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Clinton Connecting With Iowans

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Hillary Clinton is one of American politics’ larger-than-life figures, having shared the White House when her husband was president and traveled the world as secretary of state.

But on the campaign trail, Clinton has tried to present herself in a more human scale as she mounts her second presidential run. Her effort appears to be bearing fruit, with Iowans saying she came across as simultaneously more confident and congenial than during her 2008 campaign.

“She’s not the fuzziest person in the world,” said Lois Boone of Sioux City. “But she’s a lot fuzzier than she was then.”

During campaign stops this week, she repeatedly reminded voters that she’s a grandmother whose daughter is expecting her second child this summer. She talked about the burden of caring for sick relatives.

Even as Clinton discussed typical hot-button issues such as the economy, terrorism and gun control, she made sure to linger on voters’ more intimate concerns, such as battling Alzheimer’s and helping children with autism, asking members of the crowd to raise their hand if they knew someone affected by either condition.

“Oh my goodness, wow,” Clinton said in Sioux City as dozens of hands went up. Her campaign has rolled out proposals to boost funding for Alzheimer’s research and expand early screening for autism.

Clinton’s focus on personal discussions is an implicit course correction after she was viewed as imperious eight years ago, when she came in third in the Iowa caucuses.

Now, she has for months pitched herself as more accessible in this key early voting state as she tries to fend off her rivals in the Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Rather than project an air of inevitability, as she tried to do in 2008, Clinton talks of dedicating herself to helping voters with concerns that “keep families up at night.”

Boone was glad Clinton was focusing on autism and Alzheimer’s — “we all know someone” — because her track record on other issues speaks for itself.

“Everyone knows she’s got the knowledge for foreign affairs,” Boone said. “That’s a given.”

Clinton often reminds voters of her resume, most explicitly at her final Iowa event in Council Bluffs, near the state line with Nebraska.

“Think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you, their experience, their qualifications, their positions,” she said. Then, in an oblique reference to Sanders, whom some view as less viable in a general election because of his democratic socialist positions, Clinton asked voters to consider candidates’ “electability, and how we make sure we have a Democrat going back to the White House.”

Clinton is running a smarter, more grounded campaign than she did eight years ago, political analysts said.

“They didn’t come in doing big rallies,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa. “A lot of people paid attention to that difference.”

And away from the cameras, Clinton has tried to win over local politicos who could be key in rallying support in the caucuses Feb. 1.

Christian Ucles, a 33-year-old precinct captain from the Des Moines area, said he went to a meeting with the candidate and a few dozen other Latino activists like himself in Ottumwa in southeastern Iowa.

Ucles, who backed Barack Obama in 2008, was impressed, especially because he had been previously quoted in the Des Moines Register criticizing Clinton for not doing more personal outreach to Latinos.

“She was giving us an opportunity to talk with her,” he said.

Even though Clinton is leading Sanders by an average of about 13 percentage points in recent polls in Iowa, Ucles said, “the campaign has been running as if they’re 5 points behind.”

To be sure, she is not always meeting with small groups of voters or skipping foreign policy discussions. On Monday and Tuesday, Clinton sometimes stood on an elevated stage while delivering a stump speech to hundreds, occasionally taking a few questions from the crowd.

But she often described herself as an applicant in a job interview, beseeching members of the audience for their help and enthusiastically shaking hands and posing for selfies afterward.

Some brought photos for Clinton to see. One woman had a picture of herself with Bill Clinton during a 2000 event in the same Iowa town.

“That’s so cute!” Clinton said, and then complimented the woman on her changed hairstyle.

Another woman showed Clinton a photo of her family, and the candidate leaned in closer.

“We’re going to take care of you and take care of them,” Clinton said.

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens to her introduction at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, United States, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young  

 

To Encourage Californians To Conserve, A Tweak In Wording Can Help

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Fighting California’s drought is a bit like running a political campaign, complete with carefully calibrated messages crafted with polling data.
Even details like colors are used for maximum effect.

Officials at the state’s Save Our Water conservation program recently tweaked their “brown is the new green” message, advising instead that residents let their lawns “fade to gold.”

The shift was the result of polling funded by the Association of California Water Agencies, which surveyed 800 voters over three days last month.

