Crunch Time for California Legislature as Covid-Shortened Session Ends

The California Capitol building in Sacramento. (Courthouse News photo / William Dotinga)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In the final hours of an extraordinary session already bottlenecked by the coronavirus pandemic, any semblance of order and decorum went out the window Monday night in the California Senate.

Partisan ploys and profanity ran amok in the 40-member body even as dozens of bills regarding the state’s most pressing issues like policing and criminal justice reform remained pending.

With time running out before a midnight deadline to pass new bills, the Democratic caucus proposed and approved an unusual motion to severely limit debate on agenda items. The quarantined minority party, barred from the chambers and participating via Zoom after a Republican senator tested positive for the coronavirus late last week, felt singled out.  

“So, you’re just going to shut Republicans out of the debate?” asked Republican state Senator Melissa Melendez. “This is bullshit.”

Following a recess in which the leaders of the two parties were able to calm the tensions, the Senate voted to remove the motion on limited debate and continued with the agenda. 

“We’ve come too far not to complete the work and the task at hand,” said Senate President Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

The pandemic has caused major operational and logistical changes in recent months, forcing the Legislature to conduct hearings with limited in-person access for the media and public. The strange reality continued Monday as both the Assembly and Senate crammed to pass police reforms, prevent evictions and curb the newspaper industry’s demise.

Criminal Justice and Court Reform

Looking to diversify juries, lawmakers approved a measure requiring that all tax filers — not just those with state IDs or registered to vote — be eligible for jury duty.

Senate Bill 592 would require jury commissioners to use tax filings to develop their pools. Cleared by the Assembly in a bipartisan 59-12 vote, proponents cast the measure as a way to ensure fairer and more diverse juries.

“Right now, we are denying people the right to a true jury of their peers, because our juries are not demographically representative,” said SB 592 author state Senator Scott Wiener. “Our current jury pool is whiter and wealthier than our state is. That is both an issue of fairness, and a racial and socioeconomic justice issue. That’s why I authored SB 592; we must ensure our jury pools are as fair and demographically representative as possible.” 

Meanwhile, a bill that would bar attorneys engaged in California jury selection from using peremptory challenges based on race and gender cleared the Legislature just before midnight.

The bill — Assembly Bill 3070, brought by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego — requires attorneys seeking to remove a potential juror to offer evidence why the challenge isn’t tied to the person’s race, ethnicity or gender.

Weber’s bill initially failed in the Senate but was given reconsideration late in the evening and passed with the minimum number of votes possible.

Senator Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, said he was concerned the bill could lead to a lopsided jury and unfavorable outcomes in criminal cases.

“I urge that we continue to work on this next year,” said Umberg.

As for police reforms, lawmakers approved a ban on carotid chokeholds similar to the one used by a Minneapolis police officer in the death of George Floyd, and a mandate requiring the attorney general’s office investigate when an officer fatally shoots an unarmed civilian.

“We’ve had over 800 deadly force incidents since I first introduced this bill,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento. “It’s certainly time for a change; we have too much distrust with police policing themselves and local district attorneys conducting investigations.” 

Meanwhile proposals that would have created a process to decertify crooked and violent officers and limit the use of rubber bullets stalled in the Senate and will have to be taken up next year.  

Tax Breaks for Undocumented Workers

Earlier Monday, the Assembly by a 52-15 margin voted to extend a state tax credit to California’s undocumented workforce.

Proponents said allowing undocumented workers to apply for the Earned Income Tax and Young Child Tax programs will give badly needed support to low-income families unable to take advantage of tax benefits available to other residents.

“This is about people who pay their taxes every single year and are denied the relief and tax credits that other working Californians get,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. “These are people who are working in our farms and helping to clean up after us.”

Republican Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who voted no on Assembly Bill 1876, warned about the possibility of fraudsters taking advantage of the program. He said the Franchise Tax Board currently wards against abuse of the programs by matching applicants’ claims with Internal Revenue Services filings. He argued because undocumented filers don’t have social security numbers, it could be hard for the state to decipher whether a claim is accurate or not.

According to the state, expanding the program would cost taxpayers approximately $60 million annually. The proposal that will allow undocumented workers making less than $30,000 per year was included in a budget trailer bill late last week.

The Public Policy Institute of California estimates nearly 10% of the state’s workforce is undocumented while a separate report by the California Budget Center found California’s immigrant workers contribute over $3 billion in sales, property and income taxes annually.  

A Flurry of Bills

Other bills landing on Newsom’s desk include: a task force to study the lingering effects of slavery and potential reparations for black Californians, requirement that California’s 662 publicly traded companies include at least one non-white member on their corporate boards, and a proposal requiring food delivery companies like Uber Eats and Doordash to sign agreements with restaurants before offering their products.

Lawmakers also voted to limit the cost of commissary goods and phone call fees for inmates at county jails, a new process to allow people working on an inmate firefighting crews to retain similar jobs upon release from custody, ban of dog and cat sales by retailers and framework to allow Native American tribes to recover artifacts from state universities.

This bill is vital to preserve our tribal culture and ensure Native American tribes have the opportunity to pay honor and respect to our ancestors and elders,” said Assemblyman James Ramos, the first Native American elected to the Legislature. 

And the full Assembly passed a resolution asking the California Supreme Court to make the recently lowered cut scores for the state bar exam retroactive.

After adjourning for the final time of the two-year session, Governor Newsom applauded the Democratic-controlled Legislature for pressing forward despite the major obstacles thrown its way in recent months.

“Even in the midst of a global pandemic and subsequent economic recession, historic wildfires, and the pain of persistent and systemic racism, state government came together this year to advance critical priorities that will help the people of this great state. I want to thank the Legislature for their important work and partnership this year,” Newsom said in a statement.

Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bills.

The Legislature will begin its 2021-2022 session on Dec. 7.

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