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Today’s congressional odds and ends

IMMIGRANT FAMILY DETENTION – Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, led 32 House Democrats in writing to President Obama about how the Homeland Security Department is detaining immigrant families, and its plan to significantly expand family detention in the months ahead. “At the current rates, within one year this Administration will have increased capacity to detain immigrant women and children by more than 4,000 percent” Lofgren said. “As the law requires, there needs to be a better assessment in place to appropriately screen and assess these women and children, many of whom are fleeing violence, torture or persecution in Central America.” Among those signing the letter were Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz.

BIO-DEFENSE FUNDING – Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, joined with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-M ich., in calling for additional funding for the Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and related bio-defense programs amid the ongoing Ebola epidemic. “BARDA is now leading the federal government’s efforts to develop vaccines and therapeutics against Ebola,” they wrote. “While ongoing programs at the National Institutes of Health are essential for early-stage Ebola research, only BARDA has the infrastructure to actually get a vaccine or drug prepared for use in this outbreak.” Eshoo and Rogers authored the 2006 law creating BARDA; their letter went to House Appropriations Committee and subcommittee chairs and ranking members; Speaker John Bohener; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s chair and ranking member; and White House Ebola “czar” Ron Klain.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)SURGEON GENERAL – Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove; and Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, got 88 of their House colleagues to sign a letter calling for the confirmation of Surgeon General nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy, as the nation worries about Ebola. Obama nominated Murthy almost a year ago, but conservatives have blocked his confirmation mainly because he sees gun control as a public health issue. “As our nation faces public health concerns, the Senate needs to stop playing politics with Presidential nominees and confirm a Surgeon General to assist in disseminating information and to amplify the work being done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Lee said. “Dr. Murthy is an eminently qualified physician and has the support of our nation’s preeminent health and physicians groups. It’s time to confirm him.” Among those signing the letter were Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose; Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin; Mike Thompson, D-Napa; Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo; Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto; and Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz.

Mike ThompsonNAPA QUAKE DISASTER FUNDS – The Obama administration has approved individual-assistance Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds for areas in Napa and Solano counties hurt by Aug. 24’s 6.0-magnitude earthquake, senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Thompson announced Tuesday. The administration also approved Small Business Administration loans for homeowners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations; until now, only public assistance FEMA disaster funds had been approved. “The approval of this much needed assistance is an important step in our region’s recovery, and it will finally allow us to start helping folks get back on their feet,” said Thompson, D-Napa. “Individuals and families will be able to use these funds to begin the process of rebuilding and repairing homes and other personal property. And, local businesses will be able to apply for low-interest SBA loans to repair or replace disaster-damaged property, inventory and supplies.” Individuals in Napa and Solano Counties can register with FEMA online, via smartphone, or by calling 800-621-3362.

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Brown, lawmakers seek disaster declaration

Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday requested a presidential major disaster declaration for California, as communities in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties continue trying to recover from the South Napa earthquake on Aug. 24.

“Economic impacts of this event will be extensive. The earthquake caused significant damage throughout the region,” Brown wrote in a letter sent to the White House on Tuesday. “This incident is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments, and supplemental federal assistance is necessary.”

Such a declaration from the president would trigger the release of federal funds to help communities recover, and an executive order Brown signed Tuesday provides additional financial aid to local agencies and nonprofits so residents can replace important documents and access key services without footing added costs or other burdens.

The region’s voices in Congress, led by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, echoed Brown’s call with their own letter to President Obama. “It is clear to us and local authorities that a major disaster declaration is critical to helping our state recover and rebuild,” Thompson’s letter reads.

Also signing Thompson’s letter were senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco; Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield.

Federal relief funding might include Federal Emergency Management Agency money to help people to rebuild and repair housing, and for local communities to repair public infrastructure; and Small Business Administration loans for businesses to repair or replace disaster-damaged property, inventory, and supplies. Homeowners and renters may also be eligible for SBA loans to repair or replace disaster-related damages to homes or personal property.

FEMA does not provide for assistance if there is another option in place, like insurance. Those affected by the quake should contact their insurance companies first to see what benefits, if any, their plan provides.

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Feinstein calls for quake early-warning system

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., issued this statement Monday:

“With more than 100 injured and estimates of damage approaching $1 billion, the Napa earthquake reminds us how incredibly dangerous these temblors can be. There’s no doubt a major earthquake will hit California, the only questions are when and where.

“I believe an integrated earthquake early-warning system is essential to save lives and property. Two bills from the Senate Appropriations Committee move us toward that goal. The bill to fund the Department of the Interior includes $5 million to begin work on an early-warning system, while the bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security urges FEMA to prioritize grant funds for such a system. These bills will advance this fall and I will continue to prioritize funding for this system.

“An earthquake early-warning system would provide crucial time to carry out lifesaving actions. A warning of even a handful of seconds would allow for emergency notifications to be sent; trains and traffic to be slowed or stopped; supplies of oil, gas and chemicals to be turned off; nuclear plants to be safeguarded; even elevators to be safely emptied.

“What we need is the political resolve to deploy such a system. Officials in Washington and along the West Coast should partner with the private sector to make an interoperable earthquake early-warning system a reality, and we should do so as soon as possible before a much larger earthquake strikes.”

California already has a demonstration early-warning system called the California Integrated Seismic Network, which did provide its test users in some parts of the Bay Area with up to about 10 seconds of warning before Sunday morning’s temblor hit.

Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed into law SB 135 by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, which requires the Office of Emergency Services to work with other agencies to expand this into a comprehensive statewide earthquake early warning system. But the bill didn’t appropriate any of the $80 million it’s estimated such a system would cost; instead, it gave the OES until Jan. 1, 2016 to find funding for the project.

