Editors Review 2009 Regional Top Stories
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today on this first day of 2010, we’ll take a brief look at some of the major news stories that were important to the San Diego region in 2009, and we’ll explore how those developments might play out in this new year. The editors with us for this special edition are JW August, managing editor for 10News. JW, happy New Year and thanks for coming.
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): My pleasure. Top o’ the morning to you.
PENNER: Top o’ the morning. Miriam Raftery, editor of East County Magazine. It’s good to see you again, Miriam.
MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): It’s great to be back, Gloria.
PENNER: Scott Lewis, CEO of VoiceofSanDiego.org. Well, always a pleasure to see you, Scott.
SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, VoiceofSanDiego.org): And equally, thank you.
PENNER: And Hieu Tran Phan, specialist editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Thanks for joining us again, Hieu.
HIEU TRAN PHAN (Specialist Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Happy 2010, everybody.
PENNER: Okay, so we’re going to be covering a multitude of issues including the economy’s effect on jobs, housing, education and government, health issues, water, and the wars. Wow. Well, the riveting news for 2009 was the economy which buffeted the nation, and San Diego didn’t escape the woes of a recession that won’t let up. So, JW August, San Diego once was considered recession proof as far as jobs were concerned because the defense industry was so strong here, but our region was hit hard this last year with more than a 10% unemployment rate. Why were we hit so hard?
AUGUST: Well, because it’s all across the board, affected many things, manufacturing, retail sales, advertising, up and down the line, diff – all elements of the economy were hit hard. The military didn’t save us.
LEWIS: I think what’s interesting about that is – is…
LEWIS: …last year at this time, there – we always see a fall bounce right before the holiday season of employment as retailers gear up for the holiday season. Last year was so bad, 2008 was so bad, that we never even saw that increase.
PENNER: Last year was 2009, you mean the year before.
LEWIS: Sorry. Yes, trying to get used to the dates. Yes, 2008 was so bad, the economy was so bad, we didn’t see that increase before the holidays. What we have seen this year is an increase in some of the employment in the way that we have seen traditionally. It’s a typical sort of November/December bounce, and I guess that’s encouraging to see.
PENNER: So do you see any signs, Miriam, that the president’s stimulus spending is going to make for a better jobs picture in 2010?
RAFTERY: Actually, yes, Gloria. There is some cautious reason for optimism. In fact, it was just announced yesterday that the County has received, you know, some more stimulus funds along that line.
PHAN: I think also, Gloria…
PHAN: …JW was talking about, the importance of a diverse economy and how it’s kind of hit across the board. If we look at – the military did get one billion dollars of a three billion dollar infusion for housing and without that money, it would’ve been even worse, and just goes to show you how hard the housing market was hit this last time around.
PENNER: Do you see any sectors, Hieu, that are recovering, other than, let’s say, the military, the spending for the military?
PHAN: I think we’re going to see a quick rebound with healthcare. It’s already showing up with hospital profit margins are going back up across the state and in our region. And I think as nurses are being able to move around a little bit more you’re going to see that resuscitation of the industry.
PENNER: Well, let me offer some – a suggestion here. I know that San Diego’s long had a reputation, JW, as an incubator for start-up companies and small businesses. Where does that stand now? Do we still have a strong base of small business?
AUGUST: Oh, I think we do. In fact, there was like 2900 jobs added, professional and scientific firms added jobs, 2900 jobs, in the last couple of months. So we’re seeing that sort of growth in areas where we have invested.
PENNER: Well, it sounds like there’s a lot of optimism in this room.
AUGUST: No, not really.
PENNER: You’re not having optimism.
AUGUST: I think right now we’re at the – the glass is half full and half – is the glass half full or half empty stage.
PENNER: What is it for you?
AUGUST: I think it’s half empty still.
PENNER: Half empty. Well, Miriam.
RAFTERY: I think it’s going to take some time and I think that what we’re going to see longterm is a shift. Where in the past we’ve been a defense-based economy here, I think we’re going to see a transition into some of the green jobs, the green technologies of the future. And that’s where a lot of the stimulus dollars are coming in, and there’s also some big grants pending that would provide job training in those areas locally.
PENNER: All right, I’m not going to tell you whether I think it’s half full or half empty but…
PENNER: …I do want to mention this, Scott, and that is that the tourist industry’s been a major contributor to San Diego’s economy, and it was hit pretty hard in 2009. So are there any signs that it’s rebounding and that it will provide jobs for the region? And are those the kinds of jobs we want?
LEWIS: I haven’t seen the signs that point to a dramatic recovery. I think we have to understand, we experienced a dramatic correction, a disruption in our economy, and that hasn’t been, you know, changed or balanced by any dramatic improvement or innovation in the sense of if you’re going to correct that far down in order to recover in a way that would leave us all feeling as optimistic as – as it fuels a prosperous economy, then we have to have something new happen, have to have some kind of innovation, some kind of a rally point like the internet was for the ‘90s or something, and that hasn’t happened yet. And until that happens, I don’t see us being too optimistic about our chances of continuing that long trajectory of always improving the American style of life.
PENNER: All right, and let me throw out one more thing. The latest figures I saw were that personal spending, nationally I’m talking about, rose by zero-point-five percent in November. Incomes increased by zero-point-four percent. Both figures came in slightly lower that economists’ expectations. So when we take a look at that, does it look like we’re on an upward trajectory, Hieu?
PHAN: I think this is going to come back all the time to employment – unemployment, basically. And if I may use a medical terminology or analogy, the artery has been sewed up a little bit, it’s not bleeding as much as it did a year ago or six months ago but the patient is still in ICU, and I think we’re going to see that stay for at least the first half of 2010 and we’ll find out if the recovery’s really going to take hold.
PENNER: Okay, so the tourniquet seems to be working, to continue your analogy.
LEWIS: Well, and to continue it, too, I mean, we’re pumping a lot of blood into the body still and, you know, that creation of that artificial sustaining force, it has to sustain itself until the patient can continue to live on its own and that’s not…
LEWIS: …and that hasn’t happened.
PENNER: …let’s continue with this idea because the economy also had a major effect on San Diego’s overpriced housing market. The median price of a home, down more than 35% from its peak of $517,000, boy, that seems like a hundred years ago. And now it’s down to about $325,000. So, Scott, predictions were that the housing market would rebound the last half of 2009. Did it happen?
LEWIS: Yeah, it was a sustained sort of, I think, by all measures, incremental, at least, increase in both activity of sales and in the price of homes being sold. The problem is, is that it – is that sustainable? Because that is fueled, in large part, by the government itself who is actively purchasing home loans, actively offering incentives to new home buyers, even returning home buyers, and really trying to keep this thing going. Like one of my writers described it, the government has the housing market’s back right now. It is protecting it and encouraging it. And, you know, November, we saw a little bit of a slow down but it was still 11% above what November of last year, November of 2008, was and so I think that, you know, until we see, again, the government able to turn off the spigot and things continue to work on its own, then until we see that then we’re going to be a little bit nervous.
PENNER: But there’s something else that’s going on at the same time, Miriam, and that is bank foreclosures on homes, lenders basically foreclosing on homes. So no matter, you know, what Scott is saying, as long as you still have an active foreclosure event happening, I would think that’s a problem.
RAFTERY: Definitely, Gloria. We’ve seen mortgage foreclosures truly at a crisis level in the last year and that has, in turn, contributed to homelessness also, which is another big problem, and poverty. And in east county, in El Cajon, 40% of the people are considered economically challenged right now.
LEWIS: And depending on what measurement…
LEWIS: …you’re looking at, too, between 25 and 35% of homes in San Diego are underwater in the sense that they’re act…
LEWIS: …people actually owe more money on their properties than the property is worth and that leaves – and it’s evidenced in our – you know, on the drive here, I heard commercials about if you’re underwater, here’s an assistance and here’s how we can help you deal with that.
LEWIS: I mean, three years ago that was unheard of and now that’s just part of our daily discussion.
PENNER: But some folks, JW, are waiting to buy. I mean, there are homes that are underwater, they’re probably bargains, and yet there’s a question of whether the market has bottomed out.
AUGUST: Well, I think one indicator is kind of interesting. This has never happened before since they started keeping this data, is the median price has been exactly the same for three months, $325,000. It got there, it stopped, and for three months, so maybe it’s just hit bottom and it’s sitting there for awhile. And it depends on what’s going to happen early in the next year, I imagine.
PENNER: Hieu, do you think it’s there to stay?
PHAN: …Gloria, when you asked about, you know, there is a line of people looking for bargains and are ready to buy and they perhaps have some resources. But the banks, in addition to doing foreclosure activity, short sales and so forth, they’re also tightening their lending standards in unprecedented ways. And I – we hear all the time about people who want to buy but cannot qualify for some reason and so I think this is going to persist as a challenge for the market. And then on top of that, if the feds raise their rate, their interest rate, next year, which they probably will if the economy starts to, you know, come back a little bit, we’re going to see some people who’ll step back and not buy after all because they can’t afford it.
PENNER: Let me throw out another thought to you, Hieu, and have you sort of work over this one. Despite the bad economy and several thousand people leaving the region to search for jobs and many fewer people coming in from other counties, other states and other countries, our population actually increased to 3.2 million because births far exceeded deaths. So what effect will all that have on the housing market as the families are growing?
PHAN: Boy, this is a hard question to capsulize in the answer. I think this is one of the problems that we have from an environmental end, not a sustainable economy end. I think as population continues to grow, we’re going to see more controversial development policies as people push out to, as Miriam was talking about, east county. As people move into areas that are more prone to wildfires, we’re going to see more and more of this contentious issue come up.
PENNER: And yet are we seeing the construction industry starting to reflect that? Are we seeing homes being built, Scott?
