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California Editorial Rdp

December 5, 2018

Dec. 5

Los Angeles Times on considering a tax on California gun sales:

The social costs of gun ownership in the U.S. have reached staggering levels, though given the lack of reliable data collection the public is left to sift through conflicting estimates of the numbers of firearms Americans actually own.

One survey-based estimate places the number at 265 million guns and another suggests 393 million guns; the larger number, if accurate, would account for nearly half of the civilian-owned guns in the world. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, U.S. emergency room and in-patient medical visits for gunshot wounds alone cost about $2.8 billion a year; it’s $45 billion if you count lost wages. Mother Jones magazine estimated the annual total costs from gun violence, including medical, law enforcement, trials and other costs, at $229 billion.

A few local governments have tried to find a way to make all those gun owners pay a little more toward those associated costs through taxes on guns and ammunition. Levies of $25 per gun sale and up to a nickel per round of ammunition are in effect in Seattle and Cook County, Illinois. Similar efforts to establish a California tax on guns and ammunition have cropped up in the past, and Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) on Monday introduced AB 18 to establish a tax — at an unspecified rate — on handguns and semi-automatic rifles sold in the state, one that might expand to include a tax on ammunition. Making gun owners shoulder a little more of the cost of gun violence is an interesting idea worthy of consideration, though the final shape of such a bill will determine how much support it deserves.

But first there’s a fundamental hurdle to clear. Much as we disagree with it, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2008 Heller decision that the 2nd Amendment confers a right to own a firearm in the home for self-protection. Since it is a court-recognized constitutional right, a tax that is too onerous — and which is designed to deter people from exercising that right — could create a problem. What is too onerous? Well, that’s unclear. The Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, approved a $1,000 tax on pistols in 2016 in a clear effort to use tax codes to limit gun sales; a federal judge later struck down the tax because it “places an excessive burden on the exercise of the right of law-abiding citizens to purchase handguns for self-defense without a corresponding important government interest.”

But other courts have upheld a $25 tax as non-punitive. Guns range wildly in price, but handguns tend to average in the $500 to $550 range. A Rand Corp. study found that increased fees for hunting licenses did not affect the number of people who hunt, and the Cook County tax didn’t reduce gun sales there. Fewer than a third of Americans own a firearm (and 29% of those own five or more guns), according to the Pew Research Center. It seems unlikely that an additional $25 per gun — or $50 for that matter — would unduly restrict their ability to buy a firearm.

But is it a wise tax? How much money might be generated will be influenced by what firearms are covered. Levine is proposing that long guns used for hunting not be subject to the tax, though it’s unclear how many such guns are sold in California each year. What we do know is that over the last five years, an average of 503,000 handguns have been sold each year, as have 556,000 long guns, including hunting rifles, shotguns and assault weapons. If just handguns had been covered, a $25 tax would have raised $12.6 million per year; if all the guns were covered, that would have raised $26.5 million a year.

AB 18 would direct the new revenues to the state’s existing $9.2-million California Violence Intervention and Prevention Program that offers grants to community organizations mounting effective gun-violence prevention programs. It might be more pragmatic to make the distribution of the proposed tax revenues wider and include medical facilities that bear some of the costs of caring for gun violence victims, but fundamentally it is a good idea to tie the revenues to specific gun-related uses so the money doesn’t disappear into the general fund. The Legislature should give this proposal serious consideration, and take care that whatever final form it takes will survive the inevitable legal challenge from the gun lobby.

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Dec. 3

Ventura County Star on Thousand Oaks scooting past transparency:

Electric scooters will soon be coming to the streets of Thousand Oaks, and for city government’s sake, we sure hope they’re a success.

Because in one of the more perplexing examples of nontransparency we’ve seen in local government lately, city officials last week approved the scooters with little input from the residents they represent. And if things go bad — as they have in some other towns — city officials will have no one to blame but themselves.

The Thousand Oaks City Council unanimously approved an interim agreement allowing Bird Rides Inc. to bring its rental scooters to town. Thousand Oaks is the first city in Ventura County to allow the electric scooters, which have stirred controversy in other areas as some riders ignore the rules and pose safety risks for pedestrians and themselves. The city of Ventura temporarily banned them in October.

