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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

When Antoinette Martinez rolls her cart through the produce section of the FoodMaxx in Watsonville, her 5-year-old son, Caden, often asks for strawberries and blueberries.

Sometimes Martinez bends, but usually she sticks to the produce on sale: Roma tomatoes for 69 cents a pound, or cucumbers at three for 99 cents. Banana bunches are relatively cheap.

“If it’s not under a dollar, then I don’t buy it,” Martinez said, bypassing $2 lettuce as Caden clambered into her grocery cart. “It’s about stretching the dollar.”

The food budget isn’t as tight as it used to be since Martinez, a single mother, got a job at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Cruz County. She helps people sign up for food stamps, known in California as CalFresh.

Between her $2,380 monthly paycheck and about $100 she receives in CalFresh, Martinez can make it through the month without her or Caden ever going hungry. But under a new proposal from the Trump Administration, Martinez and her son would lose their food stamps. So would many clients she helps at the food bank, along with an estimated 3.1 million other Americans.

Californians are likely to be hit particularly hard. The proposed rule, announced last week, would undo the ability of states to provide food stamps to households that have incomes above the federal food stamp limit—130 percent of the federal poverty line—but hefty expenses.

That would have the biggest impact in states like California that have raised the minimum wage to try to chase the skyrocketing costs of housing. As California’s minimum wage creeps towards $15 per hour by 2023, many more workers could be bumped off food stamps when their monthly incomes rise above the federal limit.

Under current law, a California family of two with a gross monthly income between 130 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level—or between $1,784 and $2,744—can qualify to receive CalFresh as long as their net income after housing, childcare or medical costs falls under 100 percent of the poverty level, or $1,372.

For now, Martinez falls right into that bracket.

The rule would also cut the benefit for families who have savings or assets above a federal limit that many states, including California, currently waive. That limit—$2,250 for most families—is only slightly more than the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in California ($2,110), and about half that of a two-bedroom in San Francisco ($4,730).

“It’s clear that states like California are a target on this,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that the proposal to eliminate what he called a “loophole” would reduce fraud and save the federal government money—more than $9 billion over the next five years, according to a federal estimate. The proposal could go into effect following a 60-day public comment period. 

“Our job is to make sure folks have the tools they need to move away from (food stamp) dependency … and preserve the benefits for those most in need,” Perdue said.

But advocates counter that the move would largely cut benefits for working families who spend large chunks of their paychecks on housing and care-taking costs for young children or ill or disabled family members.

“There’s actually no evidence that making someone hungrier makes them less dependent on public benefits. And there’s plenty of evidence showing the opposite,” said Bartholow.

The Western Center estimates that some 250,000 Californians could lose CalFresh, based on estimates made when California expanded eligibility in 2008 under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and again in 2013 under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Additionally, children in those families could lose automatic eligibility for free lunches at school.

The proposal to cut food stamps is the latest in a series of Trump administration initiatives to curtail government benefits for low-income people, including a rule that would tighten food-stamp work requirements, another to block some legal immigrants from getting a green card if they are deemed likely to use public services, and another to adjust the way the federal poverty measure is calculated.

Those other proposed rules have cleared their comment periods, but the Trump administration has yet to impose them.

Opposition from California’s Democratic leaders to the latest proposal was swift and predictable.

“There is not a state in the country that is probably more aggressive in pushing back from a litigation perspective, so that will be analyzed by the lawyers,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told CalMatters. A spokesman for Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration over 50 times thus far, said his office was reviewing the proposal.

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, who represents Martinez’s district, sent Secretary Perdue a letter, signed by 45 California Democrats in Congress, asking that he take into consideration the harmful effects of this proposed rule and act quickly to rescind it.”

Martinez knows the feeling of hunger well. For many years, she said, she was homeless, battling addiction and mental illness. “When I was homeless … there was no place to eat,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t really too sure where to go.”

She recalled what happened next: She got pregnant, enrolled in CalFresh and was finally able to count on a steady source of food. Then she entered an intensive program to help homeless people get back on their feet.

Martinez and her son have now been housed for two years. She said she’s close to finishing her associate degree in human services at Cabrillo College and dreams of being a case manager for a nonprofit, helping others battle addiction and poverty.

She worries about what the food-stamp proposal would mean for her and her growing son. But she said she’s also concerned about the rest of the community she serves in Santa Cruz.

Within the county, 21.7 percent of residents live in poverty, the third-highest rate in the state after Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, according to new data from the Public Policy Institute of California.

“CalFresh is the first line of defense against hunger; the food bank is the second,” Martinez said. “We were barely surviving, but we’re not going to be able to survive if (President Trump) continues to push this.”

Jackie Botts is a journalist at CalMatters working for The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in National/International

Do you freelance in California? Have a side hustle? Drive trucks? Work construction? Do nails? Work on political campaigns? Then you should be paying attention to a major employment fight coming to a head in Sacramento.

In the coming weeks, the state Senate will begin hearings on a bill that will make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors, officially codifying a sweeping 2018 California Supreme Court decision. The so-called “Dynamex” bill, supported by organized labor and named for the court case, has made headlines for threatening the on-demand business model made popular by the likes of Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates.

Less discussed, however, is the extent to which Assembly Bill 5 could sweep up some 2 million workers across industries far from the sharing economy and tech sectors, from truck drivers and general contractors to nail salons, strippers and perhaps even the freelance writers for this newspaper. The proposal has so unsettled mainstream businesses that they’ve banded together with sharing economy disruptors to run an “I’m Independent” campaign.

The legislation would rewrite the rules for when a worker is deemed an official employee, upending longstanding employment practices by winemakers, private investigators, music schools and other enterprises.

“Does AB 5 have very wide repercussions? Yes, that’s what makes the negotiations very complicated,” said labor-rights attorney Bill Sokol, who teaches employment law at San Francisco State University and is not a part of the negotiations.

California has long led the nation on employment practices, and AB 5 may be just the beginning as policymakers wrestle with updating labor codes in today’s app-for-hire world. Though the high court decision clearly raised the bar for treating workers as independent contractors rather than full employees, the devil is in the details that will be spelled out in the pending legislation.

AB 5 is being lobbied heavily both by business advocates and by organized labor, which seeks to ensure that gig-economy workers have workplace protections, including the right to collective bargaining. It has also put Gov. Gavin Newsom, who wants to be viewed as an ally to both labor and tech, in an awkward position.

“Everything is up for grabs,” Sokol said. “There’s no way to predict who’s going to end up with what. But labor recognizes that the American workplace they have traditionally organized—those worker relationships—have changed, and the laws have not kept up with them.”


Labor groups led by the 2 million-member California Labor Federation have united behind the proposal to limit the use of independent workers. Their contention: The gig economy has opened the door to mass exploitation of low-wage workers, a trend that is worsening income inequality.

Too many employers misclassify employees in order to cut costs, the unions argue, and strong curbs on the use of independent contractors, who aren’t eligible for many of the benefits and workplace protections mandated for regular employees, would slow that. Those curbs would also make it easier to reach groups, such as general contractors, that have long been difficult to organize.

