Toni Atkins Begins First Full Term As California Assembly Speaker
ALISON ST. JOHN: You're listening to midday edition here on KPBS I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. California assemblywoman Toni Atkins is starting her second term as speaker for the state assembly. She was voted in again unanimously by her colleagues. This will be her first full term as speaker. You may remember Toni Atkins served for many years on the San Diego city Council peerages responsible for things like the livable wage ordinance. She represents San Diego 78 assembly district in Sacramento that stretches from Imperial Beach up to Swan a beach. I spoke with assembly Speaker Toni Atkins earlier here is our conversation. So first of all we hear so much about gridlock in Congress with the House of Representatives and the Senate at the US level. In California the Democrats are still very much in the majority perhaps a little bit less so after November, but how would you characterize the tone in Sacramento? Or is it as gridlocked as in Washington? TONI ATKINS: No it isn't actually and I think we in both sides of the aisle have been busy trying to accomplish things. We did that with the water bond. That was significant. We had almost near unanimous support in both the Senate and the assembly. That took working with Republicans and Democrats and the governor to get that done. ALISON ST. JOHN: Took a while to get to a compromise that you thought the public would vote on. TONI ATKINS: It did actually took us a couple of months. But that's okay. That's part of the process. California is a big state. I found water to be more complicated than the budget, frankly could but that's because every area of California has different needs when it comes to water. We have different issues and so it took us a little longer but I think everyone felt pleased with the outcome. We know we need more money. We think that 7.5 billion probably was not enough to really upgrade the infrastructure throughout our state but I think it is up now to prove to the voters that we will take the money and use it in the way we said would help our infrastructure and that's going to be a big role over the next year, monitoring and oversight by our water committee of the bonds. ALISON ST. JOHN: So that's an example of how people were able to work together. What would you say looking back on the last are you are most proud of? TONI ATKINS: We were the only state not to have groundwater management and we know how devastating that has been in the Central Valley and parts of California. So we were able to do that as well. I think to be honest I think passing the fourth or fifth on-time budget, managing to have a surplus move forward with the rainy day funds so that we will have money set aside when we go into the next recession so that we do not have to deal with a $60 billion deficit or $25 billion deficit. And I think we did all of those things in a bipartisan fashion. I think that is good. And those things are things that you hear the governor talk about as being a huge a compost. I mean, when I started my first term in the legislature, I remember that April the economist called California ungovernable. And I think it has taken us a bit of time but we have turned the corner. ALISON ST. JOHN: So the economy is picking up. If you look at the bright side that the protections that the state will take in millions of dollars at the more than expected before next June so what do you think are the main challenges for the legislature? What are you focused on in the next year? TONI ATKINS: I think it is continuing the momentum but when you think about that it's continuing to focus on fiscal stability and I think the governor is very serious about that. But it's also really looking forward in terms of what we do for education. He talked about a surplus, or more money rejected by the legislative analyst or do most of that money is going to go to education. That is the formula at the state. Additional money that you have to do with proposition 98 which establish what money goes to school so K-12 and community colleges will take up most of that money. So there really is not a great deal more to spend. So we still have to focus on spending it wisely and prioritization of issues and I think you're going to find higher education is going to be one of those issues. ALISON ST. JOHN: Speaking of higher education I know that you are very concerned with the latest fee increases that you see California and it's not that you don't think they need more funding, but you did not want to see those fees increased and you had a plan which I believe you are still attempting to pass, tell us about that plan. TONI ATKINS: Right, thank you, we are not happy with it tuition increases and that is across the board the Senate assembly the governor. We voted, those of us who sit on the board of regents against the tuition increase, 28% over five years. We have spent the last three years trying to reverse that direction by establishing middle class scholarships, by increasing Cal grants. Real efforts to reduce tuition for students, Californians. And so we do have, the Senate has a proposal, the assembly has a proposal the governor has to work on this, we are going to take a look at it from a zero -based budgeting perspective in the assembly. We have some incredible leaders, Shirley Weber I have just named chair is the but of the budgeting committee, she has some incredible credentials when it comes to higher education and education in general so we want to take a look at this and figure out how we can meet the need of our incredible UC system in a way that is responsible but does not do it on the backs of students. ALISON ST. JOHN: Although isn't it true to say that in fact only about half of the students are exposed to the higher tuition fees because most of the others qualify for you know, grants of some sort or another. TONI ATKINS: That is good news there are students that do not need financial aid, there is the high income families, there are poor students who make use of our wonderful financial aid packages. That