This is the week when Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders are supposed to agree on a more or less final state budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year that begins on Saturday.
The negotiations are being conducted in secret with the main hang-up being the authority Newsom seeks to streamline environmental clearance for some big public works projects, particularly a long-proposed tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to enhance water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
There’s no logical reason for the California Environmental Quality Act changes Newsom wants to be part of the budget process, but it continues the Capitol’s bad habit of using the budget for contentious policy changes because it bypasses the scrutiny that most legislation must endure.
Over the weekend, a flock of budget-related measures were introduced, thus minimizing a voter-approved law that requires measures to be in print for 72 hours before final votes. Bills placed in their final form on Saturday can be taken up as early as Tuesday, and while most do pertain to the budget, nuggets of special interest items are buried in their hundreds of thousands of words.
One example is a few dozen words dropped into the main budget bill relating to one of the Capitol’s most contentious issues: state regulation of wages and working conditions of fast food employees.
Last year, at the behest of unions, the Legislature and Newsom created a state commission to impose such regulation, but the industry responded with a petition drive to place the issue before voters in 2024. When the referendum qualified, the new law was suspended.
However, the pending budget bill essentially revives the suspended bill by appropriating $3 million to re-establish the state Industrial Welfare Commission and empower it to create “industry-specific wage boards” to regulate wages and working conditions – not only for fast food but any other sector it wishes to regulate.
In a statement, Matt Haller, president of the International Franchise Association, labeled it – accurately – as an “undemocratic and a shameful attempt to silence California voters.”
Another budget-related bill would remove a current requirement that when the so-called Peace Officers Standard and Training Commission decertifies a bad police officer, its must make a public disclosure. Instead, the information would be given to the officer’s employer, which could then, if it wished, make a disclosure.
The change is being touted as a money-saving gesture, but is an obvious gift to law enforcement unions and has drawn sharp criticism from newspapers and open government advocates.
Meanwhile, another bill would extend the $330 million annual tax credit given to TV and film shows for in-state production and make it easier to claim by making it refundable.
The Capitol’s message is that fattening the wallets of Hollywood filmmakers is more important than letting the public know about bad cops.
Still another measure would give the state Department of Water Resources vast new power to buy energy for the state’s electrical utilities – authority needed, the administration says, to streamline the state’s shift to renewable resources.
Such major change in energy procurement should get a full airing in the Legislature, rather than being hustled into law via the state budget. That’s particularly true because DWR would be granted an exemption from the transparency laws governing state contracts.
Last year, a budget trailer bill, via a tangle of obtuse verbiage, authorized utilities to start charging for electrical service based on customers’ incomes. That only recently became known to the rate paying public.
Now a state agency will be executing secret power contracts that will also affect the utility bills of millions of California families. What could possibly go wrong?
Dan Walters is a reporter with CalMatters.