California has become a laboratory for progressive policies. Illustration by Dan Hubig for CalMatters
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10 ways Democratic presidential candidates aim to make the U.S. like California — and do those ideas work here?

California has become a laboratory for progressive policies. Illustration by Dan Hubig for CalMatters

Introduction

Updated Jan. 10, 2020

With Democrats holding all the political power in California for nearly the last decade, the Golden State has evolved into a laboratory for big blue ideas. Put a price on carbon? We’ve done it. Provide health insurance to undocumented immigrants? We do some of that too. Gun control, minimum wage hikes and heavy taxes on the rich are also realities here.

Democratic candidates for president — with rare exceptions — don’t typically point to California as a model, at least not explicitly. But many of the major policies they’re proposing are already happening here to some degree. Below are some key ways Democratic presidential candidates want to make the United States more like California, along with analysis of what the state’s policy experiments reveal so far. 

Tom Steyer is the only Californian who remains in the race. Others taking a page from us include Michael Bennett, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang.

CalMatters reporters Felicia Mello and Judy Lin contributed to this report.


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Boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour

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What they’re proposing:

All the major Democratic candidates want to more than double the federal minimum wage by raising it to $15 an hour. (Exception: Andrew Yang instead proposes giving every American $1,000 a month.) Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar are co-sponsors of federal legislation that would gradually raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years. Biden, Buttigieg, Steyer and Gabbard also support a $15 minimum wage, reflecting the influence of the “Fight for $15” campaign that labor unions have waged around the country.    

What California is doing:

California was the first state to approve a $15 minimum wage when lawmakers and then-Gov. Jerry Brown cut a deal with labor unions in 2016. The unions agreed to take a minimum wage measure off the ballot if the state passed a law increasing wages. Brown won a provision that allows the state to suspend wage increases during economic downturns. California’s law gradually phases in wage increases over eight years, with a $15 minimum required at all businesses in 2023.

How’s it going here?

Critics said the forced raises would lead employers to lay off people and replace them with machines—as one Los Angeles business owner did when he learned he’d have to pay his dish washers more. But empirical research suggests that for the most part, pay increases are not pushing people out of jobs. An economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studied seven states, including California, that have raised wages and found minimal impact on employment. However, we haven’t yet hit the $15 requirement. In 2020, the state’s minimum wage is $13 for workers at companies of 26 employees or more, and $12 at smaller businesses.

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Give workers paid family leave

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What they’re proposing:

All major Democratic candidates say they want Americans to be able to take at least three months off work — with pay — to care for a new baby or seriously ill family member. Gabbard, Klobuchar, Warren and Sanders co-sponsored legislation that would create a national family leave program giving workers two-thirds of their normal pay for up to 12 weeks. Money to pay for it would come from a payroll tax on employers and employees, at a rate of 2 cents per $10 in wages. Biden, Buttigieg and Bennett have told the Washington Post they support that bill or another plan for 12 weeks of paid family leave. Steyer and Yang have said they’d like to go even further and offer 6 months of paid family leave. 

What California is doing:

In 2004, California was the first state in the nation to create paid family leave, offering workers 6 weeks of partial pay to care for a newborn or sick family member. Workers pay for it through a 1% payroll tax that goes into the State Disability Insurance fund. Gov. Gavin Newsom has expanded the program, giving workers 8 weeks of paid family leave starting on July 1. 

How’s it going here? 

Though almost all workers pay into the program, only half of eligible mothers and a quarter of eligible fathers took paid family leave in 2017, state officials report. Many low-wage workers don’t take paid leave because they can’t afford to get by on partial earnings (the program gives workers 60% to 70% of their normal paychecks, depending on their income). Other workers don’t take it because they may lose their jobs if they do. Legislation to expand job protections and increase the rate of pay has stalled in the past, but will likely return to the state Capitol. Though businesses feared increased costs and turnover from giving workers paid family leave, a Harvard study of the program’s first six years showed that didn’t turn out to be the case.  


