It’s not every night constituents get to see their elected leaders from the city, county, state and federal levels of government gathered on one stage, but the Turlock community took advantage of the opportunity Wednesday night when bringing up concerns to Congressman Josh Harder, Assemblyman Adam Gray, Supervisor Vito Chiesa and Mayor Amy Bublak during Turlock Government Night.
The event was the eighth of its kind that Chiesa has hosted since taking office 10 years ago, inviting elected leaders of the area to the Carnegie Arts Center to discuss issues unique to the region.
In attendance were Harder, the newly-elected freshman Congressman for District 10, Bublak, Turlock’s first female mayor elected in November, and Gray, who doesn’t represent Turlock in the State Assembly but has close ties to the area, he said. Gray represents Merced County and some parts of Stanislaus County, and attended the event to fill in for Senator Andreas Borgeas, who was unable to make it.
While issues like use of force, media performance and housing were brought up during the event, many attendees wanted to know how the region can continue to build its economy. Education, transportation and more jobs were common themes throughout the night in regards to the topic.
Keeping with tradition, the lawmakers met with students from Stanislaus State prior to the event, and representatives from the campus Associated Students, Inc. asked the first question of the night: How can we create more jobs for students with college degrees, and keep Stanislaus State graduates in the area once they complete their education?
This question hit home for Harder, he said, as his younger brother is preparing to graduate from Stanislaus State next month. The Central Valley is growing at twice the rate as California as a whole, he said, and more jobs need to be created in order to keep up.
“We need to incentivize more job creation in areas of need,” Harder said. “One of the bills I’m looking at is what can we do to make sure that high-wage jobs are taxed less in areas of high unemployment than they’re taxed in areas of low employment...if we do that, it can actually create a magnet.”
Gray applauded the local universities — University of California, Merced in addition to Stanislaus State — for building the local workforce, but noted that “social ills” like the Valley’s physician shortage, poverty and lack of mass public transportation is forcing graduates to search for better lives elsewhere.
Bublak is no stranger to economic development during her ten years on the Turlock City Council, and she said Stanislaus State has played a huge role in attracting companies to build here. She encouraged students to stay in the Valley and use their newly-acquired skills to make the region a better place.
“We don’t want the university students to come get a degree and leave. I felt compelled to get my degree here and give this back — this is public service...I have to give back and this is how I’m going to do it,” Bublak said, then motioned to the Stanislaus State students in the audience. “I’m hoping there are others sitting here in the front row that are going to do the same thing.”
As Gray mentioned, transportation in the Valley is lackluster, from mass public transportation options to the condition of the roads. One attendee asked for an update on ACE Train funding, which recently received state money thanks to Gray and then-Senator Anthony Cannella securing a stop for the train in Ceres through Senate Bill 1, or the gas tax.
There was $400 million set aside for the project thanks to SB 1, Chiesa explained, which should be completed by 2023.
Harder surprised the audience when he brought up a project he’s been working on seeing to completion: The Valley Link, which will connect Lathrop to the Tri-Valley and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail service via the route of the historic Transcontinental Railroad right-of-way though the Altamont Pass.
Soon, Valley residents could get to the Bay Area by taking the ACE Train in Ceres to the BART extension in Lathrop. Not only will this make it easier for people from other communities to work in the Valley, but it will also decrease wear and tear on highways and make commutes easier for Valley residents.
“Within the next couple of years, we’re going to have a really different mass transit system than we have today,” Harder said. “We’re not going to solve our transportation problem by creating more lanes on the Altamont.”
The Valley Link project is expected to break ground either this year or the next, Harder said.
When it comes to jobs, transportation and the robust economy of the Central Valley which is driven by agriculture, the three all tie into one another, Gray said.
“Frankly, we’ve got to get people off the road. This is a state where we produce a great deal of the world’s agricultural products, and we have to be able to move that product so we need those roads cleared up,” Gray said. “The Congressman’s absolutely right — it is the connectivity of existing systems that’s the cheapest and most efficient way to do it, so we’ve just got to double down on those efforts.”