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Former California Legislative Analyst Liz Hill, Renowned Straight Shooter, Turns Her Focus to Health Policy


Published April 20, 2016 on the California Health Care Foundation website.

After 22 years navigating state political waters, a respected policy expert looks back on a career that depended on objective facts and data, and explains why she chose to serve on the board of the California Health Care Foundation.

Elizabeth Hill became the first woman to head the California Legislative Analyst’s Office in 1986 when she was eight months’ pregnant with her second child. For 22 years, she held one of the most important positions in state government — advising the 120-member legislature during fractious times and sometimes clashing over policy recommendations in an increasingly partisan environment beset by the passage of term limits, deep budget cuts, and recession.

Through it all, she quietly maintained a reputation as a no-nonsense, nonpartisan, data-driven, objective analyst of legislation, the state budget, and a growing number of ballot initiatives. She testified in countless hearings, was peppered with questions from legislators, state agency heads — even governors — and was always open with the news media, always on the record.

Sometimes the disagreements would devolve into invective, but Hill never wavered from her even, fact-based analysis, acknowledging that her job sometimes made her unpopular. “It comes with the territory,” she once told a reporter. At one point, she managed this mammoth, sometimes thankless responsibility with a staff of only 43.

Yet restrictions on budget and staff did not limit her ability to shape public policy, and in 2015, because of her influence on the state’s political and public developments, she was asked by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, to be the subject of a detailed oral history (PDF) for the California State Archives.

Hill joined the LAO as a program analyst in 1976, following a steady climb from humble roots in the Central Valley city of Modesto, where she was born and raised. She earned degrees from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley; served as a Fulbright Scholar in Sweden; and had stints with several state and local agencies. Four years after she was appointed to the top job, voters passed Proposition 140, the term-limits initiative that also cut legislative budgets and slashed the analyst’s office by 60%.

“It had a seismic effect on the office,” said Dan Carson, a former San Diego Union-Tribune Capitol bureau reporter who left journalism and joined the analyst’s office in 1995 — and stayed for 17 years. “But we found ways to develop new roles that were in keeping with the resources we had. And Liz pushed us forward on computer technology.”

Despite the cuts, Carson and others said, Hill was personally and deeply involved in day-to-day decisions, while emphasizing a collaborative approach. “Any significant fiscal issue — she personally read and edited it, as the last line of defense for us,” he said. “She was very cognizant. She didn’t phone it in.”

Her employer was the Legislature — all 120 members — and she was widely viewed on both sides of the aisle as even-handed, thoroughly prepared, and a straight shooter. “She’s a solid shot with absolute, impeccable integrity. Couldn’t be any better,” John Vasconcellos, a powerful Santa Clara Democrat in the state senate, told a reporter when Hill announced her retirement in 2008. (Vasconcellos died in 2014.)

“Everyone in that office is dedicated to the ethic of nonpartisanship,” former Republican Assembly member Roger Niello of Fair Oaks said when Hill retired, “because Liz has developed it that way.”

Echoing other legislators, Denise Ducheny, a Democratic senator from San Diego at the time, said Hill’s departure “will leave a huge hole.” During legislative ceremonies after she announced her retirement, the San Francisco Chronicle reported how “evidence of her legacy rippled through the standing ovations from both sides of the aisle.”

With characteristic humility, Hill says nonpartisanship has been a hallmark of the office since it was created in 1941. From its inception, the analyst maintains credibility through nonpartisanship, she said, “providing untainted advice that is objective,” giving lawmakers the tools to make decisions about programs and policy.

When Hill left government, she said she initially spent time “decompressing,” traveling with her husband, Larry, who retired as director of cooperative education at California State University, Sacramento. She also wanted to spend more time with their two children, Erik, 34, and Kristina, 29, and two grandchildren. Today, at 66, Hill continues to focus on public policy issues in retirement, mainly health care and higher education.

In a wide-ranging April 4 interview at her home in Sacramento, Hill spoke with veteran Sacramento journalist Sigrid Bathen about her path to becoming one of the most trusted and sought-after public policy experts in the state, and about how solid policy analysis can influence future decisions. Her recall for complex details, dates, and names is precise, razor-sharp — a quality often lauded by legislators, governors, other public officials, and her own staff. And while her long career in public policy spanned a range of issues, health care — especially access for low-income Californians — remains a major focus.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Q: Your family has deep roots in the Central Valley, and you were born and raised in Modesto. Tell us about your early years.

A: My father was born there, and my mother moved there when she was three. Both my parents went to high school in Modesto, and I attended public schools. My father was a salesman with Leslie Salt Co., and my mom was an elementary school teacher. Stone was my maiden name. Our roots are still strong in the community. My mom is 90 now and still lives in Modesto. My father died about 20 years ago. My sister, Ann Falk, who worked in local government, lives in Turlock.

Q: You were active in debate in high school, and 4H, and were strong academically, attending Stanford University on a state scholarship. You also worked in university food services during the school year and summers in a tomato processing plant near Modesto. How did those vastly different cultural and academic experiences affect you?

A: I always knew that if I was going to attend college, I would need to get a scholarship. Luckily, a guidance counselor at my high school — we still had guidance counselors in those days — was a huge help to me, just to figure out how to navigate the waters when applying for college. I was a strong academic student, and had also been on the debate team. So I had a chance to actually visit a number of campuses throughout California for debate tournaments. One of them was Stanford, and I became very interested in that as a possibility. And UC Santa Cruz was just starting about the time I was graduating from high school, and I was quite intrigued by the cluster-college model. So those were the two places I applied, and fortunately, I got in to both.

Q: And then an opportunity to study in Sweden intervened, and that became a significant experience in your life.

