CVIndependent

Tue12102019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Jaelyn Deas and her four best friends shared everything, including late-night study sessions in the library at San Jose State University, and a never-ending preoccupation with how they’d pay for their tuition there.

The one thing they didn’t do together? Graduate.

While she was juggling a major in international business, a minor in Japanese and a job to help keep up with her expenses, Deas fell behind, and her friends put on their caps and gowns and walked across the stage in May without her.

It was her friends who were defying the odds. Fewer than 20 percent of her classmates who entered San Jose State in 2014 finished in four years—less than half the national average.

That didn’t make Deas feel any better. She considered quitting or transferring to a community college. Then she was summoned to the financial aid office, where she learned that the university, part of the California State University System, was giving her a grant of up to $1,500 to help her get across the finish line.

“I walked out of the office crying. I had no idea something like this existed, and it took a burden off my shoulders,” said Deas, who is on track now to earn her bachelor’s degree before the year is out.

It’s one example of the many ways that California is taking on seemingly intractable problems that are plaguing higher education nationwide.

These include the longer-than-expected amount of time it takes students to graduate; high dropout rates; financial aid that doesn’t cover living expenses; courses that cost more than students will earn from what they learn; institutions that prey on veterans and others; financial-aid applications so complex that many students never bother with them; admissions policies that favor relatives of donors and alumni; credits that won’t transfer; pricey textbooks; and “remedial” education requirements that force students to retake subjects they should have learned in high school, often frustrating them enough to quit.

Not all of the initiatives have succeeded, nor is California the only state that’s trying them, often in the absence of reforms at the federal level. That program at San Jose State to help students make it to graduation by offering them small bursts of financial aid, for instance, was pioneered at Georgia State University.

But California is bucking a national trend: Most other states are continuing to reduce, not increase, their higher education budgets. With a higher education budget of $18.5 billion in 2019-2020, it has invested heavily in helping community college students transfer into four-year programs; spent more than $50 million on food banks and other programs to combat student hunger and homelessness; opened an online community college to serve people who are already working; and boosted state grants for students with children, among other initiatives.

Meanwhile, all but four states are spending less on higher education, per student, than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Those spending more? Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming—and California.

Some of what is happening here is inspiring similar reforms around the country. After California took on the NCAA in September by requiring that college athletes be allowed to sign paid endorsement deals, for example, legislators in New York, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina started mulling comparable legislation. That prompted a decision by the NCAA to let college athletes benefit from the use of their names and likenesses, though the association is still working out the details.

Fueling the reforms and the funding behind them are a projected shortage of workers with the necessary degrees to fill the jobs of the future; a public backlash in response to budget cuts made during the recession; and a concern that the state had been abandoning its long tradition of high-quality, low-cost education.

Californians remember “when younger generations could truly expect to live a better life than their parents and grandparents. And that dream has been fading,” said David Chiu, a member of the State Assembly from San Francisco who is active in education issues.

“That’s why so many of us have been focused on how do we bring this back,” Chiu said. “Because we had that history, because we knew what a well-functioning higher education system could do, we aspire to that again.”


California’s Challenge

Over the course of a century, California built the country’s top-ranked public research university and its largest and most affordable community college system. Today, there are 10 University of California campuses, 23 Cal State (CSU) campuses, and 115 community colleges.

A California resident in 1960 could earn a bachelor’s degree at the world-class University of California, or UC, for just $60 per semester in “incidental fees”—about $500 in today’s currency. That same year, the state adopted a master plan for higher education: The UC would serve the top eighth of graduating high school seniors, while the top third would be eligible to attend a CSU campus. The community colleges would be open to all.

The goal, writes historian John Aubrey Douglass, was “broad access combined with the development of high quality, mission differentiated, and affordable higher education institutions.”

But in the coming decades, politicians of both parties responded to economic downturns by cutting higher education funding, causing tuition to rise. The trend peaked during the recession that began in 2008, when UC hiked undergraduate tuition by nearly a third in a single year.

The price of undergraduate tuition and fees, when adjusted for inflation, has increased sixfold in the last 40 years at the University of California, and is 15 times higher at California State campuses, according to the independent California Budget and Policy Center.

Only one student in 10 graduates in four years at Cal State Los Angeles; that number’s fewer than one in five at nine of the system’s other campuses.

In a poll of likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California, 53 percent said the higher education system was going in the wrong direction, and 56 percent that an education was growing less affordable.

Like many states, California is behind in its progress toward a goal of increasing the proportion of adults with a college or university credential, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this; today, fewer than half of its adults have one, short of the target of 60 percent by 2030 set by the advocacy group the Campaign for College Opportunity. (Lumina is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which co-produced this story.)

“That number gets a lot of play across the street,” said Jake Jackson, a Sacramento-based research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, gesturing toward the state Capitol.

At the same time, California’s student population has changed in ways that foreshadow national trends, becoming more ethnically diverse, with growing numbers coming from low-income families in which they are the first to go to college. No racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority here; 39 percent of residents are Hispanic, while 38 percent are white; 14 percent are Asian; and 6 percent are black. More than a quarter are immigrants.

Those demographics have allowed for experimentation with ways to encourage college-going by people from a variety of backgrounds.

Doing this isn’t easy, even here. Cristina Mora remembers feeling lost and adrift after leaving her close-knit Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles to enroll at UC Berkeley in 1999, “like there had been a clerical error, and I’d been admitted by mistake.” She didn’t attend a professor’s office hours until her junior year, finally converting the Cs and Ds she’d been earning into A-pluses.

Today, Mora is an associate professor of sociology at Berkeley and a mentor to other first-generation college students. She says UC has made strides in attracting diverse applicants by increasing recruiting in previously ignored areas such as the Central Valley and towns along the Mexican border, and making it easier for community college students to transfer. Students of her generation returned to their communities, she said, bringing with them “a sense that the UC system provides an opportunity, and that these are places that would be welcoming.”

But black and Latino students today still are less likely than their peers to graduate from UC or CSU institutions in four years and are underrepresented on the state’s most selective campuses. Among UC students, they take on higher-than-average levels of debt.

“We have a long history of not catering to these populations,” Mora said.

If policymakers are going to close California’s graduation gap, they’ll have to figure out how to meet the needs of students like Mora once was, and Deas is today. And if California can do that, perhaps the rest of the country can, too.


Helping Students Graduate

Some of what is happening in California leverages the state’s vast power of the purse. For starters, the state is trying to increase the number of transfer students—especially from its community colleges—accepted by both public and private universities.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown threatened in 2017 both to withhold a $50 million allocation to the UC system unless it increased its share of transfer students, and to strip private colleges and universities of their eligibility for the $2 billion Cal Grant program unless they did a better job admitting transfers.

Brown wanted some public universities with low numbers of transfers to take one transfer student for every two freshmen, a goal they’ve largely met. In addition, the private, nonprofit member institutions of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities have agreed to collectively enroll 3,000 transfer students annually by next year.

The state invested $75 million last year to try to raise those low CSU graduation rates and plans to spend another $75 million this year. The rates have already slowly started to improve, with 27.7 percent of CSU students now finishing in four years, up from 19 percent in 2015. (The most recent available national average is 42 percent, the U.S. Department of Education says.)

Some of that extra money has gone toward adding sections of courses that were filling up too fast. Not getting into the classes he needs is a big fear for student James Soberano, a San Jose State freshman majoring in computer engineering who was pecking away at his laptop in the student center.

“I definitely want to be out of here in four years,” Soberano said. “If not, I’ll be taking summer classes to be sure I am.”

San Jose State has also added 30 new advisers in the last three years, a university spokeswoman said. Data analysis is being used to pinpoint bottlenecks, such as those overcrowded courses. The “Spartan Completion Grant” that Deas got is part of a program that began last year for seniors who are within two semesters of earning their degrees and meet other requirements. They can receive up to $1,500 per semester. The university says that 70 percent of recipients have graduated.

Another effective way of speeding students toward degrees is by eliminating noncredit remedial courses, which require them to repeat subjects such as algebra and English. More than four in 10 college students across the country end up in remedial—also called “developmental”—classes. That costs students $1.3 billion a year, according to the Center for American Progress, and many simply give up.

In California, 80 percent of community college students were being sent to remedial courses in English or math, and only 16 percent of them earned a certificate or associate degree within six years, according to the PPIC.

In response, in 2017, California’s community colleges began putting less-well-prepared students into credit-bearing introductory courses with extra tutoring. The CSU system, too, started doing this last year, and now also funnels students with low high school grades or standardized test scores into special preparation programs in the summer before their freshman years.

Though some faculty members have objected to the changes, early studies suggest they’ve led to big improvements: 63 percent of community college students who went directly into transfer-level English composition courses with tutoring successfully completed them, compared to 32 percent who went to remediation.


Costs Outside the Classroom

Bright murals decorate the walls of UC Berkeley’s Basic Needs Center, framing the entrance to a food pantry laden with organic mac and cheese, fresh produce and bread from a nearby bakery.

Students who have trouble affording food and rent come here to do their grocery shopping, sign up for public benefits or meet with counselors. A community kitchen is under construction, and volunteers use a bicycle with a custom trailer to pedal around nearby neighborhoods, collecting excess produce from residents’ gardens.

The center is the result of student activism spotlighting the nontuition costs of college in a state where the price of housing has reached staggering heights. The goal: to ease students’ stress about food and shelter so they can focus on their studies.

Researchers have documented widespread food and housing insecurity among students across the country, and the purchasing power of the federal Pell Grant, which can help cover living costs, is at a historic low. California students spend an average of $2,020 a month, or $18,180 per nine-month academic year, on food, housing, books, supplies and transportation, a survey released in September by the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC, found.

