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Roundtable: Vets, State Laws, Air Traffic

August 31, 2012 1:35 p.m.

GUESTS

Rick Rogers, DefenseTracker.com

Michael Smolens, UT San Diego

Rob Davis, Voice of San Diego

Related Story: Roundtable: Vets Want Benefits, State Wants New Fees, Lindbergh Wants Air Traffic

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: It's Friday, August the 31st. And with me at the Roundtable today we have the producer of defensetracker.com, and host of front and center, a military talk show on KCBQ, Rick Rogers. Thanks so much for joining us.
ROGERS: Thanks so much for asking me to be here.
ST. JOHN: Michael Smollens, government and politics editor for UT San Diego. Great to have you here.
SMOLLENS: Good to be here.
ST. JOHN: And Rob Davis, senior reporter for the VoiceofSanDiego.org.
DAVIS: Always good to see you.
ST. JOHN: San Diego is home to more veterans in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan than anywhere else in the country. And we have two reports out this week that really highlight the challenges facing veterans and the VA. One of them, which is by the center for investigative reporting says how long veterans are waiting for the benefit claims to be decided. One quote says at the current rate it would take the VA three years to resolve any disability claim pending in San Diego, if not a single additional claim were filed. The average wage is about nine months. We also saw reports reported ins UT San Diego this week that the VA has talked about suicides and shows that 22 veterans took their own livens in San Diego this year. More than 100 tried, and for the first time, more than half were vets served since 911. Rick, can you give us a synopsis about what we know about wait times at the VA?
ROGERS: Well, the report that you talked about lists a couple different VAs here in San Diego. Well, excuse me, in California. San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In San Diego, there's a waiting list of 25,570, with an average wait time of 291 days. LA has 22,447, a wait of 263 day, and Oakland has the most vets on the waiting list in California at 30,613, and their waiting time is 346 days. Nationwide, there are a little over 824,000 veterans who are waiting to have their disability claims adjudicated, and their average wait time is 257 days.
ST. JOHN: Well, that's kind of overwhelming. From out of that, we get that San Diego, the VA here, is perhaps a little bit less backed up than some of the other VAs around California. Is that right?
ROGERS: It is. I follow the VA very closely here in San Diego. I know that they've made a concerted effort. Of the VAs that were identified in the report, San Diego VA has the at least number of growth in disability claims in the last 1.5 years. So I know they have been doing a lot of work trying to get as many claims people on those cases as possible.
ST. JOHN: Do you talk to veterans much? Have you heard them tell you stories about how long they're having to wait?
ROGERS: I do. I've been attending several career fairs, specifically for veteran, and what I've heard come from them is kind of something that's flying a little bit under the radar. And that's what -- not only aren't they getting their disabilities, but without getting a disability rating, they're not certified as a disabled veteran, which means it difficult for them to get into programs that give preferential hiring to veterans. So it's not just the mere fact that they're not getting the monetary compensation. It's also hurting them trying to move forward to get a job,
ST. JOHN: I've even had some letters from vets saying that their claims are being delayed because they're being told by the VA that the VA has to meet these deadline, quotas almost, of how many claims they're process big the end of the year. So they have to take the easier claims first.
ROGERS: I have not heard that, but I guess I wouldn't be surprised by that either. There's two things I believe that are really causing this backlog. A lot of these veterans -- veterans from Vietnam would come in and they would have one or two issues that would have to be looked at and rated. The veterans from OIF in operation new dawn have seven or eight. So these are complicated cases. In 2010, the VA was told that they'd have to take in all these agent orange claims. There was a lot more presumptive illnesses linked to agent orange. So fully 37% of the raters had to do the agent orange cases. So when you were having more and more disability claims coming into the system, you had fewer VA people who were able to rate that. I hate to use the cliche a perfect storm, but things really lined up to make things very difficult for the VA.
ST. JOHN: And Michael, politically speaking, a lot of us heard the speech last night, the Republican convention, and Mitt Romney did not even mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think that politically, these vets are kind of being thrown to the wolves?
