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Politics

Capitol Journal: The Legislature helped poor people and farmworkers but skipped the middle class

Sacramento
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) and Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, at the Capitol in Sacramento after lawmakers passed legislation that would expand overtime pay for more than 825,000 laborers.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The California Legislature capped its two-year session by passing a load of liberal bills to help poor people, including farmworkers. That’s good, but what about middle-class folks?

They were snubbed again. Ignoring the declining middle class has become the norm, both in Sacramento and Washington.

It’s why Donald Trump, despite being a rude, demagogic dunce, has attracted enough alienated voters to challenge the Democratic establishment’s presidential offering, Hillary Clinton.

It’s about more than these rebellious voters’ distrust and dislike of Clinton. It’s also about feeling left out — especially for non-college educated white males — while the Democratic Party, in their view, panders to poor immigrants and wealthy environmentalists.

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Trump can’t carry California in November. It’s doubtful any Republican could. But what’s uncertain is whether Democratic dominance of this state has become permanent or is just cyclical.

It turned deep blue because of fast-changing demographics. Latinos and, to a lesser degree, Asians, migrated here and competed with whites for political power. Democrats welcomed the minorities while Republicans, for too long, harangued them about illegal immigration. Meanwhile, Washington stirred the toxic brew with its inability to enact immigration reform.

There now are slightly more Latinos than whites living in the state; 39% of the population compared to 38%, according to a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California. But among people most likely to vote, whites outnumber Latinos by more than 3 to 1, 60% to 18%.

Also, although California has arguably the highest poverty rate in the nation because of living costs, 71% of likely voters make more than $40,000 a year; 44% earn in excess of $80,000, according to the report.

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So it’s primarily a middle-class electorate, something that seems to escape ruling Democrats in the Legislature as they push through bills lobbied by labor unions representing the poor.

The best example of that as the Legislature adjourned last week was passage of a bill greatly expanding overtime pay for California’s 825,000 farmworkers. Their median income is just $14,000 a year. More than 90% are Latino, and more than 80% are immigrants.

Another highlight of the session was the enactment of legislation gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Workers also were guaranteed unpaid maternity leave. Welfare money was added for diapers. Immigrants here illegally were allowed to buy health insurance through the state exchange. A compromise bill to spend $900 million in cap-and-trade profits from the sale of greenhouse pollution permits was tilted toward low-income communities.

Much of that may be wonderful. And undoubtedly there were goodies handed out to the middle class. But that’s not where the emphasis was.

Where was K-12 school reform, any serious effort to buck the unions and make it easier for principals to fire bad teachers? Gov. Jerry Brown’s only nod toward improving schools has been to spend more on low-income students and English learners, neglecting middle-class kids.

There was no attempt, again, to streamline regulations under the much-abused California Environmental Quality Act. No one argues against the environmental goals. It’s just that environmental lawsuits — or threats of them — can stymie projects for years and render them financially infeasible, discouraging job creation and economic growth.

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The Legislature did pass a bill to expedite large projects that pay high construction wages and meet clean energy standards. But there should be comprehensive reform for all projects.

Lawmakers are still idling on road repairs, unable to agree on how to pump more desperately needed money into fixing California’s highways. Meanwhile, it keeps funneling cap-and-trade funds into Brown’s pokey bullet train project.

There was no effort to substantially reduce college tuitions that have left middle-class families in hock for decades after graduation. There was, however, a bill to help students graduate in four years.

If there was any gesture toward small business, we didn’t hear much about it.

Passage of the landmark farmworkers’ overtime bill was the inevitable result of rapidly growing Latino power in the Legislature. Both the Senate leader and Assembly speaker are Latinos. Eleven policy committees are led by Latinos. Nearly one in five legislators is a Latino.

During the emotional Assembly farmworker debate, Latino after Latino stood and talked about their parents and grandparents toiling in the fields.

Republicans argued that crop pickers actually would lose money because their hours would be reduced to avoid overtime. Harvesting would be done in crew shifts, they contended.

Maybe. But it’s an old argument, dusted off whenever there’s a proposal to boost any worker’s pay. Check back in another decade.

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The bill, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), passed 44 to 32. Following a four-year phase-in, farmworkers would be paid overtime after an eight-hour day. Now it’s 10 hours. There’d also be a 40-hour standard workweek, then overtime.

Brown hasn’t committed to signing the measure. But how could he not? During his first gubernatorial tour, the young governor championed the farmworkers union. Its iconic leader, Cesar Chavez, was a political ally.  And there’s Brown’s background as a Jesuit seminarian. The union and church have always been tight.

But paying overtime certainly will hurt family farmers.

“This is only going to help California agriculture workers if California agriculture stays in business,” warned a supporter, Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara).

It’s great to help the poor. But too often the Legislature overlooks everyone else — everyone, that is, who doesn’t contribute to a reelection kitty.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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