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Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez speaks at a health care policy conference. / Photo by Kelly Davis

At the annual State of Reform Health Policy Conference, held downtown Tuesday, panelists had some fun asking what to call Democrats’ gains in the state Legislature: A super majority? A super-super majority? Or a super-duper majority?

Second big question given the focus of the conference: What does this unprecedented power mean for health care policy — specifically last year’s stalled effort to enact a single-payer health care?

SB 562, passed by the Senate in 2017, would have created a publicly funded universal health care program. But the bill came with a steep price tag — as much as $400 billion — and no clear funding source, so Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelved it.

At the conference’s lunchtime keynote, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom wants “to do something big and bold on health care.”

“The pressure is too high,” she said. “He’s going to have to act this year … something that moves us in the direction towards universal coverage.”

She said folks in Sacramento are waiting to see Newsom’s January budget proposal. “We think he’ll start to chip away [at California’s uninsured population],” she said.

As a candidate for governor, Newsom differentiated himself from former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with his support of SB 562 and earned the endorsement of the politically powerful California Nurses Association, which has made single-payer its key issue. At a campaign rally in September, Newsom told nurses it was “time to move 562 along” and “we don’t need even to wait another year.”

Gonzalez said Tuesday that any effort to pass single-payer now could give folks false hope, because the state would need federal approval to redirect Medicare and Medicaid dollars to the new program.

“I want health care for everybody,” she said, “but I know we’re not going to get a waiver from the federal government.”

At a panel discussion on universal health care that followed Gonzalez’s keynote, Lucien Wulsin, an attorney specializing in health policy, said the state Assembly remains single-payer’s biggest hurdle.

“We’ve got a Democratic supermajority, we’ve got a Democratic governor and we have huge, huge hurdles,” he said. “You’ve got to pick off some stuff that you can do and start moving things in a good direction.”

On a different panel, this one focusing on the upcoming legislative session, California Health Policy Strategies’ David Panush said the Assembly could again be where single-payer stalls.

“If I had to bet a dollar,” he said, “I’d bet the Senate passes it again and you’re going to have a lot of Democrats in the Assembly wondering, ‘What are we going to do with this?’”

Kelly Davis

Reining in Private Firefighters

After private firefighters helped save Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s mansion earlier this month, there’s been intense focus on the growing industry.

From the left came visions of a dystopian future where private fire companies save wealthy homes while the poor burn as underfunded public fire departments struggle to respond. (To some extent, that future already exists: A recent study found that wildfires disproportionately affect the poor and people of color.) On the right and from libertarians came arguments that people who build in fire-prone areas are now bearing the costs of those risks.

State lawmakers have been trying to get their arms around the private firefighting industry starting at least last fall. Some homeowners and companies pay these private firefighters themselves, while home insurance companies pay others, because insurers would rather save a home from burning than pay to rebuild it.

Spurred by what she called confusion at the scene of last year’s fires in Santa Barbara, Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry backed a new law that regulates private firefighters’ response. She said some homeowners watched firefighters driving by their burning homes, not realizing those firefighters were private contractors.

“We don’t have a problem with them, it’s just that they show up and the community doesn’t understand how it works,” Aguilar-Curry, a Wine Country Democrat, said in an interview.

Among other things, the law requires private firefighters to check in with government officials leading the fire fight, heed evacuation orders those officials issue and carry GPS devices to ensure that they can be tracked. Public firefighters unions supported the bill.

The bill faced no formal opposition, though San Diego Gas & Electric expressed concern with wording in early versions, because the utility uses private fire brigades to accompany its electrical workers. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law in September.

— Ry Rivard

California’s Three Biggest Problems? Housing, Housing and Housing

Assemblyman Todd Gloria addressed the future of the “missing middle” in San Diego County at the final committee hearing on housing affordability for the middle and working class in downtown San Diego Thursday.

The committee listened to panelists including policy analysts and San Diego Housing Federation officials on middle-income housing needs in the state and changes Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s administration could consider to spur more development.

Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, emphasized that on top of the state’s housing shortage, there’s also a data shortage outlining the scope of the problem.

“There is a good grasp of demand, but not supply,” he said. “We believe there is a lack of supply for the middle income.”

Russell said officials need to better recognize the impact that housing costs have at different income levels, and to confront the issue of supply. About 5 percent of San Diego homes, for example, are off limits as housing.

Russell and Jim Waring, co-founder of CleanTech San Diego, both drove home a need for more data collection requirements and better data sets that include various layers of income to show “there’s a big hole in the middle.”

The San Diego Housing Commission is currently collecting data with the California Department of Housing and Community Development and will have information to the state soon, Russell said.

Stakeholders at the hearing brought up micro-housing – studios that are smaller and cheaper than standard units – as a possible housing solution.

Doug Holmes and Michael Dodd of Makana Properties LLC said the company has plans to build 21 studios in Logan Heights next year. They also outlined plans for a future 42-unit project in El Cerrito.

“We’ve come up with a concept using modular construction,” Holmes said. “We want to make this an affordable housing project.”

Gloria said he when he gets asked about the three biggest problems facing the state, his answer is “housing, housing and housing.”

“I don’t want this to be the end of the conversation,” he said. “There is not one issue constituents talk to me about that are not directly related to this issue.”

— Kayla Jimenez

Winemakers, Lawmakers Discuss the Industry’s Challenges

Lawmakers, vineyard owners and other industry experts had a wine session in San Diego Thursday – that is, the Legislature’s Wine and Governmental Organization Committee meeting examined the impact of state and federal regulations on California’s wine industry.

Representatives from the Association of California Vintners and the African American Association of Vintners raised concerns about international trade, rising costs of distribution and a new federal law called the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act.

The measure, implemented last year, lowers the federal excise tax for breweries, wineries and distilled spirits producers. Tim Schmeltzer, vice president of California state regulations at the California Wine Institute, said his group is working to get permanent legislation in place to expand the provisions of the act.

“The unfortunate part of getting that done is that we have to compromise, essentially we take a two-year extension when pushing for permanence,” Schmeltzer said.

Small vineyard owners in the state could face future challenges with distribution and tariffs on imported glass. Glass tariffs, currently at 10 percent, will rise to 25 percent beginning Jan. 1 as a result of the United States’ imposition of tariffs more than $200 billion of various Chinese goods.

Mac McDonald and Phil Long of the African American Vinters Association said inconsistent shipping laws also pose challenges to small vineyards.

“It is actually easier to ship to other countries than it is to ship to other states,” Long said. He proposed a conversation between states to streamline shipping regulations.

McDonald said he created the association when he noticed a lack of black wine industry professionals.

Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguilar-Curry, who chairs the committee, said state regulations and international trade relationships have to keep pace with the growing industry.

“I will continue, as well as my colleagues, to make sure that we help our small businesses and our small farmers thrive,” she said. “I think we’ve made some headway on some of the legislation that we have run this past year with the co-location of breweries and wineries.”

Sen. Bill Dodd said California made up more than 97 percent of the more than 1.5 billion in U.S. wine exports last year.

The top four markets for wine exports are Canada, the United Kingdom, European Union and Japan, Schmeltzer said.

— Kayla Jimenez

Golden State News

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