The many ways the Legislature wants to change California’s constitution

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La June 6, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

The many ways the Legislature wants to change California’s constitution

When a bill dies in the Legislature, a hail Mary move is to try to get lawmakers to put it before voters and enshrine it in the state constitution. It’s a tall order that requires a two-thirds vote in both houses — but it’s not impossible.

It’s the route Assembly Republicans will take when they kick off their campaign today for a fentanyl bill that both the Assembly and Senate rejected this session. Known as Alexandra’s Law, the constitutional amendment (ACA 12) would require those convicted of a fentanyl-related offense to receive written notice that if someone were to die as a direct consequence of their crime, they can be charged with homicide. 

Since California adopted its constitution in 1879, it has been amended more than 500 times, longtime lobbyist Chris Micheli told me. Amendments aren’t subject to the same legislative deadlines as bills, and “a critical thing that everyone forgets — the governor plays no role.”

That includes constitutional amendments placed on the ballot through the initiative process and those put before voters by the Legislature.   

For legislative amendments to appear on the March 2024 primary ballot, they’ll have to pass before the Legislature adjourns its 2023 session in mid-September. There’s already a legislative amendment on the March ballot, to repeal the constitutional provision requiring local voter approval for public housing

To put amendments on the November 2024 ballot, legislators have until June 2024. So far, there are six measures on the general election ballot, including two constitutional amendments by initiative

Timing is important, says Micheli: Usually, when a legislator introduces an amendment during the first year of session (an odd-numbered, non-election year such as the current one), they’ll hold it long enough so that it can pass through the second chamber next year, just before the election. 

A few notable amendments under consideration this session:

  • ACA 4: Would allow prisoners, who are still currently incarcerated, to vote. It has passed committee and is before the full Assembly.
  • ACA 5: Would repeal Proposition 8 from 2008 and remove language defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It is in committee.
  • ACA 8: Would ban involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment, similar to an amendment that failed last year.
  • ACA 10: Would recognize housing as a constitutional right. It is scheduled for debate in the Assembly Housing Committee on Wednesday.
  • SCA 1: Would revise laws on recalling state officials and the governor. It remains in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
  • SCA 7: Would give Californians the right to join a union and to negotiate with their employers. It is scheduled before the Senate Labor Committee on June 14.

And some that have died or are on life support:

  • ACA 3: Would allow wealth taxes and lift the “Gann limit” on government spending. It is shelved for the year.
  • ACA 9: Would make the elected state school superintendent an appointed position. It has been withdrawn by its author, Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty from Sacramento.
  • SCA 4: Would repeal the “death tax” on inherited property. It failed in committee, but proponents may seek an initiative. 

CalMatters covers the Capitol: CalMatters has guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We have a lesson-plan-ready version of the explainer — especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups — as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative.


1 CA renters could still get aid

Protesters surround the LA Superior Court to prevent an upcoming wave of evictions and call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to pass an eviction moratorium in Los Angeles on Aug. 21, 2020. Photo by Lucy Nicholson REUTERS
Protesters at Los Angeles Superior Court call for a continued eviction moratorium in Los Angeles on Aug. 21, 2020. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

California’s Housing and Community Development Department has reached a settlement with renter and anti-poverty advocates after being sued for bungling rent relief efforts during the pandemic.

As CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher explains, the agreement gives more than 100,000 tenants another shot at aid, but isn’t a financial guarantee. Though it has admitted no fault, the department will now be required to audit denied claims, improve multilingual accessibility, iron out the appeal process for denied applicants and more.

After receiving $5.2 billion in federal relief funds in 2021, the department launched its assistance program to help tenants keep up with rent and avoid eviction. But critics of the program say that tenants faced language barriers, the program had little to no public outreach efforts and the department was slow to deliver aid. 

By the time the program closed in March 2022, it paid out over $4.5 billion to more than 360,000 households. But advocate groups said that the state denied more than 130,000 applications — nearly 30% of its total — without an adequate explanation.

At a press conference on Monday, one tenant with an application pending more than 18 months, said he maxed out his credit cards to pay rent.

  • Blake Phillips: “Imagine what I need now. I got so far behind because of this program that it literally destroyed my life.”

The settlement covers anyone who applied to the program before April 1, 2022 and had their application denied or pending after June 6, 2022. For more info, tenants can call the program’s hotline at (833) 430-2122 or visit the program’s application page.

