Oct. 18

Los Angeles Times on a bad Supreme Court decision on political corruption that casts a long shadow

In a decision that proved unanimity is no guarantee of wisdom, the Supreme Court last year overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell had done a series of favors — in effect, throwing the doors of state government open wide — for a businessman who had lavished more than $175,000 in loans, gifts and other benefits on the Republican governor and his family; the businessman hoped that the state would promote a nutritional supplement made by his company. But the court said prosecutors hadn't proved that McDonnell engaged in "official acts" of the kind covered by federal bribery laws.

The McDonnell ruling has proved a gift that keeps on giving for public officials accused of corruption. So far it has led to the reversal of the convictions of two leaders of the New York state Legislature (although they will be tried again) and the reversal of most of the convictions of a former member of Congress from Louisiana who became famous when the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer.

This week Sen. Bob Menendez hoped to become the latest beneficiary of the McDonnell decision. The New Jersey Democrat's lawyers cited the ruling in asking a federal judge to dismiss charges that Menendez did favors for Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye surgeon, in exchange for campaign contributions and gifts including plane rides, a stay in a five-star Paris hotel and visits to a resort in the Dominican Republic.

For now, the judge has denied the defense motion, but the McDonnell decision could still benefit Menendez with the jury and, if he is convicted, in an appeal. And who knows how many future prosecutions will be frustrated — or not initiated in the first place — because of last year's misguided Supreme Court decision?

In his majority opinion in McDonnell vs. United States, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. acknowledged that "this case is distasteful." That's an understatement. McDonnell and his family had accepted lavish gifts from a businessman named Jonnie Williams Sr., including a $6,500 Rolex watch for McDonnell and $15,000 in catering expenses for his daughter's wedding. For his part, McDonnell sought to arrange meetings for Williams with state officials and hosted a luncheon event for Williams' company at his official mansion — essentially a state-sponsored infomercial. The governor also talked up the advantages of Williams' product at a meeting called to discuss the state's health plan for its employees.

Common sense would suggest that those actions were "official acts" by the governor. But the court said: Not necessarily. "Setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or calling an official (or agreeing to do so) merely to talk about a research study or to gather additional information, however, does not qualify as a decision or action," Roberts wrote.

Roberts said that McDonnell's conviction had to be overturned, and the Justice Department eventually decided not to try McDonnell again.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court does not have to be the last word on this subject. Congress could revise federal bribery statutes to clarify that an "official act" is any action that a public official does by virtue of his office — including the convening of meetings, contacts with bureaucrats and the making of introductions — and that engaging in such acts on behalf of individuals who ply you with cash or gifts is a crime.

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Oct. 17

San Francisco Chronicle on Colorado's intriguing tale of two drugs

America has been trying and failing to forcibly prevent people from using their drugs of choice since before Prohibition. A new study provides the latest evidence of a drug epidemic stemmed by the opposite approach.

Colorado's marijuana legalization coincided with a reversal of a long-standing rise in opioid-related deaths, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. Having climbed consistently since 2000, the toll has fallen 6 percent since legal cannabis sales began in 2014, inviting the suspicion that one far less dangerous drug is substituting for the other.

The researchers caution that their findings are preliminary given the novelty of legalization. They also note that marijuana, which carries no risk of fatal overdose, may bring other perils, such as car accidents. And Colorado officials told the Denver Post that other factors, including recently expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone, may be playing an important role.

But after controlling for opioid policy changes and examining the data in neighboring states that didn't unleash recreational marijuana, the researchers believe they can credit legal cannabis with saving about eight Coloradans a year. Moreover, many other studies have supported similar conclusions, demonstrating marijuana's efficacy in treating pain and its tendency to replace some opioid use — precisely contrary to the "gateway drug" theory long propounded by drug warriors.

There has certainly been more than enough research to advise against the return to reefer madness being advocated by the nation's chief marijuana-phobe, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as the counterproductive slow-walking of California's legalization in places as diverse as Fresno and San Francisco. Public policy should distinguish among drugs based on objective measures of risk, not subjective judgments of those using them.

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Oct. 17

The Modesto Bee on Trump being unfazed by suffering he'll cause

Acting on his obsession with destroying the Affordable Care Act and eradicating every vestige of the Obama presidency, President Donald Trump took aim at 650,000 low-income Californians — not that he cares.

Having failed to get his way in the Republican-controlled Congress, Trump last week signed an especially mean-spirited executive order that seeks to revoke federal funding for what are called cost-sharing reductions.

These subsidies are paid to insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act specifically to help low-income people make co-payments for hospitalization and visits to doctors. Trump's plan to cut the payments starting on Oct. 20 is sure to further disrupt insurance markets in some states. Some predict rate increases across the board in states that have not prepared.

California officials anticipated the action, and took steps to ease its impact. Still, up to 1.4 million Californians earning less than $30,000 a year qualify for the subsidies. Few will be able to pay the full cost of a doctors' visit or hospitalization.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called Trump's action "completely reckless," and sued in federal court to block it.

The cost-sharing reduction issue has a tortured history. In 2014, the Republican-controlled House, including California's 14 Republican representatives, sued to force Barack Obama's administration to stop the cost sharing reductions.

With that case pending, Trump took office and began his quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In May, Becerra and other Democratic state attorneys general intervened in the D.C. court to defend the payments. Trump's executive order declaring that he would cease making the payments was, in essence, an end-run around that litigation.

Becerra's suit in San Francisco, joined by attorneys general from 17 states plus the District of Columbia, seeks a temporary restraining order and injunction blocking the executive order. An initial hearing on Becerra's request is expected soon.

As a member of Congress in 2009 and 2010, Becerra helped negotiate the Affordable Care Act and represented a Los Angeles district that had the nation's third-highest rate of people without health insurance. Californians should be glad he is taking the defense of the act personally.