But business advocates warn the change would dramatically ramp up labor costs in California, and have dire consequences for the state’s economy. In some sectors, such as ridesharing, widespread contracting isn’t even the long-term business model—it’s just an intermediate phase on the way to automation. Uber or Lyft, both headquartered in San Francisco, might stop operating in California altogether, they say.

Their hope is to carve out a third way that would allow employers to grant some benefits without having to categorize workers as full employees.

“We have a completely different economy,” said Jennifer Barrera, executive vice president at California Chamber of Commerce. “We have a huge group of individuals who really value their flexibility and control over their own schedule, and I don’t think it has to be one or the other.”

The California Supreme Court decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles dealt with a same-day courier service that, to save money, had converted all its employees to independent contractors. A former employee claimed the shift was a Labor Code violation, and the litigation that ensued ended up reinterpreting a longstanding test for classifying workers. The ruling instead established a three-part test for certifying independent contractors, with the highest hurdle being that the work performed must be outside the core of the company’s business.

Even though the Dynamex decision is already law, labor representatives say many companies have been flouting it. AB 5 would ensure that workers would not have to file suit on a case by case basis to seek enforcement.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that they’re currently being cheated out of, frankly,” said Steve Smith, with the Labor Federation. “With respect to Uber and Lyft, it’s the exploitation they subject their workers to on a daily basis. Many of these workers are not receiving minimum wage; they are misclassified as contractors when they actually should be considered employees, meaning there’s a whole host of benefits they’re not getting that they should get like everyone else.”

In steering more people to employee status, the bill would force companies to offer basic worker protections such as guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, unemployment and disability insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave and family leave. Workers could also get reimbursed for mileage and maintenance of their vehicles.

The state estimates it loses about $7 billion a year in payroll-tax revenue due to worker misclassification that could be supporting schools, roads and other public services. And by avoiding unemployment insurance taxes and workers’ compensation premiums, businesses shift the burden to the state when workers get laid off, get sick or get injured on the job.

“These billion-dollar companies can complain, but we have to ask ourselves as taxpayers: Should we subsidize their business by subsidizing their workers?” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a former labor organizer from San Diego who is author of AB 5. “That’s what happens when you don’t adequately compensate workers.”

She dismisses the idea that Uber and Lyft will flee the fifth-largest economy in the world. More likely, the lawmaker predicts, Uber and Lyft will make the changes required by law, because there’s a massive market for transporting individuals and goods in California. If they can’t manage it, she says, then someone else will.


Gonzalez’s bill is triggering pushback in part because the impact of the high court ruling is far broader than many Californians expected. Gonzalez says she’s heard, for instance, from newspaper publishers who want to keep using freelance journalists and beauty salons that rely on nail technicians. She’s even rattled folks in her own world of politics, because her bill would reclassify campaign workers as employees, not contractors.

Chris Shimoda, vice president of government affairs with the California Trucking Association, says trucking has been a pathway for people without advanced degrees to make more money. In fact, about 80 percent of drivers in the industry have a high school education or less, he said. But if firms are required to employ their own drivers, independent drivers who own their own $150,000 Class 8 heavy duty trucks may not be able to find work.

“We all agree there should be a pathway, especially for the blue-collar working class to rise up the economic ladder,” Shimoda said. “It’s just: What are the rules for the labor and employment law side of things? If there are specific things that have been abused, then what are those, and how do we reconcile that through this bill?”

As his association works to ease the potential impact of AB 5 on those drivers, the trucking industry has challenged the Dynamex decision in federal court, arguing that federal laws governing motor carriers pre-empt the state test.

Peter Tateishi, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of California, which represents construction firms, said the bill would disadvantage small businesses, many of which are women-owned and minority-owned firms, that subcontract with builders, because contractors won’t be able to get outside help.

As for Uber and Lyft, the rideshare companies have sought compromise and held back-channel negotiations with the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union. The Labor Federation, however, remains committed to full employment status for rideshare workers. As a result, the gig economy companies have sought support in the court of public opinion.

In an open letter, Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi and Lyft co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer proposed maintaining their drivers’ freelance status but granting access to some employee benefits such as paid time off and retirement accounts. The executives, whose combined worth is over $1 billion, offered to form a new driver association to advocate for the drivers’ interests.

“We are public companies that tens of millions of people rely on for mobility and work,” they wrote. “If there ever was a time for new policies, it’s now.”


This week, the “I’m Independent” coalition led Uber and Lyft drivers around the Capitol to meet with lawmakers and staff to voice their desire to remain freelancers.

“I’m very offended that they would think they’re doing us a favor by calling us employees,” said Vivian Mallory, a 60-year-old Uber driver in Sacramento. “We want better rates, and we want more opportunities for benefits. I think we’re not against the bill being passed, but I think we want changes in the language.”

Mallory says she’s strategic about picking up longer rides that pay more and was able to average $4,800 a month last year driving. Another Uber driver, James Kyle, 58, of Roseville, said he needs to remain an independent contractor, because he works seasonally at charity golf tournaments.

“They’re taking the fun away from it,” Mallory said.

AB 5 supporters counter that drivers will continue to maintain a flexible schedule, because rideshare companies, like any employer, can pay wages based on the number of hours worked.

On the other side are drivers like 62-year-old Ann Glatt, who joined the Gig Workers Rising movement after noticing her share of fares declining over time with Lyft. She says she’s lucky to make $700 a week and would like to see changes to the way the rideshare companies categorize their drivers.

“Teachers are in unions. We’re not able to unionize because we’re independent contractors,” Glatt said.

She added that the labels put on drivers can be misleading.

“Uber and Lyft are not transportation companies—they are platforms. So that makes us customers, and the passengers are the end user. But really it kinda just means Uber and Lyft are not responsible for basic labor standards for people,” she said.

After speaking to CALmatters, Glatt said she stopped driving Lyft because she wasn’t able to make ends meet.

Requests for exemptions have so far succeeded in some sectors. Gonzalez has agreed to leave doctors, insurance agents, real estate agents, hair stylists/barbers who hold a booth rental permit, dentists, architects, engineers and accountants out of the law.

But business interests are pressing for more. Barrera said CalChamber would like to carve out licensed occupations, from court reporters to family therapists. While the author is committed to sorting through more positions, Gonzalez said the exemptions will need to stop at some point.

“I have a driver’s license,” she said. “That doesn’t make me a business owner.”

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

Published in Politics

California government’s technology drastically pales in comparison to that from Silicon Valley, but Gov. Gavin Newsom is betting $40.8 million and a new office will change that.

Even though California is home to innovative tech giants like Google and Apple, its government historically has used technology that can’t handle simple tasks—like accepting a credit card at the DMV, or in some cases, offering fully functioning websites. To combat this stark digital divide, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed the Office of Digital Innovation. Funding is tucked into the budget starting July 1.

Can a new office and $40.8 million fix a decades-long problem? That depends on who you ask. Newsom won enough legislative support to get the funding approved. But observers remain skeptical as to what the office can actually accomplish given entrenched bureaucracy. Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, a Whittier Democrat, counts himself as one of Newsom’s supporters and said he wished the office was created a long time ago.

