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State Agency Faces Elimination After First Black Woman Takes Charge

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In January, members of the California Board of Equalization (BOE) selected Malia M. Cohen, former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to chair the 140-year-old state agency.

Cohen became the first Black woman elected to the board last May and the first to lead the agency responsible for representing taxpayer interests and “equalizing” county-by-county tax assessments across the state.

Now, less than eight weeks into her 4-year term and under two months as chair, Cohen has been thrust into a difficult fight, as lawmakers grapple with whether or not to dismantle the agency, she finds herself justifying her job, her $151,260 salary, and the very existence of the agency she leads.

“Here we are, members of the new board, just shy of eight weeks in – of coming into this position – we now have to defend keeping the board elected,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the board represents the interests of many disadvantaged Californians such as small business owners who may not be able to afford an attorney or families who speak English as a second language and people impacted by wildfires. BOE is a champion against unfair practices like the widespread undervaluation of homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Lawmakers held hearings to check in on the operations of the board since its functions were reduced by Gov. Jerry Brown two years ago. A state audit before that decision revealed a series of shocking incidents of mismanagement and corruption involving members of the previous board, including the misappropriation of $350 million.

During the hearing, Cohen asked lawmakers to give the new board, under her leadership, time to fix “the sins of the previous class.”

Former Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 102 or the Taxpayer Transparency and Fairness Act into law in 2017 following the audit that uncovered the scandals at the BOE. The legislation stripped the state agency and its elected board of much of its tax administration and adjudication powers. The law also relieved the agency of its tax collection responsibility.

New state agencies like the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration and the Office of Tax Appeals were created to take over some of those functions while others were absorbed by existing state offices.

The BOE is the only elected government board of its kind in the United States that is specifically set up to represent taxpayer interests.

California State Controller Betty T. Yee, who was once an elected officer of the 4-member board, believes the board is no longer relevant.

“For me the answer is no,” said Yee. “The BOE does not need to continue to have an elected board. The name on the door of who administers these programs is less important than how they are administered.”

Since the board’s mandate is constitutional, the process to determine its fate will take a few years. Legislators would have to vote to place a constitutional amendment regarding the Board’s fate before California voters on the 2020 ballot.

Bay Area

Oakland Program Distributes $500 to Families of Color

The assistance, which targets low-income families of color in the 426,000-population city, will last 18 months. Mayor Schaaf detailed that the money comes with “no-strings attached,” and recipients can use it as they please. “We have designed this demonstration project to add to the body of evidence and to begin this relentless campaign to adopt a guaranteed income federally,” Mayor Schaaf told the local ABC News station.

In the middle of a worldwide awakening to the centuries-old racism and oppression suffered by Black people, some African Americans finally see tangible assistance – even if the help isn’t characterized as reparations.

Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that the city would begin a guaranteed income project that would provide $500 per month to Black and Indigenous families.

The assistance, which targets low-income families of color in the 426,000-population city, will last 18 months.

Mayor Schaaf detailed that the money comes with “no-strings attached,” and recipients can use it as they please.

“We have designed this demonstration project to add to the body of evidence and to begin this relentless campaign to adopt a guaranteed income federally,” Mayor Schaaf told the local ABC News station.

The station reported that, for the project, the Oakland Resilient Families program has so far raised $6.75 million from private donors, including Blue Meridian Partners, a national philanthropy group.

The programs require residents have at least one child under 18 and income at or below 50 percent of the area median income – about $59,000 per year for a family of three.

Half the spots are reserved for people who earn below 138 percent of the federal poverty level or about $30,000 per year for a family of three, ABC reported. Participants are randomly selected from a pool of applicants who meet the eligibility requirements.

The report noted that Oakland’s project is significant because it is one of the most outstanding efforts in the U.S. so far, targeting up to 600 families. And it is the first program to limit participation strictly to Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.

Oakland, where 24 percent of the residents are Black, is among a growing list of municipalities providing financial payments to people of color – or reparations.

Evanston, Illinois, a city where 18 percent of its more than 74,500 residents are Black, approved the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, which provides up to $25,000 for housing down payments or home repairs to African Americans.

In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law historic legislation that paves the way for African Americans and descendants of slaves in the Golden State to receive reparations for slavery.

The bill, authored by California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, establishes a nine-person task force that will study the impact of the slave trade on Black people.

It does not commit to any specific payment, but the task force will make recommendations to legislators about what kind of compensation should be provided, who should receive it, and what form it would take.

“After watching [the presidential] debate, this signing can’t come too soon,” Newsom declared during a videoconference with lawmakers and other stakeholders, including the rapper Ice Cube, who championed the bill.

