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California's next governor and lawmakers enter a new power dynamic in Sacramento

California's next governor and lawmakers enter a new power dynamic in Sacramento
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom at the state Capitol earlier this month. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Single-payer healthcare. Universal preschool. Tuition-free community college.

The California Legislature and the state's next governor share a wish list of progressive policies. The big question is: Who takes the lead?

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After eight years under the fiscal restraint of Gov. Jerry Brown, legislators are ready for a new relationship with the governor’s office and a more balanced power dynamic in Sacramento. But as eager lawmakers introduce major policies with big price tags, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom has said he’s prepared to say “no.”

“That’s how I govern,” Newsom said days before the election. “Once you’re the chief executive officer, you have to be the adult in the room. That’s your job description. You have to be able to say ‘no.’ ”

Legislators introduce bills, and the governor’s veto pen almost always gives him the final say on whether their proposals become law. All the details in between, including Newsom’s involvement in policymaking and the ability of the Democrats in the legislative and executive branches to work together, are the subject of speculation as the governor’s office changes hands for the first time in eight years.

Several lawmakers point to Newsom’s sit-downs with leaders of the Senate and Assembly and text-message exchanges with rank-and-file members since election day as signs that suggest the incoming governor will get more involved in the legislative process from the early stages than did Brown.

Newsom has publicly said he intends to collaborate with lawmakers on major policy, including healthcare, while underscoring a need for financial prudence.

“I think he’s going to approach us as working partners, not sparring partners,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said. “Plus, he really loves policy, and I think he’s going to engage more than Jerry did.”

Few can deny Brown’s outsized influence over lawmakers. Atkins and other legislators often preface their comments about Newsom by expressing fondness and respect for his predecessor, even if they still harbor bitter feelings about some of his vetoes.

When Brown began his second act in Sacramento in 2011, he had been governor, attorney general, secretary of state and mayor of Oakland in a political career spanning more than four decades. Democratic legislators often fawned over the seasoned political veteran during his rare appearances in the chambers and cherished their annual invitations to the Governor’s Mansion for dinner. Some had watched Brown’s political rise, while others weren’t alive during his first stint in the governor’s office. Given the generational divide and experience gap, Brown often seemed to lawmakers more elder statesman than equal.

Brown's departure, some have suggested, marks a new era of legislative dominance at the state Capitol.

“You’re going to see a shift in power now,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) told Los Angeles business leaders prior to the election, according to the New York Times. “The Legislature is going to have more power than ever before.”

The remarks raised eyebrows in Newsom’s inner circle. In a recent interview, Rendon said his comments were more about his fellow lawmakers, who have been empowered by longer term limits to take on more complicated issues, than it was about the incoming governor.

Rendon, who endorsed his friend state Treasurer John Chiang in the governor’s race, said Newsom had made overtures toward partnership.

“The conversations that he and I have had have been very collaborative,” Rendon said, describing more frequent interaction with Newsom so far than with Brown. “He listens as much as he talks.”

In his first executive stint as mayor of San Francisco from 2004 until early 2011, Newsom at times bristled at the decisions of the 11-member Board of Supervisors. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board, in a largely positive reflection at the end of his mayoral tenure, described his relationship with the board as having “gone through extended periods of pique.” Sparring mostly with supervisors to his political left, Newsom did not shy away from vetoing proposals on taxes, regulating landlords and expanding the city’s sanctuary policy to protect juveniles charged with felonies from immigration enforcement.

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Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who joined the board as Newsom moved on to the lieutenant governor’s office, said the state’s soon-to-be chief executive wasn’t afraid to disagree with Democratic supervisors as mayor. Now, Wiener has been talking with legislative colleagues about what to expect from the San Franciscan soon to occupy the governor’s office.

“People haven’t had the sense of how he manages and operates,” Wiener said. “I explained to them that, yes, he was going to be less tight with the budget than Gov. Brown, but do not expect him to be profligate.”

Many view Newsom as an approachable peer whose policy priorities are more closely aligned with theirs, compared with Brown. Atkins helped shepherd the failed proposal to enact single-payer healthcare in California last year; Newsom campaigned on a promise of a similar plan.

“I think the governor understood that he was going to have to work with the Legislature on some things,” Atkins said, “but he was pretty good at deciding what he would give and not give on.”

Newsom also campaigned on expanding preschool to all eligible 4-year-olds in the state and hired an early childhood education expert as his chief of staff. As a former leader of a nonprofit child-services organization, early childhood education is Rendon’s top priority. Although recent budgets have increased state-subsidized child care for low-income families, more sweeping and costly efforts for universal preschool have fallen short under Brown.

And both Newsom and Democrats in the Legislature have pledged to do more on the state’s affordable housing crisis.

“Gavin has been very clear that he wants to build 3.5 million homes,” said Wiener, who introduced legislation to increase apartment construction near transit. “Unless you start loading up wildfire zones with enormous amounts of homes, there’s no way to add that amount of housing without zoning reform.”

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On the campaign trail, Newsom said he would increase the state’s budget reserves and focus on the rainy day fund in anticipation of an economic downturn. When asked how he would resist the pull from legislators to enact shared — but expensive — policy goals, Newsom said his first budget would reflect issues he wanted to tackle first. By law, he must propose a spending plan no later than Jan. 10.

“We’re going to get ahead of it,” Newsom said of lawmakers’ spending demands. “I don’t think I need to wait to react to them.”

But as soon as the Legislature returned earlier this month, a rush of new bills were introduced from lawmakers seeking to put their own stamp on policymaking — starting with healthcare.

Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) said he didn’t anticipate legislators would wait for cues from Newsom before proposing legislation this year.

“I think members have an idea of what they want to do, and you’ll see bills introduced accordingly,” said Wood, who leads the Assembly Health Committee.

Wood said he hoped to revive some healthcare measures that sputtered in years past. Others have also reintroduced once-failed bills: Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) and state Sens. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) each proposed bills to expand Medi-Cal coverage to immigrants without legal status. Only children who are in the country illegally are currently eligible for Medi-Cal.

The proposal, which carries an estimated annual $3-billion price tag, could force Newsom to provide more details about his own universal healthcare plan.

Many legislators, such as Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who introduced legislation to expand preschool to more 4-year olds and 3-year olds from low-income families, said they gave Newsom’s team a preview of their plans.

“It’s a partnership,” McCarty said. “The governor at the end of the day has to sign or veto bills. Having his leadership and desire to work in this space, I think, can’t be understated. That’s going to make this a difference-maker of a year.”

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