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Tom Steyer Outlines One-Term Objectives For U.S. Senate

By Christopher Cadelago, The Sacramento Bee (TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate-change activist weighing a run for U.S. Senate, is telling potential supporters he would commit to serving only one term if he can’t reach goals dealing with the environment, economy and education within six years.

Steyer is considering a campaign to succeed California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2016.

The promise would be part of his formal campaign launch should he decide to run, associates briefed on his plans told The Sacramento Bee on Sunday. A decision on his future could come as soon as early next week.

The pledge, which the 57-year-old Democrat has outlined to various supporters and policymakers, is based on three commitments focusing on the environment, economy and education system.

The environmental piece of the plan would call for a commitment by the U.S. government to a greenhouse gas reduction policy similar to California’s landmark 2006 law, which seeks to bring emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

The goal is to advance policies that decrease carbon dioxide in the air rather than simply slow its rate. Within one six-year Senate term, Steyer is saying, he wants to ensure the U.S. is on a path to removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager worth an estimated $1.6 billion, is also saying he would advocate for a federal tax system overhaul so the highest earners pay taxes that reflect their wealth.

Under his variation of the “Buffett Rule,” named after the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the highest earners would pay a share of their combined income and wealth that is on par, if not greater than, the middle class.

To that end, Steyer wants to end carried interest, reform capital gains taxes and close tax loopholes. Steyer previously helped push for changes to the state’s corporate income tax code under a voter-approved ballot measure in 2012.

His focus on federal tax policy comes as President Barack Obama prepares to press Congress to raise levies on wealthy taxpayers in order to finance tax cuts for middle-class earners and working families.

Steyer also is telling people he wants to reshape education. They said his pledge calls for working to expand public education from kindergarten through high school to kindergarten through college.

Steyer, whose environmental group and campaign contributions have earned him influence in national debate over climate change, is assembling an unorthodox bid. His chief strategist, Chris Lehane, described it as “Not your grandfather’s Oldsmobile campaign.”

A run would test whether Steyer can retain his venerated reputation with Democrats while challenging one of the state party’s next generation of potential leaders. Attorney General Kamala Harris, who shares many of his concerns about climate change, joined the race last week.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang, Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra and several members of Congress are considering candidacies. Republicans, despite some early interest, have not yet fielded a candidate.

Steyer has spent the past few weeks polling and talking with supporters and prospective donors about a run. He is using the holiday weekend to huddle with friends and family ahead of a decision.

He began detailing his rationale for potentially seeking the office last week in an essay published by The Huffington Post and later in a question-and-answer forum on the social networking service Reddit.

Photo: Fortune Live Media via Flickr

Obamacare At Center Of Debate Over California Health Insurance Initiative

By Christopher Cadelago, The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As state insurance commissioner, Dave Jones has the power to regulate rates for car and homeowner insurance. He can halt an insurer’s proposed increase if the company can’t justify the higher cost.

Health insurance is another matter.

The former Democratic lawmaker has spent years working to give elected commissioners regulatory authority over health insurance rates. He’s asking voters in November to give him that ability with Proposition 45, asserting it’s the only way to slow down spiraling premium costs.

Insurers, long opposed to the idea, now are making a new argument against it, saying the Affordable Care Act complicates his effort. Under the health care law, they argue, California already has a new system in place to manage the health insurance market.

“California just established a new independent commission responsible for negotiating health plan rates on behalf of consumers and rejecting health plans if they’re too expensive,” says the proposed argument against the initiative.

Officials at the state exchange, known as Covered California, have also raised a host of questions about how Jones’ plan would work now that their market is in place.

Diana Dooley, secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency and chairwoman of the exchange board, emphasized that she plans to stay neutral on Proposition 45. But she noted the initiative was drafted years before the state exchange had adopted various consumer protections.

“This looks like a rate regulation regulating the old market without taking into consideration what the advantages are of the Affordable Care Act,” Dooley said. “I am really working to try to bring down the cost of care. That would bring down premiums.”

Health insurance rates have increased more than 150 percent in California in the last decade, a figure greater than five times the rate of inflation, Jones said. Not only is the measure compatible with the new health law, he argues, it’s the missing piece. He said that’s why Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, strong supporters who helped craft Obama’s plan, also are behind Proposition 45.

“There is no provision in the Affordable Care Act or in state law to stop health insurers and HMOs from charging excessive rates,” Jones said. “And they have and will continue to charge those excessive rates unless Proposition 45 is enacted.”

Jones said more than 35 states have enacted health insurance rate regulation, and California has had a successful experience overseeing car, homeowner, and property, and casualty insurance since the passage of Proposition 103 in 1988. He said drivers and homeowners have saved tens of billions under the changes.

Given the market power of insurers, he argues the state exchange will never have the clout to negotiate better rates. Of the 11 plans on the exchange, four offer insurance statewide and make up more than 90 percent of its individual market. However, even they are not each offering insurance everywhere in California.

“We’ve given them a legal monopoly,” Jones said. “Now, by law, everyone has to buy their product.”

Exchange officials say they negotiate aggressively and note that Covered California has the ability to bar insurers from the exchange. Jones said it isn’t likely to exercise that power because its chief mission is to insure as many people as possible. Last year, he unsuccessfully urged officials to bar Anthem Blue Cross from the exchange for small businesses for excessive hikes.

“They did not negotiate lower rates last year,” Jones said. Regulators “were able to get some reduction of the rates just by using the public bully pulpit as we’ve been doing for the last couple of years. But certainly we did not get the full measure of reductions that we could have gotten if we had true rate regulation.”

