Challenges on Every Front

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on the critical issues facing Californians

Back Q&A Mar 13, 2017 By Rich Ehisen

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is one of the most powerful political figures in our state. With term limits now allowing folks like him to serve longer in one chamber, he is likely to stay that way for years to come. We sat down with Rendon to talk about some of the critical issues facing lawmakers and Californians in what is expected to be one of the most turbulent years in modern history.

I’m asking this before the inauguration. You have made it clear you and your colleagues intend to resist any federal actions you consider harmful to California. Some people argue this is nothing more than political posturing. What can you realistically do in resisting federal actions?

It depends, of course, on what the new president chooses to do once he is in office. Part of our thinking in hiring [former U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder was to help guide us in ways we can craft our own legislation in order to deal with potential problems with the federal government. That’s one avenue. Lawsuits are obviously another avenue. And then just the good old-fashioned politics of getting people involved. There are Republican members of Congress from our own California delegation for whom issues like the ACA are very important to their constituents. So we’re going to engage with those people the same way we always have.

With Obamacare’s federal subsidies gone, millions of Californians are likely to lose their health coverage. This could prove disastrous to hospitals, doctors, etc. Is there any scenario where California could replacethose subsidies?

Is there a scenario? Hypothetically, yes. But if we’re to backfill those subsidies, our estimate is that it would take in excess of $20 billion from state coffers. Meanwhile, the governor’s budget called for cutting about $1.6 billion. So the math is daunting, to say the least. For me, that gives a sense of how scary this all is, a sense of the hole that it is going to blow in our safety net and potentially in our budget. So could we provide those services? It doesn’t seem feasible. But we do want to at least make sure the most vulnerable Californians aren’t left stranded without health care services.

Legal marijuana is a multi-billion dollar business in California, but entrepreneurs still struggle with lack of access to the banking system. Legalization advocates have believed for years that California coming on board would be the tipping point to change federal law to allow legal weed businesses this access. Do you see any chance this could happen now?

The short answer is: I just don’t know. I’ve long been a supporter of legalizing recreational use of marijuana. That said, I didn’t support the ballot measure [Prop 64] specifically because it didn’t address some of those key issues. I didn’t oppose it, but I did not endorse it. The legislature’s role in creating law allows for a more comprehensive manner of addressing these issues. I think the banking issue was one that was obviously left out of the proposition. There are ongoing efforts in this House to address the banking issue, but it is exceptionally hard to do so without moving or involving the federal government.  Some of our members are making a good faith effort to do so, but we‘ll have to wait and see.

Battling climate change is another issue that might see drastic challenges from the Trump administration. Can California go it alone if Washington not only doesn’t help us but actively works against us?

It’s more difficult, but I think last year you saw an example of our political will in this legislature to continue our efforts to battle climate change. Californians want us to battle climate change. We’ve seen similar climate actions throughout the West Coast, in Oregon and Washington and British Columbia. So we won’t be going it alone, and we haven’t been going it alone. But with the federal government fighting us it would be more difficult. That being said, this is something that means a lot to us and to Californians so we’re going to keep up this fight no matter how difficult it is.

The governor also pushed lawmakers last year to extend California’s cap-and-trade program for another decade. That didn’t happen. Is it going to happen this year?

Yes. We’ve already had conversations about it. That is something very important to us and is essential to our climate change efforts. Last year was sort of a first step, but we didn’t go all the way. Now we need to finish our architecture for battling climate change and cap-and-trade is a big part of that.

Much was made during and after the presidential election on whether either party focused enough on the concerns and needs of the middle class. You have been vocal in your intention to retain the Middle Class Scholarship Program [funding for students from families with incomes up to $156,000], which Gov. Brown wants to do away with. What other efforts do you see this year specifically intended to benefit the middle class?

Both the Assembly and the Senate had bills last year to address affordable housing. The big difference was their plan focused entirely on the homeless. Ours had a homelessness component, but focused also on middle class needs like the first-time homebuyer program. Another middle class issue we intend to address this year is transportation. We have more and more people commuting further and further from home to work, which has a terrible impact on the environment but also a terrible impact on quality of life for many Californians … it is a big issue to the middle class.

“We’re not doing nearly enough to address affordable housing, which significantly impacts childhood poverty. In every part of this state, in every geographic region and environment, people are having to spend far too much on housing.”

For all its wealth, California also has the highest poverty rate in the nation. This is particularly hard on children. What can, and should, you and your colleagues be doing to address this? Where are we doing well, and where are we failing?

We have 2.5 million children living in poverty in this state. I worked in early childhood education for 20 years before coming here, so this is an issue I’ve worked on throughout my career. One thing we’ve done well so far is implementing and expanding the earned income tax credit program, which is a very big step in battling poverty. Funding early childhood education too. I ran for office when California cut $1.1 billion from early childhood education. That’s what inspired me to run for office. Last year, my first as speaker, we increased funding for early childhood education by about $600 million. That personally meant the world to me, but it meant even more to all those kids in California who need that education. I spoke recently with a conservative economist, and I asked him what he thought was the one biggest thing we could do to reduce poverty. I thought he was going to talk about the invisible hand of capitalism and getting rid of regulations and all that, but instead he said it was to increase funding for early childhood education. That was surprising to me, but really there is something of a rising tide — even in very conservative states — in favor of increasing access to early childhood education. In contrast, we’re not doing nearly enough to address affordable housing, which significantly impacts childhood poverty. In every part of this state, in every geographic region and environment, people are having to spend far too much on housing. By not addressing housing, we are certainly not adequately addressing childhood poverty.