It touches virtually every major public policy issue—criminal justice, homelessness, family dysfunction, education, economic productivity—but care for the mentally ill rarely, if ever, featured so prominently in a California gubernatorial campaign as it did with Gavin Newsom’s. In a year when his boss Gov. Jerry Brown spiked a litany of behavioral health bills, Newsom penned a nine-page position paper promising massive state investment in psychiatric services should he win the election.
State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) says that gave him renewed hope as he closed in on the latter half of his final term in office. “With mental health, we haven’t had too much luck with the last two governors,” he says. “With Brown, especially, he doesn’t have the best record on this issue. He vetoed a tremendous number of mental health bills.”
Toward the close of his term, Brown rejected Beall’s proposal to create professional certification for peer counselors with lived experience involving addiction and mental illness. The move puzzled Beall, given how the measure garnered unanimous bipartisan support in both chambers and would’ve brought California in line with 48 other states. Another of Beall’s pitches requiring health plans to cover psychiatric care to the same extent as other treatments had already been shot down by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and repeatedly by Brown in the years to follow before meeting the same fate in 2018.
Beall reintroduced both proposals in the next legislative session—SB 10 and SB 11, respectively—in addition to SB 12, which would establish 100 youth mental health drop-in centers. Just this week, he also rolled out SB 582 to restore mental health dollars for school-aged kids that got nixed from the state budget last year.
The batch of bills tackle the kinds of thorny issues that 66-year-old Beall, in one way or another, spent the better part of three decades in public service trying to fix.
“I’ve always focused on this,” he says during a recent sit-down at his District 15 office in Campbell. “I personally believe that if we had a decent mental health system, we’d have maybe two-thirds of the population that we have in jail today. I think kids in low-income communities, in communities of color, that their test scores would go up tremendously. Healthcare would improve because people with mental issues, and that includes substance use, aren’t always able to take care of other conditions, such as diabetes.”
Despite the potential payoff and the bipartisan support for more mental health funding and stronger policies, it’s a subject too often ignored by the legislative powers that be.
“Politically, there’s no big lobby for mental health,” Beall says. “There’s no Armani-suited lobbyists running around talking about mental health in Sacramento. So the problem has not been comprehensively dealt with.”
Newsom’s initial draft budget unveiled days after his swearing-in confirmed Beall’s optimism. It called for the hiring of a “mental health czar” in addition to $500 million to build emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing for the homeless, $2 billion in bond allocations to get the seriously mentally ill off the streets and into recovery and streamlining environmental laws to speed up construction on new treatment facilities. It included $100 million to expand intensive care for people with debilitating psychiatric conditions and $50 million for job training for the mentally ill.
Some $45 million was pegged for screening trauma known in the medical field as Adverse Childhood Experiences, which research has linked to later onset of mental illness. Also in the spending plan: $25 million for early detection treatment for young people, $5.3 million for more counseling at public universities and $20 million for law enforcement crisis intervention training.
Another issue near and dear to Beall that he credits for setting him on the path to public service also commands a fair share of his latest legislative agenda. That is, fair and affordable housing. The veteran lawmaker says his activism as a San Jose State student in the 1970s drew the ire of landlords and the interest of a certain rising political star.
As a freshman, Beall became the school’s student housing coordinator and began counseling peers at the student union. He helped conduct a survey of housing around San Jose State with a list of all the rents and deposits (his, at the time, was $55 a month). As part of that project, students performed fair housing audits that exposed how landlords treated prospective tenants differently based on race.
“The landlords complained about me,” Beall says with a laugh. “They went to the City Council and said, ‘Hey, there’s this radical over there at San Jose State stirring things up. Can you guys send someone over to stop him?’”
Their complaints had the opposite effect. Mayor Norman Mineta commended Beall’s work and used it as a template for fair housing enforcement through the city.
Fast-forward through Beall’s tenure on that same City Council, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, the Assembly, then state Senate, and he’s back where he started working on housing issues at SJSU. The lifelong legislator is lending support to a group called the Student Housing Alliance, which is urging SJSU President Mary Papazian ramp up support for the 13 percent of homeless students enrolled at the university.
Come Monday, the campus coalition will present a petition with more than 1,000 signatures and three demands for homeless students: to reserve at least 10 parking spots in the Seventh Street garage for those who need a safe place to sleep, at least a dozen dorm beds and $2,500 in emergency grants for those who need help with rent.
“I respect the students who are trying to go right to the top with this problem,” Beall says, “and I want to help them with this.”
Build More, Build Smart
Four of the 10 bills Beall introduced to date in 2019 involve housing and finding ways to address the critical supply shortfall while encouraging production of transit-linked and below-market-rate units. To Beall, the failure in 2018 of state Sen. Scott Weiner’s controversial SB 827, which would override local authority to spur new development, underscored the need for a more nuanced discussion about housing.
“There are two main approaches to housing,” Beall says. “You can build a lot so that someday people at the lower income levels will have their costs reduced because there’s a lot of housing. That’s called filtering. The other way is to say that we should build a lot more housing, but you can’t rely on the home building community to do anything but respect their own profit motivations. … Building more housing is good, I think, it does relieve the pressure. At the same time, it should not prevent us from doing good planning in our communities.”
As Weiner takes another crack at his proposal, which has been repackaged this year as SB 50, Beall is pushing for complementary policies of his own. SB 4, co-authored with Democratic state Sen. Mike McGuire from Healdsburg, would spur new housing by transit and job centers by cutting through some local red tape, “while acknowledging relevant differences among communities.”
SB 5, another Beall-McGuire proposal, has been dubbed “Redevelopment 2.0” for its aim to replace the controversial tax-increment mechanism with something more sustainable and with a stronger emphasis on affordable housing. SB 6 would create an inventory of state and local government land for prospective housing development. SB 9 aims to boost affordable housing revenue by extending a tax credit set to expire at the end of the year.
“All together, I think, we can make a dent in this crisis,” Beall says.
But trickle-down alone won’t cut it.
“It’s not just a matter of building our way out of this mess,” he says. “We also need to make sure there’s financing for affordable housing for veterans, for seniors, for low-income families. Otherwise, nobody’s going to build housing for poor people.”
2020 and Beyond
A host of contenders have already lined up to replace Beall when he terms out.
There’s former Federal Election Commission chair Ann Ravel, San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis, former Assemblywoman Nora Campos, county Supervisor Dave Cortese (the early fundraising frontrunner with $176,000 cash on hand) and his recently termed-out colleague Supervisor Ken Yeager. Though folks have already started courting Beall’s endorsement, he hesitates to weigh in so early in the race.
“I like Ann, I like Dave,” he says with a wry smile. “I know both very, very well.”
As for his own plans post-2020?
“I have a lot of people giving me suggestions, but we haven’t moved on that yet,” he says. “Of course, my wife [Pat Lafkas] and I will discuss it in time.”
Asked if he’s the retiring type, though, Beall’s quick to reply.
“I doubt it,” he says.