TULARE – During one of his annual Policy Pods, outgoing assemblymember Devon Mathis touched on some pressing issues, including his concerns about a looming recession, minimum wage hikes, homelessness, domestic violence, the nursing shortage and insurance problems.
Mathis, 33rd District, held his annual legislative meetings – dubbed “Policy Pods” – on Dec. 11 and 12 at the International Agri-Center in Tulare. There, he discussed with constituents, businesses and community organizations about their concerns related to healthcare, agriculture and water, education, public safety, and business and community concerns.
At the start of the business and community concerns meeting on Dec. 12, Mathis – who announced in November he would not be running for reelection – told the 16 attendees that the state is heading into a recession.
“This isn’t a hiccup,” Mathis said, referring to the state of California’s economy. “This is a snowball going down.” With respect to those who do not share his assessment, Mathis compared them to the officers on the bridge of the Titanic who claimed, “It’s just a little piece of ice floating out there.”
While sobering, Mathis’ declaration did not set the tenor, per se, for the ensuing hour plus discussion. A variety of topics were discussed, including the impending increase in the state’s minimum wage and the potentially catastrophic effect it may have on healthcare facilities, safety nets for the homeless as well as stopgaps for homelessness, domestic violence, the nursing shortage and insurers leaving the state.
Mathis and members of his staff took notes as attendees weighed in various issues.
Reedley Chamber of Commerce member Jose Placencia told Mathis that Senate Bill 525, which establishes incremental minimum wage increases for healthcare workers beginning June 1, 2024, upsets the cost balance for care facilities.
Placencia said Reedley is known for its care facilities. He said a number of owners of these facilities informed him they may have to shut down because of the impending wage hikes.
Reedley Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Erik Valencia told Mathis that he had heard from Reedley restaurant owners who were concerned about the impact inflation and increased minimum wage – $16 per hour effective Jan. 1 – would have on their businesses.
“The simple fact is that the super majority (in the legislature) believe that’s the way to help everybody out of poverty. Even though it’s pushing everybody in poverty,” Mathis said, referring to the Jan. 1 minimum wage increase.
Mathis walked back this statement somewhat by saying that “we need good wages.” But he said the problem is not as simple as raising wages.
“Energy costs are going up 13% each year,” said Mathis. “Regardless of what your business is, if employee costs go up, your power costs go up. That drives up the cost for water and everything else. That’s passed onto the consumer.”
He asked, “How many of you remember when a McDonald’s meal cost $5? Now it’s like $15.”
A recurring theme that permeated the discussion was homelessness and the dearth of sound government solutions to address the problem. According to Mathis, the problem has to do with timing.
“A lot of homeless money is going to nonprofits to deal with the current homeless population,” said Mathis. “We would be better served if the money went to the preventative side. Yes, we have a homeless population. Yes, they’re helped (by the money). But preventing people from joining that population is a better use of money.”
Mathis described the meeting as a brainstorming session. In this respect, he said counties must develop homeless safety nets to prevent people from slipping into homelessness.
“Think of mechanisms,” he told the attendees. “Think about how governments work. If there’s a veteran about to become homeless, there must be mechanisms in place to alert him to programs. To connect individuals to resources.”
Jason Martinez is a senior field representative for the Nor Cal Carpenters Union. He is also a veterans advocate and works with the Helmets to Hardhats program, which connects veterans to career training and jobs in the construction industry. Speaking to the problem of homeless veterans, Martinez asked Mathis about creating a $300 stipend in the state budget for every veteran who participates in the program to purchase tools.
“The average journeyman (carpenter) carries roughly $800 to $1,200 worth of tools on him to the job site,” said Martinez. “There’s no point having anyone in the program if they don’t have tools. We’re setting them up for failure.”
Nicole Linder, CEO of the Marjaree Mason Center (MMC), told Mathis that Fresno County has the highest per capita police calls for domestic violence in the state. Linder said the problem for MMC and other nonprofits is money and how the state allocates money.
“It doesn’t matter how many people the organization serves,” Linder said, “every organization receives the same amount of money.”
She said every year, funding for domestic violence, sexual assaults and human trafficking gets cut. It gets “whittled down to almost nothing,” Linder said. Compounding the problem is how pervasive domestic violence has become.
“We have to expand the idea that it only occurs to married couples who have children,” she said. She noted that in the last 13 months, three teenagers in Fresno and Madera Counties were killed by their partners.
HOW SACRAMENTO WORKS
Mathis’ response did not instill much confidence that things would change. He provided a snapshot of how funding works in Sacramento.
“Every January, the governor gives his state-of-the-state address and he says, ‘Here are my priorities’,” said Mathis. He said that a measure to fund an anti-domestic violence measure will work its way through the legislature until it reaches what Mathis called the ‘May revise.’
“And then you’ll have the May revise, which is when the numbers (money) ought to be but which we didn’t hit because of the way taxes are done,” he said. From the May revise through June, the legislature constructs its budget.
“Sadly, that budget is a blank piece of paper that says, ‘To be continued. See budget trailer bills, X, Y and Z’,” Mathis said. From June to Aug. 31, he said budget trailer bills get tinkered with. He said it has to do with which party is in power at the time.
“They (bills) should have gone through a policy committee and had more public input. But because they have the ability and they have the majority, they push it through budget subcommittees.” The end result being that what often happens as a result of tinkering and changes, a bill may lose funding and die.
“It’s not okay we have a three-year backlog on nurses. It’s a huge issue,” Mathis said. He was referring to the fact there are more people applying to be nurses than there are slots open in nursing schools and programs.
Darcy Phillips, College of Sequoias (COS), told Mathis the college would like the state’s help in making it easier for local students to enter the school’s nursing program. Mathis said the problem that COS and other local schools are experiencing is there is no restriction on how many non-residents can apply to the nursing programs.
“80% of people being admitted are from outside the area,” Mathis said. He added that no preference can be given to local candidates.
Mathis said progress is being made. Porterville recently passed a bond for the community college to build new nursing school facilities. He noted that COS partners with Fresno State on its nursing program. He said he has spoken with Assembly Members Joaquin Arambula and Esmeralda Soria about creating more opportunities for local residents to enter nursing schools.
CREEPING ECONOMIC CRISIS OF INSURANCE
As the discussion wound down, Placencia brought up the issue of insurance carriers leaving the state.
“There is a creeping economic crisis of insurance in the state,” said Placencia. “Insurers are leaving the state.” He added that insurance rates are reaching the point where people can’t afford basic auto insurance.
“There is a huge population in the Valley driving around uninsured,” he added. He then asked Mathis: can there be legislation introduced to prevent insurers from leaving?
“80%, yes,” Mathis replied. He said he recently attended an insurance convention where there were “very deep discussions” on the issue. He expects legislation to be introduced to address the issue.
“I’m not on the insurance committee, so I won’t see anything until appropriations,” he said.
Mathis did not hold back on voicing his displeasure with insurers.
“They want to adjust their rates to cushion their profit margins on the backs of workers,” he said. “Rich guys write everything off, so the middle class is bearing the brunt.”
3,000 PIECES OF LEGISLATION
Mathis has been in the assembly for 10 years. He said each January and February, on average, the assembly and senate push forward 3,000 pieces of legislation. He told the audience they must be his eyes and ears.
“You have to reach out and let us know what is happening,” he said.
He reminded the attendees that they must discuss these matters with their affiliates and their associations.
“We must talk to everyone we can,” he said. “Me, on my own, is not going to change the course of Sacramento – but associations and affiliates can.”