2015 LEGISLATIVE INTERVIEW STATE SENATOR MARK LENO

Mark-Leno

Every year Leagues all over California meet with their representatives to discuss a few of the League’s priorities for the year. This is the report from such an interview with State Senator Mark Leno, conducted on February 27, 2015. It does not reflect the opinions of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco.

Question 1: Money in Politics (Campaign Disclosure)

 

Background:

Cal-Access is the database and website for online reporting and disclosure of state campaign and lobbying financial activity. It is antiquated, inflexible, and desperately in need of an overhaul to make it robust and user-friendly for the public and the media as well as for those who are required to file disclosure reports.

Question:

Would you support funding for the rebuilding of Cal-Access? Possibilities that have been mentioned include an item in the 2015-2016 state budget and a loan from the state’s General Fund that would be repaid over time from an existing fund dedicated to improvement of Cal-Access.

Would you support a requirement that Cal-Access be structured to allow expansion to include electronic filing of local disclosure reports?

First of all, money and politics are not only mother’s milk, but they are also the death knell. I spent many years advocating for publically-funded elections, which is, in my opinion the antidote to this toxic environment in which we currently operate. I have now been in office for 17 years and I have seen first-hand the detriment to the public good as a result of money in politics, so it’s very serious. Citizens United, of course, only made a bad situation much, much worse.

With regard to your question, would I support funding for the rebuilding of Cal-Access? As chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, I can’t make promises or pledges to anybody, including my own mother. It’s a very complex process choosing what gets voted on and what does not. So if you were to ask me if it would be a priority, it certainly would be. I also don’t know how much funding we are talking about. It is very different to advocate for $1 million dollars than $10,000 or $50,000. Because of all the cuts we have made since 2008, the needs are so great.

All I can really say is that it is a very important issue for me, and it is definitely a priority. With regard to the follow up question, the more disclosure and the more sunshine and the more accessibility to this information we have, the better.

 

Question 2: Education

Part 1. Early Childhood Educations

Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs were greatly reduced during the economic downturn. Although significant funding was reinstated last session, it is still not at the previous level, and large numbers of children, with differing needs, go unserved.

Among the options for increased funding of ECE programs are 1) universal access for all four year olds, 2) limiting funding to low-income children and those with special needs while expanding the reach to three-year-olds, 3) expanding and improving service for the very young (ages zero to three), or 4) the ideal, all of the above. What would be your preference? What first? What do you think has the best chance of being funded and signed?

Again, with regard to the subject of early childhood education, or early care and education, I have worked very closely with a variety of groups both in San Francisco and around the state for many years. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas in which we cut funding during the past few years. It is not only morally wrong, it is penny-wise and pound foolish. We know that the earlier we invest in Californians, the better the state will be.

I’m pleased to report that from some of the budget committee hearings I’ve chaired over the past couple months it seems clear that my Republican colleagues are as concerned as my Democratic colleagues are that the only department that continued to grow is the Department of Corrections. Some of this is within our control, and some of it is not because we have a federal receiver dictating health care costs. We can’t do anything but pay the bills. I bring this up only because there is bi-partisan support to invest our limited resources on the front end rather than the back end. If we do that, we can not only save some money, but keep our communities safe. So why are we doing what we are doing? There really is no good answer for it, but we can do better.

With regard to the options, yes, the ideal is clearly all the above. What would be my preference? I’m not here to say that I would make that determination. I think stakeholders make that determination. They decide. This has pretty much been the process through my years as budget chair. However, as we know that we get the best results when we start earlier rather than later, I would suggest 0 to 3 is a better place to start than 4 or 5. We also know that the achievement gap starts very early, as early as kindergarten. However, as I said, it would be up to the stakeholders to decide.

 

Part 2. Cap on Reserves

Background:

As part of the 2014-15 state budget, the legislature adopted a trailer bill, SB 858, one provision of which would place a cap on local school district reserves, including assigned and unassigned year-end balances, under certain conditions. That provision was linked to Proposition 2 in the November election, and with the passage of Prop 2, it is now in effect. In August, at the close of the legislative session, there was an attempt to repeal the cap language, but it failed.

Question:

Would you support a bill to repeal the cap and restore the authority of local school districts, in alignment with the norm of local control, to ensure school districts can maintain healthy reserves to protect students and teachers from budget cuts during future economic downturns?

