California State Senator Holly Mitchell can be an imposing figure. While most people presume that term evokes physicality, it is Mitchell’s intellect and passion for defending those she believes have little or no voice in the political process that make her such a formidable figure around the Capitol. We talked with her about her effort to turn that passion into policy.
You’ve advocated repealing the so-called “welfare queen” law that bars women on public assistance from receiving an increase in benefits if they have more children. You opted to pull that measure in favor of trying to get Gov. Brown to address it in next year’s budget. Why drop the measure, and why do you feel the law needs to be changed?
EQUALITY FOR ALLA former Assemblywoman and non-profit executive, California State Senator Holly Mitchell — who represents several urban areas in Los Angeles — has made fighting poverty the focal point of her agenda in Sacramento. In her time in the Legislature, Mitchell has championed a moratorium on the controversial oil drilling process called fracking, authored legislation to diminish human trafficking, and created measures to prevent police from unfairly seizing the business and personal assets of people accused but not convicted of crimes
Technically I didn’t’ drop it. This is the first calendar year of a 2-year process, so it’s just being parked on the Assembly floor because I want to keep it alive. We have a full calendar year next year to continue to move it through. I first introduced this bill as an assemblywoman, and it’s passed out of the Assembly every year since I’ve been here. The issue is not votes; it’s the cost. It’s currently expected to cost about $200 million a year, and I didn’t think it was strategic on our part to pass a bill that wasn’t part of the final budget negotiation with the governor, then just plop it on the governor’s desk and expect that he sign it. The price tag is just too big. So it’s parked in the Assembly, and we will continue to work with the administration, as I have in the past couple of years. In an ideal world I’ll wake up on Jan. 10 and it’s in the budget, and my work here will have been done on this issue. If not, I have a vehicle that is very much alive that we can continue to use.
But why does this particular issue matter so much to you?
At our policy retreat last year, one of my colleagues asked a policy expert, ‘What’s the low-hanging fruit? What’s the one thing we can do to try to impact the poverty rate in California?’ The answer was the maximum family grant. Then I held an offsite workshop to talk about the CalWORKs [state welfare] program — what works and what doesn’t. We had CalWORKs recipients, grassroots advocates, grasstop advocates, legislative staff, budget staff and people from the administration. Resoundingly, the maximum family grant continued to be at the top of the list of what needs to change. Interestingly, the law goes into amazing detail about exceptions to the family cap rule. For instance, there is an exception if you are a victim of rape or incest, but only if you file a police report and tell your caseworker. Or if you can validate that you have used specific forms of birth control as stated in the statute – such as an IUD – and it fails. Tell me, where else in California code explicitly states the kind of birth control someone can use in order to have access to a program that is designed to prevent children from slipping into poverty? The notion that a woman would intentionally, willingly have a baby for the sole purpose of increasing a time-limited grant by $122 per month is just so offensive to me.
That said, you are opposed to fracking, which some observers believe would put billions of dollars in new tax revenues into state coffers. That money could be used to fund the kind of programs you champion. Why not give fracking a chance?
I represent the Inglewood oil fields and the oil fields that are in the mid-city downtown area by the USC Mount Saint Mary’s downtown campus. So I represent communities that live with oil drilling going on literally next door. And so what I have consistently said is, ‘At whose expense?’ That’s what I’ve said to the oil companies: ‘At whose expense?’ I’m the first to understand and value the global impact it would have on our economy, for us to no longer be as reliant as we historically have been on foreign oil. I get that. But the question is, at whose expense? So what my bill has always said is to halt fracking until we know that there are no unintended health consequences to the people who live in the immediate area. I’ve not said, ‘Hell no’ to fracking, ever. I’ve said, ‘Let’s stop it until a study not financed by the oil industry can be done to answer that question, first and foremost.’ Don’t tell me it’s safe because you say so, OK? Stop until we know differently, because I have a responsibility to those people who live right there next to the oil fields.
You co-authored legislation to change how we tax commercial properties under Proposition 13 by assessing those ket value, the so-called “split roll.” What’s the impetus for this measure?
It’s not just one thing. It’s recognizing and hearing the governor when he says, ‘Where’s the money?’ How do we guarantee, on a consistent level from year to year, the General Fund — to make California continue to be the kind of place where we want to stay and grow old and raise our kids? Here we tend to talk about split roll around the edges, but it’s the No.1 issue in my district, where my constituents sort of feel duped. The notion voters had at the time we passed Proposition 13 is that we didn’t want grandma to get put out of her house because she couldn’t afford the property taxes. But we didn’t understand that it also gave large corporations the same protections we were trying to put into place for grandma. Now, large corporations are paying less of a percentage in taxes than private residents. But they use the common infrastructure the rest of us. Look at our roads, which is one of our biggest challenges and the one we’re having the greatest difficulty paying for. There are numerous other infrastructure projects that are long-term and that have not been addressed.
When you factor in the actual cost of living – particularly housing – California has the highest poverty rate in the nation. Is there another key area you believe lawmakers should focus their energies in dealing with this?
Early care and education. I always joke that my colleagues never say kids are a pain in the backside, and that we don’t want to fund them or vote for anything that supports them. We never say that. We say, ‘Children are our future’ and ‘It takes a village.’ But when it comes down to it — what we are doing to support them and what investments we are making beyond K-12 — it gets a little sketchy. But early care and education is a game-changer. When we look at core measurements like language, kids who have been in high-quality early care and education programs enter kindergarten knowing tens of thousands of words beyond children who haven’t had the exposure and access. That’s the first indicator in the separation between those who will do well and those who will lag behind indefinitely. The business community knows this – it now says the most logical investment in shoring up California’s economy and business future is closing the education gap, and we can’t start early enough. Businesses are in utter panic about the lack of an educated workforce in the next generation, so they’re looking at the kids in early care and education settings today to make sure they have the literacy skills, the math skills, the critical thinking skills to be useful business leaders, entrepreneurs and employees in the future. So investment in early care and education is critical.
You’ve certainly had successes in your time here, but it seems that so often advocates for the poor or weak come up short against the more powerful interests of business and industry. Do you ever get down or discouraged when you see so much poverty in a state as wealthy as this one?
I’m a little strange. I don’t get down. To be perfectly honest, I get mad. That drives me. That’s what makes my eyes open before the alarm rings to get back here and go at it again. As corny as this will sound, it is a calling for me.