California lawmakers send caste discrimination bill to Newsom
From CalMatters state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal:
After many twists and turns — intra-party drama, xenophobic comments against its author and division among some South Asian communities — the first-in-the-nation bill to ban caste discrimination in California’s housing and employment laws completed its journey through the Legislature Tuesday with a 31-5 vote in the Senate.
It heads next to the governor’s desk. Until Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it into law, a coalition of supporters says it is launching a statewide hunger strike “to remind the state that Californians have lost their jobs due to caste discrimination; have been unhoused due to caste discrimination; and have been harmed irrevocably by physical, sexual, and verbal violence.”
On the other side, the Hindu American Foundation, one of the groups that organized against the bill, is calling on Newsom to veto it.
What will the governor decide? His office told CalMatters he “will evaluate the bill on its merits.”
Senate Bill 403 by Sen. Aisha Wahab adds caste — a centuries-old social hierarchy system that has historically determined what jobs or education people can attain — to the list of protected classes, alongside race, gender and sexual orientation.
- Wahab, on the Senate floor, ahead of the vote: “This bill is very simple. It is to protect all people against caste discrimination, regardless of caste: upper caste, lower caste, it does not matter.”
Because caste is associated often with the South Asian community, opponents that included Hindu-American groups said they feared the bill would lead to racial profiling.
Those concerns led Assemblymembers Evan Low and Alex Lee — who both represent parts of the Silicon Valley, which is home to large South Asian communities — to call for delaying the bill to study it further, though they later voted for it.
In a concession to critics, the bill was amended in the Assembly to include caste as a subset of ancestry.
Still on Tuesday, five Republican senators, including Shannon Grove and Brian Dahle, voted “no” Tuesday, saying that discrimination is already banned under current laws and that the bill could unfairly target Hindu Californians.
Back from the holiday weekend, lawmakers dove right into passing dozens of other bills as well on Tuesday. They have floor sessions every weekday until adjournment a week from Thursday.
Let’s get right to some of the highlights:
Fentanyl battle: As expected, Assembly Republicans failed in their bid to force a floor vote on “Alexandra’s Law,” a state constitutional amendment that would require convicted fentanyl dealers to be warned that they could face murder charges if they keep dealing and their drugs cause a death. And to no one’s surprise, they were outraged.
- Juan Alanis of Modesto: “These (fentanyl) bills that are going forward right now unfortunately are not harsh, do not have any penalties with them, do not have any teeth. This is what we need to bring back.”
Assembly Republicans also issued a statement that Democrats were siding “with cartels and drug traffickers.” In response, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas said he is taking the issue “seriously” and is working with legislators to “increase penalties” and noted that fentanyl dealers are already being convicted of murder.
Not even waiting for the outcome, Alexandra’s father, Matthew Capelouto, filed a ballot measure on behalf of other victims’ families to go around the Legislature. The initiative calls for a prison sentence of 10 to 12 years for fentanyl dealers whose drugs cause a death and includes a warning to dealers that they could get charged with murder. The group must collect more than 546,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Voting changes: A referendum reform bill won final approval in the state Senate and Assembly and is heading to Gov. Newsom. Originally drafted to put more guardrails on the process that critics say has been hijacked by big business, the bill would still require more disclosure of major funders. But Assemblymember Isaac Bryan changed the bill to focus on making the ballot language more clear for voters. Instead of “yes” meaning to uphold a challenged law, the ballot would say “keep the law.”
Also, the Culver City Democrat is putting off until next year his proposed constitutional amendment that would allow prisoners to vote from behind bars. There’s still time: The Legislature has until next June to put amendments before voters in November 2024.
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Other Stories You Should Know
1 A convicted felon wins a state contract
Former prisoners acting as mentors, landlords or counselors are critical to California’s push to rehabilitate parolees. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation relies on them in the network of reentry homes where parolees have a chance to get on their feet after prison.
Today, CalMatters’ investigative reporter Byrhonda Lyons has an exclusive story on how one former prisoner exploited those good intentions at rehab homes he ran in the Bay Area.
Attila Colar, 51, won his state contract as a rehab provider despite having served time in prison for defrauding the government. Using one of his five aliases, he eased through the corrections department’s vetting process and welcomed his first parolee to his Contra Costa County group homes on Dec. 31, 2019.
He then proceeded to commit more fraud, a federal jury found in June.
Colar pulled in more than $1 million in fraudulent COVID relief benefits through paycheck protection program loans after he went into business as a parolee rehab provider, the federal jury found. He got the money, in part, after he “falsely represented that the residents were CEOs of companies with hundreds of employees with million-dollar payrolls,” the Justice Department said in announcing his conviction in June.
- U.S. Attorney Ismail J. Ramsey: Colar “targeted some of the most marginalized and dispossessed persons in our community…. In the end, the defendant manipulated the very people who came to him for help.”
