Is destination in sight for California public transit?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La June 13, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

Is destination in sight for California public transit?

From CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal and climate policy reporter Alejandro Lazo:

The budget agreement that legislative Democrats plan to pass Thursday partly addresses the major concerns facing some public transit agencies in California, which have pleaded for state assistance as they continue to deal with a statewide $6 billion deficit due in large part to ridership declines. 

But for it to become final, Gov. Gavin Newsom has to sign off before July 1.

The Legislature’s plan provides $1.1 billion over three years for the Zero Emission Transit Capital program, which is funded partly from cap-and-trade revenues. Agencies can use the money for operations as long as they meet yet-to-be-detailed accountability measures.

It also restores $2.2 billion for the Transportation Infrastructure Package that Newsom proposed cutting in January. That brings the total back to $4 billion over three years, and also gives agencies the flexibility to use the money for operations.

Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who has been leading the charge to fend off the transit “fiscal cliff,” said the deal would cover a significant portion of transit systems’ collective operating deficit, but said the state should use more federal highway money to fund transit operations.

The California Transit Association, which represents the industry, sought $5.15 billion in “bridge funding” to help agencies avoid cutting service or raising fares while they pursue longer-term solutions, such as regional bond measures.

Michael Pimentel, executive director of the association, said he sees the Legislature’s plan as a positive step forward, though some agencies may not want to take from construction spending to pay for operations.

  • Pimentel: “For public transit to be successful, we really need support from all levels of government — from federal on down to the locals, and right in the middle of that is the state.”

While the plan takes an additional bite out of the state’s zero-emission vehicle efforts, the tradeoff is acceptable given the central role that public transit plays in meeting targets for cutting greenhouse gasses, said James Pew, a climate policy fellow with NextGen California. 

  • Pew: “We love electric buses and want to see more of them and want to electrify the entire fleet, but there is not much point to running electric buses if you don’t have a transit system.” 

The governor has asked the Legislature to back an initiative to ask voters to approve a bond that could restore some of the money for zero-emission vehicle and other climate programs.

Public transit isn’t the only significant point of difference between legislative Democrats’ plan and Newsom’s. 

For instance, acting on priorities set out at the beginning of the session, the Legislature’s deal proposes waiving childcare fees through September and caps a family’s fees at 1% for low-income households. It also bolsters the effort of childcare providers to further increase reimbursement rates — something the providers’ union has been pushing for since it was allowed to form in 2019.

The governor’s budget proposal also eliminated $561 million in state funding for projects to protect the coast against rising seas from climate change. Now the Legislature wants to give some of that back: $102 million for coastal resilience programs at the Coastal Conservancy and $65 million to the Ocean Protection Council, a major grant-making agency. 

For an overview of where the state budget stands, CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff has the rundown.

Speaking of Gov. Newsom: In his first interview on Fox News in 13 years, he jousted with host Sean Hannity about California’s population losses, its business climate and San Francisco’s struggles. But during the hour-long show that aired Monday evening, he did agree that the state’s homelessness crisis is “disgraceful.” 

Newsom jumped at the chance to debate his foil, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. When Hannity said he would host a two-hour event, Newsom shot back: “Make it three.”

He also pushed back on whether President Biden is mentally fit to serve. Asked whether his phone is lighting up with those who want him to challenge Biden, Newsom again demurred. “I’m rooting for our president,” he said.

If you didn’t get enough of Newsom vs. Hannity, more of the interview will air later this week.


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Police shootings panel: The next CalMatters event is 8:30-9:30 a.m. today and focuses on Attorney General Rob Bonta’s investigations into police killings of unarmed civilians. “Fatal Shootings: California’s Bid to Police Its Police” will be moderated by CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara, who has been tracking these cases. Sign up here to attend in-person or virtually.

Fresno housing: A CalMatters live event, in partnership with Fresnoland, will focus on housing affordability in Fresno. It is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. on Thursday, in person at the Fresno Art Museum and virtually. Sign up here to attend.