This topic popped up at our budget conference committee last year, very much at the last minute. It was an administrative request from the Department of Finance. We hadn’t heard anything about it until they sprang it on us at the last minute. It didn’t come from either house, it came from the Department of Finance, so it was the Governor’s proposal. The argument they made for this was in light of the severe K-12 cuts since the crisis of 2008, and we cut very deeply. The idea came at a time when revenues were beginning to bounce back, and the thought was that many of those dollars should make their way to the classroom, not to reserve accounts. A lot of school employees lost their jobs, and if there would be some restoration of funding, then we could get those people back to work. School administrators are the ones who are displeased because it’s dictating to them in a way that they don’t like. They make an argument that they are responsible for school facilities, and it takes some years to save up enough to afford needed repairs.

The Legislative Analyst’s office told us that the way it’s been written, 1) All deferrals have to be paid back before this triggers and 2) We have to be in a consistent Prop 98 test for multiple years before this happens. In short, we believe this will never be triggered.

This brings up two questions. First, if the Department of Finance wanted a cap on reserves, why didn’t they write it in such a way that it would actually take hold? However, on the other hand, if it’s never going to be actualized, what are the school administrators so upset about?

But, since the Governor told us it was important, both houses approved it. Since then, there has been a pretty steady uproar from school administrators. The Governor said in January that he is willing to discuss it. However, it is really up to him to defend, as it was his idea. He made it clear to us that he wanted it. If he is open to repealing it, he will let us know. But it’s his, and his to defend or repeal.

At the end of the day, I trust the Legislative Analyst’s office, and I have no reason to doubt them. It’s just not going to happen.

 Question # 3: Water

In recent months, voters approved the Proposition 1 water bond and the legislature passed significant groundwater legislation. Do you see these actions as having addressed the important water issues in your district? If not, what more should be done? What can the Legislature do to increase California’s resilience in the face of future water supply uncertainties?

Again, this is a complex issue. The passage of the water bond was very significant. However, there is clearly more to be done. No one knows if this is the last year of a four-year drought or the fourth year of a 10-year drought. We just don’t know. The one thing we know is that we need to manage our water better. I’m not a supporter of the Governor’s tunnel proposals. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me, from both an environmental perspective and a fiscal perspective. I also can’t tell you I’m expert enough to know what is best to save or improve the health of the Delta, which is in a very vulnerable situation right now.

However, there is still a lot we can do. I actually met with a group of people recently with an interesting business model they are now moving forward. Their product is a fence, one that you might put around your own house or in new housing developments. By capturing water that comes from the roof through the gutter system into the fence, which holds water as if it’s a cauldron. Rather than having a big, ugly bucket on your roof to collect water, you have a fence. This idea was very fascinating to me.

I’ve also seen some proposals suggesting the fact that roofs are built incorrectly here. They shouldn’t be built as they are now, with the highest point at the top. This structure is meant for places with heavy snow that want to minimize snow build-up on the roof. However, for an area that experiences almost no snow, it makes more sense for the roof to be slanted inward, so it collects the water.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the coming years we implement some tax credits to help promote new industries like this, not unlike what we did for solar and wind 10 years ago. We want to take advantage of innovative technologies to ensure we are not wasting our limited water.

I know the Governor hosted a visit from some water experts from Israel, and we learned a number of things. Israel uses no more water today than it did when it formed in 1948, when the population was significantly less, and when they got significantly more rain fall than they do now. They are managing their water pretty well. Yes, they use a lot more desalination than we do. This is most likely in our future, not by choice but out of necessity. There are some environmental concerns, but technologies will improve, and we will have to live with some of the environmental challenges to it. We also learned from the Israelis that they recycle 80% of their agricultural water. We recycle about 20%. We have a lot of growth opportunity and can come up with smarter ways to save water.

In regard to immediate action, we just invested $100 million for storm water projects in the water bond. There is also funding for water reuse and reclamation.

There are many ways to approach the water crisis. It surprises me that my Republican colleagues only want to invest in more reservoirs, as if that would be the solution for everything. We are not even using our full reservoir capacity currently. It is a fixation I don’t understand, especially when there are so many other solutions to explore and so many countries with desert conditions to learn from.

 

Question # 4: Affordable Housing

One of the priority issues our San Francisco League is interested in is affordable housing. Particularly considering the high price of land in the city, we wonder if the state is putting sufficient pressure on the suburbs to build their share of housing near transit. You may have read in the Chronicle last week that Mayor Libby Schaaf, while talking to the Chronicle editors last week, threw out the idea that perhaps San Francisco housing developers could fulfill some of their affordable housing requirements by building some of that housing in Oakland. Do you have any thoughts on that?

