Representing an assembly district that includes the busy ports of Long Beach and San Pedro, the tourism hotspot Catalina Island and large parts of the densely-populated City of Long Beach, Patrick O’Donnell represents a diversity of interests. In Sacramento, O’Donnell chairs the State Assembly Committee on Education. He’s also a member of the budget committee, a subcommittee on education funding, the committee on transportation and the committee on public employment and retirement.
Informed by over 20 years of experience in the classroom, O’Donnell is outspoken about his views on education and what California should do to make sure the next generation is prepared for the future. But as a long-term political leader on the state and local level – O’Donnell served on the Long Beach City Council before he was elected to represent Assembly District 70 – the California legislator has also spearheaded projects such as the San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Study (commonly referred to as the “breakwater study”) and efforts to increase sustainability around the nation’s busiest ports. O’Donnell intends to run for re-election in March 2020.
In late March, the halfway point of his current term, Long Beach Business Journal Publisher George Economides, Editor Samantha Mehlinger and Staff Writer Alena Maschke interviewed O’Donnell about the region’s most pressing issues.
LBBJ: Now that an interim deal has been reached for Community Hospital, are you working on legislation to extend the deadline for seismic compliance?
O’Donnell: We’re working on two things. There’s AB [Assembly Bill] 1014, which speaks to hospital closure notice requirements. Because in this scenario, if we had more notice that they were going to close I think we could have done something sooner on a much tighter timeline. Basically, Memorial[Care Health System] said: “Hey, we’re going to leave.” They gave a very short notice and they left. They were allowed to do that under state law, but I think there should be a more protracted time period.
Now, there’s the potential for another assembly bill that will speak specifically to the Community Hospital site. It may speak to extending the seismic timeline. . . . It would increase the timeline for them to develop their hospital plan and then put it in the hands of the state. There was a law passed last year that spoke to about 200 hospitals across the State of California . . . but Long Beach is likely not included in that bill. So it may require a separate bill this year. And if there is a need, I will push for it.
LBBJ: That’s got to be done pretty quickly, doesn’t it?
O’Donnell: Correct. We’re talking to the city. We’re waiting for the information we need to move on this, if in fact we do need to move. They’ve got to seal their deal before we push through with a bill, because it’s going to be tough for me to push a bill through without knowing that there is a deal.
LBBJ: So you’re waiting for a long-term agreement rather than just the interim deal?
O’Donnell: Correct. And that may change. We’re watching this. This is like an evolving, daily event, where we check in with the city [and ask], what do we need to do? In fact, I do need to check in with the Molinas [partners in Molina, Wu, Network LLC, the new hospital operator] to see where they are on this as well.
LBBJ: We wrote an article a few months back about the breakwater study that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on. Apparently, the Navy thinks if you reconfigure it at all, it’s going to make it impossible for them to continue their operations. I wanted to know what your thoughts are. Do you support reconfiguring the breakwater?
O’Donnell: I support studying breakwater reconfiguration. I’m not a “sink the breakwater” guy as much as I am a “study the breakwater” guy, to see what changes we can make to facilitate cleaner water and potentially wave activity. We need to make sure that maritime trade is protected, the homes on the peninsula are protected – and there’s also oil operations out there that we can’t put in danger. I’m fully cognizant of that. I haven’t been involved in this study for the last five years. This is in the hands of the city. . . .The Navy should be part of this exercise. It should be in conversations with all these folks too. . . .
Let me be clear: I wouldn’t spend a bunch of money on this effort if I already knew it’s not going to happen. So it’s my hope that the city leaders are in direct communication with the Army Corps. . . . Some of the reports of how they communicated, I found curious. I’ll be honest with you. . . .
LBBJ: A lot of people tie you to the project.
O’Donnell: I understand that, and they probably should, because I was the one who kicked it off. I did the kick-off, and now the ball is in their hands. I hope that they’re going to be responsible. . . . If the city knows that this isn’t going to happen, I would hope that they wouldn’t spend more money. If they know this project isn’t going to happen, they need to be public with that. Don’t just say things to make us happy and kick the can down the road. Deal with it today. If they have information that speaks to them not being able to reconfigure the breakwater, they need to come public with that information now.
LBBJ: What do you think about Governor Newsom’s approach to housing so far?
