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The city of Santa Monica plans to give money to hundreds of additional seniors to help them with the rent—expanding a pilot program that offered between $200 and $660 a month to nearly two-dozen seniors. 

“We’d like to expand this program tenfold,” said Andy Agle, Santa Monica’s housing and economic development director, about the program that launched last year. “We’re taking our program from $200,000 to $2 million a year. That’s a huge ramp-up.”

Agle said he anticipates Santa Monica will now be able to help 250 to 400 senior households with the added cash.

Although Santa Monica saw a 3 percent rise in senior homelessness over the last year, no one in its rental subsidies pilot program suffered that fate.

“It’s really showing some success,” Agle said. 

Kaye, 70, who didn’t want her last name used, has been part of that program, known as Preserving Our Diversity, since its inception.

“If it weren’t for the city of Santa Monica helping me, I would probably, by now, have been evicted and on the street,” Kaye said.

Before getting the monthly checks from Santa Monica, Kaye said she would skip meals. She said she didn’t have enough money for food after paying her rent and bills on her $1,000 monthly Social Security check.

“Life is oh-so-much better,” Kaye said. “I haven’t been to a food bank but twice in the last year.”

Santa Monica officials had been hearing stories about seniors trapped in poverty with no way to make up the gap between Social Security checks and their food, housing and medical costs. Minimal rent increases in rent-controlled Santa Monica were pushing the elderly to the brink.

The anecdotes echoed statewide figures—20 percent of the state’s elderly live in poverty. Nearly half can’t afford basic expenses. And senior homelessness in most major counties is on the rise.

To help cash-poor seniors stay housed, Santa Monica cut checks to them or their landlords.

“What I’m pleased about, and surprised by a bit, is we haven’t received broader pushback from people that say, ‘How can you give people money without strings attached? That’s irresponsible,’” Agle said.

Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco said people empathize: “People every day see other people struggling with housing. They see it in the most visible, way which is people living on the streets. They want to help, especially low-income seniors.”

Wiener added that until California can close its deficit of 3.5 million housing units, he supports rental subsidies.

Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley said that approach inspired her to successfully push for the state to set aside $2 billion in this year’s budget to prevent homelessness. Cities and counties can use that money toward homeless services and emergency rental assistance. She hopes some of that money will be offered to the elderly.

“Emergency rental assistance is the best solution—far better than trying to deal with the problem once they’ve lost their home,” Skinner said.

Places such as Sacramento County are working on their own solutions to senior homelessness. Through a partnership with the nonprofit Volunteers of America, Sacramento County has invested $500,000 into converting a dilapidated motel into senior housing.

“We’ve gotten very creative in the types of housing that we offer specifically to our older adult population,” said Meghan Marshall, flexible supportive rehousing manager.

Peter Lynn, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s executive director, applauded Santa Monica’s rental subsidies—with a caveat.

“When the economy is reasonably strong, when property taxes are coming in, when sales taxes are coming in, when income taxes are coming in—there is reasonably good support for that kind of thing,” Lynn said.

But he worried about long-term sustainability: “The test is going to be when we see a downturn, a recession. where we see reductions in tax revenues for municipalities. That’s when the pressure on those kinds of programs comes very strongly.”

Santa Monica officials have taken into account a predicted economic downturn. Agle is confident this is an investment worth maintaining for now.

“We can’t turn our backs on these long-standing community members, and it’s our obligation to help take care of them,” Agle said. “And I think that goes beyond Santa Monica. We, as members of the California community, should be looking on a statewide basis of who’s falling through the cracks and what we can do to help them.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

Published in Local Issues

In 2008, Paradise was spared.

That June, a fire broke out in one of the canyons southwest of the Butte County town and quickly roared east, up and over the ridge. Thousands scrambled to evacuate, clogging the single road to safety. A sudden wind shift allowed firefighters to cordon off the flames, but the experience left residents intimately aware of the risks of living in Paradise.

State lawmakers have been aware of the risk, too. In color-coded fire-hazard maps maintained by Cal Fire, Paradise is a bright red island in a churning sea of pink, orange, and yellow—all denoting various levels of danger.

“It is not a great feeling … to have highlighted an area for its vulnerability, and then having this come to fruition,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire researcher who helped designate the state agency’s “Fire Hazard Severity Zones.”

