Federal, state, and local legislators gathered at California State University, Stanislaus Thursday night for the third annual Turlock Government Night.
The night, organized by Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, saw U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R), State Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen (R), and Turlock Mayor John Lazar join together for a town hall discussion about issues facing Turlockers. State Sen. Anthony Cannella (R) was also invited to attend, but had a prior engagement.
Much of the discussion focused on water – or the lack thereof. Given the ongoing drought, part of the driest three-year period in the State of California's history, all of the lawmakers were focused on the importance of water.
“It is the most pressing issue we have today, and it is possibly stymying our economic growth,” said Chiesa, who emceed the event.
A whopping seven different proposals for new state water bonds are working their way through the state legislature right now. They range from $5 billion to nearly $10 billion, and they each have different priorities.
Both Denham and Olsen agree that water storage should be the top priority for any future spending.
“We need water storage, and we need it now,” Denham said.
Denham pointed out that the state’s water system was designed to serve 17 million people, and now serves 40 million. New reservoirs are needed, both aboveground and belowground, he said, and existing water storage needs to be used to its fullest extent.
A true solution to water woes also needs to look at the totality of California, Olsen said.
“I’m so tired of policies that pit regions against one another,” Olsen said.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would build two delta tunnels at a cost in the tens of billions of dollars, is a non-starter with Olsen. She says it will be built “over her dead body.”
In addition to storage, Olsen and Denham think the state must pursue desalination plants, which turn seawater into drinking water. Such plants have been used successfully in other nations, but California’s strict environmental laws have made permitting difficult; a new project in North San Diego County took decades to permit.
Turlock, meanwhile, is in the midst of an effort to construct a Surface Water Treatment Plant in partnership with the Turlock Irrigation District. That plant would guarantee Turlock a supply of drinking water from treated Tuolumne River water, as wells are drying up and the state continues to up standards for groundwater.
But negotiations with TID are slow-going given the dry year – and unexpected district interest in the City of Turlock’s treated wastewater.
“Water politics are hard business,” Lazar said. “… It’s not pretty.”
Outside of water, Denham said his biggest priority for the year ahead is immigration. He hopes to pass an immigration reform package this year.
Denham also spoke about the Farm Bill which he helped to draft and pass, noting numerous changes which benefit local farmers. And he spoke about the importance of funding local infrastructure projects, improving roads, bridges and railways and extending Altamont Commuter Express service to California.
“Right now, we’ve got some ailing infrastructure in our community that is in bad need of repair,” Denham said.
Olsen cast herself as “a leader who gets results,” who is working to bring jobs and improve education. She noted her single minded focus has earned the ire of some other lawmakers; Olsen was recently forced to change offices by party leadership, and lost some committee assignments.
But change needs to happen even if that means ruffling feathers, she said.
“We cannot continue to have a poverty rate at 24 percent,” Olsen said. “An unemployment rate that hovers between 12 and 20 percent. That’s unacceptable,”
Olsen hopes to tackle the state’s regulatory and taxation system to encourage more businesses to stay in California. Right now she’s working on a case-by-case basis; one recent piece of legislature would make electric skateboards legal in California, helping a Riverbank-based company.
Questions from the audience, numbering roughly 100 and comprised mainly of college students, covered myriad topics. Lawmakers were asked about self-service gasoline pumps, trucking regulations, the conflict in Ukraine, education, and the competition between states for jobs, to name just a few concerns.
“Do I like our jobs going to Texas? Hell no,” Denham said.
Lazar said Turlock remains focused on the improving local economy, ensuring businesses choose to do business here.
“Turlock is a city on the move,” Lazar said “… We’re so glad the economy is recovering here.”
He highlighted the foresight of past leaders to establish the Turlock Regional Industrial Park, which has attracted factories from Blue Diamond Growers and Hilmar Cheese Company. And Lazar pointed to the recovering downtown, which has benefitted from City of Turlock investments in the Carnegie Arts Center, the Public Safety Facility, and even the sidewalks.
Lazar voiced his concern that such projects may be impossible in the future, given the state legislature’s decision to eliminate redevelopment agencies in 2011. The maneuver helped the state balance its budget, but took away local jurisdictions’ only tool to finance infrastructure.
“You have every right to be frustrated, and I share in that frustration,” Olsen said.
Olsen noted that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is backing a new economic development program of sorts through his GoBiz office, which may become a replacement for some types of redevelopment funding. However, that initiative is currently focused on attracting biotech companies, and subsequently will help mainly the Silicon Valley and San Diego.
“Once again, the Central Valley gets the short end of the stick,” Olsen said.