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Video: A Conversation with California’s Legislative Leadership

Mary Severance February 4, 2019

When Toni Atkins, President Pro Tem of the California State Senate, sat down to talk with PPIC president Mark Baldassare last week, she brought along a list of pressing issues. Asked to name the top two issues facing the state, she led off with housing: “The growing crisis around the lack of housing supply for all levels of Californians is one of our most critical issues.” Next came climate change and its effects across California. And then she added a third issue: water sustainability. In reality, she said, “there is always a list of issues and challenges that we are working on in California.”

Despite this long list, Atkins was optimistic about the legislature’s chances of working productively with Governor Newsom. “It’s early, but I would say that what I appreciate and enjoy about Governor Newsom is he really is a policy wonk at heart.” She added that while Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom share many priorities, the two have very different styles. “Jerry Brown proposed a budget and he only wanted a few things,” while Governor Newsom “has thrown everything out there.”

After noting that it will be interesting to see how the legislature approaches this year’s budget process, Atkins highlighted the governor’s focus on homelessness and mental health issues and his commitment to early childhood education—which, she added, has been “a huge driving issue for the legislative women’s caucus.” She expressed particular interest in the governor’s proposal to “take juvenile justice offenders out of CDCR—the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—and into more of a health/social services arena.”

Shifting from the state budget process to the ongoing drama over the budget—and border wall—at the federal level, Baldassare asked Atkins about the state government’s response to what is happening in Washington, DC. “You know, I’m so glad to be in California,” she replied. Citing the state’s diversity and the policies that foster it, she said that “to have that attacked in many ways at the federal level means all of a sudden you’ve got California really promoting state’s rights, to protect our policies, our values, and things that we hold dear.”

Atkins tended to be optimistic about even the thorniest issues—such as forestry management, building more housing, and water sustainability. Speaking about the cluster of issues related to climate change, she said, “Maybe the result of these catastrophic fires, and floods, and mudslides—maybe that is the way we’re now able to have a conversation we couldn’t have five years ago, before it was a crisis.” But she added that in order to move an agenda forward, “you’ve got to still have all the stakeholders at the table.”

More generally, Atkins stressed the importance of representing all Californians, regardless of party: “I think we have work to do together.”

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