In summary

California turned even bluer in 2018, but it’s still vexed by excruciating housing costs, an unrelenting student achievement gap, a precarious tax base, looming public pension obligations, unequal justice, and evidence that climate change is happening far faster than the state can fend off its disastrous consequences. At CALmatters, we traced the trajectory of each of these stories.

Optimists stay up until midnight to see the new year in, they say, while pessimists stay up to ensure that the old year leaves. Odds are your political perspective influences how you regarded 2018—the state of California’s 168th year of existence— and how eager you are to leap into the year to come.

To recap: The 2018 midterms unleashed a blue tsunami that engulfed most of the state, washing in a new governor prone to audacity and a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature. The once-dominant state Republican Party intensified its Trumpification, fractured and flailed—losing every statewide race and its registration dipping below voters who preferred no party whatsoever. Both shifts spurred speculation that California eventually could be the birthplace of a new, competitive moderate party.

The Golden State continued to pose as the Resistance State, with its defiant crusade against climate change and its zeal for going to court to thwart the Trump administration.

But the challenges that confronted California in 2017 were no less daunting in 2018: excruciating housing costs, an unrelenting student achievement gap, a precarious tax base, looming public pension obligations, unequal justice, and evidence that climate change is happening far faster than the state can fend off its disastrous consequences.

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

Behind the smile: Gavin Newsom’s next “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”

Gavin Newsom smiles at a campaign stop at Stakely's Barber Salon in Los Angeles, as he campaigns for governor. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

Gavin Newsom has a book that he says every Californian should read: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. A 1994 blockbuster among the MBA set, the book is a series of case studies on how some of the world’s leading corporations made it big. And it says a lot about the 51-year-old Democrat who polls say is most likely to become California’s next governor.

Yes, Built to Last speaks to Newsom’s private-sector roots in the San Francisco wine business. And it’s full of the sort of TED Talk-ready neologisms and mantras that Newsom sprinkles throughout his speeches—and distributes in spiral-bound motivational booklets to his employees. But the book is also an obvious choice because of one of its central insights: visionaries need a “Big, Hairy Audacious Goal”—a BHAG. “Like the moon mission, a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort,” the book explains. “People like to shoot for finish lines.”

Newsom likes to shoot for finish lines too. “I’d rather be accused of (having) those audacious stretch goals than be accused of timidity,” he said. “Because I just don’t think the world demands timidity.” Read the full article


Digging into the data: How affordable is the ‘California Dream’ today?

No one has the exact same definition of the California dream. Ask the 39 million current Californians about what the dream should be, and aside from most of us agreeing that the daily temperature should dip no colder than the mid-‘50s, you’ll likely get 39 million very different answers. But the so-called “Golden Era” of California—that faded Technicolor image of a magical time in the 1960s when as soon as you crossed the stateline Ronald Reagan would hand deliver you a two-story house and 2.5 children and tiki-themed patio furniture—still seeps into our expectations of life here.

Yet there’s an increasingly pervasive feeling among those of us who actually live here that the California dream is just harder than it used to be. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that only 17 percent of Californians believe the state’s current generation is doing better than previous ones. More than 50 percent thought younger Californians were doing worse.

Something is changing, and Californians can sense it. Read the full article

As California burns, climate goals may go up in smoke—even after the flames are out

Flames from the Mendocino Complex fire send carbon into the air.

As crews across California battle more than a dozen wildfires—including the largest in state history—the blazes are spewing enough carbon into the air to undo some of the good done by the state’s climate policies. What’s even worse: Climate-warming compounds that will be released by the charred forests long after the fires are extinguished may do more to warm up the planet than the immediate harm from smoky air.

Scientists say that only about 15 percent of a forest’s store of carbon is expelled during burns. The remainder is released slowly over the coming years and decades, as trees decay. That second hit of carbon, experts say, contains compounds that do more to accelerate climate change than those from the original fire. And future fires over previously burned ground could make climate prospects even more bleak.

