CMA Capitol Insight: Thank Goodness

October 15, 2013
Area(s) of Interest: Public Health 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Greg Lucas, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

Thank Goodness

At 11:59 and 59 seconds Sunday night, the clock ran out on Gov. Jerry Brown having to deal with the hundreds of pieces of legislation lawmakers sent to him before they left Sacramento for the year back in September. Unreliable news reports said the state’s collective sigh of relief was heard as far away as Tonopah and parts of Elko. The Democratic governor signed far more bills than he vetoed, which has been his custom, and encouraged several of the recipients of his vetoes to make a change or two he sought and send the bill through again early next year for a signature. He did not bring his sarcasm to bear as heavily as he has in past years on bills that didn’t win his approval, contenting himself with describing one vetoed message as an “imperfect solution” and another as “unclear.” With this year’s batch of bills dispensed with, “the only thing they can do to us is through regulation,” as one Capitol business lobbyist put it. Until January 1, of course, when most of the new laws take effect.

Food for Thought

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Americans consume approximately one-third of their total calories eating away from home. The National Restaurant Association’s “2012 Restaurant Industry Pocket Factbook” says restaurants consume 48 percent of the food dollar. These statistics appear in a study published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examining overall calorie and sodium levels in entrées offered by top U.S. restaurant chains. The study found no change from 2010 to 2011 – despite numerous announcements of “healthier” menus being created. Say the authors of the study: “Industry marketing and pledges may create a misleading perception that restaurant menus are becoming substantially healthier but both healthy and unhealthy menu changes can occur simultaneously. Our study found no meaningful changes overall across a one-year time period.” The National Restaurant Association also notes that only 36 percent of adults say they’ve used the Internet to search for nutritional information about restaurant food.

Leeuwenhoek, The App

Around 1670, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch drapery shop owner and self-taught scientist, peered through a flat lens made of ground glass and glimpsed the microscopic world. Almost 350 years later, University of California, Los Angeles, researchers have developed a half-pound attachment that increases the magnification of a smartphone camera to well over 1,000 times – allowing the viewer to see things less than one-thousandth of the width of a human hair. In other words, small enough to see viruses. Click and point it’s not. A virus must first be exposed to a solution containing an antibody and then washed in order to be seen through the lighting system in the attachment. That kind of prep work is probably too much for the curious fourth grader, but the potential public health benefits are obvious. Like being able to identify a possible epidemic as it’s happening, anywhere in the world. Closer to home, a doctor could quickly diagnose a cold virus without having to prescribe ineffective antibiotics.

Acting Like Grownups

No complaints would likely be lodged if what’s often called “adult” behavior became more prevalent in politics. When such behavior does occur, it ought to be acknowledged. In this case, California‘s state elected officials – both Republican and Democrat – offer a stark contrast to the buffoonery, irresponsibility and arrogance recently displayed by federal lawmakers. (Those are just some of the polite words used by various media outlets to describe the debt debacle.) California has roughly $130 billion in debt, most of it general obligation bonds which offer money now, usually for needed public works, and are paid off over 30 years with money from the state’s general fund. For a number of years, about 5 percent of the state’s closing-in-on-$100 billion general fund was devoted to making an annual interest payment on the Golden State’s Gold Card. That percentage was supposed to climb to 10 percent this year, according to previous estimates from the Treasurer’s office. Partly that was because budget cuts in the past three years shrank the size of the general fund so whether the amount of the annual debt payment grew or not, it would automatically become a bigger percentage of a smaller budgetary pie. But California also sold almost $31 billion in bonds in 2009 and 2010. Yet despite the bigger amount of debt, annual debt payments are only expected to be 7.7 percent of the general fund, a savings of more than $2 billion that can be invested in things like improving public schools. Here’s where the grownup stuff comes in. in his most recent Debt Affordability Report, Treasurer Bill Lockyer – retiring at the end of 2014 after 42 years of state service – credits lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown with creating budgets over the past few years that are “honestly balanced” through “spending discipline” and “more careful priority setting.” Not only that but they were created on time. All of which has earned the state “uncommon praise” from economists and the agencies like Standard & Poor and Moody’s who rate the risk of investing in municipal debt and now say California isn’t quite so much of a crapshoot. Additionally, Lockyer cites the “great progress” the Democratic governor has made in battering down the state’s so-called “Wall of Debt,” a series of budget loans, payment deferrals and fiscal sleight-of-hand that in 2011 totaled $34.7 billion. With the support of the Legislature, Brown has chipped away at the wall, knocking it down to $24 billion by next July. He has a plan to shrink the outstanding balance to $4.7 billion by mid-2017. Rather than issue more debt, the Brown administration is first spending unused proceeds from past bond sales. Over the past 18 months, Lockyer has also taken advantage of rock-bottom interest rates to refinance nearly $6 billion in state debt, a major contributor to that lower annual payout. Of course, public officials working collaboratively and quietly getting the J-O-B done never gets the big ink, goes viral or earns the “Top Story” title. That’s reserved for antics like those in D.C. over the past few weeks.

“Van Leeuwenhoek for $2,000, Alex”

Van Leeuwenhoek also gave his name to a rare disorder characterized by involuntary contractions of the diaphragm. “Rare” might be understatement. It was 1723 when van Leeuwenhoek, at age 90, first publicly shared the symptoms of the condition that now bears his name. Supposedly he did so by dictating a letter from his deathbed to the Royal Society in London. In the 290 years since, there have been just 48 reported cases of what’s also known more descriptively as “belly dancer syndrome.”


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