CVIndependent

Fri04032020

Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

I spent most of my day wildly oscillating between despair and inspiration.

The despair came from, y’know, the news: The increasing numbers of reported infections and deaths. And the fact that we’re only two weeks into what’s going to be a rather lengthy shelter in place order.

The inspiration came from … well, people doing amazing things.

Below, we have links to 16 stories—and three quarters of them are at least partially “good” news. Go look (after you finish reading this introduction, of course). I promise you: You will feel a little better after perusing these links.

I am also inspired by what’s going on in my little corner of the journalism world—where things, economically, literally could not be worse. We are all fighting to stay alive while covering the biggest story in a century. Yet some of the ideas that my fellow publishers—people who are clearly more creative than I—have come up with to serve their communities and bring in revenue are amazing.

This brings me to the fact that yesterday, I said I’d be sharing more info on the Independent’s future plans today. Well, we’re going to save that for the weekend now, partially because some of those plans have changed slightly due to the wisdom of my fellow newspaper people, but mostly because I wanted to get all this good news out to you.

On with the news:

• Breaking and important news: Gov. Gavin Newsom has finally heeded the call for an eviction moratorium in the state. But make sure you read the fine print.

• Duke University has come up with a way for medical professionals to safely decontaminate and re-use N95 masks—which, given there’s a shortage, could be a big frickin’ deal.

• Meantime, a group of amazing locals are sewing masks in case they’re needed. Get to know and support the C.V. Mask Project.

• Elon Musk can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but he did a very amazing thing by delivering 1,000 ventilators to the state in Los Angeles.

• Buried within this piece from The Washington Post about the Alabama governor, well, being an idiot: Hints that the shelter in place order in California is working.

• OK, this is one of the stories down here that is decidedly NOT GOOD: Kaiser Permanente is no longer filling routine prescriptions for chloroquine.

• A lot of scientists are being told to stop working and stay at home, like the rest of us. Our partners at CalMatters, via the Independent, show how that will take a toll on everything from wildlife research to cancer treatments.

Are gun shops essential businesses? Gov. Newsom refuses to say for sure.

• Walmart says all this working from home has made Americans eschew pants.

• The Independent’s Beth Allen checks in with an update from the high desert, where Pappy and Harriet’s is offering takeout—but locals want people to stay away.

• News from the sports world, sorta: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry did an online chat with Anthony Fauci, and it was amazing.

• More news from the sports world, sorta: A baseball-jersey company has shifted gears and started making masks and gowns.

• The recently passed stimulus package will make it easier to tap into retirement accounts.

• Buzzfeed listicles generally fill me with despair over the state of what passes for journalism these days, but this one, while still annoyingly presented, is helpful: It highlights children’s shows that Amazon is now streaming for free.

• Meanwhile, international treasure Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets to us all.

• Like indie film? Well, some art house theaters are now streaming what would be new releases of indie films, and keeping half of the proceeds. Since we don’t have one locally, we’re going to send you to some friends of mine from my Tucson days: The amazing Loft Cinema.

That’s all for now. I’ll be back over the weekend with the update on the Independent that I promised. Wash your hands. Get takeout from a local restaurant if you can afford it. Savor the food. Live in the now. Enjoy life. And you like what the Independent is doing, please send us a few bucks.

Published in Daily Digest

When the novel coronavirus hit California, Jamille Cabacungan, a registered nurse at UCSF Medical Center, rushed to sign up as a volunteer to treat infected patients.

She hesitated to answer, however, when asked about her preparation for that job.

The hospital is providing the necessary gear, she said, and more heightened training for some nurses. But not for all—and much of her training is coming from videos forwarded to her by the hospital, as opposed to hands-on learning-by-doing. Her colleagues are depending on her—“we don’t want to put our pregnant co-workers or those who live with elderly people at risk,” she added—but the preparation is less intense than she expected, considering the risk involved.

As California’s coronavirus strategy has moved from containment to mitigation, the health-care workers on the first line of response to the epidemic are also finding themselves on the front line of potential infection. From internal conversations to calls for action from their unions, nurses, first responders and hospital staffers have sounded the alarm, raising questions about the safety protocols and spotlighting flaws and lags in response, both in California and nationally.

“Nurses are eager to take care of patients and make sure that our communities are safe, but we need the right staffing, equipment, supplies, communication and training to do this safely,” Deborah Burger, president of the National Nurses United, which represents about 150,000 nurses around the country, said during a public health roundtable earlier this week. 

“Put simply, if we are not protected, our patients are at risk,” Burger said. 

The union has asked the state to notify nurses when patients sickened by the virus are sent to their health-care facilities. They are also petitioning the state to release a full account of the protective gear in stock statewide, including respirators, and information about where these respirators are stored, citing concerns over a shortage of respirators and other personal protective equipment.

The nurses say that some of the workplace safety guidelines for states recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not rigorous enough to sufficiently protect health care workers and their patients.

Earlier this month, the union released a nationwide survey of 6,500 nurses in which only 29 percent said their hospitals had a plan in place to isolate potential coronavirus patients, and only 44 percent said they had gotten information from their employers about how to recognize and handle the virus.

As sick people turn up in emergency rooms, community clinics and school nurses’ offices, the workers who initially treat them run a high risk of infection. After a Vacaville hospital reported the first U.S. instance of community transmission, and the patient was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, for example, healthcare workers’ unions reported 124 workers were placed under quarantine. (UC Davis Medical Center later said that number was inaccurate but did not provide an estimate.) Concerns have also been raised about health-care workers inadvertently spreading the virus.

Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, said her department is collaborating with all groups involved in response and checking regularly with hospitals and health care facilities to learn where their needs are.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that the collaboration has extended to health-care workers’ unions.