It’s a scenario that could explode at any time. A research paper published this year lays out a chilling tableau: California has more than a 120 million dead trees strewn around its mountain ranges, with the southern Sierra hardest hit. When fires hit those downed trees, the state will begin to experience “mass fires” spewing plumes of carbon.  Read the full article


California’s Chief Justice leaves the Republican Party, citing Kavanaugh

Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of the California State Supreme Court, talks with the Mercury News editorial board at the Mercury News in San Jose Thursday Jan. 26, 2012. (Patrick Tehan/Staff)

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has quietly given up her Republican registration and re-registered as a no-party-preference voter, saying Thursday she had become increasingly uncomfortable with the GOP’s direction nationally and in the state. Cantil-Sakauye—who was a prosecutor before becoming a judge 28 years ago and California Supreme Court chief justice in 2011—told CALmatters she made the final decision to change her registration after watching the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In those hearings, Kavanaugh denied allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto professor, that he assaulted her when they were high school students in Maryland.

“I’ve been thinking about it for some time,” Cantil-Sakauye said, adding that she talked it over with her husband and friends. Their consensus, she said, was that “you didn’t leave the party. The party left you.”

The 59-year-old jurist, who as chief justice is the head of the judicial branch of government, is the latest high-profile Republican to disavow the party in the wake of President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Read the full article


Progressive Democrats run California—yet it does more than many states to shield police from scrutiny

Cops have a lot of pull in the California Capitol, and over the decades, that’s added up to this startling reality: The Golden State now goes further than many states in terms of protecting police from public scrutiny.

It’s a stark contrast to the state’s “left coast” image. On abortion rights, gun control and climate change, California has embraced some of the most liberal policies in the nation. But even with a statehouse controlled entirely by Democrats, California laws are friendlier to law enforcement—and less transparent to the public—than those in Wisconsin and Florida, states with Republican governors and legislatures.

One explanation is that politicians from both parties seek police endorsements to help them sway voters. Polling has shown that two-thirds of Californians think their local police are doing a good job controlling crime. Another is that labor unions representing officers donate generously to elect officials at every level of government.

Read the full article and watch the video

The block that Prop. 13 built

California dream prop 13

By the mid-1970s that dream was in peril. Housing prices and property taxes spiked. Homeowners worried they wouldn’t be able pay their bills. In 1978, voters backed Proposition 13. At its core, it was a vote to preserve the California dream of owning and keeping a home.

Forty years later, that election continues to shape the state. Prop. 13 changed the formula for funding schools, libraries and other public programs. It influenced the building of houses and commercial properties. To this day, Prop. 13 plays an outsized role in who can afford to live here and what it costs to own a home.

So did Prop. 13 save the California dream or spoil it? To answer this question, we focused on a single block in a middle-class neighborhood in North Oakland.

That’s where we found stories you could hear on almost any block, almost anywhere in the state. Explore this interactive project


With California school bonds, the rich get richer. The poor? Not so much.

Photo illustration

Schools in California’s wealthier communities have been reaping far more local bond money than poorer districts, a CALmatters analysis shows—a reality that amplifies existing inequities for the state’s public school studen

Districts with the lowest concentrations of students on free or reduced lunch, a poverty indicator, have averaged more than twice as many local bond dollars per student since 1998 as the most impoverished districts. And depending on where your children go to school, they could be benefitting from as much as $270,000 per pupil in local bond money over the past two decades, or as little as $838—or nothing.

The amounts of local bonds, typically used for school facilities, are heavily reliant on local property values—a clear advantage to schools ensconced in the tonier parts of California. The result: While voters in many communities have approved unprecedented amounts of local school bonds to modernize facilities, some students, many of them poor, have remained in crumbling classrooms that haven’t been substantially renovated since they were first built in the 1950s or 60s. Read the full article


CALmatters Explains: California’s War on Climate Change

Environment reporter Julie Cart explains California's war on climate change.
Environment reporter Julie Cart explains California’s war on climate change.

California is leading the country in efforts to combat climate change—and upped the ante again in 2018 as Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring California to derive all of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2045. This explainer looks at what happens when a state responsible for about 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases goes all-in to fight climate change. Watch the video


California’s for-profit college watchdog fails to police as feds back down

Former Art Institute student Jana Bergevin filed a complaint about the school with California's Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, a watchdog agency that oversees for-profit colleges, but her case languished for more than two years. Photo by James Bernal for CALmatters.

Jana Bergevin’s dream was as elusive as it is common: a career in Hollywood. She wanted to be an animator, able to turn her imagination into stories for screens big and small.Admissions officers at The Art Institute of San Francisco convinced her the for-profit college could all but guarantee her a job in the industry if she graduated from its expensive program. They talked about their connections to studios such as Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks.

