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Happy New Year: Here's what KPCC reporters say will be the biggest issues to watch in 2018

Photo by Neil Kremer via Flickr Creative Commons

Legal pot. Universal health care. More funding for improve Los Angeles' roads and to help get homeless people into housing. These are just a few of the big issues that Angelenos will be watching in 2018. 

We asked KPCC reporters to reflect on the biggest issues they're looking forward to covering in the new year. Here's what they had to say.

MORE MONEY FOR THE ROADS, BUT MANY QUESTIONS REMAIN

One of the biggest stories in the past year’s transportation news was actually teed up in late 2016.

Measure M, a $120 billion transportation sales tax initiative, passed that year with 71 percent voter approval. The outcome sent the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority into 2017 with a revenue windfall and a defined plan to undertake a long list of ambitious and transformative transit, highway and multi-modal projects over the next four decades.

But tension over competing modes of transportation erupted over the summer on the westside of Los Angeles, where road diets — the effort to  reconfigure streets to reduce space for cars — encountered passionate opposition. Several road diets carried out in L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s district in Playa del Rey and Mar Vista aimed to address safety concerns following serious, recurring crashes.

After several lawsuits and an ongoing effort to recall Bonin over the road changes, the councilman reversed course in Playa del Rey, restoring the traffic lanes. The outcome raised questions about the future of other city efforts to slow cars and improve safety in crash-prone areas.

It wasn’t just Measure M that brought a new infusion of funds to transportation. The statewide transportation funding package known as S.B. 1 passed the Legislature in April after years of lobbying by Gov. Jerry Brown. The plan, which aims to tackle a $59 billion backlog of needed road and bridge repairs, raised the gas tax for the first time since 1994 and increases registration fees based on a car’s value in the new year. The state estimates these together will cost the average Californian about an extra $10 per month. 

There is already an effort to repeal the new taxes and fees. If supporters succeed, the repeal proposal would be placed before voters on next November’s ballot.

Looking to the new year, Metro plans to make progress on three rail lines under construction: the Crenshaw Line to LAX set to open in 2019, the Regional Connector in downtown L.A. to open in late 2021 after construction delays, and the Purple Line Wilshire subway, expected to open in its entirety by 2024.

Funding questions remain for the Purple Line, one of the county’s most important transit projects and a key part of the city’s plans to host the 2028 Olympics. A federal grant hinges on support from Congress, which is due to pass a spending bill with the grant in it when lawmakers return in January.

– Meghan McCarty Carino

UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE IN CALIFORNIA?

The state senate passed a single-payer bill earlier this year. But Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) shelved SB 562, because it had no details on how it would achieve universal coverage or how it would pay for it. Rendon called the legislation “woefully incomplete.”

The speaker’s move sparked an angry backlash from supporters of universal health care. He later called on a select committee to hold more hearings on the issue, and said the bill could be revived in 2018.

This is the latest in a series of attempts to bring some sort of universal coverage to California. You can see a timeline of previous efforts here.

Republican attempts in Washington to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier this year energized backers of single-payer in California. While the repeal push failed, the tax bill Congress just passed does away with the Obamacare mandate that most Americans get health insurance. 

And that raises the question as to whether elimination of the individual mandate will create more momentum for universal health care in California.

As state lawmakers consider the issue, it’s important to remember that “single-payer” describes one model for achieving universal health care. In a single-payer system, the government runs health care and pays for it through higher taxes. Such a system would also generally mean no more insurance premiums, deductibles or co-pays. Click here for a primer on three of the main universal coverage models.

– Michelle Faust

CAN LA CONTAIN THE GROWTH OF HOMELESSNESS?

Homelessness rose dramatically in L.A. County this past year. As of January 2017's annual count, there were about 58,000 people living in shelters, in vehicles, and on the streets, a 23 percent jump from 2016.

This past year also saw a massive infusion of resources into combatting the problem. In November 2016, City of L.A. voters passed a $1.2 billion, ten-year bond to build up to 10,000 new units of housing for L.A.'s homeless and poor people. And in March 2017, county voters passed a 1/4-cent sales tax to raise $355 million a year for homeless services.

In the coming months and years, Angelenos will start to see whether these investments are making an impact. Programs and housing funded through the measures started to roll out in 2017, but they're expected to hit full stride in the coming months.

A wildcard in the equation, however, is federal funding. The Trump administration has promised cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the biggest rental help programs in the country. The tax cut package passed this month could also have a dramatic impact on affordable housing construction, as it eliminated a program that's key to the construction of about 40 percent of the country's affordable housing developments. 

Whether developers can make up the difference some way may determine whether L.A.'s local investments end up allowing the region to go above and beyond what its done in the past to fight homelessness or if local taxpayers will simply end up making up for federal cuts. 

– Rina Palta

THE TAXMAN COMETH

At the end of 2017, Republicans in Congress passed the most significant re-writing of the federal tax code in years. In 2018, new tax changes could begin to affect California in myriad ways.

