California state Assemblyman Marc Levine represents the 10th State Assembly District, which encompasses Marin and southern Sonoma counties. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

A chance ‘to get things done': Sonoma County’s state lawmakers brace for busy year

State lawmakers will be tackling a host of tough issues including the ongoing threat of catastrophic wildfires, bankruptcy of the state’s largest utility, an epic housing crisis and persistent homelessness.

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With a cash-stuffed state treasury, a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature and a partner in new Gov. Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic lawmakers appear poised for a productive year in the Capitol.

They will be tackling a host of tough issues including the ongoing threat of catastrophic wildfires, bankruptcy of the state’s largest utility, an epic housing crisis and persistent homelessness.

The five Democratic legislators who represent parts of Sonoma County — state Senators Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire and Assembly members Jim Wood, Marc Levine and Cecilia Aguiar-Curry — also have priorities of their own, including education, senior services, the plight of immigrants and ramping up green energy production.

Senator Bill Dodd

Bill Dodd, the dean of the county delegation with 19 years in Napa County and state office, said Democrats will take cues from Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who now leads the nation’s most populous state.

Dodd, a prolific Napa-based legislator, said he is comfortable with that relationship, noting that he collaborated a dozen years ago, as chairman of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with then-Mayor Newsom on the massive Presidio Parkway project.

“I really think Gavin has so much equity, trust, in the Legislature,” Dodd said, likening it to the relationship between lawmakers and former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Democrats hold supermajorities with 61 of 80 Assembly seats and 28 of the Senate’s 40 seats, with two vacancies. Those numbers enable the Democrats to pass tax increases, craft statewide bond measures and override a governor’s veto without Republican support.

Unlike Brown, Newsom is not a Sacramento political insider or as closely tied to the rank and file of the state Democratic Party. The Sonoma County lawmakers, however, gave Newsom kudos for the proposed $209 billion state budget he submitted last month, pumped up by tax revenues from a robust economy.

“It gives Gavin the opportunity to get things done,” Dodd said during a recent interview in his Vacaville district office.

The budget sets aside $4.8 billion to build reserves and another $4.8 billion to pay down unfunded state employee retirement liabilities.

The fate of the high-speed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco train, a pet project of Brown’s now billions of dollars over budget, is now in fresh hands.

Dodd said lawmakers are expecting a report on the project and acknowledged it has grown increasingly unpopular. But, he said, California will have 10 million more residents two decades from now and the state’s airports are “already at capacity.”

One thing that won’t change, Dodd said, is California’s commitment to the Affordable Care Act, which he said has lowered the state’s uninsured rate from over 17 percent to about 7 percent. The senator said he wants to bring the rate down to zero, even if it means a protracted fight with the Trump administration.

“You can take that to the bank,” Dodd said.

Dodd, who co-chaired the legislative committee that drafted a bill last year allowing PG&E to tap ratepayers for some 2017 wildfire liabilities, said there is no reason to extend the benefit to 2018, which featured another wave of deadly and devastating fires, ending with the Camp fire in Butte County, the worst in state history.

PG&E, which is now in bankruptcy proceedings, can sell its gas division for $10 billion to $15 billion to offset its wildfire costs, he said.

For the current session, Dodd said he has about 23 bills in the works, including one that would give Sonoma County a say in the future use of the roughly 900-acre Sonoma Development Center property in Sonoma Valley.

He also wants to align state tax code for small businesses with federal code to simplify matters for small-scale entrepreneurs, and include abandonment in the state elder abuse act, making it easier for victims to recover damages though civil litigation.

The latter measure was inspired by the case of elderly and infirm residents of two Fountaingrove care homes who were abandoned as the Tubbs fire advanced in October 2017. Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living, the owner of the homes, settled lawsuits by residents and relatives out of court and also reached a settlement with state regulators in which it admitted its staff abandoned residents as the Tubbs fire closed in.

California faces a host of serious challenges this year, including wildfire recovery and prevention, establishing more reliable emergency alert systems, addressing homelessness and perhaps most vexing of all, finding ways to provide affordable housing.

Runaway housing costs, Dodd said, are the inevitable result when high demand encounters low supply.

“We are suffering from a basic economic reality,” he said.

Senator Mike McGuire

California needs to invest more in education and firefighting, said Mike McGuire, citing a need to catch up on both spending per student and fire equipment upgrades as major priorities in 2019.

