City of San Luis Obispo Mayor Erica Stewart stands in front of a Cal Poly "Flex Your Right" booth. Credit: File / Mustang News

Students asked questions to California State Senator John Laird via a Zoom webinar on Friday, Feb. 4.

Laird’s webinar was part of ASI’s “Meet Your Representative” series in which elected officials interact with Cal Poly students. San Luis Obispo Mayor Erica Stewart previously visited campus in December as part of the series.

Laird was joined on the webinar by UUAB Representative Annika McGraw, ASI Secretary of CSU Affairs Varenya Gupta and ASI Board of Directors Representative William Terlinden.

Laird serves on the California State Senate, one of two legislating bodies in California (the other body being the State Assembly).

“Last year, we approved hundreds of millions of dollars for food banks during the pandemic … we extended the medicaid program, lowered the age to 50 … we raised the salaries for childcare workers … we really did a whole host of issues across the budget,” Laird said. 

Laird currently chairs the Senate’s Education Budget Subcommittee, which approves CSU’s yearly operating budget, and is a member of the Rules Committee, which confirms numerous state-wide positions, including most CSU Board of Trustees members.

“We have a hearing where we’ll say, ‘what’s your position on tuition? How are you going to make the enrollment grow? How will you make sure diversity targets are met?’” Laird said.

In its upcoming legislative session, Laird hopes the Senate will focus on two priorities, one of which is combating climate change. Laird attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021 as a representative for California which, by itself, is the world’s fifth-largest economy, Laird said.

“The question is … what can we do to make sure there’s equity in that our climate change efforts are things that everybody has access to?” Laird said.

Laird said one of California’s big challenges is ensuring that environmentally sustainable jobs replacing jobs in the fossil fuel industry aren’t lower-paying jobs. He says the Central Coast should “lead the way” in that transition.

“We are lowering our greenhouse gas emissions and trying to protect economically the people that are in that sector,” Laird said.

The other priority for the Senate, Laird said, is doling out the extra state funding caused by an “unusual budget surplus” to higher education and financial aid — especially after COVID-19 has resulted in higher costs for colleges and universities due to “learning losses.”

“The priorities really have to be to make the higher education experience affordable — to work toward a debt-free college experience,” he said. 

Laird, who became the Santa Cruz Mayor in 1983, was one of the United States’ first openly gay elected officials. He was elected to represent California’s 17th District in 2020. Laird previously served in the California State Assembly from 2002 to 2008 and was Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency under Governor Jerry Brown from 2011 to 2019.

The 17th District spans four counties from Santa Cruz County to San Luis Obispo County.

“There’s these commonalities across the district: housing, the lack of it, how expensive [it] is … the hazard from wildfires … water is [also] an issue that goes across,” Laird said.

During the webinar’s Q&A portion, a student asked Laird what his benchmark is for ending California’s COVID-19 restrictions after he voted not to discuss it during a legislative session.

“The emergency is still there,” Laird said. “We are not through [the pandemic] yet … and until there is a real drop in cases, I think the emergency declaration needs to stay in place.”

San Luis Obispo Mayor emphasizes civic engagement among students

On Dec. 2, San Luis Obispo Mayor Erica Stewart took part in ASI’s “Storm the Dorms” on the yakʔitʸutʸu lawn as part of a different “Meet Your Representatives” event that helped ASI promote voter registration and discuss civic engagement with students. “Storm the Dorms,” an event within ASI’s annual Flex Your Right campaign, was held in collaboration with the Inter Housing Council and registered students to vote.

According to ASI, Cal Poly student government registered over 5,000 students to vote in 2018 and 2019 combined, more than any other university in California.

“I think voting is a really great way to get your voice and your goals you want to see instituted in the community, to get those heard,” Inter Housing Council president Jordyn Niemiec said.

In previous years, ASI has hosted elected representatives like former San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and United States Congressman Salud Carbajal (virtually during COVID-19) as part of “Meet Your Representatives.”

“People see national headlines all the time but obviously, what most affects students’ day-to-day lives is what’s in their local politics and government,” ASI Secretary of Student Rights and Engagement Sarah Banholzer said.

Stewart said she believes young people are creative problem-solvers for political issues like safety, housing and diversity — most recently exemplified by Cal Poly students pushing the City to install seven new lights on campus.

“The younger you are, the more of a not-jaded feeling you have towards different ways of sharing solutions and ideas,” Stewart said.

Stewart first voted as a Cal Poly student and also served as ASI President.

“Someone said at one time, ‘If you don’t vote, it’s like not speaking up,’” Stewart said about civic engagement. “Having that ability to vote, at least you put in your two cents, and now you can complain when things don’t work well.”

Child development freshman Jordan Skow, who attended the Storm the Dorms event, said she believes voting, especially in local elections, is very important for college students.

“It impacts how we spend our money in order to get our education,” Skow said.

Stewart’s said she plans to return to Cal Poly at least once a quarter to interact with students.

“Learning here how to make a change gives you all the more information for the rest of your life on how to make a change in the world,” Stewart said.

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