Feb. 12

The Press-Enterprise: "Determine why state computer projects fail routinely"

California leads the nation in high-tech industry, yet struggles with government technology systems. The state's troubled new payroll system is only the latest in a long string of failed and expensive state computer projects. Legislators should find out what went wrong this time, certainly. But they should also determine why the state keeps adding to the same dismal pattern — and how California can avoid such technology fiascos in the future.

Controller John Chiang last week fired the contractor working on the state's new computer payroll system, citing a lack of progress and the flawed performance of the new system. A test run last summer on 1,300 employees resulted in multiple errors, including wrong paycheck amounts, improper deductions, missed payments to health insurers and other mistakes. Chiang said he would try to recoup the $50 million the state has paid Pennsylvania-based SAP for its work.

The state has been down this path before: The state hired SAP in 2010, after firing the initial contractor in 2009. The project has expanded in cost and fallen behind schedule, and the state still does not have a workable system, despite spending more than $254 million so far.

The Senate's top Democrat, Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, last week called a hearing to examine the latest technology failure. Legislators should find out just why this project ran into the ditch. While a new payroll system for 240,000 state employees is a large project, computerized payroll functions are hardly new technological ground. Did the contractor not do its job, or was the state's oversight of the project at fault? Did the payroll errors result from the new system's flaws, or bad state data? Answering such questions would help establish accountability for this wasteful mess.

But legislators should also be asking why state computer projects routinely run amok, and take the steps necessary to break that cycle. The payroll system is only the latest in a long line of botched California computer upgrades. The state Judicial Council last year killed a new case management system, after having poured about $500 million into the project — when the state was facing massive budget shortfalls.

The California Public Employees Retirement System last year struggled to get its new computer system working properly, after the cost ballooned from $279 million in 2006 to more than $500 million. Likewise, the state in 2008 finished an automated child support system at a cost of $1.3 billion — years behind schedule, and after spending $111 million on a system that did not work. That list is hardly exhaustive.

The state consolidated its fragmented technology oversight in 2009 in order to bring better coordination and stronger management to computer projects. But still Sacramento struggles with faulty computer systems, cost overruns and delays.

Legislators should ask why that pattern continues, and not just examine the latest failure. California should be capable of handling new technology projects without charging taxpayers for debacles.


Feb. 6

Pasadena Star-News: "This is year for CEQA reform"

IT'S been clear to many Californians of all political stripes for some years now that the California Environmental Quality Act is in need of reform.

It's also clear that the act at its best has protected our state from untold desecration over the decades since it was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan.

But it's been equally clear that a rush job is worse than prescriptions that would be more harmful than the disease. That's why we noted in August that while reforms are needed, it is crucial to get them right. That meant not hashing them together into a last-minute bill without public scrutiny in the rush last fall to pass such bills.

That makes now a good time to start the discussion about how best to revise the important environmental quality laws.

There is a renewed effort early in the 2013 session and it is welcome. Gov. Jerry Brown discussed CEQA reform in his State of the State address last month. He noted, as many have, that it's hard to think of a CEQA exemption in recent years — including the wholesale one for a proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles — that hasn't been necessary if anything is to get done. When regular exemptions are the correct political stance to apply a law, something is wrong.

Enacted in 1970, CEQA has done a lot of good by requiring the proponents of land development and construction projects to document the expected impact on the surroundings and lay out plans to limit damage.

However, it is one of those laws whose effects sometimes stray beyond the intent. It has been used by local governments, by labor unions, by owners of agriculture land, and by business rivals to try to block projects they don't like. Whether or not their objections are really about the environment, they've been able to use CEQA as a legal speed bump.

Even when CEQA lawsuits have failed to stop projects, they've too often added delays and costs.

Fortunately, a rush reform effort that did indeed come along late in the last legislative year was not passed by the California Legislature.

Now, just a few months after the last legislative reform effort was quashed, some of those who have been pushing in Sacramento for reform believe the dynamics have changed.

And one of the leaders of that effort, moderate Democratic state Sen. Michael Rubio of the Central Valley, could be the appropriate Nixon-in-China figure to lead the reform. While the need to reform CEQA has traditionally been a Republican issue, Rubio took it on last legislative session — and saw his effort put down by the Democratic leadership when Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg declined to advance it.

