This Year’s Legislative Highs and Lows

Despite a scandal-plagued start, the state legislature deserves a passing grade for its work in 2014.

Earlier this year, the legislature’s approval rating took a nosedive after a series of scandals rocked the state Senate. In early April, just 43 percent of California voters said they approved of how California lawmakers were doing their jobs, compared to 46 percent who disapproved. The Field Poll was conducted after three state senators, including Leland Yee of San Francisco, were indicted or convicted on public corruption charges. But in the five months since, the Democratic-controlled legislature has done a fairly decent job of recovering from its problems, ultimately passing several important bills before the end of the legislative session last week. In fact, overall, the legislature deserves a passing grade for its work this year.

Perhaps the most significant lawmaker-approved bill was the kill switch legislation authored by state Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last week. The law requires smartphone manufacturers to install kill switches that make the devices useless when stolen. The legislation is designed to eliminate the black market for stolen cellphones nationwide and should help ease the robbery epidemic that has plagued Oakland and other cities.

State lawmakers also approved a package of key environmental bills, along with several other notable pieces of legislation. However, there were also a number of disappointments, including the defeat of a bill that would have increased transparency in political campaigns. It also remains to be seen whether Governor Jerry Brown will sign some of the progressive bills now sitting on his desk.

In addition to the kill switch legislation, this year’s highlights included:

The plastic-bag ban. The proposed ban will make California the first state in the nation to outlaw single-use plastic bags. And it’s about time. Flimsy plastic bags have long been an environmental scourge. The passage of the bill also represented an important victory for the environmental community and a rare defeat for Big Business — the plastic bag industry had lobbied hard to defeat the measure in the state legislature.

More employee sick days. This legislation will require most employers in California to provide their workers with at least three sick days per year, and Governor Brown has already signaled that he plans to sign it. The bill, however, doesn’t represent a complete victory: It exempts in-home caregivers from receiving mandatory sick leave.

Groundwater regulation. This package of bills approved by the legislature is designed to fix a longstanding — and ridiculous-when-you-think-about-it — problem in California: the complete lack of regulation of groundwater in the state. California is the only state in the West that allows agribusinesses to pump as much water as they want from the ground. As a result, our groundwater supplies have plummeted to dangerously low levels during the drought.

Brown-lawn protections. This bill would ban homeowners’ associations in the state from levying fines on residents who have let their lawns turn brown during the drought. As absurd as it sounds, homeowners throughout California have been slapped with these fines this year. The much-needed bill, however, stopped short of prohibiting cities from levying similar penalties, even though several Southern California cities have threatened water-conscious homeowners with them.

Crude oil shipment notifications. This legislation, approved overwhelmingly by lawmakers, would require railroad companies to start alerting state emergency officials about crude-oil-by-rail shipments, which have been increasing nationwide because of the fracking boom. Currently, railroad companies can keep such shipment information secret. The bill was in response to a deadly crude-oil train explosion in Canada last year.

Return of bilingual-education. The legislature also approved a measure for the 2016 ballot that would overturn the prohibition on bilingual education in California — a ban that should have never been enacted in the first place.

Cap and trade protected. Sometimes, the legislature does the right thing when it doesn’t act. Such was the case with Republican-sponsored legislation this year that had sought to delay the implementation of the state’s cap-and-trade system for transportation fuels — and that was ultimately blocked by Democrats. Cap and trade is a vital tool for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and funding green energy programs.

Yet even with these victories, the legislature also endured several lowlights this year, including:

Less political transparency. Late last week, labor unions joined with Republicans in defeating legislation that would have required political ads for or against ballot measures to prominently disclose their donors. The bill also would have prohibited big donors from hiding their identities behind secretive groups with innocuous-sounding names.

The $7.5 billion water bond. This November ballot measure, approved by the legislature and the governor, includes $2.7 billion in funding to build giant new dams in the state. The plan would divert freshwater from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers — a wrongheaded move considering the abundance of research that shows that dams are environmentally destructive, and the fact that the state is already taking too much water from those rivers.

A stagnant minimum wage. Moderate Democrats sided with Republicans in defeating legislation that would have increased the minimum wage in California to $13 an hour, even though research shows that boosting the minimum wage is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy.

In short, it was by no means an auspicious year for the legislature, but it wasn’t that bad either.


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