A: Yes. After I was accepted at Stanford, I was also accepted into the American Field Service Program (AFS), which is based in New York City and matches the interests of accepted students with families around the world. And they felt that a family up in Umeå, Sweden, which is just shy of the Arctic Circle, was the best fit for me. . . . Stanford was really terrific about it. They said that while they couldn’t guarantee me a slot for the next year, they thought that it was a wonderful idea to participate [in AFS in Sweden] and to go — and, in effect, reapply. So that’s what I decided to do.

Q: Did you know any Swedish?

A: No. I had studied Latin and Spanish. Growing up in Modesto, we had gone up to the snow once, but I had never seen snow fall out of the sky. I really didn’t understand whole sentences for quite some time. But after three months, you know, I became more conversant. It was kind of comparable to a junior college-level education, which is a difference between the system in Europe and the American high school system.

Q: And you’ve remained in touch with your Swedish family over the years?

A: It will be 50 years ago in 2018 that I went to live with them. And my children know my host sister’s children, and the next generation, our grandkids, are starting to know each other now that the world is a little smaller, with Skype and Facetime and the Internet.

Q: You remarked in the oral history that the families of some of your roommates at Stanford spent more on groceries in a week than your family did in a month. How did your different backgrounds and experiences affect your time there? How did you adjust?

A: I think the wonderful thing about growing up in California is that you’re influenced by all these different things. I had a really good public education. Then I had the opportunity to go to Sweden and learned a great deal about cultural differences, and had a different view of the United States from the outside looking in, which was really valuable. And I learned you could still have an incredible commonality with people even if your backgrounds were perhaps totally different. And I think it’s kind of driven by the Golden Rule, to be honest. Do unto others as I’d like them to do unto me, and that seemed to work out pretty well in terms of being professional and fair. At Stanford, I think that served me well. I was a bit unusual, being a scholarship student. I was very fortunate, and once the university admitted you, they sent you a strong message that they wanted you to succeed and would be helpful in seeing you through. . . . And again, I could learn from my colleagues there; I was fortunate that a new major had started when I was a freshman, called the Program in Human Biology, to try to look at folks by integrating biology and the behavioral sciences, which was actually an experimental program supported by the Ford Foundation — a nice tie to philanthropy. I just thought it was fascinating.

Q: You did food-service work at Stanford, where you held a job as a “hasher.”

A: That was what they called us in my day. I worked around 20 hours a week, and I later became the head of the hashing crew at our little part of Lagunita, which was the dorm complex where I lived. And then the human biology program had student advisors, and I was paid for that. And I worked in the summers, first at Contadina putting “eight great tomatoes in that itty-bitty can.” I also picked peaches and berries.

Q: You have said that experience gave you an appreciation for the challenges facing other workers at the Contadina plant.

A: Absolutely. The canning industry is seasonal by definition, depending on — in our case — peaches and tomatoes. And sometimes there are rains in the Central Valley in the summer. And when it rains, sometimes there are layoffs for a few days when the fruit isn’t harvested. I remember, very vividly, when we were laid off for a couple days, and I was walking behind some ladies as we left that evening, and they said, “Gee, I just don’t know how I’m going to make it without the couple days of income for that work.” And that struck me. I was earning money to be able to go to college. They were there just to make ends meet.

Q: Your major at Stanford was human biology, but you decided to focus on public policy, especially during your internship at the state Department of Transportation (now CalTrans).

A: The major at Stanford wasn’t a classic biology major, although a number of my colleagues in the major did go on to medical school and public health. Because it was a melding of biology and the behavioral sciences, there was a contingent of us who went into related areas like public policy, sociology, and psychology. It was fantastic. At first, I thought I would like to work in nutrition. And then I took my first chemistry-related course, and I realized, nope. . . . I can do nutrition, but not from the scientific point of view of a nutritionist.

Q: The program required an internship?

A: Yes, during the academic term. I became acquainted with Claire Dedrick, who later became secretary of resources under Jerry Brown during his first or second term. And I got very excited about public policy. I then had a chance to work with Assemblymember Clare Berryhill from the Modesto area who actually went to high school with my parents. I found I really enjoyed government. And the people of California had given me an opportunity to go to college with taxpayer dollars through the California Scholarship, supplemented by financial aid from the university. I was really interested in giving back through public service.

Q: After graduating from Stanford, you were accepted at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, where you earned a master’s degree, working during the summer at Caltrans. After grad school, you went directly to the analyst’s office?

A: First I spent a year in Sweden as a Fulbright Scholar studying their transportation systems. Interestingly enough, when the analyst’s office had an opening upon my return, I was hoping it would be in transportation, but there was nothing available. So I ended up in criminal justice as my policy area.

Q: This was a very different policy area from transportation. Could you discuss the interrelationships among the various areas of public policy analysis — how health care, for example, is impacted by education, social services, criminal justice issues, even transportation?

A: One advantage that we had at the analyst’s office, as a small office, is that I encouraged the staff that if they thought an issue they were looking into had implications for another policy area in the office, they were supposed to walk down the hall and talk to a colleague about what the interaction was and where they could potentially partner on a potential solution. We clearly have huge health care needs in state prisons that also have some implications for the Medi-Cal budget, substance abuse, mental health. The interrelationship of those policy issues was something I really tried to emphasize during my time as legislative analyst. That’s not to say it’s easy to break down those barriers. I’m well aware that it isn’t. But that cross-fertilization I think enabled us to make some important recommendations. In 1993, for example, we made a proposal called Making Government Make Sense, and that encompassed not only health but social services, criminal justice — a whole variety of policy issues. And we were concerned about uniformity in service, particularly in health issues, so that you wouldn’t have as much variation from county to county. And so again, that kind of cross-fertilization certainly came to bear in our proposals.

Q: You clearly have a strong preference for data-driven objective analysis, while maintaining the historically nonpartisan nature of the LAO. How did the presence or absence of data and objective analysis influence policy outcomes when you headed the office?

