Walters: California’s high construction costs limit housing. A Supreme Court decision might help

California’s chronic inability to build enough housing – particularly for low-income families – has many causes, but a big one is its extremely high cost of construction.

Some costs are intrinsic and unavoidable, such as land acquisition and building materials. But some are artificial and could be lowered, especially those imposed by state and local governments. They include dictating the use of high-cost unionized construction labor, time-consuming environmental clearances, arbitrary design criteria and so-called “impact fees.”

Collectively, these costs have the effect of minimizing the number of housing units that can be constructed for a given amount of investment – less bang for the buck.

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Four years ago, the Los Angeles Times illustrated the syndrome by delving into a decade-long effort to construct a small apartment project for low-income residents of Solana Beach, an affluent coastal community in San Diego County.

What was proposed in 2009 as an 18-apartment project that would cost $413,913 per unit became – after 10 years of political and legal wrangling – a 10-apartment project costing more than $1 million a unit. It simply would not pencil out and was ultimately suspended.

Solana Beach was not an isolated example. Other projects costing $1-plus million per unit have surfaced, including one approved last week in Santa Monica, another upscale coastal community.

The 122-unit project, aimed at providing shelter for homeless people and built on city-owned land, will cost an estimated $123.1 million. It could become even costlier because of an extended development timeline: It’s not expected to be built until 2030.

Development costs are particularly high in coastal communities, but even in interior areas building modest apartments for low-income residents easily tops $500,000 per unit, which is often costlier than single-family homes in those communities. It defies logic but that’s the reality of housing in California.

As mentioned earlier, the many cost factors affecting housing in California also include impact fees.

While local governments had imposed some fees for decades, they began escalating sharply after voters in 1978 passed Proposition 13, the iconic property tax limit, to offset the loss of tax revenue.

A 2015 study found that California’s fees, averaging $23,000 a unit, were the highest in the nation and four times the national average. Housing advocates have argued that reducing fees would increase production but local governments have zealously defended them.

Last week, as Santa Monica was approving the low-income housing project costing more than $1 million a unit, the U.S. Supreme Court was putting the brakes on California’s impact fees. The court ruled unanimously that fees constitute an unconstitutional “taking” of private property without compensation unless based on actual costs.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Gavin Newsom Can’t Help Himself

“We don’t need magazine profiles,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told me. “We don’t need any problems.”

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

We were sitting on opposing couches in his Sacramento office, a makeshift space across the street from his usual suite in the state capitol, currently being renovated. Newsom, leaning his head back into his intertwined hands, looked every bit the sleek pol he plays on TV—the big smile, the suit, the hair gel. He had just led me on a tour of this sterile habitat that he likens to a “dentist’s office.” Everything about it felt slapdash and temporary. “People know they’re not here for very long,” said Newsom, who is 56 but emits the frenetic energy of an upstart.  

This aura can invite distrust. So can participating in magazine profiles when you don’t want to be seen as buffing your national image at the expense of being a team player—the team being President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign.

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“The shadow campaign” is what Newsom calls the theory, happily promoted by Republicans and the occasional Democrat, that he’s been plotting a clandestine effort to supplant Biden as his party’s nominee. Newsom is clearly sensitive to this perception and eager to disprove it. He has spent the past several months vouching for the president in a variety of adverse settings: after a Republican debate at the Reagan Library, on Fox News, and across several red states, from South Carolina to Idaho. He managed to put off our interview for nearly two months, long enough for Biden to clinch his nomination. By the time we met at the end of March, Newsom had fashioned himself as a kind of presidential super-surrogate—a chief alleviator of fears about Biden’s lagging poll numbers, advanced age, and ability to again defeat Donald Trump.

But being a super-surrogate requires a performative humility, subordinating one’s own ambition to the candidate’s. This is not something that comes naturally to a restless dazzler such as Newsom. “You’re good at this,” Bill Maher told the governor during a January appearance on HBO’s Real Time, praising Newsom’s pugnacious strikes against Republicans and his willingness to be “kinda mean” at times. Newsom then blasted off into a diatribe about how Democrats need to stop being so timid, earning an extended ovation. At which point, Maher paused, looked approvingly at Newsom, and asked: “Can you teach that speech to Biden?”

[Ronald Brownstein: The Democrats’ new spokesman in the culture wars]

Newsom chuckled awkwardly. He did the same when I recounted the Maher exchange to him. The subtext is obvious, and gets at the thorniness of being Newsom these days: the risk of being so “good at this” that it can seem like he’s running himself.

When pressed about his own presidential aspirations, as he still often is, Newsom is adept at pivoting to his reverential spiel about Biden. “He’s doing things that I could never imagine doing,” the governor told me. He said he has gotten to know Biden and has “really grown to deeply admire him, with conviction.” Newsom has objected in numerous ways, in numerous forums, to the idea that the 81-year-old president is slowing down. “You become an SNL meme,” he said of the challenge Biden surrogates face when trying to defend the president’s geriatric fitness in fresh and credible ways.

I mentioned to Newsom that age seems to be the intractable issue for Biden: Large majorities of Americans keep telling pollsters, over and over, that he is too old to run again. At a certain point, can anything really be done? Newsom swerved the conversation onto delicate terrain.

“Well, there’s Pretagen, and all those things on TV that seem to argue—to help—with that,” he said. He seemed to be referring to an over-the-counter supplement called Prevagen that supposedly promotes brain health. “I can’t turn on the damn TV without the vegetable and fruit supplements,” said Newsom, who professes to watch a lot of Fox News.

“Have you talked to Biden about maybe going on a more vigorous Prevagen regimen?” I deadpanned.

“Look, I mean, I was—” Newsom faltered for a moment. “I don’t know if I was joking, but I was lamenting about how many different ways, on different networks, I’ve answered this question in an effort to try to answer a little differently each time.”

On that, Newsom succeeded. His Prevagen answer was novel, if risky. Sometimes he can’t help himself.

Newsom has solicitous eyes that often dart around a room, as if he’s scanning for something that might entertain his guest, or him. He is a fourth-generation Californian who himself embodies many dimensions of the unruly dream-state he is attempting to govern: He is profuse and thirsty at the same time, high-reaching, a bit dramatic, and never far from some disaster.

“I don’t want to be derivative,” Newsom said in our interview. He loves the word derivative almost as much as, he says, he hates things that are derivative—the kind of repetitive sound-biting that can be as basic to a politician’s job as throwing a baseball is to being a pitcher (which Newsom was in his youth, a lefty).

I have known Newsom for about 15 years, but hadn’t officially interviewed him since he was finishing his second term as mayor of San Francisco and preparing to run for governor in 2010. The campaign was short-lived, as it became clear that Newsom had limited reach beyond the Bay Area and little shot against California’s former and future governor, Jerry Brown. Newsom instead ran for lieutenant governor, winning the privilege of spending eight restive years as Brown’s understudy.

[From the June 2013 issue: Jerry Brown’s political reboot]

One of the few highlights of Newsom’s tenure, he told me, occurred in 2013, when Brown was on a trade mission to China. Newsom, in his brief stint as acting governor, issued a proclamation designating the avocado as California’s state fruit. Newsom said he felt like Brown was not showing him or his office “a lot of respect,” so he undertook the avocado gambit as a benign “act of defiance.” (He insists that his love of avocados is genuine and that he tries to eat one “six to seven days a week.”) The rogue operation extended to artichokes (which Newsom named as the state vegetable), rice (the state grain), and almonds (the state nut).

Newsom seemed to take immense pride in this small harvest of edicts, milking them for laughs and press coverage. He boasted of the “cornucopia of landmark accomplishments” that he had achieved “over these magical six days.” More than a decade later, Newsom still sounds amused, even if Governor Brown, upon his return from China, apparently was not. “I don’t know that amused and Jerry Brown have ever been used in the same sentence,” Newsom said. (Brown declined to be interviewed, but praised Newsom in a brief statement for providing “much needed continuity” on climate and China policy—two issues central to Brown’s time in office.)

For much of his political career, Newsom has been perceived as something of a wild child. He has nurtured that image by getting into occasional trouble. In 2007, as mayor, he admitted to an affair with his appointments secretary, who’d been married to Newsom’s close friend and deputy chief of staff; this was following the breakup of Newsom’s first marriage—to the future Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is now engaged to Donald Trump Jr. As recently as 2020, Newsom violated COVID restrictions by attending a group dinner at the French Laundry, one of California’s fanciest restaurants, which became a major issue in an unsuccessful campaign to recall him.

His breakneck impulses also resulted in the signature policy action that would establish Newsom as a national figure—his 2004 order for San Francisco to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “It’s the Roger Bannister theory of life,” Newsom told me, referring to the English runner who broke the four-minute-mile barrier. Newsom said that, like Bannister, he was young and dumb and “didn’t know that he couldn’t.” He quoted his political idol, Robert F. Kennedy Sr., who in a 1966 address in South Africa said that the world “demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity.”

Today, Newsom has logged two terms each as a big-city mayor and as lieutenant governor, plus five years leading the nation-state of California. He married again in 2008, and has four children with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker and former actor. Newsom’s tenure as governor has featured high-profile moves that have positioned him as a national avatar of blue-state boosterism: an executive order mandating that new cars sold in California be zero-emission by 2035; a call for a constitutional amendment that would raise the legal age to purchase firearms to 21; a commitment to make California a “sanctuary” for abortion access.

As much as Newsom believes that it’s important to “continue to iterate,” I was struck by how often he talked about keeping experienced mentors close by. During the early crisis months of COVID, Newsom told me, he convened Zoom meetings with his living predecessors—Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, and Pete Wilson. “To have these kinds of legendary figures—” Newsom said, shaking his head. Sometimes he would just sit back and absorb the exchanges. “Just the weird history, and the dynamic—it was a lot of fun,” Newsom said. He referred to the group as his “council of the elders.”

[From the April 2023 issue: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last act]

“He has grown, learned, and matured in terms of his approach,” says Representative Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, who has known Newsom since “before he was born.” (Bill Newsom, Gavin’s father, was a well-connected Bay Area judge—appointed to the bench by Jerry Brown—whose sister was married to the brother of Pelosi’s husband, Paul.)

Pelosi is among a gallery of California political giants who have nurtured Newsom through his career. Willie Brown, the longtime speaker of the state assembly and mayor of San Francisco, appointed Newsom to his first political job in 1996, on the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission, and later to a vacant seat on its board of supervisors. Newsom told me he also took boundless knowledge from watching Jerry Brown for eight years in Sacramento, even though the two almost never interacted and Newsom’s impact as lieutenant governor was mostly limited to his heroic advocacy of the avocado.

By any measure, Brown had a remarkable leadership résumé—two previous terms as governor in the 1970s and ’80s, three presidential campaigns, stints as California’s attorney general and secretary of state, time as chair of the state Democratic Party, and two terms as mayor of Oakland. Like Newsom, he was known early in his career for his zesty and impatient style. “He was a man on a mission. He was the guy running for president over and over again,” Newsom said of Brown. But the late-career version of Brown “was just a different Jerry,” Newsom said. He sometimes watched Brown and wondered, “Why hasn’t he said anything about issue x, y, z?” And then, a few months later, the shrewdness of Brown’s silence would reveal itself.

“I want temperance. I want wisdom. I want someone who can govern, someone that’s not unhinged,” Newsom told me. He was talking now about Joe Biden, and trying to make the case that the president’s age should be seen as an asset, just as it was for Brown near the end of his career. It’s a compelling parallel, except that Brown left office at 80, and Biden is running for his second term at a year older. I noted to Newsom that Biden clearly has been well served by his wealth of experience, but that what his skeptics question is his ability to beat Donald Trump. “It’s an election question, I got it,” Newsom told me. “You gotta win.”

As the president departed on a trip to Los Angeles in February, a reporter shouted a question from the White House lawn about whether Newsom should be standing by in case a Democratic alternative was needed for 2024. Biden blew it off, but the episode highlighted the ongoing nuisance of the age issue, which had just been revived by Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report describing the president as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” As Newsom has denied any interest in replacing Biden, the president in turn has flattered him on the subject. “He’s been one hell of a governor, man,” Biden said of Newsom during a stop in San Francisco last November. “He could have the job I’m looking for.”

For much of last year, however, aides close to the president were wary of Newsom’s motives. He aroused particular suspicion by challenging Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to debate him on Fox News in November, in what the network billed as the “Great Red vs. Blue State Debate,” to be “moderated” by Sean Hannity. Newsom told me he would’ve skipped the debate if asked, but he heard nothing from the White House. “They never said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it,’” he said. “But I can imagine they were like, What is he doing?” (A spokesperson for Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

“Yes, there was chatter,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks co-founder, who’s a longtime supporter of Newsom and a co-chair of the Biden reelection campaign, confirmed to me. “It wasn’t, ‘This is terrible. He shouldn’t be doing it.’ But I do think there was chatter like, ‘Really?’” Katzenberg added. “‘Why give DeSantis the platform? You’re elevating him.’”

Senator Laphonza Butler of California, whom Newsom appointed to her job in October after the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein, told me: “Had I been advising him, I’m not sure I would have said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’”

Newsom went ahead with the debate anyway, in part, he said, because he had already committed to it. “I’m glad for no other reason [than] you develop a muscle you didn’t know you had,” he told me. It was helpful, he said, that the event was delayed for months, allowing Newsom to prove himself a reliable partner to the White House. He has brought in large sums of cash for the reelection campaign and, last March, started a PAC that has raised more than $9 million for Biden and other Democratic candidates. Still, the Fox spectacle, which occurred not long before the start of the primaries, was an odd look for both participants.