California is well-equipped to address college affordability because, unlike in many other states, every low-income student who has completed high school within the previous year and meets academic requirements is entitled to a state scholarship, the Cal Grant, that helps pay his or her tuition.

While hundreds of thousands of students still miss out on the grants each year because they took time off before college, this tradition of comparatively generous tuition assistance has nevertheless freed policymakers to think about how to make the other aspects of college more affordable, said Lande Ajose, senior policy adviser on higher education to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“For six of the last seven years, tuition has remained flat at our colleges, and yet we find the cost of college increasing, and that is because the cost of living is increasing,” Ajose said.

The California Assembly passed a bill this year that would have made it easier for all students with financial need to access Cal Grants and tied the amount to their full cost of attendance. Though the Senate left the measure stranded in its Education Committee because of concerns about the price, its authors, the governor’s office and higher education advocates say that they are discussing how to move forward on another version in the next session.

Given California’s size and diversity, Ajose said she hopes the solution they come up with can serve as a model for the rest of the country.

“Just as California’s student population is becoming more diverse, that’s not the time to disinvest in higher education,” she said. “That’s the time to double down on investment in higher education, if we really care about equity.”

California has thrown a lot of other ideas at making college more affordable.

The California State system and some UC campuses have substituted cheaper digital books and open-source materials for textbooks, for example, which the CSAC found cost California students $1,080 a year.

The CSAC itself last year began to address the complex process of applying for financial aid, which research shows makes prospective students less likely to enroll in college in the first place, by creating a more user-friendly website and making it easier to compare the costs of different schools.

In a pilot program by the California Policy Lab, redesigning and simplifying letters sent to 130,000 high school students about Cal Grants made them 9 percent more likely to register for the online Cal Grant system by June of their senior years. “That’s a lot of new students able to attend college and improve their career options,” said the lab’s executive director, Evan White.

Many campuses are opening food pantries like the one at UC Berkeley, holding outreach fairs to sign up students for the state’s version of the federal food stamp program, or starting emergency housing programs—all backed by that more than $50 million in this year’s state budget to help deal with student hunger and homelessness.

Those funds came after students packed legislative hearings over the past two years to testify about rising rents and having to work 30 hours a week on top of their study time. That kind of activism also stands out from what is happening in most other states, where students lack strong statewide organizations or are less involved in state politics, said Max Lubin, an Education Department official in the Obama administration who started the advocacy group Rise while a graduate student at Berkeley. The group provides paid fellowships for students to spend a semester lobbying politicians on college costs.

“California higher education leaders have learned in the last couple of years that they can get a lot more done by working with students than in conflict with them,” Lubin said.

The state is trying to help older students, too, a challenge also facing the rest of the country. More than 35 million Americans over the age of 25 have some college credits but never got degrees, the Census Bureau says; 29 percent of undergraduate and 76 percent of graduate students are 25 or older, the U.S. Department of Education reports. But many juggle families and jobs, and aren’t eligible for state financial aid.

This year, Gov. Newsom successfully pushed to provide students at public universities and colleges who are parents of dependent children with as much as $6,000 a year for books, child care and other nontuition expenses on top of tuition aid. An estimated 29,000 parents qualify, the governor’s office says. In September, the state debuted an online community college designed especially for people 25 to 34 who are already working but don’t have a college degree or certificate.

Legislators also filed several bills to tighten regulation of for-profit colleges and universities, which often serve older, low-income students. One would have required these schools to prove that the educations for which they were charging graduates resulted in jobs that paid enough to justify the cost—similar to the Obama-era “gainful employment” rule that has been blocked at the federal level by the Trump administration—or lose their access to state financial aid.

That proposal, which was introduced by Chiu, was beaten back by industry lobbying, but, in a compromise, the state will begin to collect information on graduates’ income and debt, by institution, so that consumers can make better-informed choices about which programs will and will not pay off.

“We’ll have a pretty good sense of how many schools are failing our students and exactly who they are. We can then decide what the consequences of that should be,” Chiu said.

Several other measures to crack down on for-profit schools stalled, thanks in part to the for-profit colleges’ aggressive lobbying campaign. But advocates say they were only the first salvos in an ongoing battle.

“In large part, it’s because of the federal retreat on oversight of for-profit colleges that California lawmakers are seeing a need to elevate the state’s attention” to it, said Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

With the entire structure of for-profit college oversight in California up for renewal next year, said Shireman, he expects that some of these proposals will be raised again. That will continue to put the state in direct opposition to the Trump administration on higher education regulation, as it is on many other issues.

Few clashes are as pitched as the fight over who gets to decide whether veterans in California can use their GI Bill benefits to attend for-profit Ashford University, which the state’s attorney general has accused in an ongoing lawsuit of misleading students, including veterans.

That tug of war began when the state stepped in to block veterans who enrolled at Ashford from receiving taxpayer-funded support. In response, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in September stripped authority from the state veterans education agency to determine veterans’ benefits eligibility there.


Experimentation at Scale

California is not the only state trying to improve the success rates of its students, or to make policy in the absence of federal action; amid the partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., the Higher Education Act, which covers all federal regulations over higher education and which Congress typically reauthorizes every four to six years, hasn’t been updated since 2008.

Louisiana last year started to require high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Texas will also require this, beginning in 2021-22. Currently, 30 percent of undergraduates or aspiring undergraduates never fill out this form, forgoing the chance to receive financial aid; a third of them would have qualified for a federal Pell Grant, research supported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found.

Colorado is dropping remedial courses beginning in 2022, and universities and colleges there have already started getting rid of them.

Many states have resorted to enforcement actions, lawsuits and new laws to crack down on for-profit colleges and universities and loan-servicing companies they say cheat or mislead students.

At the federal level, a House bill—introduced by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California—would create a pilot program to help community colleges pay for free meals for students who can’t afford to buy food.

But few other states are trying as many reforms at once as California, or can do so at such scale; its financial aid program is the nation’s biggest, and its community colleges alone have a collective enrollment of 2.1 million.

California still has to figure out how to cope with the challenges that come with that scale. Each year, tens of thousands of qualified applicants are turned away from UC and CSU campuses due to lack of space.

But California’s size will also continue to make it a laboratory for innovation, Kevin Cook, associate director of the PPIC Higher Education Center, said.

“There’s a lot of interest from large funders,” he said. “Because of the size of the state, if you can make something work here, it will probably work anywhere else.”

This story about California higher education was produced by CalMatters, a nonprofit news venture covering California policy and politics, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This story also appeared in CalMatters, The Hechinger Report and NBC News.

Published in Features

Starting immediately, California state agencies will no longer buy gas-powered sedans, officials said Friday—and starting in January, the state will stop purchasing vehicles from carmakers that haven’t agreed to follow California’s clean-car rules.

The decision affects General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and multiple other automakers that sided with the Trump administration in the ongoing battle over tailpipe-pollution rules. The policy will hit General Motors particularly hard; California spent more than $27 million on passenger vehicles from GM-owned Chevrolet in 2018.

California’s Department of General Services, the state’s business manager that oversees vehicle purchases for California’s fleet, announced the bans on Friday afternoon. The immediate ban on state purchases of cars powered only by gas will include exceptions for public-safety vehicles. 

“The state is finally making the smart move away from internal-combustion engine sedans,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement emailed to CalMatters. The new policies align with Newsom’s September executive order urging the state government to reduce greenhouse gases. “Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” Newsom said.

It’s the latest volley in the fight over climate-changing pollution from cars and trucks. “It certainly sends a strong message to the automakers that have come out on the other side of California in this litigation,” said Julia Stein, supervising attorney at UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic. “It’s taking steps to encourage automakers to be on what it views as the right side of that dispute.”

The Trump administration has long proposed rolling back Obama-era standards curbing greenhouse gases and increasing fuel economy of passenger vehicles. Those rollbacks have yet to be finalized, but in September, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stripped California’s authority to make its own greenhouse gas rules—rules that 13 other states and the District of Columbia follow.

The move kicked off what’s likely to become a lengthy court battle—and, indeed, California and 22 states sued the EPA this month, after suing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in September.

To fend off the uncertainty of a long fight in court, four major automakers—Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen—cut a deal with California. California agreed to relax the Obama-era greenhouse-gas targets somewhat, and the carmakers agreed to follow the state’s rules.

Earlier this year, California officials indicated they were optimistic that more carmakers would sign on. But amid growing pressure from the White House, two auto-industry trade groups representing more than a dozen auto manufacturers including General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota aligned themselves with the Trump administration by calling for a single set of clean-car standards nationwide.

Now California’s Department of General Services is crafting policy that will prohibit state purchases from carmakers that haven’t signed on to its clean-car deal—and manufacturers could stand to lose millions in sales to the state. In addition to the $27 million in purchases from Chevrolet, the state also spent more than $11 million on Fiat Chrysler brands, and more than $3.6 million on Toyota. Toyota, well-known for its environmentally friendly Prius, is also facing public backlash for its alliance with the Trump administration. 

The move might deepen the divide in an already fracturing auto industry, Stein speculates. “There’s already been a little bit of a wedge driven,” she said. “You could see something like this driving the wedge even further.”

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Auto Alliance trade group that represents both automakers that signed on with California’s clean-car deal and companies that sided with the Trump administration, said automakers have invested heavily in electrified vehicles. “So we support efforts by fleet managers to buy more of these vehicles,” she said in an email. “As consumers see more electrified vehicles on the roadways, we hope to see a tipping point where they become more mainstream.”

