Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014 State of the Union

Here are my early impressions on President Obama's fifth State of the Union Address.  I'll try to be brief and to the point.

The president had three messages or impressions he wanted to get across, and I believe he did so successfully.  The first was to be positive and inclusive.  The second was to show Americans he gets their concerns, that he's on their side.  The third is that he is going to act.

It's been a frustrating year for President Obama.  Congress was only able to move on 3 of 41 goals he set out for them in the 2013 SOTU.  They finally did pass a budget, and finally did raise the debt ceiling.  The other was when the Senate changed its rules to permit up or down votes on executive appointments without allowing filibusters.  Despite this, he did not want to appear petulant or angry about it; he wanted to show optimism.  He did this well by starting with a list of good news items about economic improvement.  He furthered the theme by saying he was eager to work with congress to solve the country's problems.

The President then showed he understood the nation's concerns about jobs and equity.  His line about women's pay and comparing the situation to a Mad Men episode was one of the biggest applause lines of the night.  He had a lot of good ideas for bettering children's education, job training, income inequality, exports, energy and the environment.

Finally, having established his goodwill and empathy, the President made it clear he would act.  Though he had said he was eager to work with congress, he said "America doe not stand still," and he would take executive action "Whenever and wherever I can" to further the well being of the American people.  For example, Obama said he would require all federal contractors to pay their workers a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, whether congress agreed to make the standard nation wide for all workers or not.  He had ideas on retirement accounts, gun safety and green projects too.  Unfettered, the President must have made the Republicans squirm as they contemplated the prospect of his making unilateral steps to help the little guy which the GOP might not want to second, but which could make them look bad come election time this November.

It will be interesting to see what he can accomplish on his own the rest of the year.  And just maybe, they might be able to forge some sort of a workable accord on immigration policy.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Support Senate Joint Resolution 19

I was dismayed when the conservative-majority Supreme Court made the Citizens United ruling in 2010.  By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that laws against corporations and unions using their general treasury funds to run ads for or against candidates were unconstitutional.  I was very unhappy at the prospect of their overwhelming the system with untraceable money spent in a fashion calculated to make our elected officials even more beholden to corporate interests and the plutocracy than so many already are.  The reality of the practice has not assuaged my misgivings in the least.  In 2012, 32 wealthy individuals gave as much to the Obama and Romney campaign super-pacs as the 3.7 million small donors who supported either candidate. 

If you feel the same way I do, there may now be something you can do about this.  I received a response email from the office of one of my senators, Dianne Feinstein, detailing a move to overturn Citizens United.  Here is part of what she wrote:

You may be pleased to know that I am a cosponsor of  S.J.Res . 19, introduced by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) on June 18, 2013.   This measure would amend the U.S. Constitution to allow Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns, including by corporations engaging in so-called independent expenditures through outside groups like Super-PACs.  It would also allow states to regulate campaign financing in state elections in the same way.  S.J.Res . 19 is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Go to the full letter.
A constitutional amendment can be a long, drawn out process, but there is no surer safeguard against such abuses than putting them in the constitution itself.  The popular support is there to effect change if people push for it.  A 2013 Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans, 50 percent to 44 percent, would support a law to ban all private funding of federal campaigns and replace them with a publicly-financed system.  A 2012 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of 1,000 likely voters found that 62 percent oppose the Citizens United decision.  So far, eleven states and 350 municipalities have passed resolutions against the ruling, and 40 senators have registered their disapproval.

Take this opportunity to get in touch with your senators and your congressional representative to let them know you support Senate Joint Resolution 19.  Ask them how they stand on it.  Let's start taking some influence back from the well-heeled few.   

Friday, January 17, 2014

Air Quality Still a Major Concern

Mark Grossi writes a San Joaquin Valley environmental blog that  is frequently published in the Fresno Bee under the title "Earth Log."  Two of his recent items on air quality certainly got my attention as a valley resident.  One concerned soot and the other ozone.

