September 22, 2016 - From the September, 2016 issue

California Legislature’s 2016 Session Accomplishments Assessed by State Senator Hertzberg

Former California Assembly Speaker—now State Senator—Robert Hertzberg returned to California’s Legislature in 2014 representing the San Fernando Valley’s 18th District. His focus: to address the threats to the state’s continued economic prosperity, such as tax reform and infrastructure investment. Discussing the 2015-2016 legislature’s accomplishments, Sen. Hertzberg shares his views with TPR on the success of SB 350 (2015) and SB 32 (2016). In addition to environmental progress, Sen. Hertzberg discusses the passage of significant—but largely unnoticed—legislation regarding voting accessibility and pensions for those without an employer option.  Hertzberg also offers his aspirations for the next legislative session: stabilizing the volatile economy through tax reform and addressing drought by increasing California’s use of wastewater.

Sen. Robert Hertzberg

"We’ve been working diligently on a bipartisan basis behind the scenes to pull together a thoughtful tax plan that addresses the long term for California. My governing philosophy is: I’m working for the next generation, not the next election.” - Sen. Robert Hertzberg

The California legislative session has just concluded. As a former Assembly Speaker, and now a state senator representing a million people centered in the Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, share your takeaway from this year’s legislative session.  What old and lingering challenges did the Legislature successfully address?

Bob Hertzberg: One of the big ones that was lingering as long ago as when I was Speaker, which I remember dealing with myself, is the issue of death with dignity.

Senator Monning, Senator Wolk, and Assemblymember Eggman took that on successfully in this special session, after session after session of it never passing. They did an unbelievably successful job in dealing with this thorny issue that has been plaguing us for a long time.

That’s a good example of really good legislative work—the unbelievable amount of homework that they did to make it happen and finally break through. 

What long-term policy issues did the Legislature grapple with successfully—or not?

Ten years ago, AB 32 was critically groundbreaking in the environmental space. It was the first major climate change effort in the country. Now, SB 32 extends the policy and continues it. There’s nothing fundamentally new in SB 32, other than it continues to push on the environmental front in California. Yet it still became a fight.

One thing I’ve learned over time is that often, when you take action on the cutting edge—like AB 32—people don’t really understand what it means. As a consequence, there’s no real constituency built up. Teams of advocates and lobbyists haven’t been hired. But after a few years, when the system has become established—like with SB 350 or SB 32—you start to get big fights.

Another problem we deal with in California is voting and disenfranchisement—from the federal Voting Rights Act to the challenges we faced some 15 years ago with the presidential election. We’ve moved from hanging chads in voting machines; we are about to see same-day voter registration; and now, hopefully, the governor will sign a bill from Senator Allen and me that would create vote centers to make voting more convenient, as well as provide all voters with mail-in ballots that can be returned over a 10 day-period prior to an election. Overall, there has been an important discussion about creating a customer-friendly voting process.

School bonding is yet another issue that just continues on, although it wasn’t legislative this time. We did the first recent school bond in 1998; it occurred after a 16-year stalemate on how to fund schools. The model was used in my bill, AB 16, in 2000 and again in 2002; then again by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor; and now copied again on the ballot, although this time it leaves out much of higher education. 

What legislative bills passed this session that are truly breaking new ground?

One bill that doesn’t have a lot of attention yet, but that I think is going to be a really big deal, is Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León’s bill on pensions, SB 1234.

A great challenge that we face is: What does the future of work look like? When people are getting older and retiring younger, how do we provide for their retirements? What the pro Tem has done—and I don’t think he gets the credit for it that he deserves—is deal with this long-term issue by giving private employees the ability to access pension plans.

Now, why is that so important? One of the great challenges we’re facing today is the divide between the rich and the poor. And one of the reasons that divide is so great is that our economy is growing at 1.9 percent, while capital grows at 4.3 percent (according to Thomas Piketty in Capital). What happens as a result is that the divide gets bigger and bigger and bigger. What you need to do is harmonize the growth of capital—i.e., the money individuals have in capital markets—with their assets.

This bill, to me, is a big step forward. Going into the new economy, it’s probably one of the most important things we’ve done in the Legislature in the last few years.

Some argue that one of the Legislature’s greatest contributions this session was increasing the minimum wage. I think that’s a misdiagnosis—not because minimum wage isn’t important, but because of how it came about.

It didn’t come about by virtue of deep discussion in the Legislature. It came about because the Legislature came up with a compromise solution that allowed it to fix a problem created by two pending initiatives—and, unless you had a keen eye, it wasn’t recognized. This opportunity was due to recent initiative reforms.