SMOLLENS: Well, it's easy to say that. I don't know that -- as Rick I think detailed, the system is being overwhelmed. We have had two wars. And one of the sad aspects of it, the many sad aspects, apart from the personal plight these people are going through is that there's been focus on concerns for veterans upon. It's been spotlighted as the various stories have pointed out, yet we're losing ground. And I saw that they say that computers are coming, and they have certain things in place that will help. I guess you can ask -- they knew this was coming. This is unfortunately one of the many costs of war that will be with us probably forever for the lives of these people and a big cost. It's sort of like why weren't they ramping up before? I don't know that answer. I'm trying to be fair to folks. Obviously the focus on the ground is the key issue in any wartime situation. But you wonder once the -- if it finally ends and we are ramping back, whether this does start going under the radar. One question I do have, it was very interesting that you mentioned one of the main differences is that individuals are having many more issues than perhaps in the Vietnam era. Is there anyone explanation as to why?
ROGERS: I haven't seen anything specific on that. But I would think it would have to do with the number of times they have been sent back into combat. For Vietnam, it was one or two. Rarely did you hear anyone doing more than two tours. With this generation, with these two wars, it's not uncommon to hear someone going back seven time, eight times. And that's just more and more pounding. Also I think it has to do with the type of war that is being fought. In Vietnam, there were booby traps but IEDs, that's kind of a term coined for the most recent conflicts here. So I think the concussive nature of these blasts have led to a lot more types of injuries than in the past.
ST. JOHN: Rob, when you look at the bigger picture, you've got rouge waiting lists for housing, for example, section 8 housing, eight years. Do you think we should be more concerned about this issue for veterans?
TINSKY: Well, sure, I think what's happening is very obviously troubling. And what's surprising about it, I think Michael sort of pinpointed, is that this is something we could have seen coming. We knew that veterans were going to be coming home from these wars, and so that's sort of the troubling aspect of this. Why weren't pieces in place long before now so that an office wouldn't have to shut down for a month, for instance, as Oakland did, to train its employees?
ST. JOHN: And the speech last night, you know, rather than talking about the aftermath of war, we're hearing about the possibilities of the seeds of the next one. So it seems like politically, that's always the trouble, that you don't hear about the backend of the wars. But it's not like they weren't prepared, right? The VA -- what does the VA say when you talk to them about these issues?
ROGERS: Well, again I think we need to go back to the fact that 37% of the raters were syphoned off to do agent orange cases. And it takes about two years to hire somebody and to have them be a rater to where they're decent. Also they're kind of stuck. I was thinking about this as I was driving down. The VA took the path of at least resistance, and just gave everybody and said, okay, we're going to give everybody all the money they want. Is that really fair to the taxpayer? Then if they took the path of least resistance and gave them all very generous ratings, disability ratings, all of a sudden, the GAO comes back two years later, and they do a check, right? And they find out that they've misrated. So then they would get it again from that end because we all know that the entitlement program is just rising and rising and rising. I do think now that a lot of these agent orange claims have been run through the system, that things are going to get a little bit better. But the problem is that you have a tremendous backlog, and there's more claims being added to it all the time.
ST. JOHN: Have there been any studies about any claims that are fraudulent or misrated?
ROGERS: Well, I have seen reports that talked about misratings, I think it was in the 20% range. That was a little bit of a problem. The VA would like it to be around 80% if they could.
ST. JOHN: And Bob Filner has been on the house veteran affairs committee and been pretty strident about these issues, right?
ROGERS: No doubt about it. He's kind of tired he's tired of hearing the same excuses for why this stuff isn't getting done.
ST. JOHN: Do you think when Bob Filner is gone, will we have somebody from the San Diego region who's that strong a presence on military committees to represent their interests in Congress?
SMOLLENS: Well, a lot will happen. It depends on what's going on in Congress. I think Susan Davis is on a subcommittee. I can't remember if Duncan Hunter is on one of the military committees. Bob Filner is the ranking member on the veterans committee. He was the chairman. So it would be unusual to have another chairman of that committee from San Diego. But I would like to think just by virtue of the sheer number of veterans, the presence of the military in San Diego that we would have, you know, some influence or say in those relevant comities. And we usually have, I think.
ST. JOHN: And Darryl Issa who is the chair of the house committee on oversight and government reform has also been looking into these issues. It's not like people aren't trying to hold the VA's feet to the fire. There was a $300 million computer.
ROGERS: There has been a consistent problem trying to get the Department of Defense and the VA's computers to be able to talk to each other, so far as medical records are concerned. I saw a story this morning that was boggling. And it was an 8-piece story that had to do with a VA office in Winston Salem. And there is so much paper and claims in that building that it's sagging the building and could possibly make it collapse.