This isn’t the first time that California has hinted it would use its power as the world’s fifth largest economy to reward carmakers that followed its rules, and punish those that didn’t. In remarks written for a May workshop, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols warned that federal tailpipe emissions rollbacks could force “an outright ban on internal-combustion engines.”

More recently, CalMatters discovered that legislation written in September would weaponize the state’s clean-car rebates by restricting them to only the carmakers that signed on to California’s deal. The bill didn’t receive a vote, but its language urging the state to spurn “companies that are not helping to achieve the state’s public health and climate goals” foreshadowed Newsom’s comments today: “In court, and in the marketplace, California is standing up to those who put short-term profits ahead of our health and our future.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

The easy calls have been made in dealing with California’s wildfire crisis. We’re clearing brush, spending on firefighters and hastening insurance claims. We’ve tied the pay of utility executives to their companies’ safety records. To save lives—and liability costs—during red-flag conditions, we’ve cut power to great swaths of the state.

We’ve spent billions: Rare is the press release from Gov. Gavin Newsom that does not include a litany of wildfire actions. But it hasn’t been enough, and as Californians now face the realities of climate change, the only choices left are hard vs. hard: Black out even more people. Ban wildland homebuilding. Bury power lines. Build microgrids. Break up the state’s largest utility—the bankrupt one supplying half of the state—and give its aging, spark-spewing equipment to taxpayers or customers or hedge funds or Warren Buffett. Burn nature before it burns you.

So what are our options at this point, assuming we get through this season? Here are a few—with pros, cons and political odds.

Why don’t we ban homebuilding in areas of high risk?

The idea: One in three homes in California is in an area at risk for wildfire. Those residences—poised on the edge of, and sometimes in the midst of rugged, flammable wildlands—are increasingly in peril. And too often, only the rich can afford the kind of insurance that’s necessary to rebuild.

The pros: This is a zoning issue. If people can be prohibited from building in a flood plain, or warned about living on a fault line, why not write ordinances that either say no to building in dangerous places, or require homeowners and businesses to sign a waiver absolving authorities from the need to provide fire protection to them?

The cons: Property rights are big in American jurisprudence. People want to build where they choose and get irritated when the state steps on local control. Sometimes financial necessity forces people to homes in rural places. And build-at-your-own-risk isn’t the mantra of a society that believes public safety is part of a government’s role.

The odds: Imagine a local elected official telling a property developer—who may or may not donate to political campaigns—that we will no longer make room on forested hills for new luxury subdivisions, with their alluring property tax potential. Not gonna happen.

In any case, Gov. Gavin Newsom has rejected such a building ban, telling the Associated Press in April, “There’s something that is truly Californian about the wilderness and the wild and pioneering spirit.” Odds are zip.


Why don’t we bury all the powerlines?

The idea: Some of the most catastrophic wildfires in recent years have been sparked by electrical equipment. PG&E, in particular, has been bankrupted by liability for apocalyptic fires caused by aging wires and towers. Its solution? Apocalyptic blackouts. So why not put the fire hazard underground?

The pros: It would be safer. And it’s not unheard of. Since 2009, Australia has required undergrounding of new lines.

The cons: It’s incredibly slow. PG&E alone has some 81,000 miles of overhead lines. Undergrounding makes damaged lines hard to access, and leaves them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. They’re just one source of risk among many. And it’s reallllly expensive. PG&E puts the price at about $2.3 million a mile on average compared with $800,000 per mile for building new overhead lines.

The odds: On a scale of 1-10? Maybe a 3, though the cost-benefit improves with every utility-sparked wildfire. But utility poles have a constituency, too, as California rolls out the 5-G digital infrastructure needed for high-speed internet and self-driving cars.


Why don’t we break up PG&E?

The idea: An inordinate number of catastrophic wildfires have been traced to Pacific Gas and Electric, which powers most of Northern California, from big cities to remote wildlands. Either transition California’s largest investor-owned utility into one public utility, or break PG&E into a bunch of municipal utilities.

The pros: PG&E is a bankrupt corporation that has been found guilty of six federal felonies, not to mention a history of water contamination, pipeline explosions and electrical fires that are killing people. It knew for years that aging equipment was at risk of sparking wildfires. And CEO stands to make millions if the company’s stock rebounds after bankruptcy. So yes, PG&E’s track record makes it easy to rally public support for a government takeover.

The cons: Breaking up PG&E may be more costly for consumers and leaves questions about how to serve rural communities, such as the Sierra foothills, where it is more expensive to maintain the electric grid. Plus, those wooded areas are at greater risk for wildfires, no matter whose wire the spark comes from.

The odds: Maybe 3 in 10? San Francisco and other cities are exploring the possibility of escaping PG&E. But local annexation of PG&E territory is litigious and costly, if history is a guide.


Why don’t we make utilities repay us for blackouts?

The idea: Sensing no political downside, Newsom is demanding PG&E offer rebates—$100 to residential customers and $250 to small businesses—to compensate people for the recent public safety power shutdowns.

The pros: Other businesses offer your money back if customers don’t get service. Californians use less electricity than customers in other states, on average, but their rates are relatively high. And there’s no harm for politicians in demanding refunds from, say, a company like PG&E, which is both unpopular and bankrupt.

The cons: PG&E blackouts for October alone have hit more some 2 million households, and, as noted, that utility is bankrupt. In any case, any rebate would be a mere gesture compared to what Californians are about to pay for electricity. So far, the average PG&E customer stands to pay an extra $30 a month even before all the details of bankruptcy are worked out.

The odds: Eight in 10 of some policy going forward. Newsom has already scored one clawback. Acknowledging blunders, PG&E recently announced a one-time credit to those impacted by its Oct. 9 blackout, which cut power to more than 700,000 customers.


Why don’t we move to microgrids?

The idea: If the big utilities are causing the fires, and creating the untenable public safety blackouts that are impacting millions of Californians, why not pull the plug on for-profit power companies?

The pros: A microgrid is a locally controlled power system that can be connected to or “disconnected” from the electrical grid. The systems produce, store and distribute power on a small scale and offer precisely what’s needed in times of chaos: resiliency. A tiny grid can provide power to operate critical infrastructure during emergencies, such as hospitals and fire stations.

The cons: As the technology stands right now, microgrids, as the name implies, are not applicable for large scale deployment, although the desert community of Borrego Springs hums along using one. There are still some technological barriers to be overcome.

The odds: Moving en masse to a system of microgrids is a dream for some, but still a distant one. The state is studying the issue. And legislators are not ones to let a crisis go to waste. Expect even more attention to this in Sacramento. Odds are 6 out of 10.


Why don’t we stage more controlled burns?

The idea: Fighting fire with fire has been going on in California since before European settlement. If carefully planned and monitored, these small purpose-set fires can quickly remove dangerous fuels and dead trees.

The pros:Forest thinning is a critical component of California’s approach to fire mitigation. It’s an inexpensive alternative to tree-cutting: Sending crews in to physically remove trees can cost as much as $1,400 an acre. Controlled burns are a relative bargain, coming in at about $150 an acre. Small, low-intensity burns are ultimately healthy for forests. And it’s more efficient than that raking-the-forest-like-Finland idea …

The cons: Even closely monitored burns discharge polluting and unhealthful smoke. It’s not uncommon for a prescribed burn that took two years to plan to be scrubbed because residents in a nearby town complained. Also, the flames can be dangerous, and it’s a bit jarring to see firefighters set fires.

The odds: Very good, an 8. The state is accelerating thinning projects. Everyone likes the idea of controlled burns, in theory. But we may all just have to get used to them as a norm.


Why don’t we throw more people and equipment at fires?

The idea: We are Americans. More is better. Why can’t we have everything?

The pros: Fire folks like to talk about “tools in the toolbox.” Who doesn’t want the biggest toolbox with the latest tools to tackle a dangerous and unpredictable job? Why use puny World War II-era prop planes when you can call up a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet patrolling the sky like a pterodactyl, dousing flames with nearly 19,000 gallons of retardant? Even when machines are grounded by wind, it’s reassuring to have them near.

The cons: Some wildfires are predictable, inviting crews to swarm over them, all-but stamping them out with their boots. Those polite fires don’t tend to be California fires. The infernos menacing Northern and Southern California are driven by powerful winds, typical for this time of year. Putting resources in front of those flames is dangerous and not always effective: Aircraft and machines and people in uniform may not stop a wind-driven fire until winds die down or rain falls. And paying for fleets of tankers, helicopters, bulldozers and crews to sit around waiting for the weather to change is breathtakingly expensive.

The odds: Pretty good. Maybe 7 out of 10. As noted, fire folks like a well-stocked toolbox and usually, Cal Fire gets what Cal Fire wants.


Why don’t we make all utilities public?

The idea: California is home to a mix of public and investor-owned utilities, but the investor-owned ones (think PG&E) have a fiduciary duty to shareholders that complicates spending on public safety. So let the government run the grid.

The pros: The public, not shareholders or investors, would set rates through a governing body or a board, and there would be clear accountability to improve safety and maintain equipment. Public utilities operate their own generation facilities or purchase power through contracts. And they would have access to public financing. No more worrying about shareholder returns.

The cons: Turning private corporations into government-run providers would be difficult, pricey—and a gamble. The public would have to pony up billions just to acquire all private providers, including the biggest three: Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and the main Coachella Valley provider, Southern California Edison. Then the public is left holding the bag if there are problems, such as deadly wildfires. And publicly owned utilities aren’t necessarily without controversy. Consider the history of corruption at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers—and whose power lines appear to have helped spark the Getty Fire.

The odds: Like, 1 in 10. Gov. Gavin Newsom could talk up a state takeover of PG&E, if the political will were there for it, but he’s talked up Warren Buffett and other potential white knights instead.


