2022 election: Q&A with Akilah Weber, candidate for California State Assembly District 79 – The San Diego Union-Tribune

There are three candidates on the June 7 ballot for the newly drawn state Assembly District 79, which includes east San Diego, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and part of El Cajon. The candidates are retired broker John Moore and project manager Corbin Sabol, both Republicans, and Assemblymember/doctor Akilah Weber, a Democrat. The top two vote-getters will advance to a Nov. 8 runoff election. The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board sent each a 13-question survey and is publishing their responses here.

If you have comments or questions about the election or any of the candidates after reading this interview, please email Editorial and Opinion Director Matthew T. Hall at matthew.hall@sduniontribune.com.

Below are Akilah Weber’s responses and a link to other responses.

Q: From wildfires to sea level rise, the climate emergency is increasingly affecting California. What immediate steps should California lawmakers be taking to address it?

A: First, we should be passing legislation backed by funding opportunities to help local governments fully implement their climate action plans. When I was on the City Council in La Mesa, we were in the initial steps of implementing our very robust climate action plan. One of the challenges that we faced, like all other cities in our state, was having the funding and resources needed.

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Additionally, the state should work with regional partners to help expand renewable sources of energy. We should also increase grant opportunities for projects that are focused on improving infrastructure and accessibility for zero emission vehicles, improving our waste management and pollution prevention, especially in our coastal regions, studying how to improve our air quality, especially in communities of concern, and pursuing projects that focus on decarbonization efforts. Finally, we need to expand educational programs that focus on environmental science and technology. I was proud to support the creation of the California Center for Climate Change Education in the Higher Education Committee so that we can continue to produce the best and brightest students to help deal with the climate emergency in California and throughout the world.

Q: The governor’s pleas to reduce water use have been widely met with indifference. What, if anything, should state lawmakers be doing to address drought conditions?

A: First, we should be increasing our storage facilities so that we are capturing as much water as possible during times of heavy rains. We also need to continue funding projects that merge agriculture and technology to improve water utilization. I visited rice fields in the California Central Valley and was very impressed with the use of science and technology to prevent excess water usage and leakage. We should be working closely with our agriculture community to help fund and sustain more programs like that.

Additionally, we should be working more closely with regional water authorities to update regional water plans, improve our dams and infrastructure, and create ways to become less dependent on imported water. Currently, I am working to secure funding from the state for a local advanced water purification program. Among other things, it will help create a new water supply in our region that will positively impact our environment and our residents.

Lastly, we must continue to work with local governments and nonprofits to engage and educate all communities on the short-term and long-term benefits of water conservation and the different options to conserve water.

Q: What would you do to address the surging gas prices in California?

A: In addition to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy, I believe that the state should provide a rebate to registered drivers of vehicles that require gas. Our residents are already under extreme economic hardship, and high gas prices have only exacerbated the problems. Transitioning away from fossil fuels will, in the long run, make energy more affordable while also protecting our communities against pollution.

Q: How do you strike a balance between reducing the state’s dependency on fossil fuels and addressing energy affordability issues, including the high cost of gasoline?

A: There are many things that the state is doing and can do to help. I support the governor’s budget proposal to fund projects that increase access to and infrastructure for zero emission vehicles. This includes increasing our supply of zero emission public transit buses, school buses and drayage trucks. It also includes additional resources to focus investment in low-income communities that bear the brunt of pollution from transportation. I also believe that we should support the expansion of community choice aggregation, such as our own San Diego Community Power. I am committed to investing more in clean energy expansion. Focusing on things such as industrial decarbonization, adoption of clean energy technologies at our food production facilities, advancing the use of green hydrogen and improving our long duration storage will not only reduce our reliance on fossil fuels but also create jobs, which can boost our local and state economy.

Q: How would you bring down the high cost of housing, both for homeowners and renters?

A: The market costs of housing are driven by supply and demand economics where costs skyrocket when supply is low and demand is high. Real estate investors notoriously purchase single-family homes, taking these homes off the market for a family to purchase, and use them for vacation rentals that sit empty for the greater part of the year. This issue of regulating vacation rentals and investor-owned properties in residential neighborhoods has been hotly debated. I would encourage local jurisdictions across the state to adopt ordinances that work for their communities and residents.

Further, state and local jurisdictions have not kept pace with building housing for the demand. I believe we have been so focused on helping residents meet the cost of housing through subsidies or down-payment assistance programs that the actual housing cost itself (a portion of which is factored into monthly rent or mortgage payments) has not been adequately addressed. It is expensive to build single-family homes and multi-family residences; the cost of land, construction materials, development and permitting fees, and meeting regulatory requirements add up. When and where possible, I support using excess state land to drive down the cost to build. We also need to work with the federal government on reeling in nationwide costs for construction materials and work with local governments on streamlining development processes.

Q: Homelessness is growing dramatically across the state. How would you address it?

