Analysis: California’s Legislature weighed the momentous and minuscule as it wrapped up work for 2018
As California’s Legislature worked toward its deadline to adjourn just after midnight Saturday, two years of governing — and decades of political leadership — slowly gave way to the clock.
More than 200 bills were on the last day’s agenda, and hundreds more were considered over the course of the final week. Most were written by Democrats, who dominate the membership of both houses. Republicans could do little more than play the role of antagonist, warning in their floor speeches of overreach by the majority party.
Proposals passed in the final days promised changes both momentous and minor in the lives of Californians. Lawmakers voted to end the state’s “felony murder” law so that a killer’s accomplice would not be sentenced to life in prison. They said yes to a limited number of cities keeping bars open until 4 a.m., and to a nationally noticed mandate for women to hold at least one seat on the board of any corporation headquartered in California.
National attention was also showered on a bill to make plastic straws available only by request in sit-down restaurants, and another to make water or milk the default beverage for kids’ meals sold in restaurants.
And yes, lawmakers also declared surfing to be California’s official state sport. It followed a decree in 2017 that Augustynolophus morrisi is the official state dinosaur.
Time and again, though, the 92nd session of the California Legislature was driven by events barely on the radar when members of the Senate and Assembly decided to run for office in 2016. In each instance, national conversations sparked fierce internal debates about how best to respond.
The session began with the election of President Trump and ended with a historic reckoning about allegations of sexual misconduct within the Legislature’s ranks.
Trump’s effort to change the national narrative on illegal immigration drew an unprecedented challenge by legislative Democrats, highlighted by a sweeping sanctuary policy that has limited local law enforcement cooperation with federal agents.
“If you want to get to them, you have to go through us,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) warned in his welcoming speech on the first day of session in December 2016.
Rendon and Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) pushed through a package of immigration laws that helped shape the narrative of a resistance against the Republican president rooted in California. Partisanship during some periods of the two-year legislative session seemed at an all-time high.
Tempers cooled, it seemed, when talk turned to California’s leadership on climate change. In the summer of 2017, eight Republicans in the Legislature broke ranks to ratify an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade climate program. The Assembly’s Republican leader was subsequently demoted. Another Republican who broke ranks, Oceanside Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, found himself pilloried for the vote by Democrats in his bid for a Southern California congressional seat. It was a reminder that bipartisanship in the modern era comes with risk.
“When we do things here, have a longer view,” Chávez told his colleagues in a farewell speech on the Assembly floor Friday. “It’s really not about us.”
But it was about them — and their staff members and the political industry that helps win elections — when more than 140 women penned a scathing letter last October about a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment. Three Democrats were accused of improper behavior and resigned as a result; others were investigated and admonished, the latest being an Orange County Republican about whom allegations were revealed just hours before the final gavel fell after midnight Saturday.
Lawmakers also agreed to offer a glimpse into the way sexual harassment is investigated under the Capitol dome. Protected by a 43-year-old law limiting public access to misconduct records, but facing legal action over the law’s opaque nature, legislative leaders agreed to the voluntary disclosure of some — but not all — of the documents.
When Senate Democrats picked a new leader, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), she acknowledged that the public should see role models and not reprimands when it looks to the Legislature.
“True culture change — holding ourselves to a higher standard — requires the active, everyday enlightened participation of every person who works in and around this Capitol,” Atkins said in March.
Atkins made history in her ascension last spring to the powerful post: She is the first woman to lead the Senate and only the third person to ever have led both houses of the Legislature.
Her predecessor, De León, will face fellow Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein in November. The author of a wide array of high-profile laws, including the so-called sanctuary state policy and efforts on climate change and gun control, De León was ineligible to remain in the Legislature under California’s original term limits law. Five other state senators will follow him out the door.
So, too, will the man whose presence loomed large over the legislative session that ended on Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown. Since his return to the governor’s office in 2011, the iconic Democrat has wielded considerable influence over the legislative process. Knowing that legislators haven’t overturned the veto of a governor since 1979 — Brown’s second term in office — he has courted and cajoled Democrats to send him bills that he could sign. Lawmakers freely admitted that some of the last bills of 2018 depended on the man whose office is on the Capitol’s first floor.
“All roads lead through the governor’s office,” Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), the author of the regional power grid bill, said on Thursday.
Even so, Brown did not always get what he wanted. On Friday night, Atkins announced she would hold the proposal for California to join other Western states in a regional electric grid — something that’s been on the governor’s wish list for a long time.
The announcement to reject the regional grid plan might have served as a symbolic end to an era of legislative acquiescence to the state’s chief executive. The Legislature is now dominated by Democrats and Republicans elected under a term-limits law that allows them up to 12 years in their current posts. By the time the next governor takes the oath of office in January, they will be the ones who are seasoned experts in the capital city.
“I think that definitely changes the balance of power,” Rendon said last month at an appearance before the Sacramento Press Club. “It’s a good thing for the Legislature to be empowered.”
Not that lawmakers have struggled for relevance over the last two years. Eighty-eight percent of the bills sent to Brown in 2017 were signed into law, and there’s no indication he will be noticeably stingier when reviewing this year’s bills by the Sept. 30 deadline.
For now, the verdict on the Legislature’s year rests with voters. Democrats will aim to restore their supermajority status in the Senate and expand their dominance in the Assembly. Republicans, running in the shadow of a fiercely partisan national midterm election, will attempt to hunker down and warn their constituents that GOP legislators are a valuable check on Democratic power in Sacramento.
Travis Allen, the Republican firebrand assemblyman from Orange County who lost the June primary for governor, wore his rejection of Democratic bills as a badge of honor in bidding the Assembly farewell on Friday.
“I’ve voted no so many times I’ve broken the button on my desk,” Allen said with a smile.
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