More workers could try to channel their regular income through business structures like LLCs and sole proprietorships, chasing the best tax breaks possible. Southern California's hot real estate market could start to cool down, now that expensive houses won't provide the same kinds of tax benefits. And state lawmakers could find raising taxes even more politically challenging, now that Californians face a new cap on how much they can deduct from their federal tax bill in state and local taxes.

– David Wagner

THE ROLLOUT OF LEGAL RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA MIGHT BE SLOW 

Many Californians spent 2017 eagerly awaiting the legalization of recreational marijuana. Some simply looked forward to being able to buy pot from a legit retailer. Others hoped to launch new businesses in what will be country's largest market for legal weed. But Southern California's cannabis industry could get off to a rocky start in 2018.

The city of Los Angeles will have zero shops ready for recreational sales on Jan. 1. And many business owners are still wondering when they'll be able to obtain a license from the city — or if they'll be able to get one at all.

With other cities continuing to ban cannabis businesses, Southern Californians will find a dearth of options at the start of 2018. Unless they’re willing to turn to the existing black market, which could continue to undercut taxpaying businesses trying to play by the rules.  

– David Wagner

WILL GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES THINK ABOUT YOUNG CHILDREN?

For many advocates of early childhood education, eyes are on the 2018 gubernatorial election. A statewide campaign, Choose Children 2018, launched earlier this year by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and other partners, is committed to making sure it’s high on the agenda for all of the candidates. “It’s very important that the next governor of California understand young children’s issues,” said Kim Patillo Brownson, vice president of policy and strategy at First 5 LA. “And understand what a vital role the state can play in actually promoting the health and development of young children, and eventually K-12 students and the workforce for the future.”

A Choose Children 2018 survey found that voters want that, too, with 87 percent of voters polled saying the next governor should prioritize early childhood education. 

The top gubernatorial candidates have all participated in forums sharing their thoughts on early care and education. Watch here

We’ll also be watching what federal policy changes mean for local children and families, the actions of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood, and what anticipated changes to state credentialing requirements could mean for the professional development of early educators. 

– Priska Neely

COLLEGE REMEDIAL EDUCATION IS GETTING A BIG OVERHAUL

2018 is expected to be the year California kicks into high gear its effort to overhaul remedial education at its two largest public higher education systems.

California community colleges and Cal State campuses place large proportions of first year students in remedial classes after tests determine they’re not ready to do college level work but most educators now agree one test score is a poor way to measure college readiness.

For the fall of 2018, the 23 campuses of the California State University are to do away with remedial classes they’re required students to take in order to raise their college skills. Faculty have opposed Chancellor Tim White’s executive order, saying the timeline is too fast to come up with the proper replacement for those students who are deficient in college skills.

The number of remedial education classes at California’s 114 community colleges is set to shrink dramatically because of a state law signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2017 that directs the colleges to give high school grades and classes more weight over a single test when determining college readiness.

“This has huge implications for the students and the state,” said USC education researcher Tatiana Melguizo.

“Hopefully the community college, the two-year institution, will be giving honor to that name,” by getting more students to earn their degrees or transfer to a college or university in two years, she said.

The goal is to cut the number of students enrolled in the non-credit remedial classes. Research suggests college students who take one or more remedial classes take longer to earn their degrees, transfer to a four-year institution, and are more likely to abandon their college studies.

The 23 campus California State University is making a similar change. Chancellor Tim White has ordered the elimination of remedial classes for next fall’s freshman class but faculty say they need more time to come up with classes to help those students who are deficient in college skills.

– Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

BUT COLLEGE STUDENT DEBT COULD RISE

Actions by policymakers in Washington D.C. could increase the number of students graduating college in debt.

“A major concern will be to ensure that loosening regulations on the federal level does not put more Californians at risk of taking on too much debt because of unscrupulous practices at the for-profits,” said in an email USC education researcher William Tierney.

He’s talking about actions by the Trump Administration in 2016 to do away with loan forgiveness protections for students of for-profit colleges and efforts - that’ll stretch into next year – by Republican members of Congress to once again allow for-profit colleges that enroll mostly students on financial aid.

Growing enrollment in for profit colleges and universities and fraudulent loan practices by some of those campuses contributed to the rise on student loan debt in the last decade. Several for-profit college chains have closed in recent years after investigations into illegal practices.

According to a 2015 Brookings Institution report the number of for-profit colleges on a list of the top 25 higher education institutions with highest student loan debt rose from one to 13 in a ten year time span.

Tierney said he used to tell students ten years ago that graduating with $20,000 in debt was OK.

“But now it’s closer to $30,000 and that’s an awful lot of money for someone who’s 21 years-old to have, and they don’t know what awaits them,” such as job prospects that don’t allow them to pay off the money quickly, he said.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez