Amongst the many impacts of COVID-19, one of the most troubling is that of the increasing rates of mental health issues and difficulties, specifically that of children, and education loss.
In a press release circulated last week, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the First Partner of California, proudly announced the creation for “the very first time [of] innovative access programs for children and families to explore state parks” by allowing free access to state parks for fourth graders through the signing into law of AB 148 and SB 129.
According the aforementioned press release from the office of the First Partner of California, “AB 148 establishes the California State Park Adventure Pass, a three-year pilot program that waives day-use entrance fees to 19 state parks for fourth graders and their families for a full year”. In conjunction the press release also proclaimed that “earlier this month, the Governor also signed SB 129, legislation that includes $5.6 million to fund the new State Park Adventure Pass”.
However, this is not only inaccurate, blatantly false and misleading, but unfortunately highlights the unwillingness for bipartisanship by those within leadership in the Democratic Party and California. This is as myself and my team have worked tirelessly in introducing two near identical bills, AB 542 this year and AB 336 in 2019, both of which pre-date AB 148 and SB 129, but were deemed to not be financially viable and through the votes of Democrat Assembly members were killed in the Assembly Appropriations committee without any transparency or debate.
My bills, AB 542 and AB 336, built upon the federally issued "Every Kid in a Park (EKIP) Pass" which was an Obama administration initiative that allowed a fourth grader and accompanying adults free access to National parks, and extended this to California State Parks.
Rather than allow AB 542 to pass through the Assembly and the Senate using the normal legislative process, leadership within the Majority Party felt it necessary to hold, rename the measure and incorporate it into a budget trailer bill. However, both bills were not limited to granting access to state parks but also contained many harmful measures which increased fees, granted unnecessarily powers to The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), reduced transparency and accountability within the Electric Program Investment Charge, and waived competitive bidding requirements for both the California Water and Wastewater Arrearage Payment Program and for Drought Scenarios. Therefore highlighting the willingness of the Majority Party to use the mental health, wellbeing and education of our children as nothing more than a pawn for a broader political agenda.
One cannot help but feel jaded in the face of the blatant, undeniable and transparent plagiarism and hypocrisy between the response to a Republican bill and that of a Democrat, even though as previously noted both were for all intents and purposes identical.
Furthermore, the rejection of AB 542 due to financial concerns which are insurmountable and unjustifiable when run by a Minority elected official appears particularly duplicitous when one considers that in 2021 California had a record breaking surplus of $75 billion. Yet, when the exact same measure is a Majority led initiative funding is immediately available, and is now touted as essential in supporting our “children’s physical, mental, and social-emotional well-being”.
Whilst I am pleased that ultimately the children of our state will be able to access our many great state parks and enjoy the full benefits that this pass offers; it is deeply disheartening and concerning that our democratic system can be so clearly and undeniably tarnished by party politics on a clearly bi-partisan issue as important as our children’s education and mental health.
There is an expected element of competition within our political system, however there is, or should be, a spirit of collaboration and co-operation to put forward the best policies and bills to help the people of California.
Unfortunately, this pattern of the Majority Party intentionally terminating bills not due to the legitimacy, validity, viability or necessity of the content of the bill but simply because the Assembly member or Senator is from the Minority Party, and then running a near identical bill is commonplace and a well-known secret and reality facing many Republicans in office.