In summary

Throughout California, 2017 was a year of historic rises: rising seas, rising housing costs, rising political resistance, rising concerns about whether key state programs over-promise and under-deliver. We traced the trajectory of each of these critical stories:

Throughout California, 2017 was a year of historic rises.

The sea at the very edge of our existence was unrelentingly on the rise—as was the cost of housing, which soared to unprecedented heights.

Rising up, too, were protesters and state officials waging political resistance against the Trump administration. There were escalating concerns about whether California’s ambitious and pricey programs to combat climate change and close a persistent student achievement gap were paying off, as well as how the state could afford surging pension obligations for public employees.

And the year came to a close as women called out what they characterized as a culture of sexual harassment in California’s Capitol—with a rising chorus of “We said enough.”

At CALmatters, we traced the trajectory of each of these critical stories:

A state submerging

A slow-moving emergency is lapping at California’s shores— climate-driven sea-level rise that experts now predict could elevate the water in coastal areas up to 10 feet in just 70 years, gobbling up beachfront and overwhelming low-lying cities.

The speed with which polar ice is melting and glacier shelves are cracking off indicates to some scientists that once-unthinkable outer-range projections of sea rise may turn out to be too conservative. A knee-buckling new state-commissioned report warns that if nothing changes, California’s coastal waters will rise at a rate 30 to 40 times faster than in the last century.

The potential result: crippled economies, compromised public safety, submerged infrastructure, and a forced retreat from our iconic Pacific coast. Read the full story


Why your housing costs are so high

Half the state’s households struggle to afford the roof over their heads. Homeownership—once a staple of the California dream—is at its lowest rate since World War II. Nearly 70 percent of poor Californians see the majority of their paychecks go immediately to escalating rents.

While it’s always been more expensive to be a homeowner in California, the gap between us and the rest of the country has grown into a chasm. The median California home is now priced 2.5 times higher than the median national home. As of 2015, the typical California home costs $437,000, easily beating the likes of Massachusetts or New York (only Hawaii had more expensive houses).

Despite relatively low mortgage rates, exploding housing prices have caused California’s homeownership rate to dip significantly. Just over half of California households own their homes—the third lowest rate in the country, and the lowest rate within the state since World War II. Read the full story


State’s big investment in needy students: Few signs yet achievement gap is closing

California’s new system for funding public education has pumped tens of billions of extra dollars into struggling schools, but there’s little evidence yet that the investment is helping the most disadvantaged students.

A CALmatters analysis of the biggest districts with the greatest clusters of needy children found limited success with the policy’s goal: to close the achievement gap between these students and their more privileged peers. Instead, test scores in most of those districts show the gap is growing.

The test scores echo a broader and growing concern about the Local Control Funding Formula from civil rights groups, researchers and legislators. That formula sends more money to schools with higher concentrations of foster youth, kids learning English and students from low-income families. But four years after it was adopted, there are few signs the program is working, and questions have arisen about whether the $31 billion invested so far is being spent effectively.

The concern has created a high-stakes confrontation with Gov. Jerry Brown, the formula’s architect, because his goal of shifting more responsibility to the local level means the state does not track basic information, such as how much grant money each district gets for needy students and how they spend it.

“The state has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to lift poor kids and not one penny evaluating whether any of it is working,” said Bruce Fuller, an education policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s outrageous. We’re heading into year five. It’s time to discern what’s effective and where we’re just wasting money.” Read the full story


Climate deal nets big bucks for polluters

The Bay Area's Chevron Oil Refinery in Richmond. Photo by Scott Hess via Flickr

Against the sparkling backdrop of sailboats bobbing on San Francisco Bay, Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed a bill extending California’s cap-and-trade program, assuring that the most high-profile piece of the state’s fight against climate change persists for another decade.

In a Sacramento hearing room two days later, the California Air Resources Board approved a paragraph, tucked within a 17-page resolution, that will likely result in benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the oil and agriculture industries. It was the first domino to visibly fall as a consequence of behind-the-scenes dealmaking that produced a cap-and-trade program acceptable to both key environmental groups and major polluters.

The air board’s generous impulse toward those polluters was an abrupt reversal of previous plans, ran counter to staff recommendations, and left at least one confused board member later saying he wished he had abstained from voting.

