With California facing a budget deficit after years of surplus, what are the top legislative priorities for 2023? At PPIC’s first in-person Speaker Series event in three years, State Senate leaders—Toni G. Atkins, President pro Tempore, and Brian Jones, Minority Leader—talked with Tani Cantil-Sakauye, PPIC’s new president and CEO, about what is most important for California’s future.
Atkins and Jones largely agree on the priorities for this year’s legislative session: climate change and its impact on drought, flooding, and more; housing affordability and homelessness; crime; and cost of living issues.
Both leaders recognized that the state’s changing fiscal situation has to be taken into account. And both want to address their priorities without depleting the state’s budget reserves. “The Republican caucus agrees with the governor that we should not dip into the reserves. It’s not time yet,” said Jones. Atkins stressed the need to use unspent allocations from previous budgets thoughtfully: “You have to . . . make sure those monies are being expended in the best way possible, given our limits.”
Without shying away from partisan differences, Jones and Atkins focused mostly on areas of agreement. For example, Jones noted that he was concerned about governmental overreaction at the onset of the pandemic: “My preference would’ve been for the government to give us information,” he said, “and let us decide how to respond.” However, he praised the state’s efforts to expand access to broadband, which shifted into high gear during the COVID crisis. “I’m a critic of government programs and their failures, but I will give the government credit on this particular issue,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the rural areas of my district having access to broadband.”
For her part, Atkins acknowledged that there are limits to what the government can do. For example, while she affirmed the need to help the state’s education systems recover from the pandemic, she also recognized the reality of learning loss: “I don’t know that we have the ability to give back two or three years to a kid in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college,” she said. “We have to adjust and have a different way of thinking about how to continue on.”
Jones and Atkins agreed that perhaps the legislature’s most important—and most difficult—issue is housing and homelessness. Atkins noted that over many years of working on housing, “I have suffered defeat again and again on various pieces of legislation.” But she is not giving up. “I want to continue to work on housing production because it is critical,” she said. “It’s just the toughest stuff to do but we have to do it if we want to help our economy.”
Jones noted that proposals to address homelessness are often criticized because they are not the solution. “It’s such a big issue,” he said. “We could have 170,000 good ideas—and that’s probably what we need to solve homelessness in California.” Even so, he is hopeful that the legislature can make progress: “I think we’re going to be able to come up with some solutions this year.”
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.