So many storylines could have prevailed as the California Legislature adjourned for the year on Monday — the response to a public health emergency, demands for racial justice, progress toward easing the state’s homelessness and housing crises.
But what was most notable as the final gavel fell in the two houses just before midnight was an unmistakable feeling of absence.
It went beyond the 10 senators forced to quarantine after possible COVID-19 exposure and the empty offices and hallways of the state Capitol, where lobbyists and advocates usually provide rhythm and tempo to the governing process.
The feeling of absence that lingered on the last day of the legislative session was more about what didn’t happen, and the unshakable sense that lawmakers are headed home with accomplishments outmatched by the deep troubles facing communities across California.
“I’m feeling unsatisfied,” Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) said. “On the one hand, we’re having existential conversations about the work and the zeitgeist, the cultural zeitgeist. On the other hand, we’re looking at very real and tangible issues that have yet to be solved.”
Some level of dissatisfaction seemed to be unavoidable, given the enormity of the crisis and the public health imperatives that limited the pace of activity in Sacramento. But in conversations with elected officials, staff members and policy advocates, a portrait emerges of a legislative year in which even a deadly pandemic didn’t change the fundamentals of partisan politics. Others pointed, too, to a Legislature twice relegated to the sidelines — in March and again in July — as Gov. Gavin Newsom acted unilaterally.
“We did not rise to the occasion of being a co-equal branch of government,” Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I-Yucca Valley) said. “But you can’t blame the administration for that. It’s our responsibility.”
Perhaps the most telling sign of a year that had come up short was the persistent chatter about whether Newsom should convene a special session of the Legislature between Labor Day and election day on Nov. 3 to cover some of the state’s most pressing topics.
Republicans went so far as to formally ask Newsom on Monday to keep them in town, while Democratic leaders of the two houses stayed silent on the request. Though the governor could still summon lawmakers back to Sacramento, there is no indication he will do so.
It was not, of course, the year anyone expected. Newsom devoted his entire State of the State address in February to a call for swift and sweeping action to stem California’s homelessness crisis. That same week, legislators introduced the last of 2,203 proposed laws.
Everything changed two weeks later when Newsom declared a statewide emergency in response to the coronavirus. By month’s end, the state Senate and Assembly took the advice of public health officials and suspended all in-person proceedings in Sacramento — but not before authorizing Newsom to spend $1 billion as he saw fit to combat the spread of the virus.
The governor’s wide-reaching actions soon became a source of friction with legislators. Democrats and Republicans alike balked at his use of emergency powers. They criticized Newsom for too little transparency in a nearly $1-billion deal to purchase protective masks and gear from a Chinese electric car company retrofitted to manufacture pandemic supplies. They bristled when Newsom asked for additional spending power, and they questioned dozens of executive orders issued while they were told to stay away from the state Capitol.
Lawmakers came back 45 days later, but the die was already cast. Having lost weeks to vet ideas and gather public input, the vast majority of bills were abandoned. New proposals to address the COVID-19 crisis were introduced, but then another emergency appeared: a projected $54.3-billion budget deficit, unlike any financial crisis in state history, that had to be erased before the end of June.
“When we did come back, the environment to get anything done was very challenging,” Mayes said.
And they weren’t back for long. After two members of the Assembly tested positive for COVID-19 in early July, both houses again suspended their Capitol activities. Once legislators returned, with even less time to craft policy and under strict public health rules, lawmakers and advocates alike found it hard to make progress under the new constraints.
“We are in disarray,” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said in mid-August, weeks before term limits brought her 14 years in the Legislature to an end. “Complex legislation needs sunlight and needs to be reviewed multiple times,” she said. “This [year] has a frantic feel to it.”
The frenzy seemed to work against broad-based efforts to offer economic assistance.
In May, Senate Democrats unveiled a $25-billion blueprint relying on tax vouchers and renter eviction relief that failed to gain traction, and the full proposal never materialized as legislation. The portion that did move forward — an effort to provide far-reaching protection to renters facing eviction — was quietly killed by the Assembly last month while a more modest renter assistance bill was sent to Newsom on Monday, the very last day before a court-ordered moratorium on evictions was set to expire. Their idea of tax vouchers, meanwhile, was delayed for additional study.
In July, the Assembly touted its own plan, building on the Senate’s effort by offering $100 billion in economic assistance. But most of that proposal faded away, too. Its call for extending the state’s earned income tax credit to more immigrants without legal status was adopted, but its most consequential promise, a state-funded expansion of unemployment benefits to replace the expired federal cash, quietly faded away.
While lawmakers frequently discussed the plight of workers out of a job, representatives of business owners wondered whether anyone cared about employers.
“The Legislature loves to say they want to help small business,” said Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Assn. “But it becomes irksome after a while when you see no follow up.”
Condie said he found little appetite from legislative leaders to extend eviction protections to small businesses such as restaurants. His organization’s recent survey of restaurant owners found most will run out of federal Paycheck Protection Program loan funds before the end of September.
“They will absolutely see it” in their legislative districts when they go home this week, Condie said of the looming collapse of dining spots. “There is an ecosystem around a restaurant. You’re seeing this crisis cascade outward.”
Liberal activists also criticized the limits of what the Legislature was willing to do. Last week, a group called Commit to Equity used lights to project “Countdown to catastrophe” on the outside of the state Capitol at night. They had demanded, with little response, that lawmakers impose new taxes on California’s multi-millionaires. Two bills on the subject never had a committee vote.
Kamlager counted among her own frustrations the need to do more on economic issues as well as more substantive social justice efforts and the need for significant work to ease California’s housing crisis. And she noted how hard it is for lawmakers to step away from governing by “owning” an issue and reaping the political praise in favor of a more collaborative approach.
“People want direction,” she said. “And they want to know that we’re listening.”
Mayes, a former leader of the Republican caucus in the Assembly who re-registered without a party preference in 2019, said the costs of inaction are often outweighed by the political consequences of taking the wrong action.
“Fear is a powerful motivator,” he said. “And what ends up happening is everybody falls back to the easiest thing.”