Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials

The Associated PressMarch 12, 2014 

July 14

San Jose Mercury News: California, U.S., cut the ranks of the uninsured

Quietly, while the drought and immigration grab the headlines, and while commentators decry health care reform's rocky start, California has done something remarkable. It has cut the number of residents without health insurance in half since last summer, from 22 percent to 11 percent of the population.

And, despite the myriad problems with the system, the percentage of uninsured Americans has dropped from 18 to 13.4 percent in the same time. It would have dropped even more if all the states were taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act's health exchange programs.

Even better, health care analysts are nearly unanimous in expecting the trend to continue, especially after the employer mandate kicks in.

The United States still has a huge amount of work to do if it wants to catch up to other countries on health care. The Commonwealth Fund reported last month that the U.S. ranked last among 11 major, industrialized countries in 2011 on measures of health system quality, efficiency, access to care, equity and healthy lives.

This country spends about $8,500 per person on health care — none of the other countries in the survey, including Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, spends more than $5,700 — but stands at or near the bottom in most measures of health outcomes. It's the U.S. inability to achieve universal access to coverage that is at the heart of its low rankings, however, and at last it's making real progress.

The increase in the number of insured residents isn't coming at the expense of health insurance companies. They recorded record profits in 2013 and expect the same in 2014, despite the new regulation calling for a cap on profits of 15 percent for larger insurance firms.

Some of that profit is due to unfair rate hikes, which will take center stage in this fall's election in California. Proposition 45 on the November ballot will ask voters whether the state insurance commissioner should have the authority to reject excessive health insurance rate increases. The commissioner can do this for car and home owner insurance, but not health. It's an overdue change in California, but we're not yet sure whether this particular initiative is the right approach.

The complication is the short negotiating window for Covered California. Proposed rates are due from insurance companies in July, and if any were rejected, there would be just a few months to complete negotiations between the companies and the commissioner before Covered California's open enrollment period begins.

We mention this as one more example of how difficult it is to achieve health care reform. But we continue to believe we're on the right track. Republicans and other critics of the Affordable Care Act have had more than five years to propose a serious alternative. Meanwhile, California and the nation have made real progress toward making health care available to all Americans.

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July 14

Chico Enterprise-Record: Awareness is best prevention for canal dangers

The heartbreaking story of a 12-year-old Gridley boy who drowned while trying to cool off on a hot summer day has led to much speculation about what can be done to prevent such accidents in the future.

The unfortunate answer is: not much.

However, the victim's family has the right idea. Just talking about the dangers posed by people swimming in irrigation canals will help immeasurably.

Nate Long, a 12-year-old Gridley boy, died when he went swimming in an irrigation ditch near a friend's house on the edge of town. Though it's illegal to swim in the canals, it's fairly common in farm country, and Long had done it before.

This time, however, the boy got pulled under by the suction of an open irrigation valve. He was wedged underwater and trapped for about 30 minutes before he could be freed.

It's natural to question what can be done to prevent similar accidents in the future, but some solutions we've heard are unrealistic. The idea of posting warning signs on canals makes sense, until you realize there are hundreds of miles of canals in the area passing thousands of parcels. Even posting signs only near culverts and siphons would be a gargantuan task for most water districts.

Another natural inclination is to demand that irrigation districts put fencing around canals. You see this in big cities, where every irrigation ditch or stormwater canal has fencing around it to keep people out. But again, the miles and miles of canals in ag land make this not only expensive, but ugly.

Nate Long's family and friends have a couple of good ideas, but they all come back to better education about the dangers of swimming in the canals. You can't put a fence around everything that is dangerous in life, but you certainly can help people be aware of the risks.

Long's youth baseball coach, Norm Lessard, has a good idea that we hope is considered by local school districts — asking schools to remind students before summer vacation about the dangers of swimming in irrigation ditches, with Long's story as a vivid illustration of what can happen. It probably wouldn't hurt to repeat the message at the beginning of the school year in many rural Butte and Glenn County school districts.

Long's older sister, Cassandra Arellano, talked to this newspaper in part because she wanted more people to know about the dangers of swimming in the irrigation canals. She said the more her brother's story is repeated, the less likely it is to happen again. We agree. Spread the word. Awareness about what happened to Nate Long, repeated for years and years, should be enough to make schoolchildren think twice before jumping into an irrigation canal to cool off.

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July 15

The Fresno Bee: CalPERS remains in a deep hole despite big return

California's $300 billion public employee pension fund reported the upbeat news that its rate of return exceeded 18 percent in the fiscal year that ended last month.

But happy days are hardly here again for the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or for taxpayers who must make good on government pensions.

"There's much, much work to be done," said Ted Eliopoulos, CalPERS' interim chief investment officer. "We're ever vigilant; we try not to get too excited in good years or bad years about one-year results."