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Legalize marijuana

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What they’re proposing:

Most of the candidates want to make recreational as well as medical marijuana legal nationwide, though a few take the more moderate position of wanting to give states the power to decide. Bennet, Sanders and Warren co-sponsored a federal bill that would legalize marijuana, expunge convictions for its use or possession, and establish a grant program to bring job training, libraries and youth programs to “communities most affected by the war on drugs.” Castro, Yang and Buttigieg also favor nationwide legalization, with Buttigieg going further by saying he also wants to eliminate incarceration for all federal drug possession crimes and retroactively reduce sentences for other drug offenses. Klobuchar did not co-sponsor her congressional colleagues’ cannabis legalization bill. Instead, she’s put her name on legislation that would essentially let states decide whether to permit marijuana. Biden also wants to leave it up to states to decide whether to allow recreational use, but backs legalizing marijuana for medical use nationwide.

What California is doing:

California is one of 11 states that have sanctioned cannabis. Golden State voters made medical marijuana legal in 1996 and approved recreational use in 2016. The law allows adults age 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and grow up to six plants for personal use. Commercial growers and dispensaries must get a license from the state and pay taxes. Cities are allowed to ban the sale of cannabis, and smoking it in public remains illegal. The law also downgraded penalties for nearly every crime involving marijuana, allowing people with past convictions to petition the court to be resentenced or cleared.

How’s it going here?

Marijuana has become a major lobbying force in the statehouse, where Gov. Gavin Newsom is a champion for legalization. Still, creation of a legal marketplace has proved rocky. The black market remains huge — roughly three-quarters of California weed still is being sold illegally.  Most cities in the state have banned dispensaries, setting off a legal battle over how much local control the state law provides. Tax revenues from legal sales are coming in below expectations, and producers are pushing back against the state’s move to increase tax rates. Marijuana remains an all-cash enterprise because federal law prevents cannabis businesses from using banks. The criminal justice impact of legalization is also nascent: In the first year after legalization, only 10% of eligible people took steps to have their prior cannabis crimes downgraded or cleared. Some prosecutors are working with a nonprofit to identify and inform people who could have their records cleared.

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Put a price on carbon

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What they’re proposing:

Most Democratic candidates want to curb global warming in part by putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution, such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. (Notable exceptions: Gabbard and Sanders told the Washington Post they oppose putting a price on carbon.) Yang proposes taxing carbon emissions $40 a ton, and increasing the tax over time. Biden’s proposal is less specific, calling on Congress to pass a law by 2025 putting a price or tax on carbon. Warren has said she’s open to a carbon tax, though her climate plan doesn’t spell out details for one. Steyer has donated millions to campaigns aiming to create carbon-pricing programs in Oregon and Washington, and defending the one in California

What California is doing:

California’s carbon-pricing program launched in 2013. The state’s cap-and-trade system forces industry here to either reduce emissions or pay for permits to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Auctions where companies buy and sell those permits yield billions of dollars, which the state government plows into programs designed to slow climate change, such as incentives for solar panels and discounts on clean cars. The cap-and-trade program covers businesses responsible for about 85 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions — including oil refineries, food processors, paper mills, cement manufacturers and electricity providers. That makes it the most wide-reaching carbon-pricing system in the United States. 

How’s it going here?

California’s greenhouse gas emissions have been dropping since its cap-and-trade experiment began, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much to credit the complex system. It’s become a centrist environmental policy, attracting support from moderate Republicans as well as Democrats. But it’s also criticized by the right and left. Conservatives complain it adds costs for businesses and consumers, while liberals say the system doesn’t go far enough to stop pollution in California. Companies have been allowed to offset some of their obligation by paying for environmental projects in far-flung locations, such as an incinerator in Arkansas. Cap and trade is one reason gas costs more in California than other states — adding about a dime per gallon. Nonetheless polls show a majority of Californians want to fight climate change and don’t mind paying more to do it. And businesses prefer cap and trade’s market-based approach over stricter government mandates.

A just-released report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst concluded the state had scrubbed enough carbon from its economy over the past decade to exceed its climate goals thus far — largely due to electricity being increasingly generated by renewables instead of coal. The report credited the state’s renewable energy mandate as a “substantial driver” of the shift. Cap and trade’s effects, it said, are “thought to have been relatively modest compared to other policies.”

