On Friday morning, State Senator Loni Hancock (District 9) and State Assemblymen Rob Bonta (District 18) and Tony Thurmond (District 15) reported back from Sacramento on the broad range of issues they worked on in 2015. The key topics of conversation were education, healthcare and the state budget.
A diverse group of nearly 40 local politicians, trade and transport activists, nonprofit workers, a banker, a few business owners and an interested resident or two gathered around the oval conference table in the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce (MCC) boardroom. The “State of the State” event, which shares its name with Governor Jerry Brown’s January speech summarizing the key issues in California, provided an opportunity for the representatives to share their accomplishments and challenges from the just-concluded legislative year with their Oakland constituents.
B. Lee, an Oakland-based training and development strategist, said she attended the event in order to reconnect with local politics after moving back to the area from out of state. “This is an opportunity for new engagement. I want to see how [these representatives] present themselves, what they’re talking about,” she said.
“This was a very good year in the legislature, but we know we have a lot more to do,” Hancock, who was elected to the State Senate in 2008 after three terms in the Assembly, said during her presentation. “The really good news is there’s more money in the budget now for education.” The 2015-16 budget funded state education at $68.4 billion, up from $66.3 billion the previous year. Education funding has steadily climbed since its decade low of $47.3 billion in 2011-12. Hancock noted that California had once been in the top ten states for per capita student spending. Last year, the state ranked dead last in the nation.
In 2015, Hancock worked on legislation that calls for a “multi-tiered system of supports,” which she said will help keep public school students who misbehave enrolled in school. The bill, which is currently in committee, would authorize $10 million from the budget to train teachers and administrators to prioritize supportive group and individual counseling over punitive measures like expulsion. “The most important thing we can do is to break the school-to-prison pipeline,” Hancock said. “A young person expelled or suspended isn’t doing anything good. Whether it’s cyber-bullying, misogyny, or mental health issues, we know that finding these kids and having them deal with the harm that they’ve done and think about what they need to do to restore it can be the most powerful change of heart. That means their life is going to go better.”
Thurmond, who was elected to the State Assembly in 2014 and recently completed his first legislative session, also introduced the Early Intervention Attendance Pilot Grant Program bill, which is currently inactive but could be considered in next year’s session. This legislation requires the California Department of Education to improve school attendance by increasing monitoring and outreach to students who are chronically absent or tardy. The bill, modeled on a pilot program in the Berkeley Unified School District, aims to keep kids in school; Thurmond said the goal is to ensure students learn how to read by third grade. The bill cites research that students who can’t read by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, which costs the state more than $46 billion per year, including more than $1 billion in juvenile crimes.
Hancock also noted the strength of the California Career Pathways Trust, implemented in 2014, which focuses K-14 education on four career paths: information communication technology and digital media; health and biosciences; advanced manufacturing and engineering; and public services and law. The Oakland Unified School District participates in the $250 million work-based learning program. She encouraged the business leaders at the event to hire local interns, saying that young people need “a safe place to go and make a little money.”
The representatives also talked about their work on healthcare-related issues, particularly Bonta, who chairs the Assembly’s Health Committee. “We have huge access issues in this state,” Bonta says. In the 2014-15 legislative session, he introduced an ambitious Medi-Cal monitoring bill which would, among other things, assess the impact of raising Medi-Cal reimbursement rates for healthcare providers. The bill’s supporters argue that raising reimbursement rates would encourage more providers to take Medi-Cal, thereby widening coverage for low-income patients. The bill is currently in committee.
Hancock and Thurmond also co-authored bill SB 4, which determined that California residents under the age of 19 do not need to prove they have a legal immigration status in order to qualify for full Medi-Cal benefits. Thurmond said that it’s in the taxpayers’ interest for everyone, regardless of immigration status, to be covered, particularly when they go to the emergency room. An estimated 170,000 people will receive Medi-Cal benefits under this program, should it become state law. The bill passed the legislature, and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
During the legislative session, Hancock also co-authored an “end of life” bill; the term is also referred to as “assisted suicide” or the “right to die.” SB 128, which passed the legislature on September 9 and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature, would make it legal for California physicians to prescribe drugs that would help the terminally ill end their lives. California’s legislation is modeled on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which was passed in 1994. California’s legislation was inspired by the 2014 death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon in order to find a doctor who would prescribe drugs to end her life.
Bonta also spoke about his effort to eliminate what he calls “surprise billing,” when a patient is seen by an out-of-network doctor at an in-network facility and ends up being billed hundreds or thousands of dollars for the visit. This bill failed to pass the Assembly by three votes, and Bonta has made a motion for it to be reconsidered.
Earlier in the session, the legislators expressed their pleasure with the $167.6 billion budget that took effect on July 1. This represented an $11.2 billion increase from the previous year’s budget. Brown trimmed only $1.3 million off of the legislature’s proposed budget, gutting a water quality project, a forest advisory council and mapping software.
Thurmond called it “one of the best budgets we’ve seen in the state of California,” and highlighted that it provides $2 million from the state’s general fund to fill in the gaps of service after the Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo was shuttered. “It had been the only emergency room outside of Kaiser, and you can imagine what that means for people who use that facility,” he said.
Several attendees asked questions about cap and trade funding, port modernization, and BART infrastructure improvements after the representatives’ remarks, hopeful that these issues could be addressed during the special legislative sessions on transportation and healthcare. In special sessions, the governor can call lawmakers back to the capitol as needed to work on the issues he has designated, even after the official end of the legislative year. All were restrained in their responses, with Hancock cautioning, “I personally don’t have much hope for special sessions and I hope I’m wrong.” Other topics discussed at the event include worker co-ops, a tobacco tax, in-person education for prisoners and regulations on medical marijuana.
The governor has until October 11 to sign or veto bills that have been passed by the legislature. Bills still in process can be revisited in the second year of the legislative session, which will begin on January 4, 2016. Hancock called the event an “important way to stay connected to her constituents throughout the District.” The representatives will spend the intervening months meeting with community leaders, activists, and organizations in Oakland and throughout their respective districts.