Out of the Storm News
2226 Rayburn House Office Building
2226 Rayburn House Office Building
2226 Rayburn House Office Building - Washington
Events 38.8871071 -77.01047489999996
2226 Rayburn House Office Building
2226 Rayburn House Office Building - Washington
Events 38.8871071 -77.01047489999996
2226 Rayburn House Office Building
2226 Rayburn House Office Building - Washington
Events 38.8871071 -77.01047489999996
2226 Rayburn House Office Building
Joel Nitzkin, former cochair of the Tobacco Control Task Force of the American Association of Public Health Physicians, who is now a fellow at a free-market think tank called R Street Institute, says of the FDA, “They think they’re on a mission from God. The horrific part is that they’re going to maintain cigarettes as the lead nicotine-delivery product in American society.” What’s more, he says, “they are refusing either to tell the public or allow manufacturers and vendors to tell the public about the difference in risks between e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes.” Indeed, even if a vaping company can jump through the FDA’s proposed regulatory hoops, it won’t be allowed to claim its products pose less harm than traditional cigarettes.
If Congress has any self-respect or desire to preserve its own prerogatives, it needs to overturn the FDA’s new proposed regulations on e-cigarettes.
The regulations, announced last week, would amount to a de facto prohibition on all of the currently marketed potentially lifesaving alternative to combustible, disease-causing cigarettes. They are worth opposing on public health grounds alone. But members of Congress—even those who want an all out ban on e-cigarettes—should also oppose them in their current form because they’re such a blatant example of regulators asserting powers that ought to belong to Congress. Indeed, a Congress that can’t figure out a way to reassert its own authority over these regulations will have a very hard time asserting that it’s serious about any regulatory oversight of the executive branch at all.
The proposed e-cigarette regulations would do something that almost never happens: end a productive, profitable, currently legal industry overnight by regulatory fiat. Tens of thousands of people employed in vape shops, manufacturing, and marketing e-cigarettes would be thrown out of work almost immediately if the regulations go into force. Even if e-cigarettes were a net public danger (and they’re not), the significant immediate economic impact of the regulations suggests that they’re something Congress should weigh in on itself.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more pressing case for Congress to have some say over a regulation. While it’s a common applause line for free-market politicians to promise an end to “job-killing regulations” and promise that new jobs will emerge immediately if government shackles are simply removed from the economy, the relationship between the regulatory state and employment is actually pretty nuanced. Employers, survey after survey shows, almost never lay off existing employees because of new regulations. Only 0.5 percent of all layoffs are directly related to regulations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead, the cumulative weight of regulations tends to make certain ways of doing business unprofitable in the long run. The largest employment impact of new regulations may well be on jobs that are never created in the first place. Furthermore, very burdensome regulations can protect existing jobs at large incumbent companies by making it harder for disruptive entrepreneurs to enter existing markets. Since the impact of regulations is often ephemeral and relatively minor, Congress properly cedes certain minor responsibilities to regulators.
But regulations that cause large, visible and predictable changes are exactly the places where Congress ought to step in; the regulations feel like lawmaking and have direct, visible impacts that even more costly environmental regulations might not. If there’s to be a major change in the society we deal with a legal and widely used product, the very concept of representative democracy alone indicates that Congress should have hearings, hold debates and weigh the evidence. If e-cigarettes are as dangerous and problematic as their opponents say, then the current regulations—which would still allow e-cigarettes to be marketed after an long and costly review process that only big companies could afford—then members of Congress should ban them outright. If the regulations are a net negative for public health, as most existing evidence indicates they are, then Congress has an obligation to either delay their implementation or write special new laws.
The FDA’s e-cigarette rules, in short, aren’t just a bad idea for public health. They’re also bad for representative democracy and the power of our legislative branch. Congress needs to step in.
Austin voters this past weekend forced out two of the city’s most innovative and popular companies. On Saturday,Austinites rejected Proposition 1, a citizen-led ballot initiative that would’ve continued existing regulations on ridesharing and forestalled a new set of regulations the Austin City Council passed last year.
