A landmark California environmental justice law was supposed to clean the air in 15 key communities, but it’s hard to say if it’s worked.
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“It’s one thing to say, it’s another to do.”
That was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent assessment of a proposal to create a state-funded single-payer health care system, which faces a do-or-die vote today in the state Assembly along with a host of other controversial bills.
But it also points to a larger, more fundamental challenge at all levels of government: Once you pass a law or create a program, how do you successfully implement it and ensure that it executes on its stated goals? As Newsom put it in June 2020, as protests swept the country following George Floyd’s murder: “Program-passing is not problem-solving.”
The difficulty inherent in translating a law’s aspirational language into reality is evident in this stunning project from CalMatters’ Rachel Becker, which examines how one of California’s landmark environmental justice laws is playing out more than four years after it was passed.
Some of her key findings:
- The law — which was hailed as “unprecedented,” “groundbreaking,” and “a catalyst to change the way we work with communities” — was supposed to clear the air for low-income communities of color that bear the brunt of California’s air pollution.
- But, after more than four years and more than $1 billion in state funds, it’s impossible to say whether the program has improved the smoggy and toxic air that almost 4 million people breathe in 15 communities.
- And, although the law aimed to give community activists and residents a greater role in complex regulatory processes, decisionmaking rests with whom it always has: state and local air regulators.
“This was like a beautiful thing that was going to bring us something into our communities to protect them from cap and trade, and try to get the community involved,” said Magali Sanchez-Hall, a Wilmington resident and environmental activist. “That’s not what I have experienced, at all.”
“I think the intention of the legislation was good,” said Dillon Delvo, co-founder of Little Manila Rising, a historic preservation organization turned environmental justice group in South Stockton.
- Delvo: “But once it comes into the hands of whatever local agency is controlling it, they control the outcome of it.”
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Other stories you should know
1. Legal cannabis industry on the brink
Another landmark California initiative that seems to be falling short of its ambitious goals: legalizing marijuana for recreational use. More than five years after California voters approved Prop. 64 — a measure championed by then-lieutenant governor Newsom as an opportunity to empower communities of color disproportionately ravaged by the War on Drugs — the legal cannabis industry says it’s on the brink of collapse from overtaxation, overregulation and an inability to compete with the illicit market. Farmers, dispensary owners and other advocates want Newsom to rescue an industry that they feel he has largely abandoned — but, as CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports, the governor’s top cannabis advisor says solutions aren’t so simple.
- Michael “Mikey” Steinmetz, co-founder of Flow Cannabis Co.: “He championed our message and he rode our coattails all the way to the top. We feel that he has turned his back in some capacity.”
- Nicole Elliott, director of the state Department of Cannabis Control: “It is an oversimplification to say that tax reduction will solve all of the industry’s problems.”
Other gaps between the state’s cannabis goals and reality: social equity programs that are taking years to get off the ground, tens of thousands of marijuana-related convictions that haven’t been cleared, and state and federal law enforcement allegedly illegally seizing cash from licensed dispensaries.
2. EDD getting new director
California’s beleaguered unemployment department is getting its third director in two years. Newsom on Friday tapped Nancy Farias, the Employment Development Department’s chief deputy director of external affairs, legislation and policy, to replace Rita Saenz, who is stepping down as EDD’s chief executive about a year after Newsom appointed her to the position. Saenz herself replaced Sharon Hilliard, who assumed leadership of EDD right before the pandemic hit and retired less than a year later.
- The leadership change comes as EDD, which has acknowledged paying at least $20 billion in fraudulent claims amid the pandemic, attempts to crack down on a torrent of scam disability insurance claims, verify the identity of 1.4 million recipients of pandemic jobless benefits, implement key reforms recommended by the state auditor and investigate fraudulent cases. “It has been very hard for us to bring on investigators,” EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy told the San Diego-Union Tribune.
- Saenz: “I am proud of the many reforms and new programs EDD put in place during the last year, and Nancy Farias has the energy and direct experience to keep this positive momentum going.”
- Assemblymember Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican: “The governor needs to put someone in charge of the EDD with the guts to make the necessary changes. He can expect more of the same from this rudderless and outdated department.”
Also Friday, Newsom, whose own communications team has seen a fair amount of turnover in the past few years, named as his senior advisor for communications Anthony York, former vice president of strategic communications at the California Medical Association. Acting Communications Director Erin Mellon was named communications director for the office of the governor.
3. Find your new districts!
The June primary is quickly approaching — which means it’s time to identify your congressional, state Assembly and state Senate districts in the new election maps drawn by California’s independent redistricting commission. Luckily, CalMatters’ Jeremia Kimmelman put together this one-of-a-kind tool to help you figure it out: Simply enter your address, and you’ll see your old and new districts, a breakdown of voter party registration and your current representatives.
Speaking of elected officials, CalMatters’ updated Glass House Legislator Tracker now includes campaign finance details — so you can see which special interest groups are donating to your representatives in the state Assembly and Senate and how much they’re giving. Something to consider: Do those donations seem to line up with how your representatives vote on certain issues? You can also use the tracker to see how liberal or conservative your legislators are, which committees they serve on, and which lawmakers work on issues you care about.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: With Newsom a shoo-in for re-election, the two statewide races to watch this year are attorney general and insurance commissioner.
A new model for mental health: California must develop a statewide, racially equitable, alternative response system for people experiencing mental health crises, argue Ruqayya Ahmad of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and Asantewaa Boykin of the Anti-Police-Terror Project.
Fighting environmental racism: New approaches to youth engagement and education are key to achieving environmental justice in communities of color, writes Kimi Waite, a 2019 Environmental Education 30 Under 30 awardee.
Other things worth your time
California would make kindergarten mandatory under new bill. // Mercury News
Facing public records suit, state insurance chief drops plans to auto-delete emails. // San Diego Union-Tribune
What a surprising YIMBY endorsement says about San Francisco’s housing crisis. // San Francisco Chronicle
Fire that damaged California politicians’ home was arson, authorities conclude. // NBC News
In California, big bucks for ballot measure signatures. // Los Angeles Times
Buscaino: Dock officials’ pay if homelessness progress lags. // Los Angeles Times
Sacramento has housing vouchers; many are still homeless. // Sacramento Bee
‘The baton has been passed’: Newsom, local leaders could make or break federal infrastructure bill. // San Francisco Chronicle
California bottle deposit program sitting on at least $100 million more than it told lawmakers. // San Francisco Chronicle
Scores of guns stolen from trains cause more problems in LA. // Los Angeles Times
California colleges struggle to recruit therapists for students in crisis. // Kaiser Health News
Ninth Circuit upholds California’s net neutrality law. // Courthouse News
Editorial: Lawyers shouldn’t fight innovative proposals for more affordable legal assistance. // Los Angeles Times
How the coalition to stop Fountain Wind overcame partisan divides. // Shasta Scout
Why are so many San Franciscans moving to Montana? // San Francisco Chronicle
California to pay for wildfire retrofits up to $40,000 per home, starting with rural San Diego. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Worried about wildfires, city council limits ADUs in Berkeley Hills. // Berkeleyside
Among Winter Olympic cities, Tahoe will soon be too warm to host games. // Mercury News
Ex-California Secretary of Education Gary Hart dies at 78. // Associated Press
See you tomorrow.
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