bowl was tempered by the knowledge that the two boxes of cereal I bought on Sunday need to get me through the entire week.

As hungry as I am, this challenge has gripped me.  My intent is to continue it through the week.

Food Stamp Challenge Diary- Day 1

(Tough to afford decent meals at $21 a week, ain’t it? – promoted by atdleft)

Today I began the Food Stamp Challenge, living off the national average food stamp budget–$21 a week. That breaks down to $3 a day, or $1 per meal.

It’s very hard to imagine how so many eat on so little money. This is exactly why I decided to take on the challenge. Two million people in California are on food stamps, two-thirds of which are children who need nutritious foods to fuel their growing bodies. It’s my hope that this effort makes just a few people think about the difficult choices that so many in our country and our state deal with every day when trying to stretch their food stamp dollar to feed their families.

When I went to the grocery store and bought food for the upcoming week, I have to admit, I got a little nervous about how little I saw in my basket. But I’m eager to raise awareness about hunger in California and gain a better understanding of what so many in the State experience everyday.

Today is a busy day as I’m running back and forth between the Budget Conference Committee where I’m working with my colleagues on the State Budget, and the Assembly Floor where I’m working to win Assembly approval of my own bills by the deadline at the end of the week.

I’m off and running today with the challenge and started my day with a bowl of cereal.

Check back with me a little later and I’ll update you on my progress.

Why I’m running

(I was there, and here are my photos from the event. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Today, at events in Marin and San Francisco, I announced my candidacy for State Senate in 2008. I am running to offer voters a change and give voters a choice. The issues confronting us today are huge, from climate change to health care for all. We need new ideas, new leadership, and new approaches.

That’s why I want to reinvent the office of State Senate. I want to bring together communities of interest to work on solutions. To that end, this month I’m going to initiate and lead a series of online discussions, what I’m calling “Communities of Interest Policy” talks. These talks will bring together citizens from Sonoma, Marin, and San Francisco to exchange ideas for addressing a variety of important issues, including transportation, the environment, housing, education and health care, among others.

I also believe people deserve a responsive, respectful legislator. I believe strongly not only in what I do but the way I go about it. Collaboration, respect, inclusion have been the hallmarks of my personal life and political career. And during my announcement, I will outline a series of pledges to back this up. Bringing people together — not tearing them down, dividing them or belittling them — is the only way to accomplish lasting, meaningful results and change.

A few have asked me: Why are you running for State Senate? “It’s because you’re out of a job,” they say. “It’s because you have a grudge against your opponent.” Neither is true. Democracy is best served when voters have a choice. Without choice there’s no accountability; without accountability there’s no responsibility. We need accountable and responsible leadership. A contest of ideas, styles, and substance can only help, not hurt the process. If I have anything to do about it, this campaign will not divide our community. Indeed, I believe we will only come out stronger. I’m going to run a positive campaign. I challenge my opponent to do so as well.

So the race is on. Election campaigns come and go, politicians are replaceable, but our cause endures. I want to thank you for your help and ask you for your vote and your support. I invite all of you to join with us.