A variety of phrases were tested to see which ones were most appealing. “Brown is the new green” received the most negative response.

Voters best liked “Stay Golden, California,” a slogan used to encourage energy efficiency. Other favored phrases included “Let it go” (not related to the song from the hit Disney movie “Frozen”) and “Turn it off.”

“We felt like it was a good switch,” said Brendan Wonnacott, program manager for Save Our Water. After all, he said, “California is the Golden State.”

New signs that residents can print and display on their lawns are scheduled to be available on the campaign’s website next week.

There are hints that the conservation message is sinking in as the drought continues for a fourth year — including the fact that water use in urban areas fell 29 percent in May, officials announced this week. Gov. Jerry Brown had set a reduction target of 25 percent.

A bigger challenge will be cutting back water use throughout the dry summer. New numbers for June, the first month since mandatory restrictions took effect, are not yet available.

The poll also asked voters whom they would most likely listen to on the subject of conservation. Gov. Brown was rated lowest, at 61 percent, while firefighters led the pack at 84 percent.

Save Our Water has already started highlighting firefighting in its advertising.

A recent post by the program on Twitter said, “Every water drop saved is an extra drop to help fight dangerous fires.”

An attached picture juxtaposed a leaky faucet and a blazing wildfire.

The poll was conducted over the phone by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percent.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Ian Abbott via Flickr

Drought Inspires Creative Suggestions To Address Water Shortage

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Last month, after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Californians to cut back their water use, a retired engineering professor in Carmel revived a decades-old proposal for easing the drought: icebergs.

He wrote to officials urging them to consider towing giant hunks of ice across the ocean to California, a fantastical concept that has never quite gained steam.

The suggestion was dutifully filed away in a database of drought-relief ideas sent from around the state and nation, compiled since the beginning of last year.

With the drought threatening every aspect of Californians’ lives — how long they stay in the shower and what food they eat — it’s not surprising that so many have opinions on how to handle the problem. Officials have cataloged more than 170 messages containing suggestions and received untold more in emails, phone calls and public meetings.

In a sense, people are responding to a rallying cry from Brown, who has repeatedly cited the state’s history on the cutting edge of new technology and saying the dry spell “will stimulate incredible innovation.”

The pitches run the gamut. Would the state like to invest in biodegradable towels that don’t need to be washed with water? What about covering reservoirs to prevent evaporation? Why aren’t more desalination plants being built?

One person suggested a water pipeline from Alaska, an idea also offered by William Shatner. The “Star Trek” actor’s proposal was more modest, reaching only to Seattle.

The suggestions are recorded and categorized, such as “water supply — solar water purifier” or “conservation idea(s) — leak detection technology.” Some are forwarded to the state water board for review.

“There could be good ideas here,” said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency. “We don’t want to miss out.”

What about iceberg towing? “Well, it’s entertaining,” she said.

Almost none of the pitches have been successful, officials said. The state isn’t in the business of investing in towels, and experts say a Shatner-esque pipeline isn’t feasible. One of the more popular suggestions, desalination of ocean water, is already being pursued in San Diego, although it has not been embraced as a silver bullet because of concerns about cost and environmental effects.

The “cheapest, smartest, fastest” way to address the drought is for Californians to use less water, Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board, has said.

Still, Dave Todd, who works on drought issues at the Department of Water Resources, said the state is keeping an open-door policy for new ideas. For example, when someone reached out to discuss irrigation technology, Todd put him in touch with a laboratory at Cal State Fresno.

“They’re being good citizens in trying times,” Todd said. “We don’t want to discourage people from thinking outside the box.”

Some go way outside the box. Todd said one man sketched out a plan for changing the weather by aiming abandoned airplane engines at the sky.

It wasn’t clear exactly how that would work, Todd said. “His physics were obviously way beyond mine.”

Some ideas are more grandiose.

“Is there someone with whom I can speak about a project that will be approximately the scope of the Central Water Project, and perhaps save civilization?” David Newell, a 79-year-old retired engineer who lives in Sacramento County, wrote in November. He also conceded, “I sound nuts.”

