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Flush budget, unfinished business await California lawmakers

In this Aug. 31, 2020, file photo, is the Assembly gallery overlooking a legislative session in Sacramento, Calif.
Hector Amezcua / Associated Press
In this Aug. 31, 2020, file photo, is the Assembly gallery overlooking a legislative session in Sacramento, Calif.

California lawmakers are flush with money and unfinished business from last year as they return to the state Capitol on Monday, but they head into an election year rife with uncertainty due to the redrawing of legislative districts after the 2020 census.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he anticipates another “historic” budget surplus months after he approved a record spending plan that topped a quarter-trillion dollars including a $75 billion surplus. Legislative analysts predict the state will have another $31 billion surplus for the fiscal year starting July 1.

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Newsom, a Democrat, promised that the proposed budget he must present by Jan. 10 will seek more money to deter a recent surge in large scale smash-and-grab robberies, $100 million to clean up areas associated with homeless encampments, and funding for dyslexia programs after the governor wrote a children's book based on his own struggles.

Democrats who control the Legislature have their own priorities, with Senate leader Toni Atkins promising to spend the wealth on “those who need it most — the middle class and families struggling to get by.” That includes on affordable housing, essential workers, schools and colleges and protecting the climate, senators said.

Assembly budget chairman Phil Ting set similar priorities but does not expect the Legislature to immediately allocate billions of dollars this year as it did last year to address the coronavirus pandemic and in anticipation of a severe wildfire season.

“It's interesting the economy continues to do well (but) people don’t feel it,” Ting said. “And so I think we have to get a sense of exactly where the pain points are, and what the best ways to help them out.”

Newsom runs for reelection this year along with other statewide officeholders, but he handily defeated a mid-term recall effort last fall.


Lawmakers, however, are engaged in a game of “musical chairs mixed in with chicken” to determine who survives the legislative remapping that often lumped incumbents into the same district, said Rob Pyers, research director of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which closely tracks redistricting.

Individual battles aside, Democrats are the big winners in the remapping that will lock in their supermajorities for the next decade, said Pyers and Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners. The advantage doesn't change much in the 40-member Senate, but under the new maps Republicans are unlikely to top 18 members in the 80-member Assembly, said Pyers, and could fall to about a dozen, Mitchell said.

“In these maps, could they even get to 20 Assembly members? It's inconceivable,” said Mitchell. “So they are really firmly ensconced in the super-minority that they have, and that's probably going to be true for the whole decade.”

In the meantime, lawmakers face a Jan. 31 deadline to advance bills held over from last year that never cleared their house of origin.

But many of the higher profile leftovers at least passed their initial chamber, giving their proponents more time to seek consensus.

They include a bill to overhaul California’s cash bail system, after voters in 2020 blocked a more sweeping effort to end cash bail; measures to decriminalize some psychedelic drugs and give opioid users a place to inject drugs while supervised; and a ban on turning immigrants who complete their criminal sentences over to federal authorities for possible deportation.

Lawmakers last year passed a bill to end the crime of loitering for the purpose of prostitution, but Sen. Scott Wiener took the unusual step of withholding it from Newsom until early this year.

Meanwhile, lawmakers may consider several measures designed to encourage people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, a volatile issue that drew more than a thousand people to the Capitol in September to protest vaccine mandates.

A bill initially floated last year by Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks would have required all workers to either receive the coronavirus vaccine or submit to weekly testing. A business-backed bill by Assemblyman Evan Low would protect employers who require their workers to be vaccinated.

And Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and leading vaccine advocate, suggested he might seek to limit medical and personal belief exemptions in pending regulations requiring K-12 students in public and private schools to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend classes in-person.

Democratic lawmakers also expect to propose constitutional amendments that would make future efforts to recall the governor and other officials more difficult.

More action on climate change is expected, with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon among lawmakers saying California is falling behind as a world leader with goals that fail to recognize that global warming is happening more swiftly than many had imagined.

For instance, seven Democratic lawmakers said they learned from last fall's United Nations climate conference that “the world is surpassing California on climate change education.”

So they introduced legislation requiring that climate change be taught as part of the K-12 science curriculum, following the lead of Italy, New Zealand and New Jersey.

Legislators also are attuned as always to dominant headlines.

Democratic Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin is promising legislation making it easer for district attorneys to prosecute organized retail thefts that cross county lines, responding to the recent mass smash-and-grab thefts in California and elsewhere.

Ting and fellow Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson promise legislation responding to Newsom's call for a Texas-style law that would allow individuals to sue manufactures of illegal ghost guns and assault weapons.

Democratic Sen. Mike McGuire wants to spend more than $200 million to hire more than 1,100 new wildland firefighters.

And lawmakers may decide to pay for people from other states to come to California for abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, following the recommendations of a panel formed by Newsom that includes Senate leader Atkins.

Democrats start the year with somewhat depleted ranks, though not enough to challenge their overwhelming majority.

Democratic Assemblymen David Chiu, Ed Chau and Jim Frazier all resigned, forcing upcoming special elections. Chiu left to become San Francisco city attorney, Chau to become a Los Angeles County judge and Frazier to seek unspecified work in the transportation sector.