the state supports as well as the federal government and the University. But there is a middle group of people, middle income families who are struggling and we hear it every day now, you look at the poverty numbers, you look at what is happening across America it is the middle class that is struggling. And we just feel that education is the one way to really support all Californians, but particularly the middle class so it is the wrong time and the wrong way to do this. ALISON ST. JOHN: Your plan actually had wanted to increase student enrollment asat UC campuses by twice as much at one time the president had wanted to TONI ATKINS: We think it is a reasonable increase. I think the Senate proposal is significantly more. We think you need to do this over time, but 2000 students, we want to cap enrollment by out-of-state students and by the way 2013 was an all-time high for out of state or out of country students they pay more, which is really how we have subsidized higher education when we had no money. So we did that when we had to. I think what the legislature has been saying over the last several years is now it is time to focus on our students because we can and we have more resources. We put more money into UC, CSU over the last two budget cycles and I would agree that it's not enough to catch up. ALISON ST. JOHN: So what is the plan you're still working on and is there a chance that the fees that went up, the tuition fees that went up could go back down again. TONI ATKINS: That is our desire in the legislature and with the governor and we intend and I will work with Pres. Napolitano to accomplish that but it's going to have to be a discussion that ends up not increasing tuition for students and we think there is a way to do it if we work together. And we will do it through the budget process and it will be a process of looking at what the Senate offers looking at my proposal, working with the governor, maybe using the information we get from zero-based budgeting but you know we have to come together to do this for the students. The students should not be held hostage because we want to hold the night the line or want to make a point. It's not about that it's about finding a solution. ALISON ST. JOHN: Because it's about more than 12,000 a year now, isn't it? TONI ATKINS: It is and that's just tuition, not room and board. ALISON ST. JOHN: Speaking of the budget it does look like we are on the up and up with the economy and there is extra money coming trickling into the coffers, the state coffers. It's very tempting to feel like okay now we can start spending again. What is your take on really how generous the legislature can be, or how easy the purse strings in the coming year. TONI ATKINS: You're going to see a lot of proposals from legislators. We go to Sacramento because we care about about issues and we care about issue different issues, everybody has a different expertise I they will put forward the priorities are for the limited amount of additional money. As I said most of those additional dollars are going to go for education, K-12. That is our formula. But there will be money available and you're going to hear a lot of different priorities because we spent a decade cutting health and human services, health care, the courts are another issue. Medi-Cal reimbursement rates while we have moved forward with the affordable care act and we are implementing it in California it doesn't help with access if the reimbursement rates are not even enough to cover the cost. It means we will not have providers who will accept Medi-Cal. So there is no list of priorities but I do think the legislature feels pretty good about our fiscal prudence. That we have been able to pay down $12 billion in debt. We've repaid local governments, counties and cities money that we have of them. We've repaid the schools money from those previous years where we read the rules and did not send the money we were supposed to. ALISON ST. JOHN: Other the budget for K-12 I understand is still not back to what it was previous to the recession TONI ATKINS: We feel really good that it's moving in the right direction and they are getting the lion's share of additional revenue, but it is not where we were you know, percentagewise as it was a decade ago. We are still climbing back out of that. So, there will be priorities and that is part of the budget process where we all work through it and come out on the other end and we will not be able to do everything we want to, but I will say we've taken so much away from so many areas that are critical to Californians that we are trying thoughtfully to put it back but do it in such a way that does not take away from the newfound fiscal stability that we are trying to hold onto because there will be a time when we lose proposition 30, when we no longer have those additional ALISON ST. JOHN: 2016, right for K-12? TONI ATKINS: 2017, and so it is, so we need to make sure that we are being prudent because there will be discussions about whether we extend the tax cut or not, the governor is not in favor of that and I think we need to think very carefully about that because we asked citizens to vote and they did and they helped turn the state around. ALISON ST. JOHN: We want more money for schools they said. TONI ATKINS: But we said this is a short-term solution. ALISON ST. JOHN: When the economy improves, find other alternative ways. TONI ATKINS: So I think we have to be careful about that discussion ALISON ST. JOHN: We hope the economy will stamp roof to the next couple years but it looks like the economy could be volatile so that's not something to rely on. I want to touch on affordable housing because I know that was something very close to your heart when you are on the city Council here in San Diego. You feel like the state has a role to play in helping to fund more affordable housing because the linkage fee failed here in the city of San Diego and Mayor Faulkner was turning to the state and saying well since redevelopment has disappeared, what more can that state due to Fort afford affordable housing TONI ATKINS: I