Assemblymember Rudy Salas is a moderate Democrat representing parts of Kern and Kings counties – one of California’s top agricultural districts.
Since taking office in 2012, Salas has been a strong advocate in water debates, showing support for construction of the proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir Project. Salas worked as a legislative staffer in Sacramento before launching his own campaign. He also served on the Bakersfield city council and briefly worked for Vice President Al Gore in 2000.
Salas spoke with Agri-Pulse on the controversial environmental protection bill SB 1, on his role in Agriculture Committee, and on his work battling valley fever.
- What's your approach to representing agriculture and the diversity of stakeholders in your district?
My approach is an open-door policy. Usually, I meet with everybody and every group. I talk to everyday people mostly at events. Recently, we did a self-defense class, we did a coat giveaway, and we're gearing up to do our Safe-and-Sane Trunk or Treat events out in Kings and then Kern Counties.
My approach is just to meet with everybody and to get their take. What I mostly ask people is how this affects them in their everyday lives. Whether it's a policy proposal or a budget ask, I've always asked people, “How would this affect you and your family?” I take those answers to heart and help that guide my policy and my votes.
- Can you compare serving on the Ag Committee to the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee?
In the Agriculture Committee, it's very bipartisan. We look at the issues and the policy implications that come through the committee. Usually we see Democrats and Republicans join together on things that are generally good for agriculture, whether it's tackling Pierce's disease or encouraging people to buy California grown products.
The Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee is a little more interesting. We still have issues where we work in a bipartisan manner. But there are also bigger issues where you'll see some of the Democrats, myself included, who usually will split with some of our urban colleagues. You see that in water policy very specifically. One of the biggest water implication bills that we saw this past session was Senate Bill 1. Luckily, the governor vetoed that bill. I was unable to support that measure. But those are the types of bills we deal with him in Water, Parks and Wildlife.
Safe and affordable drinking water, which we talked about in the budget process as well, we were able to allocate a bunch of money towards. We've put over $12 million in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Over 2 million of that was coming to the valley directly. The rest are applied through grants.
- You were one of two Central Valley Democrats who voted against SB 1. Why?
There are things not in Senate Bill 1 that should have been included. For instance, when you look at Voluntary Agreements, we should use the latest scientific data. We should not limit ourselves or freeze ourselves to years past without including all the recent data. A number of us signed on to a letter to Pro Tem Senator Atkins asking to address this. Unfortunately, she went in another direction. Fortunately for us, the governor ended up vetoing that piece of legislation.
- You were a co-author on Senate Bill 559 to fix the Friant-Kern Canal, and you also introduced a similar bill last year for $7 billion. Is this going to come up again next year?
Senate Bill 559 is a two-year bill. It’s something I strongly support and supported measures in the past as well to deal with the flow of water and water conveyance in the entire state. I’m definitely a strong proponent of conveyance and giving people the flexibility to do that through voluntary agreements. The Friant-Kern Canal we know is losing a lot of water just because of subsidence. We need to do something to fix that, not only on the Friant-Kern, but also on the CVP side as well, so that we fix all of California’s pipes. That's the way I explain it to my colleagues up here at the capital. Like having an old pipe that's rusted out, it's not delivering as much water anymore when you need to deliver it. We need to do something to fix the infrastructure. I've been a strong proponent of that and will continue to fight. Senate Bill 559 is a two-year bill and we’ll continue to push on that.
A lot of it is also educating the governor, the administration and some of my more urban colleagues on what this actually means. For my colleagues down in Los Angeles, I tell them we need to fix the pipes so that the water gets down to their constituents as well. This is something we need to prioritize.
- What stood out for you for the legislative year overall?
I've been doing this seven years now. I always tell people it's familiar enough, but different enough every single year.
I've been doing a lot on valley fever. We've been pretty successful in that the last couple of years. We've been able to secure $10 million in valley fever funding in the state budget. That creates the first-ever valley fever institute over at Kern Medical. It's the only one in the entire state. The only other facility I know that does it is in Arizona. We've been able to pass four pieces of legislation based on that – helping workers, making sure that doctors are trained, diagnosing it correctly, money towards public awareness campaigns. We got the UCs $3 million to do collaboration to hopefully find a vaccine or a cure.
Dairy digesters are the other thing that we've been always pushing for in the state budget – the opportunity where it could be a win-win with agriculture and the state's climate goals. My district has already gotten over $22 million for digester funding, which is fantastic because you're turning waste into something that can be useful. It’s green energy that can be put back into the grid and it's helping all our dairy folks as well.
I'm a big proponent of the Valley CAN (Clean Air Now) program, where we take the old clunkers off the roads and replace them with newer, cleaner burning vehicles. I've been partnering with them for almost 10 years now, even before I was elected. I had a bill on this that we turned into a two-year bill, which is expanding the Carl Moyer (Air Quality) Program, which has been instrumental in cleaning up the air and reducing particulate matter in the valley.
Speaking about the governor, I was really encouraged at the beginning of this year with how much attention he was giving to the Central Valley on what we need to do to make sure that we address those communities that are unable to drink water out of their taps. During this past session’s budget, we put over $12 million directly into the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act and then millions more in competitive grants to help a lot of the smaller communities deal with their safe drinking water issues.
The governor started off well. Hopefully he continues to prioritize the valley.
- What do you expect for next year?
We definitely have to deal with wildfires. We have to deal with PG&E and the bankruptcy surrounding it. We have to make sure we still provide electricity to all Californians, especially those reliant on electricity for medical reasons.
Affordable housing continues to be an issue. Access to good paying jobs continues to be an issue. Water will always be a recurring issue every single year.
- Any other things farmers should know about you?
For farmers and for agriculture in general, partnerships are very fruitful. Hosting policymakers and decisionmakers to understand what they go through day-in and day-out is very helpful.
It's been very helpful for me when I bring urban legislators to tour an almond orchard or a dairy farm. I tell them this is how farmers utilize water, for instance, when we're looking at a water drip system that some of these urban legislators have never seen before.
I would just encourage farmers, ranchers and the agriculture community to continue to build those relationships and build those bridges. If you're not at the table, you're on the table.
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