California Republican members of Congress, by contrast, seem to care little about the 199,000 people in their districts who directly benefit from cost-sharing reductions totaling $193 million annually.

Some, like Jeff Denham, were silent. Others, like Tom McClintock, applauded Trump's effort to destabilize the health insurance industry, undermine the Affordable Care Act, and ultimately harm people they are sworn to defend.

There are 14,833 people who depend on the subsidies in Denham's district, which includes Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin, according to data compiled by Health Access. McClintock, whose district includes all of Tuolumne and several other mountain counties, has 16,965 constituents who depend on the cost-sharing reductions.

Whether voters directly benefit from Obamacare or not, we all know people who have come to depend on it. Few of us are more than a few paychecks or one terrible illness or accident from needing a hand.

How sad that health care is a political football for elected leaders. They don't have to worry about their actions; they all earn far more than $30,000. They and their families enjoy the finest health care coverage taxpayer money can buy.

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Oct. 16

The San Diego Union-Tribune on Gov. Jerry Brown sending message to California Legislature

The deadline for action on bills passed by the California Legislature has come and gone, and Gov. Jerry Brown is once again playing his role as the voice of mature wisdom in Sacramento. Examples:

—He vetoed Assembly Bill 63, which would have extended some of the sweeping restrictions on California drivers under 18 years old to those who are 18, 19 or 20. With exceptions for school and work, they couldn't have driven from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. during their first year with a license. In his veto message, Brown wrote, "Eighteen-year-olds are eligible to enlist in the military, vote in national, state and local elections, enter into contracts and buy their own car" — and shouldn't be treated like minors.

—He vetoed Senate Bill 149, which would have kept presidential candidates (wonder who?) off California ballots unless they released their taxes. In his veto message, he wrote that this would have set a dangerous precedent for potential partisan mischief, creating "an ever-escalating set of different state requirements for presidential candidates."

—He vetoed Senate Bill 649, which would have sharply streamlined the permitting process and limited fees for installing equipment such as small cell towers used by the cellphone industry. In his veto message, Brown acknowledged the importance of this "innovative technology" but said a "more balanced solution" made more sense than stripping local governments of their authority.

In Brown's veto messages, common themes are evident. He doesn't like bills that can be seen as posturing. He doesn't like bills that could have unforeseen complications. And he really, really doesn't like cluttering government code with new laws that address problems covered by existing laws.

But the governor is also willing to try new approaches when warranted. Oversight of the University of California is a prime example. Lawmakers upset with a lack of transparency have repeatedly audited UC. But under President Janet Napolitano, UC's disdain for accountability has grown.

Brown's response was to sign Assembly Bill 562, which makes it a misdemeanor crime to interfere with a state audit requested by the Legislature or required by state law, and Assembly Bill 1655, which bans UC campuses from coordinating responses with the president's office when the state auditor asks for information, among other provisions.

And in what amounted to an acknowledgment of California's inadequate water safety practices, Brown signed Assembly Bill 746, which requires school districts to do more to ensure there is no lead in school drinking water. Discovery of contaminated water in the San Ysidro school district led to the bill.

In another example that a new direction was necessary, Brown signed Senate Bill 615 to prevent the dusty, deteriorating, shrinking Salton Sea from becoming an ecological disaster. The Salton Sea Restoration Act changes rules on what constitutes a dam, exempting certain structures, to aid in dust control and habitat restoration. This would help with a 10-year plan the state unveiled in March to stabilize California's largest lake.

In 1982, during his first stint as governor, Brown vetoed less than 2 percent of the bills that landed on his desk. He's learned his lesson, having vetoed between 11 percent and 15 percent of those bills the past seven years. With a year left in his term, Brown deserves praise for still taking every bill so seriously, a trait his successor should emulate.

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Oct.14

Chico Enterprise-Record on being ready to help first responders

What happens when you hear that pounding on the door at night and there's a sheriff's deputy telling you to gather essentials and leave immediately? You panic.

You never expected to have to evacuate, to leave all your possessions and get out, happy you still have your life.

What to take? Hours later you kick yourself. You forgot . medicine, diapers, shoes, phone chargers.

That's a pretty toned-down version of what evacuation feels like. It's hard to describe just what everyone's reaction will be.

That's why we prepare.

Having everything in place before hand lets us be ready for any emergency at a time when our brains shut down.

It's October, the fire season is almost over, you say.

We wish. The fire season is long from over, and after that, the flood season is in sight. When it starts to rain, anxiety eases for the foothill folks, but valley dwellers are on the hot seat. Or wet seat, as it may be.

Weather forecasters have no clue what this rainy season will be like in the north valley. That's why being prepared for the worst is the best defense.

This year has been a landmark one for bad times for this area, from the Oroville Dam spillway disaster to the current wildfires.

Everyone should have a go-bag. If you don't, do it now. Recent newspaper and online articles and list what should be included, like batteries, medicine, food, pet leashes, money, phone chargers and insurance papers. Plan for three-days' supply.

The list isn't endless. It's meant to help you survive in a shelter, or camped out on your best friend's couch. Check Ready.Gov for a good list.

And it's not only what to take, but talking to your family about what to do.

That includes where to meet if you're separated, and someone to call out of the area to verify everyone's safe. Like the Bay Area residents in the midst of fire storms have discovered, power and communications can disappear in disasters.

If there is a reason to count our blessings, it's that we're likely more aware of disasters than the Bay Area folks. Nearly every year we face wildfires and flooding. We expect these. Residents new to this area should hear that from neighbors.

Being ready also takes pressure off emergency responders to baby sit you and steal their time. They have plenty on their plate as it is.

Being ready is an easier option than the alternative.