George Runner
State Senator, 17th District

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, March 27, 2005
(Television interview conducted February 25, 2005)

George Runner     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is State Senator George Runner, R-Lancaster, who represents most of the Santa Clarita Valley. The interview was conducted Feb. 25. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: What's it like being half of California's first legislative couple?

Runner: Well, it's great for our family. For eight years, one of us was going out the door every Sunday or Monday morning and coming back every Thursday, for about nine months of the year. Now, we get to go out of the door together. We don't always take the same flights up or the same flights back, but each night we at least end up in the same place. So we've enjoyed it. It makes our family life much better.

Signal: What happens when you and (Assemblywoman) Sharon (Runner) disagree on legislative issues?

Runner: Well, it's early so far, so that hasn't happened. It probably will. I assume we'll handle it like we've handled a few of our other disagreements of our 32-year marriage. We'll work it out. It will happen.

Signal: Are we looking at the start of a Runner dynasty?

Runner: No, I don't think so. I think that it's a very unique situation that we've been able to encounter here. We're so privileged that the voters of our districts have decided that they'll send both of us. It really is very unique, and I'm not sure how it's to be duplicated, but it's certainly one that we enjoy in being able to spend our time together.

Signal: No signs that the kids are following in mom and dad's footsteps?

Runner: Not at this point. We have kids up in Sacramento right now. Our son's married and has family up there. But right now, we're just satisfied with what we've got and looking forward to represent the people who put us there.

Signal: You've been in the Senate a few months now; are you all staffed up and running?

Runner: Yes. It's one of the nice things about being in the Senate — very different than the Assembly. Because for all of us in the Senate, maybe (we have) a couple (of employees who) are different, (but) we've been in the Legislature before. In a sense of staffing and people, you're able to bring together people who've worked with you before, and that's certainly what we've been able to do — both locally, between Sen. (Pete) Knight's staff, and staff who have worked with me before, both here and also up in Sacramento.
    The other issue is, you're not learning about the Legislature at the same time; you've done it. You're ready to start going, and it's really an enjoyable workplace that way.

Signal: When you were termed out of the Assembly, you left Gray Davis behind in Sacramento. Now you're back and you've got Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Runner: And that's wonderful. When I left the Assembly, it was pretty dark days for California. Knowing that I had really hoped to come back in a couple years, I really was not looking forward to really encountering Gray Davis. It's bad enough to have a Democrat-controlled Legislature, but on top of that, to have a governor who was also Democrat. And it's not just being a Democrat. Gray Davis really changed from the beginning of when I was there with Gray Davis, till the end.
    In the beginning, he was trying to be balanced, trying to do the right thing. By the end of the time that I was leaving, he was being run over by truly the liberal majority in the Legislature, and there was no balance. The way the system works out is, the Legislature truly needs adult supervision, and that truly is in the form of the executive branch, at times, to shape, direct, make sure there is a purpose and balance coming out.
    By the end of the time, Gray Davis just wasn't doing it, and unfortunately the things that happened in California demonstrated that — and that's why he ended up (on) the road he did.

Signal: With term limits creating a power vacuum in the Legislature — there are no Speaker Willy Browns any more — and weakness in the governor's office, who was setting the pace for the Legislature?

Runner: The big problem with the Legislature at that time is that you have an array of differing views, for instance within the majority party, the Democrats. Unfortunately what happened within even the Legislature, what I would call the far left — the most liberal — ended up really taking the lead as far as what took place in legislation, and then also in intimidating Gray Davis at that point. So they really had the run of the house at that time.

Signal: But Davis put his foot down once in a while; he didn't sign that illegal alien driver's license bill —

Runner: He didn't sign it the first time. And that's a perfect example of what the change was within Gray Davis — he didn't change his stand the first time, and the second time he did, and that was where we had the problem. That is an illustration of how it is that he found himself really being whipped around, rather than being a leader.
George Runner by Valentine Garcia     Once again, it's the nature of the executive — it's important for the executive to be able to do that, to be a strong executive, even if it means you have to tell your friends "no."

Signal: In terms of "whipping" people around, to use your word — that's your job now. As chairman of the Senate Republican caucus, you've got to keep all of the good little Republican Senators in line.

