EXCLUSIVE: New Assembly Speaker Discusses Future of Calif. Legislature

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Both houses of the California Legislature gathered Monday to conduct the swearing in ceremony of the 69th Speaker of the California State Assembly, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D- San Diego). Atkins made history as the first LGBT woman to be elected to serve as Speaker and is only the third woman to hold the leadership position in California’s history. She was first elected to the Legislature in 2010 and has served as majority leader since 2012.

Atkins recently sat down with IVN to share her thoughts on the California State Assembly’s past, present, and future.

 

Top-two primaries and the independent redistricting commission were promised as effective tools to end the hyper-partisanship that some believed gripped the California Legislature. As the newly elected Speaker, and the first to serve their entire tenure as Speaker with these two reforms in place, what are your thoughts on how effective they have been and how do you balance these reforms and still be inclusive of the more liberal elements of your party?

Madame Speaker: The real impact has been on how races are run and it has had a huge impact on the political side and the fundraising for both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in terms of how they have to deal with expenditures of money. In terms of the impact on caucuses, and the policy, and the actual work in the Legislature, I think it is still going to take a little bit of time to see how that really plays out. I think there have been conversations that this would drive discussions and it would result in less polarization because you would have more people towards the middle whether it be on the Republican side or Democratic side versus far left or far right. I don’t think enough time has passed for us to see it yet. In terms of how it plays out in legislation or policy or even budget, as far as I can tell from my experience in the Democratic caucus, we are such a large tent from left to right that the nuances in discussion as it relates to policy are evident but slighter than I think people realize. It’s going to take a little more time to see the impact on policy and legislation. Politically, people are spending more money.

 

You are a coal miner’s daughter. As such, you have a real-world perspective on domestic energy production. A hot political issue today is fracking. The Governor signed a bill, SB 4, regulating fracking. Yet, there are those who still believe a moratorium is more appropriate. What are your thoughts on fracking?

Madame Speaker: The discussion is critically important because we really and truly need to have more of the science presented to us, and I understand that there is a report due to come where some of these issues are discussed and they are making recommendations on fracking. What I have heard is nobody will be happy because it will point out some things that need to be dealt with in terms of the practice of fracking should it continue and I think they are going to make people unhappy by saying fracking is an option we should consider

As far as my opinion on this, I absolutely think there needs to be concerns about public health and safety. We need to know more information about the practice, including what chemicals go into this and how water is used. On the other hand, we need to realize that even though California is on the cutting edge of trying to figure out how to have alternative fuels and use of alternative vehicles — whether they are hybrid or electric — we are not there yet.

The governor knows the statistics better than anyone and he believes in green technology, cars, and alternate renewables and alternate sources. He is a pragmatic person and says we are not there yet. I think we need to be striving for it. I would have supported a moratorium, but the bills did not go forward. My rationale for supporting a moratorium in the last session was that I believe the industry needs to respond to some of the questions from the folks who have concerns about public health and safety. They need to understand that people are widely concerned.

At the same time, I would like to make sure that as we proceed forward we understand the situation it puts us in if we don’t frack and the situation it puts us in if we do. Both of those positions are very legitimate positions and it’s our job in government to push both sides to come up with something we feel is safe for the public, but meets the needs we have for fuel. As speaker, it is going to be my responsibility to push that dialogue forward. I have a responsibility to make the dialogue happen and to understand that we have to keep it alive and we have to push both sides.

 

The Capitol has been besieged with stories of unethical behavior by either that of elected officials or lobbyists. As Speaker, one of your main duties is to protect the Assembly as an institution. What are your thoughts on the current state of legislative ethics and as Speaker how do you plan to monitor and enforce ethical behavior with the members of your caucus? Will you support no contributions during session, restrictions on IEs and C4s, and more 24-hour reporting?

Madame Speaker: I think all kinds of disclosure, and any kind of disclosure, and particularly I think there needs to be significantly more disclosure on independent expenditures.

On contributions and in terms of behavior, I think some of the comments I have seen in the press by various people — from reporters to people supportive of transparency and good government and ethics — are absolutely true. Elected officials need to follow the law. We have so much training as it relates to ethics and behavior, and what is unfortunate is a few individuals who choose not to follow the law have given everyone a black eye.

We legislate ethics as much as we can, but people have to act accordingly and it is up to each one of us individually as public servants and elected officials to do that.
California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins
I support disclosure and 24-hour reporting. In terms of the discussion for blackouts for fundraising, I think we need to have more discussion about that. I want to make sure that whatever we do, there is a level playing field for all candidates. If you bar incumbents and legislators currently from fundraising and it does not apply to all
 candidates, that’s a problem.

We are trying to fix a problem based on illegal and bad behavior from elected officials. They need to be held fully accountable for those types of behaviors. But, we have a system of disclosure that works. We have the Fair Political Practices Commission that does an incredibly good job. I think that more disclosure is always better and I look forward to this discussion with my caucus and colleagues as some of these measures move into our house.

We want to be responsive. We legislate ethics as much as we can, but people have to act accordingly and it is up to each one of us individually as public servants and elected officials to do that. In the midst of all of this, the majority of my colleagues act responsibly, they follow the laws, they report, and they’re transparent.

