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California Senate Panel Endorses Bill Allowing Terminally Ill To Commit Suicide

By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News (TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Legislation that would allow terminally ill Californians to take their own lives cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, winning the approval of the state Senate Health Committee on a party-line vote.

Senate Bill 128 was written for Brittany Maynard, a young California woman whose public struggle last year with aggressive, inoperable brain cancer and her choice to end her life sparked international debate about the morality of assisted suicide.

The Senate committee’s endorsement of the bill came after more than two hours of emotional testimony that moved lawmakers and others seated in the packed hearing room to tears.

“Being a good mother meant letting (her) go when everything inside of me screamed, ‘Hold on,'” said Maynard’s mother Deborah Ziegler, who didn’t support her daughter’s choice to die until she started watching her suffer.

Supporters of California’s so-called right-to-die legislation say a change is desperately needed to give the terminally ill greater control over deaths that will otherwise be gruesome and painful, while opponents say the measure is poorly crafted and would foster abuse of the elderly.

“Do not mistake temporary popularity with wisdom,” said Warren Fong, president of the Medical Oncology Association of Southern California and an oncologist. Prescribing life-ending medication would violate a doctor’s oath to do no harm, he said.

“We’ve asked oncologists, ‘Would you do it?’ and they all say ‘No,'” he said.

Democratic state Sen. Lois Wolk, a sponsor of the legislation, said she was “thrilled” with the committee’s 5-2 vote in favor of the measure, but said she knows the proposal’s path to becoming law will be rocky.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a practicing Catholic, hasn’t taken a position on the bill but may oppose it for religious reasons.

The California Catholic Conference released a scathing statement Wednesday afternoon following the committee vote, saying it would continue to “actively and vigorously” oppose the bill.

“We understand and share the concern for the dying expressed at today’s hearing. It is a natural impulse for human beings,” said Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference. “But when someone asks for assistance in killing themselves, it is really a call for help, care, and compassion during the dying process.”

Earlier Wednesday, an advocacy group and the family of Maynard, a former East Bay resident, released a video that was recorded a few weeks before her death last year in Oregon from brain cancer. She argued that all terminally ill Californians should have the right to die comfortably at home.

The ease she sought wasn’t available in California, her home state, but Maynard and her family are fighting for change.

“How dare the government make decisions or limit options for terminally ill people like me,” Maynard said in the video, speaking in a calm, steady tone.

“Unfortunately, California law prevented me from getting the end of life option I deserved,” she said. “No one should have to leave their home and community for peace of mind, to escape suffering and to plan for a gentle death.”

Wolk and other sponsors of the proposed legislation — Democratic state Sen. Bill Monning and Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman — released the video footage Wednesday morning at a Sacramento news conference.

Speaking to reporters, Maynard’s mother and widower urged lawmakers to back the measure and support Compassion and Choices, an advocacy group that publicized Maynard’s story and is fighting for death with dignity laws in statehouses across the country.

“Life is more than breathing air in and out of your body,” said Ziegler. “The definition of a good life and a good death varies person to person. Californians need the freedom to deal with terminal illness as they determine.”

Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz, conceded that death with dignity is not the right choice for everyone, but having the choice is vital to preserve fairness and decency for the terminally ill, he said.

“What my wife did on Nov. 1 was by her design,” Diaz said, referring to the date Maynard took life-ending medication and died in her sleep. “She avoided a painful, drawn out process and harmed no one else.”
Had Maynard allowed her brain tumor to run its course, her passing would have been the opposite, she said in the video.

“I want to leave this earth in my home, in the arms of my husband and my parents,” Maynard said in the video. “I cannot change the fact that I am dying, but I am living my final days to the fullest.”

Other terminally ill patients such as Kara Tippetts, a 38-year-old Colorado mother of four, wrote an open letter to Maynard in October urging her not to end her life.

Tippetts wrote that suffering can be “the place where true beauty can be known.” She died this month of breast cancer.

(c)2015 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Vinath Chandar via Flickr

Sweeping New California Groundwater Pumping Rules Signed Into Law

By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For centuries, California’s groundwater has been freely available to anyone who could siphon the coveted natural resource from the earth. But that changed Tuesday with the stroke of a pen.

