CA Legislature starts 2024 session in big budget hole

This story appeared on Calmatters

A binder for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget proposal for 2023-24 during a press briefing at the state Natural Resources Agency in Sacramento on May 12, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

After three-and-a-half months at home, California legislators return to Sacramento today for a seven-month session where a budget deficit and the election will be top of mind.

All 80 Assembly seats and half the 40 Senate seats are on the ballot, so many lawmakers will be pulling double duty between policy-making and campaigning. And they won’t have as much state money to bring home to their constituents.

The estimated $68 billion shortfall will also mean less money for programs that support health care, housing, education, the environment and more as lawmakers must reconsider their priorities to help bring the state out of the red. Not only will these interest groups compete with one another, but Democratic legislators who advocate on behalf of these issues will have to jockey for a slice of the budget pie. Meanwhile, expect Republicans to grab opportunities throughout the session to propose cuts for programs they already oppose. 

But it’s not just the budget on lawmakers’ to-do list. Among other issues:

Artificial Intelligence: Concerns about artificial intelligence and its applications aren’t new — including around campaigns and elections — and we’ll likely see more legislative proposals in 2024 that hope to rein in the technology. This year, legislators will consider bills to create a new regulatory framework for AI systems, and to give entertainment artists some authority to nullify contracts over the use of their “digital replicas” if the usage is “contrary to public policy and deemed unconscionable.” And an AI-related law passed last year requires the state’s department of technology to create an inventory of “high-risk automated decision systems” by September, and submit its first report by January 2025.

Maternity wards: Citing CalMatters’ reporting about the alarming rate at which California maternity wards are shutting down, Democratic Assemblymember Akilah Weber of La Mesa announced Friday that she will introduce a measure to “enhance the existing state review process” before a maternity ward shuts down. The process will include an analysis of how a closure will impact the nearby community.

Wildfire insurance: After a handful of major insurance companies decided to stop selling new homeowner policies in California, lawmakers failed to draft a bill to fix the market before adjourning the session. Meanwhile, some homeowners have to resort to the state’s FAIR Plan that offers customers limited, and often more expensive, fire coverage. The state’s Department of Insurance is working on new regulations, but such rules may not be enacted until 2026. Meanwhile, State Farm, the state’s largest home insurer, is increasing rates by 20% for policies it is renewing.

Plus, there are the perennial issues of crime (including a special committee on retail theft), education, the environment, homelessness and more.

More on the Legislature: CalMatters has guides and stories to keep track of your lawmakers, find out how well legislators are representing you, hear the lessons learned by first-termers, explore the Legislature’s record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have summaries of what Gov. Gavin Newsom decided on key bills, what happened on key issues in 2023 and new laws taking effect with the start of 2024

And in 2024, we launch the groundbreaking Digital Democracy project. Read more about it here.

CalMatters events: The first ones of 2024 are scheduled: Jan. 10 on voting as part of CalMatters for Learning; Jan. 23 on California’s multi-billion-dollar overhaul of the troubled unemployment benefits system; and Feb. 13 on school battles over book bans and forced outing policies.

Gaza politics continues into 2024

Protesters gather during a press conference urging elected officials to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict, at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
Protesters urge elected officials to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict during an event at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

The Legislature isn’t just facing problems at home. It’s still dealing with the response to the continuing Israel-Hamas war half a world away. 

As CalMatters Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal explains, Assembly Republicans plan to introduce a resolution that condemns Hamas “in the harshest terms,” decries its “acts of sexual violence, hostage-taking and theft of relief supplies” and denounces “all instances of antisemitism,” but doesn’t acknowledge the humanitarian crisis in Gaza after the Israeli bombardment.

Democrats have been trying to balance calls for a ceasefire with support for Israel — and that starts from the very top. Gov. Newsom visited Israel soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and met with Jewish leaders in California on Nov. 9.

Sameea reports that the governor convened a long-promised meeting with Palestinian and Muslim leaders on Dec. 16.

Ahmed Soboh, chairperson of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an advisory board for mosques in the region, said Newsom “expressed empathy and sympathy” and was “alarmed and concerned” at people being fired or punished on college campuses for speaking out, but did not make any specific promises. 

  • Soboh: “We did not get a solid action plan that he will strongly publicly stand up for the rights of Palestinians.”
  • Newsom’s office: “The administration is actively engaging with Muslim and Jewish community leaders across the state to support the safety and security of California’s diverse communities.”

Read more on how California politicians are responding to the Gaza war in Sameea’s story.

Scientists, state in contract deadlock

Protesters participate in the first-ever state scientists union strike in front of the CalEPA Headquarters in Sacramento on Nov. 15, 2023. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

Tuesday marked the last day that the union for state scientists could respond to the Newsom administration’s “last, best and final” contract offer. The offer for a new labor agreement was presented on Dec. 19, but the union rejected the terms a couple of days after that — well before Tuesday’s deadline.

Camille Travis, a spokesperson for CalHR, said in a statement to CalMatters that the state is “disappointed” by the union’s rejection.

  • Travis: “The economic terms of the (offer) are consistent with the State’s approach to achieving measured increases in salary and other compensation. In these uncertain economic times, an agreement would achieve important gains for both the State and the employees.” 

At this point, the state now has the ability to implement part or all of its offer, though any provision that costs the state more money will need legislative approval. In the meantime, union president Jacqueline Tkac said that members are prepared to keep fighting “anywhere and everywhere available to us.”

  • Tkac, in an email to CalMatters: “Fighting for equal pay isn’t just about personal fairness; it’s about advocating for justice and equality within the State’s workforce. Our situation needs to be rectified: Our fight sets the rules for future State Scientists.”

Though CalHR does not comment on the bargaining process, Travis said that the department will be in communication with the union “about next steps.”

The California Association of Professional Scientists, which represents 5,600 scientists, has been negotiating for a new contract for more than three years. The union went on a three-day strike in November in what is considered the first-ever strike by California civil servants. The union seeks higher wages, arguing that members, about half of them women, are paid much less than state engineers, who are mostly men and at times do similar work. A state assessment published in 2022 found that full-time rank-and-file state scientists earned about 27% less than state engineers in 2020.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: As California enters a new year, its most striking public policy issues remain unresolved, and an immense budget deficit will make dealing with them more difficult.

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