The biennial legislative session that ended very early Thursday morning amassed a very substantial record of action – some positive, some negative and much whose real effects won’t be known for years.
The latter category includes extending the state’s war on carbon dioxide emissions for another decade, gradually increasing the state’s minimum wage by 50 percent to $15 per hour, creating a new retirement program for private-sector workers, and giving farmworkers overtime pay after eight hours.
The Democratic legislators who passed those and other “progressive” measures say they make California a more humane, inclusive and healthier society, but critics say they could undermine California’s competitiveness in a global economy to the detriment of all. We won’t know which side is more accurate until sometime in the next decade.
Meanwhile, the session revealed new cultural trends.
With flowery speeches, the Assembly bade farewell to 16 of its 80 members, all but two departing because of the state’s old term-limits law. The law now allows legislators to remain in their seats for up to 12 years, and none will be forced out until 2024.
That longevity is being felt.
For one thing, the Assembly is reasserting itself vis-à-vis the Senate, which has dominated legislative policy for the past two decades, and that led to some sharp clashes between the houses this year.
A very obvious late session example was a stalemate over reforming the dysfunctional State Bar, which is supposed to regulate the legal profession but has been wracked by scandal and mismanagement.
Cross-Capitol sniping over the future of the agency, which also involved Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, resulted in failure of competing reform measures that would allow it to continue collecting annual dues from lawyers. Just before midnight, the Senate passed a bill that the Assembly had already declared dead-on-arrival and the conflict will resume in the next legislative session.
The failed State Bar dues bill also exemplified two other trends – a new willingness to challenge the status quo in powerful state agencies, and the difficulty in reforming them.
Not only did State Bar reforms stall out, but efforts to bar or at least limit private “ex parte” communications by interest groups with members of the Coastal Commission and Public Utilities Commission also crashed on the final day.
The main PUC reform bill, which also would massively change its powers and organization, died even though Gov. Jerry Brown had blessed its provisions.
Democrats blamed Republicans for blocking an eleventh-hour rule waiver, but clearly the influential interests involved in the PUC’s utility rate-setting were resisting changes in the status quo and Democrats didn’t act when they could without a waiver.
Another casualty was an effort to change the makeup of the South Coast Air Quality Management Board, which has a Republican majority that Democratic leaders wanted to change by adding new members.
The failures mean that battles over who regulates what and how will roll over into 2017.