[David Frum: Ron DeSantis debates his grievances]

Newsom received generally positive reviews. “I thought he made some solid points,” Butler said. “He made DeSantis stumble.” He delivered perhaps the line of the night when he mentioned that he and DeSantis had something in common: “Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024”—another signal to the White House that Newsom was fully onboard. It was also one of several times that Newsom hammered DeSantis over how Trump was beating him badly in the Republican primary, something that undoubtedly delighted the former president.

Trump represents a more natural foil to Newsom than DeSantis. Both are outsize, sensitive, and at times self-immolating showmen. Newsom clearly enjoys pitting himself against the former president, whose deep unpopularity among Democrats makes his antagonism an unquestioned political asset. Trump recently started calling the governor “New-scum,” which Newsom belittled to me as a lame “seventh-grade nickname.”

At the start of our interview, Newsom pointed across his room to a photo of himself with Donald and Melania in the Oval Office. “My staff put it up there, kind of as a joke, and I kept it,” Newsom told me. It is also a conversation piece, over which Newsom became quite animated. He appears to have a fascination with Trump, and not just as an evil adversary. Newsom, who campaigned in 2018 on a pledge to make California “a resistance state,” likes to mention that he worked well with Trump during his first two years in Sacramento. “We had the baseline of a relationship that benefited California significantly,” he told me. He watched Trump closely and tried to decipher how best to manage the needy president during COVID and severe wildfires in his state. He stroked Trump in public. “I want to thank you and acknowledge the work that you’ve done to be immediate in terms of your response,” Newsom told Trump in front of reporters at Sacramento’s McClellan Airport during a visit from the president in September 2020.

As Newsom continued a prolonged riff about Trump during our interview—what he learned watching Trump’s “dialectic” with the media or riding with him on Air Force One—he sounded strangely captivated, as if he had been privileged to observe a feral and predatory peacock in the wild. The association sounded more important to Newsom than I might have imagined.

Newsom told me that every time he placed a call to Trump in the White House, someone would patch him through or the president would call right back. That changed when Newsom reached out a few days after Trump lost the 2020 election. He heard nothing. “And I was like, Wow,” Newsom said. “And then I called a few days later—I figured he was busy—and they said, ‘He’s not available.’ And I’m like, Whoa.” He said he was genuinely taken aback by the snub, despite the addled state Trump was obviously in at the time and the overall madhouse that the White House had become.

I asked Newsom if he had spoken with Trump since, or heard from him after the DeSantis donnybrook. He said no (a spokesperson for the former president echoed this), but my query appeared to trigger an odd reaction in Newsom. His face turned red, which I noted to him. “No, that’s because the sunlight is beaming on me,” he protested, pointing out the window into the expansive California glare.

Newsom said that my “line of questioning is interesting.” He offered a wordy zigzag of a reply: “The fact that you are not the first person to ask me ‘Did he call you?’—particularly some of your sophisticated colleagues—is suggestive.”

I found Newsom’s labyrinthine answer to also be “suggestive.”

Newsom has a personal connection to Trump, via his first wife, Guilfoyle. He does not love to discuss his ex. “I’m sensitive to the world I’m currently living in, at home particularly,” he told me. Still, he is asked about Guilfoyle a lot, mostly in the vein of “What’s the deal there?”

[From the October 2019 issue: The heir]

Newsom and Guilfoyle met in 1994, at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco. She worked in the district attorney’s office, and he owned a chain of local food and wine establishments. They married seven years later and were dubbed “The New Kennedys” in a Harper’s Bazaar spread. “Do I think he could be president of the United States?” Guilfoyle told the magazine. “Absolutely. I’d gladly vote for him.” That comment appears no longer operative. (Guilfoyle declined to comment for this article.)

Newsom and Guilfoyle divorced in 2006. Things ended amicably, Newsom said: “No kids, respect, both sides.” Newsom told me he wished Guilfoyle well, and not “backhandedly.” He did not want to say anything negative about her, even though, he said, “She’s taken shots at me publicly.”

In fact, in an interview on CNN’s The Axe Files podcast last year, Newsom said Guilfoyle had been a “different person” when they were married. He told me she was committed to “social justice and social” values, and that she was a Republican, “but it was more traditional conservatism.”

“She fell prey, I think, to the culture at Fox,” he said on the podcast. He added, “She would disagree with that assessment.”

Yes, she did.

“I didn’t change; he did,” Guilfoyle fired back in an interview with the right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk. She said Newsom was once a champion of entrepreneurs and small business but has since become “unrecognizable” to her. “He’s fallen prey to the left, the radical left.”

If Trump wins in November, Newsom will remain the governor of the nation’s most populous state and biggest resistance zone. In his office, he keeps a marked-up copy of a policy blueprint, “Project 2025,” prepared by the Heritage Foundation as a possible preview of a next Trump term. “I’m going through 100 pages of this. I’m not screwing around,” Newsom told me. He said his team is “Trump-proofing California,” preparing to enact whatever measures they can to thwart a hostile Republican White House. To better understand his political opposition, Newsom begins each morning with a heavy intake of far-right media. “There’s so many things that come our way that are so batshit-crazy,” he said. “You can’t deny where half of America lives.”

Newsom has endured a difficult few months in California. His approval ratings recently dropped under 50 percent for the first time since he became governor. He devoted a great deal of time and capital to promoting a ballot measure—Proposition 1—to allocate $6.4 billion to mental-health treatment programs. The proposal was expected to pass easily in March but barely did—a possible sign of weakness as Newsom faces another recall effort and a budget crisis.

After 90 minutes of conversation in his office, Newsom was getting antsy, as he does. He rose from the couch and walked over to his massive desk, where he would soon devour his daily helping of the California state fruit, over chicken salad.

Newsom is a student of workspaces. “I always like going in people’s offices, going, ‘Why is that there?’” he told me. He loved his usual quarters across the street, now deep in renovation. His desk there used to belong to Earl Warren, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and the governor of California from 1943 to 1953. But Newsom assured me that no serious thought went into decorating these temporary quarters. He seemed pleased to give the impression of being a short-timer. “This is literally the things that came out of the first boxes,” he said. “We threw it up; a lot of it’s no rhyme or reason.”

One of Newsom’s prized mementos is a framed letter he received during the height of the COVID crisis, from none other than the baseball legend Willie Mays. “I don’t write many letters, but I’ve been watching you on TV and thought you might appreciate some words of encouragement,” the “Say Hey Kid” wrote.

[From the July/August 2023 issue: Moneyball broke baseball]

Newsom can be deeply cynical at times when discussing politics. But he can also display a boyish and even starstruck side. I watched him stare wide-eyed at his note from Mays and marvel. “Piles of ‘Go fuck yourself,’” Newsom said, describing his typical mail. “And then Willie Mays sends a letter.”

