California in flux: Politically, culturally, ethnically, the Golden State undergoes a sea change

The weather seems the same, the same climate that lured millions of people to California after World War II. Hollywood is still here. San Francisco still has its cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge and fabulous restaurants. Sacramento still has its trees, Fresno its Bulldogs, San Diego its zoo and Death Valley its spring wildflowers.

But California is undergoing profound changes.

In health care coverage, a new system and market is all but certain to emerge by 2014.

The state has no ethnic majority, but rather reflects a stew of minorities, led by whites and Latinos among 38 million people.

In politics, after three decades of a virulent, Republican-led push to diminish the Legislature – the cornerstone of state Democratic power  – the Democrats nonetheless remain in the decisive majority not only in the Legislature – where they approach two-thirds majorities – but in the general population, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide by fully 12 percentage points. And the gap is widening.

In less than a decade, a school teacher-turned-lawmaker authored landmarks laws to curb climate-changing greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and factories. Thus California, home of some of the nation’s smoggiest areas, also serves as a model to crack down on carbon emissions. Long a pioneer in energy conservation and development, the state requires utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources – wind, solar, photo-voltaic, for example – by the end of the decade.

The state’s once-vaunted educational systems should look to their vaunt.

Schools are at the core of California – its soul – and schools upper and lower are girding for yet another round of dollar hits. Even as this story was written, the California State University approved a 9 percent fee hike.

The loss of state funding and the difficulty of getting new revenue – that means new taxes – are crippling education budgets. Budget shortages also are all but certain to trigger new cuts, the Legislative Analyst’s Office believes. And there may be a $13 billion shortage as the new fiscal year, which begins next July 1, gets under way. The current fiscal year, meanwhile, is only about 4 ½ months old.

But in education, the state that gave the world the landmark Master Plan for Higher Education, the pain might soon be felt.

Needless to say, much has changed since the Master Plan first envisioned universal access to quality higher education.   

The California’s Postsecondary Education Commission, the higher education system’s coordinating body, closes its doors on Friday, a low cost, but important agency lost to this year’s budget cuts.  Its departure marks the end of an era.

CPEC was responsible for reviewing new programs and evaluating admissions policies on a statewide basis. But one of the commission’s most impressive features is its massive linked databases on enrollment, degrees awarded, and costs, spanning both public and private institutions. The ultimate fate of the linked data, that may be integral in designing future statewide education and workforce goals, is still undecided.

Recent state revenue projections spell out even further decreases to higher education funding.

Schools are bracing themselves for the possible $100 million in end-of-year trigger cuts to each tier of the system, that have already seen their fees triple over the past decade.
As CSU approved its new hike, the UC Board of Regents cancelled their November meeting, in which they were to discuss the university’s 2012-13 budget proposal, due to fear of student violence.

But a 5 percent tuition increase was on the regents’ agenda earlier this year.  UC  has a mix of state and other funding, so it is not as reliant on the state’s beleaguered General Fund to the extent that CSU is. But UC’s state funding is critical to its operations, and when the state money declines, the pain is widespread.

Efforts are being ramped up at both UC and CSU to court non-resident and international students for the higher rates of tuition they pay. Nonresident students made up 13.9 percent of incoming freshmen and transfer students this fall at the University of California, up from 10.7 percent last year and 9.2 percent two years ago.

Schools say this hasn’t come at the cost of California students, due to increased enrollment. But that plays into another growing problem in higher education: capacity issues.

CPEC executive director Katherine Humphrey has seen the time needed to obtain a degree increase for students across the entire system, and instances where students have to attend multiple community colleges in order to enroll in all the classes they need.

California’s energy picture, like its educational landscape, is a study in contrasts.

The state has seen both booms and bust as far as renewable energy. California is home to both Solyndra, a name now synonymous with the squandering of more than a half-billion dollars in federal money, as well as the nation’s most ambitious – and successful — green energy policies.

Earlier this year Gov. Brown accelerated the state’s already ambitious renewable portfolio standard, requiring 33 percent of California’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.

California also recently adopted the first cap and trade in the nation. Starting 2013 the state’s largest carbon emitters must either meet their allotted carbon caps or purchase credits to make up the difference.  Companies below the cap can also sell their extra credits to those that need them. Though critics worry the program may ultimately drive business out of the state because of increased costs, this will hopefully be made up by the increase in green sector jobs.

According to the Environment California Research & Policy Center, the state has almost installed more than 1 gigawatt (that’s 1 billion watts) of rooftop solar power across the state, a feat achieved by only five other countries in the world. California is now half way toward meeting its goal to install 3 GW of distributed solar energy capacity by 2016.

They also report that despite the weak economy, the solar industry has essentially doubled in size since 2007, the solar market expanding by about 40 percent per year. Twenty percent of solar power companies in the United States are now located in California, employing more than 25,000 people.

Meanwhile, Tuesday marked the close of California’s first round of so-called “feed in tariff auctions,” a program similar to what is attributed to Germany’s solar success.

Germany’s program allows rooftop solar generators to connect to the grid and get paid for the energy they produce. The state’s privately owned utilities are now required to biannually auction 250MW worth of contracts to buy energy renewable from small generators (that produce up 20 MW). 

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