“As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive. Our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions,” the governor stated.

Last summer, Asheville, a North Carolina city where Black people make up just 11 percent of the more than 92,000 residents, formally apologized for its role in slavery. The City Council voted unanimously to provide reparations to African American residents and their descendants.

“Hundreds of years of Black blood spilled that fills the cup we drink from today,” said Councilman Keith Young, one of two African American members of the City Council that voted 7-0 in favor of reparations.

“It is simply not enough to remove statutes. Black people in this country are dealing with systemic issues,” Young declared.

Asheville’s resolution doesn’t include monetary payments to African Americans but promises investments in areas where Black people face disparities.

Earlier this year, Congress debated H.R. 40, a bill that doesn’t place a specific monetary value on reparations but focuses on investigating and presenting the facts and truth about the unprecedented centuries of brutal enslavement of African people, racial healing, and transformation.

The bill would fund a commission to study and develop proposals for providing reparations to African Americans.

The commission’s mission includes identifying the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, forms of discrimination in public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and lingering adverse effects of slavery on living African Americans and society.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee, who sits on numerous House committees, including the Judiciary, Budget, and Homeland Security, has made the reparations legislation her top priority during the 117th Congress.

“I think if people begin to associate this legislation with what happened to the descendants of enslaved Africans as a human rights violation, the sordid past that violated the human rights of all of us who are descendants of enslaved Africans, I think that we can find common ground to pass this legislation,” Congresswoman Jackson Lee pronounced.

The project in Oakland targets groups with the city’s most significant wealth disparities.

According to CNN and per the Oakland Equality Index, the median income for White households in Oakland to be nearly three times that of Black homes.

“The poverty we all witness today is not a personal failure. It is a systems failure,” Schaaf remarked. “Guaranteed income is one of the most promising tools for systems change, racial equity, and economic mobility we’ve seen in decades.”

Two years ago, 100 residents in Stockton, California, began receiving unconditional $500 payments, CNN reported. Other initiatives in Newark, New Jersey, and Atlanta, Georgia, were launched as recently as 2020.

Former Stockton Mayor, Michael Tubbs, is the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of advocating mayors founded in 2020.

Oakland Mayor Schaaf is also a founding member of the network.

“One of my hopes in testing out a guaranteed income is that other cities would follow suit, and I’m thrilled that Oakland is among the first,” Tubbs told CNN.

“By focusing on BIPOC residents, the Oakland Resilient Families program will provide critical financial support to those hardest hit by systemic inequities, including the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on communities of color.”

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Barbara Lee

In a Letter to Voters, Rep. Barbara Lee Reflects on Pres. Biden’s First 100 Days

I was particularly struck seeing the Bay Area represented on the dais by Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi. That was the first time in history two women have held that position. It was reflective of the price women have paid to get to this point.

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Dear Friend,

     Last week marked the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency. On (April 28), President Biden presented his vision for an American future that builds back better after some of our most challenging years. 

     I sat in the chamber and listened to President Biden reflect on his first 100 days, confidently reporting that we have a stronger economy, more resilient pandemic response, and a unified mission of building back better and bolder.

     I was particularly struck seeing the Bay Area represented on the dais by Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi. That was the first time in history two women have held that position. It was reflective of the price women have paid to get to this point. While this was a historic moment, as Vice President Harris pointed out, it is past time that it becomes “normal.”

      During his speech, President Biden discussed his recently unveiled American Families Plan (AFP). The AFP is a bold step in advancing racial equity and closing the gap in education, childcare, wealth inequality, and more. By extending provisions under the American Rescue Plan (ARP), and through programs of its own, the AFP would lift more than 10 million people out of poverty.

      I am excited to support this plan and similar efforts to improve equity in our school and childcare systems, and to combat inequality in the East Bay and across the country.

     The AFP offers an extended tax cut for families with children and American workers. This includes the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This will work to mitigate the growing wealth inequality that we see in America and invest in low- and middle-income families who help our economy thrive.

     Additional provisions of the AFP include:

  • Making child care affordable by ensuring that families will pay no more than 7% of their income on high-quality child care
  • Creating a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program through worker payments of up to $4,000 a month
  • Expanding school meal programs and summer EBT funds
  • Extending ACA premium tax credits that were expanded under the American Rescue Plan
  • Providing up to $1,400 in additional assistance to low-income students by increasing the Pell Grant award
  • Addressing teacher shortages and improving teacher preparation, including programs that strengthen pipelines for teachers of color

     (Last) week, we heard about some of the progress we have made in the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration, but we cannot let our foot off the gas. Among many challenges ahead, we need we need to address disparities in our public health system, do more to help families that are struggling through this economic crisis, dismantle structural racism, implement police reform and immigration reform and address the climate crisis. 

