The California Legislature is Back: Five Key Questions


The California Legislature meets again with record diversity, but with several key questions and many important challenges.

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A growing population of homeless people. A bitter battle with the oil industry over gasoline prices. A spending plan for a state with the fifth largest economy in the world while the threat of a recession continues.

The California Legislature has a lot to take care of this year, and it made little progress on Wednesday, its first day back on Capitol Hill since it swore in a new class of members last month. Brief plenary sessions in the state Senate and Assembly focused more on the departed than on the challenges ahead.

The slow start to the legislative session is nothing new, but it leaves plenty of time for reflection. Here are some key questions for the coming year:

What will be the Legislature’s priorities?

In the afternoon, Senate and Assembly staff reported that only two new measures had been introduced in each chamber. (More than 140 have already been filed last month.) With a bill submission deadline of February 17, committee hearings and votes on most bills are still months away.

For that reason and until then, plenary sessions are primarily an opportunity for legislators to register and receive their per diem, the extra $214 paid daily to legislators for housing and living expenses, as long as they don’t leave Sacramento more than three days in a row.

Sessions on the first floor on Wednesday, for example, lasted about half an hour each in the Senate and Assembly, much of it taken up by memorial speeches for friends and family members who had died. Assemblyman Greg Wallis, a Bermuda Dunes Republican who won his seat by 85 votes, made his maiden appearance on the floor; his career had not yet been declared in time for the swearing-in ceremonial on December 5.

In an interview, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said housing issues will continue to be a central focus for the Legislature this session, including accountability for billions of dollars that California has spent on development programs for the homeless in recent years.

“Housing is the 10,000-pound gorilla that won’t go away,” the Lakewood Democrat said.

Rendon said he would also like to build on the momentum of a comprehensive package of legislation passed last year to address climate change by addressing how transportation, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, contributes to the problem. “Climate change is something we have been a leader in as a state,” he said. “We have to make sure we don’t fall behind again“, he pointed.

Assemblymember Diane Dixon, a Newport Beach Republican, talks with fellow legislators on the assembly floor on Jan. 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
Assemblywoman Diane Dixon, Republican of Newport Beach, speaks with other lawmakers on the Assembly floor on January 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

What impact will the budget deficit have?

Hanging over the Legislature’s plans this year is the possibility of an economic recession. Your tax and policy advisory office estimates a budget deficit of $24 billionand Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will present his draft spending plan next week, has also been urging caution for months.

Legislative leaders are projecting optimism about California’s ability to overcome any revenue shortfalls, pointing to the tens of billions of dollars now sitting in state reserves. Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat who heads the Senate budget committee, said that while it may not be the time to create more new programs, California’s finances are strong.

“With the kind of surplus we had last year,” almost $50 billion that went mostly to one-time spending over the next several years, Skinner said, “we have the space right now to make some adjustments if necessary.”

But if the economic outlook turns bleaker in the coming months, lawmakers may be forced to downsize on their boldest policy ideas.

Sen. Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, said this session was the right time to take a step back and examine whether the new programs the state has launched in recent years are working as intended.

“This session should be about a lot of oversight,” he said. “We still have ambitious packages, but we are all very price conscious.”

What about the special session on oil?

While Newsom continues to go after the oil industry, his office issued a press release last week that highlights the “main lies of [la industria] Big Oil,” there has been no significant progress on its “price gouging penalty” proposal since it was formally introduced a month ago.

The details of the sanction that Newsom wants to impose on the oil companies for excessive profits, not to mention the special session in which the measure is being considered, they remain elusive. But Rendon said the Legislature still plans to take up the issue even as gas prices drop, probably early in the year when there’s more time to focus on it.

“Regardless of what happens with gasoline prices, this is a good opportunity to ask the questions that we have wanted to ask the oil companies for a long time,” he said. “His earnings are staggering.”

How will the diversity of legislation affect politics?

have the Most diverse legislature in history it doesn’t mean much without that representation being translated into policy.

Some new legislators are already trying to do that.

Assemblywoman Jasmeet Bains, a physician and Democrat from Bakersfield, introduced a bill that she says represents the concerns of her district: a task force to address fentanyl addiction in the Central Valley. That means ensuring access to health, addiction and rehab services, and getting fentanyl off the streets, she said.

“I think the biggest reality that we see here in Sacramento is the failure of the Legislature to actively control our drug problem, our drug crisis,” he said. “In California, I don’t think a lot of people understand how serious the problem is, with exposure to things like fentanyl on the streets.”

Assemblyman Corey Jackson, the first openly gay black legislator, said that your top priorities they include addressing mental health and continuing to learn lessons from the pandemic, such as the importance of childcare. The Riverside area Democrat introduced a bill to create a Affordable California Commission (Affordable California Commission), tasked with addressing the state’s high cost of living.

“I come from a working class community. The 60th Assembly District are people just trying to get by every day,” she said. “And I wanted to send the message: ‘It’s not okay to just survive. You deserve to prosper.’”

Jackson also plans to address what he hopes will be a rise in racism and xenophobia before the 2024 election.

“I intend to play an active role in eradicating racism, including in the very structures and even in the chambers of the state legislature itself,” he said. “Stay tuned, because there is going to be a whole legislative package on anti-racism and systemic racism.”

Like Jackson, new state senator Caroline Menjivar also plans to tackle mental health. She has introduced a bill to prioritize more full-time counselors on Cal State campuses that they can assist diverse student populations.

Public transportation and infrastructure are other key areas for her. She points out that in her district of the San Fernando area, she floods frequently, and usually in areas where people of color live.

“A lot of what I talk about comes from lived experiences,” Menjivar said. “You know, when we talk about the lack of affordable housing, it’s my mom who’s been on a waiting list for over five years, right? So these are issues that are personal to me.”

What is happening with the count?

While the November election is largely an endgame, one seat remains in contention: Democratic Sen. Melissa Hurtado’s Central Valley seat in District 16.

It was a close vote: the second closest legislative race (based on percentages) in California history, said Alex Vassar, communications manager for the California State Library.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Bakersfield Democrat, bows her head in prayer before session at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan, 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
State Senator Melissa Hurtado, D-Bakersfield, bows her head in prayer before session at the state capitol in Sacramento on January 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Hurtado, the incumbent, took office on December 10 after picking up a 20-vote victory. Republican David Shepard formally requested a recount on December 13.

That means counting ballots from Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties. Initial results from Fresno counties, Kern and Tulare showed that Hurtado held on to his seat: Shepard got just two votes in Fresno County, two in Kings, and three in Tulare.

After the Shepard campaign called for a recount in about 20% of Kern County, Hurtado now requested a recount of some remaining parts. While a recount may be requested for only part of a county, a recount may not be requested. second count for the same parts.

However, if Shepard were to pull off a victory, it wouldn’t change anything Hurtado has done since taking office, Vassar said.

“She is a fully active settled member. All of her votes are cast as a member,” she said. “Just like if someone were to quit, everything they’ve done still stands.”

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