The Most Important New California Laws of 2015

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The State Capitol.  ((Justin Sullivan/Getty Images))

New year, new rules.

More than 900 new laws are hitting the books in 2015. Here's our annual list of the most important and/or interesting, as picked by KQED news, science, health, and politics and government editors. For a more detailed look at health laws, check out KQED's State of Health blog.

Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants (AB60)
Californians who do not have  proper immigration documentation will be eligible to apply for driver’s licenses. The Department of Motor Vehicles expects 1.4 million immigrants to apply in the first few years, and law enforcement, community groups and others are preparing for the surge.

Plastic bag ban -- or not (SB270)
Phases out use of single-use plastic bags at large grocery stores and supermarkets such as Wal-Mart and Target starting in July and convenience stores and pharmacies in 2016. The law does not apply to bags used for fruits, vegetables or meats, or to shopping bags used at other retailers. It allows grocers to charge a fee of at least 10 cents for using paper bags. Few legislative fights in 2014 were more intense, and the plastic bag industry quickly ponied up $3 million to gather signatures for a referendum asking voters to overturn the law — and it appears to have enough to make that happen in November 2016. If the signatures are valid, the new law will be put on hold, allowing the plastic bag industry to keep selling for at least another 16 months.


Mandatory paid sick days (AB1522)
Expected to impact more than 6.5 million employees -- about 40 percent of the workforce -- the law requires nearly all California employers to provide a minimum of three paid sick days to employees who currently get no sick time.  Employees can use the sick days starting on the 90th day of employment. Takes effect July 1, 2015.

The chickens and the eggs (Proposition 2 / AB1437)
Proposition 2, passed overwhelmingly in 2008, set more spacious confinement conditions for farm animals. AB 1437, signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2010, extends the measure so that all shelled eggs sold in the state must be produced by chickens who live in considerably more spacious conditions than has been the industry standard. Earlier this year a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law, brought by officials in six Midwestern and Southern states with a substantial egg industry.

Mandatory smartphone kill switches (SB962)
Designed as a deterrent against the rapidly expanding crime of cellphone theft, the law requires any smartphone manufactured and sold in California after July 1, 2015, to include a "technological solution" allowing the owner to render the phone inoperable when not in his or her possession.

Teacher sexual abuse firings (AB215)
Makes it easier for school districts to fire teachers who sexually abuse students. The law was introduced as a result of an L.A,-area school board having a difficult time firing a teacher accused of sexual abuse because of the board's dismissal policy. Among provisions that expedite the appeals process, the law allows testimony and evidence older than four years in cases of alleged sexual offenses.

Student punishment curbs (AB420)
Blocks school districts from suspending or expelling most students for "disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority" of school personnel. The bill, which specifies a number of behaviors for which students can be expelled or suspended, sunsets in 2018.

Mandatory school EpiPens (SB1266)
Requires schools to stock epinephrine auto-injectors, or EpiPens, to be used by school nurses and trained volunteers on students suffering from an anaphylactic reaction.

Contact sport restrictions for students (AB2127)
Puts restrictions on students playing contact sports like football. Students who suffered a head injury will need to wait seven days and have a doctor's note in order to play again. Teams will be allowed to have only two full-contact practice sessions a week for no longer than 90 minutes per day.  Full-contact practice is  prohibited during the off-season.

Expansion of "revenge porn" protections  (SB1255)
Extends the penalty for publicly distributing intimate photos of another person to include all images, not just those taken by someone else. Meaning: selfies now count. The law targets anyone who distributes images of individuals who think those images will remain private, or when the distributor "knows or should know" that distribution will cause serious emotional distress.

Ban on immigration-related retaliation (AB2751)
Expands protections for immigrant workers against employers threatening to file or filing a false report with state and federal agencies in retaliation for workers exercising a California labor right, such as making a complaint about unpaid wages. Current law stipulates a ban only on employer reports filed with the police.

Cocaine penalty reduction (SB1010)
Reduces the penalties for people convicted of selling or possessing to sell crack cocaine, so that they are now the same as those for people convicted of crimes related to powdered cocaine.

Public notices for gas pipeline work (AB1937)
There have been an increasing number of evacuations from schools and hospitals due to gas pipelines being struck during maintenance or excavation work. The new law requires gas companies to provide schools and hospitals with timely public notice of such work.