Fundraising is a big factor in what we have to do to be elected and to have representation. The supermajority is a democratic caucus. I am not going to apologize for that. I think we are doing our job to get people elected which translates into values and policies that go into laws that help people in our state. Clearly, we have work to do because people need to be acting in the highest of standards. We are expected to be and act differently and we should.

 

At the beginning of the legislative session, much was made of the supermajority Democrats possessed in the Legislature, which is now only enjoyed by Democrats in the Assembly. Many feared that it would lead to more liberal legislation being passed or create new taxes. What are your thoughts on how a super-majority Legislature has conducted itself in terms of forming policy?

Madame Speaker: In terms of what I see in my caucus, I think the Assembly has acted 
incredibly responsibly. The Assembly put forward the contexts of the rainy day fund in our blue prints last year in November. We are concerned as a caucus and have the responsibility as a supermajority of taking the power voters of California have given us.

In terms of majority votes for a budget and extending taxes for
 Propositions 30 to help California get back on its feet after the great recession, I think we have acted responsibly. We have not raised taxes all over the place. We have been incredibly thoughtful about the legislation and when we get into the nitty gritty of the budget discussions as the governor puts out his May revision, people will see us trying very hard to balance the fact that we need to pay down our 
debt, have a responsible reserve, create a rainy day fund, and yet at the same time we need to try to restore some of the critical services that have been cut for the last decade to critically vulnerable people in California.

We are going to do that through continuing to fund education, through the UC, CSU, and community colleges, and through our support in terms of trying to help reach down to younger ages of kids in preschool and Kindergarten
an and invest in young people earlier and earlier so they have a path ahead of them. We are trying to balance the desire to have our state put together a reserve to pay off debt and be fiscally responsible with some of the services we feel need to be restored.

 

You are a member of the last class to serve under the old term limit laws. When your term expires in 2016 every member of the assembly will be eligible to serve up to 12 years. Between now and then, you will have the difficult task of leading a house where some members have short-term goals and interests while others will be more focused on the long term.

For example, the class of 2010 may want to restore funding to many of the programs they cut during the bad budget years. On the other hand, the 12-year members may have reservations about spending new money too quickly, particularly one-time money like Prop. 30 since they will have to be here when the money runs out. How will you keep harmony between the classes of members?

Madame Speaker: We shouldn’t be spending one-time money for ongoing operations. I think that is what gets us into trouble. Clearly, Proposition 30 is going to phase out and the whole point of the rainy day fund is to level things out. That is very important. Short term and long term, it is less about term limits and more about members who have been here in the Speaker’s class — in my class — who witnessed $60 billion-dollar deficits and $26 billion-dollar deficits. This new class that is in now didn’t have to make up for these large deficits and we did. The real issue is members who 
had to make serious cuts that affected peoples’ lives and now they feel an obligation to right some of that.

 

The outgoing Speaker John Perez has been criticized by members of the Legislature and the press for acting like a dictator. There have been accusations of spending Assembly operating budget resources on pet projects without legislative oversight. He has been accused of ruling with an iron fist and dolling out retribution to those that oppose him. Press access and transparency have been restricted under his rule.

What reforms or changes do you plan to make to the culture and operations of the Assembly?

Madame Speaker: I know that some have made those characterizations of Speaker Perez. I have to say in terms of speakers serving in a term-limited time period, it was more of a centralized role of running the Assembly. We are now in a position where we are going to see a transition to longer time in the Assembly which mean members are going to have more time and they are going to know more about the over all running of the Assembly and the budget.

The decentralization is probably going to occur over a period of time. A number of members from all classes have made recommendations and suggestions on how we can do things differently. Over the course of the summer and fall, I am going to evaluate a number of those recommendations, including my own moving forward to see if there are things we should implement and change. It’s going to take a little bit of time. I also want to make sure we are not doing knee-jerk reactions — in terms of overall operations — without understanding the context of which it was done a different way before.

 

Speaker Willie Brown is often referred to as having been a “members speaker” who afforded members a great deal of autonomy and respect while still delivering results and maintaining order in the house. What does the term “Members Speaker” mean to you? How will you interact with your colleagues as Speaker?

Madame Speaker: Make no bones about it, Willie Brown was an incredibly strong speaker. He wielded the power he needed to wield to ensure that his caucus was successful. A “members speaker” means that I now have three constituencies: the members of the Assembly, my constituents in the 78th Assembly District, and I have a responsibility to all of California. It is my job to help the Assembly be successful; we are in this together. I want to work on these issues together. I want the members to take leadership roles in what we do in the caucus. I am going to have the expectation that the members are there to help the house run smoothly.

 

Looking into the future, how would you want your service as Assembly Speaker to be remembered?

Madame Speaker: Clearly, I want to do a good job and a good job with the caucus. I hope people think of me as thoughtful, open, pragmatic, and someone who believes in getting the job done. I am a progressive person, but I see myself as a pragmatic progressive. I hope people will look back and think of me as reasonable, accessible, open, and thoughtful, and I strived very hard to do the work for California.