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Inside the Capitol: California News and Analysis

Where to find news about how the California Capitol works—the players, the policies that affect how state government affects you.

Inside the Capitol: California News and Analysis

Dec. 3, 2018 1:26 pm

A deep blue sea of California lawmakers takes oath of office

Political Reporter

Web Producer/General Assignment Reporter
California Senate swearing-in ceremony for the 2019 legislature.
New members of the California Senate were sworn in at the Capitol on Monday. Photo for CALmatters by Byrhonda Lyons.

Forget mere supermajorities. As a new class of legislators was sworn in today in Sacramento, the watchword for Democrats was “super-duper-majority.” Or maybe “mega-majority.” Or, as Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon put it, “gigamajority.”

In any case, Dems now hold 75 percent of the seats in the Assembly and nearly the same portion in the Senate—the most Democrats the state Capitol has seen in decades.

Among the expected priorities? Early childhood education, wildfire costs and prevention, health care, affordable housing, programs to combat poverty and inequality, and perhaps a fresh look at California’s tax system, just for starters. Though conventional wisdom might translate more Democrats to mean more liberal governance, however, that might not be the case.

Both Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon stressed in their welcome addresses that the state’s most urgent challenges—climate-driven disasters, gaping income inequality, homelessness—demand bipartisan solutions. This Legislature also is among the most diverse in state history: As if to underscore this year’s striking influx of women, at least 36 of whom were sworn in this morning, the Secretary of the Senate, Erika Contreras, juggled a baby as she was sworn in to the chamber’s top executive staff position.

Many of the newcomers also are from the Central Valley and conservative stretches of Southern California, where Democrats swept districts previously held by the GOP.

One race remains too close to call. Assemblyman Brian Maienschein took the oath but leads his Democratic challenger Sunday Gover with just 50.2 percent of the vote.

Since Maienschein was leading as of today, the rules permitted him to be sworn in—but he will be replaced if his win turns to a loss when final votes are counted.

The new class includes 10 more women than the last. Among them are lawyers,  businesswomen and the first pair of sisters to serve in the state Legislature. Here are a few more things you should know about this new group:

  • Nine new senators and eight new Assembly members were sworn in to the 120-person Legislature, the smallest new cohort in 30 years. The small crop of newcomers is due to a change voters made to term-limit rules, allowing lawmakers to run for the same office for up to 12 years. It means more legislators to run for re-election, and creates fewer opportunities for fresh blood until those 12-year spans start to turn over.
  • It’s been a record-breaking year for women taking office at the state and federal level combined. This year’s class of state lawmakers includes 36 women, which is 10 more than the previous session—a big jump that brings the Legislature close to its 2005-06 apex for female representation, when the body included 37 women. Even so, women still comprise just 30 percent of the Legislature overall.
  • The state Senate now has 29 Democrats. It’s been 56 years since Democrats had that many and kept them throughout the session. (The tumultuous 2013-14 session started with 29 Democrats but ended with 28 because of resignations, according to legislative historian Alex Vassar.)
  • Two Democratic businesswomen were sworn-in to represent coastal So-Cal districts that have been held by Republicans for decades. Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath of Encinitas is the first Democrat to represent North San Diego County since 1978. And Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach is the first Democrat representing her district since 1980.
  • Democratic Senator-elect Anna Caballero of Salinas will be the first non-Republican lawmaker elected from Madera county since 2000. The seat was hotly contested and millions were spent on campaigns there. The flip helped Democrats win a supermajority in the state Senate.
  • Democratic Assemblyman James Ramos of San Bernardino, who was born at the San Manuel Indian Reservation, becomes the first lawmaker born on Native American tribal territory, according to the Speaker’s Office.
  • The steep losses for Republicans meant that just one freshman GOP member was sworn into the Assembly—Tyler Diep of Westminster. It’s the first time since 1958 that the Assembly’s freshman class included just one Republican.
  • Democratic Sen. Melissa Hurtado of Sanger, 30, will be the youngest woman ever elected to serve in the state Senate. She’s the youngest state Senator since 1981. Adding to the blue wave, she’s also the first Democrat to serve from Tulare County since 2010, according to Vassar.
  • With Democrat Susan Rubio sworn into the Senate, the Legislature now includes a pair of sisters for the first time in state history; Democratic Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio is her sister. (Several pairs of brothers have served over the years.) Side-note: Former Assemblyman Roger Hernandez is Susan Rubio’s ex-husband. She campaigned, in part, as a survivor of his domestic abuse, and criticized other legislators for tolerating his behavior.
  • Do you know who your lawmaker is? Check here to see if your senator or assembly member has changed.
Democrat Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, left, plays with her two-year-old daughter, Josephine Ambler, on her desk after being sworn into the California Assembly, December 3, 2018 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California.

Democrat Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, left, plays with her two-year-old daughter after being sworn in. At least 36 female lawmakers will serve in the Legislature this term. Photo for CALmatters by Max Whittaker.

