Newsletter: What we’re watching as lawmakers return to Sacramento

Essential Politics

Sacramento long ago shed its reputation as a quiet place where politics was the only game in town. Yet there’s still something that changes in the capital city when lawmakers reconvene for another year of tackling the problems large and small that face California.

This new year of work for the California Legislature promises to be notable for two things in particular: a large number of topics left over from 2019 and a lack of any real window of opportunity to avoid electoral politics.


When the state Senate and Assembly convene on Monday, legislators will face a large stack of work left from the first half of the two-year session. More than 1,100 proposals introduced in 2019 were designated “two-year” bills and still have a narrow window to be acted upon. But those bills die if they aren’t approved in their house of origin by the end of the month.


None are likely to generate more interest or debate than Senate Bill 50, the effort to require more high-density housing near mass transit and in some communities now dominated by single-family housing. SB 50 was sidelined last May by lawmakers representing suburban neighborhoods, handing a significant setback to pro-housing groups and the bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). So what can Wiener do to mollify critics of his bill? He’s expected to unveil amendments to the bill on Tuesday.

While not a two-year bill, look for substantial discussion about the effects of Assembly Bill 5, the state’s blockbuster new law limiting the use of independent contractors in the workplace. The author of AB 5, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), says she’s ready to look at ways to improve the bill — which to critics means excluding more professions from the strict rules regarding worker classification — and that she always thought the law was just the first step. But she insists there are limits.

“I’ll continue to do that, to try to get it right and to make sure that this big, transformative change isn’t just gutted,” Gonzalez said in a recent interview.

By week’s end, lawmakers will turn their eyes toward a new state budget proposal from Gov. Gavin Newsom. The key question seems to be whether Newsom can continue to rally his fellow Democrats toward short-term uses of money that could disappear in the next recession. Expect, too, a lot of attention to be paid to the governor’s latest ideas on the growing homelessness crisis (and whether he will embrace some requests from local officials for more help) and on any budget-related proposals inspired by the looming threat of wildfires and calls for a more comprehensive approach to power shutoffs when required by dangerous fire conditions.

Then there’s the calendar. Fifty-seven days span the time between the convening of the Legislature and California’s statewide primary election. While the primary was moved from June to March to boost the state’s relevance in choosing the next president, the legislative election calendar was also shifted. It’s hard to put a fine point on just how much impact that will have on public policy conversations at the state Capitol, but an early primary leaves a lot less time for governing for almost everyone. Some lawmakers hail from swing districts across the state, others are seeking posts in the state Senate, Congress or local government.


The work of legislators in 2019 and years past is now making its way to the lives of millions of Californians. We’ve put together a brief look at some of the most consequential, from expanded rights to seek gun violence restraining orders to an effort to end the practice of “lunch shaming” schoolchildren from low-income families.

A few readers have asked how we put together the annual list of new laws. To be honest, there’s no recipe other than seeking to highlight both laws that have a sweeping effect and those that are targeted to address noteworthy issues. One of the most interesting developments in recent years is that a number of laws are now written to fully take effect a year or more into the future — often to allow for additional time for affected residents or industries to prepare.


This week marks the end of Newsom’s first year in office and a chance to take stock of his policy achievements and style of governing. Interviews of more than two dozen people deeply involved in Sacramento debates this year revealed a more complicated picture than the one that might be viewed just by news headlines.

While Newsom undoubtedly had a number of victories on policy efforts and took decisive executive action on the death penalty in California, Capitol watchers interviewed by The Times found the behind-the-scenes process to be uneven and often chaotic.


-- Hundreds of U.S. soldiers deployed over the weekend to Kuwait to serve as reinforcements in the Middle East amid rising tensions following the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

-- Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Sunday defended last week’s killing of Suleimani and pushed back against reports that some senior Trump administration officials had privately voiced concerns before the strike that it could have deadly repercussions across the already volatile Middle East.

-- Iran’s announcement Sunday that it will no longer abide by the most important limits in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal could place Tehran back on the headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons.


-- A California public agency that offers workers’ compensation insurance coverage to employers has recruited a high-priced team of former executives from the private sector to turn it around after years of scandal and financial problems.

-- The California Democratic Party has reached settlements in three lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and workplace retaliation involving its former leader, Eric Bauman.

-- Black drivers in some of California’s largest cities are stopped and searched by police at higher rates than white and Latino motorists, according to a new state analysis.

-- Real estate developers pushing to get new projects approved at Los Angeles City Hall will be banned, under a new law, from giving campaign contributions to the council members vetting their projects. But L.A. leaders have held off on another change that critics say is needed.

-- California is poised to lose a congressional seat for the first time in its history as a state, based on new U.S. Census Bureau population estimates released that showed the nation’s growth continued to slow in 2019.


Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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