1 How to keep teachers at poor schools

Nicholas Cordova, 7th grade history teacher, teaches his class at Sycamore Junior High School in Anaheim on May 22, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Seventh grade teacher Nicholas Cordova at Sycamore Junior High School in Anaheim on May 22, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

For the past several months, CalMatters’ K-12 education reporter Joe Hong has been reporting on the exodus of teachers from high-poverty schools, where students are more likely to fall behind grade level in math and reading. Today, CalMatters publishes the third and final installment of “The Teacher Turnover Trap.”

The story examines two ambitious, statewide efforts designed to attract and keep teachers at schools serving poorer communities. The first, community schools, give teachers more power on campuses. The model for school governance gives educators a voice in shaping a school’s budget, curricula and after-school programs:

  • Kyle Weinberg, teachers’ union president at San Diego Unified: “We know that when we increase educator voices in school decisions, that educators are more committed. They’re more committed to working on strengthening what we’re doing as a school, and they’re more likely to stay at that school when they know they have that voice.”

The second initiative is the Golden State Teachers Grant Program, which gives teachers-in-training as much as $20,000 in grants if they commit to working at a high-poverty school for four years after earning their credentials. The state doesn’t yet have a clear picture of whether the program will improve teacher retention at these schools beyond four years. But some early-career teachers are both grateful for the money and eager to work with the students who need the most help: 

  • Samantha Fernandez, a recipient of a Golden State Teachers Grant: “I want to help kids achieve their dreams, no matter what struggles they go through… I want to be the person who can be their support outside their home.”

The story also examines perhaps the simplest proposal for improving teacher retention at schools serving more poor students — higher pay. But because salaries are bargained at the local level and teachers unions oppose paying teachers more to work at certain schools, a statewide policy remains unlikely. But researchers say “differentiated pay” practices could help improve teacher retention and improve student test scores:

  • Barbara Biasi, Yale University economist: “I’m not sure why we make salaries so rigid and so low for the profession that has so much impact.”

2 What is a right to housing?

Residential buildings in San Francisco on March 4, 2020. Photo by Jeff Chiu, AP Photo
Residential buildings in San Francisco on March 4, 2020. Photo by Jeff Chiu, AP Photo

From granting prisoners the right to vote to removing existing language that limits marriage between a man and a woman, the Legislature is currently considering several state constitutional amendments — including one that passed the Assembly housing committee last week that would recognize housing as a human right.

If legislators put this amendment on the 2024 ballot and voters approve it, it would be a national first, according to CalMatters’ homelessness reporter Marisa Kendall. While supporters of the measure know it wouldn’t solve the state’s housing and homelessness crises overnight or entitle people to free housing, they argue it would hold state and local officials more accountable.

  • San Francisco Democratic Assemblymember Matt Haney, who authored the amendment: “It’s really a way to make sure elected officials and the government does its job and doesn’t continue to fail so miserably in ensuring access to housing for all.”

The amendment could also give more muscle to lawsuits against zoning rules or policy decisions that limit affordable housing development, and empower the state to enforce existing pro-housing laws.

Why does this bill have such broad potential? Mostly because it’s vague and lacks specifics on what a right to housing actually means or how it’d be enforced. 

This has critics worried, Marisa reports. Assemblymember Joe Patterson, a Republican from Granite Bay, voted against the measure in committee, saying he was “really scared” about how judges would interpret the amendment. Democratic Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel from Woodland Hills ultimately voted in favor, but wondered if legislators were opening themselves up to lawsuits if they had to take money away from housing for other needs.

  • Gabriel: “The major, major heartburn I’m having right now is around enforcement and implementation of this.”

California’s housing crisis, explained: CalMatters has detailed looks at why housing is so expensive in California and why homelessness is so persistent. Now, there’s a lesson-plan-ready version of these explainers and other information — especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups — as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative, with Spanish translations. 

3 Meet Sen. Caroline Menjivar

State Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a San Fernando Valley Democrat, addresses legislators during session at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 23, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
State Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a San Fernando Valley Democrat, addresses fellow legislators at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 23, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Sen. Caroline Menjivar may not be the first woman, veteran, Latina or member of the LGBTQ+ community in the California Legislature (“Sen. Eggman and I are literally the exact same person,” she jokes). But as part of the state’s most diverse class of legislators, the Democrat from Van Nuys still views her identities as major influences in her policies.