We won’t editorialize on the merits of the scooters. Perhaps all the riders in Thousand Oaks will angelically abide by the rules, and if they don’t, police officers will quickly get them back in line. And if all else fails, city officials say, they can just revoke Bird’s agreement.

What’s seems odd to us is why the issue was put on the City Council’s Nov. 27 “consent” agenda, which is designed for noncontroversial items that can be rubber-stamped with no discussion.

Councilwoman Claudia Bill-de la Peña pulled the item off that agenda because she had a question, but the ensuing discussion was brief. City officials later explained their decision to put it on the consent agenda by essentially saying, well, there’s been no controversy here yet because there are no scooters here yet. And that the public just needs to trust their negotiating skills with Bird.

We find this quick and quiet approval of scooters a bit strange in a city with a long history of promoting pedestrian safety loudly and seriously. The Thousand Oaks Police Department routinely holds special enforcement operations against jaywalkers and drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians. Police have even had plainclothes deputies walk back and forth in crosswalks to nail such drivers.

It’s ironic that the city staff report to the council Nov. 27 noted that some scooter companies got into trouble when they “entered communities with little or no advanced warning.” Perhaps Thousand Oaks should apply that lesson to its own council agendas.

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Nov. 29

The Sacramento Bee on solving homelessness not being Caltrans’ responsibility:

Homelessness is demeaning enough for the unfortunate people who live with it. Their experience can get even worse when they face a disorganized response from a hodgepodge of California public agencies.

A growing number of California agencies and local governmental entities are forced to confront homelessness, a humanitarian crisis that often isn’t suited to agencies’ missions.

The California Department of Transportation is the latest example. The Bee’s Erin Tracy and Adam Ashton reported Thursday that the state’s transportation agency is under increasing fire for how it has handled clearing camps along highways and underpasses — up to 40 per day.

Over 5,600 complaints have been filed with Caltrans about the camps, citing concerns about used needles, human waste, and other safety concerns.

Caltrans is charged with building and maintaining California’s roads and related infrastructure. Their original mission isn’t finding a workable solution to homelessness, nor should it be policing homeless camps or cleaning them up. And yet, Caltrans now shoulders the blame for its handling of a problem that it has had little training or direction in confronting.

Like many other agencies and unlikely institutions such as public libraries, Caltrans has had to bear the brunt of the societal cost of homelessness. The money the agency spends removing camps has tripled since 2012, reaching $12.4 million for the 2017-2018 budget year. There’s no end in sight for the rise.

This burden pushes Caltrans employees into functioning as de facto police, counselors, and sanitation workers.

Not only that, in Modesto, a Caltrans equipment operator accidentally killed a sleeping woman, Shannon Bigley, at a camp off Highway 99, and now California Highway Patrol is investigating.

In Berkeley, a Caltrans employee discarded homeless woman LaTonya West’s purse, which held her credit cards and all of her cash. Imagine how devastating that would be if you had nothing else left.

Caltrans employees are protesting about their increased role in this rapidly escalating problem. The International Union of Operating Engineers, Unit 12, which represents Caltrans employees, filed a labor complaint against the department in April. Workers lack appropriate protective gear, vaccinations, training or enough compensation for the “dangerous hazmat duties they are performing” on Caltrans property, according to the filing. Caltrans rejected the complaint.

To its credit, Caltrans has reached out to local governments to assist them in their efforts to alleviate this crisis, initiating a below-market property lease program so local homelessness nonprofits can assist more easily.

California Transportation Secretary Brian Annis said Caltrans is working on ways to “more systematically address” the problem.

In July, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Caltrans Director Laurie Berman to a statewide commission overseeing homelessness grants and the larger structural housing shortage problem.

While these efforts are laudable, this begs the question: Are we doing enough? There are a lot of suggestions about how to end or minimize homelessness, but the Caltrans experience demonstrates that there are so many other societal and governmental costs incurred when we neglect a comprehensive solution: more costly lawsuits and more danger to improperly or even untrained employees forced to deal with the camps. Those costs add up quickly.

We hope that the next governor and the Legislature act in 2019 to stop forcing Caltrans employees (and other state agencies ) to go beyond their job descriptions.

Cleaning up homelessness isn’t Caltrans’ responsibility. It’s ours.

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