Runner: We have to try to keep everyone in the boat. And that is a challenge, at times.

Signal: Does that mean toting the party line as defined by Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or toting the party line as defined by George Runner? Or?

Runner: It's really an interesting question. I served my first two years there with the Republican governor, Pete Wilson. So I've experienced a Republican governor in that sense, and a Republican governor may or may not be all that an individual Republican legislator wants them to be. So, oftentimes, we do get into those little battles, and we have to make a decision as a caucus.
    Boy — is this one that we're going to try to work with the governor on and say, "Governor, we need to see some adjustments here; we can't go there"? Or is this one that we know is an important issue for the state, and we have members of the Legislature who might not be there, and we've got to say, "This is one we're all going together on"?
    It's no different than what we see right now in Congress, where you see the president at times shifting away and moving away from where Republican congressional members are. It's a discussion that takes place between the governor's office and our caucus. And at the end of the day, is everyone there? No, probably not, but that's not the important part. The important part is (having) enough of them there.

Signal: What happens when this moderate governor, who talks to Democrats, comes up with an idea that the more conservative Senate GOP caucus doesn't want to support?

Runner: Right off the bat, the fact is — what we're excited about as Republicans — and mostly as conservative Republicans — the thing that the governor has made very clear and would be kind of the bedrock where it is, where we would end up losing one another, and that's on the issue of taxes.
    A very simple question is, does California have enough revenue in order to meet its expenses, or do we need to find more revenue? The governor has made it very clear that on that particular issue, that we have enough revenue; the issue is in our discipline of spending. That really is the bedrock, I think, for all of us up there today.
    There are a lot of issues that might be more right-wing, might be more (of a) social conservative issue, but the reality is that that's not where we end up living our lives, and where it is that the real decisions are being made in the state of California. So on those issues, we're with the governor, and the governor, we believe, is truly doing the right thing on the right path.
    Now, at times, does the governor end up doing some things that are a little bit strange to us?

Signal: Name one.

Runner: Well, you know, I'm not sure why the governor decided that duck liver pate should be illegal in the state of California. He did sign that bill that made it so that we can't do that. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Signal: Any bigger, more fundamental things?

Runner: I don't think so, at this point. Most of the issues are the bigger issues in regard to some of the reform issues that the governor has put on the table — for instance, when it comes to the issue of transportation, when it comes to the issue of education, when it comes to the issue of tax issues — the whole issue of capping spending. Those are really big issues, and right now, the governor is right where we'd want him to be on those issues.

Signal: One of his issues is merit pay for teachers. You're carrying his bill in the Senate.

Runner: The governor has determined one of his objectives, in terms of trying to create a more effective education system in the state of California, is to address two issues — very contentious issues, but (they) are very important issues that at least should get into the general public for discussion. They revolve around the issue of pay for performance: some kind of linkage between what happens at a school site or a classroom, and a teacher's salary. The other issue is the issue of tenure: How soon should a person become, in the teaching profession, a permanent employee — which has protections far and above what most employees in the state of California enjoy, and make it very difficult to remove that employee, when it is that they are not doing the job that they should be doing in the teaching realm? So we're carrying that bill. We had that bill up for a hearing (last month) and it was quite an interesting exchange that we were able to put together.

Signal: Will the bill go anywhere?

Runner: I think at this point, we were successful in getting the bill to not get killed at that point. So right now, I think the governor is trying to decide two issues: No. 1, does he negotiate on the issue? For instance, right away, even in the hearing, a number of Democrats said, "You know, two years is not enough time for tenure. It makes us have to make decisions on teachers, putting them at a permanent status without enough information." So I think that there's some movement within that issue. Our bill had 10 years in it (before a teacher would be tenured).
    Now, whether or not it's going to end up being three, five, seven (years) — we don't know. But it seems to me, there's a point of discussion there. And that, in itself, helps us deal with the issue of merit, because in those years, then, a teacher really does get to stay in the profession and is awarded the next year's contract before tenure, based upon their performance. So you do get that accomplished there.

Signal: One objection to merit pay is that the decision to give a teacher a bonus is subjective — versus automatic, as it is today, tied to seniority.

