BLOCK, PLESCIA VIE IN HEATED RACE FOR 39TH STATE SENATE DISTRICT

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Both claim to be pragmatic centrists, but have clear differences on education and fiscal policies

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

October 25, 2012 (San Diego) — The two candidates for the 39th State Senate District seat have both served in the Assembly, the lower house of the state legislature. Democrat Marty Block, a career educator, won an Assembly seat in 2008, just as his Republican opponent, George Plescia, a career politician, was leaving. 

Block, who gave East County Magazine (ECM) an extended in-person interview, describes himself as a pragmatic problem-solver who “has earned the respect of Republicans for working in a bi-partisan fashion to protect public safety, spur job creation for small businesses, and provide veterans’ assistance,” according to his campaign brochure. His website, http://www.martyblock.com, pledges to put “kids before politics.”

Plescia, who never answered repeated phone calls and e-mail requests for an ECM interview, also likes to present himself as a bi-partisan pragmatist, though his record suggests otherwise.

Plescia's campaign web site, www.georgeplescia.com, describes him as part of “a new generation of leaders who aren’t afraid of words like bi-partisan or compromise.” But the key endorsers listed on Plescia’s site — San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, Councilmember Lorie Zapf, and County Supervisors Ron Roberts, Dianne Jacob and Bill Horn — are all Republicans. Plus the California Republican Assembly gave Plescia 87 percent ratings in 2003 and 2004, 100 percent in 2005, 59 percent in 2006 and 79 percent in 2007.

U-T San Diego reported in August that Plescia refused to sign the “no new taxes” pledge sponsored by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a lobbying group and super-PAC. The pledge has been signed by virtually every Republican running for office this year, from Presidential nominee Mitt Romney on down. Many Republicans have interpreted the pledge to even prevent closing tax loopholes.

 Plescia signed no-tax-increase pledges in his earlier runs for the Assembly and made clear in the U-T article that “I don’t think raising taxes is the way to solve” California’s budget problems.” His campaign has focused on blocking Democrats from gaining a two-thirds majority that could enable closing tax loopholes or raising taxes with a simple majority.  

Not surprisingly, Block considers the Democrats winning a two-thirds majority in the Senate an opportunity, not a problem. “We have a chance this year to have two-thirds of the [Legislature] be Democrats, so we can do right for the state without regard to Grover Norquist,” he told ECM, adding that this would “end the gridlock in Sacramento.”

He added, “I think most voters would like to see the majority party able to govern, and not let a handful of legislators directed by a Washington, D.C. lobbyist be able to decimate California’s education, public safety and health care safety net.”

In his ECM interview, Block outlined a four-point plan to make California fiscally solvent again. Point one is “to continue to look for waste and bloated bureaucracy” —though he added that after four years of recession-driven budget cutting, “I’m pretty convinced most of that is gone now.”

 Second, Block said, “we can streamline some state processes to use money more efficiently. I’ve done legislation with [Assemblymember and former Republican] Nathan Fletcher to improve efficiencies in funding K-12 education.”

Third is the much talked-about but little-implemented idea of a “reserve,” a sort of rainy-day fund the state would accumulate in good economic times so there’d be extra money to continue needed programs when the economy takes a nose-dive.

“Fourth, we do need better sources of revenue,” Block said. “It’s not just cutting and saving, but finding revenues from sources that can afford it. We need to be careful not to overtax middle-class folks who are barely making it. I have proposed increased taxes on oil companies; cutting tax loopholes on corporations, including those that put their money in the Cayman Islands; making out-of-state corporations who do business in California pay the same rates as California corporations; and increased taxes on those making more than $1 million per year.”

Block’s and Plescia’s differences on tax issues are starkly reflected in their ratings from the anti-tax California Taxpayers’ Association and Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association. From 2003 to 2007, Plescia’s California Taxpayers’ Association ratings were 100 percent every year and his Jarvis Association ratings ranged from 94 to 96.1 percent. Block got 18 percent from the California Taxpayers’ Association in 2010 and 32 percent in 2011. His Jarvis ratings were 2.2 percent in 2009, 26.3 percent in 2010 and 16 percent in 2011.

Commitment to Education

Plescia was born  in Sacramento/ Neither his website nor his Wikipedia page lists any job he’s had outside of being a state legislator or a member of a legislative staff.

By contrast, Block has been an educator most of his adult life before entering the Legislature.

