The 2020 California Legislative Session: Chaos and Disappointment

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) talks with Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) on the Assembly floor in Sacramento on Aug. 31. (Hector Amezcua / Associated Press) Photo via LA Times.

This year, Californians faced unprecedented crises as the state became a hotspot in the global COVID-19 pandemic, historic wildfires drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and heat waves pushed temperatures as high as 130 degrees in some parts of the state. The pandemic and climate disasters laid bare California’s deep racial and class inequalities as working class communities of color faced the greatest risks with the least access to stable housing, healthcare, and good family-supporting jobs.

Grassroots groups put forward bold policy proposals to keep people in their homes, stabilize our climate while addressing deep inequalities, and build community-based alternatives to police.

But with the pandemic-necessitated move to digital, systems for public participation were plagued with technical problems, and there was zero support for non-English speaking Californians to weigh in on the issues that mattered most to them. Leaders of the Assembly and Senate set different criteria for what bills would be heard: on the Assembly side, each committee chair decided which bills would be heard based on their own idiosyncratic criteria, while Senate committees seemed to prioritize bills relating to the state’s most urgent challenges: COVID-19, wildfires, and homelessness.

With so much confusion and so few avenues for Californians to assert themselves, the bills we needed most died.

Legislators and the Governor passed a few important stopgap measures to address the impact of the pandemic, including expanded financial assistance to undocumented immigrants and investing federal CARES Act funding into a new childcare fund for essential workers. But when it came to addressing mass unemployment, the housing crisis, and growing climate threats, the Governor failed to engage the people most impacted in designing solutions. Instead, he convened an elite Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery that operated in almost complete secrecy, with little by the way of results.

With no aid from the federal government in sight, California’s elected officials have a choice to make: to continue cutting from schools, health clinics, and vital services that Californians depend on, or to make strategic investments to guide the state’s recovery in a way that stabilizes our communities and climate.

1. Fueling the Flames of Climate Change through Inaction

Every major environmental justice bill died this year as both the Governor and Legislature failed to take meaningful action to stabilize our communities and climate.

This year, APEN, together with Sierra Club California, Greenlining Institute, Public Advocates, and Courage California put forward a Green New Deal for California. The California Green New Deal Act (AB 1839) aligned the state’s climate goals with what is scientifically necessary to stabilize our climate, convened a multi-sector task force to create millions of good union jobs by investing in a regenerative economy, and ensured that the communities most harmed by the fossil fuel industry, were first in line to benefit in the transition. When the pandemic hit, we overhauled the legislation to advance a Just Recovery with the same core principles.

Unfortunately, with the Legislature’s shifting criteria for what bills would be heard this year, the California Green New Deal never received a hearing or a vote.

The California Green New Deal was not the only important environmental justice bill to meet an untimely end. In its second year, AB 345, which directed regulators to establish “buffer zones” between oil and gas wells and homes and schools, was defeated with three Democrats joining Republicans to keep the bill from advancing to a floor vote in the Senate.

In a jaw-dropping spectacle, Senators personally attacked advocates by name, and repeated tired oil industry talking points. Meanwhile, Ventura County enacted setbacks to protect people’s health, as did the state of Colorado. Other oil and gas producing states like Texas and North Dakota already have similar requirements in place and California Geologic Energy Management division (CalGEM) is currently in a rulemaking process to consider whether to impose health and safety buffers around oil and gas drilling.

Finally, programs like the Low-Income Weatherization Program that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in low-income communities are facing major cuts next year.

The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), which uses money raised from the state’s cap and trade auctions to fund efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in low-income communities, raised so little this year that legislators skipped the usual process of determining how much of the GGRF proceeds would be allocated, leaving many important programs with no certainty of funding in the next year.

2. Stopgap Measures to Protect Tenants Fell Short

As people across the state sheltered in place, it became clear that our best chance of containing the virus is to make sure that everyone has stable housing. Yet in California, nearly half of households reported a loss of employment income and one in five households are struggling to pay for their housing.

In Sacramento, tenants’ rights and housing justice organizations advocated for rent forgiveness and robust eviction protections, but faced fierce opposition from corporate landlords.

With the state’s eviction moratorium ending in September, Governor Newsom negotiated AB 3088, a complicated compromise that only protects a fraction of California renters. Instead of providing tenants with eviction protection, a grace period to pay back rent owed, and a dispute resolution process alternative to the courts, the Governor’s compromise leaves many tenants vulnerable to eviction with a short timeline to pay back rent and costly court battles.

One silver lining on housing this session was Homes for Homeowners, Not Corporations (SB 1079). The law gives tenants the opportunity to purchase their residence if it goes into foreclosure. This protection could mitigate speculation-fueled displacement in the event of another wave of foreclosures, and create long-term stability for families and neighborhoods by helping to keep people in their homes.

3. Protecting (Some) Workers through the Pandemic

In addition to the tragic impacts of COVID-19 in lives lost and lasting health effects, the pandemic has wreaked economic havoc across the state, with workers’ lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance.

