Dec. 21, 2017: LA SENTINEL - Holly Mitchell Wants her Constituents to Thrive
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By Brandon Brooks, Managing Editor
From Crystal Stairs, to the Assembly and now to the Senate, California Senator Holly Mitchell has had one main goal. That is, to make sure that working families access all they need to be contributing members of California’s economy… that they can access all of the things they need to thrive, she said. The Sentinel caught up with Mitchell recently to talk about her role as a state senator, the challenges that come with overseeing a budget, and some of the new legislation going into effect January 1.
“What is most important to the core fabric of a civil society,” Mitchell asked during her recent interview with the Sentinel.
“What kind of California can we build and invest in, that’s the kind of California that I want to grow old in, that I want to raise my son in. That’s the lens I bring to my work as budget chair. Fortunately this last year, we’re coming out of a deep recession that many of your readers experienced first hand.
“Our general fund is in the black thanks to the combined work of the administration, Governor Brown and the legislature. We have two rainy day funds. And, we’re starting to invest again in California. We’ve invested in K-12 education, we’ve invested in early care and education, in healthcare, in our infrastructure, in public transportation…
“This last year’s budget was the largest in state’s history, $183 billion. Some of my colleagues wince at that number but we’re the most popular state in the nation. Those dollars are investments in California’s future.”
What goes into creating a budget is a challenging work, that constituents are not privy to, Mitchell explained.
“The budget process is by January 10,” she said.
“Our state constitution requires that the governor bring forward to the legislature, his budget.
“Both the assembly and the senate, we have budget hearings and sub committees that delve into specific subject matters (ie. Education, public safety, etc.) The assembly and the senate will pass two different budgets so we have to come together and address that. So, there are a lot of moving parts. Everyone has their priorities (education, health care, reentry), so its figuring out how to budget for these things…”
A third-generation native Angeleno, Mitchell is the daughter of career public servants and the protégé of community leaders who instilled in her a passion for services, she said. She continued her family legacy of “firsts” when she was named the first African American to chair the powerful Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee in December 2016.
Since 2010, she has authored dozens of landmark laws. These include: ending policies that drove families deeper into poverty; limiting unfair seizures of personal assets; decriminalizing prostitution for child victims of sex trafficking, and substantive reforms to the juvenile justice system.
“[As far as]our criminal justice package… We did something kind of novel and different this year,” Mitchell said.
“I partnered with some of my colleagues from the Latino Caucus. [I talked to] Senator Ricardo Lara, whose district is a little further Southeast than mine. We came together, which is unique, under the hashtag #equityand justice and literally coauthored each other’s bills.
“We looked at juvenile justice reform. We know that the war on drugs was a failed war. It was a war that criminalized young people, poor people and people of color. We know that the disproportionate number of black and brown people who are in prison and county jails today is a direct result of the war on drugs. This package of bills was really attacking some of those issues.”
Mitchell has also been instrumental in facing the cannabis issue head on, she said, working with colleagues to hammer out important aspects of the new legislation.
“This is a dicey situation,” Mitchell explained.
“The country hasn’t experienced this since we legalized alcohol. The voters passed the initiative. The voters didn’t ask the legislature, ‘how long do you think it will take to develop regulations and set up a system?’ They didn’t. They gave us a date.
“So we have had to work double time to get ready. So, if you think about it. A substance that was previously illegal, we are now making it legal and expect to be able to tax it. So, our taxing system has to be ready, the regulation system to guarantee safety, our system of rolling back the criminal justice laws… things like, if you’re caught with an open container in a vehicle, what does that mean?
“Research has not caught up yet. There isn’t a specific kind of blood level that law enforcement can say, like with alcohol, ‘oh .08. you’re inebriated.’ I had no idea, how complex and multi layered this was going to become to be ready to implement. There is a state level, county, city…
“On the law enforcement end, we had to establish some policies at the state level, so it’s consistent across the state. Like with alcohol, you don’t want to be driving through Yolo County, into Sacramento County, into L.A. County and have different laws and expectations as you cross county lines.
“It’s not going to be perfect. We will be doing clean up legislation for years to come, just as I assume, when alcohol became legal. The issue of financing in this area [for example] you can’t bank dollars from this industry, so this has to be a cash industry so that complicates matters even further…”
With more than 50 bills signed into law, Mitchell’s other groundbreaking successes include improving human services, expanding access to healthcare, defending the civil rights of minorities and the undocumented, and reducing the numbers of children growing up in poverty.
She sits on the Senate Health Committee; the Joint Committee on Rules; the Public Safety Committee; the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee; and the Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee. She also chairs the Senate Select Committee on Women and Inequality, which she founded.
Mitchell has been cited for her outstanding leadership by nearly two dozen community and business groups, including the Courage Campaign, Sierra Club, United Cerebral Palsy Association and the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. She was named the 2017 Lois DeBerry Scholar by Women in Government Leadership and this year received the first Willie L. Brown Jr. Advocacy Award from the California Black Lawyers Association. The National Conference of State Legislatures last summer elected her to its national Executive Committee. Her advocacy on behalf of the expansion of mental health services earned her the Legislator-of-the-Year Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness California.