It started out with a detour, but ended up right on course.
A bus full of Santa Clarita residents who covered the spectrum of interests and professions – educators, attorneys, consultants, elected officials, small business owners and those from large companies, charity board members and community activists – converged on the state capitol to meet with legislators and let them know we’re opinionated and willing to do something about it.
The annual Keith Richman Memorial Sacramento Road Trip, named after the late Assemblyman who helped originate the junket with KHTS owner Carl Goldman, is coordinated by KHTS with support from AT&T, Castaic Lake Water Agency and Facey Medical and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth’s office.
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The trip gives voters a chance to ask decision makers direct questions and learn first-hand about the political process. It is not publicly funded and each participant pays their own way.
With snow closing the Grapevine, the bus took the coastal route until it could double back and head up north. Because of the delay, an afternoon session on film tax credits with Senator Ron Calderon was cancelled, as was a Capitol tour. Once they arrived, participants were ready to talk politics at the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, where they heard from Assembly Speaker John Perez, Smyth and Senators Sharon Runner and Tony Strickland.
Perez expressed his appreciation for the group’s extended bus trip, noting that Santa Clarita is the only community where a large number of voters take the time to express their opinions and seek answers to their concerns about the issues.
“For you to make it that much through that difficult travel to get up here and be part of this conversation really speaks to how important you think it is to have this level of civic engagement,” Perez said.
Many in the group had made the trip before and commented on the bipartisan spirit brought about by budget woes. Perez said that he was careful to balance appointments on the myriad of committees to establish a balance of power that didn’t favor one side or the other.
“To do otherwise would limit our ability for honest debate, and for all ideas to be heard during discussion,” he said. “I made sure when we looked at running the House, we did it not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Californians.
“There is no more important time to come with that perspective than right now. Our state is reeling with the impacts of the great recession. This is the greatest economic challenge Cal has seen since the Great Depression. We exist in a world where 2.3 million Californians are out of work, and even more of them are underemployed or working at jobs that don’t pay them as well as their previous jobs. They’re struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families.”
Perez said the legislature as a whole is focused on two things: dealing with the multibillion dollar deficit and learning how to live within our means while laying a foundation to rebuild the state’s economy.
“You can’t just cut your way out of things,” he explained. “You have to invest smartly in education to ensure that California continues to produce a well-educated, well-trained workforce.”
He said that the state’s leadership warned them of the uphill battle for the budget.
“Governor Brown came into office with his eyes wide open,” he said. “He promised to bring forward a budget proposal that was honest and balanced, but he didn’t say it would be pretty.”
Perez said that the struggle is not whether or not to pass tax extensions but whether to put it in front of the voters.
“It’s a struggle for Republican legislators in both houses,” he said. “Should they just say no because they ideologically believe that we shouldn’t extend the taxes or put the question before the voters, that is the fundamental question: do you believe you should make the decision and preclude the voters from having a say or should you put the question before the voters.
“A lot more discussion needs to happen in that area. You’re going to see much of that evaluation going on in the next couple of days,” Perez said. “Getting our fiscal house in order is only way we’re going to turn things around.”
After Perez spoke, Smyth took the opportunity to raise some money for the Domestic Violence Center of SCV, arranging for a special VIP tour of the Capitol dome and raffling off six chances to take the tour. Ticket sales were brisk and raised more than $500; Smyth then auctioned off two more tickets, bringing the total up over $800 for the charity.
Assemblyman Chris Norby, who is the vice chair of the Education Committee, engaged the group early Tuesday morning in the conference room of the Association of California Water Agencies a few blocks from the Capitol. After asking them to complete several familiar phrases, he talked about his time as a teacher and said that moving into the political arena was “just getting a bigger classroom.”
He spoke candidly about the needs of the public education system and how important passionate teachers are to the students.
“Kids don’t remember whether they had air conditioning or new facilities or how many kids were in the class, they remember the teacher. If they know and care about the subject matter, the kids feed off that energy,” Norby explained, adding that those kinds of teachers were worth the extra dollars school districts may have to come up with.
Where he felt the legislature could make a difference was in cutting back mandates that require bloated administrative staff to complete an overwhelming amount of paperwork and reporting.
He also said that Governor Brown has spent a lot more time in his “classroom” than Governor Schwarzenegger, who was a lame duck governor when Norby joined the legislature.
