Assembly speaker discusses priorities, problems for 2024 

By Antonio Ray Harvey 

Contributing Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas shared his legislative priorities and vision for the future of California during a luncheon hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California last month.

Titled a “Conversation with Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas” the 44-year-old Democrat lawmaker from Hollister, who represents the 29th Assembly District, is the 71st speaker of the Assembly.

The discussion at the Sheraton Hotel took place about two weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom presented his $291 billion January budget proposal. 

“These are going to be difficult times,” Rivas said of the task of balancing a budget that has been estimated separately by the Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office to have a deficit between $38 billion and $68 billion. “It’s certainly the highest priority when you look at the state budget deficit. It’s going to underpin everything we get done this year. It’s going to impact everything.”

The Public Policy Institute of California  Speaker Series on California’s Future allows “leaders, lawmakers and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively and collaboratively in public conversations,” according to the institute. The sole goal is to provide Californians with a better and concise understanding of how their leaders address the challenges facing the golden state.

The institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. It informs public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research and publishes reports 

Chief Executive Officer Tani Cantil-Sakauye was the moderator of the 60-minute discussion that about 200 guests attended. 

Rivas said right after he was sworn in as the Assembly leader that among his top priorities are mental and medical wellness, public safety, affordable housing, homelessness, education, the state’s entry-level scientists’ wages and climate change.

He added that his goal is to focus on both urban and rural areas across the state, including improving public services and infrastructure. He explained that wildfires, flooding, droughts and agriculture productivity are additional concerns.

Rivas shared that legislators should have goals of “addressing critical issues” that lead to “progress, affordability and improving day-to-day” quality of life for all residents in California.

“These issues are consistent across the state,” Rivas told Cantil-Sakauye, the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court. “I prioritize no region over the other. That’s why I certainly worked incredibly hard to travel across the state to engage to see how we (legislators) can make a difference.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the conversation, Michael L. Younger, vice president of workforce, strategy and innovation at Calbright College, asked Rivas how the state can help individuals with workforce training without relying on traditional colleges and university.

Calbright Community College is the state’s first virtual community college that is accessible across the state.

“(I am) speaking to those who may not see themselves on the college track but also have value to society,” Younger asked Rivas. 

In his response, Rivas said the labor force needs individuals with work training skills, especially with the rise and usage of artificial intelligence.

“The need to have that transition can’t come soon enough but at the same time we have a responsibility to train displaced workers,” Rivas said. “There are opportunities in the state to get that done, that meet their expectations (and) meet their interests.”

Cassandra Walker-Pye, who is a board member of PPIC and provided opening remarks before Cantil-Sakauye and Riva’s conversation began, reminded the Assembly speaker that he has “the largest caucus of Democrats of any speaker in history.” Then, she inquired how Republicans in the Assembly fit into his legislative plans.

“How do you engage your Republican colleagues to be sure that their voices are also heard and part of the process of decision making?” Walker-Pye asked.

Rivas said he maintains a good working relationship with the Republican Caucus, including Minority Assembly leader James Gallagher, R-Yuba City. Rivas shared that working alongside Republicans is not uncommon in his political career. When he was a member of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, he served with four Republicans.

“Look, we’re all in this together and you respect the fact that many of our Republican colleagues have unique districts as well,” Rivas said. 

“I can’t emphasize enough. I knew the demands of this job, preparing for it, and also know the expectations and time it would take to ensure that members of our caucus and the entire Assembly that they feel supported, and they have the resources to ensure that they get the job done here in Sacramento and at home,” Rivas said. 

Carmen-Nicole Cox, director of government affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union – California Action, 

asked Rivas if he would accept the “community’s invitation” to take a public health approach to addressing public safety rather than one that criminalizes, demoralizes and focuses on incarceration.  

Rivas responded by explaining that an impartial evaluation of public safety should be made initially before providing a resolution. 

“Our approach to addressing public safety is to first, listen, to be fair throughout our process and to find solutions. Does that include addressing public health? Absolutely,” he said. 

Antonio Ray Harvey is a reporter for California Black Media