Although the board’s move was not written into the cap-and-trade legislation Brown signed, the bill’s author acknowledged it was a necessary concession in the scramble to secure its cliffhanger passage in the Legislature. Cap and trade, which lawmakers extended until 2030 with a bipartisan vote, is supposed to help California slow global warming by forcing industry to either operate more cleanly or pay to pollute. Read the full story


California’s resistance to Trump? So far semi-successes and a few fizzles

"Rise Resist Unite" read one banner on display at San Francisco's first Pride parade after Trump's election. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen via Wikimedia

The 2017 legislative session began with a rhetorical punch in the face to Donald Trump.

Democrats who rule California’s Legislature passed a winter resolution urging the newly elected Republican president not to pursue mass deportations, and denouncing “bigoted, racist, or misinformed descriptions of the immigrant community.” They went on, in the ensuing months, to tout the introduction of dozens of bills meant to preempt Trump’s administration from whittling down health care, cracking down on immigrants and canceling out environmental safeguards. A hashtag went viral: #stateofresistance.

Yet California Democrats had a mixed record when it came to turning their anti-Trump talk into action. A high-profile sanctuary bill meant to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation was significantly scaled back. A proposal to make it harder for the feds to build a wall on the California-Mexico border stalled. An attempt to provide state-run health care for all Californians—intensely demanded by progressive activists—was put on hold. And approval of a bill meant to preserve tough environmental standards in California even if the federal government weakens protections nationwide also stalled.

“It’s mostly bark and not so much bite,” said Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio. Read the full story


Backlash ripples through California politics after women denounce sexual harassment

With sexual harassment and assault allegations ricocheting through the state Capitol, two female lobbyists say they soon faced the consequences of speaking out—a state senator who suddenly wanted to avoid meeting with them.

A client of theirs relayed that the senator wanted women excluded from a meeting at a nearby watering hole. The reason: The senator and some of his colleagues had decided that, with accusations of bad behavior mounting against their fellow legislators, it would be safer to simply stop having drinks with lobbyists who happen to be female.

“Cutting off an entire gender from that access is clearly harmful,” said lobbyist Jodi Hicks, whose client alerted her of the senator’s intent. “If we are saying we need to change the culture, this is the opposite of that.”

Hicks is one of nearly 150 women who signed a letter in October condemning what they called the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in California politics. The movement known as “We Said Enough” began as a general outcry. It has since evolved into a series of specific and disturbing allegations that have toppled one lawmaker and have left two others fighting for their careers.

And as women come forward with stories of being propositioned, groped and even assaulted by male colleagues in politics, an undercurrent of retaliation has begun rippling through the state. Men have threatened to sideline women from private meetings. Critics, hiding behind anonymous emails, are trying to shame some of the women speaking out.

One lobbyist already has lost her job. Read the full story


Efforts to address California’s pension costs by ballot measure have failed

More than 20 times in the last 15 years, political leaders looking to control California’s fast-growing public pension costs have tried to put reform initiatives before the voters.

None of the proposals has made it onto the ballot.

Often, advocates could not raise enough money for signature gathering, advertising and other costs of an initiative campaign. Some of the most promising efforts, however, ran into a different kind of obstacle: an official summary, written by the state attorney general, that described the initiative in terms likely to alienate voters. Facing bleak prospects at the polls, the sponsors abandoned the campaigns. Read the full story


Deportation’s orphans: Who cares for children when parents are ejected?

Maria Echeveria and her 18-month-old son wait to see a lawyer at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. Echeveria is worried about being deported and separated from her baby, a U.S. citizen.

As immigration enforcement ramps up, so rises the fear of undocumented parents about the fate of their children if they are separated by deportation and returned to their native country.

Will the children stay in the United States? Who will care for them? Will someone transport the children to the parents wherever they are? Will U.S. authorities place them in foster care? And if so, will the parents be able to reclaim custody?

“It is the worst-case scenario for families,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. “It’s a horrible feeling, a horrible place to be to have to decide between the bonds that unite a family versus the future of those same loved ones.”

There are about 6 million U.S. citizen children with at least one parent who is in the country illegally. In California, nearly 2 million citizen children live with an unauthorized family member.

Sudden displacement can leave one or both parents in another country—desperate to reunite with their youngsters or trying to make plans for their care from afar. Read the full story


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