A: A good example is our work on welfare reform. In 1997, the state had to respond to the elimination of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children’s (AFDC) program at the federal level. And we had been, of course, following social-services and welfare-related issues, cash-grant and work-related programs for many, many years. A lot of evaluations had been done of these programs. So when it came time in 1997 to assist the legislature in crafting the state’s response to the new federal requirements, one of the things we did was to point to the evaluation literature. What worked? But we also had a sense that some of the data wasn’t crystal-clear and wasn’t a full-powered evaluation, and was, frankly, more anecdotal evidence as to what might work. And so what we did in coming together with a proposal for the legislature on welfare reform was exactly to that question. . . . We thought, “Here are some really important messages coming out of this anecdotal evidence that the legislature should consider.” So sometimes, not enough work has been done to come to a conclusive decision. But you give it your best judgment, and you be explicit as to what has been “proven,” and what is instead anecdotal. And so we did that with a good deal of success in our welfare reform proposal.

Q: Do you think data-driven, objective analysis is well utilized in state government generally?

A: Objective analysis is one of many things that policymakers have to take into consideration. I think sometimes its impact may not be clear in the immediate term but becomes clearer in the long term. As local Assembly member Phil Isenberg would say, “Information is power,” and to get your facts straight and know where the weaknesses are in the information — and also the strengths. That can have a very powerful effect on decisionmakers.

Q: It must have been difficult when public officials would balk at your analyses, or sometimes yell at you or make profane comments.

A: I think when you work in the policy environment, you have to understand that analysis is one of many factors, that politics is kind of a contact sport, that my chosen line of profession was making powerful people uncomfortable, oftentimes with objective analysis. And so there were clearly going to be times that officials were not pleased. But if they knew you could be a straight shooter, be objective, evenhanded, and appreciate that they were elected to make decisions, and as staff we were employed to be advisers, not decisionmakers, it worked out. And I think sometimes folks don’t understand that difference, between advice and decision.

Q: You have told the story about the time when Assembly member Maxine Waters said she planned to vote for a budget item you were analyzing, and she told you, “I want you guys to be as hard as nails on that proposal. I want it to be improved.” Did most members have that view of your work?

A: Members who had been around quite some time understood what a neutral third-party could do for them in the policy arena. I think in the early years of a term-limited legislature, some new members had a harder time understanding how they could use the resources of the office . . . to benefit their decisionmaking.

Q: You always had an unusually good relationship with the news media during your tenure — certainly not the norm in government. How did you handle media requests, interviews?

A: We were always of the view that we had so much in common with reporters — trying to explain how state government worked, what was happening. We wanted to be as transparent and open as possible about that, and had the view that all of our staff should talk on the record and not offer their own opinions. But we also thought that the individuals who were responsible for the analysis were usually the best people for the media to talk to because they had the most expertise. I mean, you could talk to me about education, but it would be far better to talk to our education expert. We had debated, “Gee, in this media world, should we have a public information officer?” But ultimately, we decided that the way we were doing it — trying to connect media folks with our experts and talking on the record — was really important.

Q: You’ve said that health care has always been an important interest of yours. How does health policy differ from other types of policy?

A: That’s a really good question. In the analyst’s office, we were dealing with a whole variety of issues, from mental health to substance abuse to developmental services, public health, and Medi-Cal. And Medi-Cal is far and away the largest health program in California. While I didn’t do a deep dive into health [policy] in the analyst’s office, I was responsible for the overall analyses of the health budget. I think health is unique in that, while there are other policy areas that have some similarities, in health particularly it’s a partnership between the state and federal government, particularly when it comes to Medi-Cal. . . . When I retired [in 2009], roughly 6.5 million Californians were served by Medi-Cal; now that number is over 13 million. So it’s changed significantly, and largely because of the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Q: In 2011, you decided to join the California Health Care Foundation board. What did you find appealing about that role?

A: It was right around the time that the Affordable Care Act was going in, and everybody has some health stories in their families. In my case, in the 1990s my mom had had fourth-stage fallopian tube cancer, a very rare cancer. And she, amazingly, pulled through. She was treated here in Sacramento at UC Davis — she’s 90 now. . . . And having dealt with health over the years, in all of its various permutations, I thought, “Gee, it would be really nice to do more of a deep dive.” Health affects everybody, and with the Affordable Care Act, hopefully I could be helpful to CHCF with my own state experience. I didn’t know that much about philanthropy, but CHCF was, I thought, really unique in that it was willing to work with government and find opportunities where it could be helpful to the government process, again with information, analysis, and data. And that was very intriguing to me . . . with many similarities to what we did in the analyst’s office. . . . I’ve found it incredibly interesting — great staff, great board of directors. And I think that the mission of CHCF is so important — to be sure that there is access to high-quality care for all Californians, with a particular focus on low-income individuals who often don’t have access, or the system isn’t working well for them.

Q: Have you found that your background in behavioral health, going back to your studies at Stanford in human biology, has been a factor in your work with the foundation?

A: We are really moving the foundation more into the behavioral health environment, which is a newer endeavor for us. But I think trying to see the whole person — both the physical and behavioral health ailments and the substance abuse issues that are also a part of behavioral health — that is very important, as is our continued emphasis on access to care, quality care.

Q: And end-of-life issues?

A: The foundation has done important work in that area. I’m a baby boomer, and knowing how many of us are coming, to be sure that high-quality care follows the patient’s wishes is really important. We also have a number of collaborations with other entities that are underway. We’re a fairly small foundation, and being able to collaborate with other partners to make a difference in people’s lives is really important.

Q: You utilized that collaborative philanthropic model to work with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center after your mother was successfully treated there.

A: I’ve had the opportunity as a CHCF board member to work with the Comprehensive Cancer Center at UC Davis to initiate a women’s cancer-care program. And I’m really pleased with how that’s been able to develop with a little seed money that I was able to direct their way as a director at CHCF. That happens to be where my mom got care, and I wanted to see if there were some things that we could do for other folks going forward. So it’s been an exciting time.

