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No deal yet on Newsom mental health plan

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La August 23, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

No deal yet on Newsom mental health plan

From CalMatters health reporter Kristen Hwang

If Gov. Gavin Newsom was hoping amendments introduced to his mental health overhaul last week would sufficiently appease critics, Tuesday’s back-to-back committee hearings only revealed how much further he has to go to reach a compromise.

The big idea: Newsom wants counties to prioritize behavioral health spending on homeless individuals who have serious mental illness or addiction disorders. Counties get billions of dollars from a special tax that funds mental health services. Newsom’s proposal requires counties to spend 30% of that money on housing programs and asks voters to approve a $4.68 billion bond to increase the number of psychiatric treatment beds in the state. Sen. Susan Talamantes-Eggman, a Democrat from Stockton, is carrying the proposal in the Legislature.

  • Eggman: “Too many Californians are finding themselves without services on the streets in ways that are just unconscionable for all of us.”

Despite significant amendments last week protecting children and youth programs and giving counties more flexibility, many groups remain concerned that core services will be upended. Nevada County Behavioral Health Director Phebe Bell told legislators that counties statewide would have to cut between 60% to 80% of current mental health services to meet the proposed housing mandate.

  • Bell: “We are worried about fixing a much larger broken system, which is the supply of affordable and adequate housing in our state, on the backs of the behavioral health system.”

The most vocal opposition has come from organizations representing current clients. City and county leaders are urging lawmakers to increase the bond measure from $4.68 billion to $6.2 billion to “rapidly deploy new housing and services.”

Newsom’s administration has said the state is putting far more money into behavioral health than it did 20 years ago when voters approved the special mental health tax. Since 2019, approximately $10 billion from Medi-Cal and other sources has been invested in behavioral health. The governor and supporters argue counties need to be held accountable to improving outcomes and spending transparency. 

While the Assembly Health Committee approved the bill on Tuesday, a deal needs to be struck before the legislative session ends Sept. 14. Should the proposal pass, voters will get the chance next March to weigh in on both the bond measure and spending reform.

More legislative drama: The California Labor Federation and other supporters were all set for a hearing Tuesday on a proposed state constitutional amendment that would require the University of California to adhere to the same basic labor standards as other public agencies, such as paying employees minimum wage and offering paid sick leave.

But it was postponed at the last minute. What happened?

It depends whom you ask.

Assemblymember Matt Haney, a San Francisco Democrat and author of the amendment, told me that he was ready to present the amendment to the Senate elections and constitutional amendments committee despite being hospitalized Monday after he dislocated his hip in a legislative softball game. He avoided a stint on the injured list and was back in the building, on crutches. 

  • Haney: “The measure received broad bipartisan (support) in the Assembly and has similar support in the Senate…. I was informed by the Chair that the hearing would be postponed minutes before it was set to begin. I was not given a reason.” 

The reason is because there are “serious concerns” with the bill, Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat from Orinda and committee chairperson, told me. 

  • Glazer: “The measure sets a bad precedent by putting the university under the political thumb of the Legislature…. This measure seeks to advance a political agenda while hiding in a false narrative about labor standards.”

Labor unions have clashed with the university before, most recently in January after it said it planned to clawback the wages of academic employees who went on strike in November 2022 seeking better pay and benefits

Glazer said the committee will hear the amendment possibly “in the next couple of weeks.”

In other labor news: A bill to allow striking workers to collect unemployment benefits was officially announced Tuesday. It will be a gut-and-amend of Senate Bill 799 and is authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat and chairperson of the Appropriations Committee.

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CalMatters events: The next event is scheduled for Sept. 19, on Gov. Newsom’s push for rehabilitation over incarceration. Register here.

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1 Will public access expand post-pandemic?

The California Air Resources Board meets at the California Environmental Protection Agency building in Sacramento on June 23, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
The California Air Resources Board meets at the California Environmental Protection Agency building in Sacramento on June 23, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Zoom meetings may be a boon to white-collar workers who hate commuting into the office, but an unusual coalition of good government, press, taxpayer and industry groups argues that for public officials, doubling down on remote gatherings would make governing even less transparent. 

CalMatters state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal explains that’s one reason why they oppose Senate Bill 544, which seeks to extend COVID-19 public health rules that relaxed some state open meeting mandates until 2026. Specifically, it would remove requirements to post all teleconference locations and agendas at each meeting location and disclose those locations to the public. 

If passed, a state body would only be required to post the physical address for one site, and only one board member or staff member would have to be physically present at that site.

  • Democratic Sen. John Laird of Santa Cruz and the bill’s author: “While the executive order was in place during COVID about public meetings, costs went down 90%. Participation went up from vulnerable populations, and people were able to participate remotely in hearings the way they hadn’t before…”

But critics contend that Californians should be able to address their government officials in person. And agencies could save hot-button issues for remote-only meetings, where the public may have less opportunity to weigh in.

  • Laurel Brodzinsky, legislative director for California Common Cause. “We really believe that having the opportunity to have that face-to- face interaction… is a really core belief for the democratic institutions.”