“We live in the tech capital of the world, yet we don’t have anybody driving the modernization of how we as government operate and provide services to the people we represent,” Calderon said.

Calderon is co-chair of the Legislature’s tech caucus. He said he remembers taking calls as a field representative for the Legislature in 2010 and helping a single mother who was having trouble navigating the Employment Development Department. She was unemployed and needed her unemployment benefits to pay bills and buy food for her children, he said. She finally called him to ask for help. The woman had spent hours on the phone trying to access her benefits.

“I just want us to be more effective and more efficient,” Calderon said. “When people are calling a state agency because they’re having an issue, they don’t have time to spend three hours on the phone.”

Newsom was outspoken about technology problems in California’s bureaucracy even before he was elected. He called for pushing democracy into the digital age with a book he co-authored in 2013: Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. In an interview with Google, Newsom said, “California is on the leading and cutting edge of 1973.”

As an example, Newsom early this year pointed to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ inability to accept credit card payments in field offices.

Despite Newsom’s attention, the DMV will not be the first agency helped by the upcoming office, said Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer. The Office of Digital Innovation will be housed under her agency since its mission will be to help Californians navigate a bureaucratic tangle of poorly performing websites.

“Our first and most important thing to do is begin to hire,” she said. The budget calls for 50 positions, and once filled, “we’ll begin investigating and learning from department agencies where the greatest need is, and we’ll set a path forward.”

Batjer said the DMV is “ripe” for innovation, and she mentioned California’s Health and Human Services Agency as another entity that could use a technological boost. The Department of Health Care Services, which is housed under the agency, has faced its own technological snafus, like making questionable Medi-Cal payments and denying Medi-Cal coverage to eligible Californians.

Batjer said the new office will be modeled after other government digital agencies, including the federal office 18F, which was created in 2013 after the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. (That agency reportedly faces its own problems under the Trump Administration.) California’s office also will look at the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service. Both offices focus on user needs and take a start-up approach to tech.

Batjer said California’s office will complement the Department of Technology, which also is under Government Operations.

Amy Tong, the California Department of Technology director and state chief information officer, said the new office will be expected to bring innovative approaches to technology, honed in Silicon Valley, to state offices that are stuck in “legacy” mode and unable to figure out how to update.

For instance, the office might help state workers become more efficient by streamlining processes that take many steps into ones that only require a few.

Yet to truly succeed, some say state employees need to do more than become more efficient. They need to adopt a new attitude about technology.

“Nobody wants to take risks. Nobody wants to stick their neck out,” said former state Sen. Dean Florez about state technology decisions.

He said the job description for the new director is admirable, but he questions whether a large, bureaucratic system will actually be as willing to “break things”  as start-ups and tech gurus of Silicon Valley.

Florez said Newsom’s biggest challenge will be getting bureaucrats on board with a major tech overhaul.

“I think Newsom wants to get California to the cloud,” he said, a costly move. “It would be a big change for the state of California to forgo those legacy systems and move to things like the cloud.”

Still, the Newsom administration remains confident that this is the best next step.

“Gov. Newsom is committed to transforming the way citizens interact with their government for the better,” said spokesman Brian Ferguson in a written statement. “The goal of this new office is to tap into and grow the creativity, innovation and transparency that already exists elsewhere in our state to improve the way the executive branch approaches the delivery of technology and services to the public.”

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

Published in Local Issues

Despite speculation about bold moves—in a far-left direction, even for this blue state—Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative Democrats actually landed a budget Thursday that’s surgical about new taxing and spending while still keeping promises to help poor Californians and working families.

Under the $214.8 billion spending plan, the state inched closer to universal health coverage, expanding Medi-Cal to all low-income young adults regardless of immigration status. State lawmakers also charted a course to increase tax credits to the working poor and boost subsidies to middle-income Californians to buy health coverage. There were significant investments in early education and housing, while a portion of the surplus was diverted to pay down pension liabilities.

While Democrats began the year with a surplus of ideas for taxing Californians, only a few strategic levies survived the negotiation process, specifically a fine on individuals who don’t have health insurance under a state mandate. There’s even a little tax relief: Parents, for instance, will get a temporary tax exemption on diapers.

One hitch? The devil is in the details, some which have yet to be worked out. Though Democrats met their deadline for a balanced spending plan, most of the underlying policy to enact the budget wasn’t hashed out—and may not be for weeks. Call it a learning curve: This was the new governor’s first time negotiating with seasoned legislative leaders who know how to count votes. Look for more action in coming trailer bills.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s new budget—including maybe, just maybe, the first steps toward the establishment of a four-year college in the Coachella Valley.

Yes to Health Care for Undocumented Young Adults

The Legislature agreed to the governor’s plan to expand Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people, to young adults ages 19-25. It’s a step toward offering free health care to all undocumented adults since the state already makes Medi-Cal available to children regardless of immigration status.

The Senate had proposed going further by offering Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors 65 and older. However, none of the leaders backed offering health care to all low-income immigrants.

The state expects an estimated 90,000 young adults could gain coverage when the benefit begins next year. Already, 76,000 have registered for a limited version of Medi-Cal that covers emergency services and prenatal care available to low-income people regardless of immigration status. The price tag for this expansion? About $98 million a year.

It’s worth noting the state also affirmed its commitment to restoring optional Medi-Cal benefits. During the recession, coverage for audiology, optical, podiatry, speech therapy and incontinence creams had been taken away.

Obamacare Lives: A $695 State Mandate to Carry Health Coverage

Starting next year, California will join New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia in requiring residents carry health coverage or face a $695 state penalty—a fine that will go up each year with inflation.

The state individual mandate aims to replace the federal one that Republicans repealed in their effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The administration says California needs to act, because without a mandate, the number of Californians without coverage—10.4 percent in 2016—will go back up. Separately, a study conducted by the University of California estimated the uninsurance rate will rise to 12.9% by 2023, or 4.4 million people, without state action.

Money raised from the penalties, about $450 million over three years, will be used to give bigger subsidies to those who purchase private insurance through the state’s health coverage exchange, Covered California.

Newsom and lawmakers hope to expand assistance to 190,000 middle-income Californians making between $48,000 to $72,000 a year, according to Health Access California, a health advocacy group.

Fear of Recall = Not Many New Taxes

The budget includes a plan to impose a fee—that still needs to be voted on—of no more than 80 cents a month on each telephone line to help digitize the state’s 911 system, which is still analog. The next-generation system would improve call delivery, better location data and incoming text capability.

Other than that and the health-care mandate, lawmakers opted against most of the new taxes proposed early in the session. In fact, California parents and women will get a sales tax exemption on diapers and menstrual products (though only for two years).

Notably rejected, given the state’s current $21.5 billion surplus, was Newsom’s push for a 95-cent tax on most residential water bills to fund-clean-drinking water initiatives in the Central Valley. Instead, the Legislature worked out a deal to clean up toxic water by diverting money generated from big polluters under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Some environmental groups questioned using clean air money to pay for drinking water, but supporters reasoned that water is being contaminated with arsenic and other toxic chemicals from the heavy use of fertilizers, so it makes sense to draw the $100 million for cleanup from the agriculture industry’s portion of the greenhouse gas fund.

