Lawmakers plan to focus on California fentanyl crisis
What could have been a dramatic showdown Thursday, orchestrated by Republican legislators demanding action on bills addressing California’s fentanyl crisis, was ultimately avoided with a deal for a special hearing next week.
Let’s back up a moment: In March, the chairperson of the Assembly public safety committee, Los Angeles Democrat Reggie Jones-Sawyer, announced that the committee would put a hold on all fentanyl-related measures. At the time, he cited “duplicative efforts” and “temporary solutions” that provided no “rational solutions at all.”
That move put several bills to increase penalties or expand treatment— authored by Republicans but also some Democrats — in limbo, and weeks ticked by with no clear timeline of when they would be reconsidered again. To put pressure on the committee, Republican legislators and district attorneys, joined by residents whose family members died from fentanyl overdoses, held a rally on Tuesday near the state Capitol.
On Wednesday — the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom made a surprise visit to San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to discuss the fentanyl crisis with Attorney General Rob Bonta and Mayor London Breed — Republicans announced they would move to withdraw five fentanyl measures from the committee and try to force votes Thursday on the Assembly floor. Four of the five are authored by Democrats, including one that would enhance sentencing for fentanyl-related deaths from San Diego Assemblymember Brian Maienschein. (In March, he publicly expressed disappointment with the move by Jones-Sawyer.)
Thursday, just before the floor session, legislators avoided the floor fight by agreeing to debate the five bills, plus a sixth one, at a special committee hearing on April 27. Republicans considered it a big win, and a few Democrats reacted in favor.
- Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher of Chico, in a statement: “I’m glad my Democratic colleagues finally recognized that a months-long delay in addressing the fentanyl crisis is not acceptable…. We’re making progress, but we will not rest until this poison is out of our communities and the killing spree ends.”
- Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, an Irvine Democrat, in a statement: “My colleagues and I are working to treat this crisis with the urgency it requires. These bills deserve a hearing so that they may continue to proceed along the legislative process.”
In response, Jones-Sawyer said that because there wasn’t initially “enough time to properly discuss this crisis,” he wanted to hold a hearing later.
- Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer, in an emailed statement to CalMatters: “I wanted to… ensure we could have more stakeholders in the room and give space to allow victims’ families sufficient time to be heard beyond the boundaries of the customary bill hearing. This is exactly what I will do…. I look forward to our public hearing on fentanyl so that we as a legislative body can learn from experts and craft policies that protect Californians and properly punish suppliers.”
Update: Today, Newsom announced a partnership with San Francisco to send reinforcements from the California Highway Patrol and National Guard to help the city with its fentanyl crisis.
A reminder of why this is a big deal: In 2021, 5,722 people in California died from overdosing on fentanyl, including 224 who were 15 to 19 years old, according to the California Department of Public Health.
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1 Labor nominee Su on the hot seat
From CalMatters investigative reporter Lauren Hepler:
A bitter, long-brewing battle over whether to promote former California labor chief Julie Su to U.S. Secretary of Labor will drag on for at least another week.
On Thursday, a two-and-a-half-hour Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing that pitted business-aligned Republicans against more worker-focused Democrats failed to yield a vote on Su’s February nomination by President Joe Biden. A second hearing is now set for April 26, when Democrats facing intra-party discord hope that Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California will be back in Washington after being hospitalized for shingles.
In months of back-and-forth between business attack ads and union displays of support leading up to Thursday’s hearing, Su’s nomination has been framed as a referendum on whether to take high-profile California labor policies national. Chief among them: the contentious gig worker law, wage theft crackdowns and the state’s response to an estimated $20 billion to $32 billion in California pandemic unemployment benefits siphoned off by fraudsters. California Republicans have been vocal in their criticism of Su.
Su, who is already acting head of the Department of Labor after the departure of former secretary Marty Walsh last month, defended her record and pointed to courts and lawmakers that also played a role in administering those same systems. She instead attempted to broaden her appeal by touting the nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic during her two-year tenure as U.S. deputy labor secretary, plus her personal experience ascending the political ranks from a working class immigrant family.
“The president called me the American dream,” Su said in her opening statement. “My parents believed in it, I benefited from it, and I want to do my part to make sure it is a reality for workers across the nation.”