O’Donnell: Well, first of all, I appreciate his acknowledgement that housing is a huge concern in the State of California. I know he’s suing the City of Huntington Beach. I don’t know the particulars on that lawsuit. My assumption is they didn’t hit their RHNA [Regional Housing Needs Assessment] numbers, their regional allocation numbers that they need to hit. What I will say is, in Huntington Beach they have been building a lot more multi-family housing. . . . What I want to make sure we do is we support cities as they try to provide more housing, not micromanage cities. We shouldn’t be zoning from the Sacramento level. My votes reflect that. I’m supportive of a reasonable amount of money to support cities to build affordable housing. We can’t fund it all from the state level; we don’t have that kind of money. Ultimately, the market is going to drive the solution. So we need to create the conditions where the market can provide the solutions. A lot of this is going to have to happen at the city level. Quite frankly, the cities should be looking at what pieces of property they have available to build housing on and what can they do to facilitate the construction of housing across our cities.
There’s a lot of pieces that created this problem, but first and foremost, it’s the amount of people we have in this region. It’s a simple supply and demand equation. Redevelopment going away is part of that. We’re looking at reviving it in some form. But we have to be very fiscally prudent about how we do that because we’re a day closer to our next recession. The state can’t just go out and spend all this money on housing. . . . Everybody points at the state. I’m pointing the finger at the cities. We’ve got a city council – they can rezone property where appropriate. We went through that exercise recently, about a year-and-a-half ago, to facilitate the construction of more housing. They can break down the barriers, the red tape.
LBBJ: Do you think that overall, housing is an issue that can be tackled just by legislating and regulating?
O’Donnell: There’s a lot of things that need to happen. Remember, when we talk about housing, there’s a couple of things going on. We’ve got homelessness – that’s part of our housing issue. We’ve got . . . individuals that also have substance abuse problems or mental problems. And then there’s the affordability issue. That’s where I’m looking at my kids. This is a two-part issue: there’s the homelessness side and there’s the affordability side. We need to focus on those two fronts. And we’ve done a lot on homelessness.
The State of California gives the City of Long Beach a lot of money every year. We gave them $12 million more this budget year to address homelessness. I’m watching closely to see what they do with that money, because I want to make sure it is used effectively. . . . [Building] a homeless center in North Long Beach – actually almost in the City of Paramount above the 91 [Freeway] – in three-and-a-half years, that’s not an immediate response to a homelessness problem. We need more beds. We can’t enforce our overnight camping laws because we don’t have the beds. But other cities in the region need to do their part, too. Seal Beach can’t be pushing their folks into Long Beach – we need to watch that.
Now, the folks from San Francisco, the assemblymembers, the senate members, come up with some pretty radical ideas. I don’t want to San Francisco-ize the State of California. We need to be careful. I don’t think we should allow every homeowner in the City of Long Beach, by right, to bulldoze their home and build a five-story apartment building in neighborhoods. That’s not an approach I favor. What I’d like to see the state do is set the bar and then assist cities in meeting that bar – but not necessarily micromanaging how cities meet that bar.
On, homelessness. I do have a bill. AB 1384 . . . allows mortgage brokers to compile up to $4.5 million of non-bank money to build or rehabilitate housing. Right now, state law caps it, I believe, at $2.5 million. This is a no-brainer. Right now we have no opposition.
LBBJ: What are your thoughts on the proposed carbon sales tax on retail business?
O’Donnell: I think cap-and-trade is adequate. If operated responsibly, and it continues to be funded adequately and allocated properly, it is the right tool. Cap-and-trade should not be used as a handout gift to people. Cap-and-trade is designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and the dollars associated with that effort should be doled out as such. In other words, cap-and-trade shouldn’t be for me to build a park in my assembly district and put my name on it. Cap-and-trade should be directed down at the port, which continues to be our largest single source of pollution – that, by the way, has done great work in going greener. But I will say we should make green while we go green.
LBBJ: We talked about that maybe two years ago and you were saying that there was too much money going to these community projects or to people buying Priuses. Are more of the dollars being allocated where they need to go?
O’Donnell: I think we’re getting there. We’re not exactly where we need to be. The place that is the largest source of pollution in Southern California is the port complex – that’s where those dollars should go. They should go to goods movement, because that’s the driver of greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. . . . I’m the voice of the ports up in Sacramento. When we talk about transportation, everybody in the room talks about moving people. I’m the guy that raises his hand and says, “I want to move containers.” That’s my job. So again, cap-and-trade is working. Is it the perfect animal? No. But am I willing to support a carbon tax today? No. Let cap-and-trade mature and saturate, and I’m supportive of it.
. . . I’m ok with electric [vehicles and technology as a solution to move towards zero-emissions]. As long as it is the cleanest way to go, one. And two, it’s readily available. We do not have a viable electric truck at this point. . . . So we need to make sure that we’re fuel-neutral. Maybe hydrogen is the way. Maybe it’s some other form. What I want to make sure is if we’re going to regulate, we should innovate. And my job is to make sure that we don’t have green poverty – that we don’t regulate industry out of this area. That’s what cap-and-trade is for. It is designed to partner with the industry to go green.