The suggestion involved “the direct air capture of CO2 utilizing endorheic basin alkaline deposits” (essentially, pulling pollutants out of the sky in areas with high concentrations of certain minerals).

Other ideas are modest.

Ethan Rotman, who runs an education program for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, suggested bumper stickers, to be placed on unwashed cars, “transforming them from being a visual blight to hero status.”

His email last June received a form letter in response, as most of the senders do.

“It seemed like a brilliant idea to me,” said Rotman, 55, of Marin County. “Maybe my marketing was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a brilliant idea. I don’t know.”

A flood of drought-busting proposals is nothing new for California, where dry periods are a recurring phenomenon.

During a parched spell in 1976 and 1977, the state opened a Resources Evaluation Office, which responded to 4,400 letters, telegrams and postcards offering ideas. Many people wanted to complain about neighbors wasting water, according to a 1978 state report.

“Writers promised to end the drought for a price, usually to be paid in advance,” the report said. “A few writers stated that it rained wherever they went for their vacations and offered to vacation in California if the state would pay their bills.”

The report said hundreds of people suggested importing snow from the East Coast. The state actually calculated what it would take to use snow to make up the deficit in water supply: Every train tank car in the country would have needed to make 500 trips, for a total cost of $437 billion.

The report concluded, “Obviously, the suggestion, although innovative, was economically infeasible to an advanced degree.”

The idea is undying, especially after particularly frosty winter in the Northeast. The state’s idea catalog has an entry labeled “water supply — Transport snow from East Coast via train.”

As for iceberg towing, the email last month came from Allen Fuhs, who is retired from teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

In 1977, he attended a conference on the topic at landlocked Iowa State University sponsored by a Saudi prince who was interested in new water supplies for the Middle East. The prince even footed the bill to fly a chunk of iceberg from Alaska (it cost $7,500 — close to $30,000 in today’s dollars).

In an interview, Fuhs suggested testing the concept with a demonstration tow that would bring an iceberg from Alaska to the Bay Area.

Asked if he had heard from state officials, Fuhs, 87, said no. But “I’d sure love to have an opportunity to make a presentation.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Leftover snow has been proposed as one way to help California citizens weather the drought afflicting their state. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation via Flickr

California’s Push For Clean Energy Has A Problem: No Place To Store It

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

FOLSOM, Calif. — On a quiet Sunday morning last April, power plants were pumping far more energy into California’s electricity grid than residents needed for their refrigerators, microwaves, and television sets.

So officials made an odd request in a state that prides itself on leadership in renewable energy: They asked wind and solar plants to cut back their output. For 90 minutes, clean energy production was slashed 1,142 megawatts, enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes, while dirtier power from less flexible sources stayed on to keep the system stable.

It was the largest curtailment of green energy last year, according to grid operators, and it highlights a hurdle for Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to increase the state’s reliance on renewable energy. Peak demand for electricity rarely coincides with the brightest sunshine or the strongest winds, so finding a way to store clean power and deliver it when needed will be critical as California relies more on renewable energy.

There’s going to be a lot of “green power that needs a home,” said Keith Casey, a vice president at the California Independent System Operator, which manages most of the state’s electrical grid.

The state requires three of California’s largest utilities to invest in hundreds of megawatts of storage over the next several years. But grid operators say that won’t be enough if the Legislature approves Brown’s proposal that half of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2030, up from the current target of one-third in 2020.

The governor has acknowledged the problem, saying in a recent Sacramento speech that “you get a lot of energy in certain parts of the day, and you have so much electricity you can’t use it. So you have to do something with it. You need storage.”

Companies are experimenting with supersized batteries and tanks of compressed air in the hunt for the best way to hold an electrical charge and respond quickly to shifts in power supply and demand. Brown suggested that even cars could be used to capture clean power _ if more Californians drove electric vehicles and charged them when supply is high and demand is low, for example.

Such ideas represent a major shift in the energy industry, said Tom Starrs, vice president of market strategy and policy at SunPower, a San Jose solar company.

“Historically, we manipulated the supply of energy,” he said. “Now we’re talking about shifting the demand to accommodate the available supply.”

There’s more than one way to deal with an excess. For example, officials are working to boost cooperation among grid operators throughout the West so electricity can be sold where and when it’s needed, reducing the need to burn dirtier fuels around the region.

