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Posts from September 2016

Clinton Energy Plan Stands Head and Shoulders Above Her Competitors’

This week’s inaugural Presidential debate unsurprisingly lacked all but the briefest mention of the candidates’ stances on energy policy. However, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to see that the presidential candidates nominated by the four major political parties propose widely-varying policies to guide the direction of US energy development. While meaningful details as to each candidate’s policy proposals are largely absent from their published plans, let’s take a look at the information they’ve provided to get a sense of their energy priorities and proposed policies in this area, with a specific focus on their approach to renewable energy.

Hillary Clinton

Relative to other candidates in the race, Hillary Clinton has provided considerable detail on her proposed renewable energy policies. She has identified two goals that she aims to achieve: 1) reaching the milestone of five hundred million installed solar panels in the US by the end of her first term as president; and 2) increasing renewable electricity generation capacity to power every home in the country within ten years of her taking office.
In order to reach these goals, Hillary Clinton has proposed a number of policies focused on increasing incentives for renewable energy development “without relying on climate deniers in Congress to pass new legislation.” Several noteworthy examples are her Clean Energy Challenge and associated Climate Action Competition, which would attempt to incentivize states and local governments to exceed federal emissions standards through grants and “other market-based incentives”, and her Public Lands and Infrastructure initiative, which proposes to expand renewable energy production on federal lands and public buildings tenfold within a decade. Clinton’s proposed energy policies also address her support for natural gas as a transition fuel (given its low carbon content relative to other fossil fuels), revitalizing coal communities impacted by the shift towards cleaner energy sources, and reforming leasing practices for federal lands.
An area that is neglected in Clinton’s official policy proposals is the contentious question of nuclear power’s future in the US. While historically somewhat inconsistent as to her stance on this issue, Clinton was recently quoted by Scientific American as supporting nuclear power given its importance in the fight against climate change, an interesting development as this puts her official policy stance at odds with many traditionally Democratic environmentalists. This support, however, aligns Clinton’s perspective more closely with those who view nuclear as an essential, carbon free energy source which will be critical in limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.
Together, Hillary Clinton’s policies promote the broad scale-up of renewable energy through continued and enhanced incentives for renewable sources, increased research and development in clean energy technologies, and infrastructure investment to prepare the electric grid for higher levels of renewable generation.

Donald Trump

Unlike Clinton, Donald Trump has not clearly articulated his approach to renewable energy, but has instead focused on his plans to increase domestic fossil fuel production by removing barriers he claims stem from “Obama’s job-killing energy restrictions.” He is clear that he does not support renewables more than any other form of energy, and the implications from his rare comments on this issue are that he sees little value in them; in fact, the majority of Trump’s proposed energy policies are simply the elimination of programs and standards designed to protect the environment and promote the development of renewable energy. Donald Trump has criticized both solar and wind as too expensive to be viable generation technologies, and has also questioned the potential human health and wildlife effects of wind turbines, claiming at a rally in Pennsylvania last month that “the wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed.”
Donald Trump has also proposed to “cancel” the Paris climate deal, meaning he intends to revoke the commitments made by President Obama during the Conference of Parties (COP) in 2015, commitments which implicitly included significant investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Despite his adamant support for expanding domestic oil and gas drilling, activities consistently linked to significant environmental damage, Trump promises to do so “while taking proper regard for rational environmental concerns.” How he defines “rational environmental concerns”, however, is unclear.
The lack of clarity in Trump’s proposals has not gone unnoticed. Due largely to the lack of specifics, Trump’s energy policy was recently given a score of 0 out of 5 by Scientific American (by contrast, Clinton was given 5 out of 5—the only candidate to break the “2” mark in this category).