He showed me a few items in a side office, at the moment dominated by the big-screened head of the legal commentator Jonathan Turley yammering on Fox. A few feet away stood a picture of Newsom and Pelosi from the 1990s, in his first race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; shots of Schwarzenegger, Newsom’s late father, and various Kennedys; and a small table full of booze. Newsom hoisted a bottle of wine someone had recently given him: DeSantis, the vintage is called. I imagined a libation of complex and astringent notes, not at all supple or aromatic.

Click here to read the full article in the Atlantic via MSN

‘Nobody saw this coming’; California dairies scramble to guard herds against bird flu

Earlier this spring, California dairy farmers noted a puzzling drop in milk production in Texas, New Mexico, Idaho, Ohio, Kansas and Michigan. Weeks later, news broke that several herds in these states, as well as North Carolina, had been diagnosed with avian influenza — the same strain that has devastated bird populations across the globe and shown a troubling ability to jump to mammals.

In an effort to prevent local herds from infection, officials in California and elsewhere have imposed restrictions on cattle imports from the affected states, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has urged livestock managers to minimize the movement of cattle as much as possible.Click here to SUBSCRIBE to CA Political Review 

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the current risk for the general public is low, the development has left dairy farmers reeling. Never before have U.S. dairy cows been infected with H5N1 bird flu viruses.

“Nobody saw this coming,” said Michael Payne, a researcher and outreach coordinator at the Western Institute of Food Safety and Security at UC Davis.

Scientists and health agencies across the globe have been tracking the spread of the virus for years.

Since 2021, it has killed hundreds of millions of farmed poultry and infected more than 48 species of mammals — including humans — as well as countless numbers of wild birds. It has also proved especially deadly among some communal mammals, such as elephant seals and sea lions in South America, as well as caged fur-farmed animals in Europe.

Nevertheless, outbreaks among dairy cows have come as a rude shock.

In addition to the cattle infections, a farmworker in Texas who was in close contact with infected dairy cows also became infected, but experienced only mild symptoms. This was the second known human case in the United States.

Despite the mildness of the farmworker’s illness, the prospect of continued infections worries some.

“The concerning trend of multiple states reporting cattle infections raises the likelihood of continued human exposure,” said Suresh Kuchipudi, professor and chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology. “This could amplify the risk of further virus adaptation, potentially facilitating human-to-human transmission.”

Public health advocates, wildlife biologists and epidemiologists say there are a few reasons for why the cattle outbreaks have surprised farmers and officials.

First, while there have been sporadic infections of cattle via other flu strains in the past, no other avian flu has ever evolved the ability to pass between cows and other ruminants, said Kuchipudi.

“That was surprising,” he said. “Totally unprecedented.”

And second: There is no single federal or state agency responsible for following this disease — one that affects wildlife, agriculture and public health. Some experts say it’s a flawed silo-like approach for a virus that concerns multiple government agencies here and in other nations.

“This is a fundamental problem in our monitoring system, especially when it comes to emerging and zoonotic infections, such as the avian flu,” said Kuchipudi. “This is a public health problem, a wildlife problem and also a domestic animal problem,” for which a one-health solution — in which all three elements are included — could really help in terms of managing information collection and communication.

For instance, while it’s still unclear how the cows got the disease, if farmers had been on the look-out for sick birds or wildlife and been communicating with wildlife agencies and their farm bureaus, the infection might have been contained, experts say.

California’s Department of Food and Agriculture is now asking farmers to be on the lookout for sick birds and mammals, and to take steps to humanely remove migrating birds and waterfowl that could come into contact with their herds, and prevent them from nesting nearby.

There is also a concern that the disease was passed via infected poultry litter — a mix of poultry excreta, spilled feed, feathers, and other waste scraped from the floors of industrial chicken and turkey production plants — which, in the United States, is used in cattle feed on some farms. UC Davis’ Payne said that in California, poultry waste is processed at high virus-killing temperatures, so it is unlikely to be a concern.

The practice is banned in the United Kingdom, European Union and Canada, where fears of spreading bovine spongiform encephalitis — mad cow disease — made such practices seem too risky.

Despite concerns voiced by some experts, California officials say existing bird flu monitoring efforts are effective.

State Veterinarian Annette Jones said that she works fluidly with multiple state and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We have veterinarians and experts spread throughout the state that can do those initial investigations. And if there’s any inkling that there could be a human health issue, then we also work very closely with the California Department of Public Health, who has links to County Public Health and CDC,” she said. “To the outside person that seems probably like acronym soup, right? But to an inside person with experience, we know.”

Jones and others in the dairy and agricultural sector say there is no reason for the public to be alarmed or concerned when it comes to avian flu-infected cattle.

They say infected cows seem to have a mild reaction and get better quickly. Also, milk is pasteurized, so if an infected cow’s milk were to get into the system, the virus would be killed.

Yet others say it’s the “what’s next” question that is most worrying.

“We want to address what is happening so that we can prevent something worse from happening,” said J. Scott Weese, professor at the Ontario Veterinary College and director of the University of Guelph’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses. “That something worse is this virus becoming a virus that can be easily transmitted between humans and can cause serious disease.”

The disease has already bucked all expectations — from its ability to infect a variety of species to its international reach and duration, experts say. That should make its appearance on a mammal-based factory farm a cause for doubled-down surveillance and concern, said Crystal Heath, a Bay Area veterinarian and co-founder of Our Honor, an animal welfare organization.

“You have hundreds, if not thousands of genetically similar animals all living in the same space, standing in each others’ waste and breathing on each other,” said Heath. “Its Shangri-La for an opportunistic virus.”

And it is still unclear how widespread the virus is, or for how long it’s been infecting cattle, said Weese.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

They were ready for S.F.’s nightmare permit process. Then a simple mistake made ‘all hell break loose’

When Alan Billingsley and John Podolsky sought to expand an 85-square-foot-room on the second story of their home in San Francisco’s Eureka Valley neighborhood, they thought they knew what they were getting into. 

John Podolsky and Alan Billingsley stand in the area that they have been trying for five years to get approved for a small addition on the second floor of their San Francisco home. Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Both longtime San Francisco residents, Billingsley and Podolsky have friends in city government and are involved in local politics. Podolsky works in construction, focusing on tenant improvements in downtown high-rises.

Still, they did not expect that getting approval for their home project would take five years, two permit expediters, an attorney and tens of thousands of dollars — and counting.

Start of nightmare

Their problems, like those of many San Francisco homeowners in the throes of permit nightmares, stemmed from a stream of neighbor complaints that went on for months, as well as a misunderstanding of the city’s complex building code — both examples of how seemingly straightforward projects can get stuck in an endless cycle of delays.