“We certainly can strengthen those lines of communication, but they are open lines of communication, very directly with the governor himself,” Newsom said.

SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, which represents nearly 150,000 workers across California, is also asking the state to help increase access to coronavirus testing for both workers and the general public. Spokesman Sean Wherley said the union also wants hospitals to make it easier to track workers sent home for possible exposure to the virus, and to provide clearer follow-up.

“They were sent home as a precaution, but not all of them were tested before they were sent home, so what about the risk posed to their families?” Wherley said.

In California and nationally, testing has been an ongoing issue. Though thousands of Californians are self-monitoring and self-quarantining, only 1,075 people have been tested in the state, with a backlog of about 200 tests, Newsom said Tuesday. Commercial labs are supposed to help relieve some of that load.

Workforce shortage is also a concern. “If each positive patient results in five to 10 workers being sent home, how many times can that happen before you have a staffing crisis?” Wherley said.

The California Hospital Association said healthcare staffing hasn’t become an issue at this point, “but it is certainly something everybody has to be cognizant of,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokesperson for the group.

“The discussion has moved from containment to accepting the fact that this virus is here, so there is certainly some concern about how it will affect staff and the ability to continue operating,” she said.

Newsom’s emergency declaration earlier this month on coronavirus allows health-care workers to come from out of state to fill any gaps should California experience a crisis in staffing. Still, state lawmakers—the majority of whom, like Newsom, were elected with the support of organized labor—have been sensitive to health-care workplace concerns.

“Making sure we protect health care workers is extremely critical, because we depend on these very same health-care workers to take care of the patients who may end up in the hospital,” said Sen. Richard Pan, chair of the Senate Health Committee. “If there are any resources (state public-health officials) need, the Legislature would want to make sure they have those resources.”

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

Published in Local Issues

Everyone around him saw this coming.

No one managed to stop it.

For years, family members of James Mark Rippee—a blind, homeless Vacaville man with a traumatic brain injury and paranoid schizophrenia—have fought to get him into treatment. He resisted. And official after official cited California’s involuntary-treatment laws in explaining to his family why there was nothing they could do.

On the evening of Feb. 12, Rippee stepped off the center divide of a dimly lit Vacaville street into the path of an oncoming vehicle, police say. Now he’s facing multiple surgeries, said his sister Linda Privatte—for a fractured skull, a brain bleed, a shattered elbow, a dislocated shoulder and a crushed leg.

Like many other families, Rippee’s sisters place much of the blame on the mental health implications of a 1967 state law, Lanterman-Petris-Short. It imposed specific timeframes for involuntary confinement and limited involuntary holds to those deemed a danger to themselves or others, or those gravely disabled.

But families like Rippee’s are ratcheting up the pressure to change the controversial law—and policymakers seem to be listening. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his State of the State address, said: “Clearly it’s time to respond to the concerns of experts who argue that thresholds for conservatorships are too high and need to be revisited.” 

After watching the speech, Rippee’s sisters aren’t yet convinced. They’ve been circulating a petition begging the governor to pay attention to Rippee’s situation and act to help him.

“It’s easy to stand up and say what needs to happen,” Privatte said. “What is he really going to do about it? What’s the plan? I watched it twice, and I didn’t hear one.”

An audit of Lanterman-Petris-Short is due out later this spring, and could suggest a possible path forward for the state. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment or provide any details about what exactly he would do to respond to change the rules surrounding involuntary treatment of people with mental illness. While the governor has not yet outlined a specific plan for the state, he did sign a bill to pilot expanded conservatorships in San Francisco.

Privatte and her twin sister, Catherine Hanson, recognize that making it easier to conserve people isn’t a simple fix, either. Disability-rights advocates are concerned that involuntary treatment is ineffective and jeopardizes people’s civil rights. County public guardians say they are overwhelmed with an influx of new clients, while the number of facilities available to treat them shrinks.

Even if Rippee were to be conserved, very few facilities in the state accept patients with traumatic brain injuries, Gerald Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, said in an interview late last year.

Rippee himself, when I found him huddled at the edge of a Vallejo strip mall last year, told me he wants to live in a home with a shower and someone to care for him. But not a locked facility, he emphasized.

“To leave a blind man outside, you know, I just figured the county could do better than that,” he said.

This was not the first time Rippee has wandered into traffic. People who know his family regularly reach out to tell them they have pulled him out of danger, or have themselves almost hit him. In September, he was struck by a car and ended up hospitalized with a brain abscess. But after a couple weeks, his sisters said, the hospital discharged him to a board-and-care. Soon after that, he returned to the streets.

Lt. Mark Donaldson, of the Vacaville Police Department, said his officers regularly respond to calls about Rippee stepping into traffic.

“You have to go out and deal with these same people over and over again, and you know what the end result is going to be, because there’s no place to take them,” he said. 

“I got into this job to help people above all else, and we like to be problem-solvers, and when you simply don’t have the tools to solve these problems, it’s devastating,” he said. “It’s so frustrating. Your heart hurts for him and his family. There simply is no place; there’s nothing we can do.”

Privatte says she doesn’t blame the driver who struck her brother earlier this month.

“I just blame the whole situation of him still being out there,” Privatte said. “Sometimes I’m just amazed at how he does survive.”

She and Hanson say their brother has refused necessary medical treatments while in the hospital, including blood transfusions.

Rippee’s sisters have been fighting to get him into involuntary treatment for years. They testified on behalf of state legislation that sought to redefine “gravely disabled” to include those who don’t seek needed medical treatment. It failed. They attended Solano County Board of Supervisors meetings. They asked the police for welfare checks. They sent thousands of emails, and administer a Facebook group about their brother’s situation, which currently has more than 2,500 members.