Seeking to replenish a depleted water table and catch up with the rest of the West, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of bills sought by environmentalists that will regulate groundwater pumping for the first time in state history.

Three years into a devastating drought, thirsty Californians are draining about 800 billion gallons of water annually from precious Central Valley aquifers beneath the nation’s most productive farmland. As the water table drops, so does the land. Some parts of the valley are subsiding almost a foot each year, damaging bridges and vital canals.

The new laws will require local government officials to bring groundwater basins up to sustainable levels and ensure that only as much water as is taken out is naturally replenished. Farmers will likely eventually be forced to meter the water they pump. Some may be told to stop pumping entirely.

Brown and Democratic legislative leaders who worked together on the package said the changes are long overdue and will ease the pain of future droughts. But for Central Valley lawmakers and the farmers they represent, the assurances ring hollow. Many call the new rules “draconian” and envision an army of faceless bureaucrats controlling their lives.

“We’re concerned that these hastily written measures may come to be seen as ‘historic’ for all the wrong reasons,” said Paul Wenger, a Modesto almond and walnut farmer who is president of the California Farm Bureau. “I anticipate we’re going to see a significant downsizing of California agriculture.”

To be sure, the regulations will take years to implement. Water agencies in the most over-pumped basins won’t be required to submit plans to the state by January 2020; the plans must be aimed at achieving sustainability by 2040.

So experts say it could be decades before the most depleted groundwater basins are replenished.

Local water officials will have broad discretion in deciding how to refill underground aquifers that have been pumped dry, but a likely first step will involve determining how many acre feet of water can be safely extracted from basins every year, said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West program.

“Managers of every groundwater basin will have to crunch the numbers and figure out the most sustainable way to manage water in that locality, but we could see some areas requiring long-term cutbacks,” Szeptycki said.

If local water agencies fail to comply with the new rules, state water officials will have the power to do whatever is necessary to enforce the legislation.

Across the state, there are 515 basins and sub-basins, 56 of which are considered “high priority,” meaning they must be studied and replenished first under the legislation, which was sponsored by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento). Most of those aquifers are located in the Sacramento, Salinas and San Joaquin valleys — centers of California’s farming industry.

“The cost of doing nothing is the biggest economic gamble,” Pavley said. “Thousands of homes and small farms cannot keep pace with the race to drill deeper and deeper wells.”

Before Tuesday, California held the unusual distinction of being the only Western state without groundwater rules on the books. When lawmakers enacted the state’s first water law in 1914, they decided to address only surface water, and over the last hundred years farmers have fought off every attempt at change, said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation.

Fahlund sympathizes with the farmers who will eventually be forced to cut back their groundwater pumping, but he said California would be in distress a decade or two from now without the new regulations. And as climate change takes hold, he added, hampering the state’s ability to capture stormwater and groundwater will become even more vital.

“We’ve been using groundwater like a blank check, and now we must balance that checkbook,” Fahlund said. “If we hadn’t passed this legislation, we would have our land continue to sink — and we would have run out. The costs are pretty enormous.”

For farmers like Wenger, the groundwater pumping rules are a symptom of a bigger problem — the state’s lack of support for an agriculture industry that feeds the nation. Even though California is poised to build its first new dams and other surface-storage projects in three decades, the state could have built even more and invested in the efficiency of the surface storage we have now, he said.

“We’ve become more dependent on groundwater, and we know that’s not sustainable, but I want to know when the state is going to provide the water infrastructure for a growing California population and its growing water needs,” Wenger said. “If not, the state will no longer be the agricultural center it is today.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Lobbyists Work To Kill California Bill That Would Outlaw Flimsy Plastic Grocery Bags

By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lobbyists have launched a frenzied eleventh-hour effort to kill a bill that would make California the first state to outlaw flimsy plastic grocery bags, delaying a key vote and setting up one of the fiercest legislative battles of the year.

Last week, the bill seemed in the bag after it cleared a tough committee vote. But in recent days, industry lobbyists who have squashed more than a dozen other proposed bag bans over the last few years have renewed their effort by targeting moderate Democrats.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to educate legislators on the facts,” said Mark Daniels, a senior vice president at Hilex Poly, an East Coast company that is the largest producer of single-use plastic grocery bags in North America.