These included a fingerprinting requirement that the two main ridesharing companies, Uber and Lyft, said would force them out of the city. That’s precisely what happened today, when both companies suspended operations in Austin.
There will, no doubt, be much ink spilled trying to analyze what went wrong with the Proposition 1 campaign. But while the Austin fight has gotten the most attention, the sad fact is that Austin is hardly the only Texas city trying to regulate ridesharing out of existence. From San Antonio to Houston, Midland and Lubbock to Galveston and Corpus Christi, the same fight is playing out over and over again.
In each case, the sticking point is the same. Uber and Lyft maintain that mandatory fingerprinting of drivers would discourage too many potential drivers from signing up for the service. There is no evidence that fingerprint-based background checks provide more safety than the name-based background check system already in use.
The FBI fingerprint database used to conduct the background checks, which is primarily an arrest database, is also deeply flawed. A report by the National Employment Law Project found that half the records in the FBI database did not indicate whether the case in question resulted in a conviction or even if the case was ever pursued. Around 30 percent of arrests do not result in a sustained conviction.
On a broader level, these fights represent a larger conflict between legacy taxi companies and their upstart competitors. In Austin, for example, the number of taxis is severely limited: The city has issued fewer than 700 taxi medallions, around two-thirds of which are held by a single company. Legal restrictions on competition can be good for these companies, but they aren’t necessarily good for the taxi drivers themselves (a 2010 report by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid found the average Austin taxi driver makes $200 a week before taxes, working 12 hours a day with no job security or benefits).
And the status quo certainly isn’t good for the general public. People prefer ridesharing to traditional taxis because it’s cheaper, more convenient and includes safety features — such as GPS tracking and individualized ratings for both drivers and passengers — not available with cabs. Researchers from Temple University have also found that the entry of Uber into a city was associated with a statistically significant decline in drunken-driving fatalities.
Given the way this issue has been badly handled by localities across Texas, it’s appropriate for the state to step in and restore some sanity to ridesharing regulation. State Sen. Charles Schwertner on Sunday announced his intentto file legislation during the 2017 regular session “designed to establish consistent and predictable statewide regulation of ridesharing services.”
Localities have the authority to regulate the vehicle-for-hire business because it was granted to them by the state, but the Legislature has shown a willingness in the past to take back that authority where it has been abused. During the 2015 session, for example, the Legislature pre-empted some local restrictions on oil and gas production after Denton passed a fracking ban.
The case for state pre-emption is especially strong with an issue like ridesharing, where use of the service is completely voluntary. The most local form of control, after all, is individual decision-making.
From Competitive Enterprise Institute
Last year, Seattle city council passed an ordinance that allowed drivers to form groups that could have the power to negotiate pay and conditions with their platforms. As the R Street Institute’s Ian Adams explained, “The ability to bargain collectively is more typically associated with a traditional employer-employee relationship, and it is a poor fit for companies like Uber and Lyft” (as drivers who use those platforms are independent contractors). This led to Seattle dropping a whole grade in its friendliness to ridesharing in R Street’s 2015 Ridescore index.
Back in February, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) pending resolution of various legal challenges against the rule. The CPP, which mandates an approximately 30 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, had been the subject of much controversy due to concerns that it could result in plant closures that would imperil the nation’s electric reliability.
Since the stay, lots of folks who were concerned about the CPP have turned their attention elsewhere, thinking that the problem is at least on hold. But that is a mistake. While undoubtedly important, the CPP is only one of a number of different EPA rules that could affect electric reliability. Many of these rules have overlapping effects, such that most of the plant closures anticipated as a result of the CPP will still occur even if the rule never goes into effect.
