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Atkins' To-Do List: Boost Biz, Fix CEQA and Downplay Expectations

State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins downplayed her political power Saturday even as she committed to push for environmental and business reforms.

This post has been updated.

The highest-ranking San Diego legislator is on a mission to manage expectations.

State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who took the post in May, referred to a slate of needed reforms for everything from the state’s Environmental Quality Act to education at Saturday’s Politifest but repeatedly warned she can’t make changes on her own.

A question about a controversial vote that drew protests from environmentalists inspired a segway about why Atkins, the statehouse’s lead agenda-setter and negotiator, has to work with the political system.

“You presume that I have a lot more power as speaker than I do,” said Atkins.

But Atkins did reveal some of her goals for the state Legislature.

Here were Atkins’ most revealing comments at Politifest.

She plans to reform California’s most polarizing law.

Developers and conservationists alike have found flaws with the state’s 44-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, which allows residents to weigh in on building projects.

Atkins acknowledged she’s got some beefs with the law too.

For example, she questions the need for an environmental impact report when a property owner wants to upgrade or replace an existing building.

She promised to champion a “down and dirty discussion” with state legislators starting this year but cautioned it won’t be a quick one.

“I think we need a process where it takes more than a couple of months to actually have this discussion,” Atkins said. “I’m committed to doing that and I’m gonna do it as we start the next session.”

A similar push in the state Senate fell short last year, ending only with a legal commitment to lessen the potential for delays in building a new Sacramento Kings arena and for certain urban redevelopment projects.

She wants to the state to do more for small business.

The state is increasingly doling out tax breaks to companies that agree to expand in California.

Last month, Atkins and her colleagues approved a $420 million deal with massive aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. She’s promised competitor Northrop Grumman a similar arrangement soon.

But Atkins said small businesses deserve more attention. She didn’t specify what offerings might be coming down the pike but said state leaders have asked Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development to look at options.

She thinks education reform is needed but isn’t offering specifics.

Voice of San Diego‘s Scott Lewis asked Atkins directly for her take on a blockbuster court decision that found state protections for teachers violate students’ rights to an equal education. Should the state appeal?

Atkins’ nearly 10-minute response didn’t reveal much. She spoke in generalities about policies that support teachers, parents and students – and noted none is pleased with the current ones. She isn’t sure whether the state should appeal the Vergara ruling, she finally said.

Instead, Atkins said, she’s focused on what the legislature can do and has already done. She referenced additional state cash allocated to schools and  a bill signed by the governor in June that aims to limit appeals on teacher dismissals and speeds up the firing process for educators accused of heinous offenses.

She played the game with Community Choice Aggregation.

Atkins faced some backlash from environmentalists after she backed a state Assembly bill that would’ve forced residents to opt into a program known as Community Choice Aggregation, a system that allows them to use their collective buying power to get better prices on energy, including more renewable energy. Supporters of this concept advocate requiring residents to opt out of Community Choice Aggregation to ensure the program has enough participants to compete with for-profit utility companies. Environmental groups said requiring residents to instead sign up for the program would derail their attempts to lower energy costs and accused Atkins of bowing to powerful utility companies by supporting legislation with this requirement.

But Atkins says she wasn’t in favor of requiring residents to sign up instead of opt out. She just wanted to keep the conversation about Community Choice Aggregation moving and knew she’d get another vote on it.

“I supported sending it over (to the state Senate) because it’s a process,” Atkins said. “Bills get worked on in both the Assembly and the Senate and the piece of the bill that I liked had a lot to do with transparency.”

The controversial “opt in” provision has since been struck from the measure, which will come back to the state Assembly for final approval.

She’s not running for mayor – yet.

Atkins is term-limited and will be forced out of the state Assembly in 2016, just in time for another San Diego mayor’s race.

Will that be her next move?

“Right now what I’m going to do is focus on being a really good speaker,” Atkins said. “That’s my answer.”

Still, she left the door open.

“I’m gonna to stay focused on my job at hand because if anyone ever wants to support me for mayor I better do a darn good job as speaker, right?”

Check out her interview with Scott Lewis below.

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