2023: New CA Lawmakers Learned Hard-Won Lessons

Assemblymember Corey Jackson had an ambitious year.

Of the record class of first-term lawmakers — one-fourth of the California Legislature — he was among the top three in bill introductions. But beyond the number of bills, the Moreno Valley Democrat stands out for the reach of his legislation.

One of his major victories: Assembly Bill 1078, which prohibits school boards from banning books based on their inclusion of certain groups or individuals, such as LGBTQ+ Americans. The law, which had the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom and state schools Supt. Tony Thurmond, took effect in September, as the Legislature’s primary response to conservative local school boards.

“That is definitely not something that most freshmen get to do, to be able to directly work with the governor and his team and the leaders of both houses in such a close way,” Jackson said.

But the rest of his anti-racism package, one of the issues he campaigned on, fell short. A bill to require state agencies and counties to conduct antiracism audits didn’t pass the Legislature, while one creating a hate crimes intervention unit was vetoed by the governor due to budget concerns.

For Jackson, the most surprising thing about his first year was how easy it was for the Legislature to punt important issues down the road — and for lawmakers in Sacramento to disconnect from those in need.

“Sometimes Sacramento is a bubble, and we think of things sometimes in terms of political maneuvers,” he said. “Who have I gotten a check from that I don’t want to upset? Who are my political backers? As opposed to, who in my district will this help, or hurt? …. And if you’re not conscious of it, it’s easy to fall into.”

Jackson wasn’t alone in his perceptions as a first-year lawmaker confronting the realities of getting things done in the Capitol.

CalMatters spoke to more than a dozen first-termers about their reflections from the past session — a year after the “Great Resignation” and an election that produced record diversity in the number of women, LGBTQ and Latino lawmakers.

Now, as the freshmen become sophomores and seek to represent their constituents, they’ll be navigating new leadership in both the Assembly and Senate, an election year in the backdrop and — likely the most defining aspect — a bigger budget deficit.

Here’s what they said were the most surprising things about becoming a state legislator, and what lessons they’ll take into year two.

Challenges: Time and transparency

The biggest adjustment to being a new lawmaker, by nearly unanimous agreement, was time  management, especially when getting started: hiring staff, learning the legislative deadlines and, most importantly, getting to know their fellow legislators and even their districts.

“You’ve got to know what motivates people,” said Assemblymember Diane Papan, a Democrat from San Mateo. “You need their votes, and they need your votes, and in order to tackle complex policy, you have to kind of know what the thought processes are of your colleagues and how that shapes policy.”

Still, time management is a surmountable challenge. What most surprised many Democrats and Republicans alike: The lack of transparency in debating bills and putting together the state budget.

Assemblymember Damon Connolly cited the appropriations committees’ suspense file process, in particular. The committees in both the Assembly and Senate, which are tasked with vetting bills based on their financial viability, hold two hearings a year in which they kill dozens of bills without explanation.

Connolly, a Democrat from San Rafael, gave the example of AB 99, which would have required CalTrans to abide by local regulations on pesticide use. The bill was held in the appropriations committee, despite having the support of 130 environmental groups, and smooth passage through committees and the Assembly floor.

“Certainly, from where I stood — and I think a lot of my colleagues would agree — we would love to see the old processes in the Legislature changed around more accountability and transparency.”

Sen. Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat from Encinitas, said the difficulty in finding an entry point to important discussions or decisions was surprising. But she also recognized that might not be realistic in her first year.

“The core of the two things the Legislature does is money and policy. And I recognize that I’m a first-year legislator, so what is a reasonable expectation about how much influence I can have?” she said. “Is my opinion sought, and how important is it? Am I involved in those discussions or not?”

Another murky legislative process: gut-and-amends, which allows lawmakers to use the skeleton of an existing bill to push forward a completely different proposal.

“I didn’t realize that you can completely, basically take the bill and change it and still keep the name,” said Assemblymember Juan Alanis, a Republican from Modesto. “That was a little reality check for me on that.”

Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Democrat from Van Nuys, was critical about who was at the table for discussions around the budget — specifically, on the Managed Care Organization tax — one of the bigger points of negotiations in last year’s budget deal.

The deal — which increased reimbursements for doctors by renewing a tax on Medi-Cal and commercial health insurance plans that they’ll eventually be repaid, was struck after months of closed-door negotiations between Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature and health care industry leaders.

Menjivar said she was frustrated that only those who could afford to pay into the coalition were at the bargaining table. “That shocked me a lot. I voiced in several committees that I was disgusted by this pay-to-play kind of approach that I would see,” she said.

For Menjivar, that was the biggest lesson learned: “Just because you’re an elected official, doesn’t mean you’re at the table when decisions are being made.”

Highs and lows

The MCO tax wasn’t Menjivar’s only hard lesson: She said she was buying holiday decorations — “my literally favorite thing to do in the world” — when she got word in October that Newsom had vetoed her bill expanding coverage of hearing aids for anyone under 21.

