Caste, infrastructure, divestment: A busy day for CA Legislature

This story appeared on Calmatters

Supporters and opponents testify on a caste discrimination bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol in Sacramento on July 5, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

The first day back from the July Fourth holiday turned out to be very, very busy for the California Legislature. 

Let’s get right to the highlights:

Caste discrimination bill survives: The first-in-the-nation measure to add caste to California’s anti-discrimination laws is still alive after a key committee hearing on Wednesday.

The bill language was tweaked before it was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, but not so much that the bill author or supporters objected to the changes, according to CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal.

Some South Asian groups oppose the bill, arguing that it will lead to more discrimination. One of the two South Asians in the Legislature, Democratic Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose, hadn’t spoken on the bill. But he’s on the committee and voted for it Wednesday. He talked about the divisions he has witnessed and the concerns he has heard from constituents.

  • Kalra: “Ultimately, there are certain things we must do as a state to protect everyone in our state.”

Infrastructure streamlining advances: As expected, the state Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s package of infrastructure bills — but not before Republicans voted no on two bills and critics questioned allowing harm to protected species, such as golden eagles and sandhill cranes, reports CalMatters’ Rachel Becker

The five bills would streamline the permitting process for bridges, railways and other major projects (though the Delta water tunnel was exempted). They were the subject of intense, closed-door negotiations that held up the state budget deal.

In a statement, the governor said he looks forward to signing the bills, which bring California “one step closer to building the projects that will power our homes with clean energy, ensure safe drinking water, and modernize our transportation system.” 

Divestment bill delayed: A push to force California’s huge public pension funds to sell off their holdings in fossil fuel companies is being put off until next year. The bill would require the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers Retirement System to sell holdings in the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies by July 2031, but Bloomberg reports that it’s now a two-year bill that won’t get a final vote until 2024.

As CalMatters’ economy reporter Grace Gedye explained, CalPERS and CalSTRS opposed the measure, saying it would hurt the investment returns they rely on to pay pensions to retirees.

Tribes rally for salmon: Members of California’s indigenous tribes, conservationists and environmental advocates gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to bring awareness to the negative impacts the March closure of salmon season had on local tribes and fishers across the state.

Though it was a controversial move that some argue could have been avoided, plummeting numbers of Chinook salmon forced a council of fishery managers to cancel the season, which typically runs from May through October, resulting in financial losses for anglers and fishers in the industry. (In 2022, the salmon industry raked in about $460 million from fish sales, restaurants, tackle shops and other related businesses.)

Besides the closure, participants at the event advocated for the completion of the Bay-Delta plan, higher water quality standards and updating the state’s water rights systems.


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Fewer services for mental health?

Cynthia Garcia Williams, Lead Peer Parent Partner, at Sycamores El Nido Campus in Altadena on June 30, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters
Cynthia Garcia Williams, a peer support specialist who helps parents and kids navigate the state’s social and health care, in Altadena on June 30, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

It’s a common practice across many industries: People with more education are paid more. But for behavioral health providers who employ people with real-world experience in addiction, foster care and other complex needs — but don’t have advanced degrees — a new Medi-Cal policy may discourage them from hiring such staffers.

As of July 1, CalAIM, the state program that provides Medi-Cal patients with behavioral health services, started paying more for specialists with advanced degrees or certifications. As CalMatters’ health reporter Kristen Hwang writes, CalAIM is designed to save the state money in the long run by tackling homelessness, addiction and other issues.

But the new pay policy means that providers are incentivized to hire more educated employees. The likely result? Increased costs and fewer services — all during a huge labor crunch for mental health workers.

Community providers who are on the ground, treating patients struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, also argue that the change undervalues specialists who may not have advanced degrees but have invaluable life experiences.

  • Debbie Manners, CEO of a behavioral health program in Southern California: “Many times it is the person with lived experience that keeps the family engaged. They are the ones who listen and who have walked in their shoes.”

One Napa County provider, which runs a psychiatric medication management program, told Kristen that pay for a psychiatric nurse practitioner under the new rates is roughly half of a psychiatrist. Previously, both roles could have been paid about equal, depending on the treatment they provided. In the end, the provider receives less money from Medi-Cal for offering the same services as before.

In a statement to CalMatters, the Department of Health Care Services said it would reassess rates if too many providers leave the Medi-Cal network. Still, it “believes these rates are sufficient for counties to maintain an adequate network of providers… (and) meet the behavioral health needs of Medi-Cal members.”