“I spent 26 years at San Diego State University as a professor and assistant dean,” he told ECM. When he first ran for public office, it was for a seat on the San Diego County Board of Education, where he served eight years. Then he was elected to the San Diego Community College District Board, where he also served eight years and was chosen by his fellow members as the board president. In the Assembly he became assistant majority whip and was picked to chair the Higher Education Committee — but he was not put on the committee overseeing K-12 education.

Block’s commitment to education is one reason why he’s not only supporting Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s initiative to raise state sales taxes and income taxes on high earners to avoid drastic cuts to education and other state services, but the rival measure, Proposition 38, as well. This puts him against the official California Democratic Party recommendation, which is yes on 30 and no on 38. Plescia, according to his Web site, is voting against both measures.

“I’m supporting Proposition 30 reluctantly,” Block told ECM. “I don’t like the sales tax increase of ¼ cents, but for a family that makes $50,000 per year, it’ll probably cost them about $50 per year to keep schools open and reduce class size.” He also likes one aspect of Proposition 30 that’s been criticized by the opponents’ TV ads: that the money can go to other crucial state needs, including public safety, as well as schools. “I’m less enthusiastic about Proposition 38 but I’ll vote for it as well,” he said.

Asked if Governor Brown is bluffing about the severe cuts to education funding that will happen if Proposition 30 is defeated — a frequent charge of the measure’s opponents — Block said, “He’s not bluffing about the magnitude of cuts that will have to be made. It will be devastating to the state. The legislature may have a special session and redirect cuts away from education, but then the money will have to come from somewhere else: public safety, health care, social services. Even if we redirect, it’s still a horrible fate for the state.”

Regarding the role student tests should play in evaluating both individual students and entire schools, Block said he thinks test scores are “an important element,” but there are other factors that should be considered. One of them is the percentage of students who drop out. “If your worst test-takers drop out, your overall score goes up,” Block said, so when you evaluate schools you need to correct for that by looking at dropout rates as well as test scores.

Block supports charter schools “as long as they’re open to everybody on an equal basis and don’t discriminate … and they provide their employees the same rights as employees in traditional public schools.” Block acknowledges that some charter school students have improved student performance over traditional public schools, though others have done worse. He said he hopes public schools will adopt some of the practices of the charters whose students actually do better.

But he’s totally opposed to a voucher program that would divert public education funding to private schools because, “First, we can’t afford to take $1.5 billion from public schools. Second, the successful private schools are full, so there won’t be room for new students. The vouchers would end up paying for students who are already in private schools, whose families, by and large, can afford the tuition. You’d basically be stealing from the poor to help those who don’t need the help.”

Plescia’s Dirty Trick

Plescia and his supporters have seized on a Block floor vote in the Assembly to claim that Block is unwilling to punish schoolteachers who sexually abuse their students. Their claim is that Block is so closely tied to the teachers’ unions that he’s unwilling to take a tough stand against predatory pedophiles in the classroom. Block’s defense reveals just how complicated the California legislative process can become and how sometimes legislators cast votes to uphold the process even if they don’t necessarily agree with the policy result.

The story began, Block said, when State Senator Alex Padilla — a Democrat — “carried SB 1530, which would have made it easier to fire teachers who commit sex offenses and other offenses against students.” Block said he would have gladly voted for that bill if he’d ever got the chance, but was killed in the Assembly Education Committee without ever reaching the Assembly floor. “In fact,” Block said, “Senator Padilla sent me a letter saying I am a strong supporter of the bill and, if I’m elected, I will be a co-author of a similar bill in January.”

What happened next was that Republican Assemblymember Steve Knight of Antelope Valley grabbed hold of a totally unrelated bill — SB 1428 by State Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, a bill Block regarded as important because it aimed at improving the ways both high school students and teachers are evaluated — and tried to “gut and amend” Steinberg’s bill by replacing its contents with language similar to Padilla’s about firing teachers who commit crimes against students.  Block thought the Steinberg bill was worth enacting and therefore voted no on gutting it.

A September 5 editorial in San Diego CityBeat called Plescia’s charges against Block on the predatory teachers’ bill “despicable” and “disgusting.”  Yet Plescia’s campaign has continued to exploit the issue. It’s been in his TV commercials and recorded phone calls, including one received from this reporter while he was writing this article. It claimed that “Marty Block did not have the courage to stand up to the special interests who protect sexual predators in the classroom.”

Plescia is being hypocritical on the predator issue because when he was an Assemblymember, Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill “which would have increased prison sentences for sexual predators, and Plescia did not support it,” Block observed.