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson and his Libertarian party provide a clear (albeit brief) ideology regarding energy and environmental regulation, yet sparse information as to the policy mechanisms by which this vision would be achieved under their leadership. Consistent with the Libertarian party’s general stance on government intervention, Gary Johnson opposes “all government control of energy pricing, allocation, and production.” Under his leadership, the United States could therefore presumably expect executive efforts to eliminate incentives for the development of renewable energy, such as the Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit recently extended by Congress. Should Johnson adhere strictly to party ideology, a simultaneous removal of the (largely tax-based) incentives provided for conventional energy development could also be expected. However, during his 2012 presidential campaign Gary Johnson indicated support for government underwriting of nuclear power plants due to the lack of private-sector interest in taking on the risk, implying that his free-market approach to energy policy may not be absolute.
Interestingly, Johnson recently indicated his support for a carbon tax—a “revenue-neutral ‘fee’ on carbon dioxide emissions”, should current regulations on greenhouse gases be repealed—only to rescind his support for such a policy shortly thereafter. Given that broad-based emissions regulations such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program are often viewed as the most direct mechanism for supporting the development of renewable energy, Johnson’s wavering stance on such programs makes his support for augmenting or replacing conventional energy sources with renewables questionable, at best.

Jill Stein

Of the four candidates, the renewable energy policies proposed by Jill Stein of the Green Party strive for the most aggressive scaling of renewable energy. However, no readily-accessible material provided by Stein or her party discusses these aggressive targets—for example, transitioning to one hundred percent renewable energy by 2030—in much detail.
A cornerstone of Stein’s proposed reforms to the energy sector is her Green New Deal program, intended to create 20 million jobs via a transition to one hundred percent “clean renewable” energy by 2030 and investments in public transit, sustainable agriculture, conservation, and restoration of critical infrastructure. Specific policies to catalyze this plan are not laid out, but reporting from The Washington Post suggests that the combination of a carbon tax and the elimination of subsidies for the nuclear and fossil fuel industries would be fundamental parts of Stein’s energy policy platform.

So, who do I vote for?

The lack of details provided by some of the candidates makes a thorough evaluation of their proposed renewable energy policies somewhat difficult, and forces us to interpret general stances as a proxy for more concrete policies. Summarized briefly, Hillary Clinton promotes a significant increase in renewable energy generation, stimulated by a variety of incentives; Donald Trump does not provide any clear plan regarding renewable energy, although his support for conventional fuel sources, his contention that climate change is a hoax, and his claims as to the unjustifiable expense of wind and solar strongly imply a lack of support for renewables; Gary Johnson proposes that renewables fend for themselves alongside conventional energy sources; and Jill Stein advocates for the implementation of a carbon tax and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies as drivers for transitioning to renewable energy. Given these proposals, Clinton’s approach is most likely to significantly bolster the renewable energy industries; both Johnson’s and Trump’s platforms would almost certainly decimate the growth of renewables; and Stein’s plan would create significant uncertainty in the renewable energy industries given its reliance on the difficult task of creating a national carbon tax in today’s political climate.
So, as a citizen concerned especially with climate change, if you ask me: yes, I’m with her.


Ben Shapiro is Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor at PolicyMatters Journal, where this article was originally posted.

Five California Ballot Initiatives You Need to Know About

California has one of the most active ballot initiative processes in the country. Between 1911 and 2014, voters have approved 123 of 364 initiatives. California is one of ten states that allows all forms of initiatives and referendums. This means that citizens or the legislature can initiate constitutional amendments and statues. An initiative only requires a simple majority to go into effect. The exception is parcel tax initiatives which require a super majority of two thirds to pass.
Nevertheless, very few voters ever spend the time to read every initiative before voting on it.  An educated electorate is critical when voting. In order for this ballot initiative process to work, citizens need to be aware of what the ballot initiatives mean. Below are a few of the more prominent initiatives from this cycle.

