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North Coast legislators see common ground in Gov. Brown’s new agenda (w/video)

Expect North Coast lawmakers to do what they can to further much of Gov. Jerry Brown’s agenda during his historic fourth term in office.

Brown’s emphasis on climate change and renewable energy, education, retiree benefits and the state’s abysmal highway and road system hit at the sweet spot of North Coast politics. But as always, the details matter.

“When the governor’s budget proposal is released at the end of the week, that’s when we’ll have more detail, where we’ll say, ‘We like the goal, but I’m not sure this is the way to get there,’ ” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.

Levine singled out retiree benefits for state employees as one issue lawmakers might quibble over. Brown, 76, said Monday in his inaugural address that he wants to ask state employees to “pre-fund” those obligations, taken to mean they would pay more upfront to cover the future cost of benefits. The existing unfunded liability for health and dental benefits for the largest group of state and municipal employees is about $50 billion. For California’s public teachers, it is $71.8 billion.

“Everyone needs to be part of the solution,” Levine said. “The state Legislature cannot take up this alone without everyone chipping in.”

Levine begins his second term as the North Coast’s senior lawmaker, outside of Sen. Lois Wolk, whose district includes parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. The others - Mike McGuire, Bill Dodd and Jim Wood - were still settling into their new jobs Monday.

Lawmakers welcomed Brown’s call for the nation’s most populous state to do more to tackle climate change, but they disagreed whether the goals the governor outlined can be met within the time-line he set forth. Brown wants the state to increase renewable energy use from about a third to 50 percent of the state’s overall power portfolio in the next 15 years, by reducing reliance on petroleum fuels, doubling the energy efficiency of buildings and deriving more electricity from solar, wind, and other renewable sources of power.

Assemblyman Wood, D-Healdsburg, called those goals “doable” within 15 years.

“I think it’s up to us in the Legislature to figure it out,” Wood said. “He (Brown) laid out a vision we all share.”

But Assemblyman Dodd, D-Napa, said getting there in that time frame “probably is a heavy lift.”

Dodd said other states and countries need to see that California’s climate technology programs are working, otherwise, he said he’s not sure whether “the investment is anywhere near the reward.”

Dodd and the other North Coast lawmakers were pleased that the governor expressed a desire to tackle the estimated $59 billion in deferred maintenance on the state’s highways and roads.

Sen. McGuire, D-Healdsburg, listed immediate transportation priorities on the North Coast as widening the 16-mile stretch of Highway 101 known as the Novato Narrows, advancing the Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit system and shoring up a landslide-prone section of Highway 101 just south of Crescent City known as “Last Chance Grade.”

McGuire, who is chairman of the Senate’s Human Services Committee, also is in position to advance the governor’s stated desire to increase spending in that area. Brown specifically cited costs incurred by the state under the Affordable Care Act, which he said has “dramatically” increased health insurance coverage under the Medi-Cal program.

McGuire said Medi-Cal cuts have been “devastating” for the state’s poorer citizens.

“We have to start focusing on reinvestment in Medi-Cal in the coming two years, and I believe that’s going to be a commitment of the Legislature and the governor,” he said.

McGuire’s more immediate focus is the planned elimination of all career technical and job skills classes in California high schools July 1. He said he will introduce legislation seeking $500 million to maintain the programs, with funding tied to Proposition 98 and an increase in tax revenue as a result of the improving economy.

He and Wood also co-authored a bill introduced Monday that will give Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits more time to complete a seismic retrofit project.

Levine signaled some alignment with Brown on education. The governor said Monday that his preference is to “not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities.”

Levine said he supports more funding for higher education so long as it doesn’t involve raising student fees. “I am adamantly opposed to fee increases” for students, he said.

Levine said he plans to introduce legislation promoting the use of composting in agriculture as a way to preserve water resources and reduce carbon emissions.

As chairman of the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, Levine said he plans to ensure that money authorized by voters in 2006 for flood control is being spent for that purpose. He said about $1.2 billion remains of the $4.1 billion earmarked by the measure.

Dodd said he wants to find ways of limiting government interference in business development, saying by doing so it will spur job creation.

“While Napa and Sonoma counties are enjoying a low unemployment rate, a lot of other counties in the state aren’t,” he said.

Wood said his legislative agenda will focus on issues he said the North Coast cares about: health care, water and climate change.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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