ST. JOHN: Wow!
ROGERS: If that isn't a crystallization of what is kind of wrong with what's going on, I don't know what is. This is an AP story from yesterday. VA affairs department is notorious for red tape, but a facility in North Carolina's weight has grown so high that it's buckled the floors. The VA has gotten in trouble because they center cooked the books on wait times in the past. So that's some of the concerns that representative Filner and others have when the VA comes and talks to them about what's go on. How honest are they really being because they have been caught in some untruths in the past.
ST. JOHN: I wanted to link this to the suicide report. Do you think there is a connection between the fact that 22 people have succeeded in taking their own lives, veterans, here in San Diego, and the fact that people are having to wait to get their claims processed? Or is that two completely separate processes that the veterans go through?
ROGERS: I don't know that it is. But I wouldn't doubt that there is a connection. When I talk to the veterans, their No. 1 stressor is a job. A lot of this, if our professional lives are going well, our personal lives seem to go pretty well. So I think that's the case here. So some of these veterans were able to get their compensation, not to have the financial concern, able to have these job, that would be just something else they wouldn't have to worry about.
ST. JOHN: Rob, I don't know whether you think we've got sequestration looming over us, but even without that, we've got budget cuts. Do you have any opinion on whether in fact enough is being spent on the front end or the backend of wars? All the research we have in San Diego, research connected to military, unmanned vehicles? This is an issue as how to balance federal spending.
ROGERS: I think that's a good point. I think what these stories show is that not whether the amount of money that's being spent is adequate or not, but that the way that the program is being administered has not been effective. They've added checker, spent more money, and wait times have increased. So it just sort of raises questions about how effective this agency is during a very serious time for folks who are coming home.
ST. JOHN: Right. Thank you very much.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

ST. JOHN: With me at the Roundtable, Michael Smollens of the UT San Diego, rob Davis, VoiceofSanDiego.org, and Rick Rogers, host of front and center. We were just talking about the backlog in processing benefit claims by veterans. A couple of things we were talking about during the break that I'd like to get a chance to talk about, one of the big reasons, I think, that the claims are taking so long to process is this issue of whether they might in fact be fraudulent. And you brought up that that is obviously something to be witnessed. But you did get some feedback from the VA when you asked them about that.
ROGERS: Yes. I asked them how many people are trying to game the system. And their response to me was very few. Less than 10%. I was very happy to hear that, by the way. Representative Filner has suggested that we take vets at face value when they come forward and say that they have a concern and pay them their rate, and then if there's a spot checked on, and they're found to have submitted a fraudulent claim, then try to get that money back, kind of like what the IRS does when we file our income tax. I guess the problem that I see with that is if there is somebody that has filed a fraudulent claim or they shouldn't have been getting the amount of money that they were getting, I could just imagine the headlines when the government takes some poor guy with a couple kids and a wife to court to try to get their money back. One, I don't think they would get the money back. Two, I think that the PR would just be abysmal. Also, I think it's important that the public realize how much money we're talking about when we're talking about compensation. At 10%, if somebody is rated with a 10% disability rating, that's $127 a month. Now, this is all tax-free. The upper end for 100% disabled, depending on the number of dependents, is about $3,100 tax-free. So while these numbers might seem relatively small, you times that every month for the rest of someone's life likely because they're probably not going to be rerated, especially if they have post traumatic stress disorder, and you start seeing why the entitlement program so far has veterans are concerned has gone up billions and billions in recent years.
ST. JOHN: I have to ask you whether there's any discussion about rerating people.
ROGERS: Well, let me tell you a story about that! A couple years ago, somebody suggested that people that were rated 100% post traumatic stress disorder be rerated. The cry that went across this nation, the echo is still being heard in space! It did not happen. Once these vets get this rating, unfortunately their life kind of evolves around it. That money is spoken for month in, month out like that. So should there be rerating from time to time? I think the answer is yes. Will it ever happen? I think probably the answer is no because politically, it would be very unpopular. And all these other advocates, if you would, would probably get behind it and squash it.
ST. JOHN: The GI bill claims also, are they also a backlog? Or are they managing to stay on top of those?
ROGERS: I think it came out around 2008, timeframe. There was a big problem in getting out the money to the student veterans. They've done a much, much better job of it in recent years. I haven't heard about much of an issue of that in recent years.
