May 17, 2012 | The cavernous Bal Theatre in San Leandro with its bright light glaring down on three candidates for the 18th Assembly District made it difficult to see the faces of their future constituents. For a race that has consistently seen candidates unwilling to face-off with each other while sharing similar riffs on the same issues like, job creation, oil severance taxes and reducing the two-thirds majority, the rhetoric made it almost equally hard for voters to differentiate between the candidates.

Being San Leandro, the first question posed by City Manager Chris Zapata dealt with the impending closing of San Leandro Hospital. Alameda Vice Mayor Rob Bonta said he would look into the city enacting a parcel tax to help the hospital survive. It’s a course of action, he says, that is similar to what he used as a member of the Alameda Healthcare District. “We went through the same battle and struggling that San Leandro Hospital is going through now in Alameda,” he said. He also advocated continuing the approach of Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who backs formulating a “hybrid” plan to keep the facility’s emergency room open and bring acute rehab beds from Fairmont Hospital to San Leandro Hospital. Bonta said he would also “refresh” a bill once offered in the State Senate by Sen. Ellen Corbett that gives voters the ultimate authority for closing district-owned hospitals.

Abel Guillen, a trustee for the Peralta Community College Board of Directors, said he “was very disturbed to hear about the closing of San Leandro Hospital” and added, “As a legislator, my job is to actually try to bring the parties together and broker some kind of a deal to insure access is not denied.” Guillen is also supported by the California Nurses Association, which has been an active and vocal supporter of keeping the doors at San Leandro Hospital open.

AC Transit board member Joel Young did not attend the San Leandro debate because of a prior engagement, said his campaign manager Mark Goodwin, who filled in for Young Wednesday night. Goodwin was more general about how Young would help San Leandro Hospital, saying Sacramento should make it easier for local governments to fund services on their own. “The key, long-term for making those hospitals viable, is to make it easier for us to make our own decisions about the community services that we want to support,” he said, although, he also said Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan in areas like prisons, “could be a very good thing in the long run.”

The hour-long forum did reveal some of the potential pieces of legislation that might one day be offered by one of the candidates in the future. In a bill likely targeted at constituents in Alameda, rather than San Leandro, Bonta said one of his first priorities would be to offer an exemption for former military installations to continue receiving tax increment dollars lost to the dissolution of redevelopment agencies. He said the plan would revitalize these areas across the district and state, while creating an economic stimulus and jobs. Bonta reiterated another proposal he calls an “emergency prevention fund” that would provide communities with spikes in crime or loss of funds in public safety a boost of state dollars.

Guillen said he would immediately offer a Constitutional amendment to lower the threshold for local governments to raise tax revenue from two-thirds to 55 percent. “It’s hard to get two-thirds of any group of people to agree to anything,” he said. Giving local governments more power will also help seniors and children avoid cuts to health care and education. “It’s reasonable and will have an immediate impact,” Guillen added. He also proposed looking into a two-year cycle for legislation, whereby lawmakers would audit potential bills one year and offer them in the Legislature the next.

Although, he admitted Young’s first piece of legislation is a bit “wonky,” but important, Goodwin said the state’s contract procurement process needs to be changed. The current “Buy American” regulations allow for 60 percent of the work must go to American workers, Goodwin said, but most of the work goes to the East Coast and fails to help the local and state economy. Goodwin said Young might also look into enacting a sugary drink tax, similar to proposals in several local governments across the state.

The low light of the debate possibly came from a question directly from its moderator, Zapata, who asks the candidates how they would stop passing down unfunded mandates on local government. Each of the candidates either gave short answers or merely avoided the query all together.

Bonta said he been on the receiving end of the unfunded mandates in Alameda, both as a healthcare district director and councilman. “If you’re going to impose mandates and you’re not going to fund them, then they have to let localities be able to generate that revenue themselves.” One way is to lower the two-thirds majority, he said.

As the only candidate to have worked in the Capitol as a staffer for the appropriations committee, Guillen said, “If the state doesn’t have its financial house in order, then we should not put any further mandates on local government,” although he would allow for an exemption in the extraordinary case of a health and safety issue.

Goodwin simply declared the obvious. “The state, because it is broken in terms of its ability to make decisions about revenue and spending, has frequently left city and county governments with unfunded mandates to help balance the [state] budget.”

Voters will have one last chance to see the three candidates in the same room just six days from the June 5 primary on Wednesday, May 30, 6:00, at the Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland. A fourth candidate, Republican Rhonda Weber, has not attended any debates.