As California grapples with an increasing possibility that the once-in-a-century wildfires that have torched Paradise and Malibu are becoming once-a-year occurrences, larger swaths of the state’s population may find themselves living in the crimson regions of those maps. This presents lawmakers with a dilemma: Should they impose costly and politically unpalatable regulations on homeowners, and rip up existing infrastructure—or simply accept the risk?

“We’ve got to take intelligent precautions in how we design our cities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a press conference with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. “The zoning and the planning has to take into account the threat of fires, (and) the building of appropriate shelters, so that people can always find a way to escape—and then of course, (there are) all the things we’re doing to mitigate climate change. All of it. It’s a big agenda. But what we’re paying this week is a very small fraction of what is needed over the years and decades.”

With wildfires growing ever more ferocious—a product of a changing climate, forests increasingly packed with dead and dry kindling, and the encroachment of development into state’s wilderness—it can be hard to tell which parts of California should be considered safe anymore. Coffey Park, the suburban subdivision of Santa Rosa that burned in last year’s firestorms, was designated a low-fire-risk area by Cal Fire.

The agency is now in the process of updating its hazard maps, with an expected draft publication date of next summer.

For state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes Santa Rosa, this year’s fires raise a number of “difficult yet necessary” questions about where and how communities are placed—and then replaced.

“What type of rules and regulations will there be if homes will be allowed to be rebuilt?” he said. “For example, defensible space, landscape restrictions, no longer allowing developments to be built with one way in and just one way out. … If there have been multiple fires over multiple years, are we truly going to rebuild?

“Being very candid with you, the discussion has just begun—but this is a discussion that we are going to have to have, because this is the new reality,” he said.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has championed giving the state more power to override local planning decisions to meet statewide housing goals.

“Job one is to help the people whose lives have been so dramatically altered by this disaster, but we also need to look at the long-term picture of this new normal,” Wiener said. “Historically, we have allowed local communities almost complete autonomy in making housing-related decisions, whether that decision is not to allow new housing, whether that decision is to ban apartment buildings, or whether that decision is to allow a lot of housing in very fire-prone areas.”

Wiener says he is not suggesting that development be banned outright anywhere, but that the state should impose standards that “reflect our needs as a state and reflect risks.”

Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface—where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields. The encroachment of homes into undeveloped areas creates a much larger and challenging front for firefighters to defend.

“You get this very different fire dynamic once it gets into a heavily populated area,” said Anu Kramer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored the research upon which the estimate is based. “You have cars on fire, propane tanks exploding, and burning houses radiating a lot of heat, which can contribute to neighboring houses igniting. That’s very different from trees and shrubs burning in a forest.”


Strict rules for new homes, but not the old

California already has among the strictest fire-minded regulations on construction. Since 2008, any building constructed in areas designated at very high fire risk must be built with specific roofs, vents and other materials designed to resist fire and keep out flying embers. Homeowners are also required to maintain a perimeter of brush-free defensible space around their houses.

Legislation passed this year extends those restrictions, without exception, to development on local as well as state land. Cal Fire also operates a consulting arm for local governments hoping to make more fire-appropriate land-use decisions.

But some of those regulations were written with a certain type of community in mind, said Kramer: “Vacation homes in Tahoe with wood roofs and pine trees over the house. … A lot of the regulations are geared towards that quintessential idea.”

The charred homes of more urban enclaves such as Malibu and Santa Rosa were not destroyed by “a giant tsunami wave of flame,” said Chris Dicus, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo professor and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. Instead, they burn “from the inside out after embers get inside the house through vents and windows or under doors.” Those embers may have traveled from the front of the original fire miles away.

While many existing regulations require new construction be “hardened” to embers, they don’t apply to existing homes. That leaves many of California’s at-risk communities stuck with old, fire-prone homes, and inadequate or constrained infrastructure.

“We’re currently paying for the sins of the past, where subdivisions and other developments were built without fire in mind,” said Dicus.

Some changes are relatively easy to make even after construction: installing ember-resistant vents, weather-sealing garage doors, and clearing flammable items like lawn chairs off the property’s perimeter can keep embers from starting new spot fires. Other changes are pricier: regular brush clearing, double-paned windows to reduce radiant heat inside a home, replacing wood roofs with metal, and installing fire shutters.

You have a lot of homeowners who “maybe can’t afford to upgrade and retrofit” their homes, said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International. “We know now what keeps us safer, but you can’t just change that overnight.”


Homeowner help: Subsidies, rebates and discounts?

One possible solution, said Sen. Wiener: the state could help current homeowners make those changes.