What happened was that a particular union circulated an initiative to put minimum wage on the ballot. But the governor and others thought the measure had provisions in it that weren’t favorable, and they wanted to take it off the ballot.

In 2014, then-Senator Darrell Steinberg and pro Tem de León coauthored a bill to reform the initiative process. It was a bill that a large left/right coalition worked on with the Think Long Committee, as well as former Chief Justice Ron George. That reform allowed proponents of an initiative to withdraw their measure from the ballot.

This new process allowed the Legislature to step in and propose an alternative to the minimum wage initiative that worked for the governor—that had the necessary safety valve and that made sense—and also worked for the initiative’s proponents. That compromise became the legislation.

I think most people believe the Legislature led the way on minimum wage. I would suggest the Legislature led the way on initiative reform, which allowed for minimum wage to happen—and I think that’s not a small distinction, because in years to come there will be more circumstances like this one where initiative reform will have a significant impact. 

You personally authored legislation this session related to the environment, transportation, and water. Elaborate on those bills, their fate, and their promise.

The advancement of the discussion on water has been one of the most significant changes in the last couple of years. In the last session, Senator Fran Pavley came up with a bill to regulate groundwater. That’s been a big hole, so to speak, in our water policy. Senator Pavley’s groundwater legislation was a critical step forward in reforming water policy.

In addition, we’re starting to move away from the old model of water policy—although with tremendous resistance from the political-industrial complex. We’re moving away from: “Let’s just steal water from the north; let’s just stick our straws in the Colorado River; and let’s import water,” to: “Let’s recycle water; let’s stop pumping water into the ocean; and let’s recapture stormwater in a more intelligent way.”

Los Angeles uses 500,000 acre-feet of water annually. We engage in these major processes of engineering and environmental review—and then after we bring in the water, instead of treating it as a resource, we treat it as waste.

There are some small projects from DWP and the sanitation districts that are on the right track—but at the same time, they’re still building $700-million pipes to dump more water in the ocean. The engineers and all others with contracts don’t want that to stop because they make a lot of money on it, but we’ve got to change the game.

The issues of recycled water, stormwater, and efficiency have come to light as a big part of the new debate. We haven’t gotten there yet; a lot of what we put in to start the discussion got killed because the water buffalos have been winning the game. But I don’t think they’re going to win long-term.

I’m going to be back next year, and I’m excited about water policy. There are a lot of other folks that care about this issue, too. Although we’re losing some big people on the environment, like Fran Pavley, Lois Wolk, and others in the Senate, there are still serious eyes on the process, and a longer-term set of eyes in the Assembly.

We’re going to see a big discussion on energy policy next year, too. This year, and even last year, we looked at some groundbreaking stuff—like looking at energy policy from a regional perspective among all the western states and with the Independent System Operator.

There are fundamental changes coming down the pipe in both water and energy policy. 

As you mentioned, much of the legislature’s senior leadership has termed out. TPR recently did an exit interview with Senator Fran Pavley, noting what she has accomplished in 14 years of service. Talk about the institutional capacity of the Legislature, given term limits, to keep focus on the State’s long-term challenges.


There is a challenge, but I don’t think it’s term limits.

Before term limits existed, the average legislator in the Assembly served roughly 6 years. (Senators served longer.) Now they can serve 12 years.

I give former Governor Schwarzenegger a lot of credit for supporting the change to the term limit law. That has altered the tone about the rush to get something done. People are willing to think a little bit more and take a couple of extra years to solve a problem.

So the great challenge is not the talent; there are a lot of smart people. The real challenge we face is globalization and the rate of change everywhere. A few years ago, we never thought about Uber and the taxi business, never thought about Airbnb and the hotel business, and about the policy implications of driverless cars.

The challenge is that most of the interests who advocate in Sacramento, or in any capital around the world, are looking to only solve their narrow issues, and are not at all interested in the larger societal challenges—they never think about “the big picture.” Their definition of success is getting what they need to serve their interests or keep their job. As legislators, our definition of success is protecting the public, and making California vibrant and a place of opportunity and equality for everybody. That means telling a lot of your friends  “no” much more often than one might want—it’s very challenging.

The underlying rules of politics have always been the same: It’s about aligning interests. But there are some new rules, in part because of the Internet and social media. So how does California stay on the cutting edge?

Sometimes we celebrate great victories that were really just a bunch of political activists making a lot of noise. I look at the larger trends: How are we defining the future? The pension bill defines the future. Water policy defines the future. Regionalization of energy defines the future. Electric cars and the new shared economy define the future. We have to figure out ways to be on the cutting edge of those policies. 

