Toni G. Atkins is now the highest ranking officer in the state Assembly, having been recently elected by the Assembly Members. As speaker, she will preside over floor sessions, and undertake the overall management and supervision of the Assembly, including appointing members to committees and subcommittees, establishing committee schedules and allocating funds, staffing and other resources for the effective operation of the House.
We recently sat down with the new Assembly Speaker for a short Q&A so that CRA members could get to know the new Speaker a little better:
CRA: About 80 percent of California restaurants are small businesses, why do you think small business is so important to California and our economy?
TA: Small businesses employ more than half of our workforce. The latest count is 3.4 million small businesses in California. We rely on the many small businesses up and down the state to provide services and employment to build our economy and help foster growth in different sectors.
The success of our small businesses has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, revitalized communities across California and created new opportunities for working families throughout our state.
CRA: With such incredible diversity in the types of California industries, are there any standouts on the rise and poised to enhance this great state’s reputation?
TA: California is home to many of the world’s tech giants. We create more jobs than any other state, especially in technology. Investing here obviously pays off, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. In fact, Forbes recently ranked the best large American cities in which to start a business, three of which are in California. Number one is my home district in San Diego, followed by San Francisco and San Jose.
San Diego has always had a strong biotechnology industry. Just last week we hosted the 2014 BIO International Convention where Sir Richard Branson, Secretary Clinton, and Governor Brown spoke.
Restaurants are also becoming more innovative by using technology to deliver better customer service. Technology enables the restaurant industry to help patrons receive their food faster or pay their food faster. With online ordering, iPad ordering kiosks, digital menu boards, and tabletop checkout – restaurants are moving forward to ensure greater customer satisfaction.
CRA: How do the social, economic, environmental, technological, legal and political environments affect the California business climate? Will California be able to find a happy medium between the needs of business and all of the factors affecting operations and profitability?
TA: California is an attractive place to live. With better weather, cultural amenities and some of the best public universities in the country, it’s no wonder people choose to live and work in the Golden State.
We ensured that companies that purchase equipment for manufacturing, processing, refining, or recycling will not have to pay state sales tax on those purchases. This is real money to assist California business large and small. From the California Competes program, a tax credit that helps businesses stay or grow in the state, to GoBiz there are many programs available to ensure that our businesses can thrive.
We’re listening to business. Business leaders asked us to help them thrive in a changing economy. So we did. Last year, we enacted 18 new business-friendly laws. They will help business owners by removing regulatory burdens, restoring some investment tax breaks tax breaks for some investors, and creating the “Made in California” program. We will continue listening to the needs of California’s businesses to ensure that there is a fostered cooperation between the Legislature and the business community.
CRA: What do you think are the biggest challenges California small-business will face in the next several years?
TA: We are happy to see many businesses bouncing back from the Great Recession. The job we have now is to ensure that there is stability again. Now that people are working and spending their hard-earned money, small businesses face challenges with changes to the Affordable Care Act. Since the deadline has been moved to 2015, now is the time when small businesses should evaluate what to do about their health plans.
Another challenge to business, small and large, is cybersecurity. There is an increasing threat of cybercrime to all businesses. The Legislature is looking at these problems and we hope to find a solution sometime soon.
CRA: What is your favorite restaurant when you’re at home in San Diego?
TA: That is a trick question! Are you kidding? I have many favorite restaurants (have you seen me?) in San Diego. We have some of the best restaurants from my home neighborhood of South Park to Point Loma, La Jolla, Solano Beach, Coronado, the newest Cohn restaurant in Imperial Beach. It’s impossible to pick a favorite. I try them all.
CRA: We certainly agree that San Diego has by far some of the most amazing cuisine in our great state, and the CRA San Diego chapter would echo that sentiment. With that said, do you have any secret food indulgences you’d like to share?
TA: I love sardines, which drives my spouse crazy.
A little more about Madame Speaker
Atkins represents the people of coastal San Diego, from Imperial Beach, along the Mexican border, north to Solana Beach, and most of central San Diego. She previously served eight years on the San Diego City Council, and became a stabilizing force during a tumultuous period in 2005, stepping in as Acting Mayor after the resignation of the mayor.
Speaker Atkins is a coalition-builder who believes government policies can improve people's lives. She is a leading voice for affordable housing, a powerful advocate for women, and champion for veterans and homeless people.
Before her election as Speaker, she held the position of Majority Leader. She chaired the Assembly Select Committee on Homelessness, and served on committees on Housing and Community Development, Health, Veterans Affairs, as well as the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
Speaker Atkins was born in Virginia, earned her bachelor's degree in political science from Emory & Henry College, and completed the senior executive program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Her life of public service began in San Diego in the mid-1980s as director of clinic services at Womancare Health Center. She became a staff representative of then-City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, later winning her mentor's council seat after Kehoe's election to the Assembly. She represented the City of San Diego in the local chapter of the League of California Cities, on the boards of the Metropolitan Transit System, the San Diego Association of Governments, the Regional Housing Working Group and the San Diego River Conservancy.
Atkins lives in the South Park-Golden Hill community of San Diego with her spouse Jennifer LeSar and their dogs, Haley and Joey.