California Lawmakers Scramble to Pass Reams of Legislation Before End of ‘Disappointing’ Session

A view of the California State Capitol. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California lawmakers worked late into the night in a last-ditch effort Monday to pass hundreds of bills before the midnight deadline marking the conclusion of the 2020 legislative year.

It was a tense end to a highly unusual, shortened session, leaving hundreds of newly passed bills in potential jeopardy after most of the Republicans in the state Senate were forced to vote remotely for several days — a legally untested procedure legislative leaders expect will prompt a lawsuit in the coming weeks.

The uncertainty surrounding remote voting capped a frenzied final day of legislating in California that included cursing from quarantined lawmakers, a tense standoff over muted microphones and a lawmaker forced to bring her crying baby on the floor of the state Assembly in a futile attempt to save a housing bill.

“I would say it was disappointing,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Los Angeles, of the legislative session as a whole. “It was not the year we thought it was going to be on Jan. 1.”

The most recent drama kicked off when state Sen. Brian Jones, R-Santee, tested positive for COVID-19 last week after exposing nine of his colleagues during a caucus lunch on Aug. 25. Senate Democrats, who control the chamber, ordered those Republicans to vote remotely, saying they were following public health guidelines that require two weeks of isolation for anyone exposed to the disease.

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That process, in which lawmakers voted via video on a Zoom call, has never been tried before in the state Legislature, one that the Office of Legislative Counsel in May said was likely in violation of California law.

“I don’t agree with them making us vote remotely,” Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield said Tuesday. “I do think it will be challenged in court.”

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, defended the procedure, saying she is confident the decision will hold up in court. In the final hours of the session, she urged lawmakers to be civil and get back to work.

“I’m going to ask each and every one of you to put aside our hurt feelings, our anger, our frustration. It has clearly been a frustrating year,” Atkins said. But, she warned, “the clock is ticking.”

But in the state Assembly, Democratic leaders would not even let a nursing mother vote by proxy, fearing it could lead to legal challenges.

The Assembly changed its rules to allow medically high-risk members to vote by proxy — in which a lawmaker casts a vote on behalf of someone else — but ultimately no one did.

Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland who gave birth to a daughter in July, had asked to be allowed to vote by proxy. But Rendon’s office denied her request, saying she was not eligible because she was not at a high risk for the coronavirus.

“I think we need to be careful, and we need to not endanger all of the bills that we did pass last night,” he said.

Oakland Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks participates in a floor session on the state Legislature's final night while holding her 1-month old baby after her request to vote by proxy was denied. (Screenshot from California State Assembly video feed)

In the race to get legislation out the time, time ran out for several high-profile bills, including Senate Bill 731 from state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, which would have revoked the certification of police officers convicted of certain crimes. The bill failed to get a final hearing in the Assembly.

Another police reform bill, from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, met the same fate. Assembly Bill 66 would have banned the use of projectiles and tear gas by law enforcement when dispersing crowds.

Several other police reform bills, however, made it through the Legislature. AB 1506, from Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would require the state attorney general’s office to investigate shootings by police officers that result in the death of an unarmed civilian. Another measure, AB 1196, from Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, would ban police officers from using chokeholds and carotid artery restraints when detaining suspects. The bill was inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, two major housing-related bills from Atkins — SB 995 and SB 1120, were approved by the Assembly but were not taken up for a final vote in the Senate before the midnight deadline.

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Another housing bill had greater success: AB 2345, also from Gonzalez, which would increase incentives given to developers who build affordable housing units, cleared both houses and was headed to the governor’s desk.

Perhaps one of the biggest deals of the session, a last-minute extension of a coronavirus-related eviction moratorium, also passed, and was signed immediately by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Under AB 3088, from Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, landlords can take tenants to small claims court for rent missed between March 1 and Aug. 31 due to the pandemic, but are not allowed to evict anyone because of it. Moving forward, tenants will have to pay 25% of rent missed between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31 to be protected from eviction.

Several other coronavirus-related bills also made it through both chambers this year. AB 2043, from Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, would require the state to develop COVID-19 workplace safety standards for agricultural employers and employees. AB 1867, from the Assembly Budget Committee, would grant additional coronavirus-related sick leave to some workers in the food sector industry, some health care providers and certain first responders. SB 1159, from Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would allow police and firefighters who have contracted COVID-19 while working to receive workers' compensation, putting the burden on employers to prove infections didn't occur on the job.

Among the other notable bills on their way to the governor's desk:

  • AB 3121, from Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, would create a task force to examine what reparations for slavery might look like in California, including who might get them and in what form.
  • AB 979, from Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, would require publicly held corporations whose principal executive offices are located in California to have at least one director from an underrepresented community on its board by the end of 2021. That number would increase by the end of 2022 depending on the size of the board.

Newsom now has 30 days to act on the deluge of legislation headed his way.

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This post includes additional reporting from Adam Beam of the Associated Press.