Raised by immigrant parents from El Salvador, Menjivar grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Last year, Menjivar ran for state Senate against Daniel Hertzberg, the well-connected son of a former legislator — and won.

I sat down with the senator to discuss the LGBTQ+ community, a looming recession and the budget. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What are your thoughts when Republicans walked out of the celebration honoring LGBTQ+ members last week?

The Assembly walked out, but not the senators. It’s just a different level of decorum in the Senate, you can tell. But when they walked out, I felt that was very childish. I was wondering: What do you really stand for if you don’t stand for human rights? 

I’ve started to get close with some Republicans, learning personally about them. So it’s hard to then go from having a wonderful conversation with a Republican colleague, to the next day seeing that you can’t even go up on something that protects and enshrines my rights. Navigating that has been very difficult for me.

You mentioned before how much the 2008 economic recession disrupted your life. We may be heading into another recession soon. What can be done to help California?

My mom was a victim to the lenders. She got a house loan at a place that she never was able to afford. The sharks were definitely out there during the subprime mortgage crisis. 

Ensuring financial literacy is important for me. That falls under the umbrella of youth empowerment, which is one of the core themes you’ll see in my bills. Anything to help make these individuals be as successful as possible, to have a safety net. I might not be able to address the financial crisis directly, but I’m working around it in different ways. 

Why did you propose SB 600 (which would increase the minimum CalFresh benefit) and what do you hope the impact of the bill will be?

It’s a huge priority of mine. My mom is a CalFresh recipient. I’ve seen it first hand how it’s impacted her. In my district, so many individuals are on CalFresh. I have food pantries in my district bursting at the seams at capacity because of how many people are waiting in line to get food at six o’clock in the morning. The hunger cliff is a real thing and it’s unfortunate. 

Why do you want to establish a state bat? 

I was in the district and we had a meeting on the books where a 12-year-old constituent was going to lobby me and present to me why she felt the pallid bat should be a state bat: Why we should be protecting bats and so forth…and a lot of it was going to cost money. 

Given the deficit, I was like, I can’t do a lot of that. But I’m not going to crush this young girl’s passion. So I said I’m going to do the state bat, that’s the thing I’ll do.

How are budget negotiations going?

Really heartbreaking to be honest. As a new member coming in, I was excited to be part of the process. Then, to learn that you’re in the deficit year, to then learn you’re in an even worse deficit year. You don’t have a lot of wiggle room.

But listen, the administration is taking cuts, the Senate is taking cuts and the Assembly is taking cuts in the things that we want to fund. It’s a compromise.

For more on new legislators, read my prior interviews: First-term Assemblymembers Corey Jackson, a Moreno Valley Democrat; Joe Patterson, a Granite Bay Republican; and Stephanie Nguyen, an Elk Grove Democrat.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: A Senate committee took a stand against budget “trailer bills,” routinely misused to enact sweeping policy changes without enough debate.

California leaders must keep their promises to flood-ravaged towns in the Central Valley, writes Anastacio Rosales, a longtime Planada resident who is advocating for its recovery.


Other things worth your time

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Former state Sen. Richard Pan runs for mayor of Sacramento // Sacramento Bee

On the brink of homelessness, San Diego woman wins Medi-Cal lottery // California Healthline

How well do dual-immersion programs serve English learners? // EdSource

Blackmail, retaliation alleged in Fresno County government // The Fresno Bee

San Jose cops can remain on duty while suspended // San Jose Spotlight

Kevin McCarthy survived his first battle as speaker. How his hometown reacted // KVPR

Umpqua Bank aided, profited off $350M Ponzi scheme, suit says // San Francisco Chronicle

SF real estate investors spy opportunity in down market // The San Francisco Standard

Westfield giving up SF mall in the wake of Nordstrom closure // San Francisco Chronicle

Shasta County Fountain wind project could be approved under new CA bill // Shasta Scout

California is living between ever-widening climate extremes // The New York Times

A California bill could reveal corporate America’s climate secrets // Grist

In the Bay Area, how a racist society is detrimental to your health // Vox

See you tomorrow


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