Sen. Toni Atkins Reflects On 'Most Difficult Year' In The Legislature
Speaker 1: 00:00 The turmoil surrounding COVID-19 touched everything this year, including our California 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. It was session that tried to tackle many vital issues, including police reform and the housing shortage, California Senate president pro temp. Tony Atkins of San Diego spoke with KPBS host, Alison st. John on how the legislative session wrapped up. Here's that interview. Speaker 2: 00:32 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? 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. I think everything came crashing up against the deadline. Didn't it. Um, and what would you, what would you say was some of the things, the key things that did get done? Speaker 2: 01:31 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. Speaker 2: 02:30 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. And that's the point that you were making now, housing is such a big issue. I know it's been one of your big priorities and you made some remarks to the Senate back in January after SB 50 fail. That was the bill that would have required cities to allow more housing density in areas near public transit. And here's what you said at the time I, 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 happen this year. Now it is time for all sides to step up Speaker 3: 03:17 And in the end, you know, some housing bills passed, but none of them came close to what 50 would have done to encourage building more new homes. Do you feel you kept your promise to the people of California? Speaker 2: 03:28 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, uh, and, uh, there were votes and support for the bill. My colleague in the assembly, Robert Reavis 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. Speaker 2: 04:22 So it's disappointing that either that bill or SB nine 95, another bill that would have been a tool that would provide, uh, uh, 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 two, which provided us ongoing stream and permanent stream of, 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. Speaker 3: 05:18 There were some other legislators who said that it was not just that you came up against the clock. There were other reasons that a SB 11, 20 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? Speaker 2: 05:34 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 part participated 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. Speaker 3: 07:08 I wanted to move on to police reform. You had two, two major police reform measures that, that stalled this year. And one of them would have initiated a process to decertify officers convicted of certain crimes. And then another one would have created standards for the use of less than lethal force, including rubber bullets. Um, so they also didn't pass backers, blamed police unions for blocking it. Do you think police unions have too much implements in Sacramento? Speaker 2: 07:40 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. Um, I, 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 assembly member Weber's ethnic studies bill, and of course proposition 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, George Floyd, and so many others. Speaker 2: 08:57 So police reform is definitely not dead at this point, in spite of the fact that this has been perhaps a good opportunity. Um, I guess finally, I wanted to ask you, 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? 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 conduct the legislative business of the people for California. Yes. Well, California Senate president pro tem, Tony Atkins. Oh, I'm San Diego. Thank you very much for filling us in on this last session. Alison, it's always great to talk with you. Thank you. That was California Senate leader, Tony Atkins of San Diego speaking with KPBS host, Alison st. John Speaker 4: 10:30 [inaudible].