One issue that won’t be resolved this week is whether California will conform its tax code to match federal changes made by Republicans in 2017. Newsom is relying on the projected $1.7 billion increase in net revenue from that to expand the state’s earned income tax credit, the centerpiece of his anti-poverty agenda.

Assembly Democrats in swing districts are skittish about limiting deductions and losses that can be claimed by some businesses. They know the fate of former Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled from his Orange County seat after voting to raise California’s gas tax. Tax conformity requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, so the pressure is on.

Paying Debt and Rainy-Day Saving

Lawmakers embraced the governor’s proposal to use some of the surplus to make extra pension payments, a step Newsom says is necessary to tame the state’s $256 billion retirement liability for state workers and teachers.

The Legislature approved supplemental payments of $3 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and $1.1 billion to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System for the state’s portion of unfunded liability.

To relieve school districts across the state, the Legislature will contribute a total of $3.15 billion toward paying down their liabilities and reducing their payroll contribution rates. One difference is where it will go.

Previously, Newsom had all the extra payments going to the teachers' pension fund—a reaction, in part, to teachers strikes that erupted as he took office. Now a portion of that money will be doled out to CalPERS. The change was made in recognition that while teachers are members of CalSTRS, many other school employees from janitors to bus drivers belong in the state’s other public-employee pension fund.

Besides paying down California’s “wall of debt,” as former Gov. Jerry Brown called it, the state is shoring up for a downturn—or in Newsom-speak, “building budget resiliency.” The new budget carries a roughly $20 billion reserve from several rainy-day funds. This amount, while hefty, would be easily wiped away in a downturn. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state would need as much as $40 billion to cover the budget in a moderate recession.

Big Spending on Housing

With new commitments topping $2 billion, the budget represents the most important action the governor has taken so far on housing and homelessness. The lion’s share will target the state’s homeless population, including $650 million in grants for cities and counties to build and maintain emergency shelters, and $100 million for wrap-around care for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Another $500 million will go toward quintupling the size of the state’s affordable housing financing fund, plus hundreds of millions earmarked for cities to update their often outdated housing plans.

While lawmakers and Newsom have agreed to cut big checks, it’s not clear who’ll get the money, and with what strings attached. Big-city mayors and lawmakers want homelessness grants directed towards the state’s largest 13 cities, while Newsom wants to spread out the money to include counties.

Newsom also wants to deny transportation funds to cities not building enough housing. As of Thursday, lawmakers were still negotiating a scaled-back version of the proposal. Another Newsom proposal that speeds construction of homeless shelters by sidestepping environmental laws also remains unresolved.

Lending a Hand to Working Families

Expanding California’s earned income tax credit has quickly become one of Newsom’s signature anti-poverty programs, because it gives a cost-of-living refund to low-income working families. Lawmakers are poised to triple the program from $400 million to $1.2 billion to provide a $1,000 refund for families with children under 6 and expand income eligibility from $24,950 to $30,000.

Anti-poverty advocates had wanted Newsom to include undocumented workers who file with individual taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. That proposal did not make the final version of the budget. Still, the administration estimates the current expansion will increase the number of beneficiaries from 2 million to 3 million households.

The budget also will make it easier for low-income families with children to qualify for assistance, increasing the CalWORKs asset limit to $10,000 and the motor vehicle exemption to $25,000—changes that will allow people to save and hang on to cars that can get them to work.

And parents of all incomes will get a longer paid family leave to care for new babies—eight weeks, up from the current six weeks, starting in July of next year. The goal will be to boost the benefit to 90 percent of most wages, up from the current maximum of 70 percent.

The K-14 Kids Did All Right

As required by law, the lion’s share of the budget goes to public schools, with nearly $102 billion in state money to be pumped into California classrooms and community colleges, plus another $389 million in a special reserve fund for schools. Though the figure is an all-time high, California is still viewed as lagging in per-pupil spending, in part because of the high cost of living.

Democrats are also demanding more stringent oversight of charter schools, which can operate like private schools, tend to be non-union and have proliferated in big cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles. Newsom proposed prohibiting charter schools from blocking or disenrolling special-education students who require more support for disabilities. Lawmakers readily embraced that change.

The budget includes $300 million to build more kindergarten classrooms in an effort to boost full-day kindergarten programs. Newsom had initially proposed $750 million but that was reduced after a study found most part-day kindergarten programs are in wealthier communities.

After-school programs will get a $50 million boost over the $600 million or so the state is currently spending. The money will help cover the cost of minimum wage increases enacted during Brown’s tenure.

So Did the Little Ones

In emphasizing early education, Newsom and lawmakers agreed to expand day care and preschool slots by the thousands while investing in training for child care providers.

Newsom gets $50 million in seed money to start child savings accounts for college and post-secondary education. He initially asked that all of it go toward pilot projects with First 5 California and local governments, but the Legislature is designating $25 million to that. The other $25 million will create a state program with the Scholarshare program in the Treasurer’s Office.

More Free College and Help for Student Parents

Newsom and legislators delivered on a $45 million promise to fund a second year of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students at campuses participating in the state’s College Promise program.

Other big winners include students with children, who will be eligible to receive grants of up to $6,000 to help cover their families’ living expenses. The budget boosts by about 15,000 the number of competitive Cal Grants—a significant jump, but far less than the 400,000 qualified students who applied for the state scholarships last year and didn’t receive them.

The University of California and California State University systems will receive money to increase enrollment, and waive tuition during the summer to help low-income students graduate faster. Lawmakers also set aside funds for campuses to combat hunger and homelessness, strengthen veterans resource centers, and provide more mental health counseling. A center at the University of California San Francisco is getting a $3.5 million earmark for dyslexia screening and early intervention.

Backers of the state’s controversial new online community college fended off an effort to slash the college’s funding, clearing the way to enroll its first class this fall. And CSU will get $4 million to study five possible locations for a new campus: Stockton, Chula Vista, San Mateo, Concord and Palm Desert.

Lots for Police Training; a Little for Police Records

Reflecting the Legislature’s focus this year on reducing police shootings, the budget includes $20 million to train police officers on de-escalation tactics, and how and when to use force. Outside the budget, bills to set a tougher standard for police to use deadly force and require more officer training are advancing through the Legislature, reflecting a compromise between civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office will get $155,000 to implement the new state law he’d been resisting: making law-enforcement misconduct records public. Becerra will also have to report to the Legislature on how many requests his office processes, and how much time is spent on that. A judge ruled in May that Becerra must produce the records; previously he had said he would not release them until the courts clarified whether he had to.

Powering Down to Cope With Wildfires

Besides beefing up the state’s firefighting capability and disaster preparedness, California will add powering down to its to-do list for coping with climate change-driven wildfires.

The budget doles out $75 million to state and local agencies whenever investor-owned utilities decide to shut off electricity during red flag weather warnings. One note: The Assembly added language to track how the money is used.

CALmatters reporters Matt Levin, Felicia Mello and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

House of Lucidity Opens in Cathedral City

The House of Lucidity, Cathedral City’s newest dispensary, officially opened with a ribbon-cutting—complements of the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce—on May 1.