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Jan. 16, 2019 6:58 pm

Progressive leader? When it comes to female lawmakers, California ties Georgia for 20th place

Web Producer/General Assignment Reporter
Democratic Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio of Baldwin Park at a press conference in Sacramento on Jan. 16. Photo by Elizabeth Castillo for CALmatters

With the 2018 election hailed as the Year of the Woman, how far has California—a state that prides itself on being on the progressive vanguard—actually come?

As CALmatters’ latest “Legislators: Just Like You?” interactive demonstrates, only three out every ten lawmakers are now women. That means not only is California far behind neighboring Nevada, which became the first state with a majority of female legislators. It lags 19 states, including its other regional neighbors Arizona, Oregon and Washington, not to mention New York and Colorado, according to the latest count by the National Conference of State Legislatures. This is true despite the fact that California reached a high-water mark in the last election for the largest number of women elected to state and federal office this century.

Notably, California is represented by powerful women in Washington D.C., including both U.S. senators and the House Speaker, as well as its first female lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, and Senate President Pro Tem, Toni Atkins. It has never, however, come close to accurately reflecting the majority of adult Californians who are female, and has never elected a female governor.

Why the gap? Political scientists have noted that women sometimes face a double-standard of judgment even from female voters, and that women typically face more obstacles raising campaign cash. But there’s another potential barrier that deters women from running and winning elected office—the need for childcare. And a bill introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda aims to lessen that barrier.

Even Bonta, when first ran for Assembly, found that a lack of childcare impacted him. “I had to miss meetings,” he said. “I had to miss important campaign events.”

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio recalled traveling to events where her departing flight left at 7 a.m. and her her returning flight at 9 p.m. She even filled in 16 different names on her children’s emergency contact forms so that a vast cadre of family and friends were authorized to pick up her kids when she was on the campaign trail.

While the law now allows candidates to spend a max of $200 per event on childcare, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s campaign manual, Bonta’s bill would eliminate that cap.

The manual currently doesn’t specify what constitutes an event, or whether parents may spend money on child care when they have flight schedules that conflict with their children’s school schedule? Bonta said the bill will create clarity.

Childcare has proven a challenge for many female candidates—among them Oakland’s new Democratic Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who has acknowledged the complications of  breastfeeding her child while running for office.

“The thing that I realize is, sometimes in order to fight for change you need a little help changing the diaper.”

Parents of young children are part of this year’s class of new lawmakers. So while the number of female lawmakers still doesn’t match the number of men, the update in campaign finance rules could be one way to close that gap.

Democrat Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, left, plays with her two-year-old daughter, Josephine Ambler, on her desk after being sworn into the California Assembly, December 3, 2018 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California.

Democrat Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, left, plays with her two-year-old daughter after being sworn in. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters

“The simple truth is that women are underrepresented at every level of government—from city councils to state Assembly to Congress,” said the bill’s co-author Democratic Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach, in a press release. “This bill removes a critical barrier and helps more women run for office and enter public service.”

Note: This comparison is based on CALmatters’ calculation of the percentage of California’s female legislators, which at 30.5 percent ranks California slightly higher for gender equity than the 29.2 percentage used by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Our percentage is based on a total of 118 California legislators instead of 120, because two seats are currently vacant and will be filled by upcoming special elections.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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Jan. 16, 2019 3:53 pm

Ex-Assemblyman Ridley-Thomas sexually harassed staffers, investigation finds

Political Reporter
Sebastian Ridley Thomas speaks with several other members of the Black Caucus.
Sebastian Ridley Thomas, December 2016. Photo by Steve Yeater for CALmatters

A California lawmaker who resigned abruptly at the end of 2017 citing health problems likely harassed at least two legislative staff members while he was in office, according to an investigation commissioned by the state Assembly.

Investigators determined that former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a Democrat who represented part of Los Angeles for four years, “more likely than not” made a sexual advance on a staff member after asking her to dinner and telling her he was obsessed with her. It’s also “more likely than not” that he repeatedly winked at another staff member and held her hand in a way that made her uncomfortable, according to records the Legislature released today.

The redacted records do not identify the victims but describe Ridley-Thomas trying to kiss the staffer he asked out to dinner:

“He walked me to my car and… he basically kissed me. He tried to put his tongue in my mouth. I could feel his erect penis on my leg. I told him I wasn’t interested,” the report says.

After that, the records say, the assemblyman continued to call and text the staffer.

Ridley-Thomas denied the allegations, releasing a statement through his attorney that criticized the Assembly’s investigation process and accused officials of breaching confidentiality.

“The amount of redaction in the documents released by the Assembly shows that most of the allegations were unsubstantiated. For those that remain, my client refuted each one point by point during the investigation and provided evidence supporting his position,” said the statement from attorney Nancy Sheehan.

“In light of how this investigation was skewed, it is difficult to have confidence in its findings. Allegations of sexual harassment are serious. The process used to investigate them and make findings needs to be careful, fair to all involved, and conducted with absolute integrity. Unfortunately, this wasn’t true in my client’s case and is therefore unacceptable.”

The Legislature is releasing the report in accordance with a change of policy ushered in by last year’s #MeToo movement striving to end sexual harassment. Even though state law says the Legislature can keep its investigations secret, the new policy calls for making investigations public in cases that substantiate complaints against elected lawmakers or high-level staff.