ST. JOHN: Let's move onto politics here with Michael. And the mayor has not endorsed anyone in the mayor's race. Is he the only one hesitating? We'll talk about that. But first there's a lot of debate going on in Sacramento right now about issues that could affect us here in San Diego. And today is the final day for our state legislators to pass bills. So pension reform and fee increases are among them. So Michael, let's start with the governor's pension reform overhaul. How good is it?
SMOLLENS: It's in the eye of the beholder. It's not everything the governor wanted. He wanted something last year and it didn't happen. The subtexts are many thing, but one, they've got a huge deficit, unfunded liability ~als the City of San Diego does, but the state's was $150 billion and growing. Public pensions everywhere are a problem. So everybody says something's got to be done, but exactly whose ox gets gored in this thing is the key issue. And the governor has a tax increase proposal on the ballot, and he and the Democrats who want to see that pass need to show that they can show some good stewardship of the state's finances, and pension reform is one of them. So they desperately needed a deal to hold up to voters saying, see, we can start ratcheting back and so forth. The deal is different than what Proposition B was in the City of San Diego. There were some similarities. They do cap so-called pensionable pay. So if there are certain bonuses or add-ons, it doesn't necessarily cap how they factor pensions. It would basically freeze what the pay is, where the state's cap is at like $120. The difference is the governor wanted a 401K component and didn't get that. That was one of the center pieces of the city's Proposition B.
ST. JOHN: And the city isn't the only city in the state that's moved to that.
SMOLLENS: I think San Jose as well. The issue is that they're trying to move more of the risk to the employee rather than to the public entity. There's other aspects of it. They want to raise the corrections from the workers. Some cities do not require any contribution. The city picks up the entire cost of the pensions. Also they want to reduce the one sort of poster child for pension abuse is spiking. People get pay raises in their last year that spike up their pension. This would average out over a few years so that wouldn't happen. Those are kind of the basic parameters of it. I think San Diego's is generally tougher, and I think you had mentioned earlier why San Diego was first. Like the housing crisis, the economic crisis, when it hits there earlier maybe you tend to get out of it earlier. And the irony is that San Diego is really sort of the poster child for the pension problems that the whole country has realized not too long afterward. Now actually -- like I said, ironically, San Diego is getting some credit for starting to figure things out. The big problem with both issues is that it doesn't really address the current big liability and deficit. It's about $2 million in San Diego. And I forget what I last reads, about $150 billion in Sacramento. Most of these reforms, changes, hit the new employees. So those benefits that are there and are vested from current retirees or current employees, most of them stay. So to really make a dent in this, you got to do something. But it's hard to take away vested benefits from employees.
ST. JOHN: Brown had a different political equation. Are you surprised that a democratic governor would get as far on his initiative ares as brown did?
ROGERS: No, not really. It's interesting, you can change the subjects out and take San Diego and the state and the same script is playing out. I think that it's worth noting he didn't get a 401K proposal in there, but in the city's plan that passed this past November, that wasn't responsible for the savings that will be reaped.
ST. JOHN: Thank you for reminding us of that.
ROGERS: There was an expectation of an employee pay freeze in that. And while the 401K was a prominent selling point for pension reform hawks who could say we're getting rid of pensions and moving to 401Ks, the dollar figures that were netted from that or the savings netted from that were I think negligible.
ST. JOHN: Right. So Rick, what do you think about Brown's proposal? Do you think this is going to be enough to convince people to vote for his tax initiative?
ROGERS: I think all this is kind of aimed at the voters. This is trying to say that, looks, we're doing something. We're taking this serious, and this is a plan to help us get out of the terrible meswe're in. Someone who makes the same amount of money or more money upon retiring than they did when they were work, vested or not, difficult to take away or not, the concern should be how did it ever happen? No one seems to have any institutional memory on who agreed to what when. It's just that this is where we are, and all we can do is go forward.
ST. JOHN: One of the reasons it happened was because labor negotiated well, and the legislature when times were good said okay. But why don't the labor unions -- what makes this piece of legislation watertight? Won't the labor unions just sue in court like here in San Diego?
