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Sacramento Report: Atkins Tapped to Lead Again

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber challenges Gov. Jerry Brown to fix the school funding formula, insiders are wary of single-payer health care’s chances and more in our weekly roundup of news from Sacramento.

State Sen. Toni Atkins and Assemblyman Todd Gloria take part in a health care town hall. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Democrats in the state Senate appear to have settled on San Diego Sen. Toni Atkins to replace Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.

Atkins would bring a mix of new and old to the table: She’s already served as leader of the Legislature’s other body, in her stint as Assembly speaker from 2014-2016. But she’d be the first person in almost 150 years to hold both roles, and the first woman and openly gay legislator to lead the Senate.

“I am humbled by the trust my colleagues have placed in me, and I intend to earn that trust every day by working tirelessly and inclusively to keep California a place of opportunity for everyone,” Atkins said in a statement Thursday.

The leadership vote will take place in January.

Atkins got a big policy win earlier this year when the Legislature passed and the governor signed SB 2, her bill that creates a new source of funding for affordable housing.

But her tenure as Assembly speaker didn’t include as many wins as you’d expect for someone whose party dominates the Legislature. As the Los Angeles Times noted in an assessment of Atkins’ speakership: “Atkins didn’t use her position to steer important bills through her house; she didn’t — or perhaps chose not to — push members to vote in favor of key legislation. … Even one of her own bills fared poorly from lack of attention.”

Atkins’ leadership role also means both parties in the Senate will be led by a woman from the San Diego region.

Sen. Pat Bates is the Senate GOP leader. In a statement, Bates said she looks forward to cooperating with Atkins “on issues important to everyone such as safer neighborhoods, better schools and a more affordable California. I also hope we can continue to work together to substantially address the issues raised by reports concerning inappropriate behavior. There is no place for harassment in the workplace, including the Legislature.”

Sara Libby

Weber Challenges Governor on School Funds

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown revamped the way California funds its schools – giving local school districts more discretion over how they spend money, and giving more money to schools with larger shares of vulnerable kids.

But the new system has faced its share of critiques, the three most common being a lack of fiscal transparency on the part of school districts, that the base funding given to districts is too low and that the accountability plan required by schools is overly burdensome.

This coming legislative session – the last session in which Brown will be governor – may be the opportune moment for changes to the school funding formula.

Two dozen legislators, educators and advocates offered ideas to EdSource this week on how to improve the Local Control Funding Formula.

San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who wrote a bill last session that aimed to make LCFF spending decisions more transparent (it died), continues to demand more accountability, particularly for funds meant for the neediest students.

“Lawmakers allocate these funds, so we need an answer to whether they are actually used to help children achieve,” Weber told EdSource.

“We’ve tried to address this through legislation a few times, but we’ve met with strong resistance from the administration,” said Weber in a separate statement to VOSD. “The issue is not resolved, and the governor knows the Legislature remains concerned that the additional funding for targeted students may not be primarily benefiting the students most in need. If the administration doesn’t believe my fiscal transparency bill is the remedy, then they need to move quickly to address in some other way.”

Members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which monitors operations and finances of government and publicly created entities, are concerned, too, said Weber. The committee has called for an audit, which Weber said “will be the only mechanism the Legislature has to find out how targeted LCFF funds are – or are not – actually benefiting the schools with the students that generated them.”

We tried to figure out how San Diego Unified, the second largest district in the state, was using those funds and came up short.

Maya Srikrishnan

Sacramento Insiders Wary of Single-Payer’s Chances

SB 562, the bill to enact single-payer health care in California, spurred intense national interest and debate earlier this year as it made its way through the Legislature, and provoked protests when it was shelved. But at Tuesday’s Southern California State of Reform Health Policy conference in San Diego, single-payer came off as more of a distraction than a viable policy.

Democratic strategists at one panel talked about how single-payer has become a political tool — a “litmus test” that will be used against state legislators in next year’s election. Kassy Perry, president of Sacramento public relations firm Perry Communications, noted that the California Nurses Association — single-payer’s biggest champion — plans to run someone against Northern California Assemblyman Jim Wood, who’s repeatedly questioned the bill’s high price tag. Wood sits on the Assembly’s Select Committee on Healthcare Delivery, which held a hearing on SB 562 in October, with a second hearing scheduled for Monday.

“It is a faith-based policy that is being used to help define what it means to be a Democrat,” said panelist David Panush, president of California Health Policy Strategies.

“We already have a Democratic-controlled Legislature,” Perry said. “If the nurses union is running candidates, you’re going to see a even farther swinging left.”

In another panel featuring Republican Assemblywoman Marie Waldron and Assemblyman Randy Voepel, both of whom represent parts of San Diego County, single-payer took a backseat to issues like opioid addiction and access to care; neither Waldron nor Voepel, who both sit on health care committees, condemned the bill, though Voepel, a fan of colorful analogies, compared single-payer to a burrito.

“On one end of the burrito, you have the doctor group, the benefits, the whole infrastructure of healthcare,” he said. “The other end is funding. You squeeze one end and the other pops out. How to squeeze the burrito — that’s what they’re dealing with in Sacramento.”

Voepel said single-payer could work — if it included the flexibility to purchase supplemental care and if funding existed.

Other topics the panels discussed:

  • Aetna/CVS merger: Earlier this week, health insurer Aetna announced a merger with CVS Health. On the Dem side, Jim Gross, a partner at Sacramento-based law firm Nielsen Merksamer, described the move as an “unmitigated disaster” for California that won’t result in cost-savings for consumers, while Voepel found Aetna’s plan to create “health hubs” at CVS pharmacies a promising model.
  • Opioid crisis: Both panels agreed that California’s well-positioned to tackle opioid addiction, though panelists pointed out that we haven’t seen the worst of it. “California is light years ahead,” Waldron said, “but there’s so much work to do.”
  • Health care costs: One way of bringing down costs, Waldron said, was to strengthen links between health care and social services. “We pay a lot more and our results are a lot less than a lot of other countries,” she said.

Kelly Davis

Golden State News

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