I had the opportunity to sit down with San Francisco Mayor Gavin NewsomÂ Tuesday afternoonÂ in the offices of the Orange County Labor Federation prior to his town hall meeting at Santa Ana College. Newsom is running for Governor and has conducted town hall meetings across the state talking to voters, introducing himself and his goals if his is elected in 2010.
We started off our conversation talking about the outrageous suggestion by Supervisor John Moorlach that the Orange County Transportation Authority’sÂ board should look at whetherÂ it should even offer bus service. “Is there a point where maybe a bus system isn’t even necessary?”
â€œWhen I first heard that I was stunned, I honestly was stunned,â€ Newsom said of Moorlachâ€™s suggestion. â€œI assume that he is not a member of the party I am a member of, democrat. So he believes this will reduce traffic congestion and increase economic activity in the region?Â Is he concerned about actual investment in public transit producing great dividends in terms of economic growth and economic activity?â€
I asked Newsom how he would address the need for public transit throughout California in an environment of increased budget cuts for transportation services.
â€œObviously the state needs to be more aggressive in federal funding and that is something that we need a democratic Governor to do, and partner with a democratic administration and a democratic Congress. This is a unique opportunity in time to be more aggressive in pursuing federal appropriations. We need to recognize and reconcile our initiatives to mirror the emphasis on public transit, smart growth, and density issues that the Obama administration is promoting in order to position ourselves better for those federal dollars; high speed rail being a perfect example of that and of which I am a huge supporter and promoter of, to Anaheim as well not just to LA and San Francisco but Anaheim, San Diego, and ultimately Sacramento,â€ Newsom said.
â€œBut the most important thing is there are two ways to fund this statewide. One is through bond capacity, which in this economic climate is limited due to our bond rating sending the costs of borrowing up and up and up and the appetite of voters to support general obligation bonds which is more and more questionable. And then we have the question of operating dollars, not just capital dollars, which to me is arguably more acute now as the Governor continues to cut operating funds which he has line-itemed out of county budgets, literally line-item out all the operating funds at the same time we are trying to promote AB32 and our environmental agenda. We need to reconcile the fact that 40% of Californiaâ€™s greenhouse gas emissions come from transit. We need to get people out of their vehicles.â€
â€œPeople are talking more and more in light of this new reality about some form of gas tax or excise tax because and its getting a little more traction. Some believe that this is a better approach than looking at bonding and some believe that ultimately this will contribute dramatically as it related to our changing behavior and dramatically promoting alternatives by funding those alternatives such as public transit and shifting where those gas tax dollars go to operating a more robust alternative transit system.â€ Â
I asked Mayor Newsom how he would address the cuts to higher education funding.
â€œThe number one issue in the state, bar none, is the loss of human capital, the brain drain in the State of California. The CSU and community college fee increases were outrageous, 40 and 42 percent respectfully. We saw over a billion dollars in budget cuts. These are our teachers; these are our nurses; the backbone of our economy.â€
â€œWe know that teachers will be retiring in historic numbers in the near future, how are we going to recruit those teachers, how are you going to get them educated if not through our California State university system and by providing this workforce training through our community colleges?â€
â€œIf I am ever Governor of this state, mark my words, I will not raise tuition at the CSU, UC, or community colleges even if the budget deficit were ten times worse than it is now. We can simply not afford to do that. These cuts represent a cut to opportunity, we are capping enrollment now hundreds of thousands will not have access to higher education this year.â€
â€œThe Governor, remarkably as he was increasing UC fees indirectly through budget cuts he called for capping Cal Grants. I cannot think of any Governor, even the most conservative, who would think it is a good idea cut our education budget, while cutting the opportunity for students to finance the increase in fees through grants.â€
â€œPeople say, well how can you afford not to avoid that? Well I can think quickly of a few obvious examples, we can deal with the cuts by just enacting an increase in the tobacco tax to fund education.â€
â€œWe are currently 32nd in the United States in tobacco taxes. If we were to increase our tobacco tax an additional $1.50 per pack of cigarettes, which would still not put California at the top in taxes on tobacco, we could fund $1.2 billion in cuts to higher education. Increasing the tobacco tax would resolve two issues at the same time, improving the health of Californians by reducing tobacco use, and fund education. More than 70% of Californians support this approach, but the Governor refused to do this. He would rather put at risk the health of Californiaâ€™s economy rather than fix these problems. I find that offensive.â€
In his town hall meeting at Santa Ana College Mayor Newsom spoke with more than three hundred people about his vision for Californiaâ€™s future for about two hours. He answered questions from the audience on health care, education, marriage equality, and immigration to name a few. In my conversations with attendees after the town hall, most were impressed that the Mayor was willing to come to Orange County and answer their questions in person. One person told Mayor Newsom that she appreciated his willingness to discuss his positions on issues affecting Californians and engage in a dialogue with people who may disagree with him.
The event was hosted by Santa Ana Councilmember David Benavides who had the privilege of introducing the Mayor.
On a side note, the campaign staff told me that they appreciated the support of the volunteers who helped put the town hall together. One name they mentioned as particularly helpful was Phil Bacerra, who had worked for the Mayor in his first campaign for mayor when he lived in San Francisco. Bacerra was also instrumental in getting Mayor Newsom as a speaker for the OC Young Democrats William Jefferson Clinton Awards and the ECCO Dinner last year.