California is where U.S. policy isn’t paralyzed

Surrounded by government officials, Gov .Jerry Brown on Wednesday signs SB 350, which boosts renewable energy and increases buildings’ energy efficiency in California.
Surrounded by government officials, Gov .Jerry Brown on Wednesday signs SB 350, which boosts renewable energy and increases buildings’ energy efficiency in California. The Associated Press

It’s been a busy week in the United States of California.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a nationally-watched bill making assisted death legal here for the terminally ill.

On Tuesday, he signed the nation’s toughest gender pay equity protections, instantly raising the bar for the rest of the country. On Wednesday, he signed landmark bills forcing state contractors to extend benefits to transgender employees and radically upping the ante on the use of renewable energy.

Thursday’s signatures removed coal from the investment portfolios of the nation’s largest public pension systems – California’s – and put this state’s behemoth clout behind the national movement to stop plastic microbead pollution. On Friday, Brown signed a bill to regulate medical marijuana. By Friday afternoon, he was still mulling major legislation to automatically register voters when they obtain drivers’ licenses.

That’s not counting the vaccination bill Brown signed earlier this year, which already has substantially deflated the scary national anti-vax movement. Or the racial profiling bill he signed last weekend, requiring California police – some are complaining – to do what they’ve resisted elsewhere: gather the hard data to back their claim that they don’t stop people based on race and ethnicity.

California’s size and population long have made it a trendsetter, and Brown and the Democrats who control the Legislature have the luxury this year of operating in a virtual one-party state.

Power abhors a vacuum, and with Congress paralyzed by partisan gridlock, California has been swinging national policy, one big issue at a time.

But the appalling gridlock in Congress, along with the retrograde foolishness that has passed for debate so far among Republican presidential contenders, has created an especially stark backdrop for the machine-like efficiency with which California has churned out nationally influential legislation.

Immigration? Congress may be incapable of consensus, but California has come up with humane and smart policies to ensure that, as long as undocumented people are here, they won’t be increasing the ranks of the state’s sick or uneducated, or driving without a license.

Climate change? “I’m not a scientist” may still be the Washington, D.C., mantra, but Brown is inking subnational agreements all over the globe to reduce greenhouse gases.

Mass transit? Federal action is an oxymoron, but nearly three dozen private-sector companies have expressed interest in partnering with California to build the nation’s first high-speed rail line.

Centrist though Brown’s politics may seem from California’s blue-state standpoint, they no doubt strike much of the rest of the country as alarmingly progressive. All the more reason for the rest of the country to take note of the momentum here.

Power abhors a vacuum, and that’s what’s the federal government’s paralysis has created. Left to its own devices, California is filling that vacuum, one big, national issue at a time.

With every stroke of the pen, Brown and the Legislature have telegraphed a message to Congress: If you can’t work together, the rest of us will act without you. Lawmakers here aren’t without problems. Too many are far too swayed by campaign money. But as the legislative year closes, it’s worth noting that not everyone in this country has stopped believing that big ideas can happen and thoughtful governance can take place.