January 20, 2015
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy
CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.
California Politics – Off to a Busy Start
It’s been a busy start to the year in California politics. It seems like months ago that Gov. Jerry Brown was sworn in for his fourth and final term as governor. Brown delivered an inaugural speech that doubled as his state of the state address for the year, laying out ambitious new goals on climate change and environmental policy that would put Brown at the center of the global climate discussion.
Later that week, the governor headed to Fresno, where he joined state and local leaders in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the state’s high-speed rail project. The train has been embraced by Brown, even in the face of some strong public opposition, but is derided as a frivolous legacy project by opponents. Supporters of the bullet train, led by Brown, contend it is a necessary piece of the state’s transportation future and could be a way to stimulate the economy of the Central Valley, which is among the poorest regions in the state.
Poverty dominated the discussion on Friday, when Brown unveiled his budget plan for the 2015-16 year. Among the revelations was the fact that Medi-Cal enrollment had jumped to 12.2 million people – more than 31 percent of all California residents. These are people that, as the governor said during his remarks, are “not rich, they’re not middle class.”
Pressed by reporters, the governor opened up on poverty, suggesting that he felt there were limits to what the government could do to lift people out of poverty. Brown noted several times that California is more generous than most states when it comes to providing services for the poor, and that about one third of the state’s budget is directed at programs that serve low-income Californians.
Still, it’s undeniable that poverty has come to the forefront, as the governor and legislative leaders begin the latest round of budget talks. As the Los Angeles Times noted, the two top Democratic leaders in the legislature – Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins – both grew up in low-income families. De Leon’s Senate district has the third-highest number of people living in poverty of all the Senate districts in the state.
With the state coffers flush, debate over programs for the poor will be a big part of the discussion this year in Sacramento.
The news was not as good for those hoping the state might do something about its lowest-in-the-nation provider rates for Medicaid. At the end of 2014, the federal government lowered its provider rates, which were increased for two years to help entice states to agree to the optional Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. That cut comes alongside a new reduction in state rates for those who provide health care to the poor.
In comments made after the budget release, Diana Dooley, Brown’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said bumping the provider rate “was not a priority” for the administration.
The other big news of the month has been Sen. Barbara Boxer’s announcement that she will leave the Senate in 2016. That has set off a mad scramble to succeed her, with Attorney General Kamala Harris emerging as the first candidate to formally enter the fray. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is out, focusing instead on a run for governor in 2018, while former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer are both weighing potential candidacies.
Others looking at the race include state Treasurer John Chiang, Rep. Xavier Becerra and Rep. Loretta Sanchez – all Democrats. On the Republican side, former state party chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro are mulling bids, as is Assemblyman Rocky Chavez.