CALmatters is tracking records the Legislature has released since last year. Scroll to the right for a link to the original documents.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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Jan. 15, 2019 4:12 pm

About that giant, surplus-plus budget surplus

Economy Reporter
Victorious California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom greets campaign supporters as his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom looks on.
Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to use a $21.4 billion surplus for education and social services as well as paying down debt.

What would you do with a $21.4 billion windfall?

That’s essentially the question California is confronting amid record surplus projections in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first year in office.

On one hand, the former San Francisco mayor showcased his progressive agenda by setting ambitious goals for universal preschool, expanding health coverage for undocumented immigrants, and proposing the nation’s most generous paid family leave program.

On the other, Newsom made the case that he’s still being fiscally conservative by using a modest growth rate of 3.2 percent, socking billions more into the state’s rainy day fund, and paying down debt and public employee retirement liabilities.

“I think, arguably, it’s even more conservative in that respect than previous administrations,” Newsom said of his overall $209 billion state budget.

The governor’s finance department broke the $21.4 billion surplus into three buckets: roughly $3 billion for ongoing spending, $8.5 billion in one-time spending and $10 billion to build what Newsom is calling “budget resiliency.”

The initial $3 billion bucket would be used to expand ongoing services for the poor, particularly the in-home supportive services program and CalWORKS for working parents. A portion of that would be used to boost higher education to stave off a tuition hike in the UC & CSU systems, as well as fund a second year of free community college.

The second bucket of $8.5 billion would be targeted for Newsom’s ambitious push for affordable housing and to confront California’s homeless epidemic, to lay the groundwork for extending full-day kindergarten to all Californians by providing money to build or retrofit classrooms, and to provide school districts much-needed relief by contributing an extra $3 billion toward the districts’ teacher pension payments.

With the remaining $10 billion surplus, Newsom wants to pay off debts, which he says would help the state weather a potential economic downturn. Specifically, he would finish paying off Brown’s so-called $28 billion Wall of Debt that had accumulated from years of internal borrowing, undo a 9-year-old accounting trick that pushed the June state payroll into July so it looked like the state was spending less, set aside $2.3 billion for operating reserves and most significantly, make an extra $3 billion contribution to the state’s main pension fund.

So how did California wind up with an extra surplus?

Essentially the sales and income taxes passed during Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure coincided with an economic recovery. One week after Newsom won the election, the Legislative Analyst’s Office announced that state finances were in remarkably good shape, with a $14.8 billion surplus for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Newsom and his finance director, Keely Bosler, say there are two reasons the surplus grew by $6.6 billion. One comes from positive balances state accounts carried over from past years, and the other is that the Newsom administration is choosing to project less growth in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“We’re projecting more modest growth in the Medi-Cal budget, which makes sense, because we’ve seen this big ramp up on the expansion of the (Affordable Care Act) and it’s beginning to level off,” Newsom said. “That affords us the opportunity to make these historic investments and paying down debt and unfunded liabilities.”

Bosley, who also served under the Brown administration, said she was hesitant to modify assumptions about Medi-Cal caseloads and costs, but ultimately felt it remains adequate. That’s because the state has seen the number of uninsured Californians drop as the state aggressively signed people up for private insurance plans offered through Covered California while also expanding Medi-Cal coverage for the poor.

On Monday, the legislative analyst weighed in with its assessment of Newsom’s budget and commended him for paying down debt, a move it called prudent. The analyst, however, now projects the state will have a $20.6 billion surplus, nearly $1 billion less than the governor’s figure, and included a word of caution.

“The governor’s budget proposal reflects a budget situation that is even better than our estimates,” the analyst wrote. “Largely as a result of lower-than-expected spending in health and human services programs, we estimate the administration had nearly $20.6 billion in available discretionary resources to allocate. That said, recent financial market volatility poses some downside risk for revenues.”

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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After a political “Year of the Woman,” what percentage of California’s new legislature is made up of women? With Latinos a plurality of California, are they a plurality among state legislators?

Who’s over-represented compared to their share of the adult population? Who’s under-represented by the same metric?

Watch to see how these lawmakers’ demographics stack up agains the state as a whole. And then learn more and explore how many people in the Legislature match your own demographic characteristics with our story and interactive guide.

The California Legislators: Like California–or not

A new class of legislators have arrived in Sacramento. But who are they? Watch this quick video to learn about who’s making the laws for California.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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Jan. 10, 2019 7:16 pm

10 takeaways from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $209 billion budget

Economy Reporter

Political Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his proposed $209 billion budget on January 10, 2019, in Sacramento. Photo for CALmatters by Laurel Rosenhall
Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his proposed $209 billion budget on January 10, 2019, in Sacramento. Photo for CALmatters by Laurel Rosenhall

Surplus Surprise

Citing a strong economy and lower-than-projected spending on health care for the poor, California’s surplus is even bigger than expected. Newsom announced a projected increase of  $6 billion in extra revenue to $21.4 billion for the 2019-20 fiscal year. To put that latter figure into perspective, it’s more than the state spends on higher education in a year.

