20th State Senate District
Richard Katz seeks to return to Sacramento as a state senator after having served 16 years in the Assembly before leaving office due to term limits. While in the Assembly representing the Northeast Valley, he served as Democratic leader in 1995 and chair of the Transportation Committee. He was asked for his views on state and local issues:
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Question: How do you stand on Proposition 227, which would virtually end bilingual instruction in California?
Answer: I’m opposed to 227. Under recent court decisions, school districts have more flexibility now in dealing with bilingual education, which they will lose if 227 passes.
Q: Do you think there are problems with bilingual education in this state?
A: There are huge problems. The percentage of children who are transitioning from Spanish to English is abysmal, it’s not happening quickly enough and it’s not happening in large enough numbers.
Q: Prop. 226 would require labor unions to seek approval from their members before donating to political causes money collected for dues. How do you stand on that issue?
A: I oppose it. I think it’s an unfair attempt by some moneyed interests outside of California to take some very significant people off the playing field. If it is such a good idea, I think it ought to apply to corporate contributions as well. The fact they chose to apply it to only one side indicates what the agenda is.
Q: And Prop. 223, which would require school districts to spend 95% of their revenues in the classroom?
A: I haven’t taken a position on it. I carried similar bills while I was in the Assembly but I don’t like the provision on this that sort of lets school districts raid each other. As I understand it, if a school district doesn’t meet requirements, and money is withheld from it, other districts can take advantage of those dollars. I favor a lot more autonomy at schools. I would much rather see decision-making by parents and teachers and administrators.
Q: On the subject of education, accountability of schools is a big topic this year. How do you legislate accountability?
A: The hardest part about improving education is building accountability in support of it. The other is recognizing that kids spend about six hours a day at school and 18 hours somewhere else. And unless you bring the parents in and have that involvement, you’re not going to fix it all just during those six hours when they’re at school. What gets overlooked in this whole debate is that the schools can’t solve the whole thing. Accountability comes when parents are involved and it comes when school districts are held accountable for how kids perform. I want to find the way to make teachers accountable, but I’m also cautious because a teacher may have a kid for one, two or three, four hours a day.
Q: Do you favor the Valley breaking away from the Los Angeles Unified School District and breaking into two districts?
A: I support breakup and I’d like to see more than two districts.
Q: Do you favor using the state budget surplus for education rather than a tax cut?
A: I think we ought to be looking at this budget surplus and determine how much of it is one-time money versus ongoing money. One-time money ought to be used for what I’ve started calling the three Ts to add to the three Rs: Training, Technology and Textbooks. We ought to use this money to catch us up in all three of those areas. Not just at K-12, but UC [University of California], CSU [Cal State University] and community colleges. I also think we need to step up the school construction program.
Q: So you don’t favor a tax cut?
A: I support targeted tax cuts that create jobs, but mostly what I’d like to see the money used for is education. I’d lower fees at UC, CSU and community colleges. I’d like to put more money in the community colleges.
Q: Can you give us an example of a targeted tax cut?
A: The kind that would be tied to job creation. The economic resurgence we’ve seen has hit about middle class and up. It hasn’t hit working poor, and we really need to create manufacturing jobs that pay better if this is going to be a long-term, sustainable economic recovery.
Q: You support school breakup. What about breaking up the city of Los Angeles? Will you sign the Valley VOTE petition?
A: I will sign the petition because I think that it’s the only way we start the process that finds out whether secession is good for the Valley and the city or bad for it. I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think anybody does. The other reason I’m going to sign the petition is that it’s the biggest 2-by-4 we have in this town to get charter reform. And no one gives up power willingly or voluntarily. I think it’s unfortunate we have two charter reform commissions going on, but I’m hopeful that by keeping their feet to the fire we can get meaningful charter reform, and in my mind that includes neighborhood councils that are elected, that have legitimate power dealing with spending and also some zoning and some regulation.
Q: Do you agree with some of the charter commission recommendations such as more City Council members or a stronger mayor?
