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With Democrats holding all the political power in California for nearly the last decade, the Golden State has evolved into a laboratory of big blue ideas. Put a price on carbon? We’ve done it. Ban assault weapons? We’ve done that too. Gun control, minimum wage hikes and two years of free community college 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 that former Vice President Joe Biden is proposing are already in place here to some degree. Below are some key ways Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris want to make the United States more like California, and a bit about what the state’s policy experiments reveal so far. 

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

Boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour

photo of American currency
Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Back in 2016, doubling the national minimum wage was a key point of contention between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. In the four years since, the party establishment has come around to Sanders’ view. During the primary, all the major Democratic candidates called for a $15 national wage floor — Biden included. In his first speech as a 2020 candidate, the former vice president told a crowd in Pittsburg that the wage hike is “well past time” and that “it’s time to start rewarding work over wealth.”

That shift reflects 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. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that despite the pandemic-induced economic downturn, he would not delay the next hike, slated for January 1, 2021.

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.

A more recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that a $15 federal minimum would boost the income of 27 million workers, but come at the expense of 1.3 million jobs.

Give workers paid family leave

A father taking care of his children at home
Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

In late July, Biden announced a new $75 billion annual plan to boost child and elder care. Part of plan: 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Biden says he will pay for it, at least in part, by closing a tax break for real estate investors who earn more than $400,000 per year. 

His proposal is hardly an outlier within his own party. During the primary, all the major Democratic candidates said they wanted 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. Former candidate and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced legislation that would create a national family leave program giving workers two-thirds of their normal pay for up to 12 weeks, and 34 Democratic senators co-sponsored the bill. Even the Trump administration supports a policy that it characterizes as expanding paid family leave, though the legislation doesn’t actually provide families with additional money.

What California is doing:

In 2004, California was the first state in the nation to create paid family leave, offering workers six 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 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.  But while 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. In August, the California Legislature passed a bill that would make it illegal for most businesses to fire an employee who takes paid leave.    

Legalize marijuana

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

During the primary, Biden used the issue of marijuana to put some extra ideological distance between himself and the candidates on his left. Rather than calling for an out-and-out end to pot prohibition, Biden supports legalizing marijuana for medical use nationwide. He also said that recreational use should be decriminalized — meaning fines, rather than jail time. And for states like California that have already fully legalized weed for adults, Biden has said the feds should respect that. 

But now that Harris is on the ticket, that ideological gap has tightened up. Despite her refusal to back legal cannabis as a prosecutor, as a California senator, Harris introduced a bill that would decriminalize cannabis use and tax and regulate the industry where states allow it. As presidential candidate, she was even more definitive, saying that she is “absolutely in favor of legalizing marijuana.” 

California progressives hope that Harris will have an edifying influence on her running mate. “Joe Biden is going to have to evolve around legalization and I think Senator Harris as vice president will push that,” said Oakland congressperson Barbara Lee in an interview in late August.

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, according to an audit released by the United Cannabis Business Association, a trade group.  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.

End cash-bail

criminal justice
Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Biden has proposed eliminating cash bail, which his campaign calls a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” Rather than paying to be released from jail pre-trial, those accused of crimes should be assessed in a way that is “fair” and non-discriminatory, he said. He has not provided additional details on what such an ideal system would look like.

Both Biden and Harris have, in political parlance, “evolved” on this issue. Having been one of the principal authors of federal crime legislation from 1994 that helped cement “tough on crime” as a Democratic Party issue, Biden put out his justice platform early in his current presidential campaign — in part to address concerns from criminal justice advocates within his party. Likewise Harris, who declined to challenge cash bail as a prosecutor in California, has co-authored legislation that would do so in the Senate.

What California is doing:

In 2018, California enacted a law to eliminate cash bail in California. The new law gives judges the power to determine whether someone who is arrested should be kept behind bars based on the risk they are deemed to pose to themselves or to others. But that bill has yet to go into effect.

How’s it going here?

It isn’t. Not yet. Immediately after the bill was signed into law, California’s bail bond industry petitioned for a referendum, meaning that voters will be asked to keep or nix cash bail. If you have your ballot in front of you, that’s Prop. 25.  

The lesson for a Biden-Harris administration: If you’re serious about eliminating cash bail across the country, expect some push back. 

Pledge to go 100% greenhouse gas emission-free

Cars stuck in traffic in San Francisco, California
Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Biden never wed himself to the “Green New Deal” proposal that Democratic Socialists and climate activists have clamored for all campaign season. During the primary, the youth-led Sunrise Movement graded his climate plan an F minus. But after securing the nomination, Biden put out a more detailed climate plan that the Washington Post hailed as “the most ambitious blueprint released by a major party nominee for president.”

The central goal of the $2 trillion plan: Make the U.S. electricity grid 100% carbon emission-free by 2035 and to zero out net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Though Biden flirted with the idea of putting a price on carbon emissions either by tax or a credit market early on in the campaign, he has since backed away from that idea. His new plan relies instead on regulations, subsidies and clean energy mandates to reach its goal.

What California is doing:

This is the state that regulates the mileage on cars and their tailpipe emissions, mandates electric trucks, cracks down on idling tankers, subsidizes rooftop solar energy and caps statewide emissions while maintaining a marketplace where industry bids for the right to pollute. 

All in service of a couple big picture green goals.

One is the state’s renewable energy standard, which requires California to rid its grid of carbon emissions by 2045. Set up in 2002, the standard has a built-in series of intermediate goals that ratchet tighter every decade.

But electricity generation accounts for only 16% of California’s greenhouse gas bill. What about the rest? 