But Steinberg just appointed Rubio chairman of the Environmental Quality Committee, and the Senate leader has said he will make reviewing updates to the CEQA law a priority this session, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The Sierra Club and other traditional CEQA proponents continue to say that even now is not the time for a total overhaul of the law. But even they allow that some of its "low-hanging fruit" — particularly egregious bureaucratic language in its latest update to a grand 399 pages just two years ago — might be ripe for picking.

It is indeed not the time, nor will it ever be, to gut California's environmental protections against inappropriate development. But, given how often CEQA is either entirely thrown out or merely bogs down a process, this legislative session is the time to finally strike the right balance.


Feb. 7

Los Angeles Daily News: "It didn't take long for attacks on Gov. Jerry Brown's weak pension reform package to start"

The statewide pension reform package that the governor and the Legislature passed last summer was no groundbreaking law. It was a watered-down version of the original proposal that mostly affected new hires and still offers overly generous pensions to public workers.

Even so, political watchers warned that it wouldn't be long before Democratic lawmakers, under pressure from their labor allies, started taking aim.

They were right.

The newest such salvo comes from a Santa Cruz county Assembly member, Luis A. Alejo, D-Watsonville. Alejo introduced a bill last month — AB 160 — that would exempt about 20,000 transit workers from the reforms. It was sponsored by the Teamsters and other unions that represent transit workers in California.

May it never make it out of committee.

The governor's pension reform bill, AB 340, requires all public workers throughout the state (except those in charter cities with their own pension plans, such as Los Angeles) to pay at least 50 percent of their pension costs.

Otherwise, most of its provisions are aimed at future workers: an increase in the retirement age and (too-high, in our estimation) cap on public workers' salaries that would be counted toward a pension.

Alejo's bill argues that the workers for transit agencies that receive federal funds should be exempt because their collective bargaining rights are protected by federal law. Specifically, the bill cites a "multiemployer plan authorized by Section 302(c)(5) of the Taft-Hartley Act ... if the public employer began participation in that plan prior to January 1, 2013, and that plan is regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974."

Seems like a stretch, but it's real enough that the feds and transit officials are already wrangling with the complaints that the governor's pension reform should not apply to transit workers.

The governor and the Legislature should be defending their reforms — and certainly not adopting legislation to weaken it. If they give in, how long before every other group of public workers finds loopholes that appear to exempt them?

The answer is, surely not long.

The cynical take on the summer's reform package was that it was just a ploy to get voters to adopt the Proposition 30 tax measure and bail Sacramento out of its financial hole. There's an easy way for state lawmakers to shut down that suspicion — by blocking this bill and the other inevitable legislative attacks.


Feb. 12

San Jose Mercury News: " State stem cell agency is taking Institutes of Medicine advice"

Jonathan Thomas is a very different chairman of California's stem cell agency than his predecessor, Robert Klein.

Klein pioneered California's move to become "the stem cell state." His vision secured an incredible $3 billion in funding for stem cell research through Proposition 71 in 2004, bringing thousands of cutting-edge scientists to Golden State research centers. But he built a protective shield around the board, and results of that were mixed. It prevented political influence from the Legislature on board appointments and funding decisions, which was wise, but it also prevented oversight to deal with conflicts of interest among board members that critics identified from the start.

Thomas recognizes that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has to mature. He is improving transparency and public accountability, which will enable the institute to look beyond Proposition 71 funding toward its next phase.

A critical evaluation by the prestigious Institutes of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found the agency beset by conflicts of interest that compromised its integrity in awarding research grants. Of the 29-member governing board, 13 were from institutions that competed for grants. Under Thomas' reforms, those members will not vote on the remaining $1.2 billion in grants to be distributed.

The critical report also said the agency should involve private industry to a greater extent. To advance stem cell research to the point of cures for diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's, private donors, partners and investors will need to be convinced of a financial return.

Researchers at Stanford, UCSF and other California institutions are making breakthroughs. If the stem cell agency can establish a record as a good steward of public dollars to finance brilliant science, it can continue to play a useful role in stimulating and guiding research to bring the potential cures from stem cell research to fruition.


Feb. 7

The (Santa Rosa) Press-Democrat: "Tall tales? A look at Texas' sales pitch"

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is wagering that a little bit of boasting will pay off big for the Lone Star state.