SMOLLENS: I'm sure components of it will be challenged in court. That's the nature of just about everything these days. And certainly pension aspects. It's hard to say. Various labor figures complain very loudly in a full-throated way, but some are saying they don't think this is such a bad deal compared to some other things that could have happened. Rob made a good point, I use the term pensionable pay which is sort of the thing that they would freeze in the city and cap in the state. And the 401K was very -- the selling point as he pointed out. But you take away the pay freeze and the capping aspect, if these things are challenged in court and they win, Proposition B would actually cost the city $13 million to set up the shift. But I think the thing that lawmakers or advocates for the shift to 401K-type systems is that it puts the risk more on the employee. Like we all do with 401Ks, live and die with the market, as opposed to having a defined pension benefit. That's one of the things that the governor wanted to start moving to.
ST. JOHN: So this is a state reform. And who is it going to affect in San Diego?
SMOLLENS: Well, the city is exempt from this. They basically guarantee that voter-approved pension changes won't be touched by this. And there's a lot of other technical reasons. But most -- I believe most other cities in the county and the county of San Diego will have to adapt to this. Now, some cities have started making headway, change, not quite like the City of San Diego, but they've started increasing the contribution demand from employees from what they were. And that's been happening at various stages and levels. But this will have an impact. And overall, I think it was CALPERS, the main pension system for the state, say that overall this would mean 40 to $60 billion savings for the government.
ST. JOHN: Is it going to affect teachers?
SMOLLENS: Oh, yes. There are learn laws that if they apply to certain entity, they may have exemptions. But most of the school districts, the city and the county will have to adapt to this.
ST. JOHN: Before we leave the topic, there's a piece of legislation authored by Ben Hueso who was aimed specifically at San Diego workers affected by the pension reform here.
SMOLLENS: Well, it did pass the Senate and went to the governor late last night, I think. It's complicated like anything with pensions. When Proposition B passed, there's sort of a cap on what the city's contribution can be to the now new retirement system. There's the option, the City of San Diego employees do not go into social -- they were taken out of Social Security a long time ago. There's an option for them to go back in, meaning the 401K contribution would be much smaller. We've been told for the longest time that the mayor and the city don't care because their contribution is capped one way or the other. What is interesting is this bill was going to be applied to I think most or all municipal governments, then it was just narrowed to the City of San Diego. It's further interesting, it's not something that we've been told that the labor unions are really adamant about wanting to get back into Social Security. There's concern about the long-term health of that. Exactly why this is being pushed and would mandate the city to do that, you're looking like there's an issue -- just to wrap up, one of the pieces of thinking is that depending on the new City Council and the new mayor, that they may want to have a locked in guarantee by Social Security.
ST. JOHN: I was surprised that this was something you that you could do by legislation. It seemed to me this would be something that would depend on federal law. Can you just suddenly opt back into Social Security?
SMOLLENS: Like I said, I think everything will be subject to legal challenge.
ST. JOHN: The other things that are being talked about in Sacramento right now are these fees and taxes. Give us a sense of what's coming down the pipe toward us in terms of new fees.
SMOLLENS: Well, we don't know that they will pass, or if they pass whether the governor will sign them. But fees have long been popular, because in California it takes a 2/3 majority of the legislature to approve a tax. There's enough Republicans to block tax increases, which is the governor and people go to the ballots. But true fees that are fee for service, one would be a fee on mattress manufacturers to recycle mattresses, to go into a fund there. And so those can be passed by a simple majority, which is why some of these things are moving forward. Pharmacies would experience an additional fee on their license, and that would be to help fund increasing programs for addiction to pharmaceutical drugs as opposed to illegal drugs. Some people will support that.
ST. JOHN: Do you think that people are willing to pay or fees, or do you think they'd rather stop charging extra? Just put it on our taxes?
TINSKY: Nobody wants to pay more money for anything. That's just how we are. You asked earlier whether we were going to be nickelled and dimed to death, and I think we're going to be dollared and 5-dollared to death. I just was going to go camping this weekend, and to camp on the beach in Santa Barbara is now like $55 a night. I mean, you could stay in a hotel 6.
SMOLLENS: Right, yeah!
ROGERS: And so it's -- it's happening, and it's just the kind of thing that incrementally --
ST. JOHN: Eats away at one's pocketbook, yeah. What about the businesses?
