The State Worker

These California pension and perk bills had broad support. Why didn’t they reach Newsom?

Three bills that would change California law to benefit public workers received broad support in the Legislature over the last year, but at the last minute didn’t reach Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

The bills would have made cities responsible for mistakes that inflate retirees’ pensions, expanded workers’ compensation benefits and given broad legal privileges to communications between unions and workers.

Legislative holds on the bills in the last two days before the Legislature’s recess suggest Newsom’s administration had concerns about the bills, including increased public spending under two of them.

“Typically when a bill passes both houses and they choose not to send it on to the governor, it’s because there’s some kind of bargaining going on with the governor’s office,” said Chris Tapio, a Sacramento public policy consultant. “Rather than risk a veto or pissing the governor off, they hold off on it, spend some time on it over the next couple months.”

In other ways, Newsom was friendly to public employee unions this year. He was elected with broad financial backing from a range of unions and labor groups, including AFSCME, SEIU, the California Labor Federation and unions representing workers ranging from scientists to pipefitters.

His first budget dedicated $7.8 billion to pre-funding public pension debt, which helps public employee unions by taking some financial pressure off their members’ retirement plans.

His administration also quickly approved a new contract giving a 3 percent raise to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which spent $2.8 million to help elect him. His administration negotiated contracts with five other unions that include annual raises. Contracts with SEIU Local 1000 and the union representing state attorneys gave workers a new stipend to cover monthly health care premiums that amounts to a $3,100-per-year benefit.

The legislative holds prevented Newsom from having to decide whether to sign or veto the bill right now. Since the session goes through September of next year, the legislation can be called up again for amendments and another chance at passage.

Senate Bill 266, co-sponsored by the California Professional Firefighters and the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California, would make cities and schools pay for mistakes that CalPERS determines illegally inflate former employees’ pensions.

The bill would shift responsibility for the mistakes away from retirees, who unions say shouldn’t face surprise bills for benefits they were promised when they retired.

A coalition of local governments opposed it, citing concerns over sticking taxpayers with the bills. Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill during the last session, saying the proposal should include a CalPERS review of any proposed pensionable benefits.

The bill cleared both chambers of the Legislature and was headed to the governor’s desk before being held on the last day of this year’s legislative session.

A spokesman for state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who introduced the bill, said Leyva plans to keep working on the bill this fall. Leyva is a former president of California Labor Federation.

Assembly Bill 418 would give communications between unions and workers similar privileges to those afforded under attorney-client privilege. But it would go further, allowing either party to prevent the other from disclosing communications in civil legal proceedings. The bill is co-sponsored by the California Labor Federation, AFSCME and SEIU California.

Supporters say the bill would help protect workers, for example, when they talk with a union representative about filing a grievance or workplace action against an employer. Under current law, employers can access those communications in the discovery process of lawsuits, said Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, who introduced the bill. Kalra raised concerns that anti-union sentiments are on the rise nationally and that those kinds of invasions are growing more likely.

Opponents, including the California Chamber of Commerce, argued the proposal could impede workplace investigations by allowing unions to preventing workers — particularly those who aren’t union members but have communicated with union representatives — from voluntarily testifying in legal disputes.

Brown cited similar concerns when he vetoed an earlier version, saying the legislation “could compromise the ability of employers to conduct investigations into workplace safety, harassment and other allegations.”

The bill cleared the Assembly in April and was headed to a floor vote in the Senate in July, but never received one. On Sept. 12, it was held.

Kalra said the “clock ran out” on discussions to make the bill more acceptable for everyone involved.

“Even though the issue itself is relatively straightforward, it’s actually relatively complex as to how you develop a privilege, especially when it’s unique like this,” he said. “The governor’s office and I have both continued to work together in the interim to come back in January with language that works for everyone.”

Senate Bill 416 would extend to many more peace officers some workers’ compensation privileges that now are reserved for California Highway Patrol, firefighters and some others. The privileges include a presumption that heart problems are work-related.

The bill, sponsored by the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California, cleared the Senate before being amended and passed in the Assembly. The Senate approved the amended version, but the bill was held on the last day before a final vote in the Assembly.

The state Department of Finance had opposed the bill, saying it would result in “significant costs to state agencies and a broad range of local entities,” primarily by increasing workers compensation insurance premiums.

“SB 416 became a two-year bill to allow more time to work with the Governor’s Office and opposition to ensure the bill is fair for all interested parties,” Erin Hickey, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Hueso, who introduced the bill, said in an email. “We are planning to revive it.”

For bills sponsored by organized labor, the labor groups often take the lead in negotiations with the governor’s office, Tapia said.

In addition to concerns from the governor’s office, reasons for holding bills at the last minute can include a lack of signaled support from legislators on a final vote or the need for technical cleanup in cases where different bills might have conflicting provisions, he said.

“Those bills are still plenty alive once the Legislature comes back next year, and they have until September of next year to pass,” he said.

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.