California’s cap-and-trade system also has fallen short of becoming the national trendsetter originally  envisioned by the lawmakers who created it. No other states have linked up with California — even fellow “left coast” states Oregon and Washington have rejected proposals to join. Two Canadian provinces joined California’s system, but Ontario has since backed out, and the Trump administration is

suing California to try to sever its link with Quebec, contending it amounts to a state illegally engaging in foreign policy. California’s loner status raises questions about whether one state can remedy a global problem, absent a federal approach.

(This card has been updated to remove a reference to carbon offsets in Brazil. California has developed guidelines for investing in tropical forest offsets, but they are not linked to the state’s cap-and-trade system.)

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Temporarily take guns from threatening people

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What they’re proposing:

All of the Democratic candidates say they support allowing people to petition a court to have firearms temporarily taken away from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. These laws — in place in at least 17 states — are known by a few names: “red-flag,” “extreme risk protection” and “gun violence restraining orders.” Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar have co-sponsored federal legislation that would give states grants to develop a process for relatives to seek a court order to temporarily block people deemed dangerous from buying a gun, and allow law enforcement to temporarily seize their weapons. Biden supports a similar approach — his website says he’ll incentivize states to pass red-flag laws by giving grants to implement them. Buttigieg told the New York Times that red-flag laws have “proven successful in states across the country, and it’s time we made it the national standard.” Bloomberg founded a gun-control group that lobbied for red-flag legislation in California; he’s now calling for such a law nationwide.

What California is doing:

California passed a law permitting gun restraining orders after the 2014 Isla Vista massacre, in which a 22 year old gunman killed six people and wounded 14 near UC Santa Barbara. It allows immediate family members and police officers to petition the courts to have a dangerous person’s guns removed. An Isla Vista victim’s parents advocated for the law after the investigation showed the killer’s parents were concerned about his mental state before he went on the rampage — and had even asked police to check on him — but were powerless to take his weapons. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill expanding the law so that, beginning in September 2020, coworkers, teachers and employers also can ask courts to take away someone’s guns. 

How’s it going here?

Academic research suggests that allowing parents and police to seek gun restraining orders is helping prevent some instances of gun violence. A UC Davis study reviewed 159 cases and found 21 instances in which court orders were used to prevent mass shootings. But journalistic investigations have found that parents and police rarely use the law, largely because so few people know about it — including those in law enforcement. San Diego law enforcement agencies use gun violence restraining orders more than many other cities and have been awarded state funds to train other agencies to use them. A bill that would have developed more training for law enforcement stalled in the Legislature in 2019.

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Provide health care to undocumented immigrants

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What they’re proposing:

Almost all the Democratic candidates want the federal government to offer health insurance to undocumented immigrants, though they have different ideas about how far to go in doing it. Sanders and Warren are cosponsors of the federal “Medicare For All” legislation, which would create a government-run health plan covering all U.S. residents, regardless of immigration status. Their legislation is estimated to cost the government an additional $34 trillion over a decade, though that figure covers benefits for everyone, not just undocumented residents. The estimated cost increase was roughly halved when researchers considered a single-payer health care system that only covered legal residents

Biden, Buttiegieg and Bennet have a different vision, proposing that undocumented immigrants be allowed to pay for health care through a “public option” that would exist along side private health insurance plans. Klobuchar declined to answer questions from the Washington Post and the New York Times about whether she thinks government health care should cover undocumented immigrants. Bloomberg, before he became a candidate, criticized “Medicare for All” as too expensive.

What California is doing:

California is one of a half-dozen states that provide health coverage to low-income undocumented children through Medicaid, the federal insurance program for the poor (which is called Medi-Cal in California). That began here in 2016, adding 160,000 kids at a cost of roughly $280 million a year. In 2019, California became the first state to insure some undocumented adults when lawmakers approved spending about $98 million a year to expand Medi-Cal to cover unauthorized residents age 19 to 25 (about 138,000 people). Costs are expected to grow to $315 million in 2021. Gov. Gavin Newsom punted on a proposal to cover undocumented immigrants age 65 and older, but lawmakers are preparing to try again in 2020

Given the state’s active participation in Obamacare, the percentage of uninsured Californians has dropped to 7% — an estimated half of whom are undocumented immigrants.

How’s it going here?