“What we’re doing is unacceptable,” Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson told Privatte as she wept during a board of supervisors meeting in 2018. Thomson declined to comment on Rippee’s most recent accident.

“I’ve struggled with this for the five years I’ve been here,” Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, said last year. “The street is not an appropriate place for him to live.”

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

Published in Local Issues

Even the special interests that helped kill a California Senate bill aimed at reforming beverage-bottle recycling say the state needs to fix its broken system—and one lawmaker who voted no on the bill says he might just introduce his own.

Authored by Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, the Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have required beverage distributors to design a new recycling program—and to help pay for it themselves. But the bill failed a critical juncture after it fell four votes short of passage.

Wieckowski’s bill was one of a handful aimed at addressing two major problems plaguing California’s recycling industry. One is the turmoil in global recycling markets that kicked off when China decided to stop importing much of the world’s waste. The second is the home-grown death of California’s bottle-recycling businesses.

That’s the one Wieckowski’s bill aimed to fix. “My hope was to reshape the recycling industry in California so that we have a system that makes it convenient for consumers,” Wieckowski said. “No one—in California or outside California—thinks that the current system in California is working.”


A New Focus: Single-Use Packaging

Special interests and legislators instead are focusing on a set of identical bills collectively called the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act. The act aims to curb waste from single-use packaging and food-service items like containers, forks and stirrers that Californians use once, and then toss.

Spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers Sen. Ben Allen from Santa Monica and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, the effort calls for cutting three-quarters of the waste from these single-use products in the next 10 years. It also requires manufacturers to make such items 100 percent compostable or recyclable starting in 2030.

Those bills are “the big game that we’ve been seeing,” said Tim Schmelzer, vice president of California state relations at the Wine Institute, an advocacy organization that represents the California wine industry.

Wieckowski’s bill, Schmelzer said, “was kind of an unfortunate distraction here in January, and we can get back to work on the real bills.”

Allen voted to pass Wieckowski’s bill—saying it was an important conversation-starter.

“If anything, conversations that I had during the debate over the Wieckowski bill give me confidence that the members understand what a big problem there is, and they are interested in a comprehensive solution to our waste management problems,” Allen said. 

But Allen and Gonzalez’s Act—on which Wieckowski is a co-author—stalled in September. As the act wound its way through the Legislature, its focus shifted from curbing plastic pollution to reducing waste from all materials. It picked up amendments that ended opposition from plastic and beverage companies represented by powerful trade groups—the American Chemistry Council and the American Beverage Association. It even won support from the plastic company Dow Inc.

The act also, however, picked up opposition from the glass and wine industries. The Wine Institute’s Schmelzer said the industry was concerned by what he called “unfettered authority” granted to CalRecycle. His organization would also like to see clearer rules surrounding industry plans to meet state recycling targets.

Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, said his organization needs to see more before switching positions. “We support the goals of the circular economy legislation,” he said. Still, “The details of those issues matter, and need to be fleshed out a little bit before we can really consider changing a stated position.”


“We Are Going to Hold You Responsible for Doing Your Part”

No amendments to the act have been publicly posted since it stalled in September, so its current breadth is unclear. But Schmelzer and Allen’s team have been working to resolve the Wine Institute’s concerns so it can drop its opposition. “We’re not (having) hard, throw-our-bodies-across-the-tracks, we-should-never-try-to-recycle type of objections. It’s like, let’s make this bill work a little better,” Schmelzer said.

In the process, Allen said he’s made an effort to understand industry issues first hand. “I’ve toured secondary (materials recovery facilities); I’ve toured glass-bottling facilities. I’ve been to the mattress recyclers, carpet,” he said. “I’ve been to a water-bottling facility for plastic bottles; I’ve got the chance to sit down with city waste management people and haulers and recyclers. This is all complicated stuff.”

Ultimately, he said, the bill sets goals—and manufacturers will have to figure out how to meet them.

“At the heart of all this, of our efforts, is a message to manufacturers,” Allen said. “‘We are going to hold you responsible for doing your part, but we’re going to let you do what you need to do.’”


“There Needs to Be a Major Overhaul”

Like Wieckowski’s bill, the act includes beverage bottles that Californians can currently return for rebates—but only starting in 2026.

That’s not soon enough, said Jeff Donlevy, general manager for recycling company Ming’s Resources-East Bay and a board member of Protect CRV, a coalition of recycling centers and processors.

“Recycling centers need help this year, this session—and if we don’t get some legislation this session, we’re going to need the governor to step up with some budget solutions,” he said. “Because more recycling centers will close, especially in the higher-operating cost areas like Northern California.”

Under California’s “bottle bill,” Californians pay an extra 5 or 10 cents for most beverages—except milk, wine and hard alcohol. Then, they can trade empty beverage bottles and cans for a refund at recycling centers, or, if there are none nearby, at certain supermarkets. Not all the grocery stores obligated to participate actually do, however, opting instead to pay a fee of $100 a day.

Recycling centers have been shuttering for years, however—leaving Californians who rely on the income in the lurch. The shutdowns culminated with the closure of major California recycler rePlanet’s remaining 284 facilities last August, which the company attributed to high operating costs, lower returns for recycled materials, and insufficient state fees—despite a $25 million payout in 2018 from CalReycle.

Wieckowski’s Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have scrapped the program and started over. The bill would have tasked companies and manufacturers that sell beverages to dealers in California with developing a new system and helping to cover the costs. The program would also have included beverages currently excluded from the bottle bill including wine and liquor.

Protect CRV would have supported the bill had it been amended to include more support for existing recycling centers, Donlevy said. “It’s disappointing, because it was the only true bottle bill legislation going forward,” Donlevy said. “We supported the overall idea of comprehensive reform, because there needs to be a major overhaul. And Sen. Wieckowski took the lead on it.”