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Based on the couple’s familiarity with the city’s system, Billingsley said that while San Francisco might be bureaucracy-heavy, he thinks it’s likely that most permit applications for small projects are reviewed and approved “in a timely manner with no drama.” 

But “the two exceptions to this are when a neighbor complains and when you make a building code mistake,” he said. “We had both.”

Billingsley and Podolsky embarked on their project in 2018. They wanted to expand a sunroom out onto an existing balcony space on their second floor, turning the balcony into about 100 more square feet of enclosed sunroom space. The work was all on one story and did not require any special exemptions from the city planning code. 

During the planning application process, they had to inform neighbors of the plans with a 311 notice, named for a planning code section. According to Billingsley and Podolsky, two neighbors showed up at the meeting and opposed part of the original plan, in which the roof of the expansion would also function as a rooftop deck. 

Rather than fight the neighbors, Billingsley and Podolsky removed that part of the project, submitting revised plans in September 2019 in which the expansion was covered with a regular roof, not a usable rooftop deck. No one filed an appeal to those plans.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Billingsley said. “We thought, ‘OK, phew, we’re past that.’ ”

As they moved forward with construction plans and finalizing a building permit, knowing that that would take time, the couple decided that they would do some garden work they had been planning — including reducing the size of an existing wooden backyard deck off the first floor, unrelated to the expansion. 

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Billingsley said.

Their landscape architect told them that they wouldn’t need a permit or city approval for this work. The couple also had a permit expediter — an outside consultant who helps homeowners navigate San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection — double-check that that was accurate.

Stream of complaints

Cities and counties across California have complaint-driven code enforcement. Many, like San Francisco, send inspectors to check on alleged violations. Others, like Oakland and Sacramento County, send a letter to the homeowner, giving them a chance to prove that they do not have a violation, before sending someone to the site.

Officials in Oakland, with a population about half the size of San Francisco’s, said they received 6,683 complaints in 2023, compared to San Francisco’s 14,179 — or 55 per business day on average, according to Patrick Hannan, a department spokesperson.

San Francisco DBI records show at least 11 complaints filed between October 2020 and September 2021 related to Billingsley and Podolsky’s property, all claiming, in various ways, that work was being done without a permit or outside of the scope of the permit. The complaints, though they do not name the person who filed them, describe seeing the backyard work from a neighbor’s vantage point. The couple said they confirmed that a neighbor was making them.

Complaints to DBI do not necessarily mean anything is wrong or illegal and, unlike San Francisco’s notorious “discretionary review” process, do not trigger a public hearing. But they do prompt DBI to send an inspector to the site every time a complaint is made.

For Billingsley and Podolsky, the complaints meant a rotating roster of inspectors was dispatched to the house on different days to check if there actually were any violations.

In response to the first complaint, made in October 2020, inspectors determined that, despite what Billingsley and Podolsky’s consultant said, a permit actually was needed for the garden and ground-level deck work, as it included rebuilding two stairs that were more than 36 inches above grade. They issued a correction notice, and Billingsley said the inspector said the issue was minor.

“Mea culpa, ignorance of the law,” Billingsley said. “We were wrong.”

Another problem was that the first floor deck extended into the minimum rear yard space required by the city. Billingsley and Podolsky, who bought the house in 2008, said that the deck had been expanded by the previous owners around 2000, likely without a permit. But one of the inspectors who had visited the property due to the complaints noticed that the expansion was not compliant with city codes, and it was the couple’s responsibility to fix it.

“Regardless of when the illegal construction occurred, a property owner is responsible for obtaining a permit and ensuring their building is safe and code compliant,” Hannan of DBI told the Chronicle. 

To resolve the issue, the couple needed to file a revision permit to their original project application for the addition, which showed in the drawings that the first floor deck existed prior to their addition project, but was not shown in drawings on the original permit application.

Another complaint, lodged in November 2020, said that Billingsley and Podolsky seemed to be “expanding the envelope of their structure.” While that was not the case, records indicate that DBI spoke with the homeowner and directed a stop work notice for first floor deck work until a permit was issued. 

The inspector decided that “given the controversy, we should apply for a full permit for the deck and stair modifications,” Billingsley said. They asked their architect to prepare the plans and applied for the permit the same month, records show. It was approved soon after.

After another complaint about construction in November, an inspector visited and said no work was being done on the deck, and that “surface work” on their ground patio was OK to proceed. 

At the beginning of December, another complaint was filed, this time alleging that a “common wall with neighbor’s building has been removed and a new structure is being built.” An inspector visited and found that a vegetation trellis panel — which it noted was not part of the wall — had been removed with the consent of the affected neighbor, and that there was no new structure.

In December 2020, Billingsley and Podolsky applied for the revision permit that would show that their first-floor deck existed prior to their addition project application, records show.

“This turned into a very lengthy process as DBI kept having comments and then required structural drawings and analysis,” Billingsley said. “Our architect, engineer and consultants thought this way over the top, but we proceeded.” 

Records show that permit going back and forth between the planning department, the building inspection department and the applicants until it was finally approved and issued in November 2022.

In the meantime, Billingsley said, the couple told their gardening contractor to continue to work on the garden, just not touching the deck — work that by city rules was all OK to do without a permit. Plumbers and electricians were also on site, with approved permits, he added. But the couple did ask an inspector if they could still repair the top two deck stairs, as they were dangerous, he said.

The inspector “agreed, but not in writing,” Billingsley said. “Big mistake.”

In February 2021, another complaint about work without a permit was called in. An inspector went out and determined that the permit for which Billingsley and Podolsky had filed the previous November would address the issue.

A few months passed before yet another complaint was filed, in August 2021. An inspector went out and determined that no work was being done without a permit and that work being done on the patio slab did not need a permit. The inspector closed the case.

With the work generating so many complaints, Billingsley said the couple discontinued the garden project for two years. With no work going on, they went to Europe.

Deck problem resolved

At the beginning of September 2021, the neighbors filed another complaint about work without a permit. An inspector visited and found no one home. (That complaint was still open as of March 28, 2024. When asked about it by the Chronicle, Hannan said that this complaint was “inadvertently” left open. It was closed the following day, March 29.)

A week later, another complaint was filed. This time, the inspector said that metal guardrails had been installed and that the stairs were finished on the first-floor deck, without a permit, and issued a notice of violation. Billingsley said the stairs were the work that a different inspector had told them verbally they could proceed with, even without the permit, for safety reasons. 

Throughout the month, inspectors visited, finding no one home, as the couple was traveling — even though, according to Billingsley, no construction was happening during that time.

At the end of September, records show an inspector met with the homeowner and architect and determined that all work requiring a permit had stopped and the couple were in the process of getting a permit for the deck. The case got referred to city Code Enforcement, prompting further review. The permit for the deck was put on hold to wait for a hearing with the zoning administrator.

