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Newly elevated Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, discussed balancing fiscal caution and calls for new spending in remarks to the Sacramento Press Club on Wednesday.

Atkins assumed power earlier this month, taking over from Assemblyman John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles (who left behind, Atkins said, what she termed a "Speaker's book of secrets"). It will be a brief tenure thanks to term limits, which ensure Atkins will no longer be serving in the Assembly come 2017.

The timing thrust Atkins into a key role of leading Democrats through budget negotiations. Gov. Jerry Brown has cast himself as a responsible steward of a newfound surplus, running into calls from many Democratic members for more spending on social programs. Atkins talked about managing those tensions.

"I have a clear mandate from my caucus to negotiate a budget that strengthens our fiscal condition first and makes responsible investments second," Atkins said.

Discussing possible targets for spending, Atkins stressed transportation and housing. She also touched upon a handful of areas where advocates and lawmakers have focused their budget priorities: services for disabled or elderly Californians and expanded care and education programs for the youngest Californians.

"Even being fiscally prudent, there's some room to invest in these areas," Atkins said.

The energy extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has emerged as a rallying point for environmental advocates who warn the technique is unsafe and want Brown to institute a moratorium. Atkins seemed to align with the governor when asked about fracking, saying it should be regulated but could help satisfy California's energy needs.

"We are going to have to strike a balance in terms of how to protect the environment, deal with the concerns of public safety and the health concerns people may have, and also continuing to make sure we have oil," she said. "We are dependent on it."

She sounded a similar note about a Senate bill that would impose an oil severance tax, the latest incarnation of a recurring idea. Atkins stressed that the governor seems unlikely to accept a new tax hike after winning voter approval for his Proposition 30 tax boost.

"I don't think that's going to happen this year," Atkins said.

More likely, Atkins said, is that the Legislature extends a film tax credit intended to persuade filmmakers to keep production in California. She pronounced herself "pretty certain" that lawmakers would advance the policy.

PHOTO: Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, addresses the Sacramento Press Club on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Jeremy B. White.


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