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September 11, 2019

2019: Making Sense of Nonsense in Sacramento

At the time of the writing of this article, the California Legislature had returned to Sacramento from its summer recess. They are now in session and will be for five more weeks as they complete the year’s legislative business. Governor Gavin Newsom will then have until October 13 to act on those bills that have reached his desk. Western Growers has worked all year to advocate for issues and bills that further the interests of our industry. We have also been working feverishly to either amend or stop bills that would have harmful impacts on agriculture in California.

There have been many nonsensical bills that have been introduced this year. To some extent, this is not surprising. Legislative members and their stakeholders are attempting to push through very aggressive policies in order to “see” where Governor Newsom stands on them. However, the degree to which this is happening is something that Western Growers staff has never seen before and, frankly, those who have been around the Capitol for decades have not recalled witnessing. It doesn’t matter how infeasible, illogical, or even patently unfair the bill is; they continue to move through the legislative system. Key amongst these is AB 1783 by Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) regarding farmworker housing. AB 1783 is being sponsored by the United Farm Workers (UFW). Western Growers is leading a coalition in opposition to the bill.

Our industry is suffering through a severe housing shortage. The causes for this are many but one concern is that local jurisdictions are not approving conditional use permits in a timely manner, which stalls the ability to even get the housing project off the ground. AB 1783 would allow a grower to apply for a ministerial permit for farmworker housing on agricultural land through the California Department of Housing and Community Development if they agree to turn over the management of that housing to a qualified affordable housing organization (i.e. UFW, CRLA, etc.) for a 55-year contract.  This provision is completely unreasonable. Growers will not agree to turn over the keys to their housing operation to a third-party. They will also not agree to tie-up their land under the terms of a 55-year deed restriction.

Western Growers is also heavily opposed to a provision within the bill that would prohibit farmers from accessing incentive and grant money through programs like the Joe Serna Farmworker Housing Grant Program if they would be utilizing the money for the planning, development and operation of housing for H-2A employees. Furthermore, if the farmer has accessed these funds and subsequently has to hire H-2A employees and place them into this housing, they will have to reimburse the state of California for those funds. How shortsighted and dare we say discriminatory! This provision gives stark reality to the lack of understanding and, frankly, concern that the UFW has for the agriculture industry as a whole. If a farmer has 100 employees and 10 of these employees have been hired through the H-2A program, then the other 90 domestic workers will be faced with a loss of potential housing availability. This is completely counter to the intent of Proposition 1, which provided an additional $300 million for farmworker housing in the state. Western Growers is requesting that, at a minimum, this provision be removed from the bill. The ministerial permit language is an “opt-in,” the H-2A language is a strict mandate.

AB 1783 is representative of how dysfunctional the legislative process in California has become over the past few years. There is less attention being focused on the actual language within a bill and more attention being placed on whether the bill has merit based on who the sponsor is. Our industry underwent a similar conversation with the agricultural overtime bill in 2016. Many policymakers, including then-Governor Jerry Brown, recognized that reducing the threshold for agricultural overtime may not make economic sense. However, it “seems” to be the right thing to do. This is insider speak to say that we do not want to vote against the UFW.

Western Growers has had a strong legislative year to date with significant wins on drinking water and many labor bills including stopping an increase in paid sick leave. These advocacy efforts revolved around facts and examples of what the impacts would be on individual operations. We are doing the same on our advocacy against AB 1783. Admittedly, it is much more challenging to gain momentum in stopping the bill because we are trying to make sense out of nonsense.