SMOLLENS: Well, that's interesting. It sort of depends on the fee, in some cases, businesses are advocating these. For instance, there are fish farm, aqua culture, you grow fish which we eat. The industry, I'm told they support this increase in their license fee because they want more money to go into the state agency that helps regulate them to expand, that it's just they believe not big enough to do the job. And they think apparently that with that increased fee that they are willing to pay, it will help them grow their business and expand the business. So that's different than you usually hear. Usually businesses don't charge us. Tell be passed onto the consumer ultimately. It sort of depends. But in general, they don't like that. But I mentioned the mattress fee, and it's not a fee on the individual. When I go out to buy a mattress. It's on the mattress maker. But that will be passed on. When we buy tires, there's a recycling fee, when we get our oil changed, there's a recycling fee. That's part of living in California. And some people say, well, you need to recycle the oil because it's going to go down the drain and hurt the environment.
ST. JOHN: How long do you think it will be before someone puts an initiative that says you need a 2/3 vote?
SMOLLENS: Well, I think a proposition in 2010 really narrowed what a fee is. Of it was much broader. They would groom them to try to get general revenue for these things, but it's got to be a real specific feet for service.
ST. JOHN: Let's move to San Diego quickly here in the mayor's race. Do you think that there may be some reticence on the part of people to one or other of the two candidates? It seems like the mayor is holding back on giving his endorsement. Do you think this is something you see as prevalent among big funders?
SMOLLENS: Well, Craig Gustafson did a story about the mayor's dilemma. If one were to guess that the mayor may just sit this one out, frankly it's almost tradition as we reported, most previous mayors -- it's been decades since a mayor has actually endorsed one of his successors. We did have a couple mayors that left office under scandal, so their endorsement wouldn't be too welcome. But the mayor specifically, part of the issue is that it was a unique election in that you had not extreme candidates, but candidates that really played to the conservative Republican and liberal democratic base, then they moved to the middle. Jerry Sanders is viewed as a moderate. 60% of voters across the board, regardless of party affiliation, think he's doing a good job. So his endorsement, they both would want it. The thinking is that he would naturally gravitate to Carl DeMaio, but they really don't like each other. He's been the biggest thorn in his side in a democratic controlled council than anybody. So it's very difficult. He's getting a lot of pressure from some of his supporters that backed Nathan Fletcher thatting going to DeMaio. Most of the Republican establishment is indeed going to DeMaio. But on the other hand his longtime political consultant is now working for Bob Filner.
ST. JOHN: Do you think the fact that it's a really stark choice in this mayoral race perhaps makes it easier because it's a very clear choice or do you think voters are stumped because there isn't somebody more in the middle?
ROGERS: Well, I think San Diegans are used to electing moderate candidates. And sort of moderate nonattention-grabbing figures as the city's leader. And that label doesn't fit either of these candidates. Sos a starker choice than the city's faced in the past. And it's interesting to watch as these candidates tries to shapeshift a little bit into that figure.
ST. JOHN: Okay.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]]

ST. JOHN: I've got here with me in the studio, Rick Rogers of defense tracker.com, rob Davis of VoiceofSanDiego.org, and Michael Smollens of UT San Diego. So we've been discussing the location of San Diego's airport for at least 30 years or so. And Rob, we all almost the 2006 ballot initiative which proposed to relocate the airport to Mira Mar. That one failed, but what were the arguments martialed in its favor?
DAVIS: Well, just some context first, we run a fact-check blog on our site, and we thought we could go back and look at these dire warnings as elections happen. And most prominent in my mind was the San Diego airport authority's projections for the international airport here and what was going to happen with demand and operations there. And as they ramped up this effort to move the international airport to Mira Mar in 2006, they commissioned a study that essentially showed a steady year over year growth in the number of takeoffs and landings at the airport. And it has just not proven to be what's happened.
ST: JOHN: What did your check reveal?
DAVIS: Well, takeoffs and landings at the airport right now are at their lowest level that they have been since 1986. And they after 2006 peaked in 2008. Obviously the bottom fell out of the economy, and along with it so did passenger demand, and the number of planes landing and taking off from the airport.
ST. JOHN: So are there any indications as to when capacity will be reached?
DAVIS: No, there's not right now. I talked to the airport authority about it, and they're in the process of sort of re-examining their long-term plans for the future of the airport or continuing to re-examine the future of the airport. And later this year they're going to be commissioning another study. They haven't looked at it though since 2004. And so what we have is a line that shows demand continuing to go straight up, and what we have in reality is a line where it's just been going straight down.
ST. JOHN: So who back then was campaigning for the relocation of the airport? Pete Wilson did, for example.