She completed her Bachelor of Arts in 2007 but no entertainment job materialized. Admissions officers stuck to their selling points, persuading her to return for a graduate degree, she said. After seven years at the school, Bergevin said, she had $114,000 in debt and a monthly loan payment of $1,200. She still did not have the job she expected, nor the help getting one she said the Art Institute assured her it would provide.

Angry at what she describes as fraud by the school—including false promises, poor teaching and job placement statistics that seemed inflated—she filed a complaint in 2016 with California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, the state agency charged with licensing and regulating for-profit colleges and vocational schools.

But years passed with no answers—as with hundreds of other complaints filed with the bureau. It has repeatedly failed or been slow to enforce laws meant to prevent fraud and abuse at the more than 1,000 schools it is charged with overseeing, leaving a serious gap in accountability as federal regulators back away from the job.  Read the full article


The open secret about California taxes

Income taxes are 70 percent of California's general-fund revenue. Image via Flickr

California’s tax system, which relies heavily on the wealthy for state income, is prone to boom-and-bust cycles. While it delivers big returns from the rich whenever Wall Street goes on a bull run, it forces state and local governments to cut services, raise taxes or borrow money in a downturn. During the Great Recession, the capital-gains taxes that sustained the state in good times plummeted. School districts handed out 30,000 pink slips to teachers, and the state was so cash-strapped it gave out IOUs when it couldn’t pay some of its bills.

California is now enjoying one of the longest economic expansions in state history, but the good times can’t last forever. With an “inevitable recession lurking in our future,” Gov. Jerry Brown has warned, state and local governments are more vulnerable than ever to teacher and police layoffs, park and library closures and cuts in health and welfare services for the poor.

Past bipartisan efforts to reduce volatility without raising taxes on the poor and working class have had limited success. The overall tax structure hasn’t been updated, leaving parts of the economy taxed at some of the nation’s highest rates while other sectors, such as services—which many other states do tax—aren’t taxed in California. Politicians like to talk about the problem. Yet few have been willing to initiate change.

We take a deeper look at California’s tax structure—walking you through what we live with today, the problems we encounter and the proposals to fix them. Explore this card-deck explainer


California teacher pension debt swamps budgets

Tiffany Stelle and Donald Hui, teachers at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, joined a tailgating action over stalled contract talks. An agreement has since been reached. Photography by Penni Gladstone for CALmatters

California’s public schools have enjoyed a remarkable restoration of funding since the bone-deep cuts they endured during the recession, but many are now facing a grave financial threat as they struggle to protect pensions crucial for teachers’ retirement.

Over the next three years, schools may need to use well over half of all the new money they’re projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations, leaving little extra for classrooms, state Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates show. This is true even though the California State Teachers’ Retirement System beat its investment goals  for the second straight year.

Some districts are predicting deficits and many districts are bracing for what’s to come by cutting programs, reducing staff or drawing down their reserves—even though per-pupil funding is at its highest level in three decades and voters recently extended a tax hike on the rich to help pay for schools. At the same time, some districts are grappling with how to simultaneously afford raises for teachers who have threatened to strike.

The situation could become even more bleak if California’s economy doesn’t keep growing. Read the full article


How California hopes to halt the revolving door to the ER

Robin Miller "was in the ER all the time" for various problems. Photo by David Gorn/CALmatters

The state budget that kicked in last month devotes more than $100 billion to Medi-Cal, California’s health system for the poor. The bulk of that money will be spent on a tiny fraction of patients. And although they’re in need of help, they’re not the sickest people.

Just 10 percent of state-supported patients use up almost two thirds of the Medi-Cal budget. Only 5 percent of patients account for more than half of Medi-Cal spending. And just 1 percent of Medi-Cal’s current 13.2 million enrollees, or 132,000 people, will use up more than a quarter of the money

Some super-users have life-threatening illnesses, such as children with rare cancers or people receiving major organ transplants. But most of them struggle with addiction or mental health problems and rack up high numbers of emergency-room visits and hospital admissions. So in late 2016, the state launched a five-year, $3 billion effort to identify and treat them, coordinate their care and direct them to recovery and prevention programs. Read the full article


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