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California Editorial Rdp

January 30, 2019

Jan. 30

The Press Democrat on continuing to work on steps to help California’s parents:

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins plans to take three weeks parental leave to bond with her newborn baby. After that, she’ll get back to attending meetings and taking care of business, often with baby Linden in tow.

Hopkins and her newborn are getting a lot of attention because she is the first Sonoma County supervisor to give birth while in office. But lots of new mothers and fathers face many of the same issues balancing work life with baby life.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom hopes to help with a proposal to expand California’s paid parental leave program so that each baby gets up to six months with a parent or family member on paid leave — with two adults able to take a paid leave of two to four months. Currently, new parents get up to six weeks of partially paid leave time.

It’s a fine idea, but many of the details have yet to be spelled out — including the very important one of how this expensive idea gets paid for. California businesses are not likely to be happy with the cost or logistical issues such a program entails, either.

Hopkins has family nearby and the flexibility to bring her new baby to work. Other parents who don’t necessarily have such advantages will have another concern whenever paid leave is up: Affordable child care.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta would like to do something about that — for a very select group of people, anyway. Bonta, D-Oakland, has introduced a bill allowing candidates in state and local elections to use campaign funds to pay for child care.

State and federal campaign finance laws strictly govern how candidates may spend money donated to them. That’s as it should be. Small donors shouldn’t have to worry that a candidate is misusing their money, and large donors shouldn’t be able to use lavish donations as backdoor bribes that personally benefit someone running for office.

California law restricts use of campaign funds for expenses reasonably related to a political, legislative or government purpose, especially if they personally benefit a candidate or officeholder. The campaign can reimburse things like mileage expenses, but not clothing, which is deemed purely personal.

Bonta thinks allowing candidates to pay child care expenses with campaign funds would encourage more young and female candidates to get involved in politics.

Thirty percent of legislators are women this year, Bonta notes — up from only three female legislators in 1975. “We’ve moved from unacceptable to needs improvement,” he said. “We want to remove barriers so our Legislature can reflect what California looks like.”

This seems reasonable enough and potentially helpful, but we have a couple of concerns. First, it would only help candidates with enough campaign cash to spare for that use. Challengers, fresh faces and candidates refusing special interest money might be left out.

Second, child care issues are not going away, but if politicians are suddenly insulated from the costs in a way that their constituents are not, it might inhibit fruitful action.

None of which diminishes the value of the conversations taking place now. A fresh focus on helping parents is overdue, there just are a lot of details left to work out.

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Jan. 29

The Sacramento Bee on secret investigation weakening trust in state auditor:

What in tarnation is going on at the California State Auditor’s office?

State Auditor Elaine Howle — responsible for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in state government — refuses to confirm the existence of a report on her investigation into nepotism allegations at the Department of Industrial Relations. As the Bee’s Adam Ashton reports, the investigation was brought to light by Socorro Tongco, who says DIR fired her in retaliation for cooperating with the auditor’s inquiry.

It’s hard to evaluate the claims because Howle’s office won’t acknowledge the investigation’s existence. But we know it exists because documents from other state agencies refer to it. In fact, the auditor’s own website had announced plans to release details of the investigation. That is, before the auditor’s office started denying its existence.

Confused yet?

The auditor’s secret investigation concerned allegations that DIR’s former director, Christine Baker, showed favoritism toward her brother and daughter, who both worked in the department. In 2018, Baker “announced her retirement just after the auditor’s office briefly on its website announced a plan to release a report on her department. A spokeswoman for the auditor’s office told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time that it had an ‘error’ on its website that week.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny whether this office is conducting, has conducted or has completed the investigation described in your inquiry,” the auditor’s spokeswoman told The Bee, sounding more like a CIA operative than a representative of an office purporting to “improve California government by assuring the performance, accountability, and transparency that its citizens deserve.”

Tongco, a former fraud investigator at DIR, can confirm the report’s existence. She says it’s why DIR fired her. According to The Bee: “Tongco contends that department leaders targeted her because they knew she met with and cooperated with Howle’s team. Tongco’s lawsuit said she communicated with one of Howle’s auditors by email and text messages in 2015 and in 2016. Tongco in her lawsuit says auditors asked her questions about Baker’s daughter, who also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations at the time.”

Tongco says she “responded honestly.”

But while the auditor conducted the nepotism investigation, Baker apparently conducted an investigation of her own — into the contents of DIR employee emails. Her probe allegedly turned up emails that DIR later used to terminate Tongco’s employment.

DIR claimed the emails showed that “Tongco discussed what should have been confidential information with her colleagues” and that she allegedly “had a romantic relationship with a colleague that she hid from supervisors, conducted personal business on state time and misled her boss about her requests to work from home on a couple of occasions.”

This story has more twists than a John Le Carré thriller.

It gets weirder. Some suspect Baker’s DIR also secretly monitored other emails, including an exchange between Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board Chairwoman Katherine Zalewski and State Bar of California General Counsel Vanessa Holton. The alleged surveillance was revealed when a DIR employee “inexplicably included a copy of the exchange in her own email to Holton,” according to Workcompcentral.

Lessons for state workers:

? Assume that your boss is reading your emails. Act accordingly.

? Beware the auditor. As Tongco learned, you may be on your own if you face retaliation for being honest. Who wants to get fired for cooperating in a secret investigation?

? Remember: You can always send tips to Wes Venteicher, the Bee’s State Worker reporter. He publishes his investigations in the newspaper. Reach him at wventeicher@sacbee.com or 916-321-1410.

Lessons for the rest of us:

? Gov. Gavin Newsom should seize the opportunity to install fresh new leadership at DIR.

? Maybe five terms in the auditor’s office is enough for Howle, who was first appointed during the Davis administration. In 2017, an anonymous letter regarding management issues in Howle’s office delayed her reappointment. The legislature’s (non-secret) investigation found some merit to claims of “declining morale, increased turnover and weak whistleblower protections that may deter some employees from voicing their concerns” in her office. In addition, the auditor had allowed senior members of her staff to accumulate excessive unused leave totals. All in all, it was — according to critics interviewed by The Bee — “the kind of misconduct that she regularly highlights in other state departments.”

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Jan. 29

The Press-Enterprise on California businesses needing to reject efforts leveraging threat of split roll for other tax hikes:

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to make a deal for tax reform in California. Perhaps echoing his campaign slogan, “Courage, for a change,” he told reporters that Gov. Jerry Brown “had no interest in this, even at the peak of his power, influence and insight.”

Courage is an interesting thing in politics. It sometimes recalls the joke about the most common “last words” in the English language: “Watch this!”

Newsom said he would like to use an initiative that has qualified for the 2020 ballot as leverage in a wider negotiation. The California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act would revoke the protection of Proposition 13 from most commercial properties, requiring the reassessment to market value on a regular basis. Under current law, assessments are based on the purchase price of the property and can rise no more than 2 percent annually until a change of ownership occurs.

The proposed measure would create a “split roll” property tax, sparing homes but sharply raising taxes on California businesses, collecting about $11 billion per year for cities and school districts to divide.

“My desire is to use this as an exercise in bringing the parties together to see if we can compromise on a more comprehensive tax package,” Newsom said.

The package would likely include a new sales tax on services similar to one proposed last year by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. Senate Bill 993 was opposed by a long list of business groups, trade associations and taxpayer advocates. It was allowed to die quietly.

Now Newsom is raising the possibility of a grand bargain, a negotiation in which businesses might be persuaded to support a new sales tax on services in exchange, perhaps, for the split-roll property tax measure being withdrawn, or for exceptions and exemptions from the law.

The California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act contains exemptions for certain commercial real estate, including apartment buildings and some small businesses. SB993 contained exemptions for schools, child care facilities, government agencies, and certain businesses including automotive parts and restaurants.

Now, everything is negotiable.

Under a state law passed in 2014, the proponents of an initiative have the opportunity to withdraw the measure after it has qualified for the ballot. This allows advocates to negotiate with the Legislature and the governor for a new law that addresses their issues without a costly election-year battle. Similarly, the Legislature can place a new measure on the ballot by approving it with a two-thirds vote in the Assembly and state Senate.

What this means for ordinary Californians is that their signatures on petitions to place a measure on the statewide ballot are now just one more bargaining chip in a backroom negotiation that will determine who pays, and how much.

California businesses don’t have to play ball with the governor. They could oppose both the property tax increase and the sales tax on services. Homeowners would certainly join them in fighting an attack on Proposition 13, and a sales tax on services has been killed in the Legislature before.

Gov. Jerry Brown cautioned as he left office that the cost of doing business in California is already high. It’s a heads-up that the new governor would be wise to keep in mind.