Democratic leaders point to those deals as three main accomplishments: billions of new dollars for road and bridge repair, an extension of the state’s climate change program -- cap-and-trade -- and a package of measures to address the state’s housing affordability crisis.
“I think it could by any objective measure be viewed as one of the most accomplished legislative sessions, if not perhaps the most accomplished legislative sessions in the history of California,” says Democratic Senate leader Kevin de León.
“Well, I’ve been through a lot of ‘most productive sessions ever.’ I could say this might be one of them,’” says Senator Jim Nielsen, the Republican vice-chair of the budget committee. “But I would say not in a ‘productive, good for the people of California’ way. Breath-taking tax increases this year, that are really going to hurt the middle-class, in fact everybody in California.”
All of the big deals could raise costs -— the housing package includes a new real estate transaction fee, fuel costs could rise as businesses comply with cap-and-trade, and the transportation bill increases the gas tax and vehicle fees.
“It’s been more than two-and-a-half decades since we dealt with the issue of infrastructure, rebuilding for California,” says De León. “Because we’ve had past legislative bodies as well as governors who have kicked that can down the pothole-ridden road.”
“With respect to housing it’s the same thing,” says Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. “More Californians are paying more of their monthly income on their rents or their mortgages. The idea is to provide more housing with the hope that housing prices will go down.”
Democratic lawmakers also embraced a new, prominent role as a foil to the Trump administration.
“There was more and more desire on the part of our caucus to create a real contrast between what was happening in Washington, and what was happening here,” Rendon says. “Trump talks about infrastructure, we did something.”
Rendon and De León announced legislation designed to protect immigrants in the country unlawfully.
“We took a position very early on that Donald Trump was a clear and present danger to California,” De León says. “A threat to our economic prosperity, to our values, and to our people, and that we as a state—the 6th largest economy in the world—would do everything in our power to resist.”
Democrats nominated Congressman Xavier Becerra as state attorney general with the promise that he would push back against the Trump administration. And Friday night they passed a new law extending “sanctuary city” protections across the state.
“It’s so incredible to me to have heads of agencies of state government, and legislators, advocating the violation of federal law, reinventing federal law on their own,” says Nielsen.
Democrats were bolstered throughout the year by new, two-thirds supermajorities they won in the last election -— meaning technically they could pass new taxes, fees, or bonds along party -- lines, although that rarely happened.
“Two-thirds was helpful in terms of negotiation. You know, you always want to negotiate from a position of strength, but it also becomes a math problem, too,” Rendon says.
Republicans still have leverage, particularly moderate lawmakers who made deals on these key votes. But the party’s ability to pass legislation is certainly diminished.
“We’ve learned that we’ll only accomplish so much in the Legislature, we need to get the word out to the citizens,” says Nielsen.
Nielsen says that’s worked in a big way, with a new rule requiring that bills be public and not amended for 72 hours before lawmakers vote for them.
“The biggest accomplishment this year was not thanks to the Legislature, it’s thanks to the people of California with Prop 54 and the 72-hour waiting. That’s the biggest accomplishment,” Nielsen says.
Now it’s Governor Jerry Brown’s turn to act. He’ll have a month to sign or veto the hundreds of measures on his desk from the Legislature’s busy end to the year.
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