1. Proposition 55: Extend Tax on High Income

This amendment to the California Constitution seeks to continue the current taxes levied on high-income earners. This bracket includes individuals who make over $250,000 and couples earning over $500,000 per year. The tax extension earmarks the funds to be spent on education and healthcare by the state.
In 2012, California voters approved Proposition 30, which raised taxes from 1% to 3% on individuals earning more than $250,000. This year, Proposition 30 taxes will raise close to $7 billion dollars for K-12 schools and limited additional resources for community colleges.
In addition to raising taxes on high-income earners, Proposition 30 raised the state sales tax a quarter cent. In contrast, this year’s Proposition 55 does not seek to extend the sales tax increase and it is set to expire at the end of 2016. The image below shows the increases passed by Proposition 30 and the total taxes per bracket.

Arguments against Proposition 55 are that the Proposition 30 taxes were intended to be temporary and should be respected as such. Furthermore, allowing the state more control over the budget erodes local control of education policy.
Estimates from those in favor of Proposition 55 project that state revenue will increase anywhere from $4 billion to $9 billion from 2019 to 2030. Education makes up over half of the state’s $122 billion budget. The income tax provides over two thirds of the funds for this budget.
What a Yes vote means: Continue the current tax on high incomes ($250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples) through the year 2030.
What a No vote means: Allow the current tax on high incomes to end in 2018 and return to a 9.3% tax rate on anyone making over $52,000 a year.

2. Proposition 61: Prescription Drug Costs 

Proposition 61 seeks to regulate how much state agencies spend on prescription drugs. Federal law requires that the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) receives a 24% discount on prescription drugs and has a price ceiling. The VA is able to negotiate additional discounts, but the amount is not publicly disclosed.
Proposition 61 would apply to low-income patients covered by Medi-Cal, inmates in state prison, state employees and retirees, and employees and teachers at UC and CSU campuses. This is estimated to be anywhere from 4.5 to 7 million Californians. Opponents of Prop 61 point out that Medi-Cal managed care, private insurance, and public school district employees and retirees are not covered.
Proponents of Proposition 61 emphasize the historically high prices of prescription drugs without justification. The Epipen price controversy sparked conversations over the skyrocketing price of drugs and the need to limit the power of the pharmaceutical industry. Proponents of Prop 61 also claim that the passage of the initiative would save taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars by leveraging the state of California’s bulk-purchasing power to secure lower drug prices.
Opponents are skeptical of how much money Proposition 61 would truly save. Confidentiality agreements make it impossible to know what the VA’s actual purchase price for drugs is. The fiscal impact is unclear because drug pricing varies widely. There is also the fear that prescription drug companies will raise the price for veterans in retaliation and eliminate any price discounts entirely. There is no current research one way or the other on how prescription drug companies would respond.
To date Proposition 61 is one of the most expensive campaigns in California history. The “No on Prop 61” campaign is outspending Yes by $86 million to $9 million. The large contributors against Proposition 61 come from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in New Jersey and New York. AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles is the largest donor in favor of Proposition 61.
What a Yes vote means: Regulation of state agencies to allow them to pay the same prices as the US Department of Veterans Affairs Pays for prescription drugs.
What a No vote means: No regulation of state agencies to allow them to pay the same prices as the US Department of Veterans Affairs Pays for prescription drugs.

3. Proposition 63: Gun and Ammunition Sales

Proposition 63 requires that individuals who wish to purchase ammunition must first obtain a four-year, $50 permit from the California Department of Justice. Dealers would then be required to check this permit before selling ammunition. A background check, similar to the process for buying a gun, would also be conducted before anyone is allowed to purchase the permit for ammunition.
A controversial feature of Proposition 63 is that it prohibits the ownership of large-capacity magazines. This includes guns that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. California banned the sale of large-capacity magazines in 2000, but Proposition 61 would make it illegal to purchase such guns out of state and those who currently own them would have to turn them over to local law enforcement.
Proponents of Proposition 63 cite the increase in gun violence in recent years and suggest that limits on access to gun ammunition could prevent future violence. The process for vetting ammunition permits follows the same constitutional process as purchasing a gun and therefore does not make it harder on those legally seeking a firearm. Estimates predict low state and local cost of implementation.
Arguments against Proposition 63 focus on the burden it places on citizens seeking firearms. In addition, it may create a burden for the court system as the law goes into enforcement. Others claim that it will not be effective in stopping criminals from obtaining ammunition or thwart any terrorist attack.
What a Yes vote means: Prohibits the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and requires individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition.
What a No vote means: Maintain current law and does not require a background check before purchasing ammunition.