California has a goal for that too. In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order to “achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible, and no later than 2045.” No one is entirely clear how the state will actually meet that goal, but California’s cap-and-trade program is the most obvious mechanism. The system, launched in 2013, 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 have yielded billions of dollars in the past, which the state government plows into programs designed to slow climate change, such as incentives for solar panel 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?

The state’s renewable energy standard is looking pretty good these days. In 2019, the rules required electric utilities here to buy 33% of its electricity from designated renewable sources. According to the California Energy Commission, they hit 34%. That’s significant progress. Over the last decade, greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector have fallen by 40%. That transition was made easier by sharp declines in the price of solar generation and the collapse of the national coal industry.

But while the state’s renewable energy standard has been the golden child in its class of climate change fighting policies, cutting emission outside its electric sector has proven to be a bigger challenge.

Though the state’s cap-and-trade program has been its signature method of cutting emissions economy-wide, it’s been hard to pinpoint exactly how much credit the complex system actually deserves. A worldwide economic collapse and the resulting slowdown in production of all kinds of carbon-intensive products has contributed to a glut in pollution permits, cutting off a key source of green initiative funding and leading some state leaders to rethink the primacy of the program.

And while California has a solid track record in cutting emissions, the new normal of chronic, catastrophic wildfires and unprecedented heat waves threaten to undo that progress. Some environmental and economic analysts also warn that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked clean and that additional cuts will come at a much higher economic cost. Absent more concrete policies or technological breakthroughs, they say, the aspiration of net zero emissions by 2045 is just that — an aspiration.

Ban “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines

Gilroy shooting assault rifle WASR 10
The Romanian-made semiautomatic rifle used in the Gilroy shooting cannot be legally sold in California.

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Few issues unite Democratic voters like gun policy. And so while Biden has tacked to the center of his party on health care and climate policy, when it comes to gun regulations, his proposals are as assertive as any of his erstwhile primary challengers. 

Topping that list is his plan to ban both “assault weapons” and magazines that hold more than a certain number of rounds — though he has not specified what that limit should be. 

Lawmakers have long struggled to define “assault weapons.” Biden calls for legislation that would “prevent manufacturers from circumventing the law by making minor changes that don’t limit the weapon’s lethality.”

What California is doing:

California banned assault weapons in 1989 and has been building on that ban ever since. But there is no technical definition for the term. For gun restriction advocates, assault weapons fall into that nebulous “you know it when you see it” category of vices. California’s ban nonetheless cobbles together its own definition of banned guns based on a loose assemblage of characteristics: a “semi-automatic, centerfire rifle” with a detachable magazine and at least one of a handful of other suspect features. 
In 2016, California voters also approved a ban on magazines that hold 10 rounds or more.

How’s it going here?

Banning a wide category of firearms in the United States is easier said than done.

California’s feature-specific definition of an illegal assault weapon has triggered a cottage industry of firearm add-ons and design tweaks that skirt around the letter of the law, while enthusiastically violating its spirit. It’s a never-ending game of legal and regulatory whack-a-mole as Sacramento bans a particular workaround, only for a new one to pop up.

The state’s high-capacity magazine ban has had an ever tougher go of it. First a district court and then Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal judges have ruled that the state’s ban is unconstitutional.

Temporarily take guns from threatening people

photo of sitting man hand gun in home
Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Both Biden and Harris say they support allowing people to petition a court to have firearms temporarily taken away from those 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.” Biden says he wants the federal government to incentivize states to pass red-flag laws by giving grants to implement them. 

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 others 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.

Make college free

Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

Biden never got on board with the more expansive proposals of his Democratic hopefuls — free higher education for all or wiping away all student debt. But from early on in his campaign, he’s drawn on an old favorite from his days as vice president: two years of community college, tuition-free

The former vice president said his plan will not only cover fresh-from-high-school teenagers, but older students hoping to acquire new skills. The program would also apply to trade schools.

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. Despite headlines that California has made community college free for all, it actually excludes two-thirds of community college students — those who attend part time. 

And while low-income students who graduated from high school within the previous year and meet academic requirements are entitled to state scholarships, that guarantee doesn’t apply to those who didn’t go straight from high school to college—and hundreds of thousands miss out each year. 

Meanwhile, students are spending an average of about $2,000 per month on non-tuition costs like housing, food and textbooks — expenses that state aid largely fails to cover. 

Turn gig workers into employees

Image via iStock

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

During the presidential primary, many Democrats took aim at gig companies such as Uber and Lyft, arguing that they 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 because it also makes more workers eligible to join unions.

Bernie Sanders was the first candidate to call for national legislation to bar gig companies from classifying workers as freelancers. A few months later, Elizabeth Warren announced support for California legislation that limits which industries can employ gig workers and pledged to enact a similar federal law.

Since then, both Biden and Harris have said they back that state law and oppose a proposition that would carve out an exemption for app-based drivers. Though Biden has not said whether he supports a similar policy at the federal level, his campaign website stresses that his administration would prioritize the regulation and prosecution of “employers intentionally misclassifying their employees as independent contractors.”

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 fought 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. In the months since, the Legislature has carved out more exemption for musicians and interpreters. Gig workers have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking retroactive pay, overtime and benefits. 

Gig companies such as Uber and Lyft have continued to argue the state law doesn’t apply to them. The state disagrees and has sued. The ride-hailing companies briefly threatened to shut down operations in California altogether, but backed down after winning a reprieve from the courts. 

The law has also become an electoral hot button issue. One legislator ostensibly already lost his seat because of it and Republicans are hammering their Democratic opponents for their vote on bill. Uber, Lyft and Doordash have poured more than $110 million into the Proposition 22 campaign hoping to convince voters that their gig workers should retain flexibility as freelancers.

In short: it’s messy.

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...

Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...