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Assembly panel OKs new insurance regulation

Health-care reform advocates are pleased that the Assembly Health Committee voted 12-7 yesterday to approve AB 52, which would give the state Insurance Commissioner the power to reject excessive health insurance rate increases.

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones – who sponsored the bill carried by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles – said health insurers regularly announce premium increases that far surpass the rate of medical inflation, sometimes several per year. Regulators in 20 states have authority not only to review rate hikes but to reject the excessive ones, and Jones and Feuer believe it’s time California joins them.

“Since I took office, Californians have made it exceedingly clear that they want me to reject excessive rate increases, but I do not have this authority as Insurance Commissioner – AB 52 can change this,” Jones said in a news release today, noting he had introduced this legislation three times while serving in the Legislature.

Feuer said the Assembly Health Committee “recognized that Californians should not have to depend on the whim of an insurance company to halt a major rate increase. This was a crucial first step toward getting AB 52 signed into law, but until that happens, California families will continue to live in fear that they are just one rate hike away from no longer being able to afford health insurance.”

Health Access California Executive Director Anthony Wright called the committee’s approval of the bill “a good first step toward the rate relief that Californians so desperately need, as we continue to stuggle with the one-two punch of an economic recession and rising health care costs.” California needs this authority especially to keep insurers from gaming the system before other consumer protections are put in place in 2014, he added.

Carla Saporta, health program manager at The Greenlining Institute, said the claim that patients will lose access to care if state regulators stop insurers from price gouging “is a classic robber-baron mentality.”

“Groups that truly represent healthcare consumers and small businesses – including minority small businesses which have been badly hurt in the current economy – can see through the spin,” she said. “That’s why community clinics such as La Maestra in San Diego and the Korean Health Education Information & Research Center in Los Angeles have joined with many ethnic chambers of commerce and business organizations to support this bill. Small business owners and organizations have told us that they want us to fight for AB 52, and we will.”

Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Natomas – a pediatrician by trade – joined with the committee’s Republicans to oppose the bill.

“Dr. Pan has dedicated his life to building a healthier California by making real, on-the-ground improvements to our health care system,” Brian O’Hara, Pan’s press secretary, said today. “He knows that if we’re going to actually improve health outcomes and reduce costs, we need more innovations, not regulations, so at this point AB 52 does not make for a balanced approach.”

The bill now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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CoCo unveils redistricting map drafts

Contra Costa will officially fire the starting gun in the supervisorial redistricting debate on Tuesday, but I wrangled some advance copies of the four concept maps the Board of Supervisors will use to launch the discussion.

Check them out below.

Concept 1 is the closest to the existing supervisor boundaries, while Concept 4 offers the biggest change with the transformation of District 3 into an entirely East Contra Costa district.

Sometime Thursday, the county will post the full set of concept maps with more details at www.CCredistricting.org.

Concept 1

Concept 1

Concept 2

Concept 2

Concept 3

Concept 3

Concept 4

Concept 4

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Hercules recall debate set

Hercules voters who want to see how the two city council incumbents facing a recall on June 7 stack up against their challengers will have the chance to view the candidates side-by-side.

I will moderate a candidates’ forum from 7-9 p.m. on May 9 in the Hercules City Council chambers.

Read Tom Lochner’s full story here.

Please send suggested questions to lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com. I can’t guarantee that every question will be asked, but I want to hear from Hercules voters about the issues that concern them the most.  Keep in mind:  None of the candidates or anyone else will see the questions in advance or know what I will ask.

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Lockyer: Let further cuts start in GOP districts

State lawmakers who want an all-cuts budget because less government is better should get their wish starting with their own districts, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer said this morning.

Lockyer, visiting the Bay Area News Group-East Bay’s editorial board, said that when these lawmakers – many of whom already serve the state’s most recession-stricken areas – start hearing from their constituents about even deeper cutbacks in police and fire services, public schools and universities, social services and the like, they’ll soon think the better of stonewalling a public vote on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to extend current tax rates for five more years.

It’s a put-your-money – or lack thereof – where-your-mouth-is tactic.

Short of even more painful cuts atop those already signed into law, Lockyer sees no end to the current deadlock, he said.

Refuting the common “it’s a spending problem, not a revenue problem” meme, Lockyer noted that under Gov. Ronald Reagan, general fund spending amounted to about $5.02 for every $100 of wealth in the state. If Brown’s tax extensions are enacted, the rate would be about $5.05 per $100 – basically flat since 40 years ago.

He came loaded for bear with a packet of graphs and charts showing the huge spending reductions that an all-cuts budget would entail, and as well as tracking various scenarios under various kinds of spending caps. The long and short of it is that Brown’s plan would allow the most growth in general-fund spending over the next five years; about 4.7 percent; a spending cap based only on personal income growth would allow about 4.4 percent growth; a spending cap based on growth in population and the Consumer Price Index would allow for about 2 percent growth; an all-cuts budget espoused by Republicans would allow for about 1.7 percent growth; and ACA 4, a rainy-day-fund expansion measure passed by the Legislature last year and now awaiting voter approval, would shrink spending by about 0.7 percent.

“The dirty little secret is that neither D’s nor R’s know what creates jobs,” he said, noting that Democrats tend toward dumping more money into public spending while Republicans look to “make the rich richer.” There’s less evidence for the latter’s efficacy, he said, but both reflect more ideology than actual track record.

He said although he favored moving in January to put a tax-extension measure on the ballot without Republican votes, he understands why Brown might’ve felt “the optics necessitated the exercise” – an effort to allow for bipartisanship, even if Republicans “were always going to find an out” from signing onto the plan.

“The people who want less government ought to be at the front of that line to get less government,” he said, even as Brown “has to keep doing what he’s doing, keep engaging Republicans.” The task is to “have people try to understand what an all-cuts budget means, in very specific terms.”

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Jerry Brown bans most state workers’ travel

Good news for teleconferencers: Gov. Jerry Brown today issued an executive order nixing all travel by state workers unless it’s “mission-critical.”

maybe they'll hitchhike“Our fiscal challenges demand that we take a much closer look at how taxpayer dollars are being spent within state government,” Brown said in a news release. “Now is not the time to attend conferences, travel to meetings or take out-of-state field trips and this Executive Order puts an end to it.”

His order bans state employees from traveling either in-state or out-of-state unless it’s mission-critical or there is no cost to the state. All in-state mission-critical travel must be approved by agency secretaries or department directors who do not report to an agency secretary, and all out-of-state travel must be approved by the Governor’s office.

By “mission-critical,” he means travel that’s directly related to enforcement responsibilities, audits, revenue collection or other duties required by state law, contract or executive directive. This doesn’t include travel to attend conferences, networking opportunities, professional development courses, continuing education classes, meetings that can be conducted by video or teleconference or other non-essential events.

All agencies and departments will have to submit out-of-state travel requests for the next fiscal year directly to the Governor’s office by May 6. In the past, agencies and departments have been allowed to switch previously approved trips with new trips during the fiscal year, but this order won’t allow that.

Requests for out-of-state travel will have to document the trip’s purpose and explain why it’s mission-critical, its destination and length, the projected cost and source of funding, the number of travelers and each individual’s role, the benefit to the state, the impact if the trip is denied, whether the goal of the trip can be met in a less costly manner and whether a traveler’s absence will interfere with regularly assigned duties.

Brown last week ordered state agencies and departments to recover millions of dollars in uncollected salary and travel advances. Earlier, he issued orders that state agencies stop spending taxpayer money on free giveaway “swag” and gift items; cut cell phones and the passenger vehicle fleet in half; and freeze hiring across state government.

UPDATE @ 4:45 P.M.: This just in from California Republican Party Communications Director Mark Standriff:

“Governor Tinkerer has struck again. First, he tinkered with state cell phones, then he tinkered with the state car fleet, and now he’s hit the tinkering trifecta by announcing another big-on-symbolism-but-short-on-substance edict on state employee travel plans. Somebody should tell the governor that if he wants to get tough on ‘non-essential’ expenses, then he should cut back on his pre-fab forays into Republican territory where all he really does is waste time kicking at open doors.

“The simple truth is that Jerry Brown is no closer to a real budget solution than he was in January and his vaunted political skills are consistently coming up short. He refuses to offer one major government reform because the public unions won’t let him and he’s content to protect bureaucrats at the expense of services rather than protect services at the expense of bureaucrats. It’s sad to say it, but Jerry tinkers while California yearns.”

Read the executive order’s text after the jump…
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Budget/pension poll draws fire from both sides

Today’s new LA Times/USC poll – showing that California voters both want government workers to give up some retirement benefits to help ease the state’s financial problems, and also agree with and want to vote upon Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to continue current tax rates to help close the state budget deficit – is taking fire from both sides.

Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security – a coalition representing 1.5 million public employees and retirees – said:

“Sadly, this survey demonstrates that Californians are being misled about public employee pensions by special interests seeking to undermine the middle class. California public employees’ contributions to their pensions have climbed from 5 percent to 7 to 10 percent. They are increasing their share of their pension contribution, saving $400 million last year alone in the state budget, and negotiating at the bargaining table in hundreds of jurisdictions around the state right now. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton even declares: ‘State employee pensions are not to blame for Sacramento’s budget deficit. Not by any math.’

“Meanwhile, despite headlines about the tiny fraction of abuses of the system, the reality is that the average public pension in California is about $26,000 and many retirees are receiving less than $1,000 a month to pay their bills after decades of service teaching our children, protecting our families and keeping our homes safe. Many do not receive social security. Given facts unclouded by politically motivated deception, Californians will reject attempts to weaken the middle class and target retirement security for public workers living on modest incomes.”

Meanwhile, California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said:

“This poll is a trial lawyer’s dream, judging by the way the respondents were systematically led to the conclusion that higher taxes are the only ‘reasonable’ solution to California’s budget crisis. Jerry Brown’s claim that his budget plan produces $14 billion in cuts is pure fiction and any attempt to use that figure as the major focus for polling is completely disingenuous.”

“The analysis makes it clear: the bills Governor Brown signed total only $7 billion in cuts, and $7.5 billion in funding shifts, cutbacks to planned spending, and other budget gimmicks. On the other hand, there’s no disputing that Jerry’s tax plan calls for $60 billion in new taxes over the next five years while his spending plan will increase the state budget by 30% over the next three years. If the participants had been given all the facts, instead of a few leading questions, this poll would’ve turned out quite differently.

“Even with misleading data and skewed sampling, this poll still could only produce the barest of majorities to agree with its flawed premise, a figure that will not hold up in any true election.”