Runner: And who amongst us wouldn't disagree with the fact that any evaluation of an employee is subjective? It's subjective, I'm sure, wherever you've ever worked; it's subjective to where I've ever worked. That's the nature, oftentimes, of employee evaluations.
    It's interesting: One of the issues that was brought forth at the hearing is, one of the people testifying went back and talked about why it was important to have the step-and-column-only process, and they were talking about how 80 years ago it was put into place because there was discrimination amongst teachers on teachers, and teachers' pay based upon their ethnicity (and) sex. And my response to that was, "Well, isn't that interesting? All of those things are illegal now, so maybe we need to come up with a new scheme" at that point.
    I think that there's no doubt it's subjective, but I do believe that everybody realizes that there is a difference. And I think we all know that. Anybody at any school site knows the difference that not all teachers who have 10 years' experience and 30 units above their B.A. are equal. And there are some wonderful, great, motivated teachers there, and there are some who just punch the clock. The question is, "Is it right to pay them the same?"

Signal: With Arnold around, is everything on the table? Term limits? Redistricting? Even Proposition 98 school funding guarantees?

Runner: We certainly are talking about absolutely everything. He has put absolutely everything on the table, and certainly tenure and merit pay is a very big issue. So he has talked about all of those.
    At the end of the day, will they all be dealt with? I don't know. I saw a Field Poll (that) came out (last month) identifying issues; some of them the people have some great interest in. In fact, the one that the people actually agreed with the governor most on was the issue of pay for performance. By 2 to 1, it was supported by the people of California, and both by Republicans and Democrats. I don't know, and of course the Governor's big plan is, if the Legislature can't be brought about in dealing with the people's business in a good way, he's prepared to go ahead and take it to the people himself.

Signal: California schools supposedly rank 44th in per-pupil funding. The California Teachers Association (CTA) is saying the governor broke his funding promise to California schools.

Runner: And the numbers vary. Forty-fourth is one person's number; there are some other numbers that put us in the middle. But either way, I think every one of us would say that there always is value in investing in our kids.
    The issue is the word "value," and that is, are we getting what we should get for the dollars we invest? If (value) is a lot of money, then Washington, D.C., should have the very best school system because they spend the very most. But we know that that's wrong. They spend the very most, and they have the very worst schools. So it's not just about dollars; it's about value.
    How is it that we can indeed make sure we have a learning environment that is affecting our children? The governor is getting a lot of heat in regard to what he had said last year in regards to funding versus to what the reality is this year. I can appreciate how those who were looking at that said, "Hey, you're not doing what you're supposed to do." Well, the reality is, they didn't know what the revenues were going to be this year, or the expenses for the state of California.
    The governor was probably premature in trying to decide in future years how to spend that money. The bottom line is, in the governor's budget, there's nearly $3 billion of new money going in (to schools). That's about a 6.5-percent increase over the year before. And you've got to remember, this is in a budget year where California is still — in the next budget year starting in July — is still spending more money then we're taking in. We're running a deficit. So in spite of a deficit, the governor has prioritized education still, about a 7-percent increase, and $3 billion more.

Signal: You were vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee; now you're on the Senate Budget Committee. In recent budget years, everyone was feeling the pinch; now the only complaints seem to be coming from education. Is the budget situation calmer overall this year?

Runner: We've heard complaints from every segment of the population who have some relationship to the state budget. They all believe they should get more money. I think — what's hard for me is when I hear things that just don't ring true. For instance, when I hear commercials on TV and on radio that talk about the governor cutting education, when in fact that I know that the governor is giving them nearly $3 billion and a 7-percent increase. I don't think that that's a fair way to then articulate what's taking place.
    Now, should you get more? Now, maybe. But that ought to be the basis of the discussion — not trying to create a public fervor of false information.

Signal: Let's talk about roads. In the old days under Gov. Pat Brown and Gov. Ronald Reagan, the state spent a lot more on infrastructure. Assemblyman Keith Richman had a ballot measure recently that would have dedicated a portion of "new" state revenues to infrastructure, but it failed. What can be done?