The 10,000 square foot facility is located at 36399 Cathedral Canyon Drive. In addition to the gorgeous dispensary—which features black-and-white photos of celebrities including Frank Sinatra—House of Lucidity also has a cultivation facility and an extraction lab.

House of Lucidity is open from 4 to 9 p.m. daily. For more information, call www.houseoflucidity.com.


City of Coachella to Host Cannabis Summit

The city of Coachella is bringing in a lot of big names for its SoCal Cannabis Summit, taking place at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino on Monday and Tuesday, June 24 and 25.

The summit will begin with a cultivation and dispensary bus tour, followed by a reception on Monday. On Tuesday, the summit will feature speakers including Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin, California Bureau of Cannabis Control Chief Lori Ajax, California Treasurer Fiona Ma, and many other political leaders and marijuana experts. An exhibit hall will also be open to the public with free admission on Tuesday.

Tickets for the bus tour are $50, while summit tickets are $75. For tickets or more information, visit coachellacannabissummit.com.


Marijuana Revenues Disappoint Gov. Newsom

Revenues from marijuana growth and sales are bringing millions of dollars into state coffers—but not nearly as much as the state anticipated.

According to a May 23 news release, the cannabis industry—via the state’s cannabis excise tax, cultivation tax and sales tax—paid $116.6 million to the state in the first three months of 2019, according to first-quarter tax returns, due April 30, which had been submitted so far. That’s up slightly from the $111.9 million paid during last quarter of 2018.

Earlier in May, Gov. Gavin Newsom had to scale back cannabis-tax revenue projections significantly—cutting $223 million from the amount expected to be collected by June 2020.

According to the Associated Press, the reasons for the disappointing sales included the thriving illegal market, as well as the state’s struggles with licensing and regulation.

Newsom also blamed some states and counties for not welcoming legal cannabis into their communities.

“We knew (some counties and cities) would be stubborn in providing access and providing retail locations and that would take even longer than some other states, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

Published in Cannabis in the CV

They don’t call it the Golden State for nothing, at least not lately: California’s fiscal health is in extraordinary shape.

Income-tax receipts surpassed expectations for the pivotal month of April. Projections of a $21 billion-plus surplus are not out of the question. Nearly 3 million jobs have been added since the depths of the Great Recession, yielding record low unemployment. And having already met a 10 percent rainy-day fund requirement, the state is socking away billions in additional reserves to buffer against the next downturn. Impending Silicon Valley IPOs could provide an even bigger windfall.

Yet California isn’t as prepared as it may seem for the next recession—and, economists say, there will be a next one. Because voters have willingly taxed the rich, California’s $209 billion budget is more volatile than ever, overly reliant on top earners whose fortunes are tied to Wall Street.

And what’s different this time—and perhaps more worrisome—is that when the next pullback hits, California may have to fight off red ink without a historically crucial ally: Washington, D.C.

It’s not just that there’s no love lost between President Donald Trump and California leaders, or that Congress is gridlocked in its political divisions. Fiscal choices that have been made in the past couple of years may make it tough for the federal government to help states much in the next recession, even if Congress and the Trump administration want to.

Fiscal analysts warn, for example, that the federal deficit is soaring just as historically low interest rates are limiting the Federal Reserve’s monetary firepower.

“Whether it’s because of a worsening fiscal picture at the federal level or just the politics, I wouldn’t be counting on them coming to some agreement about helping out states,” said Gabriel Petek, the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget analyst.

“If you go from that premise, then the state has to be thinking about contingency planning for the next recession and getting through it on its own.”


The Macro View

During the economic downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and the financial crisis that struck in late 2008, the federal government poured billions of dollars into state coffers by enhancing support for anti-poverty programs, health care and infrastructure.

But Petek and other analysts warn that with U.S. government coffers drawn down by Trump’s tax cuts—and without an extraordinary and unifying cause like a terrorist attack or near-depression—California and other states may not be able to count on the federal government again to backfill fiscally.

Given political priorities, casualties could easily include services that impact millions of Californians: anti-poverty programs such as CalWORKS for working parents, in-home supportive services for low-income seniors, or the state’s Medicaid program known as Medi-Cal, which serves one in three residents.

“Gabe is not alone in having those thoughts,” said John Hicks, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington, D.C. “States did get assistance in the Great Recession and a smaller version of that in the early 2000s. That prevented them from having to make more significant cuts in education or other priority areas or have to raise revenues more.”

Petek, who was appointed in February after two decades at S&P Global Ratings, estimated the state will need $25 billion just to weather a moderate recession. That would wipe out everything the state has been able to save.

According to the Department of Finance, for instance, the state’s general-fund spending on Medi-Cal alone is $22 billion, and trimming that line item in a recession would threaten the $100 billion a year in matching federal money that underpins health care for the poor in California.

“It’s a huge part of how we fund our health-care system,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom’s finance director, Keely Bosler. And that’s just one need among many that would be competing for the state’s surplus should the economy turn.

In addition to the unpredictable economy, Bosler worries about the federal support that hinges on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, which is facing a legal challenge, and the next Census, which would be dramatically impacted if California residents are spooked by a proposed citizenship question.


Recalling the Recession

So as California strides toward the longest economic expansion in state history this July, Newsom and his fiscal advisers are keenly aware of what could happen. Many of them, longtime government staffers, were tasked with making cuts during the last recession and are steering the governor to limit his commitment to ongoing spending.

Bosler, who was a staff consultant in the Senate in 2010, recalls emotional, daylong committee hearings a decade ago when developmentally disabled children, working mothers and destitute patients suffering from chronic illnesses lined up, pleading with state lawmakers to spare them from cuts.

“I remember it so clearly, because it was really, really hard,” said Bosler, who later joined former Gov. Jerry Brown’s finance team.

On the brink of becoming a failed state, California drastically reduced spending on the poor then—with particularly long-lasting impacts on women. From cutting programs that provide child-care assistance to preschool subsidies for mothers holding low-income jobs, the pullback made the dream of self-sufficiency that much harder. For older women and women with disabilities, the state reduced safety-net programs intended to help them stay in their own homes by paying someone to help with housework, shopping and cooking.

In health, California slashed payments to doctors, dentists and clinics seeing patients covered by Medi-Cal, a move that discouraged providers from seeing them. The developmentally disabled were told to take generic drugs and prevented from participating in experimental treatments. And podiatry and optometry were no longer covered, because they were deemed optional.

Those cuts have lasting impacts. “No program was spared,” recalled Bosler. “Significant damage was done to core state services.” Welfare advocates are still fighting today to restore medical benefits slashed during the recession.

So the Democratic governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature are making a conscious choice to build reserves now.


Building Resiliency

When Newsom updates his spending plan in mid-May, he is expected to maintain his three-pronged approach for savings, paying down debt and making targeted investments in affordable housing and early education.

One bucket of about $3 billion would be used to expand ongoing services for the poor, particularly in-home supportive services program and CalWORKs. A portion would be used to boost higher education to stave off a tuition hike in the University of California and California State University systems, as well as fund a second year of free community college.