Why don’t we force utilities to better target blackouts?

The idea: Public safety power shut-offs, or de-energization, have been used in California since 2013, mainly by San Diego Gas and Electric during high fire danger to reduce the risk of electrical fires.

The pros: SDG&E hardened its system after a 2007 wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two people. It now operates a “networked” grid of major transmission lines, smaller distribution lines and circuits that allows distribution from different paths. The company also has invested in “reclosers,” which are pole-mounted circuit breakers that allow authorities to more surgically pinpoint trouble on a line and shut off power to smaller areas. The utility’s blackouts have affected as many as 23,000 households, and as few as one or two customers.

The cons: PG&E can’t be so precise. It serves 70,000 square miles of California and runs a “radial” system, meaning power lines stretch over long distances. PG&E serves 16 million customers compared to 3.6 million for SDG&E over 4,100 square miles.

The odds: Eight in 10, but it’ll be a work in progress. According to PG&E’s wildfire-mitigation plan, it pledged to work on finding ways to reduce the impact of blackouts ahead of this year’s wildfire season. So far, the utility has cut power to millions of people in dozens of counties several times in October.


Why don’t we beef up California’s alert system?

The idea: Alerting the public can be the difference between life and death. But too often, emergency notifications come too late. During last year’s Camp Fire, a large number of residents didn’t receive an alert or warning. At the time, the most effective system came from neighbors knocking on doors and word of mouth. California has to do better. With 85 lives lost, that blaze is now the state’s deadliest.

The pros: For the first time, the state has issued basic guidelines for when and how to issue public alerts, suggestions for what information to include in a message, and where to distribute those warnings. The 83-page report released in March by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommends alerting communities through as many platforms as possible, from wireless emergency alerts, traditional landlines, TV and radio to door-to-door notification, loudspeakers and sirens. Cal Fire also has an alert app that lets users receive customized texts and push notifications about wildfires reported within a chosen ZIP code or 30 miles of a phone’s location. State officials now say “all of the above” is probably the best way to keep the public informed.

The cons: “All of the above” is still pretty tech-heavy, and recent fires and blackouts have shown that cell phones can be rendered useless in a worst-case scenario. Tech access isn’t equal in all parts of California. While most of the 58 counties have access to a new federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, 16 counties are not signed up. And despite those warning guidelines from CalOES, the state is still working on uniform terms so various state and local government agencies understand each other in an emergency.

The odds: Six in 10, at least in the short term. Progress is being made but emergency communications still need work.


Why don’t we bring back landlines?

The idea: Cell phones aren’t reliable during emergencies, and PG&E blackouts have already resulted in a loss of cell-phone service—so let’s go analog. California should bring back landlines.

The pros: Landlines are time-tested, typically underground and can be operated with minimal power.

The cons: They aren’t what they used to be. Modern landlines frequently operate on voice-over internet protocol, which sends calls over the internet, not a traditional phone line. If the power’s out, then a house phone might not work. Nor are companies required to offer backup power for VOIP lines. This is already becoming an issue as blackouts affect the state. Another problem? Folks with landlines often use cordless phones, which require electricity.

The odds: Two out of 10. In 2017, more than half of U.S. households relied on cell phones alone. As phone companies increasingly lean on the internet to provide service, landlines figure less and less into California’s emergency back-up plan.


Why don’t we deal with this crisis at its source?

The idea: These are not your father’s wildfires. California was built to burn, but that natural propensity has been amplified by climate change to a perilous degree. Costly though it may be, we should do whatever it takes to curb the greenhouse-gas pollution behind global warming—now, if it isn’t already too late.

Pros: “California’s burning while the (climate) deniers make a joke out of the standards that protect us all,” former Gov. Jerry Brown recently told a House Oversight Committee. “The blood is on your soul here and I hope you wake up. Because this is not politics, this is life, this is morality. … This is real.”

Cons: Bringing greenhouse-gas pollution down from the world’s current, existentially threatening levels, is a far bigger job than California alone can afford to bankroll. And Americans, even those who don’t deny the threat, aren’t in political agreement about the change, sacrifice and massive expense required by the solutions.

The odds: Climate change may not be the tip-top priority it was in the Brown administration, but the Democratic Party is highly unlikely to depart from the policies that made California a climate leader. So the odds are 9 in 10 that the status quo here will continue—though it’s another story in the Trump administration’s Washington. And let’s be real: The ability of one state to solve global climate change is limited. Even California doesn’t have that much climate control. Or hubris.

Elizabeth Castillo and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this explainer. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Commuters in California may not have to worry about federal threats to yank highway funding just yet—but the recent tiff with the feds over California’s clean air plans is bigger than a simple paper-shuffling standoff.

The fight started with a two-page missive from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Sent in September, the letter accused California of what the EPA called a “backlog” of federally required paperwork detailing the state’s plans and policies to cut air pollution. The EPA threatened to level sanctions at the state, including withholding federal highway funds, if California did not withdraw plans that the federal government considered “unapprovable.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom called it retaliation, a “brazen political stunt.” In response, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud told CalMatters in an emailed statement: “Highlighting that California has the worst air quality in the nation along with other serious environmental problems is not a political issue.”

Then last week, California’s head air quality enforcer, Mary Nichols, responded to the EPA, saying that highway sanctions typically take more than 18 months to mete out, and in any case, the backlog is on the EPA’s end, not California’s. “Indeed,” she wrote, “you may not have been aware in writing your letter, (the California Air Resources Board) has been helping U.S. EPA to resolve its administrative backlog for years.”

The EPA’s Abboud told CalMatters it is reviewing Nichols’ letter, and reiterated that the agency is asking California to withdraw any plans to cut air pollution that can’t be approved, writing: “Every state must comply with the federal air-quality standards. California is not alone or unique in this requirement.”

There’s more to the story than California trading barbs with the feds, according to University of California, Los Angeles, environmental law professor Ann Carlson. “This is (the) EPA being willing to play very fast and loose with the facts in order to push the president’s agenda.”

So what are the facts? And how will this affect you?

What’s the paperwork California and EPA are fighting about?

Thanks to California’s 39-million-plus people, its pollution-trapping terrain, and the sunny conditions primed for stewing tailpipe emissions into smog, the state has historically bad air quality.

About 93 percent of Californians live in areas that don’t meet federal targets for air pollutants like ozone, the major component of smog, or tiny particles of pollution. California and its patchwork of local air districts are required to come up with something called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, describing how the state intends to cut air pollution.

Those SIP submissions are piling up at the EPA—more than 130 of them, according to Wheeler’s letter. Why so many? Because “SIP” can refer to both the overarching roadmap for hitting federal clean air targets, and the collection of rules and regulations needed to get there.

That roadmap and the piecemeal trickle of local and statewide policies all end up at the California air board for approval,and for ultimate submission to the EPA. The EPA then has 18 months to decide whether to approve the submissions—which would make the regulation enforceable at the federal level, too, according to Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer of the Air Resources Board.

In the meantime, the air board and air districts typically start implementing the regulations.“To the extent we can, we do not wait for EPA to act,” Karperos said. “The challenge is too great in California for us to sit around and wait for EPA.”

Can the EPA really take away California’s highway funding?

Federal and state officials agree on this much: If the air pollution dispute winds its way to federal-funding sanctions, Californians can expect to see restrictions on how the state uses certain federal transportation funding. That may affect specific highway projects, but it is too early to know.

Still, experts say that sanctions, if it comes to that, will take a while. “Even though it’s a big headline, and he’s threatening our money, we have time to work through those issues,” said Tanisha Taylor, director of sustainability at the California Association of Councils of Governments, at a recent workshop.

Once the EPA formally notifies a state that its SIP is missing or inadequate, an 18-month clock starts ticking before the EPA can impose sanctions, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says. Those sanctions typically start with crackdowns on pollution from sources like heavy industry, according to a Federal Highway Administration webpage. It then takes another six months for sanctions to escalate to highway funding.

Rather than threatening sanctions that couldn’t hit until at least 2021, Karperos said, “Focusing on fixing and clearing out the backlog—EPA’s backlog—would have been a much more productive (use) of everybody’s time.”

So if sanctions are a distant threat, what’s the big deal?

The concern is that partisan politicking is replacing a science-based, collaborative federal and state effort to reduce California’s very real pollution problems.

Nichols called the threat of sanctions “an abuse of U.S. EPA authority” in the letter she sent last week. The next day, nearly 600 former EPA employees sent their own letter urging Congress to investigate whether the EPA’s correspondence with California—including a second missive about homelessness and water quality—constituted retaliation against the state.

When asked whether the White House was involved in drafting or motivating the EPA’s letter about the backlog, Abboud said: “No.”

It’s one part of a bigger picture, said UCLA’s Carlson—one that shows the EPA repeatedly taking aim at California. She pointed to the antitrust investigation launched by the Department of Justice after California reached a tailpipe-emissions agreement with four auto companies. And just days before the EPA sent its two letters, the Trump administration finalized a rule to strip California of its power to police tailpipe pollution on its own terms—a move that will end California’s zero-emission vehicle program intended to combat both air pollution and climate change.

Wheeler’s letter, Carlson said, “Is so hypocritical at a time when EPA is trying to remove from California the authority that it needs to come into compliance with air quality standards.”

In its emailed response to CalMatters, the EPA’s Abboud said, “The Federal government has done nothing to bar California to set health-based pollutant standards, and we are ready to assist California in improving the air quality in their state.”

The air board’s Karperos worries that this very public battle with the EPA is, in fact, a distraction from doing exactly that: cleaning up California’s air.