Eliopoulos knows better than most that CalPERS remains in a deep hole.

Even with the 18.4 percent return, CalPERS estimates that it is only 76 percent funded, a remnant of overpromises made by the Legislature in 1999 and the financial crash of 2007 and 2008. CalPERS would need to make 18 percent on top of 18 percent for several years running, and no one should expect that to occur.

CalPERS was also in the news last week when its former chief executive, Fred Buenrostro, pleaded guilty in a sordid federal criminal case in which he admitted to taking bribes of $200,000 in cash, some of it delivered in a shoebox, no less, as detailed by The Sacramento Bee's Dale Kasler.

The criminal case against Buenrostro and the person who allegedly bribed him, placement agent Alfred Villalobos, shouldn't obscure that the vast majority of CalPERS workers are honorable and dedicated to doing right by people who rely on the government pensions.

Ever since the Buenrostra-Villalobos matter became public, CalPERS has taken steps to restore confidence in its operation.

It retained the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson to conduct an internal investigation and implemented the firm's recommendations, which are intended to improve internal controls.

CalPERS made a point of publicly cooperating with other investigating agencies and has increased disclosure of what had been hard-to-get information such as employee travel costs.

In 2009, long before the guilty plea, Kasler wrote about how the pension fund released piles of paperwork showing exorbitant fees Villalobos took in exchange for getting CalPERS business for various investment houses, and that Buenrostro knew about the payments.

The fund since has instituted a disclosure policy affecting placement agents, and sacked a firm that had managed $1 billion in CalPERS' money, but was tainted by its association with Villalobos.

The case against Buenrostro and Villalobos is salacious, but it's also a sideshow. No matter how corrupt they might have been, they would not have affected the giant pension fund in any significant way.

The far bigger problem is CalPERS' unfunded liability. That will take years to fix.

In February, CalPERS estimated that pension costs could rise by as much as 5 percent of payroll for most employees and 9 percent of payroll for police and firefighters during the next five years.

Pensions promised to government workers will have to be paid. That's where taxpayers come in. We ultimately will be responsible for keeping those promises.

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July 16

Porterville Recorder: Interactive city map is a good marketing tool

The city of Porterville's interactive map currently under development should be a help to both tourists and developers and is an attractive development tool that could bring jobs to the area.

The city is still developing the map, which is on the city's website. Over time, the site will be upgraded, improved and made more attractive.

The city has moved into the technology era by leaps and bounds over the past 12 months. It has added an app (myPorterville) where citizens can report issues with water, streets or even crime. It can also be used to choose a restaurant or pay utility bills.

The new feature is found on the city's Community Development page of the city's website — www.ci.porterville.ca.us. The map displays points of interest in the city and the region, including Success Lake, Springville and the Tule River Reservation. Eventually, those looking at the map will be able to click on a site or location and get more information. The map is also great for developers. It will highlight real estate opportunities and show what land is available for residential, commercial or industrial developments. A developer in Southern California will be able to look at the city's map and see if there is a piece of property that could be developed without having to drive four hours.

Take time to look over the map and don't be shy about letting the city know if there are additions needed to the points of interest. The more complete the map — and it is already pretty complete — the better.

The world of technology is ever changing and the city is doing a good job of keeping up with what technology offers and showing both visitors to our community and potential developers that the city is progressive and on top of what technology can provide. We look forward to future upgrades to the map.

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July 16

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise: Accountability of the lens

A federal jury in June awarded an $8.7 million settlement to William Howard, who was left partially paralyzed and in need of lifelong medical care after he was shot by a Riverside sheriff's deputy during a pursuit. Mr. Howard, wanted for a prior armed robbery charge, lunged out of a utility closet during the April 2011 incident and received a nonfatal shot to the head.

According to the jury, Sheriff's Deputy Armando Munoz discharged his weapon too soon — less than one second — after Mr. Howard opened the utility closet, the Press-Enterprise reported. The city opposes the verdict and is considering an appeal.

While it is understood that police officers put their lives in danger on a regular basis, there is a need for more accountability when a routine stop turns violent. Since most police work is done outside of the squad car, taking steps to equip officers with officer-worn cameras would provide visual evidence when allegations of excessive use of force come into question — increasing transparency.

This method of monitoring also would double as a safeguard for taxpayers who foot the bill for hefty payouts to victims of excessive force.

In February 2012, the Rialto Police Department conducted a study with officer-worn cameras. According to a story in the New York Times, when worn, these cameras captured and recorded the officer's contact with the suspect, the suspect's mood and demeanor and the officer's line of questioning.

Rialto Police Chief William Farrar told the Times he believed the technology would ultimately protect officers. Chief Farrar reminded officers that civilians can use their cellphones to record interactions, "so instead of relying on somebody else's partial picture of what occurred, why not have your own?" he said. "In this way, you have the real one."

