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Big proposals by Gov. Newsom, big pushback

Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a proposed a 2024 ballot initiative to improve mental health services across the state, at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego on March 19, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool

This story appeared on Calmatters

Two of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s major initiatives that he’s trying to jam through the Legislature are facing blowback this week. And as environmentalists and children’s advocates rally against his proposals, legislators are trying to wrap up budget negotiations with the governor before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

First: Disagreements over the proposed Delta tunnel — which bubbled up last week when the Legislature passed its spending proposal for 2023-24 — resurfaced once again, highlighting its outsized role in this year’s budget negotiations.

As CalMatters’ environmental reporter Rachel Becker explains, several lawmakers on Tuesday penned a letter urging Newsom and legislative leaders to delay his package of infrastructure bills (which were introduced in May and are trailer bills to the budget) “for as long as the Delta Conveyance Project remains a part of the proposal.”

The tunnel is an ambitious project to send water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south to 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. According to the latest estimates from 2020, it’s expected to cost $16 billion.

To streamline state approval for such an endeavor, Newsom unveiled an executive order and a series of measures that would prevent major infrastructure projects, including the Delta tunnel, from being tied up in court under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. 

This is a red flag for environmentalists, local communities surrounding the Delta and some legislators. They argue that without the guardrails held in place by CEQA, development of the tunnel will continue unchecked, disrupting residents’ way of life, threatening sensitive ecosystems and harming endangered species. 

And because the governor’s measures are budget trailer bills, they could bypass the typical policy committee process, giving lawmakers less opportunity for scrutiny.

  • The letter: “Rather than taking up a few blocks like a stadium, the tunnel would span multiple counties and impose water and air quality concerns throughout the region.”

But proponents of Gov. Newsom’s infrastructure package argue that it will enable major projects, which have been historically stalled for years, to proceed, and make the state more competitive for federal funding. 

  • Alex Stack, Newsom spokesperson: “To delay these projects is to delay climate action, clean energy, safe drinking water and put millions more Californians at risk of devastating climate impacts.”

Though the governor’s proposal could be enacted after officials pass the budget, it could be used as a bargaining chip as negotiations continue.

Second: Youth advocates are pushing back on the governor’s proposal to overhaul the state’s Mental Health Services Act, writes CalMatters’ health reporter Kristen Hwang.

In March, Newsom proposed to divert about $1 billion of the law’s funds to housing homeless individuals with severe mental illness. His office released more information on Tuesday about the changes, including details on money for services and clinical treatments, as well as eliminating funds for programs that support minority and LGBTQ+ communities.

The details do little to assuage the fears of children’s mental health advocates, who argue that Gov. Newsom’s proposal still fails to address their earlier concerns about cuts to youth services, LGBTQ+ programs, school-based suicide prevention programs, and mental health consultations.

  • Lishaun Francis, senior director of behavioral health at Children Now: “We want to support our unhoused population, but we don’t want to do that at the expense of our youth.”

A reminder: The debate centers around a reallocation of revenue from the act, which levies a 1% tax on millionaires and is separate from the state’s general fund budget. If legislators go along, voters will decide next March whether to pass Newsom’s reforms, including a $4.7 billion bond measure to add treatment beds.

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1
Caste bill: Change in language, not goal

Califiornia state Sen. Aisha Wahab, foreground, at a news conference where she proposed SB 403, a bill which adds caste as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws, in Sacramento on March 22, 2023. Photo by José Luis Villegas, AP Photo

State Sen. Aisha Wahab, foreground, at a press conference in Sacramento on March 22, 2023. Photo by José Luis Villegas, AP Photo

From CalMatters state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal:

State Sen. Aisha Wahab has amended her high-profile bill on caste discrimination that — despite passing through the Senate with only one “no” vote — has drawn criticism from representatives of some South Asian communities who say the bill would unfairly target them. 

The Democrat from Fremont stripped some of the background information in the bill that described the prevalence of the caste system among South Asians. Wahab told CalMatters Tuesday that the changes were a clean-up effort, and not substantive — in other words, not changing the intent of the bill. 

And while the California Asian American & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus has declined to take a stand on the issue, Assemblymembers Evan Low, chairperson of the caucus, and Alex Lee, who both represent parts of the San Jose area, proposed pausing the bill to study the issue further. 

But Wahab said she’s still pursuing the bill, and is disappointed in that effort. 

