California lawmakers want answers on toxic waste

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La August 24, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

California lawmakers want answers on toxic waste

From CalMatters investigative reporter Robert Lewis:

State lawmakers held a joint oversight committee hearing Wednesday to question officials from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control about how it’s going with various reform efforts. (It was definitely more of an annual teeth cleaning than a root canal.)

Among the topics of discussion was an ongoing CalMatters investigation into the state’s handling of hazardous waste. In January, CalMatters reported that government agencies — including the toxics department — and developers routinely skirt California’s stringent environmental laws by taking contaminated soil from cleanup sites to regular landfills in states with weaker environmental regulations.

This week, CalMatters reported on the dwindling number of sites that can treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste in the state. Among the remaining sites is Phibro-Tech, which recycles corrosive liquids for the electronics industry. State inspectors have identified violations at more than 30 inspections of the site since the mid-90’s, the state’s permitting and enforcement database shows. 

The company has been operating on an expired permit since 1996, a fact that stunned the chairperson of the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, Alex Lee. Lee, a Democrat from Milpitas, became the youngest legislator when he was elected in 2020 at the age of 25.

  • Lee: “The permit they were given in the ’90s is different science, different understanding, different even urban development around there. Much different times. So we don’t want that to be lingering. I mean, not to stress the point but Phibro has been basically on (an expired) permit since I was alive.”

Lawmakers also urged the agency to do more research on technologies that would allow contaminated soil to be treated on site as opposed to being dug up and taken to a landfill.

Agency officials said they’re considering all that as part of an ongoing process to craft a statewide hazardous waste management plan. And they said the agency is working hard this year to make decisions on the oldest expired permits.

More legislative news: The clock is ticking on the session, set to end Sept. 14, so the pleas for action are ramping up.

Wednesday, several advocacy groups — at the state Capitol and over the internet — rallied around their favored bills, which have all been placed in the suspense file.

Paid sick leave: The California Work & Family Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for paid leave benefits, joined Democratic Sen. Lena Gonzalez of Long Beach and frontline workers, to drum up support for Gonzalez’s bill that would raise paid sick leave from three days to seven. It would also expand how sick days are accrued and used.

  • Gonzalez: “Whether you’re a rail worker, caregiver or teacher, you have this opportunity to heal, recover or to take care of a family member…. It’s really vital that we protect our communities by doing this while still maintaining our status as the fourth largest economy. We can only do that when we’re bringing our workforce along.”

Climate change: Democratic Sens. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Henry Stern of Calabasas were at the state Capitol promoting their measures that would hold companies more accountable for their effects on the environment: Senate Bill 253 would require companies with $1 billion in annual revenue to disclose greenhouse gas emissions, and SB 261 would require more companies with $500 million in revenue to prepare climate financial risk reports.

  • Stern: “People just say, ‘Cover your ears, close your eyes, pretend there’s not a hurricane in August, pretend there’s no bomb cyclones, pretend there’s no climate risk and we’ll all be fine.’ That kind of self-blinding is not just going to hurt California’s economy, workers, organized labor everywhere in the state — but across the country.”

Housing and racial equity: Progressive advocacy groups raised awareness at the Capitol for Gonzalez’s paid sick leave measure, as well as two other bills: SB 567, which would strengthen tenant protections (the bill previously had a provision to cap rent increases at 5%, but later dropped it) and SB 50, which would prohibit pretextual police stops for low-level traffic violations to reduce racial profiling and harassment of female drivers


CalMatters is hiring: We have several new newsroom opportunities, including for an economy reporter, a tech reporter, a politics and campaign reporter and a state Capitol reporter (in partnership with Voice of San Diego).


1 A curious campaign contribution

An American Medical Response vehicle drives in San Francisco on May 22, 2023.
An American Medical Response vehicle drives in San Francisco on May 22, 2023. Photo by Jeff Chiu, AP Photo

A November 2024 ballot measure that would make it more challenging to raise taxes in the state has an unlikely campaign contributor — an ambulance company based in Colorado.

As CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff explains, American Medical Response has poured $3 million so far into the measure, which would increase the requirements for local governments to implement taxes and fees.

Why does AMR care so much? In California, emergency medical services operate through counties, which work with local agencies to manage their emergency services programs and award contracts. Sometimes contracts go to public entities, such as fire departments, other times they go to private ambulance companies, such as AMR. 

Fire departments can charge private companies for the fire engines that respond to medical calls alongside them. But the measure, slated for the already-crowded November 2024 ballot, would also reclassify some fees that fund public services and programs as taxes — and prohibit agencies from setting these fees without voter approval.

Hence, AMR opening its wallet to support this initiative. 

  • Jason Sorrick, AMR spokesperson: “These charges prevent us from increasing wages and improving benefits for our paramedics and EMTs. They also limit our ability to improve or enhance our services because the revenue we are collecting is going to cover fire department overhead…”

Besides AMR, the initiative is backed by real estate groups and sponsored by the California Business Roundtable. Critics of the measure, who include local government officials, argue that eliminating these fees would shift the cost from AMR to taxpayers, and ultimately boost AMR’s bottom line. 

  • Neil McCormick, California Special Districts Association CEO, in a statement: “It is painful to imagine why an out-of-state company… would contribute millions of dollars-worth of its profits toward an initiative that will undermine publicly-provided emergency services to our communities.”

2024 ballot update: California’s November 2024 ballot could get even longer, at least if those behind an anti-crime measure have anything to say about it.

They filed an initiative this week that hits three hot-button issues for Republicans in the Legislature and many voters around the state: The Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act would increase punishments for fentanyl-related crimes, some drug dealers and smash-and-grab theft rings. 