2 More migrant flights bring more questions

The Sacramento Executive Airport, where a second group of migrants arrived on June 5, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Two days after a chartered plane originating from Texas landed in Sacramento unannounced to drop off 16 Venezuelan and Colombian migrants, another plane arrived in Sacramento on Monday with 20 more passengers from South America.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta are putting the blame squarely on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, though there has been no confirmation, write CalMatters’ Nigel Duara, Anabel Sosa and Jeanne Kuang. The California leaders are even threatening criminal charges, but a case could be difficult to prove.

Bonta said that the company that chartered the first flight, Vertol Systems, was behind the second flight as well. In an interview with ABC News, Bonta also said if DeSantis is responsible, he could face charges ranging from civil violations to state-sanctioned kidnapping.

While Democratic lawmakers expressed shock and disgust — and Newsom called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man” — one immigration advocate, Chris Rickerd, told CalMatters that months of inaction from the federal government to Florida sending migrants to Democratic states led to California’s current dilemma.

“I think it was a mistake to dismiss these flights as a stunt in September,” said Rickerd.

Despite the U.S. Department of Justice remaining relatively quiet on the matter, at least one investigation into the Florida flights to Massachusetts last September is continuing. As The Texas Tribune reports, a Bexar County Sheriff has turned over the results of a criminal investigation into DeSantis to the county’s district attorney.

Meanwhile, Sacramento officials and nonprofits are trying to help the migrants. According to volunteers working directly with them, they carried a clear plastic bag containing papers directing them to immigration courts, some located as far away as Chicago.

  • Lydia Guzman, immigration chairperson at The League of United Latin American Citizens: “They’re not even trying to get them closer to families or closer to their court. This is all politics.”

3 Enviro groups slam Newsom on CEQA

New housing construction in a neighborhood in Elk Grove on July 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
New housing construction in a neighborhood in Elk Grove on July 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

From CalMatters climate policy reporter Alejandro Lazo:

Gov. Newsom has said big changes are needed to California’s environmental laws to “build, build, build” infrastructure projects to meet the state’s clean energy, transit, water and climate goals. But environmentalists are formally opposing many of his proposals, saying they could endanger California’s wildlife and biodiversity as well as the health and safety of people in lower-income, racially diverse neighborhoods.

Through the budget’s expedited policy process, the governor has proposed changing the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Endangered Species Act and the Delta Reform Act, among others, to streamline or accelerate projects.

“We understand the desire to create greater certainty and faster timelines,” Jonathan Pruitt, an advocate with the California Environmental Justice Alliance, told reporters on Monday. But “such policies can actually disproportionately harm low-income neighborhoods.”

For instance, he said, under the governor’s proposed changes, certain highway expansions could be expedited, potentially increasing freight traffic in neighborhoods, or energy projects could exacerbate pollution in some areas. 

Also Monday, a coalition of business groups and labor unions issued a letter of support for the governor’s proposed changes. 

  • The letter: “The infrastructure streamlining package is essential to accelerate critical energy, water and transportation infrastructure projects we need to achieve California’s world-leading climate goals while also preparing our economy for the future and creating hundreds of thousands of good-paying, union construction careers.”

Environmentalists are also worried about how quickly Newsom is moving. They said the changes should not be considered as part of the state budget process, where he has more leverage, but instead, they should be subject to rigorous analysis and debate.

The governor made his proposals May 19, giving the Legislature less than a month to consider the changes since it must pass a budget by June 15.

  • Erin Woolley, from the Sierra Club: “We don’t think that we need to short-circuit the legislative process in order to get things done.”

Newsom has some public support for his plan. In a new Public Policy Institute of California poll released Monday night, nearly 60% say they favor changing CEQA to make housing more affordable. 

Other poll results: Californians appear to have their minds made up on the economy and state budget, no matter what the actual numbers say.

Most respondents say that we’re in a recession, though officially we’re not, and 60% say inflation is causing major hardships, though the rate has lessened. 

And while 39% of likely voters say the state budget situation poses a big problem — Gov. Newsom puts the deficit at $31.5 billion — that’s a similar level of concern as last year, when the state had a record budget surplus. More than 60% of likely voters generally support the governor’s May spending plan, which does not include any tax increases.

Newsom still has a majority approving his job performance (56% of likely voters) — and his numbers remain higher than for the Legislature (50%). The survey, conducted May 17-24 among 1.576 adults, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. 


CalMatters Commentary

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