The second bucket would be targeted for affordable housing and to confront California’s homeless epidemic; lay the ground groundwork for extending full-day kindergarten to all Californians; and provide an extra $3 billion toward districts’ teacher pension payments.

The last and largest bucket would be used to help the state weather a potential economic downturn for what Newsom has termed “budget resiliency.” He would finish paying off the state’s Wall of Debt that had accumulated from years of internal borrowing and undo a 9-year-old accounting trick that pushed the June state payroll into July so it looked like the state was spending less.


A Safety Net

Last year, the state put $200 million toward seeding a new account intended to protect anti-poverty programs in a downturn. Newsom has embraced the safety-net reserve by proposing to increase the fund to $900 million.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, told a crowd of policy advocates in Sacramento in March that even though Newsom’s style is much different from his predecessor Brown’s, their underlying strategy is similar.

“If you look at what Gov. Newsom has done in terms of the rainy-day fund, paying down debt, and those kinds of issues, and if you extrapolate that, then what you see is a fairly conservative approach to resources to make sure that we are trying to keep a sustainable, resilient foundation of a budget going forward,” Atkins said.

Atkins credits that extra safety-net reserve to the Senate’s budget committee chair, Sen. Holly Mitchell. Both lawmakers indicated they would like to go beyond $900 million, because the money would protect just a fraction of those in need.

If the state were to set aside $900 million, it would protect roughly 435,000 Medi-Cal recipients or 132,000 CalWORKS families for a year based on the state’s average spending on those programs. Currently, about 13 million people are on Medi-Cal, and nearly 400,000 families rely on CalWORKS—with demand growing when people fall on hard times.

Lawmakers haven’t said how much they will try to set aside. “It’s a technical term: A whole lot of money,” Atkins quipped.


The Course Ahead

Petek, the Legislature’s budget analyst, suggests lawmakers could do even more. He notes, for example, that while paying off California’s so-called Wall of Debt sounds nice, lawmakers may not want to undo that payroll accounting trick, because it’s administratively burdensome to do it again if the state needs to free up cash.

All this prevention is ironic, says Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. If the state is overly reactive to economic cycles, Californians have no one to blame but themselves.

It’s voters, he notes, who have decided again and again to tax the rich, a choice that has made the system more reliant on the investment income of high earners and therefore more volatile.

And for the record, he doubts that California will have any more or less to worry about than any state should a recession hit during the Trump administration.

“While California is acting to oppose or counteract the president’s policies in many areas, I don’t believe the federal fiscal response to a downturn is an area where California needs to take special precautions against the actions of Congress or the president,” he said.

But polls show the state is generally in sync with Newsom’s mix of priorities for the current surplus. A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found majorities support additional funding for working poor tax credits, wildfire preparedness and developing more housing. Only 47 percent approved of one-time spending to pay down unfunded pension liabilities.

And, like the governor, a lot of taxpayers remember the last two recessions, and remain cautious.

“If they’re not going to give (the surplus) back in a refund,” said Charles McLaughlin, a board member of the Ventura County Taxpayers' Association, “then they should save it for a rainy day.”

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

Published in Politics

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on Wednesday, March 13, putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California and shuttering the execution chamber at San Quentin—a move that overrides a decision the state’s voters made in 2016 to maintain capital punishment.

While campaigning for governor last year, Newsom said he was fervently opposed to the death penalty but didn’t “want to get ahead of the will of the voters” and wanted to “give the voters a chance to reconsider.”

On Wednesday, he said he changed his mind because his decision whether to permit executions had become more urgent. The state’s lethal-injection protocol was getting closer to being finalized, and two dozen death row inmates had exhausted their appeals.

“I’ve had to process this in a way that I didn’t frankly anticipate a few months ago. It was an abstract question. (It became) a very real question,” Newsom said at a press conference in the Capitol.

“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”

Under the governor’s reprieve, all 737 people on death row will remain in prison and, on paper, sentenced to death. But executions will be halted as long as Newsom remains governor. A future governor would have the power to change their fate.

Newsom’s executive order argues that the death penalty is unfair, applied disproportionately to people of color and people with mental disabilities. It says innocent people have been sentenced to die, including five Californians since 1973 who were found to have been wrongfully convicted.

His move is part of a larger swing away from tough-on-crime policies in California. In the last decade, Democrats who control state government and the state’s largely liberal voters have embraced policies to eliminate the use of money bail, reduce some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors and legalize marijuana.

But the death penalty so far has been politically untouchable—repeatedly favored by voters despite their progressive tendencies on other issues. In 2016, California voters passed a ballot measure to expedite executions and defeated a measure to end the death penalty. Voters also defeated a 2012 measure to end the death penalty.

A leading supporter of the death penalty said Newsom’s action is legal but “contrary to basic democratic principles.”

“The decision of whether we will have the death penalty or not is one the people have made over and over again through the initiative process,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment. “It’s improper for an executive to use the reprieve power to frustrate the people’s position.”

GOP Assemblyman Tom Lackey said Republicans were looking for a way to reverse Newsom’s action but hadn’t yet figured out how. He criticized Newsom for changing his position from the campaign but ruled out an effort to launch a recall.

“He’s said conflicting statements. That’s how you lose trust,” said Lackey, of Palmdale.

It appears Californians may yet have another chance to weigh in. Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine has introduced a measure that would, if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, put the question on the ballot in 2020. He said having a governor campaign against the death penalty could make the difference in convincing voters to repeal it.

“We’ve never before had that type of leadership on one of these initiatives,” said Levine, of San Rafael. “We are going to learn from those failures. … How do we do this right? How do we administer justice properly?”

Death-penalty opponents urged Jerry Brown to grant a reprieve when he was governor, but he never did, despite his personal opposition to capital punishment. They have been lobbying Newsom to do the same since he was sworn-in in January.

Now they have their sights set on the next goal, said longtime anti-death penalty advocate Natasha Minsker: “The next step would be to go further and convert death sentences to life without parole.”

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

Published in Politics

On March 10, 1997, Rodney Patrick McNeal went home during his lunch break, around 12:30 p.m., to take his wife, Debra, to a doctor’s appointment.

Instead, the San Bernardino County probation officer found Debra, who was six months pregnant, dead in their bathtub. Submerged in water, she’d been beaten and stabbed before being strangled to death. The words “Nigger Lover” were written on the mirror (Debra McNeal was a Native American), and the house had been ransacked, with several firearms stolen.

Patrick and Debra’s marriage had been rocky at times, and police visited their home following domestic disputes at least twice in the months leading up to Debra’s death. According to a 2009 court document, a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff went to their residence in December 1996 after a domestic-disturbance call. Patrick and Debra appeared upset at each other, but no arrest was made, although two handguns were taken for safekeeping. In January 1997, a deputy responded to another domestic disturbance, after Patrick reportedly took Debra’s purse to prevent her from leaving.

Tension was high on the day of the murder, too. According to Debra’s son, Marcus Frison, the day before, Debra got upset with Patrick regarding some leftover pizza, and she took a knife to the family’s sofa. On March 10, Debra decided it was time to seek some professional help and called Kaiser Permanente to schedule a counseling appointment. On that day, she and Patrick spoke on the phone three times. They discussed the appointment, and apparently had an argument over money, although Patrick’s co-workers never heard him with a loud or hostile tone of voice.