“My wife finds me in the Lowe’s patio section just sitting down, just destroyed, because of how sad I was that they were vetoed, because of all the work we put into it,” she said.

In his veto message, Newsom said the bill would increase state costs, and “create uncertainty for our healthcare system’s affordability, particularly when we have developed an alternative program that can serve the target population.”

Newsom also vetoed Menjivar’s bill that would make condoms free to all high school students, citing budget concerns.

Still, Menjivar considers 2023 a “wonderful” year — the heartbreak and the happiness, “they can coexist,” she said.

Among her accomplishments: getting into the budget deal an increase in the minimum monthly CalFresh benefit from $23 to $50 starting next year for some families.

And she’s taking the lessons learned from her first year into 2024 — especially her role on the budget subcommittee overseeing health and human services. While the Legislature has been in recess since September, she said she’s been busy meeting with stakeholders and trying to learn as much as she can about all the programs funded under the health umbrella.

“I’m taking this beyond seriously,” she said. “When it comes to working with about 40% of California’s budget under my subcommittee, it’s a big deal. So I’m really ensuring that I come in here even more prepared.”

The highs and lows were a common theme among several first-year lawmakers.

Sen. Angelique Ashby, a Democrat from Sacramento, is proud of making college debt-free for former foster youth, but disappointed that she couldn’t get a more significant child welfare package across the finish line.

Sen. Aisha Wahab, a Democrat from Fremont, described the year as “extremely unique.” Her bill to ban caste discrimination in housing and employment laws that garnered international attention was vetoed by Newsom, she received death threats throughout her term, and now faces a possible recall election.

But she said she learned more — and learned faster — because of those experiences. She also took pride in her work as chairperson of the Senate’s public safety committee, including carrying Newsom’s proposal to hold a federal constitutional convention on gun violence as one of her bills.

“I’ve had a really tough year, I think tougher than most — most of my colleagues even say that,” she said. And she said she believes she faces more scrutiny than others, whether that’s based on her age, gender, ethnicity or religion.

“For me, it’s about the work. How thoughtful we can be, and who can we collaborate with, and how can we get across the finish line?” she said. “It clearly shows that even at this level of scrutiny and pressure and work, that I still hold my own, and I’m very proud of being able to do the work that I do.”

For other legislators, the highs weren’t tied to specific legislation.

Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil, a Democrat elected to a majority-Republican district in Modesto, said she valued the positive feedback from constituents. She won in 2022 partly because Republicans tried to promote another Democrat in the primary — a strategy that backfired when she also made it to November.

“I’m in circles where a Democrat never had been invited to participate in, and I feel honored by that, because it means that I am not using party politics, but really the voice of the people to serve as their representative,” she said.

And for Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Los Angeles Democrat, one high and low was the same: “It is never lost on me, In terms of walking into the halls of this institution, and seeing the beautiful oil paintings on the wall — the people who don’t look like me — that this is a place that wasn’t designed for a Black woman,” she said.

“It’s an unfortunate reality as the only Black woman in the California State Senate that, though we are working to ensure parity and equity, we still have quite a ways to go.”

Looking ahead

Heading into the 2024 session, several first-term Democrats were given committee leadership positions last month by Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas: Papan is the new chairperson of water, parks and wildlife, while Assemblymember Liz Ortega of Hayward is chairperson of labor and employment and Lori Wilson of Suisun City is chairperson of transportation. Earlier this month, Rivas appointed Assemblymember David Alvarez of Chula Vista as head of the budget subcommittee on education finance, while Avelino Valencia of Anaheim will head the subcommittee on accountability and Jackson will lead the subcommittee on human services. Rivas declined to comment for this story.

One of the biggest lessons learned among the first-year lawmakers interviewed was the need to engage the governor’s office on bills as early as possible.

“There isn’t a constant feedback loop on whether a law might be problematic with a particular department or program,” Alvarez said. “Oftentimes, you’re just trying to do your best to make sure that your legislation is meeting expectations of all the different impacted entities.”

In a way, those expectations are a little more clear next year. In light of the looming $68 billion budget deficit that could force spending cuts or dipping into reserves, lawmakers have been told to not to expect passage of any bill with a significant price tag.

“This is a failure of our leadership in California,” said Alvarado-Gil. “We’re also talking about billions of dollars that are going towards programs and services that on the surface should be successful.”

She cited spending on homelessness and its outcomes, as well as infrastructure management as two of the major issues she’s concerned about in the coming year.

Some state senators and Assemblymembers who previously served in local government say they feel equipped to deal with the deficit, having weathered financial pitfalls in their past roles.

And others say the deficit shouldn’t kill ambition.

Jackson, for example, will be working on a statewide definition of equity as part of his continued anti-racism work.

“It may not be an opportunity of expansion, but it is an opportunity of reform, and to make things more efficient,” said Jackson. “I don’t think of budget times as, ‘Oh, well, I have to tamper down my ambitions in terms of what issues that I want to see…’ Not all of them require more money. It may require shifts of money, or shifts of systems in order for the money that we do have to be more efficiently used.”

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