“There could be opportunities for exporting (extra) power to neighboring states,” said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento.

But White and others view storage as a key to ensuring that California is making the most of its solar and wind energy.

One experiment is taking place at a Pacific Gas and Electric facility in Vacaville, about 30 miles southwest of Sacramento.

A century-old building on the site was once used to relay power to the Bay Area, and the state-of-the-art equipment inside was such an object of curiosity that observation windows were installed for gawkers. Now the hot new technology is outside in the yard behind the building, in two gray metal boxes standing two stories tall.

Each holds stacks of battery cells, and combined, they can store 2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,400 homes for a full day. Over the course of the day, energy flows into and out of the stacks.

Although it’s a tiny amount when compared with the tens of thousands of megawatts flowing through California’s electricity grid every day, PG&E is monitoring the operations through a partnership with the California Independent System Operator to see how the technology could be applied around the state.

“It’s a drop in the bucket. But it helps,” said Jon Eric Thalman, PG&E’s director of transmission asset management and regulatory strategy.

Batteries are an expensive proposition because the technology is still new and not widely available, and taxpayer money has been a key way to get such projects off the ground. PG&E received $3.3 million from the California Energy Commission for the Vacaville battery experiment and a separate, similar installation in the San Jose area, part of the $13.8 million in grants the agency has distributed since 2007.

Under the rule set by the Public Utilities Commission, three of California’s largest utilities will need to install 1,300 megawatts of storage capacity by 2024. The first contracts are scheduled to be submitted for approval later this year.

“If you don’t have a way to store (clean energy), you’ll end up wasting renewables,” said Commissioner Carla Peterman.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: At the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert, some of the plant’s 347,000 garage-door-sized mirrors used to generate power can be seen. California is looking for a reliable way to store green energy for when customers need it. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Jerry Brown Plans Final Touches On Legacy As California Governor

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In what may be the last act of a political career spanning more than four decades, Jerry Brown will begin his fourth and final term as governor uniquely positioned to build his legacy as California’s longest-serving chief executive.

On Wednesday morning in the Capitol, he sketched out an agenda that casts him as both an expert technician, tweaking government to be more efficient and effective, and a big thinker, transforming the state’s infrastructure and combating climate change.

Much of his fourth term will be dedicated to unfinished business, such as pushing forward with the long-delayed $68 billion bullet train.

He’s also examining possible changes in his criminal justice policies, which have diverted low-level offenders to county jails rather than placing them in state prisons. And he wants stricter rules to make California more reliant on renewable energy sources, part of a broader effort to combat climate change.

At the same time, Brown pledged to keep a tight grip on the state’s finances, aided by voters’ passage Tuesday of Proposition 2, a constitutional amendment requiring money to be saved in a rainy-day fund.

“I’m going to try and do everything I can to keep the state in balance,” Brown said. “But I also want to build things.”

He added: “It is a balance between holding my foot on the brake while pushing my other foot on the accelerator. It’s definitely paradoxical.”

Brown will face a series of challenges as he presses forward.

There’s vocal opposition to a $25 billion proposal for massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a project the governor has pitched as crucial to the state’s water system.

The temporary tax hikes voters approved in 2012 are set to begin expiring in 2016, costing the state some of the income that helped erase perennial budget deficits. Democrats failed to win a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, which could make it tougher to push some proposals through.

And in Washington, Tuesday’s election left Republicans in complete control of Congress, imperiling efforts to secure more federal funding for the bullet train.

Nonetheless, Brown is in a stronger position than “any politician in the country,” said Barbara O’Connor, professor emeritus of political communication at California State University, Sacramento.

He won re-election with nearly 59 percent of the vote, and Californians overwhelmingly approved the two ballot measures he promoted: Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond, and Proposition 2, which in addition to the savings fund provides for debt repayment.

O’Connor, who worked in Brown’s administration during his first term in the 1970s, says she expects the governor to remain more focused than he was in the past.

“His old nature would’ve explored new ideas, new programs,” she said. “His new nature is much more disciplined. He has discrete goals that he’s been very public about and he will pursue them at the exclusion of extraneous stuff.”

