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 whose district includes Mountain View, 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.