When you were out of office, you continued to be involved in the Think Long Committee for California, a group of talent industry, labor and civic thinkers focused on  “thinking long” about California. Address and share the work product of Think Long, and its impact on the California policy agenda.

The impact of the Think Long Committee for California organized and supported by the Berggruen Institute is nothing less than extraordinary.

First of all, the process to develop initiative reform that I referred to took more than a year and was funded by Think Long, California Common Cause, the Irvine Foundation, and others. They supported a large, bipartisan working group that came with up with the ideas of how to critically improve the initiative process. The governor signed the initiative reform they helped develop, and we saw the impact directly this year with the minimum wage legislation.

The Think Long Committee was also very involved in the issue of campaign finance reform, which resulted in legislation I carried this year to modernize Cal-Access and improve the transparency of information regarding campaign contributions.

Tax reform is most important.  The Think Long Committee has been deeply involved in designing a new reformed tax structure that appropriately deals with the instability issue that plagues California’s economy.  It is hard work, but the Berggruen Institute has been unwavering in its commitment to address a new and thoughtful solution.

While I support Proposition 55, it’s only a short-term solution—and if a significant economic downturn occurred, taxing the top earners as is mandated in Prop 55, would have the same adverse results we saw in 2008.   In a downturn, the first thing to go is income tax.

We’ve been working diligently on a bipartisan basis behind the scenes to pull together a thoughtful tax plan that addresses the long term for California. My governing philosophy is: I’m working for the next generation, not the next election. 

Is there a political constituency for advocating holistically for the next generation, given the narrow interest group politics that dominate the state today?

Yes, I think there is. One of the things that I’m excited about when I talk to members of the Legislature is their own frustration about how the process does not work well in Sacramento, and how it is too interest-group-driven. Members of both parties are interested in taking a deeper dive to reform the system in Sacramento.

I think, though, that in dealing with the next generation, there’s a real change. I have not seen a diminishing of interest; I’ve just seen a shift in how that interest is realized.

In the Kennedy days, there was extraordinary faith in government. Today, there’s a notion we call “extra-governmentality.” People say: “I want to work for the common good and I want to do great things—but I want to do it through Teach for America,” or “through the Sierra Club,” or through some nongovernmental project that has the same purpose. People don’t have confidence in the government, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in doing good and great things.

But I never would have come back to government if I didn’t have faith. Is it the hardest thing in the world? Yes. Do you sometimes want to scream because it’s so bad? Yes. But is it worth it? Yes. Is there a way forward? Yes. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Absolutely. Are there minefields along the way? 100 percent; you have to bleed all the way. But the cause is worthy, and in a democracy, there’s no other option. 

There’s a wonderful song in the musical Hamilton: “I Want to Be in The Room Where It Happens.” As a former Assembly Speaker and now State Senator, you’ve often been in the room where it happens. Tell us what the governor, with hundreds of bills on his desk, is thinking about when considering whether to sign or not sign legislation passed by the legislature.

It’s got to be one of the toughest things to do in government.

Folks are often frustrated with how many laws are introduced. I can’t disagree with them; it’s a big challenge. However, this governor signs fewer bills than his predecessors did. In fact, I think this may be one of the fewest bills we’ve ever had.

Fortunately, this governor has a deep understanding. He’s signed thousands of bills. A handful of them are game changers; a lot of them are technical issues that relate to the operation of government. And this governor actually reads all of these bills, as far as I’ve been able to observe.

This governor also doesn’t veto a lot of things, because he sends signals to legislators beforehand about what he would or wouldn’t sign. There were some times where he sent messages to me, and I just parked the bills. In one instance, I pulled a bill back. I don’t want to get a veto from the governor; I want to get my legislation signed, just like every legislator.

It’s challenging—hours and hours of work, 18 hours a day, and piles and piles of these bills on your desk. It’s hard work.

Senator, in closing, are you bullish about California? 

I am bullish about California—but I’m also nervous about California.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world. Everywhere I’ve gone, there’s a magic about California. There’s a California brand. I’m desperately worried about the issue of hurting that brand. We’ve got to stay head of the game.

There have been a lot of underlying changes in the last few years that have been important to creating a more level playing field and stability in the process., redistricting, term limit extension, simple majority vote on the budget, and initiative reform.  As I mentioned, we need to think long about the impacts of globalization, but, in the near term, the next big issue is tax reform—to get rid of the volatility of government, which affects everybody. That’s going to be a big challenge, but I think there’s opportunity.


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