The end of the California Legislative session is typically a celebrated time in the halls of the state capitol. Legislators and staff are tired yet festive as they work toward wrapping up a long year of running their bills. A long week of all-day floor sessions is cemented by an all-night floor session where members say their goodbyes, give passionate floor speeches, and scramble for last-minute votes.
Like everything else in 2020, the legislative calendar was derailed by the coronavirus and COVID-19. The California State Assembly and State Senate lost weeks due to two recesses related to COVID-19 outbreaks at the state capitol. Another unexpected one-day delay occurred in the Senate during the final week of session, when Republican Sen. Brian Jones announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Monday was the last day of this year’s legislative calendar and it was a crucial day for lawmakers to get their bills through the both the Assembly and Senate and onto Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk before midnight, or else risk having to start all over in 2021. It was one for the record books.
Here is a look at some of the key bills and events that happened on the last night of session:
- Rough Remote Voting – Since Sen. Jones tested positive for COVID-19, the Senate had a lot of ground to make up. The final weekend crunch resulted in a last day of session filled with all kinds of tension between the parties, cursing by lawmakers during debate, and a questionable final vote that started at 11:59 but finished after the Midnight deadline, prompting a fierce debate and calls for a legal challenge., This occurred while all but one Republican senator were quarantined at home and voting remotely. Democratic senators also tried limited debate floor session to make up for lost time and get through more bills – senators essentially have unlimited time to speak in a normal floor session. But Republicans vociferously objected, leading to a hastily-called, lengthy recess to calm tensions before session resumed. State senators did run out of time on several high-profile bills and had a few memorable gaffes along the way.
- Bring Your Kid to Work Day – In a bizarre sequence of events, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks addressed lawmakers while holding her one-month old daughter on the last night of session. The fact that Wicks had her daughter with her on the floor was not the unusual part. More power to the Assemblywoman for serving her constituents and not missing a beat. No, the bizarre part was that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon denied Wicks’ request to vote by proxy as a nursing mother who could be more susceptible (and her baby more susceptible) to health problems if she contracted COVID-19. She was forced to physically come into the State Assembly with her daughter. After getting called out in the national press, even by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rendon apologized, but his response and the overall situation reeks of government being out of touch. Oh, and Assemblywoman Wicks was on maternity leave as well. Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton said it best this week, of Rendon: meet California’s new laughingstock.
- Exemptions Show that AB5 is a Mess – The newspaper industry won an important victory against AB5 on the last night of session, with state legislators passing the “Save Local Journalism Act,” or Assembly Bill 323. Newsrooms celebrated, along with musicians, translators, and even interpreters, who also received exemptions in a separate bill. These “cleanup” bills are common in public policy, but the scope of the exemptions and impact to job seekers from the economic shutdowns make AB5 and its impact on independent contractors more painful. AB5 will get another test on the November ballot where ridesharing companies Uber, Lyft, and others have placed a ballot to change the designation of independent contractors for their businesses.
- Becerra’s “bad, secretive, and cynical” Legislation Fails – Los Angeles Times reporter John Myers said that there would be “no victories” for California Attorney General on the last night of session as two-high profile bills he backed failed to get through the legislature. One of the bills, which blocked local government lawsuits against opioid companies and manufacturers, was called “a perfect example of bad, secretive, and cynical government” by the Sacramento Bee. The League of California Cities called it “a flawed experiment.” The other bill would have expanded the attorney general’s staff by 16 positions and expanded the Becerra’s powers related to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to the Sacramento Bee.
The California State Legislature is full of tradition and rules during the end of session. But 2020 has put the booming west coast on notice, with a projected $54 billion deficit and high unemployment. What could have been a banner year for legislators, and another crushing wave of overbearing new laws, became a sideshow to Newsom.
Instead, the legislature is done for the year and the focus is back on Newsom. Many bills did make it to the governor’s desk, including (some but not all of the proposed) police reform measures, a stay on evictions, and paid family leave.
Veteran Sacramento political journalist Dan Walters summarized it best, “The most sobering revelation of this annus horribilis of 2020 is that California is really not the globally powerful, semi-independent nation-state that Newson had been fond of boasting. When disaster struck California, its economic and political limitations were laid bare, compelling Newsom and other politicians to beg Washington for help. And they still are.”
Evan Harris is PRI’s media relations and outreach manager.