Merced County Times Newspaper
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Assemblymember Soria working for policies that reflect valley needs

Esmeralda Soria
Esmeralda Soria

By MIKE BIDDISON

 

Even though 27th District Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria has served only a fraction of her first term in the California State Assembly, she is no stranger to Sacramento.

Soria, a Democrat, worked two years as a State Senate staffer before attending law school at UC Davis School of Law, graduating in 2011.

Soria said this past 14 months has “been very exciting, very busy — a lot of work. A lot of challenges, but for me, I feel like challenges are opportunities.”

Less than three weeks after being sworn in Dec 5, 2022, Soria got the news the Madera Community Hospital would close due to bankruptcy, and three weeks after that the disastrous flooding occurred in Planada.

“We didn’t have any time to sit back and learn — we were ready to roll on day one,” Soria said. Hospitals all over the state were suffering financially due to the recent pandemic. Public hospitals could apply for state aid, but the Madera Community Hospital is privately run, and closed that January. Soria sponsored a bill that would provide loans to California’s ailing Hospitals, believing it’s every resident’s right to get treatment locally and affordably. Out of the $300 million loan package, a total of $52 million will go to Madera to help it re-open. There is also speculation about enabling the future medical school at UC Merced to operate the hospital, where new medical professionals could get hands on experience.

Soria, a first generation U.S. citizen, who grew up in Tulare County, credits her previous knowledge of the legislative process in Sacramento and relationships cultivated while working as a staffer for her being able to assess the district’s problems and come up with solutions.

When she worked on the Fresno City Council, she was also very busy, but the issues were completely different. “It was sidewalks, lighting issues, trash pick-up—more the outside your window type of issues.”

“Now the issues are bigger and broader, you know. Access to health care, water, flooding and drought issues.” In the case of Planada, Soria secured $20 million from the state for flood recovery. She said the Merced County Board of Supervisors received that money more than a month ago to be distributed for direct relief. Many residents didn’t qualify for FEMA funding because of their immigration status, so part of the funds will go to help those farmworkers who lost wages, their belongings and their homes.

She also stated that they were “making sure the regulatory process will continue to allow for periods of severe weather, where they can take the excess water and re-charge the aquifer.” About a decade ago, the state passed SGMA, or the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires water agencies to create basins and plans for sustainability. In many areas of the valley, overdrafts have caused land subsidence, problems with certain roads and bridges, and with aqueducts and canals, used for moving the water to where it’s needed.

The problem became severe at the beginning of 2022 because of the prolonged drought. Heavier than normal rains in 2023 have since refilled the state’s reservoirs, but the problem is ongoing. Soria said, “last year the governor issued an executive order to streamline the recharging process. We are trying to insure the policy is permanent, because we’ve seen the benefits.”

Workforce development issues related to Health Care are a big problem in the 27th District, according to Soria. “I want to see more nurses in our local communities, and enable them to get their Bachelor Degrees at the Community College level. We will be introducing legislation this year to allow that.”

Such a plan would be much more affordable to poorer students, opening up opportunities in the rural communities to get those good paying jobs.

“The Central Valley has been neglected for far too long,” Soria said, and one of the goals she has is to “elevate our voice, highlight the issues we have, and ask the state for an equitable distribution of state dollars,” to improve infrastructure, the agricultural economy, housing. “We need matching resources from the state. We have a lot of poverty, and many times small communities in the valley cannot afford to do what the state is asking them to do. One size fits all doesn’t always work,” Soria said. “What works for Los Angeles or the Bay Area, doesn’t necessarily always work for our valley. We’re different in our geographical makeup. Our industries are different and so we want to make sure the state policies are responsive to what our true needs are here.”

“The state budget grew exponentially over the last decade and we’ve made record investments over that period in Education, from K-12 to the university systems. Also with infrastructure throughout the state. But this year the revenue stream is slowing down, because it’s always cyclical. We have some very good years, then some not so very good years. We’re maybe in that space where this next year we are not going to have a surplus, so we are going to have to address that.”

The state does have a reserve of $38 billion, passed in June of last year, which will, according to the governor’s office, cover the projected spending deficit for the 24/25 fiscal year.

Soria introduced a bill at the end of January to curb the phenomenal rise in retail smash and grab crimes last year. The assembly bill would provide a sentence of up to 5 additional years in prison for those convicted of theft where the property loss is in excess of $50 thousand. She has also co-authored a related bill that would revise voter passed Proposition 47 to reinstate felony status to certain crimes.

Prop 47 was passed a decade ago with the intention to reduce certain low-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors with the effect of reducing the population in California’s state prisons. The money saved is primarily diverted to mental health and drug treatment programs around the state. A similar proposition, Prop 57, increases chances of parole for non-violent offenders.

“We’re hoping that our bill adds to the conversation in Sacramento regarding Prop 47 and 57, as to what has worked and to insure our communities are safe.” Soria said, “Retail theft is impacting our small business community, the big retail stores, and creates a disincentive for other stores to open if seen as a continuous problem.”

Governor Newsom and other officials have reportedly stated there is no connection between Prop 47 and a surge in retail crime. But Soria has the backing of several District Attorneys, including Nicole Silveira of Merced and Sally Moreno of Madera in her efforts to have an impact on these crimes.

“We have to look at the last 10 years,” Soria said, “and really look at what has worked and what hasn’t.” Several months ago, the new Assembly Speaker, Robert Rivas, created a select committee on retail theft. “We know it’s an issue,” Soria maintained. “Has Prop 47 been the main factor behind the rising retail theft? Maybe, maybe not — we don’t know until we look at all the data, right? But we do know there is a problem out there that we must address and this is the year, I believe that we are going … to give our law enforcement the tools necessary to insure that folks who are stealing in large quantities are deterred or know that they are not going to get a little slap on the hand.”

The governor, according to Soria, has indicated he is interested to see what the Legislature can come up with on this issue over the next eight months as it is debated in committees and on the floor in both houses.

Meanwhile, Soria is up for re-election, on the ballot in the March 5th primary, and then again in November. The campaigning, since Assembly members are elected for two-year terms, takes up a bunch of time. “But,” she said, “what I’ve been doing in my first year is focusing on the issues and delivering results.”

Elected to the State Assembly in November of ’22, Soria says she has already brought more budget money, $140 million, into the three county district than any other freshman Assembly member that she knows of.

Since the 27th District is so large, Soria has three offices — one in Fresno, where she lives, one in Merced, and one in Sacramento. When we caught up with her, she had just finished touring the Merced County landfill, in the rain, while getting updated on the important work being done there to help mitigate climate change.

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