Take, for example, the EPA’s Regional Haze rule, which focuses on power-plant emissions that may impair visibility. Last fall, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the Texas electrical grid, put out an analysis looking at the impact of the Regional Haze rule in the state. According to ERCOT’s analysis, complying with the Regional Haze rule would require plants producing 3,000 megawatts of power to install expensive new scrubbers, while an additional 5,000 megawatts would need to upgrade existing scrubbers. A significant proportion of these plants might shut down instead of undergoing these costly upgrades. ERCOT concluded that the “Regional Haze requirement would have a significant local and regional impact on the reliability of the ERCOT transmission system.”
Regional Haze is not the only other EPA regulation that could lead to power-plant closures. The EPA’s new ozone standards, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule and other rules in the process of implementation all impose costly requirements on many existing power plants. The cost to comply with any one of these rules could force plants into closure. The cumulative impact of these rules could rival the impact of the CPP.
States therefore cannot simply assume that the stay of the CPP means a return to business as usual.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
I love when the powerless get fed up with a corrupt establishment, defy political correctness and fight back. It’s why I’ve admired Vera Coking, the feisty widow from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who stood up to Donald Trump and the city’s development authority in the 1990s. They tried to use eminent domain – the power to take property by force – to bulldoze her house and turn it into a parking lot for Trump Plaza limousines.
“He’s a maggot, a cockroach and a crumb, that’s what he is,” Coking said in a 1998 interview. She beat him in court and lived in the house for another decade before moving out West. According to The Washington Post, she was there as Trump’s now-closed casino fizzled. It’s great when the little guy wins a round.
Without getting into presidential politics, I’ll admit to having never given the presumptive GOP nominee a fair hearing. Anyone who thinks it’s a good thing to take people’s property forcibly for such uses isn’t worth my consideration.
Trump insists victims often get far more than the property is worth: “Most of the time, they just want money,” he said. “It’s very rarely they say, ‘I love my house, I love my house, it’s the greatest thing ever.’” Yet Coking proves Trump wrong. She rejected his offers precisely because she wanted to stay. He turned to the government because he wanted his way.
When eminent domain is invoked, the government is generally not allowed to pay above market value. Cities invoke it to strong-arm people into doing what the powerful want them to do. Owners often can’t afford the legal costs. Cities often offer pennies on the dollar, and the long drawn-out process takes its toll. I’ve interviewed victims for my Orange County-based book on the topic. It’s an evil.
In California, the issue is closely linked to the state’s 1940s-era redevelopment agencies, which were designed to combat urban blight. They would float debt to subsidize development in targeted areas, but found it more lucrative to subsidize malls, car dealerships, movie theaters and hotels. Eminent domain was a key tool in the agencies’ arsenal.
Gov. Jerry Brown ended redevelopment agencies in 2011, but not out of apparent concern about eminent domain abuse. In a fiscal crisis, Brown found he needed funding and redevelopment siphoned off 12 percent of the general-fund budget. As the budget improved, he has allowed a facsimile of these agencies to creep back to life.
In 2014, Brown signed a law that creates Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts – like redevelopment, but limited to infrastructure. Last year, he signed Assembly Bill 2, which expands the process to urban renewal. It has more limits than redevelopment (all affected districts must agree to the tax diversion, for instance), but the new laws did not restrict eminent domain. Now, Assembly Bill 2492 is moving through the Legislature.
It is billed as “clean up” legislation for AB2, but “will expand the number of communities and neighborhoods in which the government can exercise its power to forcibly seize private property from unwilling sellers,” wrote the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights. The group refers to the bill as the “Donald Trump ‘Wonderful’ Land Grab Bill.”
That’s a reference to Trump’s interview with Fox News last October, in which he said, “I think eminent domain is wonderful – if you’re building a highway and you need to build, as an example, a highway and you’re going to be blocked by a holdout … And you need a house in a certain location because you’re going to build this massive development that’s going to employ thousands of people.”
Yes, the Constitution allows eminent domain for some limited and genuinely public uses, such as building a highway. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo decision in 2005 deemed it acceptable for government to take property not just for public “use,” but for public “benefit,” which is a disturbingly open-ended concept.
“Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her dissent. “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process. … As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”
Trump now has other things on his mind than seizing the property of little people who stand in the way of his developments. But the Democratic Legislature ought to think twice before passing something that empowers people like him.
“If the FDA’s current approach is implemented, producers would be required to remove every single product from the market and submit expensive and burdensome applications for the chance to allow their products to stay on the market,” said Caroline Kitchens, a policy analyst at R Street, a public policy research firm that advocates for free markets, in a statement.
“In order to preserve this growing market and allow continued innovation in the vapor-product industry, it’s essential that Congress act to amend the grandfather date set out in the 2009 FDA Tobacco Law.” said R Street Policy Analyst Caroline Kitchens in a press release.
The past few years have seen the rise of the “sharing” economy. First, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft allowed thousands of drivers to earn extra cash (and in some cases, make a nice living) while giving travelers an alternative to often-inefficient taxi services.
Now it’s the turn of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to feel the heat of competition, as companies like Airbnb and HomeAway provide an easy online platform for homeowners to rent out their home, apartment or even just a single room for short periods of time.
As with ride sharing, the growth of short-term rentals has been mostly a boon, for owners and travelers alike. Arecent study of the impact of Airbnb in Austin found that competition from short-term rentals helped in “reducing hotel pricing power during periods of peak demand,” as high demand drew added supply to the market. As the study notes, by forcing competing hotels to offer better prices, the expansion of short-term rentals “benefits all consumers, not just participants in the sharing economy.”
Short-term rentals also benefit local economies by allowing property owners to free what economists call “trapped capital” such as spare bedrooms or empty houses when owners are themselves on vacation. Short-term rentals both expand the supply of available lodging for travelers and allow property owners to enjoy new kinds of returns on their assets.
While short-term rentals are sometimes blamed for making housing less affordable, the evidence does not support this. Even where they are most prevalent, short-term rentals make up only a tiny percentage of overall housing stock. The real culprit when is comes to affordable housing is restrictions on building.
Cities have not always known how to respond to the sharing economy. In many cases, they’ve tried to force short-term rentals into outdated regulatory schemes. In a new report, the R Street Institute takes a comprehensive lookat short-term rental regulation in 50 of America’s largest cities, as well as some popular vacation destinations. The report grades cities based on whether the city allows short-term rentals, the amount and frequency of fees and licenses required to operate a short-term-rental property, and other restrictions, which range from limiting the number of guests to limiting how far an owner may be from the unit.
Galveston ranks first in the nation for having the most favorable regulatory environment for short-term rentals. The city charges only minimal fees and imposes few regulatory requirements. Other Texas cities, such as Dallas and El Paso, also earned A ratings.
Not all Texas cities were so positive, however. Austin, for example, received a D rating, due largely to harsh new restrictions on short-term rentals passed by the city council. The new rules limit the number of people who can stay in a short term rental, impose a curfew on when guests can be outside the rental property, increase inspection requirements and make it easier to revoke licenses. Even more severe is the treatment of so-called “Type II” short-term rentals, which are not owner occupied. The ordinance ends the issuance of any new licenses for these properties.
The Austin Council has justified these measures as a means of dealing with a small number of so-called “party houses” — homes frequently rented out to large groups, often for rowdy parties. Yet the ban on all Type II licenses suggests the regulations go beyond what’s necessary to deal with a few bad actors. In fact, many of these new rules seem geared more toward increasing the cost of operating a short-term-rental property rather than resolving any legitimate issue with noise, parking or other social disturbance.
Attempts to regulate short-term rentals out of existence are a big mistake. Issues involving noise or traffic can be dealt with in most cases via existing ordinances, without having to create special restrictions for rentals. Instead, cities should view the ability to rent out a spare room as a benefit not only for homeowners but for the city as a whole.
From New York Times
“In terms of the health of the public, this action is a disaster,” said Dr. Joel L. Nitzkin, senior fellow for tobacco policy at the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “This will move the debate into a new arena. I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing lawsuits.”