think there's a lot we can do you saw we spent a lot of hundred million dollars of the general fund into affordable housing we've taken a percentage of And trade and put it toward housing in transit oriented development areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That's translated into about hundred $65 million last year from the state. But it is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 billion we had statewide with redevelopment. So now we are having to figure out how to replace those critical dollars. We had a proposal last year, a legislative proposal that was a permanent source and it was a transfer fee on real estate transactions. It needed two thirds vote. We didn't have that. So the state can set up a new system whereby we put money into affordable housing. We have low income tax credits. We can look at issues around [inaudible] and regulations to help with infield development. ALISON ST. JOHN: I knew were there some cities in North County, like Encinitas that are pretty resentful of the state law that is requiring housing elements that would increase density for example, allow developers to increase density if they build more affordable housing because they feel the state is imposing laws on them that do not maintain their community values. Do you have any response to that? TONI ATKINS: You know I remember my days on the city Council, 41 planning areas in the city of San Diego. I've been to many a planning group meeting. I think that at the local level it really has to be communities working with elected officials, the councilmembers to figure out how to plan. Northpark did it. They rejected the kind of density that was being proposed by the city but then they sat down together and they said if there's going to be density, here's where we want it and here's how we want it. So it does have to be a discussion but I will say this, California is going to have a population increase and is better to do it in urban areas where you have the infrastructure and the resources and if we do not build housing, you know, generally we need more housing units. ALISON ST. JOHN: We are already up to 38 million we just heard TONI ATKINS: And we know that will increase by millions more from internal growth, not external growth, people coming in, like I did 30 years ago. So we have to plan responsibly and it is good to work with communities to figure out how to do it, but none of this is easy. But it does take work and the state has a role to play as does local government and we have to keep working towards it because we need more housing and we need more affordable housing. ALISON ST. JOHN: I can't resist throwing ahead to a couple of years 2016, when you would be turned out and Ed Harris, formerly San Diego city Council has stated his intention to run, would you endorse him? TONI ATKINS: I would say this, it's early. But I understand the need to plan. I will talk a little bit about the fact that we are losing women in the legislature. And I have a particular commitment to support more women in the legislature. We are down to 25%, 50.3% of the population in California, 25% of the legislators. And I have to say I have a particular desire, and as speaker of the assembly, one of my roles will be as head of the Democratic caucus to look at elections and try to determine how we increase diversity and gender is as important as ethnic and other types of diversity. ALISON ST. JOHN: And in the 10 seconds that we have left, would you then foresee going for the Senate following Christine Kehoe's role model? TONI ATKINS: There is no simple task. The stars are not aligned in a way that would allow that. I think what I would do is focus on trying to be the best representative for my district and the best speaker since I am the first San Diegan to do the best job I can and things will happen. ALISON ST. JOHN: Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, thank you so much for coming in. TONI ATKINS: Thank you so much, Alison. ALISON ST. JOHN: And stay with us, up next, if you are around kids you probably have questions about how to get them off the iPad and outside to play. We will talk about the benefits and health risks of all the new digital devices that are on many kids' wish list this year.
Ensuring California remains fiscally stable while investing in education will be a priority for San Diegan Toni Atkins, who was re-elected to the California Assembly speaker post earlier this month.
Atkins, who was elected to the Legislature in 2010 and previously served on the San Diego City Council, said the state's budget will be a focus for her in the new year.
"We feel pretty good about our fiscal prudence," Atkins told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. "I'm looking forward to see what we do for education. There isn't really a great deal more to spend so we have to focus on spending it wisely. We just feel that education is the one way to support all Californians but particularly the middle-class."
Atkins touched on her proposal to cancel the tuition hikes approved by the University of California regents in November and in turn increase funding for both the UC and California State systems by $150 million each.
"We're not happy with the tuition increases," Atkins said. "We're trying thoughtfully to put [the money] back but do it in a way that doesn't take away from our new-found fiscal stability."
Atkins said the biggest challenge the Assembly faced in 2014 was determining how to fix California's water system. But the $7.5 billion bonds approved by voters in November will help with that.
"I found water to be more complicated than the budget," Atkins said. "It took us a little longer, but I felt that everyone was pleased with the outcome."
Atkins, who is termed out of the Assembly in 2016, said she isn't sure if she'll run for the state Senate but does plan to encourage more women to run for office.
"We are losing women in the Legislature and I have a particular commitment to support women," said Atkins, a supporter of the nonprofit advocacy group Run Women Run. "We're down to 25 percent in the Legislature."