One of the arguments against government-funded healthcare for undocumented immigrants is that it will attract more people to unlawfully settle in the U.S. to get the benefits. California has experienced the opposite, with participation in Medi-Cal decreasing among undocumented immigrants, and unlawful immigration also on the decline. Many factors influence these trends, of course, and experts say the Trump administration’s harsh stance toward immigrants in the country illegally may repel some from participating in government health programs. 

But just covering people with Medi-Cal doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get good health care. Californians on Medi-Cal have had a harder time getting doctor appointments, flu shots and specialty care than Medicaid recipients in other states. Emergency room visits in California have been on the rise since the Affordable Care Act allowed more people to join Medi-Cal, even though supporters of expanding insurance predicted the opposite would happen. (The data on ER visits covers the years before undocumented immigrants could join Medi-Cal.)

Republicans and some moderate Democrats say California shouldn’t spend tax dollars helping people who are here unlawfully, and caution that adding more obligations to the state budget will only require painful cuts when a recession hits. But a majority of Californians want their government to provide healthcare to undocumented immigrants. Surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 54% of state residents supported the idea in 2015 — growing to 64% in 2019.

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Make college free

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What they’re proposing:

Having some kind of college affordability plan has become de rigeur in this presidential primary, and the Democratic hopefuls fall into two groups: those who call for ‘free college,’ and those who are distancing themselves from the term. Both Sanders and Warren are pushing to eliminate tuition and fees at all public colleges and universities. Sanders also would wipe out all of Americans’ $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, while Warren would focus debt relief on poor and middle-class households. In the moderate camp, Buttigieg released a video criticizing universal free college plans for helping even “the kids of millionaires.” Instead, he proposes limiting tuition breaks to families that earn less than $100,000 per year. Biden advocates waiving community college tuition for up to two years and doubling the maximum federal grant for low-income students.

What California is doing:

The state offers two years of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students. California’s major state scholarship, the Cal Grant, can also pay for up to full tuition at both two- and four-year schools — up to nearly $13,000 for a year at the University of California—for needy students who qualify. Smaller state grants help with living expenses for some students. UC guarantees that students with financial need whose families earn less than $80,000 annually will not have to pay tuition and fees. 

How’s it going here?

While California provides more financial aid per low-income student than any other state, gaps in programs and the exorbitant cost of living here still make college unaffordable for many. That free community college plan? It grabbed headlines but actually excludes two-thirds of community college students — those who attend part time. Low-income students who graduated from high school within the previous year and meet academic requirements are entitled to state scholarships. But that guarantee doesn’t apply to those who took more time off before college—and hundreds of thousands miss out each year. Meanwhile, students are spending on average of about $2,000 per month on non-tuition costs like housing, food and textbooks—expenses that state aid largely fails to cover. Still, students at California’s public universities take out less federal loan debt on average than those in other states: $17,400 for a bachelor’s degree, compared with $22,400 nationwide.

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Tax the rich

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What they’re proposing:

Someone has to pay for those ambitious health and education programs the Democratic presidential hopefuls advocate, so most of them want to increase taxes on the wealthy. Warren calls for an extra 2% tax on households with a net worth of $50 million or more (that’s about 75,000 households) and a 6% tax on those worth at least $1 billion. Sanders takes the idea even further, with rates ranging from 1% on net worth over $32 million to 8% on worth more than $10 billion. Steyer proposes a wealth tax similar to Sanders’, according to his statements to The Washington Post. Buttigieg has said he’s open to a wealth tax but has drawn more attention for his suggestion that the highest income-tax bracket be set at 49.99%. Biden and Bennett propose a different way to raise taxes on the rich: raise the tax rate on capital gains, which are typically paid when people sell stocks for more than they paid for them.

What California is doing:

California does not have a tax on net worth, but it does have the nation’s highest income tax rate on high earners — 13.3% on those making $1 million or more. That’s partly because California voters have approved a series of tax hikes on those with high incomes. In 2004, voters passed an additional 1% tax on incomes over $1 million to fund mental health programs. In 2012, as the state recovered from recession, voters agreed to temporarily boost taxes on earnings over $250,000 to fund public education and other government services. Four years later, voters extended that tax increase for another dozen years.    

In addition to its progressive income tax structure, California squeezes a bit more out of rich people by how it taxes capital gains. California treats capital gains as any other income, whereas the federal government differentiates between short-term and long-term capital gains, leading to lower tax rates on some stock sales.

