Elected officials like to hear from their constituents. They take phone calls, letters, emails and tweets, Facebook posts and every now and then, a busload of their people asking the hard questions.
That’s what happened earlier this week when 80 Santa Clarita Valley people – 60 of them riding a red charter bus and 20 flying into Sacramento – converged on the historic capitol, looking for some face time and answers.
Assemblyman Cameron Smyth and his staff coordinated the trip for KHTS, setting up a series of meetings with legislators close to the issues concerning our valley, including transportation, high speed rail, water, education, film tax credits, public safety, redistricting, mental health and budget cuts.
Over the six years that he’s been in office, Smyth has been able to attract committee chairs and senior officials to speak to the issues; he’s also heard from fellow legislators that they wished they had the same interface with their community leaders.
Upon arrival in Sacramento, the group met with Steven Nissen, a senior VP from NBC Universal lobbying for film tax credits. He shared the industry’s frustration with not only the temporary credits (like ticket sales for a hot concert, the $100 million annual tax credit lottery opens and closes in minutes every July 1 – out of 176 applicants last year, 30 received funding), but the conundrum of term limits makes the industry have to sell the benefit of the state’s investment in Hollywood over and over again, as advocates leave and new representatives are elected to office.
Mike DeLorenzo & Carl Goldman
Mike DeLorenzo, owner of Santa Clarita Studios, told Nissen about a show that had settled in to produce its episodes locally, taking up space and making plans to start shooting, only to pull up roots the day the set lumber was delivered because the Texas Film Office made them a better offer.
It is estimated that there are 220,000 “below the line” workers – behind the camera, blue collar grips, costumers, camera operators, designers and lighting and sound technicians – and with runaway production, 80,000 of them leave every year.
Pedro Reyes, the governor’s Chief Deputy Director of Finance took over the podium and he immediately jumped into the issue of eliminating redevelopment agencies across the state. When asked why the responsible agencies were being punished because of the abuses of other cities/agencies, he didn’t have an instant answer. He did explain that the legislature was working on some interim measures that may restore some segments of redevelopment needed by cities, such as eminent domain, but cautioned the group not to get too optimistic.
“The state keeps trying to take all our money,” said Councilwoman Marsha McLean. “If you’d just leave us alone, we’d be fine.”
Of the group, more than 17 were school administrators or school board officials and they jumped on the deficit issue. If the governor’s proposed cuts go through, the five local districts would suffer a $41.6 million budget shortfall, with $29.8 of that affecting the Hart District.
Mayor Laurie Ender asked “We need to know, are you pitting us against each other for the same money?”
Reyes just smiled and advised the group to be patient, but stay on top of the issue.
The Santa Clarita contingent then reconvened at the historic Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, where they heard from Governor Jerry Brown and State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, who talked about the state’s desire to be exempt from federal No Child Left Behind regulations and some new proposals to keep schools competitive.
The Governor was a little more vague, but optimistic.
“This is an extraordinary place of innovation, opportunity and great beauty. A lot of good things are happening,” Brown began. “As adults we think about things that aren’t perfect and we need to be somewhat clear at what our options are, at what’s possible. When we look at what things cost, whether it’s roads or schools or universities, or deterring crimes and locking people up who can’t seem to get their lives together, that all costs money.
“The money’s got to come from somewhere, and because it’s complicated, it’s easy to have erroneous judgments about what’s going on. And even if you’re really smart, you can still not quite get it.”
“With the complexity of the kind of world we live in, even smart people don’t see that they’re about to go over the cliff or something going wrong,” he continued. “We could say that about our schools or about our criminal justice system. When the DA sends someone to prison, he doesn’t worry that it’s $50 thousand a year – so you get 10 years or 12 years, well, that’s a $100 thousand difference and he doesn’t have to worry about that, but the legislature has to worry about that and the governor has to worry about that.
“We have different filters, different belief systems. Whether it’s Republican or Democrat, whatever the label is, we have some tough decisions, whether it’s getting more money for the schools, whether it’s the realignment to make sure that lower level offenders are handled at the local level closer to their communities; or whether it’s the water, getting reliable water through the delta or how to fix the pensions, what are the costs and how to fix it. There is a path of common sense that makes sense to me, but not to everybody. We can’t be all one party, and can’t always get what you want. But you have to think a little bit like them, and hope they think a little bit like you.”
In the end, Brown said that he knows California will survive because of its resilience and imagination.
“The groove that we comfortably move in won’t get us to where we have to get. We have to get to a state and society and community that works better than it’s working now,” he said. “I want to tell you it isn’t as bad as you might think and it’s not going to be as good as you might want, because that’s just the way life is and if you get to be my age, you’ll understand.”
Tuesday’s schedule included sessions with Assemblyman Jim Neilsen, the Vice Chair of the Budget Committee, who talked about realignment and asked the group to feel free to contact him after coming home with their concerns, even though none lived in his district.
Assemblyman Jose Solorio was next; the Orange County legislator introduced himself as being “Proud to represent the Happiest Place on Earth” – meaning Disneyland Resort – but was quickly chided by Smyth, who reminded him that the contingent he was addressing were “All Magic Mountain people.” Solorio addressed the state’s water situation and the precarious state of the delta, especially in light of a major earthquake which is overdue along the San Andreas Fault (ironically, it was during Solorio’s talk that a magnitude 7.6 quake struck Mexico City).
Assemblyman Richard Gordon fielded questions about transportation and resources, pointing out that, with drivers putting off long trips because of high gas prices, gas tax revenues were down and with the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles, the dynamic of those using the road paying for its upkeep and improvements was no longer valid.
Gordon also addressed the high speed rail project, warning of the significant increase in project cost (from $9 billion at voter approval to a more realistic, current cost estimate of $98 billion) and commenting on the project administrators’ attitude of charging full speed ahead without considering the impact on California.
“I don’t know how you’ll ever get this thing built with people in charge having tunnel vision at the expense of communities,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to admit this ain’t gonna work the way it’s proposed.”
Perhaps the most shocking revelation came from the last speaker of the morning, Assemblyman Don Wagner, who is Vice Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee and talked about community college and education cuts. He explained how legislators are supposed to be given time to review the contents (and possible ramifications) of a bill before it goes to a vote, but that he’s lost count of the times bills have been brought to him mere hours before he must make a decision – or even worse, bills that have failed re-presented at the eleventh hour with their contents sweetened.
“It’s called gut and amend,” he explained.
In the afternoon, the group convened in a larger conference room on the fourth floor of the capitol to hear from Chris Chaffee, Partner in Redistricting Partners; Assemblyman Brian Jones, of the Assembly Human Services Committee who spoke briefly about cuts to mental health before rushing off for a vote; Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, who chairs the Select Committee on High Speed Rail for California.
Before disbursing, the group heard from Assemblyman Steve Knight, who represents a small portion of the east side of Santa Clarita; and closing remarks – for the last time, since he is termed out – were delivered by Smyth.
The group presented Smyth with an oversized poster from the trip that had been signed by all the participants.