Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Legislature was poised for an active and productive year.
February 21 marked the first significant legislative checkpoint of the 2020 session. Lawmakers scrambled to introduce just over 2000 pieces of legislation in the final days leading up to the legislative introduction deadline. Following procedural rules, bills introduced must sit in print for at least 30 days from their introduction date prior to be acted upon.
With this year as the final year of the two-year session, Members are making the last push to successfully complete their policy goals and campaign promises before heading back to their districts for the fall recess. With thousands of measures awaiting committee referrals making sense of what is “out there” can be somewhat of a challenge for a variety of reasons. First, many of these measures are still in “spot” form—meaning, as currently drafted they simply outline policy intent and do nothing to substantively change current law. Over time these spot bills will be amended to have substantive policy language which will then move through the normal legislative process. Nevertheless, even with intent language and non-substantive bills RPPG has sifted through thousands of pieces of legislation—identifying overarching themes that will have a material impact on local government.
Housing and Homelessness: It is irrefutable that there is a housing and homelessness crisis in our state, making it the biggest topic of the legislature. California’s share of the homeless population is the largest in the nation, totaling 69% of the people without shelter across the United States, while also facing a massive housing shortage. Members of both houses have introduced bills aimed at tackling the many facets impacting Californian’s ability to affordably live in the state. This pressing topic was also the focus of Governor Newsom’s State of the State address, Members have been introducing a flurry of bills with an array of approaches to fix the housing crisis that faces California. From limitations on impact fees and restrictions on local government planning efforts to more creative strategies like using vacant state property and market-based incentives, the solutions put forth will require action from the state and locals to combat the crisis. Despite the effectiveness of proposed policies, they all come with commitments to make an impact on the increasing struggle for Californian’s of different income levels to afford to live in the state. To improve on the lack of tools provided to local government, the League of California Cities recently announced a comprehensive legislative proposal that aims to spur housing production for all income levels through short- and long-term strategies. This proposal comes after Senate Bill (SB) 50 by Senator Wiener failed to pass off of the Senate Floor earlier this year, which would have given the state more jurisdiction over local zoning to increase housing density and build units near public transportation. Upon the bill’s death, Senator Wiener promised to continue the work of SB 50 in other bills this year. Recent amendments to an SB 50 follow-up bill, SB 902 continues the goal of increasing density, but on a smaller scale through the encouragement of multiplexes. If passed, SB 902 would require cities with populations of over 50,000 to allow four-unit rentals in residential neighborhoods. RPPG remains committed to working with Members on proposed solutions for supporting locals and combating the housing and homelessness crisis across California.
Independent Contractors: There has been no shortage of attention to the major change in the law surrounding independent contractors. Last year Governor Newsom signed the highly contentious Assembly Bill (AB) 5, which expansively impacts virtually every private sector employer in California. There are already dozens of bills introduced this year that would make changes to the three-part test instituted by AB 5, mainly creating industry specific carve outs such as SB 965 by Senator Nielsen, which provides a carveout for health care workers. Measures such as AB 1925 by Assemblymember Obernolte and AB 2489 by Assemblymember Choi would provide exemptions for small businesses and franchises, respectively. Since most of the bills introduced are authored by minority party legislators, there will be very little opportunity to amend this overhaul. AB 5 author Assemblymember Gonzalez has introduced AB 1850 and AB 2465, focusing on cosmetologists and journalists with the promise to work on their specific concerns. While negotiations around broader private industry are still ongoing and leaving potential changes vague, it is certain that AB 5 will be a major topic this legislative year.
Wildfires/PG&E: While last year did not bring as many major wildfires as 2018 or 2017, addressing wildfires will be a policy priority as it has been the last few legislative cycles. SB 917 by Senator Wiener has picked up significant media attention would turn PG&E into a public utility by forcing the state to purchase all the company’s shares. Other proposed bills employ different strategies to mitigate fire risk through hardening of infrastructure, increasing accountability of utilities, or providing grant funding opportunities. While advocates continue to encourage the building of more housing, increased development must be reconciled with where and how we are building with historically most devastating fires in Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) zones. Critical assessment of the impact of climate change and forestry resiliency will be necessary before significant improvements can be made on the status of wildfires here in California.
From splashy, press oriented bills and placeholder language to detailed policy changes, these priorities follow in step with last year and previous hot topics of the legislature. Other issues that could garner some attention, but maybe not enough focus as they merit include pension reform, law enforcement accountability, education improvements and the opioid crisis.
With the Legislature now on recess till the end of the normally scheduled Spring Recess break thanks to Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 189, it is hard to fully assess how much progress will be made on these pivotal issues.
Instead of a committee hearings and negotiations, Members will spend the upcoming weeks in their districts, responding to COVID-19 and the crisis that comes with it. This unprecedented break in the legislative cycle will surely be a setback to the potential policy progress within the spaces of housing and homelessness, independent contracting and wildfire mitigation.