California Editorial Roundup

May 16 San Jose Mercury News on Tesla's labor practices at California factory: The Sunday story by the Bay Area News Group's Louis Hansen about the hidden workforce that expanded Tesla's Fremont factory was shocking. It raises red flags about labor practices and B-1 visa abuses throughout...

May 16

San Jose Mercury News on Tesla's labor practices at California factory:

The Sunday story by the Bay Area News Group's Louis Hansen about the hidden workforce that expanded Tesla's Fremont factory was shocking. It raises red flags about labor practices and B-1 visa abuses throughout Silicon Valley and beyond.

The betrayal by Tesla is especially disappointing. The cutting-edge car maker was regarded as the role model for bringing manufacturing jobs back to California. It was the prototype feel-good, green industry that paid its skilled workers a premium for their ultra-productive work.

But not the workers imported to build the expansion of the state-of-the-art plant. They were hired through a contractor and paid the wages they would make in their own impoverished countries, $5 an hour in some cases.

In a formal response to the story Monday, Tesla issued a statement saying "mistakes were made" and pledged to "put in place additional oversight to ensure that are workplace rules are followed even by sub-subcontractors to prevent such a thing from happening again."

It shouldn't have taken a Page One news story to force this. Litigation over an injured worker had made the problem clear to the company. Regulators now need to hold Tesla to its promise — and look more intensely at labor practices, wage theft and enforcement of these laws throughout Silicon Valley and the United States.

Michael Eastwood, the assistant district director of the San Jose area office of the U.S. Department of Labor, told Hansen, "We have concluded that there is widespread abuse of the B-1 visa in the Bay Area.

Laws governing working conditions may need to be clarified, or at least amped up with better enforcement and greater penalties. Federal authorities need to look at the abuse of B-1 visas to bring workers here and pay them poverty wages, often with no overtime, when American workers are available.

The Tesla case isn't the first to surface. In some cases companies employ these workers directly, with visa holders making less than $2 an hour working alongside fairly-paid legal residents.

As Ruth Silver Taube of the Santa Clara University School of Law community law center writes in the oped below, Bitmicro Networks of Fremont was fined about $160,000 for giving substandard wages to workers brought in from the Philippines. It was the third time in as many years that a valley tech firm was found in violation of state and federal law.

This nation and particularly California have struggled to regain manufacturing jobs in order to help rebuild a middle class and provide more job opportunities between the low-paid service sector and the tech stratosphere. Plant expansions like Tesla's are celebrated partly because construction itself boosts the economy — assuming the workers are well paid.

If respected companies like Tesla are engaging in this practice, who else is out there? Let's find out, and make the penalty harsh enough that it's cheaper to pay residents a fair wage for their work.


May 14

The Ventura County Star on the state budget:

Jerry Brown can never be accused of looking at state budgets through rose-colored glasses.

Once again, California's governor on Friday painted a dark picture of the state's financial future as he released his updated budget, cutting projections back from the figures he proposed in January.

The governor points to a slowdown in income tax collections last month and a future of declining state tax revenues when a couple of initiatives end in three years as his justification. His budget, however, did maintain the extra $2 billion more for the state's reserve fund.

That means he did not include many new programs or fund some projects that legislators in his own party have been requesting. And he promised, "I'm going to be pretty resolute in this budget." That means: Don't ask for anything more.

We applaud the governor's continuing focus on making sure the state finds a financial balance between its cycles of high and low revenue.

The fluctuation in state income is largely a result of California's wealthy residents paying capital gains taxes on the profits they make when the stock market is performing well and incurring capital losses when the market is down.

Because the market had rocky times last year, capital gains taxes are down, and revenue in April to the state was $1.19 billion less than expected.

The governor continues to be steadfast, as he should, in building up the state's reserves beyond what is required.

That said, we know the programs that legislators seek are, for the most part, not frivolous but steeped in a belief that state government funds can be spent to help make lives better. We have seen that in the last five years with the continuing return of state money to education.

The minimum education funding guarantee of $71.9 billion for 2016-17 is a 52 percent increase over the past five years. That is a substantial and necessary commitment to education.

But there is a need in the area of social services, for example. There are programs that were trimmed or eliminated in the ugly days of budget deficits five and six years ago that have not been restored.

Programs like cost-of-living adjustments for welfare grants, subsidized child care and home care for elderly and disabled people are still operating with fewer dollars — even though the demand is greater than before.

Or you could look at transportation, with its immediate need of $59 billion for road repairs, as a problem that is not addressed in the budget despite a desperate need for money.

We are glad the budget revision does include additional money to help the homeless and spur construction of affordable housing, including a proposal to shorten the review and permitting process for building affordable housing.

The needs in this state are great. It's tempting to reach into that pot of money to try to fund a favorite program or a pressing need.

But the governor correctly reminded legislators to remember the Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper that ends with the moral: "It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."

Revenues will decline. That means, "When you're in the late summer," as the governor said, "you should remember winter's coming down the road."


May 16

Pasadena Star News on campaign finance rules:

It seems like only a couple of years ago that the state Senate was gung-ho to reform its campaign-finance rules after scandals bounced Democrats Ron Calderon, Rod Wright and Leland Yee out of office.

In fact, it was only a couple of years ago. In 2014, the Senate passed a package of reforms to clean up slimy political practices and shore up public trust in the California Capitol. Among those widely applauded reforms was a rule prohibiting senators from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists during certain periods.

Well, it hasn't taken long for something to come up that most senators find more important than ethics. Namely an election that threatens some of their jobs.

Last week, senators voted 24-8 to scrap the fundraising blackouts.

If the original round of reforms made Californians think better of our senators — think lawmakers at least knew how bad things looked — what are we to make of politicians scrapping this key reform?

That's a rhetorical question.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, who introduced the motion last Thursday, tried to dress up the ethics-rule rollback in terms of fairness.

The fundraising blackout period in question would have begun last Friday with the start of final budget negotiations, triggered by the release that day of Gov. Jerry Brown's budget revision. The period would have extended beyond the June 7 California primary, in which 11 of the 40 senators are running.

How inconvenient. Just when politicians need campaign cash the most, they'd be barred from receiving it from their most reliable sources — people, groups and companies that want to influence lawmakers to support favorable legislation.

The state Assembly has no such fundraising blackout. So when a senator faces an election challenge from an Assembly member, the senator would be at a financial disadvantage.

An example: Sen. Jim Beall, D-Campbell, is trying to hold onto his seat against Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, who has received big contributions from oil interests.

"This is David vs. Goliath, and we cannot take away the slingshot from David," says de León. We'll save you trying to figure that one out: De León's "David" is the senator, never mind the advantages enjoyed by incumbents in all public offices.

Less than one election cycle ago, the same de Senate leader made more sense in speaking up for the fundraising blackout. The reform, he said, "ensures that members of the Senate are solely focused on legislative business during the most critical times of the year."

Now, they're allowed to go back to focusing on the potentially corrupting activity of mixing fundraising with legislative decision-making.

Those who voted for easing ethics rules included Southern California Democrats Ed Hernandez, Bob Hertzberg, Ricardo Lara, Connie Leyva, Tony Mendoza, Holly Mitchell and Fran Pavley, and Republicans Pat Bates and Jean Fuller. It's not their finest hour.

If Sacramento thinks the problem is that the fundraising blackout put senators at a disadvantage against Assembly members, the solution wasn't to scrap the blackout but get the Assembly to institute one.

But that would require a sincere belief in political ethics, which is in short supply in election season.


May 15

San Francisco Chronicle on jail sentencing reform for drug offenses:

Once upon a time, California lawmakers imagined that tougher penalties and longer jail sentences for drug offenders would stem the drug trade.

This approach led to our statewide three-year sentencing enhancement for drug offenders who have prior convictions for possession with the intent to sell, drug sales, or similar offenses.

Today, California has met the reality that this was a failed approach. The sentencing enhancements didn't stop the flow of drugs into any of our communities, especially the most vulnerable ones. What they did achieve, unfortunately, was great financial expense to the taxpayer, and great social expense to lower-income communities.

California officials have already begun the long journey of fixing our criminal justice decisions with realignment, which reduced state prison overcrowding by transferring low-level offenders to county supervision.

Now the Legislature has the opportunity to begin the long journey of sentencing reform with SB966, by state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles.

SB966 would repeal the three-year term enhancement for prior drug convictions. Offenders would still be subject to base sentences. Under current law, that's between two and four years in jail for the possession of drugs for sale.

SB966 won't be a panacea for California's drug problems. But then again, neither were sentencing enhancements. Drugs remain widely available, and in many instances they're stronger than when sentencing enhancements were first passed.

What SB966 will do is free up some of the considerable money that the state of California currently spends on incarceration for proven options that do help — things like drug treatment, rehabilitation and job-training programs. The state is already struggling to increase money and staffing for rehabilitation programs in light of realignment and Proposition 47, which reduced criminal penalties for certain offenses.

Increased services could help the many drug-sales offenders who struggle with their own addictions. In the long run, it's a simple and humane way to save the state money.

But some state legislators are still hesitant about ending a failed policy.

It's disappointing to see that SB966 failed to pass the state Senate in late April, defeated on a 16-18 vote, with six abstentions. Most of the "no" votes belonged to Republicans, but three came from Democrats — including Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda.

They need to have a change of heart, and fortunately they'll have the opportunity to do so. Mitchell has until the end of May to bring the bill back for reconsideration.

It's way past time for California to try a new approach to drug offenses. Sentencing reform will save us money and allow money that was previously spent on incarceration to go to more effective forms of drug prevention.

SB966 is a good place to start.


May 15

Vallejo Times-Herald on keeping up with the state's water conservation goals:

This is no time for California to significantly drop its water conservation targets, despite the wet winter that eased but by no means ended the state's five-year drought.

It's irresponsible for Gov. Jerry Brown to ask the State Water Resources Control Board to allow cities, water districts and private companies from San Diego to Yreka to set their own water conservation targets. Go ahead, Beverly Hills and Bakersfield, open those spigots and fill those swimming pools. Never mind the growing signals that drought-like weather patterns are returning to the state for the long haul.

Water agencies have a legitimate complaint. The statewide rules did not always reflect each community's water supply conditions, sometimes costing them millions of dollars in sales. But there is better solution than the compromise worked out by the governor. The state should instead relax and refine the rules to better take into account regional climate and water supply conditions. Left to their own devices, water districts look to their bottom line rather than the big picture problem.

Serious water conservation needs to become as routine for Californians as turning off lights and televisions when not in use to reduce energy consumption.

The governor, to his credit, is asking the state water board Wednesday to make some conservation rules implemented in 2014 permanent. If the board agrees, it will be responsible for enforcing a ban on residents from watering lawns within 48 hours of rain, using ornamental fountains unless the water is recycled and hosing off sidewalks and driveways. Cities and local governments also will be banned from watering ornamental turf on public street medians.

Those are all common-sense measures that should cause no hardship.

The compromise between Brown and the water agencies also requires them to report how much water they use on a monthly basis. This will help the state track statewide conditions and be better prepared to act if next year we again have below average rainfall.

The governor's mandatory rules enacted last June required communities to meet a conservation target ranging from 8 to 36 percent, based on their per capita water use. Their success was readily apparent. Californians reduced their water use by 23.9 percent.

The El Niño storms have dramatically improved reservoir levels through most of California. Two of the state's biggest, Shasta and Oroville, are more than 93 percent full. Closer to home, Lexington (69.6 percent), Anderson (58.8 percent), and Uvas (93.5 percent) show marked improvement. But San Luis Reservoir, near Pacheco Pass, and the majority of Southern California reservoirs are still only about half full.

Serious water conservation needs to be a part of life throughout California. But if the state doesn't set and enforce targets, many cities and water districts will let it slide — let somebody else worry about it. It's everybody's problem, and Brown should know that.