Q: As analyst, you emphasized the importance of field research to learn firsthand about the issues you were examining. In the oral history, you spoke of an early experience, a meeting in Los Angeles with a social worker and a client with a child in her lap trying to apply for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). And you were struck by the complexity of the paperwork, and the challenges faced by that caseworker and her client. What did you learn from that experience?

A: That intake experience gave me a profound appreciation for what eligibility workers were facing as they were trying to manage a caseload of several hundred people, to be sure they were meeting all the requirements of federal and state law, and the client who was juggling a one-year-old on her lap as she was trying to answer all the eligibility questions and be honest and factual, and she wasn’t trying to cheat the system. . . . Ultimately, what the state budget and public service are about is understanding people’s needs and how to provide services in the most cost-efficient and beneficial way. And so it really brought it home to our little world in the analyst’s office and in explaining to members of the legislature how programs actually work, what it takes to deliver services in a cost-effective way.

Q: You went through draconian budget cuts in the LAO during your tenure. How did you maintain the quality of the work following passage of Proposition 140 in 1990, when term limits were imposed in the legislature, and your budget was slashed by 60%?

A: It was a challenging time. I think each legislative analyst has been shaped by some unique event during their tenure. Mine was certainly the Proposition 140 experience. The standards for excellence certainly predated me, and they were among the things that attracted me to the office. So when we lost 60% of our staff, we basically had to figure out how could we maintain our excellence, how could we keep the analytical focus, and how can we keep producing things that were required by statute — largely our ballot work — as well as what the legislature expected us to do on the state budget.

Q: How did you manage priorities?

A: We went from 105 to 43 employees at one point, over a two-year period — at the same time the state was in an incredible recession. I approached the legislative leadership and said, “We can’t do the same amount with 60% fewer people,” and I recommended to them that we no longer do all the bill analyses. I just didn’t see a physical way the office could do that. We still operated on a special-request basis, but we would no longer produce 3,000 bill analyses a year.

Q: What about the budget analyses?

A: In previous years, we analyzed every single item of the budget. After Prop. 140, we made a decision each year about where we were going to concentrate our efforts, but that basically, we were going to concentrate our staff resources where most of the money was, and the overall revenue and expenditures of the state. In effect, we tripled all of the analytical staff’s budget assignments as a way to make up for the loss of staff. . . . I think it is a really good case in point of the dedication of my colleagues at the Legislative Analyst’s Office who remained when a very dark cloud was hanging over our heads — and still produced solid, professional work. I think it’s a real testament to public servants.

Q: You were the first woman to be named legislative analyst, in 1986, when you were eight months’ pregnant with your second child, your daughter. How did you manage issues of work-life balance and the needs of families versus demanding careers?

A: You know, I think for all of us, the work-life balance is a constant struggle. I was very fortunate in that my husband was very supportive of me working at the analyst’s office and throwing my hat into becoming the analyst even though I was eight months’ pregnant at the time that I was appointed. He worked at CSU Sacramento most of that time, and other than May, our schedules were different enough that we could complement each other. But May was particularly trying, both for the academic and the budgetary calendar. Initially, we didn’t have any family residing in Sacramento, and so we had to rely on neighbors and friends to help with picking up children. When our children got sick, one of us would take off in the morning, and one would take off in the afternoon. Clearly, during my tenure in the office, overtime was a big component, year-in and year-out and also during tough budgetary times. The budget often wasn’t done in time for summer vacation, so that always affected things as well. So it was tough on my kids at times. But it was also my dream job, my kids were flexible, and with my husband’s support we made it work.

Sigrid Bathen, adjunct professor of journalism and communications, California State University Sacramento

Democrats divided: The race for state schools superintendent

By Sigrid Bathen posted September 23, 2014


For an obscure elective office that is often ignored, unknown or regarded as superfluous in California’s convoluted education bureaucracy, the November election for state Superintendent of Public Instruction is shaping up as one of the most contentious — and costly — races among statewide candidates.

The superintendency typically is viewed as a down-ticket backwater – a nonpartisan office with limited power that some say should be abolished.

Superintendent Tom Torlakson, 65, a mild-mannered former state legislator, Contra Costa County supervisor and high school science teacher, against charter-school administrator Marshall Tuck, 41, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked for several years in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.

But this year, it has become a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with schools in California, which have consistently been ranked among the lowest-performing and poorly funded in the nation.

At the center of the campaign battle is a Superior Court judge’s blistering decision favoring the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, a closely watched lawsuit challenging the state’s cumbersome, expensive, teacher-tenure and dismissal system. And while ostensibly nonpartisan, the race between two Democratic candidates in a heavily Democratic state has revealed long-standing divisions among Democrats over education reform.

“This is a battle that has been raging [within] the Democratic Party for about 20 years, but it has become quite fierce,” Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, recently told the education news service, Cabinet Report. “In California, with Democrats so dominant, you look for issues that are going to divide the majority party, and I think this one is pretty close to the top.”

The election pits an embattled but well-funded incumbent Superintendent Tom Torlakson, 65, a mild-mannered former state legislator, Contra Costa County supervisor and high school science teacher, against charter-school administrator Marshall Tuck, 41, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked for several years in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street before founding the highly regarded Green Dot Charter Schools. Later, he was CEO of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for L.A. Schools.

Another round of independent expenditures – which by law cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns – is expected in the general election season.

While outspent in the primary by Torlakson supporters – primarily massive spending by the California Teachers Association and other unions — Tuck has major support from several wealthy pro-charter donors, including philanthropist Eli Broad and businessman William Bloomfield. Tuck’s campaign benefited from some $1.4 million in independent expenditures, including several large contributions from the California Senior Advocates League PAC, a group funded primarily by Broad and Bloomfield.

Tuck was been endorsed over Torlakson – in the primary — by all major California newspapers, which is unusual so early in the election season.

