Monday, July 25, 2011

Here comes Governor Sunbeam

As they say, it's déjà vu all over again.

In an article by Silicon Valley Mercury-News "clean technology" reporter Dana Hull we learned over the weekend:
During his first two terms nearly four decades ago, Jerry Brown became famously known as Governor Moonbeam. Now he seems destined to become Governor Sunbeam.

With the epic battle over the state budget finally behind him, Brown's first major policy initiative aims to fulfill the ambitious goal laid out in his campaign: to develop a clean-energy economy in California.

Brown wants the state to produce 20,000 new megawatts of renewable electricity -- enough to power 20 cities the size of San Francisco and roughly one-third of the state's current peak use -- by 2020. That would nearly triple the amount of electricity that California currently gets from renewable sources.

The plan includes the fast-tracking of large, utility-scale renewable power plants. But 12,000 megawatts are to come from "localized electricity," small systems located close to where energy is consumed that don't require new transmission lines. A variety of technologies, from biogas to wind, will play a role. But solar panels -- on the roofs of commercial buildings and along the banks of state highways -- will be a dominant element.

"The future of energy is not Texas oil," Brown said last month at the groundbreaking for the Blythe Solar Power Project, a massive solar power plant under construction in Riverside County. "It's California sun."

Richard Caperton, an energy policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, said the scale of Brown's energy ambitions are unprecedented. "Doing it statewide, at this level, is unheard of," he said. "This is the sort of goal that countries in Europe and Asia are operating with."
Hull has clearly identified Brown's goals for this term - to be identified with the next big technology thing - one that has already become important and will ultimate become big regardless of anything Brown does. This sounds so familiar - in fact a memory:
To celebrate California's leadership in space (51% of NASA's procurements in 1977 went to California - the next state was Alabama with 8%) and the occasion of the first free flight test of the Space Shuttle, Governor Jerry Brown hosted a "Space Day" on August 11, 1977, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.

The event was organized by Russell Schweickart, on loan to the Governor from NASA, and cosponsored by the state and the aero-space industry. It got widespread news coverage because 1) Brown had always been seen as strictly Mr. Era-of-Limits, 2) the Carter administration was giving signs of reducing the NASA budget, 3) it was the summer of the phenomenal success of the film "Star Wars'', and 4) Brown was the first major political figure to offer a national vision of space adventure since President Kennedy.

Speaking at ''Space Day" were all of the major NASA leadership (including the new NASA Adminstrator Robert Frosch) and also Gerard O'Neill, Carl Sagan, Jaques Cousteau, Bruce Murray , head of the JPL and Robert Anderson - head of Rockwell International, which built the space shuttle.

To end the program former ''beat poet'' Michael McClure read a new work, ''Antechamber'', against the silent showing of a film made of the most spectacular NASA footage. Michael, who is a proponent of space exploration but not of space colonies, jotted some poems during the course of the day's talks and gave us permission to print them here.

Next morning, August 12, most of the "Space Day'' participants were at Edwards Air Force Base, along with 68,000 other kibitzers, to see the smoothly successful first atmospheric flight of the space shuttle Enterprise.
Brown is still the same guy he was 36 years ago. He likes hobnobbing with the tech folks. It gets him good press and leaves the impression he's "with it." He did it back then, he's doing it now. He likes to pursue policy objectives in tech fields, policies that are unrealistic for the time. He did it then, he's doing it now.

So a year before Prop 13 he was at a conference on space in Los Angeles. If he had been a responsible Governor and State Government leader from 1975-77, Howard Jarvis would not have had a cause. Instead he chose to become Governor Moonbeam. Brown failed as a leader then.

Here we are with Jerry Brown and without a realistic political leader for our government in crisis. Instead of dealing with the myriad of problems which are in his purview, according to a UCLA News Release: "On July 25–26, the governor, in partnership with the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and Bank of America, will host "The Governor's Conference on Local Renewable Energy Resources" at UCLA, exploring how the public and private sectors can drive local energy generation to meet that 12,000 megawatt goal."

