In summary

Deadlines loom for bills that stalled in 2019. Lawmaker wants to make housing a right. New worker-classification law takes effect.

Good morning, California. Laurel Rosenhall here, filling in for Dan Morain, who’ll be back from vacation later this week.

“When we were last in this chamber, we had to leave in a bit of a hurry. So I wanted to begin my comments by thanking some important people: the cleaning crews in the Department of General Services that got the chamber ready for our return. It took a little more effort than you might imagine.” —Senate leader Toni Atkins on Monday, as the legislative session resumed for the first time since September, when an anti-vaccine protester tossed a menstrual cup of blood on the Senate floor. 

Off to the races

The California Senate chamber on Monday as the Legislature reconvened for 2020.

Lawmakers gaveled in for the new year Monday, with hugs, handshakes — and looming deadlines. Bills that stalled early in 2019 have just four weeks to pass the house in which they were introduced — or die for the year.

The most high-profile measure facing the Jan. 31 deadline is SB 50, an ambitious plan to force cities to approve taller, denser housing near public transportation and job centers. 

  • On one side: A desire to alleviate California’s housing shortage and meet the state’s climate goals.
  • On the other: California’s inherent love of backyards and local control. 

Suburban homeowners, local governments and anti-displacement groups have twice sunk the proposal, arguing it weakens local control and invites developers to kill neighborhood character and gentrify lower-income communities. 

But Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, has returned with support from developers, environmental groups and “Yes in my Backyard” urbanists — and, as CalMatters’ Matt Levin reports, a big change they hope will mollify municipalities.

The Big Change: Cities get two years to develop their own housing plans. Prior incarnations of Wiener’s bill forced most of them to allow four- or five-story apartments to be built around rail lines, ferries and some high-frequency bus stops. Now it would be the automatic default if local alternative plans don’t measure up.

To pass the bill, Wiener needs more than his impressive coalition of supporters. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment, has called for legislation making it easier to build housing in California — but has so far resisted backing SB 50. 

A right to housing?

A homeless encampment in Santa Cruz

Intensifying the focus on homes: A bill carried by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke would give a legal right to housing to “every child and family” in California.

The legislation entails public assistance for families on the brink of homelessness, “including help with rent and eviction defense, and, if necessary, finding them emergency and permanent housing,” Politico reported Monday.

That’s a pricey legal obligation for a state where an estimated 150,000 people don’t have a home. But Burke told Politico a fact-finding trip to New York City, which has a legally enforceable right to shelter, convinced her: “It is $81,000 a year to incarcerate a person; for a two-bedroom apartment, it’s $25,000 a year.”

More awkward timing

Among the bills to be decided between now and the primary: an oil-production tax.

Lawmakers also face a political deadline that might complicate policy decisions: Most will be up for re-election in the March 3 primary. And many voters will cast ballots even sooner by mail. 

That will make some “two-year bills” even tougher to decide before the Jan. 31 deadline. Such as:

  • Intersex babies: SB 201 seeks to protect the roughly 1-2% of people born with sex characteristics that do not conform to typical male and female bodies. It would ban doctors from performing surgery on babies born with such intersex traits unless the procedure is medically necessary — better for kids, according to LGBT activists, but a preemption of parental authority, doctors say.
  • Sick days: AB 555 would extend paid sick leave for workers from three days to five — and force lawmakers in the majority-Democrat Legislature to choose between Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, its powerful pro-labor author, and the also-powerful California Chamber of Commerce, which blocked the measure last year.
  • Clean cars: AB 40 would make millions of dollars in clean-vehicle rebates available only to people who buy cars from the four companies that have agreed to follow California’s tough greenhouse gas pollution standards, rewarding car companies that have sided with the state against federal efforts to roll back stricter emissions caps. Other car brands are likely to oppose the measure, which could get its first vote next week.
  • Oil severance tax: Liberals have long clamored for a tax on oil production — the current version, SB 246, would impose a 10% tax on all oil and gas produced in the state. Democratic Sen. Bob Wieckowski said he’s gathered more supporters, but the bill may face the same headwinds that other tax proposals have in a Legislature still spooked by the 2018 recall of a Democrat who voted to increase the gas tax. 
  • Teach for America: AB 221 would prohibit California schools from hiring teachers through Teach For America and other third-party programs that unions generally view as competitors. Charter schools and some school districts opposed the bill last year, but Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia says Teach for America harms disadvantaged students by placing inexperienced teachers in their classrooms.
  • Renters and landlords: AB 53 would bar landlords from asking about a potential tenant’s criminal record during the initial housing application. But it stops short of actually banning discrimination on the basis of a criminal record. Criminal justice organizations say it doesn’t go far enough. Landlord lobbies say it goes too far.