Besides forever changing work, the pandemic turbo-charged the shift to digital communication, transforming how the state government communicates with the press, making it more challenging to hold officials accountable.

More pandemic impact: A new analysis says rich Californians got even richer. In 2021, the top 1% of earners reported 30.5% of all income reported on state tax returns. That’s up from 23% in 2019 and even higher than the 27.5 in 2000, the peak of the dot-com boom, according to the left-leaning California Budget & Policy Center.  

As a result, inequality widened: While the average income of the top 1% rose from $2.3 million in 2019 to $3.6 million in 2021, it declined for middle-income Californians from $46,600 to $46,400, according to the study. To put that in perspective, the top 1% earned in just five days what it took the average middle-income Californian a full year.

Another consequence of the lopsided income gap: Because of the state’s progressive tax system, state revenues surged, fueled by high earners’ stock market gains. And combined with federal COVID relief, the state had record budget surpluses in 2021 and 2022

Not so much this year, when Gov. Newsom and the Legislature had to cover a $30 billion-plus deficit. There’s more uncertainty than usual on revenue, with tax filing deadlines extended from April until October for many taxpayers affected by the winter storms. The latest forecast is roughly in line with what was used for the approved budget, but the Legislative Analyst’s Office says the final number could change by plus or minus $15 billion. 

2 First reparations bill is out

A man in the crowd holds up a sign at the Reparations Task Force hearing at the March Fong Eu Secretary of State offices in Sacramento on June 29, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters
A man in the audience holds up a sign at the Reparations Task Force hearing at the March Fong Eu Secretary of State offices in Sacramento on June 29, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

The first substantive bill to come out of California’s reparations task force isn’t about money; it’s to create a new state agency, with a name that goes back to the first efforts to help freed slaves.

The proposed California American Freedman Affairs Agency would include more than a dozen offices, including one to help people determine if they’re eligible for reparation payments, says Sen. Steven Bradford, a task force member who announced the bill on Tuesday.

  • Bradford, a Democrat from Inglewood, in a statement: “My fellow task force members and I have documented the harm, detailed its generational impact, and determined the way forward to right these wrongs. The Freedman Affairs Agency will establish the instrumental infrastructure California will need as our state takes responsibility for the historical harms that have been committed.”

Creating the new agency is among the 200-plus recommendations of the first-in-the-nation task force, which in June submitted its 1,000-page report on how to address centuries of discrimination and outright racism faced by Black Californians, especially descendants of enslaved people. The task force also recommended that the state issue an official apology for its role in enabling slavery and that California pay cash compensation to descendants of slaves. 

According to economic models in the task force report, an eligible resident of seven decades could receive as much as $1.2 million. But any payments are many decisions away. And the to-be-amended bill for the new agency will not be taken up until next year.

More on reparations: CalMatters has a detailed explainer on the reparations debate and has also created an interactive tool to estimate how much someone might be owed.

3 The future of Aliso Canyon

A gas gathering plant on a hilltop at the Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon storage facility near the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2017. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
A gas gathering plant on a hilltop at the Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility in Los Angeles in 2017. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

The site of the country’s largest methane leak in history may stay open for business a while longer — despite objections from local residents, environmentalists and some legislators.

In July, the state’s Public Utilities Commission proposed increasing the storage levels to near-full capacity at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles. Owned by Southern California Gas Co., it released more than 100,000 tons of methane into the air over roughly four months in 2015, according to the Los Angeles Times. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Newsom have supported calls for the commission to close the facility by 2027 due to the health risks for nearby residents.

But while considering a phase-out of this site, the commission is also expected to vote Aug. 31 to allow SoCal Gas to ramp up operations and replenish its reserves to protect customers from price hikes during the upcoming winter. (Natural gas heats homes, water and stoves, and along with rising gas prices at the pump, Californians pay a lot more for natural gas compared to wholesale natural gas prices across the country.) 

The commission, which can’t set natural gas prices, recommends increasing the facility’s storage volume from 41.16 billion cubic feet to 68.6 billion cubic feet. This builds on top of the commission’s prior approval to increase storage from 34 billion cubic feet in 2021.

Environmental groups, Sen. Henry Stern of Calabasas and Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo of Santa Clarita Valley rallied Tuesday evening in Los Angeles to urge the commission to shut down the facility. Advocates argue that increasing Aliso Canyon’s storage capacities is more about feeding SoCalGas’ bottom line than about reducing rates.

  • Stern, in a statement: “SoCalGas says more use of this dangerous gas field will keep prices down, but there are still too many unanswered questions to proceed…. If more storage can bring down prices, why didn’t SoCalGas Company use their available storage during last year’s spike instead of buying gas at unprecedented high rates?”
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CalMatters Commentary


CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California Democrats are doing what Republicans are in other states by trying to thwart ballot measures that run counter to their ideology.

Property crimes hurt customers and workers as well as businesses. State officials need to respond, writes Martha Lehnen, general manager of a Camping World store in Southern California.

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