Analysis: California lawmakers wrote 1,016 new laws this year. Here’s some of what did and didn’t make it
California’s Legislature revved into high gear when it came to writing laws in 2018, sending the most bills to the governor’s desk in more than a decade.
In all, Gov. Jerry Brown weighed in on 1,217 pieces of legislation passed by the state Senate and Assembly. He signed 1,016 into law, and most will take effect on Jan. 1.
Some of the new laws are momentous, others minuscule. Taken together, they are a grab bag of limitations and expectations on the personal and professional lives of Californians. Few residents will agree with all of them; some might not pass legal muster. And of those Brown vetoed, some are expected to be reintroduced when a new governor takes office in January.
Here are a few key themes from the work of state lawmakers in 2018.
California will keep jabbing Trump, Republicans
The ink from Brown’s signature was barely dry on Sunday when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block a state law that regulates internet access provided by national companies. California’s effort to establish its own net neutrality rules generated controversy all year in Sacramento and was the focus of intense lobbying by the telecommunications industry.
The governor issued no statement explaining why he signed Senate Bill 822. But his decision seemed to mirror last year’s pushback to President Trump over law enforcement cooperation with immigration agents — culminating in a “sanctuary” law that was challenged in federal court.
Legal challenges are also expected over a decision focused on the national conversation about gender equity: a law requiring publicly held corporations based in the state to include women on their boards of directors. Brown made it clear in a brief signing message that he wasn’t sure the law would survive in the courts.
But he embraced its message, sending a copy of his signing statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that last week recommended Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court. It was “recent events,” he wrote, that convinced him “many are not getting the message” about giving women the chance to be heard.
Gun control advocates scored major wins — again
Few topics seem to divide California lawmakers more than whether the state should impose additional gun control laws. But because Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Legislature, the real question for almost any bill in recent years on the topic has been will the governor support it?
Perhaps most striking from 2018 will be Brown’s decision to sign a bill requiring rifle and shotgun owners to be at least 21 years old; state law already sets the same age restriction for handgun possession. Also notable is a new law that imposes a lifetime weapons ban on most who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and new restrictions on those treated for mental health problems.
But Brown vetoed an effort to make it easier for employers and workers to obtain gun restraining orders, saying it was best to ask law enforcement for help in those situations.
Polling has consistently shown strong support among Californians for gun control, and voters enacted sweeping ammunition rules in 2016. Brown has frequently split the difference between signing and vetoing gun-related bills in years past; the candidates vying to succeed him, Democrat Gavin Newsom and Republican John Cox, are likely to be far more rigid in their views.
#MeToo sparked new laws on workplace conduct
One closely watched bill on the topic of workplace sexual harassment was vetoed by the governor on Sunday, a proposal strongly opposed by business groups. But several other major bills that sprang from the #MeToo movement became law.
The rejected proposal would have banned employment agreements with mandatory arbitration in the event of complaints like workplace harassment. Brown, apparently willing to gamble on the legality of other bills, said this one would not stand up to a recent federal court ruling.
On the other side were bills signed into law banning secret settlements of harassment allegations and placing new limits on nondisparagement agreements, which limit a person from speaking out about workplace misconduct.
And with so many complaints lodged about the workplace culture inside the state Capitol itself, there was also a focus on the rights of legislative employees. A new law in 2019 will prohibit retaliation or discrimination against any Capitol worker or lobbyist who reports sexual misconduct. But legislators declined to ensure public access to sexual harassment records from the Legislature, refusing to pass a bill to mandate such disclosure.
Business groups and organized labor both notched victories
The conventional wisdom in California political circles is that labor unions win more often than business groups at the state Capitol. But that scorecard misses a key fact: While labor seeks to create laws, business usually declares victory by killing bills.
Organized labor had its victories this year. The governor signed a bill that will make some retailers liable when a for-hire trucking company violates labor law, such as failing to pay wages to drivers or to pay workers’ compensation. And he signed a bill that could help public employee unions enlist new members by providing contact information for government-paid home care aides — a potential boost in the wake of June’s Supreme Court ruling that outlawed charging fees to nonmember government workers.
But the state’s most powerful alliance of employers fared pretty well in 2018, too. The California Chamber of Commerce compiles a list of bills each year that it calls “job killers.” On Sunday, the group boasted that all 29 bills that received its economic scarlet letter in 2018 had fizzled, with most failing in the Legislature and the rest vetoed by Brown, as has been his tendency regarding chamber-opposed bills over the years.