In part, the measure would go around Democratic roadblocks in the Legislature — personified by Assembly Public Safety chairperson Reggie Jones-Sawyer — to stiffening penalties for fentanyl and other crimes because they don’t want to return to the “war on drugs” and overcrowded prisons.

If proponents collect about 547,000 valid signatures in time, the initiative would join a half-dozen measures that have already qualified. Several others in process, plus constitutional amendments under consideration by the Legislature, including one on fentanyl crimes.

2 A constitutional question on guns

Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses the media during a press conference announcing new gun legislation targeting the state's public carry laws on Feb. 1, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom during a press conference announcing new gun legislation on Feb. 1, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

On the subject of constitutions: Gov. Gavin Newsom is promoting an amendment to the U.S. version on gun control that would basically spread California’s strict laws across the nation.

But critiques are coming from some perhaps unlikely corners, not so much on the goal but the path to reach it.

Wednesday, Common Cause California joined the chorus of those pouring cold water on the idea of a constitutional convention, as called for in a legislative joint resolution, backed by Newsom and set for an Aug. 29 hearing.  

  • Jonathan Mehta Stein, the group’s executive director, in a statement: “There are few risks to the freedoms we cherish greater than calling for a constitutional convention. No matter what issue you care about — civil rights, abortion, housing, the environment, or gun safety — an Article V Convention carries the potential to take us back rather than move us forward.”

He also warns that a constitutional convention “would invite wealthy special interests to open the hood of the U.S. Constitution and tinker with our rights and liberties” without rules and guardrails and that “the voices of everyday Californians would be lost.”

Common Cause says it helped defeat similar constitutional convention calls in Illinois and Montana in the past year.

Some Democrats and legal experts raise similar concerns. But the governor isn’t backing down.

  • Newsom, to reporters this month: “I’m more concerned about the status quo. Some of the critique came from people we reached out to … people I admire and respect. But it wasn’t persuasive. Not when the No. 1 killer of kids is guns.”

3 $33M to ease preschool teacher shortage

Pre-kindergarten students work on their school work at West Orange Elementary School in Orange on March 18, 2021. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Pre-kindergarten students work on their assignments at West Orange Elementary School in Orange on March 18, 2021. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

From CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn:

California needs 11,000 more pre-kindergarten teachers by 2025, as lawmakers embark on a huge expansion of free early education in California. 

Could $33 million in donations to two California State University campuses, announced Wednesday, increase the pipeline of educators for these little learners? 

The larger of the two gifts, $22 million, is the biggest-ever donation for Cal State Dominguez Hills. The grant is from the Ballmer Group, a limited liability company and philanthropy co-founded by Los Angeles Clippers owner and billionaire Steve Ballmer. The group also gave $11 million to nearby Cal State Long Beach for much of the same programming. The gifts will be doled out annually at roughly equal amounts for six years; both campuses got their first allotment in June.

The two schools educate a large share of low-income students. The campuses will spend about 80% of the money on scholarships for aspiring teachers and the rest on hiring personnel and expanding teacher training.

While most students at Cal State get enough financial aid from state and federal sources to avoid paying tuition, “the issue is that becoming a teacher is a lot more expensive than just being an undergraduate student,” said Jessica Zacher Pandya, dean of the College of Education at Dominguez Hills.  

Students aspiring to be teachers must pay hundreds of dollars in licensure exams and commit to 600 hours of student teaching. The Ballmer Group scholarship will help students cover those fees, work fewer hours and borrow less so they can focus on completing their studies and teaching credentials.

Dominguez Hills plans to support roughly 1,200 students over a six-year period starting this spring, Pandya said. Students will get awards of $2,500 to $10,000, the largest amount reserved for those fulfilling their student-teaching hours. Some of that scholarship money will fund students who plan to teach in schools with large numbers of Black students, including in high schools, Pandya said.

The university is also developing a credential that will focus specifically on early grades, pre-kindergarten to third grade. The Ballmer Group money will help pay for faculty to develop that curriculum. Right now, the standard credential is for teaching grades kindergarten through eighth grade. The new credential is “much more developmentally appropriate” to teach younger students, Pandya said.

And as the Los Angeles area and California shift more of their early education from private institutions to school districts that pay higher wages, the Dominguez Hills campus hopes to graduate more teachers specifically trained to educate those young kids.

The campus hopes to attract current early-education instructors, who are typically women and people of color, into its programming, Pandya said. 


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: State education officials back down in trying to muzzle researchers on the damage of COVID school shutdowns.

CalMatters columnist Jim Newton: Los Angeles may become the biggest abortion rights haven in the post-Roe world.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Gavin Newsom sides with the robots in autonomous vehicle debate // Politico

Will California lawmakers pass tax on firearms, ammunition? // The Sacramento Bee

California looks at giving unemployment pay to striking workers // Los Angeles Times

State maintenance workers approve contract with raises, bonuses // The Sacramento Bee

Why did the LA City Council quietly kill an Ethics Commission appointment? // Los Angeles Public Press

Maternal deaths doubled in California over two decades // Axios San Diego

Shadowy owner of 52,000 acres in Solano County may be planning new city // San Francisco Chronicle

New bill would shift restitution from juveniles to state // EdSource

Arrests at ‘parents rights’ LGBTQ protest at LA school headquarters // Los Angeles Times

Oakland Mayor Thao defends anti-crime efforts amid criticism // San Francisco Chronicle

Cruise, Waymo spent millions lobbying California regulators // The San Francisco Standard

Tech companies reveal plans to jettison hundreds more Bay Area jobs // The Mercury News

Marin affordable housing approved next to San Quentin // San Francisco Chronicle

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