As part of our Speaker Series on California’s Future, PPIC invites elected leaders from across the political spectrum to participate in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
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A vital step toward improving the California economy is to get people vaccinated. On Thursday, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis offered a look into how California is coordinating with the federal government on efforts to reopen the state—including distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine—in a conversation with PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare.
“Enormous work is being done at the state level and the county level in coordination with the federal government to make sure we can acquire as many vaccines as quickly as possible,” Kounalakis said.
Amid efforts to protect public health, the Newsom administration has continued to respond to California’s ongoing housing crisis and high unemployment, both exacerbated by the pandemic. Programs to keep people in their homes have included extending the eviction moratorium until June; the state is also collaborating on federal efforts to assist landlords. Kounalakis further noted that Governor Newsom has directed $600 stimulus checks from the state’s $15 billion surplus to 4 million Californians who qualified for the earned income tax credit and has applied $4.5 billion from the same surplus to jobs retraining to support small and medium businesses.
For her part, Kounalakis is focused on the role of public higher education in expanding California’s economy. As a member of the boards for all three of the state’s public higher education systems, she is advising on how to chart a clear pathway for students to attain a four-year degree. Her grandmother, from a small village in Greece, never learned to read—Kounalakis was the first in her family to graduate from college. “I have an extreme story, but I also know that millions of Californians are walking this pathway every day,” she said.
Kounalakis advised higher education leaders to work toward collecting data to understand what is driving lower than desired transfer rates from community colleges and graduation rates at CSU. The pandemic has also exposed inequities around broadband access for students, which in turn revealed limitations around education, healthcare, and economic development that must be addressed moving forward.
As the administration works to manage the many angles of the state’s recovery, rumblings continue around a recall of Gavin Newsom. Baldassare briefly explained the process: “If enough signatures qualify then the secretary of state would certify the election and ask the lieutenant governor to set a date. Then a special election is called. The ballot has two parts—do you want to remove the governor or not, and a list of candidates if the governor was removed.”
Kounalakis is respectful of the work Newsom has done for the people of California under very difficult circumstances, including the worst wildfires the state has seen. “This is a lot for an elected official to have to handle,” she said. “It’s a lot at a time when he should be focused on getting people vaccinated and back to work.”
Baldassare turned to observations on the many Californians called to serve in Biden administration.
“Our state is being recognized for our leadership in these areas,” Kounalakis said, pointing to a wide range of policy actions in California, from environmental protection to energy security. “We have a federal government that looks to us as a think tank.”