This year marks the end of a decades-long career in politics for state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Red Bluff.
Nielsen, who currently represents constituents in the Yuba-Sutter area, will leave the California Senate this year as one of its more respected members among colleagues. Because of recent redistricting, Nielsen’s Senate District 4 now comprises much of the Sierra, running from Owen’s Lake to Lake Tahoe before going west across the Central Valley to include Modesto and the rest of Stanislaus County, according to CalMatters.
Yuba County Clerk Donna Hillegass confirmed with the Appeal that the new district for Yuba and Sutter counties, Senate District 1, will be on the ballot for the March 2024 primary election. Currently, Republican Brian Dahle is the Senate District 1 representative.
Nielsen was first elected to the state Senate in 1978 and served as Republican leader from 1983 to 1987.
“In 1992, he was appointed Chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms, where he served until 2007,” according to Nielsen’s website. “He was elected in November 2008 to represent the North State’s Second Assembly District in the State Legislature.”
After some time away, Nielsen was again elected to the state Senate in January 2013, where he has represented citizens of Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Tehama and Yuba counties.
“Senator Nielsen serves on the following committees: Budget and Fiscal Review (Vice Chair); Elections and Constitutional Amendments (Vice Chair); Governance and Finance (Vice Chair); and Governmental Organization (Vice Chair). Sub-Committee: No. 4 on State Administration and General Government. Select Committees: 2020 United States Census; and Mental Health and Addiction. Joint Committees: Fairs Allocation and Classification; Fisheries and Aquaculture; Rules; Legislative Audit (JLAC); and Budget,” his website states.
Among his accomplishments while in office, Nielsen includes securing funding for Proposition 1 that provides money for Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and the creation of the Oroville Dam Citizens Advisory Commission, a public forum to discuss matters relating to the dam and the continued operations of the State Water Project.
“Senator Nielsen helped write Proposition 2 to create a Rainy Day Fund for fiscal emergencies,” Nielsen’s website states. “... He authored legislation to reform California’s welfare system and reduce welfare fraud and co-authored California’s landmark Victims Bill of Rights and Marsy’s Law.”
On Tuesday, the Appeal sat down with Nielsen to reflect on his time in the California Senate and decades spent in state politics.
Q: What has changed over your 20-plus years in the California Senate?
A: Really simple. I was asked that a lot several years ago. What’s different? Well, it’s societal, it’s not just the legislature, the legislature is a reflection of society. What’s different is respect for each other and respect for the institutions and the institution’s rules have greatly diminished. That’s my biggest disappointment coming back.
One of my colleagues, in acknowledging me the other night, she said, “Jim is the last senator.”
(She) sort of wanted to make me feel good, but it didn’t. Because I know what it is like and supposed to be as a senator and it ain’t that way now.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: Fastidious adherence to the rules of the institution. They get corrupted or ignored, like this last budget written by two people. … The Democrats didn’t have really much input into what the budget was. I object to that. We didn’t have a budget conference committee two out of the last four years and that’s where the two different versions of the budget were reconciled. So where did they get reconciled? Oh, behind closed doors. Deals made in the dark of night. The people have no input.
Another example, and this is the expedience of the legislature and I think promoted by legislative staff. The hearings we always have, at the end (there would) be public comment. That used to be people would come that’d line up and they’d get up and speak. The chair could control that … but there were no limitations. Now, two people get to speak for three minutes. … That is a disgrace. That is not public input. That’s covert government. And I just absolutely am infuriated by it.
Q: Why do you think it’s changed?
A: Because people in the legislature, and mostly staff, have found it expedient to keep the people out. The administrations have found that expedient to keep the people out, so they don’t know what’s going on. Sure, it saves time, legislators don’t have to sit in committee as long, well yeah, I guess that’s right. But that’s not public input and it’s a fraud to purport it to be that.
Q: And how do you think these changes have affected the average California citizen?
A: They have a much diminished voice. Because though they have an opportunity, if all you can do is, “I like it, I don’t like it,” that’s not any input.
Q: You don’t think electing a representative gives them a voice?
A: Sure it does. But, they need to have a direct voice too. Not just an elected representative, and I tell people that. I told my story about being a farmer, I decided I needed to get up to the plate. I was moaning to colleagues in a pickup and in the coffee shop. Was that getting anything done? Not much, so I decided I had to do more.
Q: What have been your biggest accomplishments during your time in the California Senate?
