Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the state Assembly, calls the first half of the Legislature’s biennial session, which ended last week, “the most productive and progressive legislative session in memory.”
He’s right, if one measures such things by the outpouring of potentially far-reaching measures, including an extension of the cap-and-trade program for reducing carbon emissions, a multibillion-dollar tax hike for transportation improvements and, at the last moment, a package of housing bills.
Rendon and other celebrants also cite legislation to expand social and education services and erect protections for undocumented immigrants as part of the state’s “resistance” to President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. And, he pledges: “It may be tough to top this year, but I know we will be back in January eager to achieve other progressive victories.”
That could happen. Democrats hold supermajorities in both legislative houses, the party is drifting leftward – in part due to its disdain, or even hatred, for Trump – and Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been a moderating presence for the past seven years, is displaying his inner liberal now that he won’t face California’s voters again.
However, it’s one thing to pass seemingly sweeping legislation, and it’s quite another for that legislation to do what its enthusiastic advocates project. The massive failure of energy deregulation in 1996 and the devastating financial effects of expanding public employee pensions in 1999 should be cautionary examples.
Another example: Five years ago, Brown and legislators overhauled K-12 school finance, freeing up formerly restricted funds and pumping billions of extra dollars into the 6-million-pupil system to close the “achievement gap” between poor and “English-learner” students and their more advantaged classmates.
To date, however, there’s no evidence that the surge of money has actually narrowed the gap. Reform groups complain that it’s been diverted to other purposes, rather than spent on the “at-risk” students it was supposed to help. A massive examination by CALmatters.org catalogued its shortcomings, and just last week, the huge Los Angeles Unified School District settled a lawsuit alleging that it had misspent its extra money.
Given those and numerous other examples, one should take the current claims of “progressive victories” with the proverbial grain of salt.
Yes, we will tap motorists for another $5 billion a year to fix roads and other transportation systems. But let’s see if Caltrans, which hasn’t been performing well in recent years – the mangled San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project, for example – actually does what advocates of the tax package promised. And we should keep in mind that virtually none of the money will be spent directly on congestion relief.
Yes, we will continue to clamp down on carbon emissions, but the financial cost will be heavy, with even higher fuel prices and utility rates, and could leave California vulnerable to an economic downturn.
Yes, the Legislature did pass what appears to be an impressive array of housing bills, including a new tax on real estate transactions to finance affordable housing, a $4 billion bond measure and other steps to encourage private and nonprofit investment by slicing through red rape. However, while the tax and bond measures are optimistically projected to finance 77,000 new units over five years, that’s just a sixth of the increased housing production California will need during that period, and no one knows whether the streamlining will have its intended effect.
And so it goes. History indicates that legislation with good intentions often fails to deliver—and sometimes backfires. We won’t know for years whether this year’s cornucopia of well-intended bills deserves celebration.