Block’s independent streak

U-T San Diego published an editorial September 3 that dredged up another Block vote that the paper claimed advanced the interests of teachers’ unions over those of students. SB 161, passed in 2011, “was written to allow nonmedical employees at schools to administer emergency medicine to epileptic students suffering life-threatening seizures.”  The editorial noted  that the bill passed with strong support from most Democrats, but that  “in the San Diego delegation, only one member voted against it: Block.”

Block had a ready explanation and said he wasn’t voting to protect unions.  “We had very good medical testimony that showed that, first of all, a non-professional can easily misdiagnose what a child’s problem is. This bill would have allowed non-professionals to administer something that has to be anally injected into young children. It’s a very risky procedure, we were told, and in the hands of someone who is not professional, it could put at much greater risk children who are going through things that look like epileptic seizures but aren’t.”

Block said the deciding factors for him were the votes against the bill by two Assemblymembers with professional expertise in health care: pediatrician Dr. Richard Pan and former hospital administrator Mike Eng. He also said that when he voted against SB 161, no one from a union lobbied him on the bill and he had no idea there was union opposition to it until after the vote.

Block Takes On His Gay Supporters

Ironically, Block encountered a similar controversy in 2009 over another vote he cast to uphold the legislative process over his policy beliefs. After Proposition 8, which banned legal recognition of same-sex marriages in California and ended the state’s 4 ½-month experience with them, passed in November 2008, its opponents asked the California Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.

“Some of my well-meaning colleagues were supporting a legislative resolution to ask the California Supreme Court to overrule Proposition 8,” Block recalled. “As an attorney and a former judge pro tem in Superior Court, I’m very sensitive to the separation of powers and how the courts react if an executive or legislative representative tries to unduly influence their decision. I have always been supportive of marriage equality, and I felt this resolution would be counterproductive and would perhaps influence judges who were on the fence to vote against overturning Proposition 8. So I abstained from voting on the resolution.”

Block’s gay supporters were not happy. When he and openly gay Assembly leader John Pérez showed up to do damage control at the April 23, 2009 meeting of the San Diego Democrats for Equality, a Democratic club primarily representing the LGBT community, a person in a duck suit greeted him outside and club leaders gave him a toy duck to symbolize how they felt he had “ducked” the issue. The statewide LGBT rights lobby Equality California gave Block a 100 percent rating for the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, but only 88 percent for 2009 — and his abstention on the anti-Proposition 8 resolution was the vote for which they docked him.

But he’s since mended fences. At the Democrats for Equality meeting September 27 he was greeted warmly as part of a panel of people who’d been delegates to the 2012 Democratic convention. And Pérez’s trip to San Diego with Block to support him at the Democrats for Equality had an unexpected bonus for Block in that the two men became friends. Pérez is currently serving as Assembly Speaker, and Block said having the Speaker as a friend “has been good for me in the legislature, as well as the right thing to do.”

Overall, however, Block’s record on LGBT issues is far better than Plescia’s, according to ratings by advocacy groups for LGBT issues. In 2007 Equality California gave Plescia 10 percent.

“George has voted against insurance benefits for domestic partners,” said Block. “He’s voted against marriage equality. He’s voted against family leave and bereavement leave for domestic partners. On almost every issue involving the LGBTQ community he’s voted against equality. He voted against a resolution asking Congress to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ And when we had a ceremony in the legislature to honor [the late San Diego Gay leader] Charles McKain, George called such recognition ‘ridiculous.’”

Pensions and Other Issues

Another issue on which Plescia is fighting Block hard is public employee pensions.

“George Plescia understands that California’s $500 billion unfunded liability threatens taxpayers and the pensions of millions of hard working Californians,” says his website. “George supports Governor Brown’s pension reform plan to reduce the unfunded liability, cut costs for taxpayers, eliminate pension abuse, and prevents public officials convicted of a felony while on the job from collecting a pension beginning at the date of conviction.”

Asked if pension costs have been driving the financial problems facing California’s state and local government finances, Block said, “Rising costs of pensions have been a problem. Pension reforms in San Diego and the state legislature have reduced the problems. The typical state employees’ pension is $25,000 per year.”

But Block clarified, “The abuses by a relative handful of people — pension spiking and buying extra ‘years of service’ they didn’t actually work — have caused the problems. We’ve corrected most of these abuses. While my opponent was in the legislature, he never voted to control pension benefits or reform abuses. Not once.”

That hasn’t stopped Plescia’s campaign or the U-T San Diego from raking Block over the coals about his own pension. Block has repeatedly been asked in public meetings whether he’ll receive a public pension — and he’s said, accurately, that he won’t for his service in the Legislature. Neither will anyone else who’s served since California voters enacted term limits for legislators in 1990. The initiative that imposed term limits, Block told the U-T, also contained “a provision that legislators do not get pensions.” But the paper tried to make Block out to be a liar because he will be getting a pension of about $49,000 per year for his 26 years of earlier service at SDSU.