“What we don’t want to do is force people out of their homes because they can’t afford—for lack of a better phrase—a ‘wildfire retrofit,’” he said. He added that he would consider “subsidy and rebate programs … but I don’t want to pretend like I know what all the answers are.”

Absent new government assistance, insurers could encourage homeowners to be more fire-conscious. In the same way that health insurance providers might offer their policyholders discounted gym memberships, home insurers could cut a deal for those who install ember-resistant vents.

But only one major insurer in California currently offers discounts to encourage fire-safe behavior. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, that’s because most providers argue that state regulators don’t let them charge homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas a high enough premium to justify a discount. The state Insurance Department counters that such rate hikes wouldn’t be justified based on the evidence.

The study also found that most homeowners in high-risk areas are just purchasing less coverage and opting for plans with higher deductibles, leaving them more exposed.

And then there are changes that homeowners alone cannot make.

Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, spent last year promoting the region’s evacuation plan, so she knew what to do as soon as reports came in that fire was moving toward Paradise.

“I had turned on the town’s AM 1500 radio station, and they were notifying residents that an evacuation center had been set up and that certain zones needed to be evacuating,” she said. “So I felt kind of calm … like, ‘Oh, this is how the plan was supposed to go.’”

But that plan soon met a bottleneck on Skyway, the main route out of Paradise.

DeAnda said she got on the road at around 8:20 a.m.—along with hundreds of her neighbors. She wasn’t out of the foothills and away from the spot fires popping up along the side of the road for an hour and a half. It’s a drive that would typically take her 25 minutes.

Nearly a dozen of the bodies identified in the devastation left by the Camp Fire were found in their cars, stuck in the crush of evacuation traffic.

Paradise had an evacuation plan. But the plan, and the town’s cramped, 19th-century layout, were not prepared for a fire of such intensity or speed. And in that respect, Paradise is not alone: The hills above Berkeley and Oakland, where 25 people died in a fire in 1991, also featured narrow, winding roads that made escape more difficult.

“I worry about another deadly fire in the East Bay,” said Kramer, the researcher. “It burned before, and it’s going to burn again. And when it does, it’s going to be really bad.”


To rebuild … or say ‘enough is enough’?

In the aftermath of fire, local governments often face an impossible task of balancing the need to rebuild as quickly as possible—to get those who have lost everything back into their homes—with the need to prepare for the worst.

After three fires raged through the foothills of Butte County in 2008, including the one that prompted the first evacuation of Paradise, the county Board of Supervisors made the building code more flexible for homeowners to rebuild: Homeowners could have their permit applications expedited, and use lumber located on their own property for construction. This summer, the board renewed and expanded the exemption.

The building code carve-out represents a necessary compromise between smart planning and the needs of homeowner, many of whom could not afford to build a new house up to the current code, said DeAnda. Without the exemption, she said, many homeowners would have likely replaced their burnt homes with modular houses or trailers, which she said often present a bigger fire risk.

DeAnda, who spends most of her time raising awareness about fire safety across the country, lives in one such “ancient mobile home” in Concow, just east of Paradise. “It’s going up in 8 minutes if it catches on fire,” she said.

“There is a lot of emphasis, and understandably so, on prioritizing getting back to normal,” said Dr. Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has studied how communities respond to wildfire. She said most local governments avoid using building restrictions and regulations, instead favoring less-coercive, voluntary fire safety programs and educational outreach.

But rebuilding is a slow process. If communities want to require more fire-conscious development, “there is time,” she said.

For Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which lost some 3,000 homes last year, there was never a question about whether to allow the incinerated communities of Coffey Park and Fountain Grove to rebuild.

“Under state law, people have the right to rebuild a legal home that they lose in a disaster. We don’t have the ability to tell them that they can’t rebuild” he said.

Nor would he want to, he added.

“If you live in California, you’re going to face an earthquake or a fire or a flood or a mudslide at some point—there’s no way to mitigate all of that risk,” he said.

Santa Rosa officials, he added, are trying to drive more development into the city’s downtown, away from its more-vulnerable edges. Since last year, nearly 60 homes have been reconstructed. They’ve been built up to the new, municipal fire codes, and many homeowners have elected to use more fire-resistant materials. But Coursey said only so much can be done to prepare for catastrophe.

