Editorial: Hey, California lawmakers. Less is more
California lawmakers kick off a new legislative year in Sacramento today, and with it will come a mountain of new bills. If this year turns out like most, they’ll wind up introducing roughly 2,500 pieces of legislation. About half will get sent to the governor, and he’ll sign 80% to 90% into law. By this time next year, California could easily have 1,000 new laws on the books.
The Legislature deserves credit for enacting many nation-leading policies over the years that make life better for Californians. Among them: A $15 minimum wage that kicks in this week for workers at large companies. A paid family leave system that allows people eight weeks to bond with a baby or care for a sick family member. An ambitious goal to slash greenhouse gas emissions that’s helped spur a wave of innovation in clean technology.
But too often, the legislative sausage-making machine in Sacramento values quantity over quality. Lawmakers and staffers can get bogged down with minutia: Whether bots are grabbing too many online camping reservations in state parks. Whether liquor companies should be allowed to give away promotional patio umbrellas. Whether it should be a crime to post false or misleading ads selling cats and dogs.
Those bills were (mercifully) vetoed, but think about how much work it took lawmakers and their staff to get to that point — meeting with advocates, writing bill analyses, holding committee hearings, drafting amendments, casting floor votes, presenting the ideas to the governor.
Then there are the bills the Legislature passes to fix or undo flawed bills they approved the year before.
After passing a law in 2013 that banned restaurant workers and bartenders from touching food with their bare hands, lawmakers reversed course the next year and repealed it. The same year, they also passed legislation allowing the donation of homemade beer and wine to nonprofits for fundraising events, but apparently excluded the very organizations that promote home brewing and home winemaking. It took another law to allow donations of homemade beer to an event supporting the home brewers’ association.
“Many of the laws are stupid,” former Gov. Jerry Brown said in an interview days before leaving office in early 2019. “But in order to get along with the Legislature, you’ve got to sign bills that aren’t needed. … It’s part of the comity between the executive and legislative branches and being effective.”
Brown, it’s worth noting, signed 17,809 bills into law during his 16 years as governor.
Though Democrats have controlled the Capitol for the last decade, the problem is bipartisan. The governor who signed the most bills in any single year since the Senate Office of Research started tracking them in 1967? Ronald Reagan, who, in 1971 signed 1,821 bills into law.
The legislative deluge is so enormous that even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s own attorney apparently didn’t realize the governor had signed a bill in 2019 that allows the target of a recall election to have their party listed alongside their name on the ballot. When the governor filed his official response to the recall petition, his attorney did not include his party affiliation — a mistake that led to a judge prohibiting Newsom from being listed as a Democrat on the recall ballot.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
The pandemic disrupted the normal pace of activity at the Capitol, with lawmakers passing just 428 bills in 2020. The number nearly doubled last year but didn’t reach the usual huge load because legislative leaders limited how many bills could advance. That forced lawmakers to prioritize, and the result was good.
In 2021, the Legislature passed significant bills meant to spur more housing construction, take badges from bad cops and provide health insurance to undocumented immigrants age 50 and older — all measures that had stalled in the past. As the state grappled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers approved billions of dollars to help schools and small-business owners. They passed a plan for California to phase in preschool to all 4-year-olds — something Democrats in Washington are trying to do with President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, but so far have been unable to pass.
Despite working through a pandemic that forced changes to many routines at the state Capitol, California lawmakers proved they could be productive and efficient in 2021, even finishing the last night of session before 9 p.m. Normally, the chaotic final push stretches past midnight.
Unfortunately, legislative leaders intend to lift the cap they imposed during the pandemic and go back to the bad old days of jockeying thousands of bills. The bill limit was necessary to get through the unanticipated upheaval of the last two years, Senate leader Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in interviews with a Times editorial writer, but lawmakers didn’t like it.
“Bills are — to a large extent — the widget that we produce as a Legislature,” Rendon (D-Lakewood) said. “Members come to Sacramento to work on bills.”
And they should. But we urge lawmakers to prioritize crafting impactful bills that will meaningfully improve our state, and resist the urge to rack up lots of goodies for favored lobbyists or interest groups. California has major problems that should be tackled first.
Let’s start with the rise in homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing. Too many good proposals have been stymied by conflicts between labor unions and developers. Get to work on a compromise and pass legislation to help make it faster, cheaper and easier to build homes in California, particularly affordable ones.
Environmental pollution is another problem legislators can work on. From oil spills to lead contamination, we need better laws to ensure that companies aren’t allowed to pollute communities or abandon their cleanup responsibilities if they do. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of cleaning up the Exide battery plant in Vernon that exposed neighbors to brain-damaging lead and cancer-causing arsenic. But we are, because of flaws in California’s bankruptcy law. Lawmakers can fix that.
Rendon said he’s concerned that California is not on track to meet its 2030 emissions reduction goal and that he wants to prioritize climate action. Good.
Atkins said she wants the Senate to focus on overseeing money the state’s already spending. “There’s nothing worse than coming home to your community and saying, ‘We contributed $12 billion for housing and homelessness,’ and yet, the problem is persistent,” Atkins (D-San Diego) said. Also good. That’s an important way for the Legislature to exercise its power.
Voters want a government that works well and solves problems. We don’t need a thousand new laws every year — just a relatively few good ones.
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