“Rather than threatening to withhold highway money over an administrative issue that we’re working to clear up, it’s much more important for U.S. EPA to be thinking about what it needs to do to clean up trains, which they regulate,” he said, listing other polluters the EPA is largely responsible for: planes, ships and certain off-road vehicles like construction equipment.

Nichols’ letter includes a graph showing that by 2030, these federally regulated polluters are expected to churn out more of a key smog ingredient than the cars, trucks and equipment California regulates across a major chunk of southern California.

The EPA did not respond to a CalMatters request for comment about Nichols’ concern that EPA is failing to reduce emissions from federally regulated sources. Abboud said only that “California has been granted Clean Air Act waivers for a wide variety of emissions from a wide variety of vehicle types,” and provided a link to a list. He also sent a link to a press release about air pollution trends, saying: “EPA and its state and local partners continue to see substantial reductions in emissions that contribute to ozone, particulate matter, and other criteria pollutants across the country.”

In the end, it isn’t about pointing fingers, Karperos said — it’s about keeping Californians healthy. “We may argue about backlogs, but it’s really about what’s in the air they’re breathing.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Like most college students, Bianca Rojas has a lot to balance—classes, papers, exams, research and so on.

Unlike most of her peers, the 25-year-old California State University, Long Beach, sociology major also has two extracurricular obligations: Jasper and Adeline, her toddlers.

Each semester, she said, she carefully budgets her financial aid, calculating the credits she can afford, given the needs of her family. It’s stressful: Last semester, she and her partner, a student at Cal Poly Pomona, had to at times take turns skipping classes to tend the children.

“I had to seek counseling because I was just overwhelmed,” Rojas said. “It was a really difficult time, because it was just not enough resources available. You find out too late, like, ‘Oh there’s not going to be childcare for you at this time.’ It’s like then what do you do? Not go to school?”

Gov. Gavin Newsom had students such as Rojas in mind this year when he injected millions of dollars into the state higher education budget to increase financial aid for young parents attending state and community colleges and universities in California

More than 300,000 California students are supported by the state’s main financial aid program, known as Cal Grant; last year, about 32,000 of them were also parents. Newsom’s budget, among other things, increased awards up to $6,000 for UC, Cal State and community college students with children, promising “real relief to our parents who are getting an education at the same time.”

But high demand and administrative delays have slowed that relief, and made it clear that more work remains to improve state aid for so-called “nontraditional” students. Those students—who are completing degrees later in life as opposed to right after high school—have become a policy focus as California seeks to boost college-graduation rates amid a projected shortfall by 2030 of 1.1 million bachelors-degree-holding workers.

Students with children “are increasingly becoming the norm,” said David O’Brien, director of government affairs for the California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants. “It’s why the Student Aid Commission is at the forefront of an effort to modernize California financial aid to better serve the needs of the student of today as opposed to what was the traditional student of 30 or 40 years ago.”

So far this year, the state has discovered at least two areas that need improvement. For one, the allocation of the additional grant money is structured in a way that still makes it hard for students with children to qualify. The state guarantees Cal Grants for eligible students attending college right out of high school, but aid for nontraditional students comes out of a more-limited grant pool.

In the 2017-18 budget year, only 25,750 competitive grants were available for the more than 340,000 qualified applicants, according to a report by the California Budget and Policy Center. Newsom’s appropriation this year increased the number of competitive grants to 41,000, but the demand still exceeded 300,000—meaning the new money for nontraditional students is still comparatively hard to get. 

The grant money for parents has also been delayed by procedural glitches, according to state officials.

“We hope to have the initial round of grants distributed by this November or December,” O’Brien said. “That’s just sort of a slight delay due to the rollout of the new program, (and) the programming of the awards into our legacy system, which we’re in the process of upgrading.”

Students have already received their standard grant awards; if they qualify, they will also get the first portion of the increased access award when the Student Aid Commission rolls it out. After this semester, the awards will be disbursed along with the regular schedule of Cal Grants and other aid the commission administers, O’Brien said.

Rojas said that while it’s great that the money will be available to student-parents during the holidays—a time she says can be stressful financially—getting it earlier would have been even more beneficial.

“It could’ve been helpful if we had it from the beginning. That, way people would feel a little bit more relaxed with how we are going to be able to budget to complete school,” Rojas said, noting that finances at the start of a semester often determine how many units a student takes.

“If there’s actually aid that could help you get through a whole semester full-time without having to work, that’s golden,” she said. “But if not, then you’re over here thinking, ‘I’m going to take less units, so it’s going to delay graduation.’ It’s like a domino effect.”

Transferring to CSULB from Cerritos College last semester wasn’t easy, said Rojas, but she did it, because she wants to continue taking care of her family and believes getting her four-year degree will help. She and her partner, Jose Yat, who live in a garage apartment behind his parents’ home in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, had to take out loans for the first time while going to school this year. Yat also decided to stop working to make time to finish school and help care for 1-year-old Jasper and 2-year-old Adeline.

They eventually were able to get childcare off-campus this semester, but Rojas said she wished she’d known more about available resources for student-parents. She said she did not know about the increase in aid, and neither did other students she knew at CSULB and Cerritos College.

“I just feel like there’s not enough information of what else they can provide for student-parents,” Rojas said. “It’s just kinda like, ‘Go through CalWORKS; get on welfare; go through all that.’ … I appreciate that, but what about scholarships for us? What about additional financial aid? I’m happy to hear that, finally, someone thought about us, because I feel like we’re kind of just in the corner.”

Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, seconds the need for more outreach. Last April, the foundation released a report recommending sweeping changes in the state’s financial aid system, including better communication and less complexity.

Shireman, whose focus is education policy, says the amount of assistance needs to be gradually ramped up, too, to about $2 billion per year in grant aid for low-income students.  

“We are hoping and working to encourage a budget next year that has a much larger increase in investment in Cal Grants to address the gaps that we’re seeing,” he said. “First of low-income parents, but also other low income students as well.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Millions of California renters are about to receive some of the nation’s strongest protections against rent hikes and evictions—and the primary advocacy group for California landlords is OK with that.

State legislators this week passed AB 1482, a bill from Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, which limits annual rent increases to 5 percent plus the rate of inflation (typically 2-3 percent). Modeled after a first-in-the-nation Oregon measure adopted earlier this year, the bill also requires landlords to provide a “just cause” for evicting tenants and, in some circumstances, pay for tenants to relocate.

“We do not have time for those suffering in our streets,” Chiu said after the bill’s final passage. “We do not have time for those (who are) one rent increase away from eviction and homelessness.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has lobbied fiercely for the bill in recent weeks, arguing that the measure is necessary to combat the state’s twin gentrification and homelessness epidemics. Half of all California renters—more than 3 million households—spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, meeting the federal government’s definition of “rent-burdened.”

“These anti-gouging and eviction protections will help families afford to keep a roof over their heads, and they will provide California with important new tools to combat our state’s broader housing and affordability crisis,” Newsom said in a statement. The bill now awaits his signature.

Here are five takeaways from the most ambitious renter-protection bill the state has passed in recent memory.

The new measure would curb extreme rent hikes, and it’s stronger than what Oregon passed. But it’s not conventional rent control.

Oregon made national headlines when it became the first state in the country to pass a statewide measure capping how much landlords could increase rents. Often characterized as rent control by the national press, the Oregon law limited yearly rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation.

Although Chiu’s bill imposes a tighter cap—5 percent plus inflation—the assemblyman has been very careful to frame the measure as “anti-rent-gouging,” as opposed to typical rent control. Fifteen California cities currently impose some form of traditional rent control on apartments, with the legally allowable rent increase hovering between 1 and 4 percent. Chiu’s bill also does nothing to prevent landlords from raising rents when a tenant leaves, a provision called “vacancy control” that is often associated with how rent control worked decades ago in places like Santa Monica and Berkeley.

“Words matter. This is not rent control. This is an anti-rent-gouging bill,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, Democrat from Alameda, a co-author of the bill.

So how many renters will the new California law actually help?

While landlords have access to proprietary data that can better answer that question, publicly available data can’t. A UC Berkeley study of 10 gentrifying California communities found that over a five-year period, the average yearly rent increase exceeded 10 percent about once every three years. An analysis by the real estate data company Zillow, working with admittedly incomplete data, found that about 7 percent of California renters would have benefited from Chiu’s cap in 2018. While a minority of California renters will enjoy real savings from the new law, those who do benefit are very likely to be low-income and thus most vulnerable to rent hikes.

Mike Wilkerson, an economist with ECONorthwest, which analyzed the Oregon plan with proprietary landlord data, said the majority of major rent increases in Oregon are occurring in lower-cost units. He suspects the same is true of California.

“Really, what this is doing is protecting lower-rent units, where we’re consistently seeing rents going up,” Wilkerson said shortly after the California bill was introduced. “And the benefit is preserving more units to be naturally affordable.”

Some opponents of the California legislation argue that the measure could backfire: Landlords, they say, may treat the rent cap not so much as a limit on what they can charge but as a benchmark for what they should charge—especially if they fear future unanticipated costs or having to take a tenant to eviction court.

“The large property owners can build this cost into their business because they have a lawyer on payroll,” said Sid Lakireddy, president of the California Rental Housing Association, an advocacy group for smaller landlords. “That’s not the case for mom and pop (landlords) throughout the state.”

Although the rent cap has received most of the attention, the eviction protections are arguably more controversial. And a “third rail” of California housing policy gets very lightly touched.

In most parts of California, landlords can evict a tenant without stating an explicit reason why they don’t want that renter in the property anymore.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom said in August he wanted to strengthen the rent-cap bill, he mostly meant he wanted to see “just-cause” eviction protections included. Assuming Newsom signs the bill, California landlords will have to list one of several specific reasons why they want a tenant out, such as dealing drugs from an apartment or failure to pay rent on time. Landlords who want to convert a unit into a condo or move a family member in will have to fork over one month’s rent to the displaced tenant for relocation assistance.

