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Video: A Conversation with Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins

Stephanie Barton August 18, 2020
photo - Mark Baldassare and Toni Atkins

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.

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.

As Californians adapt to life under COVID-19 and a shifting economy, Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins spoke with PPIC President Mark Baldassare to assess where California stands in handling issues stemming from both crises.

Quick action around health and hospital infrastructure helped the state manage the pandemic, but Atkins warned of the need to keep pace with testing, tracing, and equipment. “It all starts with one simple thing: wearing a mask,” a precaution Atkins emphasized will help protect vulnerable people and support essential workers.

Legislation is also key to addressing job losses related to the pandemic. The federal stimulus, Atkins noted, did not do enough for small businesses. She is speaking with businesses to help identify problem areas as the legislature evaluates programs and loans. “We have got to focus the economic recovery on how we support businesses that are able to exist. Economic recovery needs to focus on small businesses and individuals.”

Along with COVID-19, which had outsize economic and health impacts on communities of color, the murder of George Floyd brought systemic racism to the forefront. Atkins pointed to an existing bill, AB392, which prescribes the circumstances in which police are authorized to use deadly force, saying that it had already started a conversation about how other states might follow California’s lead. A number of bills from the assembly and senate—such as ACA5, which addresses discrimination—may also signal a larger cultural shift.

A separate shift in education has forced the state to examine funding and resources as schools consider how to reopen. For teachers and students to safely return, Atkins stressed the need for adequate PPE and testing. In the meantime, the success of distance learning in both K–12 and higher education lies with broadband. Atkins highlighted broadband access in the Governor’s Economic Task Force and partnerships with telecom as efforts toward finding a solution.

Housing and homelessness provided another point of discussion. “When we started the year,” Baldassare said, “for the first time in the history of the Statewide Survey for PPIC, homelessness was named the issue Californians most wanted the legislature to work on.”

Atkins indicated that a priority during budget conversations was to maintain the amount of money going to local jurisdictions. “There’s no one-size-fits-all for how to address what’s working in one community versus another.” San Diego County was able to use its convention center to triage efforts beyond COVID-19 testing, including triaging for housing. Discussions then began about reevaluating buildings that might be rehabilitated to provide lower income housing.

The length of the pandemic has also placed a spotlight on health and safety in the upcoming general election, sparking debate over vote-by-mail. Atkins assured Baldassare that the legislature is focused on voter access and vote-by-mail, noting the recent passage of a bill extending the time for people to be able vote.

“We have to make sure there are safe sites in every county, enough that people are able to cast their vote and make it count.”

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