Alcohol tasting events(AB520 / AB1989)
AB520 expands who can provide instructional tasting events of wine or distilled spirits at on-sale retail premise and places some new restrictions on such events. AB1989 will allow students taking winemaking and brewery classes to taste their work.

Campaign finance disclosure enforcement (AB800)
Grants the California Fair Political Practices Commission the power to conduct discretionary campaign audits during elections rather than having to wait until after. The FPPC will also be able to go to court to compel campaign finance disclosures, and pre-election, the FPPC's civil actions will be heard faster to ensure disclosures happen before Election Day.

Fines for assisted living homes (AB2236)
Increases 100-fold the top fine for violations of state regulations by assisted living facilities for the elderly: The fine is jumping from a mere $150 to $15,000. The law takes effect July 1 and was part of a package of bills signed by the governor that tighten state oversight of the 7,500 assisted living homes in California. It’s the most significant overhaul of the industry in almost 30 years.

Hospital fair pricing (SB1276)
Low-income Californians (less than 350 percent of poverty) will be eligible for a “reasonable payment plan” if they receive a hospital bill under this new law. Their payments would be capped at 10 percent of income after living expenses.

Pets at restaurants (AB1965)
Allows pets in the outdoor seating area of restaurants under certain conditions.

Monitoring of potentially dangerous individuals (SB505)
Requires law enforcement agencies to develop and implement written policies for conducting “welfare checks” of people who may be a danger to themselves or others. The law also requires those policies "to encourage" a search of the state's gun registries to see if the individual might possess a firearm.  This law was a response to the Isla Vista killings in May.

Confederate merchandise ban (AB2444)
Bans the sale of the Confederate flag or merchandise inscribed with its image in state government stores.  According to the L.A. Times, Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) introduced the bill  "after his mother, on a visit to the Capitol, saw a replica of Confederate money sold in the gift shop."

Inmate sterilization ban (SB1135) Prohibits sterilization for the purpose of birth control of inmates in state prisons or county jails.  Also prohibits "any means of sterilization," except in life-threatening situations and when the patient consents. The law was passed as a response to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and a state audit that found some female prisoners had been sterilized illegally.

Groundwater management rules (SB1168)
Requires agencies in fast-depleting basins to draw up sustainability plans and allows for water meters and fines for monitoring and enforcement. According to AP, the law "does not go as far as other Western states by granting state agencies the power to authorize or prohibit groundwater withdrawals, but the California Water Resources Control Board can now intervene if locals fail to act or come up with inadequate solutions." The timetable for implementation of regulations on groundwater, California's biggest source of water, is decades.

Uber, Lyft insurance coverage (AB2293)
Stipulates that drivers for ride-service firms like Uber and Lyft must be insured during the time they have their app open but have yet to accept a call. The coverage during this period must be at least $50,000 per individual and $100,000 total per incident for bodily injury, and $30,000 for property damage. An additional $200,000 in excess coverage is required. The bill also calls on insurance companies to offer policies tailored specifically for ride-service drivers, something that does not exist now and has led many drivers to keep their ride-service occupation a secret from their insurers.

Ballot initiative reform (SB1253) Requires the California attorney general to initiate a 30-day public review process before approving a proposed initiative. The law also requires that the appropriate committees in the Legislature hold a joint public hearing on the measure after initiative proponents have collected just 25 percent of signatures needed to qualify it for the ballot. Currently, the Legislature weighs in only after the measure is certified. The hope is that stakeholders of a particular initiative will work more with the lawmakers, and good-government groups hope the law will be the first step in reforming an initiative process they believe has helped lead to dysfunctional governance.

More time for mail-in ballots (SB29)
The increased popularity of mail-in voting means it's even more important that election officials receive those ballots within the time frame required by law for votes to count. This new law extends the deadline for receiving ballots by mail so that they will no longer have to be received by Election Day. The new window allows for ballots to be postmarked the day of the election, as long as they are received up to three days later.

Film and TV tax credit expansion (AB1839)
More than triples funding for the state's film and television tax credit, increasing it from $100 million to $330 million per fiscal year. The law also expands eligibility to large-budget feature films and TV pilots, and eliminates the cap for studio and independent films.

Jon Brooks, John Myers, Lisa Aliferis, NPR and AP contributed to this report.