Runner: Well, two things. No. 1, we truly do have to make a commitment for the dollars that are already supposed to be coming in for transportation — the gas tax, those issues — already are supposed to be dealing with transportation projects. Unfortunately, they have been used to balance the budget, and so they've been going to those classrooms, they've been going to health care, they've been going to those things and not the roads themselves. As a result of that, we've put that off.
    Now, the governor's plan is, we only need to do that a couple more years and then we're going to never do it again. He's prepared to put a ballot initiative together saying we'll never do it again. But even on his best day, to try to balance the budget, he uses (the gas tax) for the next couple of years.
    I think we have to do two things. No. 1, I certainly am a strong supporter of dedicating a portion of the general fund to infrastructure development. Whether that's roads, to me — I would include school construction, any of those things in there. I think we've got to use some of those dollars to invest in the future, and we certainly need to continue to see how to do that and bring that about.
    I did a bill a few years ago, when we had high revenues — and a lot of the money was one-time money, so it couldn't be used, a lot of it ... with ongoing expenses — that's why we're in the problem that we are — I wanted to go ahead and dedicate that for school construction. Unfortunately, the CTA opposed it because they wanted to have it as a part of their — when you give it to schools, then all of a sudden it becomes part of Proposition 98 and it goes on forever.
    Well, you can't take one-time money and use it for schools; that then puts it on forever. So you needed to change the law; they were opposed to that. I think you need to be able to (take) that kind of investment out of that.
    The other issue you've got to do is, you've got to look at a way to look at additional revenues. Now, I strongly do not believe we need new taxes. I believe that we have enough revenues. The question is, how do we get different kinds of revenues? So one of the bills that we've put forward this year is what's called a public-private partnership. That is where do you find outside investors to invest in issues of infrastructure development that somehow commerce can benefit by; therefore they'll be involved in tolls, or paying costs or user fees in order to use that kind of infrastructure development. Which benefits then, indirectly, anybody else who might use a competing road, if it was a road issue.

Signal: Do you generally believe in tying up money, earmarking it, dedicating specific funds for specific things?

Runner: Unfortunately I do, although I think we've got to be careful with it. Proposition 98 is an example of that. Proposition 98 was a constitutional guarantee (of) minimum funding for schools. Unfortunately the way it was written is, it didn't take into consideration the peaks and valleys of revenues that come into the state of California. So what happens is, it sets the level where there's a peak, and when there's a valley, all of a sudden you're now committed to this newer number. That creates tremendous pressure on everything else...
    I certainly supported the idea, for instance, of protection of local government money, so we can't raid that. At the end of the day, I probably would support the issue of dedicating additional general-fund money to transportation that we kind of leave locked up. But it's got to be done in such a way that then, where all of a sudden there's a dip, that somehow we aren't committed to those expenses and therefore creating a giant deficit in the future.

Signal: You're vice chair of the Senate Health Committee; what's with the new focus on childhood obesity?

Runner: Yeah, well, here's an example where we might disagree with the governor.
    I think it's a wonderful issue in terms (of needing) to be addressed; I'm just not sure the government is the right one to do it. And so, I would imagine that this is going to be a point of discussion that we're going to be dealing with — and that is, does it make sense for us then to go into a school setting and say, "This is what you will do"? I'm a strong supporter of local control.

Signal: There's to be some state funding to go to cities for these programs.

Runner: And I think the farther you get away from your community, your neighborhood, the harder it is to make the dollars make sense. I feel that way whether it's education money coming from Washington, D.C., or special program money coming from Sacramento.
    The fact is, we have school boards elected down here, and city councils elected down here, that need to make the right and best choices for our people — and if they make the wrong choices, they get thrown out. What they shouldn't have to do is just implement somebody else's vision that they didn't have anything to do with.

Signal: Another health issue: What's your position on Keith Richman's plan to make health insurance affordable and mandatory?

