Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

I’m CalMatters politics reporter Yue Stella Yu subbing for Lynn.

Most of us can now insert, swipe or tap our bank-issued credit or debit card. 

But for Electronic Benefits Transfer card users — in California and across the nation — they can only swipe the cards to access benefits.

Without a security chip, experts say the method is risky. And roughly $10 million a month has been stolen in public benefits this year, reports CalMatters’ Jeanne Kuang

There are few statewide policies protecting theft victims, and state agencies missed chances to stop fraud in its tracks. 

In 2020, the state planned to dedicate investigators to EBT thefts. Then the COVID pandemic happened. The state killed a $565,000 plan to step up EBT theft investigations. It didn’t revive the plan until April 2022.

Meanwhile, theft soared and taxpayers shouldered the cost, paying $87 million between July 2021 and this March in reimbursements to theft victims.

One of them is Guadalupe Rosales, a single mother of three in El Monte who relies on CalWorks, the state’s cash assistance program for poor families. Someone stole $1,300 from her account, and while she received reimbursements, her bills were overdue.

  • Rosales: “I feel like I’m in more debt than I was.”

Law enforcement officials and advocates have complained about the lack of security improvements from the state. Glenn Allen, legislative and policy chairman of the California Welfare Fraud Investigators Association, said the state told his group in 2018 adding chip cards would be too expensive. 

  • Allen: “We told them, ‘You need to chip the cards now.’” 

Finally, this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration committed to adding security chips to the benefit cards and allocated $50 million. But the chip card upgrades won’t happen for at least another six months. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services plans to launch a mobile app to allow recipients to freeze their accounts upon suspicious activity, and local governments are designating more personnel to reimbursement requests. Read more about what the state did and didn’t do in Jeanne’s investigation.

An important reminder: This fraud is different from the more publicized scams that hit the state Employment Development Department, the subject of a new CalMatters investigative series.

CalMatters commentary is now California Voices, with its first issue page focusing on homelessness. Give it a look. Editor Yousef Baig will be hosting a virtual event 11 a.m. to noon on Nov. 14 on how to pitch a commentary piece. Register here.

Cal State faculty are ‘strike-ready’

Members of Teamsters, CSUEU, UAW 4123, and CFA Faculty gathered to ask for fair wages outside the CSU Chancellor’s office in Long Beach on May 23, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Members of several unions including the California Faculty Association protested for wage increases outside the CSU Chancellor’s office in Long Beach on May 23, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

The hot labor summer in California is stretching into hot labor fall, on Cal State campuses in particular.

Dressed in red California Faculty Association T-shirts, the union’s members rallied Tuesday at the California State University board of trustees meeting in Long Beach to demand a fair contract.

The rally was to show the trustees that the faculty members are “strike ready,” the California Faculty Association posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

More than 95% of its union members across 23 California State University campuses voted to support a strike. That means as many as 29,000 instructors who teach 400,000-plus students in the nation’s largest public four-year university system could walk off their posts until a deal is struck. 

Attending the rally in support: California Labor Federation Chief Officer Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and Tony Thurmond, a gubernatorial candidate in 2026 and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

  • Fletcher, in a social media post: “They don’t want to strike… but they will.” 

Also in attendance were members of Teamsters Local 2010, which represents skilled trade workers in various sectors, including 1,100 workers at California State University. The union announced Monday the university’s maintenance workers will go on strike on Nov. 14 across 22 campuses to protest the university’s “bad faith bargaining and multiple violations of labor law.”

Cal State recently proposed a 5% salary increase dated back to July 1 as well as a step-based raise system by October 2024, but the union has called it “inadequate,” The Sacramento Bee reported.

In response, a university spokesperson said the strike would not be lawful.

  • University spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith told The Bee: “Should a strike take place, all CSU universities will remain open and have contingency plans in place to maintain full university operations with as minimal disruption as possible for students, faculty, staff, and visitors to our campuses.”

Can CA fix rising fire insurance costs?

Donna Yutzy outside her home in Magalia on Nov. 4, 2023. Photo by Manuel Orbegozo for CalMatters

How much would you pay to insure your home in case it burns down in a wildfire?

