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18 Jan 13

California's Medi-Cal program will soon be responsible for the dental care of half the state's children. But advocates say the program is not prepared for the big increase in demand that will come with the closure of the Healthy Families insurance program and the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. This report from the Children's Partnership explains the problem and offers some recommendations for ensuring that kids get the care they need.

03 Jan 13

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to overhaul the way California's public schools are funded, sending more money to districts that serve poor students and eliminating mandates to spend billions of dollars on specific programs -- even possibly eliminating the state's popular class-size reduction initiative.

Although the governor was coy in a recent interview about details of his proposal, administration documents indicate the governor is interested in eliminating caps on class sizes in early grades as part of the funding change.

According to documents from Brown education advisors Sue Burr and Nick Schweizer that were given to dozens of education leaders in November, the governor wants a plan that "collapses all existing state categorical funding, with the exception of special education, into … one flexible revenue stream for schools."

In an interview last month, Brown said he had not yet decided whether to seek elimination of the class-size reduction program. The limit of 20 students per class in Kindergarten through 3rd grade has been eased in recent years to help districts cope with state budget cuts.

03 Jan 13

Today I present my annual California Quality of Life Index, an unscientific, imprecise, but I hope interesting statistical glimpse at life in California.

I have chosen 13 statistical measures from the dozens or hundreds that could be used to assess the health, welfare, education and economic vitality of Californians.

I've used the most recent numbers available, some of which are very current and others a year or so old. When possible, I've also cited figures from five or 10 years ago for added perspective.

Together, the numbers show that California is emerging from the economic downturn with more jobs, higher incomes and more-affordable housing but also more poverty. Our farms are booming, and exports are setting records, but perhaps due to this increased economic activity, our air was dirtier this year than it has been since 2008.

California has fewer people getting cash public assistance than a year ago, but more getting their health care through the government. Infant mortality is down. So is violent crime. Our kids are learning more, and the state's public universities are educating more adults.

As usual it's a mixed picture. But on balance, it seems safe to say that for most Californians, life was a little bit better in 2012 than it was in 2011. Yet too many people are still being left behind.

02 Jan 13

California's millions of unlicensed drivers are nearly three times as likely to cause a fatal traffic crash as those who are driving legally, a new Department of Motor Vehicles study concludes.

The findings, the DMV's researchers conclude, "strongly justify the use of countermeasures, including vehicle impoundment, to control (illegal) drivers and to reduce crashes caused by those drivers."

The data provide new grist for the state's perennial political debate over whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to obtain licenses, and local debates in San Francisco and other cities over police seizure of vehicles from drivers who are unlicensed.

For the past 18 years, applicants for driver's licenses have been required to prove their legal status. Advocates of licensing illegal drivers say that it would improve traffic safety.

02 Jan 13

Roughly 4 million additional Californians are expected to obtain health insurance by 2014 through the federal health law, an expansion that will likely exacerbate the state's doctor shortage and could even squeeze primary care access in the Bay Area, experts say.

Even without the Affordable Care Act, a worsening doctor shortage had been forecast as the state's and nation's population ages and grows, and as a generation of older doctors retires. But by mandating that individuals have insurance and expanding Medicaid, the law will extend coverage to an additional 30 million Americans and place a greater strain on the physician workforce, especially for primary care.

02 Jan 13

California will begin moving 860,000 lower-income children from Healthy Families to Medi-Cal next month after receiving last-minute federal approval today, state health officials said.

The shift comes despite a request from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to postpone the switch because he fears too many children will lose access to their medical providers.

Many health care advocates fought the shift in June and felt that Healthy Families had served its beneficiaries better than Medi-Cal could. But Gov. Jerry Brown asked lawmakers to end Healthy Families as the state prepares for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul in 2014, saying it would be more efficient and ultimately save money.

30 Dec 12

The third rail of California politics may not be as deadly as once thought.

Three and a half decades after the passage of Proposition 13 shook the political landscape in California and sparked a taxpayer revolt across America, voters appear to be warming up to the idea of reforming the initiative as long as protections for homeowners stay intact.

And the apparent sea change in public attitudes, combined with the two-thirds majorities Democrats now hold in both chambers of the Legislature, has emboldened some politicians to take aim at the iconic measure.

"It is time for a fix, because Proposition 13 is broken," said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who plans to introduce a bill next year aimed at forcing businesses to pay higher property taxes.