The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the New York City Comptroller’s Office both continue to use a deeply flawed CFA Institute report as support for their advocacy of proxy access, the ability of shareholders to have their own slates of nominees to corporate boards included in the proxy materials companies must distribute ahead of their annual meetings.
As R.J. Lehmann and I discuss in our recent op-ed in RealClearMarkets, which was republished in the Oxford Business Law Blog, the importance of the CFA Institute report in the debate over proxy access can’t be overstated. Shareholder proposals on proxy access typically have included a supporting statement noting the CFA Institute’s finding that mandatory proxy access could raise overall U.S. market capitalization by up to $140.3 billion, if it were adopted market-wide.
However, as I tried to make abundantly clear in a recent policy brief for R Street, the report is “deeply flawed in ways that should disqualify its use as support for mandatory proxy access; for shareholder proposals on proxy access; for board discussions about whether a proxy-access bylaw should be implemented; and, perhaps most importantly, for board discussions about whether a proxy-access bylaw needs to be rescinded.”
In sum, “the report is full of errors, contradictions and practices of questionable methodology.” These flaws are especially relevant in regard to the $140.3 billion market value calculation, a number that should be totally disregarded by shareholders.
Nevertheless, the CFA Institute report continues to be used by those in the shareholder-empowerment movement (shareholder activists who advocate shifting decision-making authority to themselves, and away from corporate boards of directors and executive management) as support for implementing proxy access on a company-by-company basis.
Most importantly, its continued use reinforces the argument made in our op-ed piece: “The report’s persistent use by those in the shareholder-empowerment movement suggests either that some in the movement are intellectually dishonest or that they are, at the least, reckless in their arguments.”
It also reinforces the argument that the shareholder-empowerment movement does more harm than good and that the activities of those who participate in the movement should be viewed with great suspicion.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
At points over the past year, it looked like the worm was beginning to turn on the dominance of comic-book movies.
Sure, Avengers: Age of Ultron finished as the third highest-grossing movie of 2015, but it cost $30 million more and made $125 million less than its predecessor. Marvel’s follow-up, Ant-Man, was a modest financial success from a studio accustomed to mega-blockbusters. The reception to both films, from fans and critics alike, was decidedly mixed.
Then there were the real turkeys. The Fantastic Four, made by 20th Century Fox for $120 million, pulled in just $56 million domestically and had an execrable score of nine percent “fresh” on the aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Warner Brothers’ Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice managed a just dismal 28 percent “fresh.”
But however bad it was, the latest D.C. Comics film property did pretty well at the box office, as has Fox’s Deadpool (both have topped $350 million domestically). All of which puts the pressure on Marvel and Disney to return to form with Captain America: Civil War, opening this Friday nationwide.
I’m pleased to report they hit this one out of the park.
Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (who earlier produced 2014’s strong Captain America: Winter Soldier as a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller and who are signed on to replace director Joss Whedon on the next two Avengers films) here take the basic formula inherited from Whedon and turn all the dials up to 11: More action, more pathos, more locations, more jokes and more characters, with Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man (a character rebooted for the second time in less than a decade) serving as the new major arrivals. This approach could have gone horribly wrong, doubling down on the bloated mess that doomed Age of Ultron, but the Russos manage to make it work.
In the comics, the Civil War storyline originally was a heavy-handed and not entirely successful post-9/11 metaphor for our policy debates over surveillance and homeland security. The picture does offer a version of that plot — high-profile international incidents lead to a call for more governmental oversight of superheroes, sparking deep philosophical disagreements between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — but it smartly keeps the focus off the politics. The film instead serves as an extended rumination on the nature of familial and fraternal ties, as well as the notions of loyalty and (as befits a movie that essentially serves as Avengers III) vengeance.