4. Proposition 62: Repeal the Death Penalty 

There are two propositions on the California ballot this year: Proposition 62 which seeks to repeal the death penalty and Proposition 66 which aims at reforming it. Since there are two death penalty related propositions, if both Proposition 66 and Proposition 62 pass then the one with the most “yes” votes will supersede the other.

Proposition 62 would repeal the state death penalty and replace the maximum punishment for murder with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would retroactively apply to all those already sentenced to death. In addition, Proposition 62 would require all prisoners sentenced to life in prison without parole to work and pay 60% restitution to victim’s families. A similar proposal in 2012 to abolish the death penalty was defeated.
Proponents of Proposition 62 claim that there are legal and ethical challenges with lethal injections, California has not executed a prisoner since 2006. Of the 748 prisoners who are on death row, almost all are appealing their sentences. Supporters claim that Proposition 62 is the one way to eliminate miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions that plague the court system.
Furthermore, proponents of Prop 62 argue that the death penalty is disproportionally given to poor citizens of color, who often lack quality legal representation in court. The fiscal impact of Proposition 62 suggests that the court savings from the appeal process would be about $150 million annually within a few years.
Opponents of Proposition 62 claim that simply working for life will not bring justice to the victim’s families and the strongest possibly punishment for the most serious murderers is necessary. Rather than repealing the death penalty, they claim, we should focus on reforming it through Proposition 66.
What a Yes vote means: Repeal the death penalty and make life without parole the maximum punishment for murder.
What a No vote means
: Keep the death penalty as currently stated by California law.

5. Proposition 66 Death Penalty Court Procedures 

Proposition 66 is designed to address growing concerns that the legal proceedings surrounding death sentences are expensive and time consuming. Proposition 66 attempts to shorten the time that legal challenges to death sentences take to a maximum of five years.
Proponents of Proposition 66 recognize that the appeals process is broken and needs to be mended. Proposition 66 would require all prisoners on death row to work and pay 70% of their wages in restitution to victim’s families.
The goal of shortening the appeal of sentences to five years may not have the intended impact. Criminal justice lawyers fear that limiting appeals leaves the vulnerable populations at risk for wrongful convictions. Moreover, this could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.
What a Yes vote means: 
Changing the procedures governing state court appeals and petitions that challenge death penalty convictions and sentences.
What a No vote means: Maintain current procedures for governing death penalty appeals and petitions.


Anna Radoff is Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor at PolicyMatters Journal, where this article was originally posted.

Ending Private Prisons: Federal Decision a Small Step in the Right Direction

Last month, on August 11, 2016, the Inspector General’s Office of the U. S. Department of Justice released a damning report on private contract prisons. The report, titled “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons” laid out the findings of a systematic review of the operation of private facilities contracted through the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons. The review found that “in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita” than federal prisons. The review also found that a number of the private prisons visited as part of the investigation had been cited for specific deficiencies or inappropriate practices, such as improperly placing new prisoners in restrictive “Special Housing Units” (also called “Secure Housing Units” or “solitary confinement” due to prisoners being locked in an isolation cell with minimal interaction) and lack of proper storage of use-of-force video records. 

One week later, on August 18th, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates released a memo laying out additional claims that private prisons “do not save substantially on costs” or “provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources” to inmates. She then states that the Department of Justice will begin “the process of reducing—and ultimately ending” the Bureau of Prisons’s use of private prisons. 

