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Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins Recounts Her Very Big Year

State Senate President Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is shown speaking at the Westin Hotel in downtown San Diego, June 7, 2016.
Nancee Lewis
State Senate President Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is shown speaking at the Westin Hotel in downtown San Diego, June 7, 2016.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins Recounts Her Very Big Year
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins Recounts Her Very Big Year GUEST: Toni Atkins, Senate President Pro Tem

Our top story on Midday edition state Senate President Pro Tem Tony Atkins has overseen her first and very busy legislative session in Sacramento California lawmakers passed major budget measures and legal reforms including investing more than a billion dollars toward housing and eliminating money bail and felony murder in the state's justice system. But senators Atkins doesn't have time to rest on this session's laurels. The gas tax measure that she cosponsored faces Proposition 6 on the November ballot which would repeal the gas tax. Joining me now is California's Senate President Toni Atkins and welcome to the program. It's always good to be here. I saw polling from late August that showed Prop 6 the gas tax repeal measure was losing support. What's the latest information you have. Well I hope that's true. I think we've spent a lot of time trying to connect in communities to tell constituents citizens who care about the condition of our roads what we stand to get by making sure that we vote no on 6 SB 1 was difficult legislation to pass. Not many of us want to pass legislation that increases fees. But we need to fix our roads. And I think I've said before half of that money is going to come back to local jurisdictions so we can put it in our communities. San Diego County stands to get about 400 million dollars a year. Those are real improvements. I know that it's difficult but really we have to make sure that people understand what's at stake and 5.2 billion dollars a year going forward to fix our roads in our local communities and our freeways is what we need to focus on. Because you know that's that's not money we get in a general fund budget that has a surplus and 16 billion dollar surplus that we have set aside for a rainy day and if we go into a recession that's one time money we're building on that we want to keep building on that reserve. But you use it in one time projects like roads. Number one it's hardly going to make a dent in the problem in California. But number two it's not going to solve the problem. Now the gas tax repeal proposition had been enjoying double digit leads a few months ago. What do you think might have happened. That seems to have changed that. Well I always think it's about education and sharing information and having the real conversations with people. Community by community as I've come home and I've heard assembly member Gloria and other elected officials as they're in front of our constituents our neighborhood groups. We're actually having the conversation. I hope that that's what's making a difference. Now there's one proposition that you certainly do want to see passed and that's Proposition 1. Yes. It asks voters to approve four billion dollars in general obligation bonds to provide affordable housing most notably for military veterans. Critics though say that that's not enough money to solve California's housing shortage. So what effect do you think it would have if it passes. Well I always say you know we don't solve any problem overnight do in a bond for housing is what California has traditionally done. We passed a bond in 2006 Proposition C we had Proposition 46. We have wrung every dollar out of those propositions to build housing over the last decade. It's time to do another bond so that we can keep that money flowing to build. We put one point two billion dollars towards housing and homelessness that's a combination of housing development housing and also addressing the issue of homelessness which of course is connected to the housing. We've got to continue to invest in that. I always am interested when people say it's not enough. It's not enough. It's not enough. No it isn't. That's why you have to be continually focused year after year after year considering that Governor Brown is always warning that a recession is right around the corner. Do you think there's a chance California could be taking on too much debt. Well I do think we always have to be mindful of that. We have a water bond that we passed several years ago a housing bond. I think we're at a point where we need to we need to use the resources that we have put forward as bonds and put forward to do the job and we do need to be cautious. And I think that that is something we need to be mindful moving forward but we're trying to tackle the real challenges. Governor Brown just today signed legislation that could make it easier for utilities to pass on the costs of wildfire devastation to ratepayers. That on the face of it does not sound like a very popular thing for the people here in San Diego. How do you explain that to Mrs. Jones. Well the issue is and you know San Diego it was the tip of the iceberg in 2003 and 2007 with wildfires. Now we've come to adopt a phrase called the new normal. On any given time you know we've had upwards of 18 fires raging in California. Here's the issue you cannot keep up with the rehabilitation of all those fires happening upon each other year after year after year. Not just one or two. You know we experienced it in San Diego. Now you're having so many that this new normal is costing our state one way or another. Rate payers are going to see an increase if we don't figure out how to stabilize the situation. So SB not a one signed by the governor today along with a package of other bills seeks to do a couple of things give some certainty along with accountability to the investor owned utilities. So what what people had wanted was a release of liability that did not happen that did not happen. What we did was say we've got to figure out a way to securitize these costs overall so that we don't lose our investor owned utilities to bankruptcy because we would pay. How do you securitize those costs over time. How do you protect ratepayers. How do you protect homeowners. Because insurance industry is part of this too. People who lose their homes and have to count on insurance to help them rebuild. All of this is at stake with these fires. So yet again just like housing our infrastructure. This is not simple. We wanted a way to contain the cost securitize it over time hold the investor owned utilities accountable for what they are responsible for. So they have to do better planning. Much like SD Giani did years ago after those fires. Now they have a better central system to when the winds get heavy when there's heat and winds. They're on high alert and their systems are now monitoring throughout their service area while some other investor owned utilities were forced to do that sooner. But now they've got to pay attention to their infrastructure in a different way and they've got to pay for it. They've got to take responsibility but they've got to do it in a way that doesn't cause them to go bankrupt and then cost our ratepayers even more money because we've got to have electricity and we've got to have certainty and it's got to be reliable. So this was the balance we could strike holding them accountable looking out for ratepayers. I have been speaking with California Senate President Pro Tem Tony Atkins. Senator Atkins thank you very much. Always a pleasure. Thank you.

There seems to be no stopping Toni Atkins.

Born in Virginia, Atkins moved to San Diego in 1985 and was elected to her first term on the San Diego City Council in 2000 at the age of 38.

She began her life in the California Legislature as a Democratic member of the Assembly in 2010. Four years later she became the first San Diegan and the first acknowledged lesbian to be named speaker of the Assembly.


In 2018 she became the only woman ever to be named president pro tempore of the California Senate, which made her just the third person to have held both that position and the Assembly speakership.

Anyone wondering why Atkins is trusted with so much responsibility might take a look at the 2018 legislative year.

Among the initiatives she and the current speaker, Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), shepherded through the legislature were a budget which includes more than $1 billion for housing construction; justice reforms eliminating money bail, the option to try 14-year-olds as adults, and the felony murder charge; and a commitment to 100 percent clean energy statewide by 2045.

While the Legislature gets ready for 2019, Atkins is working to promote passage of state Proposition 1 in November, authorizing $4 billion in bonds for veterans' housing.

Senator Atkins discusses the 2018 legislative year and the challenges ahead on Friday's Midday Edition.