 

I got concerned with the topic of affordable housing when I was on the county Board of Supervisors. I was able to get San Francisco’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance passed, which requires that a percentage of all market-rate housing be subsidized by the for-profit developer to create affordable housing. The concept envisioned in the name inclusionary is to prevent the segregation of low-income people.

It’s also interesting when we talk about affordable housing oftentimes people think that it’s for “those people” and not for us. But in fact, only 10% of San Franciscans can afford to purchase market-rate housing. 90% cannot afford it. Only 15% of San Franciscans can afford to rent market-rate housing. So when we talk about affordable housing, we are talking about it being for all of us. Affordable housing is for everyone, except high-earning people, meaning that “those people” are the people who can afford market-rate housing.

With regard to Libby Schaaf’s comment, I’m not opposed to considering any ideas, but it is really counter to the whole idea of inclusionary zoning.

With regard to what the state can do, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins just introduced a package of bills that she is proposing for affordable housing needs. Some of it is not new. There’s a reintroduction of a transfer tax on property, which is a $75 fee that would only be incurred in refinancing, not if you buy or sell a home privately. It must pass the legislature with a two-thirds vote because it’s a fee. We were going to pass it until there was a change in leadership in the California Realtors Association. They took a new position and opposed it. If there is a bad player in this story, it’s the California Realtors Association, which is shameful. In a time when they are making record profits, they are standing in the way of affordable housing funds. Anyway, Speaker Atkins’ proposal also increases tax credits for affordable housing developers. I think there is a third piece too.

With the demise of Redevelopment Agencies, we are caught in a very difficult situation in regard to having tools for affordable housing development and funding sources. It’s serious and it’s getting worse.

In addition to the question of “how do we build affordable housing,” we should not overlook the question of “how do we preserve existing affordable housing?” Especially in a city like San Francisco, our most valuable and irreplaceable affordable housing stock is our rent-controlled units, and that’s why I authored legislation to amend the Ellis Act for San Francisco. The California Realtors Association killed the bill last year, but we are trying again. It’s just a district bill, so why the California Realtors Association is so concerned with a bill that will only affect San Francisco, and no place else in the state, is a reasonable question to ask. All the legislation does is give authority to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Mayor to require that a landlord own his or her property for five years before having the ability to evict all tenants for the purpose of getting out of the business of being a landlord. Why we want to do this is because the Ellis Act is being abused. I say that for a very specific reason. There are people who are not landlords, and don’t intend to be landlords, who are using the Ellis Act for their benefit. They are speculators, not landlords. I differentiate the two this way: The landlord’s business is 100% tenancy, and a speculator’s business is 100% vacany. That is a very different business model. There is no mention of speculation in the Ellis Act. The debates that were had when the legislature created the Ellis Act were about creating a right for landlords to be able to go out of business. We are trying to find a way to differentiate between the two, and we decided on this five-year ownership. We chose five years because more than half (closer to 70 or 80%) of all Ellis Act evictions are done by people who owned the building fewer than five years. In fact, half of them are initiated by people who owned the buildings fewer than 12 months. Speculators flip properties without any regard to the community, and only with their own profits in mind.

The Mayor is sponsoring our bill, and the entire Board of Supervisors supports it. However, the realtors are a very powerful special interest in Sacramento. When they lean on members, members get weak, even those who say they support disadvantaged communities.

Many colleagues don’t know that rent control only affects those buildings built before the ordinance in 1979. This means that every rent-controlled building we lose cannot be replaced.

Question # 5:

What other major issues do you think the legislature must deal with in 2015? What are your personal priorities?

The first bill we introduced in December would increase California’s minimum wage. We last did so in 2013, which was the first time we had increased it since 2007, but we only go up to $10 next year. However, this is the same minimum wage as Walmart, so what does that tell you? That we have work to do!

The premise of our bill is that no one should be living below the federal poverty line in California, which is very low. It isn’t even an accurate measurement, as it doesn’t account for the 30% higher cost of living in California and it doesn’t have a line item for child care, which can be just as expensive as rent. So, while the federal poverty line doesn’t even accurately define poverty for California, our minimum wage should at least get someone above that threshold.

So our bill will increase California’s minimum wage to $11 an hour in January of 2016. Eighteen months later, in July of 2017, it will raise it to $13 an hour, and then 18 months later, it will adjust to the Consumer Price Index going forward.

 

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