On Thursday, District 4 State Senator Jim Nielsen, R-Red Bluff, sat down with Tri-County News to discuss his life in politics and the present and future of California.
We were able to touch base on a variety of issues ranging from the recent recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom to wildfires and droughts.
While Nielsen said this will be his final term in the Legislature after a long and successful career as a politician, he stressed that he will never be fully out of it and still plans to be involved in some shape or form in order to continue to make a difference for the constituents he has always sought to represent.
“The most important thing that we do, we meaning my staff and I, is serve the constituents day by day with the problems they have with government,” said Nielsen.
One of the areas in which Nielsen sees much needed room for improvement is the California Employment Development Department (EDD). Nielsen said this is one of the biggest sources of complaints that his office receives.
According to statistics provided by his staff, his office has handled upwards of 400-plus cases a month related to the EDD and what he sees as “an utter absolute disaster.” He said the EDD was “the most complained about thing we’ve seen in decades.”
Nielsen submitted a bill to help fix and change the agency and said the most important thing the EDD and any government agency can do is just pick up the phone and talk to people.
“The governor doesn’t seem interested in changing it,” said Nielsen. “He can directly intervene in that agency under his complete authority and do things he hasn’t. He just let it fester.”
Nielsen said there is still a resolve to get something done because of the volume of calls from constituents.
Here are some of the questions on other topics we had for Nielsen as he finishes out his storied career:
Q: What are your takeaways from the legislative session that just ended? What do you think you accomplished?
A: First of all, it was not as bad as I expected it to be. Usually at the end of session there are a lot of games played. Games meaning trying to sneak legislation in through what’s called trailer bills. That’s a huge corruption of the process. Trailer bills are supposed to implement the provisions of the budget and some of these legislators run their whole legislative program. So, there was less of that than I expected.
There was a little less partisanship than I expected at the end. Was it an overwhelmingly successful year? I don’t think so. I don’t think there were any huge major accomplishments, but we got through it.
Q: Why did you expect more partisanship?
A: Because gradually it had seemed that the Legislature has gotten a bit more partisan, particularly in the Senate. ... It’s a societal, not just a legislative thing. Respect for each other and respect for the institution and the institution’s rules has diminished. That’s even so for the Senate. The Senate used to be the bastion of propriety and procedure and that’s diminished. But … it wasn’t as bad this year as I expected it to be. From that standpoint, we ended on a positive note.
Q: What are some of your top priorities for the next legislative session?
A: We’re going to continue working on the EDD. Public safety absolutely. We are in a terrible situation in California now in public safety. I’ve seen a minor positive directional change in the attitudes of some of my colleagues.
Some of the bills to lighten sentencing, eliminate sentencing, to eliminate bail, they’ve had trouble this year. There’s a pushback. When I speak against these bills, I’ll have three or four Democrats come up and say “Jim, oh you made a lot of sense.” Now that doesn’t mean they vote no, but it has meant that some do vote no and more don’t vote at all. They’re hearing the footsteps of the citizens out there that are aggrieved by what is happening.
Q: Do you think anything should be done with regards to police reform?
A: I’m fine where we are. This has been a nationwide push by what I think is a narrow group of advocates for police reform greatly overblowing the need and the excesses. What I don’t want to see happen is happening. We’re taking the handcuffs off the criminals and putting them on law enforcement. There is a thin blue line. I’ve walked it. I’ve looked it right in the eyes, squarely. … it’s a real deal and we are in peril.
Q: What was your reaction to the recall election and what does it mean for the Republican Party in California going forward?
A: I was disappointed with the results, but not in the area that I represent. I don’t think it’s a setback necessarily for the Republican Party. Gavin tried to campaign that it was the Republican Party, but you don’t get 1.2 million signatures of just Republicans. It was a broad base of individuals that were disaffected by his leadership. If he assumes that this is an affirmation of the great job he’s doing, then he’s giving the Republicans the best gift he can give us.
Q: There is talk of changing the recall process. Are you involved with that or do you want to see change?
A: We’re open to taking a look. But we’re not prejudging anything.
Q: What have you done or what needs to be done to stop massive wildfires from happening in the state?
A: I’ve spent 40 years of my elected leadership life trying to get focused state policy on managing the forests and the wildlands. Managing means removing some of the brush, removing some of the trees, creating safe barriers. For decades, nobody would touch it. Particularly U.S. Fish and Wildlife, they didn’t want to touch it.
So what has happened? For 40 years we’ve accumulated enormous fuel supplies out there. These cataclysmic fires … they’ve cleaned up the forest and wildlands, although it destroys wildlife and environmentalists never say a word about the wildlife that’s destroyed by these fires. I wish they would at least admit their responsibility for the killing of wildlife.
We’ve been able to get money in the budget for that very purpose. Now, I fault Newsom because three years ago we put substantial money in and his department did not spend all of it.
Q: What solutions do you think we need when it comes to drought and water availability in the state?
A: Well I’ve done it. For nearly 50 years, other than the New Melones Dam, no more large water storage occurred in California. I mean large water storage. The Oroville Dam and nothing since. So, 10 years ago I was able to play a key role in putting on the ballot Proposition 1, a water bond. The bond had set aside about $2.75 billion for large surface storage. In other sections of that bond were provisions for groundwater recharge, but we’re not gonna take the surface water and put it into the groundwater. There was separate money for that. So we protected large surface storage.
Now here’s where government lets us all down. The people said yes to that bond. Seven years later not one shovel of dirt has been turned on Sites Reservoir in Colusa County. Why? Regulatory process, federal and state. Government has stopped through their incessant demand for information … from ever getting that storage done.
Q: What can California do to be more attractive to businesses or become more business-friendly?
A: Well it seems that even right this minute California leadership does not seem to want to do that. What can they do? Ease the tax burden and very particularly ease the regulatory burden on the myriad of state and federal agencies that oppress opportunities, particularly for small business and medium-sized businesses. The small businesses are getting killed.
Q: Does the Legislature have plans to do anything to help with this issue?
A: No. I wish I could say yes. No is the answer.
Q: Wealth inequality and affordable housing are also big issues in California. What are you doing to address these concerns?
A: It isn’t just tax the rich and give to the poor. What you do is empower the average Californian to be successful. For example, help our small businesses … not by taxing them more. Not by regulating them more, but providing them incentive and opportunities to grow their business and hire more people.
Q: What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
A: I suppose there’s an over expectation that you can part the Red Sea. I learned long ago you can’t do that. What the constituents deserve and require is attention. If they call, somebody gets back to them, the phone gets answered. We try to help them with their problems. We can’t prevail all the time but we will be their advocate. That’s the most pleasurable part of the job. It’s not the dang legislative bills that carry or the budget that we pass, it’s the day to day things.