The same month, in September 2021, a zoning administrator, who works with the Planning Department, determined that their deck was legal but noncompliant with current codes. A month later, at the end of October 2021, an enforcement planner and the inspector who had already visited the property several times determined that the noncompliant portion of the deck had not been reconstructed or replaced.

Click here to read the full article in SF Chronicle

California’s firefighters can’t get fire insurance

“We can’t get fire insurance at a fire station that’s going to be manned by firefighters,” one state lawmaker said in incredulity.

SACRAMENTO, California — How bad is California’s wildfire insurance crisis? So bad that the state can’t get coverage for its own firehouses.

CalFire

The irony emerged at a state Senate budget subcommittee hearing Thursday in Sacramento, where Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration defended the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s request for $11 million to replace a kitchen at Ishi Conservation Camp, which houses and trains inmate firefighters in the remote Sierra Nevada foothills of Tehama County.

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Cal Fire usually pays for building maintenance with bonds based on the value of its property, but it couldn’t for the Ishi project because it couldn’t insure the facility to underwriters’ satisfaction, Finance Department analyst Victor Lopez told lawmakers.

“The insurance industry, they weren’t interested in selling insurance policies in the region due to the perceived fire risk in the area,” Lopez said. And the insurer of last resort, FAIR Plan, doesn’t meet the bond underwriters’ requirements, either, he added.

State senators from both parties were incredulous.

“We can’t get fire insurance at a fire station that’s going to be manned by firefighters,” said state Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican from Lassen County, in the northeast corner of the state. “That’s where we are in California. That to me is crazy.”

Add Cal Fire to the growing list of constituents putting pressure on lawmakers to do something to stop property insurers’ exodus, which makes headlines daily as companies announce policy non-renewals or moratoriums on new coverage.

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara agreed last year to let insurers raise rates and base them on future projections of fire damages, after lawmakers punted the decision to his office. Lara has been duly handing out rate increases, but insurers are still leaving: In the past two months alone, American National announced it would leave the state and State Farm said it would drop tens of thousands of homeowners.

State Sen. Josh Becker, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, highlighted his bill to require insurance companies to give property owners more credit for things like installing fire-resistant roofs and building fire breaks. (Insurance companies oppose it, saying it could force them to take on too much risk.)

“It’s ironic and highlights the problem we’re trying to solve,” he said about Cal Fire’s insurance woes. “We’re just trying to get recognition for the direct fire mitigation on the ground.”

Ishi might be the tip of an iceberg.

Mike McGinness, Department of Finance’s deputy director responsible for Cal Fire, said he only knew of one other Cal Fire facility that has had a similar problem so far. But the Department of General Services, which oversees all state facilities, has identified 16 projects statewide — 11 of which are Cal Fire’s — that may have trouble getting fire insurance, spokesperson Monica Hassan said in an email.

Cal Fire and the Department of Finance are now reviewing all the maintenance and upgrade projects seeking funds this year to figure out if others might struggle to get fire insurance, too, McGinness said.

“Typically, this hasn’t been an issue and so we have waited until closer to the point of selling the bonds,” he said. “But given recent trends in the insurance industry, it’s been important to start looking.”

So far, lawmakers have defended Cal Fire’s increasing drain on state coffers, even in a down budget year, as Newsom adds firefighters to cut back flammable vegetation and protect communities from increasingly intense wildfires.

Click here to read the full article in Politico

Bill to Create New Reparations Agency Passes Senate Judiciary Committee

Reparations bills poised to face a difficult year in the Legislature

A bill to create a new state agency, the California American Freedman Affairs Agency, to assist Californians with any approved reparations programs, passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in an 8-1 vote, with 2 abstentions.

Senate Bill 1403, authored by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), would specifically establish the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency in state government, under the control of the secretary, who would be appointed by the Governor. SB 1403 would require the agency to implement the recommendations of the Task Force, as well as require the agency to determine how an individual’s status as a descendant would be confirmed. The bill would also require proof of an individual’s descendant status to be a qualifying criteria for benefits authorized by the state for descendants. To accomplish these goals, the bill would require the agency to be comprised of a Genealogy Office and an Office of Legal Affairs.

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SB 1403 would further require the agency to oversee and monitor existing state agencies and departments tasked with engaging in direct implementation of the policies that fall within the scope of the existing state agencies and departments’ authority, including policies related to reparations.

SB 1403 is one of 14 reparations-related bills introduced this session. They are the first bills to come after the California Reparations Task Force unveiled their final list of recommendations. Originally, the Task Force had tried to recommend a plan that would have cost the state up to $800 billion. This received widespread backlash, with so many Californians from across the political spectrum being opposed to the plan that Task Force members came out and said “STOP focusing on the monetary part of the plan.” Another figure of $1.2 million given to each black resident was also scrutinized.

SB 1403 moves up

Finally, because of the severe lack of support for giving any kind of monetary compensation coming from both California residents and lawmakers alike, all cash reparations proposals were dropped. Instead, lawmakers focused on general improvement bills, many of which would come at no or little cost to the taxpayer. SB 1403, while costing some state money because of it starting a new agency, was introduced to help facilitate all, if any, reparations bills passed by the legislature and signed into law. If passed, it would only create the agency, and not implement any of the bills stemming from the Task Force’s recommendations.

“This is a commonsense measure, something that’s long overdue for California and the nation,” said Senator Bradford on Tuesday.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as a result. However, the vote was 8 t0 1 with 2 abstentions, showing that even a relatively innocuous bill like SB 1403 still had opposition, possibly foreshadowing even greater opposition to more robust reparations bills this year and in future years.

“The eye is on the money,” explained Legal adviser Richard Weaver to the Globe on Tuesday. “The state is $73 billion in the red right now, on top of many lawmakers and especially residents not believing that reparations should be a thing. Anything reparations related will have the question “How much is this going to cost?”. Cash payments are already out. They are extremely unpopular, plus Newsom said he wouldn’t support them. But the cost of these programs, well, that’s more of a grey area. They aren’t direct cash payments, but they’ll cost a lot and only benefit a fraction of the population.”

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Power is never having to say ‘no.’ How California Democrats kill bills without voting against them

Mike Fong has cast more than 6,000 votes since he joined the state Assembly in 2022 and never once voted “no.” Pilar Schiavo is newer to the Assembly, but she has yet to vote “no” after more than 2,000 opportunities.

Remarkably, their Democratic colleagues in the Legislature are not much different. Using our new Digital Democracy database, CalMatters examined more than 1 million votes cast by current legislators since 2017 and found Democrats vote “no” on average less than 1% of the time.

Why? It’s not something they want to talk about. Democrats have had super-majorities in both legislative chambers since 2019, so most votes involve bills from their political colleagues. But the legislative leaders and lawmakers contacted by CalMatters declined repeated requests to explain a pattern that might appear like a rubber stamp for deals made out of public view. And it seems to be sanctioned by leaders.

