Fighting for air, saving the Amazon, Trump judges, an ethnic studies do-over, and ‘public charge’

Good morning, California.

The University of California will stand with its international students “no matter where they were born—and protect them in any way we can from the unpredictable actions of this administration.”—John A. Pérez, chairman of the UC Board of Regents, to The New York Times. He was responding to reports that the Trump administration canceled visas to students from Iran pursuing graduate studies at UC.

A fight for California’s air

Downtown Los Angeles, August 2019

California is leading 22 other states, plus the cities of Los Angeles, New York and Washington, in a suit challenging the Trump administration’s effort to strip the state’s authority over its own air.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

  • California began regulating vehicle emissions in 1959, when Democrat Pat Brown was governor. 
  • California obtained its first waiver of federal preemption when Republican Ronald Reagan was governor in 1968.
  • California adopted its zero-emission vehicle standards in 1990 when Republican George Deukmejian was governor.
  • The Legislature directed the California Air Resources Board to reduce greenhouse gas in 2002, when Democrat Gray Davis was governor. His Republican replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger, defended the standards.

The suit notes that California’s standard would eliminate 14.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2025—twice that if states that follow California’s lead are allowed to continue to do so. It’d also save motorists money by increasing fuel efficiency.

  • The L.A. Times quoted Chao: “We will not let political agendas in a single state be forced on the other 49.”
  • The New York Times quoted California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols: “This is the fight of a lifetime for us. I believe we will win.”

Meanwhile: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation requiring that trucks get regular smog checks.

  • Bill Magavern, of the Coalition for Clean Air: “This is the biggest air quality bill of this year. … Diesel trucks are the single biggest source of air pollution in California.”

Reaching to save the Amazon

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols

As the Trump administration tries to curb California’s authority over its air, the California Air Resources Board approved a plan that seeks to give the state some leverage over deforestation in the Amazon.

In its Tropical Forest Standard, approved last week, the air resource board would create an international payment system by which California polluters could emit greenhouse gas here if they take steps to reduce deforestation in other countries.

The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols: “Today we have an opportunity to help change the destructive status quo, providing an alternative that flips the economy that has led to wholesale clearing of tropical forests.”

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Fremont Democrat, opposed the step, writing that “there is no shortage of additional investments” California could make to reduce emissions in California. 

  • The state also could ban imports of products derived from deforested land, he wrote.

The Environmental Defense Fund supported the plan. Some other environmentalists argued that allowing corporations to buy carbon offsets in the cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions internationally would let them off the hook for polluting local communities. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom did not offer a public opinion. But one of his appointees, San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, voted against it.

TBD: How California Air Resources Board investigators will enforce standards in the Amazon or other tropical forests.

What immigrants fear

A food bank hosts a CalFresh sign up table at a low-income health clinic in Contra Costa County.
An applicant signs up for food stamps, known as CalFresh in California.

A Trump administration change in the “public charge” rule is sowing confusion and fear among immigrants, causing many Californians to abandon programs they need for fear of retaliation from immigration authorities.

More than 2 million Californians could be affected, The Mercury News’ Erica Hellerstein reports, as part of The California Divide, a CalMatters collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity.

Currently, green card applicants must prove they will not be a financial burden, or a “public charge,” on the United States, by using cash welfare programs or publicly funded institutional care. 

Trump’s proposal would expand the public charge definition to include Medicaid, food stamps and rent-subsidy vouchers. 

Refugees and asylees are exempted from the policy, as are the food stamps that immigrants get for children who are citizens. But many immigrants who are not subject to the rule are feeling the chilling effect, with some withdrawing from social services unnecessarily.

  • Claribel Chavez, an outreach worker for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, told Hellerstein why people resist signing up for food stamps: “They say, ‘We would rather struggle than put our name into the system.’ It’s getting bad.”

The rule will take effect in mid-October if it survives legal challenges by various groups and states, including California.

Reshaping the 9th Circuit

U.S. Court of Appeals, San Francisco

Having already placed 150 judges on the federal courts nationally, President Trump on Friday nominated an adviser to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to serve on the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris quickly criticized Trump’s nomination of Patrick Bumatay—though the Republican-controlled Senate has ultimate control.

