Capitol Alert

Democrats dominating California Legislature advanced a broad liberal agenda

Pausing from the end-of-session melee after an arduous vote to expand overtime pay for farmworkers, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon took a moment this week to consider the returns from his first year as leader.

As the Paramount Democrat ticked off the victories, each cherished liberal goal tumbling off his tongue seemed to remind him of another one – more gun control, landmark tobacco restrictions, a historic minimum wage increase, repealing a hated “welfare queen” law.

“This has really been a spectacular year,” Rendon said.

Spectacular, of course, depends on your vantage point. Compared to the Democrats who wield ample majorities in both houses of the Legislature, Republicans were less thrilled.

“In past years, there’s always been one or two major (liberal) bills,” said Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine. “This year was death by 1,000 cuts.”

“It’s been a tough year,” said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee.

Not everything passed. Efforts to curb soaring housing costs shriveled. The pharmaceutical industry defeated a bill mandating more disclosure about drug pricing. Bills to illuminate or restrict lobbying of a California Coastal Commission perceived as too developer-friendly died.

But Democrats’ list of this year’s accomplishments encompasses an array of policy areas with a sweep that should warm the hearts of most liberal constituencies. Courage Campaign, an organization that reflects the party’s left flank, said 2016 capped the most progressive legislative session in California’s history.

“What we’ve accomplished collectively will go up there with any other legislative period in the history of California,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said in session-closing remarks.

Harnessing the national focus on income inequality, legislators passed measures boosting California’s minimum wage to a nation-leading $15-an-hour and augmenting overtime pay for farmworkers. Both handed historic victories to organized labor, as did a measure guaranteeing millions more Californians unpaid leave to care for new infants.

“We’re lucky in California for the most part to have elected officials who espouse the values of the labor movement,” said California Labor Federation chief of staff Angie Wei.

For fiscal conservatives and many California business groups, those votes highlighted a liberal Legislature’s disconnect from economic realities.

On the fiercely contested issue of climate change, Democrats passed a bill extending clean air mandates. While it concluded just one phase of a protracted battle, it tested the oil industry’s ability to beat back Sacramento’s climate agenda one year after business-aligned Democrats and Republicans defeated a similar bill and joined with the oil industry to derail a mandate to slash petroleum use.

Climate bills that would block coal shipments to California ports and compel the state to limit methane from landfills and dairies also won approval.

More generous public services also got the Legislature’s nod, with votes for policies offering welfare money for diapers and eliminating a long-detested law denying more money to women who get pregnant while drawing state assistance. Early childhood education got a $145 million boost in this year’s budget.

Invigorating public health advocates who believe the government should be an assertive force for healthier living, lawmakers passed measures to raise the tobacco-buying age to 21, regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco and ban smoking on state beaches and parks. Those votes cracked the tobacco industry’s typically ironclad record of blocking major tobacco policy changes.

“We did push back the tobacco industry, which was a big step,” said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley. “That industry worked very hard to defeat us.”

Immigrant rights activists can point to a bill seeking to allow immigrants in the country illegally to purchase health insurance, without government subsidies, on California’s state insurance exchange. Bills also passed to limit how much local authorities can cooperate with federal immigration enforcers.

Lawmakers passed bills fortifying the state’s already-tough gun rules by expanding bans on assault weapons and large-capacity clips and regulating ammunition purchases.

Transgender people have been the fulcrum for heated debates in other states, where voters and lawmakers have moved to restrict them to bathrooms matching their assigned gender at birth. In California, a bill requiring single-stall public restrooms to be all-gender succeeded with little resistance.

“While other states have really moved back toward the 1950s, we continue to move into the 21st century,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco.

Criminal justice reformers celebrated passage of measures to decriminalize prostitution for minors, restore voting rights to some people convicted of felonies and limit California’s database of gang members. They succeeded despite the best efforts of law enforcement groups who warned they would backfire and imperil public safety. Advocates of those laws credited a broad shift in perceptions of how to treat crime.

“Over the years we’ve tried the policy of being hard-nosed, we’ve tried to lock everybody up, we’ve tried three strikes you’re out, and I think at this point we discovered we had too many people in prison,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. “We began to look differently.”

Republicans have joined some of those efforts, notably a bill limiting law enforcement’s ability to seize property in a process called asset forfeiture. But while former Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, agreed on the value of “rethinking how we’ve done criminal justice historically,” she said the majority party has overreached.

“Instead of thoughtful, bipartisan working groups crafting policies that might lead us in a better direction, instead we’re just seeing the pendulum swing and liberals rush to just completely overhaul all the criminal justice policies on the books,” Olsen said.

Some measures enjoyed the backing of Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democratic governor helped negotiate the minimum wage deal, signed off on about half the gun measures, the vaping and tobacco age bills and has championed climate change policies. But Brown tends to be a backstop to some of the Legislature’s more liberal urges, and he has yet to act or take a public stance on most measures passed in the session’s closing days, such as the farmworker overtime changes and the family leave expansion.

Many of the bills cleared the Legislature despite significant opposition from business and corporate interests. Bills raising wages surmounted criticism from business and agricultural industry groups. Oil companies battled climate change measures. Tobacco companies threatened an electoral scorched-earth campaign if lawmakers raised the smoking age.

In 2015, an emboldened bloc of centrist Democrats succeeded in blocking or diluting measures opposed by powerful interests. In 2016, liberal priority bills fared better.

“Over the last few weeks, the notion of a moderate Democrat bloc has disappeared on the floor of the state Assembly,” Olsen said. “I have yet to see them stand together as a bloc in the last two months and either pass legislation or defeat legislation they believe will be harmful on Californians.”

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, who took over this year as co-leader of the informal moderate Democrat caucus, pointed to amendments that limited the reach of liberal bills. The climate bill, for example, did not include a specific cap-and-trade authorization that Brown had sought, and it came welded to a measure to exert more control over the Air Resources Board, a regulator viewed with deep skepticism by Republicans and business-friendly Democrats.

“We avoided a lot of Capitol fights in committees and on the floor because we worked on it early. That doesn’t get the same fanfare,” Salas said.

A couple of underlying trends likely favored “a very progressive agenda” this year, said Public Policy Institute of California President Mark Baldassare. A resurgent economy has allowed legislative leaders to focus less on plugging budget gaps. Opinion polls show the public looking more favorably on the Legislature than in the past. And a favorable electoral landscape, with Democratic voter registration rising, minimizes the risks of pushing the liberal envelope.

“They can really take advantage of public goodwill and the fact they haven’t had to be so focused on the fiscal issues,” Baldassare said. “The Democratic leadership is pretty confident they have most of the public behind them.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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