Brett Smith holds his son Bowen Smith during a September 2020 protest urging the San Diego Unified School District to reopen schools. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

Legislators expressed a wide range conflicting opinions Thursday before they passed a bill intended to encourage schools to reopen – the governor has been a great leader, the governor has been a terrible leader, the bill will help schools reopen, the bill will do nothing to help schools reopen, etc. – but they seemed to agree on one thing: This was the best deal they could secure at the moment.

“You can see everyone’s divided on the issue, but this is as good as it gets in this moment,” said Sen. Susan Rubio.

Sen. Scott Wilk called the bill useless, but also said he’d vote for it and that it was “the best deal you could get.”

“This plan is a work in progress. It’s not the be-all, end-all,” said Assemblyman Mike Gipson.

Despite the tepid reactions, the measure passed unanimously in the Senate and nearly unanimously in the Assembly. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law Friday.

Two San Diego-area Republican senators, Brian Jones and Pat Bates, attempted to tack on amendments that would place far stricter requirements on schools, including a guaranteed option to return to five days of in-person instruction almost immediately. Those amendments were tabled without debate.

The measure includes $4.6 billion for all school districts, plus an extra $2 billion in incentive money for schools that begin in-person instruction for early grade levels by April 1. School districts forfeit 1 percent for every day that passes after that.

Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, who represents North County, wrote in a statement that in her district, “all elementary schools have or will be open by this deadline and most middle and high schools are in the active process of reopening, with three districts requesting waivers from the California Department Public Health to potentially reopen their middle and high schools in the next few weeks.”

But as VOSD’s Will Huntsberry reported this week, San Diego Unified likely won’t be back by then – and might not be back by the April 12 target date officials set either.

Sara Libby

Atkins Bill Extends, Expands Attempt to Expedite Development

The state Senate this week passed a bill to carry on a decade-old law meant to exempt large, economically beneficial projects from the state’s landmark environmental law, and to extend similar benefits to much smaller projects.

The bill, SB 7, by Sen. Toni Atkins, builds on AB 900, a 2011 measure that expired at the start of this year, which she called a success after state officials estimated it led to the construction of 14 large projects and some $2 billion in investment, including at least 10,000 housing units.

That law gave projects the benefit of development certainty by creating a clear, quick review process if residents challenged a government’s decision to approve the project’s environmental report. It was available only to projects of over $100 million in total investment that met certain environmental and emissions standards and committed to paying increased wages for construction workers.

Atkins’ new bill would extend those benefits for another five years, and make the streamlined system available to projects worth as little as $15 million. It also requires developers to reserve 15 percent of the homes in their projects for low-income residents.

“With SB 7, we are taking the successful streamlining provisions of AB 900, making them last longer and making them more relevant to the housing needs we have in 2021,” Atkins said.

It isn’t yet clear, though, how many smaller projects will take advantage of the streamlining opportunity.

Andrew Malick, a small-scale developer in San Diego active in housing policy discussions, said most people building the sorts of dense apartment projects in already developed areas that have been the focus of attempts to spur local development are only viable when cities have already created regulations that allow them to be approved without producing an environmental review in the first place.

“There just isn’t enough budget in a small project to pay for an (environmental review) and all the consultants and lawyers that guide the process,” he said.

One area where the new inclusion could prove useful, he said, is for people building single-family homes in expensive coastal areas, or smaller sprawl-type projects in the county.

“Those projects may actually be able to afford going through an (environmental review) and so in that case, this bill could be significant,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily help small urban infill development apartment projects.”

Andrew Keatts

Future of Work Report Highlights Inequities

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Future of Work Commission, a 21-member body with ties to business, tech, labor and universities, released its final report Tuesday. The group came together in 2019 and identified a number of economic disparities, noting that the state’s wealth gains in recent years have been distributed unequally.

California, for instance, has the highest poverty rate in the nation when you factor in the cost of living, with workers of color more than three times more likely to fall into this category. In San Diego, and in many of the state’s other major metros, nearly 50 percent of workers are considered “low-wage workers.” Yet wage growth has been slow — about one in three workers earn less than $15 an hour — while home prices have soared. The population is aging and there’s a growing number of working parents.

The commission also identified potential shocks to the state’s labor market thanks to automation and climate change.

Considering these and other data points, the commission concluded that the Golden State needs a new social compact for its workers by 2030. One of the suggestions: “Ensure there are jobs for everyone who wants to work.” The commission also advocated for the creation of a “job quality index” and for steering state contracts to companies that create high-quality jobs.

None of this is particularly surprising or groundbreaking. Commentators were quick to point out the diversity of the people who made up the commission. Less attention has been paid to the fact it was co-chaired by the director of the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of a global management company connected to several major scandals in recent years — in energy, jails, immigration, the opioid crisis.

The report stops short of advocating for any explicit redistribution of wealth but does identify a link since the 1970s between decreased social spending in the United States and tax cuts, and increased income inequality. Instead, it calls on government to act as a backstop through incentives that will lead to job creation and provide greater access to the safety net while expanding things like universal pre-kindergarten and childcare.

The secretary of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency acknowledged that the commission’s report did not spend a great deal of space on the forces of economic disruption. But it does make the case that the livelihoods of the state’s workers will improve through a rebalancing of power brought about by unions and stronger protections against, say, wage theft. The commission offered a goal of doubling the share of California workers who have access to employment-tied benefits.

The report also identifies the “misclassification of workers as independent contractors” as a problem. Six months ago, Uber, Lyft and other tech companies successfully financed a ballot measure exempting their drivers from AB 5, which courts had largely interpreted before the measure to mean they must classify drivers as employees.

— Jesse Marx

Golden State News

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