Lt. Gov. Kounalakis discusses homelessness, abortion rights, and higher education
California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis joined KVCR’s Jonathan Linden in the studio, where they discussed homelessness, abortion rights, and higher education.
Below is a transcript of the conversation between KVCR's Jonathan Linden and California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis.
Jonathan Linden: As we head towards the November election, one name you'll see on the ballot for Lieutenant Governor is incumbent Democrat Eleni Kounalakis. She was first elected in 2018 and made history as the first woman elected Lieutenant Governor of California. She joined me in studio on her recent visit to San Bernardino... Maybe a good place to start; Lieutenant Governor is your job. You've served in this role now for the past three and a half years, what has your experience been like?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, I've enjoyed every minute of it. It hasn't always been easy, but it has always been a real privilege to serve as lieutenant governor of the state of California. I had never run for office before I ran for this job; I'd been in business, I ran a company, I was a United States ambassador in the Obama administration. But that wave of women after Donald Trump was elected, who stood up and ran for office, I was part of that. And as you noted, that was about three and a half years ago that I stepped into this role, and it has been so interesting and really a license to learn while I serve the people of the state of California. And I feel very privileged to have my job.
Jonathan Linden: And before you were lieutenant governor, you mentioned this; you had a career in housing. The housing crisis is certainly felt here in the Inland Empire, a lot of families are still recovering from the housing crisis, and now homelessness is on the rise, and we could potentially be facing another recession. What could the state be doing to address the affordable housing crisis?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, I think it's important to remember that we are, in some ways, when it comes to housing, a victim of success, in that there is more pressure for more housing because, for so many years, we had population growth without building enough housing. So how do we now, at this point, make up for what we have not built. And the reality is that the only way we're really going to be able to change the landscape and have more housing units for our people is if we build more. So, several programs over the last few years that have helped us out, certainly Project Homekey, which has helped us, particularly for homelessness... it takes underutilized motels and hotels and turns them into shelters with wraparound services... that's a really big and important program. And then there's quite a bit of conversation around legislation at the state level, to just make it a more streamlined approach for builders to be able to come in, get their projects permitted, and get those projects up out of the ground. But it is a real shortage that has now driven up home prices. In fact, I think the numbers for May just came out and put us at almost $900,000 in California for the median single-family home. Now you compare that with places like Texas and Florida, where it's $300,000 for a single-family home; that is a massive difference. We're talking two to three times more expensive for a home here than in some of these other places in the country. So, we have to build more housing, we have to do it thoughtfully, we have to do it smart, and it will take some time to be able to do that.
Jonathan Linden: And how does the state balance between… we need more housing, but we're also potentially facing a long-term drought, and we're also facing electricity issues, where there will be potential blackouts through the summer. How do we balance that we have these resource issues, but we also need more housing... where do we find that balance?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, the challenges that have been brought to us in this state, as a result of a changing climate and a warming planet, have been very severe for us in this state. And it was a disservice that, for a long time, Republicans simply would not accept the science and muddled the message and pushed back. But now here we are with many years of data that show that this is an undeniable thing, which is that the planet is warming as a result of human activity, primarily related to carbon-based energy. So, what we have to do is really twofold; on one hand, we have to cope with the fact that these changes have already taken place. And on the other hand, we have to invest in the kinds of innovations that will help us combat climate change over time. So, in the first part, in terms of coping, we're doing everything from investing in the resources to help fight wildfires; we are having to invest more in figuring out what do we do when we don't have enough water that is available for our people... real big problems. And right now, there's a real push for people to use less water; we need more conservation in our state, it's probably going to get more severe before it gets better. And of course, we also have to invest in infrastructure improvements in order to be able to make the water that we do get, go as far as possible. But then, in terms of how we think in a bigger picture, around combating climate change... I had the opportunity to lead the delegation from California to Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 Summit. And people are looking to California because we are investing in things like tax credits, and our universities are working on how do we scale up the climate solutions that we already know exist, like wind and solar? How do we invest more in battery technology, there are public-private partnerships across this state that are helping to unleash the power of our innovation economy, to scale up these climate solutions, and it is putting California on the map in the world, as the place to be in looking for those kinds of climate solutions. And it's not going to be easy, and it will take time, but I'm convinced that this is the place where the future will happen first.
Jonathan Linden: Abortion and reproductive rights have also been in the national conversation. What do you see California's role in that discussion and conversation?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, thank you for asking that question because we are anticipating almost any day that this leaked decision will, in fact, come down. And it's important for people listening to know that abortion is still legal in California, and even after this decision, it will be still legal in California, protected under state law. However, in more than half of the states in the country, we are expecting either immediate trigger bans or eventual bans on abortion in other states. So, what we are first and foremost doing in California is working on a package of legislation and a constitutional amendment that will enshrine in the California Constitution the right for access to abortions and for contraception in our state. But we are also anticipating... and it's very upsetting to me, I will tell you, this idea that we are in a position of becoming a sanctuary state for other American women who need to leave their state in order to be able to come here to exercise their right. But we are preparing for that as best as we can, and we're going to need the private sector to help. But we are also going to need to see changes with more pro-choice legislators in Washington D.C., in order to help bring a right back to other American women. That is something that I think is shocking to so many, not just women but our male allies, that this right could even be taken away.
Jonathan Linden: You've already touched base a little bit on California's public institutions. California public universities are increasingly more expensive and out of reach for more and more students. It's especially a big problem in our region here in the Inland Empire, with UC Riverside being one of the most underfunded UC's in the entire system. What is your plan to make our higher education system more accessible?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, this is a big part of what I get to do every day because as lieutenant governor, I'm the only person who has the privilege of sitting on all three boards of public higher education in this state. The UC system, the CSU system, and the community college system. And I fight every single day against tuition increases and to make our system not just more affordable but easier for students to manage their way through and to navigate... making things more user-friendly for students. And it's a point of great pride, this system. You know, we have about two and a half million students enrolled in public higher education in the state of California. When we spend money on our public colleges and universities, we are investing in the talent of our state. So, I fight every day for every nickel to go in to support our system of public higher education because what we end up doing is unleashing the creativity and the power of the next generation, who goes on to make the state of California great again, in its own way, in their own way.
Jonathan Linden: And as a part of your visit here in the IE, you did stop at UC Riverside. What are some of the conversations you're having with Inland Empire universities about more funding?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, the conversations I'm having is that they're bursting at the seams, and they need more space, and they need more funds. And that is why I spend so much time and energy in Sacramento with the platform that I have as Lieutenant Governor, fighting to get those funds and helping people see that this is an investment that pays itself back and increases our revenue in the future to be able to do all kinds of other things.
Jonathan Linden: And lieutenant governor, was there anything else that you would like to share with our Inland Empire listeners?
Eleni Kounalakis: Well, let me just say this, I have had the privilege of coming to the Inland Empire a few times... there is a culture to this place, and you feel it. When you come in, and again, I go all over the state of California, north, south, way far north, all over. But when you come to the Inland Empire, you feel this really fabulous can-do spirit, this optimism, this idea that people are proud of being from here, and what they can do when they put their heads together and roll up their sleeves. You feel it here, and I don't know if you're from here; you think every place has that kind of energy, but it is special in the Inland Empire. So, I love coming here, feeling the hustle, the bustle, the optimism, the hard work, the people who do a lot with whatever it is that they have to work with, and it's incredibly inspiring.
Jonathan Linden: Well, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, thank you so much for taking some time to join me today.
Eleni Kounalakis: Thank you so much for having me.