It’s a wrap: Nuke power, care for the mentally ill, abortion rights

Lobbyists crowd around video screen to watch the floor votes on the last night of the Legislature's session. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

The final curtain fell early Thursday on a legislative session that coursed through a pandemic, bolstered reproductive rights, saw a speaker nearly dispatched by his own caucus and drew the national spotlight to a governor who had survived an effort to recall him from office.

Several legislators and staff wore masks during the marathon voting session. Some stood close and whispered in one another’s ear. Arms patted backs, and, as Washington prepared for another round of vaccines, many walked closely together past a sign taped to a Senate desk reminding members about social distancing. The Legislature, like most of the state, was ready to move on.

Outside the Capitol, California moved along in a familiar pattern: Torrid statewide temperatures, a deepening drought and a major wildfire near Castaic grabbed the public’s attention.

The legislators also agreed with Newsom that California still needs nuclear power, despite the state’s long aversion to it.

Lawmakers gave Gov. Gavin Newsom more than one high-profile victory Wednesday night.

They approved his controversial plan to impose mental health treatment, under certain circumstances, on those who may not want it. By one estimate some 7,000 to 12,000 severely mentally ill people would be directly affected by the bill. Some counties have estimated that as many as 50,000 could be affected.

Civil libertarians and disability advocates warned that such a law would lead to a coercive system that routinely rolls over individual rights. But mayors and local leaders saw it as a way to make at least some progress on the growing scale of unmet mental health care needs. In the end, the governor got his bill.

The legislators also agreed with him that California still needs nuclear power, despite the state’s long aversion to it.

New construction of nuclear plants has been banned since 1976, and the last reactors in California were set to shut down in 2025. But a bill approved Wednesday would keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo online for an additional five years, granting as much as $1.4 billion in loans to PG&E, which operates the plant. Diablo Canyon produces about 8.6% of California’s electricity, and about 23% of the state’s carbon-free power.

Amid a crowded agenda for the 2021-22 session, abortion rights took center stage in June following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. And there it remained.

“California will not back down from a fight to protect abortion rights,” the governor said at the time, offering the state as a sanctuary to those denied the right elsewhere.

Lawmakers placed a measure on the November ballot that would allow voters to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Newsom took aim at states with the harshest bans. As his focus expanded beyond California borders, speculation grew that he was positioning himself as a potential presidential candidate.

He has consistently, if unconvincingly, dismissed the suggestion.

Lawmakers, likewise, responded swiftly to the ruling, which ended half a century of reproductive freedom. They placed a measure on the November ballot that would allow voters to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. They delivered measures to protect those who seek services here and provide financial assistance for those who need it.

Adding to the complexity of the 2021-22 session was a long-anticipated move from the Capitol. The governor, legislators and staff packed up their annex offices and set up shop in a new building across the street, where they will work until the old space is demolished and replaced.

Despite their dependence on support staff, lawmakers declined for a fourth time to grant their employees the same union organizing rights enjoyed by nearly all other state workers.

In a dramatic turn in June, Assembly Democrats came close to replacing Speaker Anthony Rendon with Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Hollister. Although the caucus seemed ready to dispatch the Lakewood Democrat, Rendon convinced them – and Rivas – to wait until the next year, allowing him to remain speaker, and giving both men a chance to woo new members before the 2022-23 session begins in January.

The march up the sweltering Central Valley to the state Capitol drew statewide attention to the farm worker’ demands.

Rendon could be seen Wednesday night laughing with associates behind Rivas as he presented a bill.

Earlier this month, farmworkers and their supporters marched more than 300 miles from Delano to Sacramento, urging the governor to sign a bill that would allow them to cast unionizing ballots by mail, instead of in person where many feel intimidated by employers. Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year. The march echoed the trek to Sacramento more than five decades earlier by Cesar Chavez and thousands of his UFW supporters.

But Newsom remains on the hot seat: The march up the sweltering Central Valley to the state Capitol drew statewide attention to the farm worker’ demands. Newsom signaled earlier that he would veto the latest bill.

“The governor’s office hasn’t said a peep since the measure arrived,” noted LA Times columnist George Skelton. “Before that, gubernatorial aides were saying the mailed ballots wouldn’t be secure…Newsom needs to meet with the UFW leader and find a way to sign the bill. Don’t wait for another march.”

They were not the only low-wage workers whose lives lawmakers sought to improve. Legislators also passed a bill to create a 10-member panel that would have oversight of working conditions and wages for employees of large-chain fast-food restaurants.

National chains said the legislation unfairly targets them while leaving local eateries alone.

“If you are a small business owner running two restaurants that are part of a national chain, like McDonald’s, you can be targeted by the bill,” according to a statement released Wednesday by the chain’s U.S. president. “But if you own 20 restaurants that are not part of a large chain, the bill does apply to you.”

Both bills were on the governor’s desk Wednesday.

Lawmakers once again rejected a bill that would add a 10 percent tax on the sale of firearms. They also declined new limits on concealed weapons. Both bills fell short of the two-thirds majority they needed to pass.

A flurry of other bills died when the session expired – as they always do.

Editor’s Note: Will Shuck is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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