Marcos Segura, an eviction defense lawyer with the nonprofit Central California Legal Services, said a relatively small minority of his clients in the Central Valley are evicted without cause. Most of the time, landlords accuse them of not paying rent or otherwise breaking the lease.

But he says “just cause” protections could prove beneficial in preventing landlord retaliation. When landlords do evict tenants without cause, he says, it’s often because tenants have been complaining about shabby living conditions.

“If you take that option away from landlords, where they can serve no-cause eviction notices, in those cases, it would make all the difference in the world,” Segura said.

To compromise with landlords and developers, Chiu exempted an increasingly popular swath of California rental housing from his rent cap: single-family homes. While single-family homes owned by investment firms would be subject to the new measure, those owned by “mom and pop” landlords—the vast majority of the single-family-home rental market—would be exempted.

Even with that carve-out, Chiu’s bill represents the largest expansion of renter protections in recent California history, applying to 8 million renters, according to estimates from the lawmaker’s office.

Many of the renters live in cities that already have local controls but aren’t eligible for it. A state law passed in 1995, colloquially known as “Costa-Hawkins,” bans cities from expanding rent control to units built after 1995 and in some cities limits control to units built well before then. In Los Angeles, for example, rent control can apply only to units built before 1978.

Chiu’s bill would apply to all eligible California rental units built at least 15 years ago, meaning units built as recently as 2005 would be subject to rent caps.

That would be a major shift in California housing policy. Costa-Hawkins has been considered a “third rail” for the California Legislature for decades. While AB 1482 doesn’t actually touch the language of the 1995 law—cities would still be banned from expanding tighter rent limits on newer properties—millions of new housing units would be subject to a legal limit on rent increases.

Developers say the measure shouldn’t impede new construction, and they don’t oppose it. But no signature housing-production legislation will accompany the rent cap.

For those concerned with California’s million-unit housing shortage, the most compelling argument against a rent cap was that developers kept saying it could impede the construction of new housing.

While California apartment builders generally forecast annual rent increases of 2 to 3 percent when lining up financing for their projects, the flexibility to raise rents to what the market can bear helps persuade investors to plow money into the often uncertain and time-consuming process of building new housing.

But even before Gov. Newsom’s public comments, the California Building Industry Association—the premier lobbying group for California developers—announced it would not oppose the bill after it exempted new construction from the rent cap for 15 years.

“The new construction exemption is key, because it’s hard to get investors to invest in multifamily units on a 10-year window; it just doesn’t pencil out,” said Dan Dunmoyer, head of the group. “Fifteen years is a balance of what is doable for attracting capital. Anything less than that just makes it harder to bring investors to California.”

The organization’s withdrawal of opposition was also notable, because it has had mixed success in pushing through legislation it says would ease regulatory burdens and allow for more housing. Many Capitol insiders thought packaging a pro-development bill with a pro-tenant bill was a logical way to ensure that both could become law.

In Oregon, a bill that allowed developers to build fourplexes in areas zoned exclusively for single-family homes was passed shortly after the rent-cap bill. A similar developer-backed effort in California, SB 50, fizzled this year.

When making public comments about strengthening the rent cap bill, Newsom also publicly embraced SB 330, a bill from Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, that would limit many of the tools developers say cities use to stymie new housing.

Dunmoyer says Skinner’s proposal is a step in the right direction. But he admits it wasn’t the big boost to housing production that developers had hoped for, considering Newsom’s audacious goal of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

“I’m not surprised (the rent cap bill passed) because I’m a political analyst who looks at the dynamics—it’s easier to regulate than reform,” Dunmoyer said.

This is a big win for Newsom, who angered a key interest group to make it happen.

Gov. Gavin Newsom kind of needed this.

Shortly after a state ballot initiative that would have allowed cities to expand rent control failed overwhelmingly last November, Newsom (who very quietly opposed it) said he wanted to broker a deal between tenant groups and landlords. He reiterated his desire in February in his inaugural State of the State speech, calling on lawmakers to send him a package of renter protections he could sign into law this year.

Newsom’s late efforts to strengthen the bill by adding eviction restrictions and tightening the rent cap flipped opposition among key interest groups. While he was able to secure a compromise from the state’s biggest landlord lobby, he angered the powerful California Association of Realtors, who thought the governor was breaking a deal they had struck on a softer version of the rent cap.

The Realtors are a major source of fundraising for California Democrats, contributing nearly $1.38 million in campaign funds to sitting Democratic lawmakers and $2.5 million to the state Democratic Party since 2017. Since the stronger bill was introduced, Realtors have flooded Democratic lawmakers with phone calls and emails.

How Newsom’s intervention will affect future relations between the Realtors and state Democratic leaders remains to be seen.

The Realtors have a reputation for holding a grudge, no matter the party involved. After Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican from Irvine, voted for a Trump tax-reform plan the Realtors opposed, the state and national realtor advocacy groups spent $3 million supporting her 2018 Democratic opponent, Katie Porter. Porter won.

The big landlord lobby is OK with this. Which could hurt the prospects for rent control at the ballot box in 2020.

The California Apartment Association and its allies spent more than $70 million against a statewide rent-control initiative in 2018, defeating it by nearly 20 points. That victory gave landlords a major rhetorical advantage in pushing back against Chiu’s bill: Californians had already been given an opportunity to expand rent control and voted it down.

So why cave now, less than a year removed from that decisive victory?

Progressive firebrand Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is currently collecting signatures for yet another statewide rent-control initiative for the November 2020 ballot. Weinstein maintains Chiu didn’t go far enough to protect tenants. However, landlords can now say lawmakers have already moved to curb excessive rent increases and egregious eviction practices without endangering new development.

“We will argue the state has already spoken on this topic; we will argue this is a balance; we will argue everyone came to the table and found some common ground finally for a temporary solution,” said Debra Carlton, lobbyist for the California Apartment Association.

Landlords may have also gained assurances from key Democratic leaders that they may oppose, or simply mute their support for, rent control in 2020. Asked by the Los Angeles Times whether the California Apartment Association had requested that Gov. Gavin Newsom oppose Weinstein’s potential initiative, Carlton gave no comment.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Published in Politics

Doctors, real estate agents and hairdressers can keep their independent contractor status—but not truckers, commercial janitors, nail-salon workers, physical therapists and, significantly, gig economy workers, who will gain the rights and benefits of employees in California under sweeping workplace legislation passed this week.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed to signing the bill, which cleared the Assembly 56-15 in a challenge both to the longstanding trend toward outsourcing labor and to the business model of companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, who have threatened a $90 million fight at the ballot box.

Once signed, AB 5 would upend longstanding employment practices that have seeped into the Democratic presidential debate about how workers should be treated, particularly in today’s gig economy.

“With one clear test across our state labor laws, we will raise the standards for millions of workers and ensure they gain access to critical rights and benefits,” said Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, who presented the bill in the Senate on Tuesday night. “We can make California the global leader in protections for gig workers, janitors, construction workers and so many working people who can’t even pay their rent.”

Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said lawmakers missed an opportunity to find a flexible solution for rideshare drivers, and Uber announced it was ready to pour millions more into the ballot fight. “We are fully prepared to take this issue to the voters of California to preserve the freedom and access drivers and riders want and need,” Durbin said.

From the beginning, the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a labor organizer and a Democrat from San Diego, made it clear her goal was to improve wages and workplace standards, and expand the right to collective bargaining at a time of growing income inequality.

She acknowledged more work remains but insisted the legislation is needed to establish a state standard after the California Supreme Court, in a landmark 2018 decision, created a strict test for certifying independent contractors, with the highest hurdle being that the work performed must be outside of the core of the company’s business. It’s commonly referred to as the Dynamex decision.

In advance of the vote, she shared a picture of a sentence plastered to the top of a wall in her office: “The Most Amount of Good for the Most Amount of People.”

California’s pushback against the gig economy intensifies pressure on Silicon Valley flagships such as Lyft and Uber, which were already trading below their IPO share prices amid investor concerns about the difficulty they’ve had turning a profit, despite many millions of users. Uber cut 400 people from its marketing team in July, reported a quarterly loss of $5.2 billion in August and sent layoff notices to another 400-plus workers this week.

On Wednesday, Uber chief legal officer Tony West said in a press call that the company plans to fight the tougher employment test once AB 5 takes effect next year. “We still may pass the test,” he said. “We believe we can pass the harder test.”

But concerns around basic worker protections also have become pressing in California, where one worker in three earns less than $15 an hour; also, the 18.2 percent poverty rate, when the cost of living is taken into account, is rivaled only by that of Washington, D.C. As lawmakers were debating AB 5, in fact, a commission on the future of work, appointed by Newsom, was convening not far away in Sacramento to address such issues as the proliferation of low-wage jobs, automation, artificial intelligence and the gig economy.

Aside from the philosophical questions around AB 5, the state estimates it loses about $7 billion a year in payroll taxes due to worker misclassification that could be supporting schools, roads and other public services. Supporters of the bill argue that by avoiding unemployment insurance taxes and workers’ compensation premiums, businesses shift the burden to the state—and its taxpayers—when workers get laid off, get sick or get injured on the job.

Opponents warned the bill will invite trial lawyers to file frivolous lawsuits against thousands of California businesses and called the bill a blatant power grab by big labor.

“This bill is the union caucus’ main event of the year,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Stone, who held up an exemption request form, obtained by CalMatters, that labor groups had been presenting to industry advocates seeking a carve-out.

