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Walters: Winnowing Legislative Grain From Chaff



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During the pre-industrial era, crops of wheat were planted, cultivated, harvested and processed by hand.
The latter included “winnowing,” typically by using a shallow basket to toss the crushed kernels of wheat into the air, allowing the wind to separate edible grain from the lighter and disposable chaff.

Dan Walters
The term is also quite applicable as the state Legislature resumes its biennial session.
Winnowing weighty grains of policy wheat from lightweight legislative chaff is not always easy, since the authors of both always profess serious intent.
Eventually, however, their true nature emerges. A few years ago, for example, the state Senate, amidst much oratory, passed a bill that professed to create a state-managed “single-payer” medical care system to cover every Californian.
The legislation, however, lacked an element to make it a serious proposal: a way to pay for it. Supposedly, all current public and private health care spending would be absorbed by the state, but it also would require at least $100 billion a year in new taxes.
The speaker of the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, quickly and correctly put the bill on the legislative shelf, citing its lack of a financing method.

A Serious Approach to a Very Serious Problem

Three new — or at least semi-new — proposals also illustrate the need for winnowing.

“It is $81,000 a year to incarcerate a person (but) for a two-bedroom apartment, it’s $25,000 a year. It is not just morally incumbent on us to provide a right to housing but financially it is the responsible thing to do.” — Assemblywoman Autumn Burke
Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, is trying for the third straight year to enact legislation to ease California’s chronic lack of housing.
Wiener wants to overcome the not-in-my-backyard sentiment that blocks local high-density housing projects and in his newly amended version, Senate Bill 50 has softened what had been a tough mandate by giving local governments more leeway to comply with state housing quotas.
Whether one likes or dislikes Wiener’s bill, it’s certainly a serious approach to a very serious problem.
SB 50 stands in contrast with a bit of chaff being offered by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, a Los Angeles Democrat. Her amendments to Assembly Bill 22 “declare that it is the policy of the state that every child and family has the right to housing, which includes homelessness prevention, emergency accommodations, and permanent housing …”
“It is $81,000 a year to incarcerate a person (but) for a two-bedroom apartment, it’s $25,000 a year,” she told Politico. “It is not just morally incumbent on us to provide a right to housing but financially it is the responsible thing to do.”

It’s Just More Symbolic Chaff

That is, at best, sophomoric reasoning. Declaring a “right to housing” is one thing but generating tens of billions of dollars to build it is quite another. If Burke is serious about creating such a right, then she should tell us how she’d finance it. Otherwise, it’s just symbolism.
Speaking of which, Rob Bonta, a Democratic Assemblyman from Oakland, has introduced Assembly Bill 1839, which he describes as a “California Green New Deal” aimed at rapidly eliminating fossil fuels from the state’s economy.
“California,” he says, “has been recognized as a world leader in implementing strong and innovative environmental policies. The California Green New Deal will build on that leadership to further protect the planet and ensure that disadvantaged communities that have been harmed by the fossil fuel economy are first in line to benefit from our state’s green advances.”
So how would he do that? Who would pay for the conversion and how would it affect the economy and those now employed in fossil fuel-related industries? He doesn’t say. Rather, AB 1839 would just create an advisory organization that would tell us something two years hence.
It’s just more symbolic chaff.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.