  • Wahab: “You would expect two colleagues in the AAPI caucus to respect the elected officials closest to the issue. It takes courage to carry a civil rights bill, and not everybody has the backbone.” 

The bill awaits review by the Assembly’s judiciary committee. It would add caste as a protected class to the state’s housing, employment and civil rights laws. Supporters of the bill say it can be difficult to seek relief under the current laws, which only include national origin and ancestry.

The amendments include some, but not all, of the suggestions submitted by the Hindu American Foundation, one of the organizations leading the opposition. That includes removing mention of nationalities.

But the bill doesn’t incorporate the foundation’s ask to replace “caste” with “ancestry.”

  • Samir Kalra, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation: “The amendments to SB 403 are a step in the right direction and remove some of the racist language about South Asians in the findings and declarations, but the fact that caste as a separate legal category continues to remain in the bill is highly problematic. The category of caste is neither facially neutral nor generally applicable to all Californians and thus, we believe, a violation of equal protection under the law.”

Wahab said removing “caste” was a non-starter for her: “It’s like removing the word race from all of our civil rights bills. It does not make sense.”

Sameea and Jeanne Kuang of CalMatters’ California Divide team are scheduled to talk about their caste discrimination story at 9 a.m. today on CapRadio’s Insight program.

2
Luring back older students

Marcelo Baca, 62, puts on a graduation robe with the help of his son, Jason, 16, before a graduation ceremony at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut on June 15, 2023. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

Marcelo Baca puts on a graduation robe with the help of his son at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut on June 15, 2023. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

At 62 years old, Marcelo Baca has his sights on a college degree. His journey so far wasn’t easy — Baca immigrated from Argentina in 1989, enrolled in an Orange County community college and ultimately dropped out due to financial reasons. Decades later, when he was finally able to afford school, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and spent time in the ICU for complications due to COVID-19. 

But as CalMatters’ community college reporter Adam Echelman writes, Baca remains undeterred: “I may be super old, but I don’t care.”

Baca belongs to a shrinking population of older students whom California community colleges are eager to court. Since the start of COVID-19, college enrollments plummeted to a 30-year low — especially among low-income adults aged 50 years and older. Though students 50 and older have always left school at higher rates than other age groups, the pandemic served as a major catalyst for many to leave in droves.

The reasons vary, according to Adam: They often worked “essential” jobs or had to return to the workforce to support their families. As classes moved online, they also lacked adequate internet connection or familiarity with Zoom to successfully navigate their courses. 

But with the peak of the pandemic over, community colleges are offering new programs and launching outreach efforts to encourage older adults to return to school.

For example, Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut experienced a bump in enrollment from adult students because of, not despite, the pandemic when it quickly pivoted to offering new classes and certification on COVID-19 contact tracing. In a few months within the 2021-22 year, 103 students enrolled in contact tracing courses — 41% were over the age of 46.

Kathy Booth, a project director at the education research group WestEd, also suggests that community colleges should offer flexible courses — such as vocational noncredit courses — that emphasize career outcomes, not just a general education.

3
A cruel summer for California?

A man fishes along Kings River in the Central Valley on March 15, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Today marks the first day of summer, but river closures, staff shortages and potential wildfires may render this season a Not Girl Summer after all.

As snow levels climbed in the Sierra Nevada during a season of unprecedented storms earlier this year, climate experts warned that the record snowpack would likely cause devastating floods. That hasn’t happened yet, but that melting mountain runoff has produced turbulent rivers that may prove too tempting to summer vacationers looking for a cool reprieve.

It’s a concern that local officials near the Kern River take seriously. Last week, a kayaker drowned after being swept away in the river’s fast-moving waters, and five counties in the Central Valley so far have closed off river access or issued warnings due to dangerous conditions.

  • Brian Ferguson, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services spokesperson, to The New York Times: “There is a historic amount of water right now: Faster, colder and more deadly than we’ve seen in recent years. There is no amount of training or exercise that prepares a human body.”

Up near Lake Tahoe, the D.L. Bliss State Park will be closed this summer due to construction, but severe staffing shortages in the nine California state parks that dot the region will likely put a damper on park services. The Sierra district has filled only about 66% of its permanent park positions.

And wildfires — an ever-present threat in California especially during the summertime — may be exceptionally bad this season as downed trees and branches from the winter storms add more kindling to the terrain. So far, however, there have been fewer wildfires this year to date than at the same time last year.

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