A: I support increasing funding to expand programs such as Project Roomkey and Homekey. But we must strengthen our behavioral health resources across California as well. This includes retaining the behavioral health providers that we currently have and recruiting and training more. This also includes working with local governments and nonprofits to best determine how the state can support programs already implemented to address the behavioral health needs in their individual communities. I also support the recent creation of grants for local jurisdictions to be awarded to reduce the number of encampments. We also must recognize that homelessness does not just mean people living in unsheltered locations; it also means people who cannot afford to purchase a home or pay rent and therefore are living in hotels or their cars or transitioning between the residences of friends or family. To assist them, we need to drastically increase our affordable housing options and make sure that people are being paid a livable wage.

Q: What, if anything, should the state do to make mass transit a viable option for commuters?

A: California needs to increase investments in improving our mass transit infrastructure. The funding can come from Senate Bill 1 implementation but also from the recently acquired funds from the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. To properly utilize these funds, we should collaborate with local transit agencies to determine what plans they have to improve mass transit in their areas.

When I was on the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s board, there was a lot of planning around a ballot proposition to drastically improve our transit infrastructure, including looking into other transit options besides the traditional bus and trolley lines. This project was going to be expensive, but it was very much needed. It would have improved our transit by cutting down travel time and making it more affordable and accessible for all, including those in more rural areas of San Diego County. Unfortunately, those efforts were stopped in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is an example of how the state government can work with local transit agencies to provide funding and fill in the gaps.

Q: How will you balance public health with economic and educational concerns going forward in this pandemic or the next one? What specific steps and strategies, from lockdowns to mask mandates, would you recommend or rule out if there is a new surge in deaths and hospitalizations?

A: These past two years have been very challenging for everyone. We have endured challenges that most of us have never had to encounter in our lives. At the start of this pandemic, I was still seeing patients daily, and so I know the challenges our health care providers and systems dealt with and continue to deal with. I want to thank all of our doctors, nurses, hospital staff, first responders and essential workers for all that they have done and continue to do for our communities and our state during this unprecedented time.

Gaining the ability to test for COVID-19 was critical to our efforts to fight the pandemic. Testing is key, and must be readily available, accessible and affordable. During the height of the pandemic, the places that had testing were able to reopen much sooner than those that did not. I am also encouraged by the new testing technology that we have deployed in San Diego, such as testing our water systems, which have demonstrated an ability to detect a surge in COVID-19 cases weeks before it happens. I was encouraged to see that the governor recognized the significance of testing in his SMARTER Plan, as a way for us to get through this pandemic.

Q: California has the strictest gun laws in the nation yet has had some of the nation’s worst mass shootings this year. What more, if anything, should be done to reduce gun violence in California?

A: We must deal with the issue of ghost guns. In San Diego, there have been efforts to decrease the supply and accessibility of ghost guns, but this also needs to be addressed at the state level. Additionally, we have to remove assault weapons, large capacity magazines and weapons designed for military use from the hands of civilians. Seventy-six shots were fired in 54 seconds in the most recent mass shooting in Sacramento. Those types of weapons should not be on our streets. California has to find ways to work with neighboring states to prevent the illegal importation of weapons to our communities, and to enforce our gun safety laws more effectively.

Q: California has adopted a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years. What would you change and why to ensure justice is equitable and effective?

A: One of the areas that we need to continue to target is the elimination of the school to prison pipeline. Too often children are being disciplined in a manner that is harsher than needed and that results in those kids becoming academically delayed and subsequently disinterested. I have a bill this session, Assembly Bill 2598, that addresses that very issue and would create a statewide standard model for restorative justice practices for our schools. Additionally, we need to continue to diversify those providing the justice in our legal systems. We need diversity not only in areas of race and gender, but equally important is diversity in background and experience. Another area that needs reform is our prison system. I recently toured the segregated housing units at California State Prison in Sacramento and saw firsthand the need to improve our rehabilitation methods so that we can decrease recidivism and increase overall public safety.

Q: What single change would you make to improve California’s K-12 public school systems?

A: We must fix issues with the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Specifically, we need to increase the funding into that system so that our schools have what they need to provide the programs and resources our students need to be successful. We also need to have more oversight and accountability of the funds that we are giving to our schools. The money should be used towards the students who qualify for it, and the programs and resources created should be improving the outcomes for those students.

In California, there is an identifiable group of students that chronically underperform in academic achievement, and we have to do more to help them close the achievement gap. These students often fall outside the three special categories for additional LCFF funding. My bill, Assembly Bill 2774, will correct that by adding a fourth category for the lowest performing subgroup of students. By providing more resources to those who are struggling in our K-12 public schools, this should help close all academic achievement gaps and allow every child educated in our public schools the opportunity to graduate from high school prepared for a two-year college, a four-year university, a trade school or the workforce.

Q: Should taxes in California be increased? If so, which ones?

A: No, our taxes should not be increased. Our focus at this time should be on continuing to grow our economy and fully recover from this pandemic.

Q: What is the most important issue we have not raised and why?

A: College entrance and affordability is an issue that we must continue to address and improve. I am fortunate to sit on the Higher Education Committee where we are putting through legislation to cut down on cost and increase access to all three of the college systems in California.

I am very proud to have supported the California Comeback Plan, which invested in college affordability and transfer opportunities and created more slots for in-state students who want to attend a California State University or a University of California campus.

Additionally, we must continue to support our college faculty, staff and facilities to ensure that we are equipping them with the correct tools to allow our students to reach their full potential and graduate within a reasonable time frame.

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