DAVIS: Yeah, this is interesting. This statistic, this idea that the -- the projection was that between 2015 and 2022, Lindbergh field, there were going to be so many planes going in and leaving there that it was going to become congested. The airport authority, its CEO, its chairman, people in the business community, were pointing to this and saying when people flying in here have an average 20-minute delay and sometimes much worse, think about what the impact is going to be on our economy. And this was commonly sited, that the congestion between 2015 and 2022 was going to be in the billions and tens of billions of dollars on San Diego's economy. And it was a very, very stark warning that underlied the airport authority's entire, you know, $18 million push to move the international airport. This was the reason that they said we needed to move. It's what people have been saying for 50 years in the city.
ST. JOHN: Uh-huh, it won't go away.
DAVIS: And each time a study has come out with the same -- the same warning was made 50 years before proposition A went to the ballot in 2006. 1956. So the community has been hearing people cry wolf about the adequacy of Lindbergh field for a long, long time.
ST. JOHN: So Michael, can we draw any conclusions about what the motives are for these forecasts that don't turn out to be true?
SMOLLENS: Well, rob laid it out, always be skeptical of campaigns mode there. You mentioned projections. It's always interesting going back. I read somewhere, there were dire projections that we would run out of gold and something else, and now whatever those resources were, the reserves that they believe we have in the world are even greater. Technology has a lot to do with this. That was based on technology of decades ago, and what was available then, and as we know now on a variety of things, technology has allowed us to do many things including tap certain natural resources that weren't there.
ST. JOHN: Unexpected things.
SMOLLENS: And one of the questions I have, moving forward, has technology changed things? We communicate differently, but when they did those studies, it was even before 2006, and personal travel isn't going to change, but so much is business travel and because of communications and the ability to have video setups and so forth, I wonder will there be a realistic assessment of how that affects travel and these clogged airways?
DAVIS: Well, that was something that was discussed in 2006. And it's interesting, that's one of the sort of many data points on the other side of the argument for showing a steady increase in the number of flights here. I heard from Richard Carson, the economics chairman at UCSD in 2006 who stepped into this debate somewhat reluctantly but played a prominent role in criticizing the airport authority. And he just came at it from a very simple equation of supply and demand, which was right now if you fly to LA on a short 20-minute flight, you're flying on a 12-seat or 20-seat small turboprop jet or airport. And his point then and now is we're going to see those replaced by larger regional jets before we're getting near the point where Lindbergh field would be congested. There are still general aviation flights that go in and out of Lindbergh that could be moved elsewhere and would be a step that you would expect to see occur before southwest flights were delayed 20 minutes.
ST. JOHN: So there's massive investment going into land berg field right now with the green build, new parking lots, ten new terminals. Is there any talk now about there being a timeline on how long these will last?
DAVIS: No, the airport authority wisely put its head down after 6-percent of voters rejected its proposal to move Lindbergh. They said we accept that we're here for the time being, they're going into a planning process to figure out what they're going to be doing through 2035. The discussion about Mira Mar is always one base closure process away from being reborn here.
ST. JOHN: Well, I was going to throw that over to you, Rick. A lot has happened at Mira Mar since then. What do you think the chances are that this might come back?
DAVIS: I think the chances are even less now than they were in 2006 for a few reasons. One is that the Pacific theatre is the focus of the military more than it's ever been. That would be China and Taiwan and like that. So the military is stacking its chips, if you will, on the west coast. And San Diego is the place where it's decided that if needs to put more forces. Recently we've seen new ships coming here. I don't see Mira Mar going anywhere. It always surprised me because the Department of Defense said all among that they weren't down with the program of allowing an airport to go into Mira Mar without the defense department's okay, it was never going to be done. Is there such a scenario that they would give up Mira Mar? Maybe. But it would cost billions and billions of dollars, and the military would only do it if it benefited them.
ST. JOHN: And quickly, is the public getting tired of there being cry wolf forecasts?
SMOLLENS: Well, if not cry wolf, I think they're getting tireded of the 50 years or however long this debate's been going on. And I think the airport authority realized this is their home for the duration, and they did the whole green build thing to certainly help the traveler, but also I think to try to make the management of the actual air field more efficient. You can only do so much with one air trip or runway. But I think people are getting tired of it.
ST. JOHN: Thanks so much for the discussion today.

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