Gov. Gavin Newsom signed his first bill, which will provide $131.3 million in immediate relief from the state’s general fund for emergencies such as a lack of clean drinking water, while surrounded by children at a Parlier elementary school – all of whom must drink from water bottles due to unsafe drinking fountains.
His signature on AB 72, which passed the Legislature unanimously, was briefly in jeopardy. Prior to signing, he polled the students at Riverview Elementary School on whether he should put pen to paper. One young man dissented.
“What is it?” Newsom said to the 6-year-old, dropping down to a knee to speak to him face-to-face. “It’s the money, isn’t it? You don’t want any new taxes. You wonder if we’ll just have to spend more money down the line.”
The student shook his head.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
“OK, it’s the system – we need to change the system so it doesn’t keep happening,” Newsom continued.
The exchange went on for some time before the child ultimately agreed to remain neutral.
“Unanimous with one neutral,” Newsom said.
Newsom spent more than 10 minutes with the children – who ranged from grades 1-12 including some visiting high schoolers – making sure to speak to each one. He spoke of the importance of helping your community, noting that none of them needed to be an elected official for that.
He pointed to state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, the Sanger Democrat and the youngest state senator in California history, as an example of what they could accomplish.
Newsom kept the mood light despite his signing a serious piece of legislation.
“That’s the government,” one student said as he entered the room. Newsom later explained “the government is an entity. I’m the governor.”
Rebekah Percival, the teacher of the sixth-grade classroom hosting Newsom, said the school’s kindergartners learned of a “special visitor” on campus.
“Is it the beaver?” they reportedly said, a reference to the school’s mascot.
“They were upset it wasn’t the beaver,” Percival said with a laugh.
Shortly after the signing, Newsom met with local parents, teachers and administrators to discuss the area’s pressing clean water concerns. Some of the students don’t have access to clean water to drink or bathe in at home.
One parent noted the frustration of Riverview, which won a California Distinguished School award in 2018 for its academic performance, not being able to provide clean water.
Another noted that many schools in even more rural areas have the unenviable task of running its own water system – testing it, providing the necessary notifications to residents and so on – in addition to its academic requirements.
Newsom stressed Wednesday that the legislation would provide immediate grants for things like bottled water and emergency repairs, but a long-term solution is still required. The problem, he said, is that no one wants to pay for it.
During a news conference after the discussion, Newsom said the bill will create the framework for clean drinking water fund that he hopes to get appropriated by the Legislature in July. The fund would be a “comprehensive and much more sustainable solution for the thousands of water districts across the state.”
Newsom mentioned that Hurtado and other leaders have charged his enthusiasm for returning to the San Joaquin Valley and dealing with Valley issues. He noted he’s visited the Valley four times since being elected in November.”
“Folks didn’t overwhelmingly get enthusiastic about my campaign out here. I’m not naive about that,” Newsom said. “But unlike the guy in the White House, I don’t represent the united state of my base. I represent the entire state of California.”
He continued: “And I have a deep obligation to reconcile my values, which are deeply conflicted with the poverty out here and the disproportionate impact that’s having on our diverse communities – particularly in the form and manifestation of the inability to turn on your tap and get safe water coming out the other end.”
Newsom pledged to solve the clean drinking water crisis no matter what – even if it took two terms or he had to spearhead a bond measure after his term limit.
“It’s not 1819. It’s not even 1919. It’s 2019,” Newsom said. “And we’re talking about a $20 billion surplus and we’re the fifth-largest economy in the world and we’ve got all this bravado and our entrepreneurial spirit, but we can’t even provide basic drinking water to 1 million-plus Californians? Pathetic.”
Newsom said he placed a water bill tax in his budget for the purpose of supporting this water fund, despite understanding such a move may be politically unfavorable.
“If you’ve got a better idea, bring it on,” Newsom said. “If (the tax’s opponents) have some form of framework to guarantee against a downturn in the economy, that’s news to me. I’m a little more cautious about that, and I think they should be. But they have nothing in terms of a way of solving this.”
Newsom also met with local mayors and agricultural leaders later Wednesday afternoon to discuss water, high-speed rail and other issues before returning to Sacramento.
He then traveled to Fresno State for a forum with various agricultural leaders. Newsom said part of this meeting would be to discuss agriculture’s role in fixing the drinking water, which is sometimes contaminated by pesticides or other ag waste.
Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics