Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins peaks at a press conference at Golden Hall. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Thursday marked the final day for Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign or veto the bills sent to his desk by the Legislature in what was certainly one of the weirdest, wildest legislative sessions on record.

The end of last year’s session might have ended with projectile period blood, but if that night I’d said to you, “Sen. Melendez said ‘bullshit’ on a Zoom while quarantining from COVID,” I’m guessing you’d think I was speaking a foreign language.

It goes without saying, then, that the package of bills that made it to Newsom did not look like anyone would have guessed when this year was just beginning.

Winner: Gavin Newsom

COVID-19 has ruined lives and families and disrupted virtually every facet of our lives. That’s especially true of government.

It ground the Legislature’s work to a halt, and even as lawmakers were getting back to work, it sidelined them once more after the entire Republican caucus was exposed and forced into quarantine.

In many ways, COVID has dealt leaders like Gov. Gavin Newsom an absolute shit sandwich as his priorities and the state’s massive budget surplus evaporated before his eyes, less than two years into his term.

But the COVID curveball also meant that Newsom suddenly gained an extraordinary amount of power – some ceded to him by lawmakers, some he took for himself – and one of the biggest media platforms in the world.

When I asked Republican Sen. Brian Jones recently about whether he supports calling a special legislative session later this year, he said he would with one caveat: “I would support a special session if there’s going to be a conversation and debate amongst the Legislature regarding ending some of the governor’s emergency service orders. I certainly don’t think we need to end all of them. But we do need to have a conversation about it, and I believe the Legislature needs to be a part of that conversation – and we haven’t been.”

And as Newsom showed this week through a series of vetoes, he still has plenty of the power we’re more used to seeing a governor exercise.

If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win in November, Newsom will get to wield another big power: appointing a United States senator.

Loser: Best Laid Plans

Childcare. Housing production. Sea-level rise. Housing Production. Accountability in education spending. Did I mention housing production?

These were all signature priorities laid out by San Diego lawmakers and business leaders.

In the end, they all became roadkill – and not entirely because of the coronavirus.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced two companion bills aimed at increasing transparency and accountability for the school funding process known as the Local Control Funding Formula. One was quickly killed off in the Legislature; Newsom vetoed the other this week.

Sen. Toni Atkins introduced a bill aimed at addressing sea-level rise, but she put that measure on hold once the coronavirus forced lawmakers to go on hiatus and she urged her colleagues to dramatically pare back their bill packages.

Winner: Police Unions

It’s already been well documented that police reform efforts in the Capitol fell far short – so short, in fact, that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon recently announced a special committee to address police reform efforts left on the table. But things got even worse for reform this week, when Newsom vetoed some of the few measures that did manage to pass, including a bill meant to prevent officers who commit misconduct from being able to resign and take jobs with other departments. He also vetoed a bill that would have created a pilot program to allow social service providers to act as first responders to certain calls (that one was not opposed by police groups – a rare point of compromise between reformers and police).

Loser: Zombie SB 50

At the beginning of the year, Sen. Scott Weiner’s wildly controversial SB 50, which would allow taller, denser building near high-frequency transit, died – again.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins vowed – again – that a housing production bill, or bills, would take its place.

She carried a bill of her own that would allow duplexes and four-plexes on single-family lots. That bill met its own strange end at the last possible second, because it didn’t get final approval in the Legislature before the clock ran out, a fact that has led to a lot of finger-pointing between Atkins and Rendon.

The bill’s path might have been different from SB 50, but the result was the same: Yet another housing production bill failed.

Draw: Ethnic Studies

This summer’s protests against police violence and countrywide reckoning with racial justice issues included new attention on how students across the country learn about race and history.

As part of that push, Weber passed – and Newsom signed – a new bill requiring California State University students to take ethnic studies courses. Weber’s bill was stronger than a requirement the CSU system had implemented that would have allowed students to fulfill the requirement without actually taking any ethnic studies courses.

But Newsom this week vetoed a similar bill that would have required an ethnic studies course as a high school graduation requirement, citing “uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum for ethnic studies.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board, in all its subtlety, said the bill would have provided children a “Marxist indoctrination.”

In San Diego County, several school districts are moving forward with ethnic studies requirements even without a statewide mandate.

Verdict Is Still Out: Gig Companies

If you called the game right at this moment, gig companies would be major losers. They’ve been dealt loss after loss in court over their employment practices, and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez just passed a new law requiring food delivery apps to sign formal agreements with local restaurants before advertising their food for delivery. Republican attempts to dismantle AB 5, which limits when companies can consider a worker an independent contractor, failed.

But the apps might have the last laugh if voters approve the proposal they’ve poured nearly $200 million into – Prop. 22, the statewide ballot measure to exempt app-based delivery drivers from AB 5. If the measure passes, those companies can continue operating as usual, without providing drivers with workplace protections like paid sick leave, workers’ compensation and health insurance.

More Last-Minute Bill Signings

Here are some notable bills from local legislators that Newsom signed into law this week:

On the National Radar

  • AB 3121 by Weber would establish the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans and require the task force to recommend mechanisms for redress as it pertains to California’s role in the enslavement of Black people.

Measures That Deal With Local Issues

  • SB 1301 by Sen. Ben Hueso requires the California Environmental Protection Agency to create a Watershed Action Plan for the Tijuana River Valley.
  • AB 2731 by Assemblyman Todd Gloria allows SANDAG to streamline CEQA procedures for the transit center project in Old Town San Diego.
  • AB 1426, by Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath enshrines a legal settlement in state law protecting San Onofre State Beach from infrastructure development.

All 12 State Ballot Measures, Explained

We’re right in the midst of Politifest 2020.

Earlier this week, Jesse Marx and I did a full rundown of the 12 statewide ballot measures, which you can re-watch here.

Saturday will feature two sessions Capitol-watchers won’t want to miss: A deep dive into Prop. 22 and the future of work, moderated by CalMatters reporter Lauren Hepler, and a conversation on police reform with Attorney General Xavier Becerra and The Trace reporter Alain Stephens. Register here.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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