A: I think the biggest accomplishment was to get a much stronger rural voice in the legislature. The 19 counties, some of them fairly urban … but to be able to be a rural voice I think has been something very heartwarming to me.
An example: A human right to water that I was able to get in the water plan of 2010 and the bond, Prop 1, that gives us Sites Reservoir. Now what did that mean? It meant that fish had evolved as the senior water right for everything and water policy in California was about saving fish. Now, that’s OK, that ought to be part of the policy but it ain’t the whole deal. And, everything about fixing water in California was about the Delta. Now, I was a Delta senator. I care about the Delta – I represented north and central Delta. But Delta is not the whole deal. There’s a north and a south and, nobody talks about this, there is an east and a west to water in California. Being a strong voice and aggressive in what I pursue, we’ve been able to get that on the map. And that there’s a human right to water means agriculture, that farmers would have water to produce crops in California and cattle and livestock. That’s great.
The other would be criminal justice and victims rights. They call me the “grandfather of the crime victims movement.” Couldn’t it just be father? And it’s very disappointing, because I did pioneer the crime victims voice, particularly Proposition 8. But sadly, this criminal justice reform, so to speak, victims have no voice now. The victims in fact are now the criminals of the victims. It’s abhorrent.
So, I feel good that I’ve been able to accomplish what I did. And during my years at the (California) Board of Prison Terms, again the toughest job I’ll ever have, the streets were much safer. And why? I created a logo and a motto for the Board of Prison Terms, preserving public safety was the motto and purpose of this organization. And now, that’s not a factor.
Q: Do you think the state is going in the right direction?
A: No. In fact, it’s going full speed in the wrong direction.
Q: Why do you think that?
A: Economically, the budget is an example. Trillion-dollar budget. What did we do? For a time, there was a little bit of accountability. In the years I’ve been back, the senate has asserted itself a little bit more in terms of control … through the budget. Meaning, in the subcommittees there was much more review and criticism of the agencies affecting some change in statute. … That’s good, but it’s incremental budgeting. Meaning everything you did last year, you give a COLA to and all the new stuff’s on top of that. Well, we’re still in a precarious position economically and there’s lack of fiscal restraint. Prop 13 helped for a lot of years tone that down.
Q: Do you think there’s overspending?
Q: Where do you think there’s overspending?
A: Almost every agency, period. … It’s what I call incremental budgeting. For example, everything that they did last year in the agency, then they just increase that, particularly personnel years. More, more, more state employees. That’s purposefully done. The state employee issue is mostly covert. Meaning the agency just does it or the administration, the governor’s (office) just do it, they shift their priorities.
Another example: We put a bunch of money in the budget finally about six, seven years ago for forest and wildland management. The department of resources agency did not spend most of that money. They sat on it and/or redirected, covertly. They didn’t have to come to the legislature for approval, they just did it, because they could. I’ve been a conscience for that.
The biggest thing that I feel good about is having been a conscience to the integrity of the institution. That there would be public input. That members would be better informed. That members would pay attention. That the rules were abided by instead of waving the rules all the time or ignoring the rules.
Q: Do you think there’s people in the legislature now that feel the same way you do?
A: More do, I will give it that. Every time I get up and debate, I always have some Democrats come up to me, “Jim, boy, you made some really good points in the debate.” I says, “great, are you gonna vote with me?” Their answer is always, “I can’t go against the caucus, the caucus position.” That’s tough to overcome. But, there are a number of senators now that have bucked the caucus on a lot of issues and I really feel good about that.
Q: Do you feel there hasn’t been enough bipartisan discussion about issues?
A: Absolutely, sure.
Q: Do you have any input on the California state budget?
A: I have to say I did. In fact, one time years ago I saved the state fairs, the local fairs. I was in the conference committee, tough budget year, the funding for fairs was cut out. We’re in the last committee, reconciling the budget. I said, “stop, I don’t want to vote on this today, this is too important.” I told them why. We put it over and we worked it out to fund the fairs. The other people made that determination that that was fine, we can cut it, they didn’t pay any attention. Had I not spoken up, nobody would have even thought about it. That’s what’s important, to speak up. I’m always very loud in the committees and have always been very loud on the floor. Courteous and respectful, but vigorously.
Q: What are you going to miss most about not being a state senator?
A: Doing stuff like today (meeting people). The last four days I’ve been up here in Yuba-Sutter, every day. This is really what I enjoy most … helping the people. … That’s the real world, that’s what I enjoy most.
Q: Did you enjoy being a state senator?
A: Oh, absolutely. And I enjoyed being a leader.