CVIndependent

Mon06012020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Annie Wang remembers the panic she felt being a freshman in a 500-person chemistry class at UC Davis when her period arrived—and she didn’t have a tampon or pad. There was nowhere nearby to go, and leaving to find something meant missing the class.

So she tried to focus on the lecture instead.

“I stayed in my seat and prayed it would not be too bad. When I got up, I had left a mark on UC Davis in a very bold way,” she said. “It was a very embarrassing moment for me.”

She knew she couldn’t be the only one in this predicament—that “a lot of my classmates had experienced similar situations where they were in class or going to class and suddenly got their period and were not able to go to class or had to scramble,” she said.

Now she’s one of many student activists, advocates, experts and officials working toward what they call “menstrual equity.” In California, that means exempting period products from the state sales tax and ensuring that tampons and pads are provided as freely as toilet paper in public schools and universities, government buildings and prisons.

It’s part of a global movement—partially funded by feminine-hygiene product manufacturers—to bring periods into the consideration of mainstream policymakers. A documentary about “period poverty”—the reality that some women miss work and some girls miss school because of cultural taboos or because they can’t afford period products—won an Oscar this year. Already in California, public schools in low-income areas are required to provide free period products, and college students are petitioning for free products in state universities. And an ongoing state Superior Court case claims the state is violating the 14th Amendment equal-protection clause by taxing the sales of period products, arguing that tampons and pads are not luxuries.

But the most closely watched effort is under way in the state Capitol, where lawmakers expect to advance a bill to end that sales tax.

A few years back, there were a lot of eye rolls and snickers when Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens carried such a bill. Embracing the novelty of it all, she dubbed herself “Tampon Queen” and propped a huge pad and tampon in her office window.

“It allowed a conversation to happen that was more than a tax—it’s about menstrual equity and our biology,” she said.

Her bill cleared the Legislature in 2016, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying it should have been addressed within the state budget and that “tax breaks are the same thing as new spending.” That prompted a tweet retort from Garcia:

@JerryBrownGov please mansplain why it’s ok to balance the budget on women's backs? He vetoed #AB1561, the unfair #tampontax continues. — Cristina Garcia (@AsmGarcia) September 13, 2016

With a new governor in place, she’s at it again. This time, her colleagues have been so eager to back her Assembly Bill 31 that it has more co-authors than any other this session. Last time, she said, “I had to beg them to join me.” This bill is expected to garner Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support.

But Jerry Brown isn’t alone. Editorials in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have contended that it’s unwise to carve out exemptions from the state sales tax in such a random fashion—especially when the state taxes items equally as essential, such as toilet paper, diapers and toothpaste. The California Tax Reform Association criticized the bill for drawing a line new to the state sales tax: “gender necessity. … The problem with drawing such a line is that many possibilities for exemption follow the logic of gender specificity. Clothing, cosmetics, over-the-counter and pharmaceuticals are all examples of products that can be construed as both gender-based and necessary,” the association noted.

And the California State Association of Counties also opposes the idea. “After the past 30 years of changes to sales and use tax collections, counties have come to depend on those revenues to balance their budgets and specifically offset the costs of providing realigned services, including criminal justice, health, mental health and social services,” the association wrote.

Garcia countered: “I respect the need for California to be fiscally sound, but the state budget should not be balanced by a tax of a person’s uterus. The same goes for local governments; our tax codes should be gender neutral.”

A legislative analysis said the bill, if enacted, would cost the state of California $9 million in lost revenue in the first year and $19 million in the second year.

To be clear, there is not an extra tax on tampons and pads. But unlike food and medicine, they are not exempt from California sales tax, because the state considers them not necessities, but luxuries.

Thus far, some other states—including New York, Florida, Connecticut and Nevada—and the District of Columbia have banned sales taxes on period products. Across the globe, Canada, India and Australia have long since eliminated the tax, and a battle is underway to end it in the United Kingdom.

“Today, the most progressive state in the union is behind the curve in providing a gender-neutral tax code that doesn’t profit off of a woman’s basic biological functions,” Garcia said.

Menstruation is about equity and engagement as much as it is about health, said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who co-founded Period Equity, a group that is behind the tampon-tax campaigns nationwide. It produced a glitzy ad that has model and actress Amber Rose fondling a bezel-set diamond pendant from which a bejeweled locket contains a tampon, asking: “Where else would you keep something 36 states tax as a luxury?” The ad’s kicker: “Tell the government where to stick this tax.”

“The taxes and the challenges of access are unfair and discriminatory toward women,” said Weiss-Wolf. “It’s an enormous distraction and, at worst, a hindrance to being fully present.”

At the age of 16, Nadya Okamato founded PERIOD., The Menstrual Movement, a nonprofit that donates products and works on menstrual policy and education with 350 chapters across the world.

“The tampon tax is not the issue that will solve period poverty, but it sends a message that menstrual hygiene is necessary and it’s a right,” said Okamato. “It’s something that happens to the majority of the global population for an average of 40 years of life, and it makes human life possible. It’s not something that should be treated with shame and stigma; it should be normalized.”

The group, celebrities and a period-products company recently co-signed a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for free products at all schools.

Some critics on social media, however, warn that once the government makes products available at no charge, costs to taxpayers could escalate, because some people who can easily afford to buy their own tampons and pads will instead avail themselves of the free ones.

“This not about whether I can afford it,” Garcia said, noting that she’s asked for free products to be available in state Capitol bathrooms. “It’s about how my biology does not behave in an expected matter. If I’m tracking down period products, I’m missing out on work.”

After Wang’s embarrassing moment at school, she started a campus chapter of PERIOD., which is petitioning the UC Davis administration to provide free products in all campus bathrooms. UC approved and funded a pilot program to provide free products, stocked by student volunteers, in up to 13 campus bathrooms.

The chapter surveyed students and reported that 52 percent of student respondents said they missed class or work in the last school year, because they could not access a tampon or pad.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The turmoil in the for-profit college industry has affected California as much as any state, with the closures of major chains leaving thousands of students deeply in debt and their educations on hold.

Meanwhile, the state agency in charge of regulating private colleges and vocational schools has struggled to enforce California law—and now lawmakers and agency officials are seeking to tighten oversight of the troubled sector.

A package of seven bills unveiled by Democratic state legislators would make major changes to the standards for-profit colleges must meet to operate in California.

One proposal, AB 1340, would bar schools from enrolling California students in programs designed to prepare them for careers if their students’ debt after graduation rises above a certain percentage of their incomes. It’s based on a “gainful employment” rule adopted by the Obama administration and since delayed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The rule aimed to hold schools accountable for their promises to provide students with a path to a stable career.

“The story is commonplace—students taking out thousands of dollars of loans to enroll in a career-training program they have been led to believe will lead to a job, only to discover they’ve got themselves in a horrible financial hole with no return on their investment,” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember David Chiu of San Francisco.

A previous attempt to enact a California version of the gainful employment rule failed. But that was before California joined 17 other states in suing over the rule’s delay, and DeVos announced her intention to repeal it altogether.

About 160,000 California students attend degree-granting for-profit colleges, with many more studying for a career at one of the state’s for-profit vocational schools. Those numbers include 10 percent of black undergraduates, according to a recent study by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

This number includes veterans who use GI Bill money to pay for both tuition and living expenses. Another bill, by Assemblymember Susan Eggman of Stockton, would prevent colleges from using GI Bill funds to rely more heavily on taxpayer money than federal law otherwise allows.

A third, AB 1344 from Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, would expand the number of state rules with which out-of-state colleges enrolling California students in online programs must comply.

A staffer at the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, which represents many of the state’s for-profit colleges, said no one was available to comment by press time on the legislative push.

