California Lawmakers Return to State Capitol at a New Building and Focus on Proposed Bills

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A large white building seen from a distance with trees and people around the outside.
 (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

California lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Monday to begin an eight-month session in an election year, shaded by uncertainty but buoyed by a second consecutive year of massive budget surpluses.

They hurried to introduce legislation to be considered in coming months, while dodging protestors upset with pending coronavirus regulations. They face a busy first month, with Gov. Gavin Newsom's pending budget address and a month's-end deadline to consider some legislation left over from last year.

"It's like the first day of school" was one of the conversational themes Republican Sen. Brian Jones of El Cajon said he heard, while the other was "we're going to have some growing pains."

Legislators are now temporarily housed in a new $424 million office building a few blocks from the Capitol while their old offices in the attached annex are razed and replaced. And lawmakers will run in new legislative districts in the June primary and November general elections after boundary lines were redrawn based on the 2020 census.

Across the rotunda, the Assembly's first session was marred by a faulty microphone system that helped delay the start for 35 minutes.

"I'm having flashbacks to my DJ days," quipped Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Mullin as he repeatedly tested whether the microphone was working.

Lawmakers milled about the floor wearing masks, some bearing political messages. They handed out fist bumps and hugged while posing for long-arm selfies. Some huddled to discuss who was running for what seats in the redrawn districts

Returning lawmakers immediately began unveiling new legislation they intend to seek in the new year.

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Sen. Anthony Portantino of Glendale proposed changing the way funding is doled out to K-12 schools with SB 830, adding an estimated $3 billion to K-12 funding based on enrollment numbers rather than attendance numbers. California is one of six states that does not consider enrollment for its education funding, Portantino said, also naming Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton introduced a proposal to change the state's recall process, months after Gov. Gavin Newsom survived an effort to remove him mid-term. Newman himself was recalled in 2018 before regaining his seat two years later.

Newman's constitutional amendment, SCA 6, would replace a recalled governor with the lieutenant governor. It would allow the governor to appoint replacements for other recalled constitutional officers, with legislative confirmation. A recalled state legislator would be replaced through a special election at a later date.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco will try to change the state's definition of false testimony to include expert court opinions based on what he termed flawed scientific research or outdated technology, or where a reasonable scientific dispute has emerged over its validity. His SB 467 would allow people to appeal if they previously were convicted based on the discredited testimony.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Dave Cortese of Campbell said he anticipates legislation in 13 areas, including the environment, universal basic income, criminal sentencing, employment, tenant protections and public health and safety. Six are holdovers that failed to pass last year.

All are Democrats, who dominate the Legislature and thus largely direct what bills make it to Gov. Newsom.

Several lawmakers proposed legislation even before the Legislature's return. They include measures making it easer for district attorneys to prosecute organized retail thefts and responding to Newsom's call for a Texas-style law that would allow individuals to sue manufactures of illegal ghost guns and assault weapons.

Aside from technical issues, opening day was marred by reminders of the surging coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk said he tested positive on Sunday before returning to Sacramento, but has no symptoms. Democratic Assemblymember Miguel Santiago said his two children tested positive so his entire family is in quarantine.

A couple hundred protesters gathered outside the west entrance of the state Capitol, demonstrating against the state's upcoming coronavirus vaccine mandate for schoolchildren. Lawmakers were greeted by numerous signs, including a flag draped across some camping chairs that declared "Wake Up Sheeple."

The vaccine mandate for schoolchildren won't take effect until later this year. It was put in place by Newsom, not the state Legislature. But lawmakers likely will debate a number of vaccine proposals this year, including ones that could affect businesses and public places.

"It should be parents' choice, not lawmakers, not the governor," said Melinda Rodriguez, 43, who attended the rally with her 7-year-old daughter, Maliyaa.

Newsom, a Democrat, must present his proposed budget within the next week, months after he approved a record spending plan topped by a $75 billion surplus. Legislative analysts predict the state will have another $31 billion surplus for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Lawmakers also have a Jan. 31 deadline to advance bills held over from last year that never cleared their house of origin.

Democrats start the year with somewhat depleted ranks, though not enough to challenge their overwhelming majority. Democratic Assemblymembers David Chiu, Ed Chau and Jim Frazier all resigned to take other jobs, forcing upcoming special elections. And Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who has led the powerful Appropriations Committee, announced Monday that she is resigning this week to become the next chief executive of the California Labor Federation starting in July.

"Returning to the floor today is a bit bittersweet for me. It's the last day I'll serve with all of you," Gonzalez told her colleagues.

Associated Press writers Adam Beam and Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this story.