Overall, Newsom’s proposed budget would use fat state coffers to pay down debt, boost education and health care programs, and tackle housing and homelessness.

Pension Paydowns

Following in Jerry Brown’s footsteps, Newsom is making public employee retirement liabilities a priority. He wants to put an extra $3 billion into the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and an extra $2.9 billion over four years into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS). These payments are on top of the state’s regular pension contribution of $10 billion in the new budget.

Yes, it sounds like a lot but the state has a long way to go. Currently, California’s retirement liabilities add up to $256.5 billion, according to Newsom’s finance department.

Teacher Strike Antidotes?

In addition to the state’s share of pension payments, Newsom is offering $3 billion to help school districts meet their CalSTRS obligations. Freeing up money for pension payments could allow districts to spend more in the classroom.For Los Angeles Unified School District, it could possibly help avoid a looming teacher strike. Moments after Newsom’s presentation, the district announced it would be sending the L.A. teachers’ union a fresh proposal “to further reduce class size,” and urging state lawmakers to “provide additional funding for Los Angeles Unified.”

Beyond that, Newsom’s  education budget includes a record $80.7 billion for K-14 education and lays the building blocks for a costly early childhood education and childcare agenda. Oh, and he’s also pushing for full-day kindergarten by offering money for infrastructure, aka more kiddie toilets.

Help for College Students

College students who are raising children would qualify for a huge boost in financial aid under Newsom’s proposal. Cal Grant awards for qualifying student-parents would more than triple, up to $6,000. Newsom argues that the grants will make it more likely for students with children to complete their degrees, and thus, lift their families out of poverty.

Full-time community college students would pay no tuition for two years under Newsom’s proposal, an increase from current law that makes only the first year free. The state’s two university systems would get more money to increase enrollment and completion, and offer more services to address student hunger and mental health problems. But Newsom made clear that the money is contingent on UC and CSU maintaining existing tuition rates.

A Big Housing Push  

Newsom’s budget includes a major $1.7 billion-plus infusion of cash for affordable housing and a big stick for cities who don’t build it—a threat to take gas tax revenue for cities that don’t meet long term affordable housing goals. That’s a potent counterforce to NIMBYs who often stymie the best intentions of local officials, but, as advocates for cities immediately pointed out, it’s also an intrusion on local control.

Included in the governor’s plan, however, is a carrot—$500 million in awards to cities and counties that meet new, short-term housing goals. Other highlights include $500 million in one-time cash for local governments to house the homeless, a quintupling of cash (from $80 million to $500 million) for the financing of apartment buildings for low-income Californians, and $500 million for so-called “missing middle” housing geared towards the middle class. Affordable housing advocates say they’ve never seen this level of attention towards low-income housing in a governor’s budget, and are eager to hear more.

Firefighting Aircraft 

California wildfires are deadlier than ever so Newsom is proposing $121 million to help Cal Fire replace Vietnam War-era helicopters and operate newly acquired air tankers from the U.S. Air Force.

Credit Cards at the DMV  

Yes, it’s been decades since Americans started using credit cards. And now the DMV is finally catching up. Newsom announced that, at long last, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will accept payment by credit card. He acknowledged the absurdity, saying, “That is in the you-can’t-make-that-up file.”

DMV technology has been notoriously troubled in the last year, causing long delays for customers and a series of voter-registration snafus. Newsom’s budget proposal funds the DMV at the current level and also calls for spending $50.8 million to create an “Office of Digital Innovation” to, among other duties, work with the DMV on updating its technology.

Working Poor Tax Credits  

California created a new state tax credit three years ago, meant to put more cash in the pockets of low-income families. Newsom’s budget proposal calls for doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit, spending $1 billion to give an additional $500 credit to low-income families with children under age 6 and expanding the program to reach an additional 400,000 families. He’s calling it a “Working Families Tax Credit.”

Money to expand the tax credit would come from changes that must be made to the state tax code to conform with the federal tax overhaul pushed last year by House Republicans and President Donald Trump.

Health Care for Undocumented  

Newsom’s budget would push California toward universal health coverage by increasing health insurance subsidies for the working poor and expanding Medi-Cal to young adults regardless of their immigration status.

The state already offers Medi-Cal to undocumented children but the governor’s plan calls for $260 million to cover 138,000 young adults aged 19 to 25.

Paid Family Leave  

California is one of the few states offering a paid family leave program, but it’s only six weeks long, at partial pay, with birth mothers eligible for an additional six weeks of pregnancy disability leave. Newsom’s ambitious goal is to expand that to offer six months of paid maternity or paternity leave for parents to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.

If California can do it, it would be the most generous leave in the nation. But paying for it is another thing. The current program is funded through a 1 percent payroll tax that goes into an insurance program, but it’s all employee-paid and the fund has reserve limits. Newsom will appoint a task force to consider funding options but says there are many options, such as raising the threshold on the payroll tax on high earners.

Matt Levin and Ricardo Cano contributed to this report.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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Jan. 10, 2019 7:15 pm

Newsom wants extra pension payments as retirement liability tops $256B

Economy Reporter
Newsom’s budget also took aim at long-term pension liabilities, such as those at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Image by Carl Costa

Following Jerry Brown’s footsteps, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday he wants to make extra pension payments even as California’s retirement liabilities for state workers and teachers top $256 billion.

In unveiling his first budget, flush with a surprisingly large surplus from a robust economy, Newsom said he wants to put an extra $3 billion into the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and an extra $2.9 billion over four years into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS).

His administration estimates the extra payments would generate a savings of $7.2 billion in CalPERS over the next three decades and $7.4 billion in CalSTRS over the same period.

“That’s about building resiliency,” Newsom said about being prepared for an economic downturn.

In addition, the governor is offering $3 billion to help school districts meet their obligations, which would be used to reduce their CalSTRS payments and free up cash for the classroom.

Specifically, $2.3 billion of that money would be used to pay down school districts’ long-term unfunded liability and the remainder would be used to lower employer contribution rates over the next three years.

At Los Angeles Unified School District, the move lifted hopes of possibly avoiding a looming teacher strike.

Moments after Newsom’s presentation, the district announced it would be sending the L.A. teachers’ union a fresh proposal “to further reduce class size,” and urged state lawmakers to “provide additional funding for Los Angeles Unified.”

“Gov. Newsom is tackling the No. 1 financial dilemma that districts are facing across the state, and he’s doing it in his first budget,” said Derick Lennox with Capitol Advisors Group, which lobbies for school districts. “And by the way, it’s not sexy to prepay pension contributions, it’s just financially smart.”

Conservatives gave Newsom credit for the extra payment but noted the size of the long-term liability. California’s retirement liabilities now add up to $256.5 billion, according to Newsom’s finance department.

“That’s a great start, but hardly adequate to address the growing pension and retiree healthcare costs that state and local governments are now required to acknowledge in their (financial reports),” said state Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican from Costa Mesa.

CALmatters education reporter Ricardo Cano contributed to this report.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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Jan. 10, 2019 6:23 pm

It’s a big deal: Newsom’s housing budget, explained

Data and Housing Reporter

No wonder Gov. Gavin Newsom dropped those hints earlier this week about an upcoming “Marshall Plan” for affordable housing.

Sure, he’d made ambitious campaign promises to combat California’s housing crisis: leading the effort to build 3.5 million units over the next seven years (an unprecedented rate), jacking up state subsidies for housing reserved for lower-income Californians, and easing regulations so it would be easier to build all types of new housing. But what would he deliver?

We got the first glimpses of his plans today, as Newsom unveiled his first governor’s budget. And yeah, it’s a big deal.

For those not intimately aware of the chronology of the state’s fiscal planning process (I’m jealous of you), please remember that these are just proposals. The Legislature may tweak, change, expand or kill many of these.

Still, they give you a good idea of Newsom’s priorities to combat what he has called “the issue when it comes to California poverty.”

Here are the key takeaways from Newsom’s first major housing proposals.

Housing’s not taking a back seat to other priorities

Housing advocates frequently criticized former Gov. Jerry Brown for placing the issue on the back burner while focusing on the state’s fiscal health and other priorities like climate change.

No one will accuse Newsom of doing the same.

From major funding increases for affordable housing, to his threat to take away any city’s transportation dollars if it doesn’t meet its housing quota, Newsom’s plans match the audacious ambitions he outlined in the campaign.

“We are not playing small ball with housing,” said Newsom.

Not that his plan includes everything (more on that later), but collectively Newsom’s proposals reveal that housing and homelessness will be at the forefront of his legislative agenda, and will not take a backseat to other campaign promises such as universal health care or early childhood education. At least not yet.

No governor in recent memory has proposed this big a budget boost for housing and homelessness

It takes a lot of money to build housing reserved for lower-income Californians—roughly $330,000 per unit, by one estimate. Affordable housing and homelessness advocates have been complaining for years that they are receiving nowhere near the level of financial support they need from the state.

Newsom’s budget proposals include a major infusion of more than $2 billion in one-time and ongoing affordable housing cash. That includes:

  • $500 million in one-time cash for local governments to combat homelessness—of that $300 million will go towards regional planning, and $200 million as awards for cities that build new shelters or permanent supportive housing
  • A quintupling of ongoing cash (from $80 million to $500 million) for the state’s most important low-income housing financing tool, the low-income housing tax credit
  • $500 million in one-time cash for “moderate-income” housing production, or the so-called “missing middle” of housing for California’s middle class; Newsom said he has also urged Silicon Valley firms to match this funding
  • $25 million to get more homeless Californians on federal disability programs

“I have never seen this kind of attention paid in the budget to homelessness and affordable housing issues,” said Anya Lawler, a housing policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Just the page count alone is a little unprecedented.”

Newsom also said he would appoint a new homelessness czar in the next few days to help coordinate state, regional and local initiatives. Included in the budget is a policy tweak that would allow new homeless shelters to avoid prolonged environmental reviews—a regulatory hurdle that often holds up new housing plans.

Affordable housing advocates caution that they’re waiting to see details—especially how much will actually go towards the production of new housing.

