Will California ban involuntary servitude?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven June 17, 2022
Presented by Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, New California Coalition, Dairy Cares and California Land Recycling Conference

Will California ban involuntary servitude?

Note: The newsletter will pause until Tuesday for the Juneteenth holiday.

Thursday was a day of emotion and controversy at the California State Capitol — illuminating some of the issues likely to gain even more political intensity with just a month and a half left in the legislative session and the November general election looming on the horizon.

First up: Involuntary servitude. Over the opposition of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, a powerful legislative committee advanced a proposed constitutional amendment to ban involuntary servitude in California. The state’s constitution currently prohibits involuntary servitude “except to punish crime” — allowing the state prison system to pay inmates as little as 8 cents an hour for jobs including food service, custodial work and construction, according to a legislative analysis. (Inmate firefighters, on whom California has long depended to fight wildfires across the state, earn between $1.45 and $3.90 per day, plus an extra $1 per hour in emergencies.)

  • Aaron Edwards of the state Department of Finance: “While we are sensitive to the intent of this resolution, the Department of Finance does have an opposed position to its potentially significant general fund costs. … The largest potential impact is to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which currently employs around 65,000 incarcerated persons to support essential prison operations, such as by providing cooking, cleaning and laundry services. If the department were required to pay those workers minimum wage, which is one potential outcome in our view, the cost could be in the range of $1.5 billion annually.”
  • State Sen. Sydney Kamlager, the Los Angeles Democrat and congressional candidate carrying the bill, was incensed. “My blood pressure just shot off the chain listening to the Department of Finance,” she said. “This country has been having economic discussions for hundreds of years around slavery and involuntary servitude and indentured servitude. Obviously, you keep people as slaves and you keep them as indentured servants … because it is cheaper to do so. … I mean, I think this is what we are talking about that led to the Civil War.”
  • Holding back tears, she added, “I’m also just deeply insulted that all of the (bills) that we heard today, this is the only one where Department of Finance has a file” outlining the fiscal impacts. “And this is the only one where Department of Finance says ‘Hey, we could deal with litigation.’ … I mean, when we have a resolution on Juneteenth!”

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed Kamlager’s bill; it now faces a vote in front of the full Senate, as does another proposed amendment to enshrine the right to abortion and contraception in California’s constitution. In order to land on voters’ ballots in November, the measures must be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly by June 30.

Another big topic: Guns. California would be the first state in the nation to require gun owners to carry liability insurance for the negligent or accidental use of their firearms under a new bill from state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat — the latest addition to a stack of ambitious gun control legislation.

  • Although the bill was just introduced Thursday, it’s already passed several key committees. Using a controversial tactic called gut-and-amend, lawmakers inserted the text of Skinner’s proposal into a bill originally dealing with employer wage withholding — which had already cleared major legislative hurdles. Skinner’s bill can now pick up where the original one left off.

Last but not least: Vaccines. In a sign that Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco’s bill to allow minors to get vaccinated without parental consent could face an uphill battle, the state Assembly voted to insert amendments raising the minimum age from 12 to 15.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Sydney Kamlager

Sydney Kamlager

Former State Senate, District 30 (Norwalk)

Nancy Skinner

Nancy Skinner

State Senate, District 9 (Oakland)

Nancy Skinner

State Senate, District 9 (Oakland)

How she voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 9 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 53%
GOP 18%
No party 23%
Campaign Contributions

Sen. Nancy Skinner has taken at least $1.8 million from the Labor sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents 26% of her total campaign contributions.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 9,169,339 confirmed cases (+0.7% from previous day) and 91,107 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 76,967,300 vaccine doses, and 75.5% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.


1 Possible deal could keep plastics initiative off ballot

A shopper carries her groceries to her car in plastic bags after shopping at a Sprouts grocery store in San Diego on September 30, 2014. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters
A shopper carries groceries in plastic bags at a Sprouts grocery store in San Diego on Sept. 30, 2014. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

From CalMatters political reporter Sameea Kamal: A bill to reduce single-use plastics could toss a November ballot measure in the trash — if state lawmakers and proponents can finalize a tentative agreement by June 30.

  • In the latest development in a long-running saga, some environmental groups told the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday that a possible legislative deal could result in the already-qualified measure getting yanked off the ballot.
  • The potential deal comes after the Legislature in 2019 and 2020 rejected bills that would have forced manufacturers to significantly reduce the amount of single-use packaging and foodware ending up in landfills. State Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat, reignited the effort in 2021.
  • His revised Senate Bill 54 would give the plastics industry more time to comply with regulations in the ballot measure championed by environmentalists and the former CEO of Recology, a San Francisco-based waste management company.

Under the bill, plastics producers would have until 2032 — instead of 2030 — to ensure all single-use packaging and foodware is recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable. A fee would be imposed on single-use plastic packaging and foodware, with proceeds going to CalRecycle, the state Natural Resources Agency and local governments. 

The initiative’s proponents told CalMatters Thursday that they were still reviewing the bill language, but that any proposal that doesn’t include provisions outlined in a June 6 letter to legislative leaders is a no-go.

  • Those requirements include giving more oversight and authority to CalRecycle rather than letting the plastics industry self-regulate, expanding the list of toxic chemicals that render packaging non-recyclable, and clarifying that the definition of recycling does not include “chemical recycling.”

Meanwhile, the ballot measure’s opponents say the bill doesn’t do enough to prevent costs from being passed on to consumers. They also say that Recology is interested in protecting its own profits, citing a recent overbilling controversy in the city of San Francisco.

If the parties do manage to strike a deal, it would be the latest under a 2014 law designed to keep costly measures off the ballot — which special interests have used to pressure the Legislature to approve reforms. Last month, Newsom signed a bill to reform California’s medical malpractice law, avoiding what would have been a costly fight at the ballot box in November.

