California is already one of the nation’s most liberal states, but a Bernie Sanders presidency would kick the state’s progressive tilt into overdrive.
Still, in many policy areas, Californians would feel far less of an impact than residents of more conservative states.
The Vermont senator’s call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage? California’s already moving there, with every worker slated to hit that mark by 2023. Legal status for Dreamers, undocumented young people brought into the U.S. as children? The state has moved to block all proposed deportation efforts. Banning for-profit prisons and ending cash bail? California already is working to do just that.
But the wide-ranging plans Sanders has proposed during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination go further and faster than those of virtually any other politician, inside or outside of California, which supporters call a major selling point.
“Bernie Sanders is the only candidate Californians can trust to cancel all our student loan and medical debt, deliver the aggressive Green New Deal we need to avert the climate crisis and end homelessness in America,” said Anna Bahr, a state spokeswoman for the senator.
About the story
The Chronicle is examining what California would look like if the major Democratic presidential candidates were elected and could implement their top policy priorities. The candidates’ positions are taken from their websites, comments they have made during the campaign, and in some cases from legislation they have sponsored in office. Today’s installment is on Sen. Bernie Sanders — other candidates will be the subject of stories as the March 3 primary approaches.
If Sanders becomes president and he can push his entire agenda through Congress, it will bring dramatic changes to California.
Under a President Sanders, California would be getting more federal money. A lot more federal money. While the senator hasn’t said exactly how much all his proposed programs would cost, he’s put out enough information to show there would be multiple trillions in new spending. And since California has more than 12% of the nation’s population —and one of the country’s highest poverty rates — much of that cash would find its way here.
According to Sanders’ campaign website, over the next decade he wants to spend $2.5 trillion to build affordable housing, pay off $1.6 trillion in student debt, use $16 trillion for his Green New Deal and provide $1 trillion for infrastructure. That doesn’t include the estimated $30 trillion-plus cost of his Medicare for All health plan, or billions more to make public colleges free, provide universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, boost Social Security payments and provide, as his website puts it, “a federal jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a stable job that pays a living wage.”
The tsunami of federal money would be good news for plenty of Californians. The 17% of residents who owe money for health care would see much of that debt disappear, with the government paying past-due medical bills. State residents owe about $131 billion in college debt, and Sanders plans to cancel all of it.
Other Californians would pick up much of the bill. Sanders would pay for his plans with new taxes on big corporations and the wealthy. In a state with 157 billionaires — and more than a million millionaires — along with some of the nation’s biggest companies, those taxes would hurt.
Sanders’ health care plan is simple: Private insurance will be eliminated and almost every medical service will be provided by the government with “no premiums, no deductibles, no copays, no surprise bills.”
That’s great news, said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer medical advocate.
“It would be universal, more cost-effective, simpler and more focused on prevention rather than profit,” he said. “It can set prices that are fair but not inflated.”
It’s that pricing question that worries some in the medical industry, who are concerned that doctors and hospitals will pay the costs of the new plan.
“We have 437 hospitals in California and about 38% of them are operating at a loss,” said Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association. “The goal for everyone in the health care industry is universal coverage, but (Sanders’ plan) is risky and potentially dangerous” if hospitals aren’t paid enough to keep operating.
Not everything would happen instantly. Sanders’ 2017 Senate bill calls for a four-year transition period, with the Medicare age limit dropping each year.
“The transition matters,” Wright said. “We don’t want to leave anyone behind when we’re moving forward.”
Sanders calls for the federal government to pay two-thirds of the tuition and fees for everyone at public, four-year colleges, with the state picking up the rest.
If California opts in, it would still have to maintain its spending on its higher education system — it couldn’t cut back on faculty costs, for example, to pay for tuition. Since living expenses are as much a barrier to college students as tuition, the federal government would increase Pell Grants to cover costs such as housing, books, transportation and other supplies.
That would still leave the state with plenty of problems, especially in the short run, said Tolani Britton, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
“Capacity is going to be a big issue,” she said. “There aren’t enough seats now to accommodate everyone who wants to come.”
In 2018-19, more than 70,000 qualified students were turned away from California’s public colleges and universities. With more students looking at the chance for a free education, competition could become even more intense, possibly squeezing out the poor and minority students Sanders’ program is designed to help, Britton said.
But if California can push through the temporary problems, good things could happen. There are plenty of qualified first-generation students who don’t consider college now because of the potential costs, Britton said.
“The prospect of less expenses might be an incentive to apply,” she said.
The Green New Deal, backed by Sanders and many other progressive Democrats, is a comprehensive plan that would dramatically change the way California deals with climate change and energy use.
While the state already is moving in a similar direction, Sanders would accelerate the process and take it beyond California’s targets.
California, for example, calls for providing 50% renewable energy by 2030. Sanders wants it to be 100% by then. While the state trimmed its rebate program for electric cars last year, Sanders is calling for 100% electric vehicles by 2030 and proposing more than $2 trillion in rebates to allow low- and moderate-income families to trade in their gas-powered cars for American-made electric vehicles.
While a few California cities, including Berkeley, are moving toward a ban on natural gas hookups for new homes, Sanders would look to bar all but electric energy from homes and businesses.
Sanders also plans to virtually eliminate the nation’s fossil fuel industry — he would ban production in the U.S. and eliminate imports and exports — and largely replace it with publicly owned utilities. He also wants to provide displaced energy workers with five years of salary, job training, housing assistance and job placement.
The speed and scale of those changes concern people in California’s business community.
Sanders’ timeline for the changes is “completely unrealistic,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which represents some of the state’s largest companies. “It reflects how he would try to transform California’s economy through energy policy.”
The technology isn’t there to completely switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and ending California’s oil and gas industry would “kill off some of the businesses most responsible for good-paying middle-class job and put thousands out of work,” Lapsley said.
“How far, how fast is the question,” Lapsley said. “We support climate change goals, but want to do it in a way that doesn’t do harm to the average Californian.”
But climate change is a challenge that can’t be addressed by halfway measures, Sanders said.
“We are going to invest massively in wind, solar and other sustainable energies,” the senator said at a Sacramento rally in August. “We cannot turn our backs on this crisis.”
Like virtually every other Democratic candidate, Sanders plans to reverse President Trump’s immigration programs, including construction of the border wall, attempts to limit immigration from Muslim countries, rules that deny public housing to families with an undocumented member, and efforts to cut federal funds from sanctuary cities such as San Francisco and Oakland.
Sanders would also change the way undocumented residents are treated. He would bar all deportations “until a thorough audit of current and past practices is complete.” He would immediately give legal status to all Dreamers and expand that definition to include anyone who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 18.
He would end criminal penalties for illegal border crossings, end immigration detention for families, children and immigrants who haven’t been convicted of a violent crime, and allow undocumented residents who have been in the state for at least five years to stay without being threatened with deportation.
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