Sand in the gears on housing

A jogger runs past a large sand berm built to protect low-lying homes from winter storms along the Peninsula neighborhood of Long Beach on Dec. 23, 2019. Photo by Scott Varley, The Orange County Register via AP

A jogger runs past a large sand berm built to protect low-lying homes in Long Beach on Dec. 23, 2019. Photo by Scott Varley, The Orange County Register via AP

The beachfront houses that dot California’s 840-mile-long coastline are often what Zillow daydreams are made of — but a bill to speed up more of those homes is causing consternation. 

The measure aims to expedite multi-family development in parts of the state that haven’t met their state-set housing goals, but is strongly opposed by the California Coastal Commission and its supporters, writes CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher.

The bill, authored by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, would exempt some developers from public hearings and legal challenges. While his office says it would allow for streamlined development on less than 20% of California’s coastline, the bill would essentially overrule the coastal commission, which currently has final say over what gets built, or doesn’t, along those 840 miles.

  • Wiener, at an Assembly committee hearing: “The coastal zone is much whiter and wealthier than the rest of the state. The idea we would be applying state housing law inland…while we literally exempt whiter, wealthier coastal communities is offensive to me.”

The 12-member commission rejects the idea that this is merely a NIMB — not in my beach — issue. Its supporters (who include environmental advocates) often stress that the panel has never rejected a proposed affordable housing project. Instead, they argue that the bill undermines a commission that voters empowered nearly 50 years ago to protect the state’s renowned beaches. 

  • Sarah Christie, Coastal Commission lobbyist: “Once you start exempting classes of development… there will be no shutting that barn door. You’re going to lose some of the best things about California.”

Critics of the bill also argue that accelerated development is made more complicated when rising sea levels, eroding bluffs and devastating floods threaten the livelihoods of coastal residents. 

Ben reports that Wiener is expected to introduce changes to his bill during a hearing on Monday, in an effort to compromise with the commission.

California’s housing crisis, explained: CalMatters has detailed looks at why housing is so expensive in California and why homelessness is so persistent. There are lesson-plan-ready versions — especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups — as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative, with Spanish translations. 

More financial aid, but some left out

Students walk near Meiklejohn Hall at California State University East Bay on Feb. 25, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Students walk near Meiklejohn Hall at California State University East Bay on Feb. 25, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Making college debt-free for all residents may be a long way off for California, but legislators are making it a bit more affordable for eligible students.

CalMatters’ higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn takes a deeper look at how the recent budget deal impacts financial aid programs, in particular the Middle Class Scholarship program, which launched last year.

Through the recent budget agreement, the program will receive an additional $227 million, bringing its total to $859 million. According to a CalMatters analysis, 302,000 students received an average of $1,970 more toward their education in the 2022-23 academic year. And a new bureaucratic tweak to the scholarship will not require students who get emergency aid from their campuses to return an equal amount of their Middle Class Scholarship back to the state. 

But the program has frustrated some advocacy groups, who argue that California should spend more money on students who are ineligible for existing aid but are still low income. 

For example, there are about three times as many community college students as there are students who attend the University of California and California State University. But as Mikhail reported in 2021, the scholarship leaves out nearly all community college students. Though California reports some of the lowest community college tuition in the U.S., students often end up paying more for their education compared to UC and Cal State students who have access to more state, federal and institutional financial aid.

Another provision in the budget deal will enable students formerly in foster care to avoid borrowing money for college. Starting this fall, about 600 students each year will receive full scholarships, at the annual cost of $5 million.

Thurmond for governor?

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is joined by LAUSD School Board Member Jackie Goldberg and Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo during a visit at Monte Vista Elementary School to meet the staff working for LA’s BEST summer learning program and participate in enrichment activities with students in Los Angeles on Friday, July 23, 2021. Photo by Axel Koester for Bay Area News Group

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, center, visits Monte Vista Elementary School in Los Angeles on July 23, 2021. Photo by Axel Koester, Bay Area News Group

Add another name to the list of potential candidates for California governor in 2026: Tony Thurmond, now state schools chief, confirmed Wednesday that in the next few months, he will be “seriously exploring” a candidacy and that he has formed a campaign committee.

Another statewide elected Democrat, Attorney General Rob Bonta, is also considering a run to succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom. And a third, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, has a head start, having officially declared her candidacy in April and raising oodles of money.

Back to Thumond: He first won election as superintendent of public instruction in 2018, riding teacher union support to defeat charter school advocate Marshall Tuck. Thurmond won a second term last November, overcoming criticism of his leadership during the pandemic and of his management style. 

In his statement, Thurmond said he is “fully focused” on his current job, including taking on “MAGA extremists who want to ban books.” But he said that working families “are facing so many challenges that require our entire state government, working together, to solve.” 


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Many California schools weren’t performing well. The pandemic shutdown made it worse.

A new state anti-hate hotline could take a while to make a difference, writes Julie Lynem, a journalism lecturer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and cofounder of R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County and RaiseUp SLO.


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