On Day One, Hints of California’s Democratic Agenda to Come

Laurel Rosenhall
Reporter, CALmatters

It’s just the beginning.

California lawmakers kicked off a new two-year session Monday, a day full of pomp and ceremony and not a lot of substance. But a few eager legislators began putting bills across the desk, giving an early indication of some key policy fights that will shape 2019.

Some of the early legislation reflects policy priorities Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom championed on the campaign trail—calling for more housing, health care and early childhood education. (Newsom will be sworn in on Jan. 7.) Other bills amount to a take-two for lawmakers who saw their policies stall out or get vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

It’s too soon to say how these proposals will fare—a long road of compromises often separates a bill’s introduction from the gubernatorial signature that turns it into a law. But here are a few themes emerging in this first day of legislative action:

Disaster

California’s recent wildfires are clearly a preoccupation. Both chambers opened with a moment of silence for victims of the Camp and Woolsey fires. In one of the more gripping moments of the morning, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon listed, name by name, the many California counties that, just at the moment, are recovering from climate-driven natural disasters, and what Gov. Jerry Brown termed “the new abnormal” figured heavily into his and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ opening remarks.

On Monday, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, who represents fire-scarred Santa Rosa—and who, as a forensic dentist, has been helping to identify remains in the Camp Fire— introduced legislation to hasten, broaden, subsidize and better codify local fire preparedness. As last session’s hard-fought wildfire bill demonstrated, though, the costs and liabilities associated with wildfires can politically be a hard sell.

Critics of Pacific Gas & Electric, whose equipment has been linked to many of last year’s fires, have been adamant in their demand that the state not give the massive utility a bailout. Assemblyman Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, had planned to introduce language on Monday that would have expanded last year’s wildfire bill to give PG&E relief for potential liability for the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people, but over the weekend, Holden said he would wait.

Housing

Lawmakers introduced several bills aimed at alleviating the state’s housing crisis on the first day of the legislative session, including twin efforts to revive a controversial funding source for affordable housing.

Assemblymember David Chiu, Democrat from San Francisco, reintroduced a bill that would revive and reform redevelopment agencies across the state. Eliminated by Gov. Brown in 2011 to close the state’s yawning budget deficit, redevelopment agencies provided about $1 billion annually for the construction and preservation of low-income housing. Loathed by Brown, tax funds raised by these agencies were frequently used for questionable purposes.

Two of Chiu’s colleagues in the state senate unveiled their own version of “Redevelopment 2.0” on Monday. Senator Jim. Beall, Democrat from San Jose, and Sen. Mike McGuire, Democrat from Marin, announced they will be introducing a series of bills in the coming weeks to ease the state’s housing crisis, although the specifics of their redevelopment bill or other pieces of legislation were not yet made public. On the campaign trail, Gov.-elect Newsom made restoring redevelopment funding a cornerstone of his housing plan.

Lawmakers introduced a handful of other housing bills, including efforts to increase emergency funding to renters on the brink of homelessness and a major expansion of tax credits to low-income housing developers. But the biggest housing bill of the session will likely be announced tomorrow.

Sen. Scott Wiener, Democrat from San Francisco, plans to reintroduce his controversial bill that would allow taller, denser buildings around public transit, a measure that was widely admired and summarily trounced last year.

Preschool

If there is a sure bet this legislative session, the expansion of early childhood education is as close as it comes.

Stymied for years by Gov. Brown, who was wary of putting the state on the financial hook for an obligation as long-term and expensive as, say, universal preschool, Democrats have come to the table well-armed. Earlier this year, a Stanford-led team of academicians issued a massive study recommending that California spend much more on pre-K education. And Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who has four young children, has been touting early childhood education for years.

On Monday, Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento was first out of the gate, with a package of bills worth nearly $2 billion that would add about 84,000 full-day preschool slots, mostly for students living in poverty; put a $500 million bond on the 2020 ballot for the construction of new preschool facilities; and increase reimbursement rates for private childcare and preschool providers that contract with the state.

The legislation effectively would increase the pool of eligibility for subsidized preschool to include more 3- year-olds and all 4-year-olds living in school attendance areas where at least 70 percent of kids are on free or reduced lunch, a poverty indicator. One of the bills also would raise preschool learning standards to align them better with K-12 curriculum. “

Take Two

Or three. For the last two years legislative Democrats have proposed expanding government-funded health care to undocumented adults, the largest segment of Californians who lack access to insurance. Doing that is expensive, and the proposals failed to make it into the final budget Brown signed in 2017 and again this year.

Now Democratic Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula of Fresno and Sen. Ricardo Lara are trying again, introducing bills on Monday to expand Medi-Cal to cover adults over age 19 who are in the United States illegally.

Also getting another go are some high-profile bills Brown vetoed last year, including one inspired by the #MeToo movement to stop sexual harassment. Assembly Bill 9 by Democratic Assemblywomen Eloise Gomez Reyes and Laura Friedman would give victims more time to file a claim—extending the deadline from one year to three years after an incident.

Brown vetoed the same policy this year, saying the one-year deadline “ensures that unwelcome behavior is promptly reported and halted.” Supporters counter that more time gives workers who are unfamiliar with the legal system enough time to hold predators accountable.

Brown also vetoed legislation to require colleges to provide abortion pills at campus health clinics, saying “the services required by this bill are widely available off campus,” and that students, on average, only have to travel a few miles to get it. Newsom quickly told reporters he would have signed the bill, so it was little surprise Monday when Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva came out with a second go in the form of Senate Bill 24.

Gig Economy

A major source of angst or ebullience—depending on your view—at the end of the last session was a state court decision that threw a monkey wrench into a legal pillar of the gig economy.

The so-called “Dynamex ruling” makes it harder for employers to classify workers as independent contractors. Cheered by organized labor, it impacted workers from Uber drivers to businesses to emergency room doctors, and sent Chamber of Commerce lobbyists scrambling for relief, or at least clarification.

On Monday, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat and labor ally, said she will introduce a bill to put a statutory bulwark around the ruling. Business interests, meanwhile, are hoping to soften the blow. Touching on competing goods from across the political spectrum—jobs, tech, small business, fair pay—this is one of those vexing issues that could challenge even a super-duper-mega-majority.

CALmatters’ Ricardo Cano and Matt Levin contributed to this report.

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