Brown leads things off with a panel discussion featuring David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, Rick Needham, Google's (GOOG) director of green business operations and Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity. Keep these names in mind.

This morning The Sacramento Bee gave us a warm explanation of Brown's energy policy:
The idea behind local energy generation is to put small systems close to where the energy gets used so that the environmental impact is minimized and new transmission lines aren't required. Think rooftop solar, for instance.
Yes, think roof solar. Then the article mentions:
Meanwhile, the governor is jumping into a court case challenging a large solar energy project in the Mojave Desert.

Brown announced last Friday that he has filed what's known as an amicus brief asking a federal judge to deny a request to halt completion of the Ivanpah project, which his office says will create as many as 1,000 construction jobs and produce enough energy to power 140,000 homes.
It leaves you to figure out what's really going on, though at least in a subtle way let's you know it isn't about a few solar panels on your roof.

In fact, Governor Moonbeam-Sunbeam has taken on the non-profit Western Watersheds Project. From their web site:
In January Western Watersheds Project filed suit in federal court to halt construction of the Ivanpah solar power plant project being built on public lands in the Mojave Desert. The project site consists of 5.4 square miles of high quality habitat for the Endangered Species Act protected desert tortoise. WWP California Director Dr. Michael Connor has maintained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied upon the project proponent's self-serving science that woefully underestimated the number of desert tortoise that would be impacted by the development.
According to the BrightSource web site, the ISEGS - "which counts NRG Solar, Google and BrightSource as equity investors - is currently the largest solar plant under construction in the world. The project is being constructed by Bechtel."  According to the same web site here's the investors Brown is advocating for (you'll remember some of these companies mentioned above "Brown leads things off with a panel discussion featuring David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, Rick Needham, Google's (GOOG) director of green business operations....) :

Yes indeed, Governor Governor Moonbeam-Sunbeam is now a shill for the likes of Morgan Stanley and Chevron. Then there is the other big player NRG Solar, a wholly-owned subsidiary of NRG Energy. You've probably never heard of NRG Energy. So let's allow them to tell you about themselves:
NRG Energy is a Fortune 250 wholesale power generation company headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey. We own and operate one of the industry's most diverse generation portfolios (including nuclear, wind and solar power) that provides nearly 26,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity, or enough to support nearly 21 million homes. NRG’s retail businesses, Reliant Energy and Green Mountain Energy Company, combined serve more than 1.8 million residential, business, commercial and industrial customers.
Hmmm. Well that's the spin from their web site. Here's what this international energy holding company told investors in their annual report:
As of December 31, 2010, NRG had a total global generation portfolio of 193 active operating fossil fuel and nuclear generation units, at 45 power generation plants, with an aggregate generation capacity of approximately 24,570 MW, as well as ownership interests in renewable facilities with an aggregate generation capacity of 470 MW. NRG’s portfolio includes approximately 24,035 MW in the United States and 1,005 MW in Australia and Germany, and approximately 265 MW under construction, which includes partner interests of 120 MW. In addition, NRG has a district energy business that has a steam and chilled water capacity of approximately 1,140 megawatts thermal equivalent, or MWt.
Governor Brown's in court defending these guys from the endangered desert tortoise. All so that you can put solar panels on your roof. Boy does this guy know how to spin for the press.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The coming bankruptcy of a court system - the end of a 40-year California government process

California's budget has become a serious problem for some serious people - our judges.

Of course, like the other two California government branches and our State's finances, our court system has been thoroughly screwed up. And like California government generally, the process of screwing it all up began in the 1970's.

Nobody remembers low cost local justice courts that used to handle infractions, misdemeanors, and small claims. They were presided over by a Justice of the Peace, frequently a non-lawyer because the pay was low. In 1974, after a unanimous California Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the right to due process to allow a non-lawyer justice to preside over a case that could result in jail time, California gradually eliminated the justice courts. It gave attorneys an opportunity to create more jobs for themselves.

These courts could have, of course, continued to try infractions and small claims at a low cost. But in the 1970's all three branches of California government were infected with runaway stupidity.

Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown was elected Governor in 1974 and the justice court issue, like runaway taxes leading to Proposition 13, wasn't on his agenda then. Instead he wanted to put a political stamp of his own on the state's justice system and in 1977 appointed Rose Bird Chief Justice which like most things Brown did then was politically stupid and governmentally inept. In 1986 Bird became the only Chief Justice in California history to be removed from office by the voters.

Five years later, in 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Ronald George chief justice. From a law standpoint, George was well qualified. He was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 and received four more promotions from governors Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. When Wilson appointed George Chief Justice in 1991, the relationship between the Supreme Court and the Legislature was strained. Since then, in addition to showing excellent legal scholarship, George restored that relationship.

George, who retired at the beginning of this year, noted he did so with the satisfaction that the California court system has the respect of the Legislature and Governor as a coequal branch of government. (Since the public's approval rating of the Legislature and Governor are, and have been for years, at the "those morons" rating, I'm not sure that's good, but....)

One other thing that George accomplished is to take control of the courts away from the 58 counties to, according to George, ensure consistent and equitable budgets for the entire judiciary.

And he became the manager of a multi-billion dollar courtroom construction program funded by a special bond issue approved by California's dimwit voters.

George became one of the State's more powerful bureaucrats through the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 when the Administrative Office of the Courts, which the Chief Justice runs, became a major state agency now with 1,700 judges and 21,000 other employees spending $4 billion a year.

When The Great California Slump reduced General Fund Disbursements 19.2%, from a high of $107.3 billion in 2007-08 to a low of $86.7 billion in 2009-10, things had to give on the court scene. As noted by columnist Dan Walters:
As the state's fiscal situation deteriorated, George found himself vying with advocates for schools, prisons, health and welfare programs and other claimants on a much-diminished state revenue stream. Standing with George and Cantil-Sakauye on Thursday, Schwarzenegger slyly alluded to George's ceaseless pleas for more money.

George also found himself dealing with rebellious lower court judges who complained that they were being forced to close the courtrooms to save money as the AOC expanded its staff and as a troubled statewide court computer system piled up costs.
The Cantil-Sakauye mentioned in the quote is current Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, George's replacement. George and the 1974 court left her with a mess not unlike the mess Jerry Brown left himself.

The computer system, known as the California Court Management System, a symbol George's efforts to centralize judicial management bypassing locally elected judges, resulted in the Alliance of California Judges, local judges who sponsored legislation that would affirm the right of local courts to manage their affairs, legislation that failed this year.

State Auditor Elaine Howle issued a critical report:
AOC has consistently failed to develop accurate cost estimates. Projected in 2004, the AOC's earliest available cost estimate for the system was $260 million, an amount that grew substantially to $1.9 billion based on the AOC's January 2010 estimate. Over the same period, complete deployment to the superior courts has been postponed by seven years, from fiscal year 2008-09 to fiscal year 2015-16.
After that report came out, the chief administrator of the AOC William Vickery retired. But that didn't solve the problem for Cantil-Sakauye who Friday had to give the bad news to the judges - their once $4 billion budget was now more like $3 billion and $350 million was to be spread to the local courts.

"It has never been worse," said Cantil-Sakauye.

The cuts will close some courthouses including some George's bond issue built, reduce court hours, and delay civil trials, custody decisions and divorces in some counties. Local judges attacked. From the LA Times:
San Francisco County Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein took jabs at the statewide administrative office that runs the court system and lectured judicial leaders about their solemn duties.

She said her court has sent layoff notices to 41% of staff and plans to close 25 of 63 courtrooms while the Administrative Office of the Courts has been devising grandiose schemes that "are sucking tens of million of dollars from the trial courts."
The San Francisco court will be more seriously impaired than many other superior courts because it previously spent all its reserve funds to avoid layoffs. It now will lose nearly $5 million in addition to a previous deficit of $8 million paid from reserves. Most other courts figured out how to minimize the expected long term impact of The Great California Slump by retaining at least some reserves.

Feinstein did not explain why the San Francisco court management made such a stupid choice.

Not all the courts have been quite as foolish. According to a Redding Record Searchlight article headlined Judicial council spares counties cuts for 2012-13:
Shasta County Court Executive Officer Melissa Fowler-Bradley said Friday the judicial council's action was "pretty much" what she expected, adding the budget cut could have been a lot worse.

Still, she said, it's not going to be easy to handle.

Earlier this month, Fowler-Bradley said the court's five-day-a-week branch in Burney will be open only Wednesdays after Sept. 9. That change is expected to save about $120,000 annually in personnel costs.

But that leaves her with $620,000 to cut from the Superior Court's $15.5 million budget.

"It's going to be tough," she said, though she's hopeful that layoffs and work furloughs can be avoided.
But then there's this from an Associated Press article:
Then there's San Joaquin County, the crime-plagued capital of the Central Valley, home to Stockton, always among the top ten cities in foreclosure rates. Among other significant cuts to its overwhelmed court system, San Joaquin is planning to stop deciding all small claims cases. More than 3,000 were filed last year.

The county is pleading with state court leaders for extra funding so it can reopen its Tracy courthouse and restart hearing small claims cases.

"It's horrible for litigants," Presiding Judge Robin Appel said. "These people simply will not have their day in court."
So in 1996 George had to solve the problem of lack of respect by the Legislature and Governor brought on by Brown the last time around. Now Cantil-Sakauye has to solve the problems left behind by George's centralization of power at the state level, while dealing with the results of The Great California Slump.

Perhaps it's time to revisit 1974 and the subsequent decisions to close the locally controlled Justice Court system. Maybe it's time to find a less expensive way to deal with small claims, divorces under our no-fault law, building code violations, landlord-tenant disputes, infractions, and maybe even some misdemeanors where the penalty is only fines.

And maybe we ought to get rid of any prosecutions under State law for violations related to marijuana. Let the feds clog their courts.

Or we can just watch our jurists attack each other while that branch of our government fails to serve us. That sounds so much more like California in the 21st Century.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A California Government Finance Stabilization Proposal

Economists specializing in state and local government finance agree that the one major "structural" problem in California's government is Proposition 13. We rely too heavily on volatile tax sources like income, corporate, and sales taxes. A greater share of government funding needs to come from property taxes. Here's my California Government Finance Stabilization Proposal:
  1. Use the the Corporation Tax single sales factor income allocation rules as proposed in Governor Brown's January 10, 2011 Budget.
  2. Cut the current Personal Income Tax to generate a third less revenue, exclusive of the Proposition 63 1% rate (leaving it unchanged).
  3. Keep the state sales and use tax rate at 5% (down from 6%) and effectively collect the use tax on out of state purchases on the Form 540.
  4. Increase the Proposition 13 property tax rate from 1% of assessed value to 1½% of assessed value.
  5. Restore and fund from property tax revenue the Williamson Act to conserve agricultural properties; place two-thirds of the remaining revenue derived from the 1½% rate in a state special fund to fund education, from pre-school to graduate school, and to fund health care and day care for infants, toddlers, and k-12 students; return the remaining revenue derived from the 1½% rate to the counties for distribution under the same formulas used previously, excluding  allocated to school districts, community college districts, and the Office of the County Superintendent of Schools.
  6. Remove property other than owner-occupied residential property from the assessed value near-freeze of Proposition 13; for owner-occupied residential property, assessed value shall be determined as provided by existing law.
  7. In the case of rental residential property, the assessed value should be tied to changes in tenants and rents paid by new tenants.
  8. In the case of all non-residential property, the assessed value should be increased 10% a year until it is equal to market value.
  9. Establish a spending ceiling for general fund and special funds (exclusive of federal funds, enterprise funds, and funds spent on Presidentially declared disasters) that is equal to fiscal year 1990-91 spending (the base spending year) adjusted as follows:
    • for spending other than spending for K-12 schools, community colleges, and prisons the base year adjusted by the cumulative change in the CPI and the cumulative change in population;
    • for K-12 school and community college spending, the base year adjusted by the cumulative change in the CPI and the change in the number of students attending all K-12 schools and community colleges;
    • for prison spending the base year adjusted by the cumulative change in the CPI and the change in the offender population; and
    • place any surplus revenue into a "rainy day fund" to be used in years when revenue fails to support spending within the ceiling.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mentalist Fans: CBI Layoffs Possible