Bills to protect workers in the pandemic were mostly successful, with a few major disappointments. Wins for workers that establish some basic protections during the pandemic include:

  • AB 685 requires employers to notify workers when there is COVID exposure in the workplace.
  • AB 2043 requires Cal/OSHA to collaborate with community-based organizations to conduct statewide outreach to disseminate critical information to agricultural workers, including best practices on avoiding COVID infection and information about rights to paid sick leave and workers’ compensation.
  • AB 2537 requires hospital employers to supply employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) and maintain a supply of PPE, and SB 275 requires the state and healthcare systems to stockpile adequate PPE.
  • SB 1383 expands job protections for workers taking family leave by extending protections to workers caring for siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, adult children, and parents-in-law and applicability to employers with at least five employees.

The Governor and Legislature failed to pass basic protections for workers industries like garment work, domestic work, homecare, and hospitality — industries that are dominated by women of color and immigrant women:

  • The Health and Safety for All Workers Act (SB 1257) would have extended basic worker health and safety protections to domestic workers. The bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Governor Newsom.
  • The Garment Workers Protection Act (SB 1399), requiring employers to pay an hourly wage and making fashion brands and retailers liable for wage theft, ran out of time and died on the last night of the session.
  • Similarly, the Governor vetoed AB 1993, leaving homecare workers excluded from unemployment and disability insurance coverage, as well as AB 3216, which would have required employers to provide laid-off airport and hospitality workers with the “right of recall,” so those workers would be rehired based on seniority.

4. Black Lives Matter Mobilizations Build Momentum for Reparations, but Legislature Does Little on Police Accountability and Alternatives

Despite months of sustained mass mobilizations in defense of Black lives and widespread calls for action to address systemic racism in policing and the criminal legal system, the Legislature and Governor largely failed to meet the moment.

None of the three police accountability and community alternatives bills with the most grassroots support passed this session:

  • SB 731 would have created a statewide process for decertifying and holding accountable police officers fired for excessive force, sexual misconduct, and dishonesty;
  • SB 776 would have expanded public access to records of police misconduct and use-of-force.
  • At the last minute, Governor Newsom vetoed the C.R.I.S.E.S. Act (AB 2054) which would have created a pilot program for community-based emergency response alternatives to police.

The legislature took a few steps to reform policing and the criminal legal system this year including banning police officers from using chokeholds, limiting probation terms to one year for misdemeanors and two years for felonies, and prohibiting racial bias in criminal convictions and sentencing.

The momentum of the Movement for Black Lives also led to the passage of other key racial justice bills. California became the first state to establish a task force to study reparations for African Americans and the impact of slavery in California, and the legislature voted to put Proposition 16 on the ballot, allowing voters to decide whether to repeal the ban on affirmative action in public education, contracting, and employment.

5. Golden State Energy Offers a Path Out of PG&E’s Dangerous, Antiquated Energy System (Eventually)

After PG&E’s dangerous and antiquated electrical grid caused yet another devastating wildfire in 2019, Governor Newsom toured the state promising to transform PG&E into ‘21st-century utility’. Mayors and Legislators, frustrated with PG&E cutting power to millions of households, promised an alternative to the failing, bankrupt utility.

The Governor’s office pushed through SB 350, a “Plan B” in case PG&E fails again. The bill authorizes the state to take over the Investor-Owned Utility and operate it as a public benefit corporation called “Golden State Energy.”

At the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission set an extremely complex and drawn out process for triggering a takeover: PG&E could destroy 1,000 buildings in a single fire, as determined after an investigation by the Commission, before the state would even consider taking over (and could very conceivably get off scot-free again if the Commission finds that PG&E has implemented its “Corrective Action Plan” within the required timeframe).

Golden State Energy is a start, but we need to make sure that the communities most harmed by PG&E have a seat at the table in governing the new utility so that we can successfully steward California’s transition to a safe, reliable, community-and-worker-owned energy system.

What’s Next?

At this point, it is clear that the impacts of COVID-19 will extend well into the 2021 session. While California has put in place some protections for families, renters, and workers affected by the economic downturn, these measures are limited and leave many Californians vulnerable to pretextual evictions and having their water shut off.

Whether Californians have the resources we’ll need to weather the storms will be determined by how our elected officials respond to the state’s growing budget pressures. Instead of cutting more from the programs Californians depend on, state leaders need to make strategic investments that will aid the state’s recovery by stabilizing communities and creating new systems to weather this crisis and the next.

This November, all of us have an opportunity to generate billions for our public programs and stave off the worst of the potential cuts. By voting Yes on progressive revenue measures like Proposition 15, we can restore $12 billion each year in funding for our schools, public health systems, and local services.

Fortunately, the Legislature and Governor have already enacted voter protections to make sure all of us can vote safely. Every voter in the state will receive a ballot by mail and poll workers will have protective gear and hazard pay so that people can safely vote in-person if they choose.

Ballots are coming this week, so check to make sure your address is correct and if you haven’t done so already, register to vote! Then, help your family and friends do the same.

For more on how to vote or recommendations on ballot measures, check out our voter guide (available in English, Chinese, Hmong, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Tagalog, and Vietnamese).

Sylvia Chi is APEN’s Policy Director, where she develops and advocates for transformative environmental justice policies at the state level. She also volunteers with the Asian-American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area’s pro bono immigration clinic and is an aspiring crossword constructor.

Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN)--Uniting Asian and Pacific Islander communities for environmental and social justice. #apen4ej