LEWIS: I don’t think we’re seeing homes being built at any of – anything like the rate we saw before. I think one thing to keep an eye on as we try to project what’s going to happen is that the government literally borrowed from future demand in the sense of, you know, people who were thinking about buying a home maybe sometime in the future have been incentivized by the government sort of programs to help them get into the market now with these, you know, tax credits and such. And so what that means is that people who might’ve bought two years from now have already done it, have already got into it, and so the sort of wave we might’ve gotten from that wouldn’t come. I mean, this is a government market right now and it all depends on what the government does. As Hieu said, if they raise price – or, if they raise interest rates, if they stop the spigot, then the market will have to power itself and I don’t think it can right now.
PENNER: All right. So I’m going to ask you that opinion question, Miriam, because you’re always good at giving us your opinions. Was it good for the feds to come in with a tax credit incentivizing first time homebuyers in the lower income ranges or should the feds stay out of the housing market and let the market handle itself?
RAFTERY: Well, I think the market was so bad that an intervention, in my opinion, you know, was not a bad thing in this particular case. The market’s been devastated and there’s people out there who need some help.
LEWIS: I would…
RAFTERY: And if they buy and you give them some help, that’s going to stimulate the economy in the long run.
PENNER: Okay, Scott, you get the last comment on this.
LEWIS: Well, I think there’s another perspective on this, too. There were a lot – there are a lot of people still unable to afford a basic home for purchase in San Diego and the market was correcting for that right now, was taking an artificially high market and turning it into something that people could handle and the government stopped that. And so, you know, a lot of people who maybe have been waiting to get a chance to get into the market simply aren’t able to.
PENNER: Okay, we’re going to continue this conversation in just a moment, talking about the economy and government. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: I’m Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable. This is our Happy New Year special, and we’re doing our best to be happy. But there’s some good news and some bad news and we’re talking about all the news that impacts San Diego region and we – we’re here today with a lovely assortment of editors. We have four instead of three to tackle all the issues. And they are JW August from 10News, Miriam Raftery from East County Magazine, from VoiceofSanDiego.org Scott Lewis, and Hieu Tran Phan from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Well, let’s move on. The weak economy took its toll on state and local governments in 2009. California’s multi-billion dollar budget shortfall shone a light on the legislature’s inability to deal with expenses that exceed revenues. Yet in the City of San Diego, somehow the mayor and the city council were able to absorb a record $179 million budget gap without any bloodshed. So, Hieu Tran Phan, let’s start with the City of San Diego. 2009 didn’t seem as rough as we expected. What calmed the waters?
PHAN: Oh, actually I would like to look forward a little bit and say 2010 will probably be a bit bloodier in terms of the layoffs, in terms of we’ve already seen some of them happen in December, and I think we’re going to see more belt-tightening. And I think if we, just if I may, say that the bottom line to me is, Californians are a dysfunctional bunch in the way that we want all kinds of services but we don’t really want to pay for those services. And I think it comes down to a quality of life issue, that we’re going to have to address in the most bluntest of ways in this coming year.
PENNER: Who’s going to address the quality of life issue?
PHAN: I think Californians have to look and say do we want to cut certain programs, do we want to downsize certain services and initiatives or do we want to pay for all those things that we cannot afford right now?
PENNER: But the interesting thing is, JW, in San Diego, some library hours were cut, some city workers were cut, some fire stations closed.
PENNER: So what did San Diegans really feel so that they…
AUGUST: Oh, they…
PENNER: …would feel they had to bite the bullet?
AUGUST: They didn’t feel any pain and the one reason is that 179 million bucks they had to make up, they got $97 million of it, almost 97, from, you know, one-time breaks, adjustments in the budget, you know, savings they found. That – I don’t think they’re going to find that 97 million bucks in the closet next year.
PENNER: So how will this all come back to bite the City in 2010?
AUGUST: Someone’s going to have to start paying the price, paying the piper, whether it’s – I hate to talk about bankruptcy or the pension fund issue. There’s a lot of ways they could go and I think it’s going to be reflected in the services the citizens receive.
PENNER: Paying the piper. 2010 is an election year for both local and statewide races. How will the concern over finances affect how the incumbents will run their campaign or even affect the incumbents? Will they be reelected or are people going to look at them and say, you know, they were part of the mess, I don’t want to have anything to do with them.
LEWIS: Well, in the City of San Diego, I don’t see anybody in particular in – under threat with the election and so they won’t be required to say anything very inspiring. Look, the City is fundamentally set up to take in less money than it is fundamentally set up to spend. And that has not been addressed and I don’t think anybody even claims that it is. The independent budget analyst at the City said that it was important to use these sort of one-time gimmicks and whatnot to get through this period because at that point we can implement ‘the plan.’ The problem is, is nobody has ‘the plan’ and nobody has even come up with one. And as she says, it would be a package of reforms that would cap employee healthcare and other costs for employees and then it would be balanced by new tax increases and such. And, you know, I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that San Diegans aren’t willing to pay taxes. They fund – they always vote more than the majority to do it. The problem is, is that the system is set up that you can’t get a majority vote to get a new tax; you have to have a supermajority and that’s very difficult to achieve no matter where you are. And so I think that what – in order to achieve this, you’d have to come with a package that made cuts more attractive and that made taxes more attractive and that – and you could communicate it in an inspiring way that would lead the citizens toward that and we’re…
LEWIS: …we’re not…
PENNER: Who? Who should do this? You say no one. That’s kind of – that’s the impersonal pronoun as far as I’m concerned.
