Business

Speaking with the new speaker

Karen Bass, California's new Assembly speaker, visited The Times last week to discuss her efforts to fix California's tax structure, negotiate a balanced budget with Republicans and reform foster care in the state. Below is a partial transcript of her remarks to Times reporters and members of the editorial board.

Short-term speaker ()

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass: My tenure as speaker is going to be relatively short. We were lucky to have Fabian Nuñez for four years but, you know, the average tenure of a speaker since term limits has been from 18 to 24 months. And since I fall right within that range, and we have a budget crisis this year, unprecedented $17 billion deficit, and I have no reason to believe we will have a good year next year, it makes sense to me that my focus in my tenure be on the budget. And [that my focus be on] one, short-term solutions, as well as long-term solutions. Having said that, I do plan to continue to champion the foster care issue.

Tax reform (MP3)

Bass: I don't want to raise issues like Prop. 13 or the two-thirds [vote threshold for taxes and budget]. Because they're too polarizing. And I feel like we wouldn't get any work done….Now that's not to say that the commission wouldn't take it up, but it should be generated from the commission as opposed to [us] saying, "This is what we want you guys to deal with"….

What worries me about it is that so much of the budget is regulated now. And I'm worried about just putting something else on it. And that's something that the general public is just not aware of, which is how little control we have of the budget….

Every time we're just robbing Peter to pay Paul. The reason why you put those propositions there was to fix a problem, and then you take money from it. But all of that is why we have to have more and stabilize it. It's just crazy what we do.

Foster care (MP3)

Robert Greene, L.A. Times: What is the proposition that you want to do?

Bass: The one I'm working on? … Actually I'm trying to emulate Sen. Steinberg and what he did with 63, for foster care. I want to close a tax loophole, so I don't want to — well, in a way it's obligating the general fund. But I don't want to say 5% of the general fund goes to foster care. I want to identify a new revenue source and have it dedicated to foster care. And the revenue source might be one of many various tax loopholes that exist. Because we have many strange ones. And what we're looking at is to bring in about $300 million that would come into the system every year.

And what I want to do with the money is, if you do aggressive prevention and intervention with the population of the kids that are at risk, you can cut the number of kids that ever come into the system dramatically. And there's a wonderful program here in Compton called Shields for Family where they've been able to do this. Because you know the primary reason the kids are in foster care to begin with is neglect, not abuse, and neglect is secondary to substance abuse. And so Shields for Family intervenes when the family is in crisis, addresses the crisis and keeps the family intact. So if we could dramatically reduce the number of kids in foster care in the first couple of years, then we could improve the system that takes care of the kids you can't prevent from coming in….

Two years ago when I launched the foster care work we had great success. We were able to bring $84 million into the budget for child welfare, 50 million into a housing bond, and now we're getting ready to potentially take it away. So case in point, in L.A. County, you know we have all the kids here. The overwhelming majority of the kids are here. We need more social workers. Every time there's a mistake, a death or some tragedy, we beat up on the social workers. But the social workers, their caseload is so high they can't do a decent job. So there needs to be more social workers. L.A. County has made great strides. They have been able to reduce the number of kids in care, and then we go and pull the money away….

One of the things that I think people don't realize, when you do things in a good year when you have revenue and you put some of it in the foster care system, all you're doing is making up for cuts you had done two years before, so it's not like you're expanding services. You're still just filling holes….

In the best of all worlds, we could get it on the ballot this year.

Budgeting (MP3)

Linda Rogers, L.A. Times: When do you think budget negotiations will start in earnest?

Bass: I think they're beginning now. We have had two Big Four meetings. Not with Big Five….Getting an overview of the budget, looking at the budget solutions the governor has proposed, and then going through them.

Rogers: Looks like you're going to be raided any time by this prison receiver. What's that going to do to you?

Bass: I kind of believe about that like I do about the budget….It's very dramatic when you hear the state controller get up and say that by September you will be out of cash. And that the situation is…. I think that the situation is so dire with the budget that we wouldn't have what happened last year, those plays over a power struggle, because we'll run out of cash, and the same thing with the prison situation. Because we do have to do a bond. And if we don't do a bond, you know, they can essentially just put up a brinks truck to the general fund and take $7 billion out. Which on a $17 billion deficit, you know….

My Republican colleagues are stuck because they have signed this no-tax pledge. We have to help them find a way out of that corner….

At the end of the day we have to bring in money. And [the Republicans] do understand that. And they're not proposing that the budget be balanced through straight cuts. Now they're saying some things that we disagree with, for example in education. They're saying that you don't need more money in education, that what you need is to get rid of some of the categorical spending, free up the money, and school districts certainly don't agree with that.

Jim Newton, L.A. Times: What do you think of the prospects for redistricting reform, and what do you think of it substantively?

Bass: I'm not opposed to an outside commission drawing the lines. That doesn't bother me. What does concern me, though, is maintaining the diversity of the house. And so, as people have looked at the current proposal, and there is a concern that it would impact the diversity. Speaker emeritus is talking about doing an initiative in the house, and so that might be possible. That was something he was working on when he was speaker. He was working on it with the Republicans. We haven't seen it yet, though. … what we would like, if there's a proposal, that it not just end up in court.

David Lauter, L.A. Times: The argument for the redistricting proposal has always been that it would change the political character of the Legislature. You would have fewer one-party seats. I wonder whether, given the pattern of where people live in California….I wonder whether your sense is as a practical matter –

Bass: I wonder that too. I can't see that part of it. I really can't. But I feel in principle it's important to not try to hold onto that. You know what I mean?

What I think is funny is the Legislature is viewed as left wing and right wing, and I don't think that's the case. In both parties there's left wing and right wing. Because I know this very well, I just finished dealing with it for three days. Of the 48 Democrats, there's a handful that would consider themselves to the left. That majority are moderate Democrats. It's probably the opposite with the Republicans. There's a handful that are moderate. I'm joking, sort of. But not entirely. Because [many Republicans are more moderate than the districts they represent].

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