Not long ago, California was mired in debt and legislative gridlock. Then someone had an idea. In the space of a couple of years, voters eased the two-thirds requirement for passing the state budget and approved a temporary tax increase. Now California is running a surplus and the Legislature is a font of comity, relatively speaking.
In short, ideas have consequences.
Though the many bills passed each session are what usually produce headlines, the concepts underneath are the soil in which legislation tends to be rooted, and California has long been fertile ground for new approaches.
As lawmakers reconvene and the state’s idea-man-in-chief, Gov. Jerry Brown, heads into a historic fourth term, here are a few that Californians can expect to hear about this year:
“Disinvestment.” Recipients of state money typically ask lawmakers to “invest” in them. With the recession over, however, the call is increasingly for an end to long years of “disinvestment” and neglect. This has been the University of California’s watchword as its advocates campaign for more state money. The word also crops up in reference to other causes as Brown continues his push for frugality and moderation. Some, like infrastructure and care for people with severe mentally illness, deserve reinvestment. Others, maybe not so much.
Cap and trade. Popularized by the Reagan White House and brought to fruition here by the Schwarzenegger administration, cap and trade involves setting an ever-lowering cap on greenhouse gas emissions and letting businesses get there by letting the clean ones sell the dirtier ones their pollution allowances. Already, plenty of industries are being affected, but when gasoline is brought into the system this month, all Californians will feel it. Pump prices are expected to rise by a dime or so a gallon. Given plunging gas prices, we don’t mind too much.
Affirmative consent. The University of California elevated this approach to rape prevention by redefining sexual assault on campus, for the purposes of student disciplinary proceedings, from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” That yes has to be “affirmative, conscious and voluntary,” and it can be revoked. That’s a game-changer because it means, among other things, that a “yes” from a co-ed who has had too much to drink doesn’t count, legally speaking. Starting this year, the new standard will apply to most public and private colleges in California. It shouldn’t have been necessary, but this is what happens when one in five women can expect to be assaulted during their time on college campuses.
Humane farming. For decades, animal welfare groups tried and failed to protect farm animals from cruelty. Then came Proposition 2 in 2008. Passed overwhelmingly by voters, it prohibited farmers from jamming veal calves, laying hens and other farm animals into too-small crates and cages, a practice that spreads infection and causes needless suffering. After much resistance and many lawsuits, the law will take full effect this year. Egg prices are already up as much as 50 percent and probably will rise further, and compliance remains iffy. But, hey, this is a consequence of democracy. Voters asked for this.
Environmental justice. Civil rights advocates have long argued, correctly, that environmental hazards, from dirty air to agricultural runoff, are unfairly borne by poor neighborhoods. One of those advocates is new Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, whose initiatives already have included things like subsidizing electric cars for low-income Californians. De León has announced plans to require California’s massive pension funds to purge their portfolios of coal investments. The debate wouldn’t take place in states that rely heavily on coal. Expect more substantive proposals to come.
Body cams. When advocates talk about requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, they point to California, specifically Rialto, where mandated body cams in 2012 dramatically cut the use of force in the police department. Since then, with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the idea of keeping an electronic eyewitness on civilian-cop interactions has exploded, and President Barack Obama has said he will seek funding for 50,000 body cameras for departments across the country. Stockton and Folsom already have them, Los Angeles is equipping all its officers with them, and pilot programs are being developed in Sacramento, Auburn, Davis, Lodi and other cities throughout the state.
“Get [stuff] done.” The governor’s famously deleted expletive came during a 2012 press conference on one of California’s most intractable problems, water. As a manifesto, though, it has pretty much summed up Brown’s biggest idea and offers a fairly good guide to his next, and final, four years. Pragmatism shouldn’t be such a novelty, but there it is, and it has underpinned much of the stunning fiscal progress Brown has made already, from the aforementioned tax increase to the state’s new rainy day fund. Now it no doubt will fuel a push for reducing the state’s debt, which is fine as long as Brown also loosens the purse strings for other imperatives, like higher education. Though the governor has ideas of his own, there’s more to a great and visionary state than paid-down retiree health benefits.