LBBJ: So you’re saying, let’s not hyper-focus on electric technology – let’s make sure we’re innovating?
O’Donnell: Right. Let’s hyper-focus on the goal as opposed to how we get to the goal. One of the problems with the carbon tax is they try to micromanage how we get to that goal. . . . The point is, these dollars should be associated with meeting a specific regulation. . . . I wouldn’t just hand somebody a bag of money and say, “spend it how you want.” There has to be regulations and metrics associated with that. One of my biggest challenges with the California Air Resources Board is they get a big bucket of money, and what they can’t do is associate each regulation with a metric. Some of this stuff is experimental. It’s not always going to work. I’m okay with it not working. I just think that if we’re going to spend money on this effort, we should have a metric associated with that effort. And we can’t do that. That’s one of my major criticisms of that agency. . . .
What I’m seeking to do is get a continuous appropriation from cap-and-trade to the goods movement community. . . . We need to be wise about how we regulate these guys. These are good jobs. We want to keep them here. It’s an economic driver. What I’ve proposed is AB 1262. The goal there is to create a continuous appropriation from cap-and-trade for clean goods movement. And then I’ve got AB 821, which seeks to draw down an existing bucket of money for a port efficiency program to reduce truck times at the terminal level. And [it] incentivizes terminals to further reduce their turn times at the gate, because isn’t just about clean trucks; it’s about efficiency, about volumes, about velocity. . . . It’s an economic issue, but it’s also an environmental issue.
LBBJ: Governor Newsom announced that he wants to get rid of the death penalty. What are your thoughts on that, considering that the voters just said three years ago that they wanted to keep it?
O’Donnell: I’ve always been torn on the death penalty. I don’t hide that. I see why the governor did it – because it’s going to come time very soon when he would have to make such a decision as to whether or not to use the death penalty in the State of California. I also see why families in the State of California who have been victims would be very frustrated. And I also see that the people of California just voted, in essence, to support the death penalty. This is a tough question the governor was faced with. Given where the politics of the country are going, I don’t think the death penalty is as popular as it once was. It’s a tough call for him to make. I don’t have the perfect answer on the death penalty, but I can tell you this: if I had a loved one murdered, I’d want the death penalty.
LBBJ: But isn’t there a difference between what your opinion is about the death penalty and what the voters said?
O’Donnell: Let me speak to that. California needs to be very careful that we don’t do what we’re accusing Trump of doing. You don’t fight Trump by being Trump. You never win. I think there is a little bit of irony that California would say Donald Trump is overusing the executive order, yet it appears that the governor has just done something very similar. I suspect that there will be lawsuits that speak to this very question. . . .The real question is: is this going to happen again? That’s what I as a legislator need to be very careful of. I’m very protective of the state legislature. I council a lot of members about the role of the legislative branch and not handing over too much authority to the executive branch. . . . I hope going forward that the governor doesn’t think that using the executive order is a way to outrun the will of the people or the role of the state legislature. So I’m watching it closely.
LBBJ: Democrats have a supermajority in the state legislature. What’s your impression about the attitude of working across the aisle with the minority?
O’Donnell: I’m always willing to work across the aisle, as are many of my colleagues. In this environment, we’re going to see. It’s the beginning of the session still. There haven’t been a lot of votes on the floor. I hope that we will work with the other side in a responsible fashion when we can come to some kind of compromise or agreement. But there’s no doubt that it’s going to be tough in a two-thirds [majority] environment. Remember, many of these bills don’t require a two-thirds vote. So, we’ll see how that dynamic unfolds as the year moves forward.
LBBJ: What would you say are the biggest challenges faced by state legislature at the moment?
O’Donnell: Also those that are faced by the State of California. I would say making sure that we have a balanced and responsible budget [and] making sure that we’re not building ongoing expenditures that we can’t afford as we get closer to the next recession. The California budget is different than local government budgets or the federal budget in that we’re very reflective of about 20 people’s incomes . . . because there’s a ZIP code in Palo Alto that feeds the State of California $1 billion a year. What happens when capital gains go down, when the economy goes down, is those moneys dry up overnight. . . . I think [Gov.] Jerry Brown did a decent job of controlling the ongoing expenditures. What we’ve been doing. . . .[is to] fund multi-year efforts on a one-time basis. We say, “we’ll give this much money for three years of this program,” so that when the next budget downturn comes, it’s easier to cut back on those programs.
