State reform groups merge and revive ballot measure

Two state reform groups with disparate timelines have combined forces and resurrected a budget  initiative using what every successful ballot measure needs: Cash.

With matching $3 million pledges, eccentric billionaire Nicolas Berggruen and his Think Long Committee will join California Forward, a reform organization led by former Contra Costa Supervisor Sunne Wright McPeak and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.

The Think Long Committee last week announced it would postpone its reform initiative until 2014 and California Forward has struggled to find the money to put on an expensive statewide signature gathering effort and mount a campaign.

The merger’s baby is the Government Performance and Accountability Act and its target is the November 2012 election.

The act requires state and local governments to produce budgets that spell out in detail the expected results from every dollar spent and publish an annual account of their performance.

It also allows local governments to band together, write a community strategy plan and if the legislature approve it, the local partnership will receive regulatory relief to carry it out.

“It’s a reboot,” McPeak told 250 community, business and political leaders gathered in Concord today for the Contra Costa Business Council’s annual daylong conference. “California needs a new operating system.”

Read on for the full release. Continue Reading


Supreme Court to rule Friday on redistricting suit

The California Supreme Court will issue its written opinion at 10 a.m. tomorrow on a challenge to last year’s state Senate redistricting, it announced minutes ago.

That challenge, filed in early December, asks the court to decide whether the old or new state Senate district map should be used for this year’s elections if a proposed referendum seeking to overturn that map qualifies for the ballot.

The court is grappling with what legal standard or test it should apply in determining whether a referendum is “likely to qualify” under a state constitution section dealing with when plaintiffs can seek relief from the judiciary. It also must decide whether it has the authority to hear such a petition before the referendum has qualified for the ballot, or even before anyone can deem it likely to qualify.

The parties made their oral arguments at a 75-minute hearing Jan. 10.

A Republican-backed group called Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting has gathered signatures to place the challenge referendum on the ballot, but those signatures won’t be tallied until late February – halfway through the nominating period for state Senate races.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission contends the new map it drew should be used immediately because that’s was the will of the voters and because it meets federal standards. FAIR contends using the new map wouldn’t be fair to voters who are exercising their legal right to challenge it.


For folks who want to watch the count tally of the GOP’s ballot initiative that challenges the state Senate maps, click here.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you’ll see a number in red. That’s how many valid signatures have been counted so far. They need to reach 504,760 to make it onto the November ballot.


Corbett lauds Indo-Americans – but why?

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett issued a news release this morning saying she celebrated India’s Republic Day today by honoring several prominent Indian Americans from her district in a special ceremony on the Senate floor.

“On this important day, we pay tribute to India’s independence, its constitution and its thriving democracy, and we remember those who sacrificed their lives to make the Republic of India a reality,” Corbett, D-San Leandro, said in the release. “I thank the Indo-American community in my district for sharing the joy of this wonderful celebration with us and reminding us of its significance, and for its dedication to core community values of family, service, knowledge and peace.”

Hmm. I don’t recall Corbett ever having moved before to recognize Republic Day in the Legislature. In fact, I checked my archive of all releases received from local lawmakers (in Corbett’s case, back to the start of 2009) and the only hit I get on anything regarding the Indo-American community is her honoring Union City’s Paddy’s Coffee House – owned by Bombay native and Fremont resident Paddy Iyer – as her district’s 2011 small business of the year.

Now, far be it from me to ascribe ulterior political motivations, but might Corbett’s recent praise of the Indo-American community have anything to do with her exploring a run in the newly drawn 15th Congressional District, which has a significant Indo-American population? And, by the way, where an Indo-American candidate shattered fundraising records by pulling in $1.2 million in the last quarter of 2011, even though he insists he’s not challenging incumbent Pete Stark in 2012?

Nah, that can’t be it. Indo-Americans do contribute a lot to the communities in her district, and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that. Besides, Corbett told me in October that she’s committed to finishing her state Senate term, which expires in 2014: “I think it’s important for people to complete their terms and finish what they set out to do when they were first elected.”

Then again, Stark, 80, told me yesterday that because fellow Democrat and Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell is challenging him this year, “there will be others” who jump into the race during the mid-February through mid-March nomination period for the June 5 primary.

“Understandably, they’ve told me if one person gets in, they all have to get in,” he said, lest he suddenly fall ill and Swalwell be the only other Democrat on the ballot. “From my standpoint, that’s great – you get four or five candidates in there and I win. They’ve all got to hope that I win, because they wouldn’t want any of the other wannabes to win and knock me out – they’d all be second-string then.”

Anyway, for the curious, India’s Republic Day commemorates Jan. 26, 1950, when the Constitution of India took effect and officially became that nation’s ruling document. Corbett flew the flag of India on the Senate floor for the occasion, and recognized several Indian American businessmen and public officials from her district, including acting Fremont Mayor Anu Natarajan, one of the first Indian American woman mayors in the nation.

UPDATE @ 10:57 A.M. THURSDAY FEB. 2: Just talked to Corbett about something else, and she said that she has commemorated India’s Republic Day every year she has been in the state Senate. She also said she attends several commemorations of the day each year in the district. So… my bad. She also said she has not yet decided whether to run for the 15th Congressional District in 2012 or in 2014.


Boxer goes ballistic on Spirit Airlines

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer is going toe-to-toe with a Florida-based airline that’s complaining about how airfare taxes and fees must be reported.

Boxer, D-Calif., released a letter she sent today to Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza expressing “concern with Spirit Airlines’ deliberate attempt to deceive the flying public about a new Department of Transportation (DOT) rule that will improve the transparency of airfares for consumers.”

At issue is a new rule that requires that all mandatory taxes and fees be disclosed to customers up front in the fares that airlines advertise to the public. That includes a segment fee of $3.80 per take-off and landing; a passenger facility charge of up to $18 roundtrip; and a Sept. 11 Security Fee of up to $10 roundtrip for travel within or from the U.S.; other fees may apply for international flights.

Here’s how Southwest Airlines explains it:

In the past, fares displayed in our advertising and on southwest.com and airtran.com included the Base Fare plus a 7.5% federal excise tax. The additional government-imposed taxes and fees were shown separately from the fare in advertising and added to the total fare at the time the reservation was priced.

With the new regulation, fares will include the Base Fare plus the 7.5% excise tax, plus all additional government-imposed taxes and fees that we collect and distribute to various government agencies.

The fare amount with all government-imposed taxes and fees included creates various dollar amounts that are difficult to use in advertising efforts; therefore we’ve decided to round up our fares to the nearest dollar for display purposes only. The rounded up fare amount will be more than what a Customer will actually pay when booking the ticket – the cost variant between the displayed fare versus the booked fare could be up to 99 cents.

At first glance, airline fares will “look” higher after the implementation of these provisions, but that is only because of the added taxes and fees that will now be included on the front end as opposed to the back end. We did not increase our air fares on Southwest or AirTran.

Put simply, travelers already are paying these taxes fees – the new rule just requires that they be disclosed sooner. Airlines can still advise their customers how much of that total cost is attributable to the government, and how much the base fare is.

But Spirit – which operates more than 175 daily flights to over 45 destinations throughout the U.S., Latin America and Caribbean, including Oakland International Airport – e-mailed customers this week and has even launched a separate website with the headline, “WARNING: New government regulations require us to hide taxes in your fares.”

“If the government can hide taxes in your airfares, then they can carry out their hidden agenda and quietly increase their taxes. (Yes, such talks are already underway),” Spirit’s website says. “And if they can do it to the airline industry, what’s next? As the transparency leader and most consumer-friendly airline, Spirit DOES NOT support this new USDOT mandate. We believe the better form of transparency is to break out costs so customers know exactly what they’re buying.”

Boxer, however, notes airline passenger advocacy groups like the Business Travel Coalition also are criticizing Spirit for misleading consumers about the new rule with “over-the-top fear tactics.”

And the Department of Transportation in November fined Spirit for violating federal aviation laws and Department rules prohibiting deceptive advertising in air travel. When it launched service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Spirit used billboards and hand-held posters to advertise fares of $9 each way without disclosing the additional taxes and fees. The airline also used Twitter to promote the $9 fares but required travelers to visit two separate web pages to determine the amount of the taxes and fees.

“I have been shocked by the failure of your airline to tell the truth in an email sent to your customers earlier this week as well as in warnings posted on Spirit.com that read, ‘New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” Boxer wrote in her letter today. “I urge you to immediately send a clarifying email to your customers and remove the misleading information from your website.”


Marijuana activists file rescheduling appeal brief

An Oakland-based medical marijuana advocacy group filed a federal appeals court brief today asking that the government be forced to reclassify the drug for medical use.

The Drug Enforcement Administration last July denied a petition filed in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, and only after the coalition sued the government for unreasonable delay. Americans for Safe Access, which was part of that coalition, appealed the rescheduling denial today.

“For the first time in more than 15 years we will be able to present evidence in court to challenge the government’s flawed position on medical marijuana,” ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford said in a news release. “By ignoring the wealth of scientific evidence that clearly shows the therapeutic value of marijuana, the Obama Administration is playing politics at the expense of sick and dying Americans.”

Marijuana remains on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which lists drugs deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety under medical supervision.

California became the first state to legalize medicinal use of marijuana with its Proposition 215 of 1996, but federal law still bans all cultivation, possession and use – a conflict that has led to many prosecutions and countless political headaches ever since. Medicinal use is now legal in 16 states plus the District of Columbia, and the governors of Washington and Rhode Island in November petitioned the federal government to reschedule the drug so that their states can implement their medical marijuana laws without conflict.

Although two other rescheduling petitions have been filed since the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, marijuana’s medical efficacy was reviewed only once by the courts, in 1994.

The ASA appeal brief argues that the federal government acted arbitrarily and capriciously in its efforts to deny marijuana to millions of patients throughout the United States, and that the DEA has no “license to apply different criteria to marijuana than to other drugs, ignore critical scientific data, misrepresent social science research, or rely upon unsubstantiated assumptions, as the DEA has done in this case.”

ASA urges the court to “require the DEA to analyze the scientific data evenhandedly,” and order “a hearing and findings based on the scientific record.”

That record, the group says, includes studies conducted in the past decade that showing medical benefits of marijuana for illnesses such as neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s, and perhaps even in inhibiting growth of cancer cells. The National Cancer Institute, a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, last year added cannabis to its list of Complementary Alternative Medicines. And the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians both have urged the federal government to review marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance.


DeSaulnier to host budget town hall in Concord

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, will host a budget town hall on Feb. 2, where residents may share their concerns and offer ideas for improving statement government operations.

The free event will be held from 7-9 p.m. at Concord City Council Chambers, 1950 Parkside Drive, Concord.

For information, call 925-942-6082.