The proposal supported by Jones and sponsored by Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog would affect about 6 million people — mostly individuals and families who purchase health insurance directly from insurers and those with job-based coverage provided by companies with no more than 50 employees. The measure includes policies offered through the state exchange, covering as many as 1.4 million people so far.

Under the rate-regulation initiative, insurers or plans would begin the process by filing an application for a rate or benefit change with the California Department of Insurance. If the rate increase exceeded 7 percent, organizations, and individuals seeking to intervene could request and would be entitled to a public hearing; though objections to a rate increase could be submitted to the commissioner for any rate filing. Denial of a hearing request would be subject to judicial review.

If no hearing were held, and the commissioner took no action within 60 days, the rate would be automatically approved. The commissioner could approve an increase, deny an increase, or order a rate that it deemed not excessive.

Dooley said she worries about allowing anyone to challenge rates negotiated by the exchange. She said while the “intervention” process works for other types of insurance, it could encourage critics of the controversial law to challenge rates to the detriment of the exchange.

“We have seen in the history of the Affordable Care Act that there are people who are opposed to Obamacare without regard to any of the facts, and anybody could throw a monkey wrench in this,” Dooley said. “That gives me quite a bit of pause.”

Jones countered that fewer than 1 percent of all property and casualty filings have an intervenor. He said there have been only a small handful of “full-blown” hearings with decisions going to the commissioner over the last decade. In that time there have been a total of two lawsuits, and the commissioner won both.

“Even the filing of a lawsuit does not delay the rate determined by the commissioner. The rate goes into effect,” Jones said, adding courts are required to give “great deference” to commissioner determinations under state law. “It’s just simply not the case that there are going to be lawsuits that gum up the works.”

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

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California Billionaire May Be Democrats’ Savior

By Christopher Cadelago, McClatchy Washington Bureau

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — He’s about $98 billion short of the competition. But Tom Steyer is the angel the Democrats have been looking for.

The former hedge fund executive from San Francisco is worth a relatively paltry $2 billion, hardly in the $100 billion league of the Koch brothers of Kansas, whose spending to help conservatives has alarmed Democrats.

But since starting to finance campaigns and causes in 2006, Steyer has grown more and more ready to help, particularly on issues related to climate change. This year, he’s pledging to spend or raise $100 million to help Democrats and Democratic-leaning causes.

That’s a valuable commodity in this year’s elections for control of Congress. But a deep-pocketed contributor such as Steyer is particularly important as the party fears being swamped by ads financed by Charles and David Koch, whose Kansas-based company deals in refining, chemicals and other interests and is the nation’s second largest privately held firm.

“All Tom is trying to do is really to balance and level the playing field,” said Chris Lehane, a veteran of presidential campaigns and Steyer’s political strategist.

“We are never going to have as much money as the other side. But all we need is enough for David’s slingshot to fire true and to fire fast and to fire quick to be able to reach the big-oil Goliath.”

Republicans counter that Steyer is an out-of-town political gun with no real connection to the voters he’s trying to influence.

“The problem, of course, is that Tom Steyer doesn’t vote in New Hampshire, Michigan, Colorado or Iowa,” said Brook Hougesen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Washington-based political operation for Republican Senate campaigns.

She said Steyer “bought off Democrats for $100 million,” a plan that she said she doubted would work.

Steyer, 56, started writing checks to Democratic candidates in 2006. He was a substantial contributor to President Barack Obama’s campaigns.

And this isn’t Steyer’s first run as a multi-million-dollar contributor. Between Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign and Massachusetts’ special election to fill Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate seat, Steyer has donated more than $9 million.

With a focus on the environment and climate change, and opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, he’s already contributed more than $11 million in the 2014 election cycle.

He’s promised to spend more than $100 million for the pro-environment Democrats, pledging $50 million and promising to raise a second $50 million for his NextGen Climate super PAC.

Beyond seeking to help Democrats this year, Steyer is working to lay the groundwork for them in the 2016 presidential election.

His multi-state blitz includes the Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire and governors’ races in Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine. His effort will rely on everything from television ads to polling and opposition research, Lehane said.

“Tom has made clear that NextGen is not a drive-by” PAC, he said.

Steyer clearly sees himself as a counter to the money and interests of the Kochs.

Lehane said Steyer’s spending amounted to “a drop in the big-oil bucket,” singling out the Kochs as GOP donors with special interests of their own. Last month, Steyer challenged the Kochs to a debate on the science of climate change. When they declined, NextGen Climate officials released a Web video calling them out.

Although Steyer’s critics question whether a climate-change agenda will resonate in states with vulnerable incumbents such as Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina, Lehane said he welcomed a discussion about why some candidates were “taking and adopting an anti-science position.”

In California, Steyer contributed about $5 million against an unsuccessful 2010 ballot measure sponsored by oil companies that would have suspended the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions law. Two years ago, he spent more than $32 million on a voter-approved initiative that changed the way multi-state corporations are taxed in California and directed the proceeds toward energy-saving projects in schools and public buildings.

“At the end of the day, Tom is spending his money in the public interest in advance of an issue that is going to impact people today and our kids tomorrow, whereas the other side is spending money to advance their own economic self-interest,” Lehane said.

The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics reported that the Koch brothers have contributed more than $22 million since 1990 — and have spent $87 million on lobbying. A joint Washington Post-Center for Responsive Politics investigation said that in the 2012 election alone, the duo amassed more than $400 million from an undisclosed network of donors.

According to The Washington Post, the Koch brothers organized this coalition of 17 conservative groups, which are a hodgepodge of tax-exempt and limited liability companies.

Photo: Fortune Live Media via Flickr