Overall, Block “absolutely” supports the right of public employees to form unions and bargain collectively, and in general he supports their right to strike. “The only groups I would be concerned about having the right to strike would be those who protect public safety — police, firefighters, EMT’s [emergency medical technicians],” Block said. “And as a result, the law should offer them more protection.”

Energy and the Environment

On environmental issues, Block wants to see a surgical rewrite of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to eliminate the provisions used by “people whose goal is to delay projects rather than protect the environment,” not a broad hatchet job that would “gut its protections.”

Asked if California should encourage renewable energy use by supporting large-scale wind and solar projects in remote locations or making it easier for homeowners and renters to put in small-scale solar to meet their own energy needs, Block said both. “Neither one alone will provide all our energy needs,” he explained. “We need to do both, and keep developing new technologies.”

Block says he opposes offshore drilling in California and has “concerns” about fracking (hydraulic fracturing), the revolutionary but controversial technology being used in many states to produce natural gas from rock. He says he has “no problem” with onshore drilling for oil if the reserves can be tapped without causing environmental hazards. And he says the long-term solution to high gasoline prices is developing more fuel-efficient cars. “If you drive a car that goes twice as far on a gallon of gas than your old one, and the price of gas goes up $1, you’re still ahead,” he said.

Asked about cutbacks in firefighting resources in the face of chronic droughts, Block said, “The biggest fire danger to California, without question, is Grover Norquist. If you don’t have money to properly supply good equipment to our firefighters and keep them on the front lines, he is directly responsible, and so are my Republican colleagues who are afraid to violate his orders.” Block said he’s endorsed by “all the firefighters’ organizations in California, local fire departments, and the California Department of Forestry. I’m also endorsed by law-enforcement organizations like the San Diego Police Officers’ Association, the San Diego County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and the organization representing California Highway Patrolmen.”

Choice and Philosophy

Block describes himself as “absolutely and always” for women’s right to reproductive choice. “This has become trite, but like [former President Bill] Clinton, I believe abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” In 2009 Block got 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) — and zero percent from the anti-choice Life Priority Network.

 Not surprisingly, Plescia lines up on the other side of the fence, getting 93 percent from Life Priority Network in 2003. Planned Parenthood gave Plescia 43 percent in 2006 but zero percent in 2007, and NARAL gave him a zero in both 2006 and 2007.

Block’s campaign is focused on portraying his opponent as an extremist on a variety of issues; his website contends that Plescia is “anti-choice, anti-equality, anti-green, and anti-working women.”

Asked what the difference in philosophy between the Democratic and Republican parties is, Block said, “There are exceptions, like Nathan Fletcher [who’s no longer a Republican], but by and large Republicans in the Assembly fear the people will take advantage of the system if given the opportunity. My Democratic colleagues want to provide a system that will give people the ability to make the most of their lives.”

Block is willing to admit there are elements of truth in the Republican critique. “There are certainly many examples of people who try to game the system,” he acknowledged. “Welfare fraud exists. There are people who will use college financial aid money to buy things other than tuition or textbooks. But most people don’t fit into that category. Republicans pass legislation with an eye to clamping down on those who cheat. Democrats recognize there will be some cheating, but believe that’s the price you pay to service the vast majority who play by the rules.”

To learn more about both candidates, including their voting records, interest group ratings, and financial contributions, visit the nonpartisan Vote-Smart.org pages at Plescia and  Block. Note: Plescia refused to tell voters where he stands on any of the issues in the Vote-Smart Political Courage test, despite numerous requests.

Read our earlier interview with Block during the primary race: http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/8561

The district:  The new 39th State Senate district is expansive, encompassing inland and coastal communities including Allied Gardens, Carmel Valley, Clairemont, College Area (SDSU),  Coronado Del Cerro, Del Mar, Downtown San Diego, Emerald Hills, Encanto, Kearny Mesa, Kensington,  La Jolla, Lake Murray, Mission Trails, Normal Heights, North Park, Pacific Beach, Point Loma, Rancho Bernardo, Rolando, San Carlos, San Pasqual, Serra Mesa, Solana Beach, Sorrento,  Talmadge, Tierrasanta, University City, and more.

View a map of the district here:  http://www.co.san-diego.ca.us/voters/Eng/maps/SenatorialSDCountyMap.jpg