     We still have much work to do, but I am committed to continue fighting for you.

     As always, my office is here for you. If you need help with a federal issue, please call my Oakland office at (510) 764-0370. You can also connect with me via email, Facebook Twitter , and Instagram .

Please continue to stay healthy and safe.

Best,

Barbara Lee

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Activism

Democrats in Sacramento Take Steps to Make Voting Easier

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

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The electoral process is foundational to the durability of America’s democratic structure.

And as the battle for fairer voting laws rages on, politicians and activists on the political Right claim they are responding to allegations of widespread voter and election fraud. Those on the Left say they are rallying to fight a coordinated political offensive to restrict access to the polls and increasing reports of voter suppression.

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. 

But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

Invoking the violent history of voter suppression in the South that her parents endured, which sometimes involved murders — California Secretary of State Shirley Weber says it is a priority of hers to “ensure the right to vote.” 

“I tell people all the time that no number is good unless it’s 100% in terms of voter participation,” Weber told the Public Policy Institute of California. “Why didn’t 5 million go to the polls? We need to figure out where they are and what stopped them from going.”

In the California Legislature, an amendment to Senate Bill (SB) 29, which passed earlier this year, was one bill in a broader legislative effort to secure the right to vote in vulnerable communities.

Before that amendment passed, California law dictated that a ballot would be mailed to all eligible voters for the November 3 statewide general election in 2020 as well as use a Secretary of State vote-by-mail tracking system to ensure votes are counted. 

SB 29, which the governor signed into law in February, extended those requirements to any election “proclaimed or conducted” prior to Jan. 1, 2022.

A record number of voters participated in California elections in 2020. Some political observers attribute that spike to the vote-by-mail system instituted last year.

“To maintain a healthy democracy in California, it is important to encourage eligible voters to vote and to ensure that residents of the state have the tools needed to participate in every election,” the bill reads.

Senate Bill (SB) 583, introduced by California State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), would require the Secretary of State to register or preregister eligible citizens to vote upon retrieving the necessary paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Citizens who do not wish to be registered can opt-out of the process altogether.

Newman stressed the importance of access and simplifying the voter registration process. 

“In our state there are an estimated 4.6 million U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote who have not yet registered,” Newman said. “Our obligation as the people’s elected representatives is to make the process simpler and more accessible for them.”

On April 27, the Senate Transportation Committee passed SB 583 with a 13 to 3 vote. The Appropriations Committee has set a hearing for May 10. 

Senate Bill (SB) 503, introduced by Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), proposes that if a signature shares enough characteristics with a previous signature from the same voter, then it would be recognized as official on voting paperwork.

Current law dictates that a signature has to match exactly for it to be considered valid.

Disability Rights California (DRC), a non-profit advocacy organization that advances and protects the rights of Californians living with disabilities, has come out in support of SB 503.

“Studies have shown that signature matches disproportionately impact voters with disabilities,” Eric Harris, director of public policy for the DRC wrote in a letter. 

“Voters with disabilities, including seniors, are more likely to vote by mail and would have to sign their name on their ballots,” Harris argued. “A voter’s signature changes over time and for people with disabilities, a signature can change nearly every other time one is written. Some people with disabilities might have conditions that make it difficult to sign your name the same way multiple times.”

For now, the Senate Appropriations Committee has tabled SB 503, placing the bill in what the Legislature calls a “suspense file,” where it awaits further action by lawmakers. 

At the federal level, lawmakers have introduced two bills in the U.S. Congress to expand voting rights, the For The People Act of 2021 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The For The People Act, or H.R.1, proposes a three-pronged approach to expanding election access: Voting, campaign finance, and ethics.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy, compared the current voting rights battle to that of the Civil Rights Movement in a press conference about H.R.1 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“If you look at some of those 1960s shots of the C.T. Vivians of the world, of the Joe Lowerys and so many others that helped lead Americans to those registration sites, you’ll see them actually literally being beaten to the ground,” Shelton said, referring to well-known Civil Rights Movement activists. 

The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, or S.4263, would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to restore the powers it lost after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder.  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring states and local communities to first clear any changes to voting their local laws with the feds, was unlawful.  

“Well, we’ve become more sophisticated in our disenfranchisement,” Shelton continued. “We want to make sure that we stop that disenfranchisement all along the way and that’s why we’re convinced that a bill named for John Lewis and a bill that speaks for the people are bills that need to pass.”

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