The CTA and other unions spent $2.6 million in the primary for broadcast and print ads for Torlakson, and another $2 million for “issue ads,” which featured Torlakson but don’t expressly advocate for the candidate.

Another round of independent expenditures – which by law cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns – is expected in the general election season, although both candidates and their handlers are understandably vague about when or how much. A recent spate of independent expenditures on Torlakson’s behalf came from the CTA, the state and national Federation of Teachers and other labor unions – some $450,000 as of Sept. 19, according to Election Track and the Secretary of State’s office.

According to state financial disclosure records, both candidates reported less than $200,000 cash on hand as of June 30 – $194,550 for Torlakson and $179, 913 for Tuck. Total reported expenditures by each candidate from Jan. 1 through June 30 were very close – more than $1.14 million for Torlakson and just over $1 million for Tuck. But as of mid-September, a sharp uptick in candidate contributions favored Tuck, with $381,000 for Torlakson and $448,000 for Tuck.

Consultant: “There was a horrible turnout in the primary and [likely to be] horrible in the general. It’s very hard to get anybody’s attention — unless you have money.”

“There is a ton of money involved,” said Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit which monitors campaign spending and elections. “The unions appear to be stepping up for Torlakson because he has an opponent who has demonstrated he can raise significant amounts of money.”

Getting the Word Out. . .
A veteran campaign consultant knowledgeable about the election said funding for the schools is improving with the economy and strong public support for school funding, but getting the word out is difficult, and running for a little-known state schools office requires campaign cash.

“Unfortunately for a lot of us who care deeply about these issues,” said the consultant, who asked not to be identified, “this is the most difficult time to run for statewide office. There was a horrible turnout in the primary and [likely to be] horrible in the general. It’s very hard to get anybody’s attention — unless you have money. . .

“If you look at the people who fund Tuck’s campaign, they have a very different view of what is a public school, and ‘reform’ is often code for vouchers. People upset with the schools are upset with the cutbacks — no money for counselors, for nothing but the bare minimum. This was the first spring when there haven’t been pink slips. Because of Proposition 30 (Gov. Brown’s sales and income tax initiative, which was passed in 2012 and strongly supported by Torlakson), there is now some capacity to put money back into the schools.”

“I support due-process rights for teachers, but the law is broken and needs to be changed,” he said. “The tenure process is dysfunctional.” — Gary Hart

Tuck, who has never run for public office, says he decided to run after his efforts in the L.A. Partnership, aimed at turning around 17 dismally performing schools in low-income, central-city neighborhoods, were repeatedly stymied by arcane teacher hiring and dismissal rules in an entrenched education bureaucracy.

The strongly worded Vergara decision on June 10 — and reaffirmed in a final ruling on Aug. 28 — came at a fortuitous time for the upstart young candidate, galvanizing public opinion on school inequality and teacher tenure. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said K-12 education in California “shocks the conscience” and is flatly unconstitutional for many students, particularly those in poor and minority neighborhoods – a decision which has focused unusually intense attention on the race, as well as copious amounts of campaign cash.

The decision is almost certain to be mired in a lengthy appeals process, and the issue of appealing Vergara is itself controversial.

“These court battles can go on for many years, and nothing may happen, but I hope this does help generate more attention,” says former state Sen. Gary Hart, D-Santa Barbara, a former high school teacher who chaired the Senate Education Committee for 12 years. He was education secretary to Gov. Gray Davis and is the author of many major education bills, including measures to increase school funding and create charter schools.

“I support due-process rights for teachers, but the law is broken and needs to be changed,” he said. “The tenure process is dysfunctional.”

Those with long experience in California education – some of whom do not want to be quoted by name in a contentious race – say that too often “blame the incumbent” becomes the mantra when public dissatisfaction with schools drives elections. In this election, many say, “blame the teachers” becomes an equally convenient form of scapegoating in a Byzantine state education system with plenty of blame to go around.

A recent Field Poll found Tuck leading Torlakson among likely voters by 31 percent to 28 percent – with a whopping 41 percent undecided. The Tuck campaign issued a jubilant press release about the poll in which campaign manager/communications director Cynara Lilly said “voters are ready for a change” and “when given a choice, will choose the candidate with experience turning around public schools – not the Sacramento insider.”

Gov. Brown chose not to appoint a Secretary of Education, instead focusing on the role of the state board as a policy-making body and emphasizing more local control of schools.

But early polls often do not reflect final outcomes. What does appear likely is this: The coming weeks will unleash a blizzard of campaign ads – mainly paid for by massive infusions of independent expenditures.

“This is a battle between the CTA and so-called education ‘reformers’ who hate the unions, and have their own agendas about the way the schools should be run,” said one veteran political analyst who asked not to be named. “They have a certain notoriety because of the public’s clamor about bad schools. . .Does it matter? Does it make a difference? That depends on what you think about the power of the superintendent.”

Hart and many other longtime educators involved in education politics say the superintendency is a largely ceremonial position, with few powers beyond the “bully pulpit.” Hart, who seriously considered running for the job and ultimately decided against it, has long said the office should be abolished.

The current system, critics say, too often works at cross-purposes, with an elected state superintendent, who heads the state Department of Education, as well as a state Board of Education appointed by the governor, plus hundreds of local school districts and boards, county offices of education and boards.

Gov. Brown chose not to appoint a Secretary of Education, instead focusing on the role of the state board as a policy-making body and emphasizing more local control of schools. In a recent interview with Education Week magazine, board President Michael Kirst, a veteran state and national educator and administrator, said California “for years had a fractured and fractious policymaking system,” creating confusion over “who was in charge.” He said the governor has worked closely with the board and Torlakson, “most of whose positions on education are close to his own.”

‘Blame the Teachers’
Both Torlakson and Brown took considerable heat over their recent decision to appeal the popular Vergara decision. The state’s appeal was filed Aug. 29.