All of which makes this sound far heavier than the film that actually unspools onscreen. What Civil War is, first and foremost, is a perfect popcorn picture, with a steady stream of perfectly choreographed fight and chase scene set-pieces that keep one from even noticing its 2:26 running time. Perhaps realizing that one of the weaknesses of Marvel movies past is that the villains (with the exception of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki) have tended to be kind of lame, the film more or less dispenses with any true “big bad” and has the heroes mostly fight each other, to great effect. The effects keep getting better, though the single most eye-popping one this time around involves a CGI recreation of Downey’s face from 30 years ago.
There is so very much this film gets right. As great as the action is, what’s even more impressive is that everything is very much grounded in character. Each hero has motivations that make sense and each member of this huge and talented cast gets to add their own shadings. Holland, in particular, is a revelation, which is a positive sign as he prepares to launch his own franchise next year. For once, Peter Parker isn’t a haunted soul, but a skinny, wiseacre kid, exactly how most fans best remember him (although straight men of my generation may need a moment or two to wrap their brains around the idea of the still eminently foxy Marisa Tomei as Peter’s “elderly” Aunt May).
For those tired of the comic-book movie “fad,” I’m sorry to report I don’t think they’re going away quite yet. Marvel is back strong, and the first great summer blockbuster of 2016 has arrived.
The need for public justification is a vital, if overlooked, check on power. If an institution cannot convincingly explain why it does what it does, consequences naturally will follow. In recent months, the Federal Reserve has been citing global economic conditions to vindicate its monetary policy choices. The question is, is this a sufficient justification? Should the Fed accept responsibility as the de facto central bank of the world?
Hosted May 5 by the American Enterprise Institute, R Street’s Alex J. Pollock moderated a discussion on this question and more, featuring Stephen Roach of Yale University, Vincent Reinhart of the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Collyns of the Institute for International Finance and Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute. Watch the full panel below.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Colorado loves its drinks. It is the home of Stranahan’s whiskey and great microbrews too numerous to list. The Rocky Mountain State also is the home of the Great American Beer Festival, which began in 1982 and draws tens of thousands of visitors each autumn.
So you might think that an initiative to improve consumers’ retail access to drinks would be a no-brainer for the state’s leaders – give the people what they want and they’ll vote you back into office.
Current law only allows the state’s grocery and convenience stores to sell “near beer,” a watery, bland, Prohibition Era product with an alcohol content of less than 3.2 percent. Colorado is one of only five states that still mandate near beer. Brewers would not produce this dreck were it not for archaic state laws that create a captive market.
The near-beer policy is exceedingly consumer-unfriendly. Want to enjoy a bottle of Echo Brewing Co.’s Nocturnal Black IPA? You must go to a liquor store. Want to purchase any of the craft spirits produced by Colorado’s 50 distillers? You must go to a liquor store. Care to pair the cut of beef you bought at the grocery store with a Malbec? You must go to a liquor store. (One wonders how much gasoline is burned and pollution released on these government-mandated, drinks-only schleps.)
The group Your Choice Colorado is collecting signatures to revise the state’s retrograde drinks retailing to permit grocery stores to sell all beers and wine. Some advocates also are proposing that groceries also be permitted to sell liquor, which is the best possible policy, since alcohol is alcohol.
But as Joey Bunch of the Colorado Post explains, the reformers’ efforts are being savaged by critics. Liquor store owners, who monopolize sales of real beer and wine, are especially vexed. They complain that competition will put them out of business. (That’s how capitalism works, but never mind.) Some local brewers also oppose change—they fear their beers won’t get shelf space in groceries, which will instead carry mega-brews like Coors. (If I ran a brewery, I would welcome the opportunity to expand my sales and get my brews on the shelves of groceries. Go figure.) Keep Colorado Local, a group that sprang up to oppose de-monopolization, is sleazily playing the kid-card. Families will be less safe from the evils of alcohol, they argue, if anyone other than liquor store owners can sell beer and wine, which is utter nonsense.
In a sane world, the Legislature would promptly pass legislation creating a single retail drinks license that would enable a holder to sell beers, spirits and wines. But, such fair and consumer-friendly policy scares entrenched interests.