The alliance between the iconic Democratic governor and big business comes with a dose of irony: The state Chamber of Commerce endorsed and spent money for Brown’s opponent in 2010.
On energy and wildfire, the path forward is daunting
While creating political consensus in Sacramento on bills may seem like the hardest part of the process, implementation will be the major hurdle facing two measures signed into law.
Democrats hailed the new mandate for California to move to 100% clean energy by 2045, boasting that it’s another example of the state’s environmental leadership in the face of climate inaction by the Trump administration. But the new law only sets a goal and doesn’t specify how state regulators will accomplish it.
Many more details were included in the summer’s landmark law to combat and prevent deadly wildfires — a $1-billion proposal that also shifts some future fire costs away from utility companies and onto consumers. But the hard work lies ahead, as the state will have to determine which tree and brush removal programs are most effective, whether wood-burning biomass plants are clean enough to rely on for part of the solution and whether utilities are doing their part to keep power lines from toppling and sparking blazes.
Brown sticks to his ‘locals know best’ philosophy
Throughout his second tenure as governor, Brown has frequently extolled the virtues of a Catholic teaching known as “the principle of subsidiarity.” Simply put, it’s the idea that the level of government closest to the people usually governs best.
While the governor’s Jesuit seminary education may play some role in that default deference to local governments, it’s important to note that Brown’s political career was revived by serving two terms as mayor of Oakland from 1998 to 2006. And he’s wont to only go so far in exerting state control in some key areas.
One of those is public schools. He pushed for more local control over school dollars through a far-reaching law in 2014. This year, Brown vetoed a bill to mandate later start times for teenagers in public school. Even in the face of scientific data showing students need more sleep, the governor refused to make the decision from Sacramento.
“These are the types of decisions best handled in the local community,” the governor wrote in his veto message.
Brown also refused to sign a bill banning suspension or possible expulsion of students as young as third grade for behavior deemed to be “willful defiance.” Critics said children at that age needed more help, not more punishment. The governor was not persuaded.
“Teachers and principals are on the front lines educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classroom,” he wrote in a veto message on Sunday.
Less mandatory criminal punishment, more law enforcement transparency
For a state with a reputation in the ’80s and ’90s for being “tough on crime,” California’s rethinking of criminal justice policy is a major change. Two key drivers of that change have been its chief executive and well-publicized incidents involving law enforcement and unarmed African Americans.
Brown, who championed a major move toward additional parole for adult prisoners with Proposition 57 two years ago, joined Democrats in signing several significant new laws affecting both those with existing convictions and those charged with serious crimes in the future.
That included a nationally watched new law signed in August to eliminate cash bail for criminal defendants. And last week, the governor signed off on the end of felony murder charges for those who are accomplices to crimes that end in a death. Another new law will give judges discretion to strike prior serious felony convictions that would add an additional five-year sentence for some crimes. A third new law will offer additional services for those who were wrongly convicted and are transitioning back into society.
For juveniles, two new major laws are now on the books: a measure prohibiting courts from trying 14- and 15-year olds as adults and, except for the most serious crimes, a ban on prosecuting most minors younger than 12 in juvenile court.
On the policing side, there will be significant discussion of new laws designed to increase accountability — one allows greater access to body camera footage, and a second opens up records on police shootings and officer misconduct investigations. A third closely watched proposal, to change the legal standard for police use of force, failed to clear the Legislature in August.
Fewer plastic straws and kids’ meal sodas. Same bar-closing times
California draws national attention almost every year for a few laws that, rightly or wrongly, reinforce the state’s reputation for trailblazing — or wrongheaded, depending on your politics — public policy.
Tops on the list for 2019 will be the nation’s first ban on unrequested plastic straws in dine-in restaurants. In other words: You only get one if you ask for it.
Agreeing with supporters of the law who pointed out the abundance of plastic straws floating in the ocean, Brown said the new law won’t be that big of a deal. “It’s a very small step to make a customer who wants a plastic straw ask for it,” he wrote in a signing message.
California will also require that kids’ meals come with a water or milk-based drink as the standard option. Like with straws, a soda would have to be requested.
But the governor, who vetoes relatively few bills and hasn’t been challenged by a veto override in decades, decided that a pilot program to allow some cities to keep bars open for an extra two hours into the early morning was a bridge too far.
“California laws regulating late night drinking have been on the books since 1913,” wrote the governor in his veto message. “I believe we have enough mischief from midnight to 2 without adding two more hours of mayhem.”
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