Brown’s second term, from 1979 to 1983, was tumultuous. He mounted his second of three unsuccessful campaigns for president, and his relationships with California lawmakers deteriorated.

“I was carving out a path that was not sustainable,” Brown said Wednesday.

There were also significant problems he did not expect, a reminder that political fortunes can shift quickly. The state was wrestling with Proposition 13’s limits on property tax revenue and an insect infestation — the Mediterranean fruit fly, better known as the medfly — that devastated crops.

This time around, the governor has taken steps to ensure that political surprises don’t knock him off course. He still has a considerable war chest, which could be used for ballot-measure campaigns — a hedge against lame-duck “infirmities,” as he put it in a recent interview.

Brown also said he would try to carefully balance his relationships with members of his own party. The trick, he said, is to remain faithful to Democratic ideals without succumbing to budget deficits.

“Combining the hopes for what government can do with putting reins on what it should not do will define a lot of what I’m going to do in the next four years,” he said, “and will determine how successful I will be.”

He’ll be working with a new crop of top lawmakers, state Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). But Robin Swanson, a political consultant who previously worked for Assembly Democrats, said Brown had proved he could work with the Legislature.

“It’s nice to have somebody in the driver’s seat who knows the way,” she said.

Brown offered no indication that he would spend political capital for a full-frontal assault on controversial issues such as an overhaul of the state’s tax code or a revision of teacher tenure rules.

“I’m always open to changes, but I do recognize the political realities,” he said.

Brown also brushed off questions about how it felt to finish what may have been his last campaign. He is barred by term limits from serving another term as governor, and he has shot down speculation about running for mayor of Oakland again or mounting another presidential bid.

“I don’t like to think about my last campaign. I find it a depressing thought,” he said. “So I’m not.”

(Times staff writers Melanie Mason and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.)

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr

Unions Remain A Crucial Backer Of California Governor’s Campaign

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The proposal to restrict school districts’ financial reserves seemed to come out of nowhere, slipped into the state budget just days before the spending plan would come up for a vote.

At a legislative hearing, Democrats were confused and Republicans were critical. Recession-weary education officials launched an unsuccessful counterattack against the measure, pushed by California’s largest teachers union and inserted by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The June episode was a reminder that unions have often found a loyal friend in Brown, who has been allied with the labor movement since his political career began more than four decades ago.

The governor has occasionally frustrated union leaders with budget cuts and intransigence at the negotiating table. But he has also delivered on many of their biggest priorities, prompting his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, to paint him as a tool of labor benefactors.

As Brown seeks a fourth term, unions remain a key element of his political power, providing millions of dollars in donations and deep ranks of campaign foot soldiers.

“We agree on a lot of the issues,” said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn. “It’s not a big surprise we would be on the same page.”

Brown, for his part, “is doing what’s best for California,” said his spokesman, Evan Westrup.

Since Brown took office in 2011, labor has chalked up victories large and small.

A union representing cashiers successfully pushed limits on self-serve computers at grocery store checkouts. Unionized state employees received raises of 1.5 percent to 6 percent after several lean years. Infrastructure projects Brown is championing, such as new reservoirs and a bullet train, are expected to create thousands of union jobs.

The California Teachers Association, a political powerhouse in Sacramento and one of the governor’s biggest financial backers, has scored several wins.

The new rule limiting school reserves, which will take effect if voters next month approve Proposition 2, the governor and Legislature’s bid to strengthen the state’s rainy-day fund, could free up more money for wages and classroom spending.

Brown agreed to a moratorium on teacher layoffs during the state’s budget crisis three years ago. And this year he appealed a controversial court decision that struck down some tenure rules.

Brown has helped other workers too. He signed legislation boosting the minimum wage to $10 an hour over the next two years, requiring that many domestic workers qualify for overtime pay and guaranteeing paid sick days for millions.

The governor acknowledged his affinity for labor in a March speech to the California Labor Federation, a coalition representing 2.1 million workers. He traced the connection to his childhood, when his father, Pat Brown, was a San Francisco prosecutor.

“I remember from the first time he ran for district attorney, he had the San Francisco building trades right there in the living room,” Brown said. “I know how important labor has been.”