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SoS candidate Alex Padilla barnstorms Bay Area

State Sen. Alex Padilla, in the Bay Area today both on legislative business and for his campaign for secretary of state, says California should show other states how voting is done.

I had a brief chat with Padilla, D-Van Nuys, between some meetings he had in Oakland and San Jose, and asked him what people around the state have been telling him they want from their next secretary of state. Answers have varied, he said, though a common theme is better voting access.

Alex Padilla“One of the things that resonated with me … is watching what is happening in Texas and in Florida and in Ohio… when they were changing rules at the last minute on voter registration or early voting or voting locations,” he said. “I don’t think those efforts would gain any traction here in California, but you never know, and if nothing else California has the opportunity to be the counterexample.”

Padilla also talked about some of his successful bills this year including SB 135, requiring the state to develop a comprehensive statewide earthquake early warning system. The Legislature passed the bill unanimously, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law Oct. 10.

The system’s estimated $80 million cost is “a small but wise investment when we think about the billions of dollars we associate with every major earthquake, let alone the injuries and fatalities,” Padilla said today. Depending on one’s distance from a quake’s epicenter, the proposed system could give from 10 to 60 seconds of warning, he said, urging people not just to think of what that means in their own homes but what it could mean in more precarious situations like construction sites, mass transit and so on. “A little bit of warning can go a long way.”

He also talked about SB 360, which lets county election officials develop, own and operate public voting systems, subject to approval and certification by the California Secretary of State. Brown signed this bill into law Oct. 5.

Counties currently can draw up their own specifications, but ultimately must pick a vendor; this bill gives them the latitude to develop their own, custom systems. Only larger counties are likely to have the technical wherewithal to do this, he acknowledged, but “it tends to be the larger counties with larger populations that are politically complex” and so have special voting needs.

Incumbent Secretary of State Debra Bowen will be term-limited out at the end of 2014. Other Democrats with active 2014 campaigns for the office include state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco; good-government activist Derek Cressman of Sacramento; and former Assemblyman Charles Calderon of Montebello.

Two Republicans are in the race: Pete Peterson, executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, and Roy Allmond, an employee of the secretary of state’s office. Green candidate David Curtis, an architect and activist from San Rafael, is seeking the office too.

Padilla led the fundraising pack at mid-year, raising almost $291,000 in the first half of 2013 and having more than $355,000 cash on hand and about $10,000 in outstanding debts as of June 30. Yee came in second, raising $332,000 in the year’s first half and holding $299,000 cash on hand with about $23,000 in outstanding debts as of June 30. Cressman raised $57,000 and had almost $45,000 in the bank with no debt.

Calderon raised $8,000 and had just $868 cash on hand with $2,900 in debts at midyear. But the red ink was deeper for Peterson, who raised $59,000 but had just $13,000 banked and more than $52,000 in debts. Allmond and Curtis have not yet filed any campaign finance reports.

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Senator pitches $80m quake early warning system

A Southern California lawmaker has introduced a bill to create a statewide earthquake early warning system costing at least $80 million.

Padilla at CaltechIn a news conference this morning at the California Institute of Technology, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, noted Caltech and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology recently published a study concluding that a statewide California earthquake – affecting both the Bay Area and Los Angeles – may be possible.

“California is going to have an earthquake early warning system, the question is whether we have one before or after the next big quake,” Padilla said, joined at his news conference by seismologists from Caltech, UC Berkeley and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Building upon the California Integrated Seismic Network, seismologists envision a system that would process data from an array of sensors throughout the state to detect the strength and the progression of earthquakes, alert the public within seconds and provide up to 60 seconds advanced warning before potentially damaging ground shaking is felt.

“A fully developed earthquake early warning system would provide Californians critical seconds to take cover, assist loved ones, pull to the side of the road, or exit a building. It could allow time to stop a train or power down other critical infrastructure,” Padilla said. “The earthquake warning would not only alert the public, it would also speed the response of police and fire personnel by quickly identifying areas hardest hit by the quake.”

Michael Gurnis, a geophysics professor who directs the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, said earthquake early warning is a ripe area for development that “would save lives and help California in many ways if it is rolled out as a fully operational system.”

Padilla said that with the magnitude 6.7 Northridge Earthquake having claimed 60 lives and caused at least $13 billion in damage, spending $80 million for such a system is a smart investment.

“About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and over 80 percent of the world’s strongest quakes occur along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire includes the very active San Andreas Fault zone here in California,” he said. “We all know a big quake will hit again in the future. We should be smart and use our advanced science and technology to detect seismic activity and alert people in advance of an approaching quake.”

The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast released in 2008 predicted a 99.7 percent likelihood of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in California in the next 30 years and a 94 percent chance of a magnitude 7.0. Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, Romania, Italy and China either already have or are working on earthquake early warning systems.

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Boxer to hold nuclear safety hearing next week

U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer will convene a hearing next Thursday on Capitol Hill to discuss the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s efforts to shore up U.S. reactors’ safety following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis.

This Sunday marks one year since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan’s coast caused a massive tsunami that killed about 20,000 people and precipitated the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant – a multiple-meltdown and radiation release that was the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

The NRC announced today it’s implementing several recommendations based on lessons learned from Japan. All U.S. commercial nuclear power plants, including those under construction, must better protect post-9/11 safety equipment and get enough such equipment to support all of a site’s reactors simultaneously; they also must install better equipment to monitor water levels in spent-fuel pools. Certain boiling-water reactors also must improve their venting systems. They have until the end of 2016 to comply.

All five commissioners are scheduled to appear at Thursday’s hearing.