News

How powerful lawmakers are killing California bills — by doing nothing

New state Assembly rule is angering some representatives, but there's debate over whether it's actually a bad thing

California State Capitol at 10th and L streets in Sacramento. Photo by Steven Pavlov, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19327176)

Gun control, school spending, curbs on greenhouse gases: With Democrats holding more power at the Capitol than they've had since the 19th century, California's legislative pipeline is full this year with big, blue-state ideas.

In theory, no Democrat's bill should be left behind. But that's not what's happening, and the reason is roiling both sides of the aisle in Sacramento.

The complaint? Democrats who lead legislative committees are using a powerful tool to kill bills before they even get a vote.

The tool? Simply doing nothing.

Under a rule the California Assembly put in place at the start of the current session, committee chairs can decide whether to bring a bill assigned to their committee up for consideration. As key deadlines came and went this month for bills to move out of committee, chairs used the new power to quash bills by just not scheduling them for a public hearing.

No hearing, no debate, no vote.

Democrats — who hold all the chairmanships because of their party's mega-majority in the Legislature — flexed their muscle not only to bury GOP legislation but also to silently sideline bills by fellow Democrats that might be embarrassing to publicly vote down.

Among the victims: Democratic legislation to alter the formula for funding public schools to devote more money to low-achieving students (a complex plan that stresses racial inequities); a bill to develop a strategy to phase out sales of gas-powered cars in favor of cleaner vehicles (guaranteed to create conflicts for Democrats whose constituents work in the oil industry); and a potentially divisive proposal requiring that gun owners lock up their weapons when they leave home.

"I was very frustrated," said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale whose bill on gun storage was shelved without a hearing.

"The committee is there to discuss areas of policy. If the chair has concerns about the policy, it's my opinion that having it discussed in committee is the right approach."

It's the latest sign that Democrats' growing majority in Sacramento doesn't necessarily mean more unity. Democrats now hold about three-quarters of the Legislature's seats — a margin that gives the party the potential for great power but also makes it vulnerable to fracture under the weight of its ideological, geographic and socio-economic diversity.

The lower house adopted new rules when the two-year legislative session began, explicitly giving committee chairs the power to choose whether to hear legislation. Previously, committees generally heard all bills if the author wanted them heard, and it was unusual for a chair not to extend that courtesy. (The state Senate did not enact a similar rule change this year. Its custom has been to let chairs decide whether to set hearings.)

Speaker's philosophy of empowerment

The Assembly's move to clarify that chairs can decide whether to set a hearing is in keeping with Speaker Anthony Rendon's long-stated philosophy that committee chairs should have more power.

But Assembly Republicans quickly jumped on the change as something that could doom their bills and voted against the rule.

"Chairmen under these new rules would have the power to essentially kill a bill by denying it a hearing," GOP Assemblyman Jay Obernolte said in December as the Assembly voted on the new rules. "And they would be able to do this ... without a vote of the members of that committee and without any testimony from the public. That is a violation not only of the longstanding practice of this chamber but also of the principles of democracy itself."

Assemblyman Marc Berman, a Democrat from Palo Alto, said he initially felt some unease about the new rule given the Republican opposition. But now he supports it, in part because Assemblyman Chad Mayes, a former Republican caucus leader, correctly observed that not all the hundreds of bills proposed each session come ready for consideration.

It's a situation that Berman, as the chair of the Elections and Redistricting Committee, has himself seen.

"An author introduces a bill that's largely vague in its language — not nearly in the form of an actual law — and they're not interested in working on it," Berman said. He recalled one time that a staff member with 19 years of committee experience came to him saying that it would be impossible to provide the required analysis of a bill.

"I can't even wrap my head around the language," the staffer said, according to Berman.

In those situations, Berman said, he tells the author that more work is needed before the bill can be heard in the next legislative session but that his staff will help. Doing that, however, isn't the same as flat out denying a hearing, which Berman said he hasn't done.

Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who chairs the public safety committee that held Friedman's gun storage bill, said that by not hearing it he's giving supporters more time to resolve problems and bring it back next year. He wouldn't say why he objected to the gun storage policy, though his committee's analysis says it could conflict with local ordinances.

"I want to see if we can come together and make the bill much better so it's not a contentious bill and we can get it through," Jones-Sawyer said. "I'm trying to make sure the committee as a whole doesn't kill the bill."

Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said that in her more than six years in the Legislature — during which she's carried plenty of controversial legislation — this month was the first time a committee chair has refused to hear one of her bills. Her legislation to change the formula for funding public schools so that more money would be devoted to student groups that post the lowest test scores was one of several measures related to the funding formula that were not heard in the education committee.

"Generally even if the chair opposes a bill they will set the bill for a hearing, and then people can vote it up or down," Weber said.

The new way, she said, amounts to "a one-person decision."

It's striking a nerve across the political spectrum, from a Sierra Club lobbyist who's angry that a clean-cars bill wasn't heard, to a conservative Republican who's fuming because her campus free-speech bill — making it harder for colleges to restrict who can speak at campus events — wasn't brought up for a vote.

"When you don't allow that bill to be heard then you don't even have the discussion," said GOP Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez. "The opportunity for a healthy debate is taken away."

The political counterbalance

Berman said he is not familiar with how all of the other committee chairs are using the new power but that he expects them to act responsibly.

"Now the chair has the option of saying 'no,' I hope they use it judiciously," he said.

One constraining factor for chairs is the political reality that they themselves propose legislation they want passed, Berman pointed out.

"There are consequences to every action. Chairs of committees have our own bills that we need to get our colleagues' support on, and if there are chairs who are angering their own colleagues," they risk losing critical support, he said.

Berman said he appreciates Rendon's effort to give more authority to the committee chairs, which aligns with Rendon's intent to "usher in a new era of a decentralized speakership and member empowerment," according to the speaker's website.

Berman said he was told by colleagues that past speakers have been "heavy handed" in controlling their party members' actions, telling them what to support and oppose. By contrast, Rendon doesn't even carry bills himself -- in stark contrast to speakers who "have hoarded the high profile bills themselves," Berman said.

As for the dissent brewing over the new rule, the Democratic caucus could have a conversation to assess the level of members' frustration, and if it's high enough, consider amending the rule to add parameters, he said.

Berman himself was one of several co-authors on AB-40, the clean-cars bill, whose hearing was postponed in April. While Berman hasn't yet discussed with the bill's author why that happened, he's hopeful it can return next January, he said.

Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong contributed reporting to this article.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California's policies and politics. Read more state news from CALmatters here.

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Comments

44 people like this
Posted by The Public Interest
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 6, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Then please do nothing about SB 50 and kill it, including its companion bill in the assembly, Marc Berman. Please represent your actual constituents and say no to tall buildings built next door to single family homes ---- with very little parking!!!! And yes, that can happen in every neighborhood in Palo Alto if SB 50 passes.


39 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 6, 2019 at 7:12 pm

Echoing "The Public Interest's" points. Kill SB50. We're already under-parked and gridlocked. Downtowns becoming office parks, with restaurants, retail and businesses serving residents being pushed out.


Like this comment
Posted by NRC
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2019 at 12:45 am

Decentralization out to committees is the opposite of what has happened in Washington the last several decades. Given the record in DC, this is probably a good thing.


2 people like this
Posted by @The Public Interest
a resident of another community
on May 7, 2019 at 1:42 am

Even if SB50 is shelved this is a losing battle for you. California is now a majority renter state and housing costs near jobs are out of control. Why should any of us let the Peninsula continue to push away housing and exacerbate this situation? Go sell your million dollar home and live somewhere that isn't the center of Silicon Valley if you don't want tall buildings near you, because the rest of us aren't going to keep paying ridiculous rents just so rich people can maintain their preferred type of suburbia and continue inflating their property values.


13 people like this
Posted by Constituent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2019 at 8:19 am

SB50 is terrible for renters. It’s so called protections are unenforceable in practice. Renters will be displaced in large numbers.

And it’s mostly about unaffordable market rate housing that does not “trickle down”.

It will soon come your way - we in Palo Alto expect you to do everything you can to kill SB50, Assemblyman Bergman.


9 people like this
Posted by In The Public Interest
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 7, 2019 at 10:49 am

@The Public Interest ---- Attacking rich people --- or anyone who owns a single family home in Silicon Valley --- really? that's your argument ?-- class warfare? So we see the real argument behind this: We should get to live in your town, just because jobs are located there. So who made the choice to accept a job in this town? Is that the only possible job to be had? Why not work closer to home? Why are we responsible for making your life work due to choices you made?

We do live in a capitalist market economy. And the reason that BART was created, like Caltrain, was to help bring workers to the job centers. Why not work on mass transit? And incentivizing jobs to locate closer to more affordable housing --- and closer to other communities?

Stop vilifying and smearing and blaming and guilting people.


Like this comment
Posted by NRC
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2019 at 11:44 am

Thanks again for this article and for teaming up with CalMatters.org, which does good work. As DC deadlooks while Sacramento moves away from deadlock, it is good to keep readers up to speed on how CA government works. It is too bad the posters above did not read this article -- which is about the workings of the Assembly and says nothing about Senate bills or housing.

One other thing to note is just how small the Assembly is. It has 80 members. When the US had a similar population (in the 1870s) it had 292 members. Given this, a newly elected Assembly member can find many things of value to work on (and show results to their constituents).


3 people like this
Posted by @The Public Interest
a resident of another community
on May 7, 2019 at 4:17 pm

Oh that's rich to hear you talk about class warfare while exacerbating wealth and income disparity by trying to wall off your city and blame others for taking jobs there. People are rightfully fed up, and the passage of an SB50 or equivalent bill is inevitable.


2 people like this
Posted by Kenny
a resident of University South
on May 7, 2019 at 9:04 pm

"Go sell your million dollar home and live somewhere that isn't the center of Silicon Valley if you don't want tall buildings near you,"

It does seem to be about continuing to inflate home values, doesn't it?

There have been high-rise housing towers in Palo Alto for decades before the no-growthers rolled into town - The Marc, Leaning Chateau, the place at the end of Alma, Channing House, and the Birge Clark-esque high rise across from Laning Chateau. They are a mix of apartments, condos, and retirement units between all those buildings. Palo Alto did not die because high density housing was built. The process has been ongoing, at least until a small minority tried to block it.

Not to worry. SB50 is about to break the logjam.


1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 8, 2019 at 5:53 pm

It's the establishment stupid ... in a blue state where saying you are red is problematic, no one does it. Look in editorials, online or phone-in talk shows ... few admit to being Republicans or Conservatives, they claim to be independent or Libertarian. Half of CA Democrats are Republicans because after all since the 90's and Clinton the Democrats have veered farther right than Nixon and even Reagan, all done with the financing of the 1% and the collusion of the not-Liberal media.

The reality is that citizens cannot just assume we live in America and everything is fine and set forever. We find out we have to pay attention, work together, and ugh!, get along ... and we even have to try to understand the right-wing extremists and separate out the loonies from the one-track minded capitalists. The Founders told us this but we don't listen to well.


Like this comment
Posted by Likebottom working?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 9, 2019 at 5:29 pm

How come some comments can be liked some cannot?
All the ones I want to like cannot be liked:(


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 10, 2019 at 3:40 am

@Likebottom/Likebutton -- Try reloading the page. Sometimes that revives the buttons. Unless you have already clicked the like.


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