LEWIS: Well, I don’t think anybody is in a position to do that right now. The mayor hasn’t proven himself to be a very inspiring leader on putting us all together in a room and saying this is what we have, this is what we need, and this is what will have to happen if we ever want to continue with the City. I believe we have a dissolving city. Simply that if you have – if you care about something in the city, a local neighborhood park or something, you better learn how to pay for it yourself whether through philanthropy or a maintenance improvement district. That’s the only way that you’re going to be able to sustain it.
PENNER: So, Miriam, let’s extend that back to California now. How would you say Arnold Schwarzenegger performed in 2009? Was he the inspiring leader that we are looking for, let’s say even on a local level. You heard what Scott had to say about the mayor. What about the governor?
RAFTERY: No, I think he would get failing marks by most Californians when you look at the mess that we’re in. That said, he’s certainly dealing with a very polarized legislature and I think we have systemic funding problems in California where you have, one, an initiative process where anybody can put something on the ballot and vote it in, get the citizens to vote it in, and it costs money without figuring out how it’s going to be paid for and, two, a legislature where we have Republicans that refuse to vote for any tax increase at all even for taxes on, say, yacht buyers or cigarettes and yet you – it takes a two-thirds majority to pass any kind of budget or fiscal bill, so Democrats can’t pass any sort of tax increase…
PENNER: But mean…
RAFTERY: …without Republican votes.
PENNER: Meanwhile, Hieu, and I didn’t mean to step on your last couple of words.
PENNER: California’s budget woes had a direct effect on those who are suffering most, those who need social services, the poor, the elderly, the disabled. Hieu, do you think their plight’s going to get worse in 2010?
PHAN: I think we’re already – actually, January sixth is when the governor is going to give his State of the – I mean, State of the State address and also then unveil his budget proposal two days later. And we’ve already heard from the legislative analysts that we’re going to have another multi-billion dollar shortfall, so I think we are going to see the long list of groups that are being targeted publicize their woes. And there was so many groups this past year. Gosh, I think we’re – and we understand, I think, why it’s so hard to cut anything from the budget because everybody sees their cause as the most important cause.
PENNER: All right, and, JW, we were talking about Mayor Sanders, we were talking about Governor Schwarzenegger, both are termed out and they cannot run for office again, this office anyway. Is that a good thing?
AUGUST: I will be back. No, thank heavens, not. At least Arnie’s not going to be able to make a comeback unless they allow him to run for president, which’ll never happen. And the mayor, we do need change at both the state and the local level. We need somebody to shake stuff up. Look, we’ve got the second worst roads in the United States. We have the worst bond rating. We pay more money to borrow money, and our debt service on every billion dollars we have in a bond is $70 million. All this money’s just going out.
PENNER: Okay, well, you know, perhaps the most obvious victims of the recession we talked about the poor, the elderly, the disabled, our K-thru-12 school children and those trying to attend or complete their college educations. So, Miriam Raftery, state cuts to education have made California the last state in the United States in terms of per pupil funding. Hard to believe. You know, we used to be the Golden State. What’s the impact of that, ultimately?
RAFTERY: Well, it’s absolutely tragic. When we looked at the – let’s take the higher education, we’ve had hikes of 300% in tuition at the UCs in the last 10 years, 30% in the last month. Consider back in the ‘60s, you know, when Pat Brown was governor, they passed reforms so that more than half of all college student – or, all high school graduates could go to college, were going to college. Today, it’s only 36%. It’s well below the national average on that. And we’re seeing 118,000 students losing their Pell Grants right now, their Cal Grants, I should say. Locally, San Diego State has cut the guaranteed student admissions for local students, so it’s our local students that are hurting. Did you know, Gloria, that at Cuyamaca College they have 10,000 students now, you know, more than ever, and they’re only getting paid for 7,000 of those from the state. So they’re trying hard to do more with less but it can only go so far.
PENNER: Does that mean they have to cut staff? I mean, how do they handle all those students if they have to cut expenses?
RAFTERY: Bigger class sizes, there’s some online learning going on, all kind – there’s also, thankfully, some donors who’ve stepped forward to donate money for scholarships. The, I believe it was, the president out there just donated $27,000 for a scholarship fund.
PENNER: Well, it’s really what Scott was saying…
PENNER: …talking about philanthropy coming in. And luckily we still have a lot of, a lot of, wealthy people in San Diego. Did you see the list in the San Diego Business Journal? Well, you should…
PENNER: …look at that. It’s big.
PENNER: And, JW, you wanted to say something?
AUGUST: Well, I’m not on that list, rest assured. Hey, I was listening to my favorite radio show this morning, my favorite radio station, and I heard a sound bite from Marty Block, the Assemblyman, and I thought, wow, what a good idea.
AUGUST: His suggestion was to make community colleges four-year colleges. Take some money from the fat cats in the other two state systems and give it to community colleges. They have the facilities. They have – they have the ability to do that. And I thought, well, that makes a lot of sense so it probably is not going to happen.
PENNER: Well, you know, Hieu – Well, let’s be more optimistic than that. Maybe it will; it depends on the state legislature. They’d have to pass it. But listening to what Miriam had to say, Hieu, and now the suggestion by Marty Block, you know, tuition’s been raised, admissions have been lowered, will only the wealthy and the very smart get a stab at a university education these days?
PHAN: We were discussing this in the newsroom in the past few weeks as we talked about furloughs, class cuts, all kinds of program reductions at the various colleges. And people who are of a previous generation than me were talking about what it was like to go to school in California, the sort of the promise and the dream that was available to so many Californians who wanted to pursue a four-year education. And now I think there’s a fundamental dilemma here: Do we want to sustain qualities, especially at the UC system, or do we want to make it affordable enough for more people in California to go and get their BA or Masters degrees?
LEWIS: Well, it’s a crisis but I think we also have to think creatively. I mean, there are, you know, more than 2,000 teacher – or professors around the country teaching intro to psychology in massive classes without any – without much student interaction. Why don’t we take the ten best of them and coordinate a series of online lectures and stuff that can take care of these and use the local universities to focus on more specialized training and such. There’s an opportunity now with the crisis to reevaluate how we teach people and how we get people through this higher education system. But, yes, California’s success in the past has been based on the fact that we have such a strong education system and that has been completely threatened.
PENNER: Well, let’s back down again from the higher education back down through K-thru-12. How severe, truly, were those cuts, let’s say, in the San Diego Unified School District?
RAFTERY: Horrible. Richard Barrera calls it a crisis. They’re talking about the next round of budget cuts may take away as much of a third of their money. And he said, and I quote, we’ll see schools closed, we’ll see class sizes increased, we’ll see music and arts programs eliminated. Parents should be worried, very worried. And he noted that we’re spending ten times as much in California to keep a prisoner behind bars as to get a student through school.
PENNER: Well, that takes me to our – my original question, Heiu, and this is a thought question. Are we finding that ultimately what is happening now in education in the state of California is going to have, number one, an adverse effect on our work force and, number two, mean that we have to spend more money at the other end of the funnel? If we’re not spending it when the kids are young, will we end up spending it when they are older and don’t have the skills to be able to get out there and work?
PHAN: I think both of those answers would probably be yes. I think I would make a prediction that California will appeal to the federal government in the coming year or two years for more special aid to help with the K-thru-12 system. I would also say that there’s no way you can dispute that strong foundation in edu – in learning with make for a better, you know, better adults and better future generations.
PENNER: That availability of federal funds has become a real obstacle in California where there’s some concern about going to what – what is it being – Race to the Top.
RAFTERY: Race to…
PENNER: Because it means that there would be pay for performance for teachers, merit pay, I believe it is, and the teachers’ unions are objecting. Miriam?
RAFTERY: Yeah, there’s two bills going through the legislature, one in the Senate and one in the Assembly, and there’s a lot of divisiveness about which one. But basically they have until January 19th to pass something so that California could compete for $300 to $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds, if they deem that it’s, you know, worth having. And as you say, some believe that it’s a tradeoff and maybe it’s not worth it but the idea is to improve the underperforming schools. And the other area where I think California should go for some federal funds is to help with the education of the flood of refugees. In east county in particular, we have 300 to 400 refugee families a month being settled here by the federal government, most of them from war-torn Iraq, and it’s overwhelming the services and education and healthcare and everything else. And after the first year, there’s basically no money for them.
AUGUST: Well, they – Yeah, they drop them down and say, okay, good luck. I know they get some money but…
AUGUST: …I’ve heard a great deal what’s happening out in east county and…
AUGUST: …it is concerning.
PENNER: Okay, Scott, do you see any relief at all in 2010?
LEWIS: No, I mean, the governor’s top – one of his top aides looked through the state constitution for any kind of option that they might have to maybe even secede from the union or become a territory or declare bankruptcy or something that could free them from having to send money to the federal government or something that might keep them sustained and I think that next year we’re going to see that get even worse. They’re not going to try anything, obviously, but what I’m saying is that it’s gotten to the point where it’s so desperate that there’s no difference – or, there’s no options. And I think what we’ve seen with like the City of San Diego also is that there are, you know, there are tax receipts and revenues coming in at levels even below their most conservative estimates. I mean, San Diego city, for example, never predicted that tourism taxes would go down as much as – or would even go down or below negative growth. And I think that yet it’s getting even worse and worse, so, yeah, it’ll be at least two more years before we – even with a strong recovery before we can start being more optimistic.
PENNER: Well, you know, with all of this relatively bad news, something else happened this year. 2009 also saw school age kids, babies, many young and middle-aged adults hit by the swine flu pandemic. There were hundreds of cases throughout San Diego and around 60 deaths. But it has been milder than expected, so, Hieu, let me start with you on this. What’s expected on the swine flu front in 2010?
PHAN: Well, we’ve gone through two waves in the United States since swine flu first emerged as an epidemic in April. We are – The big question now is will we get a third wave and will the third wave be as mild as it has been or will it be more virulent? I think the public health officials have done as good a job as they can in trying to get people vaccinated. There has been all those supply problems that we’ve heard about in the past few months, and they will likely continue through January. We recently opened up in our county eligibility for everyone of all ages, of all health backgrounds, to get vaccinated. Now, it will just be finding a place that has the shots or the flu mist spray for us.
PENNER: That’s the part I don’t understand. I actually called my doctor’s office to find out—and it’s part of a large group—and they don’t have it. They don’t have the vaccine. So why is that? Why is it that some people are getting it and some aren’t – some providers are getting it and some not?
PHAN: Sure. The County doesn’t control the distribution channels and there’s one company that does that, and the root of the delay has been that the – our way of producing vaccine is through egg incubation and it has been quite a slow process. It’s sort of the antiquated method, and that has created a bottleneck.
PENNER: Okay. Do you think that the pharmaceutical manufacturers responded well to this, Scott?
LEWIS: I think that it was a surprise for everyone. I – You know, I don’t have the analytics to be able to say, you know, comparatively how it worked out. But the federal government – This is not just a company thing. This is another sort of government effort that, you know, where the market isn’t set to handle something like this. And as Hieu said, the antiquated ways that we produce this, literally with eggs that are brought in from secret farmers that can produce these type of eggs and incubate them, it just takes too much time and they need to come up with a much better distribution system.
PENNER: Okay, well, we’ll continue talking about health issues after this short break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: I’m Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable. And today, on the first day of the new year, I’ve invited four editors to discuss what went on in 2009 and what’s going to go on in 2010, and these are sterling editors. We have JW August, managing editor for 10News, Miriam Raftery, editor of East County Magazine, Scott Lewis, CEO of VoiceofSanDiego.org, and Hieu Tran Phan, specialist editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. So one of the most confusing legal issues that affects all of California is the distribution of medical marijuana. It’s legal in the state and banned by the federal government. Several cities around the county are dealing with a surge in marijuana dispensaries and they’re trying to figure out how they can operate. In fact, Escondido and El Cajon banned dispensaries. So what’s the attitude generally in the San Diego region? Miriam, you’re from east county, you know about El Cajon, you know about the whole Escondido region but what about generally?
RAFTERY: Well, I think public opinion is mixed on it. I think if you ask the average person on the street, most of them think that if someone has a serious medical problem like, you know, nausea from chemotherapy or some of the other things that medical marijuana can be beneficial for, that it should be available to people with extreme pain or glaucoma. But on the other hand, there is a concern that it can be used illegitimately, you know, as a screen for drug dealing, which certainly has been a problem in our region as well. But I do think there’s a difference in the attitudes of the elected officials that we have locally versus the people. There’s a bit of the schism there.
PENNER: Okay, well, you know, the San Diego City Council, JW, heard recommendations from a task force limiting where dispensaries can operate and will vote on those recommendations this month. I kind of took them on one week on Editors Roundtable for not getting the vote over with and I got a call from Marti Emerald saying…
PENNER: …that they were – Marti Emerald, councilwoman—that they will indeed be voting in January.
PENNER: Do you think 2010 will see more liberal attitudes developing toward the use and distribution of medical marijuana?
AUGUST: No, but I do think they’ll have guidelines, a little clearer guidelines. The problem with the – when it was passed, when the proposition was passed is they didn’t really explain how the whole system was going to work. We have something like 70 to 100 dispensaries in the city right now and a part of the city council – this task force recommendation is to have them a certain distance from schools. They’ve got to be in industrial areas. They have to have security guards. So they’re putting a number of things, hopefully, in place that may kind of clear up some of the misunderstandings and the confusion. I know the district attorney’s office has been on them for some time and their concern is a lot of these dispensaries are in the business of making money and I don’t think that was the intention of the proposition.
PENNER: What will it take, Hieu, to make the drug more acceptable for medical reasons? There are some people who say the dispensaries are drug dealers and there are others that says it’s businesses that want to make a profit.
PHAN: I think, going what JW said, the district attorney’s office has always said that we make a clear distinction and we’re trying to make a clear distinction between people who are doing it legally and those who are doing it illegally. It’s so hard to know from an outsider’s standpoint. I would say that I think as public understanding increases for the various conditions that medical marijuana is used for, as Miriam was saying, everything from cancer pain to various types of eye disease to various nerve controlling agents and so forth that marijuana is a great use for, I think there might be growing acceptance to it but we are going to need those clearer guidelines for sure.
PENNER: Well, let’s look at another issue that kind of consumed us or we consumed it in 2009. Mandatory water conservation was imposed throughout the region as water from the Sacramento Delta was reduced and a statewide drought continued. Scott Lewis, how successful was the conservation requirement and is the danger over?
LEWIS: I think that conservation efforts locally and statewide have been fantastically successful. The problem is, is that we still shouldn’t necessarily have cities on the southeast co – or southwest coast of the United States. They just – they – we have to bring water in so far that it – until we better balance the resources we have with what is available, it’s going to be an awkward polemic. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t have San Diego; what I mean is that we have to literally move mountains to bring water here and we, California and Southern California in particular, has benefited from the fact that it was able to grab so much of the Colorado River water and so much of the Northern California water, and this is all threatened right now. And 10%, 20% savings is simply not going to be enough to restore a healthy balance to what is available and what we need. And, you know, we’re going to have to come to the point as a society and realize that having lush gardens and lush lawns is just not sustainable for a place like this.
PENNER: But why isn’t there more progress in finding alternative water supplies? I mean, we’ve had, you know, desalination has been on the books for so long and it seems to have hit a roadblock. JW?
AUGUST: Well, there are – the environmentalists are opposing the, you know, the plant. I just heard today they were again complaining about the Poseidon plant up there. They were trying to block the building of the plant. It’s just – I – is desalinization the answer? I’m not sure. It’s very expensive. I don’t know. It uses a lot of energy. The bottom line for us in this region is, you know, use of water has been flat in Southern California for about three decades. A lot of people don’t know that. And we’ve gotten around that by, you know, low flow toilets and all sorts of gadgetry that have gotten us over the hump. But I think we’ve gone as far as we can go with that.
PENNER: Well, we can’t leave this conversation without noting that the governor’s promoting an $11.1 billion water bond which will be on the November ballot. It means we, the voters, are going to have to vote on whether we want to see an $11.1 billion bond passed and that’s supposed to improve water infrastructure, make water supplies more reliable. Here we are in the middle of a recession, Hieu. What chance does it have to pass a big bond like that, to pass at this time?
PHAN: In November, there was a statewide gathering of water managers in San Diego and they were fretting about how are we going to sell this proposition to our public? And their only hope – ray of hope was that we may be in a such a prolonged drought, in its fourth year, and with the concern about environmentalism and global warming and so forth, we may actually be able to turn this conservation sort of upside down and get people to back this bond. But I wanted to remind people that in San Diego, being at the end of the pipeline, we have the longest geographic supply line anywhere in the country. It takes so much energy and money to bring the water to us. And I think we need to look at is it a supply side? Do we keep finding ways to increase supply? Or is it a lifestyle side, like Scott was saying, that we start to turn everything from our lawns, our xeriscaping, our internal use of water and so forth, start making lifestyle changes that will reduce water consumption.
PENNER: But I notice that the San Dieguito area gets a lot of its water locally from Lake Hodges and yet it’s going to – it’s considering increasing their water rates. Are you familiar with this, Miriam?
RAFTERY: It’s not an issue I’ve tracked very much, Gloria, but certainly one of the things that we need to look at is the rise in – I think the rising water rates generally and the rationing of water that we’re seeing occurring, at least out in east county, you know, only being able to water certain days has attuned people to the severity of the need. So I actually think that the initiative stands a good chance of passing. But the other issue that we haven’t discussed is smart development. I think that the city and the county are going to need to stop approving developments in back country areas that draw down the groundwater supplies and, you know, start looking at smarter development policies.
PENNER: Well, you know, with the limited water supply, I have a feeling that we’re not going to see as many businesses come to San Diego either. But there’s one other way of approaching it, that’s using a tier system. Some municipalities are using a tier system for encouraging conservation. The more…
RAFTERY: Mt. Helix does that.
PENNER: The more you use, the higher the cost per unit. Is this an equitable way to conserve and sanction water wasters?
LEWIS: Not only is it…
LEWIS: …equitable, it’s actually quite successful. In Irvine Ranch in California, they’ve set up a system that is lauded across the country as one that incentivizes people to conserve and provides resources to support conservation and efficient use of the resource. And I think that the struggles that San Diego city has had in trying to implement or even talk about something similar—the city council wants to talk about it, the mayor has been bizarrely obtuse about it—and I think that when they finally reconcile that and when they can finally implement something that is progressive and that protects that then the businesses will have a sustainable, reliable source of water that they can trust, like the biotechs and others, that – I mean, water reliability is the single most important thing for local biotechs and other things to consider as far as policy issues and, you know, and I think Miriam talked about the perfect disconnect between – I mean, this idea that here we are approving new developments and letting people continue to have these lush gardens and lush landscapes. On the other hand, we’re talking about how desperate it is that we need to use such an intrusive technology like desalination to support us. And so it’s – those – that has to be reconciled before we can really focus on water reliability.