The beer and wine industry raised concerns about requiring beverage distributors to lead the effort.

“Distributors are in no position to dictate recycling policies to our suppliers, retail customers, and local governments,” according to a statement from California Beer and Beverage Distributors, a trade association that opposed the bill.

Schmelzer said the Wine Institute also objected to including wine bottles in a redemption program, instead favoring recycling at the curb. “We don’t think a redemption-style program where people have to haul in our wine bottles is an effective way to recycle our products,” he said.


“A Desire to Move”

One senator who voted no, Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa, said he believes the wine industry’s concerns are valid, calling the bill “a band-aid to a major problem in the recycling program.” Still, Dodd said, “The days of them not being involved, and not paying into some sort of program, have to be over.”

While Dodd hasn’t seen the most recent amendments to Allen and Gonzalez’s joint effort, he said it’s fair to say he supports it. And he told CalMatters that after voting no on Wieckowski’s bill, he’s considering introducing his own.

“You can’t say no to something like that, and then not be responsible and offer an alternative,” Dodd said. “What I’d really like to do is to present a bill, an alternative going forward, to bring glass and aluminum and plastic beverage containers all together in a more-effective program.”

Dodd said his bill would make producers responsible for the program, not distributors—although his team is still working on what exactly “producer” encompasses. It could include wineries, or major soda companies, or even glass manufacturing companies—“all of them having that stake,” he said. “If we put it on the producers, they’ll figure out the best way forward.”

Californians might be able to weigh in themselves. Recology—an employee-owned California recycler—continues to collect signatures for a ballot measure it’s funding. The measure bans polystyrene food containers and takes aim at single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils—requiring that manufacturers pay a one-penny tax on these items, sell 25 percent fewer of them, and ensure that what theysell is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030.

The tax, according to a financial analysis, would bring in “a few billion dollars annually.” The goal is to help pay for improvements to recycling infrastructure and offset costs, according to Eric Potashner, Recology’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs.

Early polling suggests the measure could be a popular one; 64 percent of Californians surveyed said they would definitely or probably vote yes, according to a report Potashner shared with CalMatters. “We’re on schedule to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” he said.

And California Gov. Gavin Newsom nudged the Legislature in January to take action, saying in his budget proposal: “The administration is committed to working with the Legislature so producers have the responsibility and flexibility to meet recycling requirements for products that ultimately end up in the waste stream.”

Newsom said at a budget press conference that he gave recycling a shout-out to show “a desire to move and a deep desire to look at packaging—to look holistically at the whole recycling space.”

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

Published in Environment

Kathy Garcia is not your typical Republican candidate for the California Senate.

For one thing, she only just joined the GOP. A lifelong Democrat, she won election as a Stockton school board member with the backing of the county Democratic party. She changed her affiliation to Republican in June 2019, six months before the deadline to enter the Senate race.

She said the idea to run—under the banner of a party she’d opposed most of her adult life—was suggested to her by a Stockton lawyer and powerbroker who, records show, has helped fund the campaign of another candidate in the race. And that candidate, a moderate Democrat, incidentally stands a better chance if the Republican vote is divided.

The 80-year-old Garcia, asked by CalMatters why she’s running under the GOP label, gave a series of distinctly un-Republican explanations.

“I just decided I was going to try something new. And not because I like Trump,” she said, before making a retching noise. As for the Republicans that are running, she said, “I want to just put them under the bus.”

Garcia might get her wish.

That’s thanks to California’s unique “top two” election system, in which all candidates—regardless of party affiliation—are listed together on the same ballot in the first round “primary.” Only the first- and second-place winners on March 3 move on to the general election Nov. 3, also regardless of party affiliation. The race for state Senate in this Central Valley district is the latest oddball illustration of how the state’s decade-old electoral attempt at reform can distort the typical logic of campaigning, confuse voters and lead to mind-bending results.

Under the top two system, Garcia’s unlikely candidacy as a Republican is—paradoxically—most likely to benefit moderate Democrat and Modesto Councilman Mani Grewal. By running as a Republican along with another long-shot GOP candidate, Jim Ridenour, Garcia could split the local GOP vote three ways. If so, that could very well leave the two Democratic contenders—Grewal and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman—with the top two winning spots.

And it would leave the most viable Republican candidate running, Stockton Councilman Jesús Andrade, who has been endorsed by the state party, flattened under that proverbial bus. 

Asked if her motivation was to undermine Andrade, Garcia demurred: “I can’t come out and say that.”

Both she and Grewal say they aren’t working together. The Andrade campaign isn’t buying it.

“It’s shameful that Democrat Mani Grewal would plant a Bernie Sanders-supporting, fake Republican like Kathy Garcia in this Senate race to split the Republican vote,” said Andrade consultant Steve Presson. “Republican Jim Ridenour is also a Grewal plant whose candidacy is solely to help Grewal make the top two general election run-off. These Nixonian dirty tricks are just deplorable. Central Valley voters deserve better.”

Grewal called that a “ridiculous accusation.”

The top two system was intended to strip political parties of their influence over the candidate-selection process, making California elections less prone to backroom dealing and polarization. The jury is still out as to whether the system actually has pushed state politics toward the ideological center, as promised. But 10 years into California’s experiment with electoral “reform,” an unintended side effect has emerged: Political insiders have figured out how to game the top two—or, at the very least, how to accuse other campaigns of doing so to muddy the political waters.

But the mere fact that any of this is in doubt is an artifact of the state’s peculiar election system, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., and frequent critic of the top-two system.

“Nobody would have questioned (Garcia’s candidacy) under the old system,” he said. The top two, he said, “encourages not only this manipulative strategy, but it also makes the public question a manipulative strategy where maybe there isn’t one.”