“I think we’re more fire-aware; I think we’re more fire-ready,” he said. “But if that wind and that combination of low humidity and high temperature and high winds happened again, I think we’re vulnerable.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Democratic legislators say they've settled their differences on net neutrality in California, advancing bills that, if passed, would create the most far-reaching internet regulation in the country.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net-neutrality protections that ensured internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T give consumers and partners equal access to the web. It jettisoned those rules as of June, saying they were unnecessary and “heavy-handed” market interference. Critics characterize this as a play by the Trump administration to undermine consumer safeguards.

California—if this bill were to become law—would restore the old nationwide net neutrality regulations within the state.

“The Internet wasn't broken in 2015, when the previous FCC imposed 1930s-era regulations on Internet service providers. And ironically, these regulations made things worse by limiting investment in high-speed networks and slowing broadband deployment,” said the FCC.

Last month, net-neutrality bill author Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said his bill was “gutted” in a committee hearing chaired by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat. Santiago’s committee elbowed through—without time for comment—amendments stripping out key prohibitions, including one designed to block internet providers from charging its customers access fees, and another intended to bar them from creating “zero-rating” services to steer consumers away from competitor content.

In response, Wiener had said he would withdraw the “hijacked” bill if those key protections from the FCC’s regulation were not restored.

After weeks of negotiation along with Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Kevin de Léon, author of a related net neutrality bill in the Senate, and Alameda Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a co-author of Wiener’s bill, announced Thursday, July 5, that they had reached a deal to advance bills they say provide the same protections for Californians that the FCC temporarily provided to all Americans.

“We know that the federal government is not going to fix things in the foreseeable future,” Wiener said.

Without such regulations in place, internet providers would be free to speed up or slow down services like calls or video streaming, based on who pays for “fast lane” access. Advocates say these practices would hurt small businesses and consumers who cannot afford more expensive service. For consumers, that could mean higher prices and fewer choices.

The bills by Wiener and de Léon would ban internet companies from charging businesses access fees in order to reach its online customers.

They also prohibit “zero-rating” services, which allow internet providers to charge consumers for data when accessing competitors’ content, and interference and manipulation at the point where data enters the network. Without that protection, an internet provider could, for instance, slow down competing video applications to give itself a competitive advantage.

“Generally speaking, the bill is great. They are right that it’s the strongest protection in the country … with the three provisions back,” said Ryan Singel, media and strategy fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society.

He added that grassroots organizations and consumers rallying for net-neutrality regulation got legislators to listen. The gutting of Wiener’s bill sparked thousands of calls to legislators, a flood of social media comments and $14,000 in crowdfunding to install a billboard in Santiago’s district.

“Basically, we won. Literally, this is what a grassroots effort looks like. When the internet is mad at you, it’s really loud and really hard to deal with. We had three things we wanted to defend, and we got all of them back,” Singel said.

Democrats know a battle is coming, but are hopeful the bills—assuming they win approval of the full Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature—will stand up to a legal challenge. Republican leaders, however, have warned from the beginning that such regulation will face litigation from internet companies.

“To be clear, we are not out of the woods … This is going to be a fight,” Wiener acknowledged.

The internet giants have denied that they slow down or throttle internet traffic and violate other net neutrality rules. In an open letter earlier this year, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said: “We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate or degrade network performance based on content. Period.”

These providers also argue that net neutrality regulation will drive up their costs to operate in the state. They say rural areas are more expensive to provide service in, and this regulation would discourage expanding broadband service there.

The Internet Association, an organization representing tech companies like Airbnb and Uber, found broadband business did not slow down after the FCC first adopted net-neutrality regulations three years ago. Fixed broadband subscriptions increased 3.5 percent, and wireless broadband subscriptions increased 10 percent from June 2015 to June 2016.

Net-neutrality supporters, including labor groups and technology companies like Amazon and Twitter, say a fair and protected web is crucial for workers and businesses relying on open communication and access to do their jobs. More than 20 states have recently introduced bills meant to reinstate the federal net neutrality protections. Washington and Oregon have already passed legislation.

“California is the world’s fifth largest economy and home to the globe’s most important tech companies,” said Robert Cruickshank, campaigns director of Demand Progress, an internet-activism organization based in Washington, D.C. “Passage of this bill will also give huge new momentum to the effort to get the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the U.S. Senate and restore the net neutrality protections the FCC gutted last winter.”

The bills have passed the Senate and have until Aug. 31 to pass the Assembly and move to the governor for a signature.

“What happens now is good old-fashioned politics—just securing the votes. No more negotiating,” said de Léon.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Choking up as he began to speak to a panel of fellow lawmakers, Assemblyman Evan Low paused to collect himself. The room had just quieted after a conservative advocate who opposed his bill heckled the committee—and Low—for not hearing his side out, causing a brief shouting match in the otherwise-staid hearing room.