A: Rather than double or triple the size of the council, I’d rather see the power decentralized. I really believe neighborhood councils have a legitimate role in making decisions and that the council ought to do broader policy on land use in general terms, or transportation in general terms. Rather than expanding the size of the council I’d rather see us diffuse some of that power. I favor a stronger mayor.
Q: The UC trustees are grappling with the problem of ethnic diversity on campus in the post-Prop. 209 era. How do you think campus diversity ought to be accomplished?
A: I think we need to look at it as a recruitment problem, but starting much earlier than in high school, even junior high. I think you need to go to elementary schools and start talking to kids about the options and the choice. When I was in the Assembly, we used to put together a program where we would take kids from Pacoima to the beach. And these are kids who had never seen the ocean before. And the look on kids’ faces when you start taking them over the hill for the first time. They’d say, “Man, that’s really big!” A kid who has no idea what the ocean looks like is not thinking about going to the University of California. That is not within their frame of reference or their world of possibilities, and I think we need to, along with tutoring, provide those kinds of options to kids early, to get them on track. I think if you start working with kids early enough and start giving them options and explaining choices and then continue that work, that’s part of how we’re going to solve the problem long-term.
Q: What about gun control legislation. Do you think we are doing enough or too much?
A: I supported the Roberti Bill (which banned 75 kinds of assault weapons), although it didn’t go as far as I wanted to. I thought the notion of identifying specific models as opposed to a type of weapon would lead to problems, and it has. Frankly, one of the frustrations of term limits is watching the squabbling going on in the Assembly, and although the speaker is doing a good job of trying to fix it, the current assault weapon bill should not get hung up on the fact that a couple [of] members don’t like each other; it’s much too important for that. I fought with the National Rifle Assn. for five years to change the criminal penalty for illegal possession of a handgun. Up until 1996, in this state, if you carried a penknife, it was a misdemeanor or a felony, but if you illegally carried a concealed .357 magnum it was only a misdemeanor, which made no sense whatsoever. It made even less sense that it took five years, along with every law enforcement group in the state, to overcome the NRA and change that. It’s now a straight felony. We have far too many handguns. I want to see them eliminated. I don’t see any need for assault weapons in this state. Legitimate hunting is fine. But I don’t think you need an Uzi to go hunting.
Q: Early on, when your opponent, Richard Alarcon, sent out a mailer that compared your votes with his, you complained that he was taking things out of context. Now he’s complaining about the same thing in your latest mailer.
A: He was obviously trying to create the impression that I voted against longer school days and longer school years here in the Valley. What his brochure does not tell you is (a) that it was in Ventura County and not L.A. County, (b) that the legislation contained no money in it and (c) that three weeks later, I voted for a budget which I negotiated that year containing all the money to fund the program that he said I opposed. That’s a blatant misrepresentation of the record. The mail we sent out said no one disputes the fact that he’s got a $38,000 loan from the wife of one of the developers who benefited from a city earthquake rehabilitation program. No one disputes that it’s highly unusual and yet Alarcon said that everyone gets an 8% second. No one that I know of ever got an 8% second on their house. But more importantly, I don’t think he grasped that it’s a conflict of interest every time one of those developers comes before him. That’s clear. I don’t even think that’s open to interpretation, and the failure to understand that astounds me.
Q: Despite those charges, many people believe you and your opponent are similar on many positions. How are voters supposed to tell you apart?
A: Part of it has to do with how you go about doing your business and conflicts of interest, and how you deal with them. There is a reason I proposed an ethics pledge at the beginning of the campaign. I’ve said very clearly that I thought it was wrong for either him or me to take contributions from people who came before us, whose contracts we vote on. Sitting on the state Medical Assistance Commission, I vote on hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts, and there’s a bunch of folks there who would love to give me money, some of whom have offered and I’ve turned it down. So I think there’s a fundamental difference in our approach to it. I also think there’s the experience factor, and that makes a difference in the ability to go to Sacramento and to start delivering and implementing these programs from Day One. As we work with the budget surplus, I think we need someone advocating for the Valley who understands how to work that process and get things done from the beginning. It’s a difference between talking about doing things and having gotten them done.
Valley Voices will return after the June 2 election.