Number two is closing the achievement gap within our school system. California students are doing better than they ever have; don’t let anyone fool you. . . . At the same time, we have some students who have more challenges. We know that those are typically associated with income status, language capacity and other family dynamics. We need to figure out how to close that achievement gap. What I found as a teacher in the classroom who lived the achievement gap is there’s no switch you can flip. We’re trying to figure this out, and we haven’t figured it out. We tried a number of different things that haven’t worked. But slowly, too slowly, we’re closing it.
At the same time, we need to offer more opportunity for kids. I’m a firm believer that we need multiple paths to success. Career technical education is a big deal to me. I was in a high school where I saw kids fall off the path of high school success because they didn’t have something to engage them there. Typically, it was career technical education. I’m a huge voice for that in Sacramento. We need more money to rebuild those programs. . . . Also, when I talk about education, I mean higher education. How do we keep it affordable? . . . . What we’ve done is create a dynamic, too, where a teacher’s responsible for the students’ success. And often there are many dynamics that go into a student being successful.
LBBJ: Going down to the local level, what do you think are some of the most pressing issues of the Long Beach community at the moment, and how do you plan to address these issues?
O’Donnell: Certainly, housing is a key issue. Clean air is a key issue. Transportation is an issue. The health of the ports is an issue. I come from local government. I was born in this city. I bring the Long Beach perspective to Sacramento, and it’s my job to be the voice of Long Beach up in Sacramento. I think I do a good job of that.
LBBJ: Long Beach doesn’t have its own state senator. It stretches all the way up to cities that none of us have ever been to. . . . Shouldn’t a city this size have its own representative up there?
O’Donnell: In a perfect case scenario, Long Beach would have one state senator. And as we move into the redistricting process – which is starting to begin, because right after the Census, they hand it off to the commission – the lines will be redrawn for 2022. So in 2020, they’ll stay the same, 2022 they’ll change.
LBBJ: What would you say have been some of your bigger successes as a legislator?
O’Donnell: I’d say it’s increasing funding for public education as well as promoting more career technical education/vocational education. We’re rebooting that effort. It’s just going to take some time. There’s a lot of capacity that has to be built up in a lot of different schools across the state for different programs. I would say that’s my key issue, key success thus far.
LBBJ: You’ve also crossed party lines.
O’Donnell: I’m not a guaranteed vote.
LBBJ: What was the big issue about a year ago that you were opposed to?
O’Donnell: [A pilot program to keep Long Beach bars open until] 4 a.m.? I’m voting no again.. . . .It’s just not a well thought-out, responsible approach to public policy.
LBBJ: Well, some people in Long Beach are for it. Some councilmembers are for it.
O’Donnell: No one has been able to compel me to take a second look at that.
LBBJ: Do you like the fact that Long Beach now is going to follow the state election system, where we have our city council primaries in March and then, eight months later, runoffs if there are runoffs?
O’Donnell: No, I voted against that bill. Why? Because I think having city elections off-cycle brings a certain focus on what’s going on in the city, and my worry is that this is going to be lost. That primary is way too long.
LBBJ: It’s going to be fundraising for eight months.
O’Donnell: That’s the problem: the fundraising component. Long Beach doesn’t need to be a mini-Sacramento. My fear is with all the fundraising going on at the city council level over the past couple of years, it is becoming a mini-Sacramento. . . . They changed the rules with regards to fundraising, the timelines. You can now fundraise much earlier. The approach we had in the past was much more responsible. . . .
LBBJ: What do you think about the Belmont Pool?
O’Donnell: I don’t know why it hasn’t been built. It should be done. . . . It’s all about priorities. If the city council finds the pool to be a priority, they will find the money. There’s a variety of financial mechanisms they can use. . . . If you can build a new city hall within the span of two-and-a-half years, why is it taking you six years to build a new pool?
LBBJ: Is there anything that you would like to add?
O’Donnell: I think I bring a balanced perspective to Sacramento. I represent a district that has a lot of people [and] a lot of industry, and I think I bring a balance to make sure we go green, but people make green. And people care about their kids’ schools – I bring that focus.
By the way, there are a lot of bad public safety bills that are up this year. People want to blame everything on the cop. . . . A real bad bill passed last year. There’s another one that’s before us this year that I suspect will get through too, that I think is unfortunate.
LBBJ: What bill was that?
O’Donnell: Last year, it was SB 1421. This year it’s a bill by Shirley Webber, which has to do with use of force. It basically requires the police officer to go through a checklist of options before they use their weapon. These scenarios typically happen in a very quick fashion. . . . To charge an officer because they sought to save their life is unfortunate.
LBBJ: You support body cameras for all officers?
O’Donnell: I think it should be the local department’s policy to have body cameras. Do I think the state should mandate that every department has cameras? No. But at least say we give money to cities to buy cameras.