Progressive Hopes Foiled in Sacramento

Democratic infighting has stalled a number of Bernie-esque policies, but California’s proposed budget is packed with goodies for progressives.

Remember when Senator Bernie Sanders won the Democratic Primary in California by nearly half a million votes? That certainly feels like a long time ago — especially in the wake of the losses progressives just endured in Sacramento.

Left wing activists and politicians came into this year’s state legislative session hoping to channel the energy from the 2020 primary campaign into concrete policies in a state where Democrats hold a comfortable supermajority. It turns out, “big, structural change,” to use one of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s catchphrases, doesn’t come easy in the Golden State. 

Many policies that might sound familiar to supporters of Sanders and Warren — single payer healthcare, a wealth tax, a ban on corporate donations to political campaigns, and other longtime progressive priorities — have been killed or shelved for the year. Not only do these policies resemble those of Californians’ preferred presidential candidates, many of them were explicitly endorsed by the state Democratic Party at their convention earlier this month. 

“It shows you the disconnect,” says Democratic Assemblymember Alex Lee of Milpitas, who championed many of the aforementioned bills. “A lot of the values of the party are not being acted upon in the actual Democratic supermajority.”

Lee, who at 25 years old is the youngest member of the state legislature, vows to keep fighting. And other Bay Area legislators are maintaining the progressive pressure, as well, moving the ball on arguably the state’s most pressing issue: housing. At the same time, California’s proposed budget, which will be released Friday, could provide significant funds for rent relief, childcare, direct cash payments to middle class families, and housing the homeless. For progressives in our super rich, extremely unequal, and overwhelmingly Democratic state, the year so far has been a mixed bag. 

Killed & Shelved

A proposed fracking ban was the first progressive casualty, until it wasn’t. San Francisco’s state Senator Scott Wiener introduced a bill, SB 467, that would have banned new fracking permits starting next year, and made all oil and gas drilling illegal within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, and hospitals. 

While the bill was killed in the Senate Natural Resources Committee — where several Democratic legislators have received significant contributions from the fossil fuel industry — it did, apparently, prompt Governor Newsom to act on a more modest executive order. The order will ban new fracking permits in 2024, and also asks the California Air Resources Board to consider a full ban on fossil fuel production by 2045. 

“Governor Newsom’s directive was the result of years of movement-building and pressure to see action from the government on the supply side of the state’s reliance on oil and gas. That feels really clear to everyone involved,” says Isa Flores-Jones, a communications associate for California Environmental Justice Alliance, a group that advocated for Wiener’s bill. Flores-Jones notes that Newsom’s order represents “the first time the state of California has said phasing out fossil fuel extraction is a goal,” but is disappointed by the fact it does nothing for the 2 million Californians who live within half a mile of an active oil or gas well. 

Another unsuccessful bill, AB 1400, would have created a path to providing healthcare for everybody in California by establishing a single-payer system in the state. That bill was shelved in committee after some members questioned how it would be funded. Assemblymember Lee, who was one of the bill’s authors — along with several Bay Area legislators — says that when AB 1400 is reintroduced at next year’s legislative session, it will have a stronger funding proposal.

Lee also introduced a bill, co-authored by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland, that would create a social housing agency in California. Based on programs in East Asia and Europe, the government agency would build and own mixed-income housing, subsidizing affordable homes with more expensive ones in the same developments. That bill, AB 387, was also rejected in committee, and changed into a two-year bill so it can be reconsidered next legislative session. Legislators felt the ambitious proposal wasn’t ready for primetime. Even Lee acknowledges, in retrospect, that creating a social housing agency for California is “going to obviously be a huge endeavor, and we want to get it right.”

Another housing bill — AB 854, from Lee and San Francisco Assemblymembers Phil Ting and David Chiu — would have reformed the notorious Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants if they want to go out of the rental business. San Francisco politicians, including late Mayor Ed Lee and former state Senator Mark Leno, have long tried to repeal or reform this law, which has paved the way for many evictions of low-income tenants in the city. But once again, those efforts came up short in committee, Lee says, after the powerful California Apartment Association put the bill at the top of their “kill list.”  

Then there was Lee’s effort, along with Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose, to ban corporate donations to political campaigns. Like other progressive bills this session, AB 20 received criticism for being half-baked. “AB 20 won’t actually reduce the amount of corporate spending in politics, it will just shift that spending to less-transparent and less-accountable routes like independent expenditures,” Assemblymember Marc Berman of Palo Alto said during the committee hearing, where the bill was shot down. 

Finally, there was the wealth tax, AB 310, that would have levied a 1 percent tax on assets worth more than $50 million, excluding real estate, which — you guessed it — couldn’t get out of committee. The reason cited by opposing legislators, according to Lee, was that “it’s a bad time to tax rich people.” Lee counters that the argument is “just mind boggling,” when California’s ultra-rich are doing better than ever.   

A Big Budget

To be fair, the state is already managing to capture a decent chunk of the growing wealth of mega millionaires and billionaires, even if it’s not as much as many progressives would like. California has a massive budget surplus of more than $75 billion, bolstered by the IPO boom as well as $27 billion in federal stimulus funds. Gov. Newsom is proposing to use that money to add an additional $38 billion in spending to the state budget as part of his “California Comeback Plan.” 

Newsom’s proposed budget, which will need to be authorized by the state legislature, would provide $600 stimulus checks to families earning less than $75,000, or about two-thirds of Californians. Qualified families with children and other dependents will get an additional $500 check. All told, the proposal is three times larger than the Golden State Stimulus passed earlier this year. 

Newsom’s budget also proposes $5 billion for rent relief and $2 billion for utility-payment relief. Increased funding for childcare and homelessness are also expected to be part of the budget. 

Newsom and his team surely hope these eye-popping numbers will build voter goodwill leading up to his recall election later this year. What voters may not know, though, is that the state government is actually required by an obscure 1979 law to provide taxpayer rebates if revenues exceed a certain threshold, as John Myers at the LA Times recently explained. That means a lot of the new spending in this year’s proposed budget will be one-time, instead of funding long-term programs. 

Despite all the goodies in the state budget, progressive activists are fighting to make sure Newsom doesn’t neglect them and their core issues as he campaigns for his own recall election.

“Newsom should do something to mobilize the progressive base. I think that he should get a federal waiver for single payer health care and work hard to get that passed this year,” says Jackie Fielder, who previously ran for state Senate against Wiener, and has since started a progressive political action committee called Daybreak. “I feel that he would be making a big misstep to ignore the progressive part of California. This was a state Bernie won by a lot.” 

Hope on Housing

It also remains to be seen how the recall campaign might affect other key bills still making their way through the legislature, many of which are related to housing.  

SF Weekly readers may, uhm, recall, that the state legislature left a good deal of unfinished business on the table when it adjourned for the year in dramatic, late-night fashion last October. One of the most consequential bills that very nearly became law was SB 1120, which would have functionally ended single family zoning across the state. That bill is back this year as SB 9, and, given that it has the backing of the Senate president Toni Atkins of San Diego, and that it was already passed by the Senate last year, it looks like it has a good shot. 

Still, SB 9 isn’t as far-reaching as many activists would like. The bill has been watered down slightly since its previous iteration, which would have, in some cases, allowed up to eight homes on single family lots. It’s current form would allow for four homes. It’s also a far cry from Wiener’s failed SB 50 from last year, which would have allowed small apartment buildings throughout most urban neighborhoods in California. 

The other major housing production bill, SB 10, led by Wiener, would allow cities to implement some of the zoning rules SB 50 would have produced, without going through a lengthy environmental review process. The idea is to make it easy for cities to rezone themselves on their own terms — which many will have to do regardless, thanks to the state-mandated housing goals that came out of the most recent RHNA process

Other housing production bills being considered this year include one from Wiener, SB 478, that would prevent cities from arbitrarily using height and bulk ratios to effectively block new housing, and another bill, AB 1400, which would eliminate parking requirements in new development. 

After years of being primed with more ambitious housing bills — many of them from Wiener — perhaps this is the year the state legislature will finally agree to proactively take steps to address the housing shortage. 

Of course, the housing crisis is bigger than that, and there are some efforts underway to address its other elements. While Ellis Act reform stalled, a law currently under consideration in the legislature would authorize a ballot measure asking voters if they want to strike down a 1950s era rule banning the government from building new, publicly owned housing. Activists are also working to get the legislature to extend the eviction moratorium initiated during the pandemic, which is currently set to expire June 30. Assemblymember Chiu, who supports that effort, has said he is worried there might not be an appetite for it in Sacramento. 

As for the social housing proposal that got tabled, Alex Lee says his office wants to hear people’s ideas. If you’ve got thoughts on “a whole new way to do housing in California, we’re always open to feedback,” Lee says. “Especially in S.F. where people are very passionate about this issue.”

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