California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) seems to have flunked her first major leadership test by failing to get Governor Brown’s water bond passed during one of California’s worst droughts.
Following a failed attempt by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to spike the size of a California water bond to $10.5 billion water bond last week, Democrat Governor Jerry Brown stepped in to cajole both houses to pass an affordable $6 billion measure.
But Atkins allowed amendments to increase the bond cost to $8 billion, rather than going with Brown’s clean bill. She managed to anger both proponents for a bigger bill and opponents worried the higher cost would cut into other state spending. According to Atkins, quoted by Capital Public Radio:
“The outside interests have basically taken the time to pretty much get people who were on board before to hold out for everything that they could possibly get. Now the concern I have is that they may eventually wind up with nothing.”
The blame game may be appropriate for an Assembly member trying to get media attention for a cause, but Atkins, as the Speaker is supposed to be able to deliver the Democrat majority that just appointed her last month. Blaming outside interests reeks of either lack of leadership strength or incredibly poor negotiating skills.
When former Speaker Karen Bass, now a member of Congress, administered the Speaker’s oath to Atkins in the Assembly chambers, Governor Brown and an audience that included a roster of past legislative leaders, statewide officials looked on proudly.
Atkins then stood behind dais holding her Speaker’s gavel and praised California’s gradual return to fiscal stability, urged more investment in education and pledged to bolster California’s business climate. She won applause for lauding the enrollment success of Covered California, the state’s new health insurance exchange.
But the day after her inauguration, Governor Brown’s Administration admitted that the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare now means that nearly one-third of California’s entire legal and illegal population, about 11.5 million people, are now enrolled in the zero cost Medi-Cal program.
That higher enrollment exceeded the Administration’s previous estimates by 1.4 million and means that state is being hit with another $1.2 billion a year in unrecoverable state costs.
The California Controller then announced on June 10 that Governor Brown’s ballyhooed $2 billion surplus was clobbered in the month of May. Expected sales, income and corporate taxes plummeted by $580 million, almost 8%, while spending was up $700 billion over budget.
The California State Water Resources Control Board on May 16 had already issued curtailment of water use orders to 10,000 statewide water-rights holders for the first time since the drought of 1976-77. With only 31% of the holders responding by the June 30th deadline, the Board met on July 1st to consider issuing $500 a day fines to try to prevent the water crisis from deepening.
Speaker Atkins promised she would “bolster” the business community, but the Controller’s report demonstrates that corporations and their executives appear to be rearranging their affairs to avoid paying the nation’s highest state corporate and income tax rates. She also was allowed her own caucus to try to increase the size of the water bond at a time when her beloved expansion of Medi-Cal is busting the state budget.
What California desperately needs is the leadership in the Assembly to pass Governor Brown’s $6 billion bond to build new water storage. If the main qualification Atkins brings to the job is merely being a pioneering token figure as the first openly gay Speaker, California’s problems are going to get much worse.
From July 15th to July 29th, Chriss Street will be teaching “Entrepreneurship and Capitalist Business Strategy” at Ho Chi Mihn University in Vietnam