Quick Take:

State Sen. John Laird announced last week that he plans to seek reelection in 2024. A second four-year term in the California Senate would put Laird at the end of his term limits, marking the finale of his time as an elected state legislator. Laird, who turns 73 this month, agreed to hop on the phone for a Q&A a day after announcing his plans to seek one more term in Sacramento.

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A Q&A with state Sen. John Laird

With just under two years still left in his first Senate term, state Sen. John Laird announced last week that he plans to seek reelection in 2024.

Laird began his career in elected office in Santa Cruz City Hall as city councilmember, serving two four-year terms between 1981 and 1990, including two one-year stints as mayor. He would then go on to succeed Fred Keeley in the state assembly, serving three consecutive terms between 2002 and 2008. Laird was named to the powerful post of California’s secretary of natural resources between 2011 and 2019, before winning his first term to the state Senate in 2020; his 17th District includes all of Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties and parts of Santa Clara and Monterey counties.

A second four-year term in the Senate would put Laird at the end of his term limits, marking the finale of his time as an elected state legislator. So far in his first term, Laird has seen 29 of his bills signed into law, including a major climate package and the rescue of Watsonville Community Hospital. He also led the creation of the legislature’s first Central Coast Caucus, a group of the 10 senators and assembly members who represent the state between Santa Cruz and Ventura.

Laird’s third year in the Senate, however, already looks markedly different than the first two: After state budget surpluses of $47 billion and $98 billion in fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23, respectively, California is looking at a $22.5 billion deficit for 2023-24, a number Laird says can worsen in the coming months.

Laird, who turns 73 this month, agreed to hop on the phone for a Q&A a day after announcing his plans to seek one more term in Sacramento.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: Let’s start where all the energy is focused. The breached levee and subsequent flooding in Pajaro is a veritable disaster. The vulnerability of the levee has been known for 70 years. In 2021, you helped pass a bill to fund a critical portion of the long-overdue, $400 million levee reinforcement. As you see images and news of the devastating flood, where is your head?

John Laird: The levee project is completely funded and was supposed to start [in 2025], and we just didn’t make it in time.

The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro.
The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Lookout: Does the breach complicate the long-awaited project to reinforce the levee?

Laird: It doesn’t complicate it because hopefully disaster funds pay for the recent damages and the levee project moves ahead as planned. There might even be a chance to expedite the permitting on the project. I’ve already talked to the governor’s office about it. We’ll just have to see what’s possible. But, like with everything else, we just have to wait until it stops raining.

Lookout: Some of the big work you’ve done in your first two years has been around student housing. In what ways will that work affect local schools such as UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College?

Laird: I managed to be a force in getting $3.5 billion for higher education housing that aims to address problems students are having in finding housing. The first tranche, approved the year before last, was $2 billion and it was supposed to be spent [statewide] over the course of three years. By the end of the first year, that $2 billion was oversubscribed, so we added another $1.5 billion last year. Cabrillo has an application in so it can provide housing on its campus for the first time.

Lookout: Is money what’s really holding back campus housing?

Laird: The obstacles to housing are fewer now because of the money, as well as the bill passed last year [authored by Sen. Scott Weiner from San Francisco] that exempts on-campus housing projects from California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] requirements. (Although the act was passed in the spirit of environmental protection, the thorny requirements of CEQA have been criticized over the years for holding up major development projects.)

Lookout: What about the looming housing crisis across Santa Cruz County? Your generation racked up some major environmental protection wins in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the development-halting greenbelt around Santa Cruz. Today, people say those victories directly contributed to the county’s modern housing crisis. How do you think about that?

Laird: I do not regret protecting the greenbelt. You know, Wallace Baine did a story recently where he found a quote from me in the 1980s saying something like, the only place to build in the future will be up and that will be really controversial. I don’t remember saying it, but Wallace found the quote so it must be true.

I always felt you had to strike a balance. You have to protect greenbelts, you have to have some neighborhoods that are higher density, and you have to make sure you allow for a measure of affordable housing. The big thing is going to be, how are all those choices going to be made now?

Lookout: What kind of federal or state money might there be for affordable housing?

Laird: Back when I was on city council, we had big federal help in building affordable housing. Now we’re trying to figure out how to do it without that kind of subsidy. I hope the federal government will get back involved.

In terms of state money, I advocated for money last year when we had the budget surplus. We ended up putting a lot of it into higher education housing, but I really thought that was the time. The legislature passed new zoning laws, density bonus rules, but I really thought the thing that would make the biggest difference was putting money into affordable housing.

In 2006, we put a [$2.85 billion] bond on the ballot that financed tens of thousands of units across the state. I believe we should do something like that again.

Lookout: Do you see a state housing bond as a possibility in the next few years?

Laird: There are big discussions about bonds this year. So we’ll just see if that gets leveraged into the budget package. There is really no telling as everyone has a bond on the table right now. There are bonds for floods, for the environment, for schools. The governor has been opposed to bonds, but he seems to be softening his position.

Lookout: It’s difficult to talk about development in Santa Cruz County without falling into a discussion about the California Coastal Commission, which governs land use and development along the state’s 1,100-mile coastal zone. For years, Santa Cruz County has run into the commission’s strict policies of prioritizing coastal access, and of responding to climate change by pulling development back from the coastline as opposed to protecting it. How do you view the obstacles presented by the Coastal Commission, especially as your district prepares to recover from the atmospheric river onslaught?

Laird: I think there is still nuance here. The Coastal Commission is open to emergency replacement to protect things. The sense I’ve gotten from talking with the commission is that they want to work with Santa Cruz County officials to get things secured from the storms, and then we’ll have those longer conversations later. Either way, there are some difficult conversations ahead.

The seawall at Seacliff State Beach has washed out many times over the last 60 years. There will be a point when rebuilding it might not be the most prudent thing. I’m pushing a bill that beefs up coastal sea-level-rise planning, and fighting to protect money in the budget for local coastal planning.

Collectively, those decisions are going to be tough. We have to ask whether the taxpayers want to completely rebuild all the time or whether there’s a place to try and figure out an alternative. That’s a really tough decision. When they figure out what they want, I will do my best to advocate for them among the state agencies.

Lookout: Speaking of the budget, we’ve gone from back-to-back record surpluses to dealing with a deficit. How might Santa Cruz County feel the impacts of the state’s poor financial position this year?

Laird: The state budget includes a $54 billion climate package. The governor has proposed moving $6 billion of that to a future year. One of the disproportionate cuts he recommended was funding coastal resilience programs. After nine atmospheric rivers, this is not a time to cut back on coastal resilience planning. I’ve taken that issue on in public and we’re working really hard to restore that in the budget.

As for schools, the governor seems comfortable with the 8% year-over-year spending increase in K-12 education and a 5% increase for UCs, CSUs and community colleges, but we want to hold him to that. If the budget gets a little worse, we’re going to have some really tough decisions.

Lookout: It’s possible the budget can get worse?

Laird: Yes. The budget is based on revenues through Dec. 1, and there are several more months left in the year.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...