These moves by administration officials came against a backdrop of civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates highlighting incidents of abuse and neglect in private prisons across the country in recent years beyond those cited in the Inspector General’s report. These incidents ranged from cases of deplorable conditions to deaths by beating to suicides stemming from sexual assault to lack of access to healthcare to lack of formal grievance systems and oversight within the prisons

The administration’s policy shift caused a crash in the stock values of the two largest private prison companies in the United States, Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, Inc., falling 37% and 40% respectively. However, the stock values rebounded slightly in the days that followed amidst rosy projections by company CEO’smoderate evaluations by industry analysts, and quotes from prison reformers and civil rights advocates about how much more needs to be changed. These insider reactions seem to be at odds with the Department of Justice’s announcement. Is U.S. policy regarding private prisons changing or not?

Scope of the Department of Justice Decision

In 2015 the Bureau of Prisons had custody over 192,628 inmates, 21,834 of whom were housed in private prisons, a privatization rate of 11%. The next largest federal entity that holds prisoners is the U.S. Marshals Service, which handles individuals before entry into prison to serve a federal sentence (i.e. arrest, trial, and transportation while in custody). In 2015 U.S. Marshals housed 51,862 prisoners, with 10,248 in private facilities, a rate of 20%. The smallest entity in absolute numbers is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has illegal immigrants as the main source of detainees. In 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had 24,567 out of 33,676 prisoners in private facilities, a whopping rate of 73%. Both the U.S. Marshals and Immigration and Customs Enforcement fall outside of the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice and are not subject to the change in policy from Yates’s memo.

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshals Service, and Intercept.com

This data, especially from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, fluctuate from month to month and available data for this analysis covers two different years, so direct comparison is tough. However, if recent trends hold between years, the Department of Justice’s decision will impact a sizeable amount of federal prisoners in private facilities. Additionally, almost two weeks after the Department of Justice’s release of Yates’s memo, the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced that it will undertake a similar review to determine whether to keep using private facilities. If the Department of Homeland Security comes to the same conclusions as the Department of Justice, the vast majority of federal prisoners may be removed from private prisons.

Implications for States

While this is a potentially large shift in the number of prisoners in private facilities at the federal level, it is a small shift relative to the overall proportion of privately-held prisoners across the nation. This is because the majority of private prisoners are held at the state level. In 2014, 91,244 prisoners were held in private prisons across the 50 states, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Since the United States has a federal system, the federal government cannot directly tell states how to run their prison systems. Furthermore, states do not get significant prison funding from the feds, meaning the often-used policy tool of withholding money until states comply with federal guidelines cannot be used in these situations. This means the battle to end private prisons will have to be fought on the ground in each and every state that uses private prisons.

The Fight to Come

State-by-state battles against moneyed interests are always hard. When benefits are concentrated (lots of money for a few corporations) and costs are diffuse (civil rights of hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families), it becomes difficult to sustain momentum for reform.

But this is a fight worth having. In addition to documenting cases of abuse, neglect, and death, for legal challenges, prison reform advocates have started a political and social conversation about the impact of private prisons. The concept of funding for rehabilitation, a central moral imperative of modern incarceration, is utterly antithetical to the profit model of private prisons. Why would they spend extra money to decrease their revenue-generating “inventory”? In annual corporate reports, private prison companies often identify falling crime rates, immigration reform, and other positive social trends as threats to their bottom lines. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “Private prisons are terrible public policy. Focused on the bottom line they cut corners… [they] have lobbied for increased criminal penalties because such laws inevitably mean more customers. But increasing incarceration for profit’s sake is bad for families, communities, taxpayers, and the concept of justice.” Any time perverse incentives lead powerful entities to fear positive social change, we as citizens must be wary and push back. Thanks to the efforts of a diverse group of people doing just that, the federal government has taken a small step towards ending this abhorrent practice. 


Rick Zarrella is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.  Before coming to GSPP, Rick was a Senior Paralegal at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center.

This article was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal, a student-led publication of the Goldman School.