How’s it going here?

A popular narrative says California may tax its wealthiest residents into fleeing the state. Data, however, don’t back this up — at least not yet. A Stanford study that examined whether rich people left California after recent income tax hikes found a negligible effect. The state lost 0.04% of its 312,000 millionaires after the 2012 tax increase, according to the study. Most people leaving California earn less than $50,000 a year, and are likely driven out by the high cost of living here. That points to an important reality: Despite California’s liberal practice of taxing the wealthy to spend on the poor, economic inequality is more extreme in California than in almost every other state.

California’s dependence on high earners creates risky volatility in the amount of money the state government takes in each year. For a long time, the state experienced boom-and-bust cycles, with cuts to services and furloughs for government workers when the economy turned down. In 2014, voters passed a law requiring the state to sock away money during good times to save for a rainy day. Now, the state has $19.2 billion in reserves — thanks, in large part, to wealthy Californians.

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End gerrymandering

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What they’re proposing:

The major Democratic candidates want to overhaul America’s system for drawing political boundaries. It’s a wonky procedure that can have a big impact on who gets elected to Congress and state legislatures. In most states, here’s how it works now: Every 10 years, the political party that controls that state’s legislature gets to redraw district boundaries based on the latest census count, ensuring each district represents the same number of people. But politicians who control the process often concoct maps to protect their own reelection and give their party a maximum edge. Klobuchar and Sanders have co-sponsored federal legislation that would require states to create independent bipartisan commissions to draw political maps. Buttigieg, Yang, Warren and Steyer also say redistricting should be controlled by an independent panel.  

What California is doing:

California voters rejected the partisan map-drawing system in 2008, passing a ballot measure that created an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative boundaries. Two years later, voters expanded the commission’s power to also draw lines for congressional districts. California’s 14-member commission includes five Republicans, five Democrats and four people unaffiliated with a major party. Politicians, lobbyists and campaign donors are not allowed to be on it. 

How’s it going here?

Two Republicans — mega-donor Charles Munger and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — were the driving forces behind the switch to California’s nonpartisan redistricting system. They faced staunch opposition from the state’s Democratic party establishment, which holds the majority in the Legislature and didn’t want to weaken its grip. But as it’s turned out, the change has benefited Democrats. They’ve won more seats in Congress and the Legislature than they had under the partisan system. That’s because the old system benefited incumbents from both parties, while the new maps create more competition, according to research by the Public Policy Institute of California. (Also, the share of Californians who are registered Republicans has been steadily diminishing for the last two decades, so it makes sense that the GOP is winning fewer seats.) One catch: California has struggled to find a sufficiently diverse mix of qualified people to serve on the commission — and has repeatedly extended the application deadline to do so. 

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Turn gig workers into employees

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What they’re proposing: 

Many Democrats argue that gig companies such as Uber and Lyft exploit low-wage workers by classifying them as freelancers instead of employees. Converting their status to employee would make workers eligible for more job protections and overtime pay. The issue is big for organized labor since it also makes more workers eligible to join unions. Sanders was the first candidate to call for national legislation to bar gig companies from classifying workers as freelancers. A few months later, Warren announced support for California legislation that limits which industries can employ gig workers and pledged to enact a similar federal law. Then Buttigieg demonstrated his support of the union-backed bill by joining a drivers’ protest. He too promises change nationally. 

What California is doing:

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in 2019 requiring many businesses to reclassify independent contractors as employees. The law is projected to impact 1 million workers, including janitors, manicurists and gig workers. It also gives the state and large cities new authority to go after companies that don’t comply. Throughout the debate over the bill, organized labor lobbied hard for it to pass, while businesses lobbied to exempt their industries from the new requirements. Some industries won exemptions, but many did not. In his signing statement, Newsom expressed hope of finding a compromise.

How’s it going here?

The new law was being challenged from all sides even before it went into effect Jan. 1. Trucking companies won a reprieve from the law while their court challenge to it proceeds, but freelance journalists did not. Meanwhile, gig workers have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking retroactive pay, overtime and benefits. Gig companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are mounting an expensive campaign in the November election to convince voters that gig workers should retain flexibility as freelancers. The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, has indicated she will follow up with more legislation to clarify — and expand — who should be an employee.

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