AB 5? Deal with it

Gig economy workers rally at the Capitol in 2014.

 “AB 5 is the law.” That’s the “speak softly and carry a big stick” notice to California businesses on California’s new worker-classification law from Julie Su, secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, who has the authority to crack down on workplace violations and investigate complaints.

  • “We want businesses and companies to be aware and to voluntarily comply,” Su told Judy Lin of CalMatters as state lawmakers geared up for 2020. “We will pursue enforcement efforts for those who don’t.”
  • Lin reports that Su declined to say whether her agency is actively investigating gig companies such as Uber and Lyft for refusing to comply. But: “There is not a grace period.”

Remind me: Gig companies, freelance writers and truckers have all sued to stop AB 5, a labor-backed law that is estimated to turn 1 million California contract workers into employees. So far, only truckers have won a temporary injunction, but The Washington Post reports Uber is building a case that drivers are free from the company’s control.

  • On Monday, a federal judge refused to grant freelance journalists and photographers exemption from the new labor law, saying they waited too long to claim an emergency.

Are you affected? The labor agency has an employment status website designed to help businesses and workers navigate the new changes and sort out which workers should get W-2s.

Paging more doctors

California’s physician shortage is impacting the workers comp system, an audit has found.

Injured workers in California often wait months or years to receive the medical evaluations required to get treatment, and in some cases to determine how disabled they are as a result of the injury. The reason? Too few physicians are signed up with the state’s program to serve as experts. 

Those findings, Elizabeth Aguilera reports, come from the first-ever state audit of California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation, which noted that the state has not increased the pay schedule for expert doctors in 13 years.

The workers comp agency “acknowledged and accepted” the audit’s recommendations but also pushed back, saying the state’s shortage of doctors makes it hard to recruit medical experts, and that it has been working on a new fee schedule.

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio: “It’s affecting real workers, and if something is not being done correctly, they need to fix it.” A Baldwin Park Democrat and member of the Legislature’s audit committee, Rubio is holding a hearing on the findings today.

Khosla’s coastal fight

More Martins Beach litigation was filed Monday, this time by the California AG.

Wading into an epic beach brawl, the state has sued the tech billionaire owner of a popular surf spot in San Mateo County, claiming that, without court orders, Vinod Khosla will “continue to deny, impair and obstruct” the public’s right to use Martins Beach.

Filed in San Mateo Superior County Court on Monday, the suit is the latest in a decade-long legal battle that has pitted Khosla’s property rights against state laws that decree the coast to be public beyond the mean high tide line and say access must be maximized consistent with “constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.” Khosla has already taken it once to the U.S Supreme Court, which refused to hear his appeal.

The only safe access road is on Khosla’s land. He’s offered to sell it to the state — for almost as much has he paid for the whole property. This new suit argues the road is actually no longer private, citing a legal doctrine that establishes a right of way if the public has regularly accessed a route for five or more years.

Los Angeles Times: “The stakes are high and could set the stage for how other wealthy oceanfront owners across the state might fight to make a beach private.” Read more here, here, here and here.

Commentary at CalMatters

Dan Walters, CalMatters: As the Legislature reconvenes for the second half of the biennial session, we will see a flurry of activity as Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his second State of the State address and proposes a 2020-21 budget, based on an assumption that the state’s record-long economic expansion will continue for at least another year. While hundreds of new measures will be dropped into the mill, a few issues should top the Capitol’s agenda: housing, homelessness, PG&E, water and AB5. 

Jeff Davi, Carmel Realtor: For over a century, the Monterey Peninsula relied on the Carmel River as its primary source of water. But the State Water Board has issued orders that will preclude most of that use in the future. A California American Water desalination plant would remove salt from seawater and make it drinkable, averting what could be a water crisis. The California Coastal Commission should approve the project.

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the statehouse. Her stories explain political dynamics in the Capitol and examine how money, advocacy and relationships...