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“There’s only two fucking buttons on your desk: There’s a green button, and there’s a red button,” then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told the California Labor Federation last year in remarks reported by Politico. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button is the labor button. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button means you’re doing the right thing, and the red button means that you’re an asshole.” 

Rendon’s office declined to comment or make him available for an interview.

Instead of voting “no,” the data, video and transcripts in CalMatters’ Digital Democracy project reveals that legislators will often decline to cast a vote. Lawmakers widely use the tactic as a courtesy to avoid irking fellow legislators who’d get upset if they vote “no” on their bills, but it’s a controversial practice that critics say allows them to avoid accountability.

“There are a lot of people who abstain and who years later will claim, ‘Oh, I was in the bathroom,’ or ‘I was gone,’ or ‘I was in a meeting,’” said Mike Gatto, a former Democratic Assemblymember from Los Angeles. “It provides them an excuse after the fact to claim that they were not there. I always thought that was cowardly, the opposite of courageous.”

Last year, at least 15 bills died due to lack of votes instead of lawmakers actually voting “no” to kill them.

The most notorious example was when a bill to increase penalties for child sex trafficking died in the Assembly Public Safety Committee because Democrats did not vote. After widespread condemnation, Gov. Gavin Newsom got involved, prompting some committee Democrats to apologize and re-vote on the measure that Newsom later signed

At least three fentanyl-related bills also died last year due to Democrats refusing to vote on them, infuriating Regina Chavez, who advocated for the legislation. Her 15-year-old daughter, Jewels Marie Wolf, died from the drug in 2022.

“I personally am insulted, because I think everything should be on the record when you hold a state title,” she said. “That is what they signed up for to represent us.”

Chavez along with a group of mothers of youth who died from fentanyl learned about the prevalence of non-votes by exploring the Digital Democracy database.

In a glaring example they found, a bill had 22 bipartisan cosponsors and would likely pass if it reached the Senate floor, but it died in the Senate Public Safety Committee when the four Democrats — Nancy Skinner, Steven Bradford, Aisha Wahab and Scott Wiener — declined to vote by staying silent during the roll call. None of them responded to interview requests.

The bill, called “Alexandra’s Law” for a young woman who died from the drug, would have required judges to read a warning to defendants who’d been convicted of dealing fentanyl that if they dealt the drugs again, they could be charged with murder if someone died after taking their fentanyl.

More than 100 people testified in the hearing, almost all in support of the bill and many sharing their own experiences with fentanyl deaths. Some of the Democrats who did not vote had a lengthy discussion with the bill’s author, Sen. Tom Umberg, a Democrat and former federal prosecutor. (This link to Digital Democracy includes information about the bill, SB 44, as well as video and transcripts of the hearing).

“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Laura Didier, who has testified several times in Sacramento about fentanyl legislation and whose 17-year-old son, Zach, died from the drug in 2020 (See video and transcripts of all Laura Didier’s testimony).

Didier said it took an enormous amount of work to assemble the bipartisan group of bill sponsors and the supporters who testified. “To me, it just makes no sense that … people, by withholding their vote, can kill that momentum. You know, it’s very, very frustrating.”

In another example last year, the former chairperson of the Assembly Public Safety Committee cast a “no” vote to kill a bill, AB 367, that would have led to longer prison sentences for fentanyl dealers. Seconds later, he withdrew his vote after all five of his fellow Democrats on the committee killed the bill by not voting.

The then-chairperson, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who is running for Los Angeles City Council when his term expires this year, didn’t return a message from CalMatters.

He told the committee last spring that he was a mortician during the crack cocaine epidemic, so he empathized with families who lost loved ones to fentanyl, but he sided with activists who testified that people of color have unfairly and disproportionately borne the brunt of harsh sentences for drug crimes.

“Our communities were decimated by the War on Drugs,” he said.

Digital Democracy’s analysis

The CalMatters data analysis included more than 1 million votes currently sitting lawmakers have taken since 2017 in committees and on the Senate or Assembly floors. The analysis only included votes on actual bills. Routine resolutions were not included. The data was collected by Digital Democracy from the Legislature’s official bill-tracking website.

The site records each lawmaker’s “aye,” and “no” votes. If a lawmaker does not vote on a bill, it’s listed as “NVR,” short for “No Vote Recorded.” The online system does not distinguish between a vote to abstain, an absence or when the legislator is present but no vote is cast. 

The CalMatters analysis reveals that 38 of the 94 members of the Democratic caucus have voted “no” 20 or fewer times since 2017. This, despite each senator and Assemblymember having thousands of opportunities to vote. Some of those lawmakers have served since 2017.

While all Democrats rarely vote “no,” some members stand out in the analysis.

They include Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Encino. He’s been in office since 2018 and has cast more than 12,000 “aye” votes. He’s voted “no” just nine times. Lisa Calderon of City of Industry has served in the Assembly since 2020 and cast nearly 9,000 “aye” votes. She’s voted “no” once.

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia of Coachella has cast more than 15,000 “aye” votes since 2017. He’s only voted “no” eight times. Assemblymembers Schiavo of Santa Clarita Valley and Fong of Los Angeles are the two current members who have never voted “no.” 

None of those lawmakers responded to CalMatters’ interview requests

Meanwhile, the Digital Democracy analysis showed wide discrepancies in not voting. Garcia, the Assemblymember from Coachella, had more than 2,000 NVRs, the most of any of his Democratic colleagues since 2017.

Fong, who serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee, stood out for another reason other than never voting “no.” As of last week, he only had 25 NVRs, the lowest abstention or absence rate of any lawmaker.

Robert Rivas, who became speaker of the Assembly last year, has only voted “no” nine out of 12,308 times since he joined the Assembly in 2018. He abstained or was absent from voting 673 times during that period.

“The Speaker will not be available for your story,” his press secretary, Cynthia Moreno, said in an emailed response to CalMatters’ request to discuss his voting record and the records of his fellow Democratic lawmakers.

Republicans and the red button

It’s no surprise that vastly outnumbered Republicans in the Legislature regularly vote “no” on Democratic bills. They do so on average 21% of the time. But CalMatters’ analysis shows they tend not to vote on bills at higher rates than Democrats.

The average Republican “No Vote Recorded” rate is around 12%. The average rate for Democrats is 4.5%.

James Gallagher, the Assembly’s minority leader, said it’s due to Democrats largely cutting the Republicans out of bill discussions, leading to situations where Republicans might not oppose a bill’s intent, but they don’t feel comfortable voting for language they can’t change.

“That (bill) might be at a place where you sort of agree with where they’re trying to go with it,” said Gallagher, a Republican from Chico. “But you’re just not really sure that the policy is really right and it’s taking into account all the different unintended consequences.”

Gallagher has voted “no” 3,236 times since 2017, and he’s been listed as a “No Vote Recorded” 1,708 times. 

