A $5 billion ask for California public transit

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La April 25, 2023
Presented by American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and New California Coalition

A $5 billion ask for California public transit

From CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal

Now we know the price tag to keep California public transit agencies from going over a “fiscal cliff” — $5.15 billion over five years.

As part of a budget proposal being unveiled today in the state Senate, transit agency officials and their supporters in the Legislature are seeking “bridge funding” for transit systems throughout the state, some of whom are struggling to recover ridership after the pandemic. 

The proposal is being championed by Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, who said that without the state cash, BART and other big-city transit systems will have to make drastic service cuts.

The California Transit Association, which says the plan was created by 15 member agencies, says the $5.15 billion over five years for transit operations can come from a mix of funding sources that already support transit:

  • $1.35 billion additional funds from the diesel fuel tax;
  • $2.5 billion from unallocated cap-and-trade revenue;
  • $300 million from transit development projects;
  • $1 billion from future funding for operations.

The association and Wiener’s office say the budget request will only require a $213 million reduction to General Fund revenue in the next fiscal year, and pledged to address safety and cleanliness concerns and to continue work on accountability.

  • Michael Pimentel, transit association executive director: “We recognized the importance of putting forward a request that could enjoy broad-based buy-in not only from the transit agencies, but we hope also by the Legislature and the administration.”

Wiener, meanwhile, said that the bridge funding would help transit agencies preserve services until the dust settles “more significantly” from declining ridership and changing commuting patterns during COVID-19.

  • Wiener: “As we look over the next few years at what adjustments need to be made, let’s do that from a position of fiscal strength and not fiscal chaos.” 

Meanwhile on Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the award of $690 million to 28 public transit projects in disadvantaged communities, part of a multi-year, multi-billion investment to expand service and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

There isn’t a transit caucus yet in the Legislature. But there are 16 official ones, besides the party caucuses. Whether they are identity- or interest-based, Sameea dives into the underappreciated influence of these caucuses, which can help decide what bills are prioritized and passed. Other takeaways:

  • Reasons why lawmakers join caucuses vary. Caucuses help them form relationships, decide what issues are important, workshop ideas or adopt different policy approaches.
  • Bipartisan caucuses can offer Republican legislators, who are outnumbered in the Legislature, another avenue of influence and the opportunity to remain politically relevant. For Democrats, these caucuses can help their brand when courting more moderate voters.
  • Caucuses typically have nonprofit arms and donations to these are unlimited. In 2022, the second biggest sponsor of legislators’ travel was the Legislative Jewish Caucus, which spent about $231,000 to take 14 legislators to Israel. 
  • Caucuses help members grow their ranks. The California Legislative Black Caucus has a leadership training program to increase state government representation.

CalMatters covers the Capitol: CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.  


1 Pay raise for CA healthcare workers?

A medical personnel working on her computer in the corridor of Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister on March 30, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A medical personnel working on her computer at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister on March 30, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

One of the most prominent proposals to address California’s shortage of healthcare workers is to simply pay them more. But while the state issues its one-time retention bonuses, union leaders are fighting to raise the minimum wage for healthcare workers to $25 an hour. They were successful last year in Inglewood, but as CalMatters’ health reporter Ana B. Ibarra explains, taking that same fight statewide won’t be easy.

The Service Employees International Union-United Health Workers West is sponsoring a bill by Sen. María Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, that would hike the hourly wage for health workers across California. Currently, the minimum wage is $15.50.

If passed, a wage increase could go in effect by January 2024 and is estimated to cover 469,000 health workers. Those who make slightly more than $25 would also see a small pay bump.

The bill faces strong opposition from hospital executives, clinic leaders and the doctors’ lobby. During a time when hospitals, especially rural ones, are struggling to stay open, they argue that not all providers can afford to pay their staff more. In March, the California Chamber of Commerce labeled the bill a “job killer” that would raise costs for health facilities and jeopardize Californians’ “access to affordable healthcare.”

What also doesn’t help: Three months after Inglewood’s higher pay took effect, the city’s Centinela Hospital Medical Center laid off 48 workers and reduced hours for others. 

The union is suing the hospital, alleging that it’s violating the ordinance, which bars facilities from funding the pay increase by laying off workers or reducing benefits. But the hospital says the layoffs were “entirely unrelated” and only impacted 2% of the staff.

It’s an eventful week for proponents of economic equity in California:

On Monday, Housing Now! and other affordable housing organizations rallied at the state Capitol to promote two pieces of legislation: A constitutional amendment that would recognize housing as a human right, authored by Democratic Assemblymember Matt Haney from San Francisco, and a Senate bill from Durazo that would expand renter protections.

Also Monday, the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee approved a pair of Democratic bills, backed by a coalition of anti-poverty and community groups, designed to expand tax credits for low-income families. One by Assemblymember Mike Gipson of Gardena would raise the minimum $1 credit to $300. The other bill, from Los Angeles Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, would extend the tax credit for families with children

And on Wednesday, the annual Equity on the Mall event kicks off, bringing together advocacy groups, legislators and San Joaquin Valley residents to discuss inequities in public health, education, housing and more.