“It was very difficult to present this bill,” Low, a Democrat from Campbell who is gay, said once the ruckus died down. “Because when thinking about childhood and that it would not be OK to be yourself—you heard testimony about suicidal thoughts. I have also had that.”

This strikingly personal revelation reflects the emotional debate surrounding Low’s proposal to make California the first state in the country to outlaw the advertising and sale of sexual-orientation change services—better known as “conversion therapy.”

On one side sit scientists and LGBTQ advocacy groups who say California must protect its citizens from a harmful, prejudice-driven practice. On the other are First Amendment purists and a group of religious conservatives who argue that a ban curtails personal liberty. At stake are questions about free speech, freedom of religion and the state’s duty to protect consumers from fraud.

The practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is opposed by leading medical groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which say it is ineffective and often harmful. It is embraced by some religious and conservative groups, such as the California Family Council and the Pacific Justice Institute, which say the therapy offers an option to people who believe homosexuality and being transgender are immoral.

Conversion therapies can include traditional talk-therapy as well as more extreme—and, medical groups say, damaging—methods. Some who have experienced them report being forced to ingest nausea-inducing drugs and being electroshocked while viewing homoerotic images, activities designed to condition a negative reaction to their homosexual feelings. Such reports led state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat and a co-author of the bill, to describe the therapy as “torture.” Although current techniques tend to be less extreme than those of the past, LGBTQ advocates say that they still perpetuate a view of homosexuality and being transgender as undesirable.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has attempted to limit the practice in California. In 2012, California became the first state in the nation to bar mental-health professionals from treating minors with conversion therapy when it passed a law that has since served as a model for similar laws in 12 other states. Low’s bill goes further by extending the law’s protections to include anyone engaged in a financial transaction, regardless of their age. The effect would be to make it harder for people to learn about or access conversion therapy.

The goal, he said, is “to ensure that we do not allow for Californians to be duped and to be harmed by spending money to try to get a service that has no end result.”

His Assembly Bill 2943 was approved by the Assembly and is now working its way through the Senate. Given the liberal makeup of the Legislature, the measure is likely to land on Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk by the end of summer.

Brown signed the earlier bill banning conversion therapy for children. It was promptly challenged as unconstitutional by conservative activists, but upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013.

Although different legal mechanisms are involved in that law and Low’s bill, they have triggered a similar debate in the state Capitol.

Opponents argue that by classifying conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice, Low’s bill infringes upon the rights to free speech and—since many people who pursue conversion therapy do so for religious reasons—the free exercise of religion.

“It’s one of the more blatantly unconstitutional laws that has come out of California in the last five to 10 years,” said Dean Broyles, the president of a conservative legal defense fund called the National Center for Law and Policy. He has called the debate surrounding Low’s bill a “Bonhoeffer moment” for religious conservatives, referring to the German pastor who stood up to the Nazis.

Low and his supporters, on the other hand, cite the prevailing scientific consensus discouraging the practice of conversion therapy and argue that potential First Amendment infringements are incidental compared to the state’s duty to protect its citizens. Anthony Samson, a Sacramento attorney and policy adviser on Low’s bill, argues that the proposal is neutral to religion, since it affects all consumer transactions. (Not all religious groups in California oppose the measure. California’s six Episcopal bishops, for instance, support the bill.)

Since the law affects only consumer transactions, religious groups—and any other organization—would still be able to offer conversion therapy services for free.

A key provision of Low’s proposal is that it applies only to commercial transactions involving services. After an early draft of the bill provoked backlash for language that critics said was overly ambiguous, Low amended it to clarify that it does not affect goods that contain messages about changing sexual orientation or gender identity—including some religious texts, such as the Bible.

That change has not quelled opponents, who are mounting a vigorous campaign condemning the bill. Hundreds of them—including more than 30 people who say they have successfully changed from gay to straight with conversion therapy—protested on the Capitol steps this month.

“I have a message to the California Assembly: My wife, my 4-year-old daughter, my 1-year-old son, and the baby in my wife’s womb are not fraud,” Jim Domen, founder and president of Church United in Newport Beach, told the protesters. “Assembly Bill 2943 removes my right to choose my sexuality.”

This kind of freedom-focused rhetoric is common in this debate—a frequently heard phrase is “the right to choose”—despite scientific consensus that homosexuality can’t be willfully changed.