The soot item was a study done on rhesus macaque monkeys in 2008.  That year saw a huge number of wildfires, over 2,000.  The air consequently had high concentrations of PM-2.5.  That's the designation standing for "particulate matter" or small particles under 2.5 microns in size.  It is often composed of smoke, diesel exhaust and grains of dust.  These tiny particles can lodge in the lungs.  Researchers at the University of California at Davis tracked the progress of monkey babies born that year and compared their health records to those of monkeys born the next year when the air quality was better.  They found that monkeys born that year were more susceptible to bacterial infections and have reduced lung capacity overall.  Significantly, monkey lungs are practically the same as those of humans.  And in what Grossi termed a "chilling" development, thanks to this year's extreme drought leading to a high dust count in the air, current PM-2.5 readings are even higher than those recorded in the 2008 wildfire year.  This doesn't portend good news for children's health.  The one partial silver lining is that the monkeys studied lived outside and were thus exposed longer per day to the particulates than most human babies are.  But it does point up an inescapable reality: society pays and people pay a serious price for environmental pollution. 

The other item was about ozone, one of the main components of photochemical "smog."  In the early 1990s the San Joaquin Valley regularly had 130 days a year when the federal 8-hour ozone standard was exceeded.  The geography of the area, a bowl enclosed by the Coast Ranges to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east, makes it difficult in the absence of strong wind or precipitation to clear out the air and prevent pollutants from accumulating.  The good news is that the region has made real progress.  Thanks to such actions as smog controls and better gas mileage for vehicles, phasing out older, dirty power plants, farm machinery and well motors, and banning fireplace usage on bad air days, 2013 set a new record.  There were "only" 91 ozone violation days.  But the bad news is that 91 was still second worst in the nation.  Only the South Coast Air Basin comprising Los Angeles and its environs with 93 violations in 2013 did worse.  It is a real achievement to have reduced the number of bad smog days by 30%.  But at the same time, it is only realistic to acknowledge that the situation is still bad and there remains a long way to go.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Christie Author of His Own Problems

It's hard not to conclude that the problems Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces over the (George Washington) Bridgegate scandal are self-inflicted.  This is about a scandal that simmered from September 9, when two of three lanes of the world's busiest bridge were coned off during rush hour from Fort Lee, New Jersey into New York City, until last week when emails between top Christie staffers surfaced.  The emails show them to have orchestrated the lane closures and ergo the massive traffic tieups that resulted, apparently for political payback.  The widely speculated target of the revenge has been Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, though the name of New Jersey Democrat and State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg has also been speculated about as the target.

The e-mails show Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly telling Port Authority Director David Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."  Wildstein, a Christie appointee the Governor has known since high school, emailed back, "Got it."  The traffic problems ensued, resulting in thousands of people missing time from work, thousands of students being late to the first day of school, thousands of companies suffering shipment delays and some emergency vehicles taking up to three times as long to complete urgent trips.  According to another email, this was not a problem because those being inconvenienced were mostly (Christie election opponent State Sen. Barbara) "Buono voters."   

Wildstein resigned earlier in the scandal.  Friday he exercised his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination by refusing to answer any question in sworn testimony before a New Jersey legislative committee.  The morning of the press conference Christie fired Kelly and his two-time campaign director Bill Stepien.  Thus far, no evidence has emerged to implicate Stepien in the planning or implementation of the closure, but subsequent emails had him on the distribution list, so he knew about it and did not report it.  He also entered the email  conversation, at one point interjecting, "Sokolich is an idiot."    

On Thursday January 9, Christie delivered repeated apologies at a nearly two-hour press conference in which he took general "responsibility" but no blame.  The Governor spoke as though he seemed to think he was the primary victim in the episode, not the citizens who were impacted by the transportation interruption.  His attempt at introspection was, "What did I do to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?"  A bigger issue should have been, even if he had no direct knowledge of the plot, what did he do to create a culture in his office that it was OK to punish average citizens for political infighting between politicians?

In the news conference, in response to questions about his gruff persona, Christie said that "politics is not beanbag," but that his style was just "direct and honest."  He summed up by saying, " I am who I am, but I am not a bully," His explanation is unsatisfying.  I was struck watching ex-Republican congressman Joe Scarborough on Friday morning lauding Christie's performance at the press conference but still intimating that something had to be badly wrong for close intimates to operate in such a fashion.  "No one in my office would ever have dared do such a thing.  They would have known it was wrong, that we don't operate that way and that I wouldn't stand for it," Scarborough said.  I couldn't agree more.  Instead of treating questions about the problem with respect and getting to the bottom of things, for weeks Christie denied and mocked those who raised questions.  Indeed, his whole persona is fraught with incidents of calling citizen questioners "idiots" and "assholes."  Speaking of 78-year old Loretta Weinberg, he once wished that somebody would "take the bat out on her."  That's not the kind of language a responsible human being uses in these days of murder rampages.  It's the language of, well, a bully.       


Sunday, January 5, 2014

New California Laws for 2014

After spending the past week visiting family and vacationing in Southern California, I'm back home and ready to alert you California residents to some information you can use. Here are some of the new laws passed in the Golden State last year that took effect on January 1.  I'm listing some I feel you might likely encounter in daily life.

Pocketbook Issues
• Minimum wages go up by $1 to $9 an hour on July 1 and by another $1 on Jan. 1 2016 to $10.
•  Computer software, or “bots,” used to buy blocks of tickets before regular consumers get access will be outlawed, making it more difficult for scalpers to hoard the best seats.
•  Domestic workers, such as in-home aides, housekeepers and nannies, will be eligible for overtime and other benefits.
• Starting July 1, workers will be able to use the current paid family leave program to care for a seriously ill grandparent, grandchild, sibling or in-law.                                                                           • Workers in outside jobs will be guaranteed recovery periods to cool down or employers can be penalized.                                                                                                                                                  • Businesses must act to protect workers who are victims of domestic violence and cannot fire them.

On the Road
• Low-emission and zero-emission vehicles without a passenger may continue to use car pool lanes until 2019.
• Drivers who park at broken meters cannot be ticketed.
• Teenagers under the age of 18 may not text while driving, even if using “hands free" devices that use voice-command messages.
• Owners may order a special $50 “Snoopy” license plate to raise money for museums. 
• Motorists must leave three feet of space when passing bicyclists.

• Districts must adopt policies allowing transgender students to use the restrooms and locker facilities of their choosing, as well as play on the sports team that matches their gender identity. (There is a referendum gathering signatures in an attempt to overturn this law.)
• Veterans who served at least one year in California and file an affidavit declaring their intention to become permanent California residents will be exempt from higher out-of-state tuition when enrolling at a California State University.
• Schools may discipline students who use social media to harass others — called “cyberbullying” — even if it occurs off-campus.

Immigrant Rights
• Unauthorized immigrants will be eligible for a driver’s license by the end of the year or sooner, once DMV adopts the regulations.
• Local authorities can no longer turn unauthorized immigrants over to federal authorities for deportation if they are suspected of only minor crimes.
• Employers could be fined up to $10,000 and lose their business license if they report or threaten to report the nonlegal status of a worker who files a complaint over unsafe conditions or sexual harassment.
• Those without proof of legal status may practice law, under certain conditions.
• Non citizens may work at polling places if they are permanent legal residents.

• The Department of Justice will start keeping records of long-gun purchases.  Previously those documents were destroyed within five days.
• Conversion kits can no longer be sold if they allow a gun to shoot more than 10 rounds.
• Purchasers of long guns will have to pass a written safety like the one now required for handguns.
• People found guilty of making violent threats will have to wait five years to own a firearm.
• Gun owners who do not keep their weapons securely stored can face criminal penalties if the gun is used in a shooting involving a child. 
• Hunters cannot use lead ammunition. This goes into effect no later than July 1, 2019, but likely much earlier, as soon as Fish and Wildlife writes the regulations.