The last known person to see Debra McNeal alive was a friend, Terrylyn Walker, who went to visit Debra around 9:15 a.m. At 10 a.m., while Debra was on the phone with Kaiser, someone she apparently knew entered the home, according to the Kaiser clerk.

Patrick McNeal got to his office somewhere between 7:30 and 8 a.m. that morning, and from 10 a.m. to noon, he met with clients. Patrick’s computer records show him working on a report shortly before noon; records also show he made a phone call to Debra around that time to find out the location of her appointment. The call was not answered.

Two of Patrick’s co-workers rode in an elevator with him at approximately 12:10 to 12:15 p.m. He then made the 2 1/2-minute walk through the parking lot to his car, and the eight-minute drive to their home.

Police arrived on the scene, after Patrick McNeal called 911, at 12:32 p.m.

There was no forced entry into the McNeal residence. There was a blood trail leading from the master living room through an entryway, into the kitchen and then into the master bedroom. The waterbed was punctured and leaking water, and there was an odor of bleach and/or other cleaning products in the master bedroom and bathroom. A bloody footprint on the carpet came from a dress shoe that did not match any of Patrick McNeal’s shoes. Hairs and fibers on Debra’s body also did not match anything from Patrick.

Yet in 2000, Rodney Patrick McNeal was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. He’s been in prison ever since—and his case has captured the attention of the California Innocence Project.


Since it was founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project, a clinical program at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has helped free 30 wrongfully convicted inmates, and it currently is working on the cases of 13 people who remain behind bars, including that of Patrick McNeal.

“(Debra McNeal) was strangled, beaten, stabbed and thrown in the tub,” said Raquel Cohen (pictured right), an attorney representing McNeal with the California Innocence Project. “For years, all the evidence has shown the timeline doesn’t add up giving Patrick enough time to commit this crime. He still got convicted.”

Cohen said the domestic disputes between the McNeals helped the prosecution make their case against Patrick.

“They had some marital problems and some domestic-disturbance calls, but nothing that was too serious,” Cohen said. “They had arguments resulting in the police saying, ‘Hey, you guys need to calm down.’ Juries are unpredictable; Kim Long’s case was also very similar, where they attack the character of the defendant and say, ‘They are a very violent person, and there’s only one person who could have committed the crime,’ and (prosecutors) don’t have any other suspects.”

Kimberly Long is a California Innocence Project success story. The Independent first covered her case back in 2015; she was convicted of the 2003 murder of her boyfriend, Oswaldo “Ozzy” Conde, in Corona. In 2016, a Riverside County Superior Court judge reversed her conviction—which, like McNeal’s conviction, was largely based on the couple’s history of domestic strife.

“That’s really the evidence they had against him during his trial,” Cohen said about the McNeal case. “There was a bad relationship, and he found the body. But there’s a timeline issue, and it becomes, ‘Where were you at what time?’ Patrick had a lot of hard evidence—the last time he modified a document on a computer, and co-workers riding down (with him) in an elevator. The worst-case scenario has a neighbor placing him at home at 12:15 p.m.—and that is the worst case for him and best case for the prosecution. That’s not enough time for him to commit the crime, clean up—and (Patrick McNeal) had no blood or bleach on him—and then call the police.

“It just doesn’t add up.”

The California Innocence Project has put forward another suspect in the murder of Debra McNeal—Patrick McNeal’s half-brother, Jeffrey Todd West.

“A few people have come forward saying that (West) confessed to the crime,” Cohen said. “He was a very bad person. He had killed other people and served time for it in Nevada; I believe he might be locked up somewhere right now. He has a history of choking people. He poured gas on his ex-wife, and there are chemicals involved in this case. … He told people that he killed Debra after it happened, because he was worried about Patrick’s future. We presented that to the court … and unfortunately, they found the witnesses were unreliable for a number of reasons.”

In 2005, West pleaded guilty to a double-homicide in Nevada. Both West’s ex-wife, Janice Williams, and Charlotte Lazzie, an ex-girlfriend, testified regarding West’s violent nature. Ebony Grant, the half-sister of both Patrick McNeal and West, also talked about violent attacks by West, including an incident during which she was choked. Grant said West told her a week before the murders of Debra McNeal and her unborn child that he believed Debra was destroying all of his stuff, and that he would “kill the bitch”; according to the California Innocence Project’s website, West also confessed to Grant after the murder. Cary McGill, a co-worker of West, said that West confessed the murder to him, stating that Debra was ruining Patrick’s future and that he had to “handle the bitch.”

However, the court denied all of this new evidence—and Patrick McNeal remains behind bars.

“We are kind of at a roadblock, but we’re still investigating whether or not West told other people who might be more credible, or whether or not West will confess—which would be ideal, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” Cohen said.

“There were a lot of issues at the evidentiary hearing with the witnesses who said West confessed, (whom) the judge found not to be credible. For instance, Cary McGill, who came forward saying that West had confessed to him, failed to appear on the first day; he had some issues with work and didn’t appear. When he showed up to testify, the court threw him in jail. When he got on the stand, he was in custody and was pissed—he tried to help somebody and ended up with a failure to appear (charge). The court found him not credible because his demeanor was just irritated.

“There were a lot of bad things that happened at that hearing that turned the case to deny the petition and keep Patrick in prison.”


The Independent was given about 10 minutes to talk via phone to Patrick McNeal, who is currently serving his sentence of 30 years to life at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. During the phone call, he expressed extreme frustration with his conviction.

“It’s so hard for me to believe at times,” McNeal said. “I told them during the interview that I made phone calls that day that were on the phone record, and I walked out with other probation officers from my job. I can’t make all that stuff up. … My phone-call records make it impossible for me to be at the murder, along with the probation officer I walked out with. They were ignored, or there were excuses made for phone records.”

McNeal said his attorney failed to adequately defend him during his original trial.

“He told me that he was going to question them on the timeline and do all of this and that. He didn’t do anything that he told me that he was going to do and just said, ‘The defense rests,’” McNeal said. “When I asked him about that, he said, ‘Oh, well, that’s just how I like to do my cases, and there’s no need for me to do it. The prosecution didn’t present their case.’ I was completely blown away.

“By that time, it was too late.”

Cohen said that even though McNeal’s case is currently at a standstill, they remain hopeful that he could be freed one day soon.

“He’s very optimistic; he checks in on his case regularly, and he knows that we’re sort of at a dead end,” Cohen said about McNeal. “We have a clemency petition pending with the governor, where we’re hoping (Gov. Gavin Newsom) sees this evidence and commutes his sentence or grants him a pardon. That’s one big hope he has going forward. Obviously, we talk about other ways we can break this case open. But … we all know West is very dangerous, so we’re all very cautious about it, and we’re hoping there are other people who will come forward. All of our (main) hope right now is with our governor’s office, and we’re hoping the new governor will take action on this and see there’s no way for (McNeal) to have committed this crime.”

Patrick McNeal said he wants more than just his release from prison.