The Smithlines, a retired couple in Placer County, decided they just won’t anymore — after their premiums spiked to $6,000 this year from $1,800 in 2020. 

That’s a choice they can make because their home is fully paid off. But for homeowners who still have a mortgage, living without fire insurance isn’t an option and they’re not yet seeing the relief from state efforts to address the crisis, reports CalMatters’ Levi Sumagaysay.

As carriers leave the state amid more and more frequent wildfires, more homeowners are turning to the state-regulated FAIR Plan as a last resort, which offers more expensive policies to those who can’t find traditional insurance. 

After the Legislature failed to reach an 11th-hour deal, the California Department of Insurance is developing policies to help alleviate the problem

Insurers and consumer groups say new regulations may not take effect until 2026, but the department disagreed. Michael Soller, spokesperson for Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, said the department is moving “at the speed of good policy.”

  • Soller: “We’re going to be judged by the impact we have over the long term. There’s no magic solution to this.”

The department’s proposal appears to give insurers what they want as long as they provide enough coverage in wildfire-prone areas, among other things. In response, one consumer group has slammed it as “deregulation” efforts that would not benefit homeowners.

Some homeowners hope insurers can factor in community efforts in reducing wildfire risks when setting the premiums.

  • Donna Yutzy, a homeowner in Magalia in Butte County: “Take a look at what the communities are doing generally in terms of fuel reduction and wildfire mitigation. We have so many things going on that insurers should be looking at.”

Read more on this issue in Levi’s story.

Newsom’s approval takes a tumble

Gov. Gavin Newsom during a press conference where he signed new gun legislation into law at the Capitol Annex in Sacramento on Sept. 26, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Maybe all his gallivanting around the country and getting involved in national politics is starting to hurt Gov. Gavin Newsom in his home state. That’s definitely one way to look at a new poll that gives the governor his lowest job approval in his nearly five years in office. 

In the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey out Tuesday, 49% of voters disapprove of his job performance while 44% approve. Among no party preference voters, his approval is even worse, at 37%. In only one other institute poll, in January 2021, were his disapproval numbers higher than his approval rating, which dropped 11 percentage points from 55% in February.  

Since then, Newsom has traveled to Republican states to rally Democrats, launched an effort to change the U.S. constitution for gun control, played Democratic attack dog at the GOP presidential debate in September and agreed to a Nov. 30 TV debate with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Newsom continually bashes Republicans in public statements and on social media. And, oh, there are those pesky, persistent rumors that he’s running for president.  

At the same time, voters continue to be concerned about crime, homelessness and other issues closer to home that Newsom and the Legislature are trying to address.

  • Eric Schickler, poll co-director, in a statement: “The dip in Newsom’s approval suggests that many Californians are concerned with how things are going in the state, which may give the governor less leeway to fully engage on the national stage.”

A spokesperson for Newsom pointed the Los Angeles Times, which co-sponsored the poll, to another recent survey that put the governor’s approval rating at 56% among likely voters. Among only likely voters in this new poll, 48% approved.

And it’s not all bad news for Newsom in the survey:

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California hasn’t had a really competitive U.S. Senate race for many years. That’s changing in 2024.

CalMatters contributor Julie Lynem: My son’s decision to retake algebra is forcing second thoughts about California’s controversial new math curriculum.

Other things worth your time:

Some stories may require a subscription to read.

Ventura County man dies after altercation at Israel-Hamas protest // Los Angeles Times

Can Steve Garvey unite CA Republicans in his bid for US Senate? // KQED

Super PAC backing Barbara Lee for Senate launches $1M ad buy // San Francisco Chronicle

Despite DUI arrest, Wendy Carrillo declares candidacy for LA City Council // Daily News

A love-hate letter to alfalfa, a CA crop that uses lots of water // Voice of San Diego

So long drought, hello El Niño: CA weather whiplash // Los Angeles Times

CDC to expand surveillance at LAX, SFO of respiratory viruses // Reuters

CA flavored tobacco ban leads to increase in online searches // Sacramento Bee

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Yue Stella Yu (pronounced Yu-eh Stella Yu) is a politics and campaign reporter for CalMatters. She previously covered state politics for Bridge Michigan, where she focused on gun and labor policies, money...