Industries as varied as trucking and health care also pushed back, arguing that the legislation would rewrite the rules for independent workers whose status has worked for them for decades.

“AB 5 does not take into account the more than 70,000 California truckers who have built their business around the independent owner-operator model, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their trucks and have made the decision to run their own businesses,” said Shawn Yadon, CEO of the California Trucking Association, before the bill passed.

Hospitals, too, are worried the bill will not only cause confusion, but may have the unintended consequence of delaying patient services. Gail Blanchard-Saiger, vice president of labor and employment at the California Hospital Association, said although doctors, psychologists and podiatrists are exempt from AB 5, and hospitals employ more than 90 percent of their workforce, many medical professionals such as physical therapists and certified registered nurse anesthetists are contracted at small and rural hospitals where volume is low.

“The impact on the hospital for these health professionals is probably a delay in services, and in particular rural communities, maybe a reduction in services,” said Blanchard-Saiger.

Among the other health professionals not exempt under AB 5: occupational therapist, speech therapist, optometrist, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, radiation therapist, licensed professional clinical counselor, marriage and family therapist, licensed clinical social workers, respiratory therapists and audiology.

In the final weeks of the legislative session, gig companies unsuccessfully campaigned heavily for a new, first-in-the-nation framework that would allow their workers to remain independent while offering a wage floor and some kind of bargaining tool. And on Tuesday, Newsom told The Wall Street Journal that he is still talking to Lyft and Uber, “and regardless of what happens with AB 5, I am committed, at least, to continuing those negotiations.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported potential legislation calling for a new category of workers—to be known as “network drivers”—to cover rideshare and delivery service drivers, guaranteeing at least 1.27 times minimum wage, reimbursement of 30 cents a mile and contributing 4 percent to a Drivers Benefits Fund to purchase workers compensation insurance and other benefits.

Uber and Lyft say the codification of the Dynamex decision—that established a three-part test for certifying contractors—will force them to fundamentally change their hiring practices. It likely means the rideshare industry will take on fewer drivers and assign shifts, giving drivers less flexibility.

Labor representatives called it a scare tactic and said nothing prevents companies from maintaining flexibility for workers.

In shifting to employee status, companies would have to offer basic worker protections such as guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, unemployment insurance and disability insurance, as well as workers’ compensation, sick leave and family leave. Workers could also get reimbursed for mileage and maintenance of their vehicles, which doesn’t happen now.

The bill triggered several rounds of protest at the Capitol with Uber and Lyft drivers circling downtown Sacramento one day, followed by truckers honking their heavy-duty trucks the next day.

Under the final version of the bill, doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers, accountants, insurance agents, real estate agents, hair stylists and barbers received exemptions. Travel agents, graphics designers and grant writers will continue to offer their professional services without disruption. Licensed cosmetologists and barbers that set their own rates and schedules won’t change. Commercial fisherman are exempt until 2023. Tow-truck drivers affiliated with the American Automobile Association got a carveout. And freelance writers and photographers can continue, provided they don’t submit more than 35 submissions to an outlet a year.

On the other end, AB 5 captured the industries targeted by labor: gig workers; big-rig, Amazon and other truck drivers; and low-wage services ranging from janitors to home health aides. Unlicensed nail technicians, language interpreters, musicians, strippers and even rabbis could be impacted.

If approved, the bill will take effect in January and gives the state attorney general and large cities the right to sue companies that don’t comply. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer both say they would ensure workers are treated fairly.

“The city attorney welcomes the new authority, and if enforcement action is needed under the new law, he will exercise it,” said Feuer’s spokesman, Rob Wilcox.

During debate before the Senate vote, Republicans sought to include hostile amendments aimed at expanding exemptions for newspapers, physical therapists, the timber industry and more. Each was tabled by Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature.

Gonzalez, however, did agree to exempt the newspaper industry from converting carriers for one year.

“While I personally disagree with this delay, I’m willing to allow the newspaper industry the additional year to comply if it means those delivery drivers and nearly a million other misclassified workers are provided the minimum wage, benefits and workplace rights of Assembly Bill 5,” she said.

A few industries did get the exemption they sought, such as builders and contractors. Peter Tateishi, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of California, said his organization ended up backing the bill after being allowed to contract with other contractors under a business-to-business carve-out.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California will soon have a tougher new legal standard for the use of deadly force by police, under legislation Gov. Gavin Newsom signed yesterday, Aug, 19, that was inspired by last year’s fatal shooting of a young, unarmed man in Sacramento.

Newsom signed the legislation amid unusual fanfare, convening numerous legislators, family members of people who have died in police shootings and advocates including civil-rights leader Dolores Huerta in a courtyard at the Secretary of State’s building—used in the past for inaugurations and other formal events.

The governor contends that with Assembly Bill 392 in place, police will turn increasingly to de-escalation techniques, including verbal persuasion, weapons other than guns and other crisis-intervention methods.

“It is remarkable to get to this moment on a bill that is this controversial. But it means nothing unless we make this moment meaningful,” Newsom said after signing the legislation.

He made a point of praising law enforcement, saying the “overwhelming majority are extraordinary and honorable people.” He is planning to attend the funeral today of California Highway Patrol Officer Andre Moye Jr., who was killed by an ex-felon last week in Riverside.

Newsom also noted that the state’s current budget includes an additional $35 million for more police training, including training on ways to better handle severely mentally ill people. He said as many as a third of people shot to death by police are diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other serious illness.

“That is a tough assignment for law enforcement,” the governor said. “What’s happening on the streets of California is challenging, and law enforcement is increasingly being called to do social work.”

Kori McCoy, who attended the bill signing, was among various family members of people shot to death by police. His brother, Willie McCoy, was shot Feb. 9 while he slept at a Taco Bell in Vallejo. Six officers fired 55 rounds, hitting him more than 20 times.

“I don’t think this is going to totally change everything, but it definitely is a piece, and we’ll take it,” McCoy said about the legislation.

The law reflects a compromise between civil-rights advocates who want to limit when police can shoot, and law-enforcement groups who said earlier versions of the bill would have put officers in danger.

Under the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, police may use deadly force only when “necessary in defense of human life.”

That’s a steeper standard than prosecutors apply now, which says officers can shoot when doing so is “reasonable.” One of the most significant changes will allow prosecutors to consider officers’ actions leading up to a shooting when deciding whether deadly force is justified.

“This will make a difference not only in California, but we know it will make a difference around the world,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the San Diego Democrat who carried the legislation.

The law doesn’t go as far as civil libertarians originally proposed, and courts will need to define what a “necessary” use of force is in future cases. The negotiations led a few early supporters, including the group Black Lives Matter, to drop their support, and major statewide law-enforcement organizations to drop their opposition. After a year of contentious testimony over how to reduce police shootings, the final version of the bill sailed through the Legislature with bipartisan support. 

Newsom’s staff helped broker the compromise, and his signature was not a surprise. In March—after Sacramento’s district attorney cleared the officers who killed Stephon Clark on March 18, 2018, in his grandparents’ backyard after mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun—Newsom signaled support for police reforms that “reinforce the sanctity of human life.” And in June, he said he would sign the bill as he praised advocates for “working across their differences” to forge a compromise.

“The bill is watered down; everybody knows that,” Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, told the Los Angeles Times. “But at least we are getting something done. At least we are having the conversation now.”

California police kill more than 100 people a year—at a rate higher than the national average and highest among states with populations of 8 million or more. Most of the people police kill are armed with a gun or a knife.

But when California police kill people who are not armed, the impact falls disproportionately on Latinos and African Americans. Together, those groups make up 66 percent of the unarmed people California police killed between 2016 and 2018, but about 46 percent of the state’s population.

For more on California’s attempt to reduce police shootings, please listen to CalMatters’ Force of Law podcast. It’s available here on Apple Podcasts or here on other podcasting platforms. To read the Independent’s ongoing coverage of police shootings, go hereCalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California recently approved longer paid family leave, allowing workers whose blessed events fall on the right side of the new law to take up to eight weeks off with partial pay to bond with a new baby.

How’s that going to work? We asked the experts and read the fine print to help you figure it out.

I’m about to have or adopt a baby. Do I get the longer paid leave?

Probably not. The new eight-week plan kicks in on July 1, 2020. If you file a claim to take paid family leave before that date, you will likely be put on the current plan that allows for six weeks of paid leave, according to Loree Levy, deputy director of the Employment Development Department. She said the rules are still being finalized, but that’s how she expects it will work.

Remember: Paid family leave is on top of the six weeks of disability pay that women can get after childbirth.

Can I take six weeks of paid family leave now and get two more weeks after July 1, 2020?

Probably not, Levy said. Again, the rules aren’t final, but that’s her expectation based on how changes have been made in the past.

Does my baby have to be born after July 1, 2020, for me to take eight weeks of paid leave?

Probably not. Whether you get six or eight weeks of paid leave will likely depend on the “effective date” you put on the paperwork you file with the state—not when your baby is born or adopted. Same caveat as above: The rules are still in the works.

A glimmer of good news for families expecting a baby in the spring: If your baby is born before July 1, and you can wait to start taking paid leave, you may be able to get eight weeks of paid leave by putting a July 1, 2020, effective date on your claim.

I’m not pregnant, but my partner is. Do I get eight weeks of paid leave too?

Yes. Both parents can take up to eight weeks of paid family leave.

How much will I get paid?

About 60 to 70 percent of your normal wages, depending on your income. Gov. Gavin Newsom has put together a task force to study how to increase that to 90 percent for low-income workers, but it hasn’t yet come up with a plan.