Grewal said allegations of coordination between his campaign and any other candidate in the race are “conspiracy theories” and “a cry for some free media” by the Andrade campaign.

“The first time I met Kathy Garcia was at The Modesto Bee forum” on Jan. 14, he said. “I know Jim Ridenour, and the last time, he endorsed me in my campaign. I would have liked his endorsement this time.”

In a follow up conversation, Garcia, who supported New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker for president, insisted that her choice to run was not motivated by her antipathy towards the Republicans, despite her earlier comments.

“Look at the people running as a Democrat,” she said. “Everybody is either an incumbent or has a big following or something. So here I am.”

She added that the idea to change parties and run for office as a Republican first came from Stockton lawyer and political operative N. Allen Sawyer, whom she described as “kind of my campaign manager.”

In an email, Sawyer explained that he encouraged Garcia to run as a Republican, because the “San Joaquin County Democratic Party is rigged and controlled by insiders. … I think as a moderate, she has a better chance of being treated fairly as a Republican.”

Last year, prior to Garcia’s entry into the race, Sawyer donated $3,000 to Grewal’s campaign.

“I support financially a wide range of candidates who run for office,” he said.

Grewal acknowledged the early financial support from Sawyer, whom he said he has known for some time. “And about his relationship with Kathy, I’m not aware of that stuff.”

Sawyer isn’t the only financial backer of Grewal’s campaign with connections to the two outsider Republicans, Garcia and Ridenour.

Rex Dhatt, a used-car dealer and president of the American Punjabi Chamber of Commerce, has donated at least $2,000 to Grewal. He’s also contributed to Garcia. (The exact value will be disclosed after the next campaign-finance-filing deadline at the end of January.)

Bill Lyons, a farmer, rancher and land developer in Modesto who serves as Gov. Newsom’s agriculture liaison and was state secretary of food and agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis, donated $1,953 to the Grewal campaign. Since 2017, Lyons, his firms and members of his family have given $26,891 to Grewal’s various electoral efforts.

But this year, four companies owned by Lyons have also been the sole contributors to Ridenour, one of the Republicans in the race, giving a total of $4,000 as of the end of 2019.

Dhatt said he wasn’t involved in either campaign directly. “I know them personally from before,” he said of the two candidates when reached by phone. “They came for a check, so I gave them a check. End of story.”

Neither Lyons nor Ridenour responded to requests for comment. 

While Grewal insists that none of the various connections between his campaign and those of Garcia and Ridenour amount to much more than a coincidence—common enough in moderately sized towns like Modesto and Stockton—his campaign has recognized that the presence of three Republicans in the race works to his benefit.

“With three credible Republican candidates—a former mayor of Modesto, a Stockton school board member, and a Stockton City Council member—those votes will be split,” reads a memo his campaign sent out to supporters last November. “None of the three Republicans will get more than 20 percent of the March vote.”

Given the moderate lean of the district as a whole, the memo continues: “Grewal’s support from law enforcement and business will result in the majority of Republicans supporting him.” Combined with a large share of the district’s Democrats, that will “give him a comfortable November margin.”

This isn’t the first time in California’s top-two history that an outside candidate has been labeled a spoiler. Take the case of Scott Baugh.

In 2018, the former Orange County Republican Chair entered a congressional race against then-incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Baugh, who also happened to be Rohrabacher’s former campaign director, claimed to have suffered a falling out with his old boss. But with eight Democrats in the race, some political observers called his last-minute entry into the race “suspicious,” suggesting it was an attempt to insert a second well-known Republican in the race to nab the second place spot. As CalMatters’ columnist Dan Walters put it, the state GOP could have been “pulling off one of history’s most audacious political coups.”

Baugh and Rohrabacher’s mutual history didn’t help allay those suspicions. In 1995, Baugh won an Assembly race after Baugh’s campaign manager and Rohrabacher’s wife convinced a friend of Baugh’s to run as a “decoy” Democratic candidate, siphoning off votes from Baugh’s main opponent.

In 2018, Baugh came in fourth, and Rohrabacher lost in the general. The plan—if there was one—didn’t work.

That might be thanks to a bit of electoral shenanigans on the Democratic side: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads hammering Baugh and boosting a little-known Republican candidate named John Gabbard, hoping to lift up the latter at the expense of the former.

Running political advertising to back a weaker candidate is yet another convoluted strategy enabled by the top-two system.

Last year, supporters of both Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom ran advertisements that subtly(or maybe not so subtly) boosted the conservative bona fides of their Republican opponents.

Why? In a traditional partisan primary system, a Democrat in California would be forced to face off against a Republican, no matter what. But in California, where a Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006, ensuring a GOP candidate gets into the top two rather than a fellow party member is a winning strategy for any Democratic candidate.

Newsom said as much when asked which candidate he’d like to run against during a pre-primary debate last May: “A Republican would be ideal.”

These strategies aren’t illegal. It’s not clear they’re even unethical, said Mitchell, who offered the electoral equivalent of the adage “don’t hate the player.”

“You can decry the people who would do those kinds of things, but you could also point to the system,” he said.

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

Published in Politics

Declaring that moral persuasion and economic incentives aren’t working to bring in people from the sidewalks, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on homelessness earlier this week called for a “legally enforceable mandate” that would force municipalities and the state to house the growing number of homeless Californians. 

The proposal, which came as Newsom kicked off a weeklong tour of the state aimed at drawing attention to the homelessness crisis, urged the Legislature to put a measure on the November ballot that would force California cities and counties to take steps to provide housing for the more than 150,000 Californians who lack it—or face legal action.

