Business and balance for California’s new Assembly speaker


When statehouse discussions turn to business, one theme recurs for the newly elected speaker of the Assembly: balance.

Taking a balanced approach, Toni Atkins explains, is key to reconciling the demand for jobs with environmental, health, safety, consumer protection and other needs.

“There’s always a balance and a tension and a challenge,” said the two-term San Diego Democrat elected by her colleagues to run the Legislature’s 80-member lower chamber.

Atkins, 51, who was sworn in two weeks ago as the Golden State’s second most powerful elected official, says she knows personally about hot issues such as inequality and the minimum wage.

She calls herself a “pragmatic progressive” but has written few business bills. She has, however, been a big booster of affordable-housing legislation.


Over the years, she has not been an ally of the California Chamber of Commerce. Last year, she supported the chamber’s position on legislation 29% of the time.

Chamber spokeswoman Denise Davis declined to characterize past disagreements but said her group hoped “to have a productive and successful working relationship” with the new speaker.

Atkins spent her first seven years in the hills and hollers of Appalachia in southwestern Virginia. The family, with four children, had no indoor plumbing. Atkins’ mother was a seamstress, and her father was a lead miner and construction worker.

In California today, she said, “there are labor laws in place that, frankly, I wish had been in place to protect my father.”

Atkins said she learned early that education — public schools in Roanoke, Va., and college at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va. — was key to a better life. After graduating and moving to California, she worked as an administrator at women’s health clinics in Los Angeles and San Diego. She later served eight years on the San Diego City Council.

“I hear from business in high-tech, bio-tech, life sciences and even agriculture how important investing in education is to the growth of our economy,” Atkins said.


As for business, she said, a top goal is to “focus on what we can do to make the climate easier” for the state’s 3.4 million small businesses while also providing incentives for larger employers to remain in California.

New research and development, hiring and manufacturing-equipment tax credits, she said, are “reasonable incentives.”

Atkins said she’s interested in extending and possibly expanding an existing film and television tax credit to stem so-called “runaway production” to other states. However, she stopped short of saying whether she would support such legislation.

Balance is crucial to protecting environmental quality, particularly on the coast, without stalling development, Atkins said.”California tourism is one of our most valuable industries,” she said. And, California’s climate and quality of life “makes it one of the most desirable places in the country to live.”