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Patt Morrison Asks

Toni Atkins, the Assembly's speaker to be

Term limits mean she will have to vacate the premises not much more than two years after she takes over the gavel in June. But she's nothing if not prepared.

March 05, 2014|Patt Morrison
  • Assemblywoman Toni Atkins(D-San Diego) applauds Gov. Jerry Brown before his annual State of the State Address at the Capitol. Atkins will become speaker of the Assembly in June.
Assemblywoman Toni Atkins(D-San Diego) applauds Gov. Jerry Brown before… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

It's not like the days when a Willie Brown or a Jesse Unruh could all but take out a lease on the Assembly speaker's offices in Sacramento. Term limits mean Toni Atkins will have to vacate the premises not much more than two years after she takes over the gavel in June as the Assembly's next speaker. But she's nothing if not prepared. Starting in 2000, she served eight years as a popular San Diego City Council member, and in 2005, became the city's acting mayor after the incumbent resigned. Atkins was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and reelected in 2012. Now she'll fill one slot in the state's "Big Five" leadership conclaves in the state Capitol.

What do you hope to do as speaker?

I enjoy working things out, trying to come to a compromise. I don't give up. I think, being from the South, it's partly a cultural thing. I have a pretty easygoing manner, but don't mistake that for the fact that I'm not going to push forward on things.

Although criminal cases have sidelined two senators, voters had given Democrats not just a majority but a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. But they also didn't want that power abused.

We haven't done that. California during the recession had to make cuts that affected the quality of people's lives, so there's great pressure to restore all of that and spend money. That's our challenge. I'd rather have this challenge than a $26-billion deficit. We all have things we care deeply about — if we could just pay for this, just include that in what we restore; that's the budget process we're in.

The U-T San Diego newspaper wished you well in an editorial and also called on you to stop making California "ground zero" for business problems.

My spouse is a small-business owner, so I am very familiar with the challenges of running a business. We need jobs in this state. We also need to make sure that we are balancing everything in terms of businesses able to support their employees, to run their business and keep costs low — but we have a quality of life that we hope all our residents will have. That balancing point is not easy. Our caucus feels it's a challenge to us Democrats because the other polarizing side says we're job killers. I don't believe that. We're busy trying to create jobs.

Your other priorities are the drought and education.

The dream of how to rise is based on a decent education. I would not be here had I not had that opportunity. California has been perceived as the Golden State as far as education, but we need to continue that commitment. Proposition 30 has given us a bit of a buffer. Studies say the best way to grow the economy is to make sure your citizens are educated.

Water — we've all got to sacrifice and conserve immediately. In the long term, we have to update our water policies. We have to look at how to provide reliability and fairness, affordability and storage. We're going to have to upgrade our infrastructure, and that possibly will result in a water bond, but we have to make sure we're using [existing] resources [for] water reliability.

Term limits mean you're out in 2016. What effect have they had?

Three years ago, I was reading the Economist series on "ungovernable California." The voters helped change that, with majority budget votes and term limits [that now allow legislators longer terms in one legislative body]. I don't think [earlier] term limits have been good in the Legislature. You make a decision today knowing you'll be gone in three years; what's the impact? [Now] if legislators choose to do 12 years, there's going to be a higher level of accountability, and more experienced legislators.

Why do politicians get a bad rap?

The art of politics is about making things happen. Beliefs among different groups can be so diverse and polarizing. I think politics can get dirty, but that's never been my way of doing things. I strive to be compared to people like [former state legislators] Lucy Killea, Karen Bass, Dede Alpert; people may disagree with them on policy, but people [also] say they have integrity, they are ethical, they work hard, they're respectful of people.

You were on the San Diego City Council when the public employee pension crisis there was revealed. What can the state do to avert such a problem?

We learned a lesson in probably the hardest way possible [in San Diego]. Some things we dealt with — [pension] spiking, airtime — need to be resolved in a fair way [in the state]. I hope we won't go too far and make our retirees poor, because the system will end up having to pick that [cost] up as well.

As a city politician, did you look at Sacramento and think, those people are making a hash of it?

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