July 18, 2018

California Legislature Reflects on June Election Signals

In June, California voters made the first cuts among a multitude of candidates seeking statewide and legislative offices in both Congress and the state legislature. Under the state’s relatively new top-two election reform, the term “primary election” is no longer quite accurate, as that term refers to a closed process whereby partisans of each party choose their nominees for various offices. Now, voters of all parties (or none at all) choose the top two finishers to square off in the fall election, irrespective of the candidates’ party affiliations (if any).

For the remainder of the state legislature’s two-year session—which concludes on the final day in August—the June election results could create new dynamics and, where new funding is contemplated, headwinds for major legislative initiatives.

The most prominently-watched matter was the recall of a little-known state Senator from a Southern California district. Josh Newman, a Democrat, was elected in 2016 in something of a surprise, given the historically Republican hold on the district, which includes parts of Orange County, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. He was not up for reelection until 2020, but Republican activists initiated the recall process immediately after Newman joined his colleagues last year in voting to approve SB 1: the $5.2 billion per year increase in gas and diesel taxes. Recalling Newman from office would have the effect of ending the Democrats’ supermajority in the state Senate, an important opportunity for Republicans to regain a precious if small measure of relevance in Sacramento.

Congressional Republicans are counting on the qualification of a statewide initiative to repeal the gas tax to help drive up Republican enthusiasm to turn out in the fall election. The recall of Newman was a sort of “proof of concept” as to the power of the gas tax as a political weapon in all but the most solidly Democratic districts. With both Newman’s supporters and recall proponents deploying many millions of dollars, the results—a 58 percent to 42 percent vote to recall the Senator from office—are undeniable.

Last year, the Legislature tackled—for better or worse—several high-profile spending measures that required two-thirds votes for approval. The most prominent among them were an extension of the state’s carbon credits cap-and-trade system to achieve emissions reduction mandates established in previous legislation, and the gas tax increase.

Now, with the recall of Newman and the suggestion that other state legislative and even U.S. House races could be impacted by voter anger over the gas tax, other unresolved matters that require a two-thirds vote face an even tougher climb.

That would include legislation supported by Western Growers, most other agriculture associations, several major corporations, Gov. Brown, and environmental justice advocates. Senate Bill 623 (Monning, D-Carmel) would shield farmers from state and regional water board enforcement actions for prior and ongoing applications of nitrogen fertilizer, conditioned on compliance with the existing Irrigated Lands Program and related requirements. The bill would also create funding mechanisms, through a modest increase in the fertilizer assessment and a small monthly fee on residential water users, to provide clean and safe drinking water to nearly one million Californians whose water supplies are seriously contaminated by nitrates and a host of other contaminants of concern.

Prospects for the bill improved in January when Governor Brown proposed it be included in the state budget package, but in mid-June the governor and legislative leaders dropped that option, indicating that more discussion was needed and declaring their intent to address the issue in August.

The obvious added difficulty ties back to the Newman recall, which will cause additional hesitation among Republicans sympathetic to the agriculture industry’s push for passage of this legislation, which requires a two-thirds vote on account of the funding mechanisms for both ag and residential water users. Some Republican votes will be required for this legislation to pass.

One advocate for the ag industry’s drinking water legislation—himself a former Republican legislator—recently observed that as with many compromises requiring a two-thirds vote, the votes to pass SB 623 would not be clearly evident until the roll is actually called. That’s another way of saying that whatever the political excuses offered up by legislators of either party on any tough issue requiring bipartisan agreement, the merits of the proposed policy actually do matter and can prevail, if the advocates persist.