He told union members they won’t always see eye to eye, but they should be patient: “If you don’t get the bill signed the first year … I’ll be around for the next five years.”

Indeed, Brown is considered a shoo-in for reelection. He leads Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official, by as much as 20 points in multiple polls.

Unions have contributed about $3 million to the governor’s $23.6 million re-election account and nearly $2 million to his campaign fund for the water bond and rainy-day reserve. They have also contributed to organizations such as the state Democratic Party that have given to Brown and his causes.

When Brown ran for governor in 2010, unions helped him counter a record-breaking $160 million campaign by GOP rival Meg Whitman, former eBay chief.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who worked for Whitman, said money spent separately from Brown’s campaign helped keep him from losing ground early in the race, when he was still building his war chest. Unions were part of the independent effort, spending $14 million on it before the summer was over.

“Their support was critical,” Stutzman said. “He never really fell behind.”

In 2012, Brown relied on unions to help pass Proposition 30, his temporary tax-hike measure. The Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers, government employees and others, pitched in $4.3 million for the campaign, and the teachers union gave $10.3 million.

Their support went beyond money. The California Labor Federation used its sophisticated campaign operation to turn out voters in support of the tax hike.

“There’s nothing that substitutes for knocking on doors,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara. “Unions can do that. And there’s not a lot of other groups that can do that.”

Although Brown is often aligned with unions, they’re not always on the same page.

During his first two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983, Brown signed legislation allowing state workers to bargain collectively. Later he angered labor leaders by trying to block pay increases for them.

And since returning to the governor’s office almost four years ago, Brown’s fiscal policies have occasionally frustrated labor leaders.

Even though he softened his original proposals for overhauling California’s public pensions, public workers will contribute more toward their retirement benefits under changes he signed into law.

He demanded that home health aides who are paid through a state program be exempt from a new law guaranteeing paid sick leave, saying it would cost too much to grant them the benefit.

And he vetoed a bill that would have given the United Farm Workers more leverage in contract disputes.

“He’s not an automatic supporter,” said Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation. But “do we have a good relationship? Yes. He’ll always engage, he’ll always be open.”

Overall, Pulaski said, “We’ve had good luck with him, getting our bills signed.”

Brown recently came to labor’s aid after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said home aides who don’t want to join a union don’t need to pay dues, even if their salaries and benefits are covered by union contracts.

The governor signed legislation giving labor representatives an extra recruiting opportunity in California: They’re now guaranteed time to meet with new home care workers during state-mandated orientation sessions.

“It’s absolutely an opportunity to talk about the work unions do for all of the workers they represent, and see if new workers want to join the union,” said Scott Mann, a spokesman for the SEIU. “It really will benefit the workers.”

Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Protesters, Lawmakers Criticize Mexico’s Handling Of Marine Case

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Demonstrators, including a Republican lawmaker, gathered outside the historic Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento on Tuesday to protest the jailing of a U.S. Marine in Mexico.

Gov. Jerry Brown is hosting a luncheon for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the mansion, part of Pena’s two-day visit to California.

“I refuse to eat with Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi’s captors,” said Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who helped organize the protest. “We want him to give us our Marine back.”

The Marine reservist, Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, illegally entered Mexico in March with three firearms and is awaiting trial. Tahmooressi says he crossed the border by accident, and his case has become a cause celebre for some conservatives in the United States.

Mexican officials say the judicial system must run its course, and Brown did not publicly address the issue when he was in Mexico City on a four-day trade mission last month.

The protesters said they believed Tahmooressi’s explanation that he crossed into Mexico by accident.

“It was just an honest mistake,” said Diane Nye, a mother of four from Fair Oaks, Calif.

Fidel Taylor, a firearms instructor and retired police officer, drove an hour from Valley Springs, Calif., for the protest. He wore an American flag shirt, carried an iPhone in an American flag case and hoisted a “Free Our Marine” sign.

Taylor served in the Army during Desert Storm and said protests are needed to get the attention of political leaders. Asked about the Mexican legal process underway in Tahmooressi’s case, he said: “We have to respect their system. But do I feel like he’s gotten a fair shake? Not at all.”