PENNER: So speaking about desperation, many people felt somewhat desperate when they noted that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan includes sending thirty to thirty-five thousand more American forces there this year. There were those that were in favor, there were those that were against, but it’s going to happen. And Camp Pendleton estimates that more than 10,000 Marines and sailors will be in Afghanistan by March. San Diego also has a very large National Guard and Reserve contingent who might be deployed as well. Hieu, what impact will this surge have on our community?
PHAN: Well, before we talk about any other affects, I just want to say that I think that we’re – this is a critical time for the troops at Camp Pendleton and for the Navy units that will be supporting them. They’re going to start shipping out mostly in February and March. They expect that there will be 20,000 Marines in Southern Afghanistan by April, the start of April, with the majority being headed up by Camp Pendleton, and that’s sort of the key area with the Taliban that they’re trying to, you know, flush out. I would like to just bring it back beyond any negative effect it might have in Oceanside and Fallbrook and so forth, the economies of those neighborhoods around the base, I want to bring it back to the point of these are human lives we’re talking about. And whether or not you volunteered to go into the service, this would be a key time. There will definitely be local deaths that we’re going to be hearing about in our media coverage in the coming year and those are parents, those are, you know, kids and so forth, or spouses are going to be affected.
PENNER: Well, there’s also growing concern, JW, that returning vets with disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders are not getting adequate treatment and support. How adequately have San Diego support services prepared for what Hieu was talking about, this year’s deployment of the troops and the wear and tear on them and their families?
AUGUST: It is a difficult time and are they prepared for the next wave of young men and women coming back? I’m not really sure. And the type of injuries we’re seeing are different than other conflicts because of all the head injuries because of the, you know, the roadside bombs and the resulting injuries, serious injuries to the military personnel that encounter that. And it’s a difficult time not only for those that provide support services but for their families to go through this turmoil and these long recovery periods and seeking support and help within the military community and the San Diego community.
PENNER: That’s right, and…
AUGUST: It’s a tough time.
PENNER: …and many military families are dependent on social services…
PENNER: …from the county but there’ve been problems with that. And, Scott, the problems, for example, accessing food stamps, it’s hard to believe that our military families need food stamps but they do. And some vets end up on the streets. Is there any indication that county officials are focused on improving this safety net?
LEWIS: I think the county especially is set up to experience a very dramatic correction in its own finances in the next two years, so I wouldn’t look to it for this answer at all. They themselves face a pension payment that makes the city’s pension payment look even smaller than the city would like to reflect it. I think that there are always inspiring stories almost every day about local people taking this up themselves. There’s Archie’s Acres in Valley Center, this – a guy started a farm there and has been teaching returning vets how to farm organically and how to use that as a way to sort of therapeutically deal with some of the stresses that they’re dealing with. And every day it seems like I read about a new effort like this where vets or people who want to help them are creating something special to do that. And the VA is doing a yeoman’s job of really bringing that home and trying to coordinate that. But, yeah, this society, this country, is going to – that that’s – you talk about a wave of refugees, you talk about a wave of different things we have to deal with, the wave of veterans is something that our society will have to plan for much better than it has.
PENNER: Okay, well, it was a very impactful year in 2009, and 2010, probably we’re going to see it continue and maybe even explode a bit more. So we just have a minute left and I want to peek into your minds and ask you what story are you keeping an eye on in the year ahead and why. And let me start with you, Miriam. We have only seconds.
RAFTERY: The Sunrise Power Link is our burning issue in east county. There are lawsuits pending, about to be filed, which may stop it. A lot of people don’t know. We talk about water, that it’s going to use, you know, tens of thousands of gallons of groundwater out there. It’s a precious resource and it’s a severe fire risk, so that’s our number one issue that we’re going to be tracking, apart from the economic news and the issues we’ve already discussed here today.
PENNER: Thank you, Miriam. JW August.
AUGUST: The elections in November. We’re going to see a lot of things coming down the pike. We’ll hear the drumbeats starting in the spring, tons of initiatives, like a moratorium on the president’s ability to run the country. So I think elections are important.
PENNER: Wow. And you, Hieu.
PHAN: For my team, Gloria, I think two major areas of focus would be the Afghanistan war and also global warming. I don’t think the conference in Copenhagen was anywhere near the end of the conversation.
PENNER: Finally, Scott.
LEWIS: I think the City of San Diego is dissolving. If you care about a local service, a park, Balboa Park, Mission Bay, any kind of skate park, you’re going to have to raise your own money to do that. And the city will now face the strong mayor election about whether they should renew that. And…
LEWIS: …that’s going to be very interesting.
PENNER: …Scott, thank you very much. Thanks to all our editors. Happy New Year to our listeners. This has been the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.