In September 2013, Rialto police reported that the use of force by officers had been reduced by as much as 60 percent and citizen complaints reduced by as much as 90 percent, the Press-Enterprise reported.

The Inland Empire has experienced multiple cases in which an officer's accountability has been questioned.

Taffy Hayes, the mother of Dontae Daveon Lewis Hayes, who was shot and killed by Riverside police Officer Nathan Asbury, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on July 7 seeking $25,000 from the city.

The Press-Enterprise reported that Officer Asbury and another officer were on patrol in Riverside's Arlington Park about 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2013. Officers saw Mr. Hayes sitting on a park bench near the playground and smelled marijuana. When they interviewed Mr. Hayes, the officers learned that he had a felony warrant for receiving stolen property. As Officer Asbury handcuffed Hayes, the suspect used his free hand to pull a gun from his waistband. Asbury shot, fatally injuring him.

Once again, an officer-worn camera would add some transparency and possibly show what happened during the incident.

Some officers oppose the technology, citing a violation of privacy, while others wonder why "Big Brother" needs to be watching. But why should police officers — whose salaries are paid by taxpayers — be free of transparency and only held accountable for actions recorded by a dashboard camera?

In June, Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown filed a request seeking $85,000 to purchase body-mounted video cameras, which he said could be worn in the field by January. "We are in a video age," Chief Brown told the Press-Enterprise. "There is no doubt about that."

The purpose of officer-worn cameras is not to subject officers to undue scrutiny, nor to discourage critical police work that protects citizens. What the technology would do is provide transparency, especially in cases where allegations of excessive force, wrongful death or "suicide by cop" raise questions from the public.

That's why law enforcement should strongly consider deploying officer-worn cameras. The technology will lead to greater, not lesser, confidence in the men and women sworn to protect and serve them. While individual privacy rights are of the utmost importance, nothing would be more rewarding than clean-cut justice.

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July 15

San Bernardino County Sun: California's drought scoffers brought fines into play

When it comes to California water wasters, authorities are taking the stick approach now that we've munched up all the carrots.

That big stick comes in the form of fines of up to $500 a day that the State Water Quality Control Board approved Tuesday for people who waste through over-irrigating landscaping so that water runs to the sidewalks and streets, on fountains, on washing vehicles with a constantly running hose, and other outdoor uses.

Stunningly, just as the board was getting input from citizens Tuesday, the news came that Californians are actually using more water than before Gov. Jerry Brown called for cutbacks and issued a drought emergency proclamation six months ago.

That's right. Last month, the news was bad enough: Though the governor had called for a 20 percent voluntary reduction in water use, Californians had instead cut back a paltry 5 percent.

Turns out the statistics were wrong. A new analysis shows we actually used 1 percent more water instead of cutting back at all. The updated number was based on surveys taken from water districts throughout California and was based on consumption from this May compared to the same month in previous years.

Looks as if touting the news of the drought's seriousness on those freeway signs used for SigAlerts and kidnapped-kid announcements hasn't done the trick for Californians. Instead of cutting back to a trickle, we've opened the spigots wide on our way to Splash Mountain.

Let's set aside for the moment the fact that most of the water used in California is for agriculture — some of it on the kind of flood-loving crops that don't belong in our state. That's a long-term issue we're not going to solve in the near term. Let's instead grapple with the fact that quite clearly the usage by ordinary Californians has not been impacted at all by the governor's emergency declaration and conservation request.

Part of the problem may be, sadly, the simple ignorance of people who rely on the self-selected, filtered news of Facebook and other social media. If everyone, or at least someone in each household, read the papers and kept up with TV and radio news, the seriousness of the drought declaration would have been easier to convey.

But let's not let Californians off the hook so easily. If they can't pay attention to the weather, and can't pay attention to the news, something's got to get them to see the problem. We would imagine the possibility of a $500 fine for the almost willful ignorance that is letting your sprinkler runoff pour into the gutters in a state where it rarely rains might make a person sit up and take notice.

Before the logistics of that big government stick are worked out, Southern Californians can work with their family members and neighbors to make the cutbacks the governor asked for and didn't get in January.

As Amy Alkon, the funny and savvy etiquette expert who writes as the Advice Goddess, told KPCC radio listeners Tuesday, the way forward may involve a little tut-tutting, but never shaming. Don't finger point at one profligate Rainbird-happy homeowner on your block. Call a neighborhood meeting and talk about drought-tolerant landscaping over iced teas and cake. Or post a general announcement on utility poles or the branch library bulletin board. Empathy is the key, she says.

We're all in this drought together and can solve it that way. If that doesn't work, expect to be poked with that stick.

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