Colar’s conviction renews attention on California’s largest parolee reentry program, Specialized Treatment for Optimized Programming, or STOP. The program serves about 8,500 people a year and costs taxpayers $100 million annually.
The program is meant to give parolees a better chance of not ending up back in prison, but it has operated with little oversight for years. CalMatters in a separate yearlong investigation found that state officials — after spending more than $600 million on the program since 2014 — cannot say if it has helped steer newly released prisoners away from crime or find jobs.
Our report detailed how the corrections department leaves most of the program’s operations to four large contractors — GEO Reentry Services, Amity Foundation, HealthRight 360 and WestCare California. They in turn hire vendors who provide housing and services to parolees.
Colar’s All Hands on Deck was one of them.
Prosecutors and former residents alleged Colar neglected the services he was supposed to provide. CalMatters reached out to Colar by mail. He responded with a phone call from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, first agreeing to answer questions about the STOP program but, before doing so, saying he would have to call CalMatters back. He has not.
Colar defended himself during the trial, denying the government’s allegations against him. According to a trial transcript, he told the jury that prosecutors were “telling half truths to make me look bad.” “I’m not no golden boy, either,” he said. “I’m not saying that I walk straight on the path.”
- Jameelah Bey, Colar’s codefendant, in a plea agreement: “I felt we were doing good things for the people we served. Over time, I came to see that some of the people we were supposed to be serving were not receiving all of the services to which they were entitled.”
Read our story to learn more about how Colar won his rehab contract and what changes the state is making after his conviction.
On the table for the 1,600 members represented by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists: A 3% salary increase this year (on par with other state employees), a 2.5% raise next year, a one-time $1,000 essential worker bonus, retirement benefits and more. Psychiatrists who work in-person at prisons and state hospitals are eligible for at least $42,000 a year in bonuses.
The contract is projected to cost $234.4 million over three years. The Legislature must sign off on the deal before it’s ratified by the union and the administration. If the deal fails, union members have already voted to go on strike.
Prison psychiatrists are among the highest-paid state employees, but lower salaries compared to the private sector and treating criminals mean that more than half these jobs at state hospitals and prisons sit vacant. Other state bargaining units, including the union representing state correctional officers and the umbrella union for nine state bargaining units, SEIU Local 1000, are close to reaching their contract deals as well. And the union for state scientists voted last week to authorize a strike.
2 CA colleges can keep building
California community colleges can breathe a sigh of relief as two bills making their way through the Legislature will allow schools to continue developing housing after a state budget provision in June threatened to halt, or nix such projects altogether.
As CalMatters’ higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn explains, 20% of community college students experience homelessness. To house thousands of them, 19 community colleges were promised nearly $1 billion in state cash upfront to build affordable student housing.
Some community colleges backed out of their development plans, bristling that there was no solid guarantee that the state would fund the millions needed annually to repay the debt.
The two measures, likely to become law, would allow the colleges to keep the money they already received from the 2022 budget, enabling them to continue their housing plans and avoid costly construction delays. But they’ll have to return the money by the end of June 2024.
In place of those funds, the state intends to find the money by late June or July of next year. How it’ll find the new revenue is unclear, but community colleges support the fix because it means they won’t be on the hook for the money.
From CalMatters community college reporter Adam Echelman:
On Friday, state legislators pared down a bill that would have provided more chances for community college students to retake classes. The bill faced criticism from advocacy groups and the University of California Student Association, among others. They argued that the bill could make it more difficult for community college students to graduate on time and that colleges should invest in academic counseling and other support systems instead. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office did not officially oppose the bill but wrote a letter, expressing concern that the bill could be “costly” and “undo years of transformational work.”
The bill would have increased the number of times a student can retake a course after failing or dropping out from three to five.
- Melissa Bardo, associate director of policy and government relations at Education Trust–West: “Failing and repeating up to five times, that’s two-and- a-half years.”
That provision is gone now. “I’m saddened to hear that’s the piece that we’re losing. That’s the piece that’s essential,” said Heather Brandt, a student trustee at City College of San Francisco, who received special permission to retake entry-level English four times due to family issues, including the incarceration of her spouse and health challenges with both her mother and grandmother.
Assemblymember Mike Fong, a Monterey Park Democrat, said he amended the bill to “reduce costs” after an analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee said this particular provision could cost the state between $68.8 million to $137.5 million a year.
The bill, which got out of the Senate Appropriations suspense file with the amendments, retains one proposed change that would allow students who successfully pass a course to retake it one time. Bardo said she still opposes the current bill but was “pleased to see the amendments.”
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: State government in high-tech California continues to bungle information technology.
CalMatters commentary has a new California Voices page with previous op-eds and columns, plus picks by editor Yousef Baig. Give it a look.
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