SACRAMENTO – California’s Legislature is back from its recess and legislators kicked off the session by focusing on two highly partisan matters.
Assembly Republicans first voted to keep Chad Mayes as Republican leader, despite pressure from activists to oust him because of his vote to extend the governor’s cap-and-trade system. But Mayes said Thursday that he will step down and will be replaced by Brian Dahle, R-Bieber. Democrats pushed new legislation that would change state election rules to help Democratic Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton thwart a high-profile recall effort.
As divisive political wrangling settles down, legislators do plan to address some substantive policy issues. At the top of the list is housing. Before the recess, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic leadership promised to introduce a package of bills to help boost housing supply, given that escalating home prices have reached crisis levels.
Keep an eye on Senate Bill 35, which would create “a streamlined, ministerial approval process for development proponents of multi-family housing” in localities that have “not produced enough housing units to meet its regional housing needs assessment.” A ministerial approval would spare developers from a drawn-out process before planning commissions and city councils.
Local governments are opposed to the bill because it limits their authority, but backers say the measure is needed to jump-start some types of housing projects, given that local growth controls and environmental lawsuits have slowed housing construction.
The bill recently was amended to expand its application beyond big urban centers to include smaller cities and suburban locales. It’s a rare instance where Republicans and Democrats have some common ground, with the former wanting to encourage private companies to build more and the latter hoping to see the construction of high-density housing. The building industry opposes provisions that would require paying union wage scales.
There’s more controversy over two other housing-related measures. Senate Bill 2 would impose $75 to $225 fees on property transfers (excluding home sales) to fund government-subsidized affordable housing. Senate Bill 3 would put a $3 billion housing bond on the November 2018 ballot, which also would fund housing subsidies.
Another top Capitol priority is passage of Assembly Bill 1250, which essentially would ban 56 of California’s 58 counties from outsourcing certain services to private contractors. It is backed by a vast array of public-sector unions.
“While cheaper services and employee layoffs may appear to save dollars in the short term, the savings are often illusory with hidden costs that are not accounted for and diminished services or contractor failures that require cities and counties to ultimately re-hire and/or re-train staff to provide the outsourced service,” argues author Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.
But county governments, and companies that provide myriad services to them, argue that the bill will dramatically raise costs for taxpayers and will lead to diminished services. Given increasing costs of pensions, medical care and other employee benefits, these governments say they can’t afford to hire permanent employees. This is likely to be one of the most contentious bills to make its way through the Legislature during the final month of session.
On Wednesday, activists promoting bail reform held an event on the Capitol grounds, thus highlighting a growing reform movement. Senate Bill 10 — by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys — would replace the current system of money bail with a judicial-based pre-trial system, whereby defendants are released or kept in custody based on an assessment of their flight risk and the nature of their alleged crimes.
Opponents of the current bail system argue that it’s unfair to keep people in jail, as they await trial, based solely on their ability to post a bond. Studies show that low-income people are more likely to accept plea bargains – largely so they can get out of jail and get back to work and caring for their children. The bail-bonds industry sees the legislation as an existential threat, and Republicans fear that the new system could make it tough to keep dangerous people behind bars.
Senate Bill 54, which would turn California into a so-called sanctuary state by limiting “the involvement of state and local law enforcement agencies in federal immigration enforcement,” is another hot-button issue in the waning days of the session. As the Sacramento Bee reported, the measure “sailed through the Senate and appears likely to pass the Assembly with a majority vote,” but “it’s unclear where Brown stands on the issue.”
Its passage would put the state on a collision course with the Trump administration, which has threatened to halt crime-fighting funds to cities — and presumably, states — that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Legislators and activists have talked about other, less-substantive but highly controversial issues, as well. Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon promised in a speech this week to hold hearings on white supremacists in California, which he called “a cancer on our nation.” Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper, who had failed to qualify for the November 2016 ballot a measure to break up California into six states, filed a new measure to split up California into three states.
There’s plenty to watch as the legislative session winds down – and as political battles heat up for the 2018 election.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.