2 As Newsom slams red states, CA faces own problems

Police officers stand guard Wednesday, June 15, 2022, near a crime scene where two police officers were shot and killed Tuesday at a motel in El Monte. Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu, AP Photo
Police officers stand guard near a crime scene where two officers were killed at an El Monte motel on June 15, 2022. Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu, AP Photo

As lawmakers fast-track gun control bills, Newsom also appears to be preoccupied with violence — specifically, violence happening in Republican-led states. The governor on Thursday unveiled his first post on Truth Social, the social media platform launched by former President Donald Trump and run by the San Joaquin Valley’s former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes.

  • Newsom: “I know we’re all on this platform in search for the ‘truth,’ but the truth is I’ve not been able to find a simple explanation for the fact that we have a red state murder problem. Eight of the top 10 states where the highest murder rates happen to be red states. So the question is simple: What are the laws and policies in those states that are leading to such carnage?”

Yet California is facing its own challenges. Homicides have spiked amid the pandemic — with Republican-led Kern County in the lead — and the number of homicides caused by firearms hit its highest level in at least a decade in 2020. And, although California has the toughest gun laws in the nation — which researchers say have saved lives — recent headlines underscore some of the concerning gaps that remain. Perhaps the most glaring: the state’s struggle to recover illegal guns from people deemed too dangerous to have them, including those with criminal records, domestic violence restraining orders and mental health conditions.

3 Other Capitol tidbits

California Governor Gavin Newsom is photographed at a press conference in Fontana on February 17, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Fontana on Feb. 17, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

Here’s a roundup of other California Capitol news you should know:

4 Community colleges chancellor to step down

Eloy Ortiz Oakley speaks with reporters after he was named chancellor of the California Community Colleges in 2016. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Eloy Ortiz Oakley speaks with reporters after he was named chancellor of the California Community Colleges in 2016. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

From CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn: After nearly six years of leading the nation’s largest public higher education system, Eloy Ortiz Oakley announced Thursday that he will step down on July 31 as chancellor of California Community Colleges to lead another California higher education giant — the College Futures Foundation, which has assets of more than half a billion dollars and doles out $20 million in grants annually. (Note: The College Futures Foundation is a financial supporter of CalMatters. Donors do not influence our editorial process.)

Oakley, the first Latino chief executive of the 116-campus system, has overseen some of its most sweeping changes in history, including a roadmap to improve student graduation rates and workforce success embraced by Newsom. Key academic indicators also improved during his tenure: Since the 2015-16 school year, the number of students completing certificates or degrees jumped by 32% and the number of students transferring to a Cal State or UC campus grew almost 15%. 

He said he’s proud of the system’s handling of a state law to largely do away with remedial math and English courses and its push for diversity and equity in campus policing and evaluating faculty. He’s glad lawmakers haven’t succeeded to defund Calbright, the state’s only fully online community college. And he hopes Newsom agrees to fully expand the state’s flagship financial aid program, the Cal Grant, to another 110,000 community college students.

But Oakley also leaves behind a complicated legacy — tussles with faculty led to a statewide labor group expressing a vote of no confidence in his leadership in 2019 — and numerous challenges for his successor. (The system’s board of directors plans to pick an interim chancellor in July before launching a search for a permanent chief executive.)

  • Enrollment has collapsed by 300,000 students since the onset of the pandemic despite a surge in state funding. 
  • Equity gaps persist between racial and ethnic groups, and in some cases have gotten worse. Pacific Islander students have been completing programs at lower rates the past several years, and students in the Inland Empire and Central Valley — regions with large poor and Latino populations — continue to lag others in degree completion rates.
  • Oakley told Mikhail: “California cannot succeed if we don’t improve those equity gaps.”

Oakley said his salary at College Futures will be just south of $500,000 a year. As chancellor, he earns $352,000, excluding health, car and pension benefits.


CalMatters Commentary

Solving poverty in California takes more than talk: Women living in poverty are tired of sharing their stories. They share, and then some legislators water down legislation aimed at ending poverty. It’s time to build power and take meaningful action together, argues Michael Tubbs, founder of End Poverty in California and Newsom’s special adviser on economic mobility.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Democrat Malia Cohen, Republican Lanhee Chen to face off for state controller role in November. // CalMatters

Gimme Shelter podcast: Why Los Angeles apartments don’t come with fridges. // CalMatters

Judge OKs Los Angeles’ lawsuit settlement on homelessness. // Associated Press

Ballot measure to tax sales of homes worth more than $5 million is approved by L.A. City Council. // Daily News

Mayor Breed-backed affordable housing measure expected to qualify for the ballot, sparking fight with progressives. // San Francisco Chronicle

Wildlife commissioners deadlock on Joshua tree protections. // Los Angeles Times

If Anaheim looks again to sell Angel Stadium, new bill could force open bidding. // Orange County Register

$8.5 billion transit tax likely headed to Sacramento voters. Political support is lining up. // Sacramento Bee

S.F. supervisors seek to sweep away new street cleaning department. // San Francisco Standard

Democrats in the California Senate could make or break refinery pollution bill. // Capital & Main

First Latina sheriffs do ‘the unthinkable’ in upsetting their bosses in Alameda, San Mateo counties. // Mercury News

The weird saga of Peter Navarro, from California environmentalist to Trump henchman. // Los Angeles Times

How a disgraced California law professor helped Kamala Harris before plotting Trump’s coup. // Sacramento Bee

Anti-vaccine doctor from California sentenced to prison for Capitol riot. // Associated Press

These five people could make or break the Colorado River. // Los Angeles Times

See you next week


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