Movers and shakers from throughout the South Coast heard from their political representatives Thursday afternoon in what turned out to be an engaging and informative discussion.
Goleta Mayor Ed Easton; Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider; Santa Barbara County 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf; Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara; and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, were all peppered with questions during the Legislative Summit sponsored by the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The forum, which was held at Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta, centered on what policymakers are doing to encourage jobs and growth.
Keith Woods moderated the forum, and was engaging yet probing on the issues facing California today. Each panelist was given three minutes to recap the pros and cons of what their jurisdictions are facing.
Easton began on an optimistic note, saying that 87 percent of Goleta residents are happy with their government, based on a recent survey conducted by the city.
Deckers Worldwide, the Camino Real Hotel and Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital are just a few organizations with projects under construction in the city, he said, in addition to housing and capital improvements in the pipeline. The city also boasts a 4.5 percent unemployment rate.
Schneider said Santa Barbara is still a ways off from rehiring the 80 positions the city laid off through attrition, but that officials are making headway. The remodeled El Encanto Hotel is set to open next year, the La Entrada project on Lower State Street is under way, and a mixed-use development is being constructed where a Vons supermarket once stood at Victoria and Chapala streets.
Wolf noted that although the county receives money from the state and federal governments, many times the most needy in the community are on the receiving end of county services.
“We have seen some tough times, but we’re getting through them,” she said.
Williams, who has been in Sacramento for nearly two years, said that the day after he was elected, California announced it had the largest deficit in state history. He stressed education as the way out of California’s fiscal hole.
“Think about what Goleta would be without any of the tech companies ... and what the economy would be,” he said.
Capps, who has been in office since 1998, said she’s been able to direct federal funds to help restore Goleta Beach and fund research at UCSB.
“I know we can bring our economy back to full strength,” she said.
Woods asked how sustainable each politician’s budget actually was, which prompted an expression of concern from Easton.
The Goleta mayor said that’s the largest concern the 10-year-old city has, and expenditures have continued to rise as the city grows.
“We do not have a budget that is, over the long term, sustainable, and that concerns us,” he said.
Schneider said Santa Barbara also looks at the future with questions. Sacrifices have already been made among the city’s labor groups, she said, and the city has recently seen $1.5 million going back into reserves. The city is also trying to find away to sustainably fund much-needed capital expenditures, which has been a challenge without redevelopment agency money.
Wolf said that though sales and bed taxes are up, there’s been a dramatic drop-off in property taxes. Employee concessions have been key, including securing a new retirement tier for new employees, she said.
By doing those things, “we have been acting in a fiscally prudent way,” she said. “We’re not spending more money than we’re bringing in or expect to bring in.”
Woods was pointed when he came to Williams and the Legislature’s handling of the state’s chronic budget deficit.
“Is anybody up there embarrassed about their performance, about kicking the budgetary can down the road?” he asked.
Williams said he and other newcomers were elected on that promise to stop that can from moving forward. During prosperous times, both parties decided to spend money in irresponsible ways, he said. When the downturn hit, “it hit at a free fall,” he said.
Addressing the problem has required major cuts in many programs, Williams said.
“That’s what it took to create a budget that was closer to reality,” he said. “That has come through a long and bloody road.”
A “cuts-only” budget won’t be possible without carving out more from education, he said.
Capps was frank when she spoke about the debt the nation is facing.
“I used to be able to walk around this community with my head held pretty high” prior to becoming a member of Congress, she said.
Getting the economy going is necessary, which would include extending the middle-class tax cuts, she said, and that investing in research and development is also crucial to recovery.
Putting aside partisanship and adopting a “pay as you go” approach is key, she said, adding, “The word compromise has got to be on the table,” she said.
Capps is up for re-election this year, and about halfway through the forum, her opponent, Republican Abel Maldonado dropped by to listen in on the forum.
Speakers were also asked about Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales-tax measures on the Nov. 6 ballot and whether they were on board.
“People have to step up,” Wolf said.
She added that it would be key for state politicians to earn back the trust of people disenchanted with government. But Woods challenged her answer.
“I kind of feel like I’ve stepped up as high as I can go,” he told Wolf.
Schneider brought in a local example with the Santa Barbara Unified School District, which will be affected if the sales-tax measure doesn’t pass.
“This sales tax, if it passes, keeps them at the status quo,” she said, adding that $5 million to $6 million must be cut from the district’s budget if the tax is voted down.
“The consequence will be very dire,” she said, and all five panelists said they’d be supporting the measure.
Woods pressed Williams further, and questioned the general public’s low opinion of the Legislature.
“Do you agree there is a trust issue here?” Woods asked.
Williams agreed, and said that restoring that trust will take time.
Woods then asked the audience to hold up their hands if they would support November’s tax, and about 60 percent indicated they would.