Runner: I struggle with how it is that we have everybody covered (with) insurance, because we need to. In reality, I really agree with Keith's argument: We pay for it one way or another. When they go into the emergency room, we pay for it.
    Where I struggle (is) with this idea of, again, government saying, "You will do this." Ultimately, what has to be put in place, as far as I understand, then, is this system — if you don't do it, then we're going to go ahead and find out how to take it out of your tax return. To me, that's intrusive. Way too intrusive.
    I understand the goal; the goal is probably a good goal in terms of getting people covered. I understand that when we don't do that, we all pay. But at the same time, I struggle with that kind of a hammer that government has in that particular way.
    I'm certainly a believer in the fact that I think we need to offer a variety of health care packages. Right now, the reason why a lot of people aren't covered is because the Legislature has said that there is no minimum health insurance package. It's got to cover all these things, and it's got to have all the bells and whistles attached to it. And it just drives the price up.
    I am a believer in the issue of medical savings accounts, so then the people can have a catastrophic insurance plan that is (at a) reasonable cost and they can invest their own money ... tax-free, without ... the incidental costs that they then would be paying. Unfortunately, the state of California has chosen not to become compliant with the federal law, so it's harder to implement that portion of it until, again, the state decides that that's an important way to get health coverage.

Signal: You're vice chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. While you were out, the Legislature enacted SB610 and SB221, basically requiring any proposed housing development of 500 units or more to "prove" that there will be enough water for it in the future. Have those laws been good or bad?

Runner: They make it more difficult. Now, you've got to remember that California faces a huge housing shortage. We are not building enough units. What that does is, it's driving up costs. I'm of the belief that when houses are built and demand is there, water will follow.

Signal: By magic?

Runner: Not by magic, but by demand. By demand it will be there. It will happen. People will get served because ... they'll (have) decided to pay and they'll pay more for it because they need to have it. Ultimately, we have enough water in California. (The issue is the) ability to move it from northern California to Southern California. Extreme environmental laws have made it so we can't move it. Extreme environmental laws have made it so we can't store it easily. ... The same extreme environmentalists who aren't letting us do that are the ones who are now wanting us to tie construction and those dollars to available water sources.
    The other issue that's out there, and that I believe will end up solving the problem — and that's why I think everybody is way overzealous as to what the problem is — as water prices and demand creep up, we're going to find other solutions. Desalinization is going to be there — a whole another amount of water available to us.
    So to me, it will get solved. I believe what has happened, though, is that those bills were not about water and service; those were about trying to limit growth. And I think that's the problem. When you limit growth, it's an unnatural aspect to our economy, it drives up prices, and it's a problem.

Signal: When the Castaic Lake Water Agency bought the Santa Clarita Water Co., you pushed through an Assembly bill making SCWC's seat on the CLWA board an elected position. It hasn't happened yet. Are you planning to do something about it?

Runner: Well, we've talked to them about it, and they've talked to us about it. Our issue is that they need to be moving and implementing that issue.
    We've had some beginning conversations, and our goal, we'll have them move that. Our concern was that people needed a broader representation on that board, and we believe that as that issue was taken over, that that provided that. I think the beginning view that we first heard from them, and have heard lately from them, "Well, it's still in court; it might not be resolved." At some point, they're just going to have to bite the bullet and do the intent of the Legislature.

Signal: The city of Santa Clarita would probably like to have another strong advocate to fight the Cemex mining project. Will it be you?

Runner: Well, we certainly have been there. We've been on record; we've dealt with the issue. The fact right now that — the challenge that we have is that they are on federal land. It most likely will end up a federal solution some way, in the process.
    At least from what I'm hearing from the folks down in Santa Clarita, they have an adversary (Cemex) that talks to them about the issue right now. There seem to be better resolutions that are coming out on the table right now. But at the end of the day, this is an issue that, unfortunately, Santa Clarita faces a lot, when you have very little influence on the issues that are directly connected and surround your borders.

Signal: The Whittaker-Bermite property is contaminated with perchlorate. Home builders are trying to buy the property out of bankruptcy. Somebody might want to come in, buy the land, find a way to skirt the state environmental laws and build homes.

Runner: This is where our role on the (Environmental Quality) Committee can be helpful. We've already talked to the Department (of Toxic Substances Control). ... We want to hold everybody's nose to getting the solution done; we believe that the job needs to be cleaned up. We believe that nobody should be coming out and skating on that issue. So far, with what I'm hearing, is that people are satisfied with the way the process is going, but we're certainly there to ensure that that continues.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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