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Editorial: In Sacramento, talk of housing, Brazil and Texas

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With housing prices skyrocketing, especially in coastal communities, how can we provide more affordable housing in California?

How will we keep college affordable?

How can we improve the quality of education in the state?

Those were among the prime topics served up by the state’s top elected leaders this week during Governmental Affairs day sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

We always enjoy this day. It’s a chance to find out what is on the agenda for the bigshots in the capital (or, perhaps tellingly, what’s NOT on the menu) and learn a bit about the people we elect to the legislature. Here are our takeaways:

Bigger than brazil: California now has the seventh-largest economy in the world, surpassing Brazil, according to Kevin de Leon, president of the state Senate. De Leon said he’s a fan of the high speed rail project, which will create a massive number of good-paying jobs, but remains uncertain about the Twin Tunnels project.

Paying for college: California has an all-time number of out-of-state students enrolled in the UC and CSU systems, said Toni Atkins, speaker of the Assembly. We need to make sure more students from California can attend state campuses, especially those from working-class families, and a middle-class scholarship program will help, she said. To make sure money already allocated is spent properly, UC is adopting a zero-based budget approach. Elsewhere, there is a growing need to find new and innovative ways to house people, she said, and the state is devoting $50 million this year to find and build good designs. Striking fact from Atkins: On average, homeless persons cost $2,900 per month in court, incarceration and related costs.

Houses built with red tape: Among those calling for more affordable housing was Kristin Olsen, Assembly Republican leader from Modesto. She said fully one-third of the cost of a new home in California reflects the cost of dealing with bureaucracy. Another challenge Olsen sees: The transfer rate from the state’s community colleges, which she said is “abysmal.”

Police and trust: We had a good meeting with Jim Cooper, Lodi’s rep in the Assembly, and a former commander for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Asked about suggestions that police wear small video cameras, Cooper said he is open to that, though cameras are only one tool, and a tool that can be flawed. He is not a fan of increased police training to deal with the mentally ill. “Police officers cannot be all things. There are limits to what they can take on. We already ask them to do so much.” How about assembling data on police-involved shootings? He said he’s open to it. On suggestions that local DAs are too biased to make the call on charging officers in shooting cases, he doesn’t buy it. “The investigations are thorough and the DA is independent enough to handle this.”

No quick answer: Atkins touched on the hot button challenge of unfunded liabilities — mainly state retiree pensions and health care — and offered that “we are going to need the employer to pay more and the employees to pay more. But there won’t be a quick and easy answer here today. There is much more work to be done.”

Money in schools: Bob Huff, Senate Republican leader, believes more can be done to lift academic achievement in low-performing schools — if there were incentives to place the best teachers on those campuses. He’s not convinced the state’s school money is well-spent, noting that the level of spending has risen steadily, without a matching rise in achievement. Huff, who is not exactly the teacher unions’ best friend, suggested the state needs to make sure educational funding is more about “serving the students, not the adults.” He added that education reform and teacher quality is not even a discussion the Democratic majority in Sacramento will “engage in,” as they are so beholden to the teacher unions.

Texas beckons?: Huff said the state is paying a price for all of its environmental regulation. High fees make other states more attractive. “Have you ever been to Texas? Who really wants to move to Texas? You only move there if you have an economic reason to go. And we keep giving Texas economic advantages over California.”