  • Feinstein said he has “no judicial experience.”
  • Harris called Bumatay a “highly flawed nominee” who has “drawn criticism from members of California’s legal community, across party lines.”

Bumatay would be Trump’s eighth judge on the 9th Circuit, which handles appeals in nine Western states, including California. Altogether, Democratic presidents have placed 16 judges on the 9th Circuit, and Republican presidents have placed a dozen on the court.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement earlier this month commemorating the 150th Trump judge, calling the achievement “a ‘Judicial Renaissance’ Of ‘Dozens Of Constitutionalist Judges [Who] Will Influence The Direction Of The Law For A Generation.”

On this, McConnell and Feinstein agree. 

Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement last year:

  • “Many of these circuit court nominees are outside the mainstream, in their 40s or have little or no relevant experience. This is a clear strategy to reshape our courts for decades.”

Ethnic studies do-over

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, July 2019

After a draft of an ethnic studies plan was widely panned, California policymakers and educators are refocusing on revising course material, CalMatters’ Elizabeth Castillo reports.

The curriculum was scheduled to be put in place in the coming school year, and would be a requirement for high school graduation. But Gov. Gavin Newsom promised the draft—viewed as anti-Semitic and laden with politically correct jargon—”would never see the light of day.” 

Newsom likely will sign Assembly Bill 114, which extends the deadline for a statewide ethnic studies curriculum.

  • Linda Darling-Hammond, the Newsom-appointed president of the state Board of Education, wrote in a commentary for Edsource: “We must arrive at a curriculum that meets the many aspirations policymakers, educators and students have for it and fully aligns with California’s values of inclusivity, empathy, accuracy and honesty.”

At a California Department of Education public meeting on Friday, Armenian, Hindu and Punjabi representatives voiced concern that the curriculum omitted their communities’ struggles, The Sacramento Bee reported.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond appointed Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat, to serve on the panel overseeing the effort. Weber, a former San Diego State professor, taught Africana Studies and has helped establish ethnic studies curriculum.

Weber has emerged as an influential voice in the Legislature, delivering legislation this year intended to curb police use of force.

Tensions in vaccine bill fight

Protesters sit in front of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

Pulling back the curtain on the fight over the year’s most contentious legislation, The Los Angeles Times cited “missteps” by the governor’s office in its handling of the bill to crack down on bogus medical exemptions for parents who don’t want their kids to be vaccinated.

The report by Melody Gutierrez, Taryn Luna and John Myers reported an effort by opponents of the bill to sway the governor by lobbying First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

Speaker Anthony Rendon said his house felt “blindsided” by a Newsom tweet late in the process calling for changes to the legislation. Unnamed legislators “questioned his absence from the negotiating table” and why he failed to engage with the bill’s author, Sen. Richard Pan, Sacramento Democrat.

Newsom signed the legislation shortly after it reached him. At a recent press conference, he “seemed irritated” by questions over the vaccine bill, “including whether anyone in his family has vaccine exemptions.”

  • “Nope,” he said.

‘The Deciders:’ Lorena Gonzalez

Gavin Newsom signs worker classification bill, AB 5.
Gov. Gavin Newsom hands Lorena Gonzalez a signed copy of her Assembly Bill 5.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, one of the most influential and active lawmakers, is the subject of our new video series, “The Deciders.”

  • Gonzalez tells CalMatters reporter Laurel Rosenhall: “My allegiance is to workers.”

She’s the daughter of an immigrant, and a Stanford University-Georgetown-UCLA educated lawyer, who shepherded Assembly Bill 5 into law this year, defining when corporations must classify workers as employees.

Gonzalez chairs the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee and is running for Secretary of State in 2022. CalMatters video team leader Byrhonda Lyons put together the video. To watch it, please click here.

Commentary at CalMatters

Jerry Butkiewicz, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board member: Threats to our quality of life are very real. Clean air, clean water, the Endangered Species Act and worker health and safety are important values worth preserving. We must work together to protect California from the damaging actions of the Trump administration. That’s why SB 1 is so important. 

Dan Walters, CalMatters: Is there a tipping point at which California’s negative factors cause the state to decline?

Please email or call me with tips, suggestions and insights, [email protected], 916.201.6281. Thanks for reading, please tell a friend and sign up here.

See you tomorrow.

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