Newsom threatened cities that aren’t building enough housing—and cities are nervous

Cities and the NIMBY homeowners who populate them are often blamed as the biggest obstacle to producing more low-income and market-rate housing.

To incentivize cities to approve more projects, Newsom has proposed $500 million in awards to cities and counties that meet new, short-term housing goals.

The housing quotas assigned to local governments are often laughably flawed. Beverly Hills, for example, met its state-mandate affordable housing target last year with three measly low-income units.

Newsom wants to revamp the whole housing-goal setting process. Statewide, the goals are are going to bigger than what they used to be.

That $500 million is the carrot, and most cities are eager to revamp the seemingly senseless way in which they’re assigned housing quotas. But along  with that carrot could be a thorny stick.

Newsom proposes taking away transportation funding—including revenue generated by the recently enacted gas tax—from cities that fail to meet longer-term housing goals.

Cities are not happy. They say much of housing production is out of their control, and dependent on market conditions and developer proclivities.

“You can’t set a goal that’s not achievable, and then penalize us with transportation dollars that aren’t there,” said Jason Rhine, assistant legislative director for the League of California Cities.

Left unmentioned: rent control, zoning reform, and that pesky ‘3.5 million units’ promise

One number that didn’t make its way into Newsom’s first budget: 3.5 million. That’s how many new homes he has pledged California will build under his watch—a number that most housing experts say is unrealistic. The Newsom administration did not publicly estimate how many new units his new proposals would generate—perhaps an indication that the new governor is distancing himself from the figure.

Also missing from the budget or the governor’s comments: any reference to rent control or stronger tenant protections, despite his earlier pledge that he would try to broker a compromise. In fairness, the budget unveiling might not be the appropriate venue to talk about that. But a source briefed on the budget said that while Newsom’s team expressed enthusiasm for legislators to take up rent control, they weren’t leading on the issue.

Newsom may be taking a wait-and-see approach on the most controversial piece of housing legislation he’ll encounter this year: an attempt to force cities to allow apartment buildings to be built around transit stops. San Francisco Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener’s second attempt at “zoning reform”—which would strip cities of their ability to block denser housing in areas previously reserved for single family homes—will need Newsom’s support to actually become law.

When asked about Wiener’s new legislation, Newsom said he hadn’t read it yet—the same response he gave to questions about last year’s bill during the campaign. But he did say he “appreciates the spirit” of the bill.


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Jan. 9, 2019 7:37 pm

Gavin Newsom wants more bathrooms for kindergartners

Economy Reporter
Students listen during their first grade class as teacher Caroline Archibald teaches their social emotinal learning lesson for the day at Redwood Shores Elementary School in Redwood City, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (John Green/Bay Area News Group)
Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s plans to expand early childhood education include a ramp-up of kindergarten classrooms—and kid-sized bathrooms to go with them. Photo by John Green/Bay Area News Group

Before Gavin Newsom can reach his audacious goal of universal preschool, California will first have to get to full-day kindergarten. And full-day kindergarten means having to build a lot more classrooms with little adjacent toilets to meet all those 5-year-olds’ bladder needs.

California is among dozens of states that don’t require full-day kindergarten, and despite recent legislative incentives, the state still pays school districts the same amount for student attendance regardless of whether they offer half-day or full-day programs. As a result, an estimated 30 percent of schools in California don’t offer full-day kindergarten.

Before California can ramp up universal preschool, the state needs to ramp up the number of kindergarten classrooms with age-appropriate bathrooms.

On Thursday the governor’s office proposed spending roughly $1.8 billion on a suite of early education initiatives. Most of that money, around $1.5 billion, would be one-time funding that takes advantage of a projected $14.8 billion surplus in the 2019-20 budget year.

Of that, Newsom wants to use $750 million to expand kindergarten facilities. This money would be aimed at expanding classrooms and infrastructure to offer full-day programs in schools where only half-day kindergarten is offered. Finance officials estimate the money is enough to build 750 new classrooms and retrofit 1,400 existing classrooms.*

Many schools split limited classroom space to provide only a choice of morning or afternoon sessions because they lack the accommodations for more students. The abbreviated school day often leaves parents scrambling for pickup in the middle of the day or coordinating a patchwork of after-school programs.

Part of the problem is that kindergarten classrooms are different from those for older grades.

“Little kids need extra space to move around in. They shouldn’t just be crammed into rows of desks,” said Hannah Melnick, an early childhood learning analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization based in Palo Alto.

“They also need age-appropriate play structures. Also, you need to have bathrooms and hand-washing stations available that are not required for older children.”

Her colleague, Beth Meloy, stresses the latter.

“It seems like a strange point to make, but the bathrooms need to be ideally connected to the classroom so that young children can respond to their physical needs rather than walk down the hall alone, which they’re too young for,” Meloy said.

A toilet in a kindergarten class.

Another factor is population growth. New research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the American Institutes for Research shows that Southern California is experiencing a decline in the number of children aged 3 and 4. However, that age group is growing in the Central Valley, where many families have moved to escape the high cost of housing. That suggests a need for more kindergarten classrooms in some parts but not all of the state.