“Getting out is, of course, the No. 1 goal, but I wouldn’t be satisfied just by getting out,” he said. “I can’t believe that a reasonable person would look at the case with all of the phone calls and the blood evidence (and think I did it). If you put everything together along with the fact no one ever said that I was the one who did this, along with where I worked as a probation officer—I would have to have had a co-conspirator in the Probation Department for someone to make phone calls from my office to my home and not tell the police about it—it’s like nothing makes any sense. Would I really tell a fellow probation officer, ‘Hey, I’m going to go kill my wife. Just in case the police come after me, can you make these phone calls from my office?’”

For more information, visit californiainnocenceproject.org.

Published in Features

A month after being inaugurated, Gov. Gavin Newsom used his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Feb. 12, to make his strongest showing yet that Jerry Brown is no longer in charge.

He proposed scaling back two of Brown’s legacy projects—a high-speed train and a pair of tunnels to move water from north to south. He rescinded Brown’s deployment of California National Guard troops to the Mexican border. He voiced support for education and housing policies from which Brown stayed away.

All leaders want to distinguish themselves, so it’s no shock that Newsom is carving his own path. California’s last several governors took office vowing to right the perceived wrongs of their predecessors. Brown himself, in his first term, was a change agent.

But they were Democrats replacing Republicans, or vice versa. Newsom is the first Democrat to follow a Democrat into the California governor’s office in more than a century—and the friendship between the Brown and Newsom families goes back generations. That creates a challenge that other recent governors have not faced: Newsom must pay homage to the legacy of his predecessor while also establishing his own vision.

It’s not an easy needle to thread—as evidenced by Newsom’s response when asked if he is breaking away from Brown’s course:

“We’re building on a lot of the work that’s been done,” he said in a brief interview after the speech. “We’re just being more sober about it, more deliberative about it, more focused and more transparent.”

At this early stage in his governorship, here are five key ways Newsom is differentiating himself:

Border Patrol: Early last year, President Donald Trump asked border-state governors to beef up their National Guard troops along the Mexican border. Brown responded by saying California troops wouldn’t enforce immigration laws or “build a new wall.” But he agreed to add 400 troops, saying they would focus on combating transnational crime.

Newsom rolled back Brown’s order this week, reassigning most of the troops from the border to areas threatened by wildfire and illegal marijuana grows. Those remaining at the border “will focus on stopping criminals smuggling drugs and guns through existing border checkpoints,” Newsom said in his speech. “This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism.”

High-speed rail: Since his first stint as governor in the 1970s, Brown has advocated for a new high-speed train to connect northern and southern California. He took steps more recently to support the project by negotiating funding for it from California’s signature climate change program. “I make no bones about it,” Brown said last year. “I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”

Newsom said Tuesday that he has “nothing but respect for Gov. Brown’s and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision.” But he derided the current plan for a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, saying it “would cost too much and take too long.”

Instead, Newsom embraced a more limited rail line, from Merced to Bakersfield. He also announced a new chairman for the rail authority, Lenny Mendonca, and a plan to post rail spending publicly online, a step meant to hold the administration accountable for cost overruns.

Republicans, long opposed to the new train, welcomed Newsom’s tack. State Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who will soon take over as the Senate Republican leader, thanked Newsom for scaling back the project and making spending on it more transparent. “That was very responsible,” she said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Water: Newsom also wants to scale back Brown’s controversial plan to carve two massive tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to move water to Southern California. Instead, as he said during the campaign and reiterated in his speech, he wants to build one tunnel.

The idea was quickly embraced by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who said he’s “been skeptical of the two tunnel approach for a while. Rethinking it and retooling it makes a lot of sense.”

To help carry out Newsom’s vision, the governor appointed a new chair for the state water board, replacing Brown’s pick, Felicia Marcus, with his own: Joaquin Esquivel.

Education: When it comes to keeping track of how students are performing at California public schools, Newsom and Brown have very different views. Brown repeatedly rejected the idea of developing a database to track student performance over time, saying he disagreed with a focus on test scores and feared the data could be abused to support prejudice. Newsom is embracing a long-term student database as a way to measure which programs advance student learning.

“We need clear and achievable standards of transparency, more information sharing, and accountability for all public schools,” he said.

Newsom used the speech to announce his pick to lead the state Board of Education, naming Linda Darling-Hammond to the post. A former Stanford professor, she is an expert in teacher training and has chaired the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing for the last eight years.

Housing and homelessness: Tackling California’s extraordinarily high cost of housing—and the related epidemic of homelessness—was never a top priority for Brown. Even as he left office, he said he didn’t think there was much the state could do make homes more affordable.

Newsom wants to change that by holding cities accountable for building affordable housing. He already sued the city of Huntington Beach for not building enough, and said in his speech that he wants to meet with 47 other cities that aren’t meeting their housing requirements.

Newsom also announced that he is establishing a new commission on homelessness, to be led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

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

Published in Politics

California already has 109 laws on the books that regulate the use of firearms—more gun-control rules than any other state.

More, it seems, are on the way.

On Feb. 4, a Democratic contingent of lawmakers announced plans to send a raft of new gun-related bills to the governor before the end of the legislative session. The 16 lawmakers were joined by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a gun-control advocate and mass-shooting survivor, along with representatives of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

With Democrats now wielding unprecedented political power in Sacramento, including the recent election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who embraces his role as public enemy of the National Rifle Association, the time seems ripe for a new legislative push.

“We have expanded Democratic majorities in both houses; we have a bright and ambitious new governor with a real track record on this issue,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of Encino, who helped form the “gun violence working group” with Berkeley Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks. “We have a special opportunity here in California to draft some forward-thinking, meaningful, evidence-based legislation that is going to help end mass shootings and end gun violence.”

Among the legislative proposals introduced:

AB 165, by Gabriel, which would call for standards to be developed to teach police officers how to temporarily remove guns from people a court has decided pose a threat to themselves or others. That may include those charged with domestic violence. After a man shot and killed 12 people at a Thousand Oaks bar last November, it was reported that police had paid a home visit to the shooter prior to the incident, but decided not to seek a “gun violence restraining order” against him.

• A proposal by Wicks (yet to be formally introduced) to boost funding to the California Violence Intervention and Prevention grant program, which funds local programs that strive to reduce gun violence.

• A proposal by Assemblyman Mike Gipson from Carson (yet to be formally introduced) that would regulate certain metal components that can be assembled into firearms. A similar bill of his was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

“America’s love affair with firearms has got to end,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson from Santa Barbara. “I am hopeful that we are going to take our country back.”

But as lawmakers ramp up gun control legislation in California, the judicial winds seem to be blowing against them.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a New York City law that strictly limits where gun owners can carry their firearms. That decision was widely taken as a sign that the current court may take a more expansive view of the Second Amendment—perhaps at the expense of California’s strict gun control laws.

“We, as a state, have the right to protect our citizens, to protect our kids and to protect our schools and so we think we can accomplish both of those things while being consistent with the second amendment and also doing big things to prevent gun violence,” said Gabriel.

To learn more about gun policy in California, explore CALmatters' in-depth explainer.

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

Published in Politics

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