Opponents led by the company have spent more than half a million dollars in lobbying fees and campaign donations, painting the proposal as a job killer.

But environmentalists are also expressing confidence as they dig in for an epic battle similar to their ultimately successful fight to pass California’s “bottle bill” in the 1980s. The stakes are even higher this year because the clout of environmental groups is on the line after a series of embarrassing legislative defeats last year.

Supporters say a statewide bag ban is needed to wipe out a particularly noxious form of litter that kills marine life in the Pacific Ocean and costs Californians $25 million a year to collect and bury.

“Single-use plastic bags blow out of garbage trucks and landfills all the time. They become litter even after they’ve been properly disposed of,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which championed the beverage container deposit law three decades ago.

The latest lobbying push helped stall an Assembly floor vote on the bill that had been scheduled for Wednesday. Three of the Assembly members being courted by the industry to vote no on the bill — Democrats Henry Perea, Susan Talamantes Eggman, and Adam Gray — received campaign contributions from Hilex Poly in 2013.

None returned phone calls on Wednesday.

If Senate Bill 270 clears the Assembly, the state Senate must also pass the measure before Aug. 31, the end of the legislative session.

Hilex Poly is headquartered in Hartsville, S.C., and none of its 24 factories is located in the Golden State. But, Daniels said, a significant amount of the company’s plastic grocery bags are sold in California.

The company is also a founding member of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that has been running television and radio advertisements against the proposed legislation since April, when the bill was first heard by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

According to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, the alliance has spent roughly $440,000 on lobbyists to kill plastic bag bans proposed in Sacramento this year and last year by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, whom the alliance has personally attacked in its ads.

In January, Padilla announced a breakthrough compromise with some of the legislation’s other opponents. He agreed to make $2 million from the state’s bottle-and-can recycling fund available to California businesses that want to retool their operations and instead manufacture reusable plastic bags that meet the bill’s rigorous standards. That was enough to persuade one major Southern California plastic bag manufacturer to change its mind about the legislation, which is co-sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Kevin de Leon and Ricardo Lara.

In the months before and after Hilex Poly successfully stopped lawmakers’ attempt last year to impose a statewide bag ban, the company made almost $30,000 in campaign contributions to many of the state senators who voted against the bill.

The company’s largest political contribution last year went to Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, who was indicted this year on corruption and racketeering charges. His campaign for secretary of state received a check from Hilex Poly for $6,800 three months after Yee cast a vote against last year’s bag ban proposal.

Two weeks ago, Hilex Poly added another weapon to its arsenal. The plastic bag manufacturer hired Strategic Solutions Advisors, a firm founded by Frank Molina, who served as a senior adviser to Assembly and Senate leaders before becoming a lobbyist.

If passed and signed into law, the proposal would ban grocery stores and pharmacies from offering customers single-use plastic bags beginning July 1, 2015. And a year later, the rule would apply to convenience stores and liquor stores, too. It would impose a minimum 10-cent fee on any paper or reusable plastic bags sold to customers who forgot to bring their own bags when they shop and sets strict standards for what types of bags count as reusable.

AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown

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Smartphone ‘Kill Switch’ Bill Passes California Senate Vote On Second Try

By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, California—Several weeks after voting to squash a bill that would require anti-theft technology in all California cell phones, the state Senate Thursday morning voted to advance the “kill switch” bill.

The legislation got a second chance when Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat, asked his colleagues to reconsider Senate Bill 962 with technical amendments that give manufacturers more time to comply with the new rules and clarify that the bill does not apply to tablets.

“We have a crime wave on our hands,” Leno said of the many cell phone thefts in the Bay Area. “We are trying to keep our constituents safe on their streets and in their neighborhoods. That’s why we’re here today.”

Although the proposal has drawn fierce opposition from the telecommunications industry, Leno said Thursday morning that Apple and Microsoft, two of the largest cell phone manufacturers, had removed their opposition to the bill.

A few of the Democrats who initially cast no votes against the proposal, including Sen. Jim Beall, also changed their minds and voted in favor of the bill Thursday morning. Beall thanked Leno for addressing his concerns about the bill’s consequences for Silicon Valley’s biggest companies.

“I applaud the senator for making these amendments,” Beall said. “He’s listening to the tech community.”