30 Dec 12

State lawmakers laid down hundreds of new laws that will change how millions of Californians drive, shop and do business in 2013, but perhaps the most sweeping was imposed by voters themselves.

Voters in November passed a state sales tax increase starting Jan. 1 and also retroactively hiked income taxes for upper-income earners to avoid deep cuts to education.

Also, starting Jan. 1 Californians will pay more at the cash register for lumber products, cities will get limits on new red light cameras, gun owners will no longer be allowed to carry unloaded rifles and shotguns in public view and unauthorized immigrants will move a step closer to being able to obtain a driver’s license.

Moreover, motorists will be able to drive and text using new voice-recognition technology, boat owners will have to chip in more to fight the invasive quagga mussel, and the CHP will issue “Silver Alerts” about missing senior citizen

30 Dec 12

The new California law prohibits texting while driving unless it's done on an "electronic wireless communications device (that) is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication." That appears to mean texting with the iPhone's Siri or Android's Google Now is OK, because the law allows drivers to touch a device to activate or deactivate it or to enter a telephone number.

"This clarifies some of the gray areas in previous laws," said spokesman Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety. But he said it's preferable not to use cellphones while driving at all, as "research has shown that the conversation itself is dangerous due to inattention blindness and the brain's tendency to move functions needed for driving over to the conversation."

29 Dec 12

California's new felon imprisonment law, which requires low-level offenders to serve their time in county jail rather than state prison, is beginning to reshape how some county judges hand down those sentences.

A study by the Chief Probation Officers of California finds an increasing number of judges using split sentences, requiring offenders to spend part of their time in jail and the other part in a community program or under probation. Without a split sentence, the entire term is spent in jail and when offenders are released, there is no followup.

From the time the new prison law took effect in October 2011 to June 2012, the probation officers group reports, 23% of all local prison sentences were split. That means an increase in the responsibilities of county probation offices, but a lighter load on jails.

However, the organization says there is an inconsistent use of the sentencing tool among the state's 58 counties. Judges in 18 counties deliver split sentences to more than half their felons, including Contra Costa and San Joaquin. On the other hand, only 5% of Los Angeles County felons, for example, are given split sentences. 

28 Dec 12

The Obama administration has a lot riding on California’s implementation of Obamacare, also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. How the state implements the new insurance exchanges, and whether or not it is done successfully, will be an important test of nationalized health care.

But a state-run health exchange puts the burden onto the state and the expense ultimately on the taxpayers. The state loses the authority and flexibility needed to best meet the needs of its people… Which is why more than 30 states have told the Obama government that they will not create state-run health exchanges, leaving the Obama administration to build and operate online health insurance markets for more than 30 states. This is an unexpected problem, unanticipated by the federal government when Obamacare was passed in 2010.

But this isn’t a problem for Democratically controlled California government, which will do just about anything for a federal grant.

28 Dec 12

California’s Democratic leaders are giddy about the future now that they have gained everything they wanted in the last election—voter-approved tax increases and a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, thus rendering Republicans little more than an annoying irrelevancy that can no longer block tax hikes.

Will Democrats just ramp up the taxing and spending spree or will some semblance of a “moderate” Democratic caucus emerge to offer a limited check on those tendencies? Either way, it’s hard to find good news for taxpayers or business owners, although the state’s public-sector unions ought to be stocking up on champagne.

Given that backdrop, I offer some subdued predictions for the New Year.

Prediction 1: Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislative leadership will continue to argue that the state government is on a bare-bones diet, and therefore continue to look for additional revenue to fund it regardless of mounting evidence of waste and excess.

28 Dec 12

"Signature gatherers and protesters may be ejected from privately owned walkways outside a store, but labor unions may picket there peacefully, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday.
The state high court unanimously agreed that private walkways in front of stores, unlike public areas in shopping malls, are not open forums accessible to anyone who wants to assemble to express a view. But the justices split, 6 to 1, in upholding two state laws that prevent courts from issuing injunctions against peaceful labor pickets on private property.

The laws protecting labor pickets are justified "by the state's interest in promoting collective bargaining to resolve labor disputes," Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the court

California "may single out labor-related speech for particular protection or regulation" as an exercise in the economic regulation of labor relations, Kennard wrote."

28 Dec 12

"These victories for reform are the result of a growing movement among conservatives to offer alternatives to our current criminal justice policies. Both of us are part of the Right on Crime initiative which has united many prominent conservatives, including Jeb Bush, Ed Meese, Grover Norquist and William Bennett, to advocate sensible reforms that have proven effective at keeping communities safe while saving taxpayer dollars.

Right on Crime supports effective programs that are less costly alternatives to prison such as drug courts, rehabilitation and programs that impose swift and certain sanctions.

These conservative policy initiatives have attracted the support of leaders from across the political spectrum. The victories for criminal justice reform may not get as much publicity as the stories of gridlock emanating from Washington. Nevertheless, they are proof that even in times of great partisan tension, leaders on the left and the right can set aside their differences and make good public policy based on conservative principles. The result is safer communities and fewer victims."

28 Dec 12

"The buzz is growing about the prospects of former state Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte becoming the next chairman of the struggling California Republican Party.

"He has no opposition and he wants it," said former CRP Chairman Shawn Steel. "He's been meeting with people to talk about it. He's the guy, probably more than anyone else in California, who can raise money for the party and at the same time speaks conservatism. And he speaks above the bickering of different factions.""

Brulte has not made any public comments about the job, which state party Central Committee members will fill at their March convention. Incumbent Chairman Tom del Beccaro is not seeking reelection.

The state GOP this year fell below a 30 percent share of registered voters. It is perpetually short on cash, holds no statewide offices, and is particularly weak among the growing Latino and Asian electorates.

Brulte spent 14 years in the state Legislature, serving as leader in both chambers. The Rancho Cucamonga consultant is known, respected and affable. And he's advocated more minority involvement in the party since at least 1998.

Rancho Santa Margarita attorney Steve Baric is vice chairman of the party and would be a likely candidate for the top spot, but is expected to stand aside if Brulte runs. The two are friendly and share the view that the party needs to rise above infighting if it's to return to relevancy in the state.

The only state constitutional office occupied by a Republican is the state Board of Equalization District 3 seat, held by Michelle Park Steel – who also happens to be Korean American and is married to Shawn Steel. The couple moved from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Surfside in 2011. She is planning to run in 2014 for the supervisorial seat of John Moorlach, who is termed out.

28 Dec 12

"Gov. Jerry Brown and California lawmakers struck an upbeat tone in recent weeks as they enjoyed their most positive budget outlook since the economic downturn.

Whether that mood survives the winter depends on Washington.

State budget experts say the biggest immediate threat to California finances is a recession triggered by automatic federal cuts and tax hikes, absent a political deal to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff."

The state's biggest federal program, Medi-Cal, is spared from automatic cuts. But a new recession could threaten the state tax revenue that serves as the lifeblood for California government."

09 Feb 12

"Despite a series of a cautionary reports by outside agencies and groups, the Obama administration is reaffirming its commitment to California's $98.5-billion bullet train project.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood traveled the state this week and met privately with Gov. Jerry Brown Thursday to discuss the embattled project, issuing a statement of support through the governor's office.

“Over the past week, I have traveled all over the Golden State and have found a strong base of support for the California High-Speed Rail project, from workers who will build it, manufacturers that will supply the trains to run on it and businesses that will benefit from using it,” LaHood said. “The Obama Administration is committed to High-Speed Rail because it is good for the economy and the nation. I look forward to working with Governor Brown to make this project as successful as possible.”

For the White House, California appears to be the lone subscriber to the president's vision for high-speed rail. Facing budget deficits and sluggish growth, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have all scrapped their proposals."

09 Feb 12

"The legal settlement reached Thursday among five big banks, the federal government and 49 states won’t fix the housing market, but it should help two categories of homeowners who are plentiful in California.

The $25 billion settlement has provisions aimed at people who are behind in their payments and under threat of foreclosure and for those who have kept up with their payments but whose homes are worth less than they owe.

People in the first category – those behind in their payments – will be eligible to have the principal they owe on their loans reduced, making it easier for them to catch up and remain current.

People in the second category will be eligible to refinance their loans even though they might not be able to meet the usual loan-to-value ratios required by banks.

It is these people who have probably been the most frustrated by the collapse of the market. They are generally employed, have good credit, and have kept paying on their loans even as many others have simply walked away from their homes and their loans and handed the bank the keys.

For their trouble, though, these folks have been told they cannot refinance to take advantage of historically low interest rates because their new loans would still be for more than their homes are worth, or at least too big to provide the 20 percent cushion banks typically require between the value of the loan and the value of the home.

It’s not yet clear how many of these people will be allowed to refinance, and exactly what the rules governing the process will be. All of that will be hammered out over the next six to nine months as the settlement is implemented.

The settlement covers loans owned and serviced by Ally/GMAC, Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo."

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