Democrats stall crackdown on CA homeless encampments

This story appeared in Calmatters

Tents line up near a fence in the Chinatown neighborhood of Fresno on Feb. 10, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters

From CalMatters’ new reporter covering homelessness, Marisa Kendall:

Despite growing frustration over California’s massive homeless encampments, Republicans didn’t get very far Tuesday in their attempt to crack down on camping in certain public spaces.   

Senate Bill 31, introduced by Senate GOP leader Brian Jones of San Diego, would ban people from sitting, lying or sleeping within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, park or library. Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor or an infraction.

It’s a Republican bill, but Democratic-led cities all over the state, including Los Angeles and Sacramento, have been passing similar ordinances that bar camping in certain areas. And Gov. Gavin Newsom over the past two years has frequently called attention to the crisis, allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to help cities move people out of encampments, calling on cities to close specific camps and even showing up in person to help with cleanups.

SB 31 failed to make it out of the Senate Public Safety Committee, with one yes vote, one no vote and three committee members abstaining. But it’s not dead yet — the senators agreed to reconsider the bill later.

  • Jones: “Our current approach to homelessness is failing and Californians are simply tired of it. We need to try something new.”

Jones argued his bill takes a “compassionate” approach. Authorities would need to provide a 72-hour warning before forcing people to move, and give people camped in off-limits areas information about other places to sleep, homeless services and shelters. 

Michelle Pariset of Public Advocates, who opposes the bill, said in some cities, the law effectively would prohibit camping in almost all public spaces. “There would be nowhere left for people to be,” she said. “So where are people supposed to go?”

In response to that concern, Jones said he’d be willing to consider shrinking the ban from 1,000 feet to 500 or 750 feet from schools and other so-called “sensitive areas.”

Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener from San Francisco abstained, arguing cities and counties should be free to impose their own rules about camping.

  • Wiener: “It’s a huge problem, but I just don’t think that this is the right approach for the entire state.”

Encampments grew in many cities during the pandemic, when officials generally stopped clearing camps in favor of letting residents “shelter in place.” Now, the state is experiencing a backlash against those camps. Californians view homelessness as one of the top issues plaguing the state, and more than 2,000 Californians have signed a petition in support of his bill, Jones said. 

Backed by eight Republicans, the bill has just one Democratic co-author — Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa — which is likely to make it a tough sell in the deep-blue state. But Jones on Tuesday argued the issue extends beyond politics. 

  • Jones: “No matter how liberal or conservative people are, or agnostic or non-political or very political, Californians are infuriated by the encampments that they see in their communities every day. We need to do more.” 
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A dangerous budget cut on floodplains?

French Camp and Walker Slough are areas that are believed to flood with 7 ft of overtopping as water backs up from the San Joaquin River along with storm surge from the Delta. These levees surround the Conway Homes Project and other Ej neighborhoods adjacent to Van Buskirk. Walker Slough and the East San Joaquin River Levee in the Van Buskirk neighborhood of Stockton on March 25, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Walker Slough and the East San Joaquin River Levee in Stockton on March 25, 2023. These low-income neighborhoods could flood as water backs up from the San Joaquin River.
Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

During a record-breaking year of torrential downpours and devastating floods, California may slash funds for restoring floodplains — right when residents of the San Joaquin Valley need it most.

Floodplains sit adjacent to rivers and are wide, uninhabited spaces that allow overflowing rivers to expand during the wet season. The more well-kept and robust a floodplain is, the more effective it is at protecting communities downstream from flooding.

Last fall, the state Legislature set aside $40 million for floodplain restoration — removing debris, planting native vegetation and removing setback levees to restore floodplains to their most natural, meandering state.

But as CalMatters’ Alastair Bland reports, Newsom has pulled the money.

With a budget deficit projected at as much as $25 billion, Newsom eliminated funds for the San Joaquin Valley floodplain restoration in his January spending proposal, baffling conservationists and possibly endangering the lives and livelihoods of those living downstream on the San Joaquin River, including the low-income, mostly Latino, residents of Stockton.

  • Wade Crowfoot, California Resources secretary: “Then fiscal conditions changed quite rapidly and we found ourselves having to make cuts, and that’s not easy because we’re cutting priorities that we acknowledge to be priorities, which is why we funded them in the first place.”

But officials told Alastair that the slash in funds is indicative of the unequal investments between areas such as the San Joaquin Valley and Central Valley, and more affluent locales including Sacramento and its Yolo Bypass, which is undergoing major expansion. Lawmakers from both parties are advocating to restore the funds.

  • Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Lodi Republican: “If we get a warm spring, we are in big trouble. We have nowhere for that water to go, and it’s coming, whether we like it or not.”  
  • Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua, a Stockton Democrat: “We understand that he (Newsom) needs to make cuts, but this is the one area he should not be taking money from, especially not right now… It sometimes upsets me that he forgets about the Central Valley.”

Newsom signs law that could cap oil profits

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs a bill on his proposed profit penalty plan in Sacramento on March 28, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. , CalMatters

Gov. Newsom signs a bill on his proposed profit penalty plan in Sacramento on March 28, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. , CalMatters

Gov. Newsom’s six-month war of words against the oil industry has finally come to an end. For now.

On Tuesday, the governor at last signed a law that could someday put a cap on oil industry profits, reports CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff, who was at the state Capitol where Newsom gathered alongside legislative allies for the ceremony.

  • Newsom, in a tweet: “California now has the strongest oversight and accountability measures on Big Oil of any state in the nation. No more operating in the shadows. No more ripping families off at the pump. Big Oil’s 100 year reign over our politics is coming to an end.”

The measure will require oil refiners to regularly report information, such as data about their operations, inventory and maintenance schedules. It will also create a new watchdog division in the California Energy Commission to look into alleged price gouging by the industry. The division would have subpoena powers, and its findings could result in a profit threshold, one that oil companies could be fined if they were to exceed.

Despite Newsom’s boast that “we proved we can actually beat Big Oil,” the law takes a much more measured approach to the one he originally proposed last September, which started out as a windfall tax, then became a fee, and finally turned into a process that shifts the responsibility to state regulators.

As legislative Democrats raced to approve the bill and get it to the governor’s desk before spring recess, Republican lawmakers and the oil industry criticized how rushed the entire procedure was, and how they weren’t given enough time to vet the full ramifications of the bill. Oil companies, critics suggest, could be disincentivized to produce more gas, which would lower supply and drive costs even higher.

Now that it’s signed, however, the law takes effect in 90 days.

Of course, this won’t be the last we hear about Newsom vs. Big Oil. In addition to the potential financial penalty, oil companies are concerned over the amount of information they have to fork over to regulators, claiming that they may be forced to reveal trade secrets. If their concerns aren’t properly addressed in follow-up legislation, the oil companies may sue.

  • Kevin Slagle, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association: “We’re concerned about how that all turns out… (But) we’re hopeful that we can shift to having a conversation about the real issue here, which is the supply of fuels.”

More flood relief for undocumented

A resident shovels mud deposited by floods from his driveway in Cutler on March 12, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

A resident shovels mud deposited by floods from his driveway in Cutler on March 12, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

From Nicole Foy of CalMatters’ California Divide team:

In response to the latest storm damage, Gov. Newsom expanded his state of emergency Tuesday to four more counties, asked for more major federal disaster declarations — and also announced more flood relief for undocumented farmworkers and others.

His office said the state’s Rapid Response Fund is being used to help undocumented workers and residents who do not qualify for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of immigration status.

Undocumented workers are, by law, ineligible for federally funded programs such as unemployment benefits or aid from FEMA. In 2020, Newsom allocated $75 million to provide disaster relief and financial assistance to undocumented Californians impacted by COVID-19 but ineligible for aid from federal programs such as the CARES Act.

But the seemingly endless storms battering communities around the state since January have hit undocumented residents hard, especially those employed in the agricultural sector. Towns full of mostly low-income farmworker families, including Pajaro and Planada, have flooded for weeks at a time, while countless numbers of farmworkers have lost weeks of work due to rainy weather, dangerous roads and rising floodwaters.

Local coalitions and nonprofit groups have attempted to fill the gaps with crowdfunding efforts and local disaster recovery centers, but insist the state needs to do more.

The state also opened a local resource center in Watsonville Tuesday. State agencies are also working with local and nonprofit partners to help mixed-status families and indigenous communities obtain federal assistance, according to the governor’s office.

The governor’s office did not immediately answer questions about when the funds would be available to the public, and how much money would be available to individual applicants.

CalMatters Commentary

The benefits of the long-sought Delta tunnel project to send more water south are speculative at best, write Oscar Villegas, chairperson of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors and the Delta Counties Coalition, and Patrick Kennedy, a Sacramento County supervisor and coalition member.

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters is on vacation this week; his next column will appear Monday.

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