About 100 people gathered in the Kimball High School theater to hear San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill express publicly their visions for the district during the Tracy Press-sponsored event.
In a statement emailed to the Press, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, declined to attend the forum.
The top-two vote-getters during the June 5 open primary election will face off in the general election Nov. 6, regardless of political party.
Candidates were allotted four minutes for opening and closing statements and 90 seconds to answer predetermined questions and submissions from the audience.
Several questions during the one-hour, 15-minute program focused on key issues facing Californians, San Joaquin County and the city of Tracy, including fiscal responsibility, public education and safety, agriculture and water.
The following is a sample of the candidates’ responses.
Balancing state budget
Berryhill, who has spent four years in the Assembly representing parts of San Joaquin County — including Manteca, parts of Stockton and Clements, where he owns close to 400 acres of wine grapes — said the state has the ability to generate revenue but must control spending to begin balancing the budget.
He said that state legislators need to set education and public safety as the top two priorities when allocating funds, and that if elected he would focus on a “broad-base economy” to stimulate trade in California.
Recent numbers put the growing state deficit at about $16 billion. The state general spending plan is at about $91.4 billion.
“There are tough decisions to be made, make no mistake about it,” he said. “But the fact is we have enough money to do what we want, just not everything we want.”
He added that, “We cannot expect to be the highest-taxed state, the highest-regulated state and think you’re going to have a rosy future — and that’s where we are headed right now.”
Ornellas, a third-generation Tracy-area resident and dairy farmer, will term out of his seat as a county supervisor this year after a decade at the post. He believes the state needs to start cutting wasteful spending by re-evaluating its property assets.
Ornellas said his experience at the county level, where he helped save $200 million in labor union agreements and also renegotiated leases and bonds on the jail and hospital to save about $300,000 a year, gives him the know-how to do the same in Sacramento.
“San Joaquin County did that, a medium-sized county did that. And the state of California should be able to do the same, but they don’t — they cannot help (it), they continue to spend,” he said. “And so anything we increase in taxes, the state of California and Sacramento will spend it. We need to stop the spending.”
Both candidates disapproved of Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent proposed cuts to schools as part of an $8.9 billion effort to reduce state spending.
If Brown’s proposed tax increase initiative failed, kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools and community colleges would have to absorb a combined loss of $5.5 billion, which would be split between the two education systems.
Ornellas likened the proposal to “waving the baby,” which he described as special-interest groups pushing for a ballot vote and threatening “the worst” if it’s not approved.
“They talk about if you don’t do this, birds are going to fall from the sky and children are going to die,” he said. “In this case, the governor, who I don’t dislike, is using schools and children to try and pass a bond, and that is unfair.”
He also noted that the governor’s tax initiative gives only about 40 percent of generated revenue to schools, and passage doesn’t raise funding levels, just prevents them from dropping further.
“Education is one of the last places we cut. It s one of the most important things we have in this country, public education, and for the governor to use that to try and pass and initiative to get more tax revenue I think is wrong.”
Berryhill said legislators need to make tougher choices and look elsewhere before taking from education. He said areas such as social welfare expenditures, which increased by nearly $3 billion this year, and health care coverage for prisoners and convicted felons should be reduced before education.
“It’s not going to help the classroom, and it’s so bogus and so wrong for the governor to hold our kids hostage and to hold the fear of the citizenry hostage with saying we can’t fund public safety to the level we need to,” he said, adding, “It’s ridiculous, and we can do a lot to save money in those areas, and we can do a lot more to just save money, believe me.”
Public safety and prisoner realignment
Berryhill voiced strong opposition to a recent bill that released prisoners from state prison to county jails or county probation officials in an effort to save money at the state level.
He called the move “half baked” and said the effort could have a chance, though he predicted its failure because the state wouldn’t provide the funds for cash-strapped localities and counties.
The move, he said, would cause the influx of criminals to be freed.
“Whatever it takes, do not release these people early,” he said. “Coming from a rural area, it scares me to death. We’re the ones out there irrigating all night. What happens if I come up on a drug deal, or a stolen car?”
According to Berryhill, the state Department of Corrections had its budget grow by 9 percent this year. That’s money he said would be better placed in the hands of county police and jailing departments. He called for its repeal.