Such a measure would require a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses to be brought to voters. California law does not currently penalize the state or local governments for failing to reduce their homeless populations, nor does it force them to make housing sufficiently available to people without it.

But Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-chair the governor’s 13-member Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, have been advocating for some sort of enforceable “right” to sleep indoors since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down laws against homeless camping. That ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand just last month, dramatically limited cities’ enforcement options, finding it to be cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping on the street if sufficient shelter isn’t available.

“California mandates free public education for all of its children and subsidized health insurance for its low-income residents. It requires its subdivisions to provide services to people with developmental disabilities and foster children,” the commission wrote in a letter signed by both elected officials. “Yet everything that state, county and city governments do to alleviate this crisis is voluntary. There is no mandate to ensure people can live indoors, no legal accountability for failing to do so, no enforceable housing production standard and no requirement to consolidate and coordinate funding streams across jurisdictions. The results speak for themselves.”

The council’s recommendation stops short of Steinberg’s and Ridley-Thomas’ initial call for a “right to shelter,” which would not only have required cities to provide immediate beds, but also obligated people experiencing homelessness to come inside. But it adds momentum to the strategy of elevating litigation as a tool to accomplish what compassion and money haven’t been able to do.

Newsom, visiting a homelessness program in Nevada County, said Monday he “would lean in the direction” of speedily deploying a legal “obligation” to supply sufficient services and housing, adding that “a number of cities and counties” have volunteered to do demonstration projects over the next several months, “not the next few years.” (Ridley-Thomas later said he would propose such a pilot in Los Angeles County this week.)

“I broadly have been encouraging this debate about obligations,” the governor said, adding that “there’s a distinction between rights and obligations.”

Without elaborating on that distinction, he seconded the task force’s point that many of the state’s responsibilities stem from legal mandates: “We do it in almost every other respect,” Newsom said. “On this issue, we don’t, and I think that’s missing. The question is how do you do it. … This is not black and white. This is tough stuff.”

Municipalities made it clear they would need more clarification.

“A legally enforceable mandate can only work with clarity of who’s obligated to do what, and what new sustainable resources will fund it; that’s the ticket for clear expectations and accountability,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, in a statement.

Steinberg, meanwhile, called Monday’s proposal an improvement on the original “right to shelter” concept, saying a mandate by any name would still have the force of law. The point, the mayor said, is to give the courts a legal “last resort” to address pleas to supersede political gridlock, just as federal laws have in the past armed judges to combat other social crises.

“It’s analogous to desegregation,” Steinberg said.

The task force’s proposal would let a “designated public official” sue the government for not doing enough to offer emergency and permanent housing to the homeless. A judge could then intervene to force a city to approve an emergency shelter, for example, or redirect budget funds to homelessness services.

The proposal, however, so far lacks specifics on how taxpayers would pay for such a mandate. The letter released by the task force, which includes local elected officials from large and small cities, states that “more state resources will undoubtedly be required,” but includes no estimate.

State and local governments in recent years have poured billions into combating homelessness, only to watch the problem worsen as ever-rising rents drive Californians to the streets faster than they can be re-housed. On Friday, for the second straight year, Newsom proposed more than $1 billion in new state funds to fight homelessness, calling it “the issue that defines our times” in California. But the state’s “point-in-time” homeless count jumped 17 percent between 2018 and last year.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a task force member, said leverage is needed.

“We do the things we are required to do first … then for everything else, we try very hard,” said Fletcher. “Absent a legally enforceable obligation, I believe people will continue to try very hard.”

But a legal mandate would arm jurisdictions to tackle “the underlying problem, which is poverty,” rather than appease communities with shelter beds, he said.


Putting the Onus on Government to Provide Housing

Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas floated the idea of a statewide “right to shelter” law last year. Spurred by decades-old litigation, New York state has a “right to shelter” policy that makes its state and local governments legally liable for having emergency shelter beds available for every unhoused person. 

While many credit “right to shelter” for New York’s success in reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets, Newsom and advocates for the homeless have balked at the idea. Some advocates fear it would divert finite funding from permanent supportive housing, which experts say is a more long-term, albeit expensive solution; others worry about cost and potential civil-liberties violations that might arise from requiring a homeless person to accept shelter if it’s available.

“The reason why right to shelter is a mistake is because it diverts resources from the solution, which is housing, not shelter,” said Sharon Rapport, California policy director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing and a member of the task force.

Under the policy proposed by the task force, a local government would be required to develop a plan to house the vast majority of its homeless people within “an aggressive but reasonable period of time.” “Reasonable” is not defined in the letter.

However, Steinberg said that, in the case of Sacramento, “aggressive but reasonable” might mean a 1,500-person annual reduction in the city’s 5,500-plus homeless population, and housing the “the vast majority” within five years.

Advocates on the homelessness issue said more specifics are needed, but applauded the task force’s recommendations as a philosophical pushback, at least, against efforts to criminalize living on the streets.

“Any kind of policies that are promoting locking up people or warehousing people or punishing people for being homeless, the council is saying those policies have been very ineffective in the past,” said Rapport.

The city of Bakersfield recently proposed ramping up enforcement of low-level drug offenses to get people off the streets there, and advocates have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s threats to do something about homelessness in California may involve heavier use of law enforcement.


A Homelessness Czar, but Little on Conservatorships

The task force also called for a single point person on homelessness, a Newsom campaign promise that devolved in his first year into confusion over who, at any given point, was his “homelessness czar.”

Various administration members, including Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly, and adviser Jason Elliott, have filled the role—so many that last week, Newsom headed off press questions by declaring tartly, “You want to know who’s the homeless czar? I’m the homeless czar in the state of California.”

