While new speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) probably lines up along the same lines ideologically as his predecessor Speaker Emeritus Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), their styles could not be more different.
As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Emily Hoeven recently put it, “Rendon had given his appointed committee chairs outsized authority, allowing them to unilaterally impose their views on the rest of the Legislature — and California — by singlehandedly killing bills.”
Rivas seems determined to change that and return the days of a more, top-down, centralized speakership in the style of Willie Brown or John A. Pérez, where decisions take into consideration what’s best politically for all Assembly Democrats, rather than the chair’s agenda.
Judging by the first weeks as speaker, Rivas is starting to put his stamp on what direction the Assembly will take. Here are three notable bills in the final two weeks of session where his influence could determine the outcome:
Human Trafficking and Fentanyl: The Assembly Public Safety Committee has long been nicknamed the “public endangerment” committee for its historically dim view of tough-on-crime legislation. It garnered national headlines earlier this summer when it blocked legislation (SB 14) to make the human trafficking of a minor a serious felony under state law, despite garnering a unanimous State Senate vote. Amid public outrage, Rivas intervened and “speakerized” the bill to force a stubborn chairman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) to reverse course and pass it.
The measure passed the Appropriations Committee on Friday with minor amendments and seems certain to be placed on the Governor’s desk with an overwhelming vote. However, one wonders if that is the end of the story on the public safety committee this session. When the Assembly returns in January, are Jones-Sawyer’s days as chairman over? Consider that just about every major headache for Assembly Democrats on policy this year has come from his committee. If Rivas really wants to chart his own course, filling the committee with his allies would be a smart way to change course.
Housing Reform: While California has made significant strides in enacting housing reform legislation, such as last session’s Senate Bills 9 and 10, the movement to remove unnecessary bureaucracy holding up new housing construction still must chart a very tricky road politically. Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the Legislature’s top housing reform proponent, is back with Senate Bill 423, which would extend the provisions of 2017’s SB 35, which has accelerated new production of “affordable housing.” While the bill has advanced through the Legislature unscathed so far including Friday’s vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the usual opposition of NIMBY groups, environmentalists, and some unions remain and threaten an uncertain path for the bill. Rivas told the Sacramento Press Club in July that he supports Wiener’s bill and other housing reform efforts. The question remains – will this year’s effort need a boost from Speaker Rivas in the final two weeks of session to avoid an 11th-hour death?
Single Payer Health Care: A not-so-good bill by Wiener, Senate Bill 770, would put California on the path to what PRI’s Sally Pipes calls a steppingstone approach to single-payer health care. Unlike prior bills, Wiener’s approach has drawn opposition from an unusual source – the California Nurses Association and other liberals upset that it doesn’t go far enough. Unusually, three Democrats abstained on the bill in the Appropriations Committee vote on Friday, with the bill gaining the bare minimum of 9 votes needed to pass. The author of last year’s single-payer bill, Asm. Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), promises to come back next year with a full single-payer bill.
It’s unclear where Rivas (and Gov. Newsom for that matter) stand on SB 770. Will Rivas want his fellow Democrats to have to vote on a political hot potato like single-payer with an election right around the corner? Does Newsom even want the bill on his desk, forcing him to choose between some of his core supporters? Stay tuned.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute vice president of marketing and communications.