California lawmakers passed 900 new laws last year — that’s about 7.5 bills per legislator — and most, though not all, went into effect on Sunday.
That’s a good thing, right? Surely legislators must be working awfully hard on our behalf to pass so many new laws. And no doubt they solved 900 of the state’s many serious problems, no?
Well, not necessarily. Quantity doesn’t necessarily translate to quality. Some of the new laws are, to be frank, silly or pointless. Others are designed to win publicity for their sponsors even if they don’t really do much. Many — most, actually — are technical or apply to such a select industry or small group of people that the vast majority of Californians will not notice them at all (which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad). Some may not effect any Californians. (Hello Assembly Bill 501, which designates denim as the “state fabric,” adding to the ever-growing list of official state symbols).
Certainly, many of the new laws make real changes to life in the Golden State, and most do so for the better. One raised the minimum wage by 50 cents, to $10.50 an hour, for workers in companies employing 26 or more people. It’s the first of a number of incremental increases that will push the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.
Another new law requires that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to 40% below 1990 levels in 13 years and yet another puts sensible new restrictions on firearms and ammunition, including a requirement that ammunition purchasers undergo background checks. And this year, people will be subjected to new hands-free restrictions when using their smartphones in their cars.
There are other good new laws, and some bad ones too. But mostly there are just more laws. And you can expect them to keep on coming. In December, the Assembly passed new rules that lifted the per-session limit on how many bills a member may introduce from 40 to 50. (The state Senate has not lifted its cap). This raises the specter of still more bills in the future, including many that do little or nothing to improve the state.
The problem with that is that it takes time, energy and resources away from the many truly important, complicated, politically difficult tasks that face the state’s elected officials. Legislative leaders must be extra vigilant to stop pointless, self-serving, pandering or conflicting proposals before they get to the floor so their members can focus on the real issues facing the state, such as securing funding to fix the state’s crumbling roads, reforming the state’s problematic tax code and fixing the broken California Environmental Quality Act, to name just three. These tasks were on last year’s to-do list and — 900 laws later — they remain undone.
It would also be nice if legislators could avoid passing new laws that are philosophically incompatible with one another or conflict with larger policy goals. Last year, for instance, the Legislature seemed to send a mixed message with new laws that expand the number of places where people can drink alcoholic beverages while simultaneously cracking down harder on those who drive under the influence of alcoholic beverages. Maybe there’s no true contradiction between the two (or maybe there is), but it would be nice to hear from legislators about their overall strategy for addressing the problem of drunk driving and how they think these two bills work together to achieve their goals.
Then there’s the new law that requires mandatory prison time for those convicted of sexual assault crimes in which the victim is known to be intoxicated or unconscious. This law stemmed from last year’s debate over whether former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was treated too leniently after his sexual assault conviction. It’s fine to disagree with one defendant’s headline-grabbing sentence, but it’s often unwise to base a new law on it — particularly when, as in this case, it contravenes a deliberate and laudable effort by the state to move away from determinate sentencing.
With hundreds of new laws, perhaps a little inconsistency is inevitable. In any case, the Legislature can always fix it next year — with another new law. Ultimately the number of state laws isn’t as important as their quality.