Ahead of next week’s hearing and expected vote on Su’s nomination, senators signaled that the partisan sparring is likely to continue:
- Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican: “Under your lead, unemployment insurance payments in California of some $31 billion went to people who were basically receiving money on a criminal basis, illegally receiving money from the federal government. Thirty one billion. That’s about as much as we provided in military aid to Ukraine. That’s almost twice the total budget of the Department of Labor.”
- Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat: “Sometimes it happens that big business lobbyists decide, collectively, that they are going to flex their muscle and try to defeat a highly-qualified candidate. And often, those attacks have very little connection to the actual person and their record. In fact, they are about politics and money. I think that this is one of those situations.”
2 CSU-community college turf war intensifies
A dispute between a rural community college and Cal Poly Humboldt over who has the right to offer a bachelor’s program has reached such depths that two California legislators are stepping in… with a strongly-worded letter. (I mean, it’s still politics, after all.)
As CalMatters’ community college reporter Adam Echelman explains, historically the California higher education system works like this: The University of California awards doctorate degrees, the UC and California State University award bachelor’s degrees and community colleges offer vocational training and associate degrees that students can utilize to transfer to UCs or CSUs.
But in 2021, a new law allowed the Community College Chancellor’s Office to establish as many as 30 new bachelor programs every year at any of its 116 colleges, as long as they weren’t “duplicative” of any existing programs at state universities.
Enter: Feather River College, a 1,300-student community college located in rural Plumas County, an area threatened by wildfires. It wants to award bachelor’s degrees in fire management, but Cal Poly Humboldt, 270 miles away, says that program duplicates its yet-to-be-created bachelor’s program.
It’s emblematic of a broader concern state universities have that community colleges — armed with new bachelor’s programs — will siphon away students and their tuition money.
Senate education committee Chairperson Josh Newman, a Brea Democrat, and Assembly higher education Chairperson Mike Fong, a Monterey Park Democrat, fired off a letter on Tuesday to the community college system to “strongly urge” it to pause applications for new bachelor’s programs.
- Newman and Fong, in the letter: “Collaboration and coordination among California’s higher education segments is crucial for the success of California students and the state.”
But so far, the community colleges aren’t backing down on Feather River’s program, though interim Chancellor Lizette Navarette said her office would “of course want to work with the Legislature.”
3 More water to flow to homes and farms
This would be the silver lining from the destructive series of winter storms that slammed California:
With reservoirs filling up and the Sierra snowpack starting to melt, the state announced Thursday that it will deliver 100% of requested allocations from the State Water Project, the highest level since 2006.
That covers supplies for 29 public water agencies serving 27 million Californians and irrigating 750,000 acres of farmland. The state is also sending an additional 5% to specific regions to replenish groundwater.
- Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a statement: “California is moving and storing as much water as possible to meet the state’s needs, reduce the risk of flooding, and protect our communities, agriculture, and the environment.”
As the rain kept falling, the allocation jumped from 30% of requests in January to 75% in March and now to 100%.
In another sign of the improving water situation, a new federal report estimates that the near-record snowpack in the Colorado River basin could raise the level of Lake Mead by more than 30 feet and of Lake Powell by more than 50 feet by the end of 2023. Both lakes are key water sources for California, as well as Arizona and Nevada. The states are tussling over reduced water allocations from the Colorado River.
California’s water crisis, explained: Despite the atmospheric rivers and devastating floods, the state isn’t flush with water. CalMatters has a detailed look at how California might increase its water supply, and a dashboard tracking the state’s water situation.
Now we have a version of the water explainer especially made for libraries and community groups, as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative, which already has segments on state government and wage theft. And you can submit questions in English, or Spanish.
CalMatters columnist Jim Newton: Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who died Wednesday, ran unsuccessfully for governor. Here’s what that 2002 campaign revealed about California.
CalMatters held a contest for students to write opinion pieces about Earth Day.
First place: How will California protect Humboldt Bay from sea level rise, asks Bella Tarlton, a junior at Six Rivers Charter High School who lives in Eureka.
Here are excerpts from some of the 120-plus submissions. And read more from our engagement team about the contest.
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