But Perry isn't betting much. No wonder. With the cards in his hand, we wouldn't either.

Perry recorded a radio ad extolling his state's low taxes and its aversion to red tape and litigation and touting its workforce. He invited California business owners to "come check out Texas."

You may know that already because Perry got a big helping of free publicity for his sales pitch. But you almost certainly won't hear the ad, because he spent just $24,000 on air time, enough to reach — well, about as many people as if he'd tried to whisper across the Pecos.

Still, it wouldn't be neighborly to ignore the governor. So, let's take up his invitation and "check out Texas."

Prospective employers should know that when it comes to graduating from high school, Texas is last in the country.

How has the Lone Star State responded to that sad fact? Perry and the Legislature slashed $5.4 billion from public education in the present state budget. And the school districts? They filed a lawsuit (Sorry, tort reformers). This week, they prevailed. A court said the state's funding mechanism for K-12 is unconstitutional.

Texas students may not earn diplomas, but they aren't deprived on Friday nights. High schools are spending heavily on football stadiums — more than 100 in the past five years, all financed by taxpayers, according to Bloomberg News. Some of them seat upwards of 20,000 fans and feature video replay boards, artificial turf fields and separate training facilities.

Maybe they can offer some help to the Dallas Cowboys. They still play in the NFL, don't they?

Let's hope those high school football players, and their fans for that matter, don't get hurt, because, when it comes to health care, Texas, again, has big problems.

No state has more uninsured residents, and Texas is dead set against expanding coverage under the federal health reform law. Meanwhile, a Gallup survey ranked Texans 13th in the nation for obesity, 26th for smoking and 48th for regular dental care.

Perry didn't mention any of that in his ad. He didn't mention his state's inadequate water and transportation systems either. But he did bring them up in his State of the State address last month in Austin.

We don't mean to imply that the governor is telling tall tales or peddling snake oil. Texas has added jobs and residents in recent years, and some of them came from California.

It's true that the Golden State needs to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start and expand businesses. It's also true that many of the companies claimed by Perry as new Texans have kept their corporate offices and research-and-development operations here, moving only low-wage functions elsewhere.

Perry is headed to California next week. He may convince a few people to move, but most businesses probably will say something similar to the message delivered by Gov. Jerry Brown. No, not the colorful one you probably heard about, but this: "People invest their money where these big things have occurred. The ideas, the structures, the climate, the opportunity is right here on the Pacific Rim." About 1,000 miles from Texas.


Feb, 6

The (Vacaville) Reporter: "Californians grasp domestic violence; so should Congress"

It's encouraging to see that Californians seem to have a broad understanding of the insidious nature of domestic violence. For far too long, it was a subject that wasn't talked about in public; even today, some victims are too embarrassed to seek help.

If those victims believe that people wouldn't understand, they should think again. A recent survey commissioned by Blue Shield of California Foundation shows that Californians are overwhelmingly aware that domestic violence knows no boundaries.

Statewide, 98 percent of those surveyed last fall by Tulchin Research said they believed, to some degree, that domestic violence can happen to anyone — men or women, young or old, any race, and any income level. And 97 percent thought that children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to have mental health and anger management problems.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said they personally knew a friend or family member who had been the victim of domestic violence.

And more than 90 percent agreed that teaching young people skills to support healthy relationships, raising public awareness about domestic violence and ensuring that communities have the money needed to support shelters for victims are effective solutions to the problem.

Too bad the U.S. Congress doesn't appear to be as enlightened.

The Violence Against Women Act — yes, most domestic violence victims are women — has, since 1994, provided federal support for shelters, counseling, legal aid and other victim services in communities across the United States.

It has been routinely reauthorized with bipartisan support — until now. It expired last year and remains stuck in the legislative process. While it is expected to make it through the Senate — perhaps today — its prospects in the House are uncertain.

Press reports indicate that House Republicans are balking at expanding the act's provisions to include same-sex partners, illegal immigrants and American Indians who have no recourse if they are attacked by non-Indians on reservation property.

On Monday, the California state Senate called on Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in a resolution that was bipartisan and unanimous.

At least some politicians grasp that domestic violence can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere.

But then, they are Californians.