It’s unclear how many classrooms Newsom’s proposed $750 million will cover (the governor’s budget proposal is likely to contain more details), but advocates say the plan takes a first step toward expanding full-day kindergarten by creating the foundation.

Beyond kindergarten, Newsom wants to commit another $747 million for child care training and expansion of facilities already subsidized by the state. He also will propose a three-year ramp-up for expanding pre-kindergarten programs, starting with a $125 million investment.

Advocates say the long-term benefits of high-quality preschool and early learning result in higher rates of graduation, college attendance and employment. They say young people who have had the advantage of good preschools are also less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system or require academic remediation.

What remains a big unknown is where the ongoing funding will come from to support early learning programs, once the infrastructure is constructed.

During the recession, funding for early learning programs dropped by nearing $1 billion; a quarter of child care slots were slashed between 2008 and 2013. While state spending on education has recovered, overall funding for early childhood and child care programs remains below pre-recession levels, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

As CALmatters’ education reporter Ricardo Cano noted, the pent-up demand among education advocates for early learning programs is high after ambitious proposals either stalled or failed in last year’s legislative session. One unsuccessful proposal to extend transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, SB 837, was estimated to cost as much as $2.4 billion annually.

The newly sworn state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond writes that he intends to “put the needs of the youngest Californians and their families front and center.”

And Newsom, a father of four children under age 10, spoke of his own plans to let his perspective as a parent inform his policy proposals, as CALmatters political columnist Laurel Rosenhall captured from his inauguration speech.

“It will take a lot of political will,” Meloy, the early education analyst, said. “We’re not going to be able to expand high-quality early learning overnight. It costs a lot of money.”

*Updated 1/10/2019.

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Dec. 24, 2018 6:40 pm

Jerry Brown—most forgiving governor in modern California history

Political Reporter
Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Dec. 5, 2016. Photo by Steve Yeater for CALmatters

In keeping with eight years of holiday tradition, Gov. Jerry Brown issued 143 pardons this week. The display of Christmas spirit from the former Jesuit seminarian will be his last as governor of California, capping off a record-breaking eight years that make Brown the most forgiving governor in modern California history.

In a closely watched case, he also ordered that physical evidence be tested in the 1983 murder case that led to Kevin Cooper to death row for the murder of four people in Chino Hills in 1983. Cooper’s attorneys have argued he was framed, and many, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have argued that Cooper is innocent.

Since 2011, Brown has pardoned 1,332 inmates, nearly four times more than the previous four governors combined. It’s also more than three times as many pardons as Brown issued during his first stint as governor between 1975 and 1983.

Brown’s magnanimous tendencies may be unprecedented, but they’re not out of step with common gubernatorial practice of the mid-century, when even conservative governors like Ronald Reagan restored the rights of hundreds of Californians convicted of crimes. That trend ended with Pete Wilson, who rode to the governorship on a tough-on-crime platform and persisted through Brown’s re-election in 2010.

In the years since, Brown has issued over one-hundred pardons nearly every year. And in his final two years as governor, he has ramped up the number of commutations.

That’s in keeping with Brown’s recent approach to criminal justice, in which he has spent the last two terms trying to reduce the state’s overcrowded prison population by reclassifying certain felonies as misdemeanors and diverting felons from prison to other, less-punitive institutions. In many cases, those revisions to the criminal code rollback policies that were introduced when Brown was governor in the late 1970s and early 80s.

In just this year alone, Brown has pardoned 273 people, restoring the right to serve on a jury, operate certain businesses and own a gun to those who served time in some cases decades ago. The majority of pardons were issued to those who were sentenced for drug-related offenses.

Among those who received a pardon this year:

  • Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who was convicted of violating state conflict of interest laws in 1993.
  • Roderick Wright, a former Democratic state senator who was convicted of lying about his legal residence when running for office. The pardon also clears Wright of a prior charge. In response to a petition from the First Amendment Coalition, the California Supreme Court ordered the Brown administration to publish all records related to the pardon decision by January 2.
  • At least 15 immigrants to the United States who are facing the prospect of deportation, including three refugees from Vietnam and seven from Cambodia. Felony convictions are often used as the legal basis to issue a deportation order.

Brown also issued 246 commutations this year, reducing sentences for those still in prison—in some cases making them available for parole immediately. The majority of commutations were issued to those who received lengthy sentences for murder or attempted murder.

Missing among the names in his last scheduled announcement of commutations: Napoleon Brown, brother of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, convicted of killing his girlfriend.  The mayor had asked the governor to release him, saying his 44-year sentence was excessive, and that he had turned his life around.

Among those whose sentences were commuted this year:

  • Quintin Orrin Morris, a 53-year-old who has been in prison since the early 1990s for attempted murder, despite the fact that someone else confessed to the crime after his conviction. Morris is one of 12 inmates who are clients of the California Innocence Project, a non-profit that provides legal services to those who plausibly maintain their innocence of a crime.

  • Shawn Khalifa, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under a California criminal law that allows prosecutors to charge anyone who participated in a crime resulting in someone’s death with murder, even if they didn’t commit the killing. Kahlifa was the subject of New York Times article on the state’s “felony murder rule,” which state legislators did away with earlier this year.

