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Monday, April 21, 2008

Interview with Assemblywoman Lois Wolk--Part I

On Friday, the Vanguard sat down and spoke with Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, candidate for the State Senate, 5th District. In November she will face Republican Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian. This is the first of a three-part interview. In this segment, the Assemblywoman discusses the agreement by the University to make Sodexho Workers full-time employees, the educational crisis in California, the Delta, and transportation.

1. I want to start with yesterday’s news about the UC Davis Food service workers. What is your reaction to the news that the university is going to eventually allow them to become UC employees and also, do you intend to support Senator Leland Yee’s legislation that would make it considerably more difficult for future outsourced contracts by the state universities?
I haven’t read Leland’s bill yet, it will come to me. Bills like that are very much amended on the floor. The process is that they are introduced, then they go through the Senate and the Assembly. They are often amended, so I try not to take positions on bills before I’ve read them and before they come to me.

I am very pleased about the Sodexho agreement. I think that was a win-win situation. It is a positive outcome and I’m glad the Chancellor made that decision. He called me yesterday and told me about it in the morning. I was very pleased. It’s the UC Irvine model I believe.

I asked the Chancellor about [the 9-12 month delay in implementation]. Before I knew it was 9 to 12 months, I asked how long does this take? He said, in his discussions with Irvine, and with administrators there, with the committee that actually made the recommendation, they did all of the research and visited many campuses, they were warned that it takes longer to do than you might want or expect. So I think that’s why he was making the estimate of 9 to 12 months. I’m just pleased at the eventual outcome.
2. As everyone knows the Davis school district now has to make a horrible choice between closing schools and laying off teachers and support staff and cutting programs. While it may be worse in Davis in terms of budget cuts, it is a problem that is playing out statewide and many communities do not have the base of support that Davis has—how does the state do a better job of ensuring that a more consistent flow of money gets to the schools?
There have been over 20,000 pink slips issued throughout the state, and that’s because the law requires that school boards early on have to take the governor’s proposal in January, his budget proposal, and respond to that. The legislature has been pretty consistent about protecting K-12. This year is a terrible budget year. I have never voted to suspend 98, and I hope I will never have to suspend 98. I think our schools in Davis are terrific, both our boys went through the system and had very positive experiences. I know that many people move to Davis precisely for this wonderful system.

When it comes to the reform of the educational finance mechanism, I happen to think it would be a good idea to do that, and one of the reasons that we need to do it is that our demographics are changing—not only Davis’ but the state of California. Over 50 percent of the districts have declining enrollment. Part of Davis’ situation is directly related to the fact that we have declining enrollment. I would say that’s probably half of the four million. What that means is that for each and every student who does not show up in a seat, they lose money and they lose it fairly quickly. So you can’t reduce the overhead, I mean you are not going to immediately get rid of teachers, employees, buildings, etc. You instead have a deficit that you have to deal with—an educational deficit, a program deficit.

I would like to see some basic reform of the education finance system. The problem with that is that that’s not easy to do. It’s a big state, with a lot of different needs, and different interests. Suburban districts, urban districts, and rural districts all have different needs. I have introduced bills that have related to finance, home to schools transportation, declining enrollment, and because there is no money available, it is very difficult to make any kind of structural change in the way schools are financed. But more and more people are talking about it, because more and more districts are suffering from this structural change in the demographics of California. It will start to effect higher education in a few years.

I’ve spent most of my political life trying to get more schools, trying to get communities to pass bonds, trying to reduce the two-thirds requirement to 55 percent, to make it easier for school districts to build. We’re now moving into a very different era. It’s an era of demographic change. There will be fewer students eventually at the University of California, fewer students at CSU, and we’re starting to see the beginning of that in Davis. And it’s not only Davis, it’s communities like Vacaville, communities like Benicia, it’s throughout the district—my district, you will see, flat or declining enrollment. There are very few schools where there’s an increase. Elk Grove which has been the poster child for growth in so many areas is having the opposite effect. It’s a daunting challenge but it’s one that we have to confront.
3. Delta Protection has become your hallmark issue, those of us who went to Congressman Thompson’s fundraiser last weekend, learned a lot about efforts underway to protect the delta—how did you get involved in this issue, what are you looking for the state to do on this effort, and finally what can we as citizens do?
District 8 represents the northern part of the Delta. I have been very much involved in water issues and environmental issues from the time that I entered the Davis City Council. As chair of Water, Parks, and Wildlife, I know that the Delta is the heart and soul of the California water system. It is the core and it is in terrible crisis. That has not only a major environmental impact, but a potentially disastrous economic impact of the entire state.