“The system is so convoluted and it can take two to three years or more, costing districts $100,000 (and more). There is no reason for these cases to drag on so long,” — Joan Buchanan

Torlakson says the Superior Court decision is constitutionally flawed and unfairly blames teachers for problems in schools. “The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support,” he said in a prepared statement after the August ruling. “Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet.”

“No teacher is perfect,” he added. “A very few are not worthy of the job. School districts have always had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up.” He pointed to a bill he and the governor supported, by Assembly Education Committee Chair Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, which aims to shorten the arduous hearing and appeal process.

Although critics say the measure provides only limited relief, Buchanan, who served 18 years on the San Ramon Valley school board, including four terms as president, says it is a good first step and brings opposing sides in the controversy to the table. “The system is so convoluted,” she said, “and it can take two to three years or more, costing districts $100,000 (and more). There is no reason for these cases to drag on so long,”

Colleagues and even longtime supporters of Torlakson are often torn about the election, particularly prominent Democratic educators who may be union members.

But they also know firsthand the failings of the teacher-tenure and disciplinary process, which has allowed efforts to discipline or fire clearly incompetent, even abusive, teachers to drag on for years, deterring administrators from even attempting to fire a teacher because of the time and expense of the hearing and appeal process.

“When a district goes into receivership (state takeover), it’s usually been a long way to get there, and it’s a long way to get out. We’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go.” — Paul Hefnerf

Also at issue in the election is the current two-year probationary period for new teachers, which critics say is actually only 16 months and is not remotely sufficient to determine a teacher’s competence. Nor, they say, does the current system provide adequate support and mentoring to a new teacher who may be having trouble in the classroom.

Dr. Barbara O’Connor, a prominent retired political communications professor at California State University, Sacramento, who founded the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, said Torlakson “gets blamed for all the woes of education,” including the financial collapse of many school districts in California. And, while Torlakson is blamed for education’s failings, she added “he also has access to [campaign] finances, so it counter-balances.”

Torlakson campaign manager Paul Hefner says the number of districts in financial trouble has dwindled substantially since Torlakson took office in 2011. “At the height of the crisis, one of three kids attended a school [that was] in financial trouble,” Hefner said. “When a district goes into receivership (state takeover), it’s usually been a long way to get there, and it’s a long way to get out. We’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go.”

As a former department chair, O’Connor said she often faced personnel and tenure issues, which come with different rules at the university level, and much longer “probationary” periods. “In the universities, you have to wait seven years,” she said. “It’s an onerous process. To have collective bargaining and tenure is tough. I can’t imagine [granting tenure] after only 16 months.”

A union member (the California Faculty Association in the CSU) throughout her long career in higher education, O’Connor says, “I believe in unions.” At the same time, “I’m not always happy with them (the unions). . .I’m ready for some people who want to take some risk.” She has not taken a position in the election. She says she has visited Tuck’s Green Dot Schools and was impressed. “He’s nontraditional,” she said, “and smart.”

“And I’ve always supported Tom Torlakson, since he was in the Assembly,” O‘Connor added. “He’s a great human being, and his daughter Tamara is a friend (Tamara Torlakson is a senior associate at Dewey Square Group, a political consulting firm).”

‘Crippling Bureaucracy’
In an interview with Capitol Weekly, Tuck said the state’s education system “has been broken for a long time, and we do need real change. I’m not a politician, I’ve learned what it takes to do this work.”

But he’s vague on the specifics of how he would change a system entrenched in layers upon layers of legislative, administrative and legal requirements, both state and federal. He said he favors a collaborative approach – a position similar to Torlakson’s.

“The [state] Education Code constrains what can be done, and it’s a crippling bureaucracy,” Tuck said. “There is no individual position that is all-powerful, but this (the superintendency) is a uniquely influential position, for setting the vision, for fundamental change. It is the one position that is non-partisan, focused only on kids, with the ‘bully pulpit’ and specific assigned powers to drive unique change and move the work forward. But it has to be a collective effort.”

As for teacher discipline, he favors major changes in the process, one in which “you touch a kid, and you’re gone.” Working in challenging L.A. schools as part of the partnership with Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified, Tuck said, “We had teachers who literally hit kids and pushed them around, but we were told we couldn’t fire them.”

At the same time, he said, the increasingly controversial “last-hired-first-fired” system of union-backed hiring meant that many excellent teachers were regularly facing pink slips every spring – a particularly serious issue in low-performing schools in poor areas with high teacher turnover. “We had to lay off teachers of very high quality,” Tuck said. At one school, he said, half the teachers got layoff notices, while at other, more desirable schools, “only 5 percent received layoff notices.”

Tuck insists he favors tenure, and disagrees with the pro-voucher, anti-tenure views of some of his well-heeled supporters. “I’ve only worked in union schools,” he added. “I’m an independent, first and foremost.”

Former state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, who founded the California Teacher of the Year Foundation to provide funding for recognition of outstanding teachers and is on Torlakson’s list of supporters, said many top teachers favor significant changes in the probationary and tenure system which is at the heart of the current election. “Some of those teachers are not in favor of the current tenure system,” she said. “Many favor a three-year probationary period, with levels of [job] protection. . .I do think it’s too hard and too expensive to fire a teacher for doing evil things, let alone incompetence.”

California remains one of the lowest among the states in per-pupil spending.

Whatever happens in the superintendent’s election, with its promises of reform and a blizzard of campaign cash, the role of the office comes down to educating kids in an increasingly diverse, economically divided state with some 6 million kids currently attending public schools – an estimated one-fourth of them poor, many attending substandard facilities with overcrowded classrooms, too many failing to complete high school.

And while teacher tenure has become a driving issue in the election, adequate school funding is hardly mentioned. “Both sides agree on the need for more funding,” says Sonenshein. “They disagree about how education should be delivered.”

Post-recessionary infusions to K-12 budgets, with emphasis on poor and low-performing schools, in the governor’s budget are a good start, Eastin and others say, but hardly address the overcrowded classes, aging buildings, staff cutbacks and other gaping holes in the system that began with the 1978 passage of the property-tax limitation initiative, Proposition 13.

California remains one of the lowest among the states in per-pupil spending. “The solution is a long-term plan to get us back to where we fully fund K-12,” says Eastin.

As a young community college teacher in southern California in the 1970s, who became a state legislator and state schools superintendent, Eastin also taught youths at a juvenile detention facility – an experience that helped drive her views of public education in California, which spends far more to incarcerate young people than to educate them.

“It was an excellent experience for determining policy,” she mused. “The state Constitution doesn’t say that the first priority is incarceration. It says the first priority is education.”

Ed’s Note: Sigrid Bathen is a longtime education writer who teaches journalism at California State University, Sacramento.

Changes in mental health care system spur new optimism


Changes in mental health care system spur new optimism


Massive changes in how mental health care is delivered to Californians – including abolishing or restructuring the two state departments responsible for mental health and substance-abuse programs – are being closely watched by care providers and advocacy groups.

They say they are “cautiously optimistic” that Gov. Brown’s plan will result in a coordinated, community-based system of care for the thousands of people who historically have faced a dizzying patchwork of care, or no care at all.

But advocates emphasize that mental-health care must have a prominent position in the state bureaucracy.

“We need somewhere to go to at a very high senior policy level,” said Mark Gale, chairman of the public policy committee for the California arm of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the father of a mentally ill son. “We need someone at the highest level who understands core mental health policy, law and regulations, someone who has lived it. If we don’t get this right, the system will become extremely dysfunctional. If we get it right, there is great opportunity.”

Financed in part through a one-year appropriation of $861 million in the 2011-12 budget from the so-called “millionaire’s tax” approved by voters in 2004 as Proposition 63 to fund new mental health programs, the reorganization aims for a coordinated approach to mental health – and a major shift from the state to the counties for funding and managing mental-health programs, with state oversight.

Some services are being moved to the huge state Department of Health Care Services. There is talk of two new departments – one under the rubric of “Behavioral Health” or “Mental Health and Substance Abuse,” and another for “Institutions” or “State Hospitals” to administer the remaining state hospitals, which primarily house the criminally insane.  A recent spate of assaults, including the strangulation death of a psychiatric technician at Napa State Hospital last October, has prompted a series of state and federal crackdowns at those facilities, which currently house nearly 6,000 patients.

A major concern is abolishing the Department of Mental Health.

“There is tremendous fear in the mental health community about eliminating the Department of Mental Health,” said Rusty Selix, longtime executive director of the Mental Health Association in California. Selix is the co-author, with state Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, of the landmark Mental Health Services Act, passed by voters in 2004 as Proposition 63.

“Where are we left if the next administration doesn’t have the same level of interest?” Selix added.

Representatives of advocacy and professional groups are vocal participants in public hearings held throughout the state in August and September by the state Health and Human Services Agency and the soon-to-be defunct Department of Mental Health. The hearings solicit comments for the complex reorganization plan taking shape at the state and local level.

“There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and we need to look at it as a whole – courts, prisons, police, state hospitals, community programs – and re-engineer a system that works better,” said Randall Hagar, government affairs director for the California Psychiatric Association, who has followed mental health issues for decades and is the father of a schizophrenic son. He says the Brown administration’s reorganization proposals come at a critical juncture for both providers and families. “Some of the tools are there already, but we have a system that has evolved piecemeal for nearly five decades.”

Rose King, a legislative and state policy expert on mental-health issues (who is the widow, mother and grandmother of mentally ill family members), has regularly attended the ongoing “stakeholder” meetings and expresses increasing concern that the vague outlines of a new system still fail to address historic discrimination against the mentally ill, despite state and federal laws requiring parity in treatment for mental as well as “physical” health.

But she says the reorganization “has great potential” and “creates an opportunity for the integration of mental illness and substance abuse disorders” – and to close the disparities in treatment of mental  and physical health care.

Pat Ryan, executive director of the California Mental Health Directors Association, which represents county mental health directors, said the goal of the reorganization “is to get people help sooner rather than later, to avoid both incarceration and institutionalization. If you starve the system and don’t have money specifically intended for prevention and early intervention, you’re never going to get there, because you’re always going to be dealing with crises.” Like other advocates and providers, Ryan said “leadership is critical” in any new system – in which the counties will play an increasingly larger role under the Brown administration proposals and federal health care reform.

“The idea is to get the money flowing directly to counties with fewer strings and less bureaucracy,” said  Farah McDaid Ting, senior legislative analyst for the California State Association of Counties.  “It’s an opportunity for counties to take an integrated approach and offer a continuum of services. We haven’t had that opportunity before.”

Central to the reorganization are lessons learned from the tortuous implementation of Proposition 63, which levied a 1 percent tax on millionaires and provided $900 million to $1.5 billion annually in additional revenue for local mental health programs.

Hailed as the first significant infusion of state funding for mental health since the closures of decrepit, understaffed and overcrowded state mental hospitals nearly four decades earlier – dumping huge numbers of mentally ill people on communities ill-equipped to handle them – Prop. 63 became both an important harbinger of change and a bureaucratic nightmare.

Critics of its implementation – including some of those who helped write the law – say the process was plagued by red tape, glacially slow state Medi-Cal payments to counties, high consultant fees, accusations of cronyism,  and only a trickle of funds for actual programs.

While success stories emerged from communities where homeless mentally ill for the first time found coordinated housing and treatment with Prop. 63 funding, thousands more received little or no treatment, continuing on a tragic downward spiral of homelessness, institutionalization and incarceration, worsened by the severe economic downturn and draconian budget cuts.

The state required counties to jump through an array of bureaucratic hoops and “pre-approvals,” infuriating local officials.  At the same time, there were broad state and local cuts to social programs, with some Prop. 63 funds used in recent years to help balance the precarious California budget.