Some employers may allow you to take vacation time or provide other benefits to get your paycheck up to 100 percent, said Sebastian Chilco, an employment attorney with the Littler law firm in San Francisco. Though you can file for paid family leave through the state without telling your employer, he recommends letting your company know so you can find out what other benefits are available.

“It’s a lot easier to deal with things in advance,” Chilco said.

How do I know if I qualify for paid family leave?

You need to have paid into the State Disability Insurance fund in the last five to 18 months. In general, this is a program for private-sector workers, though some government employees also participate. Check your pay stub for payments to “CASDI,” and click here for more details.  

Does my employer have to let me take the longer leave if I want it?

Only in certain circumstances. If you have worked at your company for at least 26 hours a week over the last year and your worksite has at least 20 employees, your employer has to hold your job for you while you take baby-bonding leave.

But smaller companies are not required to hold your job for you. That means about 25 percent of California workers are paying into the leave system but could be fired if they take it, said Jenna Gerry, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work.

Her group supported a bill this year that would have aligned the rules “so if you qualify for paid family leave, you also qualify for the right to take time off and return to your job after your leave,” Gerry said. It stalled, but advocates plan to try again next year.

I thought Gov. Newsom proposed six months of paid leave for new parents. Why are you talking about eight weeks?

It’s true that Newsom proposed six months of paid leave, saying in January that “there is no substitute for parents spending time with their children.”

But his idea is that each baby in California will be cared for by a parent or close family member for six months—not that each worker will get six months of paid leave. Newsom’s plan envisions two family members each taking two to four months off to care for a baby—so the new eight-week paid leave gets pretty close for two-parent families. If one of them is a birth mother who also takes six weeks of pregnancy disability pay, the family would get 22 weeks of paid time off, or about 5 1/2 months.

Newsom’s task force is studying how California could structure a paid leave plan that would allow six months of family care for every baby. It’s expected to make recommendations in November.

Who’s paying for all this?

You are, if you’re among the 95 percent of California workers who pay into the State Disability Insurance fund through a 1 percent tax on your paycheck. The state is lowering the amount of money held in the fund’s reserves to cover the cost of the additional two weeks of leave.

Paid leave isn’t just for parents, though—right?

Right. You can take six weeks of paid family leave to care for a seriously ill child, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse or registered domestic partner. And that increases to eight weeks on July 1, 2020. But the job-protection rules are a little different than they are for people taking leave to bond with a baby.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

President Donald Trump published controversial new rules earlier this week making it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they use—or are likely to use—Medicaid, food stamps and other social safety net programs.

California has reacted with anticipated outrage.

“This is a reckless policy that targets the health and well-being of immigrant families and communities of color,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press release.

Added Attorney General Xavier Becerra: “We will not stand idly by while this administration targets programs that children and families across our state rely upon. We are ready to take legal action to protect the rights of all Californians.”

The expansion of the so-called “public charge” rule was long-anticipated—as was the response in California, home to a disproportionate number of the nation’s immigrants and headquarters of the anti-Trump resistance.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has said the proposed new rules are intended to deny green cards to immigrants seeking U.S. benefits and to “promote the self-sufficiency of aliens within the United States.”

Here are six things to know about the latest immigration battle between the Trump administration and California.


What Would This Rule Actually Do?

Under the new regulation, legal immigrants into the United States could be denied permanent residency if immigration authorities deem them “likely at any time to” enroll in any number of public benefits for more than a year. The list of benefits includes food stamps, federal housing assistance and health insurance through Medicaid.

It’s an idea that the Trump administration has been kicking around since the very beginning of his presidency. Following multiple leaks to the press of versions of the rule, the Department of Homeland Security finally published a proposed draft last October. Earlier this week, the administration published the finalized rule, which will go into effect 60 days from Wednesday.

The new rule would also discourage immigration officers from granting visas to those making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, those receiving healthcare subsidies through the Affordable Care Act, and any applicant “likely to require extensive medical treatment or institutionalization.” The regulation also includes certain exceptions for immigrants serving the military, children, pregnant women and some students.

It’s one in a series of Trump administration initiatives that would curtail government benefits for low-income people and immigrants, including a proposal posted in late July that would cut food stamps to 3.1 million Americans.


Why the Concern?

Since 1882, the federal government has given immigration authorities broad authority to keep people out of the country if they’re deemed likely to become “public charges” of the state. Though the term “public charge” is never actually defined, since 1999, immigration officials have applied it only to people likely to be “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through cash welfare programs or publicly funded institutional care.

The new rule dramatically expands that definition to include “people who may have the occasion to one time use that type of benefit,” said Deep Gulasekaram, a professor of immigration and constitutional law at Santa Clara University.

“That is unprecedented,” he said. “And that is what truly makes this really a scary proposition for a lot of people.”

The new visa standards would—for now—only be used to approve or deny applications. But the Trump administration is also reportedly considering whether participation in these programs by otherwise legal immigrants could also be used as grounds for deportation.


Who in California Would Be Directly Affected?

Across the country, roughly 382,000 people applying for green cards would be reviewed to determine whether they are—or are likely to become—public charges under the new definition, according to the government. Given that nearly one in five people who received a green card between 2015 and 2017 lived in California, according to federal data, the rule will likely have an outsized impact on California green card applicants.

Advocates expect the impact to reach even further. Many mixed-status families are expected to unenroll from public benefits due to a fear that the public charge rule would impact their or family members’ chances of adjusting their status in the future.

According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, as many as 765,000 people across the state may lose access to Medi-Cal and food stamps due to fear alone.

The UCLA researchers project that the rule could have a particularly strong collateral impact on low-income children in California, where one in two children are part of an immigrant family. Nearly seven in 10 Californians predicted to lose benefits would be children, according to the study.

The federal government offered up a much smaller estimate of the impact, predicting that fewer than 400,000 individuals across the country would forego applying or disenroll.


Has Talk of the New Rule Had a Chilling Effect Already?

Yes. As different versions of the rule have been leaked and then proposed over the past two years, California service providers and advocates have reported immigrant families opting out of public benefits in large numbers.

Elizabeth Ambriz, a CalFresh outreach worker for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, says this is the main reason that people have given for not applying for food stamps in the past eight months she’s been on the job.

“There are a lot of people who are working on becoming permanent residents, and their lawyers tell them, ‘Do not get CalFresh, because that will make you not be eligible to get your green card,’” Ambriz said in early August while tabling for CalFresh at a local health clinic.

Coupled with a decreasing unemployment rate, the looming new rule has been viewed by anti-poverty workers as a primary driver of a substantial decrease in enrollment in public benefits over the past two years.

One sign that immigrant families are already spooked in California is the drop in the number of households in which only children are eligible and enrolled in food stamps, usually because the parents are undocumented. These households declined by more than 40,000 in the state—including more than 85,000 children—between January 2018 and January 2019, according to an LAist analysis.

Meanwhile, a national poll by the Urban Institute of nearly 2,000 adults in immigrant families found that one in seven reported that someone in their family had declined a public benefit in 2018 because they didn’t want to risk a future green card. The effect was stronger among low-income families, Hispanic families and families with children.


Will California Be Suing?

Will the president will be tweeting? When the Trump administration announced a preliminary version of the rule late last year, Becerra fired off a 51-page letter, in which he called the rule “not supported by evidence, logic, or Congressional action,” “an arbitrary and capricious attack with no legal justification” and, in short, “unlawful.”

As a preview of the state’s legal argument, the letter suggests Becerra may once again argue that the Trump administration failed to follow the rules that govern how new regulations must be introduced. 

For anyone who has watched California take on the Trump administration again and again, it’s a familiar argument. The state has struck down or successfully delayed a number of new regulations by persuading a judge that the administration didn’t explain why a new rule was necessary, didn’t provide enough compelling evidence to support the justification, or simply didn’t give the public enough time to weigh in on the change—all in violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

But that argument may be harder to make in this case, said Gulasekaram. 

“As a formal matter of changing the administrative rules, they complied with what is required,” he said, adding that courts give “a lot of deference” to agencies when deciding how to interpret a vaguely written law, particularly in immigration law.

Given the California Justice Department’s propensity for taking the Trump administration to court, state prosecutors could be typing up a complaint as you read this. Asked about a possible lawsuit, the press office for the Office of the Attorney General provided a short written response: “Stay tuned!”


Why Does This Remind Me of California in the 1990s?

According to reporting from Politico, Stephen Miller, one of President Trump’s most loyal and truculent policy advisers, has been the driving, hectoring force within the White House for this regulatory shift.

The Santa Monica-born 33-year-old was only 9 in 1994, when a majority of Californians passed Proposition 187, denying most public services to undocumented immigrants. The proposed constitutional amendment was later thrown out by the California Supreme Court. But Miller seems to be channeling the spirit of Prop 187 anyway, said Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant and frequent critic of his own party and President Trump.

Alongside more aggressive immigration crackdowns, the administration’s family separation policy and ceaselessly hostile immigration rhetoric, Madrid sees this latest regulation as yet another bid to “stoke the fire” and keep the party’s base energized for 2020.

“Will it work? It might for another two years,” said Madrid. “But if history is a guide, those two-year gains will lead to a generation of evisceration (for the Republican Party) at the national level.”

Despite winning the overwhelming support of California’s electorate, many experts say that Prop 187 turned an entire generation of Latino voters away from the California Republican Party. Many political commentators have drawn parallels to that moment in California history and the current political climate nationally. 

“The textbook has been written,” said Madrid. “The history is not old. It’s in the last decade or so.”

Today, proposals to extend legal protections and social services to immigrants who have entered the country illegally enjoy broad support in California, and any policy that could be characterized as an attack on legal immigrants isn’t likely to be well-received.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

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