Gallagher said he’d support making the process more transparent by requiring lawmakers to officially declare an abstention instead of the way it’s reported now, where the public has no easy way of knowing whether a member was actually absent or just declined to vote on a bill.

Bill Essayli, a Corona Republican who’s served in the Assembly since 2022, has the highest percentage of NVRs in the Legislature. Twenty-three percent of his votes are NVRs. 

Essayli said he learned it’s better to abstain on some bills instead of voting “no” to avoid retaliation from Democrats. He said Democrats are “very sensitive” and punish legislators of both parties when they vote “no.”

He noted that last year, Democrats briefly stripped Bakersfield Democratic Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains of a committee assignment after she sided with Republicans and cast the lone Democratic “no” vote against Gov. Newsom’s gas-price windfall tax bill.

Essayli said he’s taken to abstaining from votes on bills he doesn’t support when he’s not trying to make a strong political statement. “Not voting is a polite ‘no,’” he said. “And then hitting the red button is like an ‘F no.’”

Essayli said Democrats have targeted him after voting “no.” The California Democratic Party put up a billboard in his district, accusing him of voting against fentanyl victims. He said it was retaliation for him voting “no” on legislation that contained a fentanyl provision that he supported buried in a large budget bill that he did not.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Democrats book $27 million in ads in California congressional races

In a sign of how important several tight California congressional races are to determining control of Congress in the November election, a Democratic super PAC has booked more than $27 million in television and digital ads in the state.

It’s the most the House Majority PAC booked in any state in its initial $186-million advertising buy announced Sunday, the largest amount the organization has ever spent in early campaigning.

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“House Republicans have done nothing but sell out the American people while creating chaos, and we are holding them accountable for their anti-American extremist policies and agenda,” said Mike Smith, the president of the PAC allied with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

“Through these historic television and digital reservations, House Majority PAC has made it clear that we are ready to do whatever it takes to flip the House and elect Hakeem Jeffries the next Speaker of the House,” Smith said in a statement.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican version of the House Majority PAC, has not yet released its early-spending plans. However, the group’s leader expressed confidence in the GOP’s chances in the fall.

“We have incredibly strong Republican incumbents in the toughest races, far better recruits, and a political environment that seems to favor Republicans,” Congressional Leadership Fund President Dan Conston said in a statement. “If the resources are there, we will hold the Majority this fall.”

The Democratic political action committee announced last year that it would spend $35 million in the state, roughly triple what it did on California congressional races in the 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats underperformed in some districts that should have been strongholds.

Political groups on both sides of the aisle don’t always follow through with their advertising reservations, so it remains to be seen how much the PAC will actually spend in California.

However, Democrats need to win four seats to take control of the House, which is why the House Majority PAC’s spending plan — which is aimed at 45 congressional districts nationwide, including Republican-held seats in districts that President Biden won in 2020 — is so focused on California.

The state’s 52-member delegation is the largest in the nation, and California’s independent redistricting process replaced the prior gerrymandering that created safe districts for both parties, resulting in more competitive races.

Of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 69 are running in November races that are rated as toss-ups, competitive or potentially vulnerable by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which has tracked House and Senate races for decades. Ten of those are in California.

Additionally, the state is home to some of the nation’s most expensive media markets.

These factors are reflected in the House Majority PAC’s spending plans.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

California criminal justice battle intensifies with reformers’ counteroffensive

Groups that have fought to downgrade drug and property sentences are defending those changes.

Criminal justice reform advocates are mobilizing to thwart a ballot initiative that would reverse California’s recent turn away from tougher criminal penalties.

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The counteroffensive signals that those advocates fear the initiative to crack down drug and property crimes, backed by prosecutors and major retailers, has a strong chance of landing on the November ballot. If it does, it could unravel a series of recent political victories seeking to overhaul sentencing and incarceration.

A six-figure digital advertising campaign, funded by some of the same groups and people that have championed lighter criminal penalties, urges Californians to reject the tough-on-crime ballot measure and instead push for changes in the Legislature. It notes that the campaign has been funded by major corporations like Target, Home Depot, and Walmart, and backed by Republicans like Rep. Kevin Kiley.

“It’s a dangerous scam that will not work,” the group said in a statement. “It will only set California’s progress back decades, making us less safe.”

A newly launched committee supporting the advertising campaign has reported donations from Quinn Delaney and Stacy Schusterman, who have together poured millions into California prosecutor and crime ballot measure campaigns, and an organization whose leader, Tinisch Hollins, has championed efforts to reduce criminal penalties.

The escalating battle marks another chapter in California’s long struggle over criminal justice. After setting the tone for a national era of mass incarceration, the increasingly liberal state has shifted markedly in the other direction over the last decade.

Voters passed ballot initiatives in 2014 and 2016 that downgraded some drug and property crimes to misdemeanors and allowed for earlier releases from prison, and in 2020 they rejected a ballot measure that sought to restore some of those penalties. Gov. Gavin Newsom urged voters to vote no on that measure, and his current chief of staff ran the opposition campaign.

More recently, Newsom and Democratic lawmakers have rebuffed calls to revisit those past ballot initiatives, instead advancing a package of bills targeting repeat or organized retail theft, enhancing penalties for selling fentanyl, and making it easier to prosecute car thieves.

Click here to read the full article in Politico

California-based 99 Cents Only Stores is closing down, citing COVID, inflation and product theft

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California-based 99 Cents Only Stores said Friday it will close all 371 of its outlets, ending the chain’s 42-year run of selling an assortment of bargain-basement merchandise.

The company has stores across California, Arizona, Nevada and Texas that will begin will selling off their merchandise, as well as fixtures, furnishings and equipment.

Interim CEO Mike Simoncic said in a statement that the retailer has struggled for years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in consumer demand, inflation and rising levels of product “shrink” — a measure that encompasses losses from employee theft, shoplifting, damage, administrative errors and more.

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“This was an extremely difficult decision and is not the outcome we expected or hoped to achieve,” said Simoncic, who will be stepping down. “Unfortunately, the last several years have presented significant and lasting challenges in the retail environment.”

The shuttering of 99 Cents Only Stores comes after fellow discount retailer Dollar Tree last month said it was closing 1,000 stores.

99 Cents Only Stores was founded in 1982 by Dave Gold, who opened its first store in Los Angeles at the age of 50, according to his 2013 obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Gold, who had been working at a liquor store owned by his father, found that marking down surplus items to 99 cents caused them to sell out “in no time,” fueling his desire to launch a new spin on the dollar store.

“I realized it was a magic number,” he told the Times. “I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to have a store where everything was good quality and everything was 99 cents?”

Brushing off doubting friends and family members, Gold forged ahead. His idea caught on quickly, even in middle-class and upscale neighborhoods, allowing the company to go public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996. It was later sold for roughly $1.6 billion in 2011.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

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