On Friday November 20th, I sat down with Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan in her San Ramon office to discuss the political issues of Assembly District 15.
Water Bill 2009/Water Bond 2010
She voted against the Water Bill and will be campaigning against the subsequent $11.1 billion bond coming up for vote before the electorate. The bond will need only a majority vote statewide but she anticipates that it will be defeated overwhelmingly in her district and does not anticipate it to be much of a local issue in her re-election campaign.
Amongst her objections to the bill is that it was negotiated mainly by the Big 5 (Governor and the state’s legislative leaders of the Democrats and Republicans of the Assembly and Senate) and represents much of a flawed process since there was no real reason to by-pass the normal legislative procedures for a measure that is to be on the ballot in November 2010. She also pointed out that at a time when we have cut education by 20% and have had huge cuts in social services to increase pressure on the General Fund and undertake more debt is unwise in the structure of this proposal. Additionally there are over $8 billion unsold bonds from Prop 1E and 84
The bill is excessively one-sided targeting urban populations for a 20% reduction in water and industry for 10% but only asking for a ‘Best Practices’ approach for Agriculture that uses over 80% of the water in the first place. She sees a water policy as having three major parts
1. Protecting the Delta,
2. Protecting quality of water
3. Protecting the reliability of the supply over the long term
With the current bill not being a reasonable accomplishment of those goals.
Buchanan also asks- as the population of California is projected to grow will we see a decrease in Agricultural land and an increase in water demands by the population? The water bill is diverting resources pushing the state more to a duality of employment: tourism and agriculture, when we should be putting more pressure on increased efficiency in agriculture and not government subsidies of poor water usage choices.
The bill’s evolution included going from $2.5 billion for the Delta restoration and protection portion, DOWN to $2.25 billion while increasing totally unrelated water issues such as a bike trail and conservatory in the southland is another aspect that does not cast it in a good light according to her.
(It might be interesting to note that if there was a 10% cut in water usage by Agriculture there would be a nearly 50% increase in water available for people.)
Ms. Buchanan was a champion and leader of the No to Vouchers movement in the past holding to the position: “public money for public education.”
About 50% of the state budget is spent on education, and it remains a key issue in her district. Locally San Ramon has been favorable to both school bonds (used to build facilities requiring a majority vote) and parcel taxes (used for general education funding requiring 2/3rds vote). Her past support for these has been one of the issues that have separated her from her Republican opponent.
As the Republican state platform calls for school vouchers and that party ran the co-author (David Harmer) of the failed voucher initiative in the congressional district that overlaps with the Assembly District, this may add to the further division in the political campaigns. Ms. Buchanan was a champion and leader of the No to Vouchers movement in the past holding to the position: “public money for public education.”
She pointed out that we need to graduate 20% more people in the coming decade and the state and society are moving in directly opposite directions with college enrollment dropping. The state university system now gets only 25% of its funding from the state resulting in massive increases being pushed on the students as was announced this week with a 30% fee increase on students. The result is that we are moving to the equivalent of private college costs and making college degrees harder to obtain. Throughout the state there will be further problems as local communities that can afford parcel taxes and school bonds will be able to hold on to better schools and the poorer areas will fall ever further behind.
2/3rds Rule and Term Limits
There is an initiative process being started that will call for an ending of the 2/3rd rule for budget and financial matters. She believes that there is less than 50% support for this in the district. Pointing out that budgets are passed with this and while it would make things much easier, the bigger problem is the unintended consequences of Term Limits where the relationships between the legislators has been greatly undermined. The subsequent lack of being able to build up trust and trade offs over time in both the dealings with your colleagues and your constituents is hurting the process.
She also points out that the polarization of the legislature is part of a national and societal problem that she feels would occur even without the 2/3rds rule being in place.
BIG 5 Budget Process in Legislature/Governor negotiations
The development of the Big 5 negotiation process was created to iron out the few issues that were holding up a budget passage after the great majority of things were resolved by the main bodies- the Assembly and the Senate. In the last round the process was turned upside down with the majority of issues being resolved by the 5. She feels that this has not served the public well and may not be repeated to the extent that it was used on the last budget.
She prefers to see the evolution of a system where the legislature takes an entire year and focuses only on the budget and its issues.
In her meeting with the collected East Bay Chambers of Commerce in May, she spoke that the state budget had already cut the fat and were well past the muscle and into the bone. She anticipated that whole programs would be cut. Revisiting the question she pointed out that at the local level places like Elk Grove were looking at cutting out the library and that it would not surprise her to see High School classes going to size 40. As for state projects- there was no preview of coming detractions. However she did indicate that one of the approaches traditionally has been to bring things down to the barest skeletons so that when times change there is something to be rebuilt on rather than having to start from zero.
The Governor will be providing a preliminary budget in January and it will have to deal with a projected shortfall of another $21B over the next 18 months. How this comes out and what flexibility exists to shift priorities is still limited. With 50% of the budget going to education, 25% to the cities and the remaining 25% to deal with things such as the huge increase in prison costs, the stage is set for another display of unhappiness all round. The paradox of government funding is that exactly when the revenues drop because of economic downturn is when there is an increase in the need for government services to help people get through the hard times.
During times of crisis in California it is customary to make calls for wholesale reorganization of the government as well as amendments to the constitution. There is a call in the Bay Area for a constitutional convention but as she points out none of these have been successful. She states that the crisis is now and the need is now, constitutional changes take time. Further whereas the U.S. constitution has had 27 changes over 200+ years, the Californian document has had about 500 changes. The solution to our problems may not be in the constitutional structure.
People’s view of Government
One of the overwhelming aspects of the upcoming campaign is the low approval rating of the legislature. In discussing this she made the following points: We have reported unemployment of 12% and if you take into account the under-employed the rate is far higher than 17%, in dealing with this and the other aspects of our tough times “People want government to work.” She sees a shifting away from the Big 5 negotiation style as a way to make government a more open process and help to lead the way to better times.
In the meantime we are all reminded that the tough times will also come with opportunities.