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Sen. Toni Atkins Reflects On ‘Most Difficult Year’ In The Legislature

Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove, left, of Bakersfield, and Senate Pres...

Photo by Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Above: Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove, left, of Bakersfield, and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, of San Diego, talk in the back of the Senate Chamber as senators debated the state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, June 25, 2020.

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California’s legislative session has wrapped up, we’ll check in with Sen. Pres. Pro tem Toni Atkins of San Diego about what lawmakers in Sacramento accomplished and what they left undone.

Aired: September 15, 2020 | Transcript

The turmoil surrounding COVID-19 touched everything this year, including California's State Legislature. When the Senate and Assembly wrapped up their sessions in August, many closely watched bills failed to get the votes they needed to pass. It was a disappointing end to a session that tried to tackle many vital issues including police reform and the housing shortage.

California Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, reflected on the legislative session Tuesday on Midday Edition. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: So now you've been in the state legislature for 10 years. You've seen a lot of sessions. How do you feel about what happened this year?

A: Well, it was probably, I would have to say Alison, the most difficult year I've experienced in my 10 years in the legislature. And it was a confluence of the pandemic, uh, having a truncated legislative session. We missed weeks and weeks. Uh, and then it was the second year of a two year session, which means you have to adjourn at midnight, uh, Sani die. And, um, I think all of those things combined with the fact that we were also remote voting, which took more time than typically would have it just all of those things combined made it especially difficult.

Q: What would you say were some of the things, the key things, that did get done?

A: So we were able to get a number of good things done. In terms of the legislation, I would say, um, we put a billion dollars for COVID prevention and lifesaving care. We paid for equipment. We pass legislation to increase protective equipment supplies, cleaning for schools, a work, a bill to provide notice. So essential workers are informed when someone in their workplace is infected. So we did a lot of COVID related issues, paid family leave, um, rebuttable presumption. So employees who become infected on the job, don't have to jump through hoops to get medical care, uh, or workers' compensation. We were able, and, um, on the issue of racial justice, we were able to put proposition 16 and 17 on the ballot to let people decide on race, being a factor in state decisions. Uh, also restoring voter rights for individuals working their way back into society who formerly incarcerated. So we got a lot of things done. We, of course, didn't get as much done as we would have liked to get done.

Q: Housing is a big priority. You made some remarks to the Senate back in January after the failure of SB-50, that was was the bill that would have required cities to allow more housing density in areas near public transit. Here's what you said at the time:

"I want to personally commit to each and every one of you, to the people of California, that a housing production bill to help alleviate our housing crisis will pass this year. Now it is time for all sides to step up."

Q: Some housing bills passed this year, but none of them came close to what SB-50 would have done to encourage building more new homes. Do you feel you kept your promise to the people of California?

A: Well, I, I think in terms of the legislation we put forward, of course, you're talking about SB-1120, which was the followup to SB-50, and it would have encouraged small-scale development, allowing duplexes on single-family lots. And that was one of the key bills that unfortunately fell victim to timing, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying in the Senate. We got the bill over to the assembly. Uh, it was a straightforward bill. Uh, I think there was a lot of misinformation about it. I spent a lot of time on the phone answering questions. So the intent of the bill was housing production, and uh, there were votes and support for the bill. My colleague in the assembly, Robert Rivas did an amazing job, helping get the votes we needed for the bill to pass. You know, the unfortunate thing is I think there was plenty of time for that bill to be heard before the literal 11th hour on the last night of session. So it's disappointing that either that bill or SB-995, another bill that would have been a tool that would provide the ability to advance housing production. Uh, the thing I would say about that is both of these bills are in a very good position. They had support in not just the senate, but the assembly. And I guess I'd say I've been here before. It took me a few years to get, um, my other landmark affordable housing bill enacted SB-2, which provided us ongoing stream and permanent stream of money for housing. Um, I'm disappointed that we didn't get this over the finish line before midnight at the end of session. But I think the work that we did was, was critical. And I know that we will pick this up as soon as we can in January, um, and try to get it done even quicker. Uh, maybe in the first few months, rather than for it to take the entire year.

Q: There were some other legislators who said that it was not just that you came up against the clock. There were other reasons that an SB-1120 failed, um, where was the resistance coming from? I mean, what needs to change for more progress in the future when you reintroduce these bills?

A: You know, Alison, I think, um, the nature of the legislature is that at the end of session, you know, there are factors that, that normally play in, uh, it's not uncommon for, for, uh, the Republicans to try to slow down Democratic legislation. That happened, uh, that is a normal occurrence. Uh, it probably would have been manageable, had the Republicans actually been in the chamber, but because of their exposure and a Senator in the Republican caucus becoming infected, in fact, a San Diego, uh, Senator Brian Jones and exposing the other Republican senators, we weren't able to have them in the chamber, but we did make it possible for them to, to be able to participate in debate and actually be able to vote, but it took longer. So, um, you know, it was a combination of the Assembly not bringing the bill up soon enough because it clearly had the votes and it was a combination of, uh, the Republicans slowing down the process. Those are typical things that happen in politics and the legislature at the end of session. But when you add to it, the tension, the stress, the health concerns around the pandemic, it just all, uh, helped slow things down, even further and make tensions even higher. And it's unfortunate, but I do believe that we will get these pieces of legislation done. There were important, uh, pieces of legislation around, um, criminal justice reform police reform.

Q: Let’s move on to police reform. Two major police reform measures stalled this year. One would have initiated a process to decertify officers convicted of certain crimes, another would have created standards for the use of less-than-lethal force, including rubber bullets. Backers blame police unions for blocking it, do you think police unions have too much influence in Sacramento?

Well, I don't know that that's exactly accurate. I mean, we got Shirley Weber's bill done two years ago. Her bill was, uh, probably one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the country around, uh, police use of force. And, um, I think since that time, the dynamic and experience in our country has actually lent more towards more pieces of legislation. We were able to get a couple of pieces of legislation done. I think that we will be able to get more work done on police reform as well. I think we saw Senator Bradford's juvenile justice reform bill. We saw Assemblymember Weber's ethnic studies bill, and of course, Propositions 16 and 17, which was the, um, affirmative action as well as, um, reform around voting rights for formerly incarcerated. Those things, uh, wouldn't have passed in previous years. And there were some who think that the affirmative action was able to pass because of, um, the work, uh, that came out of the unfortunate murder of George Floyd, and so many others.

Q: Was it difficult to manage a session you were talking about the, your Republican colleagues who were in quarantine and participating virtually, what do you think about the possibility of allowing virtual attendance at legislative sessions in the future after the pandemic?

A: Well, I think what's ideal is to be present and in the chamber, because it allows for the ultimate of transparency, of public participation of the ability for the public to see the interaction of legislators. I do think it is, it is a tool to use in circumstances like we're in with the pandemic. And I think it will be a tool we continue to use, you know, should the governor call us into a special session or should we go back in January and we are still faced with a pandemic without the benefit of, um, you know, a vaccine or further protections. We've gotta be prepared to still conduct the legislative business of the people for California.

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