But the issue of who is actually overseeing the state’s disparate homelessness initiatives—across multiple bureaucracies from prisons to health care—is still pressing, at least according to the homelessness task force. One of their key recommendations would “create a single point of authority of homelessness in state government,” suggesting a high-level official that reports directly to Newsom. Another calls for a comprehensive accounting of existing funding for homelessness, housing, mental health and substance-abuse treatment.

Still other recommendations have already been incorporated into Newsom’s proposed homelessness budget, including a “flexible fund” that service providers can tap for uses from emergency rental assistance to building shelters. The task force also proposed revamping the state’s health-insurance program to draw down more federal dollars for homelessness-related services, a key pillar of the strategy Newsom unveiled last week. Doing so would require a waiver from the federal government.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a member of the task force, said that a Medi-Cal reform proposal is key to the the blueprint.

“Housing is health,” she said. “And to recognize that health dollars should appropriately be used to support housing is a very important part of our recommendations.”

More-controversial proposals included an executive order expanding the state’s new rent-gouging law to cover more households, and legislation exempting from environmental review any new housing project for people at risk of homelessness.

California has strict laws that make it difficult to detain mentally ill people against their will for a prolonged period of time. Families of homeless loved ones struggling with schizophrenia or other disorders often blame the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, a late 1960’s law intended to curb the overuse of asylums, for precluding necessary care. New York’s commitment laws are less stringent.

While Newsom talked vaguely of reforming the law last week, such reforms are conspicuously absent from the task force’s report.

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

Published in Local Issues

Anthony Rendon arrived feeling a little punchy. At 51, the speaker of the California Assembly is adjusting to life as a new dad—and his 3-month-old baby hadn’t slept well the night before.

“She was up at 1:30, 3, 4:30. And then once she woke up at 4:30, she didn’t fall asleep until 6,” Rendon said. “So that’s my life.”

The Los Angeles politician—sporting a black hoodie and Converse high tops as he sat for an interview in his district office—assumed one of California’s most-powerful roles in the spring of 2016. As the Assembly’s Democratic leader, he’s negotiated $200 billion state budgets with two Senate leaders and two governors. He’s overseen a political operation that resulted in Democrats winning a historically huge majority of more than 75 percent.

And yet around the Capitol, he’s probably best known for his low profile, rarely calling press conferences and opting not to author any bills so his members can share the spotlight. His style—at turns cerebral and self-deprecating—is unusual in a statehouse that attracts its share of showboats.

So it was with a certain understatement, as well as exhaustion, that Rendon, clutching a cup of coffee, shared his expectations for 2020—in the Capitol, at the ballot and for his family. Here are condensed highlights from our December interview.

So who gives a better baby present, Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown?

I like Jerry Brown very much. And I’m not asking that he send a present, but he didn’t. Gavin Newsom and his wife sent a very nice gift. … It was a onesie. … It says “One California” or something. Get it? It’s a play on words. It’s a onesie. It’s very cute. And I meant to take a picture of her in it and send it to him, but I haven’t done that. I’m glad you reminded me.

You’re the first speaker in a while to have a young family. Recent legislative leaders either didn’t have children or had much older children. Do you think having a baby is going to impact your ability to do such a demanding job?

It impacts all aspects of my life. I think I’ll have to make adjustments, for sure. … Being speaker is a demanding job. And I’m sure being a parent is a demanding job as well. So something will have to give.

March of 2020 will mark four years that you’ve been assembly speaker. And if you remain speaker until the end of the legislative session—

That’s ominous.

… You’ll become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown. So, any fears of restless colleagues who might mount a challenge?

It’s not something that’s on my mind right now. I haven’t heard any rumblings. 

Your caucus grew a lot in 2018 because of the seats you successfully flipped. Then it got even bigger when GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties. What was that like to have a Republican in your caucus? Is it as easy as just switching jerseys and joining your team, or is there any awkwardness in having a former opponent as a colleague?

It probably sounds ludicrous … but I was amazed how seamless it was. When Brian announced that he was switching, I had a meeting with the caucus and said, “Hey, this is what he wants to do, and how do you guys feel about it?” And I almost felt like I was overpreparing them, because they were all like, “Cool.” (Even as a Republican) Brian voted with us so often.

More recently, local Assemblyman Chad Mayes left the Republican Party as well. He’s now registered with no party preference. But if he wanted to caucus with the Democrats, would you allow it?

I don’t know. I’d probably have to ask the caucus how they felt about it. He doesn’t seem to want to. I saw him (a few days ago). He feels pretty liberated to not be a member of a party. … I don’t think he wants to become a Democrat, and I don’t think he wants to caucus with us. I don’t think he wants to caucus with Republicans (either).

How are you feeling about your Assembly races in 2020? Do you think you can hold your 61-seat mega-majority?

I have mixed feelings about it. The weather forecast is complicated. On the one hand, there’s a lot of very anti-Republican sentiment. … With Donald Trump on the ballot, you have to think that we’re going to do very well. That being said, we also know that there is very much an anti-incumbent tendency out there, and we just have more incumbents than they do. People are very angry around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness. We see that polling everywhere, in every district throughout the state. So I don’t think we can say, “Democrat X is running against Donald Trump” or “running against a Republican.” We have to tell a story about what we’ve done. … Just railing against Donald Trump, I don’t think that’s fair to Californians to do that.

Why?

I’m really impressed with the work that we’ve done … and also because … we have candidates who have incredible qualifications and have had incredible life experiences. You take someone like Thu-Ha Nguyen (challenging GOP Assemblyman Tyler Diep) in Orange County, who’s a cancer researcher, and a mom, and a council member. And I think to reduce all of that to just, “She’s battling Donald Trump,” I think is overly simplistic. And it’s also very—it’s a short horizon. I mean, Donald Trump will be gone someday, and the party needs to stand for something. And we will.

So how do you feel about Gavin Newsom’s approach? He’s been very much framing himself as the leader of the resistance and fighting Trump all the time. How do you feel about that?

That works for him. A lot of what he does is about the resources from the federal government, and that’s a different dynamic. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in. But I get why he does it. … Whether it’s high speed rail funds or water—that’s very real for (him).

How do you feel about the landscape for the Democratic presidential nomination?

I haven’t been following it all that closely. … I want to be supportive of a Democrat who could beat Donald Trump.

You were a Kamala Harris supporter early on. So with her out of the race, have you picked a candidate you’re going to endorse?

No … I don’t know if I will. I might. I’ve had Mr. Steyer call me, and the South Bend mayor called me. (Rendon turned to his staff member and asked to be reminded of his name.)

A lot of the policies the Democratic candidates are proposing are things that California is already doing to some degree—like $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, carbon pricing and paid family leave. Do you think that the nation wants to be more like California?

The California label is probably not a good thing in a lot of parts of the country for whatever reason. But I think in terms of policy, the state certainly has a story to tell. So I’m not surprised that some of our ideas are being put up there as models to follow. … We’re proud of our economy, and we’re proud of the $15 minimum wage, and all the stuff we’ve done on the environment. And at the same time, how many tens of thousands of people go to sleep every night in this state without a home? And we have long-lasting water problems, quality and supply. We have too many people in prison. So I think it’s important for us as Democrats to be honest. And it is very difficult to do that in election years.

On criminal-justice issues, California has been on a long course of reversing tough-on-crime policies of the past. Do you think the state has gone too far in any way? Or if you think we haven’t gone far enough, what’s left to do?

In our House, we passed the (parolee right to) vote bill. (ACA 6 would allow parolees to vote after they complete their prison sentences, if voters approve.) I’d like to see that get on the ballot and have Californians take a look at that. What we ask for in our society is for people who’ve done bad things to do their time and then become engaged citizens. And as long as you’re not allowing that, then you’re not living up to your principles.

A few months ago, my colleague Dan Morain wrote about the murder your brother-in-law John Lam was an accomplice to 16 years ago. Jerry Brown reduced his sentence, and Gavin Newsom made a final call allowing his release. Have you had any insights on criminal justice issues from this experience in your family?

I have. He was released on Oct. 10th. He’s in transitional housing. And you know, my wife and I are very fortunate. We have resources at our disposal. I’ve been on paternity leave. My wife is self-employed, so we have a lot of time that we can spend with him, and we take him out a lot. … When I pick him up, I sometimes look at the other guys at the home and wonder to what extent they don’t have those things, and what that means for them moving forward. So in the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the things that we do or don’t do after (someone is released from prison) and the hurdles that people have. That is something that I’ve taken away from the experience.

Looking ahead, what are your priorities for 2020?

No surprise to you or anybody, wildfires and housing affordability/homelessness issues are on everyone’s mind—this sort of unresolved, you know, enigma, that is PG&E and where that goes moving forward.

So on wildfire, what can you do?

It’s a very good question. People (in Northern California) are constantly talking about insurance issues. 

What about on homelessness?

A lot of what we want to do is relating to oversight of the money and the opportunities that we’ve given to local governments. … It’s incumbent upon cities to do something, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide oversight.

Do you anticipate the Legislature responding to pressure from initiatives that are in the process of qualifying for the ballot? Like the challenge from Uber and Lyft on AB 5, the new California law that treats more contract workers as employees—would you pass a law to keep that off the ballot?

I don’t believe we would. I felt as though we were doing a tremendous favor to a lot of people by even addressing that. We could have easily just let it go and let the court ruling stand. I have no interest in getting involved in that. I think we’ve been quite good to those people.

A few years ago, there was a push to do a constitutional amendment asking voters to repeal the Proposition 209 ban (from 1996) on affirmative action. Given the 2020 electorate, do you want that to be something the Legislature does, give that to the voters this year?

I’m glad you brought that up. … I would like to see 209 repealed. That being said, if we are going to get something on the ballot, and get it passed in November, from a political standpoint, it almost seems too late. You have to raise a lot of money. You have to have your ducks lined up. And I haven’t seen that from any of the activist groups that have been talking about that. It’s disappointing that people sometimes seem to want to jam things on the ballot. Good intentions, but (they) don’t go through the very simple political steps of raising money and having a proper coalition to get something passed by voters.

What about a repeal of the death penalty? Would you want to see the Legislature put that on the ballot for the people?

I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for a long time. … But as long as it’s not being carried out (because Newsom halted executions by executive order), there doesn’t seem to be a rush.

Anything you hope will go differently this year in working with Gov. Newsom?

There were some bumps in the road with Gavin early on. At the time, it was hard to contextualize. It was just irritating. But when you think about it, yeah, it makes sense: It’s a whole new team, whole new relationships. So I think things will get better. And I don’t know that we necessarily need to tweak any individual thing. I think it’s just learning people’s tendencies and learning how people like to communicate

One last question: How do you feel about having another Anthony Rendon in L.A.? (A Major League Baseball player by the same name recently left the Washington Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels.)

It’s a lot. After my wife and I had a baby, our first date with a baby sitter was the night he hit a big homerun in Game 6 of the World Series. And I got 69 texts … That includes people who sent texts saying, “Oh, aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another Anthony Rendon text?” That’s included in that total. Just for the record.

What were most of the texts saying?

“Oh, you hit a home run tonight! Ha ha ha.” Oh, so clever. I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve literally been following this guy since he was Freshman of the Year at Rice University. I know he exists. I don’t need another freakin’ person to tell me that he exists.

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

Published in Politics

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

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