Leno says the bill is needed as a crime deterrent. Cell phone thefts, he said, are becoming more prevalent and more dangerous.

Law enforcement officials have called thefts of smartphones an “epidemic” in some of California’s largest cities. In San Francisco, more than half of all robberies involve cell phone snatching, and in Oakland, that figure is as high as 75 percent.

Nevertheless, a powerful telecommunications trade group called CTIA-The Wireless Association continues to oppose the bill and issued a terse statement Thursday morning, accusing the state Senate of stifling innovation by embracing the kill switch bill.

“We’ve rolled out stolen phone databases, consumer education campaigns, anti-theft apps and features and most recently a ‘Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment,’ which provides a uniform national technology solution,” said Jamie Jastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA. “If technology mandates are imposed on a state-by-state basis, the uniformity is threatened.”

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Photo: Mark Mathosian via Flickr

Smartphone ‘Kill Switch’ Bill Will Have Another Shot In The California Senate

By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With law enforcement warning of an epidemic of smartphone thefts, the California Senate this week will be asked to reconsider a proposal to deter robberies with a bill it once killed under pressure from the telecommunications industry.

State Sen. Mark Leno plans Thursday to reintroduce SB962 to require “kill switches” in all California cellphones, weeks after the effort narrowly lost a vote.

The battle is exposing nonpartisan allegiances and allegations of lobbyists’ influence as Sacramento deals with the fallout of corruption scandals that have raised questions about a pay-to-play culture at the Capitol.

Backed by law enforcement groups, Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, said he is undaunted in his effort to mandate software that would allow a phone’s owner to lock the device remotely if it’s lost or stolen.

“We’re strongly in the game this time around. We have to be,” Leno said. “We have to get into the minds of these criminals and convince them that the crime is not worth their while.”

Many victims are attacked while walking down the street or riding a public train or bus. Even public officials have been targeted: Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb’s iPhone was taken from him at gunpoint in 2012.

When Leno’s legislation came up for a vote in the state Senate several weeks ago, it lost by two votes when six Democrats and all but one Republican voted against it. Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose cast one of those no votes. He said Monday he is keeping “an open mind,” but had various concerns about the original bill and acknowledged he must pay attention to Apple’s concerns because the technology giant is the biggest employer in his district.

“We don’t want any legislation to have a negative impact on jobs in Silicon Valley,” Beall said.

The wireless industry is particularly powerful in California because it has “home court advantage,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics and government at Claremont McKenna University.

“They exercise power in every state, but this is California. It’s their fortress,” Pitney said.

The legislative amendments Leno is set to introduce Thursday will give phone manufacturers more time to comply with the new rules on kill switches and clarify that the proposal only applies to smartphones, not tablets, he said. Phones manufactured before the bill’s start date in July 2015 would not be required to have anti-theft technology installed.

But that may not be enough to satisfy the industry. A powerful trade group that advocates on behalf of wireless carriers and phone manufacturers called CTIA-The Wireless Association has been lobbying fiercely for another change to the kill switch bill that Leno said he’s not willing to consider.

In a letter written by CTIA on behalf of every major Silicon Valley company in the cellphone business — including Apple, Samsung, Verizon, AT&T and Microsoft — the group said kill switch technology should only be made available to customers who want it, not mandated.

“Consumer-friendly solutions already exist to address theft,” the letter states.

For example, Apple offers iPhone users an application that erases personal information and locks lost or stolen phones remotely, but San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, one of the bill’s sponsors, said those types of apps don’t work as crime deterrents. Many users don’t know about the features or can’t figure out how to activate them — and criminals know it.

Critics of the wireless industry’s position on kill switches say it has nothing to do with consumer freedom and everything to do with the companies’ bottom lines. The replacement of lost and stolen smartphones and tablets is a $30 billion business in the U.S., and the nation’s four largest wireless carriers rake in close to $8 billion annually on theft and loss insurance policies, Gascon has said.

Beall and other Democrats who voted “no” when the Senate considered Leno’s kill switch bill have been accused of trading their votes for contributions from the deep-pocketed telecommunications industry. Beall flatly denies those allegations, and recent campaign finance reports show he has not received any donations from industry groups.

While Beall supports the intent of the kill switch proposal, he said he took issue with the bill’s “guts.” For example, Beall said the bill failed to address what would happen if a domestic violence victim’s cellphone were locked remotely by his or her abuser.

Leno said he knew Beall’s decision on the bill would be tough because he’s in the unusual position of having all the tech companies lobbying against the bill in his backyard. Still, Leno is hoping his San Francisco Bay Area colleague will be on his side the next time the Senate votes.

“We need a broad solution that’s going to keep people safe,” Leno said.

©afp.com / Jewel Samad

Corruption Scandals Cost California Democrats Supermajority Control Of State Senate

By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It took Democrats more than a century to win a supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature, but two corruption cases have cost them their dominating two-thirds majority in the state Senate in little more than a year.

State Senator Ronald Calderon’s decision Sunday to take a paid leave of absence while he fights federal corruption charges will eliminate the supermajority his party won in 2012, threatening the policy priorities of some Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Proposals to create a new rainy-day fund and tax oil companies operating in California would have sailed through the Democrat-controlled Legislature last year, but now, the majority party will be forced to find some Republican support for those and other plans that require a two-thirds vote.

“Suddenly, Republicans have leverage they didn’t have a week ago,” said Bill Whalen, a former aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson who is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “They’re now in a position to name a price, and the question is, do they have a price in mind?”

The legal troubles of two Southern California Democrats — Calderon and Senator Roderick Wright — have turned the fortunes of Republicans, who lost their relevance in the 2012 election that gave Democrats an iron grip on the Legislature and every statewide office. While Republicans have been forced to the sidelines, Brown has been careful to urge Democrats to use their power judiciously, holding the line on major new spending despite an improving economy and rebounding state revenues.

Senate Republicans are currently considering plans to suspend Calderon and Wright, said Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff. Wright was granted leave last week after his conviction on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud.

The legislative impact of the Democrats’ withering supermajority is “the furthest thing from his mind now,” DeMarco said of Huff’s priorities.

On Sunday, Calderon said he sought a leave of absence to focus on his legal defense and to minimize distractions. Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello, on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering and other offenses.

“This is not a resignation since I still have my day in court,” Calderon said in a written statement. “However, due to the nature and complexity of the charges, and the discovery materials that I will have to review, I expect this to be a lengthy period of absence continuing until the end of the session in August.”

California law requires that proposed constitutional amendments, new taxes and fees and ballot propositions initiated by the Legislature win support from two thirds of the members in each house. That threshold does not change when lawmakers volunteer or are forced to vacate their seats.

For the first time since 1883, the Democrats had a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, but they hardly had to use it to advance those kinds of proposals.

A bill sponsored last year by Democratic Senator Mark DeSaulnier to put a $75 document recording fee on real estate transactions such as refinancing loans needed and won support from the two-thirds of Democratic state Senators. That may be the only time the supermajority was needed to advance legislation in the Senate. Lawmakers can pass the budget with a simple majority, but they now need Republicans for other priorities.

Gov. Jerry Brown in January proposed a constitutional amendment that voters would need to approve to create a new rainy-day fund that limits when the state can withdraw money and links deposits to capital gains revenue. He has called it “essential,” pledging that it will gird the state against future financial meltdowns.

But now the plan won’t be on the ballot in November without some Republican support, and so far, Republicans aren’t biting. They have a rainy-day fund plan of their own that Huff and other Republican leaders have said has even stronger protections against inappropriate withdrawals than the protections included in Brown’s plan. To get either measure on the ballot, the parties will have to compromise.

“Republicans have been completely left out of the debate on this and other issues,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “Now, they’re hungry for power.”

Proposals for a new oil-extraction tax and ballot propositions to repeal a ban on affirmative action and restrict politicians’ campaign fundraising are also at risk without a supermajority. All of those plans will require support from 27 state senators — the tally required for a two-thirds vote.

With Calderon and Wright gone, only 25 Democratic senators remain, but even within that group, there are divisions, Gerston said.

“Let’s not make the mistake of viewing California Democrats as a monolithic block. We have some urban, some rural, some farmers, some environmentalists, some from Northern California and some from Southern,” Gerston said. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg “has managed to herd these cats, but now, he’s going to have to work his magic with them and the Republicans.”

Photo: Justin Brockie via Flickr