  • Walter “Earlonne” Woods, the co-producer of the Ear Hustle podcast which is broadcast out of San Quintin State Prison.

  • Alfredo Perez Jr. who was released from prison in 2013 after having his sentence reduced, only to be put back this year when the Supreme Court ruled that he had been released improperly.

  • David Maurice Smith, who defrauded a dozen people out of $16,000 in order to pay for drugs and was sentenced to 250 years in prison. Brown also commuted the sentence of Ardell Adams Jr., a convicted murderer. Both Smith and Adams are now suffering from terminal cancer.

The California Supreme Court denied one of the governor’s clemency requests this week. This is the seventh such denial issued from the court this year.

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Dec. 18, 2018 5:45 pm

Five remarkably candid tips from departing Gov. Jerry Brown

Political Reporter
Jerry Brown folding his arms.
Original photo by Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

Don’t hold regular press conferences. Reward loyalty. If you’re a Californian with presidential aspirations, move to New York.

Are you taking notes, Gov-elect Gavin Newsom?

In the final days of his fourth and (presumably) final term as California’s chief executive, Gov. Jerry Brown spoke at the Sacramento Press Club, offering parting, and remarkably candid, tips on how to best govern the Golden State.

The hour-long conversation in the ballroom of the Sacramento Masonic Temple was moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton and Miriam Pawel, author of the family biography, The Browns of California.

Brown, now 80, drew upon experience gleaned over 16 years as governor, plus job experience as attorney general, secretary of state, mayor of Oakland, and a three-time presidential candidate.

  • Tip Number 1: “Avoid overexposure”

Pawel asked Brown if he had learned anything from his father, Pat, who served as the state’s governor between 1959 and 1967.

“One thing I learned was not have an open-ended press conference every week,” the governor said. The reason: reporters have the nasty habit of calling you out when you contradict yourself.

“It’s hard to be consistent in the face of an ever-complex, ever-unfolding story,” he said.

Sure enough, this was Brown’s first-ever visit to the state Capitol’s reporters club since returning to Sacramento as governor in 2011. But when Skelton asked whether the governor planned on commuting the sentences of any of the 739 people on death row in California, Brown made it clear that he was not there to provide fresh fodder to the reporters in the room.

“If I said something that would give you a story,” he said. “I’m not here to make news, I’m here to enlighten.”

  • Tip Number 2: Don’t try to make everyone happy.

Ever since running for governor in 1974 on the promise to introduce an “era of limits,” Brown has cultivated a reputation as willing to buck his party’s big spending tendencies.

Apparently, there is political logic to being a budgetary tightwad.

“The idea that you’re going to make people happy and build a lot of support by doing a lot of stuff, frankly, it turns out that there’s a downside,” he said. “The more that you do, the more that people are empowered to demand that you do even more.”

  • Tip Number 3: Do try to make some people happy

As a politician known for sprinkling Latin into his speeches, Brown paid tribute to the wisdom of the phrase quid pro quo.

“In politics, you should take care of your friends,” said Brown, noting that both Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, and Rose Bird, former chief justice of the California court system, started out working for his various campaigns. “Loyalty is important. Keep the meritocracy within limits.”

But there are limits on repaying loyalty too.

“Politics is a difficult business,” he said. “You need to raise massive sums of money from people who all want something and if you give it to them directly you’ll go to jail. But if you don’t give it to them in some form, you won’t be elected to the next office.”

“So you square that circle.”

  • Tip Number 4: Don’t get distracted by ideological labels

Brown was Oakland’s mayor between 1999 and 2007. That stint taught him that just because someone claims to represent a particular viewpoint that you happen to share, that doesn’t mean that they have the best idea.

“People show up to city hall and argue for the stupidest things in the name of all good things,” he said. “Environment, labor, historic preservation, ethics, police accountability. Everybody’s got a good story.”

  • Tip Number 5: If you’re running for president, don’t do it out of California

“Nixon paved the way” for Californians running for the White House, he said. “He moved to New York.”

With so many early primary states located on the east coast and the daily news starting three hours earlier, “proximity is a key issue that works against Californians.” That could change in 2020. Last year, California legislators voted to bump up the 2020 state primary to March 3rd.

Brown tackled other topics, all the while honoring his pledge not to say anything too newsworthy.

On the state’s high-speed rail, he assured Skelton that it will be built. “I think at our age we shouldn’t be driving,” he said.

On the recent court ruling out of Texas, which declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare to be unconstitutional, Brown said that he was “not really worried about it,” confident that the ruling will be overturned. And if it isn’t, there will be electoral hell to pay for the Republicans, he said, allowing Democrats to replace Obamacare with “something even better.”

On his imminent departure from elected office, he said that he will miss the constant activity that comes with the job.

“I like sparring with the press, I like raising money, I like attacking my opponents, I like being attacked by my opponents,” he said.

But come January 7, he will be giving that all up and heading up to his ranch in Colusa County, where he said he’ll have to deal with “real rattlesnakes.”

Think you know Jerry Brown? Take the CALmatters quiz and find out.

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