We’ve asked the Delta to do many things and many of them are incompatible with each other. We want it to supply an unending or increasing supply of water to Southern California and to the Bay Area. We want it to be an extraordinary estuary to breed and facilitate fisheries. We want it to be the repository of agricultural and urban runoff. We want it to, I don’t, but it has become an area of increasing urbanization. We’ve asked it to do far too many things and it is dying, it is absolutely dying. Of course it is surrounded by levies that are basically 19th century piles of dirt, and they are failing. And it is seismically at risk. You can’t imagine an area that is of more significance and at risk.

What can we do? We can do a number of things. The people of the state of California voted for a bond in 2006 to repair the levies and to begin the process of improving the water quality in the Delta, and the fisheries, the habitat, and the agriculture. What we can do is to try to raise the profile of the delta. Most people know where the coast is and know why it’s important to protect it. Most people know about the Sierra Nevada, and they will protect it. They know about Yosemite and they will protect it. They know about their local parks and they want to protect those. But the Delta has very few people in it and very little political clout. So we need to be able to raise the profile of the Delta so that it takes its place as the key water and environmental issue for California.

Then we need to put in place structures that will protect it. It needs are steward. There is no steward—no body, no agency—whose sole purpose is to protect the delta. And if I’m elected to the Senate, that’s what I’ll spend many years trying to accomplish. It won’t be easy, but there has to be a body like the Coastal Commission that focuses exclusively on the Delta and has responsibility for all water decisions and all environmental decisions that affect it. That won’t be easy to do, but I am convinced that has to occur.

The average person needs to educate themselves and speak to their representatives. Here we are very blessed with a delegation that understands all of that—both in the surrounding Assembly Districts and the Senate Districts. And at the Congressional level—Mike Thompson and Doris Matsui have been strong supporters of the Delta—they know where it is, they know how important it is to our region. But we don’t have the same recognition other places. That’s very hard for citizens here to accomplish. We have to educate those in the Bay Area, further in the southern part of the Central Valley, in San Diego, in Los Angeles, to the importance of the Delta to them but to California as a whole. And we’re trying to do that. We’ve been working very carefully with members of my committee who represent those areas, in educating them about the Delta.

Hurricane Katrina had an effect in that area. After Katrina, people were suddenly aware that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was in fact at greater risk than New Orleans. And look what happened to New Orleans, so that recognition has helped us with flood protection, it’s helped us with environmental legislation in the Delta; it’s helped us get resources to the Delta. Every cloud has a silver lining, Katrina really the knowledge of how fragile this area is. We have to continue that because we need resources from those who might want to put those resources elsewhere.
4. Transportation is always a major issue—this district really has two major thoroughfares cutting through it, in the northern part we are particularly concerned with the congestion along the I-80 corridor. This is no longer just an issue however about transportation it is also now an issue of the environment, oil supplies, global warming, etc. In your view, what should the state do to address transportation problems in the region?
The state has to take a very active role in addressing these problems. One of the first steps was this extraordinary $18 billion bond that was passed by California. We have worked very hard to assure our fair share of funding. We have roads that are bottlenecks. We have a port; why not use more sea transportation as opposed to truck transportation on the roads? We have achieved funding to dredge the port, to make certain that it can be used increasingly for transportation. We have to fund trains and transit. I’ve been a very strong supporter of all modes of transit and we need resources to do it.

We people seem to be very willing to put money into transportation, into transit. But this remains a very difficult problem because what’s happened is without jobs in the areas where people live, people will commute. That’s what you have between San Joaquin and the Bay Area. That’s what you have between Solano County and the Bay Area. You have people who want to live in these areas because they are pleasant to live in, and housing is a little cheaper, but that means that they have a commute. So we need every form of transportation to be at its best. And to do that we need resources.
---Doug Paul Davis reporting