The Colorado Legislature will adjourn May 11, and may do nothing on this topic, because its members cannot figure out how to satisfy all the competing interests. Even if it did get a good reform bill passed, Gov. John Hickenlooper, might veto it. “I’m not sure we need to change our regulatory framework to help big business at the expense of little business,” he declared.
So it goes in Colorado, where helping millions of citizens is low on the to-do list for elected officials.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
When it comes to firefighters, most Americans are satisfied thinking of them as “heroes” who run into burning buildings and battle forest fires — and leaving it at that. But years of scandal at California’s premier firefighting agency, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, show what happens when union priorities, bureaucratic indifference, and greed go unchecked for years.
The latest scandal ignited at Cal Fire last May after a grisly killing. Orville “Moe” Fleming, a 56-year-old instructor at Cal Fire’s Ione facility, was accused of stabbing and strangling his 26-year-old girlfriend, Sarah Douglas, whom he had met on an online escort site. He eventually was convicted of second-degree murder.
This grisly act of domestic violence turned into an agencywide scandal after Fleming’s wife said she had seen a tape of Fleming and other firefighters cavorting with prostitutes at the fire facility. No one could prove the tape’s existence, but investigators uncovered behavior that would be unworthy in a Vegas strip club — let alone among a group of “professionals” with six-figure compensation packages.
A Cal Fire assistant chief is accused of hooking up with prostitutes on his state cellphone and then taking a state vehicle to meet them.… Another firefighter was fired after claims of making graphic, unwanted sexual advances toward a woman at a bar and lying about it.
There were tales of boozing it up at the academy, sexual misbehavior, lying and cheating on promotion exams. The cheating scandal sparked deeper investigations. After reviewing hours of interviews, the Bee found allegations that instructors provided students with the questions and answers that would be on tests. “Controls were so loose that students passed copies of tests to one another with the correct answers filled in,” the paper reported. “Instructors routinely tossed questions and added points, without written policy to guide their decisions.”
A recent Facebook meme opposed to California’s minimum-wage increase showed a photo of burger flippers earning $15 an hour, compared to firefighters pictured doing something dangerous and earning $18 an hour. The idea of poorly paid firefighters is a common perception, but the meme is as credible as those suggesting Barack Obama is preparing to disband elections and declare himself president for life. Getting a California firefighter job is the equivalent of hitting the lottery.
An official California firefighter survey from 2014 shows the average total compensation for Cal Fire employees ranging from $133,000 to $190,000. Firefighters in surveyed county and city departments receive packages from $172,000 to $266,000. They work an average of 125 to 156 days a year and are paid for sleeping. They receive the “3 percent at 50” formula that lets them retire with 90 percent of their final years’ pay at age 50 — plus those spiking gimmicks that drive up their pension payouts.
When firefighter openings come up, cities have opened the local arena to accommodate the large number of applicants. The public has a right to expect a high degree of professionalism for this kind of money, rather than a union-controlled system that coddles bad actors.
After a $2 million investigation, Cal Fire announced last January that two firefighters were fired, one resigned, and 13 faced discipline — although the public has no right to learn the specifics of the discipline. Three firefighters involved in the cheating scandal were demoted, but then promoted again once the scandal had passed. Fleming, who was on the promotion board, had texted them the questions and answers for the test to become captain. After this came to light during the scandal, the Cal Fire director demoted them one rank.
“Then two of them quickly became fire captains again, in keeping with written disciplinary terms that allowed all three to ‘remain eligible for promotion’ because they displayed ‘honesty’ with investigators,” reported the Bee’s Jon Ortiz. After bad publicity, the men ultimately were demoted two ranks. They appealed that demotion — but were finally rejected by the State Personnel Board last month. Will wonders never cease?
“Appellants were caught deliberately cheating on a promotional examination, but at every turn during the hearing, they tried to minimize the seriousness of their misconduct, and to deflect responsibility onto others,” according to the personnel board’s ruling. “In short, appellants failed to fully acknowledge their serious misconduct at hearing, increasing the odds that similar misconduct will recur.” Yet they “were not dismissed from state service,” and eventually will be eligible for promotions and pay raises.