Chiu said he was inspired to work with colleagues on the issue after an investigation last fall by CALmatters and The Sacramento Bee that found California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education often failed to enforce state laws designed to prevent predatory recruiting and other abuses at for-profit schools.

The bureau was inspecting schools less than half as often as California law requires, the investigation found, and had a backlog of nearly 1,200 unresolved student complaints, many of which had been pending for years. Some students said their complaints of fraud had been dismissed with little explanation.

This month, the bureau’s parent agency, the Department of Consumer Affairs, announced it had created a special five-member task force of current and retired investigators to reduce the backlog.

The bureau will also be reorganized, with its current enforcement chief transferring to an administrative role, and a new special investigator with experience in complex investigations hired to oversee complaints, said spokesperson Matt Woodcheke.

The reorganization “was a long time coming, and we hope that moving forward, the bureau is much more well-positioned to serve the needs of students in California,” he said.

Bureau staff said they had reduced the complaint backlog by about a quarter since November—though it’s unclear whether that was due to staffing changes or to the bureau’s decision to close out pending complaints if a student did not respond quickly to a letter asking if they wished to continue their case.

Attorney Megumi Tsutsui, a member of the bureau’s independent advisory committee who also represents students in fraud cases, said she hoped the new attention to complaints would lead to more thorough investigations.

“It’s great that they’re putting all these resources in place,” she said. “What I wouldn’t want them to do is just find ways to close cases by marking them done and moving on.”

If lawmakers pass AB 1340, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it, California would be the first state in the nation to establish its own gainful employment rule. At least some of the responsibility for enforcing the rule would likely fall to the bureau.

Chiu said he and his colleagues would be monitoring the bureau’s evolution closely.

“At this time when our students are being defrauded and victimized, we need the bureau to step up,” he said.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The far, far right started freaking out when “lock her up”-chanting former Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in the wake of revelations that he discussed loosening sanctions with a Russian ambassador while Obama was still president.

Mike Cernovich, one of those DeploraBallers whom others on the far right sometimes like to call a cuck, started the hysteria almost immediately after the announcement, tweeting: “The coup is on, Flynn resigned. Bannon, Kellyanne, and Miller next on the chopping block.”

A few minutes later, far, far right cop-worshipper John Cardillo also used the C word: “Flynn was the first casualty in Reince and the establishment’s palace coup.” He followed with a direct appeal to Trump: “You have traitors within. Do not let them conspire with the MSM to remove your circle of loyalists.”

Cernovich agreed that Flynn’s resignation was a “HUGE win for fake news.”

These guys are extremists, but they are smart enough to know the only strategy for Trump is to deny reality and all other sources of truth. The corruption, impropriety and legally dubious dealings of the regime seem so widespread that the admission that one thing is wrong could lead quickly to the revelation that everything is wrong.

Breitbart, meanwhile, was doing its best to ignore Flynn’s resignation, proving, perhaps, the old conservative point about the inefficiency of government workers, not tweeting about it at all until 9:30 a.m. the next morning. State news moves slow.

It is premature to rejoice about any of this, because the Trump propaganda machine has been wildly effective at erasing reality so far—and when Trump dumped Paul Manafort because of his Russian ties, the dirt just seemed to disappear. But the questions of, “What did the president know, and when?” may still prove powerful in Washington, D.C.


THE INTELLECTUAL GODFATHER

Senators shuffle by the desk to cast their votes on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, chattering like kids returning from summer break to find that everything has changed. Somehow, even the victors seem confused. None of them really expected the world to look like this.

Except, maybe, Sen. Jeff Sessions. He is standing toward the front of the Senate chambers, his hands behind his back, at ease. There is a grin on his face. He has just cast what will be his final vote as senator—to confirm DeVos.

Though he is not attorney general yet, he was instrumental in planning the flurry of authoritarian executive orders marking Trump’s first weeks in office, including the now-contested Muslim ban. Sessions wanted to go even harder, hoping for a “shock and awe” approach, overwhelming the opposition with the dramatic pace of change.

In a Washington Post story that called Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of “Trump’s hard-line actions,” the director of a conservative immigration think tank compared the Republican senator to a “guerrilla in the hinterlands preparing for the next hopeless assault on the government” who suddenly learns that “the capital has fallen.”

With his dark suit, white hair and wrinkled white peach of a face, Sessions does not look like he’s spent much time training in the jungle.

He walks slowly to his seat. Sitting down, he bows his head. His eyes seem to be closed, as if praying. He brings the tips of his fingers together, facing upward, on his lap.

A few moments later, he takes out a silver object and holds it gingerly between the first two fingers and thumbs of each hand, almost as if unwrapping foil on a stick of gum. But it doesn’t seem to be gum—it’s impossible to tell what it is from the press gallery above the Senate floor—and he does not unwrap it, he just fingers it, his head bowed.

Then the vote is called. He puts away the silver object. It is 50-50.

As expected, Vice President Mike Pence confirms DeVos with a historic tie-breaking vote. It is a huge blow to anyone who cares about competency, public education or ethics in government. The Democrats spent the last 24 hours complaining about all of these issues, but that doesn’t matter now. They have no control. The whole process demonstrated that the new regime can do as it wishes on the Hill.

Across the room, Sen. Al Franken acts like he is charging someone with a podium, making a clear reference to Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live skit satirizing Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham sit beside each other talking quietly, as if conspiring or gossiping. McCain says something and sucks his bottom lip. Graham scans the room from left to right.

Sessions gets up and looks around the room again before he heads toward the door.

When he returns to the Senate later that day, Sessions is the nominee under consideration. He sits behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while Sen. Elizabeth Warren quotes the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called Sessions a “disgrace to the Justice Department” during a 1986 confirmation hearing, when Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism. Now Warren reads from a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., sent to the Senate during that same failed confirmation.

“Mr. President, Mr. President,” McConnell interrupts, defending Sessions. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. Senator Warren said, ‘Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.’

“I call the senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19,” McConnell says.

The crazy thing about Rule 19, in this context, is that it was created in 1902, after Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a notorious white terrorist, beat up a colleague who had defected to the other side of a debate. Tillman founded a group called the Red Shirts, which terrorized African Americans as Reconstruction bled into Jim Crow. He was an early mentor of white supremacist Strom Thurmond, who, as the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, was the guy who both smashed Sessions’ hopes of becoming a federal judge and the guy who kept King’s 1986 letter out of the Senate record. When Warren read the letter, she was correcting Thurmond’s 30-year-old error.

So it is grimly fitting that McConnell, who has learned to manipulate the Senate in order to grab control of the judiciary for his party, cites Rule 19 to defend Jeff Sessions, the old-school law-and-order white supremacist who stuck around long enough to make it mainstream again.

During the exchange (in which McConnell now famously uttered the iconic sentences: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”), Sessions picks his nose, rubbing it with a handkerchief, making sure he gets it all, blowing again.

Nearly 24 hours later, McConnell uses the last few minutes of debate to offer a cornpone encomium to his departing colleague, calling Sessions a “true Southern gentleman,” like that’s an unquestionably good thing, eliding the difficult history connecting Sessions’ home state and the fight for civil rights.

Later, Pence swears in Sessions, who cites a “dangerous permanent trend” of increasing crime and pledges to end “lawlessness.”

Like Sessions, Trump regularly exaggerates the increase in violent crime. He uses the occasion of Sessions’ swearing in to sign three executive orders that further empower the already vast police state, now overseen by Sessions.

Neither man mentions the epidemic of African Americans shot and killed by police.

“A new era of justice begins, and it begins right now,” Trump says.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications.

Published in National/International

On this week's liberal-elite-media weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson looks at how President Trump's cabinet picks are sticking it to the elites; The K Chronicles pays tribute to the participants in the women's marches; This Modern World examines our new political reality; and Red Meat learns about God's arsenal.

Published in Comics