“They don’t like the lifestyle. That’s what they’re attacking,” Low said, pointing to a promotional video in which Domen says that homosexuality is “destructive” and “harmful.”

Low sees the fight over this bill as one step in a larger battle for equality. He overcame his own adolescent thoughts of suicide and conversion after finding acceptance from his family and from other gay people.

“There is nothing wrong with me,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with members of the LGBT community.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

With just a week left until the federal government intends to roll back net neutrality, California’s Senate has stepped into the void by advancing a bill that aims to maintain equal internet access for all its citizens.

This fight over who pays for the internet and how it should be regulated now shifts to the Assembly, and if it passes there, on to Gov. Jerry Brown. If he were so sign it, the state would have the strictest net-neutrality rules in the nation—but could well face a court challenge from internet service providers who contend the state is overstepping its authority.

Democrats have been pushing legislation to require internet companies to play by net-neutrality rules ever since the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality last December. The federal regulations, set to be jettisoned June 11, ensured that internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon give equal access to the web, regardless of payment, data or type of service.

The Senate voted this week along party lines to approve Senate Bill 822 by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener. The proposed regulation would prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing down internet traffic for consumers, and also prohibit them from giving priority deals to those who pay for sponsored content.

In recent years, the FCC has found that Comcast and Verizon interfered with access by giving priority to certain users in exchange for compensation.

Internet providers say this sort of regulation will drive up their costs to comply, meaning they would need to charge customers more for internet services. Plus, they note, the proposed California rules would be even more restrictive than the federal rules they aim to replace.

“We need to act at a state level to protect residents, their businesses, our democracy,” Wiener told CALmatters. “When you have internet service providers picking winners or losers on the internet … it impacts everything.”

Everything from startup businesses to brick-and-mortar companies, and from grassroots activism to telemedicine rely on accessing the web, he said, and all users could be impacted when internet providers start manipulating speed, access and prices for consumers.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Kevin De Léon, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced a similar bill that is currently in the Assembly. De Léon’s bill aims to adopt the key parts of neutrality rules established by the federal government in 2015.

Since the FCC repeal, 28 states, including New Jersey and Vermont, have introduced legislation to protect net neutrality, according to a legislative analysis. But Wiener says his bill is more comprehensive than some others by writing rules beyond that of the federal order established three years ago. For instance, it prohibits internet providers from engaging in zero rating—the practice of incentivizing users to use their products rather than their competitors’ in exchange for free data. It would put the state attorney general in charge of enforcing these rules at an annual cost of $1.8 million.

Supporters of net neutrality argue that consumers should be free to choose and access websites as they want, without interference from a handful of internet providers. They also contend that creating different tiers of service would further the digital divide between those can and cannot afford access to the web.

The bill has broad support from labor groups and companies that rely on the internet. Because 87 percent of rural Americans have one or no option for high-speed internet, removing net-neutrality protections would hurt innovation, small businesses and consumers, said the Internet Association, an organization representing members like Amazon and Netflix.

“We use apps to find marches and to meet other activists, to learn about candidates, and to find a movement where we feel represented,” the California Labor Federation said in a statement. “All of this depends upon unfiltered access to the information we seek. That is all this bill will provide.”

The gatekeepers, on the other hand, don’t want more regulation on their businesses. Moreover, internet-service providers and other opponents say a California net neutrality bill would add to their costs of operating in the state. And because it is costlier to provide service in rural areas, the companies say this regulation would discourage broadband investment in those areas.

“Given that providers have finite budgets, and rural areas are generally the most expensive in which to deploy broadband with challenging payback economics, increased regulatory expenditures necessarily drain the capital available for rural broadband deployment,” Frontier Communications wrote in an opposition letter.

Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill insisted that it would increase the costs on internet providers, who would then simply pass those extra costs on to their California customers. Sen. Patricia Bates, a Laguna Niguel Republican, said the debate for net neutrality should take place at the federal level—not here.

“Internet providers are already held legally accountable by the California attorney general and federal government. Ultimately, all this bill will succeed in doing is opening up our state to legal challenges and costly litigation, which we know is coming if the bill is passed,” Bates said.

If the bill makes it out of the Assembly and becomes law, internet-service providers will have to obey these regulations if they want to operate in the state. But they’re unlikely to go down without a fight.

Said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who voted for the bill: “We know the second this thing passes, all the various players ... are going to litigate it.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues