TOPIC: State and Local Government

Electing transparency in California

Election officials across the nation will soon receive letters from a former California GOP operative turned election watchdog beseeching them to creatively close loopholes created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, reports Josh Richman of the Oakland Tribune.

Dan Schnur, the former Communications Director for John McCain’s 2000 campaign and now director of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, sent letters to 150 state elections and campaign finance officials around the U.S. yesterday asking them to critically examine the court’s ruling and find wiggle room to enact regulations requiring more disclosure of the origins of campaign money. (more…)

On CO2 emissions, it’s regs vs. suits

Obama administration lawyers have asked the US Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by eight states including California, New York City and three land trusts six years ago, seeking tougher restrictions on carbon dioxide releases by utilities than those set by the federal government, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko.

Justice Department lawyers argue that federal primacy, in the form of recent EPA regulations, give the federal agency and Congress the sole power to regulate greenhouse gases. (more…)

Stimulus funds in California: Supervise if you’re going to weatherize

The California Inspector General’s office says a contractor hired to weatherize homes, and paid for by federal stimulus funds, overbilled the state agency overseeing the money by $34,803, Timothy Sandoval of CaliforniaWatch reports.

The report also notes that workers and supervisors performing weatherization renovations on homes have not been adequately trained, (more…)

Making real choices on high-speed rail

The nation’s biggest public works project could end up as the biggest boondoggle in history, according to Mike Rosenberg and Gary Richards of the San Jose Mercury News, who scour up a myriad of reasons why linking California’s major cities by high speed rail will be a colossal failure. (more…)

California fights back on Fannie and Freddie solar restrictions

Jerry Brown

Maligned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may be taken to the woodshed by California’s attorney general after the companies warned lenders about supposed dangers associated with energy efficiency loans tied to home mortgages.

As Dow Jones Newswires reports in The Wall Street Journal, state Attorney General Jerry Brown said Tuesday he was initiating “major action” against the companies (more…)

Two Tales of Transit in Calif. – North & South

In Los Angeles, where the car has been king at least since the Pacific Electric’s Red Cars were junked, there’s real hope that an innovative federal-state-local funding plan will get trains back on track. As Dan Weikel noted recently in the Los Angeles Times, officials hope their innovative funding plan will entice (more…)

Can State Legislatures Change the World (or at Least the Country?)

Governor David Patterson of New York is going out not like a lame duck, but like a fighting cock (reference to his illustrious predecessor unintended).  He’s calling for the New York State legislature to work a full five-day week and for state employees to take a one-day-per-week furlough until the state budget is approved.  (more…)

Local Program Keeps Homeowners on Life Support While Feds Seek Mortgage Crisis Cure

By Marci Greenstein

It’s hard to find any hopeful news about the housing crisis.  There was a sharp decline in home sales in December.  And the federal Home Affordable Modification Program, which was supposed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, is not working.  But Ruth Simon of the Wall Street Journal highlighted one state’s common sense approach to helping homeowners get through the darkest days, the Pennsylvania Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program.

“[H]omeowners in financial distress receive either one-time loans that allow them to catch up on missed payments or continuing help with their mortgage payments for up to 36 months. The money is paid directly to mortgage companies and must be repaid when borrowers get back on their feet. Funding for the program comes from state appropriations and repayments of earlier loans.”

“Under the program, borrowers are put on a formal repayment plan once an annual review of their finances shows they have sufficient income. Borrowers have repaid more than $250 million, money that is funneled back into the program.”

Delaware and North Carolina enacted similar programs in their states.  According to Simon, Rep. Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Banking Committee, would like to enact a similar program on the federal level, although some argue that it would be too costly. The Pennsylvania program spends an average of $10,500 per borrower.

The Pennsylvania program is a loan program, not a mortgage modification program, and that is the rub.  Until the government requires more flexibility on the part of banks to modify mortgages, the housing crisis will remain just that.  Still, a loan program like Pennsylvania’s may get many through the bleakest times while the federal government works on long-term fixes in the housing and job markets.

Spotlight on the Prison System

By Marci Greenstein

PrisonBars3Prisons are in the news these days.  The Washington Post’s Keith L. Alexander profiled another innocent person who was released from prison after 28 years based on DNA evidence.  The same week, Carrie Johnson of the Post covered the Justice Department’s disturbing report on the widespread sexual abuse of juveniles in detention facilities.  The report says that 12% of adolescents are abused by inmates or prison staff.  Johnson notes that

the report comes as those advocates say that the Obama administration is moving too slowly on reforms that would reduce rape in U.S. prisons and as corrections officials are pressing Justice to overhaul reform proposals it is reviewing.

These stories are likely to fade away unless the press keeps the spotlight on them.  By contrast, another kind of prison story is likely to gain traction among policymakers — a proposal by California’s Governor to shift funds from prisons to schools, as reported by Judy Lin of the Associated Press. (more…)

Spend a little, get a lot

By Marci Greenstein

The Massachusetts program to help low-income smokers kick the habit is an example of government money well spent.  As Abby Goodnough reports in today’s New York Times, the state’s Tobacco Suspension and Prevention Program has resulted in a ten percent (30,000 people) drop in smokers over two years.  The program’s director says that the decrease in the number of smokers in the program is probably the reason for fewer heart attack hospitalizations and asthma related emergency room visits.

The Massachusetts program funds 180 days of anti-smoking drugs and 16 counseling sessions for Medicaid recipients between the ages of 18-64.  The program makes so much sense that U.S. Senators Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sanders (Ind-Vt.) have proposed similar Medicaid coverage for tobacco addiction programs as part of national health care, Goodnough reports.

Contrast this good news with a recent report from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids on how little states are spending on anti-tobacco programs, even though revenues from tobacco sales are up. As Duff Wilson reported in the Times last week, state spending on anti-smoking programs is down 15% in the last year – and represents a mere 2.3% of monies collected from big tobacco since the 1998 multi-state settlement with tobacco companies.   Only one state – North Dakota – is spending an amount in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, according to the report, issued jointly by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Given the cost of emergency room care and hospital stays, which low-income residents typically rely on, it’s easy to see the enormous cost benefit of a program to treat  tobacco addiction.  The message from Massachusetts is clear – spending money to reduce smoking will reap big health care savings down the road.