The union representing these firefighters is lobbying for raises. The governor, Ortiz reported, has proposed giving the agency an additional $4.4 million so it can hire 14 new employees “dedicated to finding and preventing personnel messes.” The Cal Fire head said the department is “moving on” — and has instituted new disclosures for employees to sign.
Welcome to the world of government and California’s union-controlled government, in particular. If you do something wrong, you might get promoted. Your department will get more money and will hire more employees. You’ll get additional training.
“Our police and firefighters will earn more in retirement than they did when they were working,” said former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, as he fought for pension reform a few years ago. “When did we go from giving people sick leave to letting them accumulate it and cash it in for hundreds of thousands of dollars when they are done working? There’s a corruption here. It’s not just a financial corruption. It’s a corruption of the attitude of public service.”
In other words, these agencies have become a means to personal enrichment. The unions promote games-playing and protect bad apples. If you want an illustration of what the Democratic mayor was talking about, look no further than Cal Fire. And a similar bureaucratic and union dynamic is at work throughout the state government.
If the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) statutory purpose is to protect public health, why is the agency using its regulatory power in a way that stands to undermine advances in public health?
By announcing regulations that bring e-cigarettes and other vapor products under the Tobacco Control Act, the FDA stands to destroy an innovative market that has the potential to move people away from smoking tobacco cigarettes.
It’s a classic case of a federal agency recognizing the need to do “something,” without having the statutory tools they need to get it right. Unfortunately, lacking such tools seldom slows executive branch bureaucrats, and this case is no exception.
The FDA’s regulations, published May 5 in the Federal Register, require any product introduced after Feb. 15, 2007 (the predicate date) either to be the “substantial equivalent” of a product that already was on the market before that date or to be subjected to the length and very costly Pre-Market Tobacco Application (PMTA) process. Since most current nicotine vapor products weren’t around before the predicate date, the PMTA is essentially the only option, and it’s one that many vape manufacturers won’t be able to afford.
The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians recently released a report, “Nicotine without smoke: tobacco harm reduction,” concluding that encouraging smokers to switch to e-cigarettes is likely to be beneficial to U.K, public health. The report further notes the need for proportionate regulation that doesn’t significantly hinder the development and use of harm-reduction products by smokers.
The FDA’s approach does just the opposite.
The cost of enduring a PMTA will likely force new product innovators out of business, as well as slow the pace of e-cigarette improvements. The largest product manufacturers — mostly, the big tobacco companies — will quickly and efficiently navigate the FDA’s regulatory gauntlet, while their upstart competition struggles. To reduce the harm of tobacco cigarettes, we need more alternatives, not fewer.
Recognizing the inadequacy of the FDA’s so-called “deeming” regulations shouldn’t be challenging. We don’t treat soda the same as beer because they both fit in a can and have a few common ingredients. The differences matter significantly more than the commonalities. That’s also the case with e-cigarettes and their tobacco counterparts.
E-cigarettes and other vapor products are estimated to present just 5 percent of the risk of serious illness and death as tobacco cigarettes. Their broader adoption by current smokers has serious potential to improve overall public health. They shouldn’t simply be slapped with a regulatory paradigm designed for a qualitatively distinct product.
The Royal College of Physicians is hardly an extension of the vapor products lobby, and they’ve also determined that e-cigarettes aren’t a gateway to smoking and don’t serve to make the practice more socially acceptable.
Sensible regulation of e-cigarettes and vapor products are a good idea, but Congress should set out a paradigm that recognizes the differences between these new products and tobacco cigarettes. Last month, the House Appropriations Committee chose to do exactly that, passing an amendment to the 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill that would push back the FDA’s “grandfather” date until the date the rules became effective, which is August 8, 2016.
If legislators don’t act in a timely fashion, we’ll be left with the FDA’s heavy-handed approach, which is set to slow improvements in the very public health they are tasked to protect.