2 Kounalakis gets head start on 2026

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis gives an interview at CalMatters in September. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis gives an interview at CalMatters on Sept. 19, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

If you thought the 2024 campaigns are getting an early start, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis took things a step further Monday: She launched her bid for governorin 2026.

  • Kounalakis, in a statement: “As the proud daughter of an immigrant who came to California with nothing, my family owes everything to this state — I’m running for Governor to ensure all Californians have the opportunities we’ve had.”

It’s no secret that she planned this, trying to become the first woman to be elected to the top job in California’s history. “I think if we are going to have a woman governor of California, that she shouldn’t be coy in her ambitions,” she told CalMatters last year.

Why so early? As first reported by Politico, Kounalakis can start building an edge in raising money. By forming a gubernatorial campaign committee, she can take far larger donations — as much as $72,800 per contributor, compared to $18,200 as lieutenant governor. She currently has $4.4 million for her campaign committee, according to Politico. Kounalakis and her father, developer Angelo Tsakopolous, put millions of dollars into her 2018 campaign. And she easily won reelection last year, with nearly 60% of the vote.

Kounalakis also may be angling to discourage other Democrats from running. But former state Controller Betty Yee told the San Francisco Chronicle that she still plans to run. That potential candidate list could also include Attorney General Rob Bonta, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego or Xavier Becerra, former attorney general and now U.S. secretary of health and human services.

Asked about the timing of the announcement, Kounalakis campaign spokesperson David Beltran replied in an email: “The race for governor is a huge undertaking. It’s a marathon, and she is committed to running that race.”

The early launch is not entirely uncommon. Gov. Gavin Newsom pursued a similar early bird strategy in 2015, before winning his first term in 2018, though he was clarifying at that time whether he would run for U.S. Senate.

As the first woman elected lieutenant governor, Kounalakis becomes acting governor when Newsom leaves California. Last year, she made history as the first woman to sign a bill into California law when she expanded registration rights for specific voters and, more notably, extended an eviction moratorium.

Now she’s trying to make California history again as its first female governor. Despite its reputation for diversity and progressive politics, California is one of 18 states that has never had a woman serve as governor.

3 Seizing illegal guns sooner

Handguns on a display case at a gunshop in Fresno County on July 12, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Handguns on a display case at a gunshop in Fresno County on July 12, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

From CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara

Three months after a deadly mass shooting in his city, a Monterey Park Democrat announced a bill Monday that would tighten the timeline for police, prosecutors and the Justice Department to take guns from people when they are convicted of a crime that makes them ineligible to possess a firearm. 

Assemblymember Mike Fong is scheduled to present the bill today in the Assembly Public Safety committee. 

  • Monterey Park Mayor Jose Sanchez, at the press conference: “I think back to that tragic day, if we had (Fong’s bill), could we have prevented the mass shooting that happened here.”

Sanchez spoke 93 days after a gunman shot and killed 11 people and wounded nine others at a dance studio in the city of 60,000 people east of Los Angeles. Gunman Huu Can Tran, 72, fatally shot himself after he attacked the dance studio. He was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm in 1990, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. 

Fong’s bill would modify a 2016 proposition that requires people prohibited from possessing firearms to turn over their guns within five days. That number would be cut to two days if the bill becomes law.

The bill would also require the Justice Department to give local police and the county district attorney a running list of people in their jurisdiction who haven’t submitted proof that they gave up their guns, which is available to them through the Armed and Prohibited Persons System. 

Coordination has been scattershot in the first-in-the-nation program, launched in 2006 and intended to take guns from people who have been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor or placed under a restraining order, or who suffer from severe mental illness.

The Justice Department has also struggled with a massive backlog in cases. In 2022, only 640 more people were removed from the list than added to it. On Jan. 1, 23,869 registered gun owners in California were prohibited from owning or possessing firearms. Last year at the same time, there were 24,509 armed and prohibited people. The year before that, the number was 23,598.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: New audit pinpoints state government’s infuriating high-tech failures.

State employees should not be paid wages so low they have to struggle for basic needs, writes Manuel Hurtado, a member of SEIU Local 1000, which represents state workers.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

California overhauls its sea level rise plan as climate change reshapes coastal life // KQED

California cities can sue oil companies over climate change // San Francisco Chronicle

Need power in California? Get in line. // Politico

Can public officials block online foes? Supreme Court will hear appeal by two San Diego-area school board members // Los Angeles Times

California is returning incarcerated juveniles to counties // The San Diego Union-Tribune 

Lawmakers consider banning ‘willful defiance’ school suspensions // Los Angeles Times

UC physician training program adds diversity, but where do graduates go? // California Healthline

How Rep. Pete Aguilar became Congress’ highest-ranking Latino // Los Angeles Times

Amazon contract drivers in California join teamsters union // Bloomberg

Las Vegas-to-California bullet train gets bipartisan backing // The Washington Post

Floodwaters threaten to drown a California city and prison // Los Angeles Times

Housing projects could be delayed amid insurance struggles // The Orange County Register 

Paradise fears pollution lawsuit could curb use of aerial fire retardant // AP News

S.F.’s empty $2.2B transit center echoes city’s declining downtown // San Francisco Chronicle

Opinion: New L.A. Times columnist wants to bridge two worlds // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow


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