The former Sonoma County supervisor won his second term in the Senate in November and was named assistant majority leader. A former school board member in Healdsburg, he said it is unacceptable that California, with the world’s fifth largest economy, is spending more than ever on public schools but still ranks in the low 40s nationwide in spending per pupil.

“We need to be in the top 10 nationally,” he said. “We can and must do better for our kids.”

California spent $10,291 per primary- and secondary-level student in 2015-16, about $1,900 less than the national average, according to the California Budget & Policy Center’s latest report.

At the college level, McGuire said he wants to boost community college funding by $400 million, including an allocation to cover a second year of tuition-free education to first-time, full-time students. The community colleges, he said, are “the work horses of our collegiate system.”

McGuire, whose North Coast district was hit hard by the wildfires of the past two years, also wants to boost spending on protection of firefighters and the state’s fleet of fire engines.

Gov. Newsom’s budget includes 13 new engines for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, but McGuire said 31 engines are needed to restore the fleet to its 1975 level. The state currently has 343 engines, a number McGuire said is “completely unacceptable.”

Purchasing 31 new engines would cost up to $87 million, with added annual operating costs up to $64 million. There were an estimated $12 billion in insured property losses last year, when wildfires scorched 1.8 million acres in California and destroyed 16,600 homes, he said.

McGuire also wants $5 million earmarked for a new study of the health impacts on firefighters exposed to smoke and other toxins from destructive wildfires.

He intends to offer a bill that would require telephone companies to report to state officials within an hour of any outage of the 911 system or any local emergency alert network.

McGuire heartily endorsed Newsom’s budget proposal to put $1.8 billion into the state’s rainy day fund, bringing it to more than $15 billion.

“When times are good you have to save for the hard times,” he said, noting that “we will use every penny (of the fund) if we hit a moderate to severe recession.”

Affordable housing ranks high on McGuire’s agenda this year, with a three-bill package that includes spending up to $1.5 billion a year to support development of housing for moderate- to low-income families and establishing a statewide database of all vacant public land that could accommodate such housing.

Sonoma County should expect to see a “record level” of funding for homeless services, including housing, McGuire said, with $12 million coming from its share of $500 million included in the current state budget. The governor included another $500 million in the proposed 2019-20 budget, and McGuire said he intends to make sure “the money is allocated and spent.”

Recovering from the 2017 wildfires remains a key priority, and McGuire said he and Dodd will be part of a Senate working group to be formed this week to focus on assisting fire victims and protecting the interests of utility ratepayers.

Assemblyman Jim Wood

One of Jim Wood’s foremost goals is to see that California has a safe, reliable and affordable supply of electricity. But with PG&E engaged in a years long bankruptcy proceeding, the state’s ability to pursue that end is limited.

“My concern is whether PG&E will do what is already mandated by law,” said Wood, a former Healdsburg councilman who was elected to state office in 2014. “We’re limited in what we can do. We have to watch this play out.”

PG&E and five other investor-owned utilities face a February deadline to submit a 20-point wildfire mitigation plan to state regulators, identifying fire risks and explaining how they will be addressed.

Wood worries about how well the embattled utility, blamed by Cal Fire for sparking at least 17 major wildfires across Northern California in 2017, will perform — and how rigorously the California Public Utilities Commission will oversee the process.

“I haven’t heard anything that makes me feel better,” he said.

Power line safety is critical, Wood said, as climate change remakes California into an evermore combustible tinderbox.

There’s also a balance to be struck between power grid safety and costs that will be passed along to ratepayers.

“I don’t want to pay a huge amount more for my electricity,” Wood said. “I also don’t want to watch more houses burn down.”

Meanwhile, there are steps homeowners can take to protect themselves, and Wood introduced in December a bill, AB 38, that would create a $1 billion revolving loan fund to underwrite fire-resistant home improvements, including building materials and tree removal.

He has also renewed a bill, AB 183, which would mandate reports from telecom service providers on outages caused by natural disasters. The measure was held in a committee last year.

As chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, Wood, a dentist, said he is working on legislation to address his concerns over the high cost of health care, including prescription drugs, hospitalization and access to basic medical care in the rural stretches of his North Coast district.

Wood applauded the $1.7-billion investment in Newsom’s proposed budget for early childhood education, but also noted that many of the cuts to senior services, made during the recent recession, have yet to be restored.

Funding for senior centers, nutrition programs and other services “are a huge part of the quality of life for seniors” and also save money by keeping them out of nursing homes.

To address California’s chronic homeless problem, Wood said the state needs to consider the “root causes” that include mental illness and substance abuse. He advocates “wraparound services” that help homeless people recover and integrate into society.