What happens when reality could derail fiction? As I noted in my June 29 post, one of the cuts in the adopted State of California 2011-12 Budget has a potential significant impact on CBI employees Teresa Lisbon, Kimball Cho, Grace Van Pelt, and Wayne Rigsby and consultant Patrick Jane.

Following the adoption of the budget, California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a news release in which she noted "The Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence and Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement will also likely be eliminated...."

Let someone thinks this is baseless hand wringing by Harris, a number of law enforcement officials around the state joined her including San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumani who issued a letter stating:
The purpose of this letter is to share my concern with the proposed cuts to the California Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement (DLE). As the elected District Attorney of San Diego County, my office investigates and prosecutes crime along California's border on a daily basis. It is through collaboration with the Division of Law Enforcement that we are able to see results from our efforts to stem the tide of violent crime crossing into California.The work of the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and the Bureau of Intelligence and Investigations is a key piece to a statewide strategy to prevent gang crime.I understand the challenges in balancing the state's budget, but urge you to keep in mind that most local law enforcement agencies are taking severe staffing reductions, especially the smaller agencies, and we will need the assistance of DLE more than ever.
One has to wonder if the 2011 fall season opener will begin with Lisbon telling her team of possible layoffs. Would make for an interesting story arc. Of course if the CBI gets the ax....

(Yes, I know the show is fiction. And for those who a stickler's for details, the current agency name is the California Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence. But for years it was known only as the California Bureau of Investigation as can seen from this old web page dating back to the early 2000's.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

The ins and outs of funding the drug war in Mendocino's tight economy

So I'm looking at my local newspaper and see the following headline: County recognized as significant drug trafficking area.

Now exactly why Mendocino County would be so recognized, I can't imagine.
Anyway the wording "recognized as" somehow seems like something related to an honor. Well maybe it's not an honor, but it may be handy. According to the story, the Sheriff says:
The HIDTA Program can provide assistance to Mendocino County in assessing regional drug threats; designing strategies to focus efforts that combat drug trafficking threats; developing and funding initiatives to implement strategies; facilitating coordination between Federal, State and local efforts; and improving our overall effectiveness and efficiency of drug control efforts.
So apparently we are part of this program and in the company of others around the nation according to this map:

This is very timely because according to this article the new California state budget will cut $35.8 million out of the State Department of Justice law enforcement budget next fiscal year and another $35.2 million in the year after that, probably resulting in the loss of $40 million in matching federal funds over the next two years. This could cause the loss of up to 600 law enforcement positions and eliminate the bureau of narcotic enforcement and the bureau of investigations and intelligence.

Hopefully whatever the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office loses in Governor Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown's budget will be replaced by President Obama Administration's new push to go after medical marijuana. I'm not sure how it will work since Mendocino County licenses medical marijuan growers, but somehow the money will flow.

And the overall governmental craziness continues as we join with Alameda, Contra Costa, Lake, Marin, Monterey, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties in participating in this program.