“So again, it’s smoke and mirrors budgeting, and it’s wrong and it’s scary for all of us out in the rural country,” he said.
Ornellas agreed with Berryhill’s assessment that the program would fail because the state would cease to fund the effort in the near future.
He said San Joaquin County received $7 million in state funds to help with the cost of more prisoners, but that money would be gone in June, with no promise of new funds.
The county is also considering expanding the jail in French Camp, but Ornellas said the county wouldn’t be able to afford the $40 million to $60 million yearly operating price tag.
“The problem is the state — it went like Castro did in Cuba — is cleaning out its prisons, and they are all ending up in our county,” he said. “We know some can be put in the system and come out and change their lives. We know that. … We also know that some of these people are not nice people.”
Both men said gang prevention is essential to lowering crime and increasing public safety. They both reprimanded Galgiani for voting to approve prisoner realignment.
According to Berryhill, overregulation of California businesses is the leading cause for a declining business climate.
Under environmental regulations — Assembly Bill 32, for example, which addresses greenhouse gases — Berryhill said a valley farmer could pay nearly $8 million in state regulatory fees — a burden that some other states don’t impose.
“It’s not going to solve the world’s atmospheric problems, greenhouse gases. We’re going this alone, us and one province in Canada,” he said. “They have to compete with Tyson Foods in Arkansas. How are they going to do that?”
He vowed to limit regulatory overreach in Sacramento if elected.
“… I promise, and I don’t make many promises, but I can say this: If elected, I will focus on an initiative statewide … that would get a handle on our regulatory agencies in California, because they have absolutely gone wild in California,” he said. “We have got to start to ease and give some certainty to California.”
Ornellas said the state’s population in recent years had flattened because businesses and residents were discouraged by high taxes.
He used the example of a man he met in the audience before the forum, who planned to move to the East Coast when he retired to avoid paying $9,000 in annual state taxes.
“That $9,000, he feels, can be better spent somewhere in a state that doesn’t charge that type of state income tax.
“That’s a shame, and that’s just one. You do that by 10, times that by 100, and it starts to get to be real money after awhile.”
Ornellas said that as a member of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, he saw how “out of control” the state’s air resources board was, saying its impact was “immeasurable.”
“Unless you’re impacted directly by them, you don’t know it, but we are,” he said.
Agriculture and water
Farmers in this region need a “good and reliable source of water at a reasonable price,” Ornellas said, vowing to fight for farmers’ rights when it comes to overregulation and taxes that can hurt individual farmers and the entire industry.
“Farmers also need the government, not to get out of the way, but to give them an opportunity to excel and produce,” he said. “There is no telling where California ag would end up if you just set us free.”
Taxing and regulation, Ornellas said, could cause farmers to leave the state altogether or force younger generations to give up the family land.
“We need to make sure that Californian farmers have a way and means of producing their crops, but also processing their crops,” he said. “We need to encourage, at the local level, processing, more processing, so that our products can stay here in California and shipped as a finished product.”
With about one-third of San Joaquin County part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Ornellas said a proposed peripheral canal would only hurt the region and its farmers.
“The peripheral canal will do just maximum amount of damage to the Delta, portions of San Joaquin,” he said.
He said the plan would ship the fresh water of the Sacramento River around the Delta and to the southern parts of the state, while northern farmers would be left with the browner waters of the Delta.
“They shouldn’t have the best water — they should only have the water we have,” he said.
Berryhill called California agriculture the “most regulated in the world” and said water rights were the biggest threat to farmers in Northern California. In his time in the Assembly, Berryhill said he had fought hard for water rights and would continue to fight legislators like Galgiani who voted on the water bond that began the ongoing planning process for the peripheral canal.
“Make no mistake, I said in my first campaign that over my dead body will they build that canal,” he said. “I just hope I don’t have to get stuck sitting in front of a bulldozer, because the governor seems really committed to going that way.”
Berryhill said he had drafted in the Legislature an alternative to the canal that would create 2 million acre-feet of water storage and pull water from the western intakes off Sherman Island, pumping it to a holding location in Tracy and to points farther south.