“I’ve seen him at caucuses, we talk in the hallway,” he said. “But he’s definitely reaching out for ideas and listening. We want to work with him to the extent that we can, we want to oppose him where we need to and also challenge him as he’s challenged us to not just continue an existing system but make it better.”
With transportation a key issue for the group, Smyth’s office had scheduled Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, but as the group would experience throughout their trip, sometimes committee meetings precluded speakers from sharing their expertise. Her replacement, Janet Dawson, is the chief consultant to the Transportation Committee and had first-hand information on some of the effects of the budget crisis on state transportation projects.
Due to the expiration of the Federal Transportation Authorization Bill, agencies in the state may not receive the same amount of support they grew to depend upon, forcing the state to ‘live within their means.’
“We are bracing to close down some transportation projects and the news isn’t good,” she said. “There will not be a spring bond sale, but there will be one in the fall.”
Dawson also said that the high speed rail authority was an agency in crisis mostly because there is no one on the agency from the Governor’s office and there is no accountability, a point echoed by Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean, who shared several concerns from local residents about the project.
The group seemed encouraged by the speakers; the direct questioning was productive and the candid approach by the speakers was appreciated.
Dan Carrigg, Legislative Director of the League of California Cities, spoke next, addressing two topics of local interest: the fate of redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones, saying that doing away with redevelopment agencies might go against the voter will expressed in 2009 with Prop. 22, which protected local funding and adding that both enterprise zones and redevelopment agencies might benefit from retooling, but not elimination.
“Reform is tolerable, but elimination isn’t,” he said.
Assemblyman Jim Beall, Jr., who serves as the Chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee, took the podium and talked about mental health issues, tracking the decline in service back to the 1970s, when state mental hospitals closed and a large number of veterans returned from the Vietnam war with post traumatic stress disorder, for which there was no treatment.
“The untreated get worse, creating a social impact on law enforcement and other social agencies,” Beall said. “We need to raise the level of awareness and treat mental illnesses equal to any other disease.”
After Beall’s session, the group was turned loose for lunch and several patronized restaurants that opened with redevelopment funding, including Pizza Rock, which serves food to the Dive Bar, a controversial spot that features a large tank with live mermaids over the bar and has drawn criticism from legislators like Norby, who question the wisdom of using precious redevelopment funds for such projects.
Sessions resumed in the Legislative Office Building after lunch, where the group heard from Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Assemblywoman Connie Conway, who is the Republican leader of the Assembly.
The room in which they gathered seemed to speak to their purpose: “Participation in the rights of citizenship presumes participation in the duties of citizenship”
Conway admitted up front that committee meetings and politics as usual stood in the way of efficiency at some points.
“If things ran the way they were supposed to, we would be a part-time legislature and spend more time in our districts,” she said.
She said that budget cuts were inevitable, but finding the best place to make the cuts was the current struggle.
“Legislation that is ‘one size fits all’ is very discouraging,” she said, adding “Telling taxpayers the truth is the most important – no boundaries, no limits and let the chips fall where they may.”
She was followed by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who chairs the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, who gave an update on the Sacramento Delta situation. He told them that a second draft of the Delta plan will be completed in early April, but warned that the resources from the Delta may not be as plentiful as the state hopes.
“We’ll have to do a lot of research into groundwater and storage,” he said.
Senator Tony Strickland spoke after Huffman and was quick to point out the accessibility of Governor Brown and his willingness to solicit ideas and listen.
Before she spoke to the group, Senator Sharon Runner took some time to interview Goldman in the special studio set up in the LOB for her weekly “Runner Report.”
She started her presentation by passing around a large bag of chocolate Easter eggs, telling them that bad news always goes better with chocolate before launching into her concerns about realignment and tax extensions.
“With the realignment of prisons, shifting responsibility back to the counties, 40,000 felons will be sent back to county jails,” she said.
Runner has introduced a bill that will put more money back into the K-12 school system, which she says may help, but the education community is still wracked with stress.
“The law requires that you give a nine-month notice to teachers if you might lay them off,” she explained. “Their stress level is high, nobody knows what’s going on. That’s no way to get things done.”
“Nothing we do in Sacramento seems to be based in reality,” she concluded.
For the gallery of photographs taken by Chuck Sturkey, one of our participants, click here .