“The planning process went on and on,” says former Yolo County Supervisor and state Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, who chaired the Joint Legislative Committee on Mental Health and the Assembly Health Committee and is a former psychiatric nurse married to a psychiatrist.

“Every county hired a different kind of consultant. A lot of money was going into the Prop. 63 fund, and it was bureaucratized.” While some new Prop.-63-funded programs provided services, she said, “clinics were closing, beds eliminated.” Intended to supplement existing services and create new programs, Prop. 63 funds were used by cash-strapped counties to finance dwindling mental-health services.

Hagar says the language of the law included “something for everybody, to get everybody on board,” in order to ensure its passage. “Unfortunately, it was so diffuse that we had a lot of exemplary projects developed, doing a wide range of things – suicide prevention, school-based services – while heavy-duty services, core services for those who were homeless or not ‘engaged’ in the system,  did not receive the same level of support.”

Steinberg remains one of its most passionate proponents, and is clearly stung by what some say is the scapegoating of a landmark law.

“You can’t blame [Prop. 63] for the problems of a mental health system that has been decades in the making,” he said.  Quick to criticize the cumbersome implementation process, he is hopeful the current reorganization will address flaws in the process. “The process has been faulty, and it has gone too slowly at times. It’s been way too slow off the mark in reporting data.” Still, he added that despite setbacks, the 2004 law “remains a monumental accomplishment,” and, when fully implemented, will help provide coordinated care and keep the mentally ill out of jails and prisons.

“The fact is that we’re living through the worst recession in 50 years, and we’ve cut budgets in ways I abhor,” he added. “Prop. 63 was never intended to be the solution for all of the system’s problems. It was intended to provide comprehensive care for people with severe mental illness, with the main goal of keeping people out of the system. ”

The law included specific requirements that funds be used only for “new” services (not existing programs), and not for jails or prisons. The complex approval process that evolved, administered by the state Department of Mental Health, will likely be scrapped by 2012-13, along with the department – “reorganized” or “redirected” in state budgetary parlance – as will the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

While state administrators are deep in a widely publicized “Public Safety Realignment,” less has been said publicly about the administration’s lower-key efforts to coordinate mental-health and substance-abuse programs with the state’s vast and costly correctional system, which faces massive court-ordered population reductions and mandated improvements to all aspects of prison health care.

Since many prisoners are also mentally ill and vast numbers are serving time for drug-related crimes, advocates say coordination of mental-health and substance-abuse services at the local level is critical to any reorganization plan, and could help avert much more expensive, sometimes deadly, arrests and incarceration.

Local officials express relief that some of the bureaucratic hoops, especially the much-maligned “pre-approval” process for Prop. 63 funding, will be eliminated, and that Medi-Cal reimbursement backlogs – which often stacked up for months, leaving counties holding the bag – will be reined in.

Newly appointed Health and Human Services Agency Undersecretary David Maxwell-Jolly, the former state Health Care Services Department director who is overseeing the reorganization with Agency Secretary Diana Dooley, said technological improvements have dramatically reduced the paperwork blizzard and Medi-Cal backlogs. He noted that state officials were “less responsive and perhaps less efficient than we could be.”

But officials are adamant that state oversight and especially “evaluation of outcomes” will be a high priority under the reorganization, and that mental health will remain high on the administration agenda regardless of its placement in the state bureaucracy.

Among those assigned to this daunting and often thankless task is a career state administrator, Cliff Allenby, recently appointed by Gov. Brown as interim director of the Mental Health Department. A veteran state Finance Department administrator who has headed several state agencies, including the Department of Developmental Services, Allenby has no illusions about the challenges inherent in reshaping a flawed and broken mental health system.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Allenby said. “We really don’t. The stakeholder process is very important – what should remain, and how that should be [reorganized].  I’m not here to prejudge, and we really will listen carefully at the stakeholder meetings to what they have to say, then prepare a proposal for the 2012-13 budget.”

“I’ve been around a long time, and Sacramento is just not the place to establish policies that work in all 58 counties,” he added, borrowing an oft-repeated anecdote from the governor’s proposals. “What works in L.A. isn’t necessarily what works in Redding.”

Many aspects of the proposed reorganization are unknown, including the specifics of long-term funding sources and state oversight of local programs. “Somehow we must have a very high-level policy visibility that is not buried in some bureaucracy somewhere,” says the Psychiatric Association’s Hagar. “The track record hasn’t been great.”  But despite sometimes heated disagreements among the various “stakeholders,” there is widespread consensus that the administration push toward coordination of mental-health services is long overdue.

Advocates and providers are hopeful that much-touted plans for “integration of services” will carry more weight than the hollow promises of decades past.  They point to the badly fragmented system  that resulted, in which the streets, jails, prisons and state mental hospitals for the criminally insane have become both the first and last resort for the severely mentally ill, who might have been helped with earlier intervention.

“The jails are full of people who are mentally ill, and hospitals are ringed with barbed wire and security guards,” says veteran mental-health advocate and former Assemblywoman Thomson.  “It’s the ‘trans-institutionalization’ of mental illness, and it’s tragic.”

Sigrid Bathen teaches journalism and communications at California State University, Sacramento. She is a former Sacramento Bee and California Journal reporter and editor who has covered mental health issues for more than 30 years.

The Girls on the Bus

The Girls on the Bus

Women Reporters in the Capitol Press Corps
Spring 1991 Thesis by Sigrid Bathen

Due to file size constraints, The Girls on the Bus has been split into four PDF files.

  • Section 1 – Introduction and The Girls on the Bus: A Brief History of Women Reporters Covering Politics
    (Pages 1 – 56)
  • Section 2, Part 1 – The Women
    (Pages 57 – 88)
  • Section 2, Part 2 – The Women (Continued)
    (Pages 89 – 130)
  • Section 3 – The Bureau Chiefs, Notes, and Bibliography
    (Pages 131 – 162)

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