Assemblyman Marc Levine

Marc Levine visited immigrants on both sides of the border at San Diego on a cold, wet Christmas day and came away moved by their plight.

Children had to “beg for their jackets while they were being detained,” said Levine. Many fell ill while in custody, he said, calling the situation, with children separated from their parents, “a Trump-made crisis.”

“It’s a heartless process,” he said, noting that immigrants detained after crossing into San Diego are randomly dropped off around the border city, only sometimes near a shelter.

The immigrants’ plight should be a “statewide concern,” Levine said, with public health services and legal representation provided. “More needs to be done.”

Levine, a former San Rafael councilman first elected to state office in 2012, said one of his key goals this year is to ensure the Public Utilities Commission sets strong standards for the management of power systems and gas pipelines.

“Our work is cut out for us to make sure that PG&E as it exits bankruptcy is a different company than it was going in,” he said. Equipment owned by the state’s largest utility has ignited 1,550 fires in the past three and a half years, he said.

“We need to make sure we are holding PG&E accountable,” Levine said, also faulting the utilities commission for inadequate regulation of the investor-owned companies it oversees.

Levine’s district, which includes the southern half of Sonoma County, was barely touched by the wildfires in 2017. But the lawmaker said his home in Greenbrae is in a fire-prone area and his family was evacuated as a precaution during a small blaze last year.

“This is not going to stop,” he said. “We need to do more to make our communities more fire resilient.”

Levine said he is considering a bill that would require planning of vehicle emergency evacuation routes in populated, fire-prone areas, and another on power line safety that would include burying lines and installing metal poles above ground in high-risk areas.

The lawmaker endorsed Newsom’s proposed budget for including a $1.7 billion investment in early childhood education, as well as the money to pay down employee pension obligations and bolster state reserves.

California is in an “extraordinary” financial situation now, but the flush times are “going to come to an end,” he said.

Levine’s legislative agenda includes a bill, AB 18, that would establish a $25 tax on the purchase of handguns and semi-automatic weapons to fund a state violence prevention program.

He’s also working on a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal California’s death penalty, which would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to put it before state voters. Two previous efforts to abolish the death penalty were rejected by voters in 2012 and 2016.

Levine faulted the death penalty for the costly appeals process, failure to deter violent crime, imprisonment of innocent people and its predominant application to minorities.

Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry

California’s housing crisis promises to be a focal point for state lawmakers this year, with concerns over cost as well as fire prevention, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry said.

Aguiar-Curry, based in Winters but whose district includes a slice of eastern Sonoma County, expects as many as 80 housing bills to be introduced in the 80-member Assembly.

“We’ve got to look at every option possible,” said Aguiar-Curry, a former Winters councilwoman who was elected to state office in 2016.

The discussion got going Wednesday at a joint hearing by the Assembly’s Housing and Local Government committees, the latter chaired by Aguiar-Curry, with a focus on secondary housing units, commonly known as “granny units.”

Santa Rosa, which has eased its standards for such small developments, saw a flood of 118 permit applications last year, more than in the previous decade.

“Santa Rosa did a really good job,” Aguiar-Curry said.

The loss of nearly 24,000 homes in wildfires statewide in the past two years requires the state to take new approaches to housing, she said. The tight supply has driven up housing costs that pinch working families and create a barrier to alleviating homelessness.

Affordable housing also is needed for the state’s aging population, which Aguiar-Curry described as a “silver-haired tsunami.”

At the same time, however, new home development standards, such as selective zoning, setbacks from brush and fire-resistant materials — while intended to help curtail future losses — can also increase housing costs.

“We need to work toward helping families get back on their feet and being mindful of the costs for rebuilding,” she said.

Aguiar-Curry noted that she is the only current female legislator north of Stockton, and is working with Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, a Stockton Democrat, on educating their Southern California colleagues on the needs of rural Northern Californians.

Her initiatives will include a proposed constitutional amendment to lower the threshold for voter approval of bonds for public works projects, including water, sewage and road projects as well as library and public safety facilities, from two-thirds to a simple majority.

She has introduced a bill, AB 228, that would establish hemp as a legal substance in California, bringing the state in line with federal law.

Aguiar-Curry also intends to pursue biomass — the burning of wood to produce energy — as an environmentally acceptable way to deal with problems like the 36,000 scorched trees taken from the Paradise area hit by last year’s Camp fire.

Increased biomass production could also benefit farmers who need to remove walnut and almond trees, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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