This January, the California Legislature will begin the second year of its 2017-2018 session. The first session, which adjourned in September, was one of the most colorful and contentious in recent memory. Marked by bitter, often personal, interparty and intraparty attacks, the session’s animosity was spawned by two key factors: a Democrat supermajority in both houses of the Legislature and the election of Donald J. Trump as president.
When the dust settled, several controversial legislative initiatives had been signed, or stood to be signed into law. Key immigration, environmental, labor, health care and housing bills—as well as a bill that levied a historic statewide gas tax and increased vehicle licensing fees—topped the list of major legislation. Some of the initiatives, like the gas tax, were rammed through simply because of the existence of the supermajority. Others were passed in response to President Trump and his administration’s agenda, which Democrats in California vehemently oppose.
The sole Republican on the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, Senator Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta) stood on the front lines as many bills affecting business and agriculture made their way through the committee and Legislature. Because of his unique perspective, Western Grower & Shipper broke from our usual profile format and asked Sen. Stone to recap the year and offer his thoughts about what we can expect from the Legislature next year.
WG&S: Give us your take on what it was like to be in the Legislature this past year.
It was a challenging start to the year, and a very lonely time to be a conservative in the state legislature. Members never dreamed they would be talking about a President Trump; they thought they would be talking about a President Hillary Clinton. As a result, there were frequent anti-Trump resolutions on the Senate floor. The majority party was upset about the president’s rhetoric and policies on a number of issues, including immigration and undocumented immigrants in this country. They wanted to do everything they could to portray him as a racist…and wanted to lump all Republicans together. That was disheartening and really set the tone for the year.
By making it personal with the president, majority leadership made it personal with Republicans—and that created a schism and ill feelings. It’s unfortunate because the Senate has always been a collegial place. Members respect one another’s opinions and efforts. This year however, several legislators attempted to get resolutions heard—ranging from religious persecution in other countries to congratulating the president on his election—but they were not allowed. The most egregious incident was when Sen. Janet Nguyen was censored and removed from the Senate floor. She was completely right in expressing herself and they were completely wrong for doing that.
For a majority of members, there’s still a lot of mutual respect between Democrats and Republicans. Most members realize that when we speak on the floor, we are trying to do our best for our constituents and what we think is right for the state.
WG&S: How did the supermajority affect the agenda of the Legislature?
Leaders in the Assembly and Senate certainly took advantage of their supermajority this year. They advanced bad legislation that was detrimental to the state and to taxpayers. If you add up all the taxes that our constituents will have to pay starting in November, you’ll see it’s the largest tax increase in the state’s history. It’s unfortunate since it’s the Democrats who routinely portray themselves as champions of the middle class and the working poor. But almost all of the taxes are regressive. Anybody who is upper class or wealthy is not going to be concerned about these increases. It’s the working class people who are going to get hit hard. I feel bad for them because I represent a lot of those people. In 2003, Governor Gray Davis was recalled because he allowed an increase in vehicle licensing fees. They not only increased those fees this year, but they also increased the gas and diesel taxes—all in one bill! In seven years, our budget has grown by 40 percent from $80 billion to $127 billion. But have our lives or roads gotten better? It all comes at a significant cost to individuals and businesses.
Speaking of businesses, let’s not forget about the burdens that were placed on or that they attempted to place on them and industries such as agriculture with things like Cap & Trade, and egregious labor, health care and pension bills. Some bills encouraged employees to file lawsuits against employers using the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). Democratic leaders were prepared to do everything they could to oppose the Trump agenda, especially when it came to climate change.
All Cap & Trade did was give government more money to spend on projects that have no nexus to climate change but that are being linked to climate change. When you look at the Cap & Trade program, there are an unlimited amount of credits you can buy, so where’s the cap? It’s really just Tax & Trade.
The same thing for the gas tax. Did we need that? No! We already had one of the highest gas taxes in the country, but we don’t use gas tax money to pay for roads. We use it to pay for other things. That’s why you are seeing the significant flight of businesses and individuals that are finally saying enough is enough and are moving elsewhere.
Another example is the single-payer health plan legislation. That was a horrible $400 billion plan to eliminate all private insurance in response to Trump saying he is going to eliminate Obamacare. It’s all reactive. How do you rationalize a bill with a price tag like that that? Yet it made its way through Senate appropriations with no appropriation and was sent over that way to the Assembly. Speaker (Anthony) Rendon was ticked off about that, as he should have been, and decided to table the bill for a year to let things quiet down. And what happened? He got the wrath of the California Nurses Association who made it very clear that if you don’t support the single payer plan, they will run someone against you in the primary. It shows the power and determination of some of these unions who really run the show in Sacramento at the expense of the taxpayers, who are never the priority unfortunately. The same was true with pension reform and what happened to the agriculture industry with the overtime bill, AB 1066.
Ag workers have always been in a separate working class when it comes to the laws of the state. They are very talented, hard working people. The farmers they work for are usually family farms, even large ones, and they really do try to assist them with things like housing, health care or help them in a crisis. The UFW bill didn’t help them though. They are now getting less hours and less money. And now the industry can’t find enough workers to work their fields and maintain their crops all because Sacramento and the unions got their way. When the legislature gets involved, it just complicates everything. The bill sounded righteous, but it’s not what the workers wanted and it ended up hurting instead of helping them. So now you see a lot of farm workers leaving the state and going to other places like Arizona because the laws are getting crazy here.
WG&S: Can you give us a few predictions of what you think will happen next year?
I think you are going to begin to see an assault on property taxes. There’s not a whole lot more they can do in other areas. With the sales tax, there is a statutory ceiling about what can be collected from local and state taxes—unless they choose to raise those thresholds, which is always possible. I also think they will potentially go after commercial property owners who are already struggling because of online retailers. And I think you are going to see more climate change adaptation laws, among other things.
I still think capitalism is a good thing. The majority party doesn’t think that way. They think we should be sharing all resources. But if we stifle investment, we are in trouble. Our economy has three legs that really keep us alive: agriculture, tech and entertainment. If any of those three fall, the entire economy of the state will collapse, especially with all of our mounting debt.
WG&S: What are your plans for next year and the future?
I’m going to stay right where I am because we need to continue to fight these battles, although I want to find ways to work together and to try to straighten the state out because it’s going down the wrong path. In the meantime, I am looking forward to visiting with my constituents and will share with them the horror stories from this year as well as some of the successes we had. And we did have some success. I’m happy about that.