Legislature Adjourns, Leaving Unfinished Business

What California legislators did — and didn’t — accomplish on evictions, housing, police, and labor in the final days of their session.

For California’s state legislature, as for many ordinary Californians, 2020 is shaping up to be something of a lost year. 

When the state legislature began its 2020 session in January, California had a healthy budget surplus and the Democratic supermajorities in both the Senate and the Assembly were flush with ambition. The two chambers proposed over 2,200 bills to tackle housing production, homelessness, climate change, labor protections, and tax policy, among many other issues.

But as the 2020 legislative session came to an end last night, the prevailing sentiment among legislators and activists was “unsatisfied.” 

While an eviction protection bill passed, tenant advocates fear it’s not strong enough to prevent a wave of displacement in the coming months. Similarly, while some police reform laws made it through the legislature, the most ambitious, including one that would chip away at qualified immunity, failed to pass. A plan for increasing unemployment benefits never came to a vote.  

And after vowing to push through a housing production package this year, Senate Democrats couldn’t whip enough votes for the last significant bill standing before the midnight deadline. 

Unless Governor Newsom calls a special session later this fall, Californians will have to wait until next year for the legislature to spring back into action on the state’s most pressing issues. 

In a way, last night’s chaotic finish was a fitting one for the 2020 legislative session. Forced into recess twice due to the pandemic, the legislature had far less time to work than in an ordinary year. In recent days, 10 of 11 Republican Senators had to tune into session remotely, due to potential COVID-19 exposure at an event. This led to numerous Zoom mishaps, including some less-than-professional language and a few awkward hot mic moments. For at least one assemblymember, however, remote voting was not permitted due to the state’s maternity leave policy, which does not allow members to vote from home while on leave. Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Berkeley took the floor with her infant daughter in her arms, earning praise from Hillary Clinton. 

Below, SF Weekly catalogs the most significant legislation that did and did not pass over the final hours of the 2020 legislative session. 

Eviction Protections

Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a new compromise deal on evictions that followed in the wake of weeks of intense lobbying from landlord and tenant groups. The deal, known as AB3088, replaced a more tenant-friendly proposal from San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu. 

The bill, which was passed and immediately signed into law Monday night, limits eviction protections to tenants whose financial hardship is due to the pandemic. All rent owed between March and April will be converted into civil debt, meaning it cannot be the basis of an eviction. Tenants will continue to be protected from eviction if they pay one quarter of their rent from September to January, with the rest being converted to civil debt. Landlords can start collecting unpaid rent through civil courts starting in March 2021.The bill also offers some mortgage protections for small landlords. 

Evictions that are unrelated to pandemic-induced financial hardship will be allowed to resume as early as this week. 

Tenant advocates like ACCE worry that landlords will find ways to evict tenants for reasons other than non-payment of rent — which will soon be allowed — especially given the fact that tenants frequently lack legal representation in eviction court. The group Tenants Together has also criticized a provision in the law that appears to prevent cities from expanding their pandemic-related eviction protections beyond what the state mandates, as San Francisco has done multiple times. 

Assemblymember Chiu wasn’t thrilled with the outcome either, but he ultimately felt this was the best deal tenants were going to get. “I’ll be the first to say this proposal has shortcomings,” he told KQED. “We wanted more. We fought for more.”

Governor Newsom and other leaders have argued that it’s now up to the federal government to come up with solutions to the looming eviction crisis. AB3088 is “just a bridge to a more permanent solution once the federal government recognizes its role in stabilizing the housing market,” Newsom said in a statement.

Housing Production

After San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener’s ambitious housing production bill, SB 50,  failed in January, Wiener, Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, and Governor Newsom vowed to pass a housing production package this year. The session began with a massive slate of housing production bills, designed to address the state’s notoriously strict zoning rules and multi-million home shortage.

But one by one, most of the bills were felled. Only about a dozen of these bills were passed, mostly the less ambitious ones. By Monday, SB 1120 was the one large-scale housing production bill remaining. The bill would have allowed duplexes in nearly all of the areas in the state currently zoned only for single family homes, or about 70 percent of the state’s residential land area. 

The bill passed the Senate in June, but was stalled in the Assembly due to opposition from many Los Angeles area legislators. After multiple attempts Monday, including more stalling from Assembly Republicans, SB 1120 finally passed the Assembly at 11:57 pm. That did not leave enough time for the bill, which included some minor amendments, to go back to the Senate for a re-vote, thus causing it to fail on a technicality. Alex Contreras, an organizer with California YIMBY, described the chain of events as a “filibuster.” 

Just as with previous housing production failures, pro-housing legislators vowed to come back to the table with similar legislation next year.

Policing & Criminal Justice

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and the subsequent protests here in California, state legislators proposed numerous bills aimed at curbing police brutality. 

Two of those bills passed Monday: AB1506 will require the state attorney general to investigate police killings, rather than local authorities who are thought to be more likely to shield police officers from consequences. And AB1196 bans the use of certain chokeholds, like the one that killed George Floyd, although most large police departments in the state already ban these tactics. 

A bill that would have “decertified” police officers who have committed crimes or engaged in serious misconduct, SB731, did not pass. California remains one of only five states that does not have a formal process for revoking the badges of these officers. The bill would have weakened the protections under “qualified immunity,” which protects police officers from lawsuits related to their conduct in the line of duty. Tweets from celebrities like Kim Kardashian West on Monday were not enough to get the bill across the finish line. 

Another high profile piece of legislation that didn’t make it out of the legislature, AB66, would have banned the use of tear gas by police and put new restrictions on their use of rubber bullets. A bill that would have increased public access to records related to police misconduct, SB766, also failed. 

Other criminal-justice related bills fared better. Two bills aimed at increasing the diversity of juries passed, as well as a bill that will allow former convict firefighters to become professional firefighters after their release. 

Labor Protections

While nothing changed Monday in California’s ongoing legal battle with gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber, the state did make some fairly significant changes to its labor laws. AB5, the state law passed last year that stipulates gig economy workers must be categorized as employees, not contractors, has been criticized by freelancers in various professions for curtailing their work opportunities.

In response, the legislature passed AB 2275, an AB5 “cleanup bill,” that creates new exemptions from AB5’s requirements for a wide range of freelancers, including musicians, photographers, translators, writers, graphic designers, and web developers. During deliberation, Republicans took the opportunity to criticize AB5, which voters will get to weigh in on in November with Proposition 22. The Uber and Lyft-backed ballot initiative would repeal AB5 and add some new protections for gig workers. So far, gig economy companies have spent over $200 million on the initiative. 

Another successful labor bill, SB1383, extends the state’s requirement for 12 weeks of paid family leave, currently in force only for large companies, to small businesses as well.

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