Editorial: A strange and chaotic — and meh — year for California lawmaking
Anyone watching the final days of the California Legislature’s two-year session might have been surprised to see the level of dysfunction, vitriol and chaos on display as lawmakers scrambled to pass bills before the stroke of midnight Monday.
The testy debates. The last-minute scrambles. Democrats and Republicans hurling bitter accusations at each other. Finger-pointing between the two houses. Important bills left in the dust.
As unusual as the coronavirus-afflicted circumstances were, though, this session’s finale wasn’t unique, at least not completely. Most legislative years end with a mad dash at the end followed by a vague feeling of dissatisfaction about all that was left undone. This year the pandemic merely exacerbated the usual chaos.
But even with the unexpected 45-day recess that came with the spread of the coronavirus, the Legislature had time to prepare for a smoother wrap-up and to institute better crisis contingencies and remote voting procedures — at the very least, ones that didn’t annoy everyone and force an assemblywoman to bring her newborn baby to the Capitol just to cast votes. Legislative leaders pushed members to cull nonessential bills this year (not a bad idea at any time) and limited committee hearings and debate (not a good idea at any time), yet lawmakers still found themselves with too much to do in the shortened time available. Important proposals were left to the last minute, creating a frenzied final few days.
It certainly didn’t help the end-of-session flow when the state Senate had to cancel an entire day of deliberations after Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after having dined with nearly all his fellow Republicans in the Senate. Republicans complained bitterly about being sent home to quarantine and forced to debate and vote remotely, but they knew well the risks when they ignored public health recommendations and dined together. Shame on them for setting a bad example and then whining about it.
Of course, some bills lost in the shuffle might not have passed no matter how much time they had for debate and deliberation. But others were victimized by the clock. One of them was Senate Bill 1175, authored by Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park), which would have prohibited the possession of trophies from any of 13 iconic African species. The proposal passed in the Assembly on Monday but then failed because the Senate (which had already passed it) ran out of time to take a procedural concurrence vote. That should never have happened.
A mixed bag on criminal justice reform
With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration handling pandemic policy, the two most pressing topics before the Legislature this year were criminal justice reform and housing. Criminal justice arose late in the session, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ripped open the long-festering wound of institutional racism in the U.S., prompting widespread demonstrations and a flurry of serious reform proposals in the Legislature.
But the results were less than impressive. The fate of bills to improve the performance of the criminal justice system depended largely on which phase of the process they affected, with bills targeting the pre- and post-trial phases of prosecutions doing best.
For example, lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 3070, which restricts a lawyer’s power to remove a person from a jury and therefore reduces implicit racism in the jury system. It’s a good bill, although it would have been better to eliminate altogether a lawyer’s ability to strike a juror without stating good cause. Also approved was AB 2542, which allows convicted defendants to seek release or new trials if they can demonstrate that their convictions or sentences were improperly affected by racial or similar discrimination, even if it was not intentional.
Other good bills on their way to the governor’s desk (and that deserve his signature) include AB 3234, which would strengthen California’s diversion programs to direct defendants away from criminal proceedings to treatment programs or other alternatives; SB 369, which would create a reentry commission tasked with helping people come home from jail and prison safely, in good health and with opportunities to responsibly rejoin society; AB 2342, which would encourage people on parole to complete educational rehabilitative programs; and AB 1950, which would shorten needlessly long probation terms.
The front end of the system, though — policing — proved harder to change in the Legislature, as is often the case. That’s likely because these bills have built-in, well-funded and organized opposition from law enforcement leaders and unions, whose clout outweighed even the momentum of nationwide police protests in the wake of Floyd’s killing in May. The highest-profile disappointment is the failure of SB 731, which would have limited the ability of bad cops to jump from one department to another by allowing the state to revoke their law enforcement certification. Police said the bill was too rushed.
But lawmakers did pass AB 1506 to ensure that the attorney general or other state agency investigates police shootings that result in the death of unarmed civilians. That could address concerns that district attorneys are too close to police to perform independent investigations. And they passed the very worthy AB 1185, which will rein in sheriffs by explicitly permitting in all counties the kind of civilian oversight commission Los Angeles County created in 2016.
A stumble on housing
When it came to solving the state’s housing crisis and protecting the most vulnerable residents from losing their homes, there was even less to celebrate.
After legislators in January killed SB 50, which would have allowed more apartment construction throughout the state, Newsom and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) vowed to pass another housing production bill. Though the Senate and Assembly came up with a dozen bills to make it easier to build more housing, including subsidized units for low-income Californians, only four mostly procedural housing production bills passed this year. Meh, indeed.
And lawmakers weren’t much more helpful to renters in financial straits because of the pandemic. With a state eviction moratorium set to expire this month, Newsom and lawmakers had plenty of time to develop bold, comprehensive programs to help keep tenants housed and landlords in business through the pandemic. Instead, the governor and Legislature waited until the very last minute to pass an eviction relief plan. Their compromise, AB 3088, falls short of what’s needed to ensure unemployed and struggling tenants don’t eventually get evicted or drowned by debt.
The new law ensures tenants can’t be evicted for missed rent through January. Starting this month, tenants who pay 25% of their rent by Jan. 31 can also avoid eviction come Feb. 1; instead, the remaining amount of rent they owe will become consumer debt. But how many tenants who’ve gone months without jobs or with reduced income will be able to pay that 25%?
A lack of will on plastic
Plastic pollution was a concern long before the pandemic began. But the reliance on singe-use plastic — face masks, gloves, takeout containers, etc. — to limit contagion only compounded the problem. California lawmakers had the perfect solution before them, but ultimately lacked the courage to embrace it. The groundbreaking California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, proposed in SB 54 by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and AB 1080 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), would have put the responsibility for reducing discarded plastic on plastic manufacturers and product distributors by mandating that products sold in plastic packaging in the state have a proven recycling or composting rate of 75% by 2032. The bills passed the Senate but failed late Monday in the Assembly. That’s a shame because the stream of plastic trash isn’t going to turn off without serious intervention of the type this bill proposed.
Of course, there were accomplishments this year for which the Legislature deserves credit, such as the bans on flavored tobacco products and second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides that will save human lives and wildlife, respectively. The Legislature wisely sent a measure to the ballot to ask voters to repeal Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action efforts by the state, and approved a proposal to give the state Department of Business Oversight broader powers to enforce existing consumer protections against fraudulent and deceptive financial services.
But it could have been better. There’s always next year.
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