He’s disappointed President Barack Obama has negotiated for captives such as Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but has not addressed Tahmooressi’s case publicly.

Brown, speaking on KNX-AM in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, declined to answer questions about Tahmooressi.

“I think it’s the prudent course for me, as the chief executive, not to start opining on factual legal matters that only a radio host is presenting,” he said.

Brown also dismissed Donnelly, who ran for governor this year until finishing behind Republican opponent Neel Kashkari in the June primary, as a conspiracy theorist.

“He thinks Common Core,” which are new standards for school curricula, “is some U.N. plot or something,” Brown said. “Some people are so far out in right field.”

Other Republican lawmakers have taken different approaches to the situation. GOP state Sen. Joel Anderson said he won’t join the protest, but he won’t attend the lunch either.

“I am concerned that our military would feel betrayed if it appeared we condoned the harsh and unfair treatment of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi,” he said in a statement.

GOP Assemblyman Donald Wagner said he will attend the lunch and hopes to speak with the Mexican president directly about Tahmooressi.

“I do not believe a sidewalk protest by members of the Legislature is an appropriate or particularly effective way to continue advancing the cause of justice in this case,” Wagner said in a statement.

In a letter to Nieto, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez lamented how the Tahmooressi case has caused “unnecessary friction” between the United States and Mexico.

“If you personally examine the facts, we are confident that you will come to the same conclusion that we and many others have made — Sergeant Tahmooressi made an honest mistake and should be allowed to return home as quickly as possible,” Melendez wrote. She intends to deliver the letter during the luncheon; 16 additional Assembly GOP members have signed on.

Donnelly said he was glad some of his Republican colleagues planned to address the issue with the president.

“That’s how they choose to deal with it,” he said. “I have my own way.”

Photo: OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development via Flickr

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Insurance Plan For Farm Workers Falls Short Of Obamacare Rules

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Two landmark liberal health care achievements are on a collision course in California, and the result could be higher costs for taxpayers.

Years ago, legendary activist Cesar Chavez helped create the first health insurance plan for farm workers who toiled for meager wages in California’s fields. The plan, funded by the workers and their employers, is named after Democratic icon Robert F. Kennedy, who allied himself with Chavez.

But like many other insurance plans around the country, it doesn’t fully meet requirements set by President Barack Obama’s health care law. Unless supplemental insurance is purchased, the farm workers say, 10,700 people could lose coverage.

Some Democrats want taxpayers to pick up the $3.2 million tab for the extra insurance so the health care plan can keep operating.

But the proposed subsidy has sparked concern about Democrats trying to prop up one union’s health care coverage when other insurance plans have also struggled to meet new federal requirements.

“There is a question of fairness here,” said Timothy Jost, a health policy expert and professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va.

The proposal is being pushed by United Farm Workers, once led by Chavez. A legislative panel last week recommended including the money in the state budget, which is being negotiated by lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown ahead of a June 15 deadline.

Democratic state Sen. Ellen Corbett said the subsidy, which would be drawn from cigarette taxes, would “support some of our hardest workers, who bring our food to the table.”

It’s also backed by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat. His spokesman, Mark Hedlund, said taxpayers will be on the hook for even larger costs if the farm workers wind up on Medi-Cal, the state’s health care program for the poor.

Other organizations — including the United Agricultural Benefit Trust, which provides coverage to 35,000 farm workers and their families — have shouldered the higher cost of upgrading their insurance to comply with Affordable Care Act regulations.

Clare Einsmann, the trust’s executive vice president, asked why the state should subsidize the United Farm Workers’ coverage.

“Creating a special set of rules for one plan, I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” she said. “Our plan absorbed the cost.”

A United Farm Workers spokeswoman did not respond to questions about why the union needs the state to subsidize its health care plan. The organization’s lobbyist, Esperanza Ross, refused to answer questions in the Capitol last week.

Hedlund said lawmakers would consider using additional cigarette tax money to help other health care plans if they faced similar problems.

When the proposal was introduced at a legislative hearing last week, Republican state Sen. Mike Morrell said it “came out of nowhere.”

“It seems like we are picking winners and losers,” Morrell said. “I don’t know why this particular group (would be) sent $3 million.”

United Farm Workers has lobbied on state budget issues since the beginning of last year, according to disclosures filed by the union, and is a reliable supporter of Democrats.

In 2010, the UFW’s national political action committee provided more than $10,000 to Brown’s gubernatorial campaign and thousands more to legislative candidates. And Dolores Huerta, who helped create the union with Chavez, has helped pitch Obamacare coverage to Latinos in California.

The union’s insurance, the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan, falls short of new federal regulations because it limits annual benefits to $70,000. Although the plan received a waiver to keep operating until September, such caps are being barred under Affordable Care Act rules.

Purchasing replacement insurance would increase costs by 35 percent to 80 percent, according to a legislative analysis that cited information provided by the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan.

However, the plan could keep operating with supplemental insurance that would cover costs exceeding the annual cap. A state subsidy would prevent the additional cost from falling on farm workers or on the businesses that employ them.

According to the legislative analysis, consultants with the Robert F. Kennedy plan say that without supplemental coverage, half its members would end up on government insurance rolls, costing $4.7 million — $1.5 million more than the price of the subsidy.

“The affected individuals know that they’re going to be out in the cold and we know that we’ll end up shouldering the cost,” said Democratic state Sen. Bill Monning.

The proposed $3.2 million subsidy would last one year. Meanwhile, Hedlund said, the union is trying to have its waiver extended.

Brown’s Department of Finance is skeptical of the proposed subsidy. One of its analysts, Aaron Coen, expressed concern about “setting a precedent for other plans” that may want financial assistance.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

Conservative California Website Quickly Stirs Controversy

By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The launch of a new political website in California, intended to highlight conservative success stories in the Golden State, quickly ran into trouble Monday when controversial promotional images cost the organization one of its highest-profile contributors.

The images, including a Photoshopped depiction of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), on all fours in a bikini with her tongue hanging out, prompted House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)…fd, to ask that his column be taken off the website.

“We didn’t condone them,” said Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, referring to the website’s pictures. “We thought it was the right thing to do to ask for the column to be removed.”

Another image on the website, called Breitbart California, superimposed Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg’s face on a topless female body. The picture’s tag line says the website will be “covering Cali-sized IQs & cup sizes.” Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was shown with a body builder’s muscle-bound physique.

Breitbart California is a spinoff from the larger constellation of websites named for the late Andrew Breitbart, the popular conservative writer and provocateur who was born in Los Angeles.

“For years, California has been written off by conservatives as too far past the point of return, but the truth is every single day there are stories worth telling about the successes of the conservative movement in California and the failures of the left-wing establishment,” said Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon in a statement.

Breitbart California generated its own controversy with the image of Pelosi, which the Democratic National Committee criticized as “demeaning and sexist.”

Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger well-known in Sacramento circles who is the new website’s politics editor, said critics “need to get over it.”

“The folks at Breitbart have always been known as edgy,” he said. “They made sure there was an element of that in the launch.”

Fleischman declined to answer questions about the removal of McCarthy’s column, and a spokesman for Breitbart, Kurt Bardella, referred inquiries to the congressman’s office.

Republican candidates for governor are using the website to publicize their platforms.

GOP Assemblyman Tim Donnelly wrote a column criticizing Democrats’ education policies, including a recent attempt in the Legislature to restore affirmative action to university admissions in California.

Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari contributed a piece saying voters are seeking economic prosperity that can be delivered with Republican policies.

“Breitbart California’s launch can only help amplify the message and help us hold Jerry Brown and his fellow Democrats accountable for their record of failed leadership,” he wrote.

Donnelly did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the promotional images. A spokeswoman for Kashkari had no immediate comment.

Ron Nehring, former chairman of the state Republican Party and a candidate for lieutenant governor, wrote his own column about how conservatives need to go on the offensive in California.

Asked about the picture of Pelosi, Nehring said, “I have not seen the image in question. If it is in poor taste, it should of course be taken down.”

Other columns came from U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential 2016 presidential contender.

Fleischman said he hopes the website